Lee Mandelo is the author of SUMMER SONS, FEED THEM SILENCE and the upcoming THE WOODS ALL BLACK. His work ranges across genres in speculative fiction and THE WOODS ALL BLACK especially skews to the literary end of the spectrum. He is vocal in his support for queer SFF, not only writing it, but also looking at it from a critic’s perspective for tor.com. We had the opportunity to chat with him ahead of THE WOODS ALL BLACK release to discuss the novella, writing and queer SFF.
[LM] Our tagline has been, “The Woods All Black is equal parts historical horror, trans romance, and blood-soaked revenge tale, all set in 1920s Appalachia.” But I’ve also been lovingly calling it my t4t monsterfucking book, so you’re not far off, honestly.
[GdM] Your work shifts between genres effortlessly. This is your third book, each of them vastly different. How has this affected your creative process?
[LM] The creative process stays steady, I think? Maybe because I’m largely genre agnostic. Meaning, I see genres not as strictly-boundaried categories but as loose, collective descriptions of plots, tropes, tendencies, themes, affects, and so on. Playing with (and between!) genres gives me room to draw on whatever elements best serve the story I’m telling—and sometimes to get weird with it. The gothic is already a hybrid genre, smashing together the literary with horror and romance. Why not keep messing around?
Also, I read widely—like, widely, everything from poetry to sf/horror to creative nonfiction to gay erotica to literary fiction to fanfic porn to critical theory, the list goes on. I’m always curious what else I might be able to learn from, draw on, be inspired by, or tackle next myself. Nothing better than reading a mind-blowingly good book and then saying, what the fuck, how’d they even do that?
[GdM] One of your biggest strengths across your work (in my opinion) is evoking atmosphere and writing strong protagonists. How do you approach stories and what sparks them?
[LM] For me, the characters fundamentally are the story. Without their desires, fears, beliefs, actions, and relationships driving the narrative… whatever plot I might have otherwise imagined would be dead on the page. So, I often focus on the emotional logic for how characters relate to each other and the world around them. The spark for a new project isn’t always a character, though. Sometimes the first twinge of what will become a story is a particular theme, or emotion, that I’d like to explore.
When it comes to crafting atmosphere, I’m a big fan of how the “feeling” genres like melodrama, horror, and erotica work on the audience’s bodily emotions. The more intensities I get to experience through art, the better, and I approach writing the same way. Also, for minoritized writers and artists, horror fiction often allows us to dramatize the visceral experiences of isolation, violence, and “being the Other” that we encounter within our daily lives.
[GdM] One thing that strikes me about THE WOODS ALL BLACK is its relationship to oppression. When reading, I initially got the impression that there were clear villains – from the perspective of Les and Stevie, at the very least. The more I consider villainy within the story, the more I realise that it is far more complex. Can you talk a bit about writing within a small, remote, community and the morals and mindset that stem from that?
[LM] I’m going to answer carefully to avoid major spoilers, but one of the novella’s central themes revolves around how complicity with systemic, structural violence is no less evil—and perhaps, ultimately, no less deserving of retribution—than enacting the violence through one’s own hands. If we’re talking genres, The Woods All Black draws partly from bash-back and rape revenge stories; in other words, “if they’re going to call you a monster, then show them your teeth.”
Considering the rising hatred and violence against trans/queer peoples we’re experiencing in the present, backed by both religious and state institutions, alongside denials of reproductive justice and the ongoing threat of white supremacy… the conflicts within The Woods All Black still feel, unfortunately, pretty evergreen.
[GdM] THE WOODS ALL BLACK has such a strong sense of place in the story, rooted in the vast unknown. What role do you see the natural world playing in how we conceive the uncanny?
[LM] Did you know that the Appalachians are older than the existence of bones? Older than the rings around Saturn, too. When you’re in those mountains you can feel the age of them pressing down, towering overhead, surrounding you on all sides. No wonder I find the natural world inextricable from the human experience, always deserving of our respect, and also fairly goddamn spooky. I’ve said it before about Summer Sons, but I’m never surprised by how broadly superstitious people from around these parts are.
On a craft level, I aim for concrete materiality when it comes to a story’s sense of place. The smallest details matter when it comes to how grounded a book feels, and uncanny weirdness grows best from otherwise-solid ground. Take, for example, cicadas. If you live somewhere with cicadas, their noise blends unremarkably into the soundscape of your summers… but if you aren’t used to cicadas, and you travel somewhere that has them, I’ve been told it hits the ear like endless screaming bugs you cannot turn down the volume on. Or, how strange I always find the landscape in California because the trees, grasses, and bushes are entirely alien compared to what I’m used to seeing.
[GdM] Both of your main characters are non-passing trans men, in today’s terms. I’d love to hear more about how Les and Stevie evolved throughout your creative process and why it is so important to make them read as women.
[LM] So, I’m actually going to deconstruct the question while answering the question—because it opens the door for me to talk about how The Woods All Black wrestles with gender and embodiment, plus the current tendency in American/Anglophone spaces toward straightforward identity categorizations.
Firstly, while Stevie could be understood in contemporary terms as a trans man… Les isn’t one! In the parlance of his time, Les considers himself an “invert,” which might best be translated over into today as a he/him dyke and-or-also butch. When Les juxtaposes his gender(ed) identity with Stevie’s throughout the novella, it demonstrates how they are both working with similar building blocks but are creating something different from one another. Les tries to read Stevie through his own gender/sexuality, but it doesn’t work because Stevie is—loosely speaking—more aptly considered a gay trans man. The friction between how each sees their own gender, how other people see them, and the genders of the people they’re usually attracted to causes tension for our protagonists. Productive tension, sure, but tension nonetheless! And that tension drove my creative process: exploring how we’ve always understood gender and sexuality and their strange interrelations expansively, since these conflicts are unresolvable. Plus, that’s not even getting into how Les wrestles with the expectations he’s onboarded around what kinds of women an invert like himself is “supposed” to pursue romantically and sexually, or how he’s supposed to perform with them.
Secondly, I’m going to trouble how “passing” arises here, or how these characters experience being read incorrectly as women in some circumstances by some people. (An essay for another time, but: the underlying implication with this approach would be that Les and Stevie “are” women merely “passing” as men, mascs, etc., and that is not the case.) For example, Stevie occupies his masculinity such that even Les—who spends all his nonwork time among other queer people—doesn’t clock him initially! One reason he’s been subjected to rape and public censure is that his maleness is otherwise unremarkable, and therefore intensely destabilizing. Even when he’s forced into the church, Stevie serves “boy in a dress” more than “woman.” The trouble only arises because his community knows how he was born. They know he’s trans, therefore no amount of living as the man he is could possibly change their minds. (Like, just go check the Twitter comments of the most jacked, bearded, stereotypically-masc-and-unclockable trans man you can find, and they will be filled with people calling him “she.”) Presentation for Les is more complicated by the gender-fuck space that inversion inherently occupies. As someone who perceives himself to be “a woman with the soul of a man,” woman isn’t outside of what he is. Rather, it’s integrated into the… flavor profile, we’ll say, of his masculinity. He’s putting on fem drag sometimes for work reasons, but that doesn’t cause him the same distress it causes Stevie.
Ultimately, what was important for me was exploring those nuances: the spaces between, wherein one’s legibility (and safety) within a cisheteronormative societal structure constantly wobbles and twists. “Passing” itself, when used as a term of art within the community, often refers to this contingent and fluctuating daily world-experience. I’d say neither Les nor Stevie reads as women, because they categorically are not women—and it is precisely that unreadability, their “failure” to become women despite what’s expected of them based on perceptions and/or interpretations of their physical bodies by straight folks, which makes them targets for the homophobic and transphobic violence driving the narrative.
[GdM] Throughout the story, you have many references to early twentieth century literature and culture. You pick up the historical style and atmosphere really well. Did you also consciously limit your language to the time period, and if yes, what challenges did you experience? I was also wondering about how much of the setting is rooted in social history, and what may have surprised you during research?
[LM] The Woods All Black is set specifically in 1929 because it was a cusp year, a brief moment balanced between the flourishing of queer/trans life during the postwar ‘20s and the rise of right-wing fascism in Europe and the United States through the ‘30s. An ugly future hovers on the novella’s horizon, just out of sight, and the unsettling resemblances between “then” and “now” are certainly… resonant! So, while I went into the project knowing it would require plenty of research given the historical setting, the amount I actually ended up doing drastically exceeded my initial expectations. We even included a bonus reading list at the end to share some fraction of the background materials, because why the hell not.
As for the language, yes, that was a purposeful stylistic decision. While researching, I immersed myself in the works of interwar-period queer writers with an eye toward their prose styles, and the title itself comes from a line in Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. The finnickiest challenges probably came with answering questions like, “had we started calling them strap-ons yet in the late ‘20s?” and “how much did a pack of cigarettes cost?” and “wait, when were Band-Aids invented”… questions that were sometimes remarkably hard to find immediate, simple answers to.
But if I had to name one big surprise from the research process, it would probably be unearthing an archival copy of a 1931 silent documentary film made by and about the Frontier Nursing Service. The nurses lugged those unwieldy early film cameras across rivers on horseback then took them into the hollers, creating a short documentary that was both an advertisement to join their ranks and a public health service announcement. Seeing what life looked like, what travel conditions were, how towns were arranged, how people dressed and spoke to one another—invaluable stuff!
[GdM] As both a master of the modern gothic and someone who writes some of the best (fucked-up) queer books on the market, would you be able to recommend other media in these spaces for our readers? I’d love to hear what has sparked inspiration, what stands out to you in your own reading (and watching etc) and what is exciting to you.
[LM] My favorite question—and I take inspiration from all over the place. As for things I’ve watched, I’m always going to bump Hannibal, which I remain surprised was ever aired on mainstream tv… but I also recently saw the 4k restorations of Gregg Araki’s Teen Apocalypse trilogy, so those are fresh on the mind. The first film is even titled Totally Fucked Up, come on, it’s a perfect match! Otherwise, I’ve been watching tons of series from Thailand, because the Thai queer media industry has been consistently knocking it out of the park. If you want some gothic horror with a historical bent for starters, I recommend Shadow, a haunting-slash-murder-mystery series set during the late ‘90s at a Catholic boys’ school.
As for reading recommendations, I recently finished The Reformatory by Tananarive Due and it left a strong impression on me. Inspired by the legacies of brutal institutions like the Dozier School for Boys, as well as the Jim Crow era and ongoing anti-Black violence, The Reformatory is an absolute powerhouse of a historical Southern gothic novel. Another book I loved this year was Walking Practice by Dolki Min (trans. by Victoria Caudle), a South Korean sf novel about a shapeshifting, human-eating alien that rang my brain like a bell. Walking Practice has the most dynamic, unsettling, electrifying vision for what queer artists can do with speculative fiction that I’ve seen in awhile. Lastly, Starling House by Alix E. Harrow is a contemporary Appalachian gothic-romance with a big dose of the historical. Honestly, reading The Woods All Black and Starling House back-to-back would be super fun, because they’re definitely in conversation.
[GdM] If you can tell us – or mercilessly tease – what are you currently working on?
[LM] Currently, I’m editing a short fiction anthology—Amplitudes: Stories of Trans and Queer Futurity—for Erewhon Books, scheduled to be published in summer 2025. I’ve just recently finalized the table of contents, and our contributor line-up should be announced soon! I’m looking forward to it.