Photo Credit: Lou F. Bank
Published in 2021, A.E. Osworth’s debut novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright (Grand Central Publishing) was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel prize. Osworth’s novel started as a homework assignment during their Creative Writing M.F.A. at The New School. They recently had a conversation with Public Seminar intern Vicky Oliver about Osworth’s groundbreaking, genre-bending exploration of online gaming phenomenon, toxic masculinity, and the Sixsterhood. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Vicky Oliver [VO]: I was wondering if your title was inspired by another well-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston?
A.E. Osworth [AEO]: Not even a little. The title used to be 80085.
VO: Ah. I know what that is. Not only that, when I got to 80085 in your novel, it said “write it down,” and I wrote it down and I saw that it was “boobs.”
AEO: The problem is that not everyone could get that. It also looks like a zip code. You can’t Google it. But I was going to go to bat for it anyway, until my agent said he had heard someone refer to me as the “boobs author,” and I was like cool, I’m going to get you a list of 20 new titles right now. In particular, it seemed ironic for me, a trans masculine person. A good title is essentially a billboard. But it also should teach people something about how to read the book. So I started thinking, how can I include the collective voice in the title?
VO: How many years did it take you to write the story, and do you mind describing the process?
AEO: If you mark the finish line at publication, six years. It was my thesis at the New School. I began work on it in the latter part of 2014, and it came out in 2021. I won’t claim continuous work, I will claim fairly continuous work.
VO: Fairly continuous?
AEO: It was my first time writing a novel, and it’s sometimes easy to put it down for long stretches because you’re not yet aware that you can finish a novel. The nice part about having finished a novel is that now I know I can finish one. The book started as a two-page assignment. Some of the early chapters, in terms of the office speak and the office culture, came from this assignment. I turned in 13 pages, and god bless Shelley Jackson, she did read them. And then, I just kept going, and all of the sudden I was like, “oh, I’m writing a book.” The content—the how of the book—came from that exercise. The what of it came from the fact that I was working for Autostraddle, which is a website by and for queer folks. I was the geekery editor, which means I covered technology. I had a technology column, I covered games, and I covered nerd culture, all at the intersection of queerness; and while I was geekery editor, Gamergate began.
Gamergate is the systemic harassment of women and queer people in and adjacent to the gaming industry perpetrated by a large Internet mob. This is not only an expression of extreme misogyny, it is also deeply interfering with what I believe is the human act of play. I wrote 419 pages because I was mad.
VO: I’m curious if you yourself are a gamer.
AEO: I have complicated feelings about the word “gamer.” The answer I’ve come to is yes, I am. I do not like to conjure up for myself in others the image of a gamer, and that’s a hang-up on my part that I need to let go, because the more people that are not disaffected cis, straight, young white men who say, “yes I play games,” the less toxic that culture becomes.
VO: You’re not a gamer, but you play games.
AEO: Oh no, I would say I’m a gamer. I will own that. I will claim that identity, as a means to disrupting. I believe play is one of—if not the only way—humans actually learn stuff.
VO: The name “The Guilds of the Protectorate,” is that loosely based on World of Warcraft?
AEO: I feel like it kind of has to be because World of Warcraft is such a big player in MMOs.
VO: I wanted to talk about the We voices, the two first-person plural voices, the hive mind, which is toxically masculine, and later the collective of queers and folks without genders, the Sixsterhood. In your view, does the first hive-mind We voice include the reader at all, and if so, is the reader complicit in Eliza’s doxxing?
AEO: You are the first interviewer to ask this question. I’m sure you’re not the first person to see it, but you’re the first person to bring it up to me. Yes. That is part of the point. The viewing of this does make a reader complicit, and the viewing of these spaces on the Internet that are doing it also makes a reader complicit. Part of the process of writing this book involved spending a lot of time reading Reddit and ingesting how those folks talk to each other, how they make myth, and how they create the narrative of their own existence.
I remember Dean Watson asking me in O Café if doing that was damaging—if it was difficult or harmful in any way. And I was, like, let me think about that for a hot second before I answer, because it’s really complicated. I do not feel harmed or damaged. What was interesting, though, is that I remember all of a sudden of being aware of when I would think a thought or sentence that sounded like those guys, that sounded like those narrators, and I’d go whoa, did I catch that from being on Reddit too much? Ultimately, my answer was no, I didn’t. We are all growing up and formed by a culture, a larger culture of misogyny. It did not get born on the Internet. It is everywhere. It is in the billboards we see, in the TV we watch, in the books we read. It is a culture of misogyny that is present all the time. And I’m not exempt from that. I grew up here too.
When I noticed it really obviously was when I thought a sentence about my own appearance as a trans person, about my physical looks, and I was, like, oh my god, I do not endorse that. That sounds like those guys. That sounds like what I’ve been writing. And I don’t want that for me.
So it accelerated the process in me of figuring out when the voice of that collective was something that I had internalized, and going okay, I don’t endorse that thought. I don’t think that’s actually rational or true. What’s the next sentence? What’s the thought underneath it? What’s someplace I can go from there? And to start to take those pieces and interrogate them and bring them to light and thereby begin to heal from that myself.
When I implicate the reader in what happens to Eliza, that is what I’m hoping to do: not to say that the reader is bad and evil and complicit for watching this happen and doing nothing, that’s not my argument. It’s that we are—whether we like it or not—all part of the collective, and if we don’t like it, what do we do next?
VO: And then this Sixsterhood Collective, I want to know about the development of that.
AEO: It’s the Sixsterhood, it has an X in it. The reason it has an X in it is to disrupt the gender of that term, while still nodding to the gender of that term, while still explicitly positioning itself as outside traditional masculinity. The evolution of the Sixsterhood was very multifaceted. They were originally not in my draft. I had a single hacker, and my agent was like, “Hey, this character right here solved too many problems. Give this character her own book and take her out, and how does the book end if you do that?” And my answer to that was the Sixsterhood. The Sixsterhood is based very loosely on a real housing collective I stayed with for one weekend in San Francisco. That housing collective is now defunct, but it was called The Octagon. I stayed in their elevator shaft. It was not a working elevator; their elevator did not function; they just had the elevator shaft.
VO: Did you stay in the elevator shaft because you knew you wanted to include that in the book? Or did you just happen to stay in the elevator shaft?
AEO: I happened to stay in the elevator. I was speaking at a conference, and one of my friends who lived in that collective invited me to come stay with her.
VO: Out of curiosity, you stayed in the elevator shaft because that was the only room they had?
AEO: That was their guest room. The Sixsterhood came in as a setting, but not as a narrator. As a narrator, they were a late add, and it wasn’t until I got to round two of edits with my editor Seema Mahanian. I had handed it in, and then I started having this crisis of conscience, because I felt by only having the Reddit narrators, what was I saying about the Internet and the community? Did I agree with it? My experience with the Internet is actually really positive. It is where I found my queer community: a really strong, resilient community. And my experience of that queer community is: while we are deeply flawed as a collective, we are ultimately a force of good in each others’ lives and the world. And I had written this community where it seemed like the argument I was making was: “don’t be part of the collective because you’ll be dangerous and toxic.” That’s not what I think; that’s not what I believe.
Then I got my edits back, and God bless Seema Mahanian. She was like, “Okay, there’s a plot-hole here, in which you explicitly say that the Reddit narrators cannot even imagine what the inside of this building looks like or what these people think, but they keep narrating, and that’s a problem. What if you took the Sixsterhood, and when we are with them, they are narrating?” Thank God for editors, because they see what you are trying to do, and they give you—if you cannot see the next step—a damn flashlight so you can.
I hopped on the phone with Seema, and we analyzed explicitly, linguistically, what the Reddit narrators were doing. The Reddit narrators speak in short sentences and sentence fragments.
VO: Also, they say something, and then they say the opposite.
AEO: Yeah. They say “or,” and then they say something else that could also be true. This or that. I had my notebook out, and I drew a line. If the Reddit narrators speak in short sentences and sentence fragments, what if the Sixsterhood spoke in one long sentence that never was interrupted?
VO: Right. And no periods.
AEO: No periods. I was allowed commas. I think I’ve got semicolons in there and colons, but I never did a full stop.And then I got to the “or,” and in computers there is Boolean Logic. It is a system of logic that helps express ideas, and computers are based on it. There are two options. True or false. That’s it. That is the brain of a computer at its most basic. If any of the operands are true, so is this one or this one or this one. And so, the story keeps goingregardless of if any of them are true. I also wrote the word “and,” which is another Boolean Logic operator. That fires off code if and only if all operands are true. This is true and that is true and that is true at the same time.
I also realized that—absent the computers—there are two human worldviews that are pushing against each other. The “or” operator is one of scarcity. Whereas in the Sixsterhood, the “and” operator is one of abundance, which is exactly how I experience queer community. All of these can be true, so we’re approaching things with an abundance mindset. When I wrote the Sixsterhood, I recognized that this was a really experimental voice for me. I looked down at it and I went, “Fuck, that is how I text my friends.”
AEO: So why wasn’t it in the book in the first place? If this is my community, if this is what I think about community? I got really upset for a while because what it meant was, I didn’t think that my experience and my community were worth putting in a novel. I centered this other voice without ever thinking that this is something that I could do, and I’m really grateful to my editor that she got me there. And, when I am hard on myself about it, I reflect on Alexander Chee’s essay, “How to Unlearn Everything.” It’s about writing the other, but ultimately it is also about writing the self; and if you don’t see reflections of your community in literature, of course you don’t think that your community belongs in it.
It is honestly the Sixsterhood—the addition of the Sixsterhood—that makes me proudest of this book in terms of it being something that I don’t think there is another one of.
VO: That’s awesome.
AEO: You get me started on the Sixsterhood, and I can talk for hours.
VO: One of the things I love about the book was the double speak that you captured with the character Preston Waters. I was wondering if Preston was based on a real person, or is Preston a composite character?
AEO: Preston is the personification of every interaction I have had with large corporations. I have managed to construct a life where I largely avoid interacting with corporations, and it is because that shit makes me crazy.
VO: I thought it was brilliant.
AEO: Preston Waters was one of my favorites to write because there’s an element of satire, but it was also fun to make him fallible, make him complicated, and actually bestow upon that person humanity.
VO: Is Preston thinking of himself as a superhero for trying to protect Eliza? Is it even possible to protect her while remaining on the grid?
AEO: Preston does think of himself as a superhero, but he’s not. He’s a person. He bungles so much, and it’s because his world view limits how he can help. But he tries really hard, and he wants to be a superhero.
VO: What is next for A.E. Osworth? Are you writing a new novel? Can you disclose it, or is it top secret?
AEO: I’m super bad at secrets. I am writing a novel about Satan from Satan’s perspective. This is the story of Satan told in two timelines, the Biblical timeline which illustrates his fall, and also a timeline that spans from 1966 to present day, which begins with the founding of The Church of Satan, and includes the first time that Satan falls in love with a mortal.
VO: In closing, is there anything you would like to leave readers of Public Seminar with?
AEO: I would ask only that readers of Public Seminar—if they are interested in this kind of project—dive further into these online spaces. These are places where this did not stop at Gamergate. The community and the strategies were actually used by Steve Bannon, a Trump political strategist. His background is actually in World of Warcraft as a business, so he knows the power of these disaffected young white men, and that is one of the pillars of how a fascist got elected as president. So it’s not just something that’s in games, and it’s not just something that’s in fiction. It is real.
Read an excerpt from We Are Watching Eliza Bright, courtesy of A.E. Osworth and Grand Central Publishing.
Vicky Oliver, an M.F.A. candidate at The New School, is the author of six bestselling books, including Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers and Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks, 2008) and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks, 2005). She writes novels about the early women’s suffrage movement. She is an Editorial Intern at Public Seminar.
A.E. Osworth is Faculty at The New School, where they teach fiction and digital storytelling, and also serve as Education Director for WriteOn, a burgeoning Fellowship that places MFA candidates in creative writing classrooms as instructors. Their debut novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright (Grand Central Publishing, 2021) was longlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel prize.