Interview: A. Merc Rustad

A. Merc Rustad is a queer, transmasculine writer and filmmaker. Their stories have appeared in several places including Lightspeed, Fireside, and Escape Pod, and often deal with themes of identity and transformation. “How to Become A Robot in 12 Easy Steps” is one such story, which was included in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 (edited by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams). “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” takes on these themes from a slightly different angle.

Uncanny Magazine: You explore themes of identity in a lot of your work, and the feeling of being in some way an outcast. This story is certainly an example of that. What made you choose to write about women who are literal monsters?

A. Merc Rustad: I’m not a woman, but growing up I was pressured a lot both in familial context and societally to conform and be seen as a woman. It was awful and left a lot of scars. Much of this story is about trying to conform to something you’re not, and realizing that you don’t have to do it in the end. You can be yourself and be awesome.

The genesis of this story came in the opening description, which popped into my head one day, and I was intrigued to figure out what came next. Well, what came next was the entire story just exploded into words, vicious and angry and hurting. I’ve always loved monsters, and writing about them (in so many forms), so it seemed natural. I often felt, growing up, that there was something deeply and inherently wrong with me (which is a lie, but a lie small!Merc couldn’t see until years later). I chose to take those feelings of being uncomfortable, feeling wrong, and explore them in a literal context. What would it be like if you had wings and horns, but never let them grow?

Uncanny Magazine: It can be easy to read something like monster girls as a metaphor for queerness, but you’ve chosen to go a step further and make your main character queer in a world where queerness is not by default equated with monsters. Did you do this as a deliberate choice to separate identity from orientation here, or was there something else driving the choice?

A. Merc Rustad: The choice was deliberate, yes. I could see the story being taken as metaphor, so I wanted it to be explicitly literal as well. There are monster girls, and some of them are queer. I admit, I’m a little wary of writing something purely as metaphor very often, because I got burned on allegory growing up. I wanted stories with literal magic and monsters that was not coded as real–life elements that some authors didn’t agree with, you know? (It took me a looooong time before I figured out most of Narnia was allegory—and I was super pissed off by it all as a small!Merc.) With “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” I also didn’t want the only implication of queerness to be equated with being monstrous. I like explicit queerness on the page, so it can’t be explained away as metaphor or allegory. 😀 It’s important.

Uncanny Magazine: There’s a lot in this story about violence, oppression, and autonomy, both on a larger scale and in the smaller pattern of the relationship between the protagonist and her sister. Can you talk a little about how those themes developed?

A. Merc Rustad: Autonomy is super important to me. Oppression and violence often seem diametrically opposed (foes) to self–autonomy. Oppression seeks to strip away the idea of self and one’s right to make choices; violence does the same.

Although the story needed to be written fast and fierce, when I had a draft and was fine–tuning on revisions, I noticed that while there was a lot of oppression going on, there was not enough autonomy for the protagonist and her sister. So I looked for instances where that could be strengthened—it appeared most notably in the end, when the monster girls confront the man who wants to ruin their lives.

Uncanny Magazine: You mention being burned by allegory in the past. I think a lot of us have had that experience at one point or another, and I note that you do often write stories with young adult protagonists and/or for young adult readers. Is that partly in answer to being frustrated by stories you read when you were younger?

A. Merc Rustad: Partly! I also have a difficult time understanding age in general, so I often think of myself as inhabiting several different age ranges simultaneously (six, eleven, twenty–two, and thirty–six—the future!—if anyone’s curious). But also, I want to reach out to readers of all ages, and especially young people who are struggling. I’ve been there (often still am), and I feel that, while we all need to see ourselves in fiction, when we’re younger it is much more important. So, positive representation is always one of my goals. It matters, and I hope my work can make a tiny bit of (good) difference.

Uncanny Magazine: You explicitly mentioned The Chronicles of Narnia. What are some other works that affected you for good or ill while you were growing up?

A. Merc Rustad: My answer to Narnia is: “This is Not a Wardrobe Door.” ^_^

Things I really didn’t care for… oh god, so. When I was a small!Merc, a relative gave me and my siblings a VHS copy of Raggedy Anne and Andy: A Musical Adventure. MOST TERRIFYING MOVIE I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. (Followed by Disney’s Pinocchio and The Brave Little Toaster. *shudder*) And let it be known that small!Merc was hardcore for horror movies (staying up late to watch stuff on TV or using the powers of a library card to check out R–rated horror). I also had access to various collections of Chick tracts and that was not fun, especially when church–going people insisted I read them and Learn From The Message. (What message that was, other than human beings are horrible to each other, I wasn’t sure…)

For the good? TV shows like Babylon 5, The A–Team, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Beast Wars: Transformers; books like The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, novels by Hilari Bell and Vivian Vande Velde, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; Deadpool comics, various authors (naturally); movies such as Hellboy, The Iron Giant, Star Wars, Hero, Universal’s monster movies, THEM!, Galaxy Quest, a whole slew of westerns, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and… okay, so I won’t list my entire library, but I latched on to a lot of visual storytelling. 😀

Uncanny Magazine: Finally, what else can we look forward to from you in the future, and where can we find your other work?

A. Merc Rustad: My debut short story collection, So You Want to Be a Robot is forthcoming in May 2017 from Lethe Press! *happydance* I also have new stories coming out in Lightspeed (Feb 2017 has my superhero novelette!) and Diabolical Plots, with hopefully more exciting news to come. 😀 I update a bibliography of forthcoming and published stories on my website: amercrustad.com/published–fiction.

Uncanny Magazine: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Merc!

Julia Rios

Julia Rios is the reprint fiction/poetry editor and an interviewer for Uncanny Magazine. She is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in several places, including Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. She was a fiction editor for Strange Horizons from 2012 to 2015, and is co-editor with Alisa Krasnostein of Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction series. She is also a co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, and has narrated stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders, and poems for the Strange Horizons podcast. To find out more, visit juliarios.com.

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