Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World (University of Iowa Press, 2016), which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Missouri Review, New England Review, Gettysburg Review, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, as well as support from the Virginia G. Piper Center, the Jentel Artist Residency Program, The Island School, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission.
“Fiction is a space for the imagination,” an Interview with Allegra Hyde.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Izzy Montoya. Of the process he said, “Allegra Hyde’s writing is brilliant. She is one of those rare writers who can make you laugh and think all at once. Her answers in this interview are no different.”
Superstition Review: First of all, congratulations are in order. Of This New World is your debut story collection and it received the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. I wanted to ask you when you first started working on these stories. What was your journey like to your first published book?
Allegra Hyde: Thank you! It’s been an exhilarating and bewildering process publishing my first book. Of This New World took about seven years to complete. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I started working on the collection as an undergraduate at Williams College. I wrote “Free Love” during my first ever fiction workshop—a class I took on a whim, with no intention of pursuing a writing career. The process of writing fiction, though, completely seduced me. It also helped that my professor was one of our finest living writers: Jim Shepard.
SR: I recognized two major themes in this collection: paradise, and colonization. In fact, the first two stories of the book focus on these themes respectively. Can you tell us more about the connection you see between paradise and colonization?
AH: I think the pursuit of paradise and the act of colonization are often two sides of the same coin. Particularly with respect to the history of the Americas, what might be interpreted as the noble search for a better world, could also be seen as the subjugation of others. Christopher Columbus, for instance, wrote letters back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella about the fantastically profitable land he had encountered, while simultaneously brutalizing indigenous communities. This narrative has continued to play out again and again. Take the conflict at Standing Rock: to some, there is a monetary paradise to be found in the form of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, but to many Native Americans the construction is a gross desecration of ancestral lands and natural resources.
SR: You’ve described yourself as a “utopia-enthusiast.” What are some of your favorite utopian, or dystopian, works of fiction? Can you describe how they influenced your own stories?
AH: Two examples of utopian literature that come to mind are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887. Both books were published over a hundred years ago, and—perhaps because of that temporal distance—they both demonstrate how utopian fiction can introduce bold new ideas into mainstream society. As one might guess, Herland has a feminist bent. It explores the significance of gender roles and how they might be inverted. Looking Backward, moreover, describes an ideal socialist society (including a fascinating system for distributing goods that sounds like an early version of the Internet). Fiction is a space for the imagination. Utopian fiction, more specifically, is a space for writers to imagine a better world. I think it’s critically important for such ideas to find a place in our social discourse, and storytelling helps make this possible.
SR: A major element in the story “Shark Fishing” is climate change. I think we have also seen a push from authors and critics to bring attention to this issue in creative fiction. In what ways do you see artistic work as a part of the larger fight to curb climate change?
AH: One of the challenges facing the environmental movement is a lack of public engagement. Despite the ramifications of climate change—record high temperatures, mass extinction, sea level rise—polls have shown that peoples’ concern over the issue has actually declined. In that sense, artists can help make climate change relevant. By connecting our work with the natural world, we can make it part of a broader conversation. A friend once shared some wisdom with me that I’ve since taken to heart: everyone has a sphere of influence. It may not seem very large, but whether you’re a teacher or a firefighter or a farmer or a writer, you have the opportunity to make choices about how you engage with the world. It’s through those choices that you can have an impact.
SR: Many characters in these stories are seeking their own paradise. Lucia, in “Flowers for Prisoners,” worries about what has happened to her missing brother and neighbor.
“Is it impossible, yet possible, that these two might be together? Given what they’d wanted… something different, something better than they had. She pictures the pair kneeling, side-by-side, on a sunbaked patch of desert earth.”
In what ways does longing for paradise lead characters to danger?
AH: I think the search for paradise often involves risk-taking. One of the reasons I’ve long been drawn to utopian initiatives is that I’m fascinated by the courage it takes to step away from the broader society to try living differently. Any time you deviate from the norm you face danger. You have to be part visionary, part crazy person to do it.
SR: One of my favorite stories in the collection was “Delight®.” I thought the use of the trademark ® symbol was hilarious and smart. I wanted to ask you how ideas and phrases like Splendidly®, TenderHandHolding®, and even Dad®, become something akin to trademarked products?
AH: My story “Delight®” was inspired by a real-life town in Florida called Celebration, which was originally developed by the Walt Disney Company. I was interested in exploring what it would mean to live in a place designed as a livable theme park of Americana (apple pies, front porches, friendly neighbors). Taken to the extreme, what would corporatized nostalgia look like? How could it move beyond objects (such as FarmStyleGlassJars®) to subsume activities (TenderHandHolding®) as well as modifiers (Splendidly®) and finally people (Dad®)? To answer you question more directly, those words acquire the trademark label when they become the marketable essence of a fantasized past.
SR: The main character in the story “Acid,” Sally, remembers these words from her parents: “You’re going to do big things. You’re going to do important things.” Yet, these words are described as acid worming inside of her. Can you speak a little bit more to how words of encouragement like these can become acidic?
AH: The title of the story is a play on words. Set in a desert-bound hippie enclave, the word “acid” can be interpreted most readily as LSD. As you note, however, “acid” can also mean a corrosive substance. I think the oscillation between dreamy, mind-enhancing drug and something that eats away at you, reflects the way encouragement can have a variety of effects. On one hand, it can serve to bolster someone, to support and inspire them. Certain kinds of encouragement, however, can also set high expectations which—if unmet—can cause inner turmoil. Making grand generalizations about someone’s future can be “acidic” in this sense.
SR: Readers of this collection will find a wide variety of settings, moving from just moments after the fall of Adam and Eve, to a story set on Mars in the somewhat near future. How do you find yourself writing in such different locations? Was it a natural happenstance, or did you push yourself towards this variety?
AH: I wanted to explore the theme of utopia from a variety of angles and perspectives. Choosing different settings—from post-Eden to Mars—pushed me to dig deeper into what “paradise” means to all kinds of people. So, in that sense, it was deliberate. The variation also emerged organically in relation to where I had recently travelled. I spent time in Istanbul and San Miguel de Allende, for instance, and both of those cities make an appearance in the book. Admittedly, I haven’t been to Mars (yet), but otherwise my wanderlust is inscribed throughout my fiction.
SR: Do you have any more projects in the works?
AH: I have innumerable projects in the works—fiction and nonfiction—though they remain mostly in the idea stage. In a concrete sense, though, I’m working on a novel that expands upon the story “Shark Fishing” from my collection. “Shark Fishing” is the longest piece of fiction in Of This New World, but it felt like there was still material to explore with respect to climate change, colonialism, and the Bahamas.
SR: Finally, what does your writing space look like?
AH: I just moved to Houston this summer, so I’m settling into a new writing space. My desk tends to become cluttered with legal pads, pens, scribbled-over manuscripts. I like to put my laptop on pedestal of thesauri to keep the screen at eye level. My computer chair is white faux leather. My desk sits in front of French doors—long ago painted shut—and looks out onto a small courtyard. I can see various shrubs, the occasional lizard, and neighbors heading out to walk their dogs. I’m sure the neighbors think I’m rather strange, sitting all day, watching them come and go. I don’t mind.