Charlie Jane Anders Wants You to Know Daydreaming Is Important, Serious Work
In this interview, Ruth Joffre talks with Charlie Jane Anders about her craft book ‘Never Say You Can’t Survive,’ building writing communities, and queer joy.
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Never Say You Can’t Survive
Ruth Joffre: was originally published on Tor.com as a serial, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only craft book that’s ever been published that way. What was it like writing the book as a serial in our apocalyptic world?
RJ: You write in chapter 3 about the teacher who changed your life, Ms. Pennington. You’ve since gone on to become a teacher yourself, leading workshops and giving craft talks. What does it mean to you now to be a creative writing teacher and to have your own craft book?
Never Say You Can’t Survive
RJ: You talk about community in several places in the book. Can you talk about the importance of community and how it has helped you both as a writer and as a person?
One of the things that happens in general with writing is that genres get defined by who’s viewed as being at the center of that genre. Like, speculative fiction for a long time was the province of a certain type of nerd, and I do think a lot of genres are (at least partly) signifiers of communities. I’ve tried to bridge the gaps between these different communities represented by different genres and get people to realize we’re all doing the same kind of work and dealing with the same kinds of concerns. Maybe some of us wear turtlenecks and some of us wear Wildfang overalls, but we’re all dealing with a lot of the same questions.
RJ: In chapter 16, you write about the importance of having fun, and throughout the book you talk about cozy, comforting, and affirming stories. Can you talk a bit about the importance of joy as a topic and queer joy in particular?
CJA: Making space for joy—and especially queer joy—is really important to me because it’s actually very easy to just leave it out or focus on more serious topics or default to “everything is terrible and we’re doomed.” People sometimes portray that as a kind of realism, like terrible things happen and that’s realism, but, if something nice happens, that’s unrealistic, which is clearly not true. If you look at the real world, it contains a lot of horribleness and brutality, but it also contains a lot of generosity and people taking care of each other and being there for each other.
Sometimes, I feel like I talk about joy in a very utilitarian way in the sense that if a character doesn’t ever experience joy or if the characters don’t ever enjoy each other’s company, then it’s harder for me to care about those characters. It’s harder for me to feel invested in them. Certain TV shows really over-relied on the idea that somebody finally finding true love and then getting hit by a bus the next day is sadder than somebody just getting hit by a bus when they have been miserable for years. “But they had just found true love!” That can be used very manipulatively, but the point is that you are more invested in and care more about characters who are actually having good things happen to them or are finding pleasure and enjoyment in life. I get bored with characters who don’t seem to ever like being around each other. There’s definitely a value in that, but it also becomes kind of exhausting after a while.
That’s the kind of utilitarian way of talking about joy. Another way to think about joy is just that it’s an important part of life and of human connection, and human connection is obviously super important to me. I talk about that a lot in the book. Joy is one way we experience the good part of being connected to each other and how we find each other. It’s just part of being human. I forget what writer said, “I don’t trust any writing that doesn’t contain joy.” Whoever said that, I really love it. If your writing has no moments of joy, then it feels like there’s something disingenuous or unreal going on there.
Part of what I get out of stories, as a reader and as a writer, is feeling nourished. There’s a reason why a lot of the best stories contain settings and milieu you want to spend time in. Like, I want to go live in this fictional place or hang out in this fictional tea shop or this fictional bookstore or with this amazing chosen family or whatever. There’s something wonderful about stories that nourish us by showing us a world of kindness or a world of people comforting each other. When we talk about things being cozy, that sounds kind of negative or disdainful, like it’s not hardcore or whatever, but I feel like coziness is an aesthetic that can be very nourishing and can actually allow you to talk about really serious things. Malka Older is writing a series of cozy mysteries, and it’s so good. I don’t want to give away anything, but they deal with really serious issues, and they do it through this sort of Dorothy Sayers framework of dark academia and a little bit of cozy mystery. The British used to have this thing called cozy catastrophe, which were postapocalyptic stories where, instead of it turning into The Walking Dead or Mad Max, it turned into people just like hunkering down and making cups of tea for each other, which the British love.
Joy is one way we experience the good part of being connected to each other and how we find each other.
RJ: In chapter 2, you reveal how you define success, which is 1) that you get to work with people you like and admire, on projects that you are excited about, and 2) that you get to keep writing and having people read your stuff.
CJA: When I started out writing, I actively hated the idea of having a career. Like, I hated the word career. It’s one of those words that sort of implies professionalization and that you pick a lane and decide, “I’m gonna be the next Stephen King or whatever, and that’s my goal. I’m gonna do everything in that mode.” I was thinking about this earlier because now I think of myself as having a career just because I’m on the treadmill of publishing. But I’m glad that I had this other attitude when I was starting out. And I had a day job for a very long time, which I didn’t think of as a career. I thought of it as a job that was paying the bills.
I just thought, “I don’t wanna have a career. I wanna have a situation where if something seems like a fun project with cool people, I’m gonna do that, even if it doesn’t make sense as the next logical thing from the last thing I did.” If you look at a lot of my writing career, especially the first decade and a half, there’s a lot of jumping around. That is a piece of advice I often give to new writers: Know that, when you reach a certain point in your career, people will start putting you in a box and saying, “Okay, you wrote this novel that was a fantasy detective novel about a dragon detective. Now all your books have to at least have something in common with that book because that book was successful,” and people want more of that from you, and if you write something that’s very different from that, people will be mad. I think writers should put that off and experiment for as long as possible, until they find something they enjoy doing and maybe stick to that for a while. You will get pigeonholed at a certain point, so while you have freedom to experiment, you should take advantage of it.
In terms of success, it’s very easy to move goalposts. I’m really grateful that I wrote down some goalposts so that later I couldn’t move them. I’ve had moments before where I basically said, “If I get a chocolate chip cookie, I’m gonna consider this really successful,” where the cookie is, like, being published somewhere or winning a prize. And then I got the cookie, and I was like, “But I didn’t get a chocolate chip cookie and a cup of hot chocolate, so clearly this was a failure.” And then I looked back at where I said, before the project happened, “If I get a chocolate chip cookie, I’ll be happy with how this turns out.” It’s really important to set reasonable expectations and then remind yourself of them later because, whatever happens, the world will make you aware that you could always be doing better. You could always be having more.
What’s unfortunate about the creative life is that it inherently contains a lot of insecurity and a lot of vulnerability. We always put pressure on ourselves to achieve a certain level of success, and I just think that even though vulnerability and insecurity are inescapable, you can mitigate them by setting realistic expectations and thinking of writing in terms of finding satisfaction. People often run into a problem where the insecurity and anxiety of being an artist collides with the business side of making a product and trying to sell that product as successfully as possible. It’s very easy for those two things to combine in a way where you start to obsess while you’re doing it and suck all the joy out of writing. Like thinking, “This thing that I’m just noodling on is eventually gonna be a product and I’m gonna want to sell X number of units of it, so if I include this one scene, am I tanking the sales? Do I need more of X, Y, or Z, because that might help the sales?” It just gets demoralizing after a while if you let yourself think like that. I have had times like that, including recently, where I have to squelch that sales mentality and think, “What are other ways I could see this as something that is worthwhile (regardless of exactly how many widgets I sell)?” It’s tough. Especially once you are in the kind of situation where you have a publishing company depending on you to do your part or earn your keep or whatever. I’m glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t think of myself as having a career for a very long time and gave myself that space to play around.
RJ: You mentioned working a nine-to-five for a long time. Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to balance a day job with writing?
CJA: For a long time, I had a nine-to-five job where I got to work from home, which was great, but I did have some day jobs where it was so exhausting and so draining, so stressful and taxing on my mental faculties, that I couldn’t write at the end of the day. It felt like, “I just have nothing left. I’m just going to collapse and watch TV.” And I learned the hard way that I need to find day jobs that aren’t boring and terrible but also don’t feel like everything’s on fire every day and I’m stressing and burning myself out on the job. Obviously, capitalism is a beast, but I think there are day jobs out there where you can have a fulfilling job that doesn’t, you know, suck your soul out. If you can find that, that’s really good.
Also, a thing that took me a long time to learn is that there are definitely periods when the main hurdle I had to get over was just motivating myself to write or finding a situation where writing just felt natural, where I didn’t have to kind of psych myself up to do it for a long time. Part of it is just creating a sense of habit, especially if you have a day job where you have rigid hours and you’re always at your job X hours a day. You have to think to yourself, “When I get off my job, I go here and I do writing for an hour or two, and then I go home.” Or whatever your ritual around writing is. I think having a ritual really helps.
And like I said before: Daydreaming is important work. I used to get very easily discouraged or put off if the writing just wasn’t flowing, if I wasn’t just sitting down and immediately banging out lots and lots of words, and I learned over time that sometimes you just stare into space for an hour, and that’s actually part of the process. Eventually, something bobs up to the surface that is actually interesting or your subconscious dug up and you do have to tread water a bit to get there. It took me a long time to understand that part of the process and that I shouldn’t just think, “Well, I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes. Nothing’s happening. I’m just gonna go play a video game now.” Now, I don’t beat myself up for just sitting and zoning out.
RJ: What one piece of advice do you most wish you had when you were first starting out in the industry?
CJA: One thing I always try to tell newer writers is that it might take longer than you expect to get published. But also, especially nowadays, the goal of writing stories or doing creative work is not necessarily to be published and get on the bestseller list but to find an audience or readership. You could post your stuff on Wattpad or AO3 and, if you get lucky, find a much bigger audience than you would with a traditional publisher. There are a million different ways to connect with people through your work. If you start to think of the publishing industry as just one incredibly powerful and valuable way to achieve that goal of finding an audience and connecting with your readers, then you could actually have a healthier relationship with publishing.
What’s unfortunate about the creative life is that it inherently contains a lot of insecurity and a lot of vulnerability.
That doesn’t mean we don’t need publishing. The publishing industry has a lot of issues, for sure, but there are also a lot of amazing people working in publishing today who go above and beyond to make stuff happen and care so passionately about these stories. If you think of the publishing industry as one of many means to connect with an audience, it’ll make you better at promoting your stuff if and when you do get published by a traditional publisher. A lot of aspiring authors don’t realize that having a book published is the beginning, not the end, of the process. There’s a lot of work to make people aware of your book, because it’s going to come out on the same day as, like, a hundred other books. Most books are not going to get that much attention. Most of them are going to get lost in the shuffle. If you’re already thinking of yourself as someone who’s trying to connect with audiences in various ways, you’ll be better suited to making your book successful if it does come out with a major publisher.
Also: You should learn how to talk to a publicist.Publicists are awesome. They work so hard and are so dedicated. I think it’s good to form a really good relationship with your publicists and the marketing people and everyone at your publisher, who are all working their butts off to make this thing you wrote successful. If they’re successful, if they do their jobs, you’re going to get most of the glory.
RJ: Spiritually, your book reminded me a lot of Kate Bornstein’s Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws. Were you thinking of that book at all as you wrote?
CJA: Thank you for saying that! Holy shit, yes. You’re the first person to say that. Oh my god. That book meant so much to me. It’s a book I completely devoured. It’s my favorite thing Kate’s ever done. I actually wanted to write an essay for my newsletter about this notion of self-help books that are queering self-help but also opening up self-help to have more jagged edges. That book had a huge impact on me, and I’m 100 percent sure I was thinking about it while I was working on Never Say You Can’t Survive. It’s such an incredible book. I’ve recommended it to so many people. Once, when I was visiting a bookstore in Montreal, they asked, “Can you do some shelf talkers?” And I was like, “This book! Hello, Cruel World. I’m gonna write, like, a fucking essay about it on this little card!”
RJ: One last question: What other trans writers should we be reading right now?
CJA: Oh my gosh. I mean, this is an amazing time for trans writers. There’s so much great stuff being published right now, and I feel really privileged that I’ve gotten to actually blurb or be one of the first readers of a bunch of these books. That feels like I must be doing something right if that’s happening. I love Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars. Nino Cipri is amazing.
I just read a book that’s going to be out in October called The Story of the Hundred Promises by Neil Cochrane. It’s a trans fairytale full of trans, agender, nonbinary, and asexual characters. It’s incredibly sweet but also has a lot of darkness in it. It’s so well done. Just so beautiful.
There are a lot of amazing trans YA authors out there right now; Aiden Thomas and H. E. Edgmon come to mind. Cory McCarthy and A. R. Capetta, who collaborated on the Once & Future series. Cory has a new book out called Man o’ War that I’m really excited about. It’s such a wonderful time to be a trans person reading and writing because there’s so much great stuff coming out.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review Online, Wigleaf,Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.