The Big Idea: Sam J. Miller
It’s been said that you should write what you know, and for author Sam J. Miller, that’s pop culture. Read on to discover how he transformed the pop culture that inspired him growing up into his own story of his own making, Boys, Beasts & Men.
SAM J. MILLER:
My first stories were fanfic. When I was in the 2nd grade, I wrote a novel called “Invaders from Mars,” which… bore an uncanny resemblance to the plot of the movie, “Invaders from Mars.”
I got away with it because I went to a backwoods country farm school and half the kids didn’t have a TV and no one else even knew there was such a movie, so my three handwritten copies were a hot commodity.
When you’re young, all you know is what stories send the chills up your spine. What the fuck is “intellectual property” to a kid who loves the Ninja Turtles and wants to write a story where Shredder and Splinter kiss? I loved horror movies and science fiction stories, and I loved them so much I wanted to swallow them down and make them mine and then spit them back up again.
That’s the energy I try to carry forward as a writer. I want what sends chills up my spine.
Now, fanfic needs no defenders. It is real and it is valid and it is full of brilliance. The power and potential of the genre is apparent to anyone who takes a brief stroll around Archive Of Our Own, for example, where a massive and passionate community of writers and readers creates and consumes. Also—I want to stress that I’ve always been on the periphery of that community, and I make no claims to authority or even particular insight on what makes fanfic so magnificent.
Yet most pro markets won’t touch it, for reasons that are good (no one wants to have Disney’s lawyers come knock at the door because you felt it was time for Mickey and Donald to just fuck already) and for reasons that are not so good, like the stigma attached to transformative work in general.
But. Sometimes a story comes knocking and you just can’t say no, and it won’t work if it’s not set in the precise universe of someone else’s monster.
No one ever broke my heart like King Kong. At seven I sobbed, seeing him fall. And thirty years later, after attending the brilliant (and sadly-short-lived) Broadway musical version, I could see clearly the shadow Kong had cast over my life. And I wondered: what would life be like, after Kong’s rise and fall? Had he been real, how would we change, having confronted—and exploited—and destroyed—something so magnificent? I wanted to tell the story of the shattered humans he’d left in his wake.
That was the seed of my story “Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart,” included in my new collection Boys, Beasts & Men.
And in 2014 I saw John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing for the thousandth time—on the big screen, in glorious 35mm, and I got to arguing with my friends afterwards: did the people who’d been turned into Things know they were Things?
I’d always assumed they did. That Blair and the others were faking it, killer aliens actively trying to deceive the people around them. But how much scarier would it be if they didn’t know? If the Thing mimicked them perfectly, down to every last memory and personality tic, and camouflaged itself even from them, staying hidden until the moment it was safe to strike?
Thinking about this monster hiding in a hostile world got me thinking about queer people forced to pass for straight in order to stay alive, and how passing privilege can be a tool for dismantling oppressive infrastructures—which got combined with the fact that 1982 was the year an invisible murderous invasion DID take place (that’s when the CDC identified a new, fatal, sexually-transmitted immune system disorder and gave it the name AIDS)—and that the early 1980’s saw a significant uptick in the NYC movement against racist police violence—and before I knew it I had a solid piece of fanfic on my hands: “Things With Beards,” about a closeted MacReady returning from Antarctica to his home in Harlem, all his memories of bloody shapeshifting aliens erased, hooking up with old flames but possibly turning them into Things, supporting Black resistance to NYPD brutality.
This wild unsellable IP-infringing story found a fantastic home at Clarkesworld, and was even nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Short Story.
The TL;DR is that I have always wanted to write stories that convey the huge joy and excitement that great storytelling has always inspired in me. The grieving love I have for Kong, the giddy primal terror of The Thing. And maybe ultimately inspire that same joy and excitement in readers.
That’s my big idea. That’s what I tried to tackle with some of the stories in Boys, Beasts & Men.
Pop culture is modern myth. The old gods are gone, but we have new ones now. Instead of Zeus and Amaterasu we’ve got Avatar Aang and T’Challa, but the end result is the same. These are the stories and the heroes who fire our imagination, get us excited to create our own narratives.
If you’re a writer, especially someone from a marginalized community and you grew up without being able to see or recognize yourself in your favorite movies and books and TV shows, mainstreaming fanfic can be a powerful way to write yourself into those narratives.
So, write those freaky wild stories starring your favorite characters. And while not every piece of fic can find a home in every market, you’d be surprised how many editors might be open to truly fresh, compelling takes on familiar figures. Even if they’re set in someone else’s sandbox.
…Unless, of course, that sandbox belongs to someone super litigious or problematic.
In which case you can just file the serial numbers off.