Your story, “Animal,” features a female protagonist with a strong, edgy voice. Where did that voice come from?
Most of my characters come from some crude mix of elements of people I’ve known and my own shit. George is partly an old college friend, partly some kids I’ve taught over the years, partly teenage me. The origin of the story is the line in the first paragraph—the bit about how high rates of drug abuse are for pet store workers. A friend of mine that worked at a pet store told me about that in high school and it always stayed with me for some reason—the idea of all these cynical, high teenagers taking care of small animals and being friendly to customers, or not, just demanded a story. But I didn’t have the framework for it until last year when I started thinking about counter-narratives to Lovecraft’s racist ass and Mikki Kendall’s (@Karnythia) hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, which is where Marlene’s manipulative use of the word “sisters” and brisk return to racism comes from.
The narrative arc of “Animal” focuses more on the feelings of the protagonist and the themes of life and compassion as opposed to the shock-value of an unexplained, horrific, supernatural occurrence. Do you think it’s important that the fantastical aspects of speculative fiction serve to highlight the human? If so, how does a writer best achieve this?
I think there has to be a balance—ideally, the seemingly disparate elements strengthen each other and make the story deeper with their contrast. If a monster just shows up and eats people, I don’t care; there’s no basis for me to give a damn about any of the characters or deeper truths of the story. Same goes if all we get are generic, bland characters going through the same motions of their generic, bland lives. Oh no, they got eaten. It’s flat. The best horror gives us complexity and depth on the human level so that the disruption resonates. So, that’s what I strived for with this story. I wanted to setup a context of humanity—complex people struggling with their lives in real ways, no easy answers—and then introduce an element of awfulness to that mix that was rooted somewhat in the story being told.
In an interview with Tananarive Due you said that flow is what you focus on more than other, more technical aspects of craft. How did this story flow for you?
This story really came right out of me. Probably because, as I said, I’d been pondering the idea of pet stores and drug use for waaaay too long, so once the other pieces clicked into place, the whole thing just happened on the page. As with most pieces I write, I knew vaguely where I was going—a bloody showdown in a pet store basement and then a disarmingly tender maternal moment—and the characters came to life very quickly. Once there’s a starting point, characters, and an ending point, the in between tends to move smooth.
You’ve spoken a lot about what it’s like, and what it means, to be a speculative fiction writer of color, but what has your experience been in regards to writing characters of color? How have readers reacted to your protagonists?
Reactions have run the gamut. I think overall there’s a great hunger out there to both see ourselves in speculative literature and for stories that are about more than just “getting the girl” or “killing the bad guy.” Diversity is about equitable representation in characters and authors, yes, but it’s also about a diversity of story craft, of voice, of narrative structure and flow.
With this story in particular, I’ve noticed a sharp difference in how audiences react. An almost all white audience stared at me wide-eyed for the duration. I could tell they were invested in it, at one point I stopped because my time was running out and they demanded I finish it, but they made barely a peep. Then I read it to a mostly of-color audience here in Brooklyn and folks were on the floor laughing. This kind of thing is fascinating from a narrative and voice perspective and speaks to the need to undo homogeny in all aspects of the industry. Race and culture affect our perspective—I’m writing this shit cracking up, come to find out it reads as straight horror to one audience, humor to another.
You’re also a composer. How does your creative process for music differ from your writing process? Does music influence your writing, and vice-versa?
I learned how to write music because there are times when words don’t cut it. When I write, there’s always an underlying music to the piece. Stories have rhythm and movement just like songs; they flush forward then hesitate; they play with tension and release, silence, climax. Generally, when I’m working on a story at the idea stage, I’m walking around, maybe dancing; my headphones are in and I’m moving along to whatever beat’s blasting through them. When I say I’m concerned with the flow of a story, that’s a musical element—how does one sentence lead to the next? How do they build a cohesive movement that leads you to the end of the paragraph? Where’s the source of gravity strongest and how do the words get us there? Music holds it all together.
Are there any current projects you’re working on, and if so could you tell us a bit about them?
Yes! My first novel, Half-Resurrection Blues, comes out from Penguin’s Roc imprint in January. Next summer my first young adult book, Shadowshaper, comes out from Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books. Meanwhile, I edited an anthology with Rose Fox, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, that’s been doing big things since it came out in May. Also: I’ve decided to become a YouTube superstar, so hopefully that’ll happen in the next couple decades or so.
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