‘The ideas come from everywhere’: Union professor on her latest story collection

Shena McAuliffe and her book

Shena McAuliffe and her book

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SCHENECTADY – For writer Shena McAuliffe, sometimes the best — and strangest — story ideas arise when she’s engrossed in research.

The Schenectady resident, an assistant professor of fiction at Union College, often discovers ideas while delving into odd and esoteric topics she might have stumbled upon at antique stores, or while reading or watching TV.

“The ideas come from everywhere,” said McAuliffe.

Her story collection “We Are a Teeming Wilderness” reflects on that wide-ranging inspiration. The 15 short stories included are a mix of prophecies, legends, science experiments and histories. They ruminate on everything from the myth of Odysseus to the immigrant experience. In one, a couple uses an ancient Egyptian burial ritual to end their relationship, while other stories feature an eccentric doctor or a desperate salesman.

Some are accompanied by illustrations or photographs, though nearly all were inspired by visual elements. That comes through in the writing even with those stories that don’t feature visual accompaniments.

“I do tend to use visual material and historical documents pretty often as part of my writing process, and sometimes if it’s a visual document I think it’s useful or fun to have the image there with the story,” McAuliffe said.

Each story was previously published in a variety of small literary magazines dating back to 2007, though this is the first time they’ve been printed as a collection. The book won the Press 53 Short Fiction Award and was released earlier this month.

While each story went through extensive editing, what remains in McAuliffe’s memory about the process is a consuming sense of excitement.

“What I really remember is the excitement of getting sucked into something, really falling into that world, and a lot of times that happens for me in research, getting drawn into some weird historical niche that I had been unfamiliar with before or some type of language that was new to me,” McAuliffe said.

It’s the author’s third book. Her debut novel, “The Good Echo,” was published in 2018, and her nonfiction essay collection “Glass, Light, Electricity” followed in 2020.

Growing up in Wisconsin and later Colorado, McAuliffe has long known she wanted to be a writer. She majored in English in college, though she didn’t immediately pursue a traditional career after graduation.

“I had this idea that to be a writer one should have a lot of experiences. So when I graduated from college I didn’t really commit to getting a ‘grown-up job,’ but I got lots of different jobs,” McAuliffe said.

She later took up teaching while earning a master’s in fiction writing from Washington University in St. Louis. After a short stint working at Amazon in Seattle, she decided to return to school, getting her Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah.

McAuliffe began teaching at Union College five years ago.

“I love teaching and it allows me to keep writing. So those two things really go together for me — that the teaching feeds my writing [and] the writing feeds my teaching. It’s hard for me to imagine doing one without the other anymore,” McAuliffe said.

When it comes to writing, she goes back and forth between working on novels and short stories.

“I love short stories, I think because they allow for me a space that can be a little bit more experimental,” McAuliffe said. “Within just the space of 500 words or even 20 pages, you can try something out that maybe wouldn’t work in the longer form.”

Some stories in the collection are experimental in the sense that they’re told from distinctive perspectives. The title story, “We Are a Teeming Wilderness,” is told through the perspective of microbes in the body of “the superorganism known as Glenn,” and they see themselves in total as a human form.

It’s inspired by an article from Michael Pollan, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” in which he discusses thinking of the human body as a microbiome and using the plural first person in reference to himself.

“That was so interesting and amusing, and I just decided to write a story from that perspective,” McAuliffe said.

The story was written nine years ago, though today’s reader might view it through the lens of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I feel like that’s one of the things that drives me to write and that you see, really in the book, is the way that history is always infusing our current consciousness and vice versa. The way knowledge that we gain over time changes the ways that we think about things that happened in the past, and our knowledge of the past definitely changes the ways that we think about things in the present,” McAuliffe said.

Themes of the human body return in other stories. In one, a scientist thinks he can diagnose any disease simply by looking into the eyes of his patients and seeing a map that lies there.

Another story from the collection, titled “Shelter,” follows a young family’s life as told in vignettes that are sometimes only a few sentences long. Some are like blurry Polaroids; others are stark and sharply focused, showing the couple’s wedding day or the family learning of the Chernobyl disaster. The snapshots create a nuanced view of the family’s life.

“We Are a Teeming Wilderness” was released earlier this month, and McAuliffe wants readers to share a sense of the excitement she had when working on it.

“I hope that they experience some sense of the pleasure or wonder that I had when I was writing the stories,” she said.

There will be a book celebration with poet Jordan Smith at Kelly Adirondack Center in Niskayuna at 3:30 p.m. on May 21. “We Are a Teeming Wilderness” is available online at Barnes & Noble as well as other book retailers.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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