Goats in the apocalypse: Katy Wimhurst in conversation with Kayla Jenkins
Katy Wimhurst is the author of the short story collection 'Snapshots of the Apocalypse', which features dark, vivid stories daring to imagine an apocalyptic world unlike any other. It's available in both paperback and eBook.
Kayla: Hello Katy! I’m so excited to get this interview started. So, to begin…
As the name gives away, Snapshots of the Apocalypse is a short story collection about the apocalypse. Despite the dire circumstances that humans find themselves in, the collection is rife with humour – both dark and light-hearted. That’s something that I’ve found most apocalyptic stories lack, so what was it that prompted you to make humour so prominent?
I have to admit it wasn’t entirely deliberate in these particular stories, my natural voice on the page just often has humour. But when dealing with dark subjects, which I rarely shy from, humour can make the story more engaging for the reader; it mediates the emotional discomfort. While it’s true that most dystopian fiction is bleak, there is a very minor tradition of funny dystopian books - for instance, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (unlike Bladerunner, its serious filmic adaptation) as well as Kurt Vonnegut novels like Slapstick.
And magical realism, a genre I use a lot too, also has a history of addressing heavy issues (such as racism in Salman Rushdie or patriarchy in Angela Carter) while embracing knowing or playful humour. Does the humour undermine the seriousness of the themes? I’d argue not. Interestingly, while some reviews of the recent film Don’t Look Up, about an asteroid crashing into earth, have been critical of its satirical humour for ‘diluting the message’, my view is that the tone was pitch perfect to ensure this important film appealed to a wide audience.
Kayla: You’ve built up such a vivid, surreal world throughout these stories – from the ten different rains named after previous Prime Ministers to technology such as the Zikka tablophone – and it all seems so effortless, so believable. What was the worldbuilding process like when writing Snapshots of the Apocalypse? Is worldbuilding something you enjoy?
Thank you. I do enjoy world-building - when starting a speculative story, it’s often the setting that initially captures my imagination rather than the characters or plot. In short fiction one can get away with sketching a world through select details rather than engaging in the more comprehensive world-building needed for a novel. In my title story, for instance, a few images early on - the types of rains, the decaying buildings and the colourful parrots in dead trees - hopefully conjure a sense of a dystopian 2060s London.
World-building can be inventive and fun, and it’s intriguing to consider the technological aspects - in the Egg story there is the Zikka tablophone (as you say), which isn’t widely available in this society, only those working for a secretive government industry possess one. Although some aspects of my invented worlds are consciously oddball (such as the rubber ducks in ‘The Job Lottery’), because I originally studied social anthropology, I also tend to make notes (even if they don’t make it into the story) about what the broader cultural, social and political landscape might look like. One inspiration here is Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi novels which are so deft at creating authentic alternative worlds, and perhaps it’s no surprise that her father was the famous anthropologist Alfred Kroebe.
Kayla: Relationships sit at the heart of each of these stories, in all kinds of forms. For me, it’s the relationships that tie this collection together, whether it’s Asha and her knitting, Min and Max’s mutual loss, or the one-sided relationship of Cass and Damon. Does writing people come naturally to you, or is it something that requires planning and redrafting?
I appreciate you saying that as I personally don’t think characterisation is the strongest part of my writing. I’m better at quirky ideas or odd settings and have to work harder at character to pull it off; more editing here. I’m a writer who edits and revises a lot, though - I’m eternally revisiting old stories to tweak them and I’m in awe of those who write something good in a mere two or three drafts.
But, as you say, relationships - whether friendship, family or romantic - are central to these stories. In ‘The Egg’ story, the characterisation of Cass and Damon came unusually easily, whereas ‘The Colour of Dulton’, for instance, was more typical in undergoing numerous revisions. In an earlier draft, I actually killed poor Thomas off in a jokey, ironic way - after he’d been recognised as a significant artist, one of his public artworks with the words ‘only temporary’ on it, was swept up by a storm and struck his head as he was sleeping on the bench. But that version didn’t work well; or rather, it made the story simultaneously too bleak and flippant.
Kayla: The notion of the “other” is prominent throughout the collection. How did you approach exploring otherness and representing the feeling of being othered, and why was it important for you to do so, particularly given current social contexts?
Part of fiction’s magic is being able to explore alternative perspectives and to reveal what the world looks like from the viewpoint of those left behind or facing obstacles invisible to the majority. In one way, most writers are trespassers, taking on identities or even cultures not our own, though this obviously has to be done with sensitivity. As someone with a chronic illness (M.E.) that has left me mostly housebound for years, I feel a natural affinity with, and empathy for, those othered; it seems natural I tell stories with characters who are on the social periphery.
Magical realism is useful in this context as it means I can explore the state of otherness through a fanciful, sometimes whimsical, lens. So ‘The Wings of Digging’ depicts a (mythic) winged being who faces racism in an off-kilter England; and in ‘The Colour of Dulton’ Thomas’s sleeping affliction is clearly bizarre and made up. As someone politically engaged, I definitely have one eye on the broader social context; but as a writer, I can throw in quirky elements so the themes are addressed in an askew manner, without being too earnest.
Kayla: Throughout Snapshots of the Apocalypse, there are many striking resemblances to modern events, especially of the last two years. I’m curious as to when you began writing the stories that would make up the collection – was it during the pandemic, or beforehand? And if it was before the pandemic, were you surprised to see the similarities begin to appear?
All but two of the stories were written pre-pandemic, and one of those two was conceived pre-pandemic. I find it curious that many talk about the pandemic as something so distinct, because for me the world has had a dystopian tint for ages. This is partly due to being aware of the reality of climate change, about as dystopian as you can get. But also, having a serious chronic illness can give life an underworld flavour. Weirdly, apart from there obviously being a wider threat of death, the pandemic has made the life of many chronically ill friends easier in ways, by allowing all sorts of events to go online, for instance; and it has also forced the majority to have an experience that we have had for ages. Not going out much or having to think about it carefully before you do? That’s normal!
At some level, the darkness in my stories reflects my experience of chronic illness (more so than the pandemic anyway). The Italian writer Italo Calvino described his speculative fiction as ‘falling under Perseus’, a term relating to the Greek hero who avoided the petrifying gaze of the Gorgon Medusa by looking at her via the reflection on his bronze shield. If this part of the Medusa myth represents gazing into the dark heart of reality, an experience which can paralyse, then the Perseus figure of the writer doesn’t abandon reality but approaches it obliquely, giving free licence to the imagination. I suspect that what many people take to be reality is skin thin; puncture it and you find a world where things are strange and nothing is reliable any more - my character Dag says as much at the end of ‘The Cost of Starfish’. I like to think, perhaps vainly, that my off-kilter worlds approximate real reality more than naturalistic fiction does.
Kayla: And, lastly…surely during writing Snapshots of the Apocalypse you must have thought about what your own apocalyptic plans would be. I know it’s something I’ve thought about many a time when watching films or shows about an apocalypse of some sort. What’s the most unusual, yet practical survival tip you’d give to others?
My tip would be: Goosegrass, the ubiquitous weed that sticks to your clothes, is edible. And get a goat. Who wouldn’t love or need a goat in the apocalypse?
Kayla: Ha, very true! Everyone needs a goat during the apocalypse, that settles it.
Thank you for your time!