What were some of the sources of inspiration that went into this?
I was thinking about the way ghosts are often sound-based, and what might be different if the person who died hadn’t spoken in life. I speak American Sign Language, and I love the iconic, evocative nature of the language. I wanted to give it to a ghost, and started to think about how. At the same time, one of my roommates put in a video doorbell, and the fact that it recognized faces really scared me. It all came together at once the day it told me I was at the door when I was sitting in my living room. Eeriest feeling; like I was haunting myself.
Technological advances seem to inspire a lot of alarmist fiction—which frequently veers into ableist territory when it ignores the adaptive functions of those advances. But the smart home appliances in this story are supportive and useful, and intersect directly with the day-to-day existence of disabled characters. Is it safe to say this was deliberate?
Absolutely deliberate, yes. I had a crush on a girl who lived next door to me as a kid, and her mother was Deaf. She had a few earlier forms of adaptive tech; an alarm clock that vibrated her bed-frame, and a flashing light connected to her doorbell. I was fascinated by them, and loved the ingenuity it took to rig things like that where a mass-market solution didn’t readily exist. Since then, I’ve seen my friends with disabilities and illnesses reap the benefits of being able to answer the door without getting out of bed, or make adjustments to lights and temperature settings by calling out to the hub or tapping the app on their phones. I find alarmist fiction about adaptive devices predictable and boring, and I was so inspired by the reverse “A Quiet Place” pulled on that. So I’ve been looking for ways to make the technology a tool again, instead of a lazy choice for a villain.
What struck me about this story was how it plays in the space between (admittedly, very, very near-future) science fiction and fantasy. What’re your thoughts on technology’s potential to mesh with the supernatural in this way?
I’ve never been able to separate the two. I was that kid who pretended they had The Force when the automatic doors at the grocery store whooshed open. I remember the first time I drove a car with a digital radio and the readout told me I was listening to Fleetwood Mac. It didn’t occur to me at first that that information was encoded; I thought someone somehow knew. There’s the old chestnut about sufficient advancement and magic, but it lines up very neatly in the mind of a child for whom magic is not yet an impossibility. Though I know the difference now, I never quite lost the sense that the world is an enchanted place. I’m willing to look for pattern where there might not be one, to accept that technology can bring me oracles and ghosts, and that radiomancy is as good an augury as anything that ever bled.
I get the sense that ending the story where you did—right before the presumed promise of onscreen violence—was also a very deliberate authorial choice. What went into that decision?
I grow weary of gore. I don’t know if it’s the byproduct of aging or just the terrible times in which we live, but I find that my appetite for it is all but gone. I am not afraid of the body; I follow pathologists on Instagram and I’ve attended a good number of births. I’m just done with up-close brutality for its own sake, in my works and in the works I take in. This is not to say I don’t enjoy violence; I still do, and often find it can be funny and compelling and important to the narrative. But I don’t need to see the cropped, crowded view of blunt force trauma to the head ever again. I’ve gotten enough.
On that subject, this would have been a very different story if Annie hadn’t been surrounded by supportive, chosen family/community. I find this particularly interesting, given how much horror literature depends on isolating the protagonist. Why did you decide to go the other way with this one?
I wanted to do the opposite of the final girl. Every woman in horror is Cassandra; nobody believes her even though she is right, and then she faces death alone. I wanted to situate a horror protagonist in the circumstances I think I’d face in my life. I have a supportive network of queer friends and confidantes and they would believe me, even if my truth was hard to swallow. If I had to make a stand, they’d stand with me. I want the final girl to have comrades. And I always want to write about the kind of people I know; people who share a house and a heart with a lot of folks, and make space for each other to be different and have unusual needs. I never could relate to a ghost story where a nuclear family buys a nice house and then tries to gaslight each other into pretending everything is fine. I’ve never lived there.
What’s next for Meg Elison? Any cool upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I’ve got a collection forthcoming from PM Press in the spring that includes some of my published short work, plus a brand-new novella. And my first young adult novel about growing up with a parent you can’t trust and dynamiting your life to stay free will be out in the fall. It’s called Find Layla, it’s with Skyscape, and it’s based in part on my own experience as a young teen.
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