Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: K.M. Szpara

K.M. Szpara is a queer and trans author who lives in Baltimore, MD, with a tiny dog. Kellan’s debut alt-/near-future novel, Docile (March 3, 2020; Tor.com Publishing), explores the snowballing debt crisis, consent, and privilege, and can be described as “really gay.” He is the author of “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” a Hugo and Nebula nominated novelette about a gay trans man who’s bitten by a vampire. More of his fiction can be found in venues such as Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Shimmer. You can find him on the Internet at kmszpara.com or on Twitter at @KMSzpara.

First off, I want to say congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel to have Docile out there in the world?

It feels wild and scary and exciting—and yet absolutely normal. So much time and work goes into creating a novel. It’s existed for me for so long that of course it’s finally out there! But also . . . ahhhh, it’s finally out there!

Your novel is set in a near-feature dystopia where the wage gap has widened into a chasm so huge that people are either trillionaires or debtors, and debt is passed down from generation to generation. Enter Elisha, a rural Maryland farm boy who sells himself to trillionaire Alexander Bishop III for a life term as a Docile to clear his family’s three million dollar debt. And Alex is the mogul of the pharmaceutical company that produces Dociline, a drug that makes Dociles submissive. What went into putting the premise together?

Docile was born from several threads. From conversations with a politically savvy queer friend who’d worked in debt collection, to those with a Baltimore BFF about agency and expectations as we started our adult lives. It took me several tries to nail down the concept and layer it over the character arcs I had in mind. Because characters always come first for me. Well, and sex scenes.

Since you come up with characters first (we’ll get to the sex scenes later!), what did you initially have in mind for Elisha and Alex?

Before I had a world or plot or premise, I knew I wanted to write one character training another and then dealing with the consequences. Two men: a meticulous top (Alex) and a fiery bottom (Elisha). The tension between them had to be exquisite—horrifying and erotic. It’s a book of opposites, and so are they. With every draft, they became more well-rounded as I laid down roots with their families and friends, developed their personalities. Any string of tension I could pull taut between them and their lives, I did. I live for it.

Even though Elisha and Alex are opposites, both have duties to their families: Elisha has to work off his family’s debt while Alex has to uphold and continue to build his family’s pharmaceutical legacy. Did you know right off the bat that they would have this obligation in common?

I hate awkward family interactions and drama in reality, but I love it in fiction! I always knew Elisha’s family would be involved in the story and that they would have Feelings about his involvement with Alex. Alex’s family, however, was worked into the story over time in order to emphasize the pressure put on him and to illustrate what generational wealth and privilege could do to someone in opposition to debt. I didn’t mean to write a family drama! And yet so many of my favorite moments include them meeting each other’s parents under . . . less than ideal circumstances. My favorite is when Alex meets Elisha’s dad. Ignorance meets rage.

We get to read their interactions from both their perspectives. The novel’s dual POV of Elisha and Alex gives us insight into their motivations, which aren’t always obvious or apparent to the other. Cue dramatic irony. I thought about what Docile would be like written from only one of their perspectives but realized it would’ve lost the dramatic tension that drives the conflict. Why was it important for you to write it from both their perspectives?

The dual POV intends for readers to see themselves in Elisha and Alex. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable, highlighting the ways in which we are taught to perceive the world around us through various lenses, to highlight our biases and the hard choices we make to survive. Elisha is the obvious protagonist with a sympathetic arc, but I didn’t want to write an action revolution novel, and I think that’s what’s expected when someone in Elisha’s position is the only POV. Conversely, can you imagine Alex as the only POV? Yikes! Not everyone likes him right away—or at all—but he does a lot of internal work, and I think that’s realistic and important.

What made Baltimore the ideal location for their story?

In Baltimore, if someone asks where you went to school, they mean which high school. I was fortunate to attend a private school and receive a great education, but I didn’t fit the Baltimore preppy aesthetic or the associated class and wealth bracket. That aesthetic became the basis for the trillionaire society—for the ultra rich. The antagonists. Otherwise, the answer is simply because I live here! Wish I had a smarter answer. Overall, I set a lot of my fiction here, because I like writing about the places where I spend time, and I’ve lived here the majority of my life. It’s home.

Docile brings the concept of patronage but in the context of inherited debt. Do you think the patronage system ever left us for a while and came back or do you think it’s always taken different forms throughout the ages? (Some authors, after all, use Patreon as a source of income now.)

It’s funny. When you say “patron of the arts!” it sounds fancy. The term “Patron” did not exist in early drafts; I was using extremely roundabout language to say “person who purchased a Docile’s debt/contracted with a Docile.” I chose it because it’s exactly the kind of word a wealthy person would use to feel good about themselves, just like Alex calls the trillionaire class “people of means.” I’m not an expert on the history of patronage, but would wager some form of it has been in effect in both helpful and oppressive iterations from ancient history (Elisha isn’t amused when he learns about the Romans) through the Internet age (I don’t think he’d feel comfortable on Patreon, either).

Patrons use Dociline to unsee the humanity of their Dociles. Likewise, Dociles forget their time spent in servitude. And it’s not without its side effects. I mean, poor Elisha’s mother is in perpetual Docile mode after her term is up, because she was on the stuff for so long and it never fully cleared out of her system. Is Dociline based on a current mind-controlling drug or on research you did for the book?

It’s not! I chose Dociline’s effects with my writer hat on, asking which would best suit the story. So often, that’s the answer to so many “how did you” questions. I needed the drug to be tempting. There are ads shown for it, during a later scene, and they entice people to, essentially, pay off an entire student loan’s worth of debt as if they were taking a nap. Sell your debt, take Dociline, “wake up” unburdened! Honestly, you’ll spend at least a decade paying it off, otherwise. Why not a couple years of concentrated time? (It’s a trap!) I added the side effects as part of the Wilder family backstory and also because companies cut corners all the time in order to get their product on the market and start making money faster. Thanks, I hate it.

After seeing what Dociline did to his mother, Elisha invokes his right to refuse it. Even without the drug, he loses his sense of self because of the way Alex trains him and he grows to crave being with Alex, despite how servile his role is. I wondered which was worse: Dociline or the Stockholm syndrome-like conditioning Elisha endures? It’s a tough call.

They’re both awful, which I think is one of the points the novel is making, so I’m giving myself permission to cheat. Dociline is scary. It seems like a quick and easy solution but can ruin your life beyond its own projection. However, Elisha didn’t foresee what happens to him, and he’ll be dealing with the ramifications his entire life. Which is better? Neither, because in the world of Docile, if you’re a debtor, all your choices are terrible. (Sorry.)

All their choices are terrible, and yet they’re granted seven rights. Refusing to take Dociline is one of them. They also retain the right to vote in a public election, the right to adequate care—food, water, shelter, hygiene, regular medical attention—etc. How did you come up with the others?

Similar to how I selected Dociline’s effects, I went for the jugular. Docile Rights are intended to sound good. To make debtors feel protected—like they are safe and maintain agency. When, really, how many Dociles are even capable of taking advantage of those rights? Could Elisha really call his caseworker for help if Alex violated his rights, if he wanted to? Would he win that fight against a trillionaire with unlimited credibility and resources? Docile Rights exist to make everyone feel better about how horrible things really are. They’re nefarious on purpose.

The way Alex conditions Elisha to become a Docile—social companion and sexual plaything—reminds me of Pygmalion taken to a near-future, queer level. Like Pygmalion Eye for the Debt Guy. Does Docile draw from George Bernard Shaw’s play or other related work as inspiration?

It doesn’t, which makes me kind of sad, because “Pygmalion Eye for the Debt Guy” is funny as hell, but I’m sure readers will be able to draw their own parallels. At one point, Alex, like the drama queen he is, compares himself to Dr. Frankenstein and Elisha to his monster. It’s why he had to be so meticulous. Why he chose certain activities for Elisha, etc. (Why their sexual interactions occurred in a specific order.) I don’t think Alex equated “training” with behavioral conditioning at a Stockholm syndrome level. Despite his degrees, he can be pretty stupid.

Flower imagery comes up throughout the narrative—floral designs in Alex’s wardrobe, the floral architectural designs in the city buildings, Alex’s comparison of Elisha’s lips to rose petals. It’s kind of a stark contrast to the treatment Elisha endures, his modest upbringing on the farm, the systemic economic disparity that runs the country.

Florals are part of the Baltimore preppy aesthetic I mentioned earlier and, as such, ended up weaving themselves into the rest of the text. Their imagery is beautiful when so much else is so ugly. I can’t say I planted every floral reference (a-yo!) with deep meaning, but I’m unsurprised they occurred to me over and over.

Reading this as a millennial, I saw parallels with the crippling student loan debt many of us are burdened with at the expense of getting a higher education degree that’s supposed to guarantee a job with a salary that’ll pay off said debt. (Har har! The joke is on us.) Were you pulling from our student loan debt zeitgeist while creating the dystopia Elisha and Alex live in?

Absolutely! I remember when I applied to various colleges that my mother told me multiple times that I would have to pay all these loans back. That I would help pay some of the loans she took out to help me, too. It didn’t even feel like real money then. Despite my high school education and being raised by savvy parents, I did not realize the weight of student debt. I have paid hundreds of dollars per month—a second rent’s worth of bills—and it’s wild being free of that weight. Imagine if our generation, and the ones that come after ours, were relieved of that burden, how much we could accomplish? I paid off my loans, ironically, thanks to this book, and I support cancelling student loans for others.

And in the midst of this debt dystopia, there’s hot sex going on! Just recently in the New York Times, Garth Greenwell said that with his book Cleanness he wanted to create something that was one hundred percent pornographic and one hundred percent high art. I was wondering if you had a similar approach to writing Docile, because it’s a high concept novel with complex, sometimes disturbing, but hot explicit scenes.

I like writing erotic scenes, whether that involves explicit sex or aspects of kink or interpersonal tension. I also think books are opinions. I don’t think it’s wild for a book to be both erotic and meaningful art. It’s only shocking because it’s not common in mainstream science fiction and fantasy—especially featuring kink and queer characters. I’m one of those writers who names body parts, too, who deals with the messy parts of sex, because I’m interested in how characters navigate their own and their partners’ bodies. How they label their erotic experiences as consensual or not, fulfilling, transformative, hot . . . I’m always going to write like this, and it isn’t new to me. Shout-out to fanfiction for teaching me that this is normal and to keep doing it until it sold!

You wrote that your novel is all the gay sex you read in fanfiction but could never find in the science fiction section of your bookstore. What did you read or whose work did you tend to read during that time?

I grew up reading what was on my mother’s bookshelf: all of Michael Crichton, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and Harry Potter. After that, I stalled. There’s a huge gap of time when I literally wasn’t reading anything but fanfiction outside of English class—easily from the ’90s through late 2000s. I remember, after graduate school, walking back and forth between the Science Fiction and Fantasy, Romance, and LGBT shelves in a local bookstore, unsure which contained what I was looking for: queer characters fucking amidst magic or tech. I didn’t belong to a reading community, didn’t know many queers—wasn’t out, myself. So, I stayed up late every night reading Aragorn/Legolas and Draco/Harry. Eventually, I found Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series and Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn. Then Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, Ginn Hale’s Lord of the White Hell, Sunny Moraine and Lisa Soem’s Line and Orbit, and then I found the SFF writing community! But before that, I was absolutely just reading explicit slash fic.

Who are some influential authors who got you interested in writing overall?

I hope it doesn’t sound terrible to say that I got myself interested in writing. As evidenced by my reading history, very few authors reigned in my mind, and I don’t think my work is anything like Michael Crichton or J.K. Rowling’s. Anne Rice is certainly the author whose books I most looked to as A Thing I’d Like To Do. But mostly, I was interested in writing because I like to create and couldn’t find the stories I most wanted to read. I ordered one of those custom American Girl Dolls when I was a kid, and they sent you a blank book. I wrote in that and a dozen other notebooks. All fanfic!

What writing projects are you whipping up now that you can tell us about?

You’re in luck! I have two other novels contracted with Tor.com Publishing, both of which have been announced. My second book is like The Village meets I Kill Giants, wherein a young man is thrust into the disappointing mundanity of the real world when the cult that raised him to believe himself super-human is exposed and dismantled before he can undertake his sworn quest to slay a monster. Then he goes on a gay road trip with a supportive nerd to find out if monsters and magic are real. It’s a much kinder book but contains just as much kinky queer sex.

And for my third book, Finley Hall, gay trans millennial vampire, is back! In my Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novelette “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” he grappled with his body. Eight weeks later, he’s back at work and grappling with hierarchical vampire blood bonds and cute ER interns. He’s a bratty bottom, and I love the hell out of him and his Vampire Daddy, Andreas. Not a kind book, but affirming and still hot.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Docile?

Only that my dream is not only for it to spark conversation but to spawn lots of sexy fan art and fic. I may have complex, nuanced opinions, but I’m a simple man.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.