AC Wise has been publishing steadily for nearly ten years, and in that time, her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Shimmer, Pseudopod, GigaNotoSaurus, Lightspeed Magazine, Clarkesworld, The Canadian Science Fiction Review, among others, and in anthologies such as Upgraded, Clockwork Phoenix, The Best Horror of the Year, Imaginarium, Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales, Streets of Shadows, and Years Best Weird Fiction, among many, many others. Many of her story ideas come to her in flashes of inspiration—that moment between sleep and wakefulness, a fuzzy childhood memory, a few sentences of an overheard conversation, or just being in the right place at the right time to observe something unexpected.
This month Apex Magazine proudly presents Wise’s short story “Silver Buttons All Down His Back”, which features a young man who dreams of being just like everyone else, but at the same time knows it can never be, and resents those who suggest how he should change himself to be more like everyone else and assume those changes would be simple. In my interview with AC, I ask her about a particular conversation in the story, one that struck me in a very personal way, because it’s a conversation I’ve had. If you’ve never had this conversation before, I can tell you that the more you love the person you are talking with, the more painful it is. To know how easy your life would be if you’d just take their advice, to momentarily hate yourself for your own stubbornness, but to stalwartly not want to let go of who you are. Well, you’ll just have to read the interview and the story to know what I’m talking about!
You can also find AC At SFSignal, where she writes the monthly column Women to Read: Where to Start. She is also the co-editor of Unlikely Story, a speculative fiction publication with rotating themes. Her first short story collection is forthcoming from Lethe Press.
Questions about the Story
Apex Magazine: What triggered you to write this story? I use the word “trigger” instead of “inspire” because this feels like a story that had to be told, rather than a story that wanted to be told.
AC Wise: It actually started with the clapping rhyme “Miss Mary Mack” (Miss Mary Mack/All Dressed in Black/With Silver Buttons/All Down Her Back). Out of nowhere, I found it running through my head. It got me thinking about someone with literal buttons down their back. Why were they there? Now, according to Wikipedia, Mary asks her mother for fifty cents to watch the elephants jump over the fence. The rhyme I grew up with had Mary asking her mother for fifty cents to watch the boys jump over the fence. Which doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, but clapping rhymes rarely do. So whether that’s the ‘right’ version or not, it left me with the image of someone on the outside, looking in at something they want and can’t have. The silver buttons became an exoskeleton. The boys jumping so high they touched the sky and never came back were obviously astronauts. As for a story that had to be told, I’d say it was more about a story that had to be told in a certain way. It absolutely had to be a story that wasn’t a cure narrative, or a story about a character defined wholly by their disability.
AM: How did you develop Devon’s character and the effect his disability has on his relationships?
ACW: Because I wanted to avoid having a character who is wholly defined by a disability, I tried to show Devon as someone with a complicated relationship with his own body, which leads to complicated relationships with other people. Devon has body issues. They may intersect with his disability, but they’re not necessarily rooted in it. He’s insecure, he is afraid of not being loved, and he frequently latches on to his disability as a way to sabotage his relationships without being entirely aware that’s what he’s doing. Of the two relationships seen in the story, his relationship with Mike fell apart because Mike wanted to ‘fix’ him. At least that’s how Devon perceived things. He brings all that baggage to his relationship with Gary, and ends up projecting things onto him. Devon’s self-doubt-paranoid-brain-weasels sit in the back of his head telling him Gary is fetishizing his disability, Gary only wants someone weaker than him, dependent on him, grateful for any attention—you know, that kind of healthy thinking. Incredibly negative, self-destructive thoughts like that can plague anyone, no matter their body-type, abilities, or whatever else they might have going on. I wanted to try to show that contrast between self-perception and outside perception, and how we can often be our own worst enemies. While Devon is sitting there imploding the relationship as a self-protection mechanism, he’s failing to see that Gary—with his good looks, athleticism, ‘ideal’ body-type, and all that—is also a bundle of nerves. As outwardly ‘perfect’ as he appears, Gary is plagued by nightmares about being invisible, rooted in his constant need for outside validation.
AM: I enjoy imagining that fictional characters are real and what I would say if I got to meet them. If I were to meet Devon, I would be highly tempted to ask him about his spine, because I have a child-like curiosity about everything, especially things I’ve never seen before. I’d want to ask him how does it work? How long has he had it? Did he have to learn how to use it, or did his body know what to do? Can he take it off when he wants to? My question is, is there a polite, respectful, and non-offensive way to inquire about his (or any disabled person’s) situation and experience?
ACW: Generally, I think whether there’s a good way to ask questions like that depends on the person you’re talking to, how well you know them, and several other factors. In Devon’s case, it would probably depend on the mood you caught him in on a particular day. Since his rig is somewhat experimental, he’s used to people asking questions at this point. He’s likely spent a lot of time with doctors, researchers, and various others poking, prodding, and studying him. So he would have a certain level of comfort with questions based on repetition. At the same time, there are loads of other things he would love to talk about, and he doesn’t want questions about his exoskeleton to dominate his life.
AM: There is a conversation in this story that struck me on a viscerally personal level:
“You could at least try.”
“I don’t need fixing. I’m not broken.”
I have been on the “I’m not broken” side of that conversation. I know what Devon is feeling in that scene because I’ve felt it. But other readers may not realize the gravity and destructive forces of this kind of conversation. So tell us: What does it mean to Devon when someone tells him he’s broken?
ACW: It ties in with his complicated relationship with his body. Devon believes (as do I) that the idea there’s a “right” way to be is utter bullshit. There’s such a wide range of possible life experiences; why try to cram everything into a narrow box, call that “normal”, and say that everything else is wrong and needs to be fixed in order to suit some arbitrary ideal? There is no single, universal human experience. If your life experience differs from the person next to you (and it will), it doesn’t make you right and them wrong or vice versa. Everyone has their own life to live and they should be allowed to live it the way they choose. At the same time, there are days when Devon does feel “broken”. He can’t do everything he wants to do, like run with the boys on the other side of the fence, and go into space. What it comes down to at the end of the day is choice. On any given day, he gets to decide whether or not he feels broken and how he wants to live his life. No one else gets to define him, or tell him how he should live.
AM: Technology is moving forward at blinding speeds. One day people with paralysis may indeed be able to receive bio-neural exoskeletons to help them move. Might adaptive technologies only increase the pressure to “fix what isn’t broken”? How could that risk be mitigated?
ACW: I would think improvements in technology will certainly bring that question to the forefront more and more, as things like prosthetic limbs and implants become more accessible through 3-D printing technology. A few years back, I remember reading about deaf parents who refused surgery/implants for their deaf daughter, arguing that there was no need to “fix what isn’t broken”. It’s a huge, messy, complicated question, and there’s no easy answer. The simplistic answer is ‘personal choice’ mitigates the risk, but things are never that simple. Who gets to choose? Who gets agency, and who gets told they do not have the ability to decide what’s best for themselves? Do parents have the right to choose for their child? What about someone without the easy ability to communicate what they want? It’s scary. But it’s also amazing that this technology exists and is constantly improving, giving those who do want access to opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Questions on writing and other projects
AM: Who are some of your favorite authors? What inspired you to start writing?
ACW: Eep. This is always such a hard question. One of my first, obsessive loves in terms of reading was C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I read and re-read the series as a kid. I actually refused to read The Last Battle for the longest time, because that meant the series was over, and there would be no more ‘what happens next’, which is kind of funny when you think about the way The Last Battle ends. Sometime during high school, I discovered Ray Bradbury. He will always have a special place in my heart, and I suspect his influence will creep into my words in one way or another for the rest of my life. Currently, I draw a lot of inspiration from other authors I would like to call my peers (but that may be giving myself too much credit). Let’s say the other ‘newer’ authors publishing fiction today. They regularly break my heart with beautiful writing, make me despair of ever writing anything even a fraction as good, and fill me with determination to push myself to do bigger and better things, all at the same time. I’ll name just a few folks who have inspired me lately (go read their stuff!), but it’s only a small sample of the incredible talent out there today: Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nino Cipri, E. Catherine Tobler, Sam J. Miller, Brooke Bolander, Carmen Maria Machado, and Octavia Cade.
AM: You’ve been publishing steadily since 2006. What is your writing process like? How long does it usually take for you to finish a piece?
ACW: My writing process is very often chaotic. If I’m lucky, a day where the words are flowing will intersect with a day where I have a good chunk of time to sit down and bang those words out. In those cases, the writing process is very fast, and I can get a story written in a few hours. That’s just the writing mind you. Editing is a whole other, torturous, head-banging-against-the-wall experience, which can take anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on how much free time I have, and how difficult the story is being. When I don’t have a chunk of time to sit down and write, it often leads to bits of story written on various scraps of paper, scattered across my life. Sometimes those scraps make it into the final story, sometimes they get lost or forgotten. It’s not the most efficient way to write, but usually putting things on papers lets me remember the general spirit of what I meant to say when I do get back to the work in progress.
AM: Congratulations on your forthcoming short story collection! This is your first collection; it will be nice to have so many of your works so easily at hand! You have quite the bibliography, so how did you choose which stories to include in the collection, and which would have to be left out?
ACW: Thank you! The collection is actually somewhat unusual as collections go. Only two of the stories are reprints, and the rest are originals. It’s a not-quite-a-novel-not-quite-a-collection weird hybrid thing featuring a series of linked pieces about the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron saving the world and kicking ass in glitter and velvet and various shades of lamé. If you’re curious, the story that started it all, “Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” is available in Ideomancer’s archives. There is a more traditional collection potentially in the works, but since that’s further out, I haven’t had to face the tough choice of which stories to include yet.
AM: You co-edit Unlikely Story, a ‘zine with a rotating theme. How did Unlikely Story get started? Doesn’t having a changing theme make submissions and editorial decisions even more difficult?
ACW: Unlikely Story started life as The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, so we had a relatively narrow theme—bugs. We decided to expand and explore other themes, which have so far included Cryptography, Cartography, and Architecture, and coming up, Coulrophobia and Academia (not in the same issue). Having themes at all probably limits the number of submissions we get—not everyone wants to write about maps or clowns, after all. But having rotating themes, to my mind, keeps things interesting and fresh rather than making them more difficult. No matter what our theme is for an issue, we’re still looking for compelling characters, unique world building, beautiful language, and stories that make us feel something. I’d like to think having rotating themes means we have something for everyone!
AM: Thanks AC!