Interview: Karlo Yeager Rodríguez

Karlo Yeager Rodríguez is from the enchanted island of Puerto Rico, but moved to Baltimore some years back. He lives happily with his partner and one very odd dog.

Uncanny Magazine: “This is Not My Adventure” is what I’ve come to think of as a gentle story.  It sits with you, takes your hand, and says, “Let’s talk.” Tell us something of the inspiration behind the tale.

Rodríguez: The story sprang from an image of shadowy figures moving around my house in the dead of night. I knew they’d come from someplace inside the house already, so of course it had to be a wardrobe. I just didn’t know why they were in our world.

Then, a story Neil Gaiman told in his World Fantasy 2011 panel came back to me. He discussed how reading fiction carved out a still, quiet space for him to at last grieve the death of his father.

After my own mom passed, Neil Gaiman’s story came to mind. The world just keeps going and in a certain way, all the usual, mundane work that filled my everyday life was a welcome distraction. None of that gave me time to really grieve, but I was glad to have people around me who helped.

That’s when I knew why Mr. Wen-Wen and the others needed to cross over to Kevin’s world.

Uncanny Magazine: You used the palette of fantasy to capture the devastating weight of both depression and grief in the smallest details, from Kevin’s eagerness to remain in the land beyond the wardrobe to the way he felt blank, floating, trapped. When telling Kevin’s story, how did you approach engaging readers who may not be familiar with such struggles? Was there ever a time when you thought to dilute the emotional core of the story?

Rodríguez: This may sound dismissive or selfish, but I wrote this story for me. So, what other readers needed didn’t even cross my mind at the time. That said, I did want to capture how it feels to be down in a way that would explain why Kevin took the actions he did. Who hasn’t wished to run away from a world that requires them to function and produce for others, regardless of how much they hurt?

After I finished the piece, I sent it out for critique. Some readers noted that since Kevin doesn’t seem to do anything, he was too passive. I’m glad that I’m stubborn about making changes to stories I believe in, though. From title to closing line, I knew exactly what this story needed to say, and I realized it didn’t work for these readers because they misunderstood the goal of the story. I had to accept that and avoid making changes the story to accommodate them. Not every story is for everyone.

Uncanny Magazine: As equally important as plot or character is a story’s narrative voice. Here you invite the reader into the narrative with the second person “You“ with Mister Wen-Wen, and then encourage a deeper understanding of Kevin’s struggles with the first person “I”, both lending the story intimacy and depth. Is this the first time you’ve ever experimented with narrative structure? Are there ways you still hope to challenge yourself as a writer?

Rodríguez: Thanks for noticing that! I’ve used the first/second person structure in both “Choices, In Sequential Order” and “Iago v2.0”, but in those stories I used it to make the reader complicit in what happens. Here, I wanted to welcome the reader into the story because every work of fiction is a fantasy world, the page itself the portal they cross. I don’t remember at what age I realized that stories stopped the minute you put them down, the characters frozen mid-quest or whatever, waiting for the moment you came back. Not at all like the real world. How cool is that? In this story, I also wanted to tell readers, “Hey, I know things can really suck. Don’t forget your storytime heroes are still in here, waiting for you whenever you need them.”

Because I put part of myself into “This is Not My Adventure”, it felt very personal. I struggled to not take it personally if this or that market passed on it. For now, I will continue to write short fiction, but I’m already researching and taking notes for at least one novel.

Uncanny Magazine: How do you feel your disability has affected your writing? Do you find yourself weaving your experiences into your stories or do you prefer to keep your personal life separate from your work as much as possible?

Rodríguez: Perhaps it’s cliché, but for me, depression is always there, like my shadow. You can only observe it and how it changes in relation to where the bright parts of my life are and try to cope with it. What this means is that how I approach writing today is very different than when I started doing it in earnest, around seven years ago. The old truism about writing every day has been discarded in favor of a more project-based approach: several weeks or months of activity on a story followed by long stretches to rest. This strategy has worked—for now—and I’m prepared for it to change in time. One of the main reasons I left behind writing every day was that it became a way to be unkind to myself about not being “productive” (there’s a word I’d love to strike from the cultural lexicon forever!).

As readers may have gotten already, “This is Not My Adventure” wove some more overtly personal experiences into the story, so yes I may do just that if the story requires it. Honestly, I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t. It’s all a matter of degree, I feel, but also that’s why I’m not too worried about having the same idea as another writer: I’ll bring my own experience, my own way of looking at the world to the story, which will make it unique.

Uncanny Magazine: Representation matters. Representation done well matters even more. As a writer with a disability, how would you encourage other writers to include fully realized disabled characters in their work?

Rodríguez: I don’t know if I can say anything that Elsa Sjunneson-Henry didn’t already say better in her “Disabled Enough” essay.  I needed to hear that message because I learned of my disability late in life, convinced that since I didn’t have the most extreme symptoms I wasn’t really disabled. I had internalized a lot of the very same arguments that I’d heard many times used against people with mental illness: If I didn’t outwardly look like I had a disability, then I didn’t have one… why couldn’t I just admit I was acting out to get attention? Including fully realized disabled characters helps readers see we’re all around them. It might help someone recognize their own visible or invisible disability that they’ve been telling themselves is nothing. Most of all, though, it can show readers that conflict in stories can look like a character just trying to cope and have a meaningful life.

Uncanny Magazine: You both write and narrate on top of any other daily obligations. How do you take care of yourself? What does self care look like for Karlo Yeager Rodriguez?

Rodríguez: As I imply in the story, the majority of self care for me looks like making sure mundane, but necessary things are addressed: doing dishes, keeping living spaces clean and organized, paying bills on time, but also ensuring there’s always time open to spend with friends and family—especially my partner and our silly, loving dog. All that may sound dull for people who think self care is synonymous with the “treat yourself” mentality that requires spending money, but I know from experience that debt coming from retail therapy tends to increase problems rather than the opposite.

If there’s one thing it took me far too long to learn it was this: That unkind inner voice that’s my depression, the one that used to tear me down all the time, if I let it? It was keeping me away from people around me, people who cared. These days, I make it a point to be kind to myself in all aspects of life, including writing.

Uncanny Magazine: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

Sandra Odell

Sandra M. Odell lives in Washington state with their partner, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Their work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s Universe, Crossed Genres, Galaxy’s Edge, and Daily Science Fiction. They are a Clarion West 2010 graduate. Their short story collection Godfall & Other Stories was released by Hydra House Books in 2018.

Sandra is currently hard at work on her novel or plotting world domination. Whichever comes first.

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