Fiction Fragments: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Jessica McHugh

Last week, Girl Meets Monster spoke with Nick Cato about the relationship between horror and humor. And this week, I am pleased to welcome the delightful Jessica McHugh.

authorpicJessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in eleven years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi, Jessica. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m dying to know what happens next for Duncan Dwyer; I wanted to keep reading when your fragment ended. Can you give a brief synopsis of this story? What inspired the story and where on Earth is Dickety Downs? Is it based on a real place?

JM: This story was originally inspired by a publisher’s plan to release a series of RL Stine Fear Street-eque books. It didn’t happen, but I ended up with several chapters of this WIP story and some characters that I’d grown to love. Nuts and bolts synopsis: it’s about loss coming to terms with how loss changes us, but it’s also about reinvention and not always with a positive spin. Dickety Downs, and the town of Alton where it’s nestled, is pretty much a dead space to the rest of the world. And to a lesser extent, so is Hampstead, the town where I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was shocked a few years back when I realized my once idyllic suburban neighborhood enveloped by lush and tangled woodland where I pretended to be an explorer and soldier and unicorn and spent countless hours making joyful noise with my friends had become a silent stretch of empty houses hastily vacated. All around my childhood home where my father and brother still live are trash-filled shells of suburban dreams. A few years ago, my high school even closed down, and the police department moved into its still-warm corpse.

Hampstead definitely inspired the town of Alton where Duncan Dwyer and her father move at the novel’s start, but as much as I hope my old hometown is able to reinvent itself, I hope it doesn’t go down the same dark path as the one laid out in this story.

GMM: When did you start writing YA fiction? As an adult, is it easy to get into the headspace of children and teens, or do you struggle to find their voices? How much of yourself is in your young female characters? Do you prefer writing YA fiction or fiction for a more adult audience?

JM: I’ve been writing YA for a while, though I didn’t always write with a YA audience in mind. Because of the protagonists’ ages, Rabbits in the Garden and Danny Marble & the Application for Non-Scary Things were marketed to a younger audience that…ahem…might not have appreciated the gore level. However, even though my 5-book series, the Darla Decker Diaries, was written for middle grade and up, I still pushed the boundaries a bit. (And by now, you’ve figured out that I *really* like alliteration, right?) I don’t feel like I struggle to channel a younger voice, but I’ve also spent a lot of time around kids and teens teaching creative writing, and living and working in downtown Frederick provides a lot of inspirado and research opportunities.

I feel like there’s a sliver of me in every character I write but certainly more than others, at least in the beginning. Darla Decker was directly inspired by my childhood diaries, so she started out very much like me. But she grew as a person over five books and made lots of decisions I never would. Duncan Dwyer, on the other hand, feels already grown. She’s gone through a lot more than Darla—death, abandonment, depression and anxiety—and just when she’s starting to heal, she’s thrown into this dilapidated town teetering on the success of an experimental private school. I started writing this story a year or so after my cat died when I was having severe depression and panic attacks so bad I couldn’t hold a pen. I was on medication for the first time in my life, and in the first few chapters Duncan discusses her meds and visits her new therapist.

As for what I prefer…I just don’t know. But based on my published works, this work-in-progress, and the two middle-grade horror books I’m writing currently, it sure seems like I unconsciously prefer YA.

GMM: Your story has a light-hearted humorous feel to it, but I suspect Duncan is about to experience something strange or even traumatic. Is there usually an element of horror in your work even though you write in several genres? Last week, Nick Cato talked about how humor and horror work together in his fiction. How would you describe the relationship between humor and horror in your own work and in other fiction you’ve enjoyed reading?

JM: Oh, absolutely, there are always horrific elements in my work. Maybe it’s because real life seems to overflow with all varieties and intensities of horror, it just comes out naturally. I truly can’t help it, nor would I want to.

While I’m not sure I’m as adept as Nick Cato at incorporating humor into horror, there’s no doubt I love using it. It’s a great way to manage the intensity of the reader’s fear. While humor can diffuse a tense situation, it can also prolong the reader’s comfort so terror can creep up slow—or methodically unravel in the background while the characters are having a nice laugh. Again, I believe real life follows similar patterns, so I’m just keeping it real creating this delicious genre goulash.

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

The squirrel on the porch was dead before Duncan dropped her suitcase on its head. That’s what her dad said anyway. While he scrubbed blood out of her luggage, he repeated frantic assurances like, “This isn’t a bad sign, honeybee,” and “It could happen to anyone.”

Of course it could happen to anyone, but it happened to her, Duncan Dwyer, less than two minutes after arriving at her new home. So maybe it wasn’t a bad sign, but it sure as hell wasn’t a good sign.

Her dad blamed himself, and she wanted to blame him too. It was because of him that she had to uproot her life in Joliet and move to a neighborhood too empty and boring to be called something as crazy as “Dickety Downs.”

She sighed. Duncan Dwyer of Dickety Downs. That should go over well at the new school.

Her father’s bushy black eyebrows formed a somber “w” between his eyes, and Duncan launched into assurances of her own. That’s what they did—what they had to do to protect each other. So, yes, even though he was the reason they left Joliet, he’d done it for the greater good, in pursuit of a better life for them both. Besides, no sane person could’ve refused the generous offer from the principal of the newly constructed Alton Academy. A free house and double her father’s previous teaching salary was more than they could’ve asked for. Add in the privilege of attending the trial run of Alton Academy’s so-called Experimental Learning Facility, and Duncan’s dad was packing up their possessions before Duncan could even think of objecting.

Not that she would have. After more than a year of homeschooling with Dad, she wasn’t eager about returning to a typical school setting, but he obviously was. He missed the madness of high school halls and unpredictability of being a teacher who actually cared about underachievers and outcasts. Besides, if her dad was telling the truth about Alton Academy, it wasn’t exactly a “typical” school.

“We needed our own doormat anyway,” Duncan said as her dad dropped the faded straw thing into the trash bag with the squirrel. The word “Welcome” permeated the white haze like a mocking grin, but she refused to let it venture beyond the rim of her vision. “What do you think? Something nice and flowery, or maybe something a little more realistic? ‘Buzz off’ comes to mind…”

His eyebrows relaxed, and his mouth stretched to a grin. “No shock there, honeybee.” He dropped the bag and wrapped his arms around her, but for all the ways his embrace filled the fractured places, it was as temporary as chewing gum. It lost its flavor quickly, and she swallowed it dry as he lugged the dead squirrel and tainted rug down their new driveway to their new curb in their new, severely weathered, neighborhood.

Anxiety curled her veins like frayed ribbon as she scanned Dickety Downs. They’d entered the town of Alton in the teasing pink of evening, before the trees scraped off their makeup and hunkered down in their truth, gnarled and hideous in the dull light of faulty streetlamps. Most had shed their summer skin and stood as cracked and bare as the numerous driveways leading to dark, empty houses.  Not only were the Dwyers the only ones rustling in the falling evening, they appeared to be the only ones who actually lived in Dickety Downs.

Duncan backed inside and turned on the foyer light, followed by the living room, kitchen, and the long slate throat to the basement. Her dad closed the front door, and she scuttled back to the hall to see his pointer finger fall on the lock like Midas before the rude awakening. From the lock, his fingers leaped to the delicate curvy trim bisecting the foyer walls. He didn’t look up, but he knew she was watching, otherwise he wouldn’t have kicked up his index finger and made a dancer of his hand. He dashed and tapped his fingertips over the trim with his usual flair, but he soon ran out of dance floor. There were no picture frames for leaps or rond de jambe, no chachkis for him to bounce between. There were only the walls and Duncan, and she didn’t feel like being danced on tonight.

Cumbersome boxes surrounded her, wearing labels like “basement,” “kitchen,” and the name “Gail,” which had been angrily x-ed out. None were labeled with Duncan’s name, much to her disappointment.

“When’s the rest of our stuff getting here?” she asked.

Dad’s dancer didn’t land; it simply ceased to be as he strolled past Duncan to wash his hands.

“Some are going to be late, but the furniture should be here soon. The mattress and couches at least.”

“How late?”

He dried his hands and tossed the towel on the sink. “It might be a few days, Dunc. I messed up some of the forms and—“Exhaling, he grabbed the towel again and whirled it as he opened the refrigerator and said, “Ta-da!” A raspberry drizzled cheesecake stood alone on the center shelf, with “Welcome Home” written in shining scarlet glaze.

Dad carved a large slice of cake and flopped it onto a paper plate. “Water, Milady?”

“Is there anything else?”

He started to give an answer she knew wouldn’t please her, so she added a quick “Never mind” and “Yes, please.”

They sat cross-legged on the cold blue tile, which clashed like peanut better and kale with the orange planks of wood paneling clumped along the kitchen walls.

I know you have a fiction fragment or two hiding in a drawer. You should totally send them my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.