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Author Interview: Charles Payseur

We’re pleased to welcome local writer Charles Payseur to our second author interview. He’s given us his recently released short fiction collection to add to our shelves, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, as well as a copy of a collection he helped edit, We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. He’s agreed to answer a few questions about just what it is he writes and reads.

Charles Payseur is a writer and reviewer who, through his work at Quick Sip Reviews, has been a Hugo finalist six times, and an Ignyte finalist twice. His debut short fiction collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories is out now from Lethe Press, and his editorial debut, We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020, is out from Neon Hemlock Press. He currently resides in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. And now, the interview!

When did you start writing?

I think I started writing regularly around fifth grade? For a long time most of what I tried to write were really obvious forgeries of other works. A Coville/Goosebumps story about a new kid at school who’s an alien. A Tolkein knockoff featuring dogpeople instead of hobbits. About a million Wheel of Time lookalikes but with anime names. wasn’t subtle. A few years after that I got into poetry, and oh glob the amount of bad poetry I wrote back in the day. In high school I got a bit more into short fiction, and that’s when I got way more into the form. Fiction! That I could finish! Hahaha. It’s not that I’ve never finished a novel, but we’ll just say it’s a rare feat, and once I fell into short fiction I was hooked, and haven’t fallen out of love with the form.

What’s your favorite trope to include in your writing?

Are mech suits a trope? Because no one wants to know how badly I want to insert mech suits into everything. Which might seem strange, because they appear so rarely in my work. But seriously, mech suits. If not that, I think I’ve started saying I excel in writing “sad and horny queer short SFF.” Which, I mean, not to brag or anything, is pretty amazing.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve ever gotten about your writing?

I think one of the most difficult comments a queer writer can get about their writing is that the decision to have characters be queer, or for queerness to feature into a story, is distracting or unnecessary. I have gotten a lot of comments on stories that I’ve essentially done something wrong in including queer characters, and especially in including queer desire and sex. Which...I mean, I like writing about sex and intimacy. I like making my characters queer for amazing reasons but also just because. This idea out there that it’s something that has to be justified against a cishet default is still very prevalent in criticism, and something I try my best to laugh off, because “he included queer sex as an SJW dogwhistle” is a joke the reviewer doesn’t know they’re making about themself. And one I’ve seen quite a bit, especially when “Rivers Run Free” was selected to be in the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Wild times.

Myths and northwoods-style fantastical elements make an appearance in your collection, from Paul Bunyan to dryads to Wisconsin's own hodag. Is there something that draws you to writing them?

I’d say that I’m a fan of the supernatural, but perhaps given the location it’s more accurate to say I’m a fan of the way people have invented a supernatural in Wisconsin. After all, so many of our myths and stories come out of a kind of strange manufactured space. Even Paul Bunyan was more a corporate myth, a legend to sell people on joining in the exploitation of Wisconsin’s natural environment, where how much he grew organically from campfire stories versus how much he was created by publicity writers is up in the air. Similarly, from the hodag of old to the more recent (and tragic) slenderman stories, I’m drawn to how much of our supernatural is a wholesale sham. As a storyteller, it’s fascinating, and I love exploring that space.

A fleeing or racing theme runs through many of these stories. Is there a particular meaning behind this for you?

I think I like the idea of racing and chasing more as a metaphor than the real thing, as I have never liked going super fast in anything, from boats to snowmobiles to cars. As a writing element, though, I feel like it hits a place that’s real for me. The sense of running. Away from something. Toward something. In “The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts” I probably confront that the most directly when I say that running is a destination that we’re all getting to at different speeds. For me, life is a series of races, pursuits, and retreats. We’re never exactly standing still, because even if we think of ourselves as static, we’re moving through time. Racing the ultimate end, trying to win in a race we’ll always lose. But that just makes the race itself more important, and probably why I keep returning to the idea of races and pursuits.

Many of these stories feature darkness, but also hope. Do you find it difficult to turn the course of a story around by the end to show hopefulness?

Haha, coming also from a background in writing romance, sometimes the real difficulty is in trying to not make the ending too...easy. Not that happily ever afters are bad or that grimness is any more “realistic” than anything else, but that I struggle at times to convey that hope is beautiful and necessary, but also doesn’t guarantee success or safety. Which is a difficult lesson and something that it’s hard at times to capture in a story, where absolutes are a bit more narratively satisfying, or at least traditionally valued. I try to have stories that leave room for hope, even against overwhelming and grim situations, but that don’t make that hope about winning or losing. Because it is easy to structure a story where at the end the “bad guy” is defeated and the protagonist gets what they wanted. It’s more challenging to me at least to find a balance between leaving the protagonists with hope and recognizing that it’s always a process, a series of small moments as well as big ones, that shape the world, and that effort and action are necessary even (and perhaps especially even) when the day seems to have been won.

Characters in these stories use a variety of pronouns. What went into your decision to use diverse pronouns?

Mostly because I know a lot of people who use diverse pronouns, and I don’t want to erase that. I tend to like writing stories that have queer communities, and in places where queer people get together, there are bound to be a lot of people who use diverse pronouns, if not among cishet people, then where they feel it’s safe to do so. I like reading stories that recognize that there are a lot of different pronouns and identities out there, and so that reflects what I like to write as well.

Winter and snowy settings make an appearance in many of your stories. Would you say the colder months inform your take on writing?

Write what you know, right? Haha. Living in Wisconsin, I certainly feel that I know snow. That I know what it means to be cold. And so I do like capturing that some, either because I’m writing about the area or because I just think about the snow a lot. What it hides, what it reveals. Having to walk the dog on a frigid day when the snow is blowing sideways and warmth seems like a dream is certainly inspiring, though not necessarily pleasant. So yeah, snow and winter do influence my writing, and my life in general. At least it keeps the venomous animals and bugs away, though!

In addition to writing short fiction, you also review it. How has that influenced your relationship with writing?

I like to think that it’s a kind of education, that in reading I learn more about the field I want to publish in. Certainly I think it’s helped me to make up for the fact that I wasn’t able to go to a genre workshop or writing program that might have offered similar insights. It’s made me more aware of certain things in writing, too, which probably help me to craft more intentionally. On the other hand, reading a lot of other people’s work can be a bit paralyzing, because it’s difficult not to compare your writing to theirs. And when you’re having a hard time, when it feels that you can’t get your work out there, or can’t get the recognition and success that other people have, it can make the feelings of resentment and jealousy worse I think. For me, I think it’s helped me develop as a writer to a certain extent, but has also made it harder for me to do the work of writing. It doesn’t help that I’m valued as a reviewer in a way that often feels more rewarding than how I’m valued as a writer. It’s a complicated, messy relationship I have with reviewing, though I love it, and don’t at all regret it. If that’s an answer at all.

You're the series editor for We're Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. Tell us about your experience on the other end of the writing process.

Editing is a whole other Thing. But being series editor is sort of the best of all worlds. I get to read a ton, and read a ton of great stories. And though I have to whittle down the list of stories into something more manageable for the guest editor, it’s not me who has to make the rather heartbreaking decisions about what ultimately is going to go in and what isn’t. And wow, yeah, that’s hard. Because regardless of what we take, there just isn’t enough room for everything that I absolutely loved. I am so proud of the work that we do, and the finished product is so good. But I am also grateful that I have at least one step of distance between that final decision. Maybe I’ll work up to that at some point, but for now I’m very happy how the arrangement works.

Where can people go to keep up with your current projects?

I’m probably most active on my Twitter account, @clowderoftwo, where I tweet about what I’m doing and also metaphorically shake my fist angrily at the sky. I also run a Patreon, where, among other things, I give weekly short fiction recommendations and monthly drunk reviews of various nostalgic reads (first the Goosebumps books and soon to be X-Men comics).

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