A Point of Pride: Interview with Lee Mandelo
Lee Mandelo (he/him) is a writer, critic, and occasional editor whose fields of interest include speculative and queer fiction, especially when the two coincide. His debut novel Summer Sons, featured in publications ranging from NPR to the Chicago Review of Books, is a contemporary Southern Gothic dealing with queer masculinity, fast cars, and ugly inheritances. His most recent book, Feed Them Silence, is a near-future science fiction novella—and there’s also a t4t historical Appalachian horror novella in the works. Mandelo has been a past nominee for awards including the Nebula, Lambda, and Hugo Awards, and is currently living in Louisville while pursuing a PhD at the University of Kentucky.
What inspired you to start writing?
Stories have compelled and fascinated me for as long as I can remember! There might not be an answer to the question of what inspired me to start writing in general, it’s just always been there as something important to me. With specific projects though—for example, Summer Sons—usually I start with a single scene, or emotion, or character, that commands my attention. I’m not a “write daily” guy; I find that expectation tends to create burnout and doesn’t leave artists enough time to reflect or grow, but I do journal regularly—so, I’ll note down those seeds of ideas and over time see if they start to germinate something bigger.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
Anything that provokes strong feeling, I’m into that—and horror, alongside erotica, devotes itself so well to powerful, bodily emotions. As a weird gay child of the ’90s, I was probably destined to love horror. There was such a huge boom in scary books, movies, and so on by LGBTQ+ artists going on during that decade. Unsurprising, given things like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, alongside government abandonment and surging social persecution through the late ’80s onward. I didn’t have that context as a kid, but I had the materials, and they left strong impressions on me!
Looking back now, I feel like being drawn to horror—a place where stories about being an “outsider” and also experiencing extreme dread and fear could be made somehow safe to explore, in their own strange way—was only natural.
Do you make a conscious effort to include LGBTQ material in your writing, and if so, what do you want to portray?
The truth is, I have to make a conscious effort to include straight material. Queer is the norm for me; that’s the center for the world I live in, the people I spend my time with, the politics and art that animate me. “Queer” is also unavoidably the lens through which other people see and interact with me, for better or worse. So, in fiction I’m generally portraying life as I experience and reflect on it, day by day… and that whole life simply is queer, from the bones on outward. I’m never really “adding” LGBTQ+ material on top of a presumably-straight baseline.
As for themes, I tend toward exploring the ways people are shaped by complicated relationships, power dynamics, and the things they want, need, and/or fear most. Characters are usually what drives the plot, for me.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
As someone whose work straddles lots of genres, when I’m drawing inspiration from the horror side of things it’s usually because the story needs to connect with visceral beliefs, worries, and desires. So, writing horror makes me consider with greater empathy what drives people to do the things they do: what systems and structures created them, what experiences shaped their responses, what they’re burying deep beneath the surface of themselves. In that sense, I think writing horror isn’t necessarily teaching me something, but instead is forcing me to look more closely and honestly at the things I’ve already learned from, or about, the wider world around me.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Within the horror genre—and honestly, most genres—I think there are natural cycles of growth/innovation, meta/reflection on that innovation, and then returns to/reprisals of past material with a fresh lens. The ways films like the Fear Street trilogy or novels like the Indian Lake series by Stephen Graham Jones, have been returning to the ol’ standby slasher while also fucking around with how we perceive things ranging from “final girls” themselves, to how characters of color are treated, to how class and wealth function as their own violence… that feels so fun! Nostalgia that’s just rehashing the same old stories bores me, but returning to fertile and fearful grounds to do something new: that’s what I’d be down to see more of.
How do you feel the LGBTQ community has been represented thus far in the genre, and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
Queer artists have always been central to the horror genre, whether folks are necessarily aware of that or not! I recommend checking out Bryan Fuller’s awesome docuseries on ShudderTV, Queer for Fear, for a rundown on how scary movies made by, for, and about queerness shaped the entire film horror genre.
Ultimately, I prefer to focus on “presence” instead of “representation,” by which I mean: where are the queer creators working from their own unique perspectives? Horror offers, I think, a revealing angle on the limitations of “good representation”, because bad things happen to people over here… so instead of representation, what I’m hoping for is that publishers and audiences spend their attention (and cash!) on the various kinds of horror queer creators are producing. Material support means more spooky art, from more sorts of people, gets to succeed!
Who are some of your favorite LGBTQ characters in horror?
For some reason, in this moment, I seem to have forgotten every character I’ve ever enjoyed in my life.
But let’s see… I’ve been thinking about some of the gothic classics lately, like Eleanor and Theodora in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, or the unnamed narrator and Mrs. Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. And hey, though it’s been years and years since then, I’ll never entirely forget being a young teenager first encountering the Corinthian in Sandman and the terror-horny response he provoked. Or, along those lines, the villainous Dr. Muraki of early ’00s manga Yami no Matsuei.
Who are some LGBTQ horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I’ve been digging recent work from writers like Sarah Gailey, Cassandra Khaw, Sam J. Miller, Gretchen Felker-Martin, Eric LaRocca, Craig Gidney, and Carmen Maria Machado! As for nonfiction, It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror, edited by Joe Vallese, had tons of awesome essays by queer artists on their relationships with the horror genre, each writing through the lens of one specific favorite scary movie.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Chase your bliss and write whatever weird shit gets your heart pumping—draw inspiration from games, movies, poetry, novels, the way a tree shadow falls wrong on your walk home at night. I’d love to see more strange, queer horror stories from across the globe.
And to the LGBTQ writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Two things, the first of which is—build community with other writers, artists, fans, and so forth. Writing tends to be solitary, but having peers and friends to bounce things off is invaluable. Also, no one goes and reads a single book then never picks up another one… so when your work gets into their hands, why not boost your friends? And they’ll do the same. It’s all word of mouth around here. The second bit of advice is, read widely. Read books outside fiction, outside horror, outside those published only in the USA, and outside your comfort zones—you’ll gain so much more material to work from, and it’ll do wonders for your prose to have more tools in the toolbox you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.