Interview: K.M. Szpara

K.M. Szpara lives in Baltimore, MD, where he works as a paralegal. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Uncanny, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and more. He is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, and the editor of Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press). His first appearance in Uncanny, “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” is a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards. “You Can Make a Dinosaur, but You Can’t Help Me” is a powerful story of sex, love, difficult family relationships, and—of course—dinosaurs…

Uncanny Magazine: One thing I love about this story is the variety of perspectives it provides. There is a huge range in the characters’ understanding of gender, with Emerick and Leo on one end, Emerick’s dad on the other end, and Noelle falling somewhere in the middle. All too often complex things like gender or race are portrayed in fictional settings with characters that either “completely get it” or “don’t get it all,” but reality is messier. Did creating this range of characters come easily to you, or were some perspectives more challenging to write?

K.M. Szpara: It wasn’t challenging to write any of the various perspectives in that I have experienced them, personally, or with my own friends and family. But it was challenging to inhabit them. Writing trans characters is both easy and hard. Easy, because I am trans and have the personal insight needed. Hard, because sometimes it hurts or clashes with my personal views. Leo is femme and gay and trans—all of which I am—but he also has, in Emerick’s view, learned to love his body. Emerick, conversely, is binary and masculine and does not want to be a gender revolutionary. He’s not someone who’s “queer as in fuck you.” He wants to be invisible and is happy to blend into the cis population. I have friends like this and understand why they want this—I used to—but since my identity has evolved, I’ve become more visible and louder, by necessity. Emerick was a challenge. So, Emerick and Leo are really on their own scale of trans understandings of gender, and don’t necessarily feel the same way.

Cis people, on the other hand, are not challenging for me to write. I know what various levels of acceptance and support—and hate and ignorance and apathy—look like. The family member who isn’t actively mean but manages to avoid the topic, to ignore who you are. Whom you’re supposed to feel lucky hasn’t kicked you out of the house, but hurts, nonetheless. The acquaintance who’s understanding but can’t “see” gender the way a trans person does. Who is generally an ally, but still makes you cringe, sometimes.

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve written multiple stories that feature trans characters—”Nothing is Pixels Here,” “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” and most recently this story. Do you find there are topics or issues that come up repeatedly for your protagonists? Things that change over time? To what degree are your depictions of trans characters tied to your own experiences?

K.M. Szpara: I have joked, before, that I write HRP: Hormone Replacement Punk. Even though that’s not really accurate, it’s catchy! For the record, I talk about the trans experiences of myself and my characters a lot and there are unlimited ways to be trans and/or non-binary. It’s complicated because I’m often balancing my dysphoria with that of my various characters. There are certain genders and bodies I can’t write (at least not yet) as protagonists because it’s honestly too uncomfortable, so I am limited in that aspect. But, also, there are a million unturned rocks in trans-themed speculative fiction, because both gender and speculative fiction are unendingly creative. I, of course, write trans characters because representation matters to other trans folks who’ve never seen anyone like themselves in fiction, but I do also write to help cis people develop empathy. Most cannot conceive of what gender dysphoria feels like, even if they know what it means on a factual basis. Most do not have the trans X-ray vision that Emerick allows them to glimpse.

As my identity evolves, as I learn more about gender and my experience of it changes, I can write different characters and conflicts. I used to exclusively write cis gay men. Then, in “Pixels” I wrote a trans character who didn’t know he was trans and so was, in his day-to-day experiences, cisgender. He never transitioned, never thought about his gender—until his physical body was revealed. In “Small Changes” I wrote a trans character who was unapologetically trans and gay, who worked hard to be who he was, and was rightfully skeptical of cis people, especially cis gay men. In “You Can Make a Dinosaur” I wrote two trans characters with different gender expressions—femme and masc trans guys—navigating what it means to support one another when your family won’t. The evolution, I think, is evident in the progression of my protagonists. My stories are the expanding brain meme.

Uncanny Magazine: The stories for this issue of Uncanny are set in a shared world that features dinosaurs and portals. Have you done any other writing in worlds that were not entirely your own (shared world, collaborations, fanfic, etc)? What were the advantages and/or challenges of creating a story with this specific theme?

K.M. Szpara: Fanfic, fanfic! I wrote a ton of fanfic when I was a kid and teenager, though did not post most of it on the Internet. It’s in old journals packed away in boxes or on my bookshelf, excepting a few stories online. Fanfic is fun because it’s a transformative work. It’s a “what if…” which speculative fiction also is! This specific theme was challenging because I’d never had to edit based on other people’s work, before. My story only had to stand up on its own and incorporate editor feedback. But this was a puzzle. I like puzzles. I like the challenge of making it all fit, of working with other people to create something bigger when all the pieces are put together. But I’d still never done it before. I like having control over my characters, my themes, my content. So, while I liked working with others, the experience came with a learning curve. I had to re-configure a major aspect of my story based on the theme and the others’ work; it was hard! But I’m glad I pushed myself. Trying new things teaches you new skills, and helps you evolve as a writer. Plus, dinosaurs are pretty badass.

Uncanny Magazine: What is your favorite dinosaur, and why?

K.M. Szpara: First of all, I’m always rooting for T-rex. Rex is a famed carnivore—a classic. That said, I was recently asked which dinosaur I would be and, in search for the answer, I realized Ankylosaurus is a favorite. “One of those tough, hardened herbivores that predators can’t get their jaws around,” was the species I was searching for, when I answered. You’ve got to give Ankylosaur some credit for being crusted over so immensely—so armored—that they just keep on moseying while Rex is struggling to get her jaws around them like, “How do you crack this meal open?” Ankylosaurus just wants to live his life and who doesn’t identify with that?

Uncanny Magazine: There is an unfortunate tendency in US culture to glorify violence but make sex taboo. I can think of a huge number of science fiction and fantasy stories with graphic violence, but relatively few with graphic sex. This story features beautifully written, detailed sex scenes. What were you hoping to show in these scenes? What do you hope the reader takes away from them?

K.M. Szpara: I’ll never understand why SFF with graphic violence is lifted up and SFF with graphic sex is written off as porn. Sex is an extremely effective way to show who your characters are—when they’re physically close with another person (or people), when the armor of their clothes is gone, having vulnerable conversations about what they want or need.

In this story, specifically, I wanted to show the difference in two trans characters’ navigation of their own bodies. Queer people have to communicate—society isn’t scripted for us—so we learn how. Leo and Emerick are both trans guys who like guys—and yet their dysphoria is different. That’s not always touched on—in fiction, nonfiction, or public discourse. Dysphoria is an ever-evolving beast. It’s different for everyone, even those who share multiple identities. And one of my motivations for setting this story in the second person present, was to give the reader an experience of gender dysphoria, much of which is bodily for Emerick. I don’t only write explicit sex to illustrate how trans bodies are hard, but also how they’re sexy. It took me, personally, a long time to consider bodies like mine “sexy.” One of my shameless motivations is changing people’s views of what can be sexy. Because, frankly, writing trans people and bodies as attractive, worthy of love, and sexy, is a political—if not controversial—act. Cis people who minimize this are wrong. It’s frustrating that allocishet folks are often unable to grasp the nuances of queer sex. That everything matters. Those scenes are as important as the sciencey scenes, and way more fun to write! Writing sex is fun. Write sex if you want to.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

K.M. Szpara: My novel! I’m so excited to have recently sold my debut novel—and a second novel to-be-written—to Carl Engle-Laird at Tor.com. Provisionally titled Docile, it’s an alt-/near-future science fiction novel in which debt is passed down generations, snowballing until the only options, for many, are debtors prison or selling your debt to a private citizen. Like much of my work, it’s super gay, full of complicated sex, and focused on social issues. But, of course, the work is only just beginning. So, what I’m working on next is editing Docile—and then writing another book!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of the 2017 Hugo and Nebula finalist short story “Carnival Nine.” Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Asimov’s, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com

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