An Interview with Andrew Joseph White
Words By Andrew Joseph White, interviewed by Simon Kerr
Hell Followed with Us features aspects of American Gothic and body horror, and your next novel showcases Victorian Gothic. What about the Gothic/horror genre lends itself to your themes, characters, and plots?
Horror will always be the genre that feels the most like home to me, largely because it’s the only genre that will let me get away with the sort of stuff I want to write. It’s messy, and visceral, and gut-churning! (Plus, once you include a single horror element in, say, a romance novel, it becomes a horror-romance by definition; horror infects everything it touches, and isn’t that wonderful?)
In general, my work focuses on the toughest parts of being a human, on the intersection of rage and pain and survival as a marginalized person, and that doesn’t hit as hard if you’re not allowed to get as dark and uncomfortable as possible. Also, horror is an inherently trans genre—and it’s a great genre for disabled people as well. There’s nothing more empowering than taking control of a genre often used to disparage us, and the conventions of the genre offer very useful metaphors for our lives.
HFWU is in some ways a love letter to monsters. Was there something cathartic about writing body horror? Is there a relationship between Benji’s trans experience and his monster experience?
There will always be something cathartic about body horror, transness, and monsters. The three of them are inextricably linked in my mind; my transness is my love of monsters, and it is the terror of flesh and meat. I talk a lot about my childhood connection with monsters that links both to my gender dysphoria (disconnection from the self) and autism (disconnection from others); monsters were the only place I could ever see myself accurately represented, and I couldn’t write a trans story true to my experience if it didn’t feature monsters.
In that sense, this book felt like coming home. Getting to write a trans child who undergoes a horrific transformation into a rotting beast, only to be loved and accepted by his peers anyway? I wish that my younger self could have had a similar experience.
Gender identity and the bond between queer kids are core to the story of HFWU. Do you find that writing provides a space for self-expression and identity exploration for you? If there was a pivotal story you wrote where that was the case, can you share anything about it?
I wrote my first trans character in high school, approximately three years before I’d realize I was trans myself, and it was terrifying. Seriously—I was wracked with guilt. Not because I was worried about the character being trans, since I’d been writing queer characters for so long that nobody batted an eye, but because I was ashamed of why I was writing him. As far as I knew, I was a cis girl who had no right to be using a trans character to work through my own feelings re: girlhood and gender. I was convinced I was exploiting transness to help deal with my issues. I was cis, so it wasn’t my place, and I was crossing a line.
Looking back, it is genuinely hilarious how deep I was in the closet. That story was the first inkling that my connection to transness wasn’t overbearing allyship for my own selfish reasons. I’m literally trans. And I still love that character to this day!
What authors, books, or stories in other mediums are influential to you?
A fun thing about me is that I’m a hugevideo game fan. Most of the inspiration for my books comes from that medium. You can tell when you start looking too closely: Hell Followed with Us has lots of Dead Space and Resident Evil influences, and The Spirit Bares Its Teeth was originally inspired by Dishonored and Rule of Rose. I joke that I know more about the plot progression of video games than novels, which is why I had to teach myself to write book endings that weren’t just boss battles. Indie horror games will forever be my favorite well of inspiration.
What has your experience in the publishing world been like? What advice would you give to yourself back when you were beginning the publishing process?
My experience in the industry has been . . . weirdly easy? It sounds utterly bizarre—I’m an autistic trans guy, with an extremely low tolerance for people, who purposefully writes off-putting material—but it’s true. I’ve gotten a miniscule amount of rejections, built a meaningful team of friends and peers, and sold four books hardly breaking a sweat. (Am I able to do this because I have a family who shows their support with money, a good job, and other privileges? Undoubtedly.) However, the thing I would go back and tell myself is that it takes a damn long time to get paid around here. So maybe get on that job search earlier so you’re not sleeping on your in-laws’ couch for a few weeks, and don’t expect any royalty statements for a while.
What is your ideal writing space? (Beverages on hand, ambient sound, time of day, chair specs, cat presence, etc.)
These days, since I have a full-time job, I don’t get to spend a lot of time in my ideal writing space; I’m showing up at the office early to get a few minutes of free time, cramming in words on my lunch break, all that jazz. However, on evenings and weekends, I am spoiled. My fiancée decorated the office in our new house, and it’s wonderful. I get to write surrounded by artwork and signed books, plants and crystals and stim toys. There’s a cat bed under my desk, the windows are open to the neighborhood, and I’m blasting music loud enough that my iPhone throws warnings every now and then. (My last project was Halsey and Mothica-centric; I think this one will be Hozier and Barns Courtney.) It’s absolutely perfect.
What, if anything, would you change about the publishing process if you could?
Do you just want one thing? Because I have a list.
Look, just because I’ve had it easy doesn’t mean that it’s actually an easy process. Traditional publishing is an oft-rigged, nepotistic mess. Authors should be paid sooner, and more; editors should be more diverse, and also paid more; unions should exist and be strong, useful tools for bargaining against CEOs; it should be transparent, and honest, and the meritocracy it claims to be. Right now, it’s none of those things. I love being an author—I love it so much that I want to do it for the rest of my life. But it shouldn’t work the way that it does. Artists deserve better.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I’ll pass along the piece of advice that helped me the most: don’t be afraid to get ugly. When I first came out as trans, I was so scared to write awful characters. There’s so much weight put on the shoulders of marginalized authors; the expectation that we create characters who are perfect and understandable so that others can consume them without feeling bad about themselves. So many authors I know are throwing that to the wind, and I’m honored to join them. These days, I’m writing autistic and trans characters who are violent, paranoid freaks, who feed their cruel streaks and wear grudges like badges of honor, and I adore every second of it. Come swim with us! The water’s great here!
Do you have a bead lizard of your own like Nick has in HFWU?
I have the exact one. It was a project from third grade art class, and it does indeed have the garish blue-yellow color combination. It’s ugly as sin and I love it.