Unmasking Myself: An Interview with E.M. Anderson

In September of last year, I received an enthusiastic email from author E.M. Anderson inquiring about an interview. In the message, she provided the elevator pitch for her debut, The Remarkable Retirement of Edna Fisher, and I said aloud (to no one, which she will understand; keep reading), “Well yes. Of course I’d love to do an interview with her. That book sounds fantastic.” Reading E’s answers was just as fun as crafting the questions, and I’m looking forward to the book. So far, it’s grabbing some great reviews! One reader said, “The characters are so vibrant and alive—I almost didn’t dare look away from them in case they continued to get into trouble while I wasn’t paying attention,” and another said, “This is an incredible novel that will make you cry and laugh on the same page and stick with you long past the ending!” At least one reader asked for six sequels, so I suppose E better get cracking on that! Thanks to E for spending time and energy on these thoughtful answers.

Christina: Congrats on the publication of The Remarkable Retirement of Edna Fisher! The premise of the book is fantastic—octogenarian Edna Fisher is The Chosen One, and she must leave her nursing home to pretty much save the day. Where did the idea for the book come from? Did anyone in your own life inspire the feisty Edna?

E: The inspiration for this book came from a tweet from @BroodingYAHero, an account run by author Carrie Ann DiRisio: It’s amazing how many prophecies involve teens. You’d think they’d pick more emotionally stable people, with more free time. Like grandmas.

I saw this tweet in a Tumblr post years ago and saved it to my Writing Inspo folder until the tail end of 2016, when I was looking for a new story for a Last Man Standing-style writing contest. (Carrie has a book based on this Twitter account: Brooding YA Hero: Becoming a Main Character (Almost) as Awesome as Me.)

Physically, Edna looks a lot like my own maternal grandmother, but personality-wise she’s all the most welcoming and confident parts of me—kind of the me I wish I were more (except the bit where she can’t ask for help or let people know when she’s unhappy).

Christina: The book is a fantasy. What about fantasy do you find so compelling to write? Has fantasy always been a love of yours? What other genres do you enjoy writing?

E: As a reader, I’ve always been a genre-jumper because I’m a mood reader. (Since the pandemic started, it’s mostly been romance—because low stakes and guaranteed HEA.) But fantasy has always been my favorite, and as a writer I really only write fantasy. If I try another genre—romance, mystery—you can bet it’ll have a strong speculative element. I think the fantastical allows for exploration of real issues in an escapist setting. Even if you’re writing cozy fantasy, where the stakes are lower or more personal, maybe you’re not digging into big issues like war, but you’re exploring grief or generational trauma. For me, it’s easiest to be vulnerable and explore such issues if I can disguise my trauma with ten layers of fiction. Plus I get to play around with magic.

Christina: The publishing industry is often cited for being ageist, which includes being biased against older protagonists (as well as authors). Did you find any obstacles in your journey to publication with this work?

E: I actually had many rejections like “loved it, but it’s not marketable.” Admittedly, that could be about the genre and conventions (or flouting thereof): Remarkable Retirement is a contemporary fantasy set in the more-or-less the real world rather than a modern secondary world, but the fantastical elements exist openly alongside things like nursing homes and iPhones, as opposed to being hidden away or known to only a few as in urban fantasy. I did have one frankly baffling rejection that suggested this book might sit among paranormal mysteries at the bookstore (???), so genre could be it.

But I also had rejections that were explicitly about the age of the protagonist. “Elderly protagonists are a hard sell right now,” they said, and I nodded like right, right, too bad, hmm, and then turned right around and wrote another elderly protagonist because fuck the market, I guess. I’ve also heard it suggested elsewhere that stories with characters whose ages don’t start with a twenty are a hard sell, especially in certain genres like romance.

It’s frustrating, because so many readers are clamoring for protagonists in their thirties, forties, fifties, and above. Readers don’t stop reading when they hit thirty! And they don’t suddenly stop reading their favorite genres just because they’re older now. And maybe they want to read about characters their own age, whose struggles and experiences mirror their own, but maybe they want to read about those characters falling in love or having an adventure…but publishing is so often like, “Sorry, best I can do is a hot twenty-five-year-old who inexplicably has a great job in their field.”

That said, elderly protagonists have long been a staple of cozy mystery. And in recent years, Swedish books about elderly protagonists keep becoming runaway bestsellers in translation. So I hope that’s a sign that the Fictional Old Person revolution is on its way.

Christina: You’re also a short story writer. Do novels or short stories come more easily to you? Do you feel that one can do something the other cannot? Which take you longer to write? (This might be an odd question, but it takes me much longer to write and revise a short story than a novel.)

E: Novels take me longer to write, but I tend to stress out more about shorts! There’s one I have coming out in GutSlut Press’s anthology Suicid(al)iens that I almost gave up on because it took so many do-overs to make it do what I wanted. That sometimes happens with novels, but, I don’t know—maybe I’m used to feeling that way about novels. Or maybe it’s like “well of course this is hard, I’m writing a novel,” but it feels like writing short stories should be easier, because they’re short, but then it’s not easier at all.

This might be a hot take, or like maybe just a mildly spicy take (if that), but I don’t know that short stories and novels do different things so much as go about the same things in different ways. A good short can give you the same sense of character and just as intriguing a plot as a novel; you just get less of it. It’s more condensed. And to achieve that same feeling of depth, it has to be done differently because you only have so many words to do it.

Christina: You identify as both neurodivergent and queer, and one of the oldest writing adages is, Write what you know. Do these characteristics come out in your writing? Furthermore, do they inform your writing? If so, how?

E: Omg okay, illustrative example. When I came out to my dad last year, he was like, “Thanks for telling me, but I already vibed that from your writing.” (Except he didn’t use the word vibed because he’s a deeply uncool sixty-year-old white guy. [Love you, dad.]) So apparently the queerness comes out in my writing in a way that puts me not as deep in the closet as I think I am in spaces where I consider myself closeted.

But even before I consciously knew these things about myself, my characters were often queer-coded or ND-coded (or both). Reading back over my extremely cringe first “novel” (it was 50 pages), there’s this whole thing about the MMC being ~different.~ It’s never explained: he just keeps worrying about how different he is and how people might not accept that. On one hand, I’m always like “Baby E I am BEGGING you to tell me WHAT is different about him,” but on the other hand I know what Baby E was going through in the years before that. And in retrospect, I can also see that it’s either queerness or neurodivergence before Baby E had language for either of those things.

(In this case, probably neurodivergence.)

Unfortunately, once I started connecting with other writers, having characters who were queer-coded or ND-coded led to a lot of feedback from (presumably) straight and NT people like “no one’s like this, this isn’t realistic.”

Like in early drafts of Remarkable Retirement, Edna talked out loud to herself a lot more. And she did that because I talk out loud to myself a lot, which I’ve realized in recent years is an ADHD coping mechanism. I don’t have an internal monologue anyway (my thoughts are more vibes than words), and with so many of them bouncing around in there—plus whatever task I’m supposed to be focusing on, plus notifications blowing up in Slack, plus a door slamming down the hall, plus the meeting happening in the next room—for me to really grab hold of my thoughts, it helps me to talk out loud. Sometimes it’s a whole conversation with myself, something I want to think through but can’t unless my thoughts are in a more physical form, while other times it’s simply recitation of a task or phone number I need to remember in the hopes I won’t forget.

So Edna talked out loud, but at the time I didn’t realize I had ADHD. It was just a thing I did. So when early beta readers were like, “Why does she talk out loud to herself so much. No one does that,” I was like, “Welp, I guess that’s just a weird little thing I do that no one else does,” and I cut it back significantly. And that was really common: these facets of my identity came out, but without the language to describe them, without being able to point at them and say, “This character does this because they, like me, are queer and/or ND,” I downplayed them when people responded negatively.

Now that I do know those things about myself and I do have the language to describe my experiences, I lean into them. It’s a joyful experience to write a book where everyone is queer or queer-coded and ND or ND-coded and not hold it back or hide it away in revisions. (It helps that the bulk of my friends and beta readers these days are also queer and ND.) It’s practice at unmasking myself, because I spent so much of my life scrunching myself down tight to fit into socially appropriate boxes, and I don’t want to do that anymore. So while Remarkable Retirement does have queer characters and ND-coded characters—and while it does deal with some specific struggles I’ve experienced—the book I signed with my agent is much queerer, with stronger ND elements, and a much deeper dive into experiences that speak to me personally.

Christina: The publishing industry is also accused of lacking representation of all folks. What do you think we as readers and we as writers can do to help remedy that situation?

E: Publishers love to not give marginalized authors—especially BIPOC authors—enough support, then use their failure to hit bestseller lists as an excuse not to publish more.

“We can’t publish more. They don’t sell!!” Yeah, they don’t sell because you’re not selling them, asshole.

So while there are multiple ways to help remedy the situation as readers and writers, two very important ways are (1) to actively seek out books by marginalized authors—they’re not hard to find if you’re looking—and (2) hype them the hell up. Recommend them to everyone. Leave positive reviews and ratings. Demand more books like them.

Some recent speculative adult releases for readers looking for recommendations: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna; The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah; Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai; Black Candle Women by Diane Marie Brown; The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai.

Christina: I laughed when I read this on your website: “She is an old lady in disguise and did not mean to like your sad Facebook status.” That’s me! What other behaviors do you have that might resonate with someone, and are you willing to share them?

E: The funniest thing about that one specifically is that back in the day I was one of the people going “Wow! I sure wish Facebook had more reactions so I’m not liking sad posts all the time!” and then Facebook did that aaaaaaaaand I’m still out here liking sad posts because I forget that reactions are a thing.

I also still listen to CDs in the car. And I’m bad at swiping—on the phone, I mean. Texting takes me absolutely forever because each word comes out wrong, and I have to redo it, and then it comes out wrong again, and I redo it again, and it’s still wrong, and eventually either I’m swiping very, very slowly and carefully or I’ve given up entirely and I’m manually pressing each letter, one at a time. And I’m probably making faces at my phone the whole while. I’m such a fast typist, and I actually got to be a very fast texter on the old multi-tap cell phones, too. But swiping defeats me.

Christina: Your “How I got my agent post” is very entertaining, and though you aren’t a fan of the posts, I think people will find it useful. Did you ever contemplate any other route for publishing beside the literary agent? What’s your one tip you’d tell writers who are sitting in the trenches just waiting for that one yes?

My debut was actually published without a literary agent! While I’m agented now, the general message from literary agents regarding Remarkable Retirement was either “this isn’t for me” or “loved it, but it’s not marketable.” After almost two years in the trenches, worn out on querying, and with five or six fulls still languishing in the ether—all around a year old at that point—I started poking around small presses.

I’d kind of hit a point where I was convinced that shelving the book meant shelving it forever, because after hearing “this isn’t marketable” so many times, I started to feel like mainstream publishing would never take it, not even in any hypothetical future where I was agented and had some other books under my belt. But many small presses are like “Hey, got something a little funky? We might want it!” So it was like, “hmmm, I wonder if maybe one of them would go for it.” And I thought Remarkable Retirement had a hooky enough premise to do okay with a small press.

That said, I was picky. I don’t always know exactly what I want, but I know what I don’t want. So many of the small presses that had liked my tweets during pitch parties were out, because I knew I didn’t want to publish digital-only, or print-on-demand only, or with distribution solely through Amazon, or with a publisher who stated right on their website that the author would be solely responsible for all marketing, or…

That’s not to say those things are  inherently bad (although I’m side-eying the marketing thing, which unfortunately is the way publishing overall has been moving), but they’re things I knew I didn’t want. So I only ended up subbing to two small presses—plus two larger, more established imprints that had open sub periods for unagented authors around the same time—and Hansen House was one of them. I liked Hansen House because they publish in digital and print (including hardcover), have some beautiful cover designs, distribute through Ingram (meaning their books can end up in actual bookstores), offer some marketing support and a lot of background support, and are queer-focused. And they’ve been really great to work with.

I talked about this a lot in my “How I got my agent” post, but my top tip for querying authors is to protect yourself. Querying can rip you to shreds, especially if you’ve read about too many overnight success stories and then don’t become one of them. Anything you can do to make it easier on yourself, whether limiting your email access or only querying on certain days or whatever, do it. Make sure you have a support system in place, people you can celebrate and commiserate with. And if you need to take a break—whether temporary or not—it’s okay to do that, too.

Christina: What does literary success look like to you?

E: Oops, see above re: I don’t always know what I want. Every time an agent has asked me something like, “What do you hope your career looks like in five years?” I’ve said, “I would like to have one.” So part of it is just being able to publish books regularly—it’s a constant fear with the debut release, especially if you don’t have a multibook deal, that this will be your one and only, and no one else will ever want anything else you write. Being proven wrong would be success lol. I also think having a dedicated fan base, even a small one, but one that loves my books and puts out fanfic and fanart and the most unhinged fan theories, that would be success to me.

E can be found in multiple places!
Website: https://andersonbooks.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @elizmanderson
Facebook: @elizmanderson

Thanks to E for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an artist, author, or podcaster who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.

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