Queer author Christopher Barzak loves ghost stories.
Growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Kinsman, his family’s penchant for telling stories about the supernatural and unexplained influenced his evolution as a writer about as much as the place itself did.
“The narrative around forgotten places like the Mahoning Valley often focuses on the social ills and overlooks what’s special about them – like the wonderful people,” says Barzak, who lives in the Youngstown area with his husband and teaches creative writing at Youngstown State University. “I wanted to see where I lived in books, and using the surreal or magical or supernatural as a metaphor allows me to talk about certain things.”
Best known for his fantasy and young-adult fiction – in which queer life in small-town Ohio is a recurring theme – Barzak’s recent titles include the Stonewall Honor Award-winning Wonders of the Invisible World and The Gone Away Place, which was recently selected for the Choose to Read Ohio list for 2021-22 by the state library, the Ohio Center for the Book, and the Ohioana Library Association.
The Buckeye Flame chatted with the author about what he’s working on, the importance of representation in storytelling, and which other LGBTQ+ writers you should also be reading right now.
What was it like growing up in Kinsman?
It’s a rural town, so in a way that was isolating. Also, being a queer kid who is intellectually and artistically inclined made it a little bit harder than maybe if I’d grown up in a suburb or a city. But I think those conditions also set me up to be a reader and a writer, because I turned to books to connect to people through the page. I think that’s how it starts for a lot of writers. You get the bug because reading other people’s stories gave you the itch to do the same. I didn’t often see where I lived in the books I was reading though, so the vehicle I used to get outside of my own life is the one I ended up using to bring life here to other people.
Often, your stories use magical, surreal, or fantastical elements to tackle humanistic themes like trauma and grief. What draws you to these types of stories?
What people in academia call “magical realism” are the same kinds of stories my grandparents would tell. My grandparents and their friends – that whole generation – were incredible oral storytellers. They would tell the same stories over and over, but they were fun to listen to and see how someone would put a new spin on them. My grandmothers were both avid ghost storytellers, and I think growing up on a diet of their stories caused me to be one as well, because when I started to write seriously I found I had the same storytelling impulses.
As a queer author, how do questions of representation factor in your work?
My impulse is to tell stories about queer people because I am a queer person, and a lot of different queer people make up various parts of my life. But it’s also important for me to incorporate characters who are beyond my own experience – whether they be people of color or of various class backgrounds or different genders. To me, this is natural to do in a story because all of these people are part of my life and an extension of my life. It’s not some act of political correctness to depict different experiences in fiction; it’s just being observant of life.
What kinds of LGBTQ+ stories/characters do you wish there were more of?
I’d like to see more stories where the characters move beyond the coming out aspect of being a queer person, and what life looks like after you do that. Obviously, coming out is an important part of the LGBTQ+ experience, and it’s an often fraught experience riddled with conflict (which is great from a writer’s point of view) – so no wonder we get so many coming out stories! But I’d like to see more of what happens after: What are the conflicts in your life past the point of making everyone aware of your identity? From my point of view, having been out a long time now, there are so many parts of our lives left to explore beyond coming out.
Which LGBTQ+ writers should we be reading?
One who has published a lot of short stories (but not a book yet) is a sci-fi fantasy fabulist writer named Meghan McCarron. Her stories are just really well crafted, and also cover some of the space we were talking about in your last question. She’s written a novel and is looking for an agent at this point, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to get one.
Other LGBTQ+ writers I’d recommend off the top of my head include Carmen Maria Machado and an excellent writer of Y.A. fiction named Adib Khorram, whose novel Darius the Great Is Not Okay has just been honored with a Stonewall Award from the American Library Association.
Finally, do you have any new projects in the works?
I am putting together a collection of short stories that are all adaptive works – based on a range of everything from fairy tales to fabulism, which I sort of kicked off as an exploration of the evolution of fantasy literature over the years. It includes some classic fairy tale retellings and retellings of some works by Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), as well as adaptive short stories of classic monster fiction like The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. There’s something about looking at other pieces of literature and adapting them in new ways, whether exploring particular identity issues that would not have been discussed in the original work, or refurbishing a setting from one time and place to another and look at the cultural norms and mores of a story and how they change depending on where the essence of the story is rooted in time and place. Those are the kinds of stories I’ve been writing for the past few years, and I am almost at a point where I have a collection ready.
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