June 2023

Finding ourselves in a monster

Interview by
In Dear Mothman, a sixth grader’s search for a mythical creature leads to friendship, healing and hope.
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Novelist and poet Robin Gow explores grief, queer identity and one of North America’s most beloved cryptids in Dear Mothman. Noah’s best friend, Lewis, always believed that Mothman, a creature first spotted in West Virginia in 1966, is real. After Lewis dies in a car crash, Noah decides to honor his friend by proving Mothman exists for a sixth-grade science fair project. As Noah seeks the truth about this local legend, he also finds the courage to show his truest self to the world.

Introduce us to Noah and what he’s working through as the novel opens.
Noah lost his best friend, Lewis, a few months earlier. Lewis and Noah shared so much—they were the only trans kids in school, and in many ways Lewis’ boldness made a pathway for Noah to express himself and his identity too. Noah has only recently started to come out to people as trans, so he’s also trying to understand how to share that without Lewis to lean on. Then there’s the question of Mothman. Noah has always been the skeptic of their duo, but without Lewis, he’s finding himself even more curious about Mothman.

Noah’s feelings of loss and grief come through so clearly. As you were writing, what felt like the most important aspects of his emotions to capture and convey to the reader?
I wanted to capture the ways grief is knotted and complicated. One moment we can feel intense despair and sadness. In the next we can find ways to twist those feelings into guilt or even frustration and anger. I thought it was important to show all the different ways Noah’s mind tries to wrap itself around Lewis’ absence and what it means for him and the world around him.

Noah relates to Mothman deeply, and the novel contains many beautiful reflections on the relationships between queerness and monstrousness. Why was it important to you to explore these ideas—and to do so for a middle grade readership?
When I was a middle schooler I didn’t know myself as a queer person. I didn’t have that language, but I always gravitated toward monsters because I could see how they were often misunderstood or mischaracterized by the stories they found themselves in. I wanted to speak to youth who, like me, gravitate towards the strange and the monstrous because we see ourselves in them. Then, also, I hoped to help us question what a monster is. Often monsters are echoes of what a society fears most, and those fears can be unfounded. They are often a version of “fear of the other.”

“Often monsters are echoes of what a society fears most, and those fears can be unfounded.”

How did you first encounter Mothman?
My college friends just generally liked all things supernatural and strange. I was our college Gay-Straight Alliance president and I literally gave a PowerPoint presentation on why cryptids were queer culture. It started with a joke that Nessy was definitely a lesbian.

I was drawn to Mothman specifically because I felt like he was misunderstood. He never does anything mean to people in the stories—he’s just lurking.

Dear Mothman is both epistolary and written in verse. Why did you decide to use these two forms? Why did blending them feel like the best way to tell Noah’s story?
Both forms allow the reader to access Noah’s most personal and often scattered thoughts as he tries to connect with someone (or something, depending on how you think about Mothman). And both poetry and the epistolary form allow space for messy emotions and confessions.

The first draft of the book was actually only written in letters. As I revised, I found moments that worked better as just Noah talking and moments that felt best directed to Mothman. I think having both makes the moments when Noah is reaching out to Mothman even more powerful. Overall, I think verse can really embody the whirling feelings of characters’ coming-of-age moments.

One of the most fun elements of Dear Mothman are Noah’s sketches. They look like something a kid his age would actually draw. How did these visuals come to be part of the book?
One of my favorite things about Mothman and other cryptids is that artists have so many different renditions of them. From the beginning I knew that Noah and Lewis would see those variations online and probably want to add to them. The first page I wrote was the school report Lewis and Noah made about Mothman, and I imagined that drawing it was really exciting for them because it would be a moment to let their imaginations explore what they thought Mothman was like.

Then, as we revised the book, we found more places where Noah might doodle. I drew some idea sketches in places and descriptions in others, and we worked with an illustrator who brought the ideas to life. Rebecca Harry did the drawings, and I think she perfectly captured how Noah would imagine Mothman as a gentle and fun monster. I also think the drawings channel the whimsy and fantasy of the cover art by Tracy J. Lee!

How do you think art can help us channel our feelings and understand ourselves?
As a young person I actually mostly “wrote” in drawings. I made comics and graphic stories before I was writing anything. I am autistic, and I really struggled with writing and reading, especially in elementary school through middle school. Drawing was a space where I could push those struggles with words aside and capture imaginary creatures and worlds. I often draw myself as different genders and species. Drawing felt like the best kind of escape.

Noah meets new friends through LARPing—live-action roleplaying. Tell us about the role that these new friends and LARPing play in Noah’s life and why they’re such an essential part of his story.
In my original drafts of the story, Noah’s friends were just playing pretend. My editor pointed out that kids at this age start to age out of just playing pretend and start to do things like Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing—still playing pretend but in different structures. To Noah, the fact that these kids still use their imaginations to play signals to him that they might be possible friends and allies, because he also loves to dream and imagine.

And things like LARPing and Dungeons & Dragons can be a huge part of queer culture. I mean yes, nonqueer people play them too, but for queer people these games are spaces where we can be ourselves and explore genders and sexualities without the confines and limits of the real world. In my own life, role playing and playing pretend were the first place I got to be my real gender. Even if I didn’t come out until college, I was playing games as a boy in elementary school.

Early in the novel, when Noah is telling Mothman about a conversation he had with his mom, he writes, “Why doesn’t anyone listen to me? . . . No one listens to kids or monsters.” That line is going to resonate so powerfully with so many young readers, so I want to ask: How do you think the world would be different if it weren’t true?
I think we would be a more imaginative place. I think so many of the world’s problems persist because we’re forcibly cut off from our imaginations by crushing systems of capitalism and white supremacy. Then we inflict that violence on our youth. Sometimes we do this to try to help them survive and sometimes we do this almost as a punishment. Because we had to go through it.

I reflect on my experiences as a young autistic person in an ableist world. I was often made fun of, harassed and punished by adults and educators for my imagination, for being strange and for questioning what we were told. I learned to hide myself to avoid as much of that harassment as I could. I’ve spent most of my adult life working to reclaim what these systems have tried to beat out of me. This is the truth for so many youths, and at even higher rates for youth of color. I think about where our dreams and imaginations could take us if we gave all youth the space to be creative instead of just trying to survive.

The world needs drastic change, and I think more than any group of people, youth can see that and have the curiosity and questions to bring forth that change.

“I think so many of the world’s problems persist because we’re forcibly cut off from our imaginations.”

Three big-picture questions: What was the most challenging part of writing this book? What was the most rewarding? And what about the book are you most proud of?
The most challenging part was probably carrying the plot through poems. I am a poet-of-center and thus my books often begin almost as character studies with a plot in the background, so it’s something I have to work to bring forward.

The most rewarding, I think, is how I’ve given space to Noah’s gender feelings. It’s sometimes hard to feel like we have space as trans people to have complicated and unsure feelings around gender, but I feel good about how that came through in this book.

I’m proud of how I’ve navigated Mothman as a character and a presence. I struggled with how to end the story and not tie a neat bow but still give the reader a satisfying conclusion. I am someone who genuinely believes in monsters, ghosts and all things unexplained, and I feel proud of how I (I hope) have sustained that mystery and fantasy.

If you were to go searching for any cryptid (besides Mothman, of course), who would you want to look for? Would you want to find them?
I would look for the Squonk or the Jersey Devil. The Squonk is a somewhat lesser-known cryptid of Pennsylvania. He cries all the time and is a kind of wrinkly piglike creature. I have two pet pugs and I feel like he’s not that far from a pug dog . . . so I’d be very happy to find the Squonk.

The Jersey Devil I’m interested in because I think the Pine Barrens are probably the most mythical-feeling place I’ve ever been. It feels like ancient creatures lurk there. I’m still not sure if I’m ready to meet the Jersey Devil though. They seem a bit more frightening, but if given the choice I think I would still want to meet them.

Read our review of Dear Mothman by Robin Gow.

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Dear Mothman

Dear Mothman

By Robin Gow
ISBN 9781419764400

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