Beginning after the End: Allegra Hyde On Craft, Catastrophe and Collectivism.

Madeleine Gaudin

In her newest collection The Last Catastrophe, Allegra Hyde tracks ideas of  apocalypse and collective action from an intergalactic finishing school to a rehab  center for internet addicts to a fleet of mobile home nomads who take refuge  on Galveston Island. The stories span genres and continents and include such  wonders as vegan zombies, foster homes for husbands and a couple in a moose suit.  Her writing is inflected with a wonderful lightness and her mind is set on heavy  and massive ideas.

Unlike some writing that is concerned with climate change and disaster,  Hyde’s stories are as interested in sadness as they are joy. “I think that apocalypse  is about endings and about change,” she told me during our conversation. “I think  that endings and change are at once horrific and also they can be new beginnings, 

it seems kind of cliché, but I believe that.” The stories in this collection begin  after endings: divorces, betrayals, societal collapses. They are preoccupied with  imagining and striving for a better future.

I had the chance to talk with Allegra recently about craft and her new collection,  our conversation meandering through the first-person plural, genre considerations,  and fictionalizing utopian fantasies:

Madeleine Gaudin: Both your novel Eleutheria and this collection seem really  interested in community and collectivism. You have such a grounded but optimistic  perspective on the future. I’m curious how you came to this mindset; I know it’s  hard to get to optimism when you’re thinking so much about climate.

Allegra Hyde: It’s hard to write about catastrophe and disaster and not bring in some optimism, because otherwise the subject matter is almost too grim to engage with. Also, so much of the human experience is made up of many different  emotional facets. For instance, in a place like Houston, where there have certainly  been climate disasters that were horrific and painful and traumatizing, those  came with simultaneous moments of collective mobilization and mutual aid and  moments of shared humanity and possibility. As a writer, I’m trying to be present  with the worst possibilities and the worst catastrophes, but also to pay attention to  moments of beauty and love and compassion that often simultaneously arise with  disaster—and that shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed, because they reflect the  best of what’s possible for us all.

MG: I find that a lot in your work, and I know that you’ve called yourself an  aspiring utopianist in the past. Do you feel like you’re writing towards Utopia in  these stories? Or are they moving somewhere different for you?

AH: I’m often writing towards utopia. The novella that ends the collection is  definitely trying to show a disaster—in this case, vegan zombies and decimation of  so much life on the planet—but also to gesture towards the possibility of coming  together, of reinventing and believing in the possibility of a better world. Even if  humanity or the characters in my stories never really get to utopia, to aim towards  it, to believe that it’s out there, is something I want to hold on to and that I want  to give my characters.

MG: I’ve noticed that so many of the stories in this collection, like “The Future  is a Click Away” or “Mobilization,” which has that lovely Galveston moment, are  narrated in a collective voice. Even, in a story like “The Eaters,” the characters take  turns holding the microphone and narrating. When do you realize a story requires  multiple perspectives or requires that collective voice?

AH: The collective voice was a perspective that wouldn’t stop coming onto the  page for me. I am a writer who tries to follow language, to hear a story and then  transcribe it. I just kept hearing collective voices. I think that’s partly because I’m t interested in how so much of being a human is both being an individual—who is in her own head and trapped in the little box of her own consciousness—but  also being a part of larger group and moving around the world as a collective body.  So, it felt important to get that on the page and to let this collective voice narrate  various stories because that collectivity is part of what it means to be alive.

I’m also a huge fan of Julie Otsuka who writes a lot in first person plural. Ever since  I read The Buddha in the Attic, I’ve loved exploring that collective voice. Another  favorite first-person plural story is “They Told Us Not To Say This” by Jen Alandy  Trahan.

MG: There’s such a sonic quality to the first-person plural, and it carries a different  rhythm that feels like it has its own poetry. I wonder, does that impact the way that  you conceptualize character, thinking about a character as an individual and also  a part of a group?

AH: I think character can be so many things. I’m a big believer that setting can  be a character, for instance—or weather can be a character. At its core, to me,  character is someone, something that has agency and an agenda and that is moving  through time and evolving. Whether that’s a person, a group, a tree, doesn’t matter  so much as how that so-called character is operating upon and within the world.

MG: Along with groups and collective characters, it seems like this collection  is really interested in phenomena. I’m thinking of a story like “Zoo Suicides.”  Are there craft challenges that come with writing on these scales of group or  phenomena or globe?

AH: The challenge of writing any fiction is to make it believable. In the case of  “Zoo Suicides,” it was tricky to figure out how to make this bizarre phenomenon  of people ending their lives at the zoo by jumping into animal enclosures seem  believable because that is, as an act on its own, really sensational and disturbing  and hard to go along with. The challenge was therefore how to make the act believable within the context of the story and create a functional story-logic that justified the absurdism. I tried to do that through the story’s voice and by borrowing from [Donald] Barthelme’s approaches to absurdity via escalating  phenomena.

I think it’s important to figure out how to capture these almost unbelievable events  in fiction because unbelievable events are happening all the time in our wider world:  climate catastrophes, animals acting weirdly, etc. They’re hard to grasp because they  seem outside of our familiar reality—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.  For me, fiction is a place to capture the absurdity of contemporary life—which is  easy to become numb to.

MG: I think that absurdity and lightness and that optimism we talked about  earlier are all interwoven in these stories. I love in “Afterglow,” this combination  of the sadness of the dissolution of this marriage and this really wonderful and  odd and humorous image of this woman rainbowing her skin with Gatorade. Is  that interplay between lightness and darkness part of what you see as essential to  capturing the contemporary world?

AH: I think it’s essential for facing our contemporary reality. As I see it, it’s easy  to be either paralyzed by nihilistic cynicism about what’s happening or to be so  Pollyannaish that you’re enacting a form of denial. But to hold both the huge scale  of disaster on one hand, and also hold onto the potential and possibility of a better  future on the other—that to me is the best way to try to inhabit this world and  work towards that better future. 

“Afterglow” definitely tries to show such an interplay between “lightness and  darkness.” The woman in the story is physically processing the fallout of her  marriage in a way that involves consuming a beverage that is full of chemicals and  not good for her, and at the same time is creating this bizarre beauty. 

MG: In a story like that, even when the collection is at its more intimate moments or more interested in the domestic, the stakes feel so much larger than the individual. It seems that even in the personal story, the collective comes in through  the stakes of her actions with the Gatorade.

AH: As someone trying to write about climate change, I’m always trying to find  ways to bridge the experience of an individual and the larger sphere of what’s  going on. In the Gatorade story, showing the link between the chemicals in this  woman’s body and the chemicals polluting the air felt like an important—or  even an exciting—way to bridge the impacts of climate change and the physical  experience of an individual body. Maybe the story shows this in a roundabout way,  but that objective is underneath everything I’m trying to do. 

MG: In the collection there’s a lot of experimentation and play with different forms.  “Colonel Merryweather’s Intergalactic Finishing School for Young Ladies of Grace  & Good Nature” is told as a recording or log, the collective voice stories, “The Eaters”  that has the alternating narrative sections. Do you feel you adjust your craft or your  structure to best suit the ideas you’re most interested in for a particular story?

AH: When it comes to form, it’s about figuring out what container for the story  will, on one hand give the story shape, but also allow the deepest truth of the story  to emerge. Writing “Colonel Merryweather’s Intergalactic Finishing School for  Young Ladies of Grace & Good Nature” as an audio transcript felt like a way to  get at the heart of the story best—because it makes us voyeurs to a conversation  and process of discovery for the two main characters. 

I also love the challenge of a form and a set of rules in fiction. That was the case with  this story: figuring out, problem-solving how to communicate the information  that I needed to communicate. Or, even working in first person plural, there are  particular challenges that come up with giving information and keeping a story  moving while speaking as a chorus. I love the puzzle of that as an artist. 

MG: This collection has similar interests to your novel. I wonder are there challenges or differences in what you think a novel can do and what a short story can do? Especially thinking about them with such an interest in social change,  environmentalism and climate change.

AH: I worked on the novel for about five years, from roughly 2014 to 2019 and  during that time I tried to be as monogamous with it as possible. Sometimes I  couldn’t resist writing a short story, but I really tried to keep myself from writing  too many. When I finally sold the novel and suddenly had the freedom to work on  other things, I had all these stories pent up that I wanted to work on. I also had all  this material that was connected to the research I had done for Eleutheria, but that  didn’t make it into the novel. 

With short stories there’s the opportunity to be a little more nimble with specific  ideas or concepts or questions, and to explore them quickly, efficiently, to try a  lot of different things out. You can explore a variety of different characters in a  short space, for instance—and hopefully come up with something interesting and  meaningful. 

There was only so much I could squish into Eleutheria; it is already pretty jam  packed full of ideas. I had to cut out a lot. It could have been even longer. So, I  think stories have been a way to cover a lot more ground quickly. But, with a novel,  you can go so much deeper with a character and really get to know them. My  hope is that with Eleutheria readers develop a relationship with Willa Marks— the protagonist—and feel like they know her. Even if they aren’t friends with her,  they’ll hopefully feel like they have some kind of relationship. The novel takes the  time to fully unpack why she does what she does—for better or for worse—and  that is what is distinct and powerful about the form for me. 

But, I love writing short stories. I think that’s always where my heart is.

MG: I know in the past that you’ve said you don’t like the label of “Cli-Fi,” and I’m  inclined to agree. I’m wondering where you situate your work, if you don’t want to be siloed off with just climate, where do you see yourself writing?

AH: I struggle with labels in general because they always feel limiting. I’m really  torn about the idea of cli-fi or climate fiction because on one hand naming it  makes it more real, more prominent, more legible—and that seems good in terms  of environmental communication, which is an ongoing struggle. But, as you’ve  probably thought about since you’ve been thinking about this as well, the label “cli-fi” also separates work from literature at large and makes it easier to write  off climate-focused fiction as a dystopian fantasy. The label suggests that climate  fiction isn’t about real life. What’s funny is I’m teaching a “climate fiction” class  this spring, so I’m hoping to wrestle with this idea of category with my students.  Maybe they’ll tell me what to think. 

In terms of categorizing my own work, if I had to give it a label, I’d probably call  it speculative fiction. That feels broad enough—and I think that all stories are, to  some extent, speculating and asking questions and proposing versions of reality  and then unpacking the logic of that reality. That’s what I’m most comfortable  with.

Madeleine Gaudin is a writer, editor and educator originally from Austin, Texas. She has a Bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Novel Award for her novella Don’t Dream of Other Worlds. She is an Inprint Brown Fellow and current MFA candidate at the University of Houston, where she serves as a Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast