Find Hope and Identity through Characters – GUEST POST by Al Hess
We’re thrilled today to welcome Al Hess to the Hive.
He’s here to share with us his path of self-discovery through writing. Al’s Mazarin Blues was a semi-finalist in this year’s SPSFC, and his novel World Running Down is out next year from Angry Robot. You can find out more about his writing HERE
Al Hess is the author of the self-published post-apocalyptic Travelers series and the 1930s flavoured dystopian series, Hep Cats of Boise. When not hunched before a computer screen, Al can be found at his art desk. He does portraits in both pencil and oil paint, and loves drawing fellow authors’ characters nearly as much as his own. He writes cozy and uplifting stories with queer, trans, and neurodiverse representation.
Find Hope and Identity Through Characters
by Al Hess
If you’d looked through my bedroom when I was a teen, beyond the Bibles and church dresses you would have found Nine Inch Nails CDs and a crush on Jeff Goldblum. Beyond that, in a secret pocket in my sketchbook, were self-portraits as Dragon Ball Z characters—muscles and all—and oft-handled magazine pages of women with shaved heads.
Growing up in a conservative, religious environment, I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate or the space to explore this ever-present ache in the back of my mind. Once I got married and had a child, I had even less. I crammed the feeling down as far as I could and overcompensated for how un-feminine I felt by dressing like a 50s pin up every day.
But when I picked up writing after two decades of absence, something happened. The types of protagonists I wrote started to change. So did I.
It wasn’t until my marriage disintegrated and I’d typed 750,000 words of characters finding themselves that I was able to excavate what I’d buried and hold it up to the light.
My writing journey started in 2017 by falling down a hill with Owl, a cishetero woman fleeing her abusive life and venturing into the wasteland alone. Filling her stolen leather travel boots was cathartic, and anyone comparing her to me at that time in my life would have seen many resemblances. But she wasn’t really me.
I found pieces of myself and my life in other characters as I continued to write their stories. Eventually, I ended up in Reed’s snow-caked spectator shoes as his anxiety carried him down a dark stairwell in downtown Boise. Writing a gay male protagonist and surrounding him with an all-queer cast, including a non-binary deuteragonist, was comforting and right.
By the time I was ready to draft my tenth book and slip into Valentine’s holey socks, I was no longer on a path of discovery. I knew who I was. This journey would be one of despair—and one of hope.
I cannot convey how it feels to know you’ve discovered the secret to your life, only to realize there’s absolutely no way to achieve it. If I transitioned, there was a good chance I’d lose my job. Friends. My family. Even if I did transition, I would never have a cis male body. And if I couldn’t have that body, what was the point to life? To living?
Every night, I laid awake in bed and stared at the ceiling, consumed with a longing for what I couldn’t have. The only way I knew to alleviate it was to do what I did best—write.
Valentine, a trans man working as a salvager in the deserts of post-apocalyptic Utah, is stuck, just as I was. He lays in his rusty and cramped VW van, aching so badly to be the man he is inside. He even has a well-loved magazine page depicting who he yearns to be hidden in his wallet. But no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never be able to save the money for a visa into Salt Lake City where the means to medically transition are in reach.
But I couldn’t leave him that way.
I gave him a love interest—a formerly disembodied A.I. now demoted into an android. And while Osric’s circumstances aren’t the same as Valentine’s, Osric understands just as acutely the dysphoria and disconnect of being in a body you don’t belong in. Though I’d written male/male romance before this book, it felt more personal this time because being trans adds a whole new layer of complexity and insecurity on top of Valentine and Osric’s relationship. I needed Osric to see Valentine for the man he is, even when Valentine can’t see it himself. And similarly, I needed Valentine to care for Osric beyond his current android form.
I also gave him a conundrum: help himself and achieve his dream of transition… or help others on their own journeys to become themselves. I don’t think it will take a reader very long hanging out with Valentine to know which one he’ll choose.
There is hope on the desolate salt flats of Utah, but there are also Mormon desert pirates, stabby androids, giant biomechanical eyeballs, and more snark than a scrappy 64-inch salvager has any right to have. This is an adventure, after all.
When I started writing World Running Down, it was for me. When I queried it, it was for other trans people. Though I loved self-publishing, there was no way this book would have the exposure to reach the readers who needed it most unless I could get an agent and eventually a publisher. Now that it’s found a perfect home at Angry Robot, this book is for everyone. Even if cis readers can’t empathize firsthand with what Valentine is going through, themes of identity and finding yourself are prevalent throughout the book. It’s never too late to figure out who you are.
There is a happy ending here for more than only the denizens of the run-down American west. I’ve now been on testosterone for a year and half, and I’m relieved to say that I haven’t lost my true friends, my family, nor my job. In fact, I’ll be going back to my career in the fall as Mr. Hess. I have a long way to go on this journey, but each day brings me closer to who I am. And I’m not afraid of wearing out my shoes in the process because I have plenty of characters who will let me borrow theirs. Except for Osric. He hardly wears pants.