How does Wendy Wimmer describe her writing style?
"I would describe it as scary/funny/sad. With slashes," she says.
"I find that there's so much humor in these odd moments, and yet there's also so much sadness in funny moments in some ways," Wimmer told Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA."
"And everything's a little uncertain. I'm a little spooked by things that most people aren't spooked by. And then I'm also not spooked by things that other people are spooked by. So I find that incredibly interesting to kind of situate myself in that kind of axis between those three spaces," Wimmer continued.
Born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Wimmer's debut short-story collection is called "Entry Level." It's the winner of the 2021 Autumn House Fiction Prize.
Former BETA guest Dan Chaon describes Wendy’s stories as "propulsive, delightfully unpredictable, and utterly addictive." And he’s absolutely right.
Wimmers' stories often veer into the uncanny. For example, the opening story, "Strange Magic," takes place at a roller-skating rink where the employees discover that they can reverse the aging process. There’s another story called "Texts from Beyond" in which a company called Fluid Tel helps customers communicate with relatives who have passed on.
All 15 stories in "Entry Level" focus on characters who are underemployed, a theme that resonates with Wimmer. She said she comes from a blue collar background.
"My family was a restaurant family," Wimmer explained. "They grew up in restaurants and bars and what they call in northern Wisconsin taverns. In fact, my grandmother and my great-grandmother literally lived in the tavern that they ran. So I heard many, many stories of that."
"I said I'd never work in restaurants, and of course I did. But I later became a cubicle denizen of a cubicle landscape — just this mass of acres of cubicles," she continued. "And (I) was doing my graduate work while I was programing a computer."
Back then, Wimmer was making $22,000 a year while working on getting her Master's degree at the same time.
Wimmer's mention of cubicles reminded us of Canadian author Douglas Coupland's coining of the term "veal-fattening pens" to describe cubicles. Coupland is one of Wimmers' favorite writers.
"And it's interesting because when I first started working at the company where I was coding, we didn't even get whole cubicles. We just had a line of desks. So it reminded me very much of cow stanchions. That was us. It was very impersonal and almost dehumanizing in so many ways," Wimmer said.
Wimmer's own personal experiences with service industry jobs allow her to inhabit her characters and helps readers empathize with them.
"I think that life is really difficult to get out of without a little bit of damage. So I think of them as imperfect — as we all are — and oftentimes damaged by the universe that is maybe predatory or at best, you know, disregards them," she said.
"But I also see them as having hope. They're being strong, they're surviving. They're finding a way to make it work, even though the system is kind of against them."
Roller-skating in 'Strange Magic'
The opening story is "Strange Magic." It was inspired by the Rola-Rena roller-skating rink in Green Bay which closed in 2019.
As part of the restaurant and service industry, Wimmers' parents worked during the day on Saturdays. Her stepfather's sister was in her mid-teens, working at the Rola-Rena.
"She was a kid and my mom would say, 'Hey, do you want to be babysat by Aunt Mary?' And she would then just drop me off at the Rola-Rena," Wimmer recalled. "I don't even know if she gave me money to go in because she just assumed that this 15-year-old kid was going to like sneak me into the roller-skating rink and then also babysit me. And I thought it was great because it meant I got to spend all day roller-skating."
It's already an intriguing idea to reverse the aging process by roller-skating. The story is made even more powerful by Wimmers' careful attention to detail. For example, roller-skating clockwise will not work; you have to skate counterclockwise. The disco ball has to be spinning. But it's not clear if the laser beams have anything to do with it.
Wimmer coupled her own experiences from the roller rink with a writers' workshop ran by Dan Chaon to make "Strange Magic."
Chaon teaches a kind of organic, "subconscious level of story origination" that she was taught by Madison cartoonist Lynda Barry, MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner."
"It involves starting with a word and coming up with the images that flood your mind with that word. And then from that image that you get further fleshing it out and further developing it," Wimmer explains.
"And as we flesh that out, I could hear the soundtrack of a roller-skating rink — the various sounds that you hear, the wheels kind of going over the rink, the actual music that's involved, which of course, plays a huge part," Wilmer said.
The title "Strange Magic" is a reference to ELO's 1975 hit of the same name.
Wimmer had the chance to talk to the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood a while back about a pandemic novel she was working on.
"We were talking a lot about migratory birds for most of the conversation, because I didn't want to be like that person who had this great treasure of a living author in their car and is like, 'So can you tell me about how to get past writer's block?' I don't want to be that person. We ended up talking a lot about migratory bird patterns and Canada geese.
Instead of bringing one of Atwood's more popular novels to sign, Wimmer had Atwood sign her copy of "Negotiating with the Dead," a book about the craft of writing.
This was before the pandemic when Wimmer was working on a novel that had "gone from being speculative to not at all speculative." She finished writing it at the end of 2019. It's a novel about a pandemic that shuts down the world and puts everyone in lockdown.
"So it is creepily prescient. But at the time, I was really dealing with the fact that a lot of the things that I was writing about in the novel, people were like, 'that would never happen.'"
And Atwood told her that all of the content in her novels that was described as "speculative fiction" was not speculative.
"Nothing was speculative. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Every single thing had happened," Wimmer said. "So as long as I based it in authenticity and reality as spec, I could be as speculative as I wanted without fear of it being unbelievable."