A Conversation with Craig Laurance Gidney
Craig Laurance Gidney is a longtime friend of mine, a past contributor of book reviews here at The Mumpsimus, and a participant in our Delany roundtable in 2014. I also had the pleasure to work as one of the editors for his story "Black Winged Roses" at The Revelator. It has been a joy to watch his career develop from his first short story collection, Sea, Swallow Me (Lethe Press, 2008) through to the success of his novel A Spectral Hue (Word Horde, 2019) and now his new story collection, The Nectar of Nightmares (Underland Press, 2022).
About his work, Elizabeth Hand has said, "Sublime in the purest sense of the word, Craig Gidney's gorgeous stories evoke beauty, terror, and wonder, often — usually — on the same page. He uses words the way a master artist employs paint, creating lush, hallucinatory worlds as beautiful as they are treacherous." Craig's previous collections have all been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award, as was A Spectral Hue, and he has also been on the Carl Brandon Parallax Honor List, been a Gaylactic Spectrum Finalist for his story “A Bird of Ice", and won a Bronze Moonbeam Medal and Silver IPPY Medal for his young adult novel Bereft.
Matthew Cheney: Welcome back to The Mumpsimus, Craig! We’ve known each other for a while now — if I remember correctly, Kelly Link introduced us at a convention, but we also have a mutual friend in Samuel Delany, and he mentioned you to me early on as well. I’ve followed your career from your first book, and I’ve been especially excited by how seriously people now seem to be taking your work, especially in the wake of A Spectral Hue, which really seems to have developed a following. What I know, though, is that it’s been a long road to this point. I wonder if you might share with us a bit of that journey. How did you get to now? Craig Laurance Gidney: I’m old enough to remember when you had to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to magazines in Writer’s Market and wait for months (up to a year) before you heard back. I would send manuscripts off into the void that is the postal system, and get back form rejections. Sometimes, I’d get the much coveted “good but not for us” letters. Then, I got into Clarion West–where Delany had taught more than a few times. I also got a full scholarship. I was the sole person of color and queer person during my cohort. I wove my identity in the stories that I wrote for the workshop, and learned the fine art of critique. I began selling, mostly to the small press, a couple of years afterwards. My first collection, Sea, Swallow Me, came out from Lethe Press in 2008 and each release after that seemed to gain a little momentum. It culminated in the release of my first adult novel, A Spectral Hue, which was reviewed by NPR on the day it was released.
I think that persistence is one of the things that’s helped me. Another is networking — I attended conventions, went to readings and joined writing groups. Networking — and being a friendly person — helps immensely.
MC: I once had a little apartment where I wallpapered a bathroom with rejection slips. Friends thought it was depressing, but I thought it was a nice testament to persistence. Where did you find the strength to believe in yourself, even as the rejections piled up? What kept you going?
CLG: There was a point—in the late 90s—where I did give up. Not writing, but gave up submitting. At that time, there were only the big 3 places for short fiction and a handful of zines. After I’d exhausted the options, pieces would go dormant. Eventually, with the advent of the Internet, a lot of niche markets opened up—and the type of fiction I wrote began to get published. As a result, the “Highlander Principle”—There Must Be Only One Black Gay author—fell by the wayside. Now, there are many. Thanks to Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado, the sort of weird, between-genres fiction that I like has developed a space in the literary landscape.
What kept me going was seeing others succeeding. I realized that there was a place at the table for my voice.
MC: I’m curious where stories come from for you. What do you start with?
CLG: Some writers start with a character, or they have a plot already mapped out. I envy them. I mostly start with an image. See the Rose in “Fur and Gold,” or the strange creature in “Beneath the Briar Patch”. Both of those stories are retold folktales, a genre that I love—I was inspired by Angela Carter, Tanith Lee and the Datlow & Windling anthologies. (Also, my mother would tell me fairytales and as a public school administrator, she received many, many books–and films as promotional tools). Sometimes, I am concept driven. In “Sigilance” and “The Magus Club” I wanted to apply Jean Genet’s outsider homoeroticism to grotesque fantasy landscapes. “Black Winged Roses” is very much in conversation with underground queer Harlem Renaissance and the short film Looking for Langston.
MC: I would love to know more about the Genet and Isaac Julien (Looking for Langston) influences. I love the term outsider homoeroticism. What within that approach to the homoerotic is productive for your imagination? What leads you to want to write from it?
CLG: I often think that Genet’s approach to queerness — which highlights how disruptive queer existence is to the mainstream — reminds me of the way the writers of the Negritude movement embraced their otherness. There’s a transcendent quality to Genet’s prose that reminds of Aime Cesaire’s wildly surrealistic poetry. Genet found that there was an iconoclastic power in queer men and queer sexuality just being. I think that there’s a puissance in queer sexuality — which is divorced from reproduction — and he recognized that.
I remember when Looking for Langston came out. There was a professor at the college I attended that was offended that the film existed. He was convinced that Langston Hughes was celibate and way annoyed that the gays had claimed Hughes as one of their own. The code-switching and reality of the closet was just a step too far for this professor.
I find the Harlem Renaissance fascinating precisely because it was peopled with queer folk, who had to live in the margins. Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent are other influences. I consider my work to be “in conversation” with both Black and gay art. A sort of Queer Negritude, if you will!
MC: What is the process for you of putting together a short story collection? For Nectar of Nightmares, how did you organize the stories?
CLG: The Nectar of Nightmares actually came together because of a Twitter DM. Social media does have some good points! Underland Press editor Darin Bradley sent me a DM that said, “Do you have a novella?” I did not — but I had about eleven pieces that had been previously published. He told me to send it to him (not through a DM!) and I suddenly had Book #5.
The placement of the stories was deliberate. The book opens with three stories that reference folktales (“Beneath the Briar Patch,” “Myth and Moor,” and “Fur and Gold.”) The next three stories are in the weird-magical realist mode (“Black Winged Roses,” “Underglaze” and “Mirror Bias.”) There are two flash-experimental pieces, and the final five stories are more in the horror vein. I view short story collections as literary tasting menus. Just the way a master chef might arrange a meal in terms of starters, second and third courses and dessert, I view the placement of stories in a simiair way. It’s also like a ombre pattern — from relatively light to darkest tones.
I think that this collection shows me embracing more of my horror side, more so than the previous collections (Sea, Swallow Me and Skin Deep Magic).
There were a couple of stories that I left out of the collection, mostly due to publication rights. One story, “Antelope Brothers” (collected in the anthology Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness) would have fit nicely in with the homoerotic cluster of stories.
MC: Can you talk some about your relationship to the horror genre? What purpose (or attraction) does horror serve for you as a writer?
CLG: I thought of myself as a fantasy writer with a taste for the macabre. I’ve only recently embraced the “horror writer” title. Horror fiction can be about the transcendent and the numinous, not just about gross and ugly things. The beautiful and the ethereal has a place in horror, as does decadence and disgust. So many things that are horrifying are also mysterious. And a lot of tropes are only horror because of who’s writing them.
Take, for instance, The Exorcist. Possession in a Catholic view is evil, and someone acting out sexually is seen as profane. But in Candomblé and Vodoun, possession is a collaboration with a divine being, and many Orishas and syncretic beings’ sexuality is simply a part of their make up. Practitioners invite the gods to inhabit them. I play with that in both A Spectral Hue and “Sacred She-Devil.” The Good vs. Evil duality doesn’t exist in non-Western religions. (You also get a taste of it in Christianity—see Biblically accurate angels, who are terrifying).
The horror trifecta of monsters — vampires, werewolves and Cosmic Gods from Beyond — don’t really inspire me to write stories. (I love the occasional cosmic horror novel, and Poppy Z Brite’s vampires were foundational for me). But the idea of vampirism–something that I think is real if not supernatural–did make me want to write a story. “Desiccant” is my stab at writing about vampirism — the systematic draining of vital essences.
MC: I love your concept of vampirism as draining of vital essences. Are there other sorts of tropes where as a writer and person you feel particularly ready, willing, and able to operate the emergency exit?
CLG: A big trope in my work is the issue of possession. In non-Christian, non-Western religions, getting “possessed” by a spirit or entity isn’t considered bad. It’s a positive! In the story, “Sacred She-Devil,” there’s a possession by Pomba Gira, a sexually voracious woman with a potty mouth. She’s pretty much the superhero in the story! Christianity, particularly the Puritanical streak that’s so pervasive in the US, divorces the sexual from the sacred. I was suprised to find out that isn’t universal. The sexual IS the sacred in many religions. Part of the hatred of queer sexuality is that it’s devoted purely for pleasure and bonding. Even in A Spectral Hue, the possessing spirit is neither good or bad. Destruction and creations are two sides of the same coin. Many deities in non-Western religions have dark and light sides, and the whole notion of “evil” was imposed. Pazuzu, the entity in The Exorcist, was god of the wind and locusts — more of a force of nature to be appeased than a corrupting influence.
MC: I am really intrigued by the Joe Orton connection with your story “The Magus Club”. Orton was one of my earliest queer influences, because I spent some time wanting to be a playwright, and Orton’s work (and John Lahr’s biography of him) introduced me to a kind of queer identity I didn’t otherwise even have the ability to imagine. What about Orton’s somewhat obscure novel Head to Toe attracted and inspired you?
CLG: I found Head to Toe on remainder at the local gay bookstore in DC. (Remember those?) It seemed tailormade for me — a blackly comic novel that takes place on the body of a giant. “The Magus Club” takes the central conceit — a quest across the body of a dead giant by a nameless queer pilgrim. My dead giant is full of body horror and decay. I saw the movie about Orton, and likewise was intrigued both by his writing and his tragic death. The story originally appeared in an anthology called Madder Love: Queer Men and the Precincts of Surreality, edited by Peter Dubé.
MC: I am perhaps too attached to the tragic queer story, and Orton’s death was like a sordid opera to me, one I really was fascinated by when younger. I suppose it’s not only my innate tragic sense but also the effect of coming of age and recognizing my queerness during the first decade of the AIDS crisis, the death sentence years. Do you have a sense of your writing having been affected by your perception of illness and health, of aging, of living and dying?
CLG: I’m attached to dark things and tragedy because I have depression and anxiety, and writing is a way for me to exorcize those demons.The late author Tanith Lee viewed writing as “channelling.” I don’t “channel” but the subconscious does play a role in my work.I also think “tragic” and “sad” stories are incredibly cathartic. Ultimately, I want to have a reaction from the reader — to have a great emotional response. I put images and ideas in their head and I want those images to linger. I find that the zeitgeist — the AIDS crisis, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the current madness with the SCOTUS — work their ways into my fiction in subtle ways. A tone, the coloration of a sentence, a mood established. Now that I’m aging and have experienced the death of loved ones, that, too, makes its way into my writing.
MC: We’re finishing this conversation as the Supreme Court continues to destroy democracy and make people’s lives hell. Everything feels besieged. So perhaps we should end with some recommendations. Have you found joy anywhere recently — whether the joy of books, music, movies, the joy of a flower growing in a gutter, anything…?
CLG: I find most of my joy through music. A couple of weeks ago, I saw the Icelandic postrock band Sigur Rós live and it was transcendent. Their epic cinematic pieces transport me to an otherwold. The singer Jonsi sings in a made up language, and he’s also queer. I’m looking forward to listening to the new Autumn’s Grey Solace album, which comes out this Friday — they’re a shoegaze band from Florida who’s singer sounds like the late Julee Cruise. (Jeff Vandermeer, our mutual friend from Florida, would probably love them — they write songs about the natural world.) In fact, walking around, admiring nature (even the urban environment) tones down the anxiety I feel about the current state of affairs.