• How did the idea for “Final Exam” first come to you?
I’ve talked in other interviews about mentally drafting “Final Exam” as I drove to and from a summer class in Education methods—I’m sure this story owes something to the American education system’s obsession with standardized assessment. I began by jotting down the first question, pretty much as it appears in the published version, and as soon as I was writing about ocean spray and the vastness of the universe, I knew it was going to be a story about Lovecraftian monsters from the deep. It’s important for me to emphasize that the form of the story came first, before all the details about the monsters and the main character’s (narratee’s?) failing marriage. I didn’t sit down with an apocalypse plot and think, “What would be a clever way to write this story?” I just started writing it. A lot of the drafting process felt like free association, just throwing details on the page and referencing them at a later point in the story to build the sense of a coherent narrative.
• The story originally appeared in Asimov’s, a predominantly SF market, but it’s been collected and regarded as horror by others and shows up in both genre fields on your online bibliography. What would you say are the elements that qualify this story as a work of horror?
As both a Lovecraftian story and an apocalyptic story, I think it occupies the SF/horror borderlands. I spoke pretty directly to a Lovecraftian tradition with “shambling things” and references to strange cults in the southern United States, so when editors classify the story as horror, I think that’s what they’re picking up on. More generally, apocalyptic fiction tends to fall between science fiction and horror, with zombies and monstrous invasions leaning towards the latter. There’s one other thing that makes “Final Exam” horror, or at least horror-leaning science fiction, to my mind, and that’s the cruelty of the narrating voice—Who the heck is asking these questions, anyway? Whoever or whatever the narrator is, it’s latching onto the main character’s insecurities and reinforcing some toxic social norms. There’s at least a little bit of Stephen King, Shirley Jackson style social horror in that.
• “Final Exam” has accomplished quite a bit since its publication: placement in a Year’s Best anthology, numerous award nominations and a win, reading list recommendations. In the context of your work leading up to this story’s publication, what do you think you accomplished with “Final Exam” that was new for you?
That’s a smart question, and one I find myself working through every time “Final Exam” is reprinted or featured in something. While the uniqueness of the multiple-choice structure is clearly one reason for the story’s popularity, I don’t think it’s the only thing that’s attracting people. Or, to phrase that a little differently, I don’t think the unique structure would be enough on its own. SF and horror produce a lot of unusual formats, and their readers are too sophisticated to be impressed by a gimmick. The impression I’ve gotten from readers is that people expect “Final Exam” to be a gimmick, at least at first, and are surprised to find that it tells a genuine story—as one reviewer wrote, “There’s a lot more creativity and humanity than I was expecting at the outset, considering the structure of the story.”
As for what I was doing in “Final Exam” that felt new to me, different from what I’d done before, I think it has everything to do with details and description. The format allowed me to incorporate dozens of tangents and digressions into the main narrative, so I could insert details about the main character’s job and family, about Donald’s baby brother and prom date, that just wouldn’t fit in a more straightforward story. I guess you could say I was ostentatiously ignoring Poe’s dictum about “unity of effect.” Also, at the time I wrote “Final Exam,” most of my other work was secondary-world fantasy, which has very different conventions for balancing detail and story. In writing about the “real world,” I felt much freer to push my descriptions in multiple directions, without worrying about whether the details were relevant to the plot.
Speaking of new things that “Final Exam” enabled for me, this was also the first story of mine to be professionally translated. I’m still delighted by that.
• There are Lovecraftian overtones to the story such as the Innsmouth-esque sea dwellers and the passages that refer to the age and vastness of the universe as compared to the insignificance of our own lives. Was it your intention to subvert Lovecraft’s focus on the unnamable horrors by studying the inner workings and relationships of the characters that he generally left neglected?
It wasn’t a conscious intention, although I’m pleased that it’s something that came across. I’m pleasurably chilled by the cosmic vastness of Lovecraft’s horror, but it isn’t something that I attempt to write for myself—if only because it’s been established as a kind of “base line” for modern horror. It’s hard for an experienced horror reader to be struck anew by the vastness and inhumanity of the universe, however disconcerting they still find the idea. I try to write only when I feel like I have something genuinely new to bring to the genre, and the “inner workings and relationships of…characters” seem to be the things that the genre addresses less frequently, or less directly, then questions about the limits of the human or our place in the universe. Actually, looking at my bibliography, I think I see a long-running tendency to take a usually “big picture” subgenre, such as post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, and to write in it with a narrow focus on a single relationship.
• End-of-the-world stories are usually thought to be bleak and gritty, yet one of the assets of “Final Exam” is its tangential asides of humor. Did this tone occur organically during your initial composition of the story or did you find yourself going back to leaven some of the heavier moments?
Those were there from the beginning. As I drafted the story, I was consciously cultivating what TV Tropes calls Left Field Descriptions—if it looked like the answers were going in one direction, or if the question seemed to imply one answer, I deliberately pushed it in another. I think that’s the source of most of the humor, or at least the irony, in “Final Exam.” In any case, I didn’t go back to lighten anything—for good or ill, this story endured very little in the way of revision.
• There’s a recurring theme in “Final Exam” and other pieces of your fiction (“Godfather”, the excellent “The Suicide’s Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition”) of people who attempt to save those around them and who ultimately fail, usually quite miserably. Does this have a correspondence to any of your own life philosophies or is it a narrative that you enjoy exploring? Or both?
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of grouping “Final Exam” with “Suicide’s Guide,” although now that you point it out, I can see the thematic similarity. I think I write about it so frequently because I really do find futility terrifying (It’s not coincidental that the three stories you mention are, on some level, horror). The recurring line in “Suicide’s Guide,” that “you cannot stop an angel who truly wants to fall,” that’s something it’s been very difficult for me to accept. And even where I have accepted it—as a teacher, as a friend and family member of people with mental illness—it hasn’t made that powerlessness any less painful. So these stories are acknowledging both of those things: that we have to accept a certain helplessness when it comes to the choices of other people, but also that helplessness hurts.
• Part of the appeal of “Final Exam” is its unconventional format. Is there a mode of storytelling that you haven’t tried out yet that you hope to tackle some day?
There’s always a new mode to attempt. I’ve done endnotes (“Notes to the Introduction,” in Lakeside Circus) and newspaper clippings (“Dèsirè,” in Crossed Genres), and I keep coming back to a piece with nutrition facts, although I’m not sure I’ll ever finish it. But the thing is, I won’t know what new mode I want to attempt until I’m actually writing it. I can’t sit down with the intention of writing a story in the form of X—a sentence, an example has to come first.
• What’s a short story you’ve read recently that you’d like to give a shout-out to? Where can we find it?
I just finished reading Matthew Bright’s “Golden Hair, Red Lips” in Queers Destroy Horror, a special issue of Nightmare Magazine. (I edited the nonfiction for the issue, but Wendy N. Wager deserves all the credit for discovering the amazing fiction.) “Golden Hair” combines Dorian Gray, the protagonist of my favorite novel, with San Francisco, a city for which I have a lot of conflicted feelings. And, now that I think about it, it addresses the horror of failing to save others, although the ending takes that in a very dark direction. Also—and this is admittedly a weird connection—Bright’s story reminded me of another long-time favorite, “Every Angel is Terrifying” by Nia Stephens, a story about angels and loss during the AIDS crisis. It appeared in Strange Horizons in 2006.
• What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I got into a horror-writing groove in early 2014, so everything coming out in the immediate future is some species of Gothic, Weird, or just generally disturbing. I have a dark fantasy called “What Hands Like Ours Can Do” in the November issue of The Dark. In January, Shimmer will publish my nearly-unclassifiable “Palingenesis,” which is equal parts Arthur Machen, philology, gender theory, and the beautiful strangeness of Wisconsin’s glacial landscapes. I think that’s all I can discuss at the moment—there are other projects coming down the pipeline, but they haven’t been officially announced yet.
Be sure to keep up with Megan at her official site!
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.