By Derek Newman-Stille.
After reading A.C. Wise’s “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again”, I could see that she had some great insights that would make for a fascinating interview. I hope that your enjoy our interview and all of A.C. Wise’s brilliant points.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
A.C. Wise: Sure! I’m a transplanted Canadian currently living in the Philadelphia area. Among the members of my household are two very adorable corgis (a chaos of corgis) whose pictures frequently grace my twitter stream. I’ve had short stories in Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, among other places. The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is my first collection. It was released by Lethe Press in October 2015, and there’s an audiobook version on the way. I also co-edit Unlikely Story, which started life as the Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and has since morphed to include other unlikely themes. Our first print anthology, Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix came out in January 2016. I also write a monthly Women to Read: Where to Start column for SF Signal.
Spec Can: What interested you about pop sci fi for you to play with ideas from pop sci fi and sci fi of the past in your fiction? Why the sea monsters, aliens, and hand-wringing evil scientists?
A.C. Wise: I have great affection for old movies, and movies so bad they’re good. In the ideal world, there would be a movie version of Glitter Squadron with Vincent Price in all his scenery- chewing glory playing Doctor Blood. I also kind of dig the monsters from those old movies, the guys in rubber suits, the Ray Harryheusen creatures. The Glitter Squadron is a little bit camp, so they should be facing off against suitably camp villains, not slick CGI monsters or every day baddies. Nothing less than mythology and evil science will do!
Spec Can: What interested you about writing about drag culture in “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again”?
A.C. Wise: Aside from drag being fierce and fabulous and brave in its own right, one of the things I wanted to do with the Glitter Squadron is show different ways of being strong. There’s a certain model of Strong Female Character we see over and over in media. Even though they’re female, they’re ‘just one of the guys’. They’re tough. They wear dark colors. They’re angry. They punch things. If they wear make-up, it tends to be understated. Their hair is artfully messy to show they don’t care about looks. When they get hit, they might get one scratch on the side of their face, or a little bit of blood on their mouth to show they’re not afraid to get dirty. And above all, they are not – god forbid – girly. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that kind of character, but it’s not the only way to be strong. I wanted heroines who didn’t have to shed the trappings of femininity to be strong. Most of the Glitter Squadron embrace femininity in the most extreme way possible – big hair, big boots, big makeup, and glitter everywhere. Of course, there are also characters like M, CeCe, and the G-String Men, because there is a spectrum. Strength comes in all shapes and forms, and it was important to me to try to showcase that.
Spec Can: Why is it important to show empowered cis-gendered women as well as empowered trans women?
A.C. Wise: It plays into the idea of showing a spectrum of strength, and a spectrum of femininity. I hate the Lone Woman model. Black Widow is a prime example of that in the Marvel movies. Being the only woman on an all-male team, she has to stand in for every woman (something male characters are very rarely asked to do). She can’t be too strong, too weak, too anything, because when she does, she is, by default, making a statement about all women. It’s impossible for her to win in this scenario. However, if there’s a whole team full of women – and that includes women of various types, cis women, trans women, fat women, black women, Latina women – they can all be variously strong and weak at different times. They can lean on each other, and none of them are asked to speak for all of femininity and carry the entire weight of their gender alone.
Spec Can: Queer people are often portrayed as passive, suffering people in traditional fiction. You have written some very empowered and powerful queer people. What is important about portraying strong queer characters?
A.C. Wise: Well, in real life, queer people do amazing things and there are more stories to tell than just the sad ones. Unfortunately, a lot of media hasn’t caught up with that reality yet. One of the major problems with this is, there are few enough stories putting queer characters front and center, and if all of those stories are queer tragedy, queer abuse, queer death, that’s not only depressing, it’s actively damaging. Those narratives get repeated, and they become the narrative. They become internalized and normalized. Queer people and straight people alike start to expect that tragic stories are what queer stories are supposed to look like. Queer kids looking to find themselves in fiction don’t see hope, they see that they can expect the world to shit on them. At best their suffering will help inspire a straight person and uplift them, but there’s no place for them in the world. That is a truly terrible message to put out in the world. That’s why it’s important to me that the Glitter Squadron are no one’s sidekicks. They are the heroines of their own stories. They face challenges, but most of those challenges aren’t related to their queerness, and regardless of the cause, when they do suffer, they always fight back. They are self-rescuing princesses.
Spec Can: What are some important things to keep in mind when writing about queerness?
A.C. Wise: Like writing about any identity, it’s important to remember there isn’t one single way to express it. There’s no one ‘right’ way to be queer. Related to that, every reader is different, and they bring their own life experience with them when they read. Authors writing about any identity that isn’t their own need to be prepared to listen. This is especially true for traditionally marginalized identities like queer identities. If a queer (or otherwise marginalized) reader points out something you got wrong as an author, listen to them. Don’t immediately get defensive or fall back on, ‘but my queer/black/female/etc.’ friend said it was okay. Your friend’s experience may be very different from the person your work hurt or offended. As I said above, there are few enough stories that put queer folks front and center, which means each one carries extra weight and has extra potential to do damage. It’s the same problem as the Lone Female Character. The solution to these problems is more characters and more stories spreading out the weight each story has to carry, and of course more stories from traditionally marginalized authors. Obviously those stories should also be approached respectfully, and characters should be written first and foremost as human beings.
Spec Can: “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again” highlights the importance among the queer community of finding our own family and making our families from those who are important to us. Why was family such a central focus of this narrative and why is it important to show alternative, chosen family structures?
A.C. Wise: A lot of queer kids sadly do face rejection from the families they are born into, and sometimes, as a result of that, homelessness. For some people, the family they make is the only one they have, and I wanted some of the stories in the collection to highlight the idea that there is a community out there where people can be accepted and loved and find a place they can call home. At the same time, I didn’t want all the blood-family relationships to be negative either. Starlight has a fantastic relationship with her mother. Esmeralda’s story is all about reconnecting with the family she was born into. I wanted to show a variety of families, queer families, found families, adoptive families, children being raised by their grandparents. Just like there’s no one right way to be a woman, or no one right way to be queer, there’s no one right way to be a family.
Spec Can: What are some key things that we can be doing in our queer fiction to write narratives that interest and empower queer people?
A.C. Wise: Probably the most important thing is make sure there are spaces for queer people to tell their own stories. Projects like Queers Destroy SF/F/H from Lightspeed, presses like Lethe Press, podcasts like Glittership, and publications like Scigentasy which focuses on stories exploring the gender spectrum are crucial. It’s also important that those spaces aren’t seen as niche or one-off – all publications and publishing houses should strive to showcase a wide variety of voices and make room for stories that reflect the world as it is, not just a narrow segment of it.
Spec Can: What is so fascinating about superhero narratives? Why do we keep returning to them in our cultural interest?
A.C.Wise: Superheroes are like mythology and fairy tales. They are foundational stories upon which we build our culture. They give authors and creators archetypes to play with, reinterpret, re-imagine, and subvert. Many classic super hero stories also give us regular folks a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy. Spider-Man and the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel are nerdy kids who get amazing super powers and save the world. If it can happen to them, maybe it can happen to us, too.
Spec Can: Why do you feel the secret identity motif is so important in superhero fiction?
A.C. Wise: Superhero secret identities are kind of fascinating. From an author/creator perspective, they allow for the exploration of several themes that are fundamental to the human experience. Trust – who do you let into your inner circle, who do you allow to see you without your mask on? Identity – at the core of your being, who are you, are you the hero, or the mild- mannered person going about their day? How do you protect the ones you love when you take on the responsibility of being a hero, or when you have it thrust upon you? What truths can you speak while wearing a mask that you can’t with your every day face?
Spec Can: One of your interests is in writing Lovecraftian-inspired or Weird fiction. What can Weird fiction do? What is its power as a genre?
A.C. Wise: I’ve always found the cosmic horror aspects of Lovecraftian fiction, or on a more Earth-bound scale, the natural world horror of Blackwood, appealing. Obviously, it’s not a cheerful thought, but the idea that humanity is small, and there are implacable things out there that aren’t out to destroy us because they’re evil, but may accidentally destroy us because they don’t even recognize our existence, is an attractive one in fiction. Stories where humanity meets alien life, and the human way is automatically assumed to be superior have always annoyed me. On the whole, the creeping oddness of Weird fiction is fun to read and to write about – that sense of dread, that something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it. Weird fiction has a way of slipping between the cracks, fitting itself into various genres. It’s flexible, and I like that.
Spec Can: What are some of the issues that come up in SF regarding the misogynistic portrayal of women?
A.C. Wise: One of the problems I see is that of the received narrative, or the perpetuated narrative. It’s like what you mentioned earlier about queer tragedy. There’s a danger of negative stories becoming the only stories we tell, and that negativity becoming the message we carry into the future. Raped women. Fridged women. Sidelined women. Erased women. Women who exist only to further the narrative of men, or women who aren’t there at all. This should not be the accepted norm. When we see it in our fiction, we should question it, challenge it, push back. If we don’t, people will continue to write and read these stories and think nothing of it, because that’s the way it’s always been.
Spec Can: What can SF do to promote a feminist message? How can SF empower women?
A.C. Wise: Some of the same things SF can do to empower queer stories – make sure there are spaces for women to tell their own stories. Make sure those stories aren’t separated out as ‘special interest’ or relevant only to women. Women’s stories are as universal as men’s stories. The idea that men and boys can’t/won’t/shouldn’t be asked to identify with female characters is ridiculous, and the marketers and decision makers at major publishers, movie studios, and television networks need to let it go.
Spec Can: Your fiction crosses a lot of genre boundaries. What are some of the challenges of cross-boundary writing?
A.C. Wise: I don’t specifically set out to cross boundaries. The stories I write just seem to turn out that way. One of the challenges, I suppose, can be finding an audience. I think that may be more of a problem when it comes to novels. Editors, publishers, and marketers need to know where a book will sit on the shelves in order help readers find it. Labels are useful for building an audience, but not so useful from the writing side of things. With short stories, there’s a bit more room for things that aren’t as easy to pin down to a single genre. Short fiction readers may follow an author or a publication and find new stories that way, as opposed to going to a specific shelf/category in a bookstore or online retailer.
Spec Can: What are some of the rewards of cross-boundary writing?
A.C. Wise: It’s fun! It doesn’t limit you to one particular sandbox, but lets you play in all of them.
Spec Can: What do you see as some of the social activist potentials of SF? What kinds of things can the speculative genres do to evoke new ways of thinking about the world?
A.C. Wise: Ideally art and literature of any kind can serve as a mirror to show humanity its best self. One argument people make for including rape in fiction is that it’s realistic. To that I say, so is two or more women talking about something other than their relationships with the men in their lives. So are pasts, presents, and futures that include queer people and people of color and people with disabilities. So why not tell those stories? Why not show the positive possibilities rather than perpetuating the same negative stories? That’s what SFF can and should do.
Spec Can: Are there any further ideas you would like to discuss?
A.C. Wise: Oh my. I think I’ve probably rambled on enough, but I sincerely appreciate you giving me the opportunity to do so. You asked wonderful questions, and I love Speculating Canada, so thank you for hosting me!
Spec Can: How can readers find out more about you and the work you are doing?
A.C. Wise: I maintain a sporadic blog at www.acwise.net, and tweet as @ac_wise. On the editorial side of things, Unlikely Story can be found at www.unlikely-story.com, and as @grumpsjournal on twitter.
I want to thank A.C. Wise for taking the time to do this interview. This has been a wonderful interview full of new and exciting insights.