An Interview with Ainslie Hogarth

As the author of four novels, how has your approach to writing fiction evolved since your debut? Is there anything you know now—about writing, publishing, or life—you wish you could tell your younger self?

My writing approach hasn’t changed too much—I’m always trying to write something original, something that isn’t just more noise. A piece of practical advice that I wish I knew myself back when I first started is that it’s better to have no agent than the wrong agent.

As a horror fan, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the genre; why do you gravitate to writing horror? When is horror the right choice for a story or a message? And what role does social commentary play in your approach to writing a horror novel?

I suspect the reason I gravitate towards writing horror is simply that I love reading it. It’s a genre that lends itself particularly well to social commentary because of how flexible you can be with reality—it’s easier to make a message hit harder when you have that much play in the story’s world.

Your most recent books, Normal Women and Motherthing, seem to draw on 1950s aesthetics in both cover design and domestic themes. What inspires you about the 1950s? What does the 1950s lens reveal about our modern era?

The 1950s was the dawn of the advertising boom. Ideas about gender and society were suddenly defined by what could be sold to people, and products became a kind of language to describe complex biological/cultural/socioeconomic narratives. We tend to look at that era as a curiosity, as something far removed from our lives today, but those capitalist prototypes are more like our early ancestors—we live every day with the traces of their vestigial roots.

Much of Motherthing hinges on the role of food in social relationships, from the recipe book promising to “save your family” to the coworkers at the communal fridge. What fascinates you about food? How does it fit into contemporary society, particularly with regards to women? And have you ever really tried jellied salmon?

I haven’t tried jellied salmon! But I certainly would. Honestly, I just love food. I love eating. I’m very fascinated by people’s relationships to food, how food is branded and marketed, and all the ways we can read food now—a person’s cupboards can really tell us something about them, or so we think. Before, all a person’s cupboard told us was that they had a human body.

Image credit: Ainslie Hogarth

A common theme in your work is keeping up appearances—not just in terms of physical beauty, but female characters hiding their distress from their husbands and the world around them. What is the appeal of writing these kinds of characters?

I just think that that’s what a lot of women do. I’m a mega fan of the Real Housewives franchises, and each series inevitably becomes a kind of endurance test for who can make their life seem the most enviable for the longest stretch of time—essentially, who can hide their distress most convincingly. Eventually the bell tolls for them all, of course—but oh man, what a ride.

In Normal Women, on face value “The Temple” yoga studio feels like spot-on satire of contemporary mommy culture. Where did the inspiration for “The Temple” come from?

I drew inspiration for The Temple from a few different places—the connection between sexual and spiritual healing has a long, well-recorded history—but in particular, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand GOOP’s white-and-wealthy coded umbrella of wellness really focused it for me. With “The Temple,” I wanted to explore wellness and all the slippery ways people, even well-intentioned people, use the term for themselves.

One of my favorite things about your work is your fearlessness in satirizing the good, the bad, and the ugly about womanhood and femininity, bringing us wonderfully complex and neurotic characters like Abby and Dani. How do you approach writing about womanhood, femininity, and motherhood? In your opinion, what constitutes “good representation” for women in fiction? How do you grapple with that question when writing “dark fiction”?

This is a great question. As a woman writer, it’s hard to get around this idea that you have to be SAYING SOMETHING—in that grand, all-caps way. Good representation, to me, is when a character or a story subverts that expectation, when a character feels truly real enough that they transcend any message. I had a bad review once where someone said my book was so feminist that it circled back into misogyny, and I felt very proud of that!

What is the biggest takeaway you hope readers have after reading Normal Women?

What I really, really hope is readers come away thinking about the divisions of labor in their own relationships. Normal Women is a kind of speculative origin story about women in heteronormative relationships coming to be paid for the labor they’re already doing for free—caretaking labor, emotional labor, sexual labor—but it’s also a study of the uncomfortable hypocrisies inherent in commodifying any service or resource. It’s a challenging book, which demands self-reflection, so I’m not surprised it has been polarizing, but I hope that even people who didn’t like it were still able to take something away from it.

Do you have any advice for all the aspiring writers out there?

Keep at it, despite the rejections and disappointments. That’s all you can do. I’d been at this for almost ten years before Motherthing hit. There aren’t a lot of ways an artist should model themselves after Kanye West, but cultivating a near-psychotic confidence in your own talent is definitely one of them.

What’s next for you?

Next up I’m working on another book that, like Motherthing and Normal Women, doesn’t really fit into any specific genre. My agent pitched it as Notes on an Execution meets Creature from the Black Lagoon!

A Review of Skater Boy by Anthony Nerada

Skater Boy by Anthony Nerada was published on February 6, 2024  by Penguin Random House/Soho Teen.

It isn’t easy being your high school’s “resident bad boy.” But you know what’s harder? Being handed that title without wanting it in the first place. Skater Boy by Anthony Nerada centers around Wesley “Big Mac” Mackenzie, who isn’t what you’d call a model student. He’s skipping class, stealing lunch, and getting into fights, because that’s how the universe sees him, so that might as well be who he is, right? Teachers and other students don’t see him as someone trying to provide for his family or someone struggling with anxiety and trauma. That is, until Wes meets Tristan, the beautiful ballet dancer, after being forced to see The Nutcracker, and realizes what he wants might not be what he currently has.

Wes is a very real, awkward character. There were times he had me smacking my hand against my forehead. Hard. Thanks to teenage boy defense mechanisms and intentionally stunted dialogue, Wes’s and Tristan’s first interaction gave me secondhand embarrassment that made me want to bury myself alive. And Wes’s thoughts, sentiments, and actions mimicked those uncomfortable feelings throughout the book. That’s the beauty of seeing things through his eyes, though. He isn’t perfect, and he lives up to his age by making silly mistakes without understanding how to fix them. Wes felt like a testament for anyone that as long as they keep pushing, things will end up okay.

There are readers who will see themselves in Wes. And, when it comes to characters in media, whether that be in television, articles, or books, representation is important. The alleged failure, the gay kid with no future. They’ll see it’s okay to not understand where they are in their lives. There are also people who will see themselves in Tristan. The gay, black ballerina who loves what he does. And at first, maybe they’ll blink because, “Black guys are supposed to play basketball, right?”

That representation extends to highlight the ways Wes was failed in Skater Boy. A failure I’ve seen first-hand. Society has and continues to fail children, because yes, teenagers are children, who need patience, understanding, and guidance. Instead, they get belittled and told they aren’t good enough. They can’t get into a certain school, because have they seen their grades? They’re not going to graduate on time, because have they seen their track record? They aren’t going to amount to anything in life, because, well…look at them. This is the exact situation Wes faces as we’re welcomed into his story. His guidance counselor breaks the news that he won’t be graduating, and rather than encouraging him, he discourages Wes by saying, “You’ll never be a lawyer, not with those grades.” At first, Wes doesn’t care as he doesn’t believe college is the end-all-be-all. But then he discovers what he really wants to do—photography—and starts working hard to get his grades up to achieve his dreams, despite the lack of encouragement.

Nerada explores other important topics throughout Skater Boy, too. In one scene, Wes follows Tristan to practice after dropping a ballet slipper. Tristan freaks out, ready to attack. Wes apologizes but doesn’t understand why he’s so upset. Then, he notices the Black Lives Matter sticker on Tristan’s bag and realizes how terrifying the situation must have been. Incorporating social movements in media will always be important because they’ll never go away. The self-awareness shown by Wes is needed and appreciated in this novel—especially since he takes the situation as an experience to learn from.

Without going into detail, there’s a point in Skater Boy where Wes loses sight of himself and starts to push away those he loves. While that choice frustrated me, I understood. Even though things start to improve in his life, his emotional problems don’t disappear. Wes changes, but it’s slow. And it’s certainly not every part of him at once. He’s a teenager who’s been through a lot, and a few weeks of happiness with Tristan isn’t going to miraculously fix that. A kiss isn’t going to wipe away the trauma, the fear, or the doubt bubbling up inside of him. And I am glad it doesn’t. It only makes Wes’s character that much more human and relatable.

The relationships portrayed throughout Skater Boy further emphasis the nuances of Wes’s world. Nerada explores an array of connections that expand as the story unfolds. There are relationships between Wes and Tristan, his best friends, his single mother, a future stepfather, and even past victims of his bullying. As someone who lives and breathes well-developed, meaningful side characters, I was ecstatic about everything they offered in the novel. Almost every character pushed Wes to become the best possible version of himself. His former bully victims, for example, showed him there is redemption if you’re willing to try.

With that said, there are a few side characters I wish had more light on them—a great example being Hannah, Wes’s future stepsister. Wes’s seemingly positive relationship with Hannah was a great foil to his negative feelings about Tad, Hannah’s father. Wes pretends Tad doesn’t exist, but he’s gentle with Hannah. He tickles her, tosses her over his shoulder, and gives her candy when he could have ignored her. We only get a couple of moments between Wes and Hannah but giving them more time together would be an opportunity for Wes to explore, in depth, why he felt comfortable with Tad’s daughter but not Tad himself. Is it because she’s young, because he likes the idea of having a sibling, or is there something else left unsaid? This rings true for other side characters, too, such as Tristan’s best friend, Emily. By the end of the story, I felt I still didn’t know who some of these characters were outside of them knowing Wes. Expanding upon these characters would give Wes (and readers) a better chance at understanding him and his actions, how they affect those around him, and how those around Wes affect him in return.

Skater Boy is an amazing debut novel about a boy who learns what it means to rip off labels and be himself. But this is not only a story teenagers deserve to read—it’s a story that needed to be told. A story about what it means to to be young and queer in a world where adults may fail you. A story about taking the first steps to overcome the struggles one might be facing. A story about how you owe no one, but yourself, the life you want to live.

For more information on Anthony Nerada, check out this interview!

A Review of The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard

*SPOILER ALERT* This review contains plot details about The Other Valley.

Published February 2024 by Atria Books.

In a world where the layers of time must coexist simultaneously, Odile Ozanne faces a choice that could rewrite the future or seal her friend’s fate in the past.

Scott Alexander Howard’s debut, The Other Valley, is a captivating speculative-fiction novel nuanced with philosophical questions about the delicate balance of time and the nature of free will. The first half is a coming-of-age story complicated by secrecy and moral turmoil. Odile is a clever and introverted sixteen-year-old who resides within a valley nestled amidst an array of identical, repeating valleys. To her east lies a valley twenty years ahead in time, while the valley to the west is twenty years in the past. The exclusive authority to grant passage across their guarded borders rests with the Conseil, which Odile is on the verge of joining as an apprentice. When two visitors from the future come to Odile’s valley on a mourning tour, she recognizes them as the parents of her cherished friend, Edme. Odile is left at a crossroads with her mind and heart divided. Should she keep this knowledge a secret, preserving the integrity of the timeline? Or should she risk warning Edme, whose impending doom inches closer every day? As her bond with Edme deepens, the weight of her moral dilemma grows heavier, casting a dark shadow on her destiny.

Howard’s storytelling is marked by his deft use of Odile as the first-person narrator. Narrowing in on Odile’s coming-of-age narrative, Harold seamlessly eases readers into the speculative realm of the novel. He opts for a gentle immersion that begins with mundane aspects of the story, rather than a jarring, action-packed scene. I appreciated this approach because it set the tone for a more dimensional narrative to unfold at a measured pace alongside Odile’s character growth.

The novel begins in Odile’s school as she stands at the precipice of transitioning into the workforce. The last school year marks the apprenticeship level, during which students apply to different vocations. It isn’t until her teacher, Pichegru, instructs her to write an essay to earn a spot in the Conseil’s vetting program that the speculative nature of the story comes to light. Pichegru asks, “If you had permission to travel outside the valley, which direction would you go?” This question becomes the gateway to Howard’s intricate exploration of a world where everyday citizens, despite their awareness of neighboring valleys, remain bound by cautionary folklore that deters them from venturing out. Odile’s journey slowly unveils the enigma shrouding the valleys and sheds light on the Conseil’s vital role in safeguarding reality. As she learns more about her world and strives to find a place within it, I was increasingly lured into the narrative and the mounting gravity of her situation.

Image: The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard

I was most impressed by Howard’s remarkable talent for crafting a heart-wrenching narrative that masterfully explores metaphysical quandaries. He builds a world that lays bare the fragility of reality and identity. This metaphysical contemplation shines through the Conseil’s vetting program, where Howard’s background in philosophy comes to life in the character of Ivret, Odile’s mentor. Her eloquent explanations provide profound insight into the perils of tampering with the valley to the west. Interfering with the past does not create simple absences in the present valley, rather, whole existences and facts are undone and rewritten. Howard writes, “A person goes west, he interferes, and then time rolls over him like a wave, leaving nothing behind.”

Intriguingly, visitation to the other valleys is allowed, but gaining approval from the Conseil is difficult. Guided by Ivret, Odile and her peers grapple with a series of tests in which they approve or deny mock visitation requests. Their decisions must balance compassion for human grief while weighing the risk of the bereaved potentially tampering with the past or future. Ethical dilemmas persist beyond the vetting program, allowing the theme of morality to remain present throughout the novel. I felt the Conseil’s presence served to underscore a utilitarian perspective prioritizing the welfare of the majority over the happiness of an individual. However, Howard also evokes empathy for characters who prioritize their personal interests over the greater good. He further pushes the boundaries of morality by suggesting that those put in harm’s way through the tampering of time might be erased from existence. I found myself contemplating whether the immorality of their actions could be excused if those affected never truly existed in the first place.

The second half of the novel follows Odile in her mid-thirties. The narrative sharply shifts from the optimism of her adolescence to a more somber tone, revealing the stark disparity between the life she had hoped for and the bleak reality she faces. I wish that Howard had offered a smoother transition, as there is no immediate explanation for the position Odile finds herself in. I had to resist the temptation to peek ahead for signs of her youthful self returning because I couldn’t accept that the promising sixteen-year-old we initially encountered was gone so suddenly. I mourned the loss of Odile’s hopefulness and innocence, finding it difficult to adjust to her colder perspective as an adult. The transition, while frustrating, proves necessary to lend her character greater depth. As the novel progressed, I realized that Odile’s emotional detachment was her coping mechanism for regret and the consequences of her past choices. However, just as she begins to accept her circumstances, she reconnects with old friends and sets forth on a path that surpasses her wildest imagination.

The stakes presented in Howard’s novel are undeniably unsettling and beckon readers to ponder weighty philosophical questions. As Odile struggles with a choice that could rewrite the lives of everyone in her valley, Howard leads the reader through a narrative that compellingly explores the intersection of fate and free will. The Other Valley is an enthralling emotional and intellectual journey that lingers past the final page.

A Brief History of the Romance Novel

I’ve always loved romance novels. There was a time when I refused to read anything that didn’t have romance in it. My love for the genre eventually transferred to my other hobbies and interests—I never watched shows that weren’t centered around romance, I never wrote stories where the words “I love you” weren’t muttered between soft kisses, and I never played games that wouldn’t let me choose someone to date from a handful of candidates. There’s just something about the sweet, deserved intimacy between two or more people that makes my heart swoon and my days a little brighter.

So why is it that whenever I share my love for this genre, people give me weird looks?

In Maya Rodale’s work Dangerous Books for Girls, she highlights the history of romance novels and why they’ve always been so historically important to women. Women used to be shamed for reading romance books, and sometimes we still are, but despite that shame, these stories have life-changing lessons to teach.

What Did Life for Women Once Look Like?

In the early 1800s, men and women’s gender roles were split into two separate spheres: the public sphere and the domestic sphere. Men, in the public sphere, went out to work, participated in politics, and socialization came easier. Women, in the domestic sphere, cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, took care of their husbands, and cooked some more. Day in and day out they stayed at home, listened to their babies wail, and finally their husbands “rewarded” them with unsatisfactory sex. If they were in the mood, of course. Many women feared that this was how the rest of their lives were going to be.

Keep in mind, this is how white women lived their lives. For minorities, it was a completely different ballpark. Women of color had no social lives, were deemed property, and were abused until later in the 19th century.

Introducing the Romance Novel

The origin of the romance novel starts around the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded was one of the first, released in 1740. In it, a young woman tries to resist giving her virginity to a wealthy landowner, making it clear that Richardson was writing for the landowning male class.

Fast forward to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in 1811 when women began writing for women. Though they often wrote under male pseudonyms, to decrease the chance of harassment and so their books would be taken seriously, it was usually obvious when women wrote them.

When romance novels became popular around the Jane Austen era, women wasted no time reading them. Being a part of the domestic sphere meant the same boring routines. But romance books were new and exciting. They offered a world previously unheard of. Women in romance novels had hopes and dreams that they strove for and achieved. Their romances often featured men who treated them, if not as equals, at least as real people—and who were very much in love with them. The heroines of romance novels experienced more to life than being a mother and housewife. Women of the nineteenth century wanted that. 

Romance Novels’s “Bad Reputation”

The concept of the romance novel and its freeing power for women seems like it should have been a great thing, but that wasn’t the consensus of the time. Men did not view these changing ideals positively, saying the books set “unrealistic” expectations for them. Books like Pamela, written by men, upheld the idea of virtue being pure and sacred. The romance novels written by women seemed like erotica in comparison, disrupting the innocent nature men wanted women to have. 

The world belittled and berated women for ever hoping they had a chance of living the same lives as their favorite fictional character. Because the books were just that—fiction. Anyone who thought of them as real-life possibilities were dreamers and delusional. At the end of the day, however, it wasn’t that these books held ideas that tainted women and their expectations. It was that women were starting to realize how they’d been treated thus far was not enough.

Don’t Settle for Less, Ladies

Romance novels aren’t nearly as subversive as they once were. Some people—usually men but sometimes traditional women—will always be spooked by the idea that women can be the center of attention, have jobs, and chase after hopes and dreams. But every day more women are empowering each other, loudly and proudly. Younger generations are reading romance novels and realizing they want to marry someone like the main character’s love interest. Beautiful, grown women read these stories and realize they deserve to be treated like the queens they are.

It’s also important to recognize that these novels are no longer solely about straight, white women. Now, women of color and queer women get to find love too. It’s an ever changing industry that will always have room for improvement, but has come a long way.

To every woman who has felt shame for reading a romance novel and longing for what the main character has, wishing you were her—I hope that one day you’ll come to understand that you deserve to be swept up in a good book. You deserve to enjoy all kinds of scenes, no matter how “impure.” And you deserve a partner who will give you just as much as you’re willing to give them. Here’s to your Happily Ever After.

“Your here and now is not your forever. Your situation on page one is not where you’ll end up in the epilogue….your birth is not your destiny.” — Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls, p. 19

An Interview with Jade Song

In an interview with Write or Die, you mentioned that you consider yourself an artist over a writer. How do you think the role of an artist differs from the role of a writer?

To me, there’s really no difference between being an artist and being a writer. My writing is part of my art. Writing is just one part of the art I make and love, so therefore I think of myself as an artist. My favorite art of any kind understands and celebrates the lineage and inspirations it comes from, so whatever I craft, whether it be writing or not, I always seek this approach.

Ren’s coming of age in your debut novel Chlorine is so heartbreaking and raw, yet oddly comforting. There aren’t many stories that describe the violence of coming of age as a queer girl of color in the US this honestly. How important was it for you to center Ren’s identity as a cultural “other” in your exploration of the pain of girlhood?

I don’t view Ren, or queer girls of color in general, as a cultural “other”—if anything, I view her, and me, and us, as the center, which includes all the complexities of who she is and who we are. If anyone wants to view her as an “other,” that’s their own conundrum to work through. I wrote this exploration centering her and her experience.

You’ve mentioned that you’re fascinated with imagery of “weird, queer transcendence,” and that this played a role in writing Chlorine. How would you compare Ren’s transcendence to Cathy’s lingering longing for Ren evident in her letters? Do you think Cathy is unable to transcend, either similarly or unlike Ren?

To me, Cathy transcends in her own way: she’s in love with someone else. To be in love is to be terrified; to be in love is to choose the terror despite; to be in love is therefore to transcend. Yet being in love with another is a common form of transcendence in the way Ren’s viscerally weird and strange transcendence is not. So, comparatively, Cathy’s arc pales.

There are at least two distinct forms of cell death: pain-free programmed cell death (apoptosis) and inflammatory unplanned cell death (necrosis). Menstruation is necrosis meaning anyone who has a uterus literally goes through a process of death and rebirth every month. Unfortunately, Ren still struggles with painful periods, even at her most dedicated to competitive swimming. Can you tell us a little more about how you sought to link the violence of menstruation with Ren’s bloody transformation?

Thank you for that interesting fact. Cell Death would be a great band name! I think there was no way for me to write a coming-of-age girlhood-driven story involving body horror without including menstruation. To me, it’s biologically violent, gushing out blood and stomach pain like it’s no big deal, and, as you said, it’s a monthly bloody transformation, so when writing fictional bloody transformations, I just can’t leave it out.

You’re also a fantastic short story author. In Bloody Angle,” the narrator explains their vengeful cannibalism by citing Newton’s third law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Racism plays a crucial role in “Bloody Angle” and Chlorine. When expressing your characters’ anger towards prejudice, did you ever feel pressured to justify their actions to people who wouldn’t understand?

Thank you! I never really feel pressured to justify characters’ actions to people who wouldn’t understand because I’m never really thinking about people who refuse to understand. When I write, I’m thinking about me and my friends and my community and my family and everyone/everything else I care about.

Yes, there was some need to justify the reactive acts of violence—the murders in “Bloody Angle” and the body horror in Chlorine—but the justification is more so to explain the character motivations and plot. After all, the narrator in Bloody Angle says, “If you are struggling to understand… my story is not for you.”

Image credit: Jade Song

You’ve expressed how Chlorine came from a place of cathartic anger, while your short story collection and novel in-progress come from a place of love and understanding. How did you allow yourself space to safely express your anger without letting it consume you?

Art has always been the safest channel for my emotions. The making, the gazing, the understanding—it’s incredibly life-affirming and lifesaving. It’s because of art that my meanest inclinations and worst rages do not consume me, so just by allowing myself to listen to the art I then become free.

You have a beautifully curated Instagram account, @chlorinenovel, to share updates and related artistic influences you enjoy. What forthcoming books, movies, music, or other forms of media you are looking forward to consuming?

I can’t wait for the new Jackie Wang book, Alien Daughters Walk Into the Sun, to arrive in the mail. In 2024, I’m excited to read the new Akwaeke Emezi novel, Little Rot, and the new Hanif Abdurraqib book. I’ll be seated at every new Hansol Jung play in theatres, and I’ll be the first in line at the cinema when Julia Ducournau’s next film with A24 is out.

If you could give your past self one piece of advice about the publishing industry or process, what would it be?

You can say no.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Writing and being a writer are two different things. One is to focus on the work, and one is to focus on the community, the success, the end product. Neither are wrong, and both feed into each other, but I do think deciding which path is more important to you will make everything else come easier.

An Interview with Margot Douaihy

Your latest novel, Scorched Grace, is a crime fiction novel. What is it that draws you to this genre?

Hardboiled literature is obsessed with shadows, mirrors, and vice. Solving riddles and restoring order. Even for a brief moment, even for a client who doesn’t pay. 

The hardboiled story begins with the acknowledgment that the world is broken, but it’s still worth the fight. Indeed, life is painful but can still be miraculous and achingly beautiful.

The hardboiled subgenre includes the lineage of wisecracking, hard-living, hard-drinking “lone wolf” PIs on the mean streets, pounding the pavement for cases. These sleuths are insider-outsiders, loners, rebels who test their mettle at high heats.

Hardboiled, like other subgenres, remixes elements from other categories, but tone, voice, and mood are key. Hardboiled stories are often gritty, unsentimental, or seductively subtextual, voice-driven narrative experiences. The sleuth is a piece of work—never afraid to throw a punch. But showing raw vulnerability is terrifying. 

For all of these reasons and more, this subgenre has won my heart.

Landmark hardboiled authors include Black Mask Magazine writers. Think Raymond Chandler (elegiac, poetic), Dashiell Hammett (also a Pinkerton private eye), and Mickey Spillane. Then, the neo-hardboiled writers such as Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky, to name a few. 

Styles and themes vary. Canonical PIs from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s have tons of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia problems. Sometimes it’s hard to stomach. And yet, many foundational hard boilers also probed PTSD and post-war specters. In the lineage, writers like Katherine V. Forrest and Cheryl A. Head offer incisive critiques and stalwart LGBTQ characters. Most private eye characters work alone, but Spade paired with Archer. More codes than rules.

Some screen riffs on hardboiled include Jessica Jones and Veronica Mars. (There are so, so many.) The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon are classics. I am excited about decolonized, queer, trans, and nonbinary POVs in hardboiled lit. I am happy to see Scorched Grace situated in this wild legacy. 

Speaking of inspiration, what gave you the idea to write Scorched Grace about “a chain-smoking, heavily tattooed, queer nun”? That’s quite the character! Were you inspired by someone specific? Did the idea just come to you?

I wanted to recast the hardboiled sleuth as a tatt’d up queer nun named Sister Holiday, a lone wolf by her own design. Her subversion is a reclamation of the hardboiled sleuth trope and my investment in queer futurity. Scorched Grace embodies dichotomies. dialectics, and the thrall of damage, ghosts, and queer resilience.

Image Credit: Margot Douaihy

Continuing on the topic, you pride yourself as a queer artist who writes queer books that “shake the heteronormative.” There are a lot of us out there who need books like these. Were there any challenges in your publication journey, either in the beginning or even now, that you’ve faced with these queer stories? 

When it comes to popular fiction, there are a bevy of market realities to consider. The investment in a new title (and a new author) is significant, and many publishers want to feel confident in their investment, and indeed, the return on investment. There is a balance between writing books for broad trade audiences—books that innovate, experiment, and test the elasticity of genre—while still delivering the experiences that genre readers crave. In other words, how do you write a truly inspired piece of art, a wildly weird book that takes a big creative swing, while ensuring it will sell well? For all these reasons (and so many more), I am fortunate to be published by the brilliant Gillian Flynn, who leads the imprint Gillian Flynn Books with Zando. Their mission is to publish books that are propulsive, culturally incisive, and conversation starting. It’s been a dream to land my weird series with this remarkable team. Gillian herself is a genius, so I’m very lucky to have her blessing and encouragement. It’s heartening to witness the gradual shift in the industry, but there’s always work to be done to ensure that diverse voices are not just heard but celebrated in the pop fic world.

As someone who also teaches, what would you say are some important lessons from a professor’s POV when it comes to writing?

The writing workshop is the art of self inquiry and an act of shared imagination. To intone Susan Sontag, writing is not necessarily about the world; it is its own world. Art is a world unto itself. This is a tenet that I hold dear to my heart. When I teach, I pose questions that I ask of my own art and process. Sharing ideas and experiences, informed by lived experiences, is one of the greatest gifts of being a writing teacher and working in the arts. I learn from my students every single day.  

Your artist statement says: “…working across genres, I allow the identity of the project to locate its final form.” What does that kind of process look like for you?

I usually start a piece with a feeling. In the case of Scorched Grace, that feeling was heat. Total incineration. Raging fire. The passion of burning and burning of passion. I wanted to write a novel about the ways that fire can live inside the intellect as well as in the viscera—the corporeal and the cerebral in tandem. The liturgical layer and epistemologies complicate the mystery. With other pieces of art, the feeling may begin as a poem, but since form and content are crucially linked, I could start a draft with economy and concision, but the idea itself explodes out, demanding and insisting on a much longer form. Another example of this would be my poem, “The Book of Lace” in my collection Scranton Lace (Clemson University Press). It started as a meditation on the elegant danger of a needle, and the sculpture of a needle as utility, as well as aesthetic beauty of what the needle creates. Critical theory by Barthes and Bachelard about imagery and post-structural notions of text (meaning “to weave”) informed this work. The draft started as a tiny series of couplets, needle fine. Then the draft took on more POVs and it needed a richer home. The final draft is an eight-page poem that serves as a re-imagined origin story of lace. The book itself is an extended metaphor, yoking the derelict space of an abandoned lace factory to internalized homophobia. Two elaborate structures that once served a purpose but are no longer needed. And they are also hard to raze or dismantle completely. 

Are there specific challenges you’ve faced writing crime fiction (specifically lesbian crime fiction) that may not be present in other genres you partake in?

I am interested in offering alternative narratives of power, agency, the illusion of good vs bad, and “justice.” The idea of justice is not axiomatic nor is it fixed. Justice looks very different depending on context and life experience. When I first started writing crime fiction, I encountered more “copaganda” types of storyline portrayals that romanticize and/or idealize law enforcement characters and PIs, and therefore perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Media and pop fiction can shape and influence societal perceptions, so this topic is extremely important to me. I am part of a movement to enrich and evolve our beloved genre of crime fic by incorporating intersectional perspectives, with a particular emphasis on featuring main characters from queer, BIPOC, and neurodiverse backgrounds. 

As a professor do you often, if ever, find that working with students and their creative pieces and processes help you with your own? Has your process changed? If so, how?

Absolutely. Engaging with students and their creative journeys is a deeply enriching experience. Observing new perspectives and idiosyncratic approaches often offers fresh insights that let me reimagine craft and process. Teaching art and making art is a fundamentally reciprocal relationship. Pedagogy and individual creativity inform each other. Art in any form is a living, breathing thing. No one owns it. No one should be a gatekeeper. Education outfits writers with the support, rigorous contexts, craft consciousness, and skillful means to create compelling work, each person holds the magic inside.

You have another book coming out next year, Blessed Water. How do you balance life—teaching and everything that comes with that, hobbies, etc.—with writing your books?

A very detailed and disciplined daily list. Lists of lists. I try to keep each weekend free to play. To bike. To hike. To spend time with my family and cats. For about fifteen years, I worked for seven days a week. It began to erode my sense of self. We must stay attuned to our creative selves and inner child. 

Are there any books coming out in 2024 that you’re really looking forward to, and why?

Humble nod to my own book, Blessed Water, which is a lyrical ripper that takes place over the course of three hellish days: Good Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday. It starts with Sister Holiday pulling the body of a dead priest out of the flooded river and takes off from there. I wanted to write a mystery that was both fast-paced and rich. Most chapters are about three pages. This is a mystery that readers can devour in real time during a weekend or in one sitting. Blessed Water is a queering of the traditional three-act structure. I’m also so excited about Ocean’s Godori by Elaine U. Cho. Becky Chambers meets Firefly in this big-hearted Korean space opera debut about a disgraced space pilot struggling to find her place while fighting to protect the people she loves. 

Are there any books about writing that you recommend and swear by?

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, and Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Allison.  

If you could give one, general piece of advice to the aspiring authors out there, something that they should follow to the ends of the earth, what would it be?

Ack, just one! Writing is a process. Writing is rewriting. Reading is a form of writing. Reading (including via ears and audiobooks) enriches our storytelling abilities. Never ever ever give up. There is only ONE you in this world and your story deserves to be told. 

An Interview with V. Castro

What inspired you to write your latest novel, The Haunting of Alejandra, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

I want this book to terrify you, but also leave you with an immense sense of hope and love. This book was inspired by my own struggle with mental health after I had my last child. Being a parent can be terrifying, as is losing your sense of self. This book explores what it feels like to have the floor dissolve beneath your feet and all you see is darkness.

You often weave elements of Mexican folklore and culture into your horror stories, as seen in The Haunting of Alejandra. How important was it for you to reimagine the La Llorona legend, and how did you approach the task of putting your own unique twist to this well-known story?

I didn’t set off to write her story; it just happened as I began the tale of a woman experiencing immense pain from losing her sense of self. It occurred to me that La Llorona has always had her story told for her. No one knows how the story originated. Women should have the ability to tell their own stories in their own voices. It is very important for me to write about my culture and our history because there are so few books that do this. There should be more stories with Women of Color as leads, written by Women of Color.

Generational trauma is a major theme in your novel. How did switching between time periods and the perspectives of women in Alejandra’s ancestry aid in your exploration of generational trauma? Did you face any challenges or make notable discoveries in this narrative structure?

It was important to show how different women viewed themselves and interacted with others at different periods of time while also grappling with their demons. This evolution shows how trauma passes on through the generations if not addressed. In some cases, it couldn’t be addressed. It felt very natural as I wrote it because I have seen it in my own family and personal experience.

In addition to your novels, your most recent short story collections, Out of Aztlan and Mestiza Blood, showcase your skill in shorter forms of storytelling. How does your approach to short stories differ from full-length novels, and do you prefer one format over the other?

I get an idea in my head and write. The story determines the length. It’s something I don’t overthink. Sometimes, I see the narrative start to finish.

In The Haunting of Alejandra, Melanie’s character bridges the gap between science and spirituality, embodying both a therapist and a curandera. Can you elaborate on the opportunities this duality presented in your storytelling? What insights might aspiring authors draw from your experience in crafting such a character?

I wrote this character because I want people to feel comfortable returning to their indigenous beliefs for healing and comfort. Since this is a supernatural book, I want the magic that I truly believe in to shine through. As a Woman of Color and someone who practices brujería, this felt true to me.

We all experience pain and sometimes terror in life. Fear is universal, but how it manifests is different for everyone. Narratives that do not conform to the dominant culture are valid.

Image credit: V. Castro

You’ve skillfully incorporated historical fiction into select chapters of The Haunting of Alejandra. Could you share more about the creative decisions behind integrating specific historical figures and events? Were these historical elements present in every draft or did they come as you edited the book?

The historical aspects were included in the original manuscript. I wanted to show generations of women from different time periods to show what had and hadn’t changed. Identity is also a large part of Alejandra’s journey. Self-discovery and change are painful, but they can open so many roads toward a better future.

The Haunting of Alejandra delves into the topic of postnatal depression. How did you balance the need for emotional depth and accuracy while still taking care of your own well-being?

It was something I experienced, which is why I felt compelled to write the book. There was a lot of pain I had to express. Writing about this and hopefully helping others was a big part of my own healing process. Some things in life are hard to share. Picking up a book and feeling seen can give comfort. I want to give others hope with this story, even though it is horror!

Are there any books or authors that have helped guide your journey in crafting your unique writing style and voice as an author?

I never thought this would be what I ended up doing. It was a vivid dream that led to one story in 2017. All my life, I have been an avid reader, but I didn’t know this was inside of me. It has been a beautiful gift of tears and joy. We all have a voice; it’s just a matter of finding it.

The publishing process can often feel more challenging than writing a book. What has that process been like for you throughout your career and what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting or currently navigating this stage?

It has been a journey of highs and lows, and I am still reaching for certain milestones. It takes a lot of grit and perseverance. I think if you can take rejection and have patience, then go for it. But always be true to your voice. Find your voice and follow it. There is only one of you, and the story you want to tell can only be told by you.

Five Emotional and Existential Narratives About Cats

What is it about cats that make people fall so obsessively in love with them? They’re cute, unpredictable enough to make for perfect meme fodder, and sensitive to human emotions, but I have another theory. A study conducted by Samuel Gosling with the University of Austin, Texas found that, compared to dog owners, cat owners are generally more artistic, intellectually curious, and emotional. So, perhaps cat owners are more easily able to see themselves in their furry companions and learn what it means to be human through the eyes of a cat.

All that said, is it really a surprise that cat lovers also make fantastic storytellers? If you’re still not convinced that cats can help us cope with our existential crises, indulge in these heartwarming and sometimes bittersweet stories that delve into the intricate lives of cats:

1. The Cat Who Saved Books

Here at Brink, we’re all about promoting literacy and the importance of storytelling as a force that can change the world. So, this quirky yet emotional novel, The Cat Who Saved Books, was practically a mandatory pick for this list.

The Cat Who Saved Books, by cat-fanatic author Sosuke Natsukawa, is a touching story that begins with the death of Rintaro’s grandfather. One day, while Rintaro is looking after the bookstore his grandfather left behind, a cantankerous cat named Tiger the Tabby enlists him on a mystical adventure to save abused and neglected books from their owners. Along the way, Rintaro learns how to process his grief and rely on his friends for support.

If you love Studio Ghibli films as much as I do, you’ll also be enchanted with the inspiring whimsy of The Cat Who Saved Books. True cat lovers will find the Tiger the Tabby’s grumpiness charming and familiar, and true bibliophiles will feel inspired to dust off all the books from their endless “to be read” shelf and start reading!

2. “My Cat is Sad”

“My Cat is Sad” is a tear-jerking poem featuring a glimpse inside the mind of a loving cat. This poem had a bit of a viral moment, which caught poet Spencer Madsen by complete surprise. 

Written in free verse in a style similar to prose, the true heart in this poem is in Madsen’s ability to imagine your average household cat as an alienated yet child-like being who longs to be with and like their human family members. I’d be lying if I said this poem didn’t convince me to give the cats I know little bits of human food every now and then to make them feel loved (as a consequence, my mom’s cat now occupies an empty chair at the table whenever anyone sits down to eat a meal). 

So, if I’ve convinced you to read this poem, make sure to read it when you have enough time to give your cat plenty of pets and treats after.

3. A Man and His Cat

We love comics here at F(r)iction, so it should come as no surprise that A Man and His Cat comes highly recommended! Originally published as a webcomic, this story is now available in physical form, and has since inspired a children’s picture book, a live action TV Drama, and a mobile puzzle game. 

A Man and His Cat is a heartwarming Japanese manga series following a widower who adopts the oldest cat at a pet store—an important reminder to us all that senior and disabled cats deserve love, too. 

Future volumes of this comic feature charming vignettes of the daily life of Kanda Fuyuki (the man) and Fukumaru (his cat). One of the cutest moments features Kanda thinking of a suitable name for his new cat. He eventually settles on “Fukumaru,” which roughly translates to “joy” or “blessing,” showing just how much happiness Fukumaru the cat has brought to the elderly man’s lonely life.

In other words, if this heartwarming story doesn’t make you want to run to your nearest shelter to adopt the most overlooked cat, then what will?

4. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is the most recent installment in Dreamworks’s Puss in Boots series. To be completely honest, I was somewhat hesitant to watch a “children’s movie,” but after hearing the stellar reviews, I caved. Plus, who doesn’t like indulging in a little nostalgia once in a while?

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish follows the titular swordscat on an adventure to restore his eight lost lives by finding the legendary Wishing Star. Viewers are treated to a humorous montage of how Puss in Boots lost each of his previous lives in a fashion true to both the character and cats in general. Plus, in his search for the Wishing Star, Puss in Boots must confront what has to be the most compelling villain in a contemporary children’s movie: Death. As the unsettling big bad wolf emphatically says: “And I don’t mean it metaphorically or rhetorically or poetically or theoretically or any other fancy way. I’M DEATH. STRAIGHT UP!”

4. Stray

Who says video games can’t be a powerful vehicle for storytelling? Stray is an adventure video game about a cat who must find his way back home to his feline family after falling into a dystopian cyber-city with robot inhabitants. In this world, humans have long gone extinct due to an unnamed plague (something we surely don’t need to take as a warning…right?).

What I found most exciting in the days leading up to Stray’s release is that you play as one of the most adorable and intelligent cats ever! If that selling point alone isn’t enough to make you purchase this game immediately, you can also make him meow, take a nap, scratch furniture, and rub against the legs of humanoid robots! Also, I cried at least five times. 

With all that said, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Stray has a 10/10 rating on Steam. My only critique is that this game is far too short; I could play as a heroic cat exploring a cyberpunk city every day for the rest of my life!

If you’re looking to add more cat-themed works to your “to be read/watched” list, some honorable mentions for this list include Cat Poems, A Whisker Away, and I Am a Cat. Exploring these diverse narratives reveals not only what it might feel like to live as a cat, but also shines a light on the very human struggle to find meaning and companionship.

An Interview with Dana Brown

In the prologue, you wrote about how you had been working on Dilettante: True Tales of Excess, Triumph and Disaster for years, so when did this become a book?

About 10 years ago, I had written a TV pilot and sold it to Hulu. It was a comedy set in the dying world of magazines in New York. The main character was a version of myself in what was by then already a crumbling industry. As always happens in television, it didn’t go anywhere. And a number of people said, “Why don’t you write it as a memoir? And tell the story of the good old days as opposed to the downfall.” But I always thought, “Oh I’m not the one to tell that story.” But a year after I was pushed out of Vanity Fair, back in February of 2018 after Graydon Carter retired, something shifted and I asked myself, “Why not me? I do have an interesting story and tales to tell.” It then all sort of came together after that. I spoke to a number of former colleagues after the book came out they were all like, “Oh, you are the only person who could have told the story of this magazine in that era.” It was a huge weight off my shoulders.

I’m so fascinated by how every aspect of the story seems to be battling gargantuan levels of imposter syndrome. How did you overcome that? Has it become easier from when you were 21?

The short answer is no, it hasn’t. At Vanity Fair, I had a deeper learning curve than anyone else because I didn’t go to college and was wholly unprepared for this job. I had to really gain that experience while working, so it’s hard for me to look back and pat myself on the back in any way for anything that I did. And the book is colored by that feeling, but at the same time, this sense of “not being good enough” is universal. I think even the kids who came to Vanity Fair with graduate degrees in journalism were also feeling the same thing.

It was interesting how the New York you described in this book is certainly rough and broken in interesting ways, but it’s also full of an extraordinary amount of kindness. How did you find parts of New York that maintained this Midwestern feeling of goodness and stepped away from a cynical lens?

When I began writing Dilettante I was feeling really disillusioned with New York, which was definitely a central character in the book. This stemmed from its shift, which I wrote about, from being a creative mecca to a financial mecca. I think those of us in creative fields, especially from generation, had a bitterness about being pushed aside. It was no longer our party. But in the course of writing, I came to a number of conclusions, one of them being that everything changes—people change, cities change, across generations and decades. That’s just the arc of history and you can’t stop it. Secondly, I realized how I changed from when I was in my 20s. Of course the city seemed more fun in the good old days because they were my good old days and I didn’t have the pressures of being a grown up. I was in my 20s. Everything was better in your 20s. Finally, because I wrote much of this book during the pandemic, when I was watching the city suffer, I found myself wanting to celebrate it and I began to appreciate the city again in ways I hadn’t in a really long time.

Right before I started your book, I was reading a light-level erotica, and interestingly, the description of 41st Lobby and that of a naked woman laying on a bed was very similar. It shows how you painted the scenes with so much care. Was that something that came innately to you? How did you intimately take us back right to that very moment?

Memory is a funny thing, and something happens when you start writing about the past, especially when it’s your own story, and through a snowball effect, all the little details get unlocked. I was amazed by how everything came back to me, because I didn’t have a diary or notes from anything, I just had these little pieces of information that would pop in my head, sometimes in the middle of the night, and I would get up and sit there and write four paragraphs in incredible detail of this silly little thing that all becomes part of this bigger tapestry in the memoir. I also had 25 years of back issues of Vanity Fair which triggered so many memories, like how I was a photographer briefly for a year, and got so drunk with Christopher Hitchens that I could barely focus the camera to take his photo, on this day trip to Washington, D.C., and I was like, “Oh My God, this is how I get that larger than life character in the book because I had this wonderful experience with him.”

So, aside from your midnight recollections and a literal catalogue of what you did for decades, did you take friends out to lunch and ask them questions? Or was it mostly just you and your own mind when digging all of this up?

I did set out to do interviews of writers, editors and friends but then the pandemic hit, and I instead talked with a smaller pool of people and asked questions like, “What was the lunch place we used to go to in the 90s? What was the name of the guy who worked in the library?” So I did have a network but there were no official sit-down interviews with people and I don’t regret it because I think that might’ve muddled things a little bit between my memory of events and that of others. Like Robert Evans said, “There’s your story, there’s my story, and then there’s the truth.” And there’s something to that because we all remember things differently and we had different experiences in different moments. 

Speaking of voice, how did you develop yours? How did you balance elegance and making it so personable? 

First of all, I worked with extraordinary writers so I absorbed a lot from them over the years. Two writers that I worked with very closely and were also my dear friends were A. A. Gill, the brilliant English critic and travel writer whose descriptions and use of metaphors were just unparalleled; and Rich Cohen, who is one of the most gifted natural storytellers. When you have a conversation with Rich, and then you read him on the page, there’s literally no difference, it feels like he’s speaking to you. Rich’s conversational style and Adrian’s use of metaphors and his descriptions were two things from two of my favorite writers—and two of my dear friends—that I just ripped off. Another great cliche quote is, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” I’m willing to admit that I was massively influenced by those two writers.

So, you’ve described this book as a coming-of-age story. Was that always the goal or did it just come together through writing? 

I didn’t set out to write a coming-of-age story. When I spoke to Ballantine Books, I kept telling them, “I don’t want to be part of the story. I want to be a fly on the wall, where I happen to be in these places, but I had no effect on them and they have no effect on me.” I really did not set out to write about myself, but the more I brought myself into the story, it made everything a little richer and it is often the case and makes everything pop more. And I really owe it to my editor, Pamela Cannon, who pushed me into putting more of myself in the book which really opened me up as a writer, gave me more freedom and brought a lot to the story. And I did tell her after that it was totally the right call.

Along with a coming-of-age story, we were also witnessing a coming-of-death story of the print industry. What do you think will be the long term effects of that on our entire culture?

Oh, boy, that’s a big question. When I look at the march of technology, it has happened throughout time and there’s always been an undercurrent of disruption, which never occurs overnight. From the barely functioning internet in the 90s to the launch of Amazon to luxury globalization to a tonal shift in media with the introduction of Gawker and TMZ and finally, with the coming of iPhones in the market and the boom of social media, all of these happenings have pointed out the cyclical nature of changes in economies and technologies. In the media, especially, the internet was seen as this democratizing tool that gave power to the people and took power away from corporations. But from a slavish devotion to truth and fact-checking, it’s all become about speed and eyeballs now, resulting in the spread of disinformation by those who claim to be news sources, mostly with anonymity. And these false facts are then used to insult and threaten people. All of this is alarming and shows how we’ve lost our morality and those human connections that make us decent. 

This is not to say that technology hasn’t resulted in great innovations, and I hate coming across as the old man looking down on things. Maybe we haven’t hit that inflection point where everyone realizes what a disaster this is, and we need to clean everything up to sort of save humanity and culture and the future. But I don’t have much faith in mankind.

Your entire memoir is a love letter to narrative as much as it is to New York. How do you see the fall of print affecting your own narrative? Do you feel differently about who you are now that the institutions have crumbled?

Identity is such an important word right now on so many different levels, but when so much of it is established online, that’s not who you are as a person at all. It is a phony, curated version of you. And that really scares me, because we didn’t have that when I was growing up; you had to leave and go somewhere else to reinvent yourself, but technology has made that so much harder.

Today, I’m incredibly comfortable with who I am and what I’ve accomplished, but this didn’t happen overnight. Once I was out of Vanity Fair, a place I started working at when I was 21 until I was 45, it was a difficult transition for me. I realized that I wasn’t in demand and the tech companies weren’t looking for someone like me. With my identity super tied to Vanity Fair, where I spent a big chunk of my life with one group of people doing one thing, I found myself having a full-blown identity crisis where I began to question my narrative and wondering if I was just playing a role for 24 years. And it really took me a while, with some serious therapy, and writing this book was also a part of that therapy that helped me come to terms with my identity. I was learning as I went along, I was changing, and I was becoming who I am today, and that’s all we have. Our whole life is our whole identity which is tied into our past, but once you’re here, in the present moment, you need to learn to live and accept yourself. If you were disappointed in things you had done or had regrets, then just change course, anyone can do it. Own your life’s work and accept who you are. 

You talked about how your editor pushed you to be much more personal in the book. Has that led to a point now where you bring more of your personal life into your writing? 

I think the secret is that with every writer, whether you’re writing a film, or a novel or even nonfiction, there’s this terrifying moment when you realize, ‘oh, fuck, I’m a writer.’ I never thought I was a writer, so I never really made that much effort in writing until this book, which made me understand that this is how I express myself and tell people things about me. I recently wrote a movie and I found much better results when it was half about me, and it strengthened the realization that I’m a writer, this is my fate, this is how I express myself. When you look at great art, you wonder, “How did they come up with that? How is it that they’re the only ones who’ve ever been able to do that?” But that’s really how it is: artists express the shit that’s rattling around inside their brain on a canvas with different colors and brushes. And I think it’s the same for writers with words and sentences.

With Vanity Fair, there’s this idea of pushing people to dream of something bigger and reinvent themselves. What do you hope people get out of your book? What do you hope it inspires them to do?

One is patience. With social media and influencers, the idea is that you can become rich and famous and successful overnight without really doing anything. But firstly, that shouldn’t be the goal. I would prefer if people instead wanted to do something good that lasts, and I feel like we’ve lost a little bit of that. You have to work hard and you have to be patient. And sometimes it’s a great thing to just shut up and listen for a little while. I also want people to be confident, to not hate themselves or beat themselves up, to be ready for another day instead of dreading it, which might be hard. I never set out to write a polemic on how to live your life or anything. It’s funny that no one’s asked me that question on what I hope people get out of it. I always assumed no one’s gonna get anything out of it, and if I just distract them from what’s going on in the world for a few hours and they chuckle a few times, that would be enough. 

An Interview with Naseem Jamnia

Firstly, congratulations on being on Tor.com Reviewer’s Choice: The Best Books of 2022 list! For readers not already familiar with The Bruising of Qilwa (Tachyon Publications), could you give an introduction to the book?

Thanks so much! I was so delighted that Marty Cahill put it on there and that Alex Brown gave it a shout-out.

The Bruising of Qilwa is a slice-of-life novella introducing my queernormative, Persian-inspired world. It follows Firuz-e Jafari, an aroace and nonbinary refugee healer who seeks a job at a free healing clinic in their new home of Qilwa. Firuz arrives in Qilwa during a plague which is being unjustly blamed on the refugees, and soon, Firuz is confronted with mysterious bodies whose marrows remain active upon death. As a secret practitioner of blood magic—which is stigmatized and poorly understood—they realize this phenomenon may be related to the misuse of blood magic and have to decide what to do with that information.

If you’re a fan of found family, grumpy caregivers adopting powerful and traumatized orphans, an all-queer and BIPOC cast, scientific magic systems, complicated discussions of colonialism and empire, and standalone stories in a larger world, then Qilwa might be for you!

When we last spoke for Hope For Us Network’s Suicide Prevention event, we talked about healers and self-care. Can you talk about personal levels of self-care as part of healing, as the book demonstrates? And how food serves the story to make this point?

I was so glad to be a part of that event—as someone who has multiple psychiatric disabilities and is a suicide attempt survivor, destigmatizing mental health is an important facet of my personal mission. One part of that is normalizing self-care, but also normalizing when you are unable to care for yourself and need help.

Speaking from my own experience, learning to prioritize self-care is one way to recoup from life’s traumas. This is particularly true if you’re a marginalized person. In a world that tells us our bodies are too much or not enough, or our ethnicity or race makes us too different, or that who and how we love is too weird, taking time to check in with yourself feels like a luxury and an act of defiance. We are often told, especially as marginalized people, that we don’t deserve to take time for ourselves, or doing so will somehow result in something negative.

Yet, in my own healing, I eventually saw self-care as indispensable. I couldn’t heal—not from abuse, not from childhood trauma, not from moving through this world as a queer and trans person of color—until I prioritized myself on some level and, importantly, believed I was worthy of that time and energy. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

And the truth is, Firuz does not do that for themself. Firuz has a traumatic migrant experience on top of unresolved childhood trauma related to their magic training. Much of The Bruising of Qilwa is about how stretched thin they are. And because Firuz never takes the time to prioritize themself, and on some level doesn’t believe that they deserve it, they make choices that harm themself and harm other people. They are unable to be there for themself or for the people they love.

One way that they try to connect particularly with their younger brother and the orphan they adopt is via food (something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately!). In Persian culture, cooking is such an act of love. A lot of our dishes take hours to prep, so taking that time is really showing someone that you care. (The culture Firuz is from in the book is Persianate, so they have this same philosophy.) In The Bruising of Qilwa, there are lots of food shortages, and many migrants are in extreme poverty. Firuz often goes hungry in order for their family to eat (and also sort of as self-punishment given all they cannot help—or control).

For me personally, cooking is a huge act of self-care for multiple reasons: besides the fact that I love cooking, creating something that nourishes my body and my spirit helps care for my disordered eating brain. (I have a history of eating disorders, and much of my self-care routine is about keeping those disordered thoughts in check so as not to go back.) So, when you cook for others and yourself, you’re saying that you prioritize your own health as well as those you care about. Firuz doesn’t quite learn that by the end of The Bruising of Qilwa, but they’re getting closer.

Since we are still in a pandemic going into 2023, what lessons can we learn from the healer characters Firuz and Kofi in the book on how not to lose hope and keep showing up?

THANK YOU for acknowledging that we are still in a pandemic. I am literally the only person I know who still wears a mask everywhere. Frustrating.

Anyway! One thing to not learn from Firuz is to show up because you’re punishing yourself. Kofi (their employer and mentor at the clinic) is actually a really great model for this—he shows up because he fights, every day, for the right to exist and for people less fortunate than him to exist and thrive. Because here’s the thing: the people that make showing up difficult, or who are fighting against the progressive changes we’re trying to realize, will keep doing what they’re doing. And if they’re doing that, shouldn’t you take up space too? Shouldn’t you also make sure your presence is known? Kofi very much believes in using his positionality to advocate for those who don’t get a seat at the table. Given the political landscape in Qilwa, that actually is how he can do the most good.

But you have to care for yourself. Kofi frequently sends Firuz home to rest and take time with their family because he understands the value of self-care. If you’re pulling a Firuz and pushing through every day because you don’t know what else to do, you will burn out. You will give up. But we’re not the only ones who need you—you need you. How does what you’re doing feed into the life you’re building for yourself? Or the story of yourself you tell yourself?

Showing up might sometimes mean taking a step back. It might mean shifting your energy into something else. But that’s still showing up! You have to figure out what you’re showing up for and why. The “for whom” is obvious—you and the people you love. If it helps others too, that’s a bonus.

We need more diverse books like The Bruising of Qilwa. Would you like to talk about your afterwords in the book as schools and libraries were facing ongoing censorship about what can be on their shelves in 2022?

With Qilwa, I definitely wrote the book I wanted to see in the world, one where the fundamental assumptions of secondary worldbuilding were shaken up to be more inclusive. So thank you!

In my afterword, I talk mainly about the context in which the book came about: my parents are Iranian immigrants, and I grew up hearing about the mighty Persian empire. And then I started on postcolonial studies and realized: wait, this is still empire, and empire and colonialism has been a fundamental force of oppression in our world. Quickly, things became thorny. The central question the book asks is, “what does it mean to be oppressed when you were once an oppressor?” This question has been driving my writing for the last several years. It’s coming from a place of marginalization and trying to figure out my place in society—in both the real one and the ones I make up.

Censorship comes from a place of fear. People who are not marginalized feel threatened—feel like their power will be taken away. So they retaliate with book bans and by fighting schools and libraries. They have long been the center of the world, and they fear that being told others exist means their children will receive the same treatment that marginalized kids do.

But if we want to raise kinder, more empathetic, more compassionate people, we need to expose kids to ideas that make them uncomfortable. Discomfort in this context is good. It means you’re being challenged. Learning there is more to the world than just you is an important milestone.

Countries and cultures are invested in perpetuating the myths they tell about themselves. In the US, this is the story of the American Dream and the Land of Opportunity and what have you. But when we indoctrinate our children into that mindset, they don’t learn critical thinking skills. They don’t learn that critiquing systems of power is how we can keep them just. And those critiques demonstrate a marked investment in these systems. Why would you bother critiquing something you don’t care about?

Thanks to technology, we live in a globalized world. That means we’re constantly being faced with other ideas. Not all other ideas are good, but many of them cause us to consider others rather than just ourselves.

And honestly, most kids get it. Kids have to learn prejudice and hatred and exclusion. So many, when you explain the natural variations of humans, accept it and move on. Kids will not be harmed by reading books that challenge them. They often look at things with more nuance than adults. And I hope, for any adult who feels threatened by these ideas, that they sit with that and think about where it’s coming from and what happens if they let it go.

What would you say to a reader who connected with the characters and themes in your book but then read the national & global news in 2022 with topics like the Colorado shooting on Trans Day of Remembrance and the IRI’s brutality against the women and indigenous workers protesters?

Thank you for bringing up what’s happening in Iran right now. For those who don’t know, in September of last year, a Kurdish woman named Jina (Mahsa) Amini was arrested by regime forces and brutally beaten to death. The regime tried to cover it up, but it sparked nationwide protests that are still going strong. The Islamic Regime co-opted a revolution over 40 years ago and uses the language of religion to justify brutality, including executing their own citizens because they’re protesting. They have killed over 500 protestors, over 65 children, started executing people in December (several of whom were younger than 23 years old), and have poisoned thousands of children with targeted gas attacks in schools. If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out my ‘Iran Revolution’ highlight on Instagram (linked below), where I highlight some organizations or pages worth following, or look at various hashtags like #StopIranExecutions and #MahsaAmini and #WomanLifeFreedom.

Simply, I write speculative fiction to imagine better worlds. I wrote The Bruising of Qilwa as a queernormative world precisely because massacres like the Colorado shooting in 2022 happen. It will never make sense to me that people want to have magic and dragons but not include queer people in their work. When you’re literally making up a world, you have the choice to replicate real world oppressions—or to dream up something better. In her introduction to the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018, N.K. Jemisin talks about the revolutionary potential of speculative fiction. The postcolonial scholar Lorenzo Veracini argues that literature reflects the cultural imaginaries—that is, what we as a collective can view for the world. Postcolonial and decolonial literature that reimagined possibilities for what countries could look like after or without colonization directly impacts how we move forward. Literature matters. Dreaming up something else makes a real difference.

Find revolutionary work. And if you can’t, make your own.

What upcoming work can we look forward to seeing in 2023?

2023 is a year of me (hopefully) selling projects for 2024 and beyond. My agent and I are waiting to hear back from editors on a novel set in the Qilwa universe, and I’m revising a lightly speculative YA contemporary that I hope to send this year as well. I have a short story out in a 2024 YA horror anthology called The White Guy Dies First which I’m really excited about, and my debut middle grade horror, Sleepaway, comes out in 2025 from Aladdin.

I will hopefully have some nonfiction pieces out this year, though, likely through Sidequest.Zone, the gaming criticism website I used to be the managing editor for. Furthermore, as part of their Personal Canons Cookbook, author Sarah Gailey published a lyric essay I wrote called “Cook for Iran: Making Khoresht-e Bademjoon When I’m Homesick” in January. I’m honored to be the opening essay for this series, and it includes a recipe for a Persian eggplant stew that Qilwa readers will recognize as something Firuz’s little brother Parviz has strong feelings about. I also had a piece in New Orleans Review’s beautiful Iran issue called “Passing: An Elegy in VIII Parts,” about invisibility, privilege, race, and gender.

I always share any updates in my Tuesday Telegrams, my newsletter which comes out twice a month (one is a personal essay, and one is writing updates/craft related).

There is a hardcover of the book now coming out from Rainbow Crate. What can fans of the book find in this new edition?

I cannot wait for readers to see this exclusive hardcover!!!! Danielle and Jaime at Rainbow Crate have worked really hard to make this the version of my dreams. There is an entirely new cover and art endpages by Pauliina Hannuniemi, whose style is so beautiful and captures the book in such a special way. Jaime designed an internal map as well, and the edges will be printed. There’s another special external feature as well, but I want to save those details, so let me just say: if you think you can guess what a spellbook looks like in the Qilwa universe, think again!

As for the internal differences, I’ve written an author note about the queernorm world of the story, and also included a short story alternative universe retelling at the back of the book for readers to see what QILWA could have looked like!

I cannot wait to get my hands on this edition. It’s going to be beautiful!!!

Where can our readers find you online?

My newsletter is the best way to keep in touch with me, but I’m also on social media as @jamsternazzy on Twitter (rarely nowadays), Instagram, and Mastodon. There’s also my website, where there’s more information on me and the book! I hope to connect with many more readers this year!! Thanks so much for having me!

An Interview With Eric Cervini

Your book The Deviant’s War, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, starts with Dr. Franklin Kameny’s right to work as a gay man in the government during the early days of the space program. What are the echo effects to today, that the United States would witch-hunt homosexuals at this time but touted that Von Braun, who worked with the Nazis in World War II, was at the head of their space program?

I think the irony was so clear then—especially for someone like Frank Kameny, who fought on the European front lines in World War II against the Nazis, to come home with the hopes of helping construct the manned space program in America, only to see that dream snatched away from him solely because he was gay. At the same time, the architects of the V-2 Missile—that was used against London and manufactured by enslaved people in the Third Reich—became not just the architects of the manned space program but celebrated architects of the space program and some of the founding fathers of NASA. I think the irony could not have been starker or more dramatic, and unfortunately, you see traces of that irony today. So many folks are being targeted, whether it’s in the South; or students who are activists; or authors being punished for trying to publish queer stories, queer books, or queer memoirs. And yet, at the same time, folks who are perpetuating racist, misogynistic, and transphobic policies are still being celebrated and elected today.

The Deviant’s War also examines America’s Morals Code and who it is that actually dictates to the government what is moral for the rest of the country. Could you talk about how your television work on The Book of Queer tears down the conservative narrative we are taught by depicting scenes ranging from biblical times to the modern White House?

That’s a wonderful question because it touches on the relationship between culture and how it has changed not just from within the government, but also within popular culture, within Hollywood. There’s always been an intellectual, a political, a cultural dialogue between those forces—between the government, Hollywood, and the rest of society. As you mentioned, for years, the government and Hollywood—including television but also all forms of media—and the Press worked hand-in-hand to perpetuate a cultured silence—a conspiracy of silence—when it came to “deviant sexuality,” as it was called then. It really took the Kinsey report and the sciences to change that, to force the media and therefore the government to start grappling with the fact that queer folks have been here—and queer—since the dawn of humanity. It’s that latter fact of human existence that we try to emphasize within the show, because so much of the rhetoric now is trying to persuade folks that to be queer, to be non-binary, to be trans is a new phenomenon, a novel threat to American morality, to our norms and customs. In reality, if you talk to any historian from any era, they’ll be the first to tell you—unless they’re willfully ignoring it—that, as I said, queer folks have always been here.

We are also working to influence not just public opinion but government perception and government policy via historical truths. It’s something that’s been very effective in the past; Frank Kameny would often invoke history to make his point, and activists always refer to history because the best way to prove something is true is to look at empirical evidence. It’s a complex, difficult phenomenon to affect change via Hollywood, but if there’s anything the last 20 or so years have taught us, it’s that it can be immensely effective in changing political attitudes and therefore policy.

I’m going to jump ahead to my question about Dr. Kinsey because you mentioned him: how different are Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade and Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in assisting gay rights? Did Dr. Kinsey’s death curtail the public’s conversation on sexuality in the 1950s?

Oh, that’s a great question! I’ve never been asked that before, and I think it’s very interesting to put both of these books in dialogue.  At the time, and certainly now (although his legacy has been tarnished a little bit) Dr. Kinsey was celebrated, particularly among queer folks for proving just how prevalent they—at the time, specifically white queer men—were in society. But even though  Humphrey’s work exposed police harassment of queer folks, especially men, it was incredibly problematic, especially when it came to privacy concerns. I think Humphrey’s contributions are a bit more complicated. As you know from reading the books, his work is still taught, not because of the sociological implications but rather the ethical implications of his research. So, I think both were important for queer folks. I open with Laud Humphrey’s story because I think it also captures so much of the personal difficulties at the time. He was researching in the 60’s and 70’s as a closeted gay man, and Kinsey—in many ways—was also keeping a lot of secrets. Many of the scientists and scholars were working within a very scary time to be publishing this research, but they did anyway, which immensely affected activism mostly because it got the press, and therefore queer folks and the general public, talking about the problems—and the prevalence thereof, in Kinsey’s case—that were exposed.

You mentioned the climate in the 1950’s, but what were the conservative 1950’s like for someone in the queer community like Dr. Kameny, and how did J. Edgar Hoover use that environment to grow the FBI? How did our own government blackmail its citizens at the time?

Gosh, you know there have been many books written on J. Edgar Hoover’s reign of surveillance and terror, and there should be many more books written because I think it’s very difficult to overstate not only his influence on the American government but also his threat to American democracy. I think most scholars of the FBI would agree that he as an individual was one of the greatest threats to the institutions of American democracy since the founding of the country. He served for decades, grew the FBI from a small subset of the Department of Justice into a massive apparatus of surveillance, and as you mentioned, used blackmail—the very strategy it was supposedly protecting citizens from—to acquire information and then hold that information over people. So, if it learned that a middle government official had “homosexual inclinations,” as they might phrase it, then it would say, “either we tell your employer and expose this, or you can start working for us.” And we will never know the full extent of how many people were victims of this, because upon Hoover’s death all those records were burned. We will never know how many people were in the Sex Deviance files. We only know that it was hundreds of thousands of pages, so we can only guess. I think over time, hopefully, we will receive more information, but that’s up for many more historians to keep working on.

Okay, final question: In March 1965, when Judgment of Nuremberg was interrupted by breaking news of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, how did this event lead to a change in the gay rights movement? How did the gay rights march on the White House come about?

I think I included that scene in the book because of its symbolic importance. I think for the millions of people who were watching the film, which deals with the theme of culpability not just from the Nazis but the German public, to hear people who are actors on television revealing you can be complicit by being silent amid such terrible persecution and murder, and for that to then cut to the violence at Selma, it’s really hard not to make parallels between those two moments—between the atrocities of the Third Reich and the atrocities of American slavery and Jim Crow. That parallel on millions of American television screens showed not just America but also queer activists the success of Dr. King and Bayard Rustin in affecting political change. Queer activists did that by making those same parallels, asking how Americans can possibly claim to be moral while allowing this to happen, and by claiming morality for themselves and proving the immorality of their oppressors. That is what happened at Selma, and that’s also what happened at Stonewall. It’s also what happened every single time Frank Kameny took to the stage to talk about his own plight and the plight of many other queer federal employees who were being systematically persecuted and purged. It’s very hard to deny these lives being ruined was an immoral phenomenon. I think that’s just one example of how the Civil Rights Movement influenced what we would now call the Movement of Queer Liberation. There are so many more examples of that, whether it’s the March on Washington just a few years prior or the translation from “Black is Beautiful” to “Gay is Good.” Time and time again you see these parallels being made very consciously by Frank Kameny and others within the movement.

You recently announced a new project, RAINBOW BOOK BUS. Can you tell us more about that initiative and ShopQueer.Co?

My partner and I launched an independent bookshop called ShopQueer.co to support queer authors, so when you buy a book from us, the author gets at least double what they’d get anywhere else! We’ve seen such an amazing response so far, and over 100 authors have provided us with signed editions in support, at no extra cost to readers. We’re online-only at the moment, but we’ve got big plans, which is where the Rainbow Book Bus comes in! With the community’s support, we’re hoping to buy a school bus and renovate it into a traveling queer bookstore and book fair. In light of increasing book bans across the country, we want to do all that we can to protect and promote queer literature and get it into the hands of the people who need it most, no matter where they live. Folks can learn more and get involved at ShopQueer.co!

How can people find your work to learn more about Dr. Kameny’s fight for gay rights and the right to work, as well as everything else that you’re doing?

Social media is probably the best bet. Just search my name, Eric Cervini. I have a link tree to all the different places where you can buy the book, and I have a year-round class where we discuss different stories within queer history and different queer books by different historians all over the world. Just a few days ago, I interviewed a scholar of Fire Island, and I’m interviewing someone else tomorrow about the concept of the “sissy” in global queer history and how that intersects with race and racism. There are just so many scholars out there that are doing great work. I learn so much from them by doing Queer History 101 lessons and try to share everything I learned with other folks, so hopefully people are interested and subscribe.

A Review of This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron

Spoiler Warning!: This review contains extensive spoilers for Kalynn Bayron’s novel, This Poison Heart.

After reading the first book of this duology, This Poison Heart, I could not wait for the second. The first book ends on a vicious cliffhanger: after learning the secrets behind her powers and fighting those who seek to steal her powers for their own gain, Bri finds her mom murdered. She must embark on a journey to find all the pieces of the heart, a deadly vessel of ancient magic, so that she can save her mom. The catch? She only has a month before her mom is gone forever in the underworld.

This Wicked Fate has a lot to live up to after the first book of the series. The first is a near-perfect blend of magic, nature, betrayal, and suspense. And to an extent, this sequel delivers. The writing is beautiful, descriptions of nature luscious, and diversity very well presented. Bayron writes these characters with such love and care, growing upon the foundation that she creates in the first book to further develop how differently these characters live through love and grief. Bri wants to save her mom even at the risk of her own life; Bri’s other mom, Mo, feels a need to shelter Bri after her partner’s death; Marie (Bri’s love interest) opens up about the loss of her first love and how that baggage carries with her into this potential relationship; and Circe explores what it means to have Bri as her only living relative. But this book is not a tragedy; it is far from it. And through Bayron’s exploration of grief and healing, these characters are no longer just characters by the end. They are living beings who survive trauma, loss, and grief, people who find love, joy, and happy beginnings.

My only qualm with this second book is how different it is from the first. At times, I felt as if I were reading a different duology. Its focus on Bri’s plant powers seemed pushed to the back burner in this hero’s journey story. The first book felt suspenseful, mysterious, dangerous even. I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation—who are these creepy people stalking the house? Why does poison not harm Bri? What’s with these mysterious messages? What’s going on with this dark version of The Secret Garden? This Wicked Fate no longer has these mysteries, and instead feels more like an epic. Readers see Bri on a hero’s journey, dealing with the various obstacles that come with tracking down the last piece of the heart—not because Bri and her chosen and blood family spent the first book finding the other pieces, but because they oh-so-coincidentally have them all, as members in her chosen family have already fused with pieces of the heart. While I did enjoy learning more about the family’s history and all the connections to Greek gods, it no longer had the dark mystery that captivated me so deeply. That isn’t to say that this isn’t a good book—it’s a difference I wasn’t expecting, a difference that, had I known, would have allowed me to let go of my preconceived notions from the first book to more fully enjoy this one.

For those waiting for this book, This Wicked Fate is a captivating read that neatly ties up a lot of loose ends. While the tone is vastly different from the first, it’s still a good read that will leave readers feeling hopeful and content for their new fictional friends. I recommend this book not just to those who are looking for answers after This Poison Heart, but also for those looking to immerse themselves in magic with reality as a backdrop.