feature image photo of Mac Crane by Jerrelle Wilson
There are so many brilliant queer authors putting out work today and I recently got the opportunity to chat with one of my favorites, Mac Crane (they/them). Their debut novel I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself takes place in a surveillance state where people convicted of wrongdoing by The Department of Balance are assigned an extra shadow and become “Shadesters.” These shadows serve a constant as a reminder of their shame as well as an invitation for societal discrimination and harassment. The novel opens with Shadester Kris as she’s handed her newborn daughter who has been assigned an extra shadow for “killing” her mother in childbirth. The story that unfolds is one grief but also of love and community in the face of institutional oppression. You can read more about I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself in Yashwina’s book review, and A+ members can check out the discord transcript from when Mac joined us back in March for Read A Fucking Book Club.
They recently a signed a two-book deal with Dial Press described by Publisher’s Marketplace as, “an untitled coming-of-age novel about obsession, ambition, and the intimate, erotic connection between two teammates, pitched as Call Me By Your Name meets Love & Basketball set at a Pennsylvania high school in the early 2000s; and a story collection centering queer and trans desire, performance, and the distance between who we are and what we want.”
Author’s Note: This interview has been edited, and some conversational threads have been re-organized for clarity.
Gen: Hey Mac! How are you?
Mac: Hi! I’m good, how are you?
Gen: Oh dude, I’m good! Hyped to get a chance to talk with you.
Mac: I’m so excited to talk to you too. You are the best hype person I could dream of. Any excuse to talk gay and sports stuff.
Gen: Those are actually my two primary conversation genres.
Mac: Very much same.
Gen: Alright well, speaking of gay stuff, I’d love to start by asking you about your badass book I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself. I know this book started from your poem which reads, “If the shadows of everyone you’ve ever hurt followed you around, day in and day out, would you still be so reckless with people’s hearts?” What was the process like going from that poem to writing a full novel?
Mac: Oh man, unplanned. I mean the entire process. I never intended to write a novel about it. I wrote it when I was young and feeling very sad for myself and full of shame. I thought shaming myself into behaving better was a great idea. Like Scarlet Lettering myself. Then I promptly forgot about the poem. I had a lot of growing up to do and a lot of examining my shame and relationship to it. How the shame was what was preventing me from changing, not helping etc.
Gen: How did your mindset around shame evolve before and as you wrote this book?
Mac: I really had been living inside of it for so long. When I was young, I felt a lot of shame around being queer.
Gen: Been there.
Mac: I also felt a lot of shame around hurting people, which only perpetuated the cycle of pain. It felt pretty inescapable for a while, like I was just stuck going round and round and piling the shame on. I felt shame around mental health too, having severe anxiety and depression, not knowing what to do with any of it. But I started to think of shame as the actual issue…not all the things I was ashamed about. Shame was the thing that had to go. And if I couldn’t get rid of it completely, I would at least acknowledge the ways it affected my life, my decisions, my mental health and relationships.
Gen: Your book really helped me shift the ways I related to my own shame. It’s a really hard mindset to change, especially when we live in a world so hyper focused on punitive actions.
Mac: What was your relationship to shame like?
Gen: I have some pretty severe issues related to depression and anxiety which got compounded for a while with shame I felt around queerness. I was not always the best at dealing with it and for a while I just used coping strategies which were ultimately harmful to me and the people who cared about me. I’m entering an era where I’m trying to be more honest about it because I feel like not talking about our problems only adds to that shame pile on.
Mac: Oh absolutely — and thank you for sharing that with me. It’s weird, but I like talking about shame. I guess because it tends to be a thing people shy away from talking about. Even as we start having open conversations about many things related to it. I feel like, at least in my experience, shame is something we often talk around without actually naming it.
Mac: It just got so entwined with everything else that I couldn’t piece any of it apart.
Gen: I could see that. Because this book isn’t just about shame on a personal level; it’s also talking about how corrupt governments utilize shame to further enforce systems of surveillance, marginalization, and punishment.
Mac: Yeah, for sure.
Gen: Did you set out to use the emotional landscape of shame and the genre of dystopia to write an abolitionist text? Or did that come together later?
Mac: I did. I wanted it to be abolitionist in nature, to draw the parallels between and reveal the cruelty of different forms of punishment. Like there are no prisons in the world of my book but they’ve replaced them with another punitive measure that’s inhumane. And if a reader who maybe isn’t sold on abolishing the prison industrial complex reads my book and feels that this shadow system and surveillance society is unjust and horrifying, maybe they can take that next step and realize how horrifying incarceration is.
Gen: How did your views on prison abolition evolve as you wrote this book? Do you have particular resource recommendations?
Mac: I was still very new to it while I was drafting Exoskeletons so I was just immersing myself in everything I could. Reading Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, Andrea J. Ritchie, Derecka Purnell, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and beyond. I think probably in the beginning I was so stoked on the idea of abolition but was limited in my vision or imagination — I couldn’t picture it or see how it would work, but reading all these essential texts really helped me imagine a better future.
Gen: We definitely live in a world that tries to limit our imagination when it comes to the possibility of living free from corrupt institutions. I feel like that actually goes nicely into my next question. I know you’re a parent and you write about parenting really beautifully here. How has parenting gone on to impact your writing?
Mac: Man, I mean it’s impacted my writing in practical ways like I have way less predictable time to sit down and just write at my computer. Parenting has helped me embrace a flexibility that I never really had. I was so rigid, especially with my own schedule. Like, I will get up every day at 5 am and work on whatever and if I don’t then I’m a failure. Then there’s the shame again. Parenting has helped me view everything as writing — which feels corny to say but every time I say it, it feels truer and truer. I slow down and meditate on my writing, on big questions I want my work to interrogate and then you know, it maybe gives me more of that imagination for a better future we were talking about. I have this tiny person in my care who I want so much for.
Gen: I have no doubt you’re an amazing parent and the art you’re putting into the world is making it better. On the topic of art you’re putting into the world, congratulations on your two book deal! What can you share with us about the projects?
Mac: Thank you! So, it’s for a novel and a story collection. Right now, the novel is called A Sharp Endless Need.
Mac: Gay. Very Gay. It’s about two high school queer basketball players in 2004 in bumble Pennsylvania.
Gen: My dreams have come true.
Mac: It’s something that is near and dear to my heart for a million reasons.
Gen: Can you give maybe one or two?
Mac: Well, it’s not autofiction, but it gets at the heart of my adolescence. Before I really realized I was queer, I had a lot of complicated and intense “friendships” with basketball teammates. I didn’t know what was happening, what it meant and it was confusing because it was in this gray area like we weren’t making out but we felt like we were in a relationship and the friendship would be really addictive in many ways and then end in heartbreak. Nowadays, I refer to some of these people as “pre-girlfriends”. Not to their faces, of course. It was a really hard space to navigate and all of that was complicated by playing with these people.
Gen: Wait, I needed this term for myself.
Mac: There were so many pre-girlfriends. Like, examining the connection and chemistry we had on the court, it only heightened the feelings I had off the court. I thought nothing else could compare to doing something I love more than anything with someone I love, but don’t realize I love.
Gen: I will say basketball is one of the hottest sports.
Mac: Basketball is extremely hot, and I wanted that to come through in the book. The eroticism of basketball. Like there’s the surface drama of who will win the game. But really it’s like wow, this is sex.
Gen: Everything I need in a novel! What can you tell us about your collection?
Mac: I can tell you it’s very gay and trans. Right now it’s called PERVERTS, shout out to Venita Blackburn at Sewanee for helping me name it.
Gen: That’s gonna be another preorder from me.
Mac: The stories are very strange, and I sort of hate being like hahaha I’m so bizarre! Because I’m not, but they take on a sort of absurd edge to reveal things about queer and trans desire, identity, and the performances we put on for people within our community and outside of it.
Gen: I feel like the best stories do go for that absurd edge.
Mac: It’s a lot about performance, I’d say and there are some queer and trans reimaginings in there as well. A queer Peter Pan reimagining. Those are very fun for me to write.
The stories, for me, feel like when I’m at my most playful, even as they take on very serious themes.
Gen: Do you mind sharing a bit about your experience putting out queer literature today? Anything from the beautiful to the challenging.
Mac: Oh gosh, you know. It’s such a complicated and beautiful experience. The best part is having queer readers reach out to me and share their experiences of reading it and tell me what’s meaningful to them. Or how it changed them. I mean, it’s literally UNREAL for me to believe that something I wrote changed someone. But it’s incredibly moving to hear nonetheless you know, and then all of this beauty intersecting with book bans and feeling afraid for queer and trans kids who might not be able to go into a library and find the book they need. Not specifically mine, but any queer or trans book that makes them feel seen.
Gen: The cruelty of taking away stories from children who need them is earth-shattering.
Mac: It is so fucking earth-shattering. There’s also an added complication, at least for me personally, to publishing a book that has a lot of queer sex scenes on the page. It’s the only way I know how to write — including queer and trans pleasure and sex and desire — because that’s my life? And I have to deal with people in my immediate world who I think try to shame me for putting so much queer sex on the page, like it’s not palatable. Or like queerness is only palatable if it’s PG-rated, single, close-mouthed kiss. But let’s bring this full circle baby because I refuse to feel ashamed for squirting!
Gen: I’m so grateful to authors and artists doing that work, because there is so much shame around queer sex and queer sexuality. We belong fully on the page and in media, not just the bits people see as “tolerable”.
Mac: For real. I hate the word tolerance. It’s the worst.
Gen: Well, I can honestly say that your work tells tolerance to fuck right off.