Tell us a little bit about “Rules for Killing Monsters.” What inspired you to write it?
A lot of things went into this story, but the main thing was reading a news article about transgender teens using online games to explore gender identity. At the time, I’d recently written a story in which a man takes on a female identity online for practical purposes so he could post things he perceived as “girly” without attracting attention. But it hadn’t occurred to me that an online gender swap could be such a powerful tool of self-discovery. So I wanted to explore that.
There was also an article I read, around the same time, about a transwoman who was fatally beaten by a stranger who found out she was transgender. And that’s something that happens far too often. I’ve written stories that explore gender identity before, but none that look quite so hard into the brutality and the hostility with which society sometimes treats people when they don’t fit the expected gender roles.
And then the third big piece was how videogames deal with death. Where it’s something you can come back from because you’ve invested time in this character, but there’s always some kind of journey or a cost. It was fun to write my own way back from the nether realms.
The main character experiences a revelation about her own identity by way of playing a game. Do you think games have a special ability (or perhaps potential) to facilitate self-understanding? Are there any games you find particularly effective in that regard?
I really want the answer to be tabletop roleplaying games, like Changeling or D&D. But really, the times when a game has taught me something surprising about myself or my friends, it’s usually been a cheesier sort of game such as Loaded Questions, or that exercise where you imagine yourself walking in the woods and answer questions like, “You see a cup on the ground. Describe it.”
Roleplaying games like D&D answer a deep-seated need for stories, which is something different but also vital.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, there are true stories about transgender people discovering or coming to terms with their gender identities through online games, where it’s safe to be whoever you want to be. I read recently that Robin Williams loved playing World of Warcraft. That really surprised me because he had this long and amazing career without ever making a movie that glorified violence, but it makes sense for the same reason it makes sense for transgender teens because, if you’re Robin Williams, where are you going to go that no one will recognize you?
I’ve also read of people with autism spectrum disorders using online games to work through social issues.
The debate over whether supernatural monsters or humans are the scarier villains is a long-standing one in horror, and one that “Rules for Killing Monsters” touches on. Where do you fall?
That’s a tough one. The easy answer is that monsters are scary because you don’t understand them, while humans are scary because you do. I mean, if I’ve done my job in “Rules,” then when Ursula goes off, you understand why, and there should be a part of you wanting her to kick ass.
But I think the reverse is also true, that sometimes monsters are scariest when you can relate, and humans are most frightening when you can’t. One time I was staying with a friend in an upstairs apartment in a two-family house, and the landlady called in the middle of the night to rage at me that the boards were creaking when I walked. And she was furious about this, and distraught, and she would not listen to anything I said, but just kept going back to how I needed to make it stop. And I was terrified to go back to sleep, knowing that there was someone I did not know, right below me, who might have a key, who might have a gun, and who might fly into a psychotic rage because I’d gotten up to use the bathroom, and there was nothing I could do about it.
That’s also what’s going on with Ursula’s tormenters in the story, that they see someone who is beyond their understanding, whose wants and needs aren’t the same as theirs, and it terrifies them. Though I think in this case they’re less afraid that she’ll do something to them, and more afraid that they might find her in themselves if they look too deep.
By the same token, when a monster is inhuman, it becomes much more compelling if the writer can give you a window into the creature’s mind; let you see, without anthropomorphizing, what the creature feels, what it wants, and so on.
What are you working on lately? Any upcoming publications you’d like to let readers know about?
At the moment, I’m working on a science fiction sitcom. I’ve got a few actors and a small camera crew, and a budget of, uh, nothing. And I’m having a lot of fun. You know, there’s a lot of pressure on writers of science fiction and fantasy to respect the value of your own work, and not to send it to places that won’t pay you or presses that take it on spec. And it’s a good thing that writers are standing up for themselves, but I was surprised when some truly talented actors and videographers and other people were willing to come in and help me and make this thing happen without any assurance of being paid for their time. And now I’m working on a way to get from a couple of days of brilliant unpaid work to something that will be larger and more rewarding for everyone involved.
I’d like to say more about the project itself, but at the moment there’s a major TV network that has an exclusive look. By the time this interview is published, I hope to be able to talk about this show and where you can go to help make it happen, whether it’s associated with a major network or with an Indiegogo campaign or making the rounds of smaller networks.
Best kind of unquiet dead: Liches, ghouls, or zombies?
Can I go with plain old ghosts? I love the idea of a spirit being trapped behind by unfinished business. And sometimes the self gets washed away, and all that is left is the effort to finish the task. There’s a lot you can do with that. I once wrote a one-sentence ghost story, that I’m still very proud of, in Safety Pin Review.
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