Trans Day of Visibility: Monica Roberts

“I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.”
—Maya Angelou
March is Women’s HERstory Month and today is International Transgender Day of Visibility. In celebration of both, Underlord Denny Upkins is paying tribute to the life and legacy of one of the greatest superheroines ever: Monica Roberts.
Outspoken and unapologetic in calling out the racism, transphobia, privilege, antiblackness and toxicity of the “gay community,” Ms. Cannick, Monica, myself, Rod McCullom and a few others found ourselves in the trenches and were regular targets for attacks, harassment and even threats from white fauxgressives. Of course after series of ass kickings (online and in real life) later, when all was said and done, truth and history vindicated us—we were the last ones standing.

Engaging With Stories of Disabled People: Interview with Alice Wong

By Dennis R. Upkins

One of the true joys of my career is that I get to meet some truly extraordinary and amazing people from all walks of life. These individuals are using their gifts to make this world a better one. A few of them, I’m both honored and humbled to consider colleagues and good personal friends.

Case in point: Alice Wong.

Activist, media consultant, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, and excellence personified, Alice and I first crossed paths during our time as contributors for The Nerds of Color, a few years ago. I’ve learned a lot from Alice. Not only in regards to disability issues, but also in terms of being a leader, a class act, and showing true solidarity with other marginalized groups. If you don’t believe me, you can always ask President Obama. In 2013, he appointed Alice to the National Council on Disability.

This year alone has been a milestone for Ms. Wong. She recently released a new book entitled Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century which is available now and appeared on the cover of British Vogue.

I recently got the opportunity to catch up with Alice and discuss everything ranging from the new book, her podcast, activism, to the power of storytelling.


Upkins: Alice, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. For those who are unfamiliar, share a bit of background about yourself.

Wong: Thanks, Denny–always fun to be talking with a fellow nerd!! I’m the founder and eirector of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture. I started it in 2014 as a one-year oral history campaign to record stories by disabled people for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and it snowballed into a bigger thing. I have a podcast and blog, I published guest essays, and I edited and published #ADA30InColor, a series of essays by disabled people of color this past July for the 30th anniversary of the ADA. As a side hustle, I’m a research consultant. I also have a new book that just came out, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, available now from Vintage Books.

Upkins: For some, activism is what they do, for others it’s a part of who they are. How did you find your calling?

Wong: It took me a long time to be comfortable identifying as an activist. As a person born disabled in a world that was never built for me, I had no choice to be an activist as a means of survival. I had to advocate for myself and I didn’t see it from a larger social and political and social perspective until I was a young adult. Even then, as I became involved in the disability community in the San Francisco Bay Area I didn’t do it as my ‘job,’ it was an act of love and service. For the last 5-6 years, most of my activism takes place in my writing, media making, and through social media. People described me as a community organizer and I still wonder if that’s accurate because I’ve internalized the idea of an activist or organizer as someone who is doing things ‘on the ground.’ Over time I’m becoming more okay with it because I believe what I do is activism and that we need to expand our ideas of who gets to be an activist and what activism looks like.

Upkins: The Disability Visibility Project, how did that idea become a reality?

Wong: The initial idea came from my frustration at the lack of disability history, especially stories of current disability history and stories by actual disabled people. The DVP first started as a community partnership with StoryCorps, an oral history nonprofit, where I encouraged disabled people to come in (or use their app) to record a story. StoryCorps has an arrangement with the Library of Congress giving participants an option of archiving it there for the public which is incredibly cool–we can create our own history and leave it there for generations. As of 2020, we recorded approximately 140 oral histories since 2014 and that makes me feel good. I made it a reality by creating a website and using social media to spread the word. And it was thanks to the community who supported it enthusiastically.

Upkins: In recent years, Selma Blair garnered headlines when she disclosed having multiple sclerosis. In many ways, she became a face for disability advocacy. This point was explored in the book with Zipporah Arielle’s essay, “Selma Blair Became a Disabled Icon Overnight. Here’s Why We Need More Stories Like Hers.” Who are other significant activists and trailblazers in the disability movement who may not be as famous as Ms. Blair?

Wong: So many people!! There are so many badass disabled people changing the game. Here are just a few:

Andraéa LaVant, Impact Producer for Netflix’s Crip Camp and President of LaVant Consulting, Inc. I recently interviewed Andraéa about her work on the impact campaign for the latest issue of Break the Story, an online publication from the Pop Culture Collaborative.

Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW, a disability rights consultant, writer, activist from Winnsboro, SC, and the creator of #DisabilityTooWhite.

Rebecca Cokley, Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress who has been instrumental in advancing disability issues in the last several Presidential elections.

President Obama poses for a photo next to a live video feed of Alice Wong, smiling at the camera. Behind them is a large bouquet of yellow, white and blue flowers.

Upkins: What are some major misconceptions and beliefs regarding disability issues that you find yourself debunking most often?

Wong: There’s a lot and the bar is so low. I find myself repeating some of the most basic things but unfortunately, this is where we are. A few things I try to change regarding narratives and beliefs about disability:

Disabled lives are not worth living.

Disabled lives are filled with suffering, tragedy, or bitterness.

Disabled people ‘take’ and consume rather than offer rich insights, creativity, and innovation to the world.

The future is one where disability, pain, and suffering do not exist.

Upkins: For parents who may learn that their child may be disabled and have challenges ahead of them, what advice would you give them in terms of navigating the unknown and being the best parents they can be for their child?

Wong: My parents told me they cried when they found out about my diagnosis. The shock and sadness is real. However, I was still their kid and they expected the same things from me as with my younger sisters, if not more since I was the oldest. I hope they will center their child on what they are experiencing and giving them a space to be angry, non-compliant, and frustrated. I hope they will seek out advice from disabled adults from the community and learn about the possibilities their child can have. I hope they will also rely on their own intuition and feel empowered to not heed every single piece of advice from professionals who frankly don’t know everything and cannot predict the future.

Upkins: One thing you have reiterated over the years on social media as well as in the introduction of the new book is the power of storytelling and the profound impact it can have. Would you mind expounding on this idea for readers?

Wong: Books were a gateway to freedom for me. I felt free and believe that everyone deserves to be seen and heard in books and all forms of culture and media. Stories can give a glimpse of what’s beyond our individual situations and this is incredibly powerful for people who receive messages from society that they are not enough or that they don’t count.

Upkins: I remember a little over a year ago, you reached out to me because two very talented Black writers were attempting to share their truths about the anti-blackness Lupita Nyong’o endured for starring in Us and the white privilege of Netflix’s Special respectively. Both writers got backlash for speaking truth to power. Nevertheless, you wanted to make certain their voices were heard. For PoCs with disabilities, how much of a fight is it to simply be heard?

Wong: It’s tough because let’s face it, racism, anti-blackness, sexism, homophobia is real and no community is immune from them. I am always interested in dissenting or different takes from the media hype around things, especially from disabled perspectives. When I see Asian American or disability representation in films or TV I also notice a pressure to have to embrace it without critique because of how little exists. We deserve more than the crumbs and we also need space for nuanced perspectives. People can read the two essays, by Da’Shaun Harrison and D’Arcee Charington Neal. I also recommend this fantastic essay for the DVP by Vyoma Raman on the Netflix series Never Have I Ever.

Upkins: Covid-19. It’s been a paradigm shift of sorts on a global scale. In your estimation, has the pandemic brought focus and resources to those with special needs or did it do the opposite?

Wong: First off, let’s abolish the term ‘special needs.’ Seriously, in 2020, we can eschew euphemisms and be more precise on who and what we’re talking about–disability. I feel great ambivalence about what’s happened during the pandemic. Suddenly, as non-disabled people were inconvenienced and had things taken away from them, access miraculously became available despite decades of advocacy by disabled people for accessible classes, remote working, and online conferences, performances, and events. During this same period, we’ve seen a narrowing of access and services for sick, disabled, and immunocompromised people. The rhetoric around ‘high risk’ people as acceptable losses is straight-up eugenic and this clearly also applies to Black, brown, and indigenous communities. I am glad to finally see people realizing what systemic racism and ableism looks like in the ways that our lives are devalued and deprioritized when it comes to testing and treatment for COVID-19. This year I wrote about the shortages of ventilators and health care rationing and the invisibility of deaths in congregant settings.

Book cover for "Disability Visibility: First-person Stories from the Twenty First Century" in black text on a background of brightly colored triangles with flat light beige behind them.

Upkins: Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the 21st Century. How did this anthology come about?

Wong: Catherine Tung, an editor at Vintage Books at the time, emailed me in 2018 about whether I had an interest in editing an anthology and I told her YES and that I had a great idea for it. After several conversations, I was able to prepare a book proposal and find an agent to submit it. I am very grateful for this opportunity and had an excellent experience working with the people at Vintage.

Upkins: How were each of the authors selected? Have you previously collaborated with any of them?

Wong: In preparation for the anthology, I created a spreadsheet of stories I loved over the last 20 years and it was a matter of deciding what kinds of stories and being intentional about the kinds of people I wanted to highlight. Each piece is unique, personal, and powerful. There were many more I wanted to include and I have a section in the back with a list of additional reading for people to explore.

Upkins: I didn’t know what to expect when I began reading and instantly I was blown away. Each piece was textured and nuanced. Was this organic, by design, or a combination of the two?

Wong: Yes–this was all part of the master plan *evil laugh*. I wanted to challenge readers with work that’s substantive, not Disability 101 or aimed to garner awareness or empathy. I also wanted to show just a small sample of the brilliance of disabled people doing a wide range of things. These contributors all have something to say and putting them together side-by-side was strategic. There are heavier, serious pieces, there are lighter pieces. Some are long while others are short and there is a wide range of writing styles which is important to me. There is a free plain language version of Disability Visibility and a discussion guide on my website if people are interested. Both are written by disabled writers, Sara Luterman and Naomi Ortiz respectively.

Upkins: As a reader, I found there was a component I could connect with in nearly every story. For example, being Indigenous myself, Jen Deerinwater’s (“The Erasure of Indigenous People In Chronic Illness”) firsthand account of invisibility and erasure was all too familiar. Jeremy Woody’s plight (“The Isolation of Being Death In Prison”) broke my heart. When Keah Brown explained (“Nurturing Black Disabled Joy”) that discovering joy as a queer disabled Black woman incites rage, hatred, and backlash from others, that resonated with me on too many levels. Were these universal elements something you noted while editing the book?

Wong: Not exactly–I don’t expect people to identify with every piece but I hope there is something for everyone. I also hope that one does not need to connect to something personally in order for them to appreciate and understand it. This is the opportunity and potential–to share something unexpected and revelatory without preaching.

Upkins: A point that was reiterated in many of the pieces is that these individuals aren’t waiting to be “fixed” or “healed.” In an ableist culture, why can’t this be stressed enough?

Wong: Just the other day the asswipe known as Elon Musk was touting a brain implant that according to him would ‘fix’ all kinds of disabilities. People eat this shit up because it’s edgy and futuristic. People forget that it’s also hella eugenic and ableist. And ableism is always bound up with white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, so there’s that. The struggle (and work) never ends, but if more non-disabled people after reading the book get it and decide to push back on these kinds of ‘progress,’ it would be one of many ways to be in solidarity with us.

Upkins: What’s been the reception and feedback to the anthology thus far?

Wong: Pretty good! It’s a weird time to come out with a book but I think it’s giving people a lot of joy and comfort. I also think there’s a hunger for a book like this in the world for both disabled and non-disabled people. I am always blown away by seeing people post selfies with the book or sharing their responses online. One cool thing that I cannot get over is the fact that Disability Visibility was selected for the Noname Book Club this September! I died, let me tell you, DIED!

Front cover of Vogue Magazine: Black and white photo of an Asian American woman in a power chair. She is wearing a vibrantly patterned blouse, a mask over her nose attached to a gray tube and a dark lip color. The Magazine says "Activism Now: The Facts of Hope" in red letters.

Upkins: You recently appeared on the cover of British Vogue. Congratulations. That had to be exciting and surreal for you?

Wong: Quite surreal for sure! An editor reached out to ask for a photo and I figured it was for an article but either I forgot or didn’t realize it would be on the cover. I definitely felt like the odd one out in that group of esteemed activists!

Upkins: You and I initially met during our time on the Nerds of Color? In keeping with the power of storytelling, what fandoms and speculative media are your personal favorites? Which characters and stories were influential on your journey in becoming the individual I’m interviewing now?

Wong: Gotta love the Nerds of Color! Shout-out to Keith Chow who invited me to be part of the crew and write for the blog. My go-to fandoms are Star Trek (DS9, TNG, Voyager, Discovery in that order) and X-Men. I am looking forward to the new version of Dune because I loved the books as a teenager and am intrigued by it especially since the director, Denis Villeneuve, did a remarkable job with Blade Runner 2049 (Blade Runner is one of my all-time favorite movies).

Upkins: So aside from promoting the book, what lies ahead for Alice Wong in the immediate future?

Wong: I have a few things in the works that I can’t reveal just yet. I am continuing with my podcast, publishing guest essays periodically, and continuing my activism with #CripTheVote on Twitter in the lead up to Election Day. #CripTheVote is an online movement encouraging the political participation of disabled people with my co-partners Gregg Beratan and Andrew Pulrang.

Upkins: Where can readers grab a copy of Disability Visibility: First Person Stories From the 21st Century?

Wong: Folks can find my book in paperback, audiobook, and e-book from major retailers by going to the publisher’s websiteMy website also has info on upcoming book events, media coverage, and other goodies about the book.

Upkins: Where can someone follow you and the Disability Visibility Project?

Wong: On Twitter, I’m @SFdirewolf and @DisVisibility. I can be found on Instagram: @disability_visibility and my website is disabilityvisibilityproject.com.


A picture of Dennis R. Upkins, a lean black man with long limbs wearing a well fitted navy and white pinstripe button up shirt. He's wearing black framed glasses and a warm smile, and has a black katana leaning against his shoulder.

About the guest blogger/interviewer: Dennis R. Upkins is a speculative fiction author, a journalist, and an equal rights activist as well as a long-time member of the Literary Underworld. His first two young adult novels, Hollowstone and West of Sunset, were released through Parker Publishing. Both Upkins and his previous work have been featured in Harvard Political Law, Bitch Media, MTV News, Mental Health Matters, The Nerds of Color, Black Girl Nerds, Geeks OUT, Black Power: The Superhero Anthology, Sniplits, The Connect Magazine, and 30Up. You can learn more about him at his website.

This interview was originally published by Yopp. Reprinted by permission of the author.

New: The Dark Walk Forward

A new dark-gothic collection from acclaimed horror writer John McFarland is out just in time for the holidays! McFarland is a long-time member of the Literary Underworld, with work ranging from dark fantasy like The Black Garden to offbeat children’s books like Annette: A Big Hairy Mom.

Now his new collection has been praised by Publisher’s Weekly! “McFarland tempers his frights with the mercy of familial love and sympathy for outsiders and victims. Horror readers will be riveted.”

Q: What was your first paid published work?

A: Actually my first paid published work were drawings, not writing so much. In the 1970’s surrealistic drawings by an artist called B. Kliban were all the rage. He published several books, which were the precursors of Gary Larsen’s Far Side, including several about cats. I did a parody of Kliban’s cat books called Kill A Cat and sent it to The National Lampoon. P. J. O’Rourke, the editor at that time, loved it and paid me the princely sum of $750. Scheduling mishaps at the magazine kept pushing the publication date back until the subject was no longer timely, and it never appeared. They never asked for their money back, though.

Q: Who are your favorite writers?

A: Like most boys who turn out like me, my favorite writers as a kid were Poe, Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but also the likes of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Hitchens. In college I discovered James Joyce (of Dubliners), William Faulkner and especially Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor’s work was a revelation to me, small town country boy that I was. She seemed to know every one of my relatives and she has had a lifelong effect on my work. I visited her childhood home in Savannah, Ga. and Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, where she did her mature work. I am fortunate enough to own a signed first edition of The Violent Bear It Away, and a series of watercolor concept are studies for covers for her books.

Q: What are you doing next?

A: Two novels are in the works. My current publisher, Dark Owl, has shown interest in re-issuing my 2010 book The Black Garden, and then its sequel, tentatively titled Azmiel’s Daughter. I am also working on a ghost story novel, called Phrygia House. Also, DOP has shown interest in publishing my Young Reader series Bigfoot stories, Annette: A Big, Hairy Mom.

Q: Was there anyone who inspired you as a beginning writer?

A: I actually touch on this in my acknowledgements section in The Dark Walk Forward. As a teen, I corresponded with both Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. I asked the usual young admirer dumb-ass questions, but they were both, especially Bradbury, very kind and generous with their responses.

A: Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants?

A: Both, but mostly seat of my pants. I always have a general idea of where I want a narrative to go, but as the cliche goes, the story seems to take on a life of its own as you go along. I was amazed at this process when writing The Black Garden. Connections, plot points, twists and turns just popped into my head as I wrote. No one was more surprised at how it turned out than I.


JOHN MCFARLAND’S first novel, The Black Garden, was published in 2010. His work has appeared in The Twilight Zone Magazine, Eldritch Tales, National Lampoon, River Styx, Tornado Alley and the anthology A Treasury of American Horror Stories, which also included stories by Stephen King, Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft. He is a lifelong Bigfoot enthusiast, and Annette: A Big Hairy Mom was his first novel for young readers and is in print in three languages. He has written extensively on historical and arts-related subjects and has been a guest lecturer in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.


The small town of Ste. Odile in America has experienced the Great War in ways that no one should ever have to endure.

Doctors must tend to births and deaths that make their most difficult cases seem benign.

An 1880s schoolteacher is faced with the worst blizzard of her time and must save the children under her charge.

A young man searches for his father the abandoned orphanage the older man owns… and both know they will despair at what they find.

A primitive woman experiences colonization and the stereotypes of men, yet finds her own method of retribution.

John S. McFarland has slogged through his characters’ woes and woven them into sweetly emotional yet acutely distressful tales. We as readers are forced to understand the pain, the despair, and sometimes the hope of his creations.

We realize we are lucky to live in the era we do. We also realize anything can change to tear us apart. Is it fate? Destiny? Or do we bring about these changes on our own? McFarland will let us know.

Preorder your copy today from the Literary Underworld!

Reviews

McFarland’s writing is lush and sensual, filled with textures, sounds, smells, and primal terrors that have lurked beyond the firelight since prehistory. –Kenneth Anderson, editor of Charon II

“John McFarland has a talent for drawing horror from raw human emotion. The Dark Walk Forward is heartbreaking and sad as well as frightening, with characters that linger in the mind long after the pages have turned.” — Elizabeth Donald, author of Moonlight Sonata, Setting Suns, and Nocturne Infernum.

“McFarland tempers his frights with the mercy of familial love and sympathy for outsiders and victims. Horror readers will be riveted.” ~ Publishers Weekly

Ghosts in San Antonio!

Literary Underworld co-founder Elizabeth Donald has a new novella out from Crone Girls Press, the next adventure in her Blackfire horror series!

Elizabeth discussed this new release in a recent interview with Crone Girls Press managing editor Rachel Brune.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your writing?

I’ve been writing since I could pick up a crayon, but my first published fiction appeared in 2001 or thereabouts. I wrote short stories that usually ended up in the last issue of each magazine, so I was the Typhoid Mary of the small press for a while. My first novel was published in 2004, and I’ve been writing fiction ever since – usually horror, science fiction, a spot of romance and a touch of fantasy, but often where several of these coincide. By day, I was a newspaper reporter for 20-odd years and continue to commit journalism on a freelance basis; by night I write about ghouls and monsters, and I try not to mix them up with Congress.

Q: This is a prequel to your Blackfire series. Can you give readers an introduction to that series and tell us a little bit about it?

Blackfire started with a novella intended for a collection like this one: traditional monsters written in nontraditional ways. I was assigned zombies, which was a relief since I’d spent the last several years writing about vampires and I wanted the switch. Zombies are traditionally a gross-out horror: fear of disease and putrefaction coupled with the survivalist subgenre. So I went another way entirely, and strove to find a way to make zombies scary without eyeballs and entrails. That was The Cold Ones, but the anthology was canceled before publication. A year later I found a publisher willing to take it on even at that very short length, and the print run sold out in 48 hours. Since then I’ve written a full-length novel, Blackfire, and a handful of short stories published in genre magazines and traditional literary magazines, as well as in my own short story collection, Moonlight Sonata.

Yanaguana is part of that story – a prequel by its setting, but it doesn’t require knowledge of all the other stories to enjoy it. It’s a good introduction to Sara Harvey, Paul Vaughn and the rest of the Blackfire crew, and it’s my hope to keep writing tales of their adventures for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the original publisher went out of business, so those two early books are out of print for now.

Q: This story was partly inspired by a trip to San Antonio. Can you talk a little about that, and how the story came out of it?

San Antonio is a nifty city! I travel a lot for my work as a journalist and as an author, averaging about 30 nights a year in hotel rooms when there isn’t a global life-threatening pandemic. Last year I was in San Antonio on business for journalism, and I fell in love with it. The history (ghost-related and otherwise), the food, the fascinating layout of a city on two levels. And did I mention the food? Yum.

But mostly it was that fascinating layout, of the Riverwalk and the thread of the San Antonio River meandering through downtown, and the city itself bustling about a level above it. I wandered along the river and realized what a wonderful setting it would be for monsters and demons and ghosts, because that’s the way my mind operates. Ask poor Memphis how many times I’ve infested it with monsters!

Before my trip, I had arranged to be allowed a photo shoot on the grounds of the Alamo (though not inside the chapel, they don’t allow God himself the rights to shoot inside there). I visited three times for photography and research, developing a travelogue for my nonfiction work.

But as I was planning the story of Yanaguana, I knew something had to happen at the Alamo. The city itself is practically a character in the novella, and the Alamo is the center and heart of the city and its history. Yes, it’s a huge tourist draw and I have no doubt economics is a big part of its importance, but it has special meaning for the people of Texas and San Antonio in particular. I knew I wanted it to be a big part of my story, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to do my research properly. I hope I’ve treated the city and its history with the respect they deserve.

Q: What were some of the challenges of revisiting a series after some time away, especially writing something that happens before the other books? How did you meet that challenge?

It was harder than I thought it would be! Not so much revisiting these characters, because they’re still very much alive for me. In fact, a short story featuring Parish Roberts was published earlier this year in River Bluff Review, so I never go too long without playing with the Blackfire crew. But the prequel aspect was a struggle, because I am a Star Trek-level nerd about continuity. I was continually checking the previous works to make sure the events of Yanaguana fit into the timeline of the Blackfire story and don’t contradict events prior to or after its occurrence. I remember searching for quite some time to figure out in which leg Sara was stabbed way back in the first book! I never want my creative impulse to create questions in the mind of the reader that throw them out of the story or compromise the realism of the characters’ stories – as much realism as one can have when you’re talking ghosts and monsters.

Q: Can you explain why every time I read one of your stories, there is always a scene or sentence that makes your editor cry (in a good way)?

A horror writer isn’t necessarily an emotional sadist, but it helps! If I make a reader cry, or afraid, or laugh, or any strong emotional response, I win. The enemy of good fiction is boredom. If I hear someone lost interest in my story partway through, or even fell asleep at midnight reading it, I want to know where I lost them so I can fix it next time. The most beautifully written descriptive passage isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if the reader is skimming past it, muttering, “So when is something going to happen?” And if I hear they cared enough about my characters to cry for them, or that their snark made the readers laugh, I know I’ve created something that reaches them and will stick with them after they finish the book. And that’s really the point of the job, isn’t it?

Q: I recognize a lot of what I think of as “subtle accuracy” in your writing, especially around local law enforcement, mortuary affairs, etc. You’ve spent many years working as a reporter–does this inform your writing? For those writers without this experience, what would you recommend they do to achieve familiarity with these characters and situations?

As of this writing I’ve been in journalism for 23 years, and while I don’t tend to run out to crime scenes or courtrooms as a freelancer now, I did it for a very long time and have the scars to prove it. It goes back to that wish not to throw the reader out of the story. If you ask real cops and prosecutors what they think of forensic procedural TV shows like CSI, you will get a lot of laughter and some four-letter words. For the sake of dramaticism, they’ve got lab rats that kick down doors and interrogate suspects, and don’t get them started on the “not-a-cop who helps the cops” a la Castle or even Mr. Holmes. It’s important to me to get as much realism into my dark fantasies as possible, because it lends credence to the more fantastic elements. I have cop friends who read my interrogations and police procedures; I have military friends who review military aspects; I have gun experts to tell me the difference between a clip and a magazine because those are the tiny details that throw a reader out of the story. (Don’t get me started on my own reaction to the Evil Soul-Sucking Lying Journalist trope.)

It’s also important to have first readers check you when you’re writing about populations beyond yourself, whether we’re talking about race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation and gender identity. I edited a piece once for a straight male client who was writing a love story between two men, and with his permission requested a sensitivity read from a fellow writer who was gay. Because both the client and I were working from outside our life experience, it helps to have the perspective of someone whose experience aligns more closely to your characters. The goal is to accurately and realistically portray people we made up from our imaginations, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of stereotypes and clichés that are offensive, inaccurate, or simply boring and overdone.

The easy answer is to do your research and never fall into the laziness of, “Nobody will notice.” (Someone always notices. Always.) There are groups like Writing the Other that offer seminars and strive regularly to help writers seek and destroy stereotypes and microaggressions that can creep into our writing, and professional sensitivity readers can also help you along those lines.

The more complex answer is that a writer is an observer of human nature, and you should seek out life experiences and acquaintances with a wide variety of ideas and expertise and backgrounds. The writer alone in her garret might not have much in the way of distractions from her art, but eventually it will become solely self-reflective art. Stephen King wrote that the most brilliantly rendered fictional character is “but a bag of bones” next to the dullest living human being, and so we can do worse than to become students of human nature and reflect that in our characters.

Q: What’s next in your fiction travels?

I am currently in year three of five years of grad school, working on two (2) masters degrees so I can be truly over-educated. I’ve begun the coursework this semester toward an MFA in creative writing, and so my focus has been on developing short stories and evolving my craft through the program. Next summer will be free, however, so I imagine a novel will be forthcoming. But I haven’t decided which novel it will be yet! I listen to requests from my readers, and the last few conventions before the pandemic had a cacophony of requests for more Blackfire. There’s a final confrontation coming, and I know how it ends…

Q: Anything to add?

I had a fantastic time playing with the Blackfire gang again, and infesting San Antonio with critters, as they call them. This has been a fun experience, and I hope the readers enjoy Yanaguana as much as I did. I remain grateful and humbled that publishers continue to gamble on me and readers continue to plunk down hard-earned cash for my work, as it’s a privilege and an honor.


Elizabeth Donald is a dark fiction writer fond of things that go chomp in the night. She is a three-time winner of the Darrell Award for speculative fiction and the author of the Nocturne vampire mystery series and Blackfire dark fantasy series, as well as other novels and short stories in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres. She is the founder of the Literary Underworld author cooperative; an award-winning journalist and guest lecturer on journalism ethics; a nature and art photographer; freelance editor and writing coach. She is currently pursuing two masters degrees at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and is a teaching assistant at the college. She serves as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists and Eville Writers, and is a member of the national SPJ Ethics Commission, AEJMC, ELLA, Freelancers Union, Editorial Freelancers Association and others. She lives with her husband and son in a haunted house in Edwardsville, Illinois. In her spare time, she has no spare time.

www.elizabethdonald.com

elizabethdonaldphotography.com

donaldmedia.com

patreon.com/edonald

The Best is Yet to Come from John F. Allen

John F. Allen is an American writer born in Indianapolis. He is a founding member of the Speculative Fiction Guild and a member of the Indiana Writers Center. He began writing stories as early as the second grade and has pursued various forms of writing throughout his career. John studied liberal arts at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis with a focus in creative writing and literature, received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force and is a current member of the American Legion. John’s debut novel The God Killers was published in 2013 by Seventh Star Press, and he has had several novellas, short stories and articles published since. He is also an avid reader, accomplished visual artist and jazz music aficionado.

I knew early on in my writing career that I wanted to explore stories written in a wide range of genres. This also reflects my diverse reading tastes. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into writing the same type of stories, because my readers only expected them. I’ve seen other writers who are known for one particular genre for years, who later write in another and aren’t as well received, mostly because they aren’t known for those genres. I’m not saying that is the case for all authors who cross genres later in their careers, but it happens and when it does it’s very unfortunate.

It has been my philosophy that I’d write stories and novels in various genres from the beginning of my career and publish a short story collection which contained multi-genre stories, so that my readers can get a sampling of my versatility as a writer. This is why my first short story collection, The Best is Yet to Come, contains ten multi-genre stories which range from literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror and beyond. 

During my time as a writing student, my assignments were largely literary fiction stories and the mechanics of story-writing in general. This was actually of significant importance to my genre fiction writing, as it helped me to ground my writing in the commonality of the human condition, which is the most important through line for all fiction writing, in my opinion.

However, there are many specific and unique elements which each individual genre offers for both the reader and the storyteller.

For example, science fiction offers the writer and their readers to explore the scientific and technological marvels of our world, as well as those expanded possibilities from the storyteller’s imagination. As a writer, I personally find science and technology to be fascinating subjects and often read news articles, magazines and academic journals for my own interest.

So when an idea for a science fiction story presents itself, I’m able to utilize the knowledge from my reading to add validity to the fiction and ground it in our reality. This accomplishes two things. Firstly, it acknowledges the scientific and technological progress mankind has made and is continuing to make. Secondly, it offers hope that the progress made will create a brighter future for generations to come or serves as a warning for the consequences of misusing that progress and potentially darker times ahead.

Another example is the fantasy genre. This particular genre allows the reader to experience things from the perspective of a foreign world, usually steeped in magic and mysticism, with an ancient-like setting that is devoid of scientific and technological progress. This genre challenges the storyteller to utilize human history and folklore as elements in their tales, while maintaining the human condition through line. As an armchair historian, this fascinates me in that it allows me to reach into the rich tapestry of human history and pull from the real-life stories, people and settings to create.

When the idea for a fantasy story begins to percolate in my mind, I draw upon ancient histories, people and their cultures as the base for my world building. This serves as the bridge and connective tissue with which the reader can relate and accomplishes similar objectives to science fiction. Firstly, it acknowledges the historical and cultural progress mankind has made and is continuing to make. Secondly, it offers hope that the progress made will continue to move forward in positive and progressive ways, while we learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid repeating them.

Genre writing also gives the storyteller and the reader, the opportunity to explore cultural and racial diversity from the human vantage point. This is particularly important in opening new and exciting settings to the reader, as most genre fiction is it often told from a Eurocentric perspective lens.

Human diversity in genre fiction opens up new settings and points of view to the reader and allows the storyteller to express themselves in a much more personal and passionate manner. With any luck, this very same passion from the writer is translated in their work, the benefit of the reader, which affords them a new and exciting experience.

Featuring ten stories collected for the first time, The Best Is Yet to Come presents nine years of creativity spun from the mind of John F. Allen. Action and adventure are ever-present in these stories, but be prepared for some drama, horror, fantasy and science fiction as well.

This volume includes a holiday story, “An Ivory Christmas,” featuring Ivory Blaque, Allen’s bold heroine from his acclaimed urban fantasy series The God Killers.

Also included are:

“Forest of Shadows” is the debut of a fabled, ancient warrior named, Jaziri, Prince of Kimbogo Province.

You may want to think twice before venturing out into the dark woods of rural Indiana in “The Legend of Matchemonedo.”

A young set assistant of a 1950s science fiction serial gets to embark on the journey of a lifetime in “The Adventures of Star Blazer.”

A young woman in late 1970s Indianapolis learns to be careful what you wish for in “HoodRatz.”

When a woman struggles to care for her ailing father, she discovers the truth behind her troubled past in “The Sweetest Autumn.”

Long ago, a noble samurai finds forbidden love with a beautiful, ebony-skinned princess in “The African Princess.”

A mysterious, military operative is sent on a covert mission in Egypt, when he encounters an alien monster bent on revenge in “Lazarus.”

Forty years ago, a young boy discovers that family means everything in “The Chocolate Malt.”

The Best is Yet to Come also features the special bonus short story, “Witch Way is Up.”

Explore the words of John F. Allen today!

Anybody Want to Play War?

Tommy B. Smith is a writer of dark fiction, author of The Mourner’s Cradle, Poisonous, and the short story collection Pieces of Chaos, as well as works appearing in numerous magazines and anthologies throughout the years. His presence currently infests Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he resides with his wife and cats.

Did the experience of writing in a new genre help you grow as a writer and storyteller, and if so, in what way?

While my previous works have landed within the realms of horror and dark fiction, and even fantasy in the case of a few short stories, my newest novel is a coming of age story—or as I’ve also called it, a coming of rage tale, titled Anybody Want to Play WAR?  

It’s the story of Bryce Gallo, a teenage boy attacked by a dog, who suffers terrible injuries. He recovers in the hospital, but is left with a terrible scar, a stark reminder of his narrow escape, and here the story just begins. It’s the tale of an outsider, of family dysfunction and consequences, and Bryce’s struggle to adjust and ultimately face the world. 

While this one doesn’t fall into the horror genre, past readers will find whispers of the darkness they’ve come to recognize, and it’s my hope that newer readers should also find plenty to enjoy in this character-driven story. 

As an author, I appreciated the freedom afforded in writing this particular book. Remaining squeezed inside a box for too long can become uncomfortable. 

As with other occasions, once I found the proper “zone” for myself to begin this undertaking, I adapted my approach to suit the story and its direction. 

I recognize the value in reading outside one’s oft-chosen genre and exploring other creative arenas. These experiences offer fresh alternatives and learning opportunities. For the sake of growth and development as an author or otherwise, it’s useful to remain open to areas for potential development. 

This book allowed for me to exercise character development on a higher level, and also proved a deeper experience in world building. There are many layers to the setting of St. Charles, and that includes my release of 2018, The Mourner’s Cradle.  

If handled properly, character development and world building are valuable tools which enable a seamless spectrum of possibilities. These are tools which transcend genre, skills which may serve to enhance our storytelling arsenal. To commit my best, I owe it to my readers to keep a multitude of tools within reach. 

As well, I found a challenge in labeling a story which does not easily fit in the molds of standard genre fare, but authors have penned coming of age stories across many years, decades and even centuries. Why shouldn’t I establish my variation on the concept? 

In the end, I’ve carry forward with my motivations, and this time, it was Anybody Want to Play WAR? A liberating task, and at its best moments, a learning experience. Just as our stories are works in progress until the final edit’s completion, as purveyors of words and worlds, so are we, as long as we are willing and determined to make it so. 

— Tommy B. Smith

Follow the rest of Tommy B. Smith’s blog tour at Tomorrow Comes Media!

Brutal injuries can leave scars. As the teenaged survivor of a savage dog’s rampage, it’s a lesson Bryce Gallo will never forget.

Struggling to cope with his damaged appearance, along with a newfound fear of dogs and mounting anxieties at home and school, he flees his suburban home into the moonlit streets of St. Charles.

Along the roads of suburbia and through the shadowed heart of the city, he encounters Wheels, a maintenance worker for a series of apartment buildings; Paloma, known to some by the moniker of Lady Luck; and a woman in a dark house who is, as far as Bryce can fathom, like no one else he has met before.

His new life is not without obstacles or enemies, he learns. The future is a battlefield. Fire and smoke loom on the horizon, and his dangerous course may see the lives of his family and friends forever changed.

Kindle Version:  https://www.amazon.com/Anybody-Want-Play-Tommy-Smith-ebook/dp/B07Y45ZYG2/

Amazon Print Version:  https://www.amazon.com/Anybody-Want-Play-Tommy-Smith/dp/1948042843/

Barnes and Noble Link:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/anybody-want-to-play-war-tommy-b-smith/1133901518?ean=9781948042840

Gail Force: Dennis Upkins interviews Gail Simone

Underlord Dennis R. Upkins recently had the opportunity to interview comics superhero Gail Simone. As Denny says in his prologue to the interview, if well-behaved women seldom make history, Gail has made history in defiance of the male-dominated comics industry.

Gail created the Women in Refrigerators concept, which called out misogyny and the sidelining of female characters in comics as perpetual victims to motivate male heroes. She went on to write several comics lines, including the longest run on Wonder Woman for any woman writer, as well as Birds of Prey and Deadpool.

A few excerpts from Gail’s discussion with Denny:

On Women in Refrigerators:

GAIL: Like most jobs, you get tested, you make errors, choices are given to you where the road isn’t clear, but I think your gut is a fair indicator of what the right thing to do is, most of the time. And I do feel lucky that the Women In Refrigerators AT LEAST named a trope that seemed to permeate adventure fiction on all levels. It was never my intent to tell people what stories are ‘off limits,’ it was just to say, ‘doesn’t this seem a little tired to you?’

It was never even intentional activism, it was a frustration I had to voice, and the wonderful thing is, people of all genders got it, they had the same uncomfortable feeling. So that was worth the constant hate mail and rage that was sent my way. None of that meant very much to me, still doesn’t.

On pushback against diversity in comics:

GAIL: I had great editors on Deadpool when I got started, and we raised sales and fan/critical reaction hugely. But they got promoted and the new editor was just awful. He said my Deadpool, which was literally FULL of shooting and action and boners, “had too much estrogen.” That’s a direct quote, someone actually gave this genius a job.

So that kind of thing happened, I remember a bit of pushback on making a character gay very early on. However, I have to say, DC was really advanced about that at the time, in particular. I don’t remember them ever pushing back about diverse characters, even things like the first Transgender character in a Batman-universe book. They were behind us, and I am very appreciative of that.

On the future of the comic book landscape:

GAIL: I want comics shops to be healthy. Comics will mutate and absolutely SHOULD be in as many venues as possible. But the front line is comics shops, and they’re being obliterated by piracy, rent hikes, and other factors, it all has to be addressed. Other than that, I want more The Walking Dead style hits, books that bring in readers who weren’t reading, say, Spider-Man.

On advice for aspiring creators:

GAIL: I say bring your principles with you. No one wants to be preached at while reading Batman. But acknowledging a wider world is saying, “I do not accept that this world that I love, this universe that I am so deeply entrenched in, has to stay mired in amber since 1940.”

Also, if your plot is dragging, have Spider-Man web some dude.


Dennis R. Upkins is an Atlanta native and member of the Literary Underworld. He is the author of Hollowstone and West of Sunset, and regularly critiques and analyzes the representation and portrayal of minorities in comics and media. When he’s not out saving the world and/or taking it over in his spare time, Upkins’s hobbies include drawing, modeling, acting, photography, cosplay, rollerblading, martial arts and of course writing. His website can be found here.

Read the full interview here at 30up! And check out Denny Upkins’ work at Literary Underworld!