The Story Behind the Stories
Reading Dead Lips by Dustin Steinacker
When I hear about people who've suffered staggering personal loss, I can't help but
wonder about their day-to-day lives. I mean the mundane moments, the ones we don't normally
see. Tragedies can occur in an instant but reverberate for a lifetime, and their consequences are
private but profound: the altered relationships, the disillusionment and shattered convictions, the
way they pollute our mental associations so even familiar stimuli take on fresh pain. They're
insidious that way.
Grief can be tough to portray in fiction because it's not a spectacle. From the outside it
might look like a person making breakfast, or commuting to work, or hearing a familiar song in
public. So in most popular fiction, loss serves as a motivating force. The protagonist is aware of a
wrong and wouldn't mind seeing it resolved, but doesn't answer the hero's call until their loved
ones (generally civilian spouses and children who'd be inconvenient accessories to a gunfight)
become casualties of that wrong. We follow the now-invested hero and get a secondhand taste of
something that eludes most of us in our own lives: catharsis.
I struggled with Nouelle's journey at first because I just didn't see that kind of ending in
her cards. Her life was never idyllic, even before the soldiers came to Óste. She nurses her share
of vices and self-destructive tendencies, few of which I saw her overcoming during the events of
this story. And the "wrong" she's fighting is too entrenched, too supported by cultural and
economic and social factors to be anything but impervious. She's got only the roughest sketch of a
plan, and little idea of how to achieve it, only a driving need to reclaim some agency for herself by
going back home under her terms.
And the more I thought about it, the more it felt like exactly what I wanted to write.
I wanted to follow Nouelle--sympathetic but not always likeable, a bit of an inebriate,
insecure and prone to pushing others away--as she threw herself headlong into the least advisable
necromantic road trip in history. As I rewrote, I leaned into some of the things I thought were
problems and felt the pieces starting to slide into place. I needed ten thousand words to finally get
this story right (now watch as the literary nerd within me starts to dust off the word "novelette"
with a smug look), and I thank Scott Roberts and Intergalactic Medicine Show for giving me the
space to tell it.
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