The genre-bending stories in Whiteley’s From the Neck Up (Titan, Sept.) probe human connection, the natural world, and the strangeness of having a body.
There’s a long shadow of ecological apocalypse throughout the collection. What drew you to this theme?
I was surprised how strongly that came across, actually, after I’d put all the stories together. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. Titan said: “Do you want to put together a short story collection?” And I started off by thinking, “I’m not going to be able to find a theme, because I’ve written quite widely about lots of different subjects.” But once I started to collect my favorites, it became clearer that a lot of that was based on plants and growth and wilderness and ideas about how we fit amongst the natural world, how we’re going to grow and change as part of that, how it grows and changes around us.
Genre-wise, you’re laying a line across a few traditions. What makes those intersections interesting for you?
I’ve always loved stories that surprise me, where I don’t know exactly where they’re going to go. And sometimes I think we use genre as a safety net: it’s a way of saying “this kind of element is going to spring up” or “this is where the plot is going to go, very generally.” I really love being able to take one set of expectations and swap it with another really quickly, or smash them together and see what kind of mess is left.
You explore some deeply nuanced power dynamics and relationships. Tell me about your approach.
I think that also ties into genre. There’s such scope within fantasy, sci-fi, and horror to put humanity under a microscope in completely new ways—in situations you’d never come across in real life—and see what happens. It’s almost like taking complex relationships and putting them in a petri dish and applying things to them and seeing how they respond. I don’t know in advance what’s going to happen, but once I’ve established a complex relationship, it’s so much fun to put it to some sort of test and see what emerges.
Every story feels rooted in this vivid, even grotesque, sense that people are bodies. But there’s also an immense tenderness running throughout. How do you balance that?
I would say I don’t think they need to be balanced, but they’re absolutely intertwined and equal all the time anyway. We all have bodies and they all break down. They all go wrong in strange and sometimes really horrible ways. The only response we can have to that is tenderness for each other and for the body we’re given. It brings up so many complex emotions to be—well, you’re not really the owner of a body—the passenger within a body. That’s one of the great intimate relationships that you have to try and find a way to make work, because you don’t have a choice.