Interview: Sam J. Miller & Lara Elena Donnelly

Sam Joshua Miller attended Rutgers University, where he studied cinema studies and Russian language and literature, and met his future husband. Miller began publishing short fiction in the early aughts before attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop in 2012. He’s published multiple award-winning and -nominated short fiction stories, his debut novel, the YA The Art of Starving, was published this year, and his next novel, the adult sci-fi Blackfish City, is forthcoming in 2018. Miller currently lives in New York City with his husband and works as a community organizer.

Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the vintage-glam spy thriller Amberlough and its forthcoming sequels Armistice and Amnesty (Tor). Lara’s other work has appeared in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny. A graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, Lara now serves as onsite staff at the latter each summer, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SF/F.

Uncanny Magazine: From the digging I did, I didn’t see any instances where you’d both co-written a story before “Making Us Monsters.” What was the impetus to not only co-write a story but this one?

Lara Elena Donnelly: I was reading a lot about 1920s Britain, and happened on the fact that socialite Stephen Tennant had been Siegfried Sassoon’s lover. So, I started reading up on Sassoon. When I posted a Sassoon poem to my Tumblr, Sam saw it and said he was into World War I poetry too, specifically Wilfred Owen’s. I don’t remember how we made the jump from “we like WWI poets” to “we should write a story where we write letters to each other as if we WERE WWI poets, and it should be sexy and gay and also horrifying and there should be brutal medical experimentation,” but I do know it started, as many queer fannish things do, on Tumblr.

Sam J. Miller: I had been obsessed with Wilfred Owen from the moment I read his magnificent, horrifying, brutal, beautiful poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” and when I found out he was gay it just added so much fascinating depth to the complex interrogations of masculinity in his poetry. And of course, I always lose my mind when someone shares my bizarre obscure obsessions, so geeking out about Sassoon and Owen with Lara really got my mind going. It felt like a perfect first time to collaborate with someone, because we each had a natural affinity toward one of the two, and writing an epistolary piece between two people doesn’t present the same kind of challenges that other collaborations do, where two different prose voices have to somehow become one. For “Making Us Monsters,” we could stick to our own strong distinct voices and it was a strength instead of a weakness.

Lara Elena Donnelly: One weird thing to add is that although we each took one man to write as, and I agree with Sam that we have very different voices and styles, during critiques we had several people ask who was who, or even if we had collaborated on each letter individually.

Uncanny Magazine: There are a lot of references to duality within the story: pleasure and pain, art and war, beauty and horror. How much are such dualities more creations of society versus actual oppositional forces?

Lara Elena Donnelly: I think these dualities are created by assigning value judgements, or definitions. Because pleasure and pain can mingle, or be mistaken for each other, as can beauty and horror. They can coexist. But connotations keep them separate, on the page and in conversation. It’s weird to think pain is pleasurable. Or at least, so we say in polite company.

In the course of researching for this story, I learned that Sassoon was a sexual sadist who drew intense pleasure and satisfaction from hurting and humiliating his partners. And his most striking, successful poems were crafted from his experience of unimaginable horror. It seems to me that a lot of his life and art was built on these dualities, and playing in the space between hard definitions, so it makes sense that any story about him plays in that space too.

Sam J. Miller: I mean, you can argue that everything in the world around us is a social construct, and that even the things that are most innate and essential to our sense of self and who we are—gender, race, religion, nationality—are the product of accidents of history, centuries of struggle and oppression. They mean radically different things in different contexts. And one person’s pain is often someone else’s pleasure. I think Wilfred Owen struggled to reconcile his contradictory impulses, ascribing to conventional values and standards of masculinity, worshipping manliness and strength and bravery, all while recognizing that the brutality of war is the logical and horrific endpoint of those masculine conventions. And in the end, they’re not contradictory at all. Dualities, social constructs, societal conventions, narratives, art, poetry—these are all lenses we use to make sense of a brutal and horrific world, and I wanted to get Wilfred to a place where he accepts and embraces all of it.

Uncanny Magazine: Clichés are used and derided throughout the story. Yet, toward the end for Siegfried they are a “shorthand communication” allowing for the inspiration of “instant empathy.” Do you feel short fiction offers a similar form of shorthand communication and empathetic connections between writer-reader-fellow human? How do you think language will evolve to help meet the need for increased empathy in society?

Lara Elena Donnelly: I feel like that last one is a question for somebody like Ted Chiang. My own view’s kind of cynical, which is I don’t think language evolves on the same plane as empathy. Human beings have a hard time communicating anything. Fiction to me feels like the cheese or the peanut butter you hide your dog’s pill inside. Or, even that isn’t right, because it implies subterfuge. I can’t find the right metaphor to convey what fiction does. It’s like holding out your guts and hoping someone reads the right augurs. I don’t think we’ll ever hit some peak of empathic language and perfect understanding. We just have to keep telling stories…

Sam J. Miller: Yeah, I’m also pretty cynical, in that I think empathy has always been a challenge for humans, and we’ve made a lot of progress in learning how to respect and embrace people who aren’t us, and that technology and art have facilitated that by bringing us the words and faces and voices and hopes and dreams of billions of magnificent humans, but that these things in and of themselves are not enough, and we spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to bridge that empathy gap through things like religion and love and marriage and family. Fiction is one vehicle. Poetry is another. I actually think music is the most effective art form in that respect, because as Leo Tolstoy said, it carries the listener into the mind and emotions of the person who wrote it. It’s like this magical thing that allows a person to transfer their emotions to another! Other art forms do this too, of course, but music feels purer to me. A movie or a novel takes a long time to build to an emotional crescendo, whereas you hear three opening chords or the beginning of a bass line and you’re instantly transported into the emotional landscape of the song. So, I’m not sure language will evolve to meet our need for greater empathy, but art certainly will.

Uncanny Magazine: One of the most beautiful sentiments comes from something Siegfried says toward the end, “Without artistic outlet, our experiences inform our actions only; we cannot teach others, nor learn from them.” What do you hope readers of “Making Us Monsters” will “learn” as they read the story? Be it about life, society, or even themselves?

Lara Elena Donnelly: One answer is simple: that there were queer people in the trenches and in 1930s society and in fact all through history. I didn’t know until shortly before writing this story that Sassoon was queer—it never came up in my Brit lit classes.

The other answer is more complex, and connects to your earlier question about empathy. I didn’t want to write about Sassoon to convey a particular lesson or a message; there’s no pill inside this cheese. I wrote it because I was intensely interested in another human being: his art, his life, the connections he made with people around him. He wasn’t necessarily a good person all the time. I don’t hope people read this and decide to emulate him. But I hope they take away some of that passion to look deeply into other people and try to understand what makes them tick, what impetus there might be for their actions.

Sam J. Miller: I hope people check out the work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I hope people reflect on how the seeds of fascism—of tyranny, of dictatorship, of brutality—have been planted in all of us. How the world demands that we be monsters, and how hard—and important—it is to carve out spaces where we can be human. Spaces like love, like sex, like art, like poetry.

Uncanny Magazine: You both have forthcoming novels for us to greedily anticipate, is there anything else we can add to the radar from either of you?

Lara Elena Donnelly: I wish! Noveling eats up a lot of time. I’m hoping to get back to short fiction once I turn in the final book in the Amberlough Dossier (book two comes out spring 2018!). I do have a story coming out in summer 2018, in Lethe Press’s The Midas Clutch: a reprint of my short story “The Dirty American,” a sexy tale of bespoke scent and violence. And, as of October 31, you can find a cut scene from Amberlough in The Green Volume, the fourth installment of our Clarion class’s pay-what-you-will fundraiser anthology collection. Sam also has a story in there!

Sam J. Miller: My next novel is called Blackfish City, coming out in April from Ecco Press. It’s still science fiction, but it’s not YA. In a future world where rising sea levels have transformed the globe, a woman arrives in a floating city near the Arctic Circle, with a killer whale and a polar bear in tow. And wackiness ensues! Currently, I am writing my second YA novel, tentatively titled Unphotographable. It’s half gritty contemporary story about a teenage girl named Ash who is trying to help her gay best friend Solomon as his schizophrenia spirals out of control… And half fantasy novel about a noir city full of dinosaurs and magic, where Solomon must save his best friend Ash, the Refugee Princess, from the evil conspiracy closing in on her.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for sharing these insights with us!

Shana DuBois

Uncanny Magazine’s Interviewer Shana DuBois is an extreme bibliophile. She is the social media manager for Serial Box Publishing and shares her bookish musings over at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, the Nerds of a Feather blog, and the SF Signal archives. She enjoys talking to anyone who will stand still long enough about all things book-related and when not spending her time around books, tends to her farm’s menagerie.

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