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Erica Buist Interview - Cyber Smut

Erica's story 'To All the Avatars I've Loved Before' is in our Cyber Smut anthology, to be released 15 September. For pre-orders visit: https://www.gutspublishing.com/books



You submitted to the anthology when it was still Cyber Lives. How do you feel about the title change? Do you think you would have submitted to Cyber Smut?

Honestly, I laughed out loud when I saw it had changed from Cyber Lives to Cyber Smut, mostly because my story is much more about love, so I immediately thought, “well, I guess mine’s going to be the adorable PG one in the collection!” Now that I think about it, there is one reference to fucking in a hammock, so I guess it’s not totally PG.


I wouldn’t have submitted this story to Cyber Smut, mainly because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that it would get selected. I’m delighted it did.


What languages do you speak and what sparked your love for languages?

Aside from my native English, I speak fluent Spanish after living in Mexico for a couple of years, advanced French after living in Paris for just under a year (and my dog was a puppy at that time so there are still several phrases he only understands in French), advanced Italian, and I’m still starting out with Mandarin and Japanese.


My desire to learn Spanish was a strange one. I wanted to speak it as a teenager, and by the time I got to university I was actually irritated that I couldn’t, had dreams “in Spanish” (though of course it couldn’t have been real Spanish as I was barely intermediate at that point). I moved to Mexico and became fluent, and the other Latin languages came easily after that. It took about 100 hours of Italian lessons to get myself to the point where I now interview people in Italian for articles.


My brain is an utterly ridiculous place now, the languages switch constantly, there are plenty of phrases that arrive to me in Spanish, French or Italian first. What I’m saying is, every time I learn a new language I get a little stupider.


Do you keep a writing journal?

No, and it pains me, frankly. I used to carry notebooks around all the time and jot down ideas and thoughts and jokes, and now I’ve gone digital I just pour all that into the Notes app on my phone. Much less cool.


Tell us about ‘This Party’s Dead’.

This Party’s Dead is a hybrid of memoir and journalism, and starts with the day my fiancé and I found his father dead in his house. By the time we found him, Chris had been dead for eight days. In the months that followed, my fiancé coped heroically well, whereas I fell apart. I didn’t really feel I had the right to be so upset – ‘daughter-in-law to be’ doesn’t even feature on the grief hierarchy.


I descended into a bout of pyjama-clad agoraphobia and found myself cyber-stalking everyone I knew to check they hadn’t also dropped dead without warning. It wasn’t until I tried to buy a sandwich, had a panic attack, threw it and ran home that I realised this probably wasn’t the best way to deal with grief and death anxiety. I used to live in Mexico, so had seen many Day of the Dead ceremonies, and after throwing the sandwich I discovered that festivals for the dead are incredibly common outside the west. I decided to investigate how other cultures deal with mortal terror by throwing parties, not sandwiches. I visited seven death festivals: one for every day we didn’t find Chris.


The festivals were in Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan and Indonesia. I also visited San Francisco and New Orleans for their startlingly contrasted responses to the spectre of mortality. It was an astonishing, moving and frequently hilarious journey, that started with me so terrified of death I could barely say its name, and ended with me getting hit in the head by a corpse that was bouncing on the shoulders of its dancing descendants.


This Party’s Dead is being published by Unbound. Tell us about Unbound. What made you decide to submit to them? How long did it take from submission to crowdfunding? Did you also approach traditional publishers?

The best way I can describe Unbound is: a traditional publisher thinks your book will sell, so they assume the risk to put up the money to publish it and you’d better make that back in sales or you’ll never work in this town again, so to speak. Unbound thinks your book will sell, so they film a trailer and put the book on sale as you’re writing it, and the pre-orders fund publication. And since they’ve assumed no risk, you the writer get 50% of the profits rather than the traditional 5%. So the page on the publisher’s website looks a bit like Kickstarter in that you have a target to hit, except they’re quite picky and have a high rejection rate.


I have no idea about the submission and selection process, however, as I came to be published by them differently. I had a tweet go horribly viral, to the point where someone made a meme of my face which reached the top of Reddit. The tweet caught the attention of a commissioning editor at Unbound who researched who I was, saw I was visiting death festivals and writing a book about it, and asked if they could publish it.


My agent had approached two traditional publishers very early on, and they both rejected it for opposite reasons; one because “no one wants to read a book about death” and the other because “there’s going to be too many books about death” – so yes, in case you were wondering, everything is indeed meaningless! Then a couple of production companies expressed interest in filming a documentary, so my agent decided to hold off approaching publishers until a filming deal was in place; then the production companies wanted to hold off until there was a book. While everyone was playing chicken, Unbound swooped in.


This Party’s Dead got the hardback deal, so the preorder target was quite high. I believe it hit 100% of its preorder target after about a year and a half, which was about a month after I finished all the trips to the death festivals and two months before I finished writing the book. Preorders are still rolling in; I believe it’s currently at 123%.

The publication date is 18 February 2021.


Tell us about your story ‘To All the Avatars I’ve Loved Before’. What inspired this story? What are your thoughts on social media, in particular do you feel it has changed, or people’s behavior has changed, during lockdown?

‘To All the Avatars I’ve Loved Before’ is about two people who meet and fall in love online. She imagines a duality between their online and IRL (in real life) selves: their avatars have met, their bodies haven’t. Because we all know no one is the same IRL as they are online – but she is vexed, for reasons that become clear, to find he is exactly as he seems. I was inspired to write this story when a friend told me that men she meets online are disappointed when they meet her in person, “They don’t like me; they like my avatar”. But I wanted to write something that took the jaded cynicism we’ve all come to carry around like house keys, and challenge it. When you’re so trained to believe people aren’t what they seem, what happens when they are?


For me, social media is mostly a haven, partly because I construct my echo chamber carefully. So for me, the behaviour I’ve seen during lockdown has been mostly couched in humour and solidarity, as well as the normal regular pillaging of the “bad guys” – people who refuse to wear masks for other people’s safety, for example. For me, that’s not a change, that’s just how the people in my circles react to the news. Everyone talks about social media as if it’s one place, but it isn’t. Everyone has constructed their own personal city, and sometimes they forget no one else is seeing quite what they are.


Your bio says you are a journalist, lecturer and author. That covers a lot of ground. What is your main focus these days? Does it vary from month to month? How do you balance your creative life and professional life?

I’m a features writer, mostly for the Guardian, and one effect of the pandemic is a reduction in pages and the shutting down of the most of sections I write for. Just another thing to chuck on the mounting bereavement pile (remember how awful we thought 2016 was? What a bunch of adorable, innocent babies!). But my working life has never had a set routine, everything depends on what my inbox throws at me. One week I’m doing interviews for a Guardian Weekend piece, the next I’m driving to give a lecture on my death festivals journey, or speaking on the radio, or doing some filming for a news outlet. This week I gave a lecture for the Guardian Masters program at Lincoln University. Next week I’m working on a feature about my book for a magazine and going over book proofs. The week after I’ll be writing a feature and doing a podcast interview for a life insurance company that’s trying to change the conversation around death. In pre-covid times, I received emails asking me, with mere days’ notice, to go to Switzerland to build an igloo, to Norway to interview the world chess champion, or to southern Spain to do a sourdough baking retreat. In the spaces between assignments that pay the bills, I write short stories. I apply to writing residencies, which gift writers time and space to write – most of This Party’s Dead was written at residencies in California, Vermont, Spain, and Virginia.


What I’m saying is, I have never made much of an effort to balance my creative and professional life, partly because I don’t see much of a distinction between them. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.


Can you describe yourself in three words?

I hope not.


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Erica Buist is a journalist, lecturer, and author. Formerly a staffer at the Guardian, her writing has also been published in The Sunday Times, the BBC, Medium, various literary magazines and performed at live storytelling events. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, Vermont Studio Center, Faber, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Arte Studio Ginestrelle. Erica regularly appears on BBC Radio, and her first book – a hybrid of nonfiction and memoir called This Party’s Dead – will be published in 2021 by Unbound. She speaks five languages, mostly to her dog.

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