Monsters & Masculinity

An interview with Sam J. Miller

Monsters & Masculinity
Image: Andrew Liptak 

For a couple of years now, I've fallen out of the habit of reading short fiction. For a while, I'd picked up a wide range of genre magazines, dutifully bookmarking off a bunch in each issue to read when I had some downtime. I've got a stack of them staring at me from the shelf behind where I sit, guilting me every time I sit down.

I keep meaning to pick them up, and I might just get back into the habit, thanks to Sam J. Miller's debut collection of his short stories, Boys, Beasts & Men, which is due out next week from Tachyon Publications. It's a superb roundup of a prolific author's short stories: tales that deal with complicated, messy lives of people trying to make their way through life, faced with uncertain and dangerous worlds. Essentially, a world that we find ourselves facing every time we wake up in the morning.

They're stories that are uncomfortable, but they're like the cliché: you can't look away from the car accident as you pass by. Stories like "Allosaurus Burgers" and "Calved" have wormed their way under my skin since reading them. It's a good discomfort: they're stories that are subtly horrifying, but which are also rewarding in the lessons that they impart to the reader. The entire collection is like that, and it's a stellar example of the power that a couple of thousand words can hold over you.

Here's the trailer that Tachyon put together for the collection:

I spoke with Miller about the book and his approach to storytelling. (As a bit of a disclaimer, we share an agent, Seth Fishman.)

Collections are always interesting to read from short fiction authors, because of the curation involved. What was the determination that you made for each story to be placed here?

I was fortunate to be able to be very picky here, because these actually represent less than half of my published stories!

Ultimately I wanted to include the stories that got the best response from readers - including ones that got award recognition or were anthologized - but I also wanted to be able to tell a broader story about masculinity and monstrosity and patriarchy, which are obviously super important themes in my work, and these seemed like the best stories with which to tell that story.

The title Boys, Beasts & Men feels like a good through-line for the stories you have in here: it feels like each story is an attempt to grapple with the complexities of relationships, whether they’re familial, friends, or growing up. What has brought you along to examine this theme (or themes)?

Character is everything to me - as a writer, and a reader. I'll forgive a thousand flaws of plot and worldbuilding and pacing and prose if I'm 10000% on board with the characters. So, that's what I strive to spotlight in my own work - people who feel real, loving each other, hurting each other, changing each other. Destroying each other. Fucking each other. Etc.

My favorite character of all time is probably Prince Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender, and it's his broken-ness that I love so fiercely: that his moral compass has been damaged by the toxicity and imperialism of his family, but that he wants to be good and honorable and do the right thing. Same for Laura Roslin, or Darth Vader, or Lady Macbeth, or Mrs Dalloway or King David.

There's a million ways to make me fall in love with a character, but broken-ness is the best.

It feels a bit like the idea of transformation is also central to a number of the stories here: people grappling with turning points in their lives, relationships, the world at large, and so forth: how do you see us dealing with a transforming world while we’re also re-examining our societal values?

These days I'm pretty convinced that we have to change. All of us, as individuals, and all of us, as a society. A species. Otherwise we're totally fucked. The climate, gun violence, toxic far-right patriarchy...  But change is hard, especially when we have some small stake in the status quo, no matter how messed up we acknowledge it is. So a lot of times my stories are opportunities to explore how change can happen, to the characters as well as to the worlds they live in.

Image: Kalyaní-Aindrí Sánchez

A lot of these stories feel like they come from places in your own history: how do you go about mining your life for stories? What is inspiration for you?

Most of my fiction comes from me trying to understand things I find terrifying or infuriating or that just depress the hell out of me. That includes personal trauma I've experienced, or particularly intense and magical moments, or relationships with fictional monsters that have had a huge impact on me (like King Kong, or The Thing), but I can't quite point to the alchemy of why one thing and not something else sparks a story. Most of the time I have a million little pieces of stories bouncing around in my brain, and it's only when two of them spark together and glom on to become a molecule that I realize something has become a story I need to tell.

For example, I'd spent years with the germ of an idea for a story where an older richer man approaches a younger poorer straight couple, and propositions the man for sex for a ton of money. And the older man was monstrous in some way, and would be buying much more than an hour of the boy's time and body. But the stories I kept coming up with for that all felt familiar, and I try never to repeat myself when I'm writing.

I had a separate story about a woman who fears her partner has been somehow replaced - by a clone or a pod person or shape shifting alien or SOMETHING - and when these two sparks sparked off against each other I knew I had something exciting. That became "Shucked," one of my favorites in the collection.  

I’m not a huge fan of strict genre lines, but I’d be interested in learning how you approach genre tropes when it comes time to put pen to paper.

I AM VERY VERY BAD AT GENRE. I wrote "57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides" as science fiction - and submitted it as such to Lightspeed - and editor John Joseph Adams said it was really horror, and published it as such, and it won an award for horror, so WTF do I know?

Basically I ignore genre tropes and rules, or when I try to follow them I fuck it up, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We live in troubled times. What do you see in the coming years that has you optimistic for the future, or at least: what keeps you going?

Oh, man. Not much. Tamsyn Muir? The Locked Tomb books have gotten me through a lot of really glum days. But it's so heavy out there. Each day a new nightmare. Sometimes several.

My big personal transformation from the pandemic was arriving at a much more profound appreciation of nature and understanding of my interconnectedness with it, and I try to carry that forward in every breathe I take. Green things heal my soul when human things have harmed and harrowed it.

What was that personal transformation?

Under lockdown, being unable to go to shows or concerts or movies or brunch, while also still being exposed to the same old doomscroll of pain and rage and fear on social media, really made me turn away from the human world and seek solace in the power of plant life.

Going for walks in Inwood Hill Park, the last remaining piece of primordial forest in Manhattan - which happens to be three blocks from my house - and running along the Hudson River seeing the world wake up - it provided me with peace and joy that I badly needed.

Plants teach me patience, and humility. It helped that I was reading The Overstory at the time, which changed my life and made me totally obsessed with trees.  

What do we have to look forward from you next?

Next month [July 13th], my first novella comes out: it's called Kid Wolf and Kraken Boy, and it's about a Jewish boxer in the 1920s, and his tattoo artist (whose ink gives magical abilities), and their forbidden love affair, and the lesbian crime boss whose plan to take over the underworld requires both of them.

Boys Beasts & Men is out from Tachyon Publications on June 14th.

As always, thanks for reading. I really enjoyed chatting with Sam for this, and I hope that you'll check out his book: it's a good one.

If you'd like to check out other interviews that I've conducted for Transfer Orbit, here are a handful that you might enjoy: