Catriona Ward next to her book. (Image: Tordotcom.)

Our Books, Our Shelves: 5 Real-Life Horrors That I Wrote Stories To Cope With

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The real world is a terrifying place at the best of times, and this has not been the best of times. Everyone I know has been struggling lately, and it seems like there’s a new scary thing every day. The attacks on abortion rights, trans rights, and our democracy itself are just relentless. It’s like every house is a Blumhouse.

The good news? We can use our imaginary worlds to help us cope with the real world. As I wrote in my recent essay collection Never Say You Can’t Survive, escapist fantasies can help keep us alive, inspire us, and give us strength to keep fighting for justice. But also, you can use fiction to confront the things that scare you, face them on your own terms, and maybe even understand them better.

I use fiction to cope with terrifying real-life things all the time, even if the resulting stories are not that scary. My upcoming short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes, is pretty much made up of stories I wrote to work through my anxieties. Here are five scary things I’ve used fiction to cope with:

1) Climate Change.

Not too long ago, I woke up to find the sun had vanished. In its place was a tiny red speck, in a billowing sea of dark clouds, thanks to the smoke from nearby forest fires. Climate change is undeniable, and it’s already affecting all of us. It’s hard to wrap your mind around all the misery our destabilized climate is going to cause in the coming years. So I set out to write a hopeful story about a queer community that comes together in the flooded remains of San Francisco. The result, “Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy,” is about survival. And kindness. And the hard work that goes into surviving after the flood.

2) Dementia.

Too many of my loved ones have been stricken by dementia. There’s something unbearable about standing in front of someone you’ve known all your life, and seeing no recognition in their eyes. The idea of a disease stripping away your mind, your personality, everything that makes you who you are, is almost too scary to contemplate. So when I was asked to contribute to an anthology of video game stories, I decided to write about someone who was using a game to cope with dementia. And in the process of writing “Rat Catcher’s Yellows,” I found a lot of comfort in imagining how my main character found community and meaning and a whole world, thanks to this weird cat game.

3) Fascism.

I’ve been scared of a fascist uprising for as long as I can remember, because I’ve watched the seeds of fascism getting scattered. And watered. I needed to try and imagine a future fascist America, so I’d be ready when the time came — which is why I spent years working on “Rock Manning Goes For Broke,” in which a group of young white men called the Red Bandanas start moving into major cities and imposing order, with the support of the police and the federal government. And an out-of-control military pursues forever wars around the world, with cybernetic helmets that turn people into killing machines. I couldn’t make that scenario cute or comforting, so I chose to lean into the absurdity and weirdness of that future. And to show how comedy and silliness can confound our would-be masters.

4) The Breakup of America.

We can’t agree on basic things anymore. Like climate science. Or the results of the last election. Or whether vaccines are a good thing. Pundits use antiseptic terms like “polarization” to talk about the chasm between our two versions of the United States, but it feels more like we’re suffering a total breakdown of our shared reality. We’ve never been able to come to terms with all the injustices in our bloody history, and it’s tearing us apart. So I tried to imagine a future America that’s split into two countries: a conservative nation called America, and a more progressive nation called California, with the border along the Rocky Mountains. A woman named Molly runs a bookstore that straddles the boundary between these two countries, and tries to find ways to sell stories to both. “The Bookstore at the End of America” is as sweet and friendly as I could possibly make a story about what happens when our matchstick house finally tumbles down.

5) Anti-Trans Laws.

This one cuts close to home. A rising tide of transphobia has led to a rash of state laws attempting to criminalize my very existence, and that of people I love. First there were the “bathroom bills,” then came the laws attacking sports and healthcare for trans youth. This shit gets scarier all the time. Back in January 2017, I was having one long panic attack, in the run-up to the inauguration of our 45th president, and the only way I could cope with the fear was to imagine the worst that could possibly happen. So I wrote “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” a story about a trans woman who gets kidnapped by a monstrous quasi-governmental organization and undergoes a horrific procedure to “cure” her transness. Putting my fears down on paper helped me to cope with them, and to imagine surviving the absolute worst. This is probably the most upsetting story I’ve ever written, but it was like a little taste of poison that made me feel better.

If there’s one thing I hope people come away from Even Greater Mistakes understanding, it’s that life’s worst horrors require our wildest and strangest stories.

Get your copy of Even Greater Mistakes here.

Our Books, Our Shelves. (IMAGE: Tordotcom.)

(Image: Tordotcom.)

About Even Greater Mistakes:

In this short story collection, Charlie Jane Anders upends genre cliches and revitalizes classic tropes with heartfelt and sometimes pants-wettingly funny social commentary.

The woman who can see all possible futures is dating the man who can see the one and only foreordained future.

A wildly popular slapstick filmmaker is drawn, against his better judgment, into working with a fascist militia, against a background of social collapse.

Two friends must embark on an Epic Quest To Capture The Weapon That Threatens The Galaxy, or else they’ll never achieve their dream of opening a restaurant.

The stories in this collection, by their very outrageousness, achieve a heightened realism unlike any other. Anders once again proves she is one of the strongest voices in modern science fiction, the writer called by Andrew Sean Greer, “this generation’s Le Guin.”

About the Author:

Charlie Jane Anders is the former editor-in-chief of io9.com, the popular Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel and was a Hugo Award finalist. Before that, her story, “Six Months, Three Days,” won the Hugo Award. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

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Author
Image of Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders
is the former editor-in-chief of io9.com, the popular Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel and was a Hugo Award finalist. Before that, her story, "Six Months, Three Days," won the Hugo Award. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney's, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.