Fiction Fragments: Douglas Gwilym

Happy Valentine’s Day, and Happy Birthday to me! Last week, I spoke with Gwendolyn Kiste about why Women in Horror Month is important to the future of horror. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Pittsburgh writer, Douglas Gwilym, whose handlebar mustache game is strong.

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Douglas Gwilym is a writer and editor who has also been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera or two. If you aren’t lucky enough to have caught him performing his stories and music at venues around Pittsburgh, you can find him at douglasgwilym.bandcamp.com, follow his Amazon author page, or befriend him on facebook.

He’s an active member of the HWA and is the “Gwilym” half of the upcoming podcast Gwilym & Oreto’s Good Dark Fun. He edited four years of the themed annual Triangulation, now in its 16th year. He served on staff at Alpha Young Writers speculative fiction workshop, curates and narrates Douglas Gwilym Presents (a free short-story audio series), is a repeat guest on Alan & Jeremy vs. Science Fiction, and has explored Pittsburgh on foot from stem to stern, in search of good food and impossible truths.

He is a novelist looking for representation, his latest manuscript about an indie rock musician and programmer hiding out in the city from the monsters she made (literally) back in her hometown of Stonesthrow.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Douglas. Storytelling happens in a lot of different settings and mediums — writing, spoken word performances, song lyrics, and visual formats — what is your favorite method of storytelling? Which do you find most challenging? What is your earliest memory of having someone tell you a story?

DG: I might be the wrong person to answer the first part? I know that you’re supposed to settle in, be a one-trick pony. Get really good at one thing. But I have the heart of a stubborn child in my ribcage (not in a jar on my desk), and the moment I make promises like that, I also begin the dogged work of undermining it all. That heart doesn’t like to do what it’s told.

When I was small, I wrote puppet plays and wished I could write books. I got discouraged with the quality of my output (couldn’t close the plot hole in that danged mystery story in fourth grade), and leaned into songwriting for many years. Both of those things got deeply rooted in me, so much so that I have a hard time seeing the boundaries. There’s always music and music culture in my fiction, and storytelling and role-playing in my songs.

That word “role-playing” slipped in there. I guess I am a “method writer,” if that’s a thing. I really tend to lose myself, forget who I am, when I’m deep in any kind of story. When I can’t nail the vocal for a song, I have been known to dress up as the character. Right now I’m hip-deep in writing a novel, and I find that I am not always sure who I am, even when I’m done with the word count for the day. Yes, I can see how that could become… problematical, if unchecked.

I love when artists from supposedly disparate mediums come together to tell a story. When music and visuals and words come together into a crazy rock opera or (even better for the participatory element) a video game. I got to teach at Alpha Young Writers workshop on a year when the inimitable N.K. Jemisin was guest speaker, and was super impressed that a geek-out on the value and potential of gaming as a storytelling medium was a key part of her presentation. I could easily get sucked into that world, be a writer for video games.

There are many things you could say about my upbringing, but… I definitely come from story people. My granddad was a talker and a letter writer. He could apparently type away at 75 wpm on a letter to his brother (or me) and simultaneously hold a conversation with a live human. Hard to imagine that letter or the conversation being any good, but hey. His great uncle was a locally-famous South Wales bard, and (perhaps under that influence) he tended to tell the story “the way it should have happened.” 8-track tapes of him reading were great treasures of mine as a kid. My mother did her part, filling my early childhood with folklore and fairy tales, Madeleine L’Engle and Narnia and Lewis Carroll. But I wanted to be able to “grab people by the lapels” like Grandpa.

GMM: What is your favorite haunted place in Pittsburgh? Have you ever gone exploring in Pittsburgh and gotten lost? What is the most surprising or disturbing thing you found while wandering through the city and its surrounding areas?

DG: I get lost plenty, because I often walk to be in my own head, not in a particular place.

We’re a one-car household, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Walking is good for me of course (being I-had-an-8-track-player years old), and I love what my pal Jonathan Auxier calls “the walking cure,” that idea that whatever you need, you can find out there on your feet. I’ve dictated short stories and whole chapters of things into my phone on long walks. I’m a big fan of our imperfect-but-oh-so-charming little city, and I like to see what you can see when you’re not in the belly of a steal-and-rubber carbeast. (We get addled in those things, shout and gesture at each other in ways we wouldn’t anywhere else, you know?)

A few months ago, a friend and I decided to walk the twelve miles from an eastern border of the city to a western one in a single morning. (The next rung on that ladder will hopefully be to walk from the easternmost border, in East Hills, to the westernmost border, in Fairywood—an addition of four miles.) It was a great thing to do with a Sunday morning. You see it all, with your feet on the sidewalk. And yes, a lot of it is haunted.

We passed through the Southside flats. I used to live there, in a house that turns 205 this year. I love to wander in the ancient crumble of those backstreets, looking for the lines of the bones of the original places, but my favorite spot—for my money the most haunted place in a city of considerable haunts—is just below the railroad tracks that guard the river from the flats (or is it the flats from the river?). You know the relatively civilized “rail trail,” of course, office workers rolling along in Starbucks cups, but if you push your way through the dense bit of woods below, you can drop into another world.

It’s kind of a graveyard, and definitely a ruin. Monolithic and unknowable mountains of broken concrete and steel beams break the surface of both earth and water there. Impossible doors bolted shut for a century lead down into the embankment. The litter at your feet spells out hobo symbols. You can perch there on the dinosaur back of riverfront steel and glass, and look up across the cool water at the cityscape for hours if you want, lost in your thoughts. Sometimes you will stand up and discover that you were not alone. I recommend it.

GMM: February is Women in Horror Month, and although you don’t identify as female, you write about female characters. What inspired you to write a story with a female protagonist? What challenges have you experienced while writing female characters? Why do you think it is important to tell stories about women?

DG: It’s important to tell all of our stories, and not just the stories of a privileged few.

But the real reason for me personally to be writing female characters is that I’ve filled my world and my heart and my skull with a lot of people who happen to be women. It’s no surprise that my wife and daughter are at the center of everything, but my closest friends (childhood, grad school, beyond) have, maybe a-little-more-often-than-not, identified as female. It would just… never occur to me, not to be trying to tell stories of women fully activated and working in-and-on their worlds, when I have those stories to tell.

The operative word here is trying. The challenge is real. But it’s like any other fiction-writing experiment: if you’re trying to be someone who’s not you, or in one way or another not like yourself, you’re going to get it wrong sometimes. That’s when a writer most needs to be a good listener, and be willing to check work against the experience of others. But you can’t sweat that during the writing process unless you want to spend all of your time spinning your wheels. Do your best, don’t be a jerk, and be willing to be wrong. Cultivate humility when sharing the results. Fix it when you need to, but don’t stop trusting yourself.

The very best thing is when it works. I will never forget when I was just getting started writing short stories and I shared one with a good friend. It was a first-person cyberpunk lucid-dreaming thing with a collective unconscious secret service and an elephant grandmother. She dug it. She said something like, “I felt like it was me.” Of course, I saw a lot of myself in the character, but it was a fantastic compliment. The high water mark I have shot for ever since.

Excerpt from They Take Our Best, by Douglas Gwilym

They sped us up or slowed us down to do their dirty business. A rung in the ladder to pull the ultimate heist.

Maybe you don’t hear what I’m saying. They took our best.

Janine was sitting next to me and she saw it, the weird thing with the clock hands, too. Truth is, we hadn’t really hung out in a couple years. We’d been in girl scouts together (“make new friends and keep the old”), and I remember catching fireflies with her in the little lot by the school we called the fairy forest, but all I knew about her now was what my mom told me about her living with her aunt out in Forest Hills and bringing her in to school on the way to the law firm. That the parents had finally snapped and told her she wasn’t theirs, that she wasn’t their daughter. That if she was going to act like that, contrary to God’s principles, she belonged to the devil. I knew that, and that meant something to me. I’d been trying to talk to her again. I’d been trying to find the right moment.

Ms. DeAugustino was going on about Pythagoras or something, and her voice had turned into a hum so low it harmonized with the air conditioner, and we must have both been staring at the clock, because then we turned and looked at each other, and we saw the shock in each other’s eyes. We stood up and walked right out of that class and if Ms. D tried to stop us, I didn’t hear. Maybe Janine noticed. We’ve done a lot of walking, since.

The Slow Wave hit again four days later. We were hunkering down. You’d think it would come in threes, but you’d be wrong. Maybe the first was just a test run. Maybe threes only happen in fairy tales, or back in that fairy forest.

For one hour after that second wave, we all saw the newsfeeds. The world had turned a big corner, and THEY—whoever they were—had given us a gift, as a prelude to… taking everything away.

At the highest point of elevation, in each of the fifty states, a tower appeared. Was it built? Maybe in some expanded moment, in the microscopic tide of seconds, while we were all too shocked to react?

Every state, every province, has one tower now, placed at the highest available spot above sea level. They are smooth, featureless, seamless. Made of ordinary steel, from what anyone can tell. At the base, they are about as wide and long as a football field. If you look hard, you can detect a gentle taper, but they’re so tall the tops are out of sight even from a distance.

That hour was an hour of panic, confusion, fascination. The scientists and diplomats and salesmen of the world put on their boots and gloves and were about to get out there for the time of their lives. They hesitated, maybe. There was just one more form to fill out. It didn’t pay to rush into the unknown unprepared.

Before anyone could get their business together, the Big Bad hit.

There was a whole lotta destruction. Everything you would expect to see if you watch too many disaster movies. The most consistent thing is people went through a lot of good old garden-variety shock. Setbacks, you’re used to. You go into your phone and change things on your calendar or at worst fill out another form. But passenger jets screaming across the sky and disappearing, and then the heat and the sound of an impact that’s obscured in light and soot and smoke and other people screaming? There’s not an app for that.

Things got so jumbled and bunched and dark and words like “looting” lost meaning because suddenly there were more important things than stuff. You saved yourself. You tried to save your loved ones, if enough was left of them to save.

There wasn’t, for Mom or Dad. And that’s all I know to say about that right now.

Dad, he always talked about the “walking cure”. He was a writer. Nothing exciting—like, psychology stuff. But he always said there was nothing you couldn’t figure out if you had a good pair of shoes and could walk far enough.

“Jody, come see this!” Janine shouts from a clearing ahead. It’s later in the afternoon than I’d imagined for our approach to the tower that sits atop Mt. Davis, thirty-two hundred feet above sea level. It’s brisk enough that me sweating isn’t taking the edge off, and I’ve been thinking about suggesting we stop for the night. I’m trying to get the burs off my jeans, and I look up to find her leaning over a weird broad spot, where the grass and some vining morning glories (still blooming) are mashed down. They’re not springing back up like they always would before. Flattened like under glass.

My hand passes inches above the depression, and doesn’t come into contact with anything. Open air. It’s a moment I’ll think about later. It’s when we really stopped asking questions because we’re tired. Tired of not finding any answers.

“You have any explanation for that?” she asks me.

“No,” I say. “I can’t remember having an explanation for anything.”

And then we twin again, like we did back in math class. We look up together, our attention completely shifted.

At the end of the clearing, like a gatekeeper back into the forest, is what looks like a tremendous yew tree—that’s the word that sticks in my mind for it, but I’m not good with trees. Its arms twist outward and upward and toward us, and in the heightened darkness of its shade, the first fireflies of the night appear. One. Five. A dozen on and then off. A dozen more to take their place.

She takes my hand, for the first time, and we stand there, barely breathe.

We’re close now. But here there’s this pocket of safety, of realness. This place that says things are still alright somewhere. Things can be right again.

Do you have a story hiding in a drawer you’d like to share with Girl Meets Monster? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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