Today we’re excited to present a Q+A featuring the talented Sarah Gailey, author of “Bargain,” a new short story in Mothership Zeta that mixes deal-with-the-devil horror with unabashed comic satire.
Check out the story, then read the following interview about her process of writing this marvelous piece:
Bargain: Behind-the-Scenes Q+A w/ Sarah Gailey
Your story takes the well-known conceit of the Faustian bargain and basically inverts the whole premise, playing it for laughs. Where did the idea for this piece originate?
I wanted to write something fun and funny! Most of my writing is very dark, horror-y stuff, and I was feeling frustrated because I’m generally a very cheerful person. I love stories that make me laugh. So, I decided to challenge myself to write something that wouldn’t end in grisly murder. It was harder than you’d imagine. I think I had kind of started to lean on bloodshed as a crutch in my writing – if I didn’t know what to do in a story, then whoops, murder. When I set out to write this story, I decided that I was going to write something where (a) nobody got murdered; and (b) you could interpret the ending as a happy one.
Were there any existing stories or other authors you had in mind as you were composing “Bargain”? To put it another way, where should readers go to find more stories like this one?
I wouldn’t put myself on the same level as any of these people, but whenever I write SFF humor, I’m thinking about Pratchett and Adams. I try to have the same winky kind of humor that they do – making the reader feel like they’re in on the joke. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Gaiman’s representations of demons as an inspiration.
Did you seek the input of outside readers as you were drafting this piece? What sorts of comments/critiques/suggestions did your early readers have for this piece?
Oh, always! Every piece I write gets at least two rounds with a few beta readers (for anyone who doesn’t know, a beta reader is someone who reads early drafts of a story and provides feedback on everything from plot structure to phrasing).
I just went back to look at the comments I received from beta readers on this one, and they’re divided pretty evenly into two camps: “This isn’t funny” and “This is hilarious.” There was one beta reader who completely hated it, and who thought I should just have Baxter die and stay dead at the end (!) – but I didn’t take that note, because I’m not a monster. That beta reader also hated all the emphases. The best feedback I got, though, was about expanding the ending – a note from the editors of Mothership Zeta. They pointed out (rightly so) that the existing ending was kind of sudden and a bit of a let-down. So, I added the section in which Malachai is reflecting that Baxter is actually a very good dog. It was exactly the finish the story needed, and I’m so glad they asked me to add more!
For you, what are some essential writing tools? (Examples: a thesaurus, coffee, cigarettes, internet research/wikipedia, food, music, writer’s groups, etc.)
Beta readers are my biggest essential. They catch things I miss, encourage me to expand places where I think something is obvious, and encourage me to trim down areas of my writing that are redundant or self-serving. I would be a wreck without them. I rely heavily on internet research to make sure I’m not getting important cultural details wrong in all of my writing. I also lean really heavily on Google Sheets – that’s where I track my submission stats and my character stats, to make sure I’m not reusing tropes too often.
Where/when do you write?
Whenever I can! If I have downtime, I’m either reading or writing. To connect this to the first part of this question – I think reading is essential to writing. It’s like eating for me – I read to fuel my creativity, to challenge myself to be a better writer, and to keep myself humble about how good of a job I’m actually doing.
Let’s talk submitting. What sort of strategy do you follow when you send your work out into the world? (Particularly for pieces like “Bargain” that don’t fit snugly into any one preconceived genre or category.)
Once a story is ready to send out, I identify the right venue – usually using Duotrope to start me off. I track all of my submissions in a needlessly complicated, color-coded, multi-tabbed spreadsheet, so I go into that and check to see that there’s nothing precluding me from sending the story to my chosen venue. I investigate the venue if I don’t already know it well – I’ll read what they’ve published before, check out their submissions requirements, and see if there are any interviews with the editors available. Then, I hit submit! Once a story is going out, I keep it out. If I get back a rejection with feedback, I might revise the piece accordingly; but otherwise, as soon as I get a rejection in for a piece, I send it right back out again to another venue.
Tell us about a story you’re working on right now. What sorts of themes/ideas are you playing with in the piece? What are some unexpected challenges that have arisen in the story’s composition?
Right now I’m workshopping a piece about a woman whose wife has a brain tumor that sends her (the wife) back in time. It’s all about erasure and the way that white people tend to make racial conversations about themselves – the narrator is white, and her time-traveling wife is black. The narrator is pretty selfish throughout the piece and tends to internalize her wife’s suffering. This is a piece that really ran away with me – I had intended to write a bog-standard whoops-you-time-traveled piece, and the characters kind of wouldn’t let me (this is crazy writer-talk, I know). It’s been challenging, because I’m white and don’t know that this story is mine to tell. I’ve been really humbled in recognizing that I need a lot of help in telling a story about suffering and erasure while maintaining the depth and nuance of the characters. I’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of very patient beta readers on this piece, who have been willing to tell me where I’m misstepping (and who have been encouraging me to send the story out to editors).
Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native who lives and works in beautiful, rambunctious Oakland, California with her wonderful husband and their terrible cat. The cat is the worst, seriously, take her word for it. Her pursuits include cigars, baking, vulgar embroidery, and reading too much. She betas stories and novels, and she’ll do it for you, if you ask nicely.
When she’s not doing all those other things (which is most of the time), Sarah writes stories about murder and monsters.