The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘queer

My writing community and life became infinitely richer when in 2015, on the suggestion of a writer friend, I attended illogicon, a local sci-fi convention. Michael G. Williams was one of the featured panelists that year (and many years since). Michael was just being himself on those panels and he probably didn’t know he was inspiring a lot of us in the audience with his candor, humor and deep knowledge of the genre. I was also inspired by the fact that he writes across several genres. He’s kind and encouraging of new writers. He’s also a vocal and visible advocate of diversity in gaming, geekdom, and speculative fiction and media. Fast forward many years later, I feel lucky to have appeared on several panels with him.

His recent book A Fall in Autumn is one of my favorite books that I have read this year. It’s sci-fi noir and unlike anything I have read before. The world-building is amazingly complex and I really loved the voice of Valerius Bakhoum, the main character. You can read a sample chapter here.

Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & NailDeal with the DevilAttempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery with stories of outcasts and loners finding their people.

I wanted to hear more about the influences that helped shape his writing. I’m so delighted to welcome Michael G. Williams to The Practice of Creativity.

-Tell us about your new book, A Fall in Autumn? What’s in store for readers?

A Fall in Autumn is a far-future science fiction detective story about Valerius Bakhoum, a washed-up private eye taking what he expects will be his last case. It’s got the voice of a hard-boiled detective story but the setting and characters of the more fanciful end of science fiction: human-animal hybrids, genetically modified people, and golems (which we would call androids).

It’s set far enough in the future – 12,000 years from now – that from Valerius’ perspective you and I are living in Atlantis. They know that people were alive in our time, and they know there are stories of a highly advanced society, and they know there are stories of that phase of human civilization completely wrecking the planet and destroying itself in its hubris, but Valerius and his contemporaries aren’t totally sure any of that is actually true.

At the time of the story, humanity’s technological forte is genetic manipulation and genetic engineering. In theory, the Vrashabh Empire – the dominant political entity, and the nation of which Valerius is a citizen – is a completely egalitarian society, in which all citizens are equal. In practice, the 25% of the population who are what Valerius calls “floor models,” designed from scratch or upgraded or otherwise genetically enhanced, are the ruling elite. The rest of humanity is overwhelmingly human-animal hybrids purpose-built for various roles in the economy, from manual labor to specific “white collar” jobs. There’s a very thin slice, maybe one percent of one percent, socially situated in the middle. These are Artisanal Humans, people who were made the old-fashioned way by people who are likewise unmodified. They’re considered a sort of “backup copy” of the human genome, and are supposed to live in genetic preserves where they have fewer exposures to environmental mutagens. Valerius is one of the Artisanal Humans, and so finds himself simultaneously fetishized as admirably pure and reviled as a grotesque throwback.

-What did you like to read growing up and/or as a young adult and are there any of those influences in your work?

I read boatloads of mysteries, horror, and science fiction, and those are definitely influences on what I write now!

My household had a ton of the yellow-bound Nancy Drew novels, and I really envied her lifestyle. She had her own car, an absentee parent, and a couple of friends to get into trouble with her. Who needs more than that? Dracula was one of my favorite books of childhood for the same reason: this deeply personal tale of a group of friends and lovers overcoming evil by trusting in one another and fighting bravely for one another despite the world’s refusal to believe what they’re experiencing? That seemed like exactly what I needed as a gay kid in the middle of nowhere.

I read classic sci-fi, tie-in novels for Star Trek by the wheelbarrow-load, Stephen King, and anything else I could find. But I also read a lot of classic literature, and Wuthering Heights remains one of my favorite books of all time. Given where and when I grew up, and how I grew up – specifically, being raised by evangelicals in isolation from a lot of pop culture – I wanted every book I could beg, borrow, or steal, and I read constantly.

-Much of your published work employs vivid first person narration. What draws you to use that point of view?

I love to get inside a character’s head and really unpack what makes them tick. For me, as a writer, nothing is more interesting and more motivating than the chance to sit with a character’s take on the world and learn their strengths, their weaknesses, the scars they bear from past wounds, and the secret wells of principle within them. Good characters constantly surprise us, and I want to give the perspective character the maximum opportunity to effect that surprise. With Valerius, the more of him I wrote the more complexity I find in his perspectives and attitudes. The story would not have been the same from a third-person perspective. It would have been significantly weaker.

Compelling stories are driven by characters making choices we can fully understand. That’s what drives both the horrifying inevitability of tragedy and the cathartic triumph of a hero overcoming her foes to claim victory. Learning a character inside and out is a great way to build our skills for empathy, too, and I think increasing empathy may be the only way we have to prevent the social, economic, and political downfall that destroyed our world in the fictitious history of Valerius’ future.

-While reading A Fall in Autumn one can’t help but ruminate on questions of memory, identity and personhood. Have you tackled these or similar concepts in your other work, or is this fresh territory for you?

Every single one of us struggles with the tension between how others see us and how we see ourselves. Ultimately, that’s at the root of every conflict between two people: a parent and their rebellious teen, two co-workers who both think they should be in charge, two spouses who disagree with how one or the other spent their money or their time, and so on. I think the only truly universal experience is of finding out someone else does not see us the way we see ourselves. And that’s certainly been at the heart of the greatest struggles of my personal life. I grew up gay in a remote mountain town, surrounded by people whose sets of acceptable outcomes for my life turned out to have almost no overlap with who I actually was. Who I am today is partly who I actually am and partly a reaction to others’ prejudiced demands and incorrect assumptions about me – and that’s true for everyone. I call A Fall in Autumn “queer sci fi” in part because Valerius is an explicitly queer character and in part because it’s a story about the power of identity to drive who we are, and how others see us, and the way a conscious examination of our own identity may close off certain paths for our life but it opens up other ones, new futures in which we get to be much more honest, much more authentic. That, more than anything, is the modern queer experience: that of people discovering who we are and choosing to lead lives that honor our self-revelation rather than obscure it.

My now-completed vampire series The Withrow Chronicles (which starts with Perishables) absolutely centered around those, as Withrow found himself over and over again confronting the difference between who he thought himself to be, who others thought him to be, and who he needed to become to survive that story. Throughout those books Withrow repeatedly assures us – in the course of trying to assure himself – that he’s a monster now, not a person, and that “person rules” don’t apply. Even in my urban fantasy series SERVANT/SOVEREIGN (which starts with Through the Doors of Oblivion), the heroes’ biggest personal questions are around how they are perceived by others versus how they perceive themselves, and what that says about how much they value the people and places they’re trying to save.

The same is very true of Valerius, who is constantly running into other people’s conflicting ideas of who he should be, how he should behave, and what’s “acceptable” for him. He occupies a place in society that some consider privileged and others consider reprehensible, and I really wanted to play with what it does to a person to get it from both sides like that. I think in many ways that’s very typical of the current queer experience, in which straight people watch RuPaul’s Drag Race in sports bars and right-wing politicians write dehumanizing laws intended to keep us marginalized and afraid.

-What is one area of craft that you knew you were weak in (or just OK), when you started writing that you rock now? How did you get there?

Different characters having different voices, probably. No, wait: real emotional depth in the characters’ perspectives and experiences.

No, scratch that, planning and editing.

No, wait, can I just list myself as being weak in everything? I’m not yet convinced I rock any of them. 🙂

(But seriously, I think I used to really stink at giving different characters their own voices and now I’m at least OK at it.)

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Don’t worry about genre. Don’t think about where the book would be shelved in a bookstore or what categories it would have on Amazon. Those are important, sure, sort of, but they’re not as important as writing a story that makes you excited to tell it. It doesn’t matter what your book is about as long as you’re enthusiastic when you try to pitch it to others. If you have an idea that you love, and you think it might blend things together too much or be too “all over the place,” guess what: readers love that. Readers want to see an explosion of big ideas. Readers want you to lean in close and give them the elevator pitch of their lives: gay werewolves in space! Gothic romance but no one realizes everyone else is a secret vampire, too! Friday Night Lights but also they’re hedge wizards! I have had people walk away from my books because they were cross-genre, yes, but I’ve had many more drawn to my books because mixing things up and blending things together leads to the exceptionally pleasant experience of novelty.

Michael G. Williams is a prolific and award-winner writer. He writes novels across multiple genres and likes to subvert and mashup genres from time to time.

Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.

Find out more about him here.

 

How do we best preserve and study the record of lives lived outside and beyond the limits of the conventional? How do we document third wave feminist and queer activists’ work that is taking place in multiple mediums and often without a paper trail or through a specific organization? As someone who researches and teaches about second and third wave feminist movements, I believe these are important questions. Thankfully, Kelly Wooten has been thinking about the thorny challenges and advantages of researching, documenting and archiving contemporary activists in feminist and queer movements.

Kelly Wooten is the Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, as well as being Librarian for Sexuality Studies for Perkins Library at Duke University. She’s also a graduate of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill where I work. Her new book explores various perspectives on archiving traditional paper-based sources as well as blogs and social media, zines, and other kinds of material artifacts (e.g. tapes, CDs, protest posters, etc.,). I wanted to find out how Kelly approached writing this unique book that creatively brings together activists, archivists, librarians and scholars.

-Tell us about your new co-edited book, Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century. What brought you to writing this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?

I started thinking about this book three years ago in 2009 when Emily Drabinski, the editor for the Litwin Books Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, emailed me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in writing a book about zines after being referred to me by Jenna Freedman, the zine librarian at Barnard. My initial reaction was no, thanks, but then I realized this was a great opportunity to further explore some questions I had been asking about how to document the modern feminist movement beyond zines. Once we started exploring this topic, we realized it was hard to address without including pieces about queer activism and second wave feminism due to the intersectionality and fluid nature of feminism. I hope this book will highlight the Bingham Center’s leadership in documenting the modern feminist movement, but also share the other work being done at other institutions and encourage other archivists and activists to participate in this process since these movements are far too big for just a handful of archives to document.

-How did you find your contributors?

I started by recruiting my co-editor, Lyz Bly, a former Mary Lily Travel Grant recipient who had used the Bingham Center’s zine collections in her research for her dissertation, because I wanted a scholarly perspective to balance my librarian viewpoint. We decided to have a selective call for proposals, and ultimately five of the other contributors had direct connections to the Bingham Center including a former intern Angela DiVeglia, two other Mary Lily Travel Grant recipients: Alison Piepmeier and Kate Eicchorn, zine donor Sarah Dyer, and Alexis Gumbs, a Duke alum and frequent Bingham Center collaborator. The other contributors are part of a network of library colleagues, academics and activists that I’ve been privileged to connect with over the past few years and others who got drawn in through these connections.

-How did you get interested in girls’ studies, and zines made by women and girls?

I’ve always identified as feminist and have been interested in empowerment of women and girls, especially through self-expression, at least since college if not earlier. I wrote a zine in high school (I think we made 10 copies total and maybe 3 people read it), so when I found out about the Bingham Center and their acquisition of the Sarah Dyer Zine Collection while I was in library school, I knew I wanted to get involved. I made the zine collection the topic of a term paper, and later my master’s paper, and I was able to conduct a field experience with the Bingham Center (unpaid internship for course credit) that included curating an exhibit and bibliography about their girls’ literature collection, called “Beyond Nancy Drew.” So those topics were my first point of entry and exploration into the collections here, and when I became a staff member in 2006, I was able to capitalize on my experience and interest in those areas. Girls’ Studies has an inherent component of activism beyond just academic research—this requirement of involvement with a community really appeals to me, and I’ve been able to put this into practice through volunteering to teach zine workshops for Girls’ Rock NC summer camps over the past 6 years.

-What did you learn about the writing process that you didn’t know before you started working on your book?

The biggest thing I learned is that it’s probably not any easier to edit a book than to just write one yourself, but working with this diverse community of writers was rewarding and inspiring and I’m really glad to see it finally in print.

-You graduated with a dual major in English Literature and women’s studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. You know one of my favorite topics is hearing how people take their training in women’s studies and use it after graduation. How have you used your training?

My background in English and women’s studies really is the perfect combination for my work here at the Bingham Center. Women’s studies (the faculty, fellow students, and coursework combined) provided me with critical thinking skills, confidence in my ability to lead and make change (which came from a supportive community, not just individual faith in myself), and the tools I needed to be an activist and communicate and engage with the world. Due to my academic background, I am versed in the basics of feminist history and theory, which not only prepared me to engage with our collections of materials created by feminists like Robin Morgan and Kate Millett, but also provided the underpinnings for understanding the whole endeavor of documenting women’s history in general. Thankfully we no longer (or less frequently!) have to answer “Why do women’s stories and documents from women’s everyday lives matter?” but that question is  at the heart of the work we do.

-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

I have to steal this from something I recently read that Zadie Smith recommended in a talk at the National Book Festival: write at a computer that is not connected to the internet. Of course this is almost impossible, so what really helped me was to set aside a reasonable block of time to focus on this project—just an hour or two at a time. I would take a pen and paper to a coffee shop to write or read essays and edit, or plan a phone date with my co-editor when we could talk uninterrupted by work or kids. It’s not much of a tip, but I had to schedule time for myself to avoid the guilt of avoiding this book!  Also- if you are working with a writing partner or editor, or even by yourself if you are working on different computers or devices—Dropbox is a miracle.

Find out more about the book here

Kelly Wooten is the Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, as well as being Librarian for Sexuality Studies for Perkins Library at Duke University. She provides reference and instruction for women’s studies, sexuality studies, and many other interdisciplinary areas using our rich collections of primary sources and online resources. She also plans a wide variety of public programming to highlight the women’s history collections at the Bingham Center.

Her special interests include book arts, girls’ literature and girls’ studies, contemporary feminist movements, and zines.

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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