Feature image of Charlie Jane Anders by Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People
A summary of each story could essentially begin with a “what if?” What if a half-fairy/half-werewolf fought a half-vampire/half-zombie? What if the man who can see the one inevitable future dates the woman who can see all possible divergent futures? What if your own ghost somehow traveled back in time to haunt you? What if a television-like device was created that allowed anyone to see who, in fact, was sentenced to various versions of the afterlife? What if the Time Travel Club, a group of nerdy roleplay enthusiasts, were suddenly confronted with an actual time machine?
The thing is, while simultaneously built on fantastically thought-provoking, bizarre, and often hilarious premises, they are, in none of these stories, the point. The point is: How do the (mostly) human beings confronted with these scenarios live, love, survive, and thrive within them? How do they relate to each other? The myriad ways Anders explores the relationships we form, and stretch, and break, whether in an alternate present or a post-apocalyptic future, are heartbreaking, joyous, hopeful, terrifying, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. The premises are clever, but the characters, and their journeys, are poignant — and help us to see ourselves, in our “normal” time and space, in a new light.
I spoke with her about Even Greater Mistakes, short stories as a form, queer and trans representation, and about the future.
Abeni: In the introduction to this collection, you wrote that you never intended to write a novel, or multiple novels — that your “deepest loyalty” is to short fiction. Why is that?
Charlie Jane Anders: I think that short stories are a space where you can experiment more. A short story might appear in a magazine with 10 other short stories, or a book with like 20 other short stories. If people don’t like one short story, they can just read the next one.
But also, right now is a really amazing time for specifically trans and nonbinary science fiction and fantasy and horror … and a lot of the best stuff I’m reading are short stories. Books like Meanwhile Elsewhere, and there’s a series of anthologies called Transcendent. And there are a bunch of short story collections that have come out by trans authors recently, like Nino Cipri and Bogi Takács.
What is an example of an experiment you took in a short story that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you were working on a longer project?
Half the stories in Even Greater Mistakes are experiments that I definitely would not be able to sustain through a novel! For example, “Love Might Be Too Strong A Word.” It’s set in a space city with six different genders and neo pronouns. I wrote a ton of notes about how everything works in that world, where they came from and where they’re going and, like, why do they have these six different genders? And how that all works?
And so it was a bigger world, but I felt like it wouldn’t work as a longer thing. And I feel like oftentimes, part of what I like about short stories is that you can kind of feel like there’s stuff that’s going on just outside of the frame of the story.
There’s often a lot going on outside or in the background, but your stories seem more often focused on relationships and pretty universal human emotions and experiences, even though they’re taking place in this fantastical scenario.
Yeah! That’s part of what’s fun about doing speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy stuff in particular is you get to have big stuff going on, big ideas. But to me, it’s only interesting if it’s personal, if it’s about someone and their personal experience or their personal journey. And often that is relationships, either with another person or with their community. And so, there’s like the shiny things off in the distance — but the more you can kind of just have those be like in the background and have like the personal stuff be what the story is really about, the more I get into it.
Speaking of community, discourse around trans representation in the media is very popular these days. Most of your characters are queer or trans. Do you feel pressure — should trans writers feel some type of obligation about how and/or whether we “represent” the “community” in our work?
It’s tricky. The stories I love the most of mine often are the ones with trans protagonists or trans characters, just because that feels close to my heart. You know, it’s weird because sometimes I will write a story and decide for various reasons, to do with the plot or the world or whatever, that it doesn’t make sense for the main character to be trans.
For example, in this collection, “If You Take My Meaning,” which is about a queer cis woman. And she gets this operation that transforms her, and she’s then able to communicate with these other creatures. And I’ve lost count of how many people have said, “oh, this spoke to me really deeply as a trans person.”
I do feel like representation is important, and I’ve definitely had a fire lit under me in the last like five or six years, as a trans person with a certain amount of visibility, to present sympathetic — not even sympathetic, but just to present trans people who aren’t solely defined by transness?
There are a few trans narratives that we’re “allowed” to tell. And they kind of shape the lives we’re allowed to lead to some extent, because they become part of whether people will accept us in the real world. If we’re not exactly like these archetypes that people are seeing, in movies like Transamerica or whatever, then we don’t maybe don’t get accepted. And so it’s important to write different narratives, that either have different ways of being trans, or just that this person’s transness is not what the story is about.
But also, if I felt like I was only allowed to write, you know, protagonists who shared my identity in a bunch of ways, I would maybe start to feel kind of stuck. I feel like it’s almost taking away my choice to write about other aspects of my experience. I feel like the moment it becomes the thing that you’re expected to do, rather than a thing that you do because you feel like you want to, or because you want to do something positive for your community, it kind of drains some of the life out of it for me.
It makes sense, given that the mainstream portrayals of us are almost universally negative, but some would say writing exclusively positive or sympathetic trans stories is a reaction to transphobia, and is thus a constraint as well.
If we only write about trans people who are going make cis people not want to kill us, we end up writing these kind of one-dimensional characters, and I don’t think that’s going to do anybody any good. I’ve definitely read some amazing trans fiction recently where the author did a really good job of making the main character kind of a jerk, but you still care about them. And you understand why they’re being a jerk.
One story in this collection, “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue,” is about a trans woman who gets taken prisoner by this evil organization. I wrote that for a mainstream literary journal. I was hoping it would get attention from like, mainstream cis people, you know. So I wrote something that might kind of force people to sympathize a little bit or force people to kind of understand our perspective a little bit. But in that story, I go out of my way to make the main character a little bit of an asshole, because I was worried about that, you know?
Science fiction is often concerned with the apocalyptic, the dystopian, the end of the world. And I felt like that story was actually one of the few in this collection that was about what could happen if all the terrible problems of the present continue into the future. But many authors have talked about how speculative fiction can be a really fecund genre for imagining a hopeful future beyond the struggles that trans people face in the present. Some of your stories are post-apocalyptic, but I frequently noticed a really positive, hopeful tone in a lot of them.
In science fiction, there’s been this whole conversation about hope over the last three or four years. Hope doesn’t mean that things are going to be easy, or that everything’s gonna work out. Hope can mean things are going to be really hard, but we’re going to work together. We’re going to get our hands dirty and build something new, and we’re going to get through it together. If we believe in each other and believe in our communities. One of the stories in the collection takes place in a flooded San Francisco. But it doesn’t have to be a depressing story.
It’s a story about how we’re rebuilding and how everything is actually going to be OK. That’s what I want to read: some stories about … like, the apocalypse has happened. And the story is about … figuring out how to make a really nice cup of tea for each other after the apocalypse. You know, people taking care of each other in little ways. Because, unless the entire human species dies out completely, we’re still gonna have families and communities. We’re still going to be nice to each other. We’re still going to have joy, and friendship.
I do think that you have to kind of sometimes be like, “look, we’re heading for something really bad.” And you do have to kind of keep finding ways to wake people up. Because people get really used to bad news – like, this thing that would have seemed completely horrible and unthinkable five years ago is now just like, “Oh, of course that’s going on,” you know?
One of the things that you can do in speculative fiction, or just in stories generally, is make people look at the stuff that they’re screening out. I feel like we train ourselves not to see things, like, homelessness, for example. Or what the police are doing around us. And that’s part of how we get through the world, is by having, like, filters. And the thing that stories can do is kind of knock you out of that by being like, “Look, look, this thing that you’re ignoring, you have to look at it now.”
I don’t love trauma porn, and I don’t love wallowing and just being like “everything is terrible.” There has to be, like, “Yes. And we can fight back. And we can build something better. And if we stick together and form strong communities then we can get through this.”
What is one hope that you have for the future?
My main hope is that we can find ways to push back against the tide of authoritarianism and fulfill all these promises of democracy and equality that we supposedly stand for. I get a lot of hope from seeing how resilient and vibrant the trans community has been in the face of just an onslaught of, like, moral panic. From just generally seeing marginalized people finding ways to survive and thrive and be there for each other when the world is really trying to undermine us constantly. That’s inspiring.