Interview With an Author: Izzy Wasserstein

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Izzy Wasserstein and her debut novel, These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart
Author Izzy Wasserstein and her debut novel, These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart. Photo: Huascar Medina

Izzy Wasserstein is a queer, trans woman who teaches writing and literature. She was born and raised in Kansas and received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is the author of dozens of short stories, two poetry collections, and a short-story collection. Wasserstein lives in Southern California and These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart is her debut novella and she recently talked to Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart?

I adore noir and hardboiled detective stories, but they have tended to center the stories on straight, white men. Also, those stories are rarely set in "flyover country," where I was born and raised. I wanted to tell a science-fictional noir story that centered on the experiences of marginalized people and explored what a dystopian future might look like in a place that doesn’t often get depicted in those tales.

Are Dora, Kay, Theo, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I imagined Dora as someone who is, in many ways, my opposite. She’s cool in a crisis, has a great memory, and is quick to anger. We do have one thing in common, though a sense of loyalty to our friends. Juan is based on a good friend of mine. Beyond that, the characters are drawn from my observations about others in general rather than from any particular inspirations.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

There’s one scene in particular I repeatedly tried to take out. It’s a big spoiler, so I’ll just say that it’s a spicy scene. I kept thinking maybe it didn’t belong, but I found that it had to be included to do justice to Dora and (especially) Theo as characters. A ton of credit for that decision goes to my amazing spouse, Nora E. Derrington, who knew the scene belonged long before I was ready to see it.

Another big change was to the climactic showdown with the story’s antagonist, which changed quite a bit as I worked to find exactly the right resolution.

Somewhere, way in the past, is an abandoned partial first draft of a story that never worked, but that inspired These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart. Someday I may go back and strip that draft for parts to see which elements in it might fit well in some future project.

What drew you to set These Fragile Graces in Kansas City?

I grew up in Topeka, KS, about an hour from Kansas City, and I’ve spent a ton of time in KC, and I know it well. Kansas City is a great city for noir stories, full of old red brick, spotted with ancient neon signs, and with plenty of rain and steam.

Most of all, though, I wanted to set the story in the kind of place where noir stories rarely take place. I love noir set in LA or NY, but I want to see plenty of other locales, too.

Have you ever visited or lived in Kansas City? Do you have any favorite places? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss but would only learn about from a resident?

I don’t know if it counts as a hidden gem, but like most people from the KC area, I have strong opinions on the best local BBQ. When I’m in town, I never miss Gates BBQ.

In your Afterword, you mention that These Fragile Graces started with clones. Do you have a favorite novel, television series, or motion picture about clones? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

Orphan Black is a classic of clone storytelling and must be at or near the top of my list of favorite clone stories. The great (and under-seen) movie Moon is also worth checking out.

On the flip-side, while there are plenty of X-Files episodes that hold up really well, I’d just as soon ignore the clone-centered episodes.

These Fragile Graces ends with a number of unresolved issues and seems open to continuation. Will readers be able to join Dora again on her journey for another case?

I can’t say for sure—it’s not entirely within my control—but I can say that I have ideas for further adventures for Dora (among other characters) and that I’d love to explore more of their lives if I ever get the opportunity.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

An ever-expanding list of books in various stages of completion. Currently that includes I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman, The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia, and Stephen Graham Jones’s Don’t Fear the Reaper.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I’m happy to, though if you ask me tomorrow, you might get a different list! Among my favorites are Octavia Butler, Ursula K Le Guin, N. K. Jemisin, China Miéville, and Jorge Luis Borges.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that talent will only take you so far. Tenacity is more important. The publishing industry is full of barriers to one’s success, and being stubborn enough to keep going is very important. I also strongly recommend having people you can kvetch with (in private) and who will help keep you going when things get tough. In my case, there were times when the thing that kept me going was knowing there were people who loved me and would be disappointed in me if I gave up.

I also strongly recommend reading widely and, most importantly, being a good community member. If you see other authors as your competition, you’ll always be able to point to someone who has it better than you. But if you cultivate a supportive community, you’ll have each other’s backs through good times and bad.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, one of the Chronicles of Narnia books. I think my lifelong love of roleplaying games may have started with that tale of adventure.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Let’s just say that I’m glad they weren’t flipping through my Sandman and Strangers in Paradise graphic novels.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

As someone who can be a bit obsessive and who is a people-pleaser, I was one of those weirdos who read almost every book that was assigned to me in college. There was one exception: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, a book I spent weeks trying and failing to complete. In the end, I ignored most of the middle of the book and flipped through the end. It did, however, lead me to Mark Twain’s famous "James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses," so at least it had one positive effect on me.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I don’t know that I’ve ever bought a book for its cover since I am constantly buying more books than I have time to read, but I can say that I think I’d have bought the excellent Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs for its cover if I hadn’t already had it on my to-read list.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Ursula K LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. That’s a book that has so much to say about gender, war, religion, and winter itself. It also has one of the best last pages in history. It re-wired my brain, and I’ll always be grateful for it.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Hard to be a God, which is simultaneously a warning about the dangers of fascism and a critique of the Soviet government. It’s strange, unsettling, and masterful and hasn’t found as wide an audience (at least in English) as it deserves.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. It’s a dark academia book, a portal fantasy, and so much more. It’s also one of those books where describing it can’t do it justice. I’d love to experience it again for the first time.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A gorgeous, heartbreaking tale of longing told in large part through lingering glances between its two leads. It’s an absolute triumph.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My perfect day is probably one where I gather in some remote location with dear friends. We sit around writing, go for a hike, make a big meal together, and then sit up late into the night talking about books and catching up. Ideally, there’s a dog or two hanging out with us, too.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

I’m always hoping to be asked about what other kinds of writing I’d like to do, and my answer is that I’d love to write for a tabletop role-playing game.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a science-fantasy space opera set at the edge of a collapsing galactic empire. There’s a ghost ship and a group of desperate characters with conflicting agendas who are exploring it, hoping to find the answers they need to save their lives and communities.

Book cover of These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart
These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart
Wasserstein, Izzy

The West Valley Regional Branch will be welcoming Izzy Wasserstein to talk about These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart on March 30.