An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

DH: I’ve been excited about A Peculiar Peril since you teased it in our interview years ago. What inspired you to write this book? 

JV: Years ago, my wife Anne and I edited a fake medical guide called the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. It has all kinds of contributors, like Neil Gaiman, and all kinds of fake diseases that use the medical guide format to tell stories. We actually did readings where we were dressed in lab coats and people who weren’t there for the readings would do a double-take at ballistic organ syndrome or something like that. You can find it in a lot of medical libraries, sometimes appropriately stacked in the humor section, other times it’s with actual medical guides because of its strange format. 

We did a follow-up with Cabinet of Curiosities about Dr. Lambshead’s cabinet of curiosities in his crumbling mansion. I wrote the introduction, which was basically the story of Lambshead’s life. Several years later I started wondering about what he’d been up to. I had this sudden flash of inspiration about his grandson getting embroiled in something to do with his mansion and his cabinet of curiosities. In A Peculiar Peril, his grandson Jonathan is bequeathed the mansion after Lambshead passes away and finds three strange doors that lead to various places, including an alt-earth called Aurora.  Jonathan gets involved in this misadventure or mis-quest where it turns out Lambshead had been a part of an organization trying to protect and provide order on these doors between worlds. The one that’s closest to us, which is called Aurora, is a place where magic is real and a version of Aleister Crowley is the head of a Franco-Germanic empire. Crowley wants to conquer all of the different earths and he’s going to do this by capturing a celestial beast called the Golden Sphere. Jonathan has been tasked with trying to find it first. But things go horribly wrong; things are not quite what they seem. It really is a misadventure with a lot of humor. 

You have a wonderful blend of epic world-building and underlying themes, but at the same time every other paragraph is laugh-out-loud funny. What was it like balancing an important narrative thread while maintaining that sort of Terry Pratchett humor?

There’s been kind of an underlying humor in a lot of my books. Even in Annihilation, I find the conversations the biologist has about whether this thing is a tower or tunnel could be kind of bleakly humorous. Even the bureaucracy in authority of the Southern Reach organizations, I think, is actually funny. The proportions in A Peculiar Peril are different in part because Crowley, this bombastic villain, is kind of based on reality. So you’re using this humor not to create a scene chewing villain but to get across, in part, what these people are really like. I think the wild magic of Aurora and the wild unpredictability of it brings about that sense of humor. Some of the stuff that I read growing up—comics, books, and stuff—there was this sense of the absurdity of things coexisting with the serious. And it just naturally developed that way. I was happy to, for once, showcase that side of what I can do, because most of the novels that I’ve written, with the exception of some of the stuff in City of Saints and Madmen, has required me to be very serious. 

When we were talking about Borne years ago, that initial huge bear and kind of scientific-ish body came together for you in a dream and you pieced it back together. Did some of the more outlandish and beautiful, wild imagery come to you via dream inspiration, or were you just outside looking at chipmunks and thinking, what if those were flying and attacking people? 

This is actually similar to what happened before I wrote the Southern Reach trilogy. For Southern Reach Anne and I put together this anthology called The Weird. That required reading about 6 million words of weird fiction in a fairly short amount of time. When I wrote these books, we were researching and reading for The Big Book of Classic Fantasy and The Big Book of Modern Fantasy and I think a lot of the tone and texture from classic fantasy rubbed off on me. When you do that, you get into this really interesting, absurd-logic place because a lot of folktales are absolutely batshit. I think the creators of those retellings took a lot of joy in how absurd they could get. There’s a story called “Hans, my Hedgehog” that we put in that book, which was a huge influence because of the hedgehog man who rides a rooster. Some of it came out that reading and some of it came from moving into this ravine area and I getting to know these animals in our yard. We have possums, racoons, armadillos, rabbits, snakes, owls, hawks, you know, almost everything you could imagine from north Florida. Because of the way the house is built, even just from the window, you get to know each animal individually. I think that rubbed off in terms of the individual personalities of some of the animals. 

Crowley is, to some degree, your main antagonist, but there’s also John Dee and Napoleon, and of course we just have Napoleon’s head. What was it like to do a great deal of research and then adapt it to this alternate reality?

I tried to only use historical characters that I’d already researched. I already knew a lot about Kafka, who appears as an amphibious cop in the book. I had done a lot of research on John Dean for my prior novels. 

As for Napoleon, I was once fascinated with how his military mind worked, and read this colossal, I think 2000-page, history book of his battles and political intrigues. I also read about Charlemagne and William the Conqueror who both appear in the book. William the Conqueror isn’t accurately portrayed in this novel, so I didn’t have to do a lot of research. I’ve also extensively studied and read maybe forty volumes of decadent era literature. I could get to the fun of writing them because I already knew who they were and didn’t have to do research. Then I mashed it all together because, in Aurora, certain things don’t quite happen at the same time. So there’s a Czech Republic that’s formed much earlier than here and there are certain characters who, in real life, wouldn’t have occupied the same time period. At the same time, there are characters like Napoleon who are just resurrected, conveniently. I like the idea of riffing off Napoleon, alt-Napoleon, and having him change over the course of the novel and providing a secondary character through-line for different events. You get some wider context from him at times. 

Last time we talked about what your process has been like for your previous novels, where you tend to agonize for years and how you had some trepidation over the Southern Reach trilogy because they came so quickly to you. Where did this book fall in the range of Jeff VanderMeer writing styles? 

The book formed over a fairly long period. I’ve been working on and off on it since 2010. The way I work is always in a bunch of scene fragments, so when I say “beginning work” on book two, I was already pretty far into it. I just hadn’t written the full rough draft. The idea for Dead Astronauts came to me and it was like this flash out of the blue and it was so poetically intense that I knew if I didn’t finish, I would ruin Lambshead by continuing it and I would also ruin Dead Astronauts by not doing it right away. 

So there have been these little gaps, and all the gaps have been useful. I always feel there is a usefulness to having starts and stops and making you look at a narrative differently. I also feel like there has been a lot in my head about wanting to write about the world, wanting to write in some disguised way about Florida. I may have been processing and thinking about things a lot more in a general sense than I’d realized. 

Talk to me about who you think your ideal reader is for this book, if you could conjure them out of a machine the way you do when making creatures. 

I appreciate books that you can go back to at different times and see different things. There are certain stories, like the Dark is Rising books that you can read as a kid and come back as an adult and find new things to appreciate. There are timeless children’s classics that work the same way. And it’s not like an artificial thing where you think I’m going to build in an adult reaction to this novel rather than a teen reaction, it’s more, just going back to writing fantasy-fiction, which is what I started out writing. When I started out I wrote a lot of really bad pastiches, like Patricia McKillip novels, that were never finished or publishable. But that’s how I learned to write. 

So in one sense, I felt like I was just going back to what I’d always done. The difference, of course, is that there’s a sixteen-year-old protagonist, despite there being a wide cast of viewpoints in the characters. At sixteen years old, Jonathan Lambshead, is a shy nature-loving boy and that, I guess, is the crux of thinking about the audience. But I’m also writing this character and following how I think they would react and what they would be like, so I didn’t really think about anything other than doing what felt right for this situation. 

When it came time to sell it, there were offers from adult publishers and YA publishers. I think some of the adult publishers, though it was kind of them, wanted to make too many changes, like making Jonathan older. I just didn’t want to get caught up in that so that’s why it landed where it did. 

I’m always a bit worried when adult writers write a YA book. I worry that it won’t be as dark as their other work. But in the first scene you put those fears to rest. What was it like writing for a different audience?

The way I look at it, I always do something different with every book. Even within the Southern Reach, all three novels are written in completely different ways. There’s always a central thing that has some preoccupation with the environment. Maybe this time it comes out with the animals and everything. But the books always come out very different. At the end of the day, it’s still a VanderMeer book. For example, I grew up in the Fiji islands, which is a British Commonwealth country. So, when I came back to the States as a nine-year-old I had a British accent, and had these bizarre experiences of failing spelling tests and such. With Jonathan, as he lives in both Florida and the UK, I kept coming back to those experiences. 

So what’s it like now that everyone wants to turn everything you write into a film or a TV show? Has that changed the way that you write? Are you thinking about how things will look on the screen? Or are you still able to completely focus on the page? 

As somebody who started with self-publishing and small presses, then got picked up by large commercial presses, I just do things to protect myself. It’s extremely surreal, at one point nobody wanted to publish any of this stuff and then people kept saying “these things are un-filmable.” So in one way, it’s very gratifying and in another way, it is deeply weird. For example, Hummingbird Salamander, the adult novel I just finished—which is about bioterrorism, ecoterrorism, wildlife trafficking, and the end of the world—is one of the few books of mine where the challenges are different because there’s one central mystery to be solved. 

But this is a different challenge because there is something that has to be solved, which is the direct through-line that everything falls off of. It’s a different kind of complexity, a different kind of structure, one I felt very comfortable selling it to Netflix—based on one page of summary—because I knew the kind of novel it was. I already new who the character was. I couldn’t really get screwed up by the fact that somebody had optioned it. 

There are certainly novels I would not have been able to do that with. Getting my editor’s notes, it’s pretty clear I was correct about this. I had the through-line, the bones of it and the structure already down in my head. My editor had no structural edits. The only edits I received were about lack of clarity. It’s entirely possible that selling a story before finishing a manuscript could have screwed me up. The novel I’m working on next, Drone Love, I definitely would not want to pre-sell until I have a draft finished. The short answer is, I think about it and I either channel it or I just find ways to protect myself. 

Talk to me about what we can see next from you, as I’m sure everyone will devour this 700-page book in a weekend and want more.

Well, coming July 20th is The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, which is the companion volume to The Big Book of Classic Fantasy. Together, they’re 1 million words of fiction covering the early 1800s through the early part of this century. It’s the most comprehensive two-part anthology, so to speak, of fantasy. It has more translations and is more inclusive than any anthology. I keep saying to people, that was actually a fairly low bar in the English language. It’s possible another anthology could eclipse it in ten years, which I hope happens.

At the end of the year, the trade paperback of Dead Astronauts and also the hardcover-omnibus reissue of my three Ambergris novels from will be out. Then next year, in April, Hummingbird Salamander will come out. I also have a short story collection tentatively titled Nice is Just Another World for Terrible that will come out at some point. In 2022, two Jonathan Lambshead books will also come out, which conclude that series.

NIGHT HIKING

Winner of the 2019 Winter Contest.

He liked to hike at night. When the glow from the headlamp 

lit up only a few feet before us. My footsteps soft behind,

he never had to look at the size of the mountain he was climbing. 

He would not see it this way. He would say he preferred the bite 

of the air, how the stillness was thrilling, the rush of being 

the only ones awake under the sky. Once we got lost 

at the top in a boulder field. Snowflakes stung my cheeks red 

as they spun into midnight. Searching for the fire tower we took turns 

in our fear, grabbing fistfuls of indigo, scrambling up and onward,

the path narrow, the splits too subtle and sudden to catch. I wish 

I had felt it then, how the fog that swallowed the mountain 

would come for us, too. How we would not see the things before us, 

our vision tunneled as the beam of the flashlight. Pupils stretched wide

to the lip of the basin, gulping down the night, we would miss 

the mountain’s precipice, miss the bends and blooms. If we had paused, 

let the crescent moon illuminate every shadow, every inky figure,

we might have turned to face the cliffs, appreciated their enormity, felt 

our thirst and taken slow sips of the dawn instead of lapping at darkness. 

A Review of Zadie Smith’s Intimations

Published July 28, 2020 by Penguin Books

Intimations is Zadie Smith’s latest essay collection. It’s slim, less than one hundred pages, and marketed as her pandemic piece. Or, as she so eloquently refers to it, “the global humbling.” The collection is divided into six sections. There are four main essays, then a “Screen Grabs” subsection (containing pieces that are more like seven literary sketches), and finally, a few pages of shout-outs eponymously titled “Intimations.” Each essay is brief, yet as dense as a Borges short story, offering a nugget of wisdom or ending on an especially poignant note. At such a short length, nothing is extraneous. Though each piece offers an interesting take on our new normal, the collection feels a little too sparse. There’s a noticeable narrative arc missing in a lot of the material here that leaves the reader wondering, what should I do with this information? 

In the first essay, “Peonies,” a patch of tulips growing in New York City catch Smith’s eye. They draw her in despite her lack of interest in horticulture. The pink and orange tulips, a symbol of spring and beauty juxtaposed with a “downtown aesthetic,” strike her with awe. Yet she wishes the flowers were peonies. She goes on to describe writers as having an “obsession with control.” According to Smith, creative writing is an act of controlling an experience: 

Experience—mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious—rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mold of their own devising. Writing is all resistance.

In describing writing as an act of exerting control over an experience, she creates a helpful dichotomy of resistance and submission. Neither condition is all good or all bad, just dependent on its circumstance.

Sometimes it is right to submit to love, and wrong to resist affection. Sometimes it is wrong to resist disease and right to submit to the inevitable. And vice versa.

If she were writing fiction, the flowers would be peonies. But because this is real life she’s attempting to dictate, they must be tulips. She was forced to submit to the joy of a “garish” tulip just as she is forced to submit to the daily conditions of quarantine. In hindsight, the peonies were her prelude to the quarantine. The moment when spring collided with a “season of death.” 

“Something to Do,” the third essay, distills writing and art-making down to just something to do. Unless you’re an essential worker, you’ve probably come up against what Smith describes as “the perennial problem of artists and prisoners: time, and what to do with it.” We busy ourselves with careers to give us something to do, to take up our time. But Smith describes that business not as living, just as doing time. Love, she says, is what makes time feel like living, and “busyness will not disguise its lack.” It’s a helpful reminder that sometimes a love cliché is a cliché for a reason: it’s meaningful. 

Smith finds the ways in which she previously spent her time embarrassing. Suddenly her family, the people she loves most, are seeing how she does time, how she’s always done it. She recognizes old habits die hard and desires for new ways of doing time. “There is no great difference between novels and banana bread,” she declares. They’re both just something to do and no substitute for love. 

In the postscript of the “Screen Grabs” section, Smith comments on the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests: 

In theory, [the] principles of slavery were eradicated from the laws of the land—not to mention the hearts and minds of the people—long ago. In theory. In practice, they pass like a virus through churches and schools, adverts and movies, books and political parties, courtrooms and prison systems and, of course, police departments. Like a virus, they work invisibly within your body until you grow sick with them.

Smith goes on to say she once thought vaccines for racism were possible by revealing how shamefully Americans pass this virus to each other. But she no longer thinks a vaccine is possible. Not when racism is so deeply entrenched in every facet of American society. 

The collection isn’t free of blunders, though. A homeless man Smith saw in a park inspired one of the “Screen Grabs.” She can’t help asking herself if homeless people feel like the world has come to them after being rendered unrecognizable. It comes off as cheap to compare the locked-down nation to a homeless person’s trauma, trivializing their lived experience. This “screen grab” seems like a half-baked thought experiment of Smith’s that boils down to a blithe statement of “It’s pretty crazy out here, huh?”

As New York City became one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots, Zadie Smith prepared to leave the city for a friend’s cabin two hours away. A few hours before leaving, she bumps into an elderly neighbor. The old woman expresses optimism because everyone in the building will take care of each other. Smith agrees with her, knowing she’ll be gone in a matter of hours. At the end of the “Intimations” section, where she thanks loved ones, dead greats like Virginia Woolf, and the concept of contingency, Smith states: “my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now.” 

I used to have a writing mentor who would profess the merits of writing that “snapped shut”—a story, an essay, a poem, that “snaps shut” is one that ties its theme and motifs together in a simple yet genius way at the conclusion. Zadie Smith is a master of her craft and a sucker for a good conclusion: every piece in this collection snaps shut.

An Interview with Ryan Michael Painter

In your memoir, The Unexpected Son, you write about how you encouraged your mother to write the memoir because it “wasn’t your story to tell,”­­ while she insisted on the opposite. How did you decide it was “your time” to write your parents’ story? 

I had to grow into it; figure out what the story was. When I was in my early twenties, you couldn’t include “gay” and “Mormon” in the same sentence without eliciting an extreme reaction. I wasn’t interested in writing tabloid fodder. 

I was also scared. I had been able to compartmentalize aspects of my belief system and wasn’t ready to try and reconcile the incongruities. I needed some of the old structure to keep standing.

I lived a little, learned a lot, and by my early thirties Mom’s prodding led me to reassess the project. I dived in and after a few years of writing there was some interest, but nothing stuck. It was the Obama era; the story didn’t feel needed. So, I shelved it and focused on other aspects of my life. 

Two years ago, a string of spectacular failures had me in a downward spiral. The world seemed to be in a similar position. I had talked about interviewing my father’s friends and family, which hadn’t been part of the previous draft, and working from what felt like personal and cultural rock bottom I rebuilt the book as I pieced myself back together. 

Memories can be shifting and unreliable, and also a little bit magical. How did you balance revisiting old journals and artifacts for accuracy, while keeping some of the childhood magic of your memories?

I have a terrible memory. I remember snippets of this or that, but rarely a complete picture. Nonetheless, while thinking my way through the writing, I knew that it was important that I be factual as possible. 

It was easy to confirm my mother’s aspects of the story; she was very good at correcting me on anything she felt misrepresented the truth. My aspect of the story was always going to be filtered through my childhood imagination. That was the safest, most enjoyable aspect of the writing. To ignore the magical aspects of my memories would have made the book less true. 

Working my father into the narrative was one of the hardest aspects of the writing. I avoided it for years, worried that it might change the way I felt about him. Ultimately, I found that our lives weren’t all that different. It’s speculative at times, but I don’t try to hide that.   

What felt like the starting point for The Unexpected Son? Was there a specific memory or scene that always felt the most “alive” to you?

The starting point was a dead end. The initial draft was built entirely around my mother’s journals and a few interviews that I did with her. The story had become a weight; I just wanted to be through with it.  

The further I got from my father, the more he became a sullen, ghostly figure. That wasn’t how I saw him when I was a child. I missed who he had been, needed to see him in that light again. So, the subsequent drafts became a search for a memory where my father was laughing. I went back to the moments we shared in his den. Me drawing, him watching Dallas. It was the only way that I could get inside of the narrative.

For readers who aren’t LDS (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), what would you want them to know about the LDS church from your childhood? What about the church now? 

Through my mother’s example I was taught that being LDS was about love, not about being right or better. Mom was a divorced, single parent during a time when being either was unmentionable. There were many women in similar positions who retreated from religion because they felt unworthy. Mom and I spent a lot of time in their living rooms. We weren’t trying to convince them to come back to church; we were trying to tell them that they were never unworthy of love. 

Forty years later, you can walk into an LDS service and there are dozens of single parents and divorcees who feel welcomed, wanted. Radical change is possible. It is hard, slow and many of the torchbearers will never enjoy the freedoms they are fighting for. Is it worth it? I hope so.   

How do you think you’ve developed as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community? What advice would you give to others who want to get more involved as allies?

I’ve been a passive ally for most of my life. I tiptoed around, worried about who I might offend and how that might reflect on my family. Not acknowledging my father didn’t make the world a better place. It stifled me; kept me from knowing myself. 

I think the hardest part of being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community or BLM or anything beyond personal experience is knowing that someday you’re going to say something ignorant. I’ll screw up pronouns. I’ll struggle to understand why anyone would want a label of any sort because my whole life has been spent trying to escape labels. It’s very possible that I have beliefs that are unintentionally hurtful. I may not recognize how or why they are cruel, hypocritical, or short-sighted. I will listen. I will try to do better. I will strive to understand different perspectives. I will not be angry if I am corrected. I hope that those who correct me will be forgiving.

I’m forever a work in progress, but I’ve decided that I’d prefer to be hated for who I am and how I feel rather than being loved because I kept my opinions to myself. You don’t like the way I write or the stories I tell? That’s fine, I’ll still write. You can make the choice not to read it. Too many families have been torn apart, lives lost. It never had to be that way. 

My advice? Love without reservation. Do it quietly if you have to, but no one should be ashamed of being kind and compassionate. Empathy isn’t a sin; apathy is. 

You chose to self-publish through a local press. What have been the pros and cons of this publishing path?

The costs have been formidable, but I wanted complete artistic control. From an economic perspective it might have been smarter to stick with an electronic release or go with a print-on-demand service right out of the gate, but I wanted the first printing to be something special. I might not sell any of them, particularly the hardcovers, but I had a vision in my head and wanted to get as close to that as I could.

What was the most difficult part of writing The Unexpected Son

I quickly realized that to write this story I had to burn down everything that I remembered and reconstruct it with the new details I was discovering. None of what I had imagined about my parents’ marriage was true. They weren’t in love; they were strangers. Neither really knew what they were getting into. That changed the way I looked at myself. By the end, I’d questioned everything I knew and believed. There are still portions of my life that I haven’t been able to reconcile. 

Which part of writing The Unexpected Son brought you the most joy?

When Mom asked me to write the story, I didn’t see the purpose. I knew my childhood was unique; I didn’t see how that made it valuable. Now, there are moments when I get optimistic. I want to change the world. I don’t know if that qualifies as joy, but it is hope.

No, the joy was me rediscovering who I was as a child. And being able to love him and be him again.

The Cycle of the Lovable Liar: A Review of I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert

Published February 11, 2020 by Penguin Books

The world is full of liars, pretenders and fakes. We know this to be true. We’ve all been complicit in our dishonesty culture once or twice. Your friend asks if those new plaid pants look okay, and you nod vigorously. Your coworker brings in a homemade fruitcake, gummy and under-baked, and after the first bite you nod, smile, tell them that it’s delicious. Then dump the plate once their back is turned. This masquerade is an almost commonplace part of our nature, these little lies we tell to keep the peace. But what happens when these little lies become more than that? When they become a rope that traps instead of connects? When they suffocate us? 

This question is just one of many explored in Peter Kispert’s debut collection of short stories, I Know You Know Who I am. The book consists of twenty-one pieces, varying in length, that center on a wide array of characters. Ranging from actors to assistant lifeguards to aquarium employees to professional sword swallowers, the majority of these seemingly dissimilar people have one striking quality in common. They’re liars. 

In several cases, the lies these characters tell are not merely embellishments; they are the fabric of life itself, the foundation of their existence. They are whoppers, the kind that society frowns upon and that any sane person would admit go too far. One character fakes his religion to win affection. Another invents a best friend just to impress his partner, even hiring an actor. Yet another puts the lives of his family at risk by signing up for a deadly game without their permission. 

However, in spite of their indubitable violations of moral conduct, I couldn’t help but fall in love. The tenderness with which Kispert portrays the liars left me rooting for them, hoping against all hope that they wouldn’t destroy themselves, that this time they would get things right. There is something about the pathetic nature of their lies, about their desperate need for love and approval, that makes it impossible to dislike them. Because at the end of the day, those who lie aren’t necessarily scared of the truth. They’re scared of what other people will think of it. And what’s more human than wanting to be accepted, to belong, to feel that you are already good enough? 

Unsurprisingly, of course, the lies end up isolating these characters more often than not. They self-sabotage, trapping themselves in the web of fiction that they create, getting stuck in an endless cycle. Every fib, even one as simple as disliking red wine, follows them into eternity, and it’s only a matter of time before they lose track of their own inventions. The line between who they are and who they’re pretending to be blurs, until it’s impossible to distinguish the two. 

The title story in particular serves as a striking example of this. Split into two parts, placed like bookends on either end of the collection, this story’s narrator goes to the ends of the earth in order to follow the simple lie that he started to impress his boyfriend: that he has a best friend. Once he invents that lie, a dozen others have to follow it. The best friend needs a name, a personality, a place to live, a career. Even when the narrator attempts to do away with him, kills off his fictional creation, there still has to be a funeral. It’s inevitable that these lies become too heavy to carry, and once one is dropped, it’s only a matter of time until the others fall too. He can’t keep up with himself, as many of these characters can’t. 

The title of the collection is striking in its confident simplicity: I Know You Know Who I Am. But the book left me feeling just the opposite. Do I really know? Does anyone really know who anyone is? Is it even possible to know ourselves? It sounds a bit dramatic, but maybe we all have a little in common with Kispert’s characters. All of us are people who want to love and be loved, willing to fake it until we make it, or fall apart trying. 

A Review of Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Published February 4, 2020 by Tor

“Upright Women Wanted” is written on the Librarian recruitment poster. The State is searching for young ladies willing to traverse the desert on horseback, distributing government-approved materials throughout the neo-fascist United States. Esther Augustus wants to join them and become the “upright woman” she’s failed to be. She needs to scrub clean the memory of watching her best friend––her first love––hanged for deviance. Leaving her life behind is the only way she’ll never hurt anyone again. But when Esther is found as a stowaway on the Librarians’ wagon, she’s greeted by the barrel of a gun and the realization that these women aren’t who she imagined them to be. 

On the road, Esther’s eyes are opened to a world beyond survival, a world in which queer women and nonbinary people not only exist, but also love one another and fight back against an oppressive regime. Sarah Gailey (they/them) lets us see that wonder through Esther’s eyes––to feel her hope and her hopelessness. Between gunfights on horseback, there are tender touches and lingering looks. The reality for queer folks in Upright Women Wanted echoes our own society: Librarian Apprentice Cye is “they” on the road and “she” in town to protect themself from violence. Bet and Leda can be more than a Librarian and her Assistant while on the open road. Esther realizes that maybe she and Beatriz could have had a life together after all.

Beyond the desert, we revisit the world that Esther is fleeing from––Gailey paints a full picture of this neo-fascist United States. The smallest details show what life looks like in the dystopian Southwest. Citizens salvage the twine binding of government pamphlets to use as thread. The pamphlets themselves get recollected or else people would use them to insulate their walls. Only the military industrial complex gets such resources and basic sanitation––even the largest cities have doctors rinsing their tools in liquor before an operation. This bleak world comes together seamlessly throughout the story. There wasn’t a moment where I felt like I had too much or too little information; instead, this compact novella kept an engaging pace that’s often difficult to get right in shorter speculative fiction.

However, there were points in the novella at which I questioned the emotional realness of Esther Augustus. I could not suspend my disbelief that Esther was able to move past Beatriz’s execution so quickly; her internalized self-loathing never truly held her back from her goals. Esther’s grief feels amorphous and distant––as if she had only left Beatriz behind, rather than running away from her lover’s public death. Fifty pages later, Esther is already smothering her infatuation with Cye. While Gailey does their best to establish how Esther has trained herself to be emotionally stoic in a society impoverished by war, I felt like even a hardened character would have cracks in her foundation after so much loss. 

While Esther’s emotional arc has some weak points, her journey of self-acceptance and resilience gives the novella a satisfying, thematic ending. Upright Women Wanted presents a dystopia that feels urgent and real, built on the abuses of power and violence that exist in present day. But most importantly, Gailey gives us hope. For every person who believes they are alone in their fight, there is someone already fighting.

How to Survive Writing about Trauma in Workshop

In the spring of my freshman year of undergrad, I took my very first writing workshop. I was nineteen. My professor was in his late fifties, a published author. He announced in our first class that he was in the process of negotiating film rights for his latest novel, a harrowing coming of age story loosely based on his own adolescence. I admired him. He was actually out there writing, taking his own experience and making it into something commercial, something readable. 

A few workshops in, one of my classmates brought in a creative nonfiction piece about the abuse she had suffered the semester before. It was graphic, and none of us really knew how to respond. Feedback from her classmates was minimal, full of shallow praise for being so honest and raw. Our professor went last. He questioned her for what felt like hours. He wanted her to get to the root of this story, to expand on its feeling and emotion. He said, “What is the point of a story like this, if the reader can’t feel exactly what the narrator is feeling? Without that emotion, the scene is shallow.” He recommended that she expand the scene by slowing it down, second by second. Only then would she create something genuinely visceral. 

I remember the look on her face. She was close to tears, and never brought the story in again. Our professor asked about it every week, and every week she shut down. 

We all have baggage, some of it heavier than others. As a writer, we may feel that it’s a part of our job to use this baggage and write it out for the world to read. If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve probably heard more about your classmates’ lives than seems appropriate—hell, sometimes I learn about an author’s trauma before I even learn their name.

When it comes to writing about your trauma in a workshop, it’s important to set boundaries for yourself and for your classmates. In the end, these students, and especially your professor, are there to help you improve your work. But how do you know when to put your mental health before your writing, especially if writing is how you process pain?

Understand that you are not the only person in the classroom dealing with trauma.

Remember your baggage? Everyone is dragging their own into the room, too.  

It can take years for us to sit down and write out painful memories—but just because you are at that point, doesn’t mean everyone else is. Include disclaimers, content warnings, and/or footnotes! A creative writing environment is a safe writing environment. 

Be sure that you’re ready for strangers to know what you’ve been through.

By sharing your writing, you’re becoming an open book. People might look at you differently. When my classmate shared her story with us, we didn’t know what to say. I tried to treat her writing like anyone else’s, but it was difficult.

Some classmates may only be there for a fine arts credit, while others are there to write their magnum opus. Some writers will be insensitive, and some will be overly sensitive. Either way, you can bet that at least one student will corner you afterwards and question you about your process, the honesty of your piece, and commend you for your bravery in putting yourself out there. Sharing trauma can be healing, and it can create solidarity in the writing circle. Be ready to get personal—and all that it entails.

Criticism hits harder when the content is personal.

In order to better your writing and strengthen the piece, be prepared to take it apart. You may have to rewrite the whole thing. You may have to cut the scenes it took you weeks to write or expand the ones that were hardest to relive. When students critique your piece, they’ll try to be sensitive, but it’s easy to get defensive when someone is going after your work. Remember that everyone is only trying to help you write the best piece you can. Be ready to talk about your work from a distance.

Professors are usually focused on one thing: improving your writing.

My professor didn’t mean to make my classmate uncomfortable. He likely thought that, since she had already shared the piece in class, she was ready for criticism. Maybe she thought the same. 

Some professors will push you too hard. Some of them, like mine, won’t know when to stop. Don’t be afraid to approach your professor after class and have a conversation with them. You don’t have to disclose anything about your experience, but it never hurts to be truthful. Tell them that this story is hard for you to share. Tell them it isn’t just a “story,” but a part of you. You are brave for sharing this with the world, but let your professor know that even the strongest of us can only take our trauma so far. 

Sometimes, you’re not ready to pick apart your past, even if you thought you were.

Many of us write in order to process our pain. I often find that I can’t remember a situation clearly until I put it down on paper. It’s only afterwards, having read through my own words, that I can begin to think critically about what I’ve gone through. Most of the time, this writing never sees the light of day, but on the rare occasion that I bring it into a workshop, it feels like a game of chance; will I be able to handle criticism, or will it be too much? I have to remind myself that it’s okay for it to be too much. When you’re done with this piece, don’t be afraid to set it down. We might not be ready to share these pieces of ourselves. It doesn’t make us any less honest of a writer, it just makes us human.

My professor was focused on the writing. I wonder if it was a good thing; is it better to analyze our trauma with a critical lens? Will that make it less painful? Ultimately, I’ve learned that my emotional well-being is more important than any piece of writing. Workshops are meant to push us to our limits and pull honest writing out of us, but we can be honest writers without putting too much of ourselves and our pain into our work. When you enter a writing workshop with your trauma in tow, remember that you are not your writing. 

Resistance Writers: An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs

As societies around the world dip their toes in authoritarianism, we’d like to elevate authors of speculative fiction who imagine alternatives or help us demand the impossible futures of our dreams. In the Resistance Writers interview series, we’ll hear from a handful of writers from the 2015 anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Each writer elaborates on sources of inspiration and how activism informs their work. Our hope is to provide a source of guidance for aspiring writers of visionary fiction.

Tommy Chisholm (TC)

How did you get involved with the Octavia’s Brood project? How did the editors, Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, discover your work?  

Alexis Pauline Gumbs (APG)

adrienne and I have known each other for many years. She recently reminded me that I published her first work of poetry in the Soul Sister Literary Journal that I edited in college. Walidah and I met at an anarchist people of color conference in Asheville more than a decade ago. I think Walidah and adrienne knew that my writing was future focused, but I wasn’t writing anything I thought of as sci-fi or visionary fiction at the time. I really appreciate what they saw in my work. I’m so happy to be creating a future with both of them. 

TC

What was your inspiration for “Evidence?” Was it a piece you were already developing or did it come about once you were asked to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology? 

APG

For our anniversary (I think maybe it was our three year anniversary) my partner Sangodare Akinwale (Julia Roxanne Wallace) and I decided to do a workshop for ourselves about economics. As part of that day, we wrote letters to our current selves from our future selves after capitalism ends. That letter became the seed I drew on after adrienne and Walidah asked me to be a part of the anthology. When I thought about that future self I also thought about my own work as a researcher reaching back to earlier Black feminists and tried to imagine the future beings that might reach back towards me. 

TC

What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you think politically motivated fiction can play in today’s climate?

APG

It has been so beautiful to see the impact of Octavia’s Brood since 2015. The concept that Walidah and adrienne have shared all over the world of “all organizing as science fiction” has empowered so many organizations to be more explicitly imaginative and creative in their work. I’ve seen prisoners creating their own anthologies of visionary fiction and countless courses, workshops and reading groups using visionary fiction to push themselves and grow. I think that visionary fiction is as relevant now as ever. It helps people think beyond the apocalypse or to describe more vividly what apocalypses we are headed towards.  

TC

In the current climate the United States is in, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little action. How did you find your voice, and your place within activist circles/movements? How have those experiences shaped your writing? What guidance might you give to aspiring artists/activists?

APG

I first understood that I had an activist voice when I was a teenager writing for a citywide teen-run newspaper in Atlanta called VOX through a program called Youth Communication. Facilitating writing workshops with other young people taught me how revolutionary it was for us to listen to each other rigorously and to create our own worlds of perspective. I have also been grounded in the revolutionary work of my grandparents (who were central to the 1967 revolution in Anguilla) and my parents’ encouragement, which had me read work by Black revolutionaries from a very young age. 

TC

What kinds of fiction or what particular authors have shaped your thinking? When writing fiction, what comes first: the concepts and ideals you want to explore, or the characters? Do you write with a political goal in mind? 

APG

The authors that have shaped my thinking from a young age are Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Nikki Giovanni (really poets most of all, I’m realizing), and when it comes to fiction Dionne Brand, Michelle Cliff, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker have opened my imagination profoundly. And for me, what comes first is the process that I want to have with myself, the journey that I want to go on, the place that I want to live for a little while. What I love so much about visionary fiction, which I have been writing consistently since Walidah and adrienne sparked me with this project, is that it takes me to the limits of my imagination. I go to what I want the most, and what I think of as a utopia. Then I think about the problems there and they take me far and challenge me so deeply on the limits I am holding onto in my life right now. 

TC

Can you tell us about the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind? How’d you get involved?

APG

The Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind started as one summer of potlucks called “The Summer of Our Lorde” where I worked with three organization in my community in Durham, NC to host monthly potlucks based on essays by Audre Lorde. People engaged so lovingly and craved the space so much that they kept asking me when the next one would be, and so in a sense, that summer never ended. It has now expanded into something I call a tiny Black Feminist University, which also has a lending and reference library that is evolving into a Black Feminist Bookmobile right now. There are online and in-person programs that are all based on sacred Black feminist texts and an interactive intergenerational learning model. I’m really proud and happy that current and former participants of the offerings in Durham and online are on the front lines of local, national, and international progressive direct actions for justice right now. 

TC

What are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively? 

APG

Right now I am working with a brilliant set of Black feminist and queer artists in the Twin Cities to create performative work based on my books Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity and M Archive: After the End of the World, which is amazing. The challenge and gift of embodying these worlds is teaching me so much. I am also working with Sangodare and our beloved friend-mentor-curator-artist-genius Courtney Reid-Eaton on the Black Feminist Bookmobile project and several books in process as always. 🙂

Murderously Romantic: A Review of My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

Published March 6, 2019 by Berkley Publishing

Work is done for the day, dinner’s been eaten and the dishes cleared, the kids are in bed, and it’s date night. Only instead of salsa lessons or a movie, date night takes place in the car. No, it’s not a road trip. Can’t a wife and her husband have a comfortable date night in their car, securely parked in their closed garage, eating last year’s Halloween candy?

Privacy is invaluable when you’re planning your next murder.

My Lovely Wife invites us in to take a look around, dares us to try to find the flaw in the plan, and sizes us up as if we might be the next target. Husband Tobias and wife Millicent stalk their prey and make a plan for their next victim. Their first was a mistake. Their second, maybe. The third? Not a chance. 

The dynamic between these two is enthralling, built upon desire and captivation. The secrets they share form terrifyingly powerful connections. But what about the secrets they keep from each other? When your literal partner-in-crime is going behind your back, what can you do about it without threatening your safety, and that of your children?

Downing constructs a perfect depiction of domestic life in this debut novel, twisting the typical pleasures and challenges of marriage and parenthood. Family dinner turns dark after sunset. Your son blackmails you. Your daughter hides knives in her backpack. Your client at the tennis club dies before her Tuesday lesson.

Seamlessly transitioning between flashback and the present, Downing pushes the narrative forward by informing us of her characters’ pasts, particularly those of our main character Tobias. Through him we fall in love with Millicent, come to terms with a middle-of-the-road state of being, kill someone, fall deeper in love. This dutiful husband will do anything to see light in the captivating green eyes of his wife. But the more he seems to look into her eyes, the more secrets he sees hidden away. Why would she keep one of their victims alive for a whole year after the night they’d planned to kill her?

The pacing of Downing’s work is equally delicious; she elicits two types of suspense in this novel. The first half of the book is slow and methodical—everything is planned out step by step, and there’s no room for error. That all crumbles to chaos in the second half, in which everything is error brought into hyper-focus.

The short chapters take sharp lefts and hard rights, making the book impossible to put down. The quick snapshots of the characters’ daily lives—which are anything but boring (remember what I said about your son blackmailing you?)—pull your attention onto the next page, the question “What happens next?” constantly on the tip of the tongue. Who will appear, or disappear, next? Who’s going to snap first? What secrets does the next chapter hold?

The ending of the book is a tricky thing to pin down. On one hand, I didn’t love how the last twenty pages played out. Tobias finds that it suddenly becomes him against the world, and he has to find a way to clear his name. As readers, we follow him closely, rooting for him to find the missing link to make his problems disappear. Yet before Tobias’s plan can develop and unfurl, an alternative ending is acted out and the time we, as readers, spent with Tobias in the thick of his crisis feels a little forgotten.

On the other hand, I kind of loved the ultimate ending—all because of the novel’s final, unsettling line. Though My Lovely Wife may be Downing’s debut novel, she’s no newbie to the writing scene. This is just one of twelve completed works. Once readers get their hands on it, they’ll be demanding more. 

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good Game of Thrones novel. By the end, half the characters are dead, most of the reader’s dreams have been shattered, and any of the possible happy endings we would have liked to have seen have been—at all costs—avoided. But every now and again, I miss the days before George R.R. Martin singlehandedly dismembered the fantasy genre. I miss the classic tale of a heroic protagonist set on an impossible quest. I miss the hero actually living to the end of the story, and sometimes, sometimes, I miss the happy ending. It’s at these times I find solace in books like Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.

Miryem is the daughter of a moneylender who doesn’t so much lend money as give it away. Pushed into desperation, Miryem picks up the trade herself…and finds she’s rather good at it. As her skill and profits continue to grow, however, she draws the attention of an ice king who is convinced her power of turning silver into gold isn’t marketplace cunning but magic. He spirits her away to his icy kingdom where Miryem seems doomed to spend eternity—until, through a witch’s magic portal (and an odd twist of fate), she meets Irina. Irina, a clever yet plain-faced woman of noble birth, finds her future prospects radically improved when Czar Mirnatius himself suddenly proposes marriage to her. Her sudden fortunes have little to do with luck, however; sinister motives lurk. Beneath the Czar’s beautiful façade, a fiery demon smolders, one which desires not only to consume Irina but the entire kingdom of Lithvas. With a little meddling, the two heroines plot to pit their monsters against each other. What results is truly a battle of ice and fire. 

There is much praise to heap at Novik’s feet for the creation she has wrought. Even as I sat typing this review, I kept finding more aspects of the novel to love. From the first page, what struck me most was its grace. Beautifully artistic moments, soft and powerful, are interwoven throughout the pages of her story: “A great jagged cluster of frozen spars of ice or clear crystals stood there, shining, and the tiny narrow curling of a frozen stream wound around the base and trickled away as a silver line through the trees.” Such vivid language creates snowflake moments that very much shine in what is by any definition a large book, illuminating details that other authors might simply rush past.

The story was also amazingly refreshing for a genre that has often been criticized for its sterility. With nearly every main character a female and most of the men weak or villainous, Novik literally recasts what it means to be a woman in a fantasy universe. And it works. Spinning Silver brings critical representation for a gender that has traditionally been relegated to the roles of ditsy damsels or only-pretty princesses. Instead of these, we explore the narratives and minds of strong, cunning, determined women facing the worst of adversities. Irina I found especially to fit this mold; in her, Novik echoes the Odysseus character, who relies on nothing but her cunning and wiles to outmaneuver the dangers of court. It was a refreshing take on the traditional fantasy hero who seems to solve most problems by punching his way through them.

Moreover, Novik further expands representation by bringing in her own identity as a Jewish woman. Very rarely have I encountered an intersection between Jewish and fantasy genre literature, and yet Spinning Silver is exactly this. It is impressed upon the reader that Miryem and her family are Jewish, and several times their journeys are made much the harder by their prejudiced neighbors. In fact, in one scene, it’s not ice kings or magic demons but sheer human hatred that threatens Miryem’s life. I found that scene to be one of the most powerful in the book. The result of this unexpected diversity is fresh and original; even as a fantasy veteran, I found myself surprised by the tropes and ideas Novik introduced me to and enamored with the result. Novik’s twists of fantasy were not only well executed but eerily relevant to conversations our society is having today about female representation and the resurgence of anti-Semitism. 

What is absent from the novel, however, is what separates the wheat from the chaff in genre fantasy in my opinion: a set of larger conversations rustling beneath the surface. Yes, the novel does explicitly mention anti-Semitism and yes, it does implicitly hint at feminism by its choice in protagonists, but it fails to take these conversations further in meaningful ways. The motif of anti-Semitism, for example, while complicating the plot for the characters in a handful of instances, doesn’t eventually evolve into a powerful, coherent theme which weighs on the novel; Novik seems to relegate this idea to a plot device, useful for forcing tension but not discussed wholeheartedly. She dabbles in feminism with her choice in protagonists, but she only dabbles. Again, this idea is never brought to the fore in the novel for the readers to ponder or discuss. What excites me most when reading a piece is the discussion of the story behind the story, of what the author is truly trying to say with their tale, of how they want their piece to fit into the conversations we’re having today, right now, in the real world.

But, ultimately, Spinning Silver isn’t saying anything more than what’s on the page. I don’t think this is for a lack of skill from Novik; I think she simply isn’t trying to. Unfortunately, this unwillingness to plunge her hands into the snow of her own world occasionally seeps into her characters and colored how much of an investment I experienced reading her story. It was difficult to care about Miryem when she was taken by the Staryk king because any vulnerability I might have empathized with was eclipsed by her sheer icy determination; and the one or two chapters dedicated to developing Mirnatius beyond a flat, static villain completely fell flat. The characters are written to execute an interesting plot and the plot is written to entertain the reader…and that’s about it. Not all novels need to debate larger themes to be successful, of course, but the power of fantasy pillars like Game of Thrones (which Spinning Silver derives clear inspiration from) or even the classic fairytales Novik recalls comes from their inextricable interrogation of the human condition, of things large. Things Novik herself doesn’t seem too concerned with.

All in all, though, Spinning Silver still proves itself to be a worthy entry into the fantasy genre. Its originality and diversity speak well to the times in which we find ourselves and Novik continues to prove her willingness to reimagine the past to serve the present. 

Will Spinning Silver be included among the classics? No. But for the deal I struck when I picked it up, I’d say I came away pretty well.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants

Before the end of White Dancing Elephant’s first story, it was obvious this collection of seventeen stories highlighting diverse women and their experiences would leave readers spellbound and reflective. In her debut collection, Chaya Bhuvaneswar gifts her readers with stories that feature an array of real-life scenarios, allowing for a greater, long-lasting impression. 

From extramarital affairs to miscarriages to sexual assault, Bhuvaneswar doesn’t falter from depicting the gritty reality of women. In White Dancing Elephants, we follow a middle-aged woman through rainy London as she imagines the life her miscarried baby might have experienced. Lines of prose like, “’You were so quiet, but you knew when the end came; you were silent as our blood leaked from our body” and “It isn’t that your soul came to me in a body that wasn’t durable. It’s that my body was failing, too late, too careless, too empty…” capture the painful, earthshattering moment so many have experienced but rarely discuss. These instances of stark and brutal emotion are woven into every story—you’ll move through the work unsure of how you’ll be stricken next yet desperately wanting to know more. 

While readers will appreciate how emotionally vulnerable characters are in these stories, what’s most notable in this collection is Bhuvaneswar’s refusal to write one-dimensional, likeable women. She’s doing what so many people in the literary industry have been asking for but failing to produce. Her female characters are unlikeable for a multitude of reasons, yet Bhuvaneswar creates so many layers that readers are able to empathize with these characters despite their disagreeability. This experience of neither like nor dislike is especially evident in the story “Talinda,” in which narrator Narika attempts to rationalize her affair—which lands her pregnant—with her terminally ill best friend’s husband. What seems like a black-and-white situation is turned gray by Bhuvaneswar’s ability to elicit sympathy for Narika. 

Bhuvaneswar has found a way to stress these unsavory moments between friends, lovers, and families in a way that finds you rooting for the antagonist one paragraph and cursing them the next. But it’s this commitment to presenting these women and their stories as they are, to avoid sugarcoating their lives, that captures the essence of their voices and makes you stop and listen. 

Though Bhuvaneswar’s characters really drive this collection, her willingness to play with form and style, too, gives each of her stories its own flair and individuality. “The Woman Who Fell In Love With Death” flashes between folktales and present day as a means for our narrator to survive an abusive household and the disappearance of her sister. Bhuvaneswar especially likes to play with time, jumping from past to present to better detail the lasting impacts of her characters’ actions. Though this isn’t a unique writing method, Bhuvaneswar uses it to her advantage when revealing climaxes to plot or character revelation. Her ability to introduce different methods of storytelling to her readers without confusion is one of the true hidden gems in this story collection. 

While I am profoundly appreciative of the stories Bhuvaneswar tells, the collection could have benefited from some injection of the author’s own experience—her inspiration. Bhuvaneswar took obvious efforts to leave readers reflective after the fact, but an extra sense of personal stakes might have given the stories even more urgency and driven readers to grasp that they were reading about actual experiences. 

That said, it’s clear how much care and respect Bhuvaneswar took while writing these stories, many of which show how our society views the experiences of women of color. Reflective of today’s political climate, the women depicted in White Dancing Elephants unabashedly highlight their reality without fear for the sake of opening a desperately needed dialogue.