Interview: Delilah S. Dawson

Delilah S. Dawson is a fierce and passionate writer who pulls you into fantastical worlds with lyrical prose and hard–hitting truths. Laughing at your tropes and subverting your expectations, she will take you places you only dared to dream. A self–professed writer of “whimsical and dark fantasy for adults and teens” Dawson’s “Wicked” series continues to win rave reviews and her latest YA novel, Hit, was proclaimed by Kirkus as being “movie ready.” In “Catcall” Dawson takes an all–too–frequent experience women face and gives it a voice, a face, and revenge. She has a keen eye for the world and weaves that commentary into her work, leaving the reader electrified and on the edge of their seats. 

Uncanny Magazine: This story taps into a feeling that nearly every woman has experienced: the impotent rage at being harassed for the crime of simply being women. Last summer’s #YesAllWomen Twitter storm seemed to be a watershed moment of how deep and ingrained the culture of harassment is. With this running in the background, what inspired you to write “Catcall?”

Delilah S. Dawson: As with most things these days, it was a Twitter comment. I was all riled up, as I tend to get, and stated that if I had a superpower, it would be kicking the asses of dudes who make women uncomfortable by catcalling. And I realized that there was a story there. Most of the specific instances in “Catcall”—the bar, the babysitting dad, the Calculus book, the football player, the coffee house guy—actually happened to me, almost word for word. Putting them on the page as fiction helped validate the way I felt each time someone with physical or emotional power over me made me feel small and helpless when I was younger.

Uncanny Magazine: The final paragraphs are incredibly powerful. By Maria fully embracing her power she strips the football dude of his, reducing him to a scared child. At the point when one almost expects Maria to retreat, she doubles down and imagines a cataclysmic revenge scenario. It is a delicious knife–edge moment. Embracing darkness is not a position that female protagonists are often allowed to inhabit in traditional literature. Why was it important to you for Maria to follow this particular path?

Delilah S. Dawson: Because every wronged girl deserves to blow shit up, even if it’s just in her mind. Every day of my life, the message I’ve gotten from society is that I’m supposed to be nice, that a woman should be quiet and well–behaved and well–liked and normal. This lesson compounds over the years until women feel that their voices don’t matter, that their complaints aren’t valid. That it’s better to remain silent.

Angry? You must be on the rag. Sad? You must be weak and eating ice cream in your sweatpants. Outspoken? You must be a lesbian, because that’s not feminine. I remember the first time I saw the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse, and I really connected with Dawn. Every time she’s angry, she’s not allowed to talk back, but she hears this fantastic RAGE MUSIC. Now, whenever I’m angry, I hear RAGE MUSIC, too. And Maria is that side of me, the one that screams back in her head that she’s allowed to own her anger, to cry in righteousness, and to speak anything in any way that she wants. When someone catcalls me, I see what Maria sees here: leaving destruction in my wake. But she makes it real. I’m a big fan of embracing your own darkness.

Uncanny Magazine: You gleefully play with tropes in “Catcall.” The reader is holding their breath when Maria visits Bryan, imagining every horrible thing that can happen when she steps through the door, yet you flip that expectation and have Bryan being the collateral damage of his gender’s bad behavior and ingrained sexism. As a writer, what comes first to you when crafting a story: subverting tropes and expectations or building the story and slipping in the subversive moments?

Delilah S. Dawson: Oh, how I adore subverting tropes. My Blud romances have alpha males who demand consent, male virgins who excel at giving oral, and cabaret girls who chew out the police for not protecting prostitutes. My YA novel, Servants of the Storm, has what looks like a typical love triangle—until the heroine staunchly chooses NEITHER. Wake of Vultures (published as Lila Bowen) is about a trans, genderqueer, mixed race cowpoke in 1800s Texas who fights monsters. Most of my story ideas start with one trope I’m excited to flip like a table, and I knew from the start that I wanted Maria to see the negative side of her powers, that destruction wasn’t always the answer or the preferred outcome. This was my #notallmen, because although I can lay claim to stalkers, a rapist, and a lifetime of catcalling and misogyny, all by men, some of my best friends are dudes, and my husband is the most amazing man I’ve ever met. I don’t hate men; I love men. I just want the ones who hurt women to explode in flames.

Uncanny Magazine: “Catcall” is a story about power. Gaining it, using it, fearing it, and the acceptance of it. When Maria first learns to live without fear, she begins to open up and embrace life. You’ve often talked about your difficult adolescence; was there a catalyst for you to embrace your own power and to live life to the fullest?  How do you continue to do so?

Delilah S. Dawson: There were several transformative moments when I almost didn’t make it but came out the other side stronger. The first was during a high school summer exchange trip to France, when my depression reached a low point and I tried to kill myself. I failed, and that experience taught me how to find joy in the moment, in just being alive. The next year, an ex–boyfriend stalked and raped me, and living through it taught me that I was unbreakable. When my family life reached the tipping point, the self–esteem and strength I’d gained through survival helped me get out the door and to a safe place.

I still remember the day a therapist looked me in the eye and said, “You are being abused. This is abuse.” I had no idea. I’d thought my life was normal. There’s something tremendously powerful about having an impartial outside force explain that your suffering is not your fault, that it doesn’t define you but is rather something that happened to you. When you add together living in the moment plus being unbreakable plus being worthy of safety and respect, you start to realize that you have power and infinite possibilities.

Since then, I’ve had moments of supreme might. Speaking out at a Take Back the Night Rally. Giving birth. Counseling juvenile court girls through art. Getting published. Having a reader tell me that my books and blog posts helped her heal. I want to keep telling stories and be a voice in the crowd that reminds anyone listening that they are worthy, that they are valuable, that they shouldn’t give up. That it gets better.

And when I get uncentered, I always find myself again in the ocean and horseback riding in the mountains. Living well is the best revenge.

Uncanny Magazine: You recently wrote a guest piece at Book Riot about how YA should not be sugarcoated as it can be a safe place for teens to find answers and solace. You have a reputation as writing sharp, witty and suspenseful YA that has been embraced by teens and adults alike. What is it about YA that attracts you? And, as a YA author, what responsibility do you feel to your readers?

Delilah S. Dawson: Oh, thanks! My favorite part is the first kisses. Sorry not sorry! To dig deeper, though, I love how YA allows me to skip all the boring parts of adulthood—the mortgages and dishes and that unfortunate leak in the basement—and get straight to the heart–pounding action and emotions. YA is an escape into another world in which seemingly normal people are special and become heroes. I love the tummy–flip of new love, the sparkle of magic as the scales fall from the protagonist’s eyes as a whole new world opens up before them. I love letting characters make foolish mistakes, just like I did when I was a teen—but as the writer, I also feel the responsibility of making those mistakes realistic, grounded in emotion, and with consequences that will force the protagonist to learn and grow.

I always want the violence and romance in my books to be earned and not gratuitous—to mean something. Because that’s how I feel, looking back at that period of my life. That pain, in the end, was meaningful. The heartbreak, the loneliness, the suffering: they were the fire that forged me into the woman I’ve become. So I want my books to have the high points and the low points, the self–doubt and the solidified purpose, the first kiss and the first betrayal, the confusion and the understanding. Ultimately, whatever happens to you becomes your story, and you get to tell it in any way you wish.

Thanks so much for asking such insightful questions! I’m so honored to be in Uncanny Magazine, and I hope your readers enjoy the story. If so, they can find me on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson, where I’ll likely get riled up again soon.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Delilah!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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