We’re in a Scary Movie, and It’s Called 2020: emily m. danforth and Laura van den Berg Discuss Literary Horror and Our Upcoming Election
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan talk to novelist emily m. danforth and short story writer Laura van den Berg. danforth discusses her newly released sapphic-gothic horror comedy Plain Bad Heroines and how she reclaims negative and othering portrayals of lesbian vampires and queer monsters in the novel. Then, van den Berg shares her acclaimed new story collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears and talks about how the pandemic and the Trump presidency has inspired her fiction.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel and Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel.
This episode was produced by Andrea Tudhope, Emily Standlee and Mary Henn.
Laura van den Berg
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears · The Isle of Youth · What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us · Find Me · The Third Hotel
The Story of Mary MacLane by Mary MacLane · Rebecca by Dame Daphne du Maurier · Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay · Stephen King · The Elementals by Michael McDowell · Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix
With emily m. danforth
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So it’s a treat for us to have you with us in your pub week and in the lead up to the election, which has been its own special kind of horror show. Your book caught my attention because it’s a queer gothic horror comedy with meta elements. And it’s a book about a book and about the filming of a movie told in two timelines with illustrations. And it’s also told in a very funny voice, which is how I wish 2020 had been told. And with all of those elements, the opening of the book establishes it as a horror story for and about queer women. It’s suspenseful, and a couple of characters die in intriguing ways in the beginning. So I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you think about the relationship between the real peril the rights of LGBTQ and other folks have been in lately, and then this genre of horror?
emily m. danforth: Absolutely. I mean, I think one thing that, as a queer person, that I’m always thinking about is the ways in which folks that are trying to challenge our rights or remove them, other us and it’s so much the language of monsters, right? It’s unnatural, it’s sinful, it’s perverse, depraved. And I think that’s something queer people are really used to, is being completely dehumanized and then held up as a thing to fear. It’s wielded as this weapon of fear when folks are seeking to take our rights away. And so that’s on my mind as a queer person. Certainly it’s on my mind right now. But as it applies to horror, there’s like a real specific linkage between the Gothic novel, which is a form I’m really interested in, and the queer monster. So we can go back to Carmilla and think about the lesbian vampire. And one of the ways that queer people have related to that literature is, we’ve reclaimed it. So the lesbian vampire isn’t a sort of monstrous “other” anymore. The lesbian vampire is now an icon. It’s the stuff of 45 memes on an Instagram page.
I’m thinking about lurking, obsessed Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and how horrifying that portrait is of a queer, depraved, obsessed woman. And yet, she’s now a cool ice queen. And so we have reclaimed a lot of those negative portrayals, those other portrayals. And that’s something that I was certainly interested in, when I was thinking about this book, how do we reclaim that drain? And that links to the comedy, too, of the novel. Horror and comedy have always been two sides of a coin. Queer people, we’re so used to kind of like using comedy in our approach the world and it makes so much sense to me in terms of the way that both comedy and horror use tension to pair those things. So I was thinking about all of those things in how I initially thought about the landscape of Plain Bad Heroines.
Whitney Terrell: That mixture of comedy and horror to me is this year. As I watched the president do these insane things … they’re hilarious, right? When he’s getting COVID and running around and saying, ‘I’m going to dress up as Superman, I’m going to pretend like I’m weak. And then I’m going to come out of the hospital and rip off my shirt.’ This is comedy, and yet we understand this person, especially for queer people, is a horrific figure, a very dangerous man. I wonder if that was intentional. Was your book, in it’s tone, mimicking this weird comedy, horror mix that we’ve been living through?
emd: I think you’re giving me way too much credit. Although again, as a queer person, that is just how I’ve experienced the world since age 10, maybe, recognizing the excesses and the absurdity, while often being in fear of it.
WT: So your book has its roots in another book from 1902: The Story of Mary MacLane. That’s a famous queer memoir, which at the time it came out was regarded as dangerous by many people. Can you tell us a little bit about how that book led to yours? Speaking of actual origins, rather than the Trump administration origin I was trying to pretend happened.
emd: [laughs] I think one of the things that’s been really sort of fun and surprising to me is that some early readers — because the book is meta — have, in one case, actually accused me of making her up. And I want to make very clear on this podcast, I did not invent Mary MacLane. I didn’t invent her Wikipedia page. I don’t have those resources. She’s very real. And if you haven’t read her memoir that she wrote at the age of 19, which she wanted titled, ‘I Await the Devil’s Coming,’ which is about the best title for a memoir of all time. You can find it, it’s been reissued, and it’s so vibrant and funny and smart and just so queer. The voice is so, so queer. She’s also a Montanan, and I’m a Montanan. I learned about her in my late 20s, and as someone who has obsessively sought out sapphic narratives from the past, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of her before. And then what I heard about her, and this is something that book really takes up, is what a sensation she was.
That her book sold 80,000 copies in its first month, and that she had a drink named after her and a cigar named after her. And the book did the exact thing she wanted it to do — lift her up out of barren Butte, Montana, and set her on a world stage, she really wanted fame. What I didn’t expect is just how great the book would be, when I finally picked it up, and how much I would enjoy her voice and her candor. More than anything else, the presence of Mary MacLane haunts this novel, in every way. Her perspective and her refusal to be boxed in and her many contradictions, she’s not really a character in the novel, her book is, but she saturates every page of it. I’m thrilled that, if this book does nothing else, that it will introduce some readers to Mary MacLane who don’t know her.
VVG: I looked up The Story of Mary MacLane and was struck by the confident voice of the opening lines. She calls herself “charmingly original” in the sentence, “I am a genius,” is one of the early sentences in the book. I’m going to take a leaf from this in my next work… and she’s 19 years old! It’s amazing—she describes herself really unabashedly as odd. I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing. How did the strong voice of Mary MacLane and people’s reactions to it lead to the fictional characters you created in Plain Bad Heroines, especially the ones in the modern storyline?
emd: One thing about the characters in the past, I should say—this forming of a Mary MacLane society, which is what Flo and Clara have done, and some other students on campus, that was something that happened in the U.S. on the release of Mary MacLane’s book. There were young women all over the country that formed clubs in her honor. And so that was one of the many ways that the book informs the past. I think in terms of the voice of the present characters, she’s particularly reflected in Merritt, who wrote the history of the curse of the Brookhants School for Girls, and who is very self aware, a little too self aware in a contemporary sense to call herself a genius, but thinks that she’s sometimes the smartest person in the room, although has a lot of deep anxiety, too. One of the things that feels so fresh about Mary MacLane’s book is that really perceptive self analysis throughout the book, there’s this real awareness of the things she’s creating, what she’s trying to say, and her many contradictions, and she’ll call herself a genius, and by the next page be talking about the barren emptiness of her life. It feels like a blog that you could read now. Mary MacLane is all over this book, she really saturates it and all the characters.
With Laura van den Berg
V.V. Ganeshananthan: The election, the pandemic, police violence, white militia violence… all things we’ve been chronicling here at the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, have made 2020 the most terrifying year that I personally have lived through. As a writer whose fiction is designed to make people, at best uneasy, and at worst, terrified, what was the most perfectly crafted jumpscare moment of the year for you so far?
Laura van den Berg: Oh my gosh so many from which to choose. I agree, I think it’s been one of the most terrifying years that I’ve lived through also, and it’s just been so unrelenting in so many different ways. I think when we think of a jumpscare, we think of something that’s really sudden, or that it kind of comes out of the blue. I do remember very vividly this period of time, maybe a handful of weeks in February, when the pandemic went from being an increasingly urgent buzz on the periphery of our lives to really being front and center. But there was a very specific moment.
Earlier this year, my husband and I were living in Austin, Texas, and we were teaching there, and we drove in the first week of March to Florida, where my family is, and we have remained there ever since. And I just remember being in the car, I think we were driving through Mississippi, and it was late, late at night. We’re just trying to keep going. And to stop as little as possible. And we were listening to the radio, which was not something we normally do in the car. And I just remember having this moment. We were in this little planet of our car, on this quiet highway late, late at night driving through America, but just this moment where I thought, something fundamental has shifted in our world, and I don’t know that our lives will ever be the same again. And it was this really sharp feeling of disaster and loss, before we had all the context and the information that we have now. That’s a moment that was really distinct for me. That feeling that some kind of irrevocable turn has happened and the world as we once knew it is gone.
Whitney Terrell: I feel like there’s been a series of steps like that like, ‘this will never happen,’ and that happens then you’re like, ‘Okay, well, I can still do this. I can get through.’ You have a series of acceptances … it’s a little bit like the frog boiling metaphor. Suddenly you’re living in a situation that would have been unimaginable to you six months earlier. I feel that way, sometimes that’s how your stories work — suddenly the character ends up in places where they would not have imagined themselves to be. And the question is how they got there. One of these things that we sort of slowly descended our way into in 2020 was this, what I feel like is an undisguised death impulse among Trump’s followers. We have a president who’s really interested in death, and so are the people who are interested in him, in a bizarre way. You see that in the refusal masks and these big rallies and the fact that the President himself probably nearly died in the last few weeks. You have militia groups wanting to kidnap governors of states. So much of this uneasy confrontation with the forces of death comes out and is echoed in your collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. Even the title sounds a lot like 2020. But you didn’t write all these stories in 2020, or maybe none of them. So when did you write them and how did they end up feeling so predictive of this time?
LVDB: Of course, I did not write them this year, but most were written post-2016 election. So I definitely was sort of aware.
WT: So it’s a Trump book.
LVDB: It is in some ways. “Volcano House” is the oldest story in the collection, and that story was written in 2011. But I wrote four or five of the stories, so a little less than half the book, at a residency in 2018. So they weren’t written in our literal now, but they were written pretty close to our now. I was very alert to be working in a post Trump world.
VVG: So you mentioned “Volcano House”—I’d love to talk specifically about that story, which is narrated by a woman whose sister is shot and sent into a coma by a mass shooter named John Evans. And the narrator says, and I’m quoting here, “I just want John Evans and all his kind eradicated from this earth. And at the same time, I know it’s not so easy. That’s such an eradication would be meaningless if we can’t cut out the roots.” I’m feeling in my maybe not so secret heart this exact way about a lot of people in America right now. But if Biden wins this election, what are the roots that should be cut out?
LVDB: That’s such a powerful question to sit with. I am hoping and working and am very much desperate for Biden to win the election in just a couple of weeks. But certainly, the entrenched, unequal and violent structures of this country did not start with Trump. He didn’t make them. He’s just intensified them and figured out how to wield them in an even more violent way. And Biden will not fix them. He has been a part of creating those structures during his time in politics, and that’s not the only thing that he’s done, but he’s been accused of sexual assault, his record on race is troubling. Despite all of this, I will vote for him, and there was no question for me about whether I would support Biden or not. I think it’s really painful for a lot of us to feel like we are in this position where these are our choices.
The ills of this country are, of course, far larger than any individual candidate. I think we’re really seeing that just to think about like one strand of an inequitable and violent structure, policing comes to mind straightaway and policing I feel in this country is so powerfully broken and it’s beyond reform and beyond modification. I support the defund movement in the various ways that it’s working and trying to have a conversation about how policing in America needs to be completely reimagined and reshaped. Until those kinds of structures shift in a really powerful way, the work that lies ahead is far beyond any individual candidate. And I think the nature of a politician and particularly a centrist politician, is holding on to power. If that is your position, I think it makes it very difficult to be transformative. Because to be transformative means to take risks that are new and different. The Democratic Party, there seems to be this deep anxiety in the larger party structure about anything being too extreme, too socialist, etc. And so we end up in this centrist space. It’s like harm reduction, it’s certainly not nearly as damaging as a Trump presidency, but it’s also not healing the country either. And it’s not transforming what’s broken. I don’t know that will bring us into a space of greater justice and equity. When I think about the cutting out, and what is being cut out, it’s less about an individual cutting out Trump and more about transforming oppressive structures.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope.