Emily Wortman-Wunder’s writing journey is a wonderful example of two things that experienced writers know; you can’t rush good writing and writers write best about the topics that intrigue them. She developed her story collection Not a Thing to Comfort You, over the course of twenty years with long breaks for raising kids and changing jobs. A wildlife biologist, who teaches scientific writing at the University of Colorado Denver, Wortman-Wunder’s stories depict the interaction between humans and the natural world with grace and power. Not a Thing to Comfort You is the winner of the 2019 Iowa Fiction Award and the 2020 Colorado Book Award, and finalist for the High Plains Book Award. Wortman-Wunder shared her writing journey and what is next for her.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer.
“My learning process has been a long one…”
WORTMAN-WUNDER: My learning process has been a long one…I got my MFA almost twenty years ago and in some ways I still feel like I’m learning.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?
WORTMAN-WUNDER: My stories start as feelings—people or places or stories that grip me. Several began as gossip that I couldn’t let go of and had to inhabit for a while. A few, like “The Four-Foot Moth,” started as ideas and were kind of static until I followed the drama.
AUTHORLINK: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write Not a Thing to Comfort You with building a collection in mind or did you find you had a set of stories that belonged together?
WORTMAN-WUNDER: I tried to publish a book of stories shortly after I got my MFA, but the book just didn’t gel. It took the handful of stories I wrote most recently to make it hold together.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?
WORTMAN-WUNDER: So many! Alice Munro has always been a beacon, as have the poets Gary Snyder and James Galvin. My stories are often compared to those of Andrea Barrett, and I love her work, but I didn’t start reading her until people told me my stories reminded them of hers. More recently I’ve found the work of Claire Vaye Watkins and Karen Russell to be illuminating.
AUTHORLINK: You teach scientific writing at the University of Colorado Denver and were the managing editor of technical publications for the Society of Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration. How do you bring your analytical skills to bear on your fiction?
WORTMAN-WUNDER: My technical background pops up in obvious ways—like in “The Four Foot Moth,” which is a deliberate play on the form of the scientific paper—but also in more subtle ways; I’ve spent my life around scientists, and I am intrigued by the ways irrational and even spiritual urges inform their work. Several of my stories explore this ground.
AUTHORLINK: The stories are remarkable for how they merge the complexity of the natural world with the harsher aspects of human nature. I’d love for you to explore this with me. Perhaps through the lens of either “the Endangered Fish of the Colorado River” or “Trespassing.”
“Both of these stories grew out of some of the tensions I have felt as a parent…”
WORTMAN-WUNDER: Both of these stories grew out of some of the tensions I have felt as a parent—how you can have enormous love for someone and also not understand them; when you’re a parent, this can lead to you making the wrong decisions about what they need. Due to life circumstances I’ve raised my children in a city suburb that has never really felt like home to me, and the places I’m drawn to—fields and creeks and remote mountain valleys—have sometimes felt threatening or dangerous to them. Both of these stories were written at a time when I felt this tension most acutely, and the mothers in these stories reflect that struggle.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape Not a Thing to Comfort You?
WORTMAN-WUNDER: Almost twenty years, although the final form emerged almost by accident. I had a handful of wildlife stories and a handful of relationship stories, and it took the stories that emerged from the tensions of parenting in the suburbs (“Endangered Fish of the Colorado,” “Appletree Acres,” and “Trespassing”) to bridge the gap.
AUTHORLINK: What themes emerged in stories as you wrote? Were you surprised by what came up? Do you think the collection as a whole has a theme?
WORTMAN-WUNDER: What I see when I look through these stories is both me growing up—the first stories were written before I had kids and the most recent ones while I was getting ready to send my oldest off to college—and me working through some of the assumptions and ideals I had before I became a parent. One surprising consistency is that so many of these stories involve women looking in on families from the outside—even when they’re a mother.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Not a Thing to Comfort You and how did you overcome them?
“Most of the time, my biggest challenge was time (probably this is true for most moms).”
WORTMAN-WUNDER: Most of the time, my biggest challenge was time (probably this is true for most moms). In the middle of writing these stories I spent almost ten years working on a novel that was never finished and will probably never get published.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
Not a Thing to Comfort You was published because it won the Iowa Fiction Award—which meant that they liked it as is and did very little editing. Most of the stories had been previously published, too, so they had gone through a few rounds of editing at various lit mags.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice short story writers?
“…don’t give up; rejections and struggle are part of the game.”
The obvious one: don’t give up; rejections and struggle are part of the game. The less obvious one (to me): be the writer you need to be. Not all of us are headliner acts, but we are still doing something important.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
WORTMAN-WUNDER: I’m working on a novel about suburban sprawl—and I’m hopefully close to the end, although I’ve been saying that for a few years now. I find that the novel sucks up all of my creating-new-worlds energy, so other than that I am writing essays.
Emily Wortman-Wunder is the author of the story collection Not a Thing to Comfort You, winner of the 2019 Iowa Fiction Award and the 2020 Colorado Book Award, and finalist for the High Plains Book Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Guernica, Kenyon Review, Vela, Creative Nonfiction, High Country News, among other places, and have been listed as Notable by Best American Essays 2020 and been nominated for two Pushcart prizes. Her work draws on her experience as a wildlife biologist and technical writer, exploring the emotional resonance of place by drawing on history, ecology, landscape art, and folklore. She teaches scientific writing at the University of Colorado Denver and is at work on a novel.