What was the genesis of “Angel, Monster, Man”?
Reading gay fiction of the 1980s, one is struck by the sheer staggering volume of young, fresh, powerful, innovative, incredible artists whose voices were silenced by HIV/AIDS before they’d had a chance to change the world like they clearly would have. And not just writers—the editors, agents, critics, audiences who supported and built these voices . . . it’s hard not to come away feeling like fiction was in the middle of a real revolution in terms of storytelling and voice and content and attitude, which was strangled in its crib by a deadly disease and a toxic, homophobic patriarchy. But I started thinking: what could have happened, if all that rage and talent and fire hadn’t been snuffed out? What if it came to life and changed everything? All the powerful words that went unwritten, or were written and lost because there was no one left to get them out into the world—what if they all added up to something real—and terrifying? One weekend I was out on Cape Cod with my family, and it was a chilly October and we spent so many hot summers there, and my father was dying of cancer, and I happened to find a copy of Michael Klein and Richard McCann’s amazing anthology of poetry from writers lost to HIV/AIDS, Things Shaped in Passing, and it was clear to all of us that this would be my father’s last vacation, and my anger and sadness at the fact of human mortality crystallized a lot of scattered story atoms. David Groff and Philip Clark’s anthology Persistent Voices was also hugely important, besides being simply magnificent collections of poetry.
I found it hard to grapple with “Angel, Monster, Man”, because its alternate history of ACT-UP and radical queer groups gives them a reign of terror that culminates in positive results and joy, even while people are dying, being killed, and immolating themselves, and Tom Minniq terrorizes our protagonists. I didn’t know who to root for. Where would you place the true horror of the story?
Ah, well, spoiler alert for everything I’ve ever written, the real horror is pretty much always in the systems of oppression that undergird human society, and the people who benefit from and perpetuate those systems. So I wouldn’t place the horror of the story with the folks who are fighting for their lives against a system that is causing them to die by the tens of thousands. I personally believe in nonviolence, but I also think that in situations where people are the victims of horrific, constant violence, even the violence of benign neglect, any liberation tactics that they deem necessary are valid.
The end of the story suggests a new cycle of violence is about to begin. Can we never be rid of Tom Minniq once we create him?
Violence begets violence, of course, and the cycle of oppression and resistance will never balance out completely. We’ll always have to live with the consequences of what we’ve done, and what our predecessors did, and so will tons of other people we’ll never meet. But monsters evolve and shift and transform, and die, to be replaced by different monsters—solving a social problem often leads to totally new ones. But I believe the bottom line is that it’s our job as humans to fight monsters—with the full knowledge that our understanding of monstrosity will always be imperfect and limited.
What are you working on these days? Any upcoming publications readers should watch out for?
Well, I’m glad you asked! I recently sold my first novel, The Art of Starving, to HarperCollins! It’s young adult SF, due out in early 2017, about a small-town gay boy with an eating disorder who believes that starving himself awakens latent abilities to read minds, predict behavior, and control the fabric of time and space. So, yes, please, watch out for that! And the assorted occasional short story and reading . . . for all the updates, check me out at my website—samjmiller.com—and on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.
If you could be any horrific figure from history, who would you be?
“Horrific” is such a subjective assessment! One person’s hero is another’s villain. One man’s monster is another man’s angel. What did the British think of Gandhi? What do the Chinese authorities say about the Dalai Lama now? I’m most fascinated by regular people who had no structural power, yet lashed out against atrocity in ways that galvanized large-scale change, like Nat Turner or John Brown . . . as well as powerful people who went up against an entrenched status quo to make positive change, like Ivan the Terrible, who resorted to extreme cruelty to dismantle a corrupt and treasonous feudal nobility. Genghis Khan is often painted as a villain, yet he established freedom of religion, banned torture and slavery and the pillage of conquered cities, and abolished aristocratic privilege. But in the end, I don’t think I could be anyone other than me. I think I’d be terrible at it.
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