Saturday, May 18, 2024

Creator Corner: Interview with Author LaShawn M. Wanak

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It’s time for another edition of Creator Corner, the interview series dedicated to highlighting independent content creators, especially those from marginalized communities. Last year, I went to WisCon, where I got to meet many, many writers. Some were ones I’d admired for years, but others were new to me yet just as impressive and talented. I met LaShawn M. Wanak at the Steven Universe sing-along panel (no, I’m not joking, that was official con programming), and given my own love for the show, I knew I wanted to talk more with her. She graciously accepted my request for an interview, and what unfolded when we met was one of the most interesting, powerful, and beautiful conversations I’ve had in a good long while.

So join me as LaShawn discusses her short fiction, including a horror short story that’s really about grief, writing speculative fiction as a Black woman and, of course, Steven Universe.

Gretchen: What made you want to be a writer? Did you start with poetry, short stories, or long-form fiction?

LaShawn Wanak: When I was a kid, I loved reading. In fact, my mom tells a story where I didn’t speak full sentences until I turned four. I crawled up on my mom’s lap, pulled out a book, and said, “Mama, see the monkey.” From there I started reading voraciously. When I was older, I would make up goofy stories for my sisters and cousins and put them in the stories. I learned how to spell by making up stories for my spelling words. Over time, I realized I always wanted to write stories. When I was twelve, my grandmother bought me a typewriter for me to write all sorts of stories. For the most part, they were Jane Austen-ish, very, very British, because I loved British stories at the time.

In college I started writing a book and also discovered fanfiction. And I was old school fanfiction—mailing lists and zines. That’s actually where I learned to hone my fiction-writing skills. It was great!

G: What fandom were you writing for?

LW: Ranma 1/2 and Sailor Moon. I was a huge anime fan, and at the time we couldn’t get much anime in the US, so we turned to fanfiction.

After I wrote fanfiction, there was a period of time where I stopped writing altogether; I got married, bought a house, dealt with a bunch of life stuff. It wasn’t until I had my son that I decided to pick it up again because I realized being a stay-at-home mom was kind of boring! By 2006, I had a working draft of my novel but when I looked at it, I realized I had to scrap it and start all over again.

In the meantime, I had started writing short fiction. I hadn’t realized I could do that because I’d been writing long form fanfiction for so long. What really inspired me was Neil Gaiman’s, “Snow, Apples, Glass,” a retelling of the Snow White story. I thought to myself, “I can do that,” so I wrote a retelling of Cinderella called “Light as Gossamer” told from the perspective of the slippers. That was my first sold piece, which I sold to Mytholog in 2005.

G: Speaking of your short fiction, tell me more about “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy,” one of your most recent stories, published in Fireside Fiction Magazine. What inspired you to write it?

LW: I used to do these writing exercises where I would take two of my favorite nursery rhymes and see if I could make a story out of it. So basically, the title of “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” comes from the crow counting nursery rhyme: “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, etc”. But I also grew up with the days of the week counting rhyme: ” Monday’s child is full of face,Tuesday’s child is full of grace, Wednesday’s child if full of woe, etc.”

I used to have a pendant that said, “Tuesday’s child is full of grace,” because I was born on a Tuesday. I’ve always resonated with that rhyme. So my process was, “Okay, we have children, crows, what can come out of it?” And what came out of it was this really creepy story about an undertaker preparing dead children for burial. That was…very weird…and I looked at it and thought, “Wow, this will never see the light of day,” so I put it away. It was so creepy and bizarre! I didn’t want to show it to anyone.

G: So what made you change your mind about showing it to people?

LW: I wrote the initial story way back in 2010/2011, and since that time, a lot of stuff happened. Ferguson happened. Black Lives Matter happened. I had a miscarriage. A lot of stuff happened at my day job. At the time, I was going through a period of grief. I was trying to figure out how to write about it, but nothing I wrote seemed to fit right, so I put my writing away and focused on other things. Then one day either in late 2017 or early 2018, I decided to go through my old writing and came across, “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy.” I looked at it and what immediately popped into my head was, “This isn’t a story about dead children, this is a story about grief.” Once that clicked into place, I sat down and wrote the rest of it in a week. I sent it out without thinking much of it and it got picked up in the fourth market I sent it to.

G: Wow! What a powerful realization to have when you come back to a story like that.

LW: Yeah, and that’s one of the things where you tell writers to never throw anything away. Even if it’s just for you, you never know what will happen. You’ll be in a different mindset when you come back to it and look at it in a new way.

Every since this story got published, I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Thank you! This is exactly what I’ve been going through.” It’s like…yeah. Because this wasn’t about the children, it was about how you deal with grief. I was in the part of my life where I was moving on from grief, so having that space and distance in time between the time when the story was written and when I finished it really, really helped.

I’ve also written another story about grief in the meantime, though it’s not as much about grief as “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy.” It came out in FIYAH magazine and is called “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good.” One of the characters is dealing with grief but in a totally different manner.

But “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy,” is one of those stories that really blew even me away. Sometimes I think, “Did I write that?!” And have you seen the illustration for it? It’s amazing!

When I wrote the story, I didn’t really think of it as creepy. I mean, it is creepy, but it’s creepy in a more melancholy manner. That’s overall the setting I was going for. Yeah, on the one hand you have this undertaker who is taking care of dead children, and there’s something very unsettling about that. But the way that she cares for them turns it to this thing of love. It’s a sad thing, but it’s also a thing that’s necessary.

G: Tell me about writing scifi, fantasy, and horror as a Black woman. What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face? Benefits?

LW: Writing as a Black woman has been interesting to say the least. We live in a very interesting time where it’s actually now like a golden age, where we have all these Black authors. When I was growing up, I didn’t see Black science fiction writers, with the exception of Octavia Butler. I would also add Gloria Naylor because a lot of what she wrote can be considered magical realism, but because it’s “magical realism” and in the “literary” category, it can’t be considered “fantasy.”

So, for the longest time, most of the Black authors that I knew wrote literature, and most of that was serious literature, dealing with slavery, racism, things of that nature. It was very hard for me to find books written by Black authors that were just, like, something fun about dragons. So I either had to make up my own stories or read books written by white authors and put myself into them. That was kind of hard, because I didn’t think that could happen, that people like me could exist in those stories.

This all changed when I decided to write stories professionally in 2006. Right around that time a lot of Black authors that we know of now were starting to emerge: Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl, Nora Jemisin, or N. K. Jemisin. Not long after that was when Racefail was happening, which I learned about when a friend of a friend who hosted a feminist science fiction book club invited me onto LiveJournal.

So what happened was that at the time, Nora wrote a LiveJournal post in response to another post. She talked about writing stories from Black peoples’ point of view and how we have to work with that and imagine it ourselves because we don’t have it. That essay took me so by surprise because it was something I’d never seriously considered before.

At the time I was working on the second version of my book. In it, the main character was a white male and his bodyguard was a Black woman. Reading Nora’s post seriously challenged me. I looked at my book and was like, “What if I told this story from the Black woman bodyguard’s point of view?” But to do that, I’d have to throw away almost everything that I’d written, which was a lot! But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Why not?” But I did it. I tossed that second draft and now I’m working on the third.

But doing that had pushed my boundaries and made me ask myself, “Okay, what can we write?” For the longest time, we’ve been told that people haven’t been interested in reading Black people’s stories or you have to write it a certain way. But that’s not true at all! Especially now that Black Panther has come out and been successful. It dealt with a lot of things that are specific to Black culture and experience, but do it in a way that’s lighthearted. It’s a superhero movie! It’s a total game changer.

That’s actually one of the reasons why, when I wrote “One for Sorrow, Two for Joy,” not only did I decide to make the undertaker herself a person of color, I made the two women she deals with last Black. One of them has cornrows, the other one wears a turban. If you look in the illustration, you can actually see a tiny figure of the turbaned woman. And that means a lot to me because it’s a Black person in a fantasy story. We’re finally beginning to see ourselves and imagine ourselves in fantasy, science fiction, horror, and other kinds of speculative fiction. It’s a really cool thing.

G: It sounds to me that your experience as a writer has been that you’re writing the stories you would have wanted to read. 

LW: Exactly. The stories that I write run the gamut. There’s a short story I wrote a while back about a supervillain group that’s trying to fill in a new position, “The Summation of Evilcorp Subsidies HR Meeting Agenda Minutes, Compiled by Olivia Washington.” Because I worked in HR, it turned into this goofy, cute story about putting in a new supervillain CEO. And that’s something you don’t normally see.

G: I love those stories about banal things in a fantastical setting. They’re just so real! Supervillain HR sounds delightful, and like a ton of paperwork. 

LW: So much paperwork.

G: So, you’re also a big fan of Steven Universe (as am I), how did you get into watching it and what is it about the show that keeps you coming back?

LW: Well, my son is also a huge fan, but gosh, I don’t even remember how I got into watching it. I remember seeing a few articles about it when it first came out, and at one point, my son and I binged watched the whole first season. That hooked us.

A lot of what we like about it is that, well for one thing, Steven is a lot like my son. My son has curly hair, he’s an only child. Granted he has a mother and father instead of three gems to look after him, but still. My son can relate to him because Steven is bi—

G: What do you call someone who is part gem and part human? It’s not biracial… Bispecies? That’s the best I can come up with.

LW: That’s probably the best thing I can think of too. Similar to Steven, my son is biracial, half Black, half white, so he identifies a lot with Steven in that regard.

Of course I love it because the story is amazing, it’s absolutely amazing. Even from a writer’s viewpoint alone, the way they do foreshadowing is amazing. The Pink Diamond twist is like, on the one hand, that makes perfect sense, but on the other, you did not see it coming!

G: Right?! But then you can go back and watch earlier episodes and think, “How did I miss that?”

LW: So in itself, the show is a masterclass in foreshadowing. But there’s also the way it takes on gender and relationships. I’ve been struggling to find a way to talk to my son about how to view different kinds of relationships, and Steven Universe is a perfect example of how to do it. When “Cry for Help” aired, my son and I ended up having a long talk afterward about what consent looks like.

Now, my son is a 14 year-old boy. Hormones are going to start kicking in at some point. Showing him how to treat women—I think the show goes a long way toward showing him what that looks like, treating them with not just respect but also making sure their needs are met. Even the way that Greg reacts to Steven, it’s such a loving relationship. Steven Universe shows that relationships are about not dominating other people but making it more equal, checking in and making sure that the other person is doing fine. It’s about all of that. For that alone, it has been amazing.

G: Yes! I also love the way it handles mental illness. It’s so honest and yet non-judgmental, and healing is non-linear. I’m so glad it exists.

LW: It feels like it might be getting wrapped up soon, though who knows. But I hope that when it does wrap up it gets released on a big Blu-ray box set. I’ll be there will all my money like “Take it, take my money.”

G: If you could give one piece of advice to other aspiring writers who want to write original fiction and/or fanfiction that you don’t think others are saying, what would it be?

LW: I can’t think of anything other than to read. Wait, actually no. I think it’s okay to not write everyday if you need to replenish that part of you. And everyone’s writing is going to be different. If you need to write every day, write every day. If you need to wait to get everything stored up and let it loose in one massive writing orgy, then yeah, do that.

I think overall, my thing is that if you’re a writer, then claim it. And that goes for people who are fanfic writers, people who write professionally—a writer is a writer is a writer. No matter what they write. If you’re putting words down for other people to read, or not even that, if you’re putting it down just for yourself to read. You are a writer.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

LW: So, there’s the third iteration of the novel, which is on it’s final draft and the last round of editing. My plan is to get that finished and out. I have no idea what I’m going to do after that!

I also do have several articles that were just released. I reviewed Nisi Shawl’s Filter House for In September, I had a column come out in Apex Magazine about Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. That one was fun to write. One of these days I’m going to come up with a way to pitch it to Christianity Today as a way of saying, “Actually, you really do need to listen to this because it’s a really important album.” I may have to code switch some of the column to Evangelical language to get them to take it, ha!

G: Thanks so much for talking with me LaShawn, this was a delight!

LW: You’re welcome!

About LaShawn M. Wanak

LaShawn M. Wanak lives in Madison, WI, with her husband and son. Her short fiction and essays can be found in Mytholog, Fireside Magazine, Strange HorizonsPodcastle and Uncanny Magazine. She reviews books for Lightspeed Magazine and is a graduate of the 2011 class of Viable Paradise. Writing stories keeps her sane. Also, pie.

For a full list of LaShawn’s published work, click here. You can find and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. And make sure to check out her website Cafe in the Woods so you can stay updated on all her writing and convention appearances!

Images Courtesy of LaShawn Wanak and Fireside Magazine

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