As the title suggests, “57 Reasons” has an unusual structure: it’s a story told by way of a list (and works brilliantly). Was this challenging?
Aw, thanks. As a reader and a writer, I approach unconventional structures with extreme caution, and perhaps a bit of prejudice. A formal conceit really needs to be earned, and I often find that quirky structures are there partially to distract from a story’s other deficits. But then I’ll find an amazing story that really could not be told any other way, and I’ll happily ditch my bias. My Clarion classmate, Carmen Maria Machado, used a similarly unconventional structure for her brilliant story “Inventory,” published in Strange Horizons, and it reminded me that you can use that kind of format to highlight what’s structured out of the story—in the case of “57 Reasons,” the way the narrator’s selfish and single-minded pursuit of revenge blinds him to the reality of the situation, and his own guilt and responsibility.
We don’t learn much about Anchal’s backstory, though she’s definitely a strong, sympathetic character. What were her motivations for wanting to carry out the revenge plot? Was she really the main character’s puppet, or did she have reasons of her own?
I love stories where the reader can see around the narrator’s limitations. Nick Carroway is such a flaming fuckwad—I can’t believe people can actually read The Great Gatsby without seeing that this is a story about how his cowardice and arrogance prevents him from forming meaningful relationships with people, and how his superiority complex helps destroy the lives of the people around him. So, of course Anchal does have reasons of her own, just like she has a life outside of Jared. But Jared only sees her as she reflects and relates to him. I can’t speak to her motivations—she might be coming from a place of love and support for Jared, or she might have shadiness of her own up her sleeve. As far as Jared knows, Anchal is idealized and selfless . . . until the ending, when he realizes how cataclysmically his selfishness has harmed her.
The POV character ends up concluding he’s no different from, and just as bad as, the boys he kills. Do you agree?
Yeah, he’s a jerk. But at least now he knows he’s a jerk. This is a story about how privilege warps people’s relationships, and can turn people into monsters. Jared’s special abilities are not in the end all that different from his white male privilege, and they combine to hurt the one person in this story who cares about him. Because they’re bullies, and he’s bullied, Jared believes the boys are automatically bad and he’s automatically good. Often, we’re so focused on how we’re different from people that we miss how similar we are. A lot of my gay brothers think that because we don’t desire or objectify women the way straight men do, that we’re somehow immune to misogyny and male privilege. That’s interesting to me, that kind of blind spot.
On your website you mention occasionally writing essays on topics that make you “really happy or really, really angry”—do you ever address these themes or issues in your fiction?
I’m a community organizer, and so I spend all day trying to convince people that a certain social problem is real, is wrong, needs to be fixed, and that someone—an elected official, a corporate executive, etc.—has the power to fix it. Fiction doesn’t work like that. Arguing a political point is a pretty good way to kill a story. But I do think it’s possible to explore in fiction the issues that are important to us. That’s the writing that excites me the most, and of course horror provides a robust toolkit for exploring what’s horrible about our world. But it’s a totally different mechanism from organizing and activism. In fiction, the goal isn’t to convince—it’s to bring an issue to life in a new and illuminating way, by rooting the issue in the experience of characters that readers can connect with emotionally. A story like Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History,” does that so well—presenting real-life issues of unspeakable horror in all their complexity, so that the reader walks away with no easy answers but a deeper understanding of things.
And I’m curious, what makes you really, really angry about horror movies?
I love horror movies. The same things anger me in horror movies that anger me in other artistic works. Violence against women used uncritically, to invoke an easy emotional response. Flaccid storytelling. Great set-ups that peter out into stale monsters, tired denouements, etc. Failure to really engage with some new aspect of the horror in this world—do we really need to see more rich kids get butchered on vacation? I want more Candyman-type horror films, stuff that springs from the horror that countless people deal with every day of their lives.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’m working on a YA novel about a teenage girl who can take people’s memories by touching them. Which instead of being super awesome, turns out to cause no end of horrible problems. Someone in my writer’s group said that “alienated loners with superpowers” are kind of my thing, and I think they’re right. Mostly that’s because I believe that being gay is a superpower. It gives me an insight into how the world really works, and how patriarchy harms us all . . . and maybe a slightly more sophisticated fashion sense and superhuman ability to remember facts about Bette Davis and Donna Summer. Of course, it also got me beat up all the time in high school, and the homophobia I internalized in those years caused me no end of emotional problems and made me a colossal dick to lots of wonderful people. But that’s what superpowers are really like, and why I love the X-Men and Octavia Butler so much—there’s this gritty realism to their superpowers, an acknowledgment of the fact that coming of age with superhuman abilities in a world that’s so viciously hostile to difference would totally damage you, and you’d be more likely to emerge emotionally crippled and angry at the world than strong and noble and committed to helping people.
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