From the first paragraph “Dispatches From A Hole In The World” resonates with a loneliness that settles in the bones. How did you come to write this particular story?
It’s an incredibly personal story. It’s difficult for me to always be sure exactly where these things come from, but I do know that an enormous amount of it arose from the past couple of years in my graduate program, which have been very difficult and have left me feeling like I’m in a bit of a wilderness period where a lot of personal connections are fraying and the future is increasingly unclear. That’s been extremely anxiety-making, and I decided to try to get something of a handle on it by pumping it into fiction. I also have a tendency to vanish into large projects, especially emotionally powerful ones, and that can be disturbing. It felt right to deal with it here too.
The narrative voice reflects a character familiar with the ins and outs of academia, the daily grind of research and reporting. What experience do you have in the hallowed halls of higher education?
I’m a doctoral candidate going into my seventh year and I’m stalled at the dissertation phase—which, like I said above, has generated an enormous amount of anxiety. But there was a lot of anxiety prior to that, in terms of completing intensive coursework and training in research methods. Aside from that, graduate school can just be brutal in general. It can be and often is punishing both mentally and emotionally—sometimes also physically, if it makes it hard to take care of yourself—and I think there’s the seed of some very effective psychological horror hiding in that kind of ordeal. You can form deep relationships with the people who go through it with you, but it can also be frighteningly isolating at times.
The story hinges on the sense of immediacy that comes from social media. That sense of connection leads to a form of voyeurism where some would say that every aspect of our lives is laid bare for the world to see. What is it about the realities of social media that lend themselves so well to horror fiction?
I think a lot of it is what you’re saying—the question of what’s seen and not seen, who controls movement across the spectrum of private and public, who really is watching and what they want. But I think there are also questions of how we understand our own experience of reality and our place in it. What documentation and sharing actually do to our memories. There’s this dominant narrative—less dominant now, I think, and fortunately so—that lots and lots of sharing and documentation damage one’s ability to be fully present in the moment, or render that experience less legitimate in some way, but I think it’s worth considering what it actually does do. Whether there’s a kind of observer effect, where documentation of something literally changes that thing.
One of the things that’s most terrifying to me—and which I deal with somewhat for mental illness/cognitive disability reasons—is the idea that one’s own perceptions and memories are highly unreliable. I don’t mean in the sense that people often misremember details or miss things as they happen; I’m talking about wholesale manufacture of vivid experiences and an inability to tell the difference between the memory of an actual event and the memory of a dream. I wanted to write about that, and combining documentation of horrific things with it felt very natural.
To me, the real horror of this story is the very real comparison to the early years of the AIDS epidemic when everyone wanted to do something yet no one knew what. Men and women died by the thousands and the queer community rallied around its own even when the rest of the world would have preferred turning a blind eye. Such horrors influence our daily lives, often shaping the world around us. As a queer writer, what are your thoughts on how stories help us work through the fear of matters beyond our control?
I think writing about frightening things is a very primal way in which we cope with them; we’ve probably been telling horror stories since we first began telling stories at all. But for people who face oppression and marginalization and daily peril because of who they are, I think fiction is even more powerful, because telling stories is a form of resistance. Taking these things that seem overwhelming, that often seem too dominant to fight, and incorporating them into fictional worlds—even ones where endings aren’t necessarily happy and goodness doesn’t necessarily triumph—is a way of stepping beyond and even above these things. You can shrink them down to an approachable scale and understand them better, and that’s a claim to power. It might not change your day-to-day in a dramatic sense, but anything that helps you claw your way upward means so much.
And I love how it works for things both internal and external. Those of us who fall within oppressed categories of identity obviously deal with external threats, but those external threats cause enormous inner pain and turmoil, and fiction can help us grapple with those things, drag them outside ourselves, and face them down as the enemies they are. I think that’s incredibly valuable and important.
Queer writers such as Poppy Z. Brite, Vincent Varga, and Felice Picano are familiar names in the horror community, but the underrepresentation of queer writers in any form of genre fiction continues to be a concern. Many are afraid their works will be labeled for “gay audiences,” others worry that their work won’t be welcome in a time when markets loudly proclaim support of “diversity” yet don’t have the numbers to support their claims. If you could speak to young queer writers first setting a bloody pen nib to paper, what would you tell them about making their voices heard?
Just tell your stories. Tell them honestly and truly and don’t worry—in the moment—about who the audience is or how they’ll be marketed and sold, or what people will think. Writing with the door closed is such an old piece of writing advice that I think it’s almost cliché at this point, but it’s also true. If you let all the other stuff in, it’ll get between you and the things you need to be digging into in order to do good work.
And dig into the pain. I don’t think it’s useful to tell someone to be fearless, because fear is part of it; you have to go into the dark and ugly and painful things in your life with the fear, not in spite of it. When I decided I needed to write about the worst parts of my experience, I embraced all the negative feelings associated with them and did my best to harness them. I tried—as well as I could—to use the terror and the rage rather than attempting to get some kind of distance from it. That’s enormously hard, and I’m still learning how to do it, but especially when you’ve been through bad times because of who you are, dragging that terror and rage into the light and making art from it is, like I said above, resistance. And it’s powerful.
Being afraid of everything external to the work . . . That’ll hurt the work. I think what you’re describing is too often a reality and I think it needs to be fought, but the writing absolutely has to come first. And if you’re going to fight those things, great writing in your arsenal is probably one of the best weapons you can have.
Spread the word!