Q & A #73 – Wendy J. Fox, “If the Ice Had Held”

Wendy J. Fox’s new novel If the Ice Had Held launches on May 1.

I’ve been a fan of Wendy’s work since reading the first sentence of the first short story, “Apricots,” in her collection The Seven Stages of Anger.

That sentence: “As children growing up in the eastern Washington desert, on the dry side of the Cascades, we learned to speak of rain the way we spoke of the dead: with reverence, with longing, without hope of return.” Yes, you must keep reading.

If the Ice Had Held casts its own kind of spell.  I recommend not getting too worried at first about trying to keep track of who is who or what happened when. Close reading is rewarded. All is revealed. There are several moments you won’t see coming and, believe me, they pack a punch. You will feel better about the world around you when you finish reading it; that’s quite a feat given the tragedies within.

Wendy was kind enough to answer a few questions about If the Ice Had Held by email (below) and a full review follows.

++

Question: Accidents, fate, mortality, pregnancy, families, fatherhood, motherhood, love, and simple human connections—the themes and issues in If the Ice Had Held are many. The fragile nature of life is palpable on these pages. Does that ring true with what you were trying to explore?

Wendy J. Fox: Yes—absolutely, and mostly, human connection. This novel is set partly in a time where social media exists (but is not as ubiquitous as it is now) and partly in the mid 1970’s in a wholly pre-internet era. While there is plenty of valid criticism of social media, it illuminates something of network theory—or essentially the relationship between discreet entities, or what we think of as discreet entities. In our Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections, we can see where the cross-pollination is between one set of contacts and another, and sometimes it is really fascinating to find two people who I know who also know each-other. That discovery of mutual friends is not an accident of an algorithm, it’s part of what makes social so compelling and keeps us logging in, but of course these connections existed before the internet made it plain, right there on our screens.

In terms of the novel, I wanted to surface the links we have to one another, even when we aren’t consciously aware of what our touchpoints are, either through secrets or buried histories or honestly even disinterest.

Question: Can you tell us how this novel germinated? Was it one particular scene and one character or did the whole extended family characters come to you at the outset?

Wendy J. Fox: This novel began as an exploration of a challenging workplace environment. I’m a writer with a day job, and my day job is in technology marketing. I was in a company that was in heavy transition after an acquisition (all that is public knowledge; I’m not spilling the beans here), and then one of our co-workers died.

I didn’t know how to process that—there are these people who you see every single day at work and even if you are not best friends with them, they are part of your world, your orbit. I had understood that at other jobs, but it just was hammered home when this coworker passed. We weren’t even particularly close, just friendly in the work way that people can be.

I had been working on trying to write this experience and to write corporate culture, and in a workshop, someone said to me—who actually is this woman (the main character, Melanie)? What is her story? At that point I realized that I didn’t really totally understand Mel’s story, I was just trying to type my way to some kind of understanding about what the people I work with mean to me.

That’s not a novel, so I began to try to answer the question: who is this woman? That meant building a life and a context and a history for her.

Question: There are echoes and patterns across the generations, perhaps the most obvious being the career choices of Brian and Simon (though there are many others). Was this a theme you wanted to play with, too, the traits and tendencies that pass from generation to generation?

Wendy J. Fox: I think echo is certainly the right word. As a much younger person, I had this idea that I could completely remake myself into any image I chose. And maybe some people can do that, do actually do that. What I realized as I went forward personally, was that I will always be influenced by having grown up rural, by being from a family that is rural, and these experiences are imprinted me. We can all choose to accept them or reject our own past—either way is fine, frankly—but for me it’s something that has turned out to stick, even though I’ve been an urbanite for many years.

I thought much more about plot in this novel than I had in my prior works; I subscribe to the perspective that plot, if that’s what you’re doing, should feel inevitable, so I wanted to look closely at the way that experience and history quilts together to turn us (or our characters) into the people who we are now.

So those echoes become less nebulous when we put some pressure on them. Blood family or chosen family, we find common ground.

When I am in my hometown, with my family, even though there are many ways in which our lives diverge, there are also so many ways in which they come together. It’s hard to ignore it.

Question: At one point Irene recognizes the fact she doesn’t have any “true memories” of her mother—“only scraps and fragments she had pieced together from a handful of ragged photographs.” The style of the novel, moving back and forth across the decades, gives readers this same feeling of observing scraps and fragments (though from multiple points of view) until we put them together into a whole picture. Were you purposely trying to give readers the same sensation Irene experiences?

Wendy J. Fox: None of the characters in If the Ice Had Held are entirely sympathetic, though at the same time, none are entirely unsympathetic either.

Irene is probably the best of any of the people in this novel of knitting experience into conclusion, and also of getting right with what that means.

My intention was that we all have something to learn from her.

Question: The structure and order of events seem like they it might have taken some time and thought to sort out. First, did you ever ponder going at this novel with a strictly linear fashion? And, second, how did you land on your final order of events?

Wendy J. Fox: The early drafts of this book were actually much more linear, in terms of time, and the back and forth sections were much longer.

I wanted to give readers a sense of discovery as the full picture of the narrative emerged, which is, to your point, how many of the characters experience their part in the unfolding of the story.

Initially, I wrote this book over a period of a year, 150 words every day—that’s what I could do, as a day jobber, and it was a good every day practice—which gave me a 55,000-word draft. As you can imagine, it was incredibly fragmented, but it was a starting point.

So then, I threaded things together in a more linear way, and then I broke it apart and organized by character, then by themes, then by time.

This novel has its structure via very intense revision, much of which was informed by early, trusted readers who helped guide the manuscript into the book it is today.

Question: The whole ‘damp’ theme—care to share? Did that come naturally?

Wendy J. Fox: Dampness was not thematic at the onset of early drafts, but as anyone who writes knows, sometimes themes emerge out of free writes and discovery exercises. As one starts to build a longer work, the linkage starts to make sense.

Question: The relationship between Irene and Kathleen—based on anybody you knew? Kathleen’s major decision to … step in? (A question asked without including spoilers.)

Wendy J. Fox: The relationship between Irene and Kathleen is not based on any specific, named folks, but loosely based on the people I grew up with. I dedicated this book “To my sisters” – I have no biological sisters. My sister-people know who they are. Kathleen, if I had to attribute her to someone, is inspired by my mother, because of her toughness.

Question: One thing beginning writers are instructed (ad nauseam) is to “show don’t tell.” To me, If the Ice Had Held relies on telling—there is an omniscient flavor to the writing. Care to discuss your thoughts about how you approached the narrative style?

Wendy J. Fox: It’s true there is a lot of narrative summary in Ice.

I think that the instruction of “show don’t tell” is actually very useful, but I also think that sometimes there is ground to cover and as writers we can move in and out of the moment of the immediate scene.

My style has because something that some reviewers have described “at arm’s length,” which I think you are correct to call “omniscient flavor” but not fully omniscient.

Personally, the best advice I ever received was “write what you want, call it what it is,” and I think about that every time I’m embarking on a project.

Sometimes the lens of the telling is very close in, sometimes it’s at a distance.

Question: Thirty-seven chapters and seven individual voices. Of the chapters, the guys get four cracks at telling their story. Did you think at any point about not including Brian or Simon?

Wendy J. Fox: In the early drafts, there actually were actually more chapters that gave voice to the male characters.

I never thought of completely cutting them out, but as the manuscript progressed, I kept asking, “whose story is this?” Brian and Simon are definitely important, and the book can’t exist without them, but they are not the ones, in this particular tale, for whom the stakes are the highest or for who have the most to lose. So, they get less time.

Question:What’s next for you?

Wendy J. Fox: In the near term, I’m on book tour for Ice, and the longer term I have a manuscript of shorts (my first love) that I’m shopping.

++

More at Wendy J. Fox’s website

++

Review:

We are deep into the If the Ice Had Held, a brisk novel told from seven points of view across more than three decades, when 14-year-old Irene thinks about her mother, a woman she never really knew.

“Irene was not sure she had any true memories of the woman,” writes Wendy J. Fox, “only scraps and fragments she had pieced together from a handful of ragged photographs.”

As a whole, If the Ice Had Held comes to us in those same brisk, jagged scraps and memories. We are given pieces. Shards. And we have the pleasure of seeing the pieces come together as we understand how they connect, as we see the players react, interact, and impact each other’s lives.

Irene, however, is not alone. This is primary Melanie’s story. Of the 37 chapters and seven points of view, Melanie’s story gets 16.

When we meet Melanie, she is working in a non-glamorous corner of the dot-com world. She works in Colorado Springs in “the ground-floor wing of a crumbling office park where the air-conditioning was troubling and unreliable.”  Melanie is restless. She has a constant “feeling of spinning.”  On a road trip, she breaks one of her rules, to never sleep with a co-worker or a customer. She dubs him San Antonio Man. He’s a co-worker. Melanie thinks hard about the quality of her life, her work environment, her home, her relationships. She is a professional adult in a professional world and she is also adrift and searching.

We learn that Melanie is Irene’s daughter and that Melanie’s father was Sammy, Kathleen’s brother. Sammy is the subject of the title—if the ice had held, if Sammy had not fallen in the cold river to his death, Melanie might have been raised by very young teenage parents and then, well, who knows?

Think I’m giving away too much? I doubt it. There is much more to Melanie’s story—what we learn about Kathleen and why she stepped in to supplant Irene’s role as mother, what we learn about the relationship between Kathleen and Irene, what we learn about the stories that were concocted because it was the 1970’s and stories were required. What we learn about the first responders to Sammy’s accident, too.

In fact, It was when Fox switched to the one chapter told from the point of view of Simon, the father of a character named Brian, that the novel really clicked into place and I marveled at the kaleidoscopic effect that Fox gives readers of the connections across time, across families, across life.

This is Melanie’s story—maybe? If the Ice Had Held starts and ends with Kathleen. It’s her gesture (much too small a term) that gives the story its spark and its heart. Well, at least, one of them. In a novel riddled with accidents and tragedies, there more than a few lump-in-your-throat moments when Fox reveals connections and encounters you won’t see coming.

The story starts with Sammy plunging into an icy river and water seems to ooze its way, in one form another into every scene. The cascading effects from this one accident ripple across time, the proverbial pebble in the pond but the pebble is a human being and the pond is life. its Fox’s writing is cool, serene and stripped clean of sentimentality. She is a dry-eyed documentarian with a keen eye and a terrific ear. The construction of this novel carries a quality like the way David Hockney played with photographs—the farther you step back, the more you see. But it was a singer I heard as the novel layered in connections and details, David Byrne. If the Ice Had Held asks us to wonder, well, how did I get here? “Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground…”

++

Previous Q & A with Wendy J. Fox, The Pull of It

 

 

 

Previous Q & A with Wendy J. Fox, The Seven Stages of Anger

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.