Interview with Author Coda Audeguy-Pegon11 min read


Marissa van Uden
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“Over Moonlit Clouds” is an intriguing story that explores how society lets prejudice and ignorance create worse situations for marginalized people, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It also reveals how the media, driven by the engine of society’s attention, always demands “a more compelling story, something on which to project their fear, a culprit more substantial than a mere fumble.” The premise itself (which I won’t give away in case you haven’t read it yet) has a dark humor to it, but the story is so earnestly compassionate and touching. And at its heart, it’s a story about kindness and about how individuals can make a difference.

Coda Audeguy-Pegon is at eir happiest when exploring the farthest reaches of the imaginary, where the mundane waltzes with the impossible and the only limit is cohesive world-building. Born and raised at the foot of the Alps, Coda emigrated to South Africa in eir late teens. This story was written in Cape Town, where e is grateful to live and work.

Marissa van Uden: Thank you so much for joining us, Coda. I loved reading “Over Moonlit Clouds” and especially enjoyed the slow reveal of what is going on for this airline passenger who is having a very bad day. Before we get into the details, let’s start with the inspiration for this story: what first sparked the idea?

Coda Audeguy-Pegon: First of all, thank you very much for having me. The response from, and collaboration with everyone at Apex Magazine has been a true delight.

The initial idea was actually the darkly humorous premise you mentioned in your intro. I was having drinks with some friends shortly before the pandemic, and we were riffing on the idea of staple archetypes of the supernatural genre having to navigate the mundane vicissitudes of our modern world, which is what led to the notion of having (premise redacted for spoilers). The point, at the time, was a play on absurdity, but it immediately struck me as an ideal starting point for a self-contained story.

The heart of it, though, what ultimately gave this somewhat goofy concept its emotional heft, came a few months later. This was now mid-2020, and book retail in South Africa had been deemed an essential service, so I, as a bookshop employee, was at work despite the lockdowns. I was posted at the front door, and my job was to make sure everyone coming in was observing the necessary protocols. A customer had come in with their partner, but hadn’t brought a mask, so I’d asked them to wait by the door while the partner did their shopping. While we were sitting there in complete silence, someone outside the shop was having a capital-B, capital-D, Bad Day. They were in a visibly altered state, furiously ranting at nobody and everybody in the middle of an all but deserted street. I’d interacted with this person before: I knew they were unhoused, dealing with substance abuse, and subject to intense, at times violent, mood-swings. The only thing I could think to do in that moment was nothing, and it felt awful. Eventually, the customer, who was stewing in that same discomfort, asked, “Should we call the police?” and without thinking, I replied, “What good would that do?” And that was that, no pushback, because we both knew what I meant. This wasn’t about the person outside, or the individual cops that might show up: the issue was systemic. When someone who’s surviving on the edges of our current social infrastructure has a Bad Day, the response, at a mechanical level, is punitive, carceral, and invariably violent. It was a visceral and crystalizing moment, and it kinda ravaged me.

I knew I had to put it somewhere, and here was this silly premise from a tipsy chat with friends, what felt like years earlier, offering the ideal setup to explore that specific tragedy.

MVU: The narrator is a flight attendant who sees a passenger in trouble, a stranger who simply needs to be seen, understood, and cared for in this vulnerable moment; but all of the other characters interpret the same situation as more of a locked-room horror, and their uninformed, fear-based reactions only make the situation increasingly worse. The narrative uses the language of mental illness to make clear links to situations that play out in our reality far too often. Do you see fiction as a way to break through some of these barriers between compassionate understanding and fear-based ignorance?

CAP: I think fiction, especially fantastical fiction, can be a really effective entry point to an issue. The tricky thing about discussing systemic flaws/shortcomings/violence is you’re trying to describe something that has been actively normalized and made invisible over generations. The potential of a good fantastical allegory is that it de-normalizes the context around the issue, and thus highlights it. The same logics that many have internalized as business-as-usual can be exposed for the silly, arbitrary and, in many cases, absolutely horrific habits they are.

Something to keep in mind, though, is that the perfect allegory just doesn’t exist. The issue being gestured at (in our case, flawed structural responses to mental health crises) is mind-boggling in its size and complexity. We’re already abstracting it by one degree when we lock it into a self-contained narrative; add a fantastical allegory on top of that, and many crucial little nuances get trimmed away.

Fiction can open a space, jostle a few stiff convictions into something a little more open-ended, so that when those who are doing the material work of shifting the cultural narrative, the folks advocating for themselves and their community, those best able to articulate the crucial little nuances; when they speak out, someone who consumed that fiction might be more inclined to listen—perhaps even be inspired to start and/or continue the work of dismantling their own flawed understanding in favor of something more humane. At its best, I would say, fiction is an invitation.

The front of the store where I work, which, conflict of interest notwithstanding, is one of the best bookshops I’ve ever had the fortune to visit.

MVU: We’re seeing the story told from some point in the future, looking back long after the events have played out and the aftershocks have sent out ripples into the media and online worlds. I love how that adds a much wider scope and depth to this short series of events. Why did you decide on this framing, and did this emerge when you first began writing this story or was this something that developed as you took it through later drafts?

CAP: The scope was actually incidental to me trying to fix a pacing issue. I started off with no framing in mind, but the need for one, or something like it, became clear early on. The narrator’s role in the events is to challenge established lore/superstition, which meant I had a whole lot of worldbuilding to do. The incident itself, however, was all about that slow crescendo of tension, and my attempt to edge in some exposition kept killing the flow.

At the time, I was binging the podcast You’re Wrong About, which revisits cultural incidents and compares the actual events to their media portrayal and social ramifications, and I found that friction really compelling. The plan, then, was to open and close with the “on hindsight” framing and have the tension build up in between, but the escalation from bad decision to bad decision was now overwhelming in a single stretch. Sometimes, you just need that cutaway, that breather.

So I upgraded the framing device to a pacing device, and all of a sudden, I had loads of room to worldbuild. It was actually a bit daunting, to really have to reckon with the implications of my setup, not just in-universe, but in terms of its various corollaries in our reality.

MVU: How do you gather ideas for your stories—do you use notebooks or digital systems—and once you have an idea, whether it’s an image or question or character, is there a specific process or set of questions you ask to start shaping it into a story, or does the shape come first?

CAP: My writing process is a bit of a mess, so please take my answer as testimonial rather than advice.

I found this Eugene Ionesco quote when I was a kid, “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing,” and that’s basically been my process since. Doesn’t matter where I am or what’s happening around me, some percentage of my brain is filtering the information through the lens of potential stories. It’s like an embedded idea-generator, constantly buzzing in the background. For better or worse, I’m terrible at jotting down those ideas. I’ve never been a fan of handwriting (ironic, I know), have yet to get comfortable typing on hand-held devices, and if I’m in front of a computer, I figure I might as well be writing the actual story. Countless decent ideas have likely vanished that way, but if anything, I struggle with an overabundance rather than a dearth in that department; this approach helps whittle things down. My experience is that if an idea does not compel me enough to stick around, it certainly won’t carry me through the process of developing it into a first draft, let alone the countless necessary rewrites.

If I do end up writing something, I usually have a rough idea of the basic building blocks from the start—what’s happening, who’s it happening to, what are the thematic and emotional vibes we’re exploring—but beyond that, I try not to restrict myself. I love being surprised by my own writing, so I make a point of maintaining a sense of play and improvisation.

MVU: What are your current writing rituals or habits. Do you listen to music while writing, or need to be in a particular setting … or are you one of these people who writes anytime, anywhere, on the go?

CAP: I am, sometimes to my chagrin, very much not one of those people.

It has to be at home, solitude preferred, music optional. To be perfectly frank, I’m experiencing something of a transition when it comes to writing rituals. I’m sure almost anyone can relate when I say the last few years have done a number on my mental health, material conditions, and general levels of existential dread. Many foundational aspects of how I write, and why, have irrevocably shifted. I used to be so hard on myself, counting words and making sure I hit a steady daily average, but I just don’t have space for such a rigid approach anymore.

Right now, the goal is to try, once a day, to write something, anything, and to treat the attempt alone as a win. The output is minuscule compared to where I was ten years ago, but I’m learning to make peace with that. I’m trying to move away from writing as a raison d’être to something I do because I want to. A weird byproduct of our current socio-economic structure is the way it can turn creative endeavors into something compulsive and desperate, and I’m ready to shift away from that.

My favorite view of Cape Town (from a pedestrian highway overpass on way home from the bus stop).

MVU: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer, and what works of fiction have remained meaningful to you and inspire your writing (whether from childhood or more recently)?

CAP: I’ve been telling stories, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember. I started writing them down in my early teens, shortly after reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, and by the time I turned sixteen, I was spending the bulk of my free time working on a sprawling fantasy epic in the style of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I still have a draft or it somewhere in my Dropbox.

In my twenties, I noticed that the category of “genre fiction” was extremely arbitrary, and sought out more “literary” interpretations of sci-fi/fantasy. Highlights from that period would be Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, Orix and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Dispossessed by Usrula K. LeGuin and Kindred by Octavia Butler.

The recent boom of queer authors getting published has been an absolute delight. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. and Young Mungo by Douglas Stuartare forever etched into my soul. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters was one of the most thrilling reading experiences of my life. Meanwhile Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor and How to Build a Home for the End of the World by Keely Shinners really opened my eyes to the inherently queer possibilities of a fantastical premise.

I’m kinda gobsmacked, to be honest, to see the scope of narrative voices widen so suddenly. It’s a wonderful time to be a weirdo writer.

MVU: I love asking people about their reading habits, as we all love to read but where and how varies so much. What do you love to read (e.g. genres, types of fiction, or and formats like paper, digital, and audio) and where: what’s your favorite place in the house or elsewhere to read on a regular basis?

CAP: As I’m sure you’ll have noticed by now, I’m a life-long fan of all things fantastical. For years, the sci-fi/fantasy section was my first and often only stop in any bookshop or library. Luckily, I started working in a bookshop half a decade ago and was able to bring books home without having to buy them or worry about late fees, so I’ve been broadening my reading diet somewhat. I nevertheless remain convinced that all writing is some degree of fiction, and all fiction is some degree of speculative, and retain a soft spot for texts that are upfront about it.

I love the paper book as an object. The texture, the smell, the sound, it’s such a multi-sensory experience. I’d like to get into audiobooks, as I suspect it would help me make a dent on my to-read list, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Whereas I’m finicky about the setting when I write, I’ll read basically anywhere. Standing is fine, seated is better, lying down is best. Beyond that, I just need a light-source, and it doesn’t even have to be a good one.

MVU: What are you working on next? Anything exciting underway that you can talk about?

CAP: I’ve just started drafting something very exciting indeed, even though it hasn’t quite taken shape yet. A novel, part deconstruction of dystopia as a genre, part fictionalized memoir. I want to explore the ethics and pitfalls of making art and seeking intimacy as an ambiguously privileged subject in a crumbling system. It’s a lot more personal than anything I’ve ever written, but I welcome the challenge. Besides, I’ve been looking for a book that explores those themes for ages, to no avail—which, according to the late, great Toni Morrison (and, arguably, Lizzo), means I’d better get to it.

MVU: Thank you so much for taking the time to share these insights about your story and writing process with us!


  • Marissa van Uden

    Marissa van Uden is a writer and editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand. She spent a whole second life in Germany but now lives next to a beaver pond in the mossy woods of rural Vermont. She’s an acquisitions editor for Dark Matter Magazine and an associate editor at Apex Magazine. Her short fiction has been published in Dark Matter Magazine and the Los Suelos interactive anthology. You can find her down by the pond or posting about wild things, wild places, and weird horror at Twitter @marissavu and Instagram

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