Interview: Lee Mandelo

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and occasional editor whose fields of interest include speculative and queer fiction, especially when the two coincide. They have been a past nominee for various awards including the Nebula, Lambda, and Hugo; their work can be found in magazines such as Tor.comClarkesworld, and Nightmare. Aside from a brief stint overseas learning to speak Scouse, Mandelo has spent their life ranging across Kentucky, currently living in Lexington and pursuing a PhD at the University of Kentucky. “The Span of His Wrist” is their second appearance in Uncanny, a beautifully written story of fashion, relationships, and healing.

Uncanny Magazine: I love the description of the consignment shop and the varied assortment of items on the rack there. Do you like to shop at vintage and/or thrift stores, and if so, do you have a favorite find?

Lee Mandelo: Thank you! Fashion has always been a part of life for me from baby-goth phase on, which I suppose is a common thread for gender-nonconforming and/or queer folks: either attempting to mitigate your strangeness or to emphasize it, depending on the day. But I also grew up poor and have spent most of adulthood on graduate school salaries, so I’m a promiscuous shopper where the bottom line is how on sale is the thing? Consignment stores, thrifting or vintage, the discount rack—it’s all good to me. I get a real victorious satisfaction when I find something decadent for cheap.

As for a recent favorite, maybe it was a black waffle-knit extra-soft, extra-long sweater I’d describe as “boy-witch chic”—found it on a designer-consignment rack by chance. On the other hand, for a love lost: I missed out on a pair of Chelsea boots last month on Depop. Full of regret, there.

Uncanny Magazine: What was the most difficult part of writing this story? What was the easiest?

Lee Mandelo: Easiest would be the emotional core and the argument it’s making on behalf of queer desire and ambiguous forms of attachment. Some background: I started working on this piece right after reading the ten-year anniversary edition of Cruising Utopia by José Esteban Muñoz from cover to cover. That was such a good experience for me—I was swinging between tears and a blazing sense of being seen the whole time. His embrace of intersectional queer masculinities that are liberatory and sensual, and of a critical future built on those specific ‘ways of knowing the world,’ is the absolute shit. Folks should check it out, especially given the moment we’re existing inside right now both in a hostile wider world and with the recent uptick of assimilation or purity-culture oriented narratives popping up in digital queer spaces.

As for the difficult part: the prose and what’s left implicit versus what is made explicit. I intended for this piece to be what we might call internal in its direction—written assuming readers who are familiar with some of the histories and spaces and concerns of queer cultures—rather than explaining to an outsider audience. But as all the people who’ve ever edited me can attest, sometimes I overshoot on the implicit to the point of opacity. (Or undershoot? Whichever.) Also balancing the poetics of desire with the politics of danger, dealing with the ambiguities of gender and sexuality, all of that. Several finicky, finicky prose-level decisions to make.

Uncanny Magazine: This is a slow-building story, with information about the characters gradually revealed over the course of the story. Did you know everything about them when you started writing the story, or were there things about them that you discovered as you went along?

Lee Mandelo: To get into the drafting weeds—I don’t tend to begin the actual writing process, particularly with short fiction, until I’m confident in the material. I sketch and journal and outline a lot before I get to the writing itself. But to answer from another angle, I understood Charlie and his gift and his stresses from the start—self-projection, we all do it—but developing from the image of the lover to him being a full person, though a person we don’t know much about, was more of a process. Writing about sex is also an intimate thing, so you’ve got to pull on some mental strings to unfold the feelings for the reader. So that was a form of discovery, in a way.

Uncanny Magazine: The Signature Room features prominently in the story—have you ever been there? More generally, what drew you to Chicago for the setting?

Lee Mandelo: Chicago is a beloved but kind of liminal place and space for me—I’ve never actually lived there but I’ve built a hell of an affinity for the city. For one thing, it’s the closest metropolis with a thriving queer scene to all the homes I’ve had in Kentucky. On a more personal level, one of my best friends lived in Chicago for several years during and after graduate school; while they were there, I visited as often as possible. So, the city has that “doesn’t belong to me but is a place I resonate with and miss when I’m not around” vibe. I’ve got friends and memories there, and I’d like to make more.

As for the Signature Room: no, I haven’t been, but man I’d like to. Part of the research process for “The Span of His Wrist” was digging into the places I was already fond of, then seeing if those places existed in the early ’90s. Simultaneously, I was reading up on the restaurants and clubs that were in the news at the time—and realized this famous restaurant had also rebranded during the same year I was intending to set the story, so that made perfect sense.

Uncanny Magazine: “The Span of His Wrist” examines the process of healing, and it has a lovely balance of sadness and beauty. Is this a common theme in your work? What ideas or elements do you find yourself returning to repeatedly?

Lee Mandelo: Full disclosure, I’ve been circling this question for…like, several days. I agree that healing is a big part of “The Span of His Wrist,” and it’s a form of healing through, well—cruising and fucking as a form of communal care? I find that trauma and desire, sadness and beauty, tend to hold hands pretty tight. The passing of time itself, the privilege of surviving on but not knowing what adulthood is supposed to look like if we make it there, can be a thing of sadness and beauty for queer people. That’s part of this story, too.

In broader strokes I’d also say I’m often concerned with relationality: how complicated our attachments to one another and the spaces we inhabit are, how impossible (or inadvisable) it is to flatten those things into a pleasantly simple narrative, how important it is to make room for ‘bad’ affects or rough feelings alongside our good feelings. It for sure gets uncomfortable to hold things in the heart or mind as both/and all the time, to stay in a space of multiplicity and wiggly contexts, but to me that’s where the potential for healing (and solidarity, and growth, and generative critique) comes from.

Uncanny Magazine: What’s next for you?

Lee Mandelo: Attempting to maintain some semblance of calm or functionality during pandemic time while the republic crumbles around us? But aside from that mess, on the good-news track, I’ve got a novel forthcoming from Tordotcom Publishing in fall 2021 called Summer Sons. It’s being described as a “sweltering, queer Southern Gothic” that mashes together The Sound and the Fury and The Secret History with The Fast and the Furious, and that sounds ambitiously cool to me so I’m stealing it.

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

 

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-time Hugo and four-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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