R.J. Howell talks about her writing, the importance of community to a writer, and rejection
Interview by Elijah Abarbanel
R. J. Howell is a writer and an artist. A Chicago native, she earned her BA in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as JayHenge Publishing’s Unearthly Sleuths, Mt. Misery Press’ Neon Druid, Smoking Pen Press’ Vampires, Zombies and Ghosts, Astral Books’ Beyond the Stars: Rocking Space, and more. She’s a firm believer in living a life well-read. You can find her online at rjhowell.com.
R.J. Howell was interviewed in October 2019 via Hangouts, an alternative that was resorted to when Skype refused to function properly. The way the interview proceeded can best be compared to the office space that housed the computer she used: hectic, exciting, and brimming with sheer personality. Bookshelves covered in paper lined the back wall along with a tall, lean clock that according to Howell, “doesn’t actually work.” During the interview she often laughed at her own answers and sounds of barking dogs occasionally echoed through the microphone, eventually prompting her to get up and close the door mid-sentence. Through that laughter, we discussed her rapidly growing body of short stories and the disparate genres she explores through them, the role community plays in a writer’s art and career both online and in-person, and dealing with rejection as a writer. Howell would later message me the same day that she ironically received a rejection letter from a publication as we were talking.
First, thank you for doing this interview for us.
Thank you for asking me! *laughs*
For starters—Just as a sort of icebreaker—what makes R.J. Howell, “R.J. Howell” as a writer?
Being eclectic. I mostly write speculative fiction, but it’s been observed that my stuff changes between different projects, so there isn’t a very clear voice that’s going to be the same. They tend to be different.
So there is no single specific tone or voice that you linger on?
Yeah, while most of the pieces that have been published have been humorous, there have been a couple of exceptions. And then, occasionally, my writing can get extremely dark. It just depends on the story I’m working on. But I do have a tendency to focus more on stories that are . . . not epic—the opposite of epic.
Very small-time characters?
Yes, or very small-time situations that are usually important to the characters but may not have a world or galaxy-spanning impact.
That’s interesting. One of your more recent stories, “Curiosity,” was published by Astro Publishing in Beyond the Stars: Rocking Space, a Space Opera Anthology. Would you consider that a small-time story, considering the larger impact that the contact between the alien and the protagonist Landry has?
Even though the stakes are high, if Landry succeeds or fails in their negotiation, in the moment it’s just a conversation between two people. It’s been referred to by my critique group as the *laughs* “awkward interspecies flirting story,” because it has more to do with Landry and the alien’s contact and communication than it actually has to do with space travel. Even though space travel is very important, the story isn’t about that.
There is a section of that story that I particularly liked toward the beginning when Landry is trying to coax a name out of the alien they sit across from:
“‘The only thing I have to call you is “alien.”’ Except, in my brain, I was already referring to him as my alien.
‘Does that not serve?’
‘It does but-surely you have a name? A designation or whatever?’ He stared at me. I raised my eyebrows in exaggerated expectation, but evidently didn’t get my meaning across. Either that, or he was purposefully not understanding. ‘A name allows you to identify an individual. “Alien” is just a definition, and it feels. . . .’ Uncomfortable.”
I thought this was a nice part of this story that, as you’ve said in a previous interview, is about communication. What is your opinion on the labeling of an individual as “alien” in general? Does it somehow diminish them as a person? The narrator refers to them as “alien” throughout the story rather than giving them a name.
So, my personal opinion on the concept of “alien” is that it defines the “us and them” categories. Saying that somebody is alien or other puts them at a distance and I found that I wanted to play with that in this story, that idea of distant, but not. Yet, at the same time, wanting to give things names and labels may not translate across species lines. We, as humans, really want labels. For example, my Alexa in the other room is named “Alexa,” but she’s a box—she’s a representative of Amazon. She’s a machine, yet I still refer to her as “she.” Humans really like labels, but would that be something that an alien or something not human—would they have the same need or would they have different ways of communicating labels than us? I wanted to take that apart in the story.
Despite having this whole idea of the “alien” as something other, something we desperately want to put a label to, toward the end of the story, it gets to that weird, awkward “alien flirting” situation, where our alien is becoming more attached to Landry. Would you say that breaks through the label of “alien,” making them more “human” in a sense?
Yes! I wanted to have that communication, that connection, be what helps create the binding of these two very different people. And I wanted to show that we can still communicate and commune, even though the alien is not human. They’re still something we can relate to.
I remember you said earlier that some of your stories tend to be darker. The first story of yours I read was “Jack Monahan P.I., deceased”—
—a story with a bit of an absurd concept; the mixing of noir, vampires, and sci-fi all into one little mishmash. For starters, would you consider this to be one of your serious—
—No! *laughs* Not at all! That’s totally humorous, oh my god! The whole purpose of that one was, “I want to mix ‘The Maltese Falcon’ with ‘Firefly’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’! It was ridiculous.
What was it like creating this sort of blending of genres?
That one actually came from Richard Chwedyk’s science fiction writing class. He’d given us a chart on writing pulp and told us “go have fun.” I didn’t actually intend to finish it, because the assignment for the class was only a couple pages. It was just supposed to be a silly thing. But I ended up plowing through this 7000-word short story while I was cat-sitting—which is a bad idea if you’re highly allergic to cats. And like some pulp of that era, I wanted to capture that feeling of “this is obviously ridiculous; I have reached the end of my imagination and so I’m just throwing things at the wall and playing now.” I embraced it. And as for how it got sold, it ended up being the exact opposite of how it’s supposed to be. They tell you you’re never going to have an editor come up to you and say, “Hey can I have that story?” Except that is what happened. I posted part of the beginning as a little section on DeviantArt, and this editor from this anthology series was like, “Where’s the rest? Oh yeah, we’ll buy that!” And I’m like, “Ok, that does not happen!” It’s never happened again.
How important would you say an online presence is in blogs on community forum sites, places like DeviantArt are? How important would you say that is to the development of an author?
I would not say that it’s necessary. For example, I can’t tweet. Even though I have Twitter, I don’t actually do anything except follow other people. But I do have a blog, and it’s worked better for me as a creative. Social media is a help, but it is not necessarily the be-all-end-all. Take platforms, for example. Somebody pointed out to me at ICFA [International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts] that platforms are about your audience, not about your presence. If you have a platform of people you know in person, that’s still a whole platform. The internet basically has given us the ability to have a huge platform and reach many different audience members, and it allows instantaneous communication with your readers as well. That’s on the more professional side. For development, I would say it’s highly invaluable for creating community—especially if you don’t have the ability to attend, say, Columbia, because you live far away or you’re in a different place in your life—being online can help you create that community with other writers, to build your support network. When you get three rejections in a day and feel like absolute crap, you can say to your online friends, “Hey, I got three rejections today and I feel like absolute crap, send me funny cat videos.” Or you’re like, “I don’t know why this story isn’t working, can I just give it to you?” And they’ll say, “Yeah, sure.” You can have so much more of a network when you have an online community. It is different from an online presence, but I think they are connected.
Have you found an online community?
Yes. There are a number of people I still keep in contact with from my master’s program at Stonecoast. I do manuscript swaps with them, but we live all across the country. It wouldn’t be feasible for us to meet in person, so occasionally we send stuff by email. We also have a Slack account. But on the other side, there’s a couple of forum boards that I’m a part of, and . . . I don’t have a huge online community, but that’s mostly because I have more of an in-person one. If I didn’t have that in-person connection, online would totally be the place I would go. I did that with DeviantArt. When I was in high school, there were so many people who I knew through there, who helped massively in the development of my art and me as a person, and that was entirely online. I’ve met one person, once, from that group. But the forum boards allow me to keep an eye on what’s happening in the greater scheme of the writing community.
We’ve talked about online community, now let’s talk about personal community. I happen to know that you frequent Gumbo Fiction Salon, an open-mic event hosted by our own Tina Jens. Would you say that these sorts of events contribute to your writing?
Yes. I mean, yes. So, there’s an underappreciated thing called reading out loud. It’s a super integral part of Columbia’s writing program. But I discovered after leaving Columbia it’s not that highlighted in other programs. There’s so much value in having a live audience. You have readers sitting right there, reacting. And you can also see—or hear—when you’re reading, “Oh wait, that joke in the story, that took a little too long. It works much better as a joke if it cuts off right here,” or “the drama of this moment—the emotion that’s being conveyed—works much better if it’s understated. This one thing is taking it to the extreme of caricature. I’ll just cut that and that.” I often test my drafts at open mics like Gumbo.
Have any of these stories changed dramatically because of your readings?
I have found more often—they haven’t changed dramatically so much. The ones that pass that test go onwards. They more or less stay as what they are. But I’ve had a few moments where I’m reading something out loud, and I’m like, “this is not going anywhere, I can see as I’m reading it—I can hear it, it doesn’t sound right. So, I’ll just put that away.” So, then it just sits there for a little longer and either becomes something else, or I’ll Frankenstein it, and put parts of it into something totally different in the future.
You have a forthcoming story, I believe—
A couple. *laughs*
—A couple, yes. One specifically that’s going to be released in Strange Stories, Vol. 1, published by 42 Books LLC. Is there anything that you can tell us about that?
The story is short, and the cover is fantastic, by the way. It’s a micro-fiction horror story. I thought it was hilarious. Other people looked at it, went “Wow that’s horrifying,” and I’m like “but it’s funny!” I guess the editors either thought it was scary or humorous—I’m not quite sure. I turned in edits for it a couple weeks back, so hopefully the release will be soon.
How’s that buddy cop, high-fantasy novel you occasionally mention on your blog coming?
*Laughs* Really, really well. I’ve got a little left to go, then I’ll be starting on revisions and editing. It’s super close to the end. Honestly, I’m so ready to be done with it. I’ve been working on it for the past three years. I love it but there just comes a point when you’ve been looking at it for too long and you just can’t wait to say, “I’m done with you!” Editing is going to be interesting. It’s such a fat book. It’s 186,000 words! It’s huge! Bigger than anything else I’ve ever written.
One final question. For the many—hopefully many—young writers reading this interview, How do you deal with rejection?
So, there is an interesting post by JC Bedford about how one of the strengths of Imposter Syndrome is you never thought you were going to succeed anyway. So, it hurts less, because you didn’t create in your imagination all the hopeful things of, oh yeah, I’m totally going to be accepted. It has sucky feelings attached, though. It sucks to have Imposter Syndrome. But I find I’m able to roll with rejection a bit better because of that. It also helps when you have lots of stuff out at once. Don’t do the “I’ll just send one story to one place and I’ll wait ‘till I hear back from them.” Send out—say—twelve stories to a bunch of different places, and if one goes down, one goes down out of the twelve. You’ve still got eleven. So, it’s harder to be totally crushed by rejection if you have other plates spinning. At this point, it’s the waiting that’s really getting me. I’ve got one story that’s been out for almost 150 days.
There is also this book called The Writers Book of Doubt by Aiden Doyle, and it is awesome. It’s a collection of essays just about the experience of being a writer and dealing with doubt and rejection and all of the stuff that goes with it. It introduced this idea that you should have a happiness folder, and you put all these things in the happiness folder that make you feel good. Stuff like compliments or acceptance letters or pictures that make you smile or a journal entry about one of the best days ever. So when you get that horrible crushing rejection, you just open that happiness folder, and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I got a nice compliment about this story. I don’t suck—” *laughs* “—somebody thought it was awesome” or whatever. It can help make the endless nail-biting of waiting or the soul-crushing experience of “but I really thought I was going to get somewhere with that” bearable. It can help alleviate it.
Beyond the Stars: Rocking Space, a Space Opera Anthology
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