Maybe it’s just me, but there’s an air of wish fulfillment to “Dear Owner”—it’s a letter to all the insensitive people in the world who ignore or help create the daily horrors we deal with. What inspired you to write this piece?
The term “wish fulfillment” makes me laugh, but I guess it’s true, in a way. I’ve been living in crowded places for years now, and after a while it really begins to wear you down. There’s always at least one person nearby—usually several people—who probably don’t really mean to be assholes, but they don’t care enough to be considerate, either. They have this casual entitlement, like they’re approaching the world with this mindset of “Yeah? Who’s gonna stop me?” By now I’ve had all the awful neighbors: the drunken brawlers, the meth-head partiers, the neglectful pet-owners, the hallway smokers. They do whatever they feel like doing, which makes everyone around them a little bit more miserable than they would be otherwise. It makes me want to move to the woods.
Anyway, “Dear Owner” was in fact inspired by real life, as I personally spent several months being rudely awakened at 4:30 a.m. by an inconsiderate engine-revver parked outside my bedroom window. (As I later discovered from some neighbors, said engine-revver was not just disturbing me, but everyone in my twelve-unit building. Like you said: daily horrors.) I’m typically an extremely even-tempered person. But rouse me from a peaceful slumber and I’m instantaneously filled with murderous rage. Like just complete, irrational, crazy-person rage, with an added dose of total despair. I also have sporadic bouts of insomnia, which makes it worse, because it can be hours before I fell back asleep. So what better way to occupy the restless tortured hours than with elaborate fantasies of revenge?
In real life, my problem was eventually resolved with a several polite yet persistent phone calls. But real life is boring.
I Googled the 1972 Ford Crew Cab Pickup . . . That is an interesting-looking vehicle. It seems to be shorthand to understanding the owner’s personality and behavior, from the protagonist’s viewpoint. Does that truck have any special significance?
It was important for me to distinguish the fact that this vehicle is being driven by choice. It’s antique, it’s iconic, and it’s not at all practical—neither easy to drive nor easy to maintain. For the owner of the truck, it’s a statement of identity, something he takes pride in. Not just a vehicle, but a precious possession and a weekend hobby too.
For me this is an important aspect of the story, because it presumes a lot more intentionality on his part—it gives him more power in the situation. If, for instance, he was driving a beat-up 1988 Honda Accord, held together with string and duct tape, this situation would have much different subtext. We’d think maybe he detests this coughing, sputtering, backfiring, exhaust-spewing vehicle as much as anyone else, he just can’t afford anything better. So he’d be infinitely more sympathetic, at least to me. Instead, it’s clear that for whatever reason, he chooses to drive this vehicle. Maybe it’s, like, this macho posturing; a purposeful way of taking up more space than he deserves. Like lavaballing, but on the road.
And it had to be a crew cab, or the final act of the story wouldn’t work. So that narrowed down the options considerably, as crew cabs don’t seem to be as common in older trucks as they might be today.
Finally, there’s just something quintessential about Fords.
Some of the most intriguing aspects of “Dear Owner” are that it has two victims, and the ultimate revenge and empowerment of the protagonist is to make her tormentor as powerless as she is. There’s no doubt that the owner of the pickup truck is guilty, but I found myself wondering about his story. As the author, did you imagine this story from his perspective? What’s his seemingly aimless life like?
Yes, I did. The point where I really began to sympathize with him came when we see his house: small, shabby, unkempt, the driveway overgrown with weeds. Suddenly I saw him—really saw him—and I felt nothing but compassion. Because I know how it feels to be depressed, and lost, and poor, where every day feels like an immense fucking struggle and it’s all you can do to get out of bed, put one foot in front of the other, keep moving forward. The story suggests that he’s drinking on the job, driving home drunk—which makes him less sympathetic in some ways, but at the same time I see someone who is just at the end of his rope. He doesn’t really care about anything, not even himself. The protagonist just wants some courtesy, but perhaps that’s too much to ask from someone who’s overwhelmed by his own daily struggle to survive.
And then all the little things that she does to fuck with him: these are just additional annoyances in a life that’s already practically unbearable. He’s used to bad luck, unexpected misfortunes, bad customers, unpaid bills. These are things he’s given up fighting. To me, the ending is almost a foregone conclusion, because both of them—but him, just as much as her—have been drowning for a long time already.
By the end of the story, my sympathy is almost completely with him. The protagonist sets up a test expecting him to fail. In her self-absorption and self-pity, she never even tries to really talk to him face to face. There’s also a strong element of classism and superiority in the way she views him; she thinks his lack of concern demonstrates contempt for her, and maybe it does, but she has always viewed him with contempt herself. She assumes he’s completely insensitive, but maybe he’s just drowning in his own pain. Maybe, even, he’s lost someone, too.
There’s a saying that goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” If either character had taken this idea to heart, the story would have turned out much differently.
The ending of “Dear Owner” is done masterfully—a surprise that both feels inevitable and packs a punch. How did this story develop from concept to its final version? What’s your writing process?
I’d been trying to figure out how to write an epistolary horror story for a year at least. I still have another idea that I can’t quite make work, but one day I will. Anyway, I think it was my unsuccessful scrapping with that idea that gave me the inspiration for this one; the approach and the concept just kind of came together. This story, like most of my short stories, was a vague idea that really happened in the writing; there were very few changes from the initial to final drafts.
At first, I was thinking about it as a sort of series of letters, whether answered or unanswered, escalating in tone and urgency. But then I decided that would perhaps become too repetitive and tedious, and it would be better to just write one long letter, referencing earlier ones. This approach made it a little easier to shape the narrative, I think.
One of my main preoccupations in my work has always been ambiguity—challenging my own original perception of the story without fully dismantling it, and constructing endings that can be read in more ways than one. This story was no exception. My goal was to create a character (the letter-writer) who is initially sympathetic, but whose behavior becomes more and more disturbing, until the reader is no longer sure where their sympathies should lie, who is the antagonist and who is the victim.
By the final sentences, this becomes a horror story from the perspective of the villain, a deranged killer who inflicts extreme violence in response to a relatively small perceived slight. But even villains are the heroes of their own stories. I think it’s always important to remember that.
What work do you have out now or forthcoming, and what are you writing now?
I am very excited about The Steampunk User’s Manual, forthcoming from Abrams Image in October. It’s a combination art book and how-to guide that I coauthored with Jeff VanderMeer (and a follow-up to The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers).
I am also super-psyched for The End is Now, the next volume in The Apocalypse Triptych, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. The End is Now will include the next installment to “Heaven is a Place on Planet X,” my contribution to The End is Nigh (and which you can read for free at Wired.com). In other news, another short story titled “The Witch and the Wolves” is forthcoming from Triptych Tales sometime this year, and Drabblecast will be producing an audio version of my recent Kaleidotrope story, “Tree, Fire, World.”
As to what I’m working on now, I’m plugging away at two novels. One is young adult science fiction (my four-word pitch is “1984 meets The Thing,” but I’m a bit worried because no one really seems to know what that means). The other is a kind of psychological horror story after the American Gothic tradition.
Spread the word!