Today I have something quite special for you gorgeous people who keep following me through my growth as a blogger, or recently started doing so. I am not the very expansive type neither in real life nor in this blog, it seems, so I thought I would try to be a tad more open and share at least some of the goals I wish to accomplish with blogging and reviewing. One was to start doing author interviews and as the post title suggests, I did! Joe was kind enough to accept to be interviewed by me and I am so happy of the end result of this first step of mine in a new area of blogging. Another of my goals was to take a step into the publishing world, even if just a very small one (but extremely gargantuan to me), and around the end of December, I was contacted by the largest (and most incredible) publishing house in Italy, to do some freelance work (similar to reviewing, but not quite) and I cannot express how much joy I felt because of that email.
Enough about me though. Let’s focus on the star of this post: Joe Koch and his forthcoming book Convulsive, their debut short story collection.
Hi Joe and welcome to my QueerBookdom! I would say that the best way to start this interview is with a little introduction to you and Convulsive, your debut short stories collection. Do you have a synopsis that you could share with us?
Joe Koch (he/they) writes literary horror and surrealist trash. A Shirley Jackson Award finalist, they are the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and the forthcoming collection Convulsive from Apocalypse Party Press. His short fiction appears in Years Best Hardcore Horror, Liminal Spaces, Not All Monsters, and many others. Find Joe online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.
The publisher and I agreed to keep the synopsis short: “New museums birth atrocity in every flex: fifteen horror stories of religion, abuse, desire, and gender.”
Most authors have always been voracious readers first. Does this include you? What led you to writing and how would you describe your craft’s process?
Yes! Reading gave me glimpses into different worlds that weren’t part of my upbringing. I read voraciously from an early age. Fortunately, the public library was across the street from the big church I had to go to as a kid even; this was before the internet was around, when cable TV was a new thing. I skipped lots of church events and hung out at the library instead!
I never expected to be a writer, though. It came as a surprise after I’d said what I wanted in visual arts and felt done with drawing and painting. Next I became enamored with organic & homestead gardening, and my garden was my giant living sculpture so to speak. I wrote a blog about it, going on tangents about manipulating time and how a garden is a community and so on. I got interested in how fairy tales and drama relate to seasonal and natural cycles, and in the transformations I witnessed or made in the garden. That experience of working with the land led into writing fiction.
My process now is whatever works. I like pulling techniques from ridiculous surrealist games as much as I try to practice creative discipline and time management. That said, my process certainly relates back to drawing and gardening, two creative endeavors that involve a great deal of looking and attending. Writing means listening, and sometimes a story takes shape slowly. Stories have different life cycles and bloom times, to follow the garden metaphor.
You talked about how gardening led you to fiction and your past in visual arts. How does that influence you writing and is there anything else that impacts your works?
Regarding influences, of course there are writers who stick with me, but there’s so much more than fiction. Reading nonfiction about medieval history figures into several stories in Convulsive such as Paradisum Voluptatis (which is based on the art of Heironomous Bosch) and Rust Belt Requiescat (an alchemical imagining of the relationship between Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais). I mentioned gardening; books on plant cultivation, insect biology, and other life forms like fungi and moss influence me. Beyond reading, influences come from art, music, film, and direct experience. Real life is probably the most important! Spending time away from words helps put us in touch with the numinous. That’s the appeal of nature. I’ve recently had to move to a huge city and I’m feeling horribly cut off. It’s this lack of connection to the deeper world around me that I’m writing about right now, and my newer stories are about the brutality of living in isolation, and about grief and loss. We’ve all been through tremendous stress and loss during the pandemic, and that’s a big part of what I’m processing in my current fiction. I’m glad Convulsive exists as a document of not quite happier but maybe naiver times when I lived first with my garden, and later near the mountains, and had the strong connection with the transhuman world that I need to thrive.
My blog’s main objective is the celebration of queerness in its every facet and I have very open definition of what does and does not fall under the label “queer” in relation to books. I consider a book as queer if the author is queer and there are no queer characters on page (an asterisk is added near the title to let potential readers know beforehand) because I am firm believer that queer authors absolutely have the right not to be obliged to write queer characters in their novels and those novels are (for me at least) still intrinsically queer; if the author is queer and there are queer characters, even if only prominent secondary ones; and if the author is not queer (or not divulging that part of themselves yet), but there are queer characters on page, even if only prominent secondary ones. So, is there any queer representation in Convulsive?
Yes! During the span of years when these stories were written, I came to realize I was trans and came out as nonbinary and transmasculine. But long before I understood myself as queer, I wrote queer characters, including a gay werewolf couple in a short book called The Couvade. (It was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2019.) I mention this in part because it speaks to your discussion about queer labels and writers who may not be out in one area of life, or not at all. I presented as a cis female at the time, and it was published under the name Joanna Koch, as was my novella The Wingspan of Severed Hands.
We have to be very careful not to out people who aren’t ready, and to refrain from judging whether anyone else is “queer enough” based on a public persona. Part of my queer perspective that has nothing to do with gender identity and has permeated my thinking from a young age is my belief humans are more multifaceted and changeable than we often think we are. We too often allow ourselves to be limited in how we live our lives by society, family, and internalized rules that mismatch our heart’s true will. I’d like to think my stories help people experience a moment beyond those strictures. Eric LaRocca puts it beautifully in their introduction to the collection, where they speak about my stories calling for the reader to be transformed through the grotesque.
Transformations of mind and body occur in the stories, and some tend toward the extreme end of body horror. There are straight cis characters confronted by difference, transformations both voluntary and involuntary, and trans, nonbinary, and gay characters. I use they/them pronouns in many stories to reflect the diversity of my characters. Because religion, sexuality, and the effects of abuse concern me, those themes make a strong showing as well. Remember, this is a horror collection. There’s some very difficult material here. I call my writing lyrical splatter and state in my biography that I write “literary horror & surrealist trash” to convey the attitude, aesthetic approach, and content as much as possible. My horror isn’t nihilistic, though; it’s about possibilities. If it’s ugly, I hope it’s gloriously, transcendentally so. That’s why I named the collection after a quote from the surrealist Andre Breton. He said, “Beauty must be, or not at all.”
Since Convulsive is a horror collection, I want to ask you: have you always loved horror? I am asking because I have been scared of horror for a long time, but simultaneously, very attracted to it. I started approaching it again only some years ago and perhaps coincidentally, it was around the same time I started questioning my gender identity. As a bonus question: do you want to share with us some recommendation of queer horror you especially love? Be they movies, series or other literary works.
I have always had an affinity for horror. As the black sheep in a dysfunctional family, I identified with the monsters and villains, which of course we now know are queer coded. Oddly, horror was allowed by my super-conservative family, and of all the things I got in trouble for, reading or watching horror was never one of them.
I’ve been through phases of not wanting to engage with trauma and therefore not wanting to consume horror, too, so I get what you mean about your relationship with it. You have to give yourself permission to bail out or come to horror prepared for triggers. Or seeking triggers! They can be beautifully cathartic.
When The Evil Dead came out, I was too young to get into the theater alone and convinced my older sister to take me. She walked out during the tree scene. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I mean that in a good way. Because no one was talking in public about rape or sex trafficking. In fact, legally at the time, a spouse could not report rape. Forcing your spouse to have sex was your legal right. Sam Raimi has said he wouldn’t put that scene in if he remade the film, but I’m so glad he did, especially at that time in history. There was so much silence imposed on survivors. Seeing this absurd and graphic representation of an unspeakable assault blew my mind in the best possible way.
Horror is one of the safe places for really digging into trauma, and I love that about it.
You asked about queer horror: The Book of Queer Saints table of contents will be an excellent guidebook for finding new authors as soon as it comes out. (No pun intended.) The book will include my new story “The Love That Whirls,” a take off on the idea of Kenneth Anger’s early lost film of the dame name combined with the music of Coil, a band I love. Other authors include Hailey Piper and Eric Larocca, who of course are friends and favorites. I think Eric Raglin is also in Queer Saints; he’s a queer author and friend whose stories I also really enjoy.
Other queer horror/speculative authors I’ve been into recently are Gretchen Felker-Martin, Eve Harms, Jo Quenel, Donyae Coles, Kyle Miller, and Sam Richard to name a few. Please find more recommendations by following these authors and groups like Diversity in Horror on Twitter because I’m a slow reader and probably forgot a million great people! I also left out a few authors I love who are queer but who avoid marketing as such because I’m not sure how comfortable they’d feel getting listed here. Honestly, once you start looking, we’re everywhere!
To connect with your recommendations: is there any particular IP work you would love to write for? Maybe a video game franchise or a movie saga? I can tell you I would love to write a Glen story or anything Chucky-related (I am a hard-core fan of Don Mancini’s work) or something for the meta-slasher The Final Girls.
I haven’t really thought about it! When I engage with media history and franchises, I really use them as jumping off points, as ekphrastic prompts that get ground into pigments used in a bigger composition. I also often prefer going as far back to older sources as possible. Because nothing is really new, you know? All art is a response to art that came before, and cultivating an awareness of how you want to respond and what history you’re building on is part of the task.
You may have noticed I avoided the term ownvoices in my questions. I am not very keen on it as I see it as double-edged sword which in the worst of cases only causes problems and forces people to divulge parts of themselves they are not ready to reveal, which are no one’s business anyway. I obviously see its value as a tool to help readers know that the stories they are reading are written using lived experiences, but still I think that alas, it is now being misused and weaponised to attack authors. Do you have any thoughts about it?
I do; it’s come up twice in our conversation already! Labels always have danger. They can exclude some people as much as they include others, and they can give assholes an easy weapon to wield against us. I’ve made a conscious decision to be extremely out on social media. This is not the right choice for everybody.
I’ve done it because I had no transmasculine role model until after I realized I was trans, nor did I have an awareness transition was medically possible at my age (I was already over fifty). I took an enormous leap off a cliff with only two people who knew my “secret” as tangential support. No one should have to do that alone, so I’m willing to stand up and make an ass out of myself with my messy transition remaining online in old pictures and posts. And if people decide someday to attack me, I’ve been alive a long time and probably been through much worse. I won’t hesitate to take legal action against a physical threat. Having put up with more than my share of harassment in the real world, I feel prepared to stand up to bullies. But no one should be forced into this position, and your reluctance to use ownvoices as a descriptor comes from a good wariness that people who aren’t up for a fight may be coerced into one. It goes back to my earlier point: we must not judge, and we must allow that people can change.
Queer writers were completely welcoming to my gay werewolves even though I didn’t identify myself as queer when I wrote The Couvade, as I said earlier. To get very real about it, I was an “egg” as they say and just starting to “crack” (come out) when the Isabel Fall debacle happened. I loved her story. It spoke to me as a “baby trans” person. I shared it and then deleted my post in fear when respected authors said she was a troll. I remember thinking, holy shit, I’d better be careful what I write, because I have really complicated feelings like that writer! That could be me! As I watched the situation play out, I thought through what it means to write truthfully. It often means writing transgressively, which is something I embrace. If I became known as the next Burroughs or Guyotat I’d be thrilled. I just don’t think truth can come out of anything written from a place of fear. So my writing remains full of difficult complicated emotional tones that may not fit the moment’s popular discourse. Too bad!
In conclusion, is there any advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?
Don’t expect to get anything right the first time. Make lots of mistakes in your first draft. Learn to implement the criticism you receive, in fact go after criticism! Seek it out. Read your work out loud. Try to be brave and tell the truth.
Thank you so much for accepting to be my first interviewee and the first visitor of my QueerBookdom, Joe. I am looking forward to reading Convulsive and whatever you will write in the future!
Thank you! It was an absolute pleasure chatting, Gabriele. Take care!
Convulsive will be out on April 19th!
Pre-order links: Apocalypse Party Press
You will also find a story by Joe (and many other contributors) in the upcoming anthology Let the Weirdness In: a Tribute to Kate Bush, a collection of weird and bizarro fiction inspired by the work of artist, Kate Bush, edited by Evan St. Jones.
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