John Wiswell author photo
April 2024

John Wiswell has created a monster you’ll fall in love with

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Meet Shesheshen, a carnivorous shape-shifting blob who might eat her girlfriend’s mom. She’s the best.
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In Someone You Can Build a Nest In, John Wiswell takes a fractured fairy-tale setup—What’s the monster’s side of the story?—and cracks it open, using the love story of Shesheshen and Homily, a kind woman from a monster-hunting family, to launch a rollicking exploration of queerness and asexuality, disability and how society shapes what is monstrous, in addition to a whole heap of dysfunctional family relations.   

Your unique take on a shape-shifting monster—in this case, a sentient blob who must actively and constantly work to form limbs and organs—is charming and innovative. What drew you to a shape-shifting main character?
Feeling like a blob that has to perform and pass as human is a regular feeling for me, as it is for many other disabled people. There have been so many times when I’ve fought with my body to make it walk correctly, or let me socialize in a normal way. Sometimes I feel like an outsider among healthy people. Shesheshen’s shape-shifting nature started there.

But she also started with Homily. Before there was a book, there was the idea of the two of them, and their series of miscommunications that leads them to both fall in love and hunt each other. The central humor is Shesheshen trying so hard to pass for human, and then she finds love in the one person who mistook her for someone worthy of love when she wasn’t trying. It speaks to how caring Homily is, which is the spark for their relationship. Shesheshen goes to great lengths to hide her blob nature from her girlfriend, while trying to figure out how to break the truth.

After writing a few scenes of that, I was in love with Shesheshen’s nature. She couldn’t be anything other than a shape-shifter who built her own DIY body out of chains and discarded bones. And how fun was it, as a disabled writer, to have a monster who treated bones as assistive devices?

“Family leaves its mark on us, even if it’s by absence.”

Shesheshen’s best friend is a bear named Blueberry. Tell us about her.
As soon as Blueberry waddled onto the page, I knew she was here to stay! Despite her reputation, Shesheshen can coexist with other creatures, and Blueberry is proof of that. Early on, I wondered what sort of critter Shesheshen might keep as a pet, as she’s not exactly an orange cat person. Her destined buddy was a huge predator. There are implications (that I don’t want to spoil) about where Shesheshen got her favorite set of false teeth, that point to how the two of them met.

Blueberry also reflects a truth about predators: They aren’t inherently monstrous. Most bears would rather eat your garbage than eat you. It was nice to shed a little sympathy on a real animal that often gets vilified, alongside the mythological Shesheshen. Wouldn’t you give Blueberry a hug? I mean, if she wasn’t too hungry?

Shesheshen never knew her mother. Homily has a complicated relationship with her abusive mother, who Shesheshen wants to eat “for the common good.” You pay tribute to your mother in your acknowledgements. Mothers, including stepmothers and the consumption by and of mothers, are a huge throughline in fantasy and horror stemming all the way back to fairy tales. Why do you think that is?
Family leaves its mark on us, even if it’s by absence. So Shesheshen lives under the image she has of her mother, that great apex predator who went down swinging. Homily has a very different family, like you mentioned. Several readers have compared them to a fairy-tale couple, in the Brothers Grimm sense of the phrase. When you think about the Grimms’ fairy tales, family is often the cause of the dramatic conflicts. Some father ditches his kids in the woods to starve, so that he won’t. A single parent needs somebody else to help look after their child, and so they beseech god, the devil and death itself to be godfather. We all feel that profound emotional charge of connection with our loved ones, or the ones who should love us and don’t. They can make us question what we really are. So from fairy tales and legends up through contemporary fantasy, you often see that charge explored. And, in my favorite stories, we see the effects of that charge on us explored. How do we deal with what our families made us into? Do we decide to stay that way?

Someone You Can Build a Nest In by John Wiswell book jacket

Neither Homily nor Shesheshen are interested in sex, but between Laurent’s love of threats and Epigram’s various lovers, the presence of kink and sex still play a role in the lore of this world. What was it like to develop a visceral yet asexual sapphic relationship while still creating an actively sexual, queer setting?
Shesheshen is less of a sexual creature than she thought she was, because she grew up with beliefs about what she had to be. Her feelings for Homily challenge her ideas of what she wants in life. That’s an existential problem for her, but a familiar one. Many asexual people (myself included) grow up expecting to want to participate with the same drive as those around us, and then get woefully disoriented. We aren’t what the world convinced us we were. So where do we fit? Do we belong in our world? Stories can help us understand that we belong everywhere. One reason readers love Shesheshen is she refuses to give in. If the narratives are wrong, she’ll grab them and change them herself. Especially if it means helping someone she loves.

That said, I tried to write a world with robust queerness. Just because my main characters are asexual-curious doesn’t mean allosexual people don’t exist or have meaningful struggles. We meet parents, couples and people with fetishes. It is a little fun to see Shesheshen look down on some of them the very same way they look down on “poor, confused” asexual people. Shesheshen is an opinionated monster. And good for her!

Someone You Can Build a Nest In takes place on an isthmus, an in-between place, and many of the struggles of the book are reflected in not just the in-between nature of its setting but the in-between nature of its characters, torn between what they should be and what they want to be. What drew you to working with such a setting? What are some of your favorite parts of the strange little world you have built?
You caught that! Yes, it was deliberate to have a monster at odds with what the locals let her be, contrasted with a small town that lives at the behest of these enormous outside forces, all living out their life-and-death context on a small strip of land that is tiny compared to the empires outside its borders. Their whole struggle with each other is minor in the eyes of the L’Étatters, Engmars and Wulfyres. The isthmus never participated in the historic war of outside powers, yet because they are at the mercy of those countries, their whole history shaped by it.

I love a great epic fantasy about a clash of cultures, like Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty and C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken and The Faithless. But not everybody affected by a war is fighting it, or is even part of the nations involved. We don’t hear enough stories of people stuck in between powers. It felt right to show the fallout of these terrifying forces that could, on any single wrong day, destroy the isthmus. It’s another kind of estrangement. One that Shesheshen has taken very personally.

I’d love some edition of the book to someday include a whole map of this world, to show just how tiny and vulnerable Shesheshen’s whole world is. The isthmus would be tiny! And, nevertheless, at the center.

“Stories can help us understand that we belong everywhere.”

Homily’s family believes they are cursed by a local monster, but Shesheshen disputes that, mostly as she doesn’t remember cursing anybody. Do you think curses are cosmically real or things we create ourselves?
Are you suggesting I’m under a curse right now? Please tell me a phantom isn’t hovering overhead. What’s fascinating to me about omens and curses and spells is how they make us question what our actions mean. Did I do this on purpose? Is it a habit, or addiction? Is an outside source influencing me in ways I don’t understand? Those are eternal questions, whether you were a ninth-century hermit, or somebody who can’t stop checking their phone because your apps have trained you.

So now this family thinks they’re being killed off by Shesheshen. And Shesheshen thinks she’s innocent of casting the curse on them, but she isn’t exactly innocent in some of their demises, is she? Maybe there’s more going on than she thinks. When somebody accuses you from out of nowhere, it’s natural to wonder where they got this idea. Especially if that idea threatens you.

In your acknowledgements, you pay tribute to the monsters and villains that you grew up rooting for. Queerness and monstrosity, as well as disability and monstrosity, have been tied together in fiction in a way that both communities have embraced rather than rejected. What draws you to the monstrous, and why do you think our communities are drawn to them?
Let me start here: Monsters are often the character a story says we don’t have to sympathize with. The characters that are said to be evil for evil’s sake. They are supposed to have no depth. But the moment you find monsters interesting, you question: What depth might they have that a storyteller might deny is there? What is it like to live as this creature? Those questions always wake up the part of me that wants to run to the keyboard and find out.

Back before I became disabled, and before I knew I was queer, I still loved monsters. There’s a fascination with what scares us, especially when what scares us is a person. What’s it like to live as Dracula? Not for one book, but for centuries of that existence? If you can be a monster, then you’ll be the one doing violence. And many of us are taught this corrosive lie that if you are the one doing violence, then you’ll be safe.

Then you grow up, and you realize how many of our fantastical monsters are coded to be like so-called “undesirable” people. The cloying line between zombies and the fear of unwashed masses of outsiders. How many monstrous body parts look like “disfigured” people, and that such stories basically validate the irrational disgust for people who just look different. That vampires were coded as queer to some extent because audiences would fear them more and saw queer people as predators. Just the cultural tonnage of media saying mentally ill people are monsters who must be killed for your own safety is crushing, especially if you’ve ever known a mentally ill person and what they have to survive just to live a life.

So at some point you say to yourself, “If all of these stories say I’m a monster because I’m chronically ill, or because I’m queer, or I’m the wrong religion? Then I’m going to be a monster and proud.” The draw is adopting these fictional critters into our real psyches. Making them avatars of refusing to conform. Because werewolves aren’t the only ones uncomfortable in their skin.

Read our starred review of ‘Someone You Can Build a Nest In’ by John Wiswell.

Up until now, you’ve been working in the realm of short stories, having won a Nebula Award and been published in Tordotcom, Apex, Uncanny and, honestly, nearly every established genre fiction magazine. What drew you to writing a novel-length work? What are some of the biggest differences between writing short stories and writing a novel?
I’ve actually been writing novels since before I started blogging in 2007. Novels just take longer! I fell in love with writing because it lets me explore the wholeness of characters. To do justice to a story that captures who they are. Some characters are simpler, or have shorter journeys to express themselves. Others, like Shesheshen and Homily, require a lot of gory room to get their truth out. That’s honestly the big difference between writing shorts and novels for me, too: How much does a character need to share with us in order to be heard?

Which means going forward I want to write more novels, but also more shorts. Characters come in all sizes. And I love meeting new characters.

How has genre fiction changed since you first began sharing snippets of your writing on your website back in 2007?
Oh, wow. Since the mid-2000s? You’re talking about A Song of Ice and Fire growing into a global phenomenon, and “grimdark” going from a pejorative term to thousands of people’s favorite thing to read. The boom of young adult dystopias. BIPOC creators getting way more equity—the breakouts of modern greats like Ken Liu, N.K. Jemisin, Fonda Lee, Shannon Chakraborty, P. Djeli Clark, C.L. Polk, Shelley Parker-Chan, Tasha Suri and so on. LGBTQ+ authors and characters appearing far more frequently.

If I had to simplify it to my own experience? Back when I started writing, I wouldn’t have expected a short story like “Open House on Haunted Hill” or a novel like Someone You Can Build a Nest In to be publishable. It felt like the only place for disabled characters was as an object of pity or as a grotesque villain. Now, did I want to read stories like these back then? Badly. Desperately. But I wouldn’t have even tried to write them, because I would have been sure they weren’t allowed. What’s changed is many brave authors and editors and agents, and readers and critics, have demanded better. Feeling like more people would give me the time of day if I was myself. You can’t get a greater gift than that. I try to pass it on, when I can.

Ultimately the greatest change, from flash fiction all the way to multibook series, is that more kinds of stories are getting published. More perspectives are getting shared. Horizons broaden. It makes me glad to be alive and writing now, among so many great peers.

Photo of John Wiswell by Nicholas Sabin.

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