Alexander Stronach interviews the person he’s been friends with the longest, a Wellington science fiction and fantasy writer on the brink of world domination.
Casey Lucas is a Swiss army knife. Casey Lucas is six feet tall and extremely bisexual. Casey Lucas is back from the dead (again). Casey Lucas is – finally, after years of dedication and hard work – on the cusp of very big things.
In the last year she’s won one of New Zealand’s highest honours for science fiction and fantasy writing, she’s worked on the wildly popular games Mini Metro and Mini Motorways, she’s run a workshop at Clarion West (possibly the most prestigious SF/F workshop in the world), she’s edited 30 graphic novels, she’s been hired to work on the next block of collectible card game Magic: the Gathering, and now her post-apocalyptic fungal fantasy web serial Into the Mire has picked up a prestigious international agent and is poised to go out to publishers.
Casey Lucas is, for lack of a better word, utterly singular, and today I’m getting deep in the weeds with her about success, trauma, M*A*S*H, and the impossible vastness of stone.
Alex Stronach: So you’re an “overnight success” now. What’s the spell look like? Who do I gotta kill?
Casey Lucas: Success in publishing is like an avalanche. You only see the snow rushing at you, but it took millions of exhausting years and lots of earthquakes for that mountain to yank itself up out of the sea, and you don’t get the avalanche without a mountain for it to roll down.
You’ve talked before about growing up queer in Utah, which wasn’t always the most queer-friendly, and you write a lot of characters observing others at a distance, yearning for connection but being unable to reach out (eg the infamous Bone Pile). I’m curious whether you think these things are connected, or just generally how your experience of growing queer in Mormon country shaped your writing.
I felt like something of an outsider before I ever came out or even realised I was queer. My childhood hometown was deep in the overgrown woods of Lake County, California and there weren’t many kids my age at all, then I moved halfway across the country to a place where I had friends but didn’t quite fit the dominant culture. I felt like way more of an alien at a far younger age due to my views on gender, my general life experiences, and my goals for myself. Then I realised I was attracted to women and started kissing girls out behind the pigeon coop before I even knew what “gay” was or that it was considered abnormal.
[Casey’s family bred and raced competitive homing pigeons, this is one of about 50 digressions we did not have time for].
Bone Pile the character embodies this anatomical motif that shows up in a lot of my work, now that I think about it. I write a lot about how bodies display emotion, how emotion warps the body, how brains inhabiting bodies attempt to pull the levers and manoeuvre them around properly. When I was young, my mother had a lot of anatomy and physiology and pathophysiology textbooks lying around the house, and I used to read them with utter fascination at the things disease processes could do. Then later on, I took a cadaver lab in school, and I remember looking down at this shrivelled, bacon-and-bones looking preserved human cadaver and marvelling that every complicated emotion and every horrible, messy human thought I’d ever had was just a series of electrical impulses generated by this … thing.
I always struggled to feel the spiritual when I was growing up. The Church of Latter-Day Saints has this thing where you go up and bear your testimony about how you feel the church is true, how you hear the guidance of the Holy Spirit in your ear and feel it in your heart, and after going to church for years and years I never felt or heard anything of the sort, but the closest thing I can ever really say I’ve felt to that kind of spiritual feeling was putting my hand on a human sternum in a dissection and thinking about my heart. Or touching a brain and thinking about my brain. I developed this secret little reverence for human anatomy, for the body’s structures, and that’s why some of the ultimate expressions of horror and devastation in my writing stem from people feeling disconnected from their own bodies and having no control over them. And then of course I developed a couple autoimmune disorders and my own body keeps trying to cyclically kill me. Imagine walking into a church and marvelling at the architecture and the emotion and then every time, a beam drops on your head.
I’ve been thinking a lot about your piece on Graywhale Record store, in Utah, as a place for outsiders and specifically a queer sanctuary, in the context of science fiction / fantasy – that feeling of alienation, those stories about seeking family in strange places, about creating space for outsiders to thrive together. Do you think there’s a continuity there? That those formative experiences lend themselves to certain genres, certain modes of seeing?
Absolutely. Just about every relationship I formed in my teenage years was based less on things we had in common and more that we were the odd ducks out in whatever social group. Outsiders thriving together, unlikely friends, people forced to work together, these were themes in a lot of stories I devoured growing up. I think those situations can transcend genre. Despite working primarily as a SF/F and horror writer, my work is informed as much by Band of Brothers and Moby-Dick and M*A*S*H as it is by “my” genres. But I think you tend to see expressions of that stuff in SF/F because the fabulist nature of those genres frees an author to imagine a place where “outcast” communities can instead be the default. Where it doesn’t take hard work and a lot of scariness and risk to find your people.
I’ve been told that my writing is a sort of “everyman” SF/F because I rarely write about characters who are heroic by nature or even particularly special. They’re rarely experts in their fields or important people. And I don’t dislike stories with those kinds of protagonists at all. I enjoy them as much as anyone. I think I personally just find myself drawn to stories about ordinary people under immense pressure. The world tests their mettle and they either triumph or at least they’ll bend and break in interesting ways. And it’s even better if they start out as a bit of a bastard, but they learn somewhere along the way that there’s goodness in them, that they can and will do the right thing even if it’s against their immediate conditioning. A lot of human kindness comes from rejecting one’s conditioning, from learning to value and care for the things and the people that society tells us aren’t worth it, or should be feared or hated.
You moved to New Zealand to study geology in 2008 and never left: what kept you here?
Ha, well, mostly the government kept changing the laws about immigrants being able to get student loans. I moved down here intending to study geology or geomorphology with the hopes of transitioning into Antarctic studies, but I ended up unable to study. And I conveniently fell in actual real-life love at first sight with the guy who picked me up at the airport. I somehow lucked into this partnership with this quietly-brilliant, compassionate person who’s my creative equal in every way, and his family adopted me pretty much instantly. Which, to someone who’s felt like a person on the fringes for most of one’s life, was a very odd feeling. But I think I would have stayed even if that extremely strange and fortuitous turn of events hadn’t happened. I may not have ever made it to Antarctica, but I fell in love with the landscapes and the people here.
You recently moved to Wellington after a decade in Otago. Between Central and The Rockies, it feels like you’re a bit of a highlander. Has the harshness of that terrain influenced the way you worldbuild?
Maybe not necessarily the harshness, but the vastness? The bigness. Big, heavy landscapes and the impossible hugeness of geologic time. That’s in everything I make. My earliest memories all circle back to being a tiny kid exploring things that seem so huge in that distorted kid perspective way, and it’s my favourite feeling and I’ve been chasing it my whole life ever since. I think back to the first time at the beach that I ever remember a wave pulling at my teeny toddler legs and I had to struggle to walk back to shore. Or how impossibly tall the trees looked. When you’re young, you feel that way in your backyard patch of trees, so when you’re older, you seek out the redwoods. I guess wanting to study Antarctica was kind of the ultimate culmination of that. Despite the fact that I write a lot of horror, when I think about vast landscapes and weighty skies and powerful storms and deep, strange environments, I find it really soothing. I love it.
As a storyteller, I love to craft settings like these and then throw characters into them like dropping them into a li’l pressure cooker. I read stories like Moby-Dick and Into Thin Air and lots of mountaineering magazines and have nursed a lifelong obsession with doomed expeditions of the Franklin and Shackleton variety. Partially I think it comes from living in such remoteness – the Sierras, the desert, the border of small town and forest – but partially I think it just makes for good stories. Humans are at their weakest, their most vulnerable, when the things we depend on are no longer present, or when the structures we expect to be there fail us. I tend to write a lot about characters who find themselves in environments stripped of structure and support, and rather than living up to the rugged conquering lonerman cliche, my characters often find the only way to survive the crucibles of their environments is to turn toward one another. And maybe that’s why I often write about characters who are seeking to reach out and connect with others, because the world we live in is in a lot of ways quite isolating despite how connected we are.
Now that I think about it, this aspect is sort of the mirror aspect of my inward-looking anatomical and physiological fixations. Human gazes in awe at big, beautiful world. Big, beautiful world sometimes squishes human into goo.
Yeah I mean, you often create these … communities of vulnerability? People who are living hard lives, who learn to lean on each other, like Gaz and Calay in Into the Mire. That sort of story seems to be very in right now but you’ve been telling them for a lot longer than that. Where did that come from? What is it about that story that made it the one you felt the need to tell?
A lot of that definitely stems from growing up in the American West, and growing up in a society where there are precious few approved ways children are allowed to express emotion. I had a tumultuous childhood in a lot of ways, and I was bad at regulating my emotions. And the response you get when you’re an American child bad at regulating your emotions is that it’s the emotions that are the problem, not your lack of coping mechanisms or your lack of outlets or people not understanding you. New Zealanders I think have similar societal fables: the rugged individual, the noble settler shouldering his burden alone. This mindset has done so much harm to people, on an individual and a community level. My stories are for everyone who has ever lived through that, who has been told that their feelings are the problem, not the world that evokes the feelings. For people who survived that and now find themselves in need of a good cathartic scream.
A lot of horror fiction in particular is I think just validating the idea that life can be horrifying. That we are living through horrifying times, experiencing horrifying things, and being uncertain or scared shitless is a normal human response rather than a weakness or deficiency of character.
You were a very successful romance author for what … two years? I know you keep your smut pen name a closely guarded secret but – without giving too much away – what did that look like, as a job and just generally as a whole thing? Why did that stop?
In December 2015, I self-published a romantic thriller that I wrote for National Novel Writing Month the previous November. Self-edited, paid a friend to do the cover, and then decided to chuck it out onto the internet and see what happened. It sold a few thousand copies, which stunned me, and I was able to transition out of the day job life shortly thereafter. Honestly, self-publishing is the biggest high in the world. I was putting out a novel or novella every few months while working as an ice hockey journalist, and the sheer volume of creative output and the friends I got to make in that scene and the encouragement and community spirit, it was all phenomenal.
Then in November 2016, I was in the Kaikōura earthquake, and I developed significant reactive arthritis in my hands and feet. My doctor at the time said it’s likely this was an autoimmune disorder that would have surfaced in due time, but the body shock of being in the earthquake apparently hastened it along. My symptoms worsened, and eventually I’d go through periods of arthritis flaring up in my hands and feet so badly that I couldn’t walk or tie my shoes. I published very sporadically, my income wobbled, I put more effort into the journalism side of things to make up the difference, but my health was very unpredictable and the fatigue made steady work impossible. I was already coping rather poorly with hormonal issues at the time, which would later be diagnosed as PMDD.
I don’t think we talk enough in the workplace about how fatigue can totally shut a person down. I’d get fatigue fog so bad that I’d walk past my own house, that I couldn’t stay awake during a conversation. Eventually, I was diagnosed with a condition called palindromic rheumatism, which is a funny little disorder on the rheumatoid arthritis and lupus sort of spectrum.
I’m very lucky that in the years following, I found a treatment regimen that keeps my symptoms more on the contained side than not. I still have arthritis flares. And I still struggle with the PMDD – the arthritis flares are often triggered by the hormones, which already conspire to fill me with intense insomnia, self-destructive intrusive thoughts, and suicidal dread.
A therapist of mine once said it wasn’t surprising that I identified with the cast of M*A*S*H so much, because every month my body and my brain mount this dual-front attempt to kill me. So I’ve just been surviving it for years, riding out a few other diagnoses and health traumas, until it’s given me this thousand-yard stare and this Hawkeye Pierce inability to discuss it all without cracking morbid jokes.
We’ll come back to that, but it is wild that we’ve covered all this ground and not mentioned ice hockey before now, which is a pretty major part of your life. Really quickly, what’s your relationship with the sport?
Oh, man. Ice hockey has been a huge part of my life, yeah. My step-grandfather played at a pretty high level in Sweden and he got me quite into it when the 2002 Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City. Then after I moved to New Zealand, a friend was volunteering for the NZIHL, and she took me to a game and it just reignited that. I helped the League out as a photographer first, then as a match reporter, then transitioned into broadcasting which I’ve done for eight seasons now. I got to work with this tight-knit crew of stone-cold professionals who were all absolute weirdos in the best way. It opened a lot of doors for me.
Probably the biggest professional regret I have about my illness is that it stalled my ability to keep up with writing about hockey and I sort of faded out of that field like a sad, arthritic ghost. Hockey is this weird, fast-paced, unpredictable beast. I adore the randomness of it, the speed and the physics and the pinbally nature of it, it’s just dudes and pucks ricocheting off shit and your brain has to learn how to anticipate what they’re going to do if you want to commentate in real time.
A lot of romance authors are now writing cross-genre, particularly in science fiction and fantasy. How would you say romance differs from SF/F, and what does your experience writing romance bring to your SF/F like Into the Mire?
Romance has such a refreshing honesty about it. In romance stories, characters are established from page one with unfulfilled emotional needs. The characters then have to confront this, and whether or not they’ve been lying to themselves about what type of person they are and what will make them happy. There’s this wonderful introspectiveness to it. Often in a romance, your characters must work up the courage or acquire the insight to be willing and able to directly state their desires, then when they do it’s this big moment – I think part of the fantasy of romance novels is having conversations with a person, be it a partner or whoever, where people just bluntly state their desires. What a world!
Into the Mire stemmed from a very specific kernel of an idea. At the time, I was working on a lot of commercial projects and I wanted a weird, juicy side project to keep myself entertained. So I sat down and thought, what do I really want to write about, marketability be damned? And I came up with this idea that was basically, “I want to write about a group of people trapped in a scary, nightmarish environment who have nobody to depend on but one another. But they all double-crossed each other and lied to get to where they are, and one of them’s a saboteur.”
Then beyond that, I wanted to get into the lies they told each other and themselves. I didn’t want any one of them to be a villain. I wanted their lies to be the sort of lies told for the sort of reasons that regular people lie: to cover regular person wounds, to hide something from a friend because they think it will hurt them. Romance stories often feature characters needing to undergo a fundamental change or shift in their world view that allows them to identify what they need to be happy. This was a story about each of these characters, their personalities shaped by their wounds, slowly discovering the ways in which they’d allowed their wounds to take hold of their identities, and the changes and choices they have to make to allow themselves to reach across this ravine of the unknown and trust each other. But of course one of them really is a saboteur so someone’s trust is gonna end up horribly misplaced!
I cannot believe I am about to invoke Moby-Dick for a third time in a single interview, but there is a line I think about a lot, in a bit where Ishmael is lamenting that he daydreams too much to be a good lookout. He says that captains should beware romantic, melancholy young men who can’t focus on their duty, for “your whales must be seen before they can be killed.” But of course the real whales that need to be killed in that story are not actual whales, but the worst parts of ourselves, which a melancholy lookout with a romantic, starry-eyed bent might actually be better at identifying. Into the Mire is about five mercenaries at-metaphorical-sea who are just looking for their whales and arming themselves with the wrong kinds of harpoon.
Publishers have been trumpeting their efforts to increase diversity both in staff and output, do you feel they’re living up to that promise on disability rep?
Disability rep is such a hard thing to gauge, because disability is private and I would hate to exist in a world where authors are forced to self-identify to be “allowed” to write about disabled people. On my good days, I blend perfectly into the able-bodied crowd. I do think things are trending in the right direction, but then you look at the recent release of Music and you sigh a little and remember that it’s a never-ending process. Offering opportunities to diverse creators and showcasing diverse media and ensuring that people from all backgrounds get a chance to tell their stories and develop their talents and blossom, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Another aspect of it is that once you’re out there, once your name is known and people are writing about you in magazines or coming to you for advice, anytime you are in a position of visibility or leadership, there is a bit of pressure. You want to be a Good Disabled Person who sets a good example for people and shows younger disabled creators that it’s possible. But I try to see that pressure as an opportunity. Every job I’m too busy to take is a job I can recommend to someone else. Every editor I know is an editor who, when they’re looking for projects, I can point them toward creators who might have flown under the radar. Comics, games, books, they’re all such rough industries – we all only survive by building each other up.
What’s next for Calay & Gaz?
I want Calay and Gaz to have a happy retirement where they suffer no more damp, drizzly Novembers of the soul. But in all seriousness, their story is in for a major overhaul. Readers who read the original serialised Into the Mire will recognise the characters, the themes, and the swamp, but the novel I’m sharpening my claws on is a different beast entirely. It’s shaping up into this crystallised thing that’s sharper and clearer and faster. I’m letting the swamp tell its own story, too, and shining a light on a lot of background narrative that was only hinted at before. Because like the mercenaries, the swamp itself is a character with its own whales and its own harpoons.
You can find Lucas’s poem All Will Be Quiet In Her Cavern in the upcoming Voidjunk #2, a magazine about having sex with things it is inadvisable, impossible or downright dangerous to have sex with.