The Queen’s Head, a marvellous literary magazine run by Ryan Vance, has closed it’s doors. Which is sad but totally understandable, given the commitment these things take. I should know – I handed editorship of Avis magazine over to the next bunch, and was glad to receive writing time back in spades. Anyway, my key point really was that I was interviewed by The Queen’s Head, the result of which is as follows (reproduced with permission from the ed.) – I am saving this for posterity!
TQH: “Exit Strategies” is an unusual mix of worlds – it’s not often you see something as speculative as the Dune universe rub shoulders with the world of sex saunas. What was the motivation behind merging the two?
JH: Yes, it is a bit odd, isn’t it? On the one hand I feel there’s something comparable in the fantasy attached to both worlds – the obvious fantasy of Dune and the sexual fantasies that percolate through the corridors of a sauna. And there’s something to be said for the way in which a sauna might feel like an alien world for some people (although of course to others it’s a familiar, mundane, even day-to-day sort of space).
But on the other hand it’s linked to my writing more broadly. A lot of the stories I’ve been writing recently have come together when I’ve taken two at-odds things and tried to see if they could fit with each other somehow. Adam Marek, a short story writer I really like, does this a lot, for instance in ‘Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth’, where a man fighting the titular illness has to face off against Godzilla. It’s such a fun, strange, and moving way to articulate a set of feelings. And so juxtaposition is definitely something I wanted to have a go at with this piece.
TQH: Despite the sex-positive setting, there’s an unnerving lack of intimacy that permeates the story. The only character the narrator seems able to relate to as a person, and not an accessory to his escape, is his wife – who only appears in hallucinations. Was this depersonalization intentional, or is this is too cynical a reading?
JH: No, not cynical at all. I was probably aiming at something like that. For me I guess the sauna isn’t the only place he is trying to escape from. His whole life, in fact. Everything in his life, even his real wife, is an instrument for some kind of escape or other – Tanya would help him dodge the pressures around performing a neat heterosexual identity, the sauna helps him escape from Tanya, so on and so forth – which, I think, leads to a very strategic attitude to people, resources, and fantasies. So in that sense his general approach to life would go hand in hand with depersonalization, or at least inhibit the emergence of genuine human connection. Everyone becomes a tool to get him out. I suppose it’s a bit of a joke that he’s only able to open up to a hallucinated version of his wife and not the real thing – I see the hallucinated Tanya as standing for some sort of idealized, impossible human connection. Poor guy does get put through the ringer a bit.
TQH: And finally, the heart of “Exit Strategies” seems to link survival to denial, and keeping secrets, at least for this character. Have you found this to be true in your own experience, particularly in in the queer community?
JH: Yes, absolutely. I was, like many others, taught from a young age about the importance of apportioning off parts of my life, almost as a sort of social skill, and in keeping desire very secret in some areas while acting on it in others. In the end I wasn’t very good at maintaining these boundaries at all – and everything eventually sort of spilled messily into everything else – but some people will keep up strong walls for the duration of a lifetime. There’s something fascinating about how people manage the contradictions in this. How someone can be secretly gay in one world, secretly straight in the next, and how they (are often forced to) move between the two. And it’s often not about choosing to do this at all, but about surviving, about keeping the status quo while getting what you want.
I would hazard a guess that this sort of secret-keeping isn’t just limited to queer desire, but a general tendency when we engage with people. Guarding the walls we make between different lives, and handling the anxiety generated when they threaten to come down, is I imagine something that quite a lot of people recognise regardless of who they love (although the consequences of a boundary collapse may be dangerous, even fatal, for queer people in ways that I don’t think are necessarily the same for straight people). Exploring this was I think one of my starting motivations for writing the piece – what would a character look like who had, as his motor, this familiar anxiety? And what would happen, say, if he started to trip about Dune? What then, huh?