“Don’t Pack Hope” resonates so much with the real; a vivid and heartbreaking story. Tell us what inspired the tale.
I was slushing for Clarkesworld when I wrote this story, and it’s possible that the “No zombies” rule poked my rebellious brain and inspired a zombie story. Take that, Neil! (Just kidding.) Actually, I was thinking a lot about bodies when I wrote this story, in particular that being infected by or being turned into a zombie is an enforced physical and mental change, a concept that borrows from the Haitian zombie history. I was wondering how a character who has changed his body would react to being in this world where an enforced change is possible from a terrifying exterior source.
My character is also used to hiding, to navigating unsafe spaces, which reflects the unfortunate reality that many queer and trans people experience on a daily basis. Ultimately, my protagonist draws on his grit and strength in order to find the courage to leave the city and find his family. I wanted to pay tribute to the unique strength of the queer and trans community in that regard.
This story is dark, yet it is also vulnerable. We never meet Kristy, but we care about her because the main character cares. We never meet the main character’s parents, but we instantly feel at home with all the memories of collected rainwater, football cheering, and natural remedies. When writing, how much thought do you give to a character’s history, the backstory that never makes it onto the page?
Writing interesting and complex characters is something that I find very difficult, so I’m delighted to hear that these characters felt fully-formed. When writing characters, I try to think about not only what they want, but why? Safety might be a motivator in general, but I find that characters develop when you start to wonder what safety means to them, and why? When have they felt safe? When have they felt threatened? What does a safe world look like to them, what is their experience of danger? What are they scared of? How are they brave? I think that the hardest thing someone has ever done or the worst thing that has ever happened to someone can vary wildly from person to person. Sometimes it can be a conversation that they dread, sometimes it can be letting something—or someone—go.
Physicality and presentation can also be so telling in regards to a character, and I feel like my protagonist is very invested in his.
When writing characters I try to have a sense of them in my head, but I’m learning to see them and create them as fully-formed people, with more complexity and nuance. Writing complex characters reminds me of writing stories in general—there are so many moving parts, and the more you learn about the things that you need to think about and include, the harder it can get.
I loved the description of the various places to hide, how they blend current terrors with past fears. No one would want to live this story, but reading it invites the shiver of such fears. What is it about being scared that you think appeals to readers?
I think that fear is such a relatable experience. We’re all scared and we’ve all been scared and we will all be scared in the future. Being frightened tends to hijack the brain and bring out a raw, primal response, and I think that experiencing this primal fear in a place of safety is a thrilling and often seductive feeling. We don’t have higher concerns in the moment of terror; we’re just focused on survival. That feeling can be wonderfully freeing.I wanted to write about a lot of different kinds of fear in this story—will I survive, are my family alive, what if I’m bitten, what if I can’t find a car, what if I can’t find hormones? What if my body is changed again? We see one or two queer characters in shows such as The Walking Dead, but no trans characters (to the best of my knowledge). It seems completely unrealistic to me that we wouldn’t see more trans survivors, or disabled folks, or people with depression and anxiety, or with skills and resilience developed due to living in poverty. These are the stories that I’m interested in exploring. It was a wonderful and horrible character moment when we see Carol from The Walking Dead fixing a dislocated shoulder because she’s had to do it for herself after being abused by her partner.
In “Don’t Pack Hope” I wanted to explore how this particular trans character would cope with this extreme scenario. What would he find important to keep with him? What kind of bravery would he bring to this situation?
You wrote at length about your experience attending Clarion West in 2016 (I love the photo of the tattoos!). You mentioned that it took you six years to get into the program. What first sparked your interest in Clarion West? How do you feel your writing has changed since then?
Such a long road, but worth every step! I heard about Clarion UCSD and Clarion West in 2010, and applied from 2011 onward. I’d heard so many wonderful stories from friends who had attended, and I knew that I desperately wanted to go if I possibly could. I’ve met so many writers and editors and publishing folks on my journey to the workshop, and it has been an incredible experience. It turns out that it was simply my year to attend Clarion West in 2016 (shout out to my wonderful Team Arsenic family!) They’re an amazing bunch of people who write incredible (and frequently horrific) stories.
I can definitely see the improvement in the overall cohesion of my writing after attending Clarion West. I also think I’ve gotten better at figuring out what is needed to make a particular story work, to hold tight to the tone and to think more about the emotional undercurrents of the story. Honestly, I learned more things than I can even remember while I was at Clarion West, and I think I’ll be figuring out the advice I was given for a long time into the future.
It’s been said that writers bleed all over the page. How much of Emma Kate Osborne made it into this story?
Actually, this is the most personal story I’ve ever written. It’s set in Melbourne, where I’ve lived for sixteen years, and also references the Victorian countryside, where I grew up. There’s something really intimidating about setting a story in your home city—I have absolutely zero excuses if I get something wrong! It definitely feels intimate in terms of its location, and indeed because of the characters—I pulled fragments of my own family into the story to create them.
I’ve also been exploring my gender identity, so while I haven’t transitioned and don’t think that identifying as trans is quite for me (I am leaning toward non-binary as my gender identity) this story is a bit of a thought experiment in terms of gender. It’s a little terrifying to have something so deeply personal in the world, but I think it’s the most “me” thing I’ve ever written, and I’m proud to see it in Nightmare Magazine.
There are so many wonderful trans #ownvoices SFFH writers out there—I’d highly recommend checking out the work of Keffy Kehrli, K.M. Szpara, Susan Jane Bigelow, and Nicasio Andres Reed to name but a few.
Spread the word!