The use of second person in “Negative Space” drops the reader right into the tension between connection and alienation—while the narrator weighs the same discomfort. Was this a calculated or intuitive choice for you? How can you tell when the voice is or isn’t working?
I love how second person creates an atmosphere of clinical detachment, a numbing, chilly distance between story and reader. Readers are constantly being told that they are this character doing, thinking, and feeling these things, when they know damn well they aren’t. This creates a cognitive dissonance that I find suits weird horror quite well. If a story I’m writing deals with distance or alienation of some kind, I might decide to use second person right from the beginning. Other times I’ll choose it intuitively. Certain stories just feel like second person stories to me. Other times, I’ll start in third person, and if that doesn’t feel right, I’ll switch to first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll try second. In general, editors and readers don’t take well to second person, otherwise I’d write a lot more stories in that voice. When I use second person, the writing flows out of me like water. Because of this, second person is my secret weapon for when I’m stuck on a story.
It’s become something of a meme that men write women in terms of their bodies first and selves second (if at all), and I can see elements here that might be interpreted that way. Similarly, the narrator seems contemptuous of the deceased character for mistrusting queerness, but then presents his wife’s moments of queerness as one of many surreal horrors. Do the sexual images point to distinct fears, or reiterate established ones? What would the ideal reader glean from those scenes?
The story is about a self-absorbed man who feels that he’s not only useless, but unnecessary, that maybe he never was necessary. Part of that is because he’s aging, but a bigger part is due to male fragility. He believes he should be more important than he is because men are supposed to be important (or so his culture has taught him from birth). But neither of the women in the story need him, and neither do any of the children. The reason the women become sexually involved is to further demonstrate that he—and by extension, his entire gender—is unnecessary. I never intended for queerness itself to be viewed as a horror. The horror is the main character’s redundancy as spouse, a man, a human being. That said, after rereading the story, I can see how someone might interpret the character’s reaction to his wife and the widow forming a sexual relationship as a fear of queerness, and that could point to the character maybe not being so firm in his liberal beliefs—or his sexuality—as he thinks he is. Or perhaps it points again to the fragility of cishet men of a certain age who are confused and frightened as the world is changing around them.
Another way to show the main character’s self-centeredness was to have him think of the two women in terms of their outward appearance first in the story. Part of that shallowness is because he’s a stereotypical male-gaze kind of guy, but it’s also because he has trouble seeing past people’s surfaces in general—seeing what’s behind the screen, you could say.
With regard to your tie-in work, what makes you decide to take on a project? What would make you turn one down?
If a project sounds like it will be fun, I’ll take it on. Maybe it deals with a property I’ve enjoyed previously, a television or film series I’d love to play with. Or maybe it’s in a genre that I haven’t written in before, like military adventure, and I think I’ll enjoy the challenge and learn something from writing the book. Sometimes it’s because I have a gap in my writing schedule, and I have some time before I need to start working on my next original novel, and a tie-in project fills in the gap nicely. Sometimes it’s a matter of money. The majority of my horror/dark fantasy is published by small-press houses. The stuff I write is usually too weird for larger publishers, but small-press publishers don’t have tons of cash to throw around, and while tie-novels don’t pay a princely sum, I can make a larger advance—often quite a bit more—than I can by writing an original small-press novel. I have a day job as a full-time, tenured writing professor, but when unexpected expenses occur, such as one of my dachshunds needing back surgery, a little extra money really helps.
In your experience of working with different IPs, what’s the difference between a good collaborator and a great one?
When you write tie-ins, you work not only with an editor at a publishing house, but also whoever is in charge of managing products that tie into the IP, such as books, toys, games, action figures etc. So you have to please two masters, with the IP holder’s representative having the final say on the final product. In a way, you also collaborate with all the other creators involved in the IP—writers, directors, actors. You don’t work with them directly, but what they’ve done informs your writing. Good editors work with you on the book concept and outline so that they’ll match what the IP holder is looking for. Some editors are more collaborative than others. Some work only with what you give them, while others help shape the story and characters during the development of the outline. I really enjoy working with more collaborative editors because I find the back-and-forth stimulating, and the books that result are always better because of that process.
What can we look forward to next from you?
My next novel for Flame Tree Press, We Will Rise, should be out early next year. I’ll have a follow-up to my how-to-write horror book Writing in the Dark, called The Writing in the Dark Workbook, and it should be out around the same time. I’ll also have a film novelization out in the fall. The movie’s release was delayed a year due to Covid, and I haven’t yet been given the go-ahead by the publisher to announce that I wrote it. I had a blast writing it, though, and I can’t wait for people to read it! I’ve also finished another novel for Flame Tree, A Hunter Called Night, but I’m not sure when it’ll be out. Sometime in 2022 is my guess.
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