Interview with Jerome Stueart

As part of the new Mysterion online magazine, we plan to feature monthly reviews with Christians who we think are doing interesting work in the field of speculative fiction, and whom we'd like to introduce to our readers. This month we’re delighted to interview Jerome Stueart, whose short story collection The Angels of Our Better Beasts Kristin reviewed last week.

How would you describe your spiritual and/or religious beliefs, and how would you say they influence your writing?

I was raised Southern Baptist, but my beliefs now align more with an American Baptist, BUT I am at home in most churches that are inclusive. I attend an American Baptist church in Dayton, but I could just as easily have been attending a Lutheran (ECLA), Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or non-denominational church. My theology is less worried about the specifics of how we sin, or hell, or blasphemy, and more about social justice and what we’re doing to help people while we’re here. It focuses on love and forgiveness and community.

Even if I never mention the church or God, my writing has a lot to do with inclusion, communication and forgiveness, some spiritual wrestling. When it is specific about religion, it sometimes questions the Church in how it treats individual people, groups, even its own community. I feel like it’s important to keep reforming and challenging the church to be better at being Christ on Earth. That said, my characters are often believers of some kind, so there’s typically a subtle defense of belief. In future works I will be featuring more gay characters in conversation/conflict with faith and other believers—but as part of the conversation, not the end of it.

You could probably tell us a lot of stories about being gay, Christian, and a speculative fiction writer—what would you say are some of the most interesting ways in which these different aspects of your identity interact with each other, especially in your writing life?

Well, they seem to intersect in interesting ways. Almost all of them are about standing by your truth and challenging the status quo. Whether it is a scifi character trying to rebel against the Empire, an LGBT coming out and becoming more active in fighting for inclusion, or a Christian standing for the things she knows are right despite public opinion.

All three have writings that take the weak, the poor, the wanderer, the one without status, the second-born, those who are looked down on; and has them become the heroes of the stories. Almost all the Bible’s main characters were not the wealthy, the privileged, but those who found themselves confronting the wealthy and privileged.

I think too that all three talk about love and inclusion—the Bible, queer literature and science fiction are all focused on how we can live together in community, through love, through kindness, through hope.

I find these three identities actually enhance each other for me.

Oddly enough, though, these are three identities that aren’t always accepted well together. In the scifi writing world, we are still working hard to get LGBT main characters in novels published by mainstream publishing houses, trying to convince publishers that a person’s sexual identity will not affect their universality or the publishing house’s sales.

In the Christian world, of course, being gay is still controversial in many denominations, though that is changing too.

Science Fiction has a strange relationship with Christianity too. While many writers do talk about Christianity, Catholicism, and faith, Christianity itself is sometimes seen as opposite to the themes of science fiction. The stereotype of the war between faith and science pops up! Many Christians, though, are big fans of science fiction and love their science and love their faith. But it’s still a difficult dual identity in science fiction circles, to be a believer and be a science fiction writer. You have to be very careful not to be preachy or pushy, or dogmatic. I try to have characters wrestling with faith—like the bus driver in “Bluegrass Werewolf”. I don’t have all the answers to all the spiritual questions—so my characters are human and make mistakes. As I get older, I realize that there is more mystery to the Universe, to God, and that’s great to me. I can handle mystery.

Finally, being Christian in the gay world is also tough—as many of my fellow LGBT have been badly hurt—psychologically, spiritually, and sometimes physically—by Christian people. Their lives have been destroyed, or their spirituality damaged, by counseling, by Church censure, through sermons, even exorcisms, and some are abandoned by their parents. There’s a large group of gay Christians that meets in January at the Gay Christian Network conference—and it’s a celebration, but also a trauma center sometimes. We had a group of moms and dads come to the conference just to be there to give out hugs. But we had lots of praise and worship too. However, being a Christian in the LGBT world is sometimes seen as still fraternizing with the enemy, with the people that hurt you.

These worlds I am bound up in are at odds with each other, but for some reason, they have a distinct harmony to me. I try to write that harmony. I feel I can say something with that harmony. So I’m going to do my best to work inside those three worlds.

Why do you think you became a writer, and why speculative fiction?

I grew up in the church on great stories of courage and adventure, of a supernatural being, of magic and miracles—you know the Bible is full of fantasy tropes! It’s beautiful, really. A lot of early religious texts in various faiths have magic and miracles and gods and fantastic beasts in them.

My mother read to me and my two siblings (at the time) in the hallway between our bedrooms, wrapped in blankets—she read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Mother Goose, Bible stories. They all got mixed together for me—and maybe they did for Lewis, too. Talking lions, satyrs with parasols, minotaurs on ships, swashbuckling mice, and boys who turn into dragons! I watched all the Star Trek reruns, the original series, with my dad. And 60s Batman reruns. And my dad bought me a subscription to two Marvel comics when I was nine—Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Then I started collecting, like, 17 titles, DC and Marvel. Plus I was reading lots of science fiction and fantasy from Arthur C. Clarke to Anne McCaffrey to Piers Anthony … so my heart was inspired almost spiritually by science fiction and fantasy, almost as an escape from elementary/junior high school/high school. I was a frequently bullied kid, even physically, and often chased home after school for several blocks. Reading science fiction gave me space—to escape, to imagine a better world, to walk along with the heroes, to hope.

I would have ended up either a scientist or a computer programmer had two things not happened. First, my dad got a job at a small church in West Texas and we moved from my bigger school with 400+ students to a school with 12 high school students. Second, when it looked like I was going to be forced to take a Small Engine Repair class, a great teacher, Mrs. Sandra Keith, offered to teach me creative writing instead in a one-on-one class while her 1 sixth grader and 1 seventh grader were busy with math. I jumped. I learned to write under her for two years—and I wrote a novel she read and workshopped with me. I owe her a great debt of gratitude.

When I went to college, I was introduced to several canons of literature and I appreciated the characters I found in those stories, the depth of feeling so focused on understanding people, on uncovering our humanity. I wanted to write things that made someone feel that kind of sadness, or joy, for very human people. That stayed with me, even when I eventually found my way back to writing speculative fiction.

I most often choose speculative fiction because it gives me maximum creativity and I can still hide truth inside. It’s fun, too! I have written some mainstream or literary fiction (“Et Tu Bruté” and “Old Lions”, for example) and I still work on other non-speculative-fiction material, but I find myself wanting to play much more with reality, to have fun. Fantasy is a universal language; science fiction is a hopeful language. I like those things. They saved me once, and I think they save others too.

You're also known as a Canadian writer, having co-edited one of the annual Tesseracts anthologies. Can you tell us about your connection to Canada?

I lived in Canada for almost 10 years in the Yukon Territory, specifically the awesome city of Whitehorse! I went to Whitehorse on a fellowship to work on a novel—which ultimately became a Fountain Award-listed short story. It started my career in science fiction and fantasy. I developed a lot of material from my time in Canada. I think four of the pieces in my collection—the two beginning pieces and the two at the end—are set in the Yukon. I became a Canadian citizen (so, a dual citizen of the US and Canada) because I felt like my life had changed in Canada, and because I had been adopted by this city and my friends there. I left to explore a relationship that unfortunately didn’t work out, and that put me in Dayton, Ohio. But part of my heart stays in Whitehorse.

Canada also let me explore hundreds of other jobs outside of teaching and academia—and I get to use that experience in my writing. I was a trolley conductor, a vaudevillian, a reporter embedded at a remote subarctic research station, someone who delivered health surveys to schools, a census taker, a marketer for a large Arts Centre, a web designer, a janitor, an artist, a recording artist, a performer, a reporter, a radio series writer, and I was able to lead multiple writing workshops for the city of Whitehorse and for a local church. Whitehorse is a catalyst for change. It is a City of Transformation. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. Bankers become environmentalists, scientists become local cooks, government officials become successful musicians. The city encourages personal exploration, collaboration, a deeper understanding of your identity and your community. That city has magic, I swear. It will discover who you are.

The Tesseracts volume you participated in editing, Wrestling With Gods, featured speculative fiction stories in which faith plays an important role (clearly a theme dear to our own hearts). Was there anything about the process of editing a faith-based fiction anthology that surprised you? What kinds of stories did you see too many of, and what would you have liked to see more of?

I had a lot of joy being a co-editor of the Wrestling with Gods anthology. I think part of the joy was seeing how varied the responses were to our theme. Yes, we received an abundance of angels and demons locked in combat. LOTS of that. We were hoping that our call made it clear that it was really people grappling with their own faith in the midst of fantasy/science fictional situations. But many people interpreted fantasy/scifi faith stories as angels and demons—a force mostly outside of faith. Most of us never deal with angels or demons—hopefully! We were hoping for more inner struggles within a faith—or choices that made you have to look closely at what you believed in order to make hard decisions. In the end, the breadth of great stuff was still amazing—and what people did with it, especially those that made it into the anthology, was great to see! Wrestling with faith is a pretty universal feeling among believers of every faith.

One of the themes Kristin noticed coming up again and again in your short story collection was that of misunderstanding, either of circumstances or others' motives, leading to tragic consequences. There are the lemmings in "Lemmings in the Third Year", the artist and his wife in "The Moon Over Tokyo Through Fall Leaves", the grieving father in "Why the Poets Were Banned From the City". Are there other themes that you often find yourself returning to?

Cool that you found those! Yeah, I think identity, and how to affect change in the world, or even how we affect someone we love, those come up again and again. I also find myself irresistibly attracted to family issues—parents and their legacies, siblings. Our family is our first world, and we learn how to be in that world as a precursor to being in the world of school, and the world of World … and that early training is not always perfect for navigating the other worlds we encounter. I’m hoping my characters learn. Some of them do. Some of them do not. “Bear With Me” had two endings—one where she left him and one where she stays. You know the one I chose, but even that choice has a subversive ending sentence. I’m not sure that Bear sees what he’s done as bad—he feels justified. “Well, she wouldn’t have come up if she knew I lied,” he might say. So he takes that agency away. He’s willing to accept the consequences in the first moments of their meeting, but he’s not convinced that he did the wrong thing by lying in the first place.

What books or authors most influenced you when you first started writing? What are some of your favorites now?

Besides the books I mentioned above in the hallway with Mom and my brother and sister, I was influenced by Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Bradbury had so much expression and passion in his writing. He’s a very emotional writer. When you read him, you feel, and you see so much. Stephen King makes you fall in love with a character so quickly (and then he kills them.) But I was also influenced by Madeleine L’Engle and Anne McCaffrey. L’Engle had such great plots and emotional turns for her characters. McCaffrey has such great worldbuilding. I read the most Piers Anthony probably in his Xanth series. It was comfort food. It taught me to balance familiarity with the new. I have a set of things that I love to see in a novel—probably we all do—and I could put those things in a story, but I could keep changing the variables so that it looked new, too. He taught me a lot about familiar beats, expectations, satisfying climaxes.

I’m reading a mix of authors and genres these days: literary authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Yukio Mishima, and Michael Chabon, and literary science fiction/fantasy like Karen Joy Fowler, Ted Chiang, and Haruki Murakami; classic authors like Graham Greene, James Baldwin. Then there are a lot of contemporary authors on my TBR pile: Kai Ashante Wilson, Charlie Jane Anders, Seanan McGuire, Nnedi Okorafor—if I could read everything that puts out as a novella, that’s what I’d do. I also read F&SF, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, when I can—some amazing things are coming out daily from these magazines and are available online.

Do you have a day job besides writing, and if so, what is it and how do you think it influences your writing?

I am thankful that I now have a full time job teaching at the University of Dayton, but it is a lecturer position, and so I teach 4 classes a semester. First and second year writing with an occasional creative writing class. It doesn’t leave as much time for writing as I’d like.

Grading a lot of papers every week can turn your mind into a critical place, and it’s not a place you can write from easily. I have to watch some TV, go walking, read a book, listen to music, go to see Art (or play with Pinterest) before I can trick myself out of the critical mode and into the appreciation of art and life mode. But teaching creative writing is always good—because the way you take in writer advice and writer exercises is different as a teacher and it makes you think about what they mean and how to use them better.

How much time would you estimate that you spend writing in an average week?

When I’m working on a project, anywhere from 12 hours to 35 hours in a week. It depends on the deadlines. I like to find contests to give me something to work towards. This doesn’t count the time my brain is working on a project and the notebook time I use to write down ideas constantly.

Do you tend to plot out your stories first, or just start writing and see where they go?

I tend to write down ideas in any order—maybe the end—maybe the middle—maybe a character arc for a minor character. I swear by two notebooks: 9 x 7 Blueline notebooks. They are hard cover, with a spiral down the middle, and lie flat. Wide line ruled paper. I love them. And moleskines. I keep one in my back pocket. Because I have six or seven stories all percolating, I need to write down notes as they come. On a plane, with noise-canceling headphones playing one song over and over, I have been known to just write up to 20 pages of ideas. Then, later, I will rewrite them into a document so I can see them all together. Then I’ll make a new document and start writing. I have a general idea of where things will go, but I like leaving space for creative turns. It’s boring to me if I know every little move the stories make. But I get excited when I didn’t see the choice coming. I need to be surprised as I go. I have killed a novel before when I knew what was going to happen—I spent all my creativity on the outline and that can hurt me. So I save half the creativity for the writing itself.

What's the first thing you do after you finish the first draft of a story? Do you start revising right away, or wait? Do you have a critique group or beta readers?

The people in my head are mostly happy, and we dance for about three days, and everyone you meet, you think, “I am a writer!” as you shake their hand. And you feel confident! Then I wait before making changes. About three or four days. I know my first drafts are crap. My second drafts are a complete re-imagining, usually, of the concept I was going for. I used to call them my Salieri drafts and my Mozart drafts after I saw the movie Amadeus. A scene in the movie has a piece of music that Salieri has spent weeks composing for Mozart’s entrance and welcome to the King, and when Mozart hears it, he, on the spot, rewrites it, and it becomes something amazing. So I always try to keep in mind that my first drafts—heck, my third drafts—don’t have to be Mozart. They just need to be workable. Because only after actually writing the first draft do you realize that what you wanted isn’t completely there, but it still shows you the direction you should go. One of the stories I wrote recently had horrible 1st through 3rd drafts—cliché, transparent plot, so linear you could see the end in the first sentence. I scrapped 5000 words and kept one element—the singer in the bar. And I rewrote the whole thing with different characters completely and that singer shows up in the last scene, a minor moment. I thought outside the box I had made for myself. Sometimes you go into a story with too-defined parameters, and the only thing that really helps is to a) write that thing that you said you wanted, b) understand how this just doesn’t meet everything that you want, and c) find the threads that you do like, and write something better with them—that does have the things that you truly wanted, that you only know because you wrote the shadow of those things first.

I have wonderful beta readers. I don’t have a critique group at the moment. But I wish I did. There’s a sweet group in Ottawa that I want to join, but I have to live there first. We have already exchanged love notes.

Do you have any stories you want to write someday, but aren't yet ready to?

Yes, a love story about another painter, who isn’t the main character this time, and it takes place partly in Texas. I want to be able to paint the paintings that will go in the book. I’m not that good yet. It also requires a bit of travel to Mexico. I think that will be in about ten years. J

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing up a short story about a young man who has found his birthfather but doesn’t admit to being his son, and the more he becomes his birthfather’s “friend” the more he wants to be honest, but now he can’t because the lie has gotten too big. It’s the classic tell-a-little-lie to get something you want premise that gets more complicated as you go. What started as a quick secret mission has turned into something he wants to keep.

What advice would you give to authors who'd like to see their work published but aren't there yet?

Hmmm. I don’t have any good advice but what you hear a lot: keep writing and reading. These seem to be the two things that teach you how to write—even more than all the books and classes. Write bad stuff. Write mediocre stuff. And don’t stop.

The revision is the fun part. I think the time you spend making a story work is the best—because you can see that it’s almost there, and so tweaking it, to make it better, is how, at least for me, I take a mediocre story and make it my best story. I get it read by people better than me, and I appreciate their feedback. I was helped tremendously on “Bluegrass Werewolf” by Wendy Wagner, the editor of Nightmare magazine, who saw an early draft and told me my ending was lacking … a lot. It had a stronger LGBT focus, but the werewolf didn’t face any punishment for the killings, and it was just a mess of an ending. Hearing her say that, I knew that I had to revise it—and where I needed to focus that revision. I don’t think it looks much like she remembers it past the middle anymore. A good reader and a good revision are worth so much to a writer.

My first publication in science fiction was Tesseracts 9 (that novel that I managed to turn into a short story) and anthologies are a great place to get published. I would also research the places you want to get into—read all the work they publish to get a feel for what they think is good. What they publish.

I try to read outside of my genre, too. I think that’s helped me be a better writer—to see how mystery novels, creative nonfiction, memoir, literary fiction sound, what things they can teach me. My first person POV has been strengthened from reading memoir. I notice when I’m not reading, my writing suffers; and when I’m not writing often, my writing is bad. Which means: I need to keep writing, and it means other writers strengthen me, which is a cool thing to learn—that we are in this together and help each other.

Jerome Stueart is a 2007 Clarion graduate whose work has been in, Lightspeed’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Geist, Geez, Joyland, Icarus, and a few Tesseracts anthologies as well as anthologies that explore the queerness of werewolves and the future of vampires. He was co-editor on Wrestling With Gods (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing), an anthology that explored characters wrestling with faith in science fiction and fantasy. He both wrote and illustrated his first collection of stories, The Angels of Our Better Beasts (Chizine), which was longlisted for the Sunburst Award. He lives in Dayton, Ohio and teaches writing at the University of Dayton, a Catholic Marianist University.

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