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The Metaworker Podcast | 010 Boy, Deer, Chair by Sam Asher

Episode Description:

Matthew, Elena, Marina, and Mel talk with Sam Asher about his beautifully strange story Boy, Deer, Chair. We discuss symbolism, inherited trauma, pantsers vs. plotters, and imposter syndrome. 

Referenced in this episode: 

Boy, Deer, Chair by Sam Asher on The Metaworker website

Chelsea Sutton – author recommended by Sam

Karen Joy Fowler – author recommended by Sam

Blackfish City by Sam Miller

Clarion Writers Workshop


Trans authors

Literary Magazines:


Fiyah LitMag


Apex Magazine

Strange Horizons

Uncanny Magazine

Mid-American Review

Author Bio:

Sam Asher is an alcoholic born and partly raised in the Middle-East, now living in New York. He loves translating English -language fiction into Arabic, and being terrible at social media. Find his work in Amazing Stories, Daily SF, and the Gateway Review.

Episode Transcript:

Matthew Maichen (00:00):
Hello, my name is Matthew Maichen. I am the editor-in-chief.

Elena L. Perez (00:07):
Hi, I’m Elena Perez, the managing editor.

Marina Shugrue (00:10):
I’m Marina Shugrue, communications.

Melissa Reynolds (00:13):
And I’m Melissa Reynolds, another editor with The Metaworker.

Matthew Maichen (00:16):
So, we are here today with Sam Asher who wrote the absolutely wonderful piece “Boy, Deer, Chair”. I will turn it over to you.

Sam Asher (00:31):
Wonderful. Hi, it’s lovely to be here. Thank you for having me. Um, let’s see. “Boy, Deer, Chair”—terrible name for a story: There’s a cloud in the room that the boy knows as ‘vapour’, knows it in the way he knows his emotions, knows it in the way you know your name. There is a deep green carpet that smells like his father, always slightly damp, and a dartboard on one wall. There are three darts in the board, at the 7, 18, and 14 marks. The numbers aren’t important. Don’t grow too attached to the numbers. The boy is in a chair almost deep enough to lie down in, high enough that from behind there’s no boy at all, only a chair and some potential. He kicks his legs back and forth, and looks through the vapour, or tries to. It’s difficult. It’s not particularly thick, but he gets the sense it doesn’t want to be looked through, that it congregates more thickly on whichever spot his eyes alight for too long. With a start, both you and he notice two cars in the room, one grey, one red. It’s unclear whether they’re set dressing or something integral to his feelings, which are thus: The room is familiar, as is the vapour, as are the vehicles. He’s played darts on the board. There should be two doors, one on either side of the room, either of which might grant him his freedom, but neither of them exist. His breathing comes short, though the vapour doesn’t threaten his lungs — he’s just afraid. He’s unsure how old he is, but knows he’s been afraid a long time. He gets the sense his fear might be older than his body, something inherited like a walking stick, or a footstool. He would like to be alone in the room, but he’s not. There’s a deer in another chair, facing him. Its legs are crossed in the manner of a man watching an elementary school pageant. Deers are unable to grin, but it certainly broadcasts an air of mirth. A Whitetail Deer’s antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues known to humankind, it says. Did you know that? It lights a cigarette, and tells the boy to shush. Don’t tell anyone about this, all right? The cigarette? Yes. You shouldn’t smoke- You do. The deer’s right. The boy’s holding a cigarette, half-smoked. In high school, the boy would cadge cigarettes by asking for twos from his peers — to split the cigarette in half, and let him have the bottom. If that failed, he’d ask for labels, the bitter, choking, tar-filled death drag on the cigarette that did nothing but make his eyes ache. If he remembers high school he must be older than he thought before. Maybe the description I gave you was wrong? Or maybe, simply, he’s ageing; the chair no longer seems so big. For a moment he panics at how quickly time may be moving. Can I leave? the boy says. Goodness, the deer says. No. The boy ages no further. He watches his hands for symptoms of atrophy, uses them as a weather gauge for decay. Neither he nor the deer eats, though at one point the boy felt a hunger that scooped between his ribs like a spoon through ice cream. Since then, he’s begun to realize that food is unimportant in the room. He hasn’t stood up since he arrived. He tries, and the deer shakes its head. I wouldn’t. Why? If you stand, I’ll gore you. The boy looks at him mutely, cigarette caught mid-air between his lips and its foster home in the Budweiser ashtray. That’s why I’m here, the deer says. I watch the boys in the room and keep them in their place until it’s time they go. When can I go? Whenever you can stand without me goring you. If you leave before then, I’ll gore you. Do you see? The boy asks more questions as the indecipherable time passes. He repeats them often. Retaining information feels like trapping smoke in an upright glass. It floats out before his hands have a chance to cup themselves over the rim. The Boy: What is the vapour? The Deer: I’m not a vapour specialist. I’m a watch-deer. The Boy: Do all boys have vapour? The Deer: I couldn’t tell you. Deer-boy confidentiality. The Boy: You’ve done this before? The Deer: A thousand times. The Boy: Then what is my name? The Deer: I don’t know. The Boy: Then what is your name? The Deer: The Deer. The Boy: Do I have a family? The Deer: No. Absolutely you don’t. With the utmost certainty I can say, you are every kind of orphan. The Boy: Then what is my name? The Deer: Thud. Pockets. The Boy: Are those names? This is what the deer looks like: Its coat is a lustrous tan-red, like the forehead of a swede at the end of summer. White fur borders dewy eyes, and encroaches on its throat. There are antlers, and a tail. Among the threat of its violence are the littered beauties, the fallen ornaments of its past lives that echo a sense of hiraeth. The boy isn’t sure why he knows that word. He isn’t sure why he knows any words at all. Are you homesick? the boy asks. The deer has lit two cigarettes at once, takes a drag of one after the other like a dance of medieval torches. The smoke is no match for the vapour that surrounds them both. It dissipates on contact like water sizzling on a stove. The deer cocks its head and drops its ears. They hang at 180 degrees. No, the deer says. Am I? the boy asks. The deer curls its upper lip. Its an odd sight. The boy runs two fingers along his mouth to remind himself that he’s no deer, no buck, but something else altogether. He’s forgetting what that might be. The word human bounces around his head, kicking up memories like papers swept up on a breeze. He wonders what a human might be. With the wondering comes the question, Did he deserve to be one? The boy eyes the dartboard. He remembers the game surprisingly well. He has the feeling he may have sat on one of the larger objects in the room, the red one, with the wheels. He’s forgotten its name, or its purpose, but sees himself, who he assumes he was, sitting on the front of the object drinking from a bottle, its surface dipping slightly under his weight. The desire to flee the room fills him so suddenly that he distrusts the notion. I’d like to leave, he says. Of course you would. If I do, he says. Without you goring me. What happens? I will wait for the next boy, the deer says. It crushes a cigarette packet between two grey hooves. Who must be coming soon. Do you notice the vapour? I might as well ask you if you notice the air you’re breathing. The boy had given up on noticing the vapour some time before, some time being the only correct estimation. It remains a cloying, secretive veil surrounding a boy, a deer, two objects in which they sit, and two objects which are larger, grey, and red. The Boy: No. I don’t notice it. The Deer: It will disappear soon. Reshape itself for the next boy. It might be anything at all honestly. The Boy: What will happen to me then? The Deer: I don’t care. I don’t care enough to know. I’m the deer who watches you from my chair, in your chair, until something happens and I’m finished watching. Beyond that I’m nothing at all. The Boy: And what am I? The Deer: Terrified. The Boy: What is that? The Deer: You’re piss-your-pants frightened. The Boy: What is that? The Deer: You’re an absence. An absence of an absence. The Boy: I don’t- The Deer: I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The Boy: I want to leave this place. The Deer: Then stand and leave. Piss your pants and stand and leave and be nothing at all in a somewhere else place. (The boy puts one hand on either arm of the chair, remembers his knees, and prepares to stand. Whether his legs will hold his weight is the wrong kind of question. The audience gasps at his wobble, his hollow cheeks, the cavernous sockets engulfing blue eyes corroded by penitent smoke. The deer watches, ears laid back, hair raised, ramrod stiff as a battering ram. Lights in the room go far too high. The audience, irritated, curses. Each smells of piss, and cigarette smoke, bleeds from a wound, or wounds, or simply through porous flesh.) I may gore you if you stand up. You might, the boy says. Yes. That’s about it.

Matthew Maichen (07:58):
Thank you. So, this is the second phase where we are going to temporarily have you be a fly on the wall and have us talk about it as editors. So, yeah, it’s so interesting because that ending does not immediately register as an ending, does it? I find that to be one of the many very, very interesting things about this piece. When I first read it, it was hard to even initially tackle it, right? There’s so much going on in it in such a short story and so many very obscure things. Even after having read it multiple times, there are still things about it that are inscrutable to me. So, I’m actually really curious. The first thing that I always think about is the presence of the vapor. It’s everywhere. It’s brought up constantly. It’s the first thing that’s brought up in the story and it just keeps getting brought up again and again and again. What is this vapor? What’s going on with this setting that’s this room filled with vapor?

Elena L. Perez (09:18):
Well, first of all, I wanted to say, thank you so much, Sam, for reading this. I love this story. For me. It’s very dreamlike and I think the vapor—to answer your question, Matthew—definitely adds to that sense of the dreamlike feeling. As I was reading this, it seemed like the story was about inherited trauma and so I feel like, for me, I felt like the vapor might be society or the environment that we live in. Sometimes it’s kind of difficult to navigate and you don’t always know the direction you’re going, if that makes sense. That’s kind of what my reading of the vapor was.

Marina Shugrue (10:03):
Yeah. I had a similar reading on it. What I find interesting about it being vapor…I think it does add to this sort of atmosphere, like you were saying, Elena, but I think it’s also…if we are talking about this story as some sort of occurrence of trauma or something heavy that’s happened, vapor I find really interesting in that it is kind of completely surrounding the boy and is in this room and stuff like that. It is hard to see through, but it is vapor. You could just kinda push it aside if you really try, you know? It’s not as obstructive as it maybe seems just looking at it, which is something I find really interesting.

Melissa Reynolds (10:48):
And along those lines, the vapor is obscuring his vision, so he can’t really see where he would like to go. It’s all very much the immediate vicinity. Even though he could potentially push through or walk through, it’s still an obstacle to overcome. What’s interesting, too, is the deer brings it up and how it changes. It took time for that change to take place, so I didn’t think of it as trauma or the society or anything like that. I saw it more as an obstacle that is in opposition to him, but after hearing you say that, I’m like, ‘oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense’. I like that take on it.

Elena L. Perez (11:42):
Yeah. I guess I saw it that way because that’s kind of how it works when you have trauma and you’re trying to do something that seems like it’s easy for other people. There’s this mist. It says at one point that the mist kind of seems to gather exactly at the point where the boy is looking. So, it’s like all these unseen obstacles are in the way of the boy’s goal, which now that I’m thinking about it, could also be referring to maybe a disability or an invisible disability which presents its own obstacles for navigating society.

Matthew Maichen (12:23):
Thank you. Yeah, that makes it a lot easier for me ’cause I…you know, I do this for a living, I interpret things and still… I think you guys are right that—and this ties into the next question—it’s a metaphor. What’s interesting about this story is that it feels like every sentence is simultaneously an image and a metaphor. There’s this intentionally bizarre construction of every sentence that makes that so clear. In the second sentence it says, “there is a deep green carpet that smells like his father, always slightly damp”. The choice of details there, you know? It’s letting us know right away we are in this to see something beyond what we are immediately seeing. That is the point of this story and it’s clueing us into that right away and so deliberately. I find that really fascinating, but there are so many other things for that reason, you know? It begs the question: what is the deer, what is the room? Why are these specific things mentioned, like the dart board, for example, that gets brought up again? Every single thing that’s brought up in the room gets brought up again. What thoughts do we have on that? What are some of the details that really jumped out at us? What do we think they mean, beyond the vapor?

Elena L. Perez (14:17):
Well, to me, it was interesting, too, that you’re introduced to all these images at the beginning. Then at the end, they’re kind of obscured by…I’m not sure. The vapor or maybe the deer is misdirecting the boy’s attention or it’s the boy’s mind. But at the beginning, we’re introduced to the red and green cars. I think they’re red and green…red and gray. Then at the end, the boy just sees the red and gray blobs that he knows are there, but he’s not exactly sure what they are. I forgot where I was going with that, but I just thought that was interesting.

Marina Shugrue (15:03):
One of my favorite sentences in this is that ice cream scoop metaphor. I love that one so much, of the hunger between your ribs, getting scooped out like it’s ice cream is so…and what a perfect metaphor, too, to describe hunger with food, ultimately. It was fascinating. I just wanna call that one out. I don’t know that I have any other thoughts on how perfectly threaded through all of the images are, but just had to call that one out. ‘Cause it’s so good.

Matthew Maichen (15:41):
Yeah. I think it’s so interesting that…you know, all the time I get people saying to me, ‘oh, everything has been done. Everything. Every story has been told’. But we keep getting things like this that are just simultaneously so different and so perfectly executed. It’s really worth noting. Sometimes, I think it’s not that everything has been done, it’s that everything that can be easily understood has been done. This is definitely a story that you have to meet halfway to really start to appreciate it. I find that so interesting, you know, and it’s something worth commenting on.

Melissa Reynolds (16:33):
While we’re still in the symbolism part, I would like to tackle the deer because it is also a symbol. It’s not just an animal. It’s also taken to be gracefulness, when you think about it. As we were talking, I looked it up, the symbolism behind deer, and one of of them is awareness of surroundings, unconditional love, and mindfulness. I thought it was interesting that this deer is chosen to be the one that’s a threat to the boy. I am not sure if maybe, you know, someone who’s supposed to provide unconditional love—like a parent—is the one that is actually a threat to the boy in the real world but I really think that connection is very interesting.

Marina Shugrue (17:26):
That makes me think of the one sentence, ‘when can I go? Whenever you can stand without me goring you. If you leave before then I’ll gore you’. That’s also totally fascinating to me ’cause I don’t know if it makes the deer an antagonist necessarily, but it does…with that sentence it’s almost like the onus is on the boy to figure out when is it safe to leave or move on or do this? It almost paints the boy as his own antagonist in that way, right? It’s a strange window into an internal conflict, even though it’s kind of told externally. In a weird way, that kind of shines that light on, like, ‘you’re gonna end this situation of your own making’, I think.

Elena L. Perez (18:15):
Which kind of goes back to the vapor. It’s like this invisible barrier, almost. And yet the deer is kind of the manifestation of that barrier, as you were saying. My favorite line is probably…he says something like, ‘what are you? And the deer says, I’m a watch deer’. I just love that because, first of all, I haven’t ever heard of a watch deer, so that’s funny to me, but also it’s, like you were saying, Marina, you’re not sure if the deer is antagonistic or if the deer is watching in a good way. You don’t think of deer as aggressive, but to see him aggressive like this or passively aggressive, I suppose. It’s just an intriguing image that I really loved.

Matthew Maichen (19:14):
Yeah. Because the threat of, ‘if you stand, I’ll gore you’ is not…the tone of it…you can see it in the writing, which, you know, that’s the incredibleness of the writing. You read this sentence and you can just see that it doesn’t sound like a threat. It sounds like a statement of fact and you’re left with that ambiguity and that’s why we’re responding to it that way because it feels like this objective reality of, ‘if you stand, you will get gored’.

Elena L. Perez (19:55):
It’s like a catch 22, right? You have to know you can’t stand because you’re gonna get gored, but then you have to know when to stand. It’s so great.

Matthew Maichen (20:06):
Another question. I wanted to talk about the very few but very present references to the audience that is either reading the story or observing this. There is some second person that shows up in this. It’s very slight. It appears for a very limited time, only a few sentences. Then at the bottom, further down, there is a reference to an audience that is gasping at the boy. We’re not really supposed to have our attention drawn to the audience that much, but we’re kind of told—hinted at and then told objectively—that it’s there. That this is being observed. My read on it was that it’s an acknowledgement of the people reading the story, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the correct way to interpret it. That’s just the way I saw it. I’m curious about that. Are we being told that we’re participating in this story, in a way? What are we being told by this inclusion of an audience?

Marina Shugrue (21:34):
I have so many thoughts on this. Speaking of the ending in particular, where we’re suddenly introduced to this idea of the audience—I know you kind started with the sprinkling in of the “you” earlier, but this part is fascinating to me. For those of you listening, obviously you can’t see, but if you go to the piece—we’ll link it in our post—that ending paragraph where we’re introduced to the audience is in parentheticals. It immediately made me think of stage direction. That it was a play. And it gave me such “Waiting for Godot” vibes. All of a sudden I was like, ‘oh, this is something we’re really watching’. I’m so fascinated by it. The whole thing does have this sort of voyeuristic vibe to it, too. I think that is what the early second person addressees kind of give you. You’re kind of suddenly like, ‘oh, I’m involved, but in a weird way. Am I also in this room? I don’t really know.’ And then it’s that ending that is like, ‘oh yeah, I’ve been in the room the whole time because I’m watching it play out in front of me’. I love it.

Elena L. Perez (22:51):
Yeah. For me it definitely felt like a TV set with a live audience, because at the end…that end paragraph that you’re talking about, Marina, it talks about the lights. The lights in the room go far too high, so…blinding. Being an actor on the stage, having the lights on you, you can’t see the audience. That reminded me of the vapor in a way, which I thought was cool. Going back to this “you”, it also reminded me of kind of being…Marina, you were saying the audience is kind participating in it. It also reminded me of a police interrogation room where, you know, the boy and the deer are in this room with this one way mirror and the audience is on the other side, so the boy doesn’t know that they’re there, but we can see everything that’s happening. I guess—I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it—but then the lights go on and then the boy sees the audience behind the mirror. Maybe that’s when he knows, you know, that it’s time to leave. But I love this paragraph too, because it so vivid, especially compared to the rest of it where we’re just lost in this vapor. Now suddenly we have a kind of concrete image to hold onto.

Melissa Reynolds (24:15):
And to bring up the ending because, Matthew, you mentioned it, but then we didn’t really discuss it. It makes me think of the lady and the tiger a little bit in that we’re left wondering, well, ‘is he or isn’t he going to stand’? I usually am not all for those types of endings, but for this one, it works for me because there is never a sign that tells us that the boy even knows when the right time to stand is. That ambiguity is throughout the whole piece, rather than it just being thrown in at the last minute as a cheap trick to get us to be like, ‘ah, darn it’. It felt earned to me, so I really like that aspect.

Elena L. Perez (25:05):
I agree. I think part of that—I was thinking about this too, and I wanted to bring it up. I think part of that is because it’s told in the present tense, so you have that tension building throughout the whole story until the end. You’re there with the boy, you know, deciding right along with him, ‘is this the right time? I think it is, I’m gonna do it. And you know, I don’t care if I’m gored or not’. Because it’s in the present tense, the reader, the audience, is involved in the decision.

Matthew Maichen (25:36):
Yeah. I wanna just say one last thing. You accused yourself of maybe overthinking this story. I don’t know if you really can do that. I think there’s a lot…

Elena L. Perez (25:50):
That’s probably fair.

Matthew Maichen (25:50):
There’s a lot going on here. Let’s move on to the third phase because we we’ve spent a long time talking about this and I can tell that Sam is actually quite eager to speak to us. So, the first question we always ask is what does it feel like hearing us talk about this story as if you aren’t there? What is your impression of our thoughts and how does it feel and how does it connect to you and resonate with you, I guess?

Sam Asher (26:30):
That’s a great question. First, can I come back every week and hear you talk about my stuff ’cause it’s lovely. Honestly with this piece in particular, as you have all very astutely mentioned—much more astutely than I think I could—there’s a lot of stuff going on. There’s a lot of intentional threading through of things. I remember when I was writing the piece to begin with being very unsure how much of that was gonna come across or whether or not it would just seem like total nonsense. I’m very much a ‘pantser’ as a writer. I don’t usually know where I’m going or what I’m doing. I often start with a sentence and I’ll just go from there until I have decided to stop. There was a lot more intentionality in the piece than I usually employ with [inaudible] and what have you? The experience of being able to hear obviously very well-read, very intelligent people talk about something you’ve written is unique and very enjoyable-slash-slightly terrifying, to be honest. So yeah, I’ll come back anytime.

Matthew Maichen (27:38):
Thank you. So, uh…

Elena L. Perez (27:41):
Before we move on, I just wanted to comment that it’s interesting that you say that this story was very planned because it does feel like it was planned, but at the same time, it doesn’t. It feels very organic and spontaneous at the same time. You did a really good job of keeping that spontaneity. So, I really love that.

Sam Asher (27:59):
Thank you. That’s exactly what I was going for, so that is lovely to hear. Thank you very much.

Elena L. Perez (28:05):

Matthew Maichen (28:06):
Thank you. Since you mentioned that it was very planned, I think this flows really well into the first question I was planning on asking you. Knowing that this isn’t the objective way to interpret the story, no matter what Sam answers here, right? Is this story…was it originally intended to be a metaphor for any one thing or is it just this purely abstract art that you created? What are your thoughts on that?

Sam Asher (28:41):
Um, a great question. It’s more…a little bit of both, to be perfectly honest. I definitely was…so somebody early on mentioned the idea of inherited trauma—I think Elena mentioned it—and that was very much what I was thinking about when I was going for the more direct, intentional metaphorical aspect. But there was also definitely a part of me that that thought, ‘well, I’m just gonna write this and come up with weird shit as I’m writing’ because I really wanted to make this one of those kind of pieces that it took me a while to understand as well as the reader to understand. I wanted to be writing it and be figuring it out myself as I was going, which was a really wonderful, kind of unique experience, to be honest. So, yeah, it really was definitely metaphorical intentionality in mind when I started out and then I just kind of let it go where it took me until I was able to kind of loop the aspects I had planned in. So, half and half, I guess. Half and half.

Matthew Maichen (29:51):
And thank you for that because I think there are…personally, I think there’s too few written pieces like that these days. I feel like everything…so much stuff is designed to be so digestible these days, because that makes it easy to read but what you did with this was you very effectively got across an emotion without us fully understanding what was going on. There’s a lot to praise about that. I really do appreciate that. I’m really impressed by it as a writer myself, honestly. You really pulled that off.

Sam Asher (30:31):
Thank you. That’s wonderful to hear. I’m never sure as I’m…particularly with this story as I was writing it, I really couldn’t figure out if it was good or just absolute garbage. Even when I finished it, I thought I’m pretty sure this is good, but also it might be terrible. It really was bewildering to me.

Marina Shugrue (30:49):
That sounds like the writer’s curse, too, though, where you’re like, ‘I think this is alright, but also this might be the worst thing I’ve ever written. So, we’ll see’.

All (30:56):

Sam Asher (30:58):

Matthew Maichen (30:59):
Yeah. And I think that’s something that is really helpful for people to hear because I think that a lot of people who are novice writers, who are starting out, I think that they don’t realize that, you know, people like Sam who write really, really well-executed pieces, also question themselves and are, like, ‘uh, maybe this is bullshit. I don’t know.’ Really it’s not, but you don’t know that necessarily while you’re writing it.

Sam Asher (31:31):
Absolutely. I wish everybody could see me nodding and how hard I’m nodding. I…um…

Matthew Maichen (31:34):

Sam Asher (31:37):
…imposter syndrome is a huge part of my existence as a writer. I am…I spend maybe one minute a day thinking ‘maybe I’m okay at this’ and I spend the other minutes of the day thinking, ‘God, I’m terrible’. Whenever I have any success, which, you know, I’m very grateful for, but I always think somehow the success is a mistake. No matter [if it’s] a grant or a fellowship or a publication or anything, I’m always like, ‘ah, but they’re gonna realize in a minute that actually I’m terrible’. You know? So no, that…sorry to say that never goes away. Never.

Matthew Maichen (32:10):
Well, thank you for admitting that.

Melissa Reynolds (32:12):
I relate to that so much, too. I look around in my classroom and I’m, like, any minute now they’re gonna figure out that I shouldn’t be here and they’re gonna kick me out, so…

All (32:21):

Melissa Reynolds (32:23):
I think that it’s something…maybe it’s something about creative people or just writers in general. I think, after talking with you guys, it sounds like it’s a lot more common than I realized. Somehow maybe that’ll help with the imposter syndromes. Like, ‘hey, shut up. Everyone feels this way and you can have an answer to it.’

Sam Asher (32:43):
I think to some degree, it’s healthy. If I ever meet a writer or a creative person who thinks they know everything, then typically I run the other way as fast as I possibly can. I think the imposter syndrome is what keeps me with the beginner’s mindset, like I don’t know anything. I’m constantly trying to learn. I—God, I bother my much more talented writer friends constantly with advice and opinions. I think, again, you just find the balance. Imposter syndrome is good to a certain point and then it just brushes you down very sadly.

Matthew Maichen (33:16):
Yeah. I was gonna ask…so this is a related question to the last one that I asked and hopefully this doesn’t feel like it’s the same question. I’m curious where this story came from. What inspires you? You get this idea of, like, I’m going to write a story about a deer watching a boy sitting in a chair in this surreal room where there’s vapor everywhere. Where does that come from in this case?

Sam Asher (33:54):
Well, hearing it back, I have no idea. What a strange thing to come up with. Um…

All (34:02):

Sam Asher (34:03):
I used to…I’m sober now. I don’t drink or drugs or anything anymore, but I used to spend a lot of time, when I would be at my in-laws house, I would sit in the garage and in the garage, there was a gray car, a red car, and a dartboard. When I was there, I always used to try and kind of hide the amount I was drinking, to be completely transparent. I would go in there and I would sit and I would drink in the garage. It almost became this kind of slightly transformative space for me. I got very reflective about it. Thinking about the idea of, as we talked about, inherited trauma, and the ideas of trying to grow up in a less physical and more kind of emotional and psychological sense. The deer actually came about…it was a very uninteresting reason. My in-laws live in Maine. A great deal of deer in Maine. They make horrible, horrible nighttime noises. I don’t know you’ve ever heard a deer before, but if a deer hears a person coming into its territory, it screams this blood-curdling, horror movie scream. I thought, ‘God, that would be a really scary thing to put in front of a kid’. And then that was really where the deer came from. I hope it’s not too disappointing an answer, but, um, very everyday.

Marina Shugrue (35:37):
That’s fascinating. And congratulations on your sobriety, too. That’s amazing.

Sam Asher (35:41):
Thank you very much.

Matthew Maichen (35:43):
Yeah. The one thing I thought I saw in this, to be totally honest, was the presence of addiction. I just felt it laced through the thing like this weird lack of control of your circumstances. I’m not sure whether that’s inherent or intentional. I guess that is a question. Is that inherent or intentional?

Sam Asher (36:15):
I think when you are somebody who is sober or who has been through addiction issues, it often comes through whether you intend it to or not, to be honest. It becomes a big part of your personality and therefore your work. Something that somebody else very astutely touched upon is the fact that, you know, it was his choice as to when to stand up. The deer didn’t didn’t ever say, ‘well, you can stand up in two hours and 15 minutes’. It was, ‘well, when you’re ready to, you can stand up and if you stand up too early, then I’m gonna gore the fuck out of you’. Pardon my horrible language. Again, very much kind of reflected my own experience with emotional maturity, sobriety. I think that subject of addiction and sobriety, it runs through most of my work. This was much more of a direct metaphorical take on that, as much as ‘direct metaphorical’ doesn’t make any sense at all.

All (37:14):

Elena L. Perez (37:14):
But it works so well. [laughs].

Sam Asher (37:15):
I appreciate it.

Matthew Maichen (37:18):
I guess you already answered this question. I was gonna ask you, what is your writing process like, but you said that you’re more of a ‘pantser’. For those who aren’t familiar, since that is a weird term and there are some people who don’t know it, ‘pantser’ means that you fly by the seat of your pants as opposed to plotting things out. It’s kind of a modern writer community term. As opposed to plotters who tend to outline everything. So, when you say ‘pantser’, though, how ‘by the seat of your pants’ do you normally fly? How do these store generally get written?

Sam Asher (38:03):
I think I’m about as far to the ‘pantser’ side of the scale as it gets, to be honest. I typically start out with either a single scene or a single sentence a general message that I’m trying to get across. I think it helps a lot [that] I write almost always in first person present tense. I’m essentially just kind of… all of my drafts start out as basically a first-person stream of consciousness exercise almost. I typically will just kind of take that until I feel like I’ve hit the point that I wanted to hit or I’ve achieved the kind of narrative arc I wanted to achieve. I do [it] without thinking about it. I don’t edit as I go at all. I don’t go back to any previous parts, even if I know they’re terrible. I’ll just sit there and know that they’re terrible, which is kind of painful. I don’t do anything. I don’t do any planning. I don’t do any forethought, really at all, until I get to the end and then I’ll go through and be like, ‘ah, okay, this doesn’t make any sense because I didn’t give it any planning or forethought at all’. So, yeah, I’d say 99% ‘pantser’ with one little percent of plotter that comes in at the end to fix all of the ‘pantser’s’ mistakes.

Elena L. Perez (39:20):
I have a follow up question to that. How do you know when a story is done? How do you know when the first draft is done? How do you know, when you go back and revise it, when it’s done? How does that work for you?

Sam Asher (39:33):
The flippant answer I usually give to this question is it’s done when the protagonist is dead. But, honestly, as much as this is a very…this isn’t a satisfying answer at all, but it’s usually just a sense of this is where the story needs to end. Often I don’t know that I’ve reached that point until it happens. I’ll finish a paragraph or a sentence, have a vague idea of what I want it to be, and I think, ‘oh, I’m pretty sure that’s the end’ and I’ll stop. I usually step away for a couple of weeks. I don’t…once that first draft is finished, it goes in a drawer or a metaphorical drawer and I’ll come back to it and I might reassess whether or not the end was correct in which case I might have to plot out something a little more specific. But typically it’s done when I think it’s done, which is not helpful to anybody looking for advice. The teacher in me wants to say, ‘well, if you read a lot of fiction, you will start to intuitively recognize where great writers end their stories’. Hopefully, that kind of lizard brain part of you knows that, as well, and it kind of just stops you. It’s like, ‘shut up, you’re done. You’re finishedd. Have a cup of tea’.

Matthew Maichen (40:41):
That’s awesome. I really like you saying that and hearing that from you, because I’m gonna say something that I hear a lot that is very cynical, that I don’t believe. The common refrain about stories like “Deer, Boy, Chair” is that they are very pretentious because the author is hiding things from you and making you figure it out instead of just saying them, and it’s intentionally obscure and they’re trying to mess with you. I think it’s really helpful to hear that, you know, that’s not always the case. This is an honest expression of this dreamlike emotion and art that you sought to create. There’s no pretense in it. This is what it is.

Sam Asher (41:36):
Yes. I mean, I very much didn’t set out thinking I’m gonna confuse everybody and show everybody how smart I am. You know, I’ve read James Joyce. I’ve definitely been reading a book and thought, ‘he’s just trying to look clever. What a prick’. So, I do try not to do that. But no, this was very much…it was just…I’m trying to explain this feeling, this time in my life, the atmosphere I was in. And…

Matthew Maichen (42:00):
Thank you.

Sam Asher (42:01):
…it came across weird.

Matthew Maichen (42:04):
No, it’s fine. Coming across weird clearly got you published in the first place. [laughs] So, one of the things that we were impressed by when we saw your submission, actually, was that you were in the Clarion Workshop which, for those who do not know, that is a very, very exclusive, mostly science fiction-esque based program that takes very few members per year. It’s very impressive to be a Clarion writer and be able to say that. I wanted to ask you about that a little bit. You don’t have to spill the secrets of it, but how did that help you refine your ideas and your writing, the Clarion workshop?

Sam Asher (43:04):
First, to get in, you do have to sacrifice a number of children. Um…

Matthew Maichen (43:12):

Sam Asher (43:12):
Also, my Clarion experience has been an odd one. I was admitted into the class of 2020, which was peak beginning of COVID.

Matthew Maichen (43:21):
Oh boy.

Sam Asher (43:22):
Then it was rescheduled for 2021, and then it kind of moved to a hybrid online model briefly, and then there was a kind of independent Clarion workshop organized in the north of California. Now I’ve had this two year long, drip-fed Clarion experience. It’s been very lucky, honestly. I’ve spent a lot of time now working with, or stealing advice from, Karen Joy Fowler, who’s a member of the foundation. She’s a wonderful writer. Sam J. Miller, who wrote “Blackfish City”, one of our instructors. I plagiarize his ideas—his philosophy, his brain, his genius—all the time. To go back to the imposter syndrome thing, the thing with having gotten into Clarion, having been around these wonderful writers and teachers for so long is that I always think that everybody who goes to Clarion is a wonderful writer, except for myself. At some point, everyone’s gonna find out that I shouldn’t have been there. I hesitate sometimes to include my Clarion experience in cover letters, because I think people are gonna have lofty expectations. ‘Cause Clarion is a wonderful program—wonderful teachers, wonderful writers have come out of there. I feel like people are gonna expect Sam Miller or Karen Yoy Fowler and then get Sam Asher, who’s not nearly as good. Sorry, I’ve completely forgotten if I’ve addressed your question or not or ir if I’ve just been talking about Clarion for 10 minutes.

Matthew Maichen (44:59):
The question was talk about Clarion. So, you did it. [laughs] I find that…yeah, it’s really interesting—fortuntate/ unfortunate—your experience. I guess you got to be there longer, so that’s cool.

Sam Asher (45:19):
Yeah. So, I mean, technically everybody who was in that 2020 class, because our experience has been so odd, kind of have an open invitation to go back at any point and relive it the original way. The thing I’ve been so lucky in is that twelve of my, I think, eighteen student cohort, we are just tremendously good friends at this point. We have a super active WhatsApp group and we are each other’s biggest cheerleaders. We all, a bunch of us, got matching tattoos last summer.

Matthew Maichen (45:55):

Sam Asher (45:57):
Yeah, I…here I can…

Elena L. Perez (45:59):
That’s really awesome.

Sam Asher (46:00):
My arm, you see. Because we were kind of the class that never was. We all got…they call us the ghost class, so we all got ghost tattoos.

Matthew Maichen (46:10):

Sam Asher (46:10):
Various, Yeah. Um…

Elena L. Perez (46:12):
That’s so cool.

Sam Asher (46:13):
So, I’ve had the most unique Clarion experience possible. I wouldn’t change it, to be honest. If I’d have just gone in 2020 and had that six week window, I’m sure it would’ve been magnificent. But one of the people I met in Clarion is my daughter’s godmother. I mean, anybody interested in short fiction, speculative fiction, or just having a wonderful time, should apply. If I can get in, anybody can get in is really the way I think about it.

Matthew Maichen (46:40):
I doubt that because my honest response to seeing, ‘I’m a Clarion writer’ in the cover letter was like, ‘oh man, I have expectations’. And then I read the story and I was like, ‘oh, expectations met’. Once again, your imposter syndrome is striking, but that’s okay. I find it really interesting—and thank you for sharing that with me—because it shows…I wanna voice my takeaway from this for all the writers who are listening: a writing group is really such an important thing. It is so vital. Having friends who are writers and people you can connect to who are writers. It’s really unfortunate that sometimes it feels like you have to roll the dice and you either get it or you don’t, but it is such a helpful thing if you find it.

Sam Asher (47:37):
Absolutely. The most helpful thing for me, to be perfectly honest, for two reasons: one that they’re wonderfully talented and to surround yourself with talented people, it just kind of leaches into you like osmosis, but second, it’s because you have this group of supporters who you support in turn, who know exactly what you’re going through. They know what rejection feels like. ‘Cause rejection is such a huge part of the industry. For every acceptance, I get twenty rejections, and to have other people who I know and love know exactly how that feels is just a really remarkable thing. If you can find the right writer’s group—sometimes it’s not a good fit—but if you can find a good fit, it will change your whole writing life, I think. Clarion’s a great way to do that. Again, apply. Everybody apply. Tell them I sent you.

Matthew Maichen (48:26):
Awesome. I was gonna ask, then, you say you submit a lot of places. For every twenty places you submit, you get one rejection. It’s okay if the answer is just because it was another place, but what drew you to submit to The Metaworker?

Sam Asher (48:50):
Oh, that’s a great question. I actually, um, this was the first place I submitted this piece.

Matthew Maichen (48:53):

Elena L. Perez (48:55):
We’re so flattered. That’s amazing.

Sam Asher (48:59):
I have my usual kind of roster of magazines I apply to: Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, etc. When I finished the story, I was kind of looking for a likely venue or a venue that seemed the right kind of fit. Somebody, I don’t remember who—I wish I did so I could call them out and thank them—somebody recommended The Metaworker and said, ‘I think, actually, they’d be a really good fit for this’.

Elena L. Perez (49:26):
Oh, wow.

Sam Asher (49:26):
Thankfully, they were right. I was delighted to get the acceptance and be working with you all ’cause, you know, it’s been lovely and you’ve all made me feel wonderful about the story today. That’s great.

Elena L. Perez (49:42):
That’s amazing.

Matthew Maichen (49:44):
That means so much to us because I guess we have our own imposter syndrome, you know. It still feels so weird that writers could recommend us to other writers as a place of publication. That’s just…that’s so cool.

Sam Asher (50:02):
Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think you [inaudible] modest. Sound like I’m boasting, but more for your sake. You know, the two publications around this one were the Mid-American Review and Apex. Both very good, very grand, prestigious—whatever—magazines. And I was just as happy to find it’s home here.

Elena L. Perez (50:23):

Sam Asher (50:23):
It’s more about this story finding the right home. I don’t care about the…pieces belong in certain places, I think, and this piece very much felt like it belonged with you and I’m so glad that you all agreed. I had been slightly heartbroken for a little while, so.

Matthew Maichen (50:39):
Thank you.

Elena L. Perez (50:40):
Aw, that, that means so much. That’s so wonderful to hear. Like Matthew said, it’s kind of our own version of imposter syndrome. Sometimes it doesn’t…you’re not sure if you’re making a difference and…yeah, just to hear that you were recommended this and you thought this was the perfect home. That means a lot. So, thank you.

Sam Asher (50:58):
Well, thank you. I know how difficult running a magazine is. I know how thankless it can seem sometimes. I mean, on behalf of all the writers you are doing this for, thank you very, very much. We don’t exist without you.

Elena L. Perez (51:11):
And vice versa.

Matthew Maichen (51:12):
Yeah. And vice versa. When we first started out, we got so few submissions that we had to publish our own writing to fill in the slots. We weren’t doing it out of any vanity or, like, ‘oh, I’m gonna publish my own stuff’. No, we were doing it because it’s, like, ‘what are we gonna publish? It’s funny ’cause we’ve gotten this huge rise in submissions over the years. Despite everything, there would be no magazine if those submissions didn’t exist. Thank you. So, should we open up some of the audience questions that we’ve gotten? We’ve gotten two so far. I’m gonna truncate this just a little bit because these questions are worded in a very interesting way. Almost poetic in the way that they’re worded themselves. The first question is: what was the inspiration to your strategy of unifying the themes of diction? Oof! Um, you can think about that one if you want.

Sam Asher (52:31):
Yeah…I have absolutely no idea. That’s a much smarter question than I’m able to answer, I think.

Marina Shugrue (52:37):
I think it probably goes back a little bit to being a ‘pantser’, too. Right? Maybe you weren’t thinking about it at the time, but it did come out naturally, this kind of unifying voice and unifying metaphors. Threads, maybe.

Sam Asher (52:51):
I mean, I’m sure subconsciously something was hopefully working in there, but consciously I don’t think I could offer any kind of satisfying answer to that question. I’m not smart enough. Whoever asked that question, you’re much smarter than I am. Good job.

Matthew Maichen (53:07):
Very interesting questions. I’m going to truncate the second one, too. Hopefully, this is a little bit easier. How does your pain inspire your writing?

Sam Asher (53:25):
Ooh. God. Great question. I try not to talk about it too much because I don’t wanna sound like a cliche. The tortured writer. Man. I mean, honestly that’s a great deal of where my work comes from. I think for writing to work, for stories to work, you need to connect to the reader who only has X amount of time in their day to read something. For a reader to read something you’ve written, that’s a real act of faith and love on their part. And I think it’s a writer’s job to deliver something that is honest and interesting, but potentially meaningful. In my experience, the easiest way to do that is to write from a place of personal trauma or collective trauma or anxieties, fears, whatever else. So, yeah, it’s a big part of what I write. My wife often comments on the fact that often my protagonists are men with dead wives. She wonders if I’m gonna kill her off at some point. Truth is actually, I’m just, you know, I’m terrified that something might happen to her at some point. That comes out in my writing. I can write that fear very effectively, ’cause it’s a real fear. When my daughter was born, a lot of my fiction became about the fear of being a father. About fear of not living up, the fear of something happening to her. So yeah, if you write from that kind of place, of a real, authentic, genuine concern, I think it shows respect to the reader. I’m giving you my real sensation, my real emotion, and hopefully it makes it worth their time. Or maybe that was a very pretentious answer and I just write ’cause I’m sad. Who knows?

Marina Shugrue (55:15):
Yeah, that was beautiful. Thank you.

Matthew Maichen (55:17):
Well, thank you so much. I’m personally out of questions to ask other than our last one that we usually ask. You have already mentioned quite a few name of other writers. Is there anything in particular in the literary world right now that you would call out and give a shout-out to and recommend that people look at?

Sam Asher (55:51):
Oh God, I could go for days.

Matthew Maichen (55:53):

Sam Asher (55:53):
If you’re unfamiliar with the Voodoonauts and what they do, please check them out. They’re magical. FIYAH, the magazine, had their own festival this year doing wonderful, magical things. Um…

Elena Perez (56:09):
I’m wearing their shirt right now.

Sam Asher (56:11):
That’s so amazing. I love that so much. There’s so many young wonderful writers who are coming up at the moment and putting me to shame. I think if I could press upon people that need to do anything right now, it’s to branch out of the work they’re used to because there is so much wonderful work coming out in the spheres of like, um, Afrofuturism, so much wonderful trans work being written at the moment, which just does not get the attention or the love it deserves. And that’s really kind of heartbreaking. So, Voodoonauts, for sure. FIYAH!! for sure. Don’t just read the big literary magazines and support the wonderful, talented, amazing writers who just don’t get the time or the love that they need. Sorry to everybody I know who I could be talking about right now, but I would run out and I’d miss one of you and then you’d be mad at me and I would never forget about it.

Elena L. Perez (57:14):
No, that’s great. I think that’s totally…reading the small magazines is definitely important and FIYAH just became a Hugo winning magazine, too. So, it started small, but now it’s one of the big ones. So, yeah. Read the small ones, make ’em big.

Sam Asher (57:30):
FIYAH is a total inspiration.

Elena L. Perez (57:31):

Sam Asher (57:32):
I love everything that they’ve done. It’s just ridiculous how talented and hardworking and committed they all are. So, yeah. Please check them out. Just for my benefit, if not anything else.

Matthew Maichen (57:43):
To kind of tie back to a previous episode, if people haven’t heard it, we did have a trans author here a while back and her recommendations—oh my gosh, there was so much and with so much enthusiasm, too. I think, you know, it’s great that so many diverse voices are out there now. But you have to put effort into seeking them out because of the crowded media landscape, unfortunately. If you wanna find them it’s worth putting that effort in.

Sam Asher (58:19):
Absolutely. It definitely…you know, it’s more difficult than just walking out of Barnes and Noble and picking up a copy of, you know, [inaudible]. But if you do put that little extra work in, the rewards are so grand and it is absolutely worth it. It really is.

Elena L. Perez (58:34):

Matthew Maichen (58:35):
Well, thank you. I think that’s about that’s about it. So, thank you, also for the audience showing up and listening to this. Really cool.

Elena L. Perez (58:51):
Thank you, Sam, so much for being here with us. This was an amazing conversation and thank you for sending your work to us.

Sam Asher (58:58):
Thank you for having me. It was good.

Matthew Maichen (59:00):
All right. Have an excellent day, everyone.

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