In the worlds Allegra Hyde weaves, something feels off. Her stories exist in the uncanny valley—the most absurd parts of modern life are embellished, denying readers the comfort to ignore them.
Growing up, she was obsessed with the “Chronicles of Narnia” series.
“Even if I’m not writing fantasy, I still hold onto that set of books as a gold standard for storytelling, immersion and metaphor,” Hyde said.
Her upcoming short story collection, “The Last Catastrophe,” features vegan zombies and a girl who grows a unicorn horn.
“It is hard to look at various systems of oppression head on,” Hyde said. “I try to use the tools of surrealism to make these realities of climate change visible, real and accessible.”
Her work often finds humor in doom.
“I’ve got to amuse myself, too, while I’m writing,” Hyde said. “This is a way of accessing a hard truth.”
Hemingway Writer-in-Residence Allegra Hyde will speak about her debut novel, last year’s “Eleutheria,” at the Community Library, Thursday, Jan. 12. 6-7 p.m.
Martha Williams is the Director of Programming at the Community Library.
“Allegra’s writing is simply stunning,” Williams said. “She distills momentous cultural attitudes and shifts into just a few simple sentences, which I find myself reading over and over.”
This event is free.
In her work, Hyde focuses not only on “global warming” but also what she calls “global weirding.”
“It’s not just about temperature rise,” Hyde said, “but human patterns getting distorted by climate change.”
In “The Great Derangement,” Indian writer Amitav Ghosh argues contemporary literature hasn’t been able to effectively grapple with climate change. Hyde saw that as a challenge.
“That felt like a way I could contribute to the fight for sustainability,” Hyde said. “As a fiction writer, I could bridge scientific consensus with the emotional experience of individual characters.”
She noticed a lot of earlier climate fiction only focused on the apocalypse.
“I wanted to go a step further and show people actively trying to address the crisis,” Hyde said. “Even if they’re not necessarily succeeding or going about it in the right way, at least they’re trying ... By the end of the book, I hoped to show a possible avenue of how people might collectively mobilize.”
“Eleutheria” centers around protagonist Willa Marks. The book tracks Marks to the Bahamas, where she falls in with a group of eco-warriors living well outside the mainstream. In the process, it draws in sociology, ecology, and history, hopefully, Hyde said, making “it digestible and somewhat entertaining for a reader.”
For research, she spent time on hippie communes in New Zealand.
“I’m endlessly fascinated by the push-pull of idealism and the practical demands of living,” Hyde said.
The New Yorker named “Eleutheria” one of the best books of the year. A recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, Hyde’s writing has also been anthologized in “Best American Travel Writing,” “Best Women’s Travel Writing,” “Best of the Net” and “Best Small Fictions.”
“What matters to me more than anything is finding readers and finding ways to connect with people,” Hyde said. “So if awards allow me to do that, then bring them on.”
Sitting in the Idaho Mountain Express conference room, she would look down and smirk before answering questions, sifting through all the things possible to say to find the right economy of words. Once she found the phrase, Hyde recalled the challenges of getting “Eleutheria” published.
“It took far more revision than I ever thought I wanted to do,” she said. “But I always went back to my original goal for the book: to contribute to this conversation about climate change. That helped me push through the disappointing rejections and stay the course until I got that one yes.”
While supporting her complex characters, her publisher encouraged her to make the ending a little less grim.
“I felt okay with that change,” Hyde said. “Again, it makes the book a little bit more accessible and the message easier to digest.”
During her time in the Wood River Valley, she will stay at the legendary Hemingway house.
“It’s really exciting to be staying in immense history,” Hyde said. “There’s so much I admire about Hemingway, especially his way of engaging with the natural world.”
She considers Hemingway a proto-environmental writer, albeit a complicated one.
“I’m trying to draw on his kind of awareness and appreciation of the power of nature as I work on my own material,” Hyde said.
In just a few days, she has made great strides on her next project.
“One of the things I really love about the Hemingway house is just how quiet it is on that hill, surrounded by snow,” Hyde said.
She considers writing residencies a gift in the time to focus they provide. When working on a short story, oftentimes she will write out the first draft by hand, just to get the architecture down before demands and distractions draw her away.
“With a novel, it’s hard to sit down and write the whole thing, no matter how many drugs you take,” Hyde laughed. “You have to do it in pieces, and you can’t really see where you’re necessarily going.”
For “Eleutheria,” she outlined extensively.
“If you make one small change, there’s a butterfly effect that happens,” Hyde said. “But of course, with a novel, you get to really spend time with characters and go really deep.”
She has begun her sophomore novel.
“When the writing is really clicking, you’re unlocking the puzzle of your own creation. There’s no greater high,” Hyde said. “It can also be incredibly frustrating and maddening. But I also can’t imagine a life without it.”
Her next novel will be her most ambitious work yet, looking 1,000 years into the future. Humans live underground, as the surface of the planet has become uninhabitable. The survivalist community attempts to put on a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
The novel will also look back at Wilder’s process of writing the third act of this seminal play in Zurich. Wilder had a tight-knit community of writers, not unlike Hyde’s reliable circle of colleagues.
“It’s really those relationships and connections that not only kind of sustain a writing career, but also move the work forward,” Hyde said. “Having accountability partners, people I’m trading work with, is oftentimes the push that will get a revision done.”
She is a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio.
“I feel really lucky that I get to have a job where I am in a way engaged with creative writing and I’m not like writing copy for Raytheon or something,” Hyde laughed. “Does it in some ways take time away from writing? Yeah. But, I get to keep learning about the craft.”
Above all else, she is a student herself.
“I read a ton,” Hyde said. “If I’m not reading I think my writing doesn’t come out as well. Being really immersed in language, great prose and big ideas is a powerful fuel.”
To her students, she hopes to impart the same advice she received as a young writer: “Don’t hold anything back. If you have something you need to say, say it. Don’t wait for a future story when you might feel more ready. Don’t be precious about it. Seize the moment. Put it out there.”
Traveling to other universities, she witnessed students debate the moral ambiguity of “Eleutheria.” The first time she heard someone else speak about Willa Marks, Hyde was taken aback.
“She felt so real to me, like a friend,” Hyde said. “Part of publishing a novel is letting it go and recognizing that now the work belongs to readers. They’ll make of it what they will and have their own relationships with its characters. It’s your job as the author to say goodbye and move on to the next thing.” ￼