Interview with Gwen Hilton
June 8, 2022
MM) Sent to the Silkworm House transcends genre – the macabre, thriller and suspense, pulp, and then, gender. One could say your narrator’s voice is at once feminine and masculine. Are you mindful of the dichotomy while writing? Or is this incidental? It seldom occurs to me while reading fiction, but you tap into some deepthroated octaves, and the speaker is quite the enigma. Could you talk about the speaker in this novella? What are they made of?
GH: I am mindful of the dichotomy. I didn’t want to write an out transgender woman’s story because I’ve only been out and on HRT for a few years. I don’t speak for trans women/people as I don’t know universal experience. I wanted to write something any reader could feel at home in, even if it didn’t feel quite right. Sort of like hand-me-down clothes. The speaker is at war with their mind. They are made of every single interaction they can still remember with other people as much as their own choices. The central conflict present everywhere is the universal question – am I doing this for me or as a reaction to something else?
MM) There is the juxtaposition of classic 90’s blockbuster action films and some unsaid trauma which precipitates an egress or departure. You’ve said the first chapter is a Rosetta Stone; do you mean mnemonically, thematically? You have an affinity for pop culture beyond literature, such as television and video games. Is it a creature comfort indicating peace as contrasted with turbulence, or does it inform your work more significantly than that?
GH: The first chapter is a Rosetta Stone thematically. Everything else that comes up in the novella can be traced in some way back to that story. Each chapter ties a thread to parts of a few other chapters. I love pop culture. I think this is the best time to be alive and a fan of any kind of art. Almost all of history is at our fingertips and there’s an endless web of discovery to get lost inside. I think that can be an issue too. I watched Bio-Dome for close to 100+ nights straight in college. Any creature comfort can become a major issue. I have wasted so much of my life following threads in my gut because they were there. I have also lost touch with the human part of myself for months at a time following an obsession. There can be too much of a good thing. I have to ask if I even enjoyed those things in the ‘right’ way because I refused to be in touch with myself enjoying them. I try to contend with that here.
MM) It’s sort of elusive how these chapters tie in unexpected ways, begging the question of what unites them….is there a dissociative identity disorder at play? These episodes almost feel like counterparts to each other, such as when the home gym equipment salesman’s monologue dovetails into the reputation manager’s two chapters later, or the shorter vignette-like segments, and they détourné in less outright ways I’ll leave for the reader to discover. Do you feel like a chameleon inhabiting these roles? Is the central voice’s personality multifaceted or schizotypal? Why is it more spatial than linear and to what is owed the shifts in voice?
GH: I tried to write a book that captures memory similar to how I experienced it. I wanted to write this because I want to see what other people say. I don’t know if it is dissociative or schizotypal. My grandmother on my father’s side was institutionalized with schizophrenia. My family is touchy about schizophrenia for that reason. My dad has dementia and that has weighed heavy on me. You can see full past personalities coming to the front for hours or days and then entire segments of his life disappear at random. I try to capture that experience of transmissions rising above a lot of feedback. I struggle to have a quiet and calm mind. This writing reflects that.
MM) There’s a chapter here which idealizes and objectifies John Hinckley Jr. Does Ronald Reagan haunt America?
GH: Without a doubt, Reagan haunts America. Much smarter people than me can go on for a lot longer than I will about this. Obviously, he wasn’t acting alone, but he helped orchestrate and gleefully took up a mantle of global death and destruction that hadn’t even experienced the beginning of the end of the aftershocks. When I try to imagine every life affected in one single community, be it by AIDS, crack, funding of terrorist cells, or economic policies from the Reagan era, I can feel the sadness pushing my shoulders into my spinal column. It’s horrific to sit with the weight of what those lives could have been. I’ve been fortunate to have conversations with some men who lived through the AIDS crisis in the 80s. A lot of people are just walking around with a massive unspoken past right behind them. I know that isn’t profound. It’s scary to think of all the people who just had to shut up and trudge forward. I don’t have the ability to do that.
MM) Suicidal ideation figures heavily. In one chapter, it seems to negate every idea the novella has; everything is swallowed up by an imperturbable determination to die. Tell me about what went into this.
GH: I think about committing suicide every day. I have made numerous attempts. I don’t remember the number. If you count an attempt as having method, means, plan, opportunity, and the thought in mind as the start of an attempt like some professionals do – I attempt at least three times before I shower every day. I haven’t had what I consider an attempt since early college. These thoughts are mostly invasive but come fully formed. I used to think it was the only way. It has been like that since I was a kid. I have a really good life and I cannot remember any clear time when it wasn’t like this. I know I want to be alive even when I don’t feel that way. It has taken me a long time to get here. I write about suicidality because it has followed me everywhere. I can’t believe I tried to kill myself repeatedly because life was worth the effort. I had to write about suicidality to make peace with it so that I might die with a slightly lighter load. I wrote this book so something can speak for me when I’m dead. Suicidality has painted my relationship to time, making meaning and what I do with my days.
MM) How long have you been writing and what compelled you to bring this manuscript to expat?
GH: Expat was always the goal. I would not have started writing stories if I hadn’t read Family Annihilator, Confidence Man, and Bonding. I wrote some awful songs at the start of the pandemic that meant a lot to me, but they were stories first. I couldn’t write a good song because I had too much to say. I grew disillusioned with music for a lot of reasons. I couldn’t imagine a crowd to perform in front of and I couldn’t tap into what I wanted to make for myself. I decided to read Moby Dick because it was a bucket list goal. The book upended my life and I became obsessed with the idea that I had to write the great American novella. I know that reads as wildly hubristic, but that’s what I needed to motivate. I wrote “This Will Make a Man Out of You” last summer and wanted to see how far I could take writing in my free time. I only submitted it at Expat. Before that, I had never written a short story. I received some kind words and wrote most of the manuscript in two weeks in late fall.
MM) There is reference to the performance artist Vito Acconci, and many of the chapters are performative in existential and/or sexual ways. Is writing performance in a sense? What about formula and execution? I’m curious about how methodically or nonchalantly these intermingled stories were conceived….some parts read extremely well-developed, others permanently stillbirthed, and I wonder if you have any formal background in writing as craft.
GH: I do think writing is a performance. When I started writing, I was so hyper-aware that this would be on a page or screen as words instead of in a video or a song. I wanted to write a book that knows it is a book and the narrator knows they are telling this story.
I would not repeat this writing process, but it worked here. I would write in three to five-hour sessions getting stoned. I’d usually write one or two stories of around 1500 words. The incredibly short pieces were deliberate, but I was uncertain if they’d resonate until you read them. I would write until I hurt emotionally, but not while hurt. Sometimes I would go back to the short ones repeatedly, but I couldn’t think of an addition. Most of these stories came out fully formed outside of fixing my poor grammar. I have no formal background in writing as a craft. I did not take creative writing classes in high school or college. The only English class I took in college was Maximalist Literature. Once I figured out how to do the truest bare minimum in education, I stopped showing up until I went back to college.
MM) The novella isn’t so much bound by a central plot but rather resolves plot points abruptly and unceremoniously before moving on. Could you talk about your process of beginning with a mood or idea and letting those ideas foreground the backdrop of plot?
GH: When I was writing this book I was focused on a few ideas. Memory isn’t linear. Most memories in my experience are triggered by a feeling or a sensation. If you think about too many things in a repetition, it’ll blend. Those repetitions and ruminations usually revolve around a focal point feeling. I made the central points work, art, sex, and violence in this novella. Another thing I wanted to capture is that when you remember, you don’t need to remember all the details because you have that body knowledge and past memory knowledge. Finally, life doesn’t resolve in any clean way. People die and if you’re not in the room they’re just gone. I’ve hit a point where so many things in my life ended unceremoniously and I thought something more would have been there. I wanted to explore that feeling. A few people I know have died agonizing deaths while I was hanging out at the exact same moment. I couldn’t shake that. I tried to apply that abruptness to as much of this work as possible.
MM) How does the professional become a laboratory for the personal, for sex and death, violence and trans identity? There is quite a bit of professional savvy on display to almost frame the pathological or intense.
GH: I had a cubicle job where I was supposed to feel lucky for having my own cubicle. I was sitting and not working, thinking about how the vast majority of the time I had spent with my family in life was over and I didn’t enjoy that time. I would spend the rest of my life working. I would see my coworkers more than my loved ones. I would never retire. I made too little money to give away my life. I asked my boss for a raise and he said we don’t discuss that until the end of the year. I then went back to my cubicle and drew up an elaborate workplace suicide and the killing of my boss. Someone in my life had killed their boss when I was young and I always thought it took balls. I had to go to work the next day. I couldn’t go to a psych ward, and I clearly had some major issues. Then I got out of my own head and started wondering how many other people do not have the opportunity to work on their shit who have to go to their job or die. I think it’s almost everyone, unless most people have a strong handle on their lot in life. I’ve encountered more people driven mad by their job than I’d like to admit.
I think the high achiever is more often motivated by their inferiority instead of striving for superiority. If you’re driven and defined by that inferiority, nothing will ever be enough. The most successful people I knew at one point in my life have had dark personal lives. I have seen a lot of high achievers destroy their families or friendships, or relationships because they have to displace a rage and discomfort related to their job. It’s sad because the money never is enough either, and what they buy as a panacea kills them.
On the other hand, there are quite a few jobs that teach you specific behaviors or inside information that is mundane in the context of the job, but when taken out of work into the world, they become extremely dangerous tools for manipulation or intimidation. It’s hard not to want to see how far the power you can exercise goes.
I also wanted to discuss parts of a profession that break you into a new person. I met a man who said he loved steering his yacht while his family sunbathed on top because he could take work calls. He had everything in the world except free time. When I have middle-of-the-night panic attacks, I hear that in my head.
My trans identity made some workplaces very hard to function within. It makes me sad because transitioning forced me to reckon with how shallow many of my relationships were, work or personal. Work has so much added complexity. There’s an effort to make transness impossible in the public sphere. I want to make enough money to sit at home and buy some wants without stressing about the price. I had to let go of all that.
MM) What do the violent tonal oscillations say about the character of American life? Is anything ever what it seems, or is multiplicitous permutation a feature of a collapsing, increasingly fluid humanity? What of ugliness, what of frankness, what is quintessentially 21st century about this profound characterization of the narrator?
GH: I don’t think anything is ever what it seems. My American experience is one of coercion and goal post moving. I have no memory of the ‘happy’ 90s even though I was alive for some of it. This character comes of age in the 2000s. People were losing faith in the nation fast, and I think that loss of faith has stuck this time. Getting close to the truth or what is right is not better. You lose parts of yourself and a smart person realizes they can’t intervene much at all.
My life was plagued with violence for a long time. I have no knowledge of an idyllic America. Everyone I grew up with was fucked up by war or raised by someone fucked up by war. If someone wasn’t trying to beat you up, they were waging a mental war. Every soldier I was alive to meet got sold a lie and their war got put on TV for everyone at home to talk about. If they weren’t fucked up by war, there was some unspeakable shit with parents or exes. I don’t think anything is actually all that 21st century except the speed of information computers give us. If you can try and keep up you’ll get real warped. But that’s the fun. You used to have to work a lot harder to get a lot less information. I think the ability to correct/influence someone at the table with a Google search on a whim changed how we think and what we store.
MM) Tell me about the Midwest where this takes place.
GH: This book takes place in Chicago, in the wealthy suburbs of Chicago, and the tendrils stretch to all states that touch Illinois. Some of it is also in Utah. I don’t think Utah is in the Midwest, but it’s a different kind of West than anywhere else I know. I think the wealthy suburbs are filled with two types of freaks trying to keep everything under the surface from boiling up. The first doesn’t want you to know how much money they have. The second doesn’t want you to know how much money they don’t have. These people are also five minutes away from total destitution and families going hungry, but they’d rather squabble about who has a house worth a million versus 400K. I grew up surrounded by people I thought were living incredible lives of luxury, only to find out they were miserable, hollow and taking on debt to fund a lie. I also found out that some people who wanted to seem average would take in multiple million dollars a year. Many of these people commute into the city every day and make it a shitty place. They extract everything valuable they can take and live in fear of a city that doesn’t exist. When people respond to injustice in the city, the suburbs panic about people kicking in their doors to come to kill them, these suburbanites don’t realize they’ve robbed most of these communities of the energy it takes to commit that act. It’s the most selfish and evil narcissism there is screaming, “now you’ll kill me after I’ve taken as much as I can.”
MM) What are some of your big artistic influences at the moment, and specifically, what spoke to you while you wrote this book?
GH: I wrote this book while I was trying to read 52 books in a year at the same time. The positive standouts were the Hoke Moseley series by Willeford, Testosterone by James Robert Baker, the George Miles cycle and The Sluts by Dennis Cooper, Family Annihilator by Calvin Westra, and Moby Dick. I think the most significant influences were things I thought sucked because they gave me the confidence I could suck less. I had also read American Pastoral and was shocked by how much the final 100 pages agitated my entire body. I had to stand up repeatedly, and it felt like everything in me was on fire. I wasn’t even thrilled with the first 300 something. That’s also how Moby Dick felt, except the entire book felt like that. The last book that felt like that was yours, Not Yet.
MM) What’s next? What are you working on?
GH: I want to become a bowler. I want to bowl a 300 before I die. I am working on a dance project with my partner. We’re inspired by acts like Aqua, Soichi Terada, and Fischerspooner. Watch out for Supervixxxens. I want to be in a band where I can play bass live. A lot of why I wrote this book was to prove to myself I could still make art.
I think my next solo writing project will take a great deal of time. As it stands, it’s four interconnected novella-length genre fiction stories through a family line. The first would be a pirate story, then a western, then two detective stories. One detective story is about the Obama era, and the other is during the ten days leading up to Phish’s run at Alpine Valley in 2019. I’m writing it for me, but everything I write is for me in the end.