Even Better Than Fiction: Interview with Tyler Hayes, Author of Imaginary Corpse!

Posted 18th September 2019 by Siavahda in Interviews / 0 Comments

Hayes’ debut Imaginary Corpse, which was only published last week, absolutely blew me away when I got the chance to read it, and I’ve barely shut up about it since. Angry Robot, who published it, caught wind of my flailing and asked if I might like to do an interview with Mr Hayes?

Actual video footage of my reaction to being offered an interview.

OF COURSE I DID, I told them. YES VERY MUCH PLEASE!

Now, a secret: I was super nervous. My blog is a baby blog! I’d never done an interview before that wasn’t for a school project! And this was the dude who wrote a diverse hopepunk murder mystery set in the human imagination and narrated by a yellow triceratops plushie – aka, the best thing!!! What would it be like actually talking to someone that awesome???

Well, spoiler alert: it was epic. Tyler Hayes is just as cool as his book. Don’t believe me? Then read on for the interview, conducted by email across many, many timezones!

Content warnings for discussion of privilege, mental health issues incl PTSD and trauma, and mentions of the 2016 USA elections/the General State of the World.

The Interview

Me: So, Mr Hayes… What should I call you, and what are your pronouns? I’m Sia, agender but she/her, and I have never done an author interview before!

Tyler: Thank you for asking! I’m a cis man, he/him.

I am so excited, your review seriously made me vibrate with joy. I am so glad this connected for you!

Me: I am ridiculously happy that you liked the review – as is obvious, I freaking adored your book, so I’m glad I could, I don’t know, reflect some of that joy back to you. A tiny bit! I honestly haven’t been so excited about a book for a long time – my husband sends his gratitude, by the way, since he immensely enjoyed watching me flail around with delight as I read it!

Something super simple to start with: did you ever have an imaginary friend, or know someone who did/does?

Tyler: Oh gosh, thank you so very much for your kind words! This book was a labor of love and hearing that love, as you say, reflected onto others means the world to me.

Definitely! Mine was named Jokey, and I could not tell you what he looked like now but apparently he loved hanging upside down from trees. When I tried to draw him I wound up drawing Orbitty from the Jetsons, more or less, but I am pretty sure that isn’t what Jokey looked like.

I have many friends who had imaginary friends! I don’t want to speak out of turn and reveal names, but I had some folks ask me to personalize their copies of The Imaginary Corpse, which I thought was really fitting.

Me: What made you want to write about imaginary friends? Was there ever a real-life Tippy?

Tyler: The Imaginary Corpse has its roots in a game of Let’s Pretend my dad and I played as kids, called Stuffed Animal Detective Agency, where we took all my stuffed animals and we made funny voices for them and had them solve crimes…by which I really mean I made my dad make funny voices and tell bad jokes at my behest. But many years later, I started noodling on the idea of turning the Stuffed Animal Detectives into a novel, but I wanted to write for adults, so I needed something else to play with there…jumping to The Velveteen Rabbit felt natural, the idea of stuffed animals loved so much they become real beings, and so I thought of the idea of an imaginary friend being loved Real, and it was all kinda downhill from there.

And that dovetails with my next answer: Yes, there was, and is, a real-life Tippy the stuffed triceratops. I have him sitting on my nightstand right now. He’s not in a detective outfit, but he is yellow!

Me: I’m not going to lie, those were absolutely the answers I was hoping for, because that’s just ridiculously delightful! And I love the thought of you personalising copies for people’s Friends – that really does seem very appropriate, somehow.

I must tell you that learning that the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency is/was in fact a real thing is just the best. I’m probably going to be grinning like a twit all day, knowing that. Even moreso knowing there’s a real Tippy!

Tougher/deeper question now: I’m agender, so the first time Tippy asks someone’s pronouns in the book was a big deal to me – even moreso when it became obvious that that question is a standard part of Stillreal etiquette. But it was actually the very first page that told me Imaginary Corpse was going to be something really special, beyond the awesome premise. You had Tippy say ‘No is fine. No is always fine here.’ Which is – an incredibly powerful statement, and one I think a lot of us, unfortunately, didn’t and don’t hear often enough. It set the tone for the whole book, that what I’ll call Millennial values, for lack of a better term, were going to be intrinsic – things like ‘no is fine’, and consent, and personal space, and gender being a spectrum not a binary, etc. I am so glad that you did, obviously, but I have to ask; what made you decide to go that route? Because of course, you didn’t have to.

…Said absolutely no one on this blog.

Tyler: This is a long answer, so I’ll summarize first: Because I refuse to give into the defaults, everyone who isn’t cruel deserves to feel seen, and I have privilege enough to weather the storm of judgment for doing it.

Digging deeper: It kind of started with the scene where Spindleman is introduced, and it kind of started with…let’s be vague and avoid trauma triggers and say “recent political developments in major developed nations.” When I was writing the scene with Spindleman, I realized that there was absolutely no reason for an amorphous drill-monster to adhere to the artificial gender binary, and also no reason for Tippy to know what gender it is at the outset. Combine that with me having a lot of trans, nonbinary, agender, and gender-non-conforming friends, and I said, “No, this is where I take a stand. In the Stillreal we ask for pronouns.” And once I did that, I thought, why not go all the way?

So every character I wrote, I asked myself, do they need to be white? Do they need to be cis? Do they need to be male? Do they need to be straight? And of course, the answer was pretty much always No. (There are two exceptions where I said “Yes, they do,” but they are spoilers to discuss. You likely know who I mean though. 🙂 ) And I just tried to do the work and learn how people want to be talked about and tried to incorporate that. (I’m sure I didn’t get it all quite right, and that I’ll meet folks for whom the preferences I learned for their identities will not be their own preferences, and I encourage those folks to tell me so if they feel comfortable doing it, I want to learn.)

That drive only got stronger in 2016, while I was revising the book, and those “developments” happened. I made a promise to myself that I would do all the work necessary to create a more empathetic world in my writing while I tried to make the real world catch up.

In terms of the privilege: I’m a cisgender white man in a heterosexual marriage. I live in the United States, which takes up by far the greatest ratio of psychic real estate to actual landmass of any country in the world. I am a first-language English speaker. The collective unconsciousness of the world bends toward me, and that includes a tendency to make room for me to make mistakes that other people will not be allowed to make. Why not use that power to make space for people less privileged than I?

Live footage of the moment I realised this guy IS ACTUALLY AS AWESOME AS HIS BOOK.

Me: So this is where, were we face to face, I’d probably ask to hug you. Or at least offer a high-five. Because…you’re pretty damn epic, dude. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. That’s just epic, and I have so many Feels. You actually walked the walk. I don’t know what to say except thank you. Both for taking that stand, and for the incredible story.

And like, I love it on two levels: I love it because you took a stand for a kinder, more inclusive world, and I admire that and want to cheer it as a person who thinks we should all be doing it. But on a completely separate level, I love it as a self-declared worldbuilding addict. Because, okay, if I understand you correctly, you came at this from a more-or-less…gods, it shouldn’t be ‘political’, but right now it kind of is: you came at it from a very hopepunk-political angle. An ‘I can do good, so I will do good.’ But it’s like you said with Spindleman; there is no reason that character should/would fit the gender binary.

I guess what I mean is, I feel like you could have reached the same stance just by extrapolating from your worldbuilding. Does that make sense? Because it feels like a very natural extension of your story’s premise; why would imaginary beings default to a gender binary? Why would all these beings, who are made up of people’s most-loved beliefs and fantasies, be straight and white and cis all the time? Wouldn’t everyone who doesn’t see themselves represented in the media imagine into being characters like them? Of course the Stillreal is full of characters/people like that. How could it not be? So I also love that aspect of Imaginary Corpse just from a writer-ly perspective. It made the book feel so much more real than I think it ever could have been otherwise. A Stillreal packed full of straight-white-cis guys would have rung false, you know?

That’s not a question, but I had to say it!

Tyler: Hugs gladly accepted! Thank you so much for the kind words. I definitely did approach it initially as a world building thing, but then went “well why stop there? Why stop anywhere?” I very much try to walk the walk. Allyship is a constant state of aspiration, after all.

Me: Were you ever nervous that that aspect of the book would get it deemed ‘too weird’ or ‘too liberal’ for traditional publishing? Because even standardising the pronoun question is sadly still fairly controversial in most spaces. I’m sure there are agents and publishers who might have hesitated to take Imaginary Corpse on because of that. (Not that Angry Robot was ever going to be one of them! They have an excellent reputation as publishers who take on books that are ‘too weird’ for other publishers. They would have been my first stop, if I was shopping Imaginary Corpse around!)

Tyler: “Too weird,” yes. “Too liberal,” no. While my politics are most definitely progressive left (I’ll avoid specifics so I don’t risk traumatizing people who need a break from those discussions), the things I was taking a stand on in The Imaginary Corpse are only “liberal” because at some point I am not historically savvy enough to pinpoint, empathy became associated with liberalism. “People deserve to be called what they want to be called” and “Racism is bad, actually” shouldn’t be controversial statements. And I have read so many beloved books in recent years that refused to submit to the defaults –The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the list goes on — that I knew the market was OK with progressive books. If a publisher told me that they weren’t willing to publish this because it was too liberal, I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.

As far as “too weird,” well, that is a long story and an answer of its own, because at one point I nearly trunked this book temporarily because I and my writing group thought it might be too weird to work as a debut novel from an unknown name. I’ll avoid deluging you any further on this answer and wait to see if you want to know more. 🙂

Me: Oh no, I definitely want to know more! If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear this story. Even if I might need to hug a pillow at the thought of Imaginary Corpse getting even temporarily trunked!

#ItMe

Tyler: So, Imaginary Corpse did not fly well with agents. The general reaction was that it was good but nobody was sure they knew how to sell it, and therefore they weren’t willing to take it on because that would be unfair to me as a client.

After a fair amount of that, I sought out some more beta-reads, just to see if I had a fixable problem. And one beta-reader gave me some tough love: they pointed out it was good, but might be hard to sell as a first book specifically. They suggested I do something a little more mainstream if I had it, try to sell THAT, and then come back to Imaginary Corpse once I had a name to trade on. I had been kind of thinking the same thing, so I said that’s a great idea, and with a lot of tears and the overwhelming support of my writing group (who were all sad for me), I said, if the outstanding queries I had out didn’t bear fruit, I’d move on…for now.

The next week, Angry Robot (whom I had submitted to during the yearly open door submission period and was assuming had not responded because they had passed on it) emailed me with an offer, and one of the agents who had not yet responded to me became my agent. It was a heck of a plot twist. I almost screamed at my desk at my pays-the-bills job when I got it.

Tyler at work, probably

Me: Oh gods, BEST PLOT-TWIST EVER! And pretty magical timing! Just a week after you’d decided to stop sending it out to new agents… I mean, I do understand why those agents might have been worried. But I’m ridiculously glad Angry Robot snatched it up! OBVIOUSLY. Not like I’ve been particularly subtle about how much I love your book. 10/10 for Angry Robot having good taste!

I can’t even imagine getting that message at your work desk, though. I’d probably fall off my chair!

Like I said before, Angry Robot has a reputation for taking on weird books other publishers might hesitate over (I’m not going to lie, I love that their tagline is ‘genrefluid’. I’m a total sucker for puns and it’s a great descriptor for them). What was it like working with them when you were getting Corpse ready for publication? Are they as delightfully weird as the books they put out?

Tyler: Working with Angry Robot has been fantastic all the way through. There were some rough spots to iron out right at the start as they had a major change of staff right at the start of my tenure, but Gemma, their publicity and editorial co-ordinator, was enthusiastic and kind and honest all throughout the process, and always took time to answer my questions; she’s still my main point of contact at AR and she’s been a superhero the entire way. Lottie, my developmental editor, was really kind and thoughtful and helped me say what I was already trying to say. And Eleanor, the Commissioning Editor who joined after I was already in process, has been just a delight to talk to all throughout and has been really supportive.

[Interjecting to say: Gemma is the lovely person who reached out to me about doing this interview! So I can corroborate claims that she is lovely.]

Me: It’s great to hear that Angry Robot are fab to work with! I know a lot of people have been curious about the open submissions period they run every now and then, so hopefully anyone who’s been considering sending their manuscript in for the next round might give it a go if they see your answer.

Without spoilers: the backstory behind the Big Bad is so freaking impressive; it blew my mind, and I absolutely adored the concept, even though the Bad itself scared the hell out of me! That, and so much else of the mechanics of Tippy’s world, seem inspired by various psychological or sociological concepts. I asked this in my review, but: do you have a background in psychology, or something similar?

Tyler: In terms of formal education, only barely — I took two psychology classes in my undergraduate year, and they were fascinating but not in-depth. That said, I have a lot of personal experience with psychology from a therapeutic perspective — cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness exercises — and I have done a lot of lay research into trauma, PTSD, and various psychological and sociological things just for writing purposes, or because I was trying to understand myself or my friends, many of whom have mental health issues, and I wanted to know what disorder X means or how to see an attack of Y or just to know better what was happening to me/them/etc.

Me: Well, my husband’s doing his bachelor’s degree in psychology right now, and he was quite impressed when I was describing/reading your book to him, so I think you did okay on that front 😊

We talked a little bit about why you made your book so wonderfully inclusive, but one of the ways you did that was in the way the inhabitants of the Stillreal accept and make accommodations for each other’s trauma. I deliberately seek out diverse reads, but trauma is something a lot of authors don’t want to touch – which I get; I don’t imagine it’s easy to write. What made you decide that was something you wanted to tackle? Because it’s a pretty important theme of your book: I guess if you had to, you could cut out things like the characters asking for each other’s pronouns and it would still work as a story, but the theme of trauma and its effects is actually intrinsic to the plot.

Tyler: I wanted to write about trauma because I have it. I have two mental health diagnoses: generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD, from multiple sources (including— and this may sound familiar— a car accident). Those would be the reason I have all the experience with therapeutic psychological concepts.

I’m on meds for it, and I have a lot of good coping mechanisms, but a major journey I was going through before and while writing this was coming to accept my trauma as a part of me, as a fact about me rather than something wrong, something I can work on healing and living with but that I don’t have to see as wrong or bad or my fault. And as I worked on that I connected with a lot of friends who are in similar places — and experiencing that kind of acceptance and safety in a community is and was a HUGE deal for me. It’s something I wanted to reflect in my writing, to build a world for the wounded that doesn’t just turn them all into broad stereotypes of trauma survivors or play it all for horror.

Me: Thank you for being so open about that. I was hoping the car accident didn’t have a real-life equivalent like Tippy does, but I have to admit that that part of the book meant a lot to me and I’m really grateful for it. I take meds for anxiety and depression every morning, and I’ve recently been struggling with the realisation that I’m not ‘over’ past events like I thought I was. So Imaginary Corpse fell into my lap exactly when I really needed to hear that trauma doesn’t make you broken, basically. And honestly, I think that’s a message a lot more people need to hear, whether they have traumas of their own or not. So thank you, again. (I’m saying that a lot, but that’s your own fault for writing such an incredible book!)

Surfacing for air with a few more light-hearted questions! A slightly more silly one: have you seen the film I mentioned in my review, Pixar’s Inside Out? If you have, what did you think?

Tyler: I am so glad this reached you and worked for you! I hope it continues to help people.

Pixar’s Inside Out is one of my favorite Pixar films, and I adore Pixar films as a matter of course. Real talk, Inside Out was used as a comparable title in some of my elevator pitches for this book.

On a surface level, the creativity the movie displayed in its world-building was superb; even the emotions, though broadly characterized, felt like real characters with internal consistency (and they even got to have character arcs without ever betraying the core of what they were supposed to be!). The plot hangs together really well and the obstacles are resolved in interesting, engaging ways. And on a deeper level, the movie takes complicated topics — not just emotions generally, but the ways that adult emotions differ from the emotions of children, depression, the stress of moving (something I feel strongly as a person who moved nearly every year when he was a little kid) — and handles them in an easily digestible, entertaining format. Also everything involving [SPOILERS] punched me right in the feelings.

Me: Oh, Inside Out had me sobbing in the theatre! I loved it, though, and Pixar’s one of my favourite studios too. I can definitely see why Inside Out would be a good frame of reference when trying to pitch Imaginary Corpse. I kind of want to write a full essay comparing the two, because there’s that superficial similarity – I automatically thought of Inside Out while I was reading your book – but when I try to pin down why, it’s pretty difficult. They’re actually very different. Although I do think both have important things to say about dealing with harder emotions.

I’m not usually a fan of first-person, but I don’t think the story would work nearly so well without Tippy as a narrator. My hubby and I were thinking Imaginary Corpse would make a better animated series than a movie, so: if someone were to buy tv rights, is there anyone you’d especially love to see cast as the voice of Tippy? Or any film/graphic series with an aesthetic that fits your book?

Tyler: Thank you for the comment about Tippy; I absolutely agree that his voice is essential to the book, and I speak as someone whose only first-person narrator ever in anything he drafted for publication was Tippy. He just spoke to me that loudly.

If someone buys the TV rights, my first-choice Tippy is Matthew Mercer (Overwatch, Critical Role). There are celebrities I might pick for a movie version of Tippy, but Matthew is a professional voice actor with incredible range and incredible empathy, and I think he could really bring Tippy to life. 

Me: Matthew Mercer’s name wasn’t familiar to me, but I gave him a Google, and WOAH. O.O Yep, I think anyone with that much experience would be great to have on an animation project! Now we just have to petition Netflix or someone to make it happen…

I’m always madly curious about what my favourite writers like to read, so what are some of your own favourite books? Or comics, or whatever you prefer reading!

Me ready to note down ALL THE RECS

Tyler: Books and comics are both my jam!

For books: Last Call, by Tim Powers; This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone; American Gods, by Neil Gaiman; Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire; All Systems Red, by Martha Wells; Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys; The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster; Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett; The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler; Animal Farm, by George Orwell

For comics: The Unwritten (Mike Carey & Peter Gross); Lucifer (Mike Carey); The Sandman (Neil Gaiman); Locke & Key (Joe Hill); Nimona (Noelle Stevenson); The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Ryan North); Jason Aaron’s runs on Thor and Avengers;the Peter Tomasi run of Superman; Astro City (Kurt Busiek).

Me: I like how you read, sir! This Is How You Lose The Time War is another book going on my Best of the Decade list… I feel like I can see Sandman and Imaginary Corpse on the same literary family tree, but are there any creators or creative works you think have shaped you as a writer?

Tyler: From the works of Mike Carey, Neil Gaiman, Kurt Busiek, and Jason Aaron, I learned it’s possible to tell a very deep, very meaningful story that is also totally out there and ridiculous. Busiek, Aaron, and Ryan North also taught me that it’s possible to tell those kinds of heartfelt stories while having fun with the world you’ve built (or in the case of Aaron and North, got handed, in the form of being asked to write about established Marvel Comics characters).

Shirley Jackson taught me a lot about mood. How to capture whatever mood you mean to capture in that moment, and when to show and when to tell.

Stephen King and his son Joe Hill helped me learn the value of a powerful, plainly stated sentence and a colloquial (rather than highly literary) style of narration. Likewise, Raymond Chandler’s work is a lot of how I learned to write something snappy and smart without having to eat an entire thesaurus before drafting.

My understanding of pacing and description are heavily influenced by movies. John Carpenter, Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, the Russo Brothers, and especially the Coen Brothers all had a major effect on me in a lot of ways I am still parsing out.

Video games are a huge part of my literary DNA, too. I credit Chrono Trigger for teaching me about tight plotting and interweaving disparate threads and character arcs, and Silent Hill for helping me understand what sorts of things I actually find horrifying in my horror. The big one, though, is EarthBound, which taught me that being cute and sweet and funny and weird did not have to mean you couldn’t also be really dark and thoughtful, and which helped me see that I liked it when my main characters were nice people and that was OK. I still sometimes catch myself plotting in video game terms rather than novel terms.

Me: Now you’ve named them, I think I can see some hints of the creators you’ve listed in Imaginary. (The ones I’m familiar with, anyway! The rest, I’ll have to make a note to go and check out!)

This is probably the last of my ‘deep’ questions… So: there’s one particular scene in the book, when Tippy and co enter an Idea Tippy’s not been to before. And after exploring a little, Tippy thinks to himself about how much he loves his job, that it lets him see places like this, all the incredible things the imagination is capable of. (I don’t want to go into too much detail, because anyone who picks up your book should definitely discover that scene for themselves!) I thought that was one of the most beautiful moments in the story, and it really drove home the idea of the human imagination as this wondrous thing (even if it can also be scary). I also got a very strong hopepunk vibe off the entire book, this philosophy of revolution through kindness, and fighting back against darkness and cynicism. Imaginary Corpse reads like a reminder that humans are capable of amazing things, and a little bit of a call to arms to go ahead and do those amazing things. Would you say that’s your own philosophy? Did you mean for Imaginary to be something of a call to action?

Tyler: My own philosophy? Yes, very much so. I often cite a quote from Marvel character Beta Ray Bill when asked my philosophy on life: “If there is nothing but what we make in this world, brothers…let us make good.” (It feels on brand that this is said by an extraterrestrial horse-man with the powers of a Norse god…)

And as far as a call to action…yes, definitely. While I didn’t set out to say “People should read this and feel like going out and doing these things,” I definitely set out to tell people it was OK to do these things, even laudable.

Big truth time here: I was revising this book during the 2016 election cycle here in the U.S.A. When I saw how that was going to turn out, The Imaginary Corpse was a major safe space and source of solace for me. I made myself a promise that I’d try to write books that were inclusive, that were hopeful, and that were empathetic; Corpse already was, but I definitely turned up the volume on it as I revised. Sort of an antidote to the miseries I had to deal with in the real world (and the worse things I saw people less privileged than me dealing with). I knew I couldn’t write the world better, but I could maybe tell someone it was alright to try to make the world better. As someone who grew up on the irony and grimdark and apathy of the 90s and 2000s, it was a big mental switch to make, but I’m so, so glad I made it. It feels more honest about what I have to say.

Me: I love that quote, but I have to admit it does seem VERY on-brand that you’d choose Beta Ray Bill’s words as your mantra. (Then again, that’s a little unfair; they are very good words.)

Imaginary Corpse was very much a solace to read, so I can imagine diving into writing/revising it would feel the same. And I’m sure I’ve said this several times by now, but I’m so happy you turned up the dial. Grimdark has never been for me, but the philosophy of it – this idea that cynicism is more grown-up and realistic than hope – I feel like that’s infected the fantasy genre more than a little. Maybe every genre. If it’s not dark, it’s escapism, and/or entertainment, but it’s not real literature (whatever that’s supposed to mean). I think we need more optimistic stories, not just as an antidote, but as a vaccination to the pull of resignation and apathy in the real world – so I’m not going to stop being grateful that we now have the Stillreal to show us how it’s done.

But back to the book: will we be getting a sequel? Because ending it with [SPOILERS] was SO NOT OKAY!

Tyler: I legally can’t get into details, but I can say this: I have a sequel in the works, and if The Imaginary Corpse performs well enough, you’ll be getting it.

Me: Well, clearly I’ll just have to keep shoving Imaginary Corpse into the hands of everyone I meet. I can do that!

Me @ everyone

And lastly: any chance we can get a picture of the real-life Tippy? 😀

Tyler: Heck yeah you can!

Tyler and Tippy!!!

Me: AHHHHHHH! I love the pictures! Thank you so much, and Tippy is RIDICULOUSLY ADORABLE!!!

And thank you so much for this interview! It’s been so incredible to talk to you! Thank you for the thoughtful answers, and for being so lovely in general. It was an absolute joy to get to do this!

And I shall wish for ALL THE SALES for Imaginary, and any future works! I can promise you have a fan for life in this corner 8D

Tyler: I’m excited for this interview to be published, thank you so much for doing it, and I really really appreciate all your well-wishes!

Until next time, Tippy!

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