More interviewing fun, this time courtesy of friend and fellow writer Chris Lynch, with whom I had the great experience of co-writing the story “This is My Blood,” published in Dreaming Again.
1. What are three of your creative keystones — books or experiences from your childhood that had a big impact on you as a person and writer?
1 – When I was a kid, my brother and I used to play a lot of “dramatic” play. Batman and Robin, Legos, matchbox cars, stuffed animals. In the damp basement of our house, we created and destroyed civilizations, staged wars that raged for generations. We fed off each other in that way that kids do, talking through the game as we enacted it. “So now, this car, he’s using his superpower, making hundreds of little tiny force fields to change the currents of the water and make a tidal wave.” “Yeah, and Limousine, he’s all like, ‘Why this is terrible, my wax job is simply going to be ruined.'” etc. I suspect that early play helped assure that I’d develop a healthy (?) sense of imagination.
2- My first semester at college, I nearly hyperventilated the first time I went to a meeting of the campus LGBT support group. Once I managed to get in the door I was overwhelmed by what I saw – women with butch haircuts, guys making feminine gestures, piercings and dyed hair everywhere. It all felt so marginal, so freakish, so gay. And then I felt terrified that I might be part of this, that I might be one of these freakish people, that all those taunts of “faggot” had turned out to be true. A few months later I’d pierced both my ears and dyed my hair red.
That’s really just one moment that’s emblematic of a whole bunch of experiences, when the ideas of “me” and “us” and “them” are not so certain, and the world is full of terrors and possibilities.
3- A few years ago I was mostly reading and writing science fiction, and it just wasn’t working for me. I had moments of writing good stuff, but I don’t think I’d really written a successful story yet. Then I started reading slipstream/surrealist writers like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, and I felt this intense sense of familiarity. I didn’t exactly think, “I can do this” – because who can do what Link and Bender do? But it opened my mind up to another way of writing, driven less by plot and more by metaphor, moment, and voice. It felt very liberating, letting my writing go in that direction.
2. Imagine you’re writing a thesis proposal. What’s your thesis topic?
Is it cheating if I tell you the thesis I already wrote? “God and Human Suffering in Puerto Rican Literature” was my college thesis in comparative literature, because, you know, I never go for the grandiose.
3. You sometimes worry that your stories are light and upbeat — though I think too few do it well, and nothing beats a well-earned happy ending. But in any case, you’ve expressed a desire to torture your characters a bit more. Most of your stories explore identity in some way, so creating identity out of a struggle with darkness makes a lot of sense. But I wonder what darkness you think lies within identity. Have you ever explored, or considered exploring, identity through an anti-hero?
There’s definitely a dark side connected to identity issues, which came out a bit in the question above. Any time you have an “us,” you also have a “them,” which means exclusion and marginalization and oppression and all the other nasty things we humans seem to do to each other. And it means loneliness. I often do try to get at those things in my stories, but I often come at it sideways instead of head-on. Partly that’s because if you come at a big issue sideways, it’s easier to do it in a subtle and more original way, and partly it’s also probably because at some level I’m intimidated by the challenge of capturing emotions that are so powerful, intense, and often dark. It’s something I’ve been pushing myself to do more of.
The anti-hero idea is interesting. My characters almost always have feet of clay, but they usually have enough redeeming qualities that they’re clearly not anti-heroes. Something else I’d like to try out.
4. Can you name a writer or book you love to hate? Someone who gets under your skin and really annoys you, but who you can’t stop reading. Why do you like and dislike them?
I have a love/hate relationship with Robert Heinlein. I read Stranger in a Strange Land as a teenager and loved it, sort of took on grokking as an essential part of my life philosopy for a while. Now I look back at it and I’m mostly embarassed that at 14 I didn’t notice the novel’s intense sexism. More recently, I read Starship Troopers, which is basically a long political diatribe I almost completely disagree with, with virtually none of the elements of a good story, and yet I couldn’t put it down. I think it’s Heinlein’s ability to raise the stakes that keeps me coming back for me, even when he’s making me throw things at the wall.
5. What’s a marginalised group you’d like to see more stories from and about?
I’d like to see more stories from/about pretty much any marginalized group, but lately I’ve really craved more good stories featuring Muslim characters. In a lot of Western media, portrayals of Islam often focus on fundamentalism and terrorism – which is so narrow, so damaging. My partner is Muslim, and through him I’ve had the chance to see Islam in a much different light. Islamic traditions have some wonderfully magical and even whimsical elements, great material for stories.