Author Sady Doyle says LGTBQ teens need more representation in horror. So they wrote the book they’d wished they’d read when they were young.
The promotional material for the new novel Apocalypse 1999 lets you know upfront what you’re about to get into: “There are three things you need to know that no-one has ever told you: 1) The apocalypse started in Columbus, Ohio, in 1999. 2) The Devil rose to reclaim the Earth. 3) Nick Casini and Jenny Long started it. They’re sorry.”
The book is a teen horror comedy that features characters who are trans, queer, or disabled, with the intention of providing visible representation for those readers. The book is available for free for LGBTQ youth, with the creators requesting donations from everyone else.
An excerpt is available here, and the book can be downloaded here. The co-creators plan to donate revenues from the book to a variety of trans youth advocacy groups.
I wrote it for the teenager that’s still buried alive inside of a lot of older people.
YES! Senior Editor Chris Winters spoke with feminist critic Sady Doyle, the book’s author, about the origins of the project, their inspirations, how an ostensibly young adult novel can appeal to other readers, and their own evolving gender identity and how that influenced the book. This interview has been edited and condensed for YES! Media.
Winters: Apocalypse 1999 has the look and feel of a young adult novel. But there’s more going on here, isn’t there? Describe for me your intended audience.
Doyle: I think that it is a novel about young people. I think young people are pretty sharp, they’re smart, they’re likely to enjoy it, if it’s the kind of thing they’re into. But I didn’t want to necessarily write it in such a way that it can only be read by young people. That’s not to diss the young adult novel at all. But it’s written in a way that’s kind of very conceptual and ’90s-y. There’s a lot of footnotes, there’s a lot of metatextual tags, there’s a lot of references to stuff that you might have needed to be alive in 1999 to think are funny. … I don’t know if a 15-year-old right now would necessarily get all of the jokes about Korn. But I would say it’s pitched to young people, but, you know, it might be a novel for former young people as well.
Winters: I thought the book was funny. I also get some of the references to 4AD, you know…
Doyle: The point of doing it, one of the points of doing it independently with a team was that one of the bits of advice I thought when I was circulating very early versions of this around is that it’s kind of an in-betweener. It uses really long, elaborate sentences and footnotes and digressions that you would associate with an adult work, but it’s also about teenagers. It’s about coming of age, and it’s about the scariness of realizing that your childhood is over and your life is about to change in a very profound way.
But it’s also like the references are to things that happened 20 or 30 years ago. You might relate to that, because we’re on kind of that nostalgia cycle, where 1999 and 2000 are now like kind of trendy eras to look back on. … I wrote this sort of as a means of transitioning almost, I wrote it when I was going through a lot of sort of struggle around my gender. And that made me feel very teenaged again, it made me feel like I was being pitched right back into puberty one more time. I wrote it for the teenager that’s still buried alive inside of a lot of older people.
Winters: How did the six of you co-creators come together on this piece?
Doyle: Yeah, some of these people I’ve known for a very long time. Inigo [Purcell], who was one of the sensitivity readers, was somebody who wrote me a letter—God, I think it must have been 10 or 11 years ago, when I was running a blog called Tiger Beatdown. [Editor] Maddox [Pennington] was somebody where I had read their first book, and I’d blurbed it, and we’ve sort of been social media buddies, but they were going through their transition right as my gender stuff was starting to happen, I was just like, “Well, maybe I need to spend more time with Maddox.”
This story was something that felt really urgent to me, it felt alive in a way that none of my other projects at the time really were. … And I think this is showing me new things about my own ability to create. So, because I knew that there was going to be a substantial slice of it that dealt with gender, and there was going to be a trans lead, and I wasn’t totally sure how my own gender feelings were going to resolve but I increasingly knew that I had them, it was important to me that it not be like me being a colonizer, or just like, trying to capitalize on trans experience because it was sort of trendy. That’s a problem for trans communities where cis people can get rewarded for telling stories about the trans people in their lives, or they can get bonus points for including a trans actor or actress in some something, but that’s not the same as trans people getting to tell trans stories. So I looked to the trans and trans masculine people in my life, like Inigo and Maddox who were just people that I sent chapters to, and said, “Do you want to take a look at this and see if it’s horrible?”
Coming to terms with being non-binary has made me less likely to enforce ideas of how any gender should act.
There was also just a really conscious [intention] for the visual side of it, because I always thought of it as a project that had essentially a strong visual side. I would ask people, who are the good trans artists working today? Who would you recommend? Who do you like? J. [James Curcio], who did the cover and Benny [Hope] who did the interior illustrations, were both just people that I had been like, silently creeping on on Twitter, I loved their work. I thought it was so gorgeous, and I just had a little fantasy of, what if we got to work on something together? It was really just me sort of throwing out little ropes trying to haul myself over into the community by finding people I really admired, seeing if they were working on my bizarre project with me.
Winters: What you’ve written mostly before now and published has been feminist critique and nonfiction. This is different, both in the angle and also in the genre that you’re writing in here. How has your own personal journey as a non-binary person been influencing your writing in general, with this or other things that you’ve been working on?
Doyle: I think that for me, I still think of Apocalypse 1999 as feminist. There are points in there about patriarchy, and about, you know, growing up as a young girl and the way in which young women are subjected to violence. For me, coming to an understanding of my own gender has been useful in that it’s made the critiques a little bit deeper and a little bit more nuanced. I used to kind of get into a place, and I think many feminists get into this place, where I was bashing my own head against the wall, trying to communicate my own vision of why being a woman was uncomfortable. And I was globalizing it a little bit, right? I think that there are things that made me uncomfortable that would make any rational adult uncomfortable. I don’t like it when someone talks to me like I’m stupid when I know I’m not—mansplaining is an issue.
But the point is that I think that coming to terms with being non-binary has made me less likely to enforce ideas of how any gender should act, or how they should want to be. And it’s also put me in a place where I can understand that my relationship to masculinity is heavily influenced by patriarchy. And maybe in some ways having to deal with patriarchal violence and sexism and homophobia, seeing that model for me as the only way a masculine person could be, I think really injured me, and kept me from liking myself or being fully myself because I thought that in order to identify as a masculine person, I would have to be OK with being cruel to women and being cruel to queer men. So, I wouldn’t say that my feminism has really changed. I would say that I’m better able to separate out physical discomfort from a political problem. And I would say that—God, I hate it when people say patriarchy hurts men, too, I really do—but it’s made me better able to understand that patriarchy shapes men, too, and that the ways it’s shaping them are not good. … Whenever people say patriarchy hurts men too, the implication is that the damage is being handed out equally, and I don’t believe it is. But it does, you know, the way we teach people to uphold masculinity is very harmful to many people including men.
Winters: Let’s talk influences for the project here. The promo copy name-checks Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but what else, thematically, would you consider to be forerunners for the book, tapping into the theme of trans kids or the struggles they face.
Doyle: Right. I don’t think that I am the only mouthpiece for trans kids. I just want to get that across. That Aiden Thomas just made the New York Times bestseller list with Cemetery Boys, which is about a young trans boy, there are other people covering different parts of the trans experience. … For someone my age, when you’re dealing with a coming-of-age problem, when you’re dealing with issues of sex and gender and power, one of the first ways we’re sort of taught to deal with that, is you look for the Buffy episode about it, or you look for the slasher movie about it. Scream is very much about pressures on young women’s sexuality. It’s a movie about relationship abuse and misogyny. You just don’t really notice it because it so silly. The Craft is absolutely a movie about subaltern, marginalized genders, finding their own way to be powerful in a world that continually just represses and objectifies them. It’s just that it’s also a really silly teen witch movie.
I didn’t want to write a really super-serious trans memoir. I don’t want to be a representative for the community when I’ve been out for 30 seconds, you know? I’m confident to write about feminism, because I’ve studied a lot. All I’ve done to know about trans issues is just being me. But what I could do is sort of take those fears and those worries and channel them into something that was in the vein of Scream, or Buffy, or The Craft, something that’s very silly, and has a joke every other paragraph, or every other sentence in some instances, and it’s fast paced, and light and doesn’t have to be the defining statement on what transition is or what being trans is, but that also says a lot about that if you’re paying attention.
Winters: Yeah, we’re talking about a story here about marginalized characters, but their main issue isn’t really their marginalization.
Doyle: Right. The issue, and I think the story feints and dodges in certain ways, where we are absolutely playing with the Carol Clover idea that every knife in a horror story represents a penis. And there are points where you expect that the answer is, if someone’s really stressed out about transitioning, then they’re stressed out about something else.
… I think at its core this is a love story. I think these people, Nick and Jenny in particular, have been there for each other, more or less their entire lives, neither of them has had a tremendous amount of social support. … And at the moment we meet them, they’re pulling apart from each other. Nick has gotten obsessed with summoning the devil, and he won’t tell anyone why. Jenny has this super-cool boyfriend Dave, who’s absolutely kind of a douchebag. And she’s so fascinated by the idea that she might actually be a cool person that she’s very much willing to throw the rest of her life under the bus to just get this one random jerk from the record store to like her.
The Apocalypse aggravates that tension (laughs). And so if you think that one of your friends has in fact killed everybody that you know, you’re going to turn on each other a little bit. But what I think it’s about and why we hopefully root for them, is that they have managed to get each other through a lot of different apocalypses. When you’re young, every day of your life is a different apocalypse. And you want them to be able to make it to the other side and to become adults, and to not necessarily have to be the people they were in third grade forever, without forgetting, this other person is a huge, major part of your life, probably the reason you’re alive today.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.