The Story Behind the Story: “In the Dark”

In the Dark” came out of pure nostalgia for me. I remember in middle school this theater where we went on weekend nights in my Kentucky hometown, lots of loitering, lots of sneaking in without paying, slipping from one movie to the next, a thrill of getting caught, something that’s so minor and quintessential but at the time felt like such an act of defiance . This was also around the time kids at school were experimenting with sex, or at least I remember hearing the rumors about it. The driving concept while I was writing was the intersection of those two elements. There’s something kind of sacred about a movie theater to me. It’s intimate but also public, and I was interested in exploring this scene of a sex act in that kind of setting, especially between two boys, and how that’s also mixed with this fraught time when they’re figuring out sexual and personal and public identities.

I want to talk about the queerness of the story. I know in the past there have been gay writers who want to resist that label, and I understand the impulse in not wanting to be pigeonholed by a market. I’ve worked without thinking much about it. Where I stand is that you can label me a queer writer if you want, and I’ll embrace it. The same way you may label me a southern writer because I’m from Kentucky, and I’ll embrace it. Both are labels, quick and easy, to try and classify, and I won’t deny they’re part of my own background and identity I bring to the page with me and that tend to come out both subconsciously and consciously at times, and if someone doesn’t find universality in specific experience, that isn’t necessarily my problem. With this story, I was intentionally interested in taking an idea of conventional hetero experience and subverting it. Those rumors in middle school all involved hetero couples. I wanted to make the ending – the narrator’s act of cross dressing to arouse Clay – something complicated and not so easily defined. The narrator is indulging in the performativity of gender. I also wanted to play around with what we might consider gendered images or objects – a football video game, lip gloss, a Bruce Willis movie, lacey lingerie. Sure those are superficial signifiers, but I wanted to mix them up together to blend them in the same space.

I always say I value expansiveness in fiction, and I still do. But there’s been something exciting about working on a more micro level in the past year or so. What’s been valuable about an MFA is how it’s helped me develop a sustained practice where I’m writing or revising almost every day. I’ll have longer stories I’m working on, but those can get exhausting, and my lack of attention span kicks in. Working on something smaller for a day or two became a break, and then it became more serious. Shorter pieces became a place to experiment and incorporate inspiration from what I’ve been reading, and I think I was reading George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Barthelme for class the week I wrote “In the Dark.” I like that something shorter can be so big in its energy and movement. I’ve always enjoyed playing with language, and that tends to stick out more for me in a shorter piece. “In the Dark” came as a result of those breaks and experimentation that became, what I hope, is solid work.

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About Michael Holladay

Michael Holladay was born and raised in Kentucky and is currently a transplant in Arizona. He holds an MFA from Arizona State University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, The Saint Ann's Review, Paper Darts, and elsewhere.