The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, The Bookshelf features short story writer Allegra Hyde. Her new collection of short stories, Of This New World, offers tales of utopian societies, where life is supposed to be perfect, but is often not. It's the winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from University of Iowa Press. Scroll down to read Allegra Hyde's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of her conversation with Peter Biello.
Allegra Hyde's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman. "In this collection we meet real life figures like Dolly Wilde, Allegra Byron, and Butterfly McQueen, who – though abandoned by history – become unforgettable in Bergman’s hands."
2. The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks. "From a janitor savoring the pleasures of working in outer space to a father-daughter werewolf hunt, Sparks’s short stories take the ordinary and spin it into the fantastical. Plus the book includes a novella!"
3. What is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. Opening with the words “Once upon a time,” this collection has a fairy tale feel. Dreamy, playful, and complex, Oyeyemi’s linked stories welcome readers into the rich universe of her imagination.
4. Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka. "As a New Englander, I enjoyed the way Majka’s stories wander around our corner of the world. This collection is full of tough wisdom that lingers with you long after you finish."
5. Gutshot by Amelia Gray. "Gray’s stories oscillate between the macabre and the sublime. With titles like “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,” and “Go For It and Raise Hell,” her incisive deadpan precision will both unsettle and amuse."
What inspired you to write a variety of stories on different types of utopian societies?
I guess you could say the book is about utopianism. I’ve been fascinated by utopianism for the better part of my adult life, the past decade, and what draws me to utopias would be the conflict between idealism and practicality—especially when there are groups of people who step outside of conventional norms, social norms, to try to live differently, live out what they see as an ideal society. I’m drawn to the bravery of those people, the courage it would take to step away, but also often the humor of those endeavors, because the fact that they are living differently often means that they’re living in a way that doesn’t quite work. So I enjoy the silliness that can emerge from those endeavors.
You mention bravery, and I thought of narcissism, because these people are so convinced that my way is the way, and I will show the rest of the world by getting a bunch of other people to live my way. That’s, in my opinion, where the humor comes from, because these people are inevitably to some degree wrong.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense—that your ego is going to cause you to overlook certain things.
I had another idea about these stories that I wanted to run by you. Tell me if it doesn’t jive with what you were going for, but it seemed to me that these stories were as much about utopia as they are about class difference and upward mobility. Because the people who were able to seclude themselves in these closed communities often felt a little bit of guilt about those they left behind, about the people who were not well off enough to join these communities. Is that something you considered while writing these stories?
I don’t think while writing it was directly on my mind, but in retrospect, it infuses a lot of the stories, especially a story like “Shark Fishing” where there is a group of militant environmentalists who are really committed to saving the world and the story is set in the Bahamas. They’re working to protect the natural resources, which all seems great, except it comes into conflict with the local people who are just trying to get by, trying to feed their families, and you come up against these questions of: Should a starving man be allowed to eat an endangered fish? I don’t know. So I’m interested in kind of exploring those questions and I think that does have a lot to do with class.
Especially in that story, where the people who are invited to learn along with the so-called experts are children of wealthy people who could afford to go and were presumed to be more likely to have political influence later in life.
Yeah, it’s a tough question when it comes to lofty ideals like environmentally-sustainable society. Who gets to be included in that society? I think Toni Morrison has a quote that’s something along the lines of, “Utopias are often imagined by the people who are not in them.” And I guess when it comes to that particular story, depending on who you are, your utopia is going to be different.
You’ve spent some time in environments similar to the ones in this book. Could you tell us about your personal experience with these so-called utopias?
Because I’ve been fascinated by utopian experiments for so long, it was kind of inevitable that I would try to visit some, experience some, so among the places that I’ve visited—so I’ve visited what remains of Shaker communities. I’ve backpacked through New Zealand for five months visiting hippie communes, trying to see what they were up to, their efforts to live off the land. I lived in the Bahamas for awhile at an ecocommunity that was in many ways similar to the one that is in “Shark Fishing.”
It’s always really inspiring in many ways to see how people are trying to live differently. It’s also interesting to see what sorts of practical problems they run into in the ways that they’re living.
Do you have a favorite short story in this collection?
I think I feel pretty strongly about “Bury Me,” which is a story told by a botanist, someone working with plants, and she goes to a friend’s mother’s funeral and I guess the story for me was able to combine elements of science and emotion in a way that for me felt rich. And it was also able to explore utopianism in a different way. Instead of maybe thinking of a group—a hippie commune or Shakers—maybe a kind of utopia between two people, a relationship as a kind of utopia. In this case, the friendship between two young women. So that story, I think, really captured a lot of ideas that I was excited to explore in my writing.
What I loved about that story was how the descriptions of nature, of plants, a tree—the description of the tree was used to illuminate how this main character felt whole and where this friendship fell in her life. The analogy I loved was when she described this tree having to get rid of needles or branches so that the whole would survive, and that seemed so perfectly analogous to that relationship—that, in order for her to have good mental health, she just needed to call this relationship over, even if it was good while it lasted. I just thought that was beautifully done.
That’s not so much a question, just—there you go, that’s a compliment.
[Laughs] I’ll take it.
Who are your influences as a writer?
I think as a short story writer I am kind of inevitably influenced by Claire Vaye Watkins, who a lot of writers of my generation have read. Her book, Battleborn, does a tremendous job of weaving together place, history, human experience that I really look up to her ability as a fiction writer.
I also have really learned a lot from Jim Shepard. I admire the way he takes these esoteric details and weaves them into his writing, makes them come alive, and that he also brings humor into his writing, which is something I aspire to do in my book.
What do you think are the qualities that define a good short story?
A good short story is a story that stays with you. You remember it. Often you remember it because it illuminates some aspect of the human experience that you hadn’t fully thought about before and I think often short stories also work well when they aren’t fully resolved and you carry that story with you because you’re still thinking about it, you’re trying to resolve whatever that story brought up. But I think stories are fundamentally mysterious in many ways and it’s hard to pinpoint why certain stories stick with us.
Sometimes I’ll read a piece and I won’t think that I like it but I’ll continue to ponder that story long after I’ve read it and I can’t quite put my finger on why or how the author really reached out and grabbed me, so stories are mysterious things, I think, at the end of the day.