What an incredible, delightfully dark, and multi-faceted story. Among other things, I feel like there is a discussion of the rampant destruction of both nature and native cultures through colonialism happening in the narrative, and a certain self-awareness on Johnny’s part that it’s messed up, yet the sense of resignation, perhaps. Are these important topics for you? Or am I completely reading into this?
They are definitely topics I was hoping to explore with the story, and especially with Johnny, who has such a different feel from Paul. Johnny Appleseed is a character that (historically) most people think of as a naturalist, as someone in touch with nature, and yet his story is one of invasion, of taking these plants that settlers wanted and spreading them, so in that, he’s very much a tool of colonization, of Manifest Destiny. Which I feel like he knows in some way that Paul wouldn’t, because Paul was always larger than life, too big to see the implications of his actions. Johnny’s story has always been smaller, more nurturing, and in that, there’s this contradiction, this seed of corruption—I wanted to look at that. That Johnny in some ways feels guilty, but also doesn’t want to act. That he knows there’s no way to solve this by planting trees, and so he doesn’t want to face it. And I think I grew up around this a lot, in the suburbs of Chicago, which is where I had Johnny retreat to, this white liberalism that embraces “green” spaces and worries about restoring trees and flowers more than it cares about the people and cultures that were destroyed or erased, more than it cares about the damage continuing to be done.
So yes, Johnny’s resignation is very much something that interests me, that I find myself coming back to with my writing. He knows the harm that even his own narrative can create, because he is queer (in this story) and because that aspect of his story has been erased. And instead of fighting, instead of being active and seeking to change the narrative, to subvert it, he remains reluctant and lets himself be led by the same forces that erased his queerness, that destroyed so much, that made him and Paul into the myths used to justify both human and ecological tragedies—industry and money. Not because he trusts them, but because he feels too invested in them. Which obviously doesn’t work out too well for him.
I love (and relate too well to) the relationship between Paul and Johnny. I get this sense of being almost overwhelmed by Paul, of being pulled in his wake, of knowing, hey, this guy is “wrong” in some important ways, but he’s the guy I’m with. It rings true without being overstated. What are the tools you use to write relationships that feel real?
Why thank you! I’m a bit of a sappy romantic, myself, and so I perhaps have read a few too many trashy romances than are strictly good for me. I actually write a bit of speculative romance and erotica short fiction, too, which I think really has forced me as a writer to pay close attention to the motivations people have going into relationships, and the baggage they bring. What I like about Paul and Johnny is that they’re kind of messed up and not incredibly great for one another. That they reinforce in each other the things that perpetuate the harm they do. And I think it makes them hate each other just a little while also being drawn to each other, unable to shake that comfort that they feel when they’re together, which almost washes away everything else.
I’ve also read and written my share of fanfiction, which this story could be considered, and love taking existing characters and imagining how they would fit together, how they would play off each other. I think not having examples of queer relationships in much of popular culture prompts those hungry for those stories to find ways to create their own. At least, that seems to have been the case for me, and it’s certainly a skill that I’ve developed in response to the difficulty of finding the stories I most wanted to read.
This piece evokes early American legends, only to destroy them, drawing a parallel between ruthless modernism (represented not only in the clearing of the woodlands, but also in the presence, power, and actions of corporate industry) and the end of these sorts of iconographic figures. Do you believe that the role and use of legends has changed, or perhaps been extinguished? Or do we create new cultural legends, such as Superman or Luke Skywalker, and use them in the ways that we always have?
I do think that the role and use of legends has changed. For those of this story, the tall tales of early European colonization and expansion into the Americas, I think the story ended. They came into being to stand against the “danger” that unexploited land represented. That unconquered, uncolonized land and people represented. They were there to clear away the old, the pre-European, for the benefit of the fledgling nation and its industries. It’s something that dominated American politics for a long time, the push west, the Manifest Destiny. But . . . we reached the coast, and even further. We took the forests and planted trees of our own. We banished our neighbors and made the land safe for the white settlers. And so those legends found themselves without a purpose any more, except maybe as nostalgia, which is how they survive today. I tried in the story to show where they might have gone, Paul into more extreme exploitations and Johnny into some attempt at empty “conservation” and “green spaces.”
It’s interesting that you mention Superman, because that was part of the inspiration behind the title of the piece, and part of why I think, by and large, even more modern “legends” like Superman are also pretty much obsolete. Again, Superman popped up to fight for American values against outside threats (like Captain America and other early superheroes). He survived World War II and the Cold War, but…but then his story basically ended, too. America won. Since the end of the Cold War, the place of superheroes has been in a sort of limbo. What happened? Well, Superman died. Canonically, he was killed in “The Death of Superman.” It’s a moment that stands out to me. Superman died. It’s something that Johnny has to face at the end of the story, when he thinks about apocrypha. Paul Bunyan died. Not because his stripped bones are burning in this hole, but because his story is over, has been over for some time. And while there is a sense that Superman can’t die, that Paul Bunyan can’t die, they have in pretty much any meaningful way perished. Lost their relevance.
And I think that legends mean something different now, at least in America, where this story is set. I think that we’re in a sort of crisis when it comes to our legends and our heroes. Not in a bad way, either. I am not mourning the death of Paul Bunyan or the death of Superman. I’m saying that we’re trying to complicate the narrative. Access to information has transformed us. Technology has transformed us. We want stories that do more than just comfort the dominant. We want stories that do more than just erase the complexity of the past or present. At least, I think a lot of people do. There is obviously a pushback, a call to “make stories simple again.” But it’s a false simplicity that allows so much harm to be done that I think, I hope, that we will resist the call to revive old heroes. That we will continue to push for narratives that do more, that strive to do more.
I really enjoyed this piece, and I’m sure a lot of other people will as well. What are you working on now that we can look forward to?
Well, speaking of superheroes, I have a novelette out this month from Dreamspinner Press titled “How the Supervillain Stole Christmas,” which is a much lighter story that features a supervillain who decides it would be easier to destroy Christmas entirely than have to pick out a gift for his new boyfriend.
As far as works in progress go, I’ve got a novella I’m hoping to sell that’s a sort-of-retelling of the Arthurian myth but with mech suits, an evil Merlin, and basically everyone is queer. It’s my first novella and the first of many stories I have planned in the setting, so I’m rather nervous about it, but hopefully I’ll have more news on that soon.
For anyone who wants to keep up with my work and opinions, I’m active on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo and also run Quick Sip Reviews, where I review SFF short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, as well as post about my various projects.
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