The Breakout 8 Writers Prize, sponsored by Epiphany and the Authors Guild, was established in order to honor and support outstanding emerging literary voices and bring visibility to the writers of the future. Earlier this spring, we announced the eight winners chosen by our three judges—Hannah Tinti, Alexander Chee, and Tracy O’Neill.
We interviewed each of the winners, and over the course of the next eight weeks, we’ll post their Q&As! First up: Alisson Wood. Alisson Wood’s prose and poetry have been published in places including The New York Times, Catapult, and Dovetail. She is the founder of Pigeon Pages, a woman-run Brooklyn reading series and online literary journal. Currently, Alisson is a candidate for an MFA in fiction at NYU. She is at work on a memoir.
How did you first come up with your winning piece?
I always knew I was going to write Being Lolita. Even fifteen years ago, when I was still in the relationship (that the book is about), I knew I would write about it someday. What’s changed dramatically is the specific telling of the story, my understanding of myself and what happened to me. At seventeen, I thought I was going to write a love story. Maybe it’s still a love story, but it’s no longer with the teacher who abused me—it’s with the power of writing.
What do you hope to gain from the year ahead?
I hope to have a book in my hands that has my name on it! (It might only be an ARC, but still.)
Who is your favorite underappreciated author we should all be reading?
I feel like Sylvia Plath isn’t given her due these days. The Bell Jar is a gorgeous, haunting novel and was a salve for my sadness in high school. Her poems are these shards of glass that slam straight into your chest and explode, a molotov cocktail in reverse. Yet today she’s called a “drama queen,” her literary power attributed to her husband’s edits after her death (“but where would her poems be without…”), sub-genred as a confessional as if that was something to be ashamed of. She could create empathy on the page in these beautiful, lyric ways, so it’s incredibly disheartening to me that some modern writers (mostly men) are so dismissive of her.
Do you have a memorable experience of an influential teacher you’d like to share?
I’m writing a whole book about one, and honestly it’s deeply disturbing to me that he, the teacher who abused me, is the teacher who I identify as “the most” influential. It just makes me sad when I have been able to work with so many other wonderful teachers in my life, that this one man takes up so much space. I teach creative writing now, to undergraduates at NYU and at Sackett Street, and I strive to be the teacher I wish I had. I aspire to be like my wonderful teachers Hannah Tinti, Melissa Febos, Laura Sims, Mitchell Jackson, Paul Lisicky, Darin Strauss, Said Sayrafiezadeh—these are the influences I want to share with my students.
It’s been said we write what we obsess over. What themes do you find keep cropping up in your writing again and again?
All of my published pieces very consciously explore themes of power, gender, trauma, and memory. All are things which have permeated my life, and I’m certain the lives of many other women. I’d be concerned that I was in deep denial if I wasn’t “obsessing” over these themes—I feel as though I have been told over and over again to keep my pain a secret, to be ashamed of my victimhood, that you cannot write about your trauma, and for it to be art. All of that is rooted in sexism and silencing, and I have no time for that anymore. I have books to write.
What was your favorite book growing up?
I’m a really fast reader so I loved books that were in a series—the Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Baby-Sitters Club books, Sweet Valley High, the Old Mother West Wind stories, even those Cat Who mysteries—I loved books that continued even after I turned the last page. I would literally bring home a dozen books from the library each week—I was lucky in that my parents were very supportive of my reading. I would finish every book and go back for a new stack the next week. The library was my very favorite place growing up.
If the pursuit of writing is a quiet solo one, what are some ways you connect with other writers?
I am a big believer in the importance of a literary community—both personally and from a social justice standpoint. There is so much power in the arts and in artists. It’s why I founded Pigeon Pages, a NYC reading series and prose journal. I knew I wanted to uplift writers who maybe weren’t being given space (in a physical sense, via the readings, and in the larger literary scene, with the online journal) through our literary nest. It’s also been a source of community in my own life, in that I’ve been lucky enough to build the journal with some of my closest literary friends and I get to host my favorite writers at the reading series. The act of writing can be really lonely and it’s such a long process, you have to reach beyond the page to find your strength sometimes.
What’s one bit of advice you wish you’d have gotten early on?
Give no fucks about what others think of you or your project.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.