I really enjoyed reading “Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy,” which manages to be fun yet horrifying and a bit too believable! I’m looking forward to learning more about your process writing it. What is the first thing you knew about this story? How did it develop from there?
I was riding the city bus, late at night, and I saw a bus stop ad for something I can no longer remember—it wasn’t a good ad—the ad’s mascot was a smiling GPS pin. You know the location pin in Google Maps: a red circle that tapers into a long tail? That, with a smiley face. I remember being revolted. Why does everything need a face? I thought of other ads that personify unlikely things by tacking on a smile—most horrifyingly, the kiwi fruit whose smile is carved from his skin (bit.ly/2IsE64f). What’s this impulse to turn every consumer product into an emotional relationship? I don’t have a relationship with my navigation app. Or do I? I mean, I always picture that prim navigatrix voice seething at me when I don’t make a turn as directed.
That got me thinking about commercial relationships as emotional relationships, and how the bleed-through turns into manipulation, upselling, privacy abuses, toxic social media, and the story built from there.
Did you draw on any personal experiences, or was this more based on seeing trends in society?
I’m an avid user of Duolingo, a tutoring app for foreign languages, and I will say, their owl mascot is one shady piece of code. His push notifications get decidedly passive-aggressive after you miss so many days. But in general, I’ve followed privacy and technology issues for years—remember the story of the Target data-mining algorithm that outed a teen pregnancy?—and watched in awe and horror as Twitter tries to balance its identities as a for-profit corporation and a major social environment.
In my day job as an attorney, I’ve worked closely with survivors of child abuse and domestic abuse; on the corporate side, I’ve also seen how predatory lenders and telemarketing scams target the vulnerable—low-income communities of color, immigrant businesses, students, elders. It’s striking how similar their tactics are. Abusers exploit the victim’s feelings of isolation, shame, hopelessness, and how convenient for them that our social structures prime specific populations and identities with these feelings. You see that in mainstream advertising, too: ads that target our shame over our bodies, our fear of aging, our desire for status emblems, emotional problems that the consumer marketplace has to a large extent created.
My personal connection to this story has been tracing my own susceptibility to that manipulation—seeing how fully I’d bought into others’ definitions of happiness before figuring out what made me happy. That’s a prominent part of many LGBTQ+ persons’ stories, but I suspect most people have their own version of that experience.
What is your usual process for writing a story? Did this one fit the pattern?
This was the last story I wrote at the Clarion workshop, last year, and by Week Six, all my careful story and craft tricks—the notecards, the lists, the charts—had gone and I was shooting from the hip. I was running on the collective weirdo energy of my cohort and grabbing any spare hour to scribble crazy sentences in my spiral notebook. I wish I could make that my usual process! None of the technology or economics made any sense in that first draft, and there were some definite misfires, but the emotional core was there. Then I sat on the story for six months, re-read it, and discovered thematic undercurrents that fixed the story’s problems, once I teased them out. That part’s pretty typical of my process.
I liked all the different points of view. Looking back, there are quite a lot for such a short story, but it all works well. Was one particular character or part your favorite? (I loved Aunt Sylvie, but the anonymous parent’s POV is so eye-rollingly oblivious and fantastic.)
The parents’ chorus was so fun to write. I’d read Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms” recently, and I loved the idea of this first-person plural, oversoul voice as a satiric form. But it was Rajeev’s voice that surprised me, and I’m grateful when a character does that. With Rajeev, I remembered what it was like to have a crush on your best friend in middle school: not the tortured hysterics of high school romances, or the self-absorbed psychodrama of one’s twenties, just well-meaning kids without the maturity and language to not hurt each other. There’s beauty in that—screwing up, but not cruelly.
For the same reason, but in reverse, Jeremy’s voice was no fun at all to write.
What else are you working on now?
A lot! I’m re-exploring a secondary world I created for my Beneath Ceaseless Skies novelette, “Ora et Labora,” and seeing if I can expand it into a new story involving sentient probability fields. I’ve got a hungry ghost ophthalmologist story in the works, and an alien Bachelorette story sketched out. Basically, I’ve been collecting story ideas for a year now, while I’ve worked on polishing and placing my Clarion stories, and now it’s time to write the dang things. I also regularly contribute to FictionUnbound.com, where we blog about literary-speculative hybrid fiction.
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