On Writing Blood & Dirt (Spoilers)

While I am a proponent of reader-response theory, I do want to give a little insight into the inspiration of Blood & Dirt for those who are interested. Blood & Dirt was a culmination of many aspects of my life, both creatively and personally, at the beginning of 2017. I’d recently completed my second novel, which quickly found its way to the trunk, and I’d just started on a third. I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree at Seton Hill University and was hoping to focus on this new project in the Writing Popular Fiction (M.F.A.) Program. Unfortunately, the early pages of the third novel were not well received and I was encouraged to write something that only I, as a gay man from a financially unstable background, could write. Needless to say, with the deadline for my proposal to get into the program quickly approaching, I felt lost.

All of this happened in the wake of the 2016 election. Studying sociology, intersectional feminism, and queer theory at the time, and observing the cyclical nature of regression and ostracization only made me feel like our culture was on a rapid decline. The United States is no stranger to bigotry; however, the election seemed to embolden hateful people in a way that I’d never seen in my lifetime, even coming from a relatively conservative small town.

I was living in Pittsburgh, and crimes against minorities were everywhere I looked. Cars were keyed, obscenities screamed from passersby, and offensive signs were proudly presented in yards. Several queer people also went missing under questionable circumstances in the city. I remember my mother calling me to promise I’d drive my former boyfriend to work and back, as opposed to him taking public transportation, because she was worried for our safety.

One night, with all this going on, my boyfriend and a few friends were out in South Side. We were having a few drinks and dancing to Halsey, if memory serves, when this large man, with his girlfriend at his side, began screaming and threatening us. With a liberal use of gay slurs, he told us that we didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as him. No one reacted. I looked around, hoping a bartender or bouncer would kick them out, but whether it was the music or indifference, we were on our own. I, in my infinite wisdom, decided I would call the man on his threat, despite him being six feet tall and at least a hundred pounds heavier than me. Thankfully, before the situation became physical, some very good friends, who knew how angry and upset I was, pulled me out of the situation.

On the other side of that night, my family and friends were furious with me. What if he had a gun? What if he had friends waiting to jump us outside? He could’ve killed my partner and me. The magnitude of what might have happened, along with the social climate in the city, circled in my mind and transformed into the early drafts of Blood & Dirt. The book became a place to process these emotions of anger, fear, and loss and try to understand my place within it all. I tried to imagine living without the man I loved, and what I would do if something happened to him. As a result, I submitted what I believe is now closer to the seventh chapter of the book and was accepted into the M.F.A. Program.

In the throes of drafting, I entrenched myself in literary criticism and literature about genre fiction and horror. I learned how the first horror stories often came from myths, legends, and folktales that warned children at a young age of the evils of the world. I traced these tales from classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to modern works like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

This research, these feelings of fear and grief, and my search for the supernatural monster of my story led me to the historical and literary significance of anthropomorphic beings, creation stories, and tales of the undead. What is on the page is an amalgamation of tales from various cultures and religions, ranging from Greek, Scandinavian, Chinese, and African stories to the Abrahamic tales that I learned as a child of a religious family.

Since the golem is most well-known in Jewish folklore, I made a conscious choice to include that background and its name in the book as my monster certainly shares similarities with it. There are many variations on the story of “The Golem of Prague,” but the corruption of the golem, in response to fear, hatred, and rejection, does align most with the grief that Vincent experiences as well as the use of the undead in the horror genre. That being said, I do not mean to say this is the only portrayal of it or that the being is inherently evil.

My monster was one born out of crisis. At the time of its inception, it was sworn to protect a creator who fears the world and being alone above all else. Early drafts of the novel included much more of the half a year of research into the subject. However, as some helpful early reviewers and readers reminded me, this is not a historical research essay, and I ultimately decided to leave enough breadcrumbs for diligent readers to understand the intricacies of my monster and focus on the story at hand because the real monsters of the book are very much human.

While I do not wish to focus on those monsters and my research into these hate groups, I will say that I made a conscious decision not to stray away from the violence in the story. Everything that Vincent and James experience comes from true experiences, reports, and testimonials of gay men who have survived hate crimes. I do not feel a responsibility to shy away from that horror that my community has faced at the hands of these groups. I feel a responsibility to bring it to light.

This research, coupled with my personal fascination with death, experience with trauma, and the sociological atmosphere of the time, is what made Blood & Dirt the book that it is today. I did my best to take all of this, leave it on the back burner, and tell a story that only I could tell about a young man named Vincent and tell it as honestly as I could.

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