Welcome, one and all, to another author interview. Today, I’m talking to the award-winning Michael G. Williams. He writes vampires, sci-fi, and more, and is also an avid gamer. Next week, I’ll also be running a spotlight on his latest novel, the sci-fi detective piece, A Fall In Autumn. In the meantime though, let’s get down to it!
Michael, for those unfamiliar with you, can you give us a quick introduction to yourself and your work?
Certainly! I write wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction filled with monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. I’m currently writing three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, a suburban vampire series starting with Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award) and ends this year with the fifth book, Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new time-travel-historical-urban-fantasy series in the shared Shadow Council Archives setting featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved historical figures, the first of which is Through the Doors of Oblivion (SERVANT/SOVEREIGN #1); and the new science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn (Tales of Autumn #1). I also occasionally write short stories (I just sent one out as a submission on Saturday and really loved getting back into that format) and I’ve even contributed to a tabletop RPG (Wraith: the Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition) and am working on a tabletop RPG adaptation of The Withrow Chronicles.
If I had to summarize all my work across all genres, I’d say I try to present the humor and humanity at the heart of speculative genres by telling stories of outcasts and loners who find their people.
I’m also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and I’m a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi, and I have a full-time day job, and I’m an election judge. My husband and I live in Durham, NC, with our cats and dogs and many friends.
And no, I have absolutely no spare time. J
Today, we’re mostly going to be talking about A Fall in Autumn, which is your new LGBTQIA+ sci-fi detective novel. The first thing I wanted to ask was what inspired you to mix the private detective and far future sci-fi elements for this story? Was there a particular title that put you on that path?
One of my favorite novels of all time is Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. I loved the way it mashed up detective stories and science fiction. I’m not claiming A Fall in Autumn is at the level of Asimov or anything, but the pleasure of reading that made me really want to write something that played with the same genre elements. It’s got everything I love: a genre mashup, two leads who are distinctly different from one another, and a story about those two leads building trust and partnership by empathizing with the motivations behind their different choices and the greater effectiveness of their combined abilities.
Your protagonist, Valerius Bakhoum, is described as a washed PI that’s both fetishized and reviled for his imperfect genetics. The way the blurb is written makes it sound like Valerius is a bit of an underdog in a future that certainly seems dystopian to him. How big a divide is there between people like Valerius and the upper classes?
Oh, massive. In the world of A Fall in Autumn, the people we might call “the 1%” are more like the top 20 or 25%. They’re people who have been designed – literally, at the genetic level – to be the elites and to propagate the system that created them. Then there’s the bulk of humanity, who range from everyday Jane Does with minor enhancements and a more or less average life, to the “Mannies,” who are purpose-built to do satisfy specific economic requirements as manual laborers and retailers and the like. Between the elites and the bulk of humanity is a very thin slice of the population who, like Valerius, are Artisanal Humans or “Arties”: they’re folks who got made the old-fashioned way by people with no enhancements at all. They’re recognizable on sight, too, because Arties get wrinkles and scars and they visibly age. No one else does.
On paper, everyone in that culture has the same rights and the same liberties, but in practice it’s quite different. The elites are the haves, and everyone else has to scrabble to get by. They keep the Artie population around as a sort of genetic backup in case their genetic engineering goes off the rails and they need to refer to the original blueprints, so Arties are under a lot of social pressure to remain in the preserves where they are born and raised, and if they make it out into wider society there are a number of religion-based legal restrictions on what they can do and what services are available to them. Generally speaking, people have been told that Arties are special and admirable and “pure,” and so they either think Valerius is the absolute bee’s knees in a very Othering and standoffish way, or they find it offensive he’s out in the wider world in the first place. To see him getting by solely in the most disreputable ways possible is to add insult to injury. Imagine finding out your old kindergarten teacher, who is also your favorite sports hero, has been arrested for making meth and selling it to children. Now multiply that by a thousand. That’s what the faithful feel when they see Valerius.
What I like about the blurb is that it really makes him sound like a remnant from our time, but also places him in a setting that you could see as a real potential. With all our focus on things like Filters and ‘perfect’ portrayals of beauty, it feels like his world may be a ramped up version of what the media pushes as ideal. Was that an intentional thing?
Absolutely, yes. Beauty standards are everywhere, all the time, and trying to live up to them is literally killing us. I wanted to draw on the anxiety every single one of us feels about our bodies to cast Valerius’ experience in the right light and connect the reader to it. Valerius lives in a world with the ability to enforce beauty standards and his society widely believes physical imperfection is a failure of moral character. In the (awful and radically exclusionary) doctrine of Prosperity Gospel there’s this idea that if one is good and moral and pure that their god will make that apparent to others by making one rich. It’s an idea that fits squarely with things like the pre-destination of Calvinism or Augustine, or the Roman belief physical beauty was a reflection of moral purity and that moral impurity would manifest itself as physical features they found unattractive.
In many ways, that’s the concept I wanted to use to build a bridge between the experiences of a heterosexual reader and the queer experience as represented by Valerius’ status as an Artie. I wanted queer people to see ourselves in the way he’s simultaneously fetishized and reviled, but I also wanted straight, white, cisgendered people also to have some way to approach this story and draw on their own insecurities in order to connect with the story.
Will fans of old school detective novels find anything familiar here? Like in how Valerius works cases, or in her general character for example?
Most definitely! Valerius is an old-school gumshoe. He knows some really questionable characters, he barely scrapes by, and sometimes he has to rough people up for information. He also loves the freedom of his life. I wanted to be sure to feature the good and the gritty: the parts of detective stories that make them a fun fantasy as well as the elements that entice us into their murkier depths.
Futuristic science fiction often includes some awesome technology. So, can you tell us a little about some of the tech in the novel? Was any of it based on current creations, and did you have to do much research in terms of ensuring that it all theoretically works?
I love talking about the technology in A Fall in Autumn! There was so much research, and I loved doing it.
The future depicted in this novel is one that has largely forgotten or abandoned or exceeded the mineral-based technology of our time: silicon and metal and glass, like the phone in your pocket or the screen on which you read this. Basically, a series of ecological, scientific, and geopolitical disasters in our time lead to an apocalypse and a long nadir of human civilization and advancement. Eventually society is rebuilt but with a very different set of emphases. By the time of Valerius, something like 12,000 years from now, they don’t really have a concept of much of our technology. To them, we’re the Atlantis myth: an ancient people who (a) blew ourselves up through our own hubris and (b) almost certainly didn’t exist or at least not the way the stories say we did.
In some ways the result is a much more sustainable set of technologies supported by their incredibly sophisticated understanding of genetic engineering: they have plants that grow paper “naturally,” they can cure basically any disease, they can edit the indignities of aging out of human experience, and so on. They do have metals, and electronics, and mass transit, and a lot of things we would recognize. But they think we never went to space, for instance, and they wouldn’t recognize a desktop computer if they saw one. They tend to experience technology as something “natural” because it’s almost always something plant-based or otherwise biological.
The big exception to that are the Ghost Drives, which are the AI’s that power and run a lot of their technology. They’re an artifact of some point in time between our own and Valerius’, and they were built so well and function so reliably that they’re still working by the time we get to Valerius and the society he inhabits. The everyday person in Valerius’ culture does not understand how they work and doesn’t particularly think about them enough to wonder in the first place. Ghost Drives are just a part of the infrastructure they’ve always known and on which they’ve always relied. Autumn is the last of a generation of flying cities built at that same technological apex, and Ghost Drives are what keep it aloft.
The book is listed as LGBTQIA+, but the blurb doesn’t mention any potential romances. I know myself that when people see the LGBTQIA+ label they instantly expect there to be a focal love story, or in some cases, erotic scenes. Since that’s not actually always the case, can you tell us how the LGBTQIA+ elements present themselves here?
Well, as a detective story, there is a sort of homme fatale client. I don’t know if I would call their interaction a romance, and in fact my editor had some pretty dry comments on that part J, but that is there. There are also a couple of M/M encounters unrelated to that client which were very fun to write.
Mostly, though, the LGBTQIA+ elements are in Valerius’ life as an Artisanal Human. He grew up in isolation and worked really hard to get away from that place and from the expectations and restrictions placed on him – and faced danger doing so. Now that he’s out in the world, he finds he’s still different from everyone around him, even in a place as diverse as Autumn. Some people think he’s an ideal, and some people think he’s an embarrassment. Neither wants to just let him live his life.
I feel like as queer people we’re experiencing a similarly surreal moment, in which our victories have led to tremendous liberation but also to very real dangers and a different set of social and cultural pitfalls. I worked very hard and took many risks to escape the overwhelmingly evangelical enclave where I grew up only to arrive in a future designed to give me whiplash. On the one hand straight people watch RuPaul’s Drag Race like it’s a sport and want queer BFFs as a sort of accessory. On the other hand, my own state legislature passed (and still has not fully repealed) the famously anti-trans bill known as HB2, and some legislators want to file bills designed to create an opportunity to overturn same-gender marriage. While one end of the spectrum of society welcomes us with open arms as long as we conform to their expectations, we are also made more aware than ever of the dangers faced by queer and trans people, especially queer and trans people of color. I am absolutely delighted by the progress we’ve made, and some days that progress makes the struggles that remain seem even more daunting. That’s what Valerius experiences in his personal life, too, and that is what makes this a queer story.
Will readers find that the book leans more towards sleuthing or action?
That’s a tough apple to slice. I guess it leans more toward the sleuthing, as there are scenes in which he learns information without resorting to violence or giving chase, and in every scene that turns into action he also learns something new. But I’m not sure the distinction can be drawn terribly cleanly!
The book is the first in a series. Do you have a planned number of books, or is it more a case of you’ll write stories in the world as long as they feel right? Is the second book in planning already?
As of this weekend I’m under contract for four more books in this setting. I’m already noodling around with ideas for the second book, New Life in Autumn. The first scene is written, and I know how the book ends, and the path from Point A to Point B is starting to take vague shape in my head.
I think that there’s still a section of people that think sci-fi is entirely based around space ships and big battles with alien races. In truth though, it’s an incredibly varied genre. What three books would you recommend to show the diversity of the genre as a whole?
Oh, gosh, there is so much good science fiction out there. It’s such an enormously diverse genre!
First off, try Asimov’s Foundation. Sure, there’s space flight and whatnot, but this is not a military sci fi novel. This is a social sci fi novel. It’s about a group of social scientists and mathematicians who have charted out the history of the galaxy in advance, and what they do when that goes completely off the rails. It’s a book about human ingenuity and also human unpredictability. I love it. Love it.
Then, give Dan Simmons’ Hyperion a read. Again, yes, there’s space travel, and the possibility of a war, but 90% of the book is the passengers on a ship telling the others’ their own story, a la The Canterbury Tales. With that setup, Simmons gets to tell stories of several different genres and subgenres while also still mixing in some science fiction flavor. It’s an intensely beautiful novel. Just… keep the sequel handy so you can start reading it right away. And then be patient with that sequel, because it pays off in the end.
Finally, I strongly recommend Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series, starting with Polaris. Set 9,000 years in the future, they’re about an antiques dealer and his tough-as-nails assistant (she narrates) solving mysteries from their past but our future. They’re sprawling detective stories and action adventures built around absolutely fascinating hard-science questions and phenomena, all set in a utopian future a la Star Trek, and I just love them to pieces. Their history contains plenty of conflict but again these are not books about spaceships shooting each other. These are a riff on Holmes and Watson with a lot of added flair. They’re just absolutely magnificent. (But seriously, start with Polaris, which you’ll see listed as the second in the series. The first was written much earlier and isn’t really about these characters.)
I’d recommend The Caves of Steel, but I’ve already talked about it at length. Heh.
Now, you also have several other titles available. I noticed that you penned The Withrow Chronicles, a darkly humorous series about a sarcastic vampire named Withrow Surrett. What can you tell us about these books? How did you come up with the concept?
Withrow started life as a character I played in a tabletop RPG in the late ‘90s, then stuck around inside my head for years after. One of our favorite things to do in that game was to noodle around with the “what if” questions of genres: what would a vampire do if there were a zombie apocalypse, for instance? Each book in The Withrow Chronicles is about the main character – a surly vampire – finding himself dropkicked into some sort of adventure that’s also a genre mashup. Perishables is about a zombie outbreak happening in the middle of his neighborhood association’s potluck dinner, and whether saving the others is worth the risk of revealing himself. Tooth & Nail is basically a mashup of redneck vampires and the more classical notion of vampiric intrigue. Deal with the Devil is about Withrow’s town getting its first superhero and its first supervillain and how neither of those are a good thing – and about Withrow finding out the events of the three books are connected to a larger conspiracy. Attempted Immortality is a spy thriller set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in which Withrow tries to stop his opponents from unleashing a superweapon to devastate humanity. The final novel, Nobody Gets Out Alive, comes out this year. It’s a mashup of vampires and war novels, as Withrow and his allies invade the gated community where his enemies reside.
I love crafting a character who is already marginalized in some way and who has built or found a comfort zone they can inhabit and then yank them out of that to find all the ways their marginalization has made them stronger than those around them. I like to celebrate the power and the motivations we’re given by the things we think might make us weak or brittle. Withrow is someone who said yes to becoming a monster in the 1940’s because he had been told that, as a gay man, he would be treated like a monster either way. Now he’s surprised to find the suburbs have caught up to his little enclave outside of town, and he has neighbors, and a homeowner’s association, and social obligations in which he doesn’t even know he’s a participant. Much to his surprise, he can still thrive amidst that tangle of connections.
Perishables is really about that: characters who think the things that make them exceptional also make them unwelcome in society at large and the ways those exceptional qualities in fact fuel their unique ability to rise to the occasion. I think that’s a story a lot of people need to hear. I certainly need to hear it. The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was to write the book I wanted to read. A younger me needed more stories telling him it was okay to be himself. The older me still needs that, too. J
The first book in the series, Perishables, won the 2012 Laine Cunningham Novel Award. How did that come about, and how did it feel to win?
I was absolutely stunned. I couldn’t believe I won. The award is named for Laine Cunningham, who writes award-winning fiction and nonfiction and poetry. The award is a serious, juried award for unpublished novels of all genres and I literally entered the contest on a dare. When I won, I had to follow through on the dare by publishing it. My entire writing career has had that moment as its launchpad, and I will always be grateful to them.
The morning after I found out I had won, I had my annual review at my day job. I remember staring out the window while my then-boss talked. He didn’t like me very much and suffice to say the feeling was mutual – I love what I do, but that supervisor was… not great. Anyway, eventually he said, “You don’t seem very engaged with this.” I looked him in the eye and said, “I found out last night that my debut novel has won a big award, so to be honest, I don’t really care about this review. Just tell me where to sign.”
(Seven years later, I’m happy to report I still have that job and I now have a boss with whom I enjoy a much more productive work relationship.)
Do you have a favorite moment in the series so far?
It’s taken me 20 minutes of solid thinking, and I think I have my favorite moment so far:
In Deal with the Devil there is a house Withrow finds himself watching for signs of something supernaturally hinky going on inside. He knows things are off, but he isn’t sure exactly what he’s up against. He only knows the kids of the neighborhood in question believe very firmly in a bogeyman who shows up in the middle of the night and does something at that house. Because he’s a vampire, Withrow considers himself a native among the deep shadows of the witching hour, so he sneaks up to the house to peek in a window once he becomes convinced this “bogeyman” is paying it a visit. What Withrow sees going on inside turns out to shock him and scare him a little. It’s so gratifying to write a scene in which a monster can be afraid, even revolted. I actually got an email from someone who said they had to throw the book away from them when they read what Withrow sees inside the house… but they also had to go pick the book up and see it through to the end. I had a ton of fun writing that scene and I am enormously gratified evoking that sort of reaction in a reader. J
Can readers expect you to write more in this universe?
Probably. I’ve got a couple of ideas for novellas or possibly novelettes set in the world of The Withrow Chronicles. It was important to me to deliver a complete story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the fifth Withrow novel, Nobody Gets Out Alive, delivers that. I’m very proud of that, and am tempted to just, you know, back away slowly and not screw it up by writing more than I’ve got story to tell. But there are a ton of side characters in The Withrow Chronicles who could easily support a little time in the limelight. They have stories, too, and I don’t have room for them in The Withrow Chronicles. I’d love to write a novella about a coven of witches who show up repeatedly, or about Withrow’s cousin Roderick.
You also have stories in multiple anthologies. Do you have any favorites among these that you can tell us about?
I’d say I’m proudest of three in particular:
My short story “COMPLICATIONS” is a retro 1980’s sci fi story about a computer dating agency in a shopping mall in 1982. That story has never been in an anthology, but I give it away to folks who subscribe to my monthly newsletter and I make it available as a standalone on Amazon (either for $0.99 or free to Kindle Unlimited readers). It’s in the Machine of Death genre, which is one of my favorites. If you’re not familiar with that concept, a Machine of Death story can be in any setting and any genre, but all Machine of Death stories include the existence of a device which, with a simple blood test, can determine the precise cause of any person’s demise – and the Machines always seem to take a grim and ironic delight in torturing us with answers that are or can be interpreted multiple ways.
“Daddy Used to Drink Too Much” is a short story I have in Sekhmet Press’ anthology Wrapped in Red: Thirteen Tales of Vampiric Horror. It’s a twist on the vampire-falls-for-a-young-woman story, set in the Appalachian Mountains during the Great Depression. It’s quiet and serious and heartfelt in a way I don’t often see vampires portrayed. It’s also absolutely heartbreaking, if I do say so myself, and at the same time it’s quite empowering. I loved writing it. I was just so flattered when they accepted it.
I’m also exceptionally proud of my story “TL;DR” in the benefit anthology We Are Not This: Carolina Writers for Equality. It was collected and published to benefit several different organizations opposed to North Carolina’s anti-trans bill, HB2. It’s a horror story about a queeny self-styled fashion blogger encountering the Lovecraftian Mythos and I loved writing it. I got to really play with one of those voices I have in my head but never quite feel comfortable expressing, and I got to do so to help some truly amazing organizations benefitting queer youth. It doesn’t get better than that.
Your novels are all published by Falstaff Books. How did you come to work with them and what keeps you coming back to them? How has the experience been so far?
I met the publisher, John Hartness, through fandom conventions in the Southeastern United States. He and I would be author guests in the same places at the same times, and check out each other’s books, and we just hit it off right away. I love being on panels with John, and I’m lucky enough that he can tolerate being on panels with me. J I self-published the first four Withrow Chronicles books, actually, and he liked them enough he bought the rights to re-publish them and to publish the fifth. When we sat down and had our most serious conversation about that, I also pitched the new urban fantasy time travel series, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN. After we inked that deal I pitched A Fall in Autumn, which I had already drafted and intended to self-publish if he wasn’t interested. He took it, and now here we are. Given that I just signed a contract with him for four more Autumn novels, he has me under contract until something like September of 2021. And I couldn’t be more excited!
Working with Falstaff Books has been absolutely amazing. My editor, Erin Penn, was already a reader of The Withrow Chronicles, so she knew what she was getting into. Heh. She is an absolutely phenomenal editor and advisor. She “gets” the characters I’m trying to create, and the stories I’m trying to tell, and A Fall in Autumn would be terribly inferior if it weren’t for her work with me. She’s made me a better writer. She’s held my feet to the fire on fixing some bad habits. I just can’t say enough good things about working with her. And Falstaff has worked hard to support my books and my efforts.
For those still working their way into the industry, can you briefly take us through the general process when it comes to placing a novel with a publisher, all the way through to publication? The steps tend to have some minor variance between publishing houses, but generally remain the same overall, I find.
Oh gosh, I wish I knew! That’s one of the reasons I love Falstaff: they make it very easy. They don’t require an agent and they tend to work with people they know and trust already to produce a quality product. They’re closed to submissions this year but will reopen next year.
I’ll say this: don’t get caught up in assuming a publisher is the only way to go, or that self-publishing will relegate you to anonymity. In fact, as I said above, self-publishing my work is what got my publisher’s attention in the first place. If you want to break into the big New York publishing houses, yes, you’ll need an agent, and if that works out then by all means feel free to come back and tell me how you did it because my attempts to get an agent with Perishables were spectacular failures. J
How important do you find reviews in terms of selling books, and why should readers take time to leave a review and rating, even if only brief?
Reviews are the oxygen a book needs to breathe. A book with no reviews gets zero attention and is going to get passed over by almost everyone who looks at it. A lot of folks don’t realize this, but sites like Amazon have internal, largely secret thresholds for how much attention a book has to receive from outside in order for them to do anything to promote it on their site. There is no chance Amazon will do anything to promote a book with no or few reviews. The more reviews it gets, the more likely it is that book will cross the golden threshold and get promoted on the site or in emails. Having a quantity of reviews will also help with things like trying to get a book onto the shelves of a local retailer.
And regardless of what a bookseller will or won’t do, reviews are a way for readers to hear about a book from the source they trust most: other readers. People are much more willing to gamble on a book if it has more reviews, because that makes it feel more like a growing trend. Lots of people want to get in early on enjoying something good, and many readers are actively looking for good writers with a body of work they can dive into, but avid readers also know all too well how precious their reading time is to them so they don’t want to roll the dice on something that might be a total dud – and a book with no reviews looks like a dud from way off.
Reviews also provide writers with promotional quotes and content. A reviewer described Perishables as “Stephen King meets Stephen Colbert,” and I swear I will put that on everything I publish for the rest of my life, up to and including my own tombstone.
Last but certainly not least, any review, from a multi-paragraph essay on Amazon to a wordless five-star rating on Goodreads, and anything between, helps writers keep going. Seeing that someone I do not know, who has never rated or reviewed any of my books before, has decided to take the time to rate one of mine? Oh, my gosh, I can’t even explain how good that feels. Writing is a tremendous joy and a real privilege and I am grateful every time I get to engage in it, and it is also tremendously lonely and, for reasons I won’t bore you by detailing, it is necessarily a process of eroding one’s own confidence about a work the more one works on it. That little hit of validation a reader gives a writer by rating their book, leaving a review, and recommending it to a friend, well, seriously, that may be what keeps that writer going. That may be the moment that writer needed in order to write the next book.
Moving away from novels for a moment, your bio says that you contribute to tabletop RPG development. What can you tell us about this?
I had the tremendous privilege of contributing to background & setting material for Wraith: The Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition, a deeply emotional and character-driven game in which you play a ghost trying to make its way in the afterlife. The setting of Wraith is this fascinating overlap of, basically, everywhere that used to be, as places and things people consider important tend to appear there when destroyed. It’s also a setting in which very ancient and sedentary forces are in strict control of a place being continually populated and repopulated by persons with radically different ideas and priorities, as a ghost who lived in the 16th century may wind up next door to a ghost from the 1980’s who is, in turn, next door to a spirit from now. I got to think about things like, what happens when startup culture arrives in what is essentially the economic system of Medieval Europe? That sort of stuff is very appealing to me.
I’m also working with a friend and collaborator to develop a very character-driven tabletop RPG based on The Withrow Chronicles. I can’t really say much about that because we aren’t even close to the point where we would, for instance, pitch it to Falstaff, but it’s a really fun project to work on every now and then.
Tabletop RPGs are a huge part of my life and my creativity. I’ve played them for something like 25 years, and in the early 2000’s I reviewed tabletop RPG’s and a particular series of tie-in novels fairly extensively on RPG.net. I also wrote some fan supplements for White Wolf’s sci-fi RPG, Trinity, and posted them online. I love gaming. I call it cross-training for writers, like a runner who also lifts weights, because it draws on a different kind of creativity that supports the creative muscles we exercise when it’s just us and the blank page.
Do you have any go-to favorite RPGs to play?
Hands-down my favorite RPG of all time is Trinity. (Which also just had a big anniversary edition come out with a complete redesign. I didn’t work on it but I am so excited it exists!) It hits all my buttons: it’s science fiction, it has intrigue, it has politics, it has cool powers, it has hacking, it has a complex political climate, it has alternate history, it has everything I love.
Right behind that one is Vampire: the Masquerade, preferably 2nd edition, and the standalone variant on it, Vampire: the Dark Ages. I’ve played that game for decades, off and on, and just adore it. Many of my favorite gaming experiences, both as a GM and as a player, happened in those games.
I’m also a huge fan of Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco, which I don’t get to play nearly often enough. And I really enjoy the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. And Call of Cthulhu, either the D20 version or 7th edition. And the old D20 Modern game. And… well, you get the idea.
I’ve tended to find that a fair few horror authors I’ve spoken to play tabletop games. Do you think there’s a reason for that cross-over appeal?
Oh, absolutely: it’s an opportunity for narrative surprise, and writers are always looking for that. Good horror operates on the basis of subverted expectation. It may set up a series of familiar tropes and allow us to construct narrative expectations on that basis by signaling the right genre tropes – a cabin in the woods, a headline about an escaped killer, a mysterious noise in the middle of the night – but the really good stuff uses those to set us up for a real surprise. Maybe the cabin turns out to be the most secure place to hide from the zombies, and maybe the “killer” escaped in order to prove her innocence, and maybe the bump in the night is Van Helsing waiting to catch Dracula when he attacks. Good roleplaying game experiences do the same. A great D&D game will employ the tropes and assumptions of the players as a sort of shared vocabulary so that the GM can create certain expectations in the players’ minds then knock those expectations down when they’re confronted. They can suggest there’s a dragon in the dungeon, for instance, because the game is called Dungeons & Dragons, but what happens when they get down there and find out the dragon is a prisoner? What happens when the villagers who hired the party to get rid of the orc “raiders” nearby turn out to be the colonizing aggressors, trying to steal land from a peaceful orc tribe who were there first?
That’s how new ideas happen, and writers are always looking for new ideas. Asimov and King both have great essays in which they talk about every new idea actually being two or more old ideas bumping into each other via Brownian motion. Because almost every tabletop game is designed to create stories in a particular genre, they come with a certain set of ideas built in. Mix those together with the other ideas we’ve all picked up from movies and books and whatever and, tah-dah, new ideas! Does it get any better than that?
Also, writers spend so much of our time coming up with the setup and the solution that I think there’s real pleasure in only having to do one part of that work and seeing what someone else does on the other side. I can tell you, I spend a huge amount of the writing of A Fall in Autumn terrified there was no mystery there, because I started it knowing who did what and why. A tabletop game is a chance to divide up the work of narrative creation, and that means we get to feel surprised and engaged throughout.
(I also can’t resist an aside to note that comedy also operates on the basis of subverted expectation, which is why horror and humor go so well together. It’s why Buffy, or Sabrina, or the characters in a Jordan Peele movie, etc., can crack a joke in the middle of a horror situation and it works.)
You’re also a gaymer. So, how did you first get into gaming, and what are your favorite titles and franchises?
I played a lot of Pac-Man when I was 7. J These days I’m mostly into 4X games, because that’s something I can find calming and it appeals to my problem-solving urge. I also love single-player RPGs, such as Fallout or Wasteland or Pillars of Eternity. And I love JRPGs, though I haven’t had time to play one all the way through in something like 15 years. The experience of playing Final Fantasy VII together, though, was how some of my very best friends and I initially bonded, and now, nearly 25 years later, we live near each other and see each other all the time and really put down roots playing games together.
I think my favorite genre is probably racing games, though. I will play anything that involves racing. My favorite part of Shenmue was the forklift racing mini-game. Hand me a copy of literally any iteration of Mario Kart and I am a happy, happy man.
Judging by your Instagram page, you share your home with multiple animals. Tell us a little about them.
Oh, let me tell you, we have the best animals. I know everyone has the best animals, and I wholeheartedly agree with that because the very best animal is always the animal right in front of me at any given time, but seriously, our animals rule. When we met, my husband had two dogs and I had two cats. I very much considered myself a cat person who loved dogs but couldn’t see myself living with them, and he very much considered himself a dog person who liked the idea of cats but had never lived with them and didn’t really see them fitting into the mix. Merging our pet families was by far our biggest concern when things got serious and it has gone so well.
The two dogs are a young and extremely energetic and outgoing Bassett named Gal (short for Lady Galadriel) and an older and very relaxed coon hound mix named Joxer. The two dogs are Vladimir, a cranky but very sweet old gray tom cat with strong elements of Russian Blue in his mixed background, and Elvira, a young and feisty tuxedo cat whose white chest fur gives her amazing cleavage!
Do they tend to get along well?
Much to my surprise, they do! When my husband and I met I had two cats: Vladimir and his brother Estragon. Estragon passed away about a year after we started combining households, but he got to spend time with the dogs and was very tolerant of them. (He had lifelong medical issues and was a little high at all times for something like a dozen years, so he was pretty cool about anyone and everyone anyway. Heh.) Vladimir is kind of a cranky old man cat, and Gal is very curious and friendly, so there was some friction there when they first met. (Joxer is and always has been completely inoffensive to everyone and unruffled by everyone.) We decided an additional cat who got along well with very outgoing dogs and with other cats might be good to kind of bridge the gap between Didi and Gal. That led us to Elvira, who is a young tuxedo cat from a home with an 80 lb Great Dane with whom she constantly and rambunctiously played. We adopted Elvira not quite a year ago and she has just been marvelous. She’s really worked out with Vladimir, who has become more energetic and playful with her around, and she’s total BFFs with Gal. My husband has gotten some amazing photos of Elvira snuggled up to the others. One of my favorite things about our pets is how distinct their personalities are. They are individuals with their own wants and needs and habits and restrictions, and watching that interplay is always fun. They’re the perfect family.
You’re also an avid podcaster, an activist, and a runner. Do you run your own podcast, or do you tend to act more as a regular guest on other people’s?
I’ve done a little of both and enjoyed both! I helped put together a magazine-style literary podcast for my fraternity a couple of years ago in my role as the alumni archivist, basically. I also produced a couple of podcasts on fannish topics, such as the podcast two friends and I completed called “Let’s Watch Cop Rock!” It is literally the three of us dissecting and discussing each of the 11 episodes of the 1990’s big-budget television flop, Cop Rock. As part of my day job I’m going to be cohosting a podcast on information security topics later this year, and I’m very excited about that. But technically, at this very moment, I’m “between podcasts.” J
What can you tell us about your work as an activist?
First, I try to stay informed and live as openly and as assertively as I can as a queer man. Just being out is a kind of activism. It’s an opportunity to live my principles, and it has many times involved having to help someone adjust their perspective on things so that I can go on with my life.
Second, I donate to specific advocacy organizations, both for LGBTQIA+ rights and for women’s reproductive rights, because that’s actually my biggest political issue. Women must be allowed to make their own health and reproductive choices, and asserting that and respecting that would go a long way toward undoing the systemic and institutional misogyny our culture inflicts on them. Sometimes people are surprised when they find out a gay man is an outspoken proponent for a woman’s right to choose but (a) that’s the point of empathy, to be able to care deeply about the concerns of another even though they are not my own, and (b) let’s get real, if 52% of the population are not allowed to control their bodies a, what chance do I have to control mine?
Third, I show up to whatever I can. When there was a protest against the “Trumpcare” policy platform a couple of years ago, I showed up to help hold a banner. When Black Lives Matter protested against HB2 and to talk about the dangers faced by queer and trans people of color, I showed up as a white cisgendered person in order to learn from what they had to say and to make sure other white people see people who like like them caring about the experiences and priorities of queer and trans people of color.
Fourth, I write stories I think celebrate and empower marginalized communities. That doesn’t mean only good things happen to queer people in my books, but it does mean I try to pass on to others the idea that it is possible to be in danger, or in distress, or pushed to the margins, and still find one’s power and be true to one’s own self.
How often do you run? Do you have a set routine with times, or is it more of a ‘when time allows’ thing?
It used to be that I ran 4 times a week. I recently was diagnosed with arthritis in my left foot, so running has gotten cut way back. Right now I walk more than I run, though I still run once every couple of weeks. I have to stay at it and do some training up over the summer, because every autumn I run a local half-marathon. It’s one of my favorite days of the year. But I’ve been a runner so long that I have, in fact, run it “cold,” with no real training beforehand, and been fine.
On top of this, you’re also an engineer and happily married. Between your husband and all the different things you’re involved with, does it ever become difficult to balance your time?
Oh, my gods. One of my best friends recently said, “You do all the things.” And that’s true, I do. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. You should see my husband’s and my shared calendar. Good grief. But it’s also very rewarding. And I have a pretty strict structure to the year. I do conventions in the winter, spring, and summer, but I do no conventions between Labor Day and January. We also try to avoid having social obligations or travel plans during that time. And we make a point of celebrating the downtime we get the other ¾ of the year. This past weekend we explicitly made a point of having no evening plans and just staying in and watching movies and enjoying each other’s company because May and June are going to be a constant flat-out sprint. I’ve also had to become very comfortable with the idea of just not doing everything I’d like to do. We routinely figure out there are three different things we’re interested to do on the same night and we just have to pick one and focus on enjoying that. That’s the key to managing the stress of having so many obligations and so many passions: whatever I’m doing in the moment is the thing that deserves my energy and attention. I can’t always do everything so I have to focus on (a) am I doing what I want to be doing, and (b) am I being present in the things I do? (No joke, a good therapist especially helps.)
Finally, I wanted to thank you for stopping by today. Do you have any final message for readers? Where can they go to find out more about you? Feel free to link to anything you want.
I just want everyone to know I appreciate this time we’ve gotten to spend together. Thank you so much for having me! If folks want to keep up there are several ways:
My monthly newsletter includes an exclusive ongoing science fiction story and subscribers get a free copy of what I consider my best short story.
I’m also on social media, in descending order of activity: