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 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 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!

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.

Spotlighting Heroes Who Are Disabled

It was, of all things, in the movie Trainwreck, where I saw the first media representation of multiple sclerosis (MS). I was sixteen. My heart swelled. I immediately started crying. I ducked my head into my arm and wiped my tears away before my mom and sister could see. It was the first time I felt seen as the daughter of someone who has MS, and to this day, the only time I’ve seen MS represented in any story, regardless of medium. 

Disabled is a complex and loaded word. It’s an insult, a reclaimed term and an extremely broad category for a person whose life is impacted in some way by a condition, be it mental or physical, visible or invisible. When people think of disability, they likely think of visible ones, such as the use of a wheelchair or cane. My dad needs a device and a cane to walk. Others treat him softly and kindly but regard him as frail, as though he’s made of eggshells. I’m invisibly disabled: a tangle of multiple medical disabilities and mental disorders, some of which I have only been diagnosed with at 22. To me, “disabled” has only until recently been a taboo word, something distant and limited and deeply misunderstood. Multiple struggles intersect, particularly compounding in issues with the medical field (especially as a queer woman of color) and the way that I’ve been brushed off as having “hormonal issues.” Being someone who is disabled is isolating—largely due to the lack of representation and education. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Literature and media portrayals are educational in many ways, showing the nuances of people’s experiences and having people empathize with them. But good portrayal matters, as misrepresentation can infantilize, victimize or villainize people with disabilities in popular thought. Accurate, positive portrayals create role models, reduce the distance between people who are disabled and non-disabled people and remove harmful stereotypes. 

This article will touch on disabled portrayals and tropes, the problem with a certain popular disabled genre, “Sick-lit” and finally, where to go from here. Media has begun to shift to include characters who are disabled who aren’t stereotypes or die, but we have a long way to go. For example, 33% of characters who are disabled are still killed in movies compared to 13% of their able-bodied counterparts. Publishers Association reports that 6.6% of the publishing workforce identified having a disability. Only 3.4% of published children’s and YA books in 2018 had a main character who was disabled. According to the CDC, 26% of American adults identify as disabled. 

History and Portrayal 

There is a lot of discourse surrounding proper disability portrayal. No single narrative will ever stand for everyone’s experiences. For the purposes of this article, I’m simplifying these concepts and encourage for anyone reading to do additional research. 

Disability portrayals have historically (and presently) fallen in four tropes: the Villain (a monster), the Victim (always killed), the person who ‘overcomes’ their disability and is successful (a “Supercrip”) and/or the infantilized person (a helpless but extremely pure person). 

The Villain is seen in Darth Vader, Captain Hook, the Joker and even Lord Farquaad. Their disabilities are glaringly visible and intrinsically tied to the reason why they are a villain. Even 2019’s Joker reinforced the false and harmful idea that anyone with a mental disorder is inherently dangerous. His laughing outbursts, caused by the neurological condition pseudobulbar affect, causes shock and disgust in the audience. While he is a sympathetic character, in part turned into a ‘villain’ due to the (extremely real) lack of support and care for people who are disabled, he is still a violent killer. 

The Supercrip is, according to Joseph P. Shapiro in his book, No Pity: People with Disabilities Foraging a New Civil Rights Movement, “an inspirational disabled person […] glorified […and] lavishly lauded in the press and on television.” Forrest Gump is an example—he sheds his leg braces and runs superhumanly far and fast. He’s a spectacular human who also happens to have disabilities, but they hardly hold him back. Reality shows like America’s Got Talent often play into the Supercrip, showcasing and exploiting the contestant’s disability to garner sympathy, then show “how they’ve pushed past the odds” through their talent to inspire. 

The Infantilized is a character who is unbelievably pure and good. They are childlike, naïve, desexualized and sweet, unable to conceptualize inflicting harm on others. These narratives equate disabled people to children but also present them as more inhuman and ‘other’ due to their lack of emotional maturity. Forrest is another example. 

The Victim is any character who is disabled and dies or is abused as a plot device to make the audience sad. They’re generally but not always side-characters or lineless extras in disaster movies, there to garner sympathy from the audience. Think Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. These representations reinforce ideas that people who are disabled are helpless. 

The Problem with Sick-Lit 

I want to briefly touch on a problematic subgenre of disability narratives: “Sick-Lit,” the romance/drama YA subgenre where terminal illness is the primary plot anchor. 

 “Sick-Lit’s” most popular books include Before I Die, The Fault in Our Stars, Everything, Everything, Me Before You and 13 Reasons Why. While these works show audiences that people who are disabled—generally young, white and straight—are capable and deserving of love. The narrative amplifies tragedy and drama, partly because they are romance novels and partly because death is always around the corner, where the relationship has only a short honeymoon phase in which the duo meets while one is dying. They are also usually inaccurate when it comes to portraying the complexities of the medical field and illness itself. 

These books read like wish fulfillment written by able-bodied people for able-bodied people. The characters don’t need to worry about school or panic about the cost of healthcare. Their disabilities only appear when it’s convenient for the story (ex. someone fainting in the middle of a fight, when drama is at its peak, to avoid the fallout of the fight). They garner sympathy for people who are disabled, pigeonholing them as victims who will eventually die. Illnesses are plot devices and suicide is fetishized. A “satisfying” death is seen as liberating—one character’s death convinces the other to live their lives to the fullest. The primary emotional anchor (the death) is shown to have a positive impact by helping other characters realize that life is worth living. We never see other characters fall into depression due to the death of a loved one. It’s only a textually happy ending afterwards.  

While these narratives do exist in real life, more nuanced representation that shows people who are disabled that live full lives with their disability and not despite it should also exist. 

Where Do We Go from Here? 

Better disability representation is appearing more in media. Movies such as Mad Max: Fury Road and How to Train Your Dragon feature good examples of disabilities that aren’t the focus of the narrative. In literature, One for All by Lillie Lainoff, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, and Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert portray characters with disabilities who have rich narrative arcs. Lainoff, Bardugo, and Hibbert also have disabilities.  

Even if you are not someone who is disabled, I urge you to read more books written by and/or featuring disabled people. Think critically about your own biases. And, of course, feel free to write characters that are disabled, even if you’re not—with proper care and research.  

In literature, only the author’s literacy limits what can be written. There is a place for disabled characters in media without focusing the story solely on their disability. Media shapes the way we see the world and vice-versa in a constant loop just like how life reflects art and art reflects life. Breaking the cycle and including good disability representation, supporting creatives who are disabled and ingesting media focused on characters who are disabled forms a feedback loop of more and improved representation for all people who are disabled. In turn, people will be encouraged to write and pass laws that help the lives of others who have disabilities. 

It all begins with a story—will it be yours? If you’re exploring characters with disabilities in your fiction, consider submitting to F(r)iction—we’d love to read it! 

A Final Note 

This article primarily uses person-first language (“someone who is disabled”) over identity-first language (“disabled person”). While I personally don’t mind using either style for myself, it’s important to learn and respect preferences of the groups and people we’re writing about. Most disabled communities are moving toward person-first language. To learn more, check out these guidelines on writing about people with disabilities by the ADA National Network. Remember: words hold meaning. By incorporating subtle changes in the way we speak, we can reduce ableism in our everyday lives.

What Stephen King’s Memoir, On Writing, Taught Me About Embracing the Unknown

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is part recollection of the critically acclaimed author’s life and part guide to succeeding as a writer. In high school, King began working for the Lisbon Weekly Enterprise, where he received a piece of advice from the editor that he returns to throughout his book: “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open” (57). In On Writing, readers peer behind the closed door, the private and mystical place where Stephen King has woven together more than sixty novels (and that’s only counting the ones that have been published).  

How could one person achieve such a gargantuan literary portfolio with so many well-loved books? What is his secret? A common idea that connects much of King’s advice, and the overarching answer to questions like these, is to embrace the unknown in writing. King’s approach to writing suggests that a story should be carefully drawn out. It is not necessarily controlled by the writer but discovered and then honed. Here is King’s advice on writing to assuage some of the worries uncertain writers commonly experience.    

1. What if I can’t make money with my writing? 

Many writers worry they will not be successful. They ask themselves questions such as, “Will people like it?” “Will I be able to support myself with my writing?” and “Is it worthwhile spending time doing something I love over something that pays?” The following advice from King may help quell these anxieties:  

What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like . . . in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. (159) 

In other words, never compromise on what you want to write because you’re not sure how others will receive it. Don’t alter your story to please an audience because pleasing everyone is impossible. Instead, embrace not knowing how many people or who will connect with your story and simply make sure you connect with your story. You may not know what that story is yet, but King believes you’ll find it. He encourages writers to “Let your hope of success (and your fear of failure) carry you on, difficult as that can be” (210). All you have is you and your words—from that will come the story you want to tell. 

2. What if it isn’t important or deep enough?  

As a writer, I’ve worried if my writing will be meaningful and impactful. Will my readers reach the end of my book and be able to draw connections they didn’t see in the beginning? Is my subject important enough? Here’s the thing: you can’t possibly know exactly what your story will look like in the final draft the first time you sit down to write it—or even the second, third or tenth time.  

King believes that “. . . starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story” (208). Don’t waste time worrying whether Bobby’s green jacket represents life or greed or envy. Instead focus on writing down that Bobby is wearing a green jacket. You may discover this means something later. This is the purpose of rewriting, a practice King strongly advocates for, in your second and third drafts. Don’t fear a connection you might fail to make in your story before you’ve even given yourself the chance to make it. 

3. What if I haven’t come up with the ending? 

Many writers feel an immense pressure to know their story inside and out from the beginning. I’ve always been envious of authors who claim to have had their story’s characters and world in their head for years. But King helped me realize that it’s okay if you don’t know your entire story when you sit down to write it. Don’t let the unknown paralyze you. Instead, embrace and celebrate it—there’s so much possibility ahead of you! King suggests that outlines and character notes aren’t essential, or even helpful. He says:  

Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tolls in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. (163-164) 

It’s exciting to feel that your story always already existed and your job is simply to excavate and narrate it. When King began writing his eventual bestseller Misery, he says that the story only existed as “a relic buried . . . in the earth . . .” He goes on to explain, “but knowing the story wasn’t necessary for me to begin work. I had located the fossil; the rest, I knew, would consist of careful excavation” (167). The excitement of an archeologist’s work is in the unknown: the possibility of what can be uncovered. As writers we can approach our craft the same way.  

4. What if I don’t even know where to start? 

King outlines the progression of writing as such:  

The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. (165)   

There are two important things to note here. One, all you need to start writing is a situation. Don’t overthink it, don’t make it too complex, just have a simple premise. For example, in Misery, it was a psychotic fan holding her favorite author hostage. Two, you can’t control what your characters do. If your characters are honest and interesting, you’ll find them doing things, as King says, that you never expected. You may not know now where your characters will end up, but they will begin to grow and make the decisions as you go. 

5. What if this isn’t enough for my reader to really get it? 

King encourages writers to embrace what their readers don’t know—or rather what the writer withholds from them. Writers tend to overshare to make sure the reader gets it, but usually the readers’ imagination will do the work for you. One example of this is description, which King believes “begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s” (174). Though you may worry about not being detailed or specific enough, when it comes to description, you risk taking the reader out of the text by giving too much. What if your idea of the most horrifying monster to exist is a far cry from the reader’s? Let them imagine their version with the few details you do give them, such as the sounds your monster makes or its foul odor.  

King also believes in describing setting delicately. While certain details can tantalize the senses and immerse the reader, too much can quickly bring them out of your story. King says that as a writer, “your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story” (180). Beyond some details to ground the reader, the physical description of the setting is not important. Instead, include details that further the story, such as the setting’s significance or usefulness to the protagonist. The same applies to backstory and research, where King believes details should be kept to only the most relevant and interesting. In keeping things unknown to your reader, you’ll create a much more engaging and intentional story. 

Final Advice from On Writing 

Ultimately, in On Writing, King urges writers not to take the phrase “write what you know” too literally. In writing fiction, one must be willing to venture into the unknown. King’s horror novels, filled with killing, gore and monsters, are a testament to this. While it is beneficial to write from experience and prior knowledge, King suggests that it’s also worthwhile to pay attention to what your heart and imagination can conjure. He says, “If not for heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all” (158). So, if you’re going to embrace any aspect of the unknown throughout your writing journey, embrace what could be when you let your heart and imagination guide you. Trust your instincts instead of fearing that there may be better words to use or stories to tell. As you march forward into uncharted territories of writing, whatever they may look like for you, here’s one last piece of wisdom from On Writing:  

At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style . . . but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic. (137)  

An Interview with Sam J. Miller

Cities in survival mode is a theme in your books. Can you talk about the correlation between gentrification of Hudson in The Blade Between and global warming in the futuristic sunken world in Blackfish City?

I think both books spring from a similar feeling of frustration and anger about similar problems. They’re deployed in really different genres, so horror and science fiction play out really differently in terms of how you can talk about policy and how you can make policy fun, if that’s possible. I think that at the root of things like gentrification and global warming, there’s this issue of people who are really wealthy and comfortable and benefit from a bad situation and therefore have no interest in changing it. Then there are people who are negatively impacted by a situation but have no real systemic power to create change. When you are dealing with these imbalances where people are benefitting from a bad situation and they see no reason to change, how can we make them change? That’s going to look really differently if you’re talking about small-town gentrification or far future climate change. The plot complications that arise are dictated by the genre and the technical challenges of grappling with policy in fiction.

Blackfish City talks about people “bringing their ghosts with them” to Qaanaaq, Greenland. How does manipulation of loneliness when community collapses come into play with these cities, like Fill finding comfort in the unknown author of “City Without A Map” in Blackfish City and the catfishing used in The Blade Between?

I think the bottom line in a lot of my fiction is that life is really hard, and we take comfort and solace and escape where we can. Art plays a really important role in that. This is not a real city, this is not New York, but the way that Fill turned to something like a cultural and artistic product—a voice on the radio whose reality he didn’t fully know or understand—had a lot to do with when I moved to New York City and how I felt as a young person, not knowing a lot of people and finding myself at the movies and discovering great cinema, opera, and books. I think that loneliness, pain, and isolation—I don’t want to say of modern life because I’m sure it’s always been a reality—is something you can find solace for, and that can be easily exploited.

The idea in Blackfish City is that the radio broadcast, “City Without a Map,” is this benevolent product that is being used to unite people for a positive purpose and to give people identity and hope, and connectivity. Versus in The Blade Between, it’s a malevolent tricking of people, exploiting people, and getting them to do things that might not be in their interest but suits the agenda of the folks doing it. So I think life is hard and we make tough decisions as a result and that can take us down some strange roads.

Both books have employees in the city system working outside it to protect citizens from landlords raising rents. How do their actions support the line “All cities are science experiments”?

I think that cities are many things. They are science experiments—they’re highly structured and they’re also completely structureless and chaotic. Everyone is trying to navigate them the best they can. Often people gravitate toward public service because they care about people and they want to help people, so they often end up in positions working for governments. While the purpose of government in the abstract might be to help people, I think that in reality, governments function mostly as a way to maintain the status quo. If it’s a great status quo, that’s great, and if it’s a terrible status quo, that’s terrible.

While a lot of times people gravitate towards government work thinking they can help people, often they find that that’s not actually the case. It’s actually very difficult to help people. There are a lot of systems in place to keep people from creating change, and that often means they have to go outside of those systems and give people things that they shouldn’t be giving them to support them. They may have to tell people, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you should do this.” That’s been my experience as a community organizer, working with folks in government or who work for city agencies, and just in terms of being a person and looking around and seeing how people function. There’s the way I’m supposed to do things and then there are other things that I have the power to do. That is a small way that I can struggle to make a change.

Your work represents how we have a society at the loss of community and in doing so we are not taking care of all of our citizens. To make that point, you show the harsh realities of today and the path we are on for tomorrow. Do you wish to discuss elements of your work that some readers might find triggering?

A lot of the reason that I’m a writer is that I want to tell difficult stories and help myself better understand a lot of the problems that I see in the world, and that involves often going to some scary places. I know that people will often be triggered by stuff that I write and I don’t want that, but I also trust readers to be able to take themselves out of it, which is what I do as a reader. If I see a content warning around a certain subject, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to read it, even if it’s something that I find triggering. I’m going to read it until I have to take myself out of it. The fact that it deals with something that I personally find really difficult to read doesn’t mean that it’s going to be handled in a way that’s exploitative or that I’m going to personally find triggering.

It’s happened that I’ve written a story where at the end of it, I’m like, “Oh, I wanted to understand this horrific thing and in writing this story, I understood it too well. I don’t want anyone to read this, so I will not be putting it out into the world.” But generally, I try to proceed with as much respect and caution to avoid the things that I personally find triggering, like when something is reveling in the details or trying to manipulate an oppressive, violent, or traumatic thing for the point of manipulating the reader’s emotions. Those are the things I try to avoid. But I respect that everyone’s different and what I find triggering won’t be what someone else finds triggering. So unless I’m only going to write about things that are not super interesting to me, I have to imagine that triggering is a possibility and that I’m going to do my best to be as careful and respectful as I can with that topic.

A draw for me for your work was how you write about masculinity. Tell us about your new book Boys, Beasts and Men from Tachyon.

I’ve always wanted to do a short story collection. I love short stories and I love writing them. They’re so special and different from novels. I realized as I was working on this collection and gathering these stories together that it really emerged as the idea of masculinity as this constant obsession of mine. What does it mean to be a male person in a patriarchal world and in a world where toxic masculinity is a reality? This is the iteration that I came up against again and again. If you’re a male person, whether you’re cis or trans or anything, how do you inhabit that identity in a way that’s not violent, oppressive, or toxic? That’s a constant work in progress. There’s always going to be things popping up. Socialization is so deep and our exposure to problematic aspects of maleness and male relationships is always evolving and changing. Even if you are really good in some ways, you might be really terrible in others. This collection is constantly reevaluating that. It’s not that I’m only interested in male characters—many of the stories in the collection are narrated by women—but that complicated thing of monstrosity and how easily toxic masculinity can make people monsters.  

Your short story “The Heat of Us” put me at the night of the Stonewall Riot. Can you talk about finding a place to develop yourself around others, like at the Clarion workshop where you worked on the story?

That story is very much about Clarion. It’s about the experience of being in a cohort with seventeen other writers from many different backgrounds and life experiences and coming together to discover how awesome we are, how we help each other, and how we make each other better. Someone once said the spoiler alert to every Sam J. Miller story is collective action—people coming together is the thing that makes the difference. This short story is very much that. I had been a community organizer for eight years at the point, so in theory, I should have already known that being in a community with others can give you superpowers, but I hadn’t applied it to my writing before. So while it’s very much a story about Stonewall and about resistance and activism, it’s also a story about creative collectivity.

Some of your stories are Bradbury-esque in that they share a love of classic film stars. Ray Bradbury also wrote about his ideal hometown life in Dandelion Wine. Can you talk about how your work helps us know and face the monsters in the world while having a love/hate relationship with our hometowns?

I am obsessed with Ray Bradbury. He was my first love as a science fiction reader. The thing that I love most about Ray Bradbury, and the lesson that I’ve tried to learn from him, is that he’s always having fun. He’s writing about dinosaurs and King Kong. He’s writing about aliens, Martians, and spaceships. He’s not always writing about those things, and there is the more lyrical stuff like Dandelion Wine, but writing about what sets you on fire is his lesson to me and what I try to carry forward. I think that that pops up in so many ways in my fiction. I hadn’t really thought about Ray Bradbury’s shadow over my hometown in The Blade Between, but it’s very there, along with the magic of childhood and the way he captures that. When you’re a kid monsters are real. The werewolves are real and the dinosaurs are just around the corner. Everything is possible to a child’s brain.

When I was a kid, I really loved my hometown. It wasn’t until I hit puberty, started getting bullied and had to grapple with what it meant to be a queer person in a very homophobic small town. I am definitely channeling that dichotomy with this book. There’s the magic of it and the way you’re going to love it even if you hate it. Even if later in life you change into a person who can’t actually be there, that magic is still going to be there. Ray Bradbury taps into that really well. I hope I can do likewise by showing that complication—the world is magic and the world is wonderful, but the world is terrible, and how do we make our way in both worlds?

Where can our readers find you?

My website has links to a lot of my short stories. I’m on Twitter way too much. My Twitter handle is @sentencebender. I love photography, so I’m also on Instagram way too much. My Instragram handle is @sam.j.miller.

A Review of Sunflower by Tex Gresham

Published November 9, 2021 by Spaceboy Books.

Sunflower by Tex Gresham is one of those encyclopedic novels. To reduce it down to its most basic plot: the novel is about an international conspiracy, a terrorist plot, and Hollywood. It mimics the storytelling devices of film and almost begs for adaptation while also seeming impossible to adapt. Divided into three acts, the text has over a dozen deleted scenes in the back of the book, an alternate ending, includes excerpts of a screenplay, and even a message from the Zodiac killer to decode. This is a two-bookmark book. It actually feels more like a Criterion Collection release than a story ready for the screen.

Sunflower is kind of like vomiting the movies Inherent Vice and Brazil on top of Infinite Jest and House of Leaves. It runs the entire emotional gamut, it’s overflowing with rich characterization, it unravels and winds back up—it’s fucking long, a truly maximalist affair. In the novel, our reality blends into an alternate future where the United States is an empire with California as a commonwealth. References to A-list actors and films alongside fictional ones make this alternate future feel real and lived in.

Gresham has a penchant for the macabre. Few characters in Sunflower make it through the story unmaimed. There are tongues cut out, genital torture, hand bones squeezed to a pulp, stabbings, shootings, and people melting into slime. The conspiracies and horror were expected, but the top-tier comedy was not. When Gresham crafts a morose scene, it’s contrasted with black humor of the highest caliber. The comedic timing is uncanny, like a spoonful of sugar to help the misery go down. He has a knack for crafting high-tension scenes and then releasing that tension in a satisfying yet unpredictable way.

For example, there’s a scene where a man is on a blind date with a beautiful aspiring actress. They’re at an expensive restaurant. He’s a little anxious and trying to find the right moment to get up and pee. It gets to the point that he feels like his guts are in open revolt against him. When his date reveals that she’s only fifteen he loses all interest, stands up, and makes his way to the restroom. His contorted guts blast loud farts all the way through the dining room to the disgust of many. After urinating, he makes a dark discovery in one of the bathroom stalls that foreshadows what’s to come in the rest of the novel. Sunflower is chock full of gross and hilarious scenes like this, which are crucial to the plot’s development.

The book starts off a little messy. It’s not clear who the main characters are until the second act. But the story is engrossing if the reader can adjust to its nonlinear style. The meta-plot lands its climax and wraps up with a satisfying conclusion—though it does sort of sprint to the end in the third act. Sunflower is dense and there is only so much a reader can gleam in one pass, which is to say, it has incredibly high replay value. The novel stands out because of how it doesn’t fit into the publishing landscape. It’s too lowbrow for literary fiction and not sci-fi or horror enough for typical genre readers. So, take a break from your regular diet of genre and/or literary fiction and read some kind of bizzarro novel from a totally obsessed author.

Tex Gresham wears his influences on Sunflower’s sleeve. That’s not a diss or a detraction either; Gresham isn’t parroting his heroes. Rather, he is the dream realized of every kid with an encyclopedic knowledge of their interests. He’s one of those people who has seen every interview with their favorite filmmakers and musicians. The kind of person who probably bores their friends with the details they never cared to know about a film. But what sets Tex Gresham apart from the rest of that ilk is that he’s the one in ten thousand who actually takes that knowledge, those influences, and creates something truly inspired with it. He’s synthesizing his influences into some other style that is all his own and putting his work out into the world.

Regenerations & Celebrations: Doctor Who & Being Present in all of Time & Space

For this year’s birthday, my wife put sticky notes on my bathroom mirror. One multi-colored square for each letter of her expression of love ending with “Happy Birthday to You.” The message was so long that I couldn’t see my own reflection in the mirror in the morning. Slowly, over the next few weeks, I would peel away these individual sticky note rows so that now only the “Y-O-U” remains. These three squares still greet me every morning in my bathroom mirror as a reminder to be the “Y-O-U” I am today and not to be hung up on a previous version of myself. I’ll be turning fifty in 2022. That means my old body cells have mostly died and been replaced by new ones about every seven to ten years, so by my math, I’ve gone through a potential five to seven different bodies so far. Pre-mental-health awareness, I would have walked around each new body still hanging on to past anxiety or worrying about my futures not yet lived.

Years ago when I was inpatient, being present was the main focus of my mental health work and it still is something I work on today in talk therapy. While inpatient, I worked with a medical team to deal with my anxiety and panic attacks to function day in and day out again. I also dealt with not being haunted by the past or being frozen due to the fear of making the wrong choice for the future. When I first checked out of the hospital, I felt so raw that the only TV shows that didn’t set off a panic attack were the safe, nonviolent children’s programs found on public television like Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood created around community and positivemessaging. Then, another doctor joined my recovery team—the Doctor.

The Doctor is the main character of the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, which first aired over sixty years ago. Doctor Who is about a runaway alien from a race of Time Lords who help wherever they can throughout all of time and across the universe—traveling in their stolen, dimension-hopping ship. Whenever a lead actor needs to leave the role of the Doctor, a new actor takes on their own interpretation after a regeneration storyline, which has kept the show going on for decades.

Doctor Who first aired on the BBC on November 23, 1963. History aficionados will note that it’s the day after the John F. Kennedy Assassination. Even though the Doctor travels through time, in addition to space, I feel the show has never been one to get historical events back on track. It is instead about noticing what is out of place when traveling in history, on distant planets, or one’s own surroundings. The Doctor is not a “time cop” arriving into a situation to bring law and order, even though the Doctor’s ship, the T.A.R.D.I.S. (an anagram standing for Time And Relative Dimensions in Space), has a chameleon circuit stuck as a blue British-police-phone box. For example, the Doctor met Charles Dickens when showrunner Russell T. Davies rebooted the show in 2005, but the episode was about a Dickensian setting with aliens traveling through gaslights and reanimating corpses without Mr. Dicken’s personal timeline and fictional impact being altered. Doctor Who isn’t about fixing divergences in time, but instead about being the best you can be at the moment you’re needed. This point of the show was huge for my mental health healing, as anxiety was keeping me from connecting to my daily life back then, nor was I fully a part of my life. I was no better than those gaslight, reanimated corpses shuffling through the day at my worst moments. Other time travel shows or movies got me in the mindset that I had made a mistake at some point in my past, and my thought process was locked into figuring out that one moment that would make everything fall into place and bring peace of mind. The Doctor’s example got me to break out of this time-travel mindset, to be present and positively interactive in the everyday.

The Doctor is a cosmic wanderer, not a warrior. They have seen almost everything from the Big Bang to the end of time in their hundreds of years of life through different regenerations. One of the other casting hooks of the show in addition to the Doctor is their companion, usually a young human, to keep the Doctor’s perspective of the universe fresh. Traveling through time and space with new wide-open eyes helps the Doctor to continue seeing the individual moments and not the moment as it connects like a cog into the clockwork mechanics of the universe. Rose is the Doctor’s first human companion in the 2005 reboot and it is appropriate since she helps the ninth Doctor—played by Christopher Eccleston—heal from fighting in The Time War and enjoy traveling again—she helps him “smell the roses.” Companion Donna Noble is able to call the Doctor out when he’s being too much of “a spaceman” and not connecting to the beings on the planets they are on. While Amy and Rory Pond actually give the constant wanderer a place at the dinner table and a place to call home on Earth. When I was able to borrow a note from the show and start going for walks outside of our home again, it was a big healing benchmark moment for me. I took in my surroundings instead of staying in my head during the time traveling to appointments trying to figure out past missteps and butterfly effects. At this point, I could see only this life and that there was no set path for myself, which had built to anger management issues. The Doctor helped me stop fighting myself and view beyond a place of anger.

The Doctor isn’t the character’s real name. “It is a promise,” as the eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, explains to one companion. The Doctor does not have superpowers. As a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, they can regenerate before the moment of death but they are still human-looking, the only difference being that they have two hearts. The Doctor doesn’t even carry a gun, just a sonic screwdriver to help get into any room or out of any situation. They face armies, mad gods, and dimensional beings, with their wits and a promise. The show’s fiftieth-anniversary special “The Day of The Doctor” revealed that promise as “Never cruel nor cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.” I would borrow this promise of the Doctor as I entered back into the working world after being inpatient. It was a quick catch firewall for anger management as anxiety crept up in situations. The promise of the Doctor reminded me to be kind in each moment, in addition to what I learned in therapy for handling my anxiety, and to talk to everyone with compassion, meeting them where they currently were in life.

A great speech is often given by actors who play the Doctor before their version of the character regenerates to the next actor. These words work as both farewells to the fans and statements of goodwill keeping the Doctor’s spirit in viewers’ hearts till the next season. I’ve lost count of how many times I have watched the twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi’s, regeneration speech. The speech is his advice to the next Doctor on what to keep in mind to help the universe, ending with “Run fast, laugh hard, be kind.” This clip is my go-to for when I feel depression coming on and is a lifeline to not sink back into a feeling of despair where I could lose days of a functioning mindset. When I watch fan-theory videos about Doctor Who, it is a warning sign for me—viewing You-Tube videos for spoilers, I am giving into my anxiety instead of allowing myself to sit with that anxiety and experience the natural storytelling of cliffhangers. Or if I find myself looking at these videos when there is recasting news around a Doctor’s regeneration, I am looking for reassurance that I will feel safe with the choice of the new actor stepping into the role. Sometimes videos focus on the merits of another era of the show’s history compared to the present show. I feel these posts have increased recently during the current era with showrunner Chris Chibnall and the thirteenth Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker, who is the first woman to play the Doctor. Recently, the BBC announced that Russell T. Davies will return as showrunner for the sixtieth anniversary and upcoming season in 2023. Till then, Chibnall and Whittaker still have a whole season left to wrap up their storylines and characters. Whittaker has an inspirational approach. The Doctor message she filmed during the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine was uplifting and everything I needed to hear at the time. So, I hope fans will stay in the current moment and give this cast and crew their final sendoff, not just time jump to only focus on 2023. I myself am not focusing on the benchmark of turning fifty either. I wake up each morning and make sure the sticky notes are still on the bathroom mirror for that day’s Y-O-U. When my fiftieth birthday does come around, that will be my only present.

Review of New York, My Village by Uwem Akpan

Published November 2nd, 2021 by W. W. Norton & Company.

It took me a long time to write this review. I’m rarely at a loss for words, which goes to show how much New York, My Village struck me. It made me think, and I didn’t know how to organize my thoughts at first. I’m going to be mulling over the book’s themes for months to come, so, in the interest of actually helping you decide whether or not you want to read the book, here goes nothing.

Warning: This book contains racism, violence, and bugs. Lots of bugs. Lots of micro- and macro-aggressions and racial profiling. You are going to feel uncomfortable and, potentially, triggered.

When I first read the description for New York, My Village, I jumped at the chance to read it. Growing up with a parent who specializes in migrant literature, I’ve always been fascinated by immigrant stories and experiences. I found it exciting to get a glimpse into the protagonist’s culture and understand how a migrant writer might experience a publishing house (since the publishing industry is often inherently problematic).

Uwem Akpan is incredibly skilled, weaving humor, pain, and hope into this beautiful tapestry of a story. Throughout the book, readers follow Nigerian editor, Ekong Udousoro, as he heads to New York for a publishing fellowship that promises to help him finish an anthology on the Biafran War. Complete with an unexpectedly awful living situation, hostile neighbors, and racist assumptions about African culture, Ekong’s visit to America is hardly what he’d expected. While everything seems exciting and hopeful on the surface, hostility, greed, and bigotry quickly begin to simmer beneath the surface. All the while, we see Ekong try to navigate it without the pot boiling over.

I expected to enjoy this book. What I didn’t expect, though, was the physical reaction New York, My Village gave me. I could feel the grime in Ekong’s apartment and the itchiness of his skin: “I sprayed the analgesic on my torso till it dripped into my pants, but it was of no use tonight. When my nails carved out jewels of streaked blood and the itches still did not abate, I resorted to slapping the spots.” While I empathized with Ekong, something about the physical experience of reading the book made me feel even more connected with him. It heightened the stakes and made me feel like racing towards the end to find some sort of resolution to the chaos. Those details made the book more thrilling.

Akpan also skillfully makes readers feel the excitement, overwhelm, and disorientation Ekong experiences when he first arrives in New York. Even the familiar things, like yams and church, seem so foreign to him. Watching flickers of Ekong’s trauma surface while he’s in bustling Times Square, for instance—and almost having that familiar trauma comfort him—pierced me. The paradox that trauma can be comforting made me understand how alien Ekong felt in one heartbreaking beat. In the middle of the bustling square, he says “I would not have wanted to remember the war here, but the atmosphere was like an anesthesia and this seeming familiarity was like a precious opening, a doorway into the unbridled effervescence that was Times Square.” Akpan so skillfully depicts Ekong’s haunting loneliness throughout the book that my chest ached for pages at a time.

Despite Ekong’s loneliness, he is determined to share his story and bridge cultural divides. Through it all, he believes in the power of stories, and that’s so beautiful. As he is floored by the racism he experiences in America, Ekong expresses that one of “the only bits of consolation left for [him] in America were finishing [his] anthology.” He places so much hope in his work despite all the hardship. Ekong’s belief in the importance and impact of his work is moving. Akpan gives readers the opportunity to rejoice with Ekong, mourn with him, laugh with him, and root for him through this wild ride of a novel. And I guarantee everyone will learn something along the way.

The characters in New York, My Village are well-rounded and deeply flawed. But it’s their flaws that make them so interesting. Okay, yes, some characters you hate . . . but with many, you want to be mad at them, but yet they seem so human. That’s why you feel like you know them so well. Most of the characters are a foil to Ekong at some point in the book—including Ekong himself. People he thinks are his allies at the publishing house, in his neighborhood, and in his own family ultimately end up challenging him in ways he could have never expected. The complexity Akpan writes into the characters makes the book all the more frustrating, imperfect, troubling, and wonderful. By creating such layered characters, Akpan raises the stakes throughout. The author holds readers in a place of tension for an uncomfortable amount of time as we watch Ekong navigate these challenges. Yet, somehow it works.

Despite all the good, I felt like there were moments when too much time was spent on descriptions, which stalled the plot and left readers sitting in tension for a bit too long. While the book’s descriptions gave me such strong, moving reactions at times, when overused, they became distracting. There can be too much of a good thing—though, in this case that “too much” is more of a light drizzle than a full-on thunderstorm. While I hadn’t expected this prolonged tension, it created a sort of visceral discomfort that worked well for the subject matter. In my opinion, to pick up the pacing, parts of the subplot, including apartment infestations could have had a smaller share in the book.

Paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, I was impressed that Akpan packed so many themes into one book. New York, My Village is messy. It’s raw. At times, it’s hard to follow. And it will make you question your own biases, preconceived notions, and flaws. In short, this book will make you think. If you’re someone who likes a challenge, who likes to read books that deal with complex societal issues, and you want to connect with some flawed, powerful, confusing, beautiful characters, you’ll definitely want to pick up New York, My Village.

A Review of Deadheading and Other Stories by Beth Gilstrap

Published October 3, 2021 Red Hen Press

I wouldn’t consider these stories lighthearted. They sting and challenge perceptions, but it’s a large part of their charm. Beth Gilstrap’s latest short story collection, Deadheading and Other Stories, weaves together multifaceted, complex characters fighting to endure and find meaning in the mundane in the Carolina region of the US. In particular, it promises melancholy reflections of the work-classing with a special focus on its women and their attempts at survival.  

I can’t claim to have much familiarity with the Carolinas. My knowledge of this region and its people extend to what’s taught in American history courses and media coverage of the last fifteen years. And while growing up in the Midwest doesn’t offer the same experiences as it would in the Carolinas, there’s something inherently universal about working-class small towns that transcend geographical differences. And Gilstrap captures that universal experience deftly and tenderly. There’s an element of soul-crushing heartache and yearning in this collection, especially in the stories that feature older couples living within the only environment they’ve ever known. Characters are so evidently unhappy but unable to make drastic life changes due to the socio-economic realities of this region. The “adults” in this collection exhibit a kind of acceptance you come to recognize from people just trying to get by.

The second piece in this collection, “The Denial Weeks,” is a perfect introduction to the worn-down adults who have worked their entire lives for a single company, only to discover they’ve been let go without notice or compensation. The repetition experienced by Paul and Imogen—married for decades and following the same routine for just as long—is suffocating to read. Yet, it’s reflective of a reality so many working-class adults experience. It reminds me of my own uncles who have gone into the same job every day, doing the same thing over and over, with the hopes of one day getting to slow down and enjoy a cold beer on the back porch. While more things transpire in their story, I felt most enchanted by the descriptions and the sensations experienced by this population without shame.

The stories that captivated me most, however, were the ones that featured teenagers and young adults. This age category, while still depressed about where they lived, maintained a degree of light and hope about their futures. Not yet beaten down or forced to make decisions for anyone but themselves, they continue to desire a life outside their town. Gilstrap wields their emotions to tap into often overlooked aspects of these towns and the people who inhabit them—that at one point they, too, dreamed of something more for themselves. Those complex emotions remind readers that they’re so much more than their jobs or where they live.

“Tomorrow or Tomorrow” was a story that had a particular note of longing and a search for meaning that sharply reminded me of certain experiences I had while living in my hometown. While drug use isn’t part of my own history, the loss of a classmate known since childhood—whether by suicide or accident—presented a certain kind of pondering I knew too well. Gilstrap captures the “whys” that seem to linger whenever someone young and bright dies effortlessly on the page. An important quality of the collection, especially for readers who might not be familiar with small, everyone-knows-everyone communities. As with “The Denial Weeks,” this story felt less about the action—though the try-hard cops and their soaring sense of self-importance highlights small-town law enforcement almost too well—than the feelings it evoked. But again, Gilstrap has figured out a way to weave moments of vulnerability with the hardness of her setting in a way that offers a unique perspective for her readers.

Obviously, I am a fan of this collection. If you’ve ever grown up in a small town where dreaming of more was met with scorn and rolled eyes, the desperation featured in this collection will resonate strongly. However, I do wish Gilstrap had included at least one story of someone who had gotten “out.” While I fell in love with each story and its characters for various reasons, as I neared the end it did start to feel like a slog being introduced to another set of characters and yearnings that felt similar to the ones that had come before. Getting out is as sensational in these towns as staying and it was an element that could have created a bit more variety and depth. Not only would it have added another layer to the stories, but I sincerely believe someone’s perspective of a town changes when they leave, and it would have been interesting to see Gilstrap include that viewpoint. This collection is a haunting telling of the Carolinas and their obsession with decay. And in many ways, it is a kind of ghost story, but it also felt a lot like a love letter to this region. Despite pinpointing its flaws and the strain this area has on its people, Deadheading and Other Stories is just as much a tender reflection of what it means to never quite settle.

Plastic Man Turns 80: Paying my respects to Jack Cole a second time

The hotel my older brother was working at in Rosemont, Illinois was having a comic book convention. It was back in the 1980s so about a decade off from the convention center comic cons here in Chicagoland. It was my first ever convention. I had a local comic shop where I would spend my weekend lawn-mowing allowance on current issues, but this hotel basement opened up a new world to me. My brother paid my entry fee but told me to make my money last because I had to hang out his entire shift. My wallet was empty by the time I hit the first comic book dealer’s table.

Up close, I had seen Silver Age comics from the 1960s and Bronze Age comics from the 1970s, but I had never before seen Golden Age comics from the 1940s, which saw the introduction of comic books to the marketplace. Craning my neck to see the wall of comics behind the dealer, I looked up at a beat-up copy of Quality Comics’ Plastic Man #26. Maybe it was the primary color scheme of the cover or that the page dimensions were larger, the draw of “52 Big Full Width Pages” next to the price tag of ten cents. Maybe it was the familiarity since I grew up watching The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show. But mainly, I think it was because of the cover art by Plastic Man creator Jack Cole, showing Plastic Man fully stretched, his face stoic and calm, not the wacky, Jim Carrey-esque caricature we sometimes see in the DC Comics issues and animated versions of Plastic Man. In this essay, I want to go back to the beginning and look at a man named Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, a former gang member transformed into an iconic superhero. For the eightieth anniversary of Plastic Man, I would like to take a look at the first appearance of the character and the ways my mental health awareness aligns with Patrick “Eel” O’Brian becoming Plastic Man.

On the first page of Police Comics #1 (August 1941), we open on a robbery underway at Crawford Chemical Works. Just as Eel cracks the office safe, the chemical plant’s security guard bursts in on the gang. Eel, the last one out of the office, takes a shot from the security guard’s pistol, throwing him off balance. An unstable Eel tips a vat of acid over himself and into his open gunshot wound. He is still able to escape capture but misses out on the gang’s getaway car, who all wave “adios” as they drive off without him.

My first mental health takeaway (which is a term I will use going forward to connect Plastic Man’s character arc and my work on myself in therapy) is to know who my true friends are. When I got to the point where I had to check myself into inpatient care for self-harm, I filled out paperwork asking me who I would turn to if I got to this point again. Unfortunately, the friends I put down on the admission paper weren’t there for me going forward. I remember asking my family on visitor’s day if they contacted them as I looked to the doorway, waiting. And when I got out of the hospital, they weren’t willing to be part of my healing process. They were the people I wanted to be there for me—I admired them, wanted to impress them—but not the people I needed for healing, those who I didn’t have to don a persona for in order to receive support.

Abandoned by his gang, Eel escapes through swamps and up a mountainside till he passes out. He wakes to find himself in Rest-Haven, a retreat of monks. The monks who discovered Eel give him a bed to recuperate in. They also give him a second chance by turning the police away, who are on a manhunt for Eel and his gang. When Eel asks why he wasn’t turned in, a monk explains that Eel needed a chance to not be burdened by his past, and the monk listens as Eel tells the story of what hard knocks led him on his path of crime. How he grew up an orphan being beaten down by everyone, learning that the only way to make it in the world was to take what you wanted. It is in Rest-Haven that Eel reshapes himself and discovers his stretching powers to become Plastic Man. Eel learns that he does not have to always push back at the world because sometimes there is a helping hand instead of another slap down. Unburdened by his past, Eel literally stretches to relax after talking to the monk and notices his arms extending.

The next takeaway is to find my Rest-Haven; self-care is important. I have learned the benefits of talk therapy to help me be in the moment mentally and not lose myself to racing thoughts of “what if” scenarios or be haunted by past trauma. Being in my head with these thoughts, I do not focus on the conversations around me, which leads me to miss out on my life and its enjoyable moments. Those that know me can even recognize my tell when I am too much in my head, how my lower jaw juts out and I look like a caged gorilla at the zoo (I’m a very large man for those who have not met me). I may not have the elastic powers of Plastic Man, but through talk therapy, I have slowly been stretching myself over the years into being present. It was trial and error in the beginning to find a therapist who was a right fit but once I found that person, I was able to reshape my perspective of the past and be present. Sometimes I am totally drained after these sessions. It is like being wiped out after a gym workout. So, I give myself the time needed after sessions to recuperate. I always make sure that therapy days are on my days off and give myself the remainder of the day afterward for a walk wherever the sidewalk takes me, taking in the world around me and seeing what I can capture on my phone’s camera. There are also the options of writing (I am a big fan of art therapy), reading, or TV. If I need a nap after therapy, I view it as necessary restorative sleep and not depression sleep. Even Plastic Man needs to pull himself back together.

The remainder of the issue sees Eel “rejoining” the gang for a heist only to one-up them as Plastic Man and turn them into the police. Eel demands to drive the getaway car on the next caper. When the gang enters the building, he shifts his face and body into Plastic Man. As Plastic Man, he stretches up multiple floors to get ahead of the gang, such as morphing into a rug at the bottom of a flight of stairs to catch them up, frazzling them, and making them think that Plastic Man is everywhere in the building almost at once. When the gang returns, he jumps back into the getaway car, changes back into Eel, and drives them straight by the police station. Then, the new “long arm of the law” sneakily grabs the gang members from outside the driver’s window, pulling them around the car to drop the crooks off at the station. Eel is ironically believed to be the only one to get away this time, allowing him to have a secret identity that infiltrates criminal gangs only to bust them up as Plastic Man.

My final takeaway is to ground myself in the room I am currently located. Through grounding—a practice where I work on being present in a situation when I feel overwhelmed or manic—I’ve learned how to be present in each room, to not anticipate my next move or be triggered by past trauma. By focusing on my breathing and feeling my feet on the floor, I can prevent myself from being uprooted and remain in the moment without pulling myself away with anxious thoughts or soaking in the toxic energy of others. For myself, I find I don’t have the power to bend the universe to my will, nor do I wish to, and my reacting manic to a situation is a sign that I don’t wish to deal with reality, but grounding allows me to be present in a moment and focus on the situation at hand with a clear head. I need my focus to be with me and where I am currently at in the present moment.

Plastic Man catches a lot of crooks by taking in his surroundings, morphing into objects, and waiting things out. Plastic Man is sometimes posing as inanimate objects and needs to not be an anamorphic object if he is going to come across as what he is turning into. (Meaning, a walking, talking briefcase wouldn’t fool anyone in a ransom money drop-off.) As Eel, he has to stay in his own lane to keep up the appearance of a criminal to remain undercover. The magic of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is that it’s a kooky world, but Plastic Man adapts and morphs to meet each outlandish situation. Plastic Man gets misconceived as a walking cartoon character instead of the dual identity of Eel O’Brian/Plastic Man, a former criminal identity who changes into a heroic persona as a means of adapting to the world around him. The malleability of Plastic Man allows him to be more of a reed than the mighty oak he was before the accident and his time at Rest-Haven, someone who wasn’t going to budge for anyone. Now, Eel can go with the flow and adapt to the situation instead of being a tough guy bending the situation to his whim, or breaking under the pressure.

Another way I stay present is by observing pareidolia around me when I am out walking instead of being caught up in my head. Pareidolia is noticing shapes or faces in inanimate objects, like cracks in rocks that look like a smiling face or crumples in a discarded napkin that look like a dog. It’s like when you look at the clouds to see shapes, but without trying to Rorschach Test an image and instead stumbling on the moment naturally in the wild. Crooks in the comics don’t notice Plastic Man taking the form of an inanimate object because they are not focusing on their surroundings, only their actions. So, in these early issues, Plastic Man is not a human cartoon disconnected from the real world: he connects to the world in the comics by blending into his surroundings to wait out criminals; he processes but does not absorb shots or punches from others, they bounce off him; and most of all, he knows when to be Eel and when to be Plastic Man.

The tragedy behind Plastic Man is that Jack Cole died by suicide on August 13, 1958, in Crystal Lake, Illinois. At the time, he was working as an illustrator for Hugh Hefner at Playboy. Cole’s suicide note to Hefner can be found in the book Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretch to Their Limits! by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd (Chronicle Books, 2001). I remember being hit hard by that read to the point where I drove almost an hour to Crystal Lake. After the biography’s publication, Jack Cole was being discussed and how his death by suicide left so many questions. But I wasn’t at the lake looking for answers. For me, though I wasn’t able to verbalize it at the time, I needed to be in the space not just because I was a fan of Jack Cole, but because I didn’t feel there was anywhere I could go to talk about my own thoughts of suicide.

Jack Cole was not being selfish to take his life by suicide—he was dealing with mental health issues, and society in the 1950s was not in a place where men could talk openly about those things. I took the afternoon to apologize to Jack Cole that mental health awareness wasn’t better during his time. I walked back to my car repeating to myself that I wanted to live. On the drive home, I thought about that same persistent stigma waiting for me as I looked for help for myself—I had a doctor who told me there was “nothing wrong with a nap” when I said I was too exhausted to do anything. My family and my employer facilitated my need to mask my struggles with a plastic grin out of a fear of breathing in their toxic positivity and gaslighting when what I really needed was their unbiased support. My own path of mental health wasn’t instantaneous. I did not just snap back like a rubber band after that trip to Crystal Lake. It was facing the stigma of getting help as I was growing up, it was that emotional drive home from Crystal Lake, it was having one day years later where I thought I couldn’t handle things anymore, it was finally asking for help that same day, and it is now diligent daily upkeep on my mental health. And it is worth it.

Jack Cole created some visually stunning advisories for Plastic Man, like the giant who walked on his hands (Police Comics #11) or when we first met future sidekick Woozy Winks (Plastic Man #13) whose supernatural good luck causes an unreal infallibility to his crimes. I found the trick to Plastic Man was that he wasn’t the zaniest one in the room but adapted to the oddest things Cole could think up. In the end, Plastic Man would pull himself together returning to form. Deep down, having that Plastic Man comic under his arm helped that grade school version of me as he left the basement convention. He kept at it, reading and supporting the non-mainstream superheroes. The next decade, that kid would be older and go to the comic convention at a large event center down the road. Decades later, he would see that convention move downtown, everyone cosplaying as their favorite characters and people on the street wearing superhero T-shirts from blockbuster movies. The world has become that hotel basement. That kid in the hotel basement picked up a few things from Plastic Man, adapted to our own off-kilter world, and lived to see fan conventions take the hint as well, expanding to not just talk comics, but to address mental health awareness and the necessity of suicide prevention with booths for suicide awareness organizations on the convention floor and panels for mental health on their schedules. Seeing comic conventions as a place I sought to escape from my problems now becoming a community to end the stigma around mental health, I couldn’t think of a better eightieth birthday present for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

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