Interview With an Author and Editor: Rob Costello

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Rob Costello and his short story collection, The Dancing Bears: Queer Fables for the End Times

Rob Costello (he/him) writes contemporary and speculative fiction with a queer bent for and about young people. He’s the author of the forthcoming short story collection The Dancing Bears: Queer Fables for the End Times. His stories have appeared in The Dark, The NoSleep Podcast, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, Narrative, and Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America. An alumnus of the Millay Colony of the Arts, Rob holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has served on the faculty of the Highlights Foundation since 2014. He lives in upstate New York with his husband and their four-legged overlords. His new anthology is We Mostly Come Out at Night: 15 Queer Tales of Monsters, Angels & Other Creatures and he recently talked with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for We Mostly Come Out at Night?

As a horror fan and writer, I’ve always been fascinated by monsters. Moreover, as a gay man, I’ve also weirdly identified with them. To me, monsters are inherently queer. After all, they are the ultimate Other, creatures whose inborn nature disrupts the status quo, threatening the rules and mores of so-called “normal” life. Vilified for the crime of simply existing, like Frankenstein’s Monster or Swamp Thing they inevitably find themselves cast out of society, treated as abominations and forced to live in the shadows or be hunted and destroyed.

As a closeted baby gay coming of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic in Reagan’s America, it was hard not to relate to all of that.

Flash forward to the past few years of reactionary MAGA backlash hell-bent on demonizing queer and trans folks all over again. We all know the slurs: groomers, degenerates, predators, etc. These attacks have hit queer and trans teens especially hard since they face the brunt of the book and medical bans across the country. It seemed to me that if the bigots wanted to cast us as monsters so badly, why not embrace that label and lean into it? After all, monsters are fearsome, strong, powerful, and dangerous. Thus, the idea for We Mostly Come Out at Night was to create a collection of monster stories for young readers where the monsters served as positive and empowering symbols for the Otherness of being queer. If they’re going to call us monsters anyway, why not be the most beautiful, heroic, compassionate, loving, confident, and fabulous monsters we can be?

What was your process for putting together this collection? Did you ask writers for stories that fit your theme, open up a submission process, or did you approach it in a different way?

The process began with drafting the proposal. I worked with my agent, the amazing Marie Lamba, to craft a compelling pitch. I then drew up a wishlist of around 75 or so queer and trans writers as possible contributors. Some were friends or acquaintances, but most were just people whose work I admired. Although the book is about monsters, it’s not, strictly speaking, a horror anthology, so I didn’t limit myself to horror or even speculative writers. I knew I wanted the stories to reflect a variety of styles and tones, and I felt it was critically important to strike the right balance of representation. This helped me whittle the wishlist down to a shortlist, and I began to send out invitations. That was probably the most challenging part of the process since, at that point, we didn’t have a publisher on board yet, so I was asking people to trust me and my vision as an untested anthologist. Eventually, the table of contents came together. A couple of writers graciously lent me stories to use as samples (though neither ended up in the book). My own contribution got bundled with these samples into the final proposal that went on submission to editors. It wasn’t until after we agreed to an offer from Britny Perilli at Running Press Kids that I actually began to discuss with each contributor the monster they wanted to write about. I’m very proud of the fact that all of the stories in We Mostly Come Out at Night were written specifically for this book.

Your contribution to We Mostly Come Out at Night is about extraterrestrials. Are they your favorite classic monster or cryptid? What drew you to write about them for your anthology? If aliens aren’t your favorite, what is?

As I mentioned, I grew up in the 80s, so between Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I think I had a fascination with aliens hardwired into my brain from an early age. I don’t know that I would call them my favorite monsters (I’m not sure I have a single favorite), but they’re certainly the ones I most closely associate with my childhood—in a really fun and positive way. I think that’s why I chose them for my story. I normally write pretty dark and edgy stuff, but for this anthology, I wanted to contribute something lighter, funnier, and more hopeful. For me, that meant writing about aliens.

Do you have a favorite classic monster or cryptid story (novels, films, or television)? A least favorite? One that is so bad it is fun?

While it’s hard for me to pick a favorite, I am kind of obsessed with the old Toho Studios’ Kaiju movies from the 50s and 60s featuring Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla. Most of those films are objectively not great cinema, but they are so much fun to watch! While I enjoy the new Hollywood versions, too, and I’m dying to see Godzilla Minus One, which I missed when it was in theaters, nothing beats the sheer bonkers delight of the originals.

Is there a theme/idea for another anthology that you would like to pursue or wish you had pursued in the past (and can talk about)?

While I have a couple of non-monster-related anthology proposals currently out on submission that I can’t talk about, I do have a pair of monster-themed ideas percolating that I would very much like to pursue someday. The first one, tentatively entitled Love and Kaiju, focuses on stories about enormous beasts like Kaiju, giants, and sea monsters that serve as metaphors for the big and overwhelming feelings queer and trans kids experience during adolescence. The second one, which I’m calling Unbeastly!, would use monster stories as a way to challenge and subvert the messages of toxic masculinity being spread to teenage boys in right-wing corners of social media and the Internet.

Alas, anthologies are a really tough sell in the current YA market, so Lord knows if either of these concepts will ever see the light of day. But a boy can dream…

Is there a common mis-perception about what you do as an Editor that you would like to explain/correct?

One thing I’ve learned from editing an anthology is that very few people have any perceptions at all about what anthology editors do. I certainly didn’t before I undertook this project. I will say that the biggest misperception I had going in was that it would be less work than writing a novel. Ha! I was disabused of that foolish notion double quick. While it’s a very different kind of creative labor than writing a novel, it’s no less challenging. It is, however, a lot more fun. Thanks to the amazing writers and publishing team at Running Press Kids, this has easily been the most enjoyable and rewarding creative experience of my life. I can confidently say I’m prouder of this book than anything I’ve ever done.

As an Editor, what do you wish writers, especially newer ones, knew or understood about the process of submitting a story for possible inclusion in an anthology on which you are working?

The risk with inviting contributors to a project like this, rather than opening things up to a competitive call for submissions, is that you really have no idea what you’re going to get or whether it will be suitable for the book. For the contributors, this can be risky, too. On the one hand, it’s flattering to be invited, and it means you won’t be writing purely on spec. But, on the other hand, it demands a certain level of openness to critical feedback since your first attempt at a story might not work out.

There were three different stories submitted to this project that I ultimately had to pass on, not because they were bad stories—quite the contrary, in fact!—but because, for various reasons, they didn’t fit the theme of the anthology. It’s a heartbreaking conversation to have with someone you respect who has spent weeks or months crafting a story that they care about only to be told it’s not going to work. In two of these cases, the writers were able to craft brand-new stories that made it into the final book. But sadly, in the third case, we had to amicably part ways. In all three instances, however, I was incredibly lucky that the writers were very professional and understood that it wasn’t at all personal or a negative reflection of their talent. I would eagerly work with all three again and would enthusiastically recommend them to other anthologists because of their exemplary professionalism.

So, if there’s one thing all writers should know going into a project like this, it’s that professionalism is essential. It’s the stuff that good reputations are built on.

Your biography says that you live in upstate New York with your husband and your "four-legged overlords." Can you tell us a bit about your masters?

Our very benevolent masters are named Billie and Silas. Billie is a senior longhaired American Staffordshire Terrier with a heart of gold and the sweetest, gentlest disposition of any dog I’ve ever known. Silas is a sight-impaired American Bully puppy who loves to destroy his toys and chase his older sister. Our lives pretty much revolve around their happiness—and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

About a dozen queer YA horror novels I’ve been digesting for an upcoming webinar I’m teaching at the Highlights Foundation. Beside these sits my teetering TBR pile. There are simply too many books and not enough time to read them all! I will say, however, at the very top of this pile rest my friend Corey Farrenkopf’s debut horror novel, Living in Cemeteries, as well as We Mostly Come Out at Night contributor Naomi Kanakia’s first adult novel, The Default World, which was just released by The Feminist Press. I’m determined to read both of them this summer.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Shirley Jackson is easily my favorite author of all time and also probably the one I consider the most influential. The Australian YA author Sonya Hartnett is a close second. After them, I would say Elizabeth Hand is an automatic read for me, as is Tananarive Due. For the final spot, I’ve spent the past five minutes trying to choose between Edith Wharton, Scott Heim, Margaret Atwood, and Alan Hollinghurst to no avail, so I’ll mention all four—even though that leaves me with eight picks total… Sorry! I’m terrible at narrowing down these kinds of ranked lists.

Can you name any influential editors?

Ellen Datlow is an inspiration to pretty much everyone who writes horror. She is easily the most influential anthology editor I know of. I admire her work a great deal.

More personally, I have to credit the influence of my very good friend and sometime collaborator, Nora Shalaway Carpenter, who basically taught me how to edit an anthology. In fact, it was Nora who gave me the anthology bug in the first place. As a contributor, I watched her edit her first collection, Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America, and realized this was something I really wanted to do myself. When the time came, I called her up, and she very generously shared with me everything she’d learned about assembling an anthology. It’s no exaggeration to say that We Mostly Come Out at Night would not exist without her inspiration and guidance. For that, I am forever grateful.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

That’s easy: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. Even now, it’s still one of my favorite books of all time and one I revisit every few years. I’ve always been a sucker for animal stories.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Like a lot of Gen Xers, I read a bunch of Stephen King at an inappropriately young age. I think I was maybe 11 or 12 when I first tackledThe Shining, for example. In retrospect, I doubt my parents would have cared much if they’d known—they were never strict about that sort of thing—but I remember feeling as if I were doing something forbidden. I hid the paperback I’d stolen from my mother’s bookshelf under my bed and would only dare to read it late at night after everyone had gone to sleep. Needless to say, I had a lot of nightmares as a kid.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Sure. More than one. But I’m not going to tell you what they are!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

For the longest time, I was obsessed with the original cover design for Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I remember that my local indie bookstore, Buffalo Street Books, had a table near the front door where they displayed the books for what seemed like months. At that point, I’d never heard of VanderMeer and had no idea what the books were about, but I was drawn to those amazing covers. Every time I visited that store, I found myself gawping at them until one day, I finally bit the bullet and bought Annihilation, the first in the trilogy. I read it straight through that night, was absolutely blown away, and went back the next day and got the other two. It just goes to show, once in a while you can judge a book by its cover.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim. It was the novel that first made me want to seriously pursue becoming a writer. It’s probably the single most influential book I’ve ever read. (It’s about gay boys and aliens, too; everything connects!) In fact, I invited Scott Heim to be a contributor to We Mostly Come Out at Night, but he demurred. I don’t think he considers himself a YA writer, which I totally respect. But I can see the seeds of Mysterious Skin in almost everything I’ve ever written.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve made it my mission in the life to get as many aspiring children’s writers as possible to read The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley. It’s my favorite book for young readers. I wrote my graduate thesis on it, it inspired my first novel, and I teach from it frequently. After Mysterious Skin, it’s the most influential book in my life.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Though there are many, the first thing that jumps to mind is Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence—all five books. I read them out of order the first time, which was a mistake. I don’t think I got the full experience that way. If I could go back in time, I would read them in sequence.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I recently watched this deep-sea, Alien-meets-Cthulhu knockoff called Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. My expectations going in were pretty low, but man, what an entertaining film! It’s the perfect B-movie: well made, well directed, with excellent special effects, a tight and propulsive script, and solid performances all around. Of course, Kristen Stewart was amazing. She can elevate even the schlockiest of material. Highly recommended.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’m a hardcore homebody, so just spending time at home with my husband is the perfect day for me. Maybe in the afternoon, we take our dogs to the park or visit a museum together, followed by a delicious dinner out at one of our favorite restaurants. Something very simple and quiet.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been?

What IP would you most like to write for?

What is your answer?

The Alien and/or Supernatural franchises. I want to put that out into the universe in case somebody at Fox or Warner Brothers notices. I would also really love to work with Mike Flanagan someday. I think he’s a genius.

What are you working on now?

I’m about to tackle final edits on my debut YA novel, An Ugly World for Beautiful Boys, coming from Lethe Press next April. I’m also working through my agent’s notes on my first MG ghost story, which we hope to go on submission with later this year. After that, I’ve just begun drafting an adult thriller that I’m co-writing with my good friend Jennifer Richard Jacobson. I’m also about two-thirds of the way through a gay, #metoo, haunted house novel set in the film business in 1978 that I’ve been working on for a few years now and hope to finish… someday.

I like to work on more than one project at a time!

Book cover of We mostly come out at night : 15 queer tales of monsters, angels & other creatures
We Mostly Come Out at Night: 15 Queer Tales of Monsters, Angels & Other Creatures