Today, we have the honor of hosting Katherine Scott Nelson's book tour for hir debut novel, Have You Seen Me from the ever fabulous CCLaP. You can download the book here. I recently had the opportunity to send Neslon some interview questions about Have You Seen Me.
Jason Fisk - In a job interview, it’s illegal to directly ask people certain questions, so interviewers circumvent these restrictions by simply asking then interviewee to tell them a little about themselves. I realize that this isn’t a job interview, but I do think the question gives the interviewee the freedom to say whatever they want to say about themselves. So… tell me a little bit about yourself.
Katherine Scott Nelson - Call me credulous, but this is the first I've realized that "tell me about yourself" was a way to get a job interviewee to answer illegal questions. So with that in mind...
*adjusts tie, unstraps messenger bag and places feet on desk*
Hi, nice to meet you. I'm a writer who needs a steady paycheck and some free health insurance.
I take it you've noticed that I am gender-variant. At this workplace, I will do things like use freaky-sounding pronouns, ask where the gender-neutral bathroom is, and cheekily add my name to the end of "Dear Sir or Madam." Whether or not this is a problem will largely depend on the number of tightass bigots you have working for you.
I've also lived with extreme depression and anxiety since early childhood. I manage it really well, and you'd probably never guess this about me... until your insurance premiums triple. What can I say, the pharmaceutical companies have us crazy people over a barrel.
Oh, and the second I get bored, I will start listening to audiobooks.
Whew! That was really fun. I think I had a lot of pent-up frustration about the job interviews I've been to over the past year.
JF - You interviewed me earlier in the year and you asked me a question about wether I considered myself an outlaw or not (due to my past). I thought it was a great question, so I'm throwing it back at you. Do you consider yourself an outlaw?
KSN - It's always been really complicated. When I was a little kid, I was terrified to break rules or be
different, and in a lot of ways, I still am. But my favorite comic strip was Calvin and Hobbes, and I wanted to be just like Calvin. The tension between the Normal and the Other, Good Kid and Bad Kid, the Village and the Forest, have been huge influences on me, both personally and artistically - you can see this all over Have You Seen Me. The first book that ever spoke to me on a grown-up level was The Scarlet Letter, if that tells you anything.
At this point, I don't think I have a choice anymore about whether or not I'm an outlaw. The person I am and the life I've chosen have made me one regardless, no matter how ambivalent I might feel about it.
You've got young kids, so I'm assuming you've seen the X-Men movies? I always think of this scene. I feel like Nightcrawler, but I'm trying to be like Mystique.
JF - In reading Have You Seen Me, I was struck by the fact that you didn’t shy away from many of the difficult issues that young people wrestle with today: homosexuality, cutting, friendship, the struggle to understand the world around them, homophobia, family dynamics, etc. I admire the stances you took, and the honesty and relevance of the issues resonates with me. What can you tell me about where that came from, and how it came to be?
KSN - Almost everything in the book - abuse, drugs, self-injury, an acquaintance's suicide, queer self-loathing - either happened to me or to a close friend of mine before I was 25. I tried to stay very faithful to how it felt to live through it at the time.
But these things aren't particularly specific to young people today. When I was going through a period of intense self-hatred brought on by queerphobia, I reached back to texts written by people who'd experienced the same struggles decades or centuries ago. This 1887 sonnet is one of my favorite poems: "Carrion Comfort" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I think it's one of the best descriptions ever of what it feels like to fight with one's own internalized homophobia.
What's contemporary about the emotional and interpersonal issues in Have You Seen Me are the ways in which they're expressed - the expansion of communication through technology, for example.
JF - Have You Seen Me is a finalist in two categories (Bisexual Fiction and Gay Debut Fiction) for the 24th Annual Lambda Literary Award. What does that mean to you? What has that done to/for your writing? (A big congrats to you!)
KSN - Thanks! I chose the two categories because they represent the material that's in Have You Seen Me. Initially, I entered it in Bisexual Fiction, because [SPOILER!] and because I'm pansexual - it seemed like the most likely fit. Turns out that they let you choose a second category if you come from an underrepresented part of the LGBT.
Becoming a finalist has changed my entire life. I can say that with no exaggeration. Before, I always kind of assumed that I'd get a book published and then return to toiling in obscurity. It's changed my family, my community, my whole sense of myself in the world. It's opened up a completely different future to me. I've started thinking "If this can happen, what else can?"
A lot of people have asked me how I feel about being labeled as an LGBT writer. I don't see an issue with it. I think any perceived stigma is a function of that old narrow thinking - that you're a lesser artist if your work can't be located within the cultural defaults of straight, white, male, cisgender. That there's such a thing as "writers who happen to be LGBT," who make real art, and then there are "LGBT writers" who make PR. That just isn't true.
JF - I love telling people that I think pus is beautiful. They usually cringe and say something like, “That’s just gross,” but if you think about it, it’s your body sacrificing neutrophils to fight infection. I guess it’s the idea of sacrife that I think is beautiful, and I see that manifested in pus. Crazy, I know, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? I see that same sort of beauty in Have You Seen Me. The journey may be gritty at times, but it is the beauty found in unexpected places that makes this such a rewarding read. Tell me about the aesthetics of Have You Seen Me.
KSN - Wow, that's amazing. I'd never thought of pus that way. I think the final couple of scenes are really the heart and soul of the book. One of the best compliments I've ever gotten is Jason Pettus admitting that the ending made him cry almost every time we went over it.
I'm proud of it because it takes the things that have haunted our protagonist and elevates them to a kind of cosmic significance. The boundaries between human and animal, man and woman, straight and gay, life and death, all dissolve or get left behind. The ecstatic enters. The universe expands a little bit. To me, those are core queer values as well.
JF - The main character, Chris, befriends an older man, Albert, who lives on the outskirts of town. I have always been taken with the idea of the outsider, of which Albert would certainly qualify, and the unique perspective that their position as an outsider offers them. What can you tell me about Albert’s role as an outsider? Do you believe that where one stands in relation to society affects their understanding of the world around them?
KSN - So, last weekend was the NATO summit in Chicago. I had to pass through downtown to get to work, and it was tense and surreal - police everywhere, no one on the streets, helicopters overhead every second. I kept wondering what I'd do if I saw Albert backing an Econoline van into an alley. I wondered what Chris would do.
Absolutely, I think that people living outside of the mainstream of society can often have the most profound understandings of it. They can also, unfortunately, lose a sense of connection with and
responsibility towards their fellow humans - and Albert has both of these characteristics. I tried to make it as difficult as possible for Chris, and for the reader, to tease them apart.