Written By: Nicole Catarino
Part 1 of this series can be found here.
If you haven’t read the first part of this series but you’ve found yourself here anyhow: no worries! My curiosity, and thus the impetus for this series, lies in seeking an answer to a question I’ve seen being asked to writers over and over again: As a writer, poet, author, or whatever title you give to yourself and your writing, what are the topics that you find yourself writing about the most, and what does this say about you as a writer, and as a person?
Though the original question hasn’t changed, the answers I’ve collected and discovered along the way have definitely changed the way I’ve thought about this question. For example, the way Eileen Sholomicky, my previous interviewee, thinks about the themes and messages in her writing is vastly different from the way I approach my own creative works. I found that while we may share similar goals within our writing, our reasons behind said goals might be guided by wildly different personal motivations and values, like our own upbringing, the result of horrible friendship breakups, or just what we ourselves hope to get out of a given story.
Today, I had the privilege of interviewing Sam Bastille, a member of Long River Review’s fiction panel as well as our events coordinator, to continue my investigation into the stories we love to tell.
Nicole Catarino: So obviously, we know that you work for the fiction panel for Long River Review, but I also know that you write and have presented at different readings a lot of your own poetry. What are the types of genres you tend to engage with and experiment with the most, and is there a particular reason why?
Sam Bastille: I love the big three: fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. I do have to say, I love storytelling, but I mostly experiment with poetry and prose for creative nonfiction. I just find it’s a little easier for me to produce work and to see development with those, whereas like, I’m writing a fiction book right now and that’s all good and fantastic, but it’s a process and it’s hard to see improvements and experiment. Like I can experiment, but it’s just easier for me to track my progress in creative nonfiction and poetry.
NC: No, I totally get that. Fiction’s no joke. [laughing]
SB: I love fiction! And I can write a good story that has a good plot and good characters and stuff, but it’s a longer process so it’s harder for me to experiment and track my progress, if that makes sense.
NC: That makes perfect sense.
SB: But like, I love writing poetry. It really depends on my mood too, if I’m like, “Damn I can write a good poem right now!”
SB: Or if I’m like “I’m going to write a story because I’m really attached to the idea of these characters!” Something like that.
NC: So then, taking all the different genres you work with into consideration, do you find that there are certain themes, tropes, plotlines, messages that you tend to find yourself continuously going back to in your writing, either consciously or unconsciously?
SB: Oh definitely. I continue to go back to my trauma, my assault, and I go down the mental health rabbit hole and talk about that a lot. I talk about queer love a lot—usually it relates to something I can relate to, so it’s usually between men. I’m very interested in the sensual side of poetry, so I try to write a lot of descriptions that feel like the feeling of love. I have a poem called “The Body of Christ”—Oh! Religion! I love writing about religion too. That’s a big one. And that’s something I actually seek out too in other authors’ and writers’ work. I don’t know what it is specifically about religion, but it’s so interesting to me. I love the imagery and I love the story behind religion. I don’t really subscribe to any religion, but I was raised Roman Catholic so maybe that has an influence as to why [my writing] is more Roman Catholic focused when I talk about religion. But I’m more spiritual—I don’t like the structure, it doesn’t feel right.
NC: Yeah, no, I totally get that. Then, in your fiction work—because I assume these themes all kind of apply to all of your work—do you find that, when you’re writing characters or fictional stories, that you tend to default to certain tropes or certain storylines? Do you go back to anything a lot?
NC: Are they always sharing one bed, Sam? [laughing] What’s the vibe here?
SB: I definitely—You know, I’m all about the queer representation, so with every character I make I try my best to focus on queer romance. And I love the whole “high fantasy” vibe, obviously—That’s coming later.
NC: [laughing] Yes it is!
SB: I also love dystopian stuff too. So I guess I always try to make my characters unique, but they do tend to fall into the “queer discovery” archetype, or like, the “dystopian member of society whose eyes are slowly being opened farther and farther to what’s going on in the world.”
NC: The divergent one. They’re special.
SB: Oh my god. [laughing] Yeah, so with the book I’m writing currently, it’s about a girl named Ria who is living in the “neo-commonwealth” of America. They’re super ecological, environmentally aware, they’re not into repopulation, you know. But then on the other side of this nuclear war scar down the middle of the United States is “The Republic,” and they’re your “finance bros.”
NC: Not the business majors!
SB: [laughing] Yeah they’re like the “men,” they’re the “bullies.” And they are abducting women.
NC: Oh my god!
SB: No spoilers! The book is called “The Harvest” and it’s going to be in three parts, so we’ll see what happens.
NC: Ah, that’s so cool! I admire fiction writers so much, I can’t do what you guys do!
NC: I’m just not a plot person! I can do characters, I can do details, I can do intricacies until the cows come home, but as soon as you ask me to do “big picture,” I leave.
SB: I feel you, sometimes my plots get jumbled up. But on any good day, you can come up to me and ask me to tell you a story, and I’ll be like, “Here’s what’s going on.”
NC: Okay, so then looking at the general patterns in your writing—trauma, queer love, self-discovery, things like that—what do you think is a common takeaway from your writing if you could sum it up in one message or one overarching theme or purpose?
NC: Do you think there’s a main takeaway from your content? Or is there a takeaway you want to come out of your content?
SB: God knows.
SB: I guess, to try to answer that question, you could say that the main takeaway would be, like—not to steal this from Eileen, but to trust yourself. That’s definitely one of them. Another one is definitely to embrace yourself, and that life is a process and there’s no way around that, so use what you have to create something. And then for my fiction…I want to go into film, so with the stories that I tell, I want to be able to teach people without teaching them. I guarantee you that you could pick any TV show that I know, and I could tell you at least three things that you’ve learned from that TV show. Let’s use Game of Thrones: It teaches people about racism, it teaches people about classism, it teaches people about slavery, gender-based violence…You go into that [show] and you’re learning. You come out on the other side and you’re like, “Wow, I saw this character get sexually assaulted,” for example. “How does that make me feel?” And then you start to critically think about it.
SB: Entertainment is entertainment, but the stories I want to entertain people with hopefully will have a message or a meaning, and tell them a little bit about something.
NC: All right, let’s get into D&D. Let’s talk about this.
NC: So, clearly you have a set of stories and themes that you tend to tell with your creative writing. But D&D is a medium that allows you to do different things, explore different ideas, and it also has the benefit of your audience being right in front of you. The people you’re telling the story to are sitting at the table with you, whether that’s over a Zoom call or at a physical table. When it comes to D&D, are there any storylines you tend to go back to, or are there any messages that you try to weave into your storytelling because your audience is right in front of you?
SB: [laughing] Okay, so my favorite thing, my absolute favorite thing is to just have a completely unhinged villain.
NC: [laughing] Yes!
SB: My favorite villain that I’ve ever written, her name was Shona, was a character whose premise was basically that she can body-hop, and she’s lived for thousands of years by having her soul bouncing from body to body. And she was just completely insane. Always just teaming up with whoever, whoever the current villain was, and she would always just pop up. I didn’t really know her motives, which is what scared me, which is why I like her. She genuinely would just hop around and mess things up for people. And I really like that! I love it because it’s like “Why are you so evil? What’s your backstory?” And she’s like, “I just love being evil!”
SB: Something else I like to do is to hint at things, to leave those breadcrumbs [for my players], because it’s so satisfying when I ask my party members: “Does anybody have any hypotheses? Let me know!” And I love writing dreams for people, which I don’t usually read out loud during the session; I send them to everyone during the week leading up to [the session] so it’s like a little treat! A mid-week D&D treat.
SB: That was a whole long way to say I love unhinged villains. [laughing] I frequently go the religious route as well, I’ll usually have like, one crazy cult. [laughing] This [campaign] I have two actually. I have a cult for this death goddess and then I have a cult that’s not really a cult, it’s like—Have you heard of Midsommar?
NC: I’ve heard enough about it to get the vibe.
SB: So, they’re like a settlement, right? I have like a town that devoutly follows this goddess of light and they basically have taken her [teachings]—she’s not a very good person—and they’ve taken that and turned it into like…ethnic cleansing and epigenetic stuff.
SB: Yeah…I write a lot of really dark stuff. [laughing]
NC: Yeah, what I’m gleaning from this is that you like to cater to your audience, in the sense that you like to give them things they can interact with, and you like to explore the darkest parts of humanity.
SB: I really do, because it teaches me a little bit about myself and it teaches me about other people. I just recently held a session where there was this man who had been a predator to this orphan girl that [the party] had been traveling with, and they killed him. Not because she was actively seeking revenge, but because he got in the way of their ultimate goal because he had a relic that they needed. And I thought to myself: I don’t know how I’m going to write this because Aluna, the girl, has similar trauma to my trauma in real life. How would I react to getting revenge on my assailant? So when she killed him—the party all unanimously agreed that they wanted her to have the final blow—she simply slit his throat. Didn’t say a word about it.
NC: Good for her.
SB: And then we had to dispose of the body which I didn’t really plan for.
SB: I had to pull a couple of DM strings for that one.
SB: But I was thinking to myself that sometimes there is power in not saying anything because you’re not giving them the satisfaction. Aluna was being really confrontational when she first got there, but in the end, I was like, I think ending this on silence would be better.
NC: I love that.
SB: I think it shows growth for the character, too. That’s something else I come back to, I want my audience to see growth in my characters. And I think that that’s a common desire for writers, but D&D’s different because you can kind of see it in real-time. It’s kind of crazy.
NC: You may have already answered this question, which I assumed you would, but final question: Are there any themes or plotlines you tend to explore through your characters? Like, do you resort to a certain backstory? A certain personality? When it comes to their character arcs, do they tend to go in a certain way…?
SB: Oh. My. God. If my friends could answer this question for me…
SB: I’ll answer it from their point of view. They would say: “Sam always does the absolute most to have the darkest backstory anyone could possibly have.” I love trauma, I think it’s so interesting. I don’t love it, but I love it, you know? I hate to love it. Aluna’s backstory, going back to that, is super dark and dramatic. The Aasimar I’m playing has a super dark and dramatic backstory…Also chosen family; that’s a big thing for me. Because that’s really what a party is after a while! It’s just so interesting to see how we develop.
SB: So yeah, chosen family, trauma, and dark parts of humanity, those are my top three things.
NC: I love that. Well, thank you so much for joining me today!
SB: Thank you!