“Cripple and Confidence Man:” Disability Representation in Six of Crows and Netflix’s Shadow and Bone

Spoiler warning for both Six of Crows and Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.

Despite being a life-long reader, I was an adult before I fully saw myself in a character. While there had been countless characters I related to in some way, all of them were missing a crucial aspect I was looking for. I finally found that in Kaz Brekker, the protagonist of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Kaz is a cold-hearted, ruthless teenage gang leader, and he is disabled. Six of Crows depicts his disability in ways that I, a disabled woman, relate to as I never have before. So I was nervous and excited when Netflix announced their adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and the fact that they would be giving characters from the Six of Crows prequel backstories to include them in the Shadow and Bone storyline.

Disabled characters, especially when handled well and not falling into ableist tropes, are not common in media. Additionally, most of this media falls into tropes including the disabled character taking a magical cure to rid them of their disability, seeking death to avoid existing in a disabled body, or serving only as a prop to further an able-bodied person’s narrative. Almost all of them rely on such ableist tropes and are ultimately more harmful than helpful to disabled representation. For example, Jojo Moye’s Me Before You features a disabled main character with enough money for the world’s best treatment and care, but he chooses medically-assisted suicide because he views his life as not worth living in a disabled body. And TV shows such as The Facts of Life and Breaking Bad use disabled background characters—Geri Tyler and Walt Jr.—to show a “more sympathetic side” of their able-bodied main characters.

While some recent media, such as Netflix’s Special and the ABC sitcom Speechless, have provided incredible representation, those stories are explicitly centered around the main character’s disability. Speechless is about moving through high school as a disabled child, and Special is about seeking independence as a disabled adult. Both shows have done a lot for disability representation, but they remain relatively obscure and their plots don’t expand past the main character’s disability struggles. On the other hand, Six of Crows depicts disability in an honest, raw, vulnerable, and relatable way through Kaz’s characterization, likely because Leigh Bardugo is also disabled and was writing from her own experience, but his disability is not the center of the plot. Kaz is disabled, and his disability is explored through his characterization, but it doesn’t dominate it. His disability isn’t a prop for another character’s narrative arc, in later books he (SPOILER!) explicitly rejects a magical cure, and much of his plot wouldn’t change even if he were able-bodied. Kaz represents what moving through the world as a disabled person is actually like: everything he does is influenced by his disability, but it’s not his reason for doing things. His disability is a part of him, but it’s not his entire being—something that other pieces of disability-related media often fail to comprehend.

In Six of Crows, Kaz’s disability and his cane are sources of strength and a vital part of his mythos. While a non-disabled writer might use Kaz’s limp and reliance on his cane as a way to garner sympathy and pity for him, Bardugo flips that trope on its head. Kaz knows that people will expect him to be weak and he uses that to surprise his opponents. Kaz’s disability is not only a source of strength but also an advantage.

[H]e’d broken his leg dropping down from the rooftop. The bone didn’t set right, and he’d limped ever after. So he’d found himself a Fabrikator and had his cane made. It became a declaration. There was no part of him that was not broken, that had not healed wrong, and there was no part of him that was not stronger for having been broken. The cane became a part of the myth he built. No one knew who he was. No one knew where he came from. He’d become Kaz Brekker, cripple and confidence man, bastard of the Barrel.

Bardugo’s personal experiences with osteonecrosis and cane usage allowed her to create a character that the disability community, myself included, favors. Since Bardugo did it so well, I wanted Shadow and Bone to depict disability the same way she had but I feared they wouldn’t be able to follow through.

That’s why I was initially apprehensive when Netflix announced that Freddy Carter would be playing Kaz. He matched what I expected Kaz to look like physically, but he didn’t appear to have a limp. But I knew of Bardugo’s involvement with the project and that she had final casting approval for some characters, so I was cautiously hopeful that Carter’s performance would still land. Before the show’s release, Bardugo spoke out about Carter’s casting, reminding fans that we don’t know that Carter isn’t disabled and that it’s invasive to assume. Based on interviews that Carter has done since it seems he is not disabled—at least not physically. Regardless, I wanted to go into the show judging it primarily on its actual content. Although I wish they would have cast a disabled actor, I was hopeful that they would at least do the character justice.

The show blew me away. Despite my hesitation about casting an actor without a limp to play a character whose limp is a massive part of their characterization, I think both Freddy Carter and everyone involved in writing Kaz’s disability into the show did an awesome job. In his introduction in the first episode, Kaz’s cane enters the frame before he does. His cane is immediately used as an extension of his body to stop Jesper. As he limps throughout the following scene, his limp is shown no differently than the way anyone else is walking. There’s no special shot to emphasize his disability or slow pan of the camera as he limps across the screen—nothing that others him from any other characters, which was a massive relief to me. His reliance on his cane is more subtle in the show compared to the book, where we were privy to thoughts like, “In that moment, he would have given up half his share of the thirty million kruge for the familiar heft of his cane.” But episode two helps to rectify this by having him lose a fight against two men when his cane is almost immediately ripped away from him.

In episodes four and five, viewers really begin to see how much Kaz’s pride affects his movement through the world, especially as a disabled man. Because he decides to “make [his] own way” in episode four rather than perform a trick to ride in the carriage with the rest of the stage performers, he has to walk the entire journey next to the carriage dressed as a guard. Post-journey, he is visibly exhausted and in pain. Once alone, he pauses to rub his leg before continuing, taking pained, deep breaths as he continues with his job. This mirrors the scene in Six of Crows when he struggles up the stairs in the Ice Court but continues with his mission anyways. After rejoining the group later in the episode, Inej tells him that he should have either her or Jesper with him for the rest of the mission. Kaz declines, saying, “I’ll manage”—a quintessential line for disabled people who are pushing themselves too hard to complete a task, but have too much pride and don’t want to feel like they’re inconveniencing those around them.

One change that I loved in the show was the inclusion of inoffensive disability jokes. Book-Kaz uses other people’s assumptions about his disability to his advantage and acknowledges his disability openly with no attempts to hide it, but nothing about him is comedic. He is cold, calculating, and ruthless, and while he has inner soft spots for those he cares about, even those closest to him rarely see them. On the other hand, the show injects some comedic relief into Kaz’s perception of his disability, with him making jokes like “unlike a spider, I only need one good leg” as he stands on a Grisha’s arm. In episode seven, Kaz and Jesper knock out two foes, with Kaz using his cane to do so. Jesper gestures to the two unconscious men, asking “are you going to help [move them out of the way]?” Kaz simply holds up his cane in response, earning a sarcastic “Oh. Well, isn’t that convenient for you,” from Jesper. In the final episode, Kaz is once again rubbing his leg and moving with a more pronounced limp than usual, showing how much pain he’s in from overexerting himself for the sake of the mission.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Shadow and Bone’s depiction of Kaz Brekker. I’m still sad that they didn’t cast a disabled actor, but I appreciate how much care Freddy Carter has taken with the role and I can see why Leigh Bardugo was comfortable with him taking it on. While Shadow and Bone’s Kaz wasn’t as cold-hearted and ruthless as I expected him to be, I felt that the disability portion of his characterization was written incredibly well, and I’m excited to see how they handle him in future seasons. He might be Dirtyhands, the bastard of the Barrel, a ruthless teen gang leader, but he is such an important piece of representation for physically disabled people. I’m hopeful that especially with the booming popularity of the show, he will continue to serve as intriguing and accurate disability representation, perhaps even opening doors for more disabled characters and actors in the process.

Harley Quinn and Mental Health: An Interview with Stephanie Phillips

How did the “I Killed Comics” T-shirt come about?

I had posted the upcoming solicits for October, which included Wonder Woman’s eightieth-anniversary anthology that I’m writing a story in, and some Harley Quinn covers that have Harley and Poison Ivy on them. I received this comment that was very upset. They thought that the depiction of bisexual characters as well as Wonder Woman, who’s on the cover with a bunch of other women around her was “feminist propaganda.” The comment spiraled out from there about me killing comics. And I think that just speaks to this interesting point we’re at in the industry, where more and more doors are being opened to non-white, heterosexual creators. I think it’s amazing that we’re getting all of these unique voices in the industry, but that’s making some people upset. They want something very specific. And even though that still exists in the industry, they just don’t like the inclusion of others. I don’t think it’s usually directed at me as much as it is at others, usually people of color, creators in the industry that get this daily. Something about that line “I killed comics in cold blood” just stood out, and I was like . . . I feel like this person just gave me a gift. So then when it started taking off online and people were responding and reading it the same way I was, I just saw an opportunity to take it one step further and say, this person did something they thought was really mean but in their honor, let’s donate to The Trevor Project and turn it into a positive. And since one of the posts was about Harley and Ivy together as a couple, and this person seemed really upset about that, I chose the Trevor Project as a way to support LGBTQ+ youth as well.

Tell me more about choosing The Trevor Project to support, and how it connects to Harley Quinn as an LGBTQ+ icon.

One of the covers on there was purely celebrating the relationship of Harley and Ivy. I recently came out publicly as bisexual. One of the reasons I decided against keeping that private was seeing it as a big responsibility to write a character like Harley. I think, at least on an ongoing title, I’m one of the first female, bisexual, Jewish creators to take on this character and Harley is all of those things. So, when I write her, I’m putting these things at the forefront. After taking the reins of a very openly bisexual character that’s celebrated for this, I almost felt that I was doing a disservice to myself, the industry, and Harley by not letting it be known that this is how I’m approaching the character. So to have somebody come and attack Wonder Woman and Harley and say that these things are “feminist” or that they’re grossed out by it, you know, it really speaks to one of the reasons why I did stay private for so long. Donating the proceeds of that to The Trevor Project was important for me and I think it’s something that Harley would have chosen too.

A comment started the T-shirt; does this comment tie into the themes of your graphic novel Averee, where not only high school popularity, but access to things like transportation, parking, and your career are determined by an app’s ranking?

I think Averee focused on some of the more dangerous sides of social media. And honestly, as someone who sometimes slams social media, I actually think that this post and the way the community has come and supported the shirt and donated to The Trevor Project, is showing a cynic like me why social media can be good. Averee is the worst-case scenario. In real life, this community really did come out to support. And I wouldn’t have this community without social media. And during the pandemic, taking on a character like Harley and not actually being out in the wild, interacting with people, social media became a really important way to talk with cosplayers or people in the community that is super invested in the character of Harley. Feeling how much they love this book and this character makes it exciting to continue working on Harley. It’s an amazing responsibility and an honor to get to be a member of that community in this way. And that’s something that I don’t think would exist, or that I wouldn’t get to experience, without social media. Yeah, there’s a bad seed in there, and there’s always going to be, but I think the good really came together to say that we totally outnumber this, and we’re willing to support and help people and build a positive community and I think that’s really cool.

Can you talk about how the current comic is dealing with self-love and moving on?

That’s a huge theme. In a lot of ways, it’s taking it a step further from just moving on from a relationship with the Joker. Harley also has to wrestle with her past. There’s a lot of guilt associated with things she’s done in the past and she wants to be accountable, but accountability is incredibly difficult, having to actually face yourself and say, I did terrible things, and here’s how I’m going to learn and improve. We’re giving Harley the space to do that. We’re not excusing all the past behavior and I don’t think Harley is doing that to herself either. I think a part of Harley’s self-love journey now is that extra step of being okay or at least acknowledging that you did terrible things in the past, but still know that you have something to contribute moving forward and being allowed that space to do that.

The current series opens with an act of Harley apologizing to someone who doesn’t accept the apology. Issue #2 shows Hugo Strange embraced by Gotham for a second chance even though he never officially apologized for his past actions. There are these themes of apologies and amends that we see through these two characters. Can you show how Harley and the character of Hugo Strange represent the two emerging mindsets of mental health awareness and an antiquated mindset of mental health awareness?

Hugo is really invested in external factors. It’s clearly not therapy. He’s just experimenting on people. But he’s also invested in the external factors that made him “bad”—something like, Gotham was bad or I was here at a bad time, or whatever the excuses are. The city sees this person coming back as this big authority figure and they’re just very willing to be like, yeah, he’s going to tell us what to do. Meanwhile, Harley is not so confident in who she is at this moment. She’s trying to figure that out. But Harley’s apologies are so much more authentic because she’s feeling them, she’s going through it, and she’s not trying to take the easy way out. Instead, she’s looking at it, and saying, you’re right. I did that. And I’m sorry. And I think there’s something uncomfortable in that because then it forces the other person to have to say that they accept it or they don’t, or they think it’s genuine or they don’t. And I think we’re seeing an interesting reaction from even the city as a whole, saying yeah, it’s Harley Quinn; it’s not genuine, and judging her, and not letting her be very sincere. I think as much as Harley is going to try and fail every once in a while, she’s sincere, and I want that to come through. Harley is asking questions of herself too. Does she deserve forgiveness? So at some point, there’s a sad element to the book where Harley isn’t sure she deserves that, but she’s still trying and she still has this motivation to keep trying to be better because, as she says at some point, that’s all I can continue to do.

In Issue #3, Harley realizes that the best way to open up the conversation in her support group for survivors of the Joker War is to drop her note cards and just speak from the heart to help de-stigmatize the conversation about mental health for the survivors. How important is it for Harley to just be honest and “drop the smile?”

The note cards are like a shield. Harley’s still working on letting that come down and just telling people in her life what they mean and what she means and advocating for herself. Harley is someone who’s had an issue with setting boundaries in her past. If she was trying to set a boundary with the Joker, that was clearly not going to be respected, and she kept letting him disrespect boundary after boundary, which is why we have someone who is now a little afraid to set a boundary for herself. Because what happens if somebody doesn’t respect that and this is somebody you want in your life? And we internalize when someone doesn’t respect who we are. We start questioning ourselves and our identity.

I think Harley’s at a point where she’s really learning post-Joker, post-Joker War stuff, on her own, who her identity is, what those boundaries are going to be, and how she’s going to set them. Losing the note cards, losing the shield is important for Harley in this quest for sincerity. She’s going to say how she feels and how she wants to relate to people and let them choose how they want to relate to her. At some point, not everyone is going to relate or connect to her in that way, and I think she has to learn that that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her or the other person. We don’t have to internalize it and let it crush us, which has happened to Harley before. Acknowledging those things is the first step for Harley.

Harley’s first group session does not end well, but it gives her a chance to be there for those who came to her for help. How does this moment help Harley find her identity post-Joker War?

She sets up this thing that’s like, here’s the mission, here’s what I’m going to do. In her mind, she’s done everything right and it doesn’t go according to plan. And that’s incredibly difficult to deal with. My favorite Captain Picard moment is when he says the hardest thing for us all to learn is that we can do everything right and still fail. How we react to that is really important. I want to push Harley in those ways. She thinks she’s done everything right—setting up her new place in Gotham, working with Batman, finding Kevin, helping Kevin, setting up a support group—these are all positive things. And she can do them but there are still external factors.

One reason I thought Grundy was going to be such a good foil for her was that he doesn’t say much, so it’s Harley figuring things out for herself. She just has somebody listening and not judging her for it. Because Grundy is absolutely not going to judge Harley. He’s not entirely interested as is; he likes her, which is fun to establish, but Harley’s still working it out for herself and has this nice ear to listen to her. And she thinks she’s failed. I think that’s her also measuring herself up to someone else. She’s still working out her identity and allowing herself to do this in the most Harley Quinn way possible. Having an ending with her, Kevin, Solomon Grundy, and former Joker Clowns—this very motley crew, which is so Harley. It doesn’t look like a Batman ending or even a Batgirl ending. That’s something that I think Harley needed to distinguish for herself—what does my heroism look like? It’s a very sincere quest for her to figure it out. We’re not there yet and I’m excited about where more of the story goes as we explore her relationship with Kevin and the new villain Keepsake and things like that as well.

Can you tell us more about Kevin and how he keeps Harley on track?

I wanted to show that there’s more than one way to go about this journey. Harley’s way isn’t going to be the right way for every single person. Kevin is also wrestling with similar things. We see in some flashbacks that he’s done things he’s not particularly proud of either. We gave Harley a bit of a foil with Hugo, looking in the mirror about the opposite side of mental health for her, and we’re about to do something similar with Kevin. Keepsake is a former Joker villain as well—or a former henchman—and it’s like this other side of Kevin, looking in the mirror thinking am I like that? Could I become that? Do I have the same capacity in myself that this person has? I think it’s something that’s going to push Kevin in ways that we haven’t seen yet.

We also give Kevin quite a few opportunities coming up. He’s going to be narrating for a while and we get to learn a little bit more about his thought process, how he views Harley, how he views his journey as well. Compared to Harley, where you have her bouncing all over the place, Kevin is a little more structured, and I think there’s something a little bit sad under there, growing up, being teased, and looking for acceptance, and finding that in a way that wasn’t particularly good or helpful for him, and having to realize that just because someone accepts us—or just because they give us time—doesn’t mean they’re a great person to have in our lives. Kevin is thinking through those things as well. I love Kevin and I think he represents another side of this journey, so we’re watching two people going through things, just in a very different way.

This interview began talking about a negative social media post. Have you received positive social media posts thanking you, or about how people have connected to the mental health journey and finding these connections to the characters of Harley and Kevin?

I didn’t make the post to get the attention. More than anything, I thought it was funny. But it’s also indicative of being in a somewhat public sphere, and that’s a really odd position to navigate. I want to have those connections with people—I think that’s honestly one of the greatest parts of the job, finding someone that connects about the same thing that I’m interested in—and obviously, I think that writing something like Harley Quinn is just raw. Obviously she’s funny, but these are things that I genuinely care about and I see a lot of these things in Harley, like chances for empathy and sincerity. These are things I don’t have answers to, but I want to work through them with Harley. So that’s been really personal for me and something that I’m very invested in with the character. Seeing other people react to that and appreciate it is really cool. Seeing people go so far as creating fan art or cosplay is a little surreal. And with some conventions coming back I’m also excited to start talking to people and having these conversations and finding out what other people are liking about Harley or connecting with. I think we probably all see different things in Kevin or Harley or even Solomon Grundy, just because of the way we approach these issues or the series. I think when people say my Harley is a little different from Harleys that came before, you know, I love all iterations of her. I’ve always read Harley books. What I’m highlighting are just the things about Harley that always stood out to me. I’m just highlighting those components that other writers brought to her that I loved. It’s an honor to get to write her after such an incredible line of talented creators.

The Obituary

Winner of the 2020 Spring Short Story Contest

Diederick¹ van der Sluis²

Diederick van der Sluis,³ 70,⁴ of Riverdale,⁵ Missouri,⁶ passed away⁷ on Thursday, November 28, 2019.⁸ A graduate of UMKC,⁹ Diederick is survived by his mother,¹⁰ two sisters,¹¹ two children,¹² and three grandchildren.¹³ He was preceded in death by his father and¹⁴ a son.¹⁵ Private¹⁶ disposition.¹⁷

Guest Book

Diederick, may you rest in peace. —Kylene and neighbors, Riverdale, Missouri¹⁸

The City of Riverdale has lost a loyal citizen. You will be sorely missed. —Mayor Katie Ferguson, Riverdale, Missouri¹⁹

Mr. van der Sluis was a great English teacher. —Preston, New York, New York²⁰

Thank you, Diederick, for all you’ve said and done. Your friendship is irreplaceable. —Kirk Klement, Piscataquoddy, Maine²¹


¹ The forename Diederick, in Dutch, means ruler of the people. As a proponent of American democracy, Diederick never believed in one person ruling over others. On numerous occasions, he volunteered at the polls during elections. Thanks to his ability to relate to humans with special needs, Diederick was a favorite with disabled voters of all political affiliations. However, when he rearranged a room at a polling station to better accommodate people in wheelchairs, a colleague complained that he had exceeded his authority, and he was banned from volunteer opportunities in his voting district.

² The surname van der Sluis falls under the category of topographic names and refers either to a person living near a sluice gate or a person living in a place named for a sluice gate, such as Sluis in Zeeland, founded in the 13th century and coincidentally, the home of Diederick’s father before he immigrated to Kansas City to work for the Corps of Engineers during the Truman era.

³ Soon after Diederick was discharged from Hope Valley Rehab, he created a miniature village in honor of the famed Madurodam miniature city in the Netherlands. In addition to placing ceramic gnomes and accompanying structures in a plotted-out square outside his apartment, Diederick dug waterways and constructed a sluice gate. During rainstorms—as long as they weren’t too severe—Diederick’s village remained safe from submersion. At least six times a year for the past two years, he wrote a newsletter called the Gnome Gnews, incorporating imaginary stories about the inhabitants of his village. Using high-quality colored paper, he sent the GnomeGnews to his mother, two sisters, cousins, and several friends. Photos of Gnomeshire can be seen on Diederick’s Facebook page, which hasn’t yet disappeared.

Diederick celebrated his 70th on Sunday, May 19, 2019, on his terrace with several neighbors. They ate cake. His sister from Dallas sent him a text on behalf of the rest of the family. Having left Watervliet, Nebraska, after facing sexual misconduct charges, Diederick lived in Riverdale’s River Bluff Apartment Community from 1994–2019. During that time, he volunteered for the Riverdale Public Library, as well as the city’s food pantry. He also delivered Meals on Wheels and helped organize the Northland Hunger Walk, sponsored by the City of Riverdale. One of Diederick’s greatest fears was running out of money and starving to death.

Two months ago, Diederick posed with Mayor Katie Ferguson for a photo at the Butterfly Sculpture Parade, Riverdale’s latest PR endeavor. He wore a polo shirt from Goodwill, its orange and black stripes similar in hue to those adorning the ten-foot stainless steel monarch butterfly, pictured behind. Known for its “floating river casino,” which stands on land and brings the community of 7,000 more than enough revenue, Riverdale commissioned local artists to create sculptures that honor the city’s monarch migration, which happens every September. Diederick had planted flowers in the Garden of Gnomeshire to attract butterflies.

Three miles north of Kansas City, Missouri, Riverdale boasts two miles of waterfront property on the Missouri River. During the past decade, which has seen an abundance of precipitation along the Missouri, low-lying parts of Riverdale have been subject to flooding.

Unable to work for nearly a month because of the pain in his stomach, Diederick ran out of money and food. When his neighbors found out, he found his refrigerator filled. Unfortunately, most of the food went uneaten. After a late-night phone conversation with Kylene, who lives in 2B and works as a charge nurse at Truman Dam General, Diederick called 911 for an ambulance. His stomach, pancreas, liver, and esophagus ravaged by cancer, Diederick died at TDG only six days after admittance. During his final hours, he could no longer speak, see, or hear. Still capable of smelling, Diederick left this world with the dim, olfactory recognition of a fart, emitted by a bored orderly standing a few feet from his bed.

Since Thursday was Thanksgiving and it had been only two weeks since Diederick’s mother, two sisters, and their husbands had heard about the cancer and flew to Kansas City from different parts of the country, the family doesn’t plan to return, not to pay their respects or for any other reason. His family decided to donate his few belongings and security deposit to Kylene and the other neighbors. Diederick owned nothing of value, and his rent has been paid through March of 2020. While in town, Diederick’s family cleaned up his one-bedroom apartment and stocked the pantry with processed food in anticipation of Diederick’s planned regimen of chemo. Before leaving, his sister and brother-in-law, who live in an estate in the Denver suburb of Lone Tree, razed Gnomeshire and threw away the miniatures. “Enough’s enough,” said his brother-in-law during dinner at the Riverdale Casino, where the two families took their lodging. Swallowing her food, Diederick’s sister turned to her mother. “We didn’t tell you this, but a couple from church came over to the house and saw one of those crazy gnome newsletters lying on the coffee table. We’ve never been more embarrassed in our lives.” Diederick’s mother shook her head and frowned. Diederick’s Dallas sister and her husband said nothing. When the families returned to the apartment, Diederick’s Denver sister convinced her husband to sneak into her brother’s bedroom while he was asleep and remove his antique Dutch cuckoo clock, willed to him in 1997 by their Aunt Jelke. “He’s so out of it, he’ll never know the difference,” she said. Diederick’s Dallas sister and her husband had to keep from laughing when the wooden cuckoo came out and started cooing, just after Diederick’s brother-in-law closed the bedroom door. Diederick’s mother was asleep on the couch during the heist.

Diederick received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He also received a divinity degree from Concordia Luther Theological Seminary in Glidden, Wisconsin. It was during his first year of seminary that his classmates chose him for public humiliation. When Diederick came out of the shower, his roommate ripped off his towel, and with the help of two others, carried him down the stairs, out the door, and into the quad. Blond and blue-eyed like his father, Diederick was always diminutive in stature; however, his anatomy had grown larger than that of any of his fellow seminarians, long before he was admitted to Concordia Luther. In those days, whenever he grew uptight or agitated, so did his penis. Diederick didn’t grow pubic, armpit, or chest hair until his early thirties.

¹⁰ A committed Lutheran, Missouri Synod, Diederick’s mother is ninety-four and lives in a guesthouse adjacent to her daughter and son-in-law’s Lone Tree estate. She’s an avid birder who still drives, even in the snow. She takes walks every day except the Sabbath when she teaches Sunday school to residents of a Lutheran skilled care center in a nearby town. During the last three years, her correspondence with her only son consisted of his newsletters, which she didn’t read, and the occasional email, which Diederick always initiated. He stopped contacting her by phone when she told him not to call between 2 and 3 p.m. or after 8 p.m. mountain time. “I’m asleep then,” she said, adding that listening to his problems stressed her out. Like the rest of his family, Diederick was a lifelong Republican. A Lutheran Pastor at a small Nebraskan church while in his forties, Diederick lost his job soon after parishioners discovered he was gay.

¹¹ Both sisters graduated from highly selective universities and married well. Neither has held a job since college.

¹² Diederick has a son living in London who hasn’t spoken to him since 1998. He also has a son in Smithtown, Missouri, who has a wife and two children. The Smithtown son started talking to Diederick again in the early fall. Two weeks before Diederick’s hospitalization, he drove up to Smithtown at four in the morning to take his son to work because his car broke down.

¹³ Diederick’s grandchildren don’t really know him.

¹⁴ Note the extra space between the words “father” and “and.” Most likely a typo made by a reporter working the late-night shift at the newspaper, the white space accentuates the omission of Bryan, Diederick’s partner of eleven years. No one in Diederick’s family, especially his children, liked Bryan. Thirty years younger than Diederick, Bryan refused to hide his sexuality, no matter how much Diederick insisted on remaining in the closet to everyone but their neighbors. It was November of 2008 when the two met, just after Diederick’s Dodge minivan broke down along the Broadville Underpass in Kansas City. Homeless and freezing to death, Bryan lay curled up in a blanket at the juncture of the sloping floor and diminishing ceiling of the underpass. When Bryan coughed, Diederick—known for his hyper-acute auditory skills—heard him, despite the cacophony of rush hour. “Only five-foot-two and barely a hundred pounds,” according to Diederick, who loved to tell the story of their meeting, “Bryan was easy to carry.” Ever since he had been a child, Diederick loved to read and tell stories. After a particularly vicious fight in 2011, when Bryan broke Diederick’s cuckoo clock, the couple separated for a brief period, also in late November. However, when Bryan called Diederick from a pay phone outside a homeless shelter, as several men in the background uttered the word “faggot” and said they were going to barbecue Bryan’s “black ass, Kansas City style,” Diederick took him back. The couple repaired the cuckoo clock together. Bryan died in 2015 of complications related to diabetes, Diederick by his side. When Diederick contacted Bryan’s mother to break the news, she told him she had no son.

¹⁵ In 1993, Diederick lost his son Joel, age twenty-two, who had suffered from multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair during the last five years of his life. Soon after, Diederick’s wife left him, taking the rest of the children to her parents’ home in Utah. That’s when Diederick started to drink. Diederick’s father, who died in ’91 from complications related to Alzheimer’s, had also been an alcoholic. At the age of forty-five, Diederick was charged with “the intent to commit sexual abuse” of a seventeen-year-old parishioner at his church in Nebraska. Before a judge, Diederick said he had no recollection of making advances toward the boy. However, he also claimed he was suffering from blackouts. Diederick was released on probation and moved home to Missouri, where he checked into a rehab center, joined AA, and became sober. Then he landed a job as an adjunct English professor at Polk University and a second job as a cashier at The Purple X. Teaching English, especially American literature, enabled Diederick to express his passion for storytelling as a tool of empowerment; he often encouraged students to relate their own stories in the midst of reading the stories of others. Six months before his death, he was fired for insubordination at The Purple X after chastising his manager for violating protocol when handling a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) customer. By that time, Diederick had memorized all the PLU codes for fruits and vegetables at the store.

¹⁶ Although the family honored Diederick’s wishes to be cremated, they opted out of making any service arrangements, private or public. According to his sister who stole the cuckoo clock, “He’s damned to hell anyway, so why bother.” Diederick considered himself a devout Lutheran throughout his life. His ashes were scattered in Lake Superior at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, just outside of Cornucopia, Wisconsin, by his best friend, Dr. Kirk Klement, an assistant professor of English at a private college in New England. If it weren’t for Diederick, who encouraged Kirk to pursue his dreams with unyielding determination and dedication, Kirk would never have started or completed a PhD in American Literature at West Central Missouri State University.

¹⁷ Note the length of Diederick’s obituary: forty-five words. His sister from Dallas, whose husband is a retired CEO from a Fortune 500 company, chose the Economy Obit, which allows for a maximum of fifty words for a nominal fee.

¹⁸ Diederick, I know you’re out there spreading the love. On behalf of the River Bluff Apartment Community, I want to express our deepest thanks for your contributions to our humble home on the hill. You brought happiness and joy to so many of your neighbors. There wasn’t a person in the complex that didn’t enjoy stopping at Gnomeshire, sitting on a lawn chair, sipping iced tea, and chatting with neighbors. You treated everybody with respect and dignity. I remember as if it was yesterday, the time you asked me to hold a piece of moss for the gnome garden. You took so friggin’ long fooling around with that sluice gate, I could’ve strangled you. Remember when I saw the worm and dropped the moss on top of the Dutch kirken or whatever you call it? We ended up laughing so hard, I peed my pants. There’s no one like you, Diederick. Everyone here misses you. River Bluff will never be the same. —Kylene, along with Kenneth, Becky, and Vivian, Riverdale, Missouri

¹⁹ The City of Riverdale has lost one of its most loyal citizens. Rest in peace with the souls of the butterflies. —Mayor Katie Ferguson, Riverdale, Missouri

²⁰ Mr. van der Sluis was the best English teacher I ever had. He actually got me to go from hating the subject to loving it. And without even trying, he got me to change my major. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be living in the city working for a big-time literary agency. —Preston, New York, New York

²¹ I know how much you loved alliteration, so this one’s for you: The world felt different the day you died, Diederick. May you rejoice with Bryan and Joel. It’s time to live the life you didn’t get to have here on earth. —Dr. Kirk Klement, Piscataquoddy, Maine

A Review of This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Published March 17, 2020 by Saga Press

Evocative and lush, This Is How You Lose the Time War is a sci-fi novel co-written by authors Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It explores the unlikely romance between two time-traveling rivals, Blue and Red, on opposing sides of a faction struggle for dominance of the future. Told through vignettes that span millennia and cultures—and a series of forbidden letters that develop into a daring and intimate love story—the reader finds themselves in the middle of a strange journey back and forth through the braid of time. This is a tale that encapsulates the timeless sentiment of star-crossed lovers: “in any place, in any time, I shall find you and love you and be with you, no matter the odds.”

We follow Red and Blue, operatives of the respective factions Agency and Garden, undoing each other’s work as they travel back and forth through time. Equally-matched foes, they follow and counteract each other, even as they begin to feel the stirrings of companionship and, eventually, love. In the first scene, a fire-scorched battlefield, Red discovers a taunting letter left from their silent, mocking adversary. From there, a precedent of cunning and electric understanding is established. The letter is an invitation, a dare. As much as this book is a romance, it is also a thriller, a bottle of uncorked suspense that’s as dense and unknowable as dark matter.

But it is the letters shared between Red and Blue that are the core of the tale. And they are not just ordinary letters, but poetic, ephemeral masterpieces—what one might expect of powerful spies with the ability to travel across the multiverse. There are messages emblazoned within lava, bones, bee stings, tree rings, and tea leaves that disappear just as soon as they arrive, matching the frenetic pace of Red and Blue’s cat-and-mouse chase. The letters are where the stylistic heart of the novel truly shines; the synergistic combination of Gladstone and El-Mohtar’s writing creates a marvelous repartee.Gladstone, responsible for writing Red’s character, and El-Mohtar for Blue, are masterful writers who develop distinct yet harmonious voices for the two characters throughout the book, which makes the romance between the two all the more dazzling and believable.

Is a certain suspension of disbelief required of a story this grand? Certainly. This Is How You Lose the Time War could, perhaps, smack of the melodramatic, heightening romantic spectacle at the expense of considered plot. The world of Time War comes to life only vaguely, in brief, cryptic snippets that sometimes leave the reader with more questions than answers. There is very little of the concrete to be found here, and those who want to know the reason for the war between Agency and Garden, or even what Red and Blue are, will be left feeling disappointed. More reserved, pragmatic readers may also feel uncomfortable or confused at how quickly such an all-consuming romance grows among sworn foes merely from the exchange of several increasingly amorous letters. One gets the feeling that in a book so brief the authors could have afforded to add a chapter or two to let the romance between Red and Blue mature more organically.

But what might be missing from this equation is the potential necessity of this improbable blossoming of love, this element of “hunger” for connection in an ever-indifferent and in-flux world. A world where an agent may find themselves on missions one day on Strand 9 in the Amazon Basin, the next in Strand 223’s Atlantis, and the next in a Starfleet battle in the far future of Strand 2218. In each other, Blue and Red find entertainment, satisfaction, an anchor and partner within the many-threaded braid of time. Both highly intelligent and with crackling wit, sharpened by immortal existence, they swap highbrow jokes and confess their deepest griefs and longings, even as they begin to grow more and more wary that their days together are numbered. When it all concludes, the ensuing betrayal and defiance and triumph is a thing to behold, and not easily forgotten.

At a deceptively short 50,000 words, This Is How You Lose the Time War packs the same punch that one might expect from a longer-form work, albeit somewhat breathlessly. It leaves the sense that one has not only observed the fruition and consummation of a relationship between two individual people, but a saga of love itself.

The Willies : An Interview with Adam Falkner

My introduction to your work was scrolling through Instagram and stopping at your call and repeat opening at a reading. Can you describe the experience of doing this opening and what it was like to perform virtually during 2020 poetry sessions?

The first Wednesday of every month, I co-curate a reading series called SupaDupaFresh Brooklyn. At the last reading, I did this call and response for the first time in a while. I put it to bed during virtual readings because it felt weird asking people to sing and get free in their living rooms, where as far as you know they could have a three-year-old pouring cereal on the floor next to them or their husband could be on a work call twenty feet from them. I weaned off asking people to get as vocally present as I often do when I step into live readings.

My first literacy was music. The energy around musical language was the first thing that made me think about the world in creative ways, so it is anchoring for me and the reason why I incorporate singing into openings like the one you’re describing. Virtual readings have their pros and cons, but the biggest downside has been  the contextual flattening of not being aware of where people are. You don’t know much about the space you’re sharing with someone. You don’t know if you’re tab seventeen on a running desktop or if you’re on in the background. Part of what I value about live readings is the way I force myself to be present, but it felt like asking folks to sing into that presence in a virtual realm was disregarding the complications that exist in people’s lives, so I stopped. I still ended up singing quite a bit in Zoom spaces for my own sets because songs help me mark this energy shift as something other than what it feels like when on conference calls, or teaching.

How did writing and performing the work in The Willies help you find your truth in where you are currently at with Self?

In terms of writing, the book tells these dueling stories of two characters, my father and I, coming into a truth in their lives, and it depicts the costumes that we both were trying on in our respective journeys. I wouldn’t say I had the architecture of the book in mind when I sat down to write it, but over time it became clearer that our two stories had a lot more to do with each other than I initially appreciated. I think my immediate reaction to my father’s work with addiction recovery was to be distant from it, in part because I felt implicated in it or was still frustrated with him for not being stronger or sturdier for my brother and I. It eventually became a process of stepping back and saying, How can I stitch these stories together (his journey with addiction and mine coming out of the closet) in a way that helps folks think more presently about their own lives and the stories that we tell about who we are? I’m asking folks, especially young readers, to think about the stories that are quietly knocking at our doors that make us “perform” ourselves in the world. This collection is an invitation for people to take the microscope to their own lives and families and interior selves.

We’ve talked about music’s influence in your life and about your brother. Do you remember the first album you took from your older brother’s room?

36 Chambers was one of the first records that I took. I remember playing it in my bedroom with headphones on because I didn’t want anyone to know I was bumping this music as loud as I could. The more vivid memory is putting it back delicately so I didn’t reveal myself as someone who was more interested in his life than I claimed to be when he was around.

I fell in love with hip hop, hip-hop culture, and rap music much more deeply than I think he did. He was growing up as a teenager when East Coast and West Coast gangster rap was in the cars of suburban white kids across America. It was my proximity to that that made me curious. I wasn’t necessarily a hip hop head just yet, I just knew that it was something that was attractive to a lot of people I loved and grew up around. My brother and I grew up in the same musical family. We took piano lessons, sang in choir, were musical theatre nerds as children, so we had a lot of common touchpoints for music, but my stealing of his early Wu Tang records was the beginning of a much longer love affair for me where it was a more passing fad for him. Later, I’d learn to unpack why that “love affair” was deeper than just a musical one, and why it was a problematic one that offered an opportunity for racial performance and appropriation. The book explores that.

All brothers fight. As the younger brother, do you remember the first time that you got the upper hand in the fight?

We squabbled a lot. We weren’t friends until I moved to New York when I was 21, after some time being distant from one another. We started to appreciate each other’s interior lives with a greater sincerity and curiosity than we did as kids. It was powerful and fortifying as a sibling for us both to realize that we deeply admire and love each other after spending more than 20 years trying to believe that we didn’t. When you’re caught in the sibling mess of it all, you sometimes don’t get the privilege of getting to know the people you share blood with. While it wasn’t an upper hand, it was certainly a kind of leveling in our relationship when, through writing, I got to show him a fuller demonstration of who I was. I am my most vulnerable, honest, and present self when writing, performing, singing, and teaching. When someone who knows you well comes to a reading to see you perform something that’s intimate for you, they might not have known that version of you before. As far as my brother and family were concerned, the stories I was performing showcased a self that I chose to keep far away from them for a very long time. When those worlds started melding, there became a more mutual and balanced level of respect, appreciation, and admiration, and that stays with us to this day.

When you were putting The Willies together, what decision went into crafting the arcs of the book’s three parts?

The organization of this book is a testament to why we need good editors and writing friends. Generally, when I write a bunch of poems, I have some idea about what their linkage might be, but then I give it to someone whose editorial scalpel I trust and admire so that they can sit with it and help me determine what order is best for the story I might be telling. Two voices that helped me understand how I could tell these two stories simultaneously were Shira Erlichman, who is a dear friend and editor of this book, and Hanif Abdurraqib, who is the lead editor of this collection.

Initially, I planned to tell them chronologically, but I realized that didn’t make sense because the father narrative and the son narrative aren’t linear. They’re about coming into oneself and wrestling with that act. In the queer narrative, it’s not a quick ripping of the band-aid where you’re like, great, I’m out of the closet. This is wonderful, let me hurry up and get on with the rest of my life. There’s this constant ebbing and flowing of how we define ourselves as men, as boys, what relationships means to us, where masculinity fits into that, and, for me, where addiction is hiding in those conversations. The story was a quiet coming-of-age bound not by a set of chronological time stamps, but by a series of snapshots from two lives detailing the process of becoming more open.

One of the notes that I valued from Hanif, the editor, concerned the poems about white privilege and wrestling with race and cultural appropriation. Those poems needed to be tethered to this larger story around queerness and the privilege associated with trying on different selves and costumes free of fear. Hanif knew that there needed to be some structural choice in how the poems were presented that allowed them to fit this narrative of opening. We tackled that with formatting. As the white boy poems reappear, the margins get smaller on the justified text. Over the course of the book, even in the sub-narrative of this white character wrestling with self and costuming, there is this opening that hints at the new expansiveness in this character’s life as he comes out and wrestles with masculinity. Through that lens, we decided to organize it into three chunks, from restricted and constrained to as free and open as we could be. The general arrangement was less concerned with age and more about internal processes.

How is The Willies an act of reconciliation and healing?

That question is the underpinning thesis of the book. These poems represent an important healing in my life with regard to the stories that I’ve grown comfortable talking about over the last decade. There was something healing in telling the story that was under my nose and not airbrushing it, in taking an honest and steady look at what scares me, what brings me shame, what I am comfortable wrestling out loud with in public and saying this is also me. Any time we engage with those real questions and invite other people into that process, that is healing. That’s why I got involved in slam and in performance spaces as a young kid. It was a space to invite other people into my internal world. I can build relationships around literature and part of that is saying here’s what I’m wrestling with. If I open the door, will you come through it with me? In that way, this book represents a great deal of my healing.

This book is also about forgiveness. If I believe in my capacity to transform, grow, and heal, then necessarily I must also believe in other people’s capacity to do the same. I wrestle with what it means to forgive myself for the people I have been and who I have harmed in that process. When we stay in closets, whatever that means to you, we are not the only one who suffers. There are so many people who get caught up in the shrapnel of our own bomb blasts when we are afraid to be ourselves in the world. I needed to forgive and love previous selves in my life in order to be present in my actual “now.” This book was an effort at reclaiming those younger selves and not carrying shame about them. Accountability, yes. But not shame. The other piece was trying to understand my father’s recovery and what it might mean to extend the grace that I’m giving myself to him as well. This book was possible because of his choice to heal. Watching him struggle with who he was, the things that drove him to drink and to hide, and watching him think carefully about his life inspired me to be more courageous in asking myself similar questions. The book is not only an attempt to explain why I am the way that I am through the lens of a broken father; it’s also an effort to find real humanity in what it means to watch anybody try to clean up their lives. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to confront the shame that has driven you to make choices that you’re not proud of. This was me trying to give him grace and acknowledge that I see his effort to heal because, at the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is heal ourselves and let people we love know that we see them trying to do the same.

Thank you for that great answer. To pivot a bit, can you talk about your work with the Dialogue Arts Project?

At the Dialogue Arts Project, I do leadership development coaching and workshop facilitation in training around equity and inclusion. We have a team of a dozen or so wildly-skilled facilitators who use storytelling and creativity to run trainings, give lectures, and facilitate workshops around justice-based issues of identity and difference. We center storytelling to get folks to check their learning edge and to hold them accountable to the stories they know they need to tell if they are to get serious about these conversations. I describe our work to potential clients as an anti-diversity training diversity training approach, meaning we are familiar with the ways in which these things go wrong when they’re treated as a quota-fulfilling checkbox, and we work to combat that through the real personalizing we need to do when it comes to thinking about reparations.

If we are to get to a spot where we can talk openly and honestly about racism, homophobia, or gender inequity, we need to be comfortable talking about the stories in our own lives and how they have guided the way we show up in those dialogues. That’s part of the founding principle of our work and how it’s different from other equity and inclusion training spaces. We also center intersectionality in the teaching and learning process. It is essential for people to talk about and locate different selves whom they bring to conversations around white supremacy, whiteness, and racial justice. We lose a lot of folks who want to engage in racial justice work because they aren’t quite prepared to talk about it, which is why we ask folks in our workshops to think about themselves in terms of gender and sexual orientation, ability status, body size, and language of origin. If there aren’t moments when folks can recognize how their different identities are salient in these conversations, it’s hard to get them to talk sincerely about racial justice.

Where can people get The Willies?

From Button Poetry, Indiebound, or Bookshop. It’s also available on most conglomerate places where one can purchase books, but support your local indie instead!

Where can people see you read live regularly?

The first Wednesday of every month, I co-curate a series in Brooklyn at a bar called Ode to Babel. It’s called SupaDupaFresh, and I run that series with Mahogany L. Browne, Jon Sands, Jive Poetic, and Rico Frederick. It’s a COVID-safe reading series conducted outdoors. There’s usually eight people on a tightly curated open mic, and we have a featured writer who is working out new pieces and wants a loving, living room to listen. There will also be places on the internet to view readings in the next 6 months. You can also follow me on Instagram. That’d be swell.

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing: Esteban Rodríguez

An Interview with Esteban Rodríguez on British Crime Dramas (& Nordic Noir), Progressive Rock, and Bouldering

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing is a series of interviews in which we ask writers to take a break from trying to document the world and just kinda chill out in it for a while.

Laura Villareal (LV)

Like most people I’ve filled time at home with watching TV shows this past year, so I’m excited that you want to talk about British Crime Dramas and Nordic Noir. I’m always looking for new shows to binge watch. What shows do you recommend?

Esteban Rodríguez (ER)

Where to begin! Perhaps I will start with mine and my wife’s personal favorite, Midsomer Murders. It’s your standard crime show: crime happens, detectives are assigned the case, intrigue and laughter follow, another crime is perhaps committed, which more often than not is related to the first. And then the detective, in some random seemingly insignificant moment, discovers who the murderer is. It’s what you expect from these procedural shows, and over time you learn to predict who the killer is, or come very close. But what draws me so much to this show is the moral compass that the lead detective, DCI Tom Barnaby, has, specifically how he seems to be ahead of the times (culturally, intellectually, etc.). He always wants to do the right thing, despite outside pressures and despite how complex a case may be. Barnaby is methodical and curious, but he also enjoys the simple things in life: reading, attending village events, relaxing outside. He moves at a pace that I want to emulate (minus the detective aspect of all of this). If you watch these shows enough, you become invested in the characters, and there comes a time where the show, the plot, everything really, doesn’t feel like fiction anymore, at least for the hour that it is on.

Some of the shows within this same realm are Endeavor, Lewis, Vera, and Shetland (which is perhaps our second favorite show). Recently, we have been hooked on The Brokenwood Mysteries, which takes place in New Zealand, but definitely has the feel of the countryside British drama.

Sometimes these detectives have a quirk to them (such as in River, where DI John Rivers suffers from hallucinations), and there are others where they skirt the line between what is legal and not (Luther and Marcella). But the detectives, at their core, appear to always have the best intentions, and as a viewer, you can’t help but root for them. They are so utterly human, and there is no way not to find a connection to their lives and work. (One show that I would highly recommend but that can be slightly fantastical is Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show set in Toronto in the late 19th and early 20th century. There is murder, and there is definitely mystery, and the lead detective’s proclivity toward inventing new things always keeps the show humorous and fresh).

Now, shows like Marcella fall in the category of Nordic Noir (bleak landscapes, morally complex moods and themes), and if you like this show, there is no doubt you will be drawn the Bordertown, The Killing, and Hinterland. The list for Nordic Noir is quite endless as well, but like the traditional British drama, there is no way not to be invested, and after a while you might find yourself thinking like the detectives and questioning the meaning behind someone’s actions, regardless of how insignificant they appear at first.

LV

Something I love about this series is that writers so often want to talk about the music they love. What are some of your favorite Progressive Rock bands?

ER

There are so many great progressive bands out there, but one that I have been listening to a lot lately is The Mars Volta. When I tell people I’ve been on a binge with their music, the response is either disbelief that I have somehow not outgrown them (because in their minds The Mars Volta belongs to the high school phase of one’s musical journey, at least for my generation) or nostalgia, the type that leads to further discussion about their lyrics, the length of their songs, and even how being from the border can create such imaginative albums. I heard, but have not verified (and in a way I don’t want to verify because if it’s not true, then I like the myth more than the truth), that the lead singer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, when seeking inspiration for his lyrics, would sit in front of multiple TV sets with the volume fully raised on each, and for however long it took, would listen and listen as random words jostled through the cacophony. Perhaps that’s part of the reason we get such great poetic lyrics in each of the albums, and the story behind the inspiration is just as intriguing.

Like any progressive rock enthusiast, I definitely love the classic bands such as King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Supertramp, but my love of progressive rock stems from my introduction to the Swedish progressive death metal band Opeth. Over the past twenty years, they have created beautifully complex albums that have defied genres and have pushed the boundaries of progressive heavy-metal. The lead singer, Mikael Akerfeldt, has since dropped his growl and screams (which for many is one of the defining features of the genre), but the band has made many melodic and lyrically moving albums since Watershed (Pale Communion, Sorceress, In Cauda Venenum). What draws me to Opeth, and to progressive rock in general, is their willingness to move beyond the old and try something new, whether that’s going heavier or introducing inventive arrangements that weren’t used in previous albums (what is considered Opeth’s magnum opus, Blackwater Park, combines acoustic guitars, ambient soundscapes, piano solos, and symphonic melodies).

There are other progressive bands that I like quite a bit that lands on the heavier side, like Gojira, whose environmentally and socially inspired lyrics are quite moving, and Mastodon, whose concept albums can find inspiration in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Leviathan) or center on the exploration of the ethereal world (Crack the Skye). Interestingly enough, back in my early twenties, I saw both Opeth and Mastodon in concert (they were touring together), and I remember being quite concerned that I would be pushed into a mosh pit (a thing I have never been a fan of) during Mastodon’s performance (they went on first that night). I thought I was in the clear, but after Opeth came on and played their song “Windowpane” (from their album Damnation, which, despite the name, is a rather slow-paced album), they launch into heavy riff and I found myself in the middle of twenty or thirty other sweaty and screaming men who shoved each other violently (is there any other way to shove someone?) and swung their fist with no particular target in mind. I, however, was the target of one of those fists, and my glasses flew off, landing beneath someone’s stomping foot. I lost one of the lenses, but the frame was still intact (just a minor scratch here and there), and I watched the rest of the concert with only one lens. Definitely one of my most interesting concert experiences.

LV

Can you tell me a little more about bouldering? How long have you been bouldering? How did you get into it?

ER

One of my best friends picked it up bouldering when he moved to Austin, and he invited me to join during the summer of 2019. For those unfamiliar with the term or sport, bouldering is a form of free climbing on artificial rocks or small rock formations. It’s usually done without a harness or a rope, which gives it an added element of danger and risk.

I went on a few occasions that fall, but I became more serious about it toward the end of that year and at the beginning of 2020. I joined Austin Bouldering Project (one of the main bouldering venues in Austin), and every weekend I would meet my friend early in the morning, climbing the various routes and trying to work my way up to harder and harder routes. I’m not sure if it is the same in every bouldering venue, but the difficulty of the routes was distinguished by color (yellow, red, green, purple, orange, black, blue, pink, white). I’ve only ever been able to comfortably complete an orange route, but I learned quickly that if I was concentrating too much about trying to reach the next level, I wasn’t having fun, and the whole point of bouldering is to have fun.

Yes, like any sport, there is a competition aspect to it, but I never saw myself participating in competition (my body no longer feels the need to define itself in that way). Bouldering is about balance, endurance, and pushing yourself beyond what you were comfortable with, and I never knew that climbing a ten-foot wall or hanging horizontally could demonstrate more about yourself than you realized. For me, it was about finding a peace I’m not sure I would have found elsewhere, about being methodical and thinking solely about my next few moves. Perhaps that is what I liked most about the bouldering, the fact that I wasn’t thinking about anything else, no work, no personal anxieties. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I should note that I just moved out of Austin, about twenty miles south to a city called Kyle (relatively close to San Marcos for those who are somewhat familiar with central Texas geography), and I have not been bouldering since. I don’t know exactly when I will return, but I do know that the time I was either suspended from a hold or contemplating my next move was time well spent. 

A Review of Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

Published June 22, 2021 by Tordotcom

“All martyrdoms are difficult.”

So reads the tagline of Kerstin Hall’s latest novel, a gripping exploration of power and agency within oppressive systems.

Elfreda Raughn has a problem. A member of a magical Sisterhood, it’s her duty to maintain order and keep Aytrium floating upon the magical pillars that the Star Eater established a millennia ago—lest the city crash into the abyss of monstrous Haunts below. It’s the duty of every Sister to produce a daughter who will one day devour her mother in search of magical power. Conception is ritualized and abortion is forbidden. Terrified of falling pregnant, Elfreda wants out at any cost. Blackmailed into assisting a shadowy rebellion, she gains access to both the highest levels of the Sisterhood and the complex mysteries surrounding the Star Eater.

A story of monsters, ritual, and the weight of obligation in the face of love, Star Eater begins with a deceptively conventional opening before shifting into something stranger and much more interesting. Featuring a complex system of magic, belief, and the varying intersections of faith and ritual, Star Eater’s one flaw might be combining too many characters and plot elements into a single storyline. It’s a difficult balancing act to handle a conspiracy, a murder mystery, and a chosen-one narrative on top of an incredibly complex system of magic and worldbuilding. And, to Star Eater’s credit, it’s a balance the story mostly manages to strike. The characters have enough breathing room to develop, the world of Aytrium reveals itself in intriguing ways through both the mundane and the utterly strange, and it avoids falling into the more common pitfalls of modern horror fiction. The story feels lived in without needlessly info-dumping, though there is one moment toward the middle involving details of the magic system that would have benefitted from some fleshing out before it became an important plot element instead of being revealed in-scene the moment it becomes relevant.

I have to admit that I’m a hard sell on first-person narratives. Call it a stylistic preference. I’m happy to report that Elfreda makes for an intriguing narrator, balancing the line between absorbing introspection while never getting too quick or too slow to pick up on the plot twists. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but one that Hall handles masterfully. Star Eater’s emotional arc concerns Elfreda’s relationship with three other characters; siblings Finn and Millie, both of whom Elfreda has known since childhood and has complicated romantic feelings for, and her mother, Kirane, who has since been martyred and left alive only so the other Sisters can devour her body to increase their own magical power.

I am also a hard sell on love triangles. To Hall’s credit, she doesn’t shy away from exploring the complexities of love under these circumstances, both familiar and romantic, and how the characters compromise and change in order to survive an imperfect world. Elfreda is flawed and her power makes her dangerous, as does her participation in a system that oppresses the people around her. Her journey from reluctant but willing participant to active rebellion comes organically, in fits and starts as she swings from acting out of self-preservation to genuinely believing change is possible, and with more than a few twists I didn’t see coming. And while the ending hits quickly, it does so in a way that ties all the narrative threads together in a neat, cohesive whole.

Star Eater’s deceptively conventional opening implies a far more mundane story with a love triangle and a murder mystery that I’d seen many times before. But the actual story is interested in deeper and stranger questions about human nature, how people endure under oppression, and the power of belief in the face of overwhelming odds, and far more interesting. It is also extremely, enthusiastically, queer. I highly recommend it.

The Witch King : An Interview with H.E. Edgmon

I’ll open with the single most cliché thing: what inspired The Witch King?

The big factor that pushed me to finally write this book was fanfiction. I have multiple marginalized identities that take place at different intersections, and when I grew up, I never saw myself reflected in mainstream media, whether that was published books or TV shows. So, I retreated into fandoms for a big part of my life. In fanfiction, characters can be whatever you decide they are. I’d always known I wanted to be a writer, but I was trying very hard to write stories that I felt would be more mainstream, which means writing only cis characters, and they didn’t really reflect the people in my circle or who I really was.

Finally, one day I said, I’m going to tell a story that feels authentic to me because I want to make people feel the way that fanfiction allowed me to feel, which included reclaiming the tropes that had been denied to us in mainstream media and seeing ourselves as the main characters.

Can you talk to me about your worldbuilding? You tap into a bunch of interesting genres, and you have so much worldbuilding around the monarchy and how the magic works. Where did each of those pieces come from?

I’ve always been super interested in pocket worlds, which are worlds that exist alongside but separate from ours. A popular example is Narnia. You step into this doorway, and you’re in a wildly separate place. I’ve always been fascinated by this idea that there are hundreds or thousands of pocket worlds, and these creatures can come in and out of these worlds through doors. That was the basis for my worldbuilding, this pocket world, and what would happen if the creatures that were over there stepped through and came here. As for the fae, when I went into the book, I had not read a ton of works about them, so I asked myself what do I find most compelling about magical races? I basically built my own dream monsters.

I loved your note at the beginning of the book, where you talk about this brutal honesty in the way you wrote it. What was that experience like, tearing off all the band-aids and saying this is what I’m going to write, directly from the heart?

I grew up in the very rural, very conservative Deep South. I had known I was queer and trans as far back as I can remember, but I was also surrounded by very conservative ideals. In my childhood, I never saw anyone like me because typically people like me get out of the very deep conservative pockets of the South as quickly as they can. I didn’t know I could be the person I am and have a happy life. I spent a big chunk of my life trying to turn into someone who I thought was more deserving, instead of creating the happiest, most authentic version of myself. That did not work; it was painful and uncomfortable, and I was very unhappy. Eventually, well into my twenties, I realized, largely thanks to online trans communities and friends I made as an adult, that it was entirely possible to be the most authentic version of myself.

Since writing the first draft of this book, I have come out publicly, and that has been kind of a brutal process. It was as brutal as I thought it would be. I did lose people in that process, but I am going to keep creating this happy future for myself. I think that it’s important for this book and books like it to exist with these characters at the forefront who create their own happiness. I want kids who are like me, who are a generation behind me and a generation behind that one, to know much earlier than I did that this happiness is totally achievable for their most authentic self.

I think that’s wonderful. One thing I found really striking was just how funny the narrative is. You’ll be in the middle of an incredibly dramatic point and then there are these weird jokes that felt authentic to how someone’s mind would actually process something like their magical ex-husband breaking in on them. Was that natural to the way you speak and think, or did you try to imbibe that bit of humor?

Dialogue has always been something I’ve considered to be one of my strong suits. Here’s some advice for anyone, particularly people who are writing YA novels right now and tapping into that Gen-Z-type humor: TikTok. Listen to how teenagers talk to each other because the jokes are there, and they are hilarious. Their sense of humor has shaped my sense of humor and the humor of the book.

The Witch King is a beautiful fantasy, with powerful statements about gender, identity, and how society thrusts things on us, and how we rebel. Those are really adult topics. Did you ever feel there was anything you weren’t able to write because of the YA genre? Did you have to hold back anything that you would have put in an adult book but felt you couldn’t put in this?

Honestly, no. The way you approach certain topics is different because you are presenting them to teenagers, but I don’t think there is anything you can’t discuss in a YA book. For anything that can happen, there is definitely a teenager out there who has experienced it, who is going through it, whether that’s a good thing or not. In talking about what some people try to “dumb down” in YA, I’ve observed it’s often political in nature. Way back before I agented, long before I had a book deal—when I was first getting feedback on my manuscript—I had somebody say to me that the character Briar, who is very involved in political activism, was very unrealistic for a teenager. I don’t agree with that because teenagers have always been invested in activism, now probably more than ever with all the information available to them. Teenagers care and are a lot smarter than we give them credit.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What it was like to get the courage up and make a real go at it?

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was a very young child. I watched my father playing Dungeons and Dragons, and though I was far too young to participate in his campaign, I loved this whole idea that you can just sit down with a pen and piece of paper and build entire worlds. That was the coolest magic to me. I remember being seven or eight years old, sitting down with my notebooks. I would write twenty pages of handwritten notes about these fantasy worlds I would create. I existed entirely in my own head, and it was so fun.

I didn’t know that writing could be a serious thing to do until I was in my early twenties. I’ve dealt with some pretty severe mental health issues and sort of spun from my teenage years into my early twenties. I was twenty-two or twenty-three when I started to feel in control of my life again. I had to think about what I wanted to do, and I decided I was going to write a book. So I did. It was not very good; it did not get published, and I did not get an agent. Then, I wrote another book, and it also did not get an agent and did not get published, but it was a little better. Then, I wrote The Witch King, and now here we are.

I recently lectured at a university where students asked me if no one likes my manuscript, should I just self-publish it? I told them they need to keep writing and improving before they decide that because every great author I’ve known has burnt a couple books along the way. It hurts, but you just do it.

It does hurt. There were other books I started. I realized, sometimes as deep as 50,000 words in, that it was unsalvageable, I was going in the wrong direction, and I needed to just shelve it and be done. I don’t know much about self-publishing, I’ve never tried any of that, but I do know from what I’ve been told that it is a lot more difficult than people anticipate.

With every word you write, you get better.It is difficult, especially when you don’t have time to write because you are not paid to write. It’s difficult to hear just keep doing it and maybe it will pay off. I, unfortunately, do not have a solution to that.

When you were writing this book, did you feel this one was different from the ones before or were you just as in love during the writing process as you were with the scrapped books?

At the point when I started writing The Witch King, I had queried two other books, and I had abandoned two or three other manuscripts along the way. I felt like I was running out of time. I was still in my twenties and not actually running out of time, but I felt like I couldn’t keep putting all this time and energy into it. I was going to have to start making money. When I sat down to write The Witch King, I told myself I was going to make this the most honest, raw, and real story that I could. If it still didn’t work out, I was going to need to figure out a different path. From a logistical, financial standpoint, I couldn’t pour so much time into something that wasn’t going anywhere. So, as I was writing, I knew a lot was riding on it. It felt very different from the first two because it was the first time I had sat down with the resolution this is going to be my last shot, I’m going to give it everything I have. It was painful in ways to write because it was so real to me.

It shows how much heart went into it; it’s a fantastic novel. So, tell me about the technical side of things. You have a manuscript, and now you’re ready to query it. What was that query process like?

I had a few people that I’d queried originally who requested full versions of the last manuscript and passed on it but told me to let them know if I wrote anything else. I sent it to those people first. I also participated in a Twitter pitch event. The Witch King had some very flashy comparisons when I did the pitch event. It was compared to The Cruel Prince by Holly Black and Fever King by Victoria Lee, which I think got people’s attention. I got a lot of full requests very quickly because of that. Most of them didn’t pan out, but I did end up getting a couple of representation offers from the Twitter pitch contest. Then, one of the agents who I had sent it to previously and who had read another of my manuscripts also made an offer. And that is who I ended up signing with.

Once it was picked up and you worked with your editor, what was the biggest change between the draft you submitted and what I’m now holding?

The biggest change was Wyatt’s motivations. The first draft was a lot more violent because he was considering getting out of this marriage through murder. It was a darker story. The feedback I got was love the book, however . . . Wyatt is kind of irredeemable. And I said, I hear you.

Changing that one plot point overhauled the entire book. I rewrote most of the book in revisions to make it less of a super dark murder story. It was an interesting time. I signed my book right before the pandemic, and I also had a baby right before the pandemic, and then I had to rewrite the entire book. That was a time.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m working on the sequel. The Witch King is the first in a duology, so the second book will come out the summer of 2022. I’ve been having some very exciting conversations with people in charge about plans for the sequel. I also have a few other things in the works unrelated to this series—that I can say absolutely nothing about yet, of course.

We also have a preorder campaign of The Witch King. There are some really awesome incentives. We have signed book plates that are beautifully illustrated. I also made a custom The Witch King tarot deck. People who order during the preorder campaign have a chance to win a deck, but only five people will be chosen as winners.

A Review of Salamat sa Intersectionality by Dani Putney

Published May 18, 2021 by Okay Donkey Press

Dani Putney’s debut poetry collection Salamat sa Intersectionality is a dynamic lyrical exploration of identity and evolution. Reading these poems felt like walking through Putney’s life—in each section, they create meaningful narratives of change and growth that kept me enthralled. Their poetry is both playful and intensely contemplative, and poems like “Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf Talk on My Thighs” are beautiful analyses of gender and language. As a nonbinary, mixed-race Filipinx, and neurodivergent individual, Dani Putney skillfully brings in different aspects of their identity to show the world from their perspective. In doing so, they create a radical understanding of self through poetry.

The collection takes the form of a poetic triptych, where each panel captures different aspects of Putney’s evolution: “Youthful Absolution,” “Salted Pores,” and “Taken Root.” In “Youthful Absolution,” the reader sees how Putney explores gender as well as their relationship with their parents. For instance, the poem “To Judith Butler” questions the boundaries of gender, while “My Mom Was a Picture Bride” shows the complex meaning of Putney wearing their mother’s cheongsam. Ancestry is a strong theme in this section, and I enjoyed seeing the different directions in which Putney would take the idea of youth.

The following section, “Salted Pores,” is lush with poems of queer sexuality. In these, Putney describes various physical encounters and examines the depths of desire. Poems like “Berm” portray the familiar embrace of a lover, and “Hyacinth” shows an ephemeral impression of attraction. The relationships in these poems are complex, with Putney showing both loving partners and layered conflict. There are cycles of tension and release, which create a growing anticipation as the poems advance toward the next movement.

Finally, “Taken Root” establishes how Putney sees their own self. “Scar” is a playful-yet-dark poem about Putney’s admiration for Scar from The Lion King, and “Stuck in Primordial Soup” hints toward ideas of apocalypticism. This section is probably the most varied in the collection, as it extends outward to ideas on the universe, parasites, video games, and geography. It’s fun to puzzle out the different possibilities of identity, and in doing so, complete the triptych.

One aspect I appreciated in Salamat sa Intersectionality was how many of the poems are connected by a sense of geographic space. Putney travels through imagery of California marshlands, Nevada deserts, Texas highways, and even Talisay City in the Philippines. Their poems vividly situate the reader in space, and then explore how identity is shaped by place: “lips were earthy / like his desert origins / each chapped sliver of skin / a horseback ride / through sagebrush.”

Salamat sa Intersectionality is a journey through how youth, sexuality, and sense of self all converge into identity. After reading this collection, I found myself thinking more about how bodies are shaped by this space-place complex, and I could flip to any page in this collection and discover something I didn’t realize before. Reading these poems feels like an adventure, and I would recommend Dani Putney’s Salamat sa Intersectionality to anyone interested in more Filipinx and LGBTQ+ poetry.

The Deep : An Interview with Alma Katsu

What drew you to the sinking of the Titanic and the Britannic?

After The Hunger, the natural question was what big disaster will you turn to next? But answering this is harder than it appears. Not to sound too callous but it’s got to be the right disaster, to have the right elements for a novel (mystery, adversity, challenge, and triumph; it can’t be all doom and gloom). There’s arguably no greater disaster in most people’s minds than the Titanic so it seemed the logical thing to tackle, though daunting. It’s so well-known and held in such esteem by so many people that you risk displeasing some of them, no matter what you do with the story. But it seemed like a grand challenge, and I love a writing challenge.

The sinking of the Titanic (and, to a lesser extent, its sister ship, the Britannic) occupy a very specific place in the public imagination. Regardless of the actual historical facts, the events have become mythologized. How did you grapple with that when writing The Deep?

Ah, the conundrum of every writer of historical fiction. Where to draw the line between fact and fiction will vary depending on the story we want to tell. And will my work of fiction only contribute to the mythologizing? Readers who prefer novels that are practically nonfiction won’t find my books satisfying, I’m afraid, but hopefully they’ll know what to expect as we try to make clear up front that these are reimaginings with an added element: horror.

Even with that warning, however, readers’ expectations are still in the back of your mind. Luckily, my readers seem to have come to enjoy the blend of fact and fiction and have made a game of discovering for themselves where the line falls. Many write to tell me the novels have spurred their interest in the actual history, and that they’re reading all the nonfiction accounts they can get their hands on, which is music to my ears.

Perspective is incredibly important within The Deep. Characters move through the novel as the heroes of their own story, each interpreting events a certain way. How did you balance the characters’ vastly different perspectives of the same events?

One thing I try to do with these books is reflect the issues of the day, and, for that period in time, the two big issues were class and wealth disparity (a small number of rich, dynastic families getting disproportionately richer and a growing number of the population falling below the poverty line) and women’s rights. Making sure these two issues were represented in the story guided a lot of choices in terms of who would be the POV characters, what their concerns were, and how they viewed the world around them. For instance, the main character is a poor Irish maid, not at all worldly, thrust into a completely alien situation—the great tumult of the Titanic’s maiden voyage—alongside Maddie Astor, new wife of the richest man in America.

Building off of that, Annie’s perspective is suspect from the beginning. The reader isn’t certain whether or not to trust what she tells them. Was this a challenge for you to write?

Extremely difficult! Because it’s easy to frustrate the reader if the narrator is too wild or seems to contradict herself too much. It’s a delicate balance and I wish there was an easier way to do it other than lots of trial and error. Lots of rewriting. It helps to have models in mind, an example of the exact note you want to hit. Mine was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, where the mystery was just enough to keep you off balance.

The Deep weaves together two different timelines and two different disasters. Was this your plan from the beginning? Did anything surprise you about working with two separate timelines?

Once you find out the sister ship also sank, then there’s no way you cannot use that in the story, don’t you think? It raises the possibility of something supernatural at play, that somehow it was fated to be, and for a writer that’s impossible to resist—even if it makes plotting difficult. Really tricky.

A project like The Deep must have involved extensive research and planning, and that’s not even factoring in the time to write. How long did you work on The Deep from start to finish? What was that research process like?

The research on books like The Deep and The Hunger is considerable, but I was a professional research analyst for most of my life so I don’t think it’s as daunting as it might be for most people. I am strict with myself and don’t allow for a lot of getting lost in rabbit holes, if you know what I mean. I do a lot of spot research as I’m writing. For me, it’s not the writing that’s a time-sink as much as the rewriting, as my books tend to go through a couple rounds of heavy-duty revisions with the editor.

Every writer is different, but for me the first draft stage is usually six months or less and that includes research. Each revision can take one to three months. Of course, that might mean fifteen-hour days when I get close to deadline.

The character of Violet Jessop is an interesting one. She’s also a historical figure who lived a varied—and at times tragic—life. How did you first learn about her? What drew you to write about her?

Violet was the reason there’s a book, really. My husband was watching a documentary on the first visit to the Britannic wreck and they mentioned there was a woman who had survived both sinkings, and I knew there had to be a story in there! Obviously, a lot of Anne Hebbley, the main character, is patterned on Violet but with all the things that happen to Anne and that needed to be in her backstory, it didn’t feel right to simply put all that on Violet. The right thing to do was make a fictional character, but Violet is so special in her own right that I still wanted her in the book in some way.

The Deep blends the supernatural (or, perhaps more importantly, what the characters believe is supernatural) with a real, historical tragedy. How did you balance the two when you were writing? Was that a challenge? 

The guiding premise is the question of whether magic is real. So, The Hunger and The Deep examine where the dividing line is between magic and what we believe to be reality. Are the two completely separate, or could reality be a mixture of the two? Is magic simply another interpretation of our experience, or what we have come to think of as science? Medicine and treatments that are common today were the realm of alchemy or treated solely through spiritual means just a few centuries ago. As our modern world becomes more and more science-based, it does get harder to carve out a space for magic and the power of belief.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication? What projects are you currently working on?

It’s important to have goals, and easy in this profession to fall into a groove, I think. One big challenge was writing my first spy novel, which may seem like it’s coming from left field but makes more sense when you learn that I was a career intelligence officer. I didn’t start off with spy thrillers for a couple reasons, mainly waiting until I retired so there would be fewer complications with the home agency. Red Widow just came out and I am ridiculously proud of it, as I set out to write a book that was perhaps a truer representation of what the life inside is like, particularly for women.

I’d also hoped to break into film and TV (as I’d seen so many of my fellow writers making the leap) and I’m happy to say Red Widow is in development with FOX, and I’m getting a front-row seat as one of the executive producers. The Hunger is also about to be pitched to studios, too, and it’s kind of amazing to see these long-held goals be realized.

These Violent Delights : An Interview with Chloe Gong

So, what inspired you to write this book?

The first sprig of the idea was that I wanted to write a blood feud story. I thought it would be interesting to write about two characters caught in a conflict between their families. And they’re so alike and work so well together, yet the circumstances pull them apart. Then that seemed to come across as an innocent, star-crossed lovers’ story. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this sounds like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The more the story came to life, and the more that the elements were coming together with writing gangs and reimagining how a story like this would play out in the true historical context, I thought it would be more interesting to lean right into doing a Romeo and Juliet retelling.

This interest in blood feuds, is that because you grew up with divergent families that hated one another? Or did you just really find it fascinating as a reader?

I just found it fascinating because I love stories that come with intense conflicts. I grew up reading so much YA, and I always loved it when there’s a plot but also a couple to root for in the sub-plot. They go so nicely together when it’s the world itself trying to keep these characters apart. So I thought, I love a blood feud for the main plot, and it’ll be interesting getting into those character dynamics.


You’re in university right now. What’s it like to write a book while you’re going to school?

It’s a lot to handle. Back when I was doing the brunt of the first book’s revision—when I was working with my editor the first time—to get through the roughest draft of it was a lot of tearing it completely apart. And there was a lot of building it from the ground up, and I was doing that during my most intense course load.

Growing up, I’d always thought of writing as a hobby. But in college, I had to treat it as something to take really seriously so that I wasn’t falling behind on deadlines. After I got the deadlines in, after the book itself got into its final “pretty stages,” it was quite nice to just be in school. It was an interesting experience in the sense that it was really hard to do, but once it got done, I felt very privileged to have that role.

Did you try to somehow overlap it? Like if you had a book deadline, you thought okay, I’ll make sure to take a Shakespeare class and something about the history of China—did you try to use school to your advantage, or were they completely at odds?

I did try. I’m doing a Chinese minor, not Chinese language, but history—it was almost as if the classes I naturally gravitated towards were the stuff that was relevant anyway. I had the book together after freshman year, and then sophomore year I took a lot of classes like Monsters and Literature, East Asian Diplomacy, and Intro to Russian Literature. In all of those classes, I would pick up bits and pieces that helped me understand more. But I didn’t necessarily insert anything in. It gave me an angle to think about it again, and when I went back to revise, it was almost like I had more of a lens. My brain felt bigger.

You’re literally marketing to a group that you’re still vaguely in. Usually, when we talk to YA authors, they’re in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and a big question is how do you get yourself back in the mindset of being a teenager? What was it like to write inside the group that you were catering to?

It felt very natural because it was all that I knew. The only books that I had read were young adult, so when I was writing one, it never occurred to me to write adult fiction, because I don’t know what that is. I don’t know how adults think; I don’t know what adults do. From about thirteen onwards, whenever I was writing a book, that character would be my age, because as I was growing up, I was putting myself into the pages.

I wrote These Violent Delights when I was nineteen. I got the idea when I was eighteen, so Juliette in the book is just eighteen. I was translating myself over in terms of what I knew. After I spoke to my agent, she said that this book could actually cross over into adult. I was shocked. I thought how did I accidentally write something that adults want to read? I really like the fact that apparently my writing is accessible, but given that I was so rooted in the teen space, and I know what these teen readers like, I was comfortable in the teen space. It was always the path I was going to go down. I guess it will be interesting now, growing up, to see whether I expand into adult. I’m kind of poking my fingers into it.

I always love when I find a YA book like yours that just isn’t afraid to have really creepy monsters and people ripping their own throats out. What was it like to lean into that darkness? Have you always been interested in that aspect of writing? Or was that something that came out with these themes?

I think it was something that emerged with these themes because I wanted to work with Romeo and Juliet as inspiration, which comes from a relatively violent place. Then I was setting something in 1920s Shanghai, which was, in history, very ruled by gangs, so lawless streets was effectively the atmosphere. So even when I added a supernatural component, I wanted to embrace the natural dark atmosphere of what would have been true to the time. Because my first audience was myself—again, since I belong to the audience—I knew that teens wouldn’t balk at it in the same ways that older adults writing for the teen audience might have to be more hesitant, because they aren’t entirely sure what goes and what doesn’t anymore. But I knew that the recent reads my friends and I were into had no problem embracing the darker side. Teenagers don’t necessarily flinch at those things in the way that adult gatekeepers of the industry might think. I didn’t have an issue writing that, as long as it was true to the story I was trying to tell.

One of the things I loved about the book was your voice. It was this great merger of the more lyrical work that we’ve all grown up with in classic literature, but it had its own unique style. Did the voice just pour out of you? Did you agonize over it?

I do a lot of editing as I go, so when I write I have to make sure that the first things I’m putting down on the page are what I want them to be. So I guess in a way I do agonize over making sure that the setting on the page is sounding how I want it to sound. But I also think because of the world that was naturally in place, I was reading a lot of primary sources from people describing the city at the time and I was reading some translated literature pieces, and the way that the description tends to come about usually has that more lyrical, omniscient sense to it. So I went in with that intention, and in that sense, it made the tone quite natural to me as I went on. But to make sure that I was following through with it was always in my head. Prose is really important to me. I love YA for its quick pace and the character work, but I also never want to sacrifice the craft of it. When I write, I have to make sure that everything YA values is going on but my words have to sound pretty.

Are you the kind of writer where you knew exactly what direction you were racing in and you had the plot thought out, or do you write and let the muse take you and try to clean up everything that broke while you wrote?

A bit of both. I outline a lot. I try to know everything I write before I write it, but sometimes the story goes in its own direction completely, and then I have to readjust my outline. But even when that happens, I tend to erase a bit of what I have in my outline document and rework that, then go back to the novel itself. I hate writing words that I know I’m going to delete. I always have to feel the usefulness of something before I’m actually putting it down. I feel that I have to get the wrong part in my brain first and rework it before getting it down on an outline. That’s why my first drafts already turn out quite clean. I’ve already stumbled on it so much in its first stages.

Talk to me about the actual publishing process. You had this great idea, you thought it was viable—did you just look up how to query an agent on the internet?

Exactly like that. I used Google so much. I had the finished book, and I wanted to get it published, but I had no idea how. I typed “how do you get published” into Google, and then I sifted my way through. I realized that traditional publishing was what I wanted and realized how to query an agent, what happens after you sign with an agent, how to get in the hands of editors. I did so much research and looked up agents that represent the genres I write in, then I looked up how to approach them. I wrote my query letters and sent them all out, then once I actually signed with an agent, I had my foot in the door. Then I had someone to guide me through the industry.

How did you go about selecting an agent that you knew understood your message?

I queried the agents who represented the type of stuff I had written and was planning to write in the future because I wanted a career agent. I would check out some of their social media to see how they’d work with people and their vibe. I queried the ones that I would like to work with, and after I got a few offers from agents, I got on the phone with them all and my agent now was the one I vibed with the most.

Objectively, all of the agents who made me offers were amazing in terms of their approach, their vision for how the book could go. But I think my agent was just the one who not only did I agree with her interpretation of the book, but she was the one who talked about it and my career going in a way that felt good to me on a personal level. That was really important to me because at the time I was nineteen. I wanted someone who would take me seriously and treat me as an equal, and she absolutely did. We’ve been working together ever since.

You had a quotation about how you’ve written like eight books since you were thirteen, and you’ve really honed your craft. What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned from between being an adorable thirteen-year-old who’s just picking up the pen to someone who’s professionally writing?

I think a lot of writing will genuinely have to come from experience. And drawing rough stories and having them sound completely bizarre and just moving on from them. There’s a misconception that you can easily learn writing by reading enough prompt books or taking up advice. And while that is really helpful in the sense of understanding how story arcs go and how to create compelling characters, I think writing is one of those things that is genuinely like muscle memory.

What about writing from your own experience? You write about romance and so many adult themes. Have you tried to go out and live a bit recklessly so you could pull from experience? What was it like to connect on a human element?

I went about it more with the imagination route than the experience route. With cultural inspiration, I would take from stories I have heard my family talk about, and stories my parents told at the dinner table. Things like human yearning and human ambition—things like Juliette feeling frustrated that she keeps getting overlooked as the heir of a gang—all of those things, they’re very foreign to me. I would never know what it’s like to fight over an underground empire. My imagination is what I sink into for that. That’s why I love fantasy so much. You can look at the complete extremes of what someone could experience, but real-life people won’t necessarily experience. I do think that getting out into the world is something that’s helpful to gain insight into the human experience, but I think that some young writers will imagine things very deeply, and I think that gives them an edge as well.

Is there a character that you found the most natural to write? That you identified with? Or maybe someone you didn’t identify with at all and that made them so much easier to write?

For most of the characters, I took a certain part of myself and shoved it in there. That was what helped make them three-dimensional in my eyes. For example, most of Juliette’s identity crises come from my lived experiences being part of the diaspora in the Western world. But then other parts of her personality are completely unlike mine. With Benedikt, his obsession with the world and his anxiety is mine, but other parts of him are completely made up. When I create my characters, they’re all equally hard to write in the sense that I give them a part of me to make them feel real, and then I expand more on the very basics of who they should be to create a new person who feels real in their world. If it felt too easy, I would think it was getting too biographical. I like the fact that it feels difficult to make them all feel unique. Then it feels like they’re real people that someone could meet on the street.

In addition to this book, there’s a sequel. Was it an intended sequel?

It was intended in the sense that it’s always been the whole story, but it was originally one book. It was one quite big manuscript, but then my editor said that we should break it apart because it was quite chunky. I jumped at the opportunity to split it into two books. I changed the story a lot when I did this. The sequel has always existed, but what’s in the sequel now is completely different from how the original story once went.

When you originally queried the two books as one, what was your word count?

It was actually lower. I want to say it was 117,000. When you’re getting an agent, they like to keep it under 100,000. I think the current word count is 120,000. So it did grow. It’s so frustrating that it’s an industry standard to keep it under 100,000 words. Sometimes people really pull it off—the pacing is good, all of the words are needed. But because the way the industry works, they say get it under 100,000 and then grow it again once you have a book deal.

What is the one thing you really wanted to say with this book?

With this book and the duology itself, and starting with Romeo and Juliet, I think the big theme is to choose love in a place of hate.

Loose Canons: Adventures in the Literary Multiverse

In celebration of the recent release of F(r)iction #18: Legacy, we bring you this read-along . . .

In the editor’s note of F(r)iction’s LEGACY issue, editor-in-chief Dani Hedlund asks, “in the end, is our legacy completely out of our control?” Reading further, all signs point to ‘yes.’  The achievements of the individuals featured in Gerald Malone’s piece Blanked from History went uncelebrated because of the social politics of their times, while Dorian Karahalios’ story Old Man Miller depicts how, long after her death, a murdered teenage girl is rebranded from victim to villain, misrepresented to serve a narrative.

After we die, we can’t say with any certainty who will end up with our sweaters, so any conjecture about our own legacy—how we’ll be remembered (or forgotten), or what others will do with what we leave behind, is—at best—a guess thrown into the wind. William Wirt Winchester couldn’t have predicted that his widow Sarah would use his financial legacy to build an ever-changing mansion of secret passageways and staircases leading nowhere as protection against the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles any more than Shakespeare could have foreseen that his literary legacy would one day include a version of Hamlet narrated by a fetus.

While legacy preserves the fruits of an author’s labor, adaptations use those fruits as ingredients to make their own preserves; concoctions that alter the flavors of familiar stories by filling in narrative gaps, providing context about why antagonists became who they became, correcting injustices to maligned or underserved characters like Bertha or Miss Havisham, or re-examining stories from alternate POVs or timelines.

Retellings can be great fun, a way for authors to play with other people’s dolls. Seeing how the source material functions within a different time period, location, or culture or tweaking its dynamics by changing characters’ race, gender, or sexual orientation have inspired reimaginings as varied as Jane Austen’s beloved characters facing a zombie invasion, Beowulf in suburbia, or Othello in grade school.

Whether the original authors would approve of these literary staircases built on their legacy-mansions or would instead haunt the folks building them is anyone’s guess—although famously racist H.P. Lovecraft would’ve been horrified by Victor Lavalle’s treatment of his most famously racist book, Homer would probably be cool with Madeline Miller intensifying the implicit bromance between Achilles and Patroclus.

Here are ten adaptations of literary masterpieces for your assessment: are they lode-bearing constructions or ornamental doors to nowhere?


Sex and Vanity

by Kevin Kwan (Doubleday, 2020)

Retelling E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View

From the author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy comes a frothy romantic comedy of manners featuring a crazy rich half-Asian woman named Lucie Churchill, for whom being biracial means having to navigate the conflicting expectations, demands, and snobbish sniping from both sides of her Chinese/WASP family tree. A successful art appraiser with a wealthy fiancé, Lucie is living a seemingly charmed life amongst New York’s mega-rich elite when the handsome and vexing George Zao—whom she’d met, detested, and kissed five years earlier—comes back into her life, reigniting old feelings. Their meet-cute, at a wedding in Capri, involved him offering to swap lodgings with her so she could have…wait for it…a room with a view. Yesiree, this modern rom-com romp is a flashy reboot of E.M. Forster’s novel about love, class, and repression in Edwardian England given a new culture-clash twist.

The Swallowed Man

by Edward Carey (Riverhead, 2021)

Retelling Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio

Charlotte Brontë never explained how Heathcliff got rich during his three years away from Wuthering Heights; a narrative lacuna into which multiple authors have planted their speculative novel flags. But until now, none had imagined what Pinocchio‘s Geppetto was doing whilst trapped in the belly of The Terrible Dogfish* that swallowed him during his search for the wayward puppet-son who ran off after an argument. This book is Geppetto’s diary, written (and illustrated) by candlelight in the belly of a ship in the belly of a beast; the words of a lonely artist reflecting on his life: fatherhood, aging and creation. He goes a little mad in the relentless solitude, staving off loneliness by drawing pictures of Pinocchio, sculpting new companions, and—briefly—befriending a crab.

* NOT Monstro the whale from the same Disney film that redacted Pinocchio killing the talking cricket with a hammer and Geppetto imprisoned for child abuse.

Killing Commendatore

by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2018)

Retelling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Having completed the first-ever Japanese translation of The Great Gatsby, the next logical step for Fitzgerald-superfan Murakami was to retell the tragic story of loneliness and obsession from a different angle. First, he relocated the story from a glitzy Long Island mansion to the remote mountains of Japan. Next, he changed . . . nearly everything else. 500 pages longer than the original, this is Gatsby strained through Murakami’s signature magical realism filter and then shoved through the looking glass repeatedly. The Gatsby scaffolding is the relationship between the unnamed protagonist and his wealthy, enigmatic neighbor, but it’s supporting a reference-laden, Gothic/metaphysical meditation on art, music, war, the creative process, and enlightenment, sprinkled with literary cameos, paintings come to life, a trip to the underworld, and the personification of literary devices. Oh, and Fitzgerald’s symbolic green light is represented by a bell here, which is a real game-changer.

Country

by Michael Hughes (Custom House, 2019)

Retelling Homer’s The Iliad

Adaptations build new worlds around familiar stories to show how society has changed—or hasn’t—in the years between the tellings. This novel is a perfect example of how, when it comes to the business of war, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Hughes recontextualizes the events of The Iliad by setting them in 1990s Northern Ireland during a ceasefire between the IRA and Britain towards the end of the Troubles. Retaining the cadence of the original, with slightly modified names and divine roles recast with mortal characters, this is a surprisingly faithful retelling of Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War; one conflict sliding easily into another. It’s very butch and visceral; men and guns and violence and blood, and while it may not feature the diversity of . . . every other recently published Homeric rework, it is an unquestionably fine achievement in both historical fiction and literary adaptation.

Quichotte

by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2019)

Retelling Cervantes’ Don Quixote

Cervantes haaaaaated the first adaptation of Don Quixote. Like some 17th century George R.R. Martin, he took ten years off to write the second half of his epic, during which time an unauthorized, anonymous (or pseudonymous) sequel emerged, taking personal shots at Cervantes, who bitterly clapped back at the unknown author in DQ Part II. Rushdie’s homage is less antagonistic, modernizing the original while respecting its bones (a complexly structured picaresque adventure with metafictional flourishes), meat (the Indian-American Quichotte taking a road trip towards an impossible love “accompanied” by his imaginary son Sancho), and spirit (satirizing the popular culture and contemporary values of the times). Cervantes’ story of a man driven mad when his devotion to chivalric romances blurs his perception of reality and fantasy may seem quaint, but Rushdie’s update—Quichotte driven mad by reality TV’s blurring of news and entertainment—is a sobering reflection of the modern condition.

Unforgivable Love

by Sophfronia Scott (William Morrow, 2017)

Retelling Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses

If you only know Les Liaisons dangereuses via the glossy-magazine film Cruel Intentions, you’ll think it’s about a couple of horny socialites ruining people’s reputations out of boredom. It’s legit entertaining, but it cuts motivation-corners by ignoring the fact that the whole thematic raison d’être driving LLd is power imbalance. As an aristocrat, the Marquise de Merteuil had social status but was denied power because of her gender. Behind her cultivated guise of demure gentility, she manipulated Valmont by weaponizing her sexual currency, strategically deploying him onto a path of destructive seduction to get what she wanted. Scott doubles down on this—set in Jazz Age Harlem, her Mae Malveaux is not only a woman, but a woman of color whose wealth affords her certain freedoms and elite status within Harlem’s social hierarchy, but there are external, systemic forces beyond her control * preventing her from achieving her goals. Machinations ensue.

*wink

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook

by Christina Henry (Berkley Books, 2017)

Retelling J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

A character-redemption tale positing that Captain Hook was not a villain, but a whistleblower passionate about child advocacy. Here, the notorious Peter Pan nemesis reveals that he was once just a lonely little boy named Jamie; the first Lost Boy to follow Peter through to Neverland, where they remained the very best of friends until Jamie started feeling a little conflicted about Peter’s penchant for luring young boys away from their families with promises of fun and adventure, no rules or adults and never growing up. Because never growing up doesn’t necessarily mean living forever. Sometimes it means dying young and being replaced by another batch of abducted boys. With an immortal’s disregard of mortal limitations, and a forever-child’s lack of responsibility or consequences, Peter is careless with his playthings, and after a while, Jamie gets tired of burying little boys and has to put his foot down.

Even in Paradise

by Elizabeth Nunez (Akashic Books, 2016)

Retelling William Shakespeare’s King Lear

Some literary adaptations are meant to operate as correctives; overwriting and supplanting their problematic predecessors, others are tangential “yes but” responses acknowledging the original and offering an alternate perspective. This one’s more like an echo. Set in present-day Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica, it’s a multicultural spin on King Lear that co-exists in the world with King Lear. So when the inheritance drama of wealthy Trinidadian landowner Peter Duckworth and his three daughters begins to unfold in uncanny parallel to Shakespeare’s tragedy, narrator and interested party Émile Baxter is familiar enough with the play to comment on the situation’s similarities, but unable to prevent the inevitable fallout of life mirroring art. Lear is the centerpiece of the novel, with its themes of greed, betrayal, and familial discord, but Nunez surrounds her family drama with lush descriptions of its Caribbean location and additional complications of race, class, poverty, and colonialism.

The Charmed Wife

by Olga Grushin (Putnam, 2021)

Retelling Charles Perrault’s Cinderella

We were assured that Cinderella and her Prince lived happily ever after, but a mere thirteen years later, this wellness check of a novel finds her a frazzled queen, beseeching the witch and her fairy godmother for a spell to kill her man. How could a relationship based on a shoe size and a one-night ball possibly turn sour? The realities of marriage, motherhood, and life’s myriad stressors have chipped away at the fairytale’s promise, but this isn’t your typical feminist fairytale retelling; it isn’t a retelling at all, but a prismatic piece of experimental fiction that explodes the rules and conventions of both fairytales and narrative storytelling itself, breaking down the walls between fantasy and reality, looping in characters from neighboring stories and the adventures of talking mice, where ‘good’ and ‘wicked’ are rarely what they seem and happily ever after can only begin once the fantasy ends.

Frankissstein: A Love Story

by Jeanette Winterson (Grove Press, 2019)

Retelling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 

All adaptations are Frankensteins: new ideas stitched onto old bodies, but Jeanette Winterson frankensteins Frankenstein itself into a very modern Prometheus indeed, which revisits and updates the question of what can be done with a body. Split between that 1816 Lake Geneva summer when Mary conceived Frankenstein, hands-down winning the competition between herself, boy-Shelley, Byron, and Polidori, and a present-day storyline featuring doppelgänger versions of that Swiss family writer’s circle, in which Ron Lord sells sentient sex-dolls and Mary is transfigured as trans man Ry whose lover Dr. Victor Stein is a TED-talking AI expert with visions of transhumanism dancing in his head. The novel has as many moving parts as Shelley’s monster, but its central preoccupation is the body: characters transcending its limitations, pushing past boundaries, imagining the what’s-next possibilities—why settle for your birth body, a human body, or a physical body at all?