By Kaley Kiermayr
Today we’re pleased to welcome Andrew Joseph White to the WNDB blog to discuss his debut young adult novel Hell Followed With Us, out since June 7, 2022!
Sixteen-year-old trans boy Benji is on the run from the cult that raised him—the fundamentalist sect that unleashed Armageddon and decimated the world’s population. Desperately, he searches for a place where the cult can’t get their hands on him, or more importantly, on the bioweapon they infected him with.
But when cornered by monsters born from the destruction, Benji is rescued by a group of teens from the local Acheson LGBTQ+ Center, affectionately known as the ALC. The ALC’s leader, Nick, is gorgeous, autistic, and a deadly shot, and he knows Benji’s darkest secret: the cult’s bioweapon is mutating him into a monster deadly enough to wipe humanity from the earth once and for all.
Still, Nick offers Benji shelter among his ragtag group of queer teens, as long as Benji can control the monster and use its power to defend the ALC. Eager to belong, Benji accepts Nick’s terms…until he discovers the ALC’s mysterious leader has a hidden agenda, and more than a few secrets of his own.
Cards on the table: sometimes in these interviews I start by asking my authors something like, “hey, how was the ‘seed’ for this story planted, what nurtured it, what helped it grow, etc.?” But I feel this gentle metaphor is inept here. I want to meet you where I think you were at while first conceptualizing Hell Followed. So, hey, what was the experience of channeling raw, fierce anger into a project like? How was that anger sustained, transformed, honored?
Yes, YES, this is exactly the kind of energy I’m looking for. Being angry is easy when you’re twenty, newly out, and raw like an exposed nerve—and staying angry is even easier. It’s been almost four years since I started writing Hell Followed with Us, and some days I still feel like the scared boy who wrote that messy first draft, grappling with my gender and the backlash I faced for claiming it out loud. But that’s what it boils down to, isn’t it? Anger is really just a sign of something deeper, and when it comes to angry queers, our anger stems from fear, betrayal, and sorrow. It comes from hurt. And there is so much hurt poured into this book.
When I first started writing, I only meant for this story to explore my own feelings about rage, monstrosity, and transness, but the more I worked, the bigger it became. At the heart of it, this is a book paying tribute to the anger of my community. It shows queer anger as righteous, powerful, and a means of survival. I love that.
How did the story of Hell Followed develop? What elements of it came to you first and how?
The book came to me in a single moment of inspiration, but within that flash of realization, the most important part was this: if I wanted to write authentically about myself, I had no choice but to write about a trans boy turning into a monster.
See, growing up, I’d always felt a little less than human. There was (and still is?) a gap between me and other people I just can’t cross. This is, probably, for two reasons. The first is the easier one: I’m autistic. Starting in preschool, I was on the sidelines, struggling to interact with my peers, only accepted when I pretended to be someone else. Monsters were the only place I found a reflection of my experience: strange, unintelligible outsiders. Easy enough.
The second reason is harder to talk about: my childhood gender dysphoria manifested as something cruel and unrecognizable. From my narrow perspective, “transition” simply wasn’t a thing, so if I wanted to strip myself of girlhood, the only option was to strip my humanity with it. Self-dehumanization is a dangerous road to walk, especially when your brain latches onto the idea of disfigurement along with it. I’m much better now, but no kid should ever draft speeches to a future doctor, pleading for them not to perform reconstructive surgery after an accident that hasn’t happened yet. Monstrosity felt, and still feels, like home.
I think what I’m trying to say is that the book began with this: if I wanted to write about my trans experience, I had to be honest. I had to write about awful things. I had to write about monsters.
Can you tell me about your favorite scenes to write? How about the most troublesome? (You can keep it spoiler-free.)
Absolutely. My favorite scene (or scenes?) would have to be any time we get to see Benji, our protagonist, go feral—snarling, bloodthirsty, barely human at all. Watching a trans kid become so unhinged with rage that he leaves carnage in his wake is an instant shot of catharsis, and I reveled in the chance to express a fury that goes beyond words. No consequences, no backlash, just pure violence that comes from a place deep in the lizard brain. He becomes what my younger self always wanted to be, and who am I to deny that kid anything?
As for the toughest, though, that would have to be the arson chapter; yeah, that one. Action scenes are hard to write on a good day, let alone one that’s nearly ten pages long. I couldn’t nail it on a craft level until I ripped it up and wrote it from the ground up a dozen times. There are only so many words for fire. And for blood. And flesh. And—you get the idea.
Writing about this stuff can dig up some intense emotions and even be triggering! Heck, you’ve got a whole list of content warnings and an introductory page of kind words available for people who just want to read Hell Followed. You also recently tweeted that your next project is even more emotionally taxing to write. As a creative individual, what have you learned during this period about taking care of yourself during and after the creation and revising process? How do you begin to do this?
Here’s the neat part—I don’t know.
Okay, but seriously, I have a really high tolerance for terrible things. (I mean, look at what was going on in my head as a kid.) I know that the topics in Hell Followed with Us are heavy, even brutal, but none of it ever got under my skin. So it was a shock when I started working on my current project and came upon a scene that made me feel…weird. I was having fun writing it and am extremely proud of how horrible the moment is, but for the first time, I realized I needed to take a break because it was getting to me.
And that was, what, last week? This is new territory I’m treading. I know I need to start preparing, because the story only gets worse from here. It is full of obscene cruelty towards an autistic trans kid based directly on myself. But I’m lucky in that I have a calm life, hobbies that let me disconnect for a while, and a fiancée who keeps an eye on me (thanks, babe). I suspect they’ll keep me in one piece somehow.
Contemporary trans politics often strategically understands transness as positive and creative. In fighting for rights, access, and understanding, it’s shrewd to talk about transness as beautiful and uplifting, and to translate it into recognizable, positive terms. This book is so powerful because it understands that seeing transness in monstrosity and/or unrecognizability is freeing. If body horror plays on our anxiety by facing us with disruptive imagery, how can this horror genre alleviate or lean into anxiety during these current uncertain times for young trans readers?
Ooh, this is a good question. Body horror as self-empowerment is a key theme of a lot of my work. We’re all just sacks of meat, after all, and there is nothing inherently sacred about the body you’re “born” with. It becomes sacred when you adjust it, accommodate it, and accept it.
I’ll admit that it does lean into the anxiety: from my experience, trans men are accused of being “mutilated women,” and Hell Followed with Us is nothing if not 400 pages of mutilation of a trans boy’s body. There’s a bit of worry there—what if I’m playing into anti-trans rhetoric, portraying trans people as disgusting, dangerous less-than-humans? But it’s also a reclamation of that idea. If people want so, so badly to see us as monsters, what’s stopping us from becoming monsters if we want to? Monster is subjective, after all. What one side sees as disgusting, another may see as a source of protection. What if we use those teeth and claws to defend our young and vulnerable? What if we accept that, sometimes, being trans is confusing and strange, so that those words can no longer be used to hurt us? There’s power in taking it back. I want to take it back, and I want young trans readers to feel like they can too.
What was the publishing process like for you as a debut novelist? How did it feel, catching the eye of your agency and Peachtree Teen?
In all honesty, I had a way easier time than most—I knew my agent before signing, and the submission process was overwhelmingly positive, with the book racking up a miniscule seven rejections before an offer landed on the table. At the time, I did not appreciate that enough. A trans, autistic author writing trans, autistic characters with blood on their faces—are you kidding? It still feels like I pulled a fast one on the industry. Every now and then, I check over my shoulder, as if there’s something creeping up on me that I’ve missed. But I have amazing friends and a great support system, so I’m going to bite down and refuse to let go.
Did you have any interesting conversations with Zabé Ellor or Ashley Hearn about the act of editing and publishing electrifyingly hyperviolent queer horror for young adults?
If you can believe it, the hyperviolence of this book was probably one of the few things that was not picked to death during revisions. The terror and disgust are such a staple of the story’s world that it was always a given, like gravity or inertia. It’s just how it had to be—though I’m still shocked I got away with some of the descriptions I did.
One of the things that stands out most regarding this is a talk I had with Ashley and Zabé during our first editorial meeting. We were discussing possible reactions to the book that would come from outside our intended audience—how would cis, straight adults react to this book? Would they object to the violence and horror? How much did we care about that? My response to those questions has always been the same: I write what teenage me needed, not what grown-ups thought would be best for me. I needed an outlet for the hurt that was chewing me up from the inside. I don’t care if others flinch at the sight of it.
Many characters in Hell Followed stay masked up for most of the story to prevent the spread of the Flood virus. What’s the experience been like promoting this book in the midst of a global pandemic?
Ah, yes, the experience of putting a virus apocalypse book on submission to editors exactly three weeks after the first lockdown in March 2020, and watching it release into the same pandemic two years later! Believe it or not, the characters started wearing masks in late 2019, and I had a hard time getting the point across in-text: the precautions, the narrative weight of characters removing their masks, etc. Suffice it to say, that’s not a problem anymore. The pandemic built a shared understanding between the characters and the readers—there’s an instant camaraderie of experience. On top of that, the pandemic also means that I don’t push the virus apocalypse angle as hard as I otherwise might. There are so many parts to the book that are cool or meaningful, and the Flood virus is just a vehicle for those things to happen.
What would you consider your literary/artistic heritage? Can you name a few pieces of media that have influenced you as a writer, that you were raised on, or that have stayed with you through the years and helped shape your and your stories? (I know you’ve already previously detailed The Song of Achilles and the Escape From Furnace series as tales that your high school brain marinated in.)
I could mention a whole list of amazing stories: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, the first book I read with an autistic protagonist; Ari & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which was the first time I saw queer boys on the page. But if I’m being totally honest, the answer is this—as a teenager, I found a list of the most disturbing books in the English language and dedicated myself to reading as many of them as I could.
Seems obvious now that I say it, huh.
The one that stands out most would have to be Exquisite Corpse by Billy Martin, writing as Poppy Z Brite. It’s a viciously, disgustingly erotic horror featuring gay serial killers in New Orleans, and I am not kidding when I say that it is a lot to stomach. I credit the book with teaching me how to push boundaries; how to take risks and discard respectability politics for something raw and honest. I try to write in that tradition. Show your teeth, spit blood, and be a nasty little son of a bitch.
What are your next goals? What direction do you see your work taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
The process of writing and editing Hell Followed with Us is part of what helped me accept my autistic identity, so my next goal is to confront this aspect of myself in my work and explore how it interacts with being trans, especially in horror. I also want to dig deeper into emotional horror—turning a little bit from gore (but not entirely!) and toward the terror that comes from dysphoria and a world that deems you “incorrect” in more ways than one. Like, I’ve written my power fantasy. Now it’s time to see what happens when the protagonist thinks he has no power at all.
I will say this, though: I’ve been given an amazing opportunity that allows me to do just that. You’ll have to wait a little more to know exactly what.
Andrew Joseph White is a queer, trans author from Virginia, where he grew up falling in love with monsters and wishing he could be one too. He is a graduate student in George Mason University’s Creative Writing program and has a habit of cuddling random street cats. Andrew writes about trans kids with claws and fangs, and what happens when they bite back. Visit him online at https://andrewjosephwhite.com/.
Kaley Kiermayr is a Boston-based editor, freelance writer, and marketer. She is currently the Executive Affairs & Special Projects Officer at The Theater Offensive, a nonprofit that produces liberating art by, for, and about queer and trans people of color. Previously, she was Fiction Editor at F(r)iction literary anthology and Marketing Director at Brink Literacy Project. She received her Publishing MA at Emerson College. In her downtime, she enjoys getting involved with LGBTQ+ literature and writing projects.