John Wiswell is an ace/aro writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. He won the 2021 Nebula for Best Short Story, and is a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy Award, and British Fantasy Award. His work has appeared in Nature Futures, Fireside Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “That Story Isn’t the Story” is his second story in Uncanny (following “The Bottomless Martyr” in 2020), an emotionally powerful tale that features escaped familiars and bleeding wounds, video games and enduring friendship.
Uncanny Magazine: This story combines a lot of elements—familiars trying to escape from a bad situation, bleeding wounds, enduring friendship, stories that people are (and aren’t) ready to tell. What was your starting point or inspiration? How did you bring all of these elements together?
John Wiswell: It began with Anton in Grigorii’s ramshackle house. He was traumatized, unsure how to cope, believing his master is outside his door—and simultaneously, he was in a safe place, with people who would come protect him if something happened, and videogames were on the TV. It was a powerful dissonance between where Anton was physically and emotionally, that I knew would push the story forward. In a sense, the entire novelette is about how unreal being safe can feel.
The other thing I knew was coming was Anton wouldn’t have a normal ending. No confrontation with Mr. Bird. No fight to the death. No self-sacrifice. No diabolical master plan. Everything that we sometimes dread will happen to us, or our loved ones, because of our trauma? That is partially because we’ve been harmed. It’s also partially an illusion. I wanted to let Anton slowly recognize what was a trauma mirage, while his worthiness of self-respect wasn’t illusory at all.
Not that I knew the exact ending at first. A great friend of mine, the screenwriter and actor Nat Sylva, stayed up late one night talking through the themes with me to help me figure out what I really wanted. I’m very curious how your readers will take that ending.
Uncanny Magazine: You’ve written stories with a wide range of tones, from light and heartwarming to more ominous and dark. Do you find one of these tones easier to write than the other?
John Wiswell: It depends on my mood, honestly. Sometimes I write to confront or embrace themes, and that confrontation can yield a dark friction. That definitely happened with “That Story Isn’t the Story,” where I handled some uncomfortable themes, while trying to shine empathy down into that darkness. As such, I hope this doesn’t read as a purely dark story.
So sometimes I write to confront or embrace, but other times I write to escape. Escapism isn’t just for readers! [Laughs] I have something I can’t resolve right now, like a pending surgery or I’m waiting for an appointment. So I write to get away from that thing for a while. I find those escapist moods more frequently turn into my lighter work. I’ve written a few entire stories waiting for a delayed flight to land thanks to those moods.
I’m not entirely in control of my mood. So I find it best to adapt and write to the strengths of whatever headspace I get.
Uncanny Magazine: Some of the characters in “That Story Isn’t the Story” are into video games, and Terraria provides a way for Anton to connect with Luis when he first arrives at Grigorii’s place. Are you a gamer? Why did you pick this particular game for this story?
John Wiswell: Oh yes, I love videogames. Elden Ring cannot come out soon enough. [Laughs] Videogames have made so many leaps as an art form in my lifetime. I love seeing new creators get access to the tools. These days you can have The Last of Us, and Dream Daddy, and Hades, all at once.
Terraria is one of my favorite games since it’s a 2D Lego set I can share with my buddies, and whenever we have built enough, we go mining to fight skeletons or into the sky to fight harpies. The ability to freely go from adventuring to constructing invigorates. It’s no wonder it’s been a source of coping with depression for several friends. So when I wrote this story and looked for a piece of art that characters could both bond around and use as a coping mechanism, it came straight to mind.
Uncanny Magazine: If you were a character in this story, who would you be, and why?
John Wiswell: For more of my life, I’ve tried to be Grigorii for others. At a couple of points in my life I’ve been like Anton, deeply needed help escaping a toxic rut. This world gets better if we look out for each other. It’s not always easy; it takes patience of a Herculean scale. It’s worth it. I want to be the kind of friend that others feel comfortable reaching out to.
Uncanny Magazine: I love the way we never see Mr. Bird directly—as with many monsters he is scarier when he remains unseen, a technique that is often used in horror. What are some of your favorite depictions of monsters? Do you have any literary influences in the horror genre?
John Wiswell: In recent memory, the ‘elk’ in Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians was a phenomenal monster. It gets under your skin in multiple ways. [Laughs] The kids in Craig DiLouie’s Suffer the Children remain genuinely haunting, too, especially since they sort of turn their uninfected parents into the real monsters. It’s hard to get more chilling than that. But if you have an hour, I have some opinions about how cool kaiju are…
That said, I’m usually drawn to more sympathetic portrayals of monsters, like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, or John Gardner’s take on Grendel. Quite often creatures—including Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel—are othered as a means of projecting dislike of marginalized groups. That’s part of why you’ll find my stories sometimes sympathizing with a werewolf, or haunted house, or undead skeleton. Or, in this story’s case, a familiar. Familiars are sometimes depicted as grotesque and mindless, without empathy or shame, too often feeling like stand-ins for biases against drug addicts. As someone who is a proud friend of many survivors, I was inclined in a different direction.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
John Wiswell: I’m literally taking a break from novel revisions to talk to you. This is refreshing! The novel is about how we define monstrosity, and how we other it, and a lot of queer metaphors smashing into queer realities. I probably shouldn’t say more since I don’t have an agent right now. But if you’re an agent, maybe I’ll be sending this to you soon?
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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