Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Brooke Bolander

How did this story start for you? Were there any surprises in writing this one?

Hilariously enough, it started as a commissioned flash piece for a lit ’zine. I’m not even kidding. The exchange went thusly:

“Say, would you be interested in writing us a pulp story? We’ve read your previous work and we think you’d be really good at writing pulp.”

“Sure thing, mister! I’ll keep it short and sweet, under a thousand words, and I’ll have it done in two months!”

And lo, the heavens did split open, and the Gods of Wordcount and Deadline did laugh until they were sick all over the cowering writers of the earth. It turned out to be the lengthiest thing I’ve ever written. I did not, as you may have already guessed, make my deadline. I began writing in spring of 2012 and finally finished last February. For someone who rarely ventures past 7,000 words on any given project, it was something of a shock.

I think people are going to be a little surprised by this one, for better or worse. Most of my other stories so far have come from a particular region of my brain — the bit made of bones and fur and feathers and Neko Case and Nick Cave, ankle-deep in ivy and rotting horse apples. Rhye’s tale is composed in the main of the other stuff I love — Tarantino movies and Queen, Blade Runner and punk rock recorded in damp basements, Ghost in the Shell and Scorsese and cheap bourbon and piercings and watching Drive with the surround sound cranked. The part of me that finds the final ten seconds of Fight Club or the elevator scene in the aforementioned Drive deeply romantic, basically (my sense of romance is admittedly a tad fucked, something that also shines through in the story). It’s a big, loud, silly part of me, but that doesn’t make it any less a part of me.

The other big surprise came shortly after I finished, when I found out that there’s a craft cocktail called the Rack ’n Rye, conceived and crafted by the alcohol alchemists at New York’s PDT. I had heard of a Rock n’ Rye before, but this variant is made with arrack, a rum-like liquor from Southeast Asia. I swear I had no prior knowledge of the damn thing, but it is absolutely delicious and I totally advise making and drinking two or three while you read the story, in honor of our heroine and hero (“arguably a riff on the classic Old Fashioned, the Rack-n-Rye finds unlikely lovers paired together,” says the recipe).

One of the things I noticed was that Rhye’s feelings were big and bombastic, lots of anger, an emotional fragility that is as big as her rage when we first meet her, as well as her love for Rack. How did you tap into these emotions, particularly the rage? And given how big her emotions are, what was it like shifting your writing from Rhye’s view to Rack’s?

Several years ago, I asked a good friend to really tell me what he thought of me, no holds barred. His response — and I’m quoting verbatim, here, because this is the sort of thing you write down and keep in a fireproof safe deposit box — was, “all other things aside, I think your grand and god-given talent is endless, white-hot rage. Your anger is not a wild explosion that tears apart whole city blocks: It is a PSG-1 that will bore through the adversary’s skull from 800 yards away; it is a samurai sword where the dude will look down at his body for a second before realizing that he has been sliced in half. You kick a hole in the speaker, pull the plug, then you jet.”

So, uh, yeah. I’m not sure I’m totally that person anymore, as that was a good many years ago and I’ve since learned not to sweat the small stuff, but she’s still in here, ready to be called out when needed. On another level, culturally there is a push against angry women. You’re a bitch; you’re an ice queen; you’re oversensitive; you’re a psychotic prima donna who needs to “stop being so shrill” and chill out. You’re Courtney Love. The male-driven world is forever threatened by a pissed-off lady. And hey, you know what? Fuck that. We’ve got more than ever to be in a buzzing neon 24/7 open-all-nite rage about. All those rights angry women a hundred years ago fought so hard for are slowly but surely being peeled away, and our white-hot focused pissedoffitude is the only thing that’s gonna save us from getting turned into soup. Be righteous. Be furious. Be chaotic. Punch a fucking hole in the wall until your knuckles look like smashed baby birds. It is good and healthy and the universe desperately needs it.

Rack is what he is: a good person. You know those people; it takes a lot to provoke them, otherwise they’re cooler than a cucumber shoved between the cushions of a leather couch in January. I know plenty of that type, even if I am decidedly not among their number, so it wasn’t too hard. I think the most difficult part was cutting down on the number of fucks used, honestly.

What prompted the choice to have Rhye fight herself? Regarding Rhye herself, is there anything about her you drew from your own life and experiences?

There comes a point in a person’s life — and by “a person” I guess I mean me a little, maybe — when you have to learn to accept kindness. Nobody gets where they’re going by themselves. They can be the toughest, meanest, most nail-spittin’ mofo on the block and still, STILL, at some point in their life, someone is going to give them a hand up. If you’ve got a lot of self-loathing going on internally, that can be one of the biggest challenges you’ll ever face. “I can’t take help from friends, I’m a shithead, I don’t deserve it. How could anyone ever love a fuckup like me?” You get caught in this self-destructive feedback loop where you won’t ask for help and you’re building walls and generally just treating the folks around you like shit, because you don’t really believe they care and hey, not like they’re gonna stick around anyways, they’ll hate me eventually because I’m a secret asshole. And then when they really do get fed up and all your pushing and bristling and weird behavior finally drives them off for good, you say, see? I always knew it would end like this. It can irreparably fuck up your life, thinking and acting like that.

Rhye’s voice is the closest to my regular voice I’ve ever come in a story — the one I use online, the one inside my head. A touch more psychotic, a splash less thoughtful, maybe, but close enough for government work. In my experience, finally dragging that part of yourself from the back alley where it’s smoking out into the daylight requires three things: looking inward more than you may be comfortable with, understanding that your personal issues are yours and yours alone, and trusting other people when they say they’ve got your back. It makes sense that I would end up literalizing the process, I suppose. I’m nothing if not metaphorically minded.

Other Rhye-like adventures? I caught a bullet casing down my bra at the gun range once. For those unacquainted with the vagaries of firing handguns and the wacky mishaps that may ensue if one is not properly attired, when the shell is ejected, it is a scalding, skin-seeking brass projectile that can and will get stuck anywhere and everywhere on your person. I’ve seen them land inside pockets, I’ve seen them lodge and stick between the earpiece on a pair of safety goggles and a friend’s temple. I happened to be wearing a tank top that day. You only make that mistake once, dear readers.

What’s next for you?

Still trying to hack out a novel, still making the con rounds. Every day is a battle to get words out, but if this story has shown me anything, it’s that I am capable of writing long-form. So we shall see.

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Robyn Lupo

Robyn Lupo lives in Southwestern Ontario with her not-that-kind-of-doctor partner and three cats. She enjoys tiny things, and has wrangled flash for Women Destroy Science Fiction! as well as selected poetry for Queers Destroy Horror! She aspires to one day write many things.