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Dianna: Hello, and welcome to the Spoonie Author’s Podcast: a podcast where we explore a different disabled author’s stories each week. I am your host, Dianna Gunn, and joining us today is Austin Case. Austin Case received a Master’s degree from the University of Amsterdam in Western Esotericism and Mysticism. His academic knowledge of the occult and other peripheral phenomena has given him a unique take on fantasy and speculative fiction. His book, Wild Dark Times came out in 2019. Hello, Austin!
Austin: Hi, Dianna!
Dianna: It is great to be chatting with you. I am super excited. I am also very obsessed with the occult, although not quite to the point where I got a Master’s degree. Yet. Maybe. We’ll revisit that later. *laughs* Let’s start with your book Wild and Dark Times. Tell us what it’s all about.
Austin: Sure! Uh, yeah! So it’s an urban fantasy with a psychedelic, occult, and horror elements. It takes place during summer 2012, and it focuses around the whole Mayan apocalypse thing, which we all know is pretty silly, and I kind of address that in the books. But in a nutshell it focuses on Elizabeth, who is a bank teller who went to school for art but kind of burnt out, is attacked by a coworker who is possessed by a supernatural creature. And then she’s saved by a mysterious sorcerer, Eddie, who drags her and a skeptical scholar of the occult along to Europe where he introduces them to his fellow magician friends who are celebrities in their own rights – members of a band, a creator of (I always want to say comic books but it’s graphic novels). Anyway, so they all kinda get dragged along on figuring out why the impending apocalypse is coming because of this creature out of Gnostic – Christian mythology: a demiurge. They all have their own sort of magic abilities, except for Elizabeth. And she’s trying to figure out why she’s a part of this, even though there’s all these other specialists. So that’s kind of the drift of the narrative.
Dianna: So can you tell the listeners what a demiurge is?
Austin: Sure! So basically what a demiurge is is a creature that claims that it is God. There’s a lot of different texts, a lot of them were found in the Nagamati Corpus in a region in Egypt, in the 50s or 60s I think. Anyway! There’s a form of Christianity that developed in the 2nd century roughly, and a demiurge is really based on the angry idea of what God is sometimes. There’s a lot of really fucked up ideas of what God is throughout the whole Bible. And the Gnostics are interesting because they sort of address that in their own way. They think there’s an actual God that exists beyond these entities, like there’s archons and demiurge, but there’s this abstract being of light and love, instead of this angry judgemental thing. The being that thinks its God, it’s sort of built itself on the book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament. And it’s using all this hatred from Fundamentalist Christianity and all these other sort of traditions of imperialism to sort of gain power and control. And I kind of touch on how actually God is this abstract concept that’s only kind of hinted at. But this thing that’s this really powerful hateful entity, it’s more of a demon than a God per say.
Dianna: Interesting! And what specifically drew you to this particular creature?
Austin: Well, I guess it’s part of what you’d call Esoterica or the western Esoteric tradition. Um, I studied a decent amount of Gnosticism before and after grad school. It was always so interesting to me because I always – you know, I studied religion academically, with a focus on Esotericism, I always was interested in religion, but I was always rubbed the wrong way so much by a lot of interpretations of what God was. God always comes off as a dick. *laughs* Right? But when I read the stories, in these myths I’m kind of like “No, that’s just sort of people’s projections and hatred, but what is actually divine is more nuanced and pure” And then I was like “That’s interesting, I wonder if that’s a villain that I can kind of draw on”. So that’s what I did with the demiurge and the person he possesses, William Donaldson. But there’s more to him too, I don’t want to give too many spoilers away, but.
Dianna: Sounds fascinating! Um – I could honestly discuss this all day. It sounds like a great book. But, um, you also had a short story called Dark Summit published in Shout: An Anthology of Resistance Poetry and Short Fiction. So first, can you tell us a little about this anthology? Cuz it sounds great.
Austin: Yeah! Absolutely! So I stumbled across this a couple of months ago. They actually put this all together really quickly. They – I was trying to find a place to sell Dark Summit, which is basically a short story that looks at different monsters and creatures out of European folklore. Like there’s Dracula and Krampus. I don’t give them their names, I kind of talk around the fact that that’s what they are. And when I wrote this was actually in 2015. So this was before everything happened with Trump immediately, but there was already this rising fascist trend all around everywhere, and especially in the States. So I thought well, what if they were all just kind of talking, and saying “Well we should emulate America, you know they have this intense growing sense of nationalism and pride and xenophobia and hatred” and they’re all like “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” and talking about how they can do it in the different countries they control.
Um, but for the publication, when I was trying to look for that I just kind of stumbled across this, and I saw that they were planning on giving parts of the royalties to different groups. It was the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Black Lives Matter were all part of it. These are all organizations that are really helpful and I think that’s a really great idea. I sent them a description of my story and they were all “yea, that’s great!” They wanted to get it out really quickly. It just came out I think February 2nd. It was right before the Iowa caucus, so they wanted to get on the ball with that, even though that was kind of a clusterfuck. They wanted to make sure it was published, you know, right on the heels of this election cycle. No, it’s a really really great anthology. If anyone’s interested I highly suggest they look into it and purchase a copy.
Dianna: That sounds great. I think that’s really important work being done.
Austin: Thank you!
Dianna: And yeah, things are pretty messy Stateside. I’m Canadian, so I’m just sort of watching over here with horror, smoking my legal weed. Um – *laughs*
Austin: Oh, yeah! That’s – that helps! Yeah. *laughs*
Dianna: It does! But yeah, uh, I think that the power of fiction is really understated. I think that we, through telling these stories, have the ability to change a lot more than people give us credit for.
Austin: I 100% agree. It’s so hard, especially since I’m someone who has generalized anxiety. It’s so fucking hard, everything going on right now is just a constant trigger all the time. And it’s just like “Oh my God it’s the end of the world, oh my God it’s the end of the world, but what can I do specifically?” But I think that you’re right about that: sometimes, any creative act of art is undersold for its value to inspire and help people go on. I think that, at least in cases where people feel hopeless and like “Why fight?” I think seeing something like that that touches a part of you and makes you go “Oh because I see this art I remember this part of ourselves, our collective humanity, our reason to push and do better”. But yeah that does sometimes get pushed to the margins as an important form of protest.
Dianna: Absolutely. So, you write mostly dark fantasy. What is it that draws you to writing dark stories?
Austin: Um, well for one, a lot of what I was just talking about. A lot of what’s horrible in the world, I think writing horror and dark fantasy is cathartic in a lot of ways. It’s a way to address real problems that exist in reality in a way that involves things that are impossible, so you can kind of look at it from a different light, for one. But also just the fact that I studied esotericism and mysticism in grad school I think gives me a lot of raw fodder for ideas. Studying secret societies and summoning demons is a lot of good groundwork to draw off for these different topics, and that’s helpful. But also I think being an academic studying it – growing up in high school and college I was a practicer, you know a neo-pagan type, and I have my own unique beliefs about it I guess, but it’s sort of like the magic has lost its magic. It’s like when you see how the sausage is made, I think it’s kind of the same thing when you study something from a scholarly perspective. You’re like well, maybe this isn’t as necessarily true as you thought it was. But I think there’s a core – like what I was talking about with the ideas of Gnosticism , before the ideas behind that, the God without the preconceptions, I think that’s a lovely idea. There are different things like that in traditions and ideas in the Esoteric canon.
Dianna: Absolutely! *clears throat* There is actually an Egyptian theory that I really love that all of the gods are just different interpretations of one divine energy. The interpretations are just tools because our tiny human minds can’t comprehend the divine. Uh – and honestly that’s the only thing I can really hold to. At this point in my research I have definitely also become a lot more skeptical of a lot of things. But I definitely do still believe that there’s some higher power of some kind.
Austin: Absolutely! I have a very similar approach. It’s sort of like what you said, our capacity to understand the divine is so limited that we all have our own biases and different religions have tendencies that get warped. But if there’s actually anything of value out there, it’s beyond what we can know. A lot of different Esoteric traditions talk about that. Like, uh, the Corpus Hermeticum kind of talks about that. And some secret societies, even though they dress it up in a lot of fancy ideas and different frufru rituals and stuff, at the core it’s based on an underlying truth that we all are limited.
Austin: I talk about that a little bit in the book too. *laughs*
Dianna: Awesome! So I’m gonna reel things back in a little bit here. I could absolutely talk mythology with you all day.
Dianna: It’s one of my pet obsessions.
Austin: Oh, it’s wonderful! I love it.
Dianna: Um – but – this is the Spoonie Author’s Podcast, so I wanted to talk a little about disability and representation. Disability representation in media, first of all what you have seen out there, what you do see in the media right now, but also how would you like to see disability rep grow and change in the coming years?
Austin: Sure! So, I guess first and foremost I think the best thing is just own voices. If you can get more own voices, I think that what we see not just with disability but with issues of race is: the whole American Dirt thing is just a fucking nightmare. It’s such a good example specifically of how the publishing industry is fucked over and designed to make money, not to really listen to underrepresented voices from whatever area.
Dianna: Can I get you to –
Austin: – I think that –
Dianna: -backtrack for a moment and explain for listeners –
Austin: Oh, yes!
Dianna: – who might not know, first of all the term own voices, and second of all just a quick overview of the American Dirt fiasco for people who are less involved in publishing.
Austin: Absolutely, yes, sorry. I’ll clarify: so for own voices, own voices is literally just writing written from people who are from whatever that perspective is. So individuals who have disabilities, people who are Black or people of color, people in the LGBTQ community, who are writing about their own lived experiences, rather than a white, cis, whatever person writing necessarily. When it comes to the American Dirt thing, that’s an example of that was NOT what happened. So American Dirt was written, I can’t remember her name, but a white American author who wrote about the narrative going on in Mexico with different immigrants trying to get into America, but also a lot of different problems going on that she just had these really bad biases. And the way the publication celebrated it was really awful. Like I remember there was a party or a gala or something where they had barbed wire decoration on the tables. It was really horrible. Just a…ghoulish representation of the suffering of these real people. And the way that she misrepresents them for the market of publishing. And I think that’s a big problem, (this is a really clear example of that) how when these voices aren’t properly represented, or at the very least not properly researched enough, and different biases and stereotypes get shown and further perpetuated.
Dianna: Yeah, that is…it’s a really clear cut case of appropriation, and the dangers of not own voices writing. It’s also just honestly a really clear example of how racists double down and try to make themselves seem like “No, I’m not a racist, I’m just a nice white lady!”
Dianna: She actually did her nails – she got her nails done with a custom barbed wire print. And –
Dianna: Oh, and once she started receiving backlash, she also decided to point out the fact that her grandmother was Puerto Rican. Um I’m not sure if she was trying to say *overlapping voices* that her grandmother was an immigrant? If so that’s really unfortunate, because Puerto Rico is part of America. Um, or if she was trying to say she has Latina background? I’m not really sure which she was going for, but it came out really bad, and really illustrated how awful publishing is.
Austin: Tone deaf. Yeah. Even coming from that, hypothetically if she was just trying to come from this perspective of being Latina, it’s like “Well, okay yeah your grandma was maybe Latina, but you’ve never had the experience of that. You’re very clearly living a white person’s reality as who you are. So it’s just…yeah. It’s a big mess.
Dianna: Yes. And I do believe that there is some room for people to write about identities not their own, but it has to be done with a lot more respect than that. And most of the time we should be giving the people with marginalized identities room to speak first.
Austin: Yes! And I also agree that it’s possible for – uh – people outside a marginalized group to write, but like you said it’s important to do the research. And that’s the value of beta readers and of sensitivity readers. If you’re coming from that, you’re almost definitely going to have some sort of biases, because that’s just how privilege works. So you need to have an outside voice check you on that and say “No this is wrong, you need to edit or change this” and that way you can tell legitimate stories, as long as you don’t focus around you and your misconceptions, I think.
Dianna: Absolutely! And you can absolutely include those characters in your work! You don’t have to make them main characters, having diverse background characters is great too. If you’re just a white cis person who wants to write stories, fine! Write stories about other white cis people, but like, just make sure that in the background somewhere you acknowledge that other types of people exist.
Austin: Exactly, yeah! And don’t make them caricatures.
Dianna: Yeah! Absolutely! Um – are there any stories that you have encountered that are doing disability rep well?
Austin: Uh – I think that one that seemed to deal with it a little bit was – I’m trying to remember the name, like The Children, oh gosh – *sighs* they were made fairly recently, they all kind of come from their different fantasy realities, Every Heart A Doorway, that was the first book in the series.
Dianna: Oh! That series!
Austin: Yeah! I feel like they did okay. Maybe less with disability representation, I think they address different sorts of mental illness some. They also – uh – trans characters, I think they do address mental illness, even though it’s not necessarily on the nose. But I think the protagonist had signs of depression, she was having trouble with her parents like “Why aren’t you that happy girl anymore?” I think they did okay. It’s not a perfect representation, it had holes here and there, but sadly that’s the best we can get a lot of times. But I think they did fairly well with different kinds of representation, with disability as well as with representing trans folk I think.
Dianna: Interesting! Um, I’ve heard really mixed things about Every Heart a Doorway personally. But I haven’t actually –
Austin: What have you heard?
Dianna: I can’t really comment on it, honestly. It feels like a century ago. I think there were – some of the queer characters, it was something about queer representation that was sort of a mixed reaction, if I recall correctly.
Austin: That makes sense.
Dianna: But I could be talking out of my ass, I’m genuinely not sure. I haven’t read it.
Austin: It could have been! It’s one of those things that, um, I may have, on my own side, just missed things. I’m a straight cis guy, so maybe something that I thought was good could have been wrong. I could have just missed the mark on something.
Dianna: Yeah, that is always a danger. I think that is why it’s so important to listen to the actual marginalized people when it comes to books like this. I think it’s honestly the best thing we can do as readers is to actually research what marginalized people are saying about a book that is about marginalized people before we start reading it. As white people, we aren’t going to know until it’s pointed out to us. That’s the way racism is designed to work, right? It’s supposed to be something that’s in the background, something that’s unseen.
Austin: Yeah! No, absolutely. Since we’re on that about representation: I know Charlie Jane Andrews, she’s a good example of own voices. She’s a trans writer who is very good. All the Birds in the Sky is a good one. Not dealing with disability so much, but I know that’s a good one.
Dianna: That’s a great title, too.
Dianna: Alright,so that brings us to almost the end of our interview. For the final question: what is next? What are you working on? And where can readers find out about it, keep track of what’s happening?
Austin: Sure! Uh, so the book I’m writing right now is an adaptation of the epic of Gilgamesh, which is just so much fucking hubris that I’m trying to do the oldest narrative as a modern adaptation. Part of my undergrad I studied Acadian, which is the language that a lot of the texts for Gilgamesh are in. And if anyone didn’t know, it’s basically the oldest written narrative we have, sort of the oldest epic story. And it’s interesting because it deals with pretty extensively with a lot of ideas that we kind of consider existential now. Like values and existence and what makes life meaningful. And – uh – the way I’m kind of taking it is kind of portraying the way celebrities and politics are kind of mingled together. Deities and rulership are very like that, essentially we deify celebrities and other sort of figures.
I wanted to touch on that when I was looking into it. Just looking at this, even though it’s a fantastical mythical concept, I’m trying to make it more realistic and I’m sort of critiquing how corrupt our political institution. I don’t know. It’s a hard one to write. It’s a lot tougher to get out then Wild Dark Times was. I think it’s going to be better once it’s done. But as far as following me, I’m everywhere as @esoteric_austin. You can also check out my website, it’s austinesoteric.wixsite.com/website and I’ll keep updating that if I have any more ideas or short stories or poems.
Dianna: Awesome! Well, good luck with your reinterpretation of Gilgamesh. Uh, I’m only kind of familiar with it, and I understand it’s a big one. There’s a lot of material. It’s kind of overwhelming to me. *overlapping voices* *laughs* Sounds kind of overwhelming!
Dianna: So good luck with your challenge, and thank you for joining us! It has been a lovely chat.
Austin: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me on! Great talking with you.
Dianna: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Spoonie Authors Podcast. The Spoonie Authors Podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network: a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts of this podcast are also available on the Spoonie Authors’ Network. To learn more or become a contributor visit spoonieauthorsnetwork.blog.com And of course, if you enjoyed this podcast make sure to leave a five star review on your favorite podcast streaming platform.