An Interview with Tess Allard, 2017 Fiction Contest Winner
Tess Allard is a writer, photographer and filmmaker living in Pittsburgh, PA, by way of Connecticut and New Mexico. She holds a BA in Film Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. Her short story, “The World Holds What It Remembers Most,” was selected as the fiction winner in Black Warrior Review’s 2017 contest. She spends her free time gardening, exploring nature, and seeking out strange places.
Interview by EMRYS DONALDSON
Black Warrior Review: In “The World Holds What It Remembers Most”, the narrator moves outside the confines of linear time. How do you hold yourself in time, and how do you find a feeling of anchoredness within it?
Tess Allard: I envy people who can live fully in the moment– I’m definitely not one of them! But I find that certain things help heighten the experience of the present moment enough to overwhelm anything else– for instance, movement through space. There’s something so calming about it: strolling through the city, hiking, sitting at the window of a train and watching the overlooked parts of the world roll by. I think this is part of what led me to make the narrator of this story constantly moving; it’s an attempt to make sense of the world through physical action, to anchor herself through the sensations of her body. I wanted the physical space, and the movement through it, to feel very concrete. All the spaces that the narrator moves through are actual places that exist or once existed in Pittsburgh, PA, a city that I’ve lived in and loved for the past twelve years (although this is the first story I’ve written that takes place there!)
BWR: The story has a sense of hauntedness that collapses time in a single place. What geographic or specific places feel most haunted to you, either within or outside of fiction?
TA: I’m always fascinated by the layers of history that exist all around us. In America, there’s been at least 15,000 years of human experience, and a much longer geographical and biological history beyond that. One of the core ideas I wanted to explore in this story was how, even when we’re moving through time in a linear fashion, the past is constantly present. A cataclysmic event like the one in the story just brings it to the forefront, but the ghosts of the past are everywhere. Someone, at one time, had the best or the worst moment of their life in the space your bedroom occupies. I think it’s easy to get lost in the minutia of our own experience and forget that we are only the most recent link in a chain that stretches back for millenia, that everyone who lived here before us was a fully formed human being with hope and love and regret.
But if I had to list the most haunted places in my experience, I’d say: the centers of old cities, where everything’s been built on top of itself for centuries; abandoned houses filled with a life’s worth of belongings, like the people just up and left in the middle of supper; New England pine forests when the wind sways the canopy (especially if there’s a dilapidated colonial graveyard nearby, which there usually is.)
BWR: Your narrator lists small joys from the old world: “walking barefoot in fresh-cut grass, clover crushed between my toes; getting off work early on a summer day; grilling burgers in a friend’s backyard. Playing catch with dogs. Bubble tea….” What are some of your small joys?
TA: Bubble tea, definitely. That one comes from my own experience. I probably drink more bubble tea than is strictly advisable. Aside from that, I love wandering weird alleyways, reading in the sun, drinking craft beer, baking bread, tending my garden (groundhog invasion notwithstanding), and being present in nature, whatever form that might take. There might be nothing more perfect than sitting in a kayak in the middle of a lake with the sun shining and a light breeze rocking your boat and knowing you’re going to stop at a craft brewery on the way home and try some kind of weird beer with cilantro in it. Although sitting around a campfire in the middle of the woods is a close second. (Also a small joy, or a small indulgence: spending $12 a pack on incense that smells exactly like a campfire and rationing it out carefully as if it’s the last batch that will ever be made.)
BWR: When the speaker addresses a “you” in the story, who did you envision as the audience for those questions? For whom do you write?
TA: An essential characteristic of the narrator is her enduring belief that normalcy can return, that the living people of the world are not lost forever but each trapped in their own version of this inexplicable experience. So she imagines herself speaking to them, whether to those she used to know or to the strangers that surrounded her. It’s the only way she has left to interact with others– to project into the future what she might do and say when they return. I think on some level she realizes this is not an inevitability, but she refuses to acknowledge it because otherwise she cannot survive.
On a more textual level, I hope the use of “you” invites the reader to put themselves in the narrator’s position and imagine how they would cope in this situation, what habits they might develop, what rituals they might hold on to, what inherent parts of them may be left when the world that anchors them is stripped away.
BWR: Your story takes place in a setting that seems post-apocalyptic. What’s your favorite kind of post-apocalyptic narrative, and where do you see yourself in terms of the end of the world?
TA: I’ve always had a giant soft spot for campy, over-the-top post-apocalyptic media– the whole Mad Max / desert world / roaming gangs of marauders thing. It’s silly and entertaining, but it’s also meaningful that these stories are essentially rooted in reality– they aren’t pure fantasy; they’re supposed to take place in the future of our world. They’re still a genuine exploration of the breakdown of society. In terms of more serious narratives, I find those that are hyperfocused on the experience of individual characters to be the most compelling — one that I read at a young age and always come back to is Connie Willis’ short story “Daisy, in the Sun.” Throughout my life I have found myself drawn to post-apocalyptic themes again and again. I think a lot of what I write could be described this way, whether literally (as in this story) or in terms of a character’s world shifting so suddenly and drastically as to be its own localized apocalypse. And really, it’s hard not to think about the end of the world in times like this. Everything seems to be building up to a point of no return. I doubt that time will suddenly collapse, or gravity will disappear, or anything metaphysical like that– but it feels a little like it sometimes, doesn’t it?
BWR: In the face of everything, the narrator in “The World Holds What It Remembers Most” carries on with hope. Where do you find hope and resilience in these politically troubling times?
TA: It’s so important to find a way to be hopeful, to believe that things can change for the better, and, for me at least, art is one of the most powerful ways to experience hope. If you make your own art and seek out other people’s– writing, music, painting, sculpture, street art, sound collages, performance, installation, whatever– it’s hard not to have some hope for the future of humanity. Art has gotten people through a lot of horrific events in the past, and I hope it will continue to carry us towards a better future.