After a workshop at Clarion West, Alison Wilgus’s short story “A Barrow for the Living,” appears as the final product in the May/June issue [on sale now]. Alison talks with us about the story’s origins, her career twists and turns, and her dedication to telling the untold stories of marginalized communities.
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
AW: The first draft of “A Barrow for the Living” was written as my Week Three story at Clarion West, back in 2014. At the time, I was in the middle of researching and writing “The Mars Challenge,” a nonfiction graphic novel about the future of human spaceflight, and so had been marinating in mission architectures and facility tours and deep dives into the NASA Technical Reports Server for well over a year. I am desperately interested in the mundane realities of space exploration, and I wanted to take all of this research I’d crammed into my head and distil it into something that felt lived-in and messy. I wanted to write a story that was aware of the excitement and promise of humans living on Mars, but also respected how difficult and discouraging such a mission might be.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
AW: I intensely relate to Desiree, the POV character. I built this story around her personal struggles in a lot of ways, and while the practical details of her situation and mine could not possibly be more different, I definitely drew from my own experience when it comes to the emotional underpinnings of what she’s going through.
I actually went digging through my old class files, and found the sort of “mission statement” paragraph I wrote for myself when I was doing early outlining:
“A veteran astronaut, who signed up for a hodgepodge mission to Mars that was desperately shoved into the 2030s launch window, has to come to terms with the fact that she’s not actually on a suicide mission. Now, she has to face down her fear of the years of exhausting effort to live that lay ahead of her. Things will never get any easier, but she can reengage with her desire to see them through regardless.”
Our instructor for that week was Ian McDonald, and his main critique of the first draft I shoved across the finish line was that it felt too much like a story about depression. But while depression and discouragement were definitely major struggles for the main character to navigate, what I wanted was a story about hope; about reengaging with the people around you and the work you need to do, even if it’s difficult.
Again, I deeply relate to this. Most of my professional work is in comics, and I’m in the final stretch of the years-long process of drawing my first solo graphic novel. While I absolutely do not fear for my life, I’m working on a project which is both very isolating and very difficult, and which can feel endless. The enormity of the work I have ahead of me can overwhelm me sometimes, and I have to be careful not to let myself slip into a headspace of “This pressure will never let up, I will never finish, I cannot do this, why am I even trying to do this, all of my choices were mistakes, and I have dumped years of my life into a fool’s errand.”
Semi-failed Mars colony, long-term graphic novel project—basically the same thing, right?
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
AW: One of my Clarion West classmates took me aside after having read the first draft of this and told me that, as a regular reader of Asimov’s and Analog, mine was the kind of story they would love to encounter in those publications: a difficult woman in difficult circumstances, trying to fight her way through. That conversation has stuck with me for all the years since, and I’m grateful to have been able to make it happen.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
AW: I don’t tend to react to specific news items with my writing, or to draw directly from the particulars of current events. But the overall shape of the world as I see it, and as my creative and personal communities experience it, absolutely plays a part in which stories I choose to tell and how. Like any writer, I think, I have a variety of potential projects I could be working on at any given time—more ideas than I have hours in the day. So I need to choose which stories I’m going to sit down and write, as well as the approach I’m going to take with them.
As a person who saw very little of herself in the fiction I read as a child and young adult, I make it a point to build my fiction around women and queer people, and to center them in stories in which they traditionally don’t appear at all. And the more aggressively the larger world tries to silence the voices of marginalized people, to punish and bully and sideline them, the harder I will work to tell their stories and promote the creative work of my peers who are doing the same.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
AW: I build a playlist which feels thematically appropriate to whatever I’m working on, and I listen to it while going for very long walks until the pieces I’ve been struggling with settle themselves into place. (A long hot shower will also do in a pinch—those things are magical.)
AE: How did you break into writing?
AW: My first professional writing job was actually in animation! Right after I graduated from college, I went to work full-time in the color department of a Cartoon Network show called “Codename: Kids Next Door,” which was created by Tom Warburton. A couple of years into my tenure there, I got the idea for an episode and literally left it as a post-it note on Tom’s desk. That impulse eventually lead to a regular gig as a part-time member of the show’s small writing staff—I pitched loglines, brainstormed and workshopped stories, and eventually ended up writing three episode scripts. My first paid comics writing was for a C:KND short. Everything else followed from there.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
AW: “The Mars Challenge” will be published by First Second books and is slowly but surely marching toward release! It’s being drawn by the very talented Wyeth Yates, and if all goes well it should be out in the world in the next year or so. Which sounds like forever from now, but in the world of comics publishing that’s a blink of an eye.
Most of my time at this moment is being taken up by drawing the second volume of my original graphic novel diptych, Chronin. It’s a historical SF story which is mostly set in nineteenth-century Japan, and it involves all of my most favorite themes—time travel, queering gender, and damaged people working together to build better lives for themselves and each other. Both volumes will be published by Tor next year, and I’m extremely excited—I’ve been picking away at some version of this story or another for over ten years.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
AW: Oh, absolutely the future as written by Becky Chambers, no question. Post-scarcity, a vibrant community of aliens working with one another, unquestioned acceptance of different performances of gender and sexuality, interstellar space vehicles operated by sophisticated AIs, sign me up.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
AW: Like many nerds, I yearn for human footsteps on Mars, and I daydream that we’ll discover hard evidence of alien life while I’m still around to be excited for it. But honestly at this point, if I had to choose one thing it would be a functional, humanitarian global community that consistently supports the rights of marginalized people.
AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
AW: I’ve been fortunate enough to have followed what feels like a direct-ish path toward the work I’m doing now. I studied film and animation at NYU as an undergraduate, and as I said before, started working for Cartoon Network right out of school. While I was there, I freelanced as a writer for tie-in books and comics—some work related to C:KND, but I was also an ongoing contributor of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics scripts and Nickelodeon Magazine. For a time, I was juggling various work-for-hire-type jobs: a screenplay based on a superhero comic series, co-writing two scripts for A:TLA graphic novels, gigs as a temp colorist. But the animation industry in NYC changed and contracted, and Nick Magazine closed down, and I had to do some hard thinking about what I wanted to be doing with my time. In the end, I decided to focus on long-term comics projects like Chronin, which was great for me in a lot of ways.
But as I said, comics work can be a real grind. It’s slow, lonely work, and when you’re working with a publisher instead of, say, posting pages of a webcomic as you go, it’s easy to get isolated. You also spend a relatively short part of the process actively writing. The script takes far less time than the comic pages themselves. I attended Clarion West as part of an effort to re-prioritize my writing, and looking back that was absolutely the right call. My career path kept angling me away from prose, in particular, but that part of my creative self is deeply important to me, and I want to make sure I continue to make time for it.
How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
I’m on Twitter and Instagram as @aliwilgus and you can find more of my work at alisonwilgus.com.
Alison Wilgus is a writer and cartoonist who’s been working in comics for over a decade. She attended the Undergraduate Film and Television program at the Tisch School for the Arts, and got her start working for Cartoon Network’s “Codename: Kids Next Door” as a colorist and staff writer. Most of her professional work since then has been writing for comics, and her work has been published by Scholastic, Del Rey, DC, Nickelodeon Magazine, Dark Horse and First Second Books. Right now she’s finishing up her first solo graphic novel series, a science fiction duology, which will be published by Tor next year.