In Conversation: Anne K. Yoder

Anne K. Yoder is the author of the novel, The Enhancers, forthcoming in fall 2022 from Meekling Press. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, and her stories and essays have appeared in Fence, New York Tyrant, Tin House, and Make Lit, among other publications.

This month we chat about her pharmaceutically inspired novel, the power of interiority, and fatigue cracks.


Molly Gunther

All right. So your novel, let’s talk about your novel, The Enhancers. It’s your first one. 

Anne K. Yoder

It’s my first novel. It is a futuristic, slightly dystopian novel. Although, I would say it felt more dystopian before the current pandemic/Trump era. Now I feel like it isn’t necessarily a great jump from where we are.

M

What is it about?

A

It’s about three teenagers growing up in this society, a town called Lumena Hills, based around a pharmaceutical company. And there is this drug called Valedictorian that all the students have to take in order to be competitive in school. It’s a very kind of authoritarian society and they also aren’t forthcoming about the side effects really. One of the girls has a bad reaction and is institutionalized And so then they try to help her escape. One of her nurses is part of this group, this loosely formed, resistant society to the pharmaco industrial complex that rules the world. And that’s where they kind of learn about the alternatives to this world they know.

M

Is it told from one of their perspectives?

A

Polyvocal–I envisioned it being told by the main character, Hannah, from the future. But it is told from other perspectives. There’s also this medical voice that’s kind of sprinkled in.

M

I read your excerpt in MAKE’s “Mad Science” Issue, titled, “Quality Assurance.” One of the voices in that was very much a clinical, factory voice. 

A

Yeah and then there’s Harold, her father, he also speaks in the novel. And so, it’s as if Hannah is kind of playing their roles. Like if you envision it as a one person show in terms of her telling the story after the fact. 

I wasn’t planning on writing the father, but he just kind of came to me. He’s just so present and he’s the character who a lot of people really connect with. He is having chronic side effects of taking medication and he’s kind of lost in his thoughts, and then wants to reconnect and starts taking a drug called Empathy. 

M

Which all dads should take.

A

Which all dads should take, sure. One a day. He has so many faults and he’s so distant, but it’s kind of in spite of himself. 

M

Are there many moments of intimacy between the characters?

A

There are moments of intimacy. Some of them are drug fueled. These girls are somewhat alienated from their own identities. They’re just kind of told this is what you should do, and it’s really a struggle to find themselves. So, there’s intimacy, but there’s also alienation in the beginning. Having written that, I realized it’s hard to write because it can be challenging to connect with somebody who is alienated or who feels alienated.  

M

Where did the initial idea come from?

A

It was kind of a mix of bringing in my background from pharmacy school and ideas that I was encountering in grad school. It was a way of being playful with that. But also on some level, thinking about the pharmaco industrial complex and how that is so powerful in our society. In the positive it’s like, hey there vaccines, but then it’s also like Pfizer just made $30 billion.

In grad school, I was TA-ing a class on bioart and technology with Edward Kac. He was talking about bio enhancements and we were reading about different artists who had prosthetics, additions, or just like ornamentations on their body. But I mean, the project that he’s best known for is this rabbit that, back in France, he worked with a group of scientists to implant genes from this jellyfish, so that the rabbit glows in the dark. 

And so just thinking on that level of bio enhancements, and like reading William James, who I just adore. His writings on experience—in the context of identity, the ways that our experience is very real to us. But then manipulating that through different pharmaceutical states changes your experience of the world, that interface. A lot of my work focuses on interiority, and just the ways that different people will have the same experience and through their own filter have entirely different readings of them. Trying to make sense of that.  

Writing this type of futuristic dystopian book you would think maybe I’m a big reader of sci-fi and I’m not. So even though it sounds really sci-fi, it’s really a lot more character driven, I think. I thought of it as a poet’s novel at the beginning of writing it.

M

Do you still feel that way?

A

Less so because I had this inner debate where part of me wanted it to be a novel and part of me wanted it to be very poetic. I focused at first more on the language and on these different voices and not setting up the narrative in a traditional way and I think what I ended up writing wasn’t definitively one or the other. 

So in making this book I’ve tried to be attentive to the language, but also there’s more of a narrative than I was planning at the beginning. 

M

Have you started getting into the design of it, or what you want the physical book to look or feel like?

A

A little bit. Originally, I had envisioned the chapters as being in line with a package insert of medication. So I tried to use chapter headings that reappropriate those, but in some way relate to the scene. There’s a lot of whitespace when it shifts views. So sometimes there are breaks between scenes. Sometimes there’s just one line of the medical voice. That’s a page. So that can punctuate it. There’s also a pharmacopoeia, at the end, which is like a list of all the drugs in this world. 

And I have been thinking about the cover design and having abstracted bright, colored pill shapes, with just the name. But it’s still in development. Someone just introduced me to Beverly Fishman’s work. She has just made so much art that is focused on pharmaceutical shapes abstracted.

M

I really like the idea of you turning your pharmaceutical knowledge into a story. And it’ll be really interesting because it’s coming from this interiority that people aren’t used to hearing from. Have you done that before?

A

No, I haven’t. I tried to write about anything but that, just because it’s the work that I do to support the writing, versus something that I’m excited about. So, this was a way to make it more interesting. And also, I think I have become more interested in the pharmaceutical industry as kind of like this microcosm of American culture. We’re all really affected by healthcare, and just like, how fucked healthcare is in this country. And now we’re all even more aware of it than we have been, just the ways that we rely completely on chemicals. 

M

Why did you go to school to be a pharmacist?

A

Oh, it’s like a whole family story. I always wanted to be a writer. My parents both have advanced degrees in the sciences, and they encouraged that. I was disabused of the notion very early on that I’d be able to support myself writing. So I just thought, hey I can do pharmacy part-time and somehow I can use that to transition to something else. I thought the transition would happen a lot faster, but it has been a really good gig job. It supported me while I lived in New York. Even when I came to SAIC and I did my MFA, I was just like well I’m not working pharmacy again, but then it was like, oh, but now I have student loans. 

M

But you knew you wanted to write early on. Do you remember that moment of discovery?

A

No, it was just always my life. As a child, my life consisted of going to school, going to the library, going to the grocery store, going to church, and that was it. And books were maybe my favorite part of it. And you know the great thing about the library is that there are so many books there. It was really like my portal to the world. 

M

What were your favorite books when you were a kid?

A

Beverly Cleary. Curious George. I was obsessed with Curious George. I can easily remember the shelf they were on at our local library. Actually it’s funny, Curious George when he goes to the hospital. Then I ended up working in hospitals. So maybe…I don’t know. But yeah, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, any kind of social novels. 

I was just talking about Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik. There was one story about her family moving into a house with a turret and she had the room with a turret. And since then I’ve really wanted to have a house with a turret. I don’t think that will ever happen, but who knows? 

My favorite poem as child was the Owl and the Pussy Cat, they danced by the light of the moon, the moon.

M

Oh yeah! I had that in an illustrated book and they get the wedding ring from a pig, it’s like his nose ring?

A

Yeah! And there’s so many books that made me see the world differently when I was a teenager, for better or worse. I read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. It was written by David Lynch’s daughter, and it’s all about her life before she dies. 

Laura Palmer does well in school, does all of these other activities, but she also has this really dark side. And she’s writing about that and doing coke. And she masturbates and I was just like, wow this is cool. It felt real in a way that I found very liberating because I felt like I had kind of this identity in school. Like, oh she does well, but I also identified with her dark side. I think also growing up in a very strict, religious household, anything that was–I feel like this is my father’s word–hedonistic. He has talked about my atheistic, hedonistic impulses. 

M

You wanted to seek out this other thing.

A

Oh, definitely. I was just like, what lives are people living? 

M

So when you said you wanted to be a writer, your parents weren’t supportive at all?

A

I think they really just didn’t take an interest in that because they’re scientists. My father was a metallurgical engineer, which means he studied metals and their strengths. He would go to helicopter crash sites to do forensics. 

M

What did your mom do?

A

She got her master’s in computer programming in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and then she became a housewife. 

M

Have you ever thought about writing about what your parents do?

A

About what they do?

M

Yeah, I mean with your dad. I feel like…I don’t know, maybe not, but it’s a unique thing. 

A

You know, I haven’t thought about it that much, but it is a very unique thing. I mean, I grew up learning about fatigue cracks, which are the cracks in metal from stress over time. He would call helicopters fatigue machines. But I also developed a really large fear of flying from this because he would do forensics at these crash sites. And he was like, well it’s just helicopters. I’m like, they’re all in the air, they’re all metal. 

M

They all have fatigue cracks. 

A

It’s all tin cans.

M

How do you arrive at your writing space? Physically or mentally?

A

I think it is kind of physical for me. I write either in the morning or at the end of the day. Places where my task-oriented mind is able to let go. I like being in that space between dreamspace and waking, so I find if I wake up and I write in the morning that’s just a really good time to write. I am a night owl, but I’m trying to keep more daylight hours because I find if I enter that space in the morning, I’m able to carry it with me through the day. It’s just keeping the thread alive.

Are you a journaler?

 A

I used to be a die-hard journaler. But I’ve been finding it harder to journal in part because a lot of my journaling is about emotions and I’ve just gone back to a lot of them and I’m like I don’t care [laughs].  

M

Yeah, I understand that. Cause you’re like, I’m past that now. I’ve moved on.

A

I will take note of things. I just saw somebody on social media who was talking about how they had a pile of journals that they wanted to burn and I’m not somebody who would want to do that. There is something that I find about that archival process, like I appreciate having these memories of points in time. 

I also feel like, for me, writing is very process based. And I feel like I could, until something’s published, revise it forever. 

M

Does the desire to change stuff usually come from how you’re feeling? Or is it like the world is different now, how do I change the story to reflect this?

A

I think it’s both. I think over time you become a different person, you have different experiences, different interests. I guess it is more internal than external. 

When I started The Enhancers, I wanted it to be short and very discreet. And then I ended up writing the end to it, which just took this turn. And then I was like, well, I like this. But it doesn’t really suit the beginning. So now I have to rewrite the beginning. So I just kept rewriting it.

M

How do you feel about where it is now?

A

I feel good about it. I mean, I worked on manuscripts before that I never finished. And I feel like a lot of this process was also just figuring out, how do I make a full novel? Like, how do I write something that’s this long that I’m interested in throughout?

M

That’s hard.

A

Which is hard. But I’m happy with it now. I think maybe it’s also just realizing this is an endpoint, and I’m happy with accepting this end point. There was a point where I was like, maybe I’ll just ditch this. And my friend, Amanda Goldblatt, who’s actually editing it, agreed to read it. And she got it. And she was like, here’s some ideas. And I was just like, you know what? I will give it one last try. And I will do this. And I was also thinking if there are readers out there who connect to it then I want to put it out. 

M

You have to advocate for yourself, right? No one else is gonna do it. 

A

Exactly and at that point I was like, I don’t know. I trust her judgment. I love her work and she’s a smart reader. She gave me really good ideas for how I could revise it. And I feel a lot happier with it. It feels complete. Like, a complete gesture, rather than a kind of piecemeal.

M

What are the benefits of publishing with Meekling Press? 

A

I’m really excited to have so much control over it and just taking it on as a full creative project. I know people who have not been happy with their books and that really sucks. I mean, there are people who hate their covers. So having it be this collaborative process. I also love Meekling’s catalog, so it’s exciting. I’m happy to be part of that.

M

Do you have anything specific that you want people to take away from it?

A

I think it’s really hard as a writer to know what people will come away with. I feel like there are ideas in the book, but it isn’t trying to be prescriptive. I hope that it is linguistically interesting and I think the best compliment about a book is when somebody keeps thinking about it, or some part of it lodges in their mind. 

M

What are the works that have done that for you?

A

Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy. It is this brilliant depiction of a neurotic person’s consciousness. Like all of the language creates a form of consciousness that as a reader, you enter and I felt like I started thinking in that way. I mean, in some ways it did feel like this drug, of thinking in the way that the main character thinks. That does not make sense. But you know, it just…it sat with me. It’s a brilliant book.

M

What else have you been reading lately to either prepare for your own writing, or to inspire your writing, or maybe to escape completely?

A

Well, one book that I’ve read that’s really brilliant and beautiful is Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Savage Tongues. It’s about a woman who inherits an apartment from her father in the Mediterranean. And she had this relationship with her step cousin the summer  when she was 17, and he was in his 40s. He was her only company there.  He raped her, but they also have this relationship. So she goes back to this space with her best friend to recall the traumatic memory and maybe just come to terms with it in a physical way. And it’s traumatic and it’s intimate. And he was from Beirut and just had been through war so it’s also thinking about the traumas that nations perpetrate and how that becomes embodied. So that relates more to something that I’m working on more now, it’s kind of the next thing.

M

What’s that?

A

Its working name is Father Fucker. And it’s a novel in progress. With The Enhancers, I thought I would write something ambitious and exciting and then was just like, why the fuck did I do that with my first book?

M

What do you mean?

A

Well, in terms of having many characters speaking. I think it’s more out of the frustration of having spent so many years on it. It’s like, well of course it took me this long—why didn’t I try to master something easy? It’s also the impulse to do the opposite of what you’ve just done. I just thought I want to write a pretty straightforward, first-person narrative. 

It was more of an experiment, but then I became really connected to it and the characters. It’s about this woman, Sabine, whose father has dementia. He’s in hospice, and they’ve had a really tumultuous relationship and they’re not terribly close, but he needs someone to take care of him and she thinks he’s an asshole, but…

M

Is she the only kid?

A

There’s another kid but he’s a priest and he’s in a monastery and that’s kind of like his…

M

That’s his whole deal.

A

That’s his whole deal. And he’s just like no, put Dad in a home. And she’s just like, well does someone who’s been terrible in life deserve a good death? So she does decide to take care of him. But then it is this question of, is it too much for her psychologically? And both of them go into these really dark spaces. For her it is traumatic, and for her father he’s kind of sad and belligerent. 

Are you taking a lot of your relationship with your dad into the Father Fucker novel?

A

A lot, yeah, yeah, a lot. I mean it’s not autofiction, but I think the inquiries into religion are there because it was something I grew up with that was so present for me. So it is kind of this questioning of religion and what role does it play in these people’s lives.

M

Is there anything else that you want to focus on or are looking forward to? 

A

I have a working knowledge of French and Spanish, but I would like to read an entire book in French. So just being able to read in other languages, and to travel more.

Oh actually, I do have something. There was a residency that I was supposed to go to right before the pandemic. It’s a small residency in Italy and I’m going to go in May 2022. The residency is two weeks. But to be there in the late spring will be wonderful. And it’s with a poet friend. So we’ll both be working on projects, but then we’ll be able to explore together. And then maybe travel a bit afterwards.

M

Have you been to many artist residencies?

A

I have not. I applied to the Vermont Studio Center and got in. And I got like a half tuition, scholarship, but it was still really expensive. And I was talking with this friend. I met this friend in Lithuania at the Summer Literary Seminars, and we would meet up at AWP and get a room together. So we feel like our friendship is very much based on going to different places where we’ve written or not written. But we were talking and decided why not take that money and go to a city in Europe, and write for a few weeks? Which is what we did. We went to Bordeaux for three weeks and it was like a DIY residency. I’m a huge fan of the DIY residency. 

M

I mean if you can manage to save enough money to travel and stay somewhere, writing or not, that can be just as good. It is just about changing your environment.

A

Yeah, I mean it’s the difference between wanting permission or just saying–okay, I’m going to do this.


Molly Gunther is a writer and editor from the Pacific Northwest, currently living in Chicago. Her work appears in Twenty Five-Rooms: Selections from the Hotel Archive, Hooligan Magazine, and elsewhere on the internet. Find her on Instagram @zimawarriorprincess.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.