Photo by Alex Penland
Queer Next Up is a series originally posted to our Instagram. We feature smaller queer artists who we think deserve your love, support, and dedication.
Alex Penland (they/them) is an author, creative writing student, Smithsonian alumnus, and linguist. They primarily write SFF (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction), but also dabble in poetry.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be an artist?
I don’t remember when I first wanted to be a writer. My first publication was at eight years old, when I published a serialized story about my dog (who was a detective, hunting for pirate treasure) in the school newspaper; my first active memory of writing is of working on that story when I was about seven. We were stuck in the airport — Chicago O’Hare — and waiting for a flight, and I couldn’t type yet. My mom pulled out her laptop and let me dictate the story, and it kept me entertained for the entire 12-hour layover.
That was the first story I was ever recognized for, too, which was a surreal experience. I was eight years old and Trick-or-Treating; some kid I didn’t know came up to me and asked me if I was the one who wrote “that detective dog story.” I was terribly confused.
What are you most proud of?
A couple years ago, my life was wildly different. Almost unrecognizable. I was living out in Iowa, running a creative writing nonprofit with a friend (The Writers’ Rooms) and working about four other jobs to make ends meet. It was all good work, and it was a great community — but on a personal level it was unsustainable. I applied to graduate school. Now I’m living across the ocean, writing and teaching at a university level, and I couldn’t be happier. Everyone says PhD work is challenging, but honestly it’s nothing compared to the hours I kept before.
That whole experience is what I’m most proud of. I’m so, so proud of everything I got to do in Iowa; I’m also proud of myself for taking the risk and leaving. My experience there built up the foundation for who I am now; leaving gave me the chance to actually build on that foundation and focus on my writing. I’m proud of everything I’ve made from that opportunity: my published work, the skills I’ve honed, and a new (if complicated) future.
the dragon is dying. it knows this. it is lying on its side on a bed in an attic by a window which looks out over the champs-elysees. the bed is old. the dragon is old. the dragon is too old for this shit.
Excerpt from “parisian attic cancer dragon” by Alex Penland
once again a knight appears. he’s breathing heavily, because he had to climb quite a lot of stairs to get here and it was not a pleasant experience in full plate armor. the knight wonders how the dragon got up the stairs and into the attic but when he asks, the dragon says disdainfully, i flew.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
It’s okay to let people go. Sometimes they’re perfect for the person you were, but they’re not right for the person you are or the person you want to be. Loving them doesn’t mean you need to keep them around forever. We’re all on our own journeys, you know?
What have you learned about yourself though the artistic process?
I’m a lot cleverer than I think I am, though I never realize it in the moment. My parents save everything, so I’ve got some of my earliest writing preserved in their photo albums. I’ve got stuff I wrote when I was thirteen backed up in about six places. I’ve got drafts of my very first novels in high school and undergrad.
And honestly? I was pretty good. It’s easy to look at something I wrote a couple years ago and cringe, and that was worse when I was in my 20s. But when I look back at it now, I can see everything I was learning: how I started writing descriptions, places where I experimented with the writing styles of books I’d read, stories with all the basic building blocks of tropes and characters I still love.
There are bits and pieces of my own identity, too. There are characters in some of my really early stuff who are clearly queer, but hiding behind terribly thin veils of heteronormativity. You know, “brothers” who are clearly mimicking that trope in media where two men can’t be close and unrelated lest people think they’re homosexual, or women who are in an obsessive rivalry and think about nothing but the other but still date men for some reason. Echoes of the Hayes Code. It’s great to look at my old stuff and watch as I pull myself out of it.
I wonder sometimes what my future self is gonna think about what I’m writing now.
Did you feel that?
Laughter. He pulls away, only to be pulled back in a lock-and-key of chest to chest. He cocks his head like a dog, his line of sight askew, as if listening. It makes Andy laugh, because how ridiculous that one could hear it at all, how ridiculous that he is listening for touch and pressure.
There’s nothing to feel.
No, no, I felt it, I swear!
Excerpt from “HIC INCPIT PESTIS (here comes the plague)” by Alex Penland
One in a million chance, baby. Andy pulls away again and falls into the bed, the background music of New York City filtering through the window, the sunlight washing across the perfect muscle of his back. There is a glorious dishevelment to the scene: rumpled blankets, mattress on the floor, half-finished paintings and half-drunken cans littered around the studio. Curtains catching the sun and the breeze. Windows open to the light. Whiffs of turpentine and cigarettes. The naked body in the center of it all, the curved young skin, morning stubble, track marks that haven’t been touched in a month. Just let me sleep, I feel like shit today. Go paint. Do your painting.
What does your work mean to you?
Everything. Writing is a way for me to share my experience and speak my mind, sure, but it’s more than that: it’s therapeutic. Writing is where I let out my anger and grief, where I work through all the arguments I have in the shower after I fail to be witty in the actual conversations.
And on a creative level, it’s a chance for me to study the world from a position of omniscience. The complexity of clashing personalities, of building a world from its ecosystem to its economics — it’s fascinating to me. Once the balance is right the story sort of writes itself, and I’m just along for the ride.
They’re always the stories I want to read, too. I love reading, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never read a book that feels as satisfying as writing one.
Why do you create art?
I don’t think it’ll let me stop.
Can you give us a sneak peek of what’s to come?
Hell yes I can! My two gayest stories are getting published this year. They’re both set in antiquity in Greece, but I swear that’s not all I write — it’s just where my PhD novel is set, so I’ve been doing a lot of research there lately
“We Are Only Ourselves” is a short story about the seven years Tiresias spent living as a woman. It’s coming out in Interzone #296. I adore it. It’s about love, and the futility of love, and how vital it is to grasp the moment while you have it. It doesn’t have a happy ending, but the happy middle is the important part.
“Andrion” is a novella that’s coming out through Knight Errant Press in August 2023. It’s about a woman living in a steampunk antiquity — Classical Athens, but a little to the left. She’s fighting against her father for women’s rights. This one’s about family at cross-purposes: what it’s like dealing with family members who aren’t bad people but just cannot get it due to the battles they themselves have had to fight.
This one doesn’t have a happy ending either, but it’s something of a prequel to the book I’m writing for my PhD dissertation. Andrion stands alone just fine, but there’s definitely more to the story.
He had a reason for his name: “The Great”
Now buried in the Valley of the Kings—
Statues and treasures, all of which abate
Behind the wheel of fate that spins and sings.
And has four thousand years beneath it now!
Yet Ozymandias somehow persists-
Face on our screens, obscuring ancient snow,
We laugh, despair, continue to resist.
We plebeians, outside the formal walls
Marble temples, or gold as they see fit-
Endure as empires rise, stagnate, and fall.
And forget King Ramses when we see it.
Four thousand years have passed and still we stand
“The Great” by Alex Penland
On broken stone, our visage in the sand.