Emily Wortman-Wunder is an essayist and fiction writer, with recent work in the Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, Nimrod, High Country News, and elsewhere. “Not a Thing to Comfort You,” winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is her first book. She teaches scientific writing at the University of Colorado Denver.
The following is an interview with Emily Wortman-Wunder.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
The simple answer to this question is that these short stories draw their inspiration from the arc of my life – from the early stories’ focus on young women living and working in remote mountain towns (often as wildlife biologists) to the later stories’ focus on mothers struggling to come to grips with the isolation of domestic life. I’ve written about where I’ve lived and what I’ve done, and these stories are the result.
The larger answer, though, is that these stories come from my struggle to understand the ways human life and nature coincide, collide, and impact each other, both in the wilderness and in more managed environments. I write about wildlife biologists who know they must give something of themselves in exchange for getting to be so close to wild animals; I write about men and women who don’t feel quite at home in either the wild or the human communities around them. And I write about people, especially mothers, who have been struck by a deep wild longing for something beyond mothering, and who make choices both they and their children regret.
One of the great conflicts of my life has been trying to raise kids who love the outdoors while still honoring their desire for the things of the suburbs. In many ways I have failed. For a lot of my life I’ve felt like I’ve spoken a different language than my children; like the narrator of “Endangered Fish of the Colorado,” I feel like I sense the world with an organ that my loved ones do not possess.
The one constant is the importance of place and nature, whether it’s up on a remote mesa measuring winter bear fat or facing down a rain swollen creek tearing through the Denver Tech Center.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
“Endangered Fish of the Colorado”: I chose this story because it is the most recent one in the collection, and also because it best represents what I think makes my stories unique: It delves into natural history to add resonance to a story about family.
It’s about a fisheries biologist whose single-minded dedication to helping saving endangered species is called into question by the death of her son. It’s told in the form of a field guide to the four endangered fish of the Colorado and uses a description of each species as a jumping off point.
Following the fish, the story proceeds in four parts: the narrator’s early decision to leave her son and husband to return to her work on the river; her struggle to be a long-distance parent to her resentful son; the way they had almost come to a reconciliation by his early adulthood; and then his untimely death and her regret.
Ultimately it’s about the sacrifices we make for the things we care about, and the regret that comes from having to choose.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
While none of the stories are precisely autobiographical, taken as a group they adhere to the path of my own life. I grew up in a small college town in Ohio that you can recognize, if you squint, in the story “Bad” (and the larger southwestern Ohio landscape shows up in “Appletree Acres”). I moved to Colorado when I was 21 and spent the next several years working various wildlife jobs for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management; I’ve lived in Durango, Rifle, Dove Creek, and Glenwood Springs, and these places and people inform several of my stories.
“Gustav and Vera” features the community orchestra for which I played violin for several years, and “Trespassing” so closely adheres to the geography of my current neighborhood that a person could use it as a hiking guide (although, spoiler alert, you’d be trespassing.)
These stories follow my obsessions as well. My early stories are all about navigating a natural world that is beautiful but unforgiving, from a high mountain peak during a thunderstorm to the mesas and drainages of remote Southwestern Colorado. They are also about negotiating one’s role as an outsider: the Boulderite in rural Colorado, the childless ex-wife trying to connect with the family unit. My later stories are about the struggle to nurture both a family and external passions, as shown especially in “Trespassing” and “Endangered Fish of Colorado River.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The hardest part of compiling any story collection are the stories you have to leave out. What it took for this story collection to cohere was the removal of one of my favorite stories – writers talk about how you have to “kill your darlings;” taking out that story felt like killing a darling.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
As a teacher, a writer, and a parent, I write whenever I can, which is almost never enough. I tell my students they should try to set aside at least thirty minutes to write every day, and enforce it by setting a timer. I try to follow my own advice, which means that I am constantly getting startled by my phone timer while I am in midst of doing something else, like checking my email. Luckily I sometimes go the other way as well and find myself burrowing into a story so deeply I barely notice the time passing. I write best in my own living room, on my couch, surrounded by my dogs.
What’s your next project?
I’m currently working on a novel. Like “Trespassing,” “Terrain Vague” is set in south suburban Denver, along that restless boundary where brand new houses butt up against what’s left of prairie; in this novel, though, the prairie fights back. The novel takes up Lydia Millet’s challenge to engage with our fear and grief over the impending changes wrought by climate change by imagining a landscape that gets its revenge by stealing children.