Digital Space Is Real Space: Talking with A.E. Osworth

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A.E. Osworth is a lightning rod for creative, generative energy. Their first novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, is a formally innovative and deeply delightful read—I was riveted, reading it in a whole gulp over the course of a day. We’ve been close friends [full disclosure!] after meeting this fall on Twitter. I find that talking to them about writing craft processes and various ideas is always a fertile conversation because so much of their time is spent focused on the joy of writing and cultivating a writing community. As a writer, they’re agile and emotive; as a writing comrade, they’re encouraging and thoughtful.

A.E. Osworth lives in Portland, Oregon, where they are kept company by several poisonous plants and an anxiety disorder. They currently teach fiction at Catapult, where they focus on joy-centered nonlinear drafting, and creative nonfiction at Fledgling, where they focus on accessing memory through the writer’s relationship with other art, and at The New School where they focus on digital storytelling. They are working on two other novels (trans witches! Sexy Satan!), DMing various DnD campaigns, and prepping for We Are Watching Eliza Bright’s release on April 13.

We Are Watching Eliza Bright is a novel set in meatspace and online, following the journey of Eliza Bright, a woman programmer hunted by an antagonistic group of Reddit trolls angry at her refusal to let the misogyny of the gaming community frighten her into silence.

I was excited to sit down with Osworth on Zoom and talk to them about We Are Watching Eliza Bright, and to share some of their creative insight with The Rumpus community.

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The Rumpus: I think it’s safe to say that you’re a big nerd. This story is such an immersion in tech program development and gaming culture. Did you envision your reader as someone who was already familiar with that community and their social dynamics and lingo—somebody like yourself—or did you have someone else in mind?

A.E. Osworth: It is true that I am a huge fucking nerd, but my nerdiness is actually pretty different than the community that I portrayed. I am a board game nerd and a tabletop nerd, for the initiated. That means my favorite PAX is PAX Unplugged. And my community is super queer as well, so my nerd stuff is way, way, way different. I’m also adjacent to the sort of like phone freak hacker computer people, but not one myself. So, in terms of envisioning someone like me, I guess the short answer is yes, someone adjacent or familiar, but not immersed.

The nice part about that is that I simply wrote the book for me, a person who is adjacent, but not immersed because the truth is that even if we don’t want to be adjacent to this kind of culture, we are. It’s part of the fabric of our reality right now, in a way that’s inescapable and that you can’t really opt out of. Everyone is adjacent; that is what I imagined when I wrote some of this. There’s some in lingo and I tried to handle that in terms of exposition in ways where most folks would be able to pick it up from context clues.

Rumpus: You also made some really interesting craft decisions, in particular the choice to have the point of view in first person plural, kind of a Greek chorus-style narration mostly by the primary antagonist. How did that come about? What was the experience of writing from that point of view like?

Osworth: It went through a couple iterations. I knew it was going to be narrated by people watching the actual protagonist. In terms of how wide or narrow I allowed those antagonists to be, how I allowed my narrators to be—that is what underwent iterations. At one point I had them eventually boiling down to just one person, and that was my original plan, but I found the collective so much more interesting than the wheedling out of a singular narrator. So I went with first person plural, because it was just interesting to me to explore. It also is the voice of the internet. If you’ve spent enough time on the internet, you wind up kind of osmosing this sort of group voice where we do this and we think that and like, well, if we look at… and people just do it, and so it felt really natural to do.

The other thing that went through a lot of iteration about the Reddit voice in particular was how they know what they know; that changed a lot. I researched some surveillance stuff; I feel like I spent one million years doing that. And then, a show I watch on the internet had a really big schism with one of its original creators. The people involved in this show looked directly at the camera and asked the internet not to speculate. Which is an invitation to the internet to speculate and it hit me what was about to happen. So, I popped me some popcorn and got on Reddit… I watched people who had only parasocial relationships with the creators of this show talk like they knew these people.

And that’s how I wound up on the Reddit voice… [and] the way that they know what they know. Sometimes they see these people in life. Sometimes they see them in [the] Guild of the Protectorate, sometimes they see them on the internet, and sometimes they get their Gchats.

Rumpus: One of your choruses is a queer commune called the Sixterhood. How did you come up with them? It seems very fun to write; was that just a release valve?

Osworth: The Sixterhood is my favorite part of the book and they were also a late addition… Originally I had one queer hacker, but then I sort of sat down and thought, what am I actually saying about community if I spend all of this time with the Reddit voice? I think I might be saying something about community that I don’t actually believe, that there is no option for it but to be toxic. That groupthink is what community means—like all of these things that I did not agree with, but that are true to this particular community.

And so I was like, Cool, I think I need to solve one problem with solving another. And that is when the Sixterhood came in as an entity. It’s based on a real place. One of my friends lived in a warehouse like this in San Francisco and she invited me to stay in her elevator shaft, which does not have a working elevator in it, don’t worry. It was just the elevator shaft, but that was her guest room, a pair of bunk beds in an elevator shaft. I spent just three days there in San Francisco and it made a huge impression on me. The Sixterhood is based on that place. When I sat down and tried to come up with, well, what is it that I actually believe about community? that is the first thing that popped to mind, and so that’s how I did it.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of darkness in this story, but I think parts of it paints a vision for some semblance of restorative justice within capitalism. What’s your hope for how we can heal misogyny and bigotry in tech, in a post-Gamergate world? What brings you joy and hope when you think about this community now?

Osworth: Oh, fuck me. This is a hard question. I don’t believe that this community, that the online communities that I’m a part of, are actually separate from the rest of the world. And so it is hard to answer that question because it involves fixing the whole world in order to—

Rumpus: Well, okay. But what do you see that gives you hope for pushing back against this kind of misogyny in the book?

Osworth: I see the struggles of my queer folks, my queer community—the Sixterhood represents my hope. They are not perfect, they say and do problematic things, too. They can’t be perfect because they’re made up of people, but they are trying, and they are approaching everything from a place of abundance instead of scarcity.

I think that when we think about justice under capitalism—I won’t say most of our problems, but a lot of our problems are caused by artificially induced scarcity. It gets in our mindset all sorts of ways. And so what if we really earnestly took a look at that and decided that we were going to approach problems from a place of expansiveness? That’s where my hope lies, and it will necessarily fuck up and fuck up again and fuck up again and again. And the only thing that we can do is keep trying, but I like to think that we can keep trying, that there is an abundance of keep trying.

Rumpus: There’s some discussion in the contemporary literary community about stakes and consequences for characters. Which is really funny, given the history of literature asking: does art need to punish bad actors? Does it need to set a moral example? Some of your bad actors do get punished, but I think it’s interesting in contrast with “cancel culture”—it’s this artificial panic, because so many of those who are “canceled” retain a lot of power and aren’t actually silenced. So your decision to punish some of these characters, is that wishful thinking? What do you think about that decision in light of what we actually see in real life with cancel culture?

Osworth: I’m going to answer this in completely spoiler-y way. [SPOILERS AHEAD – Ed.] Yeah, Lewis Fleischmann kills himself. I’m not sure I categorize it as a punishment. I knew that that was going to happen from the outset.

People tried to talk me out of it at various points because it felt too neat or too much like justice and I actually don’t think that it is just that someone should die. And so I do not view it as a punishment. What I viewed that as when I wrote it is that Fleischmann is so rigid that he cannot himself exist in a world that doesn’t make sense to him. He cannot exist in a world where he is not the hero, even though he makes a very big deal about playing the villain. As soon as that is destabilized and de-centered, he no longer knows how to function. I don’t think it’s a punishment at all. It is a thing that happens. And I modeled it… Are you ready for this? This is the deepest nerd cut.

Rumpus: I can’t wait.

Osworth: I’ve never said this to a person before. I modeled this, oh, I’m so embarrassed. I modeled that choice and stuck with it based on Javert from Les Misérables.

Rumpus: I mean, yeah, it’s there.

Osworth: And of course it’s different, but it is something I was thinking about when I was thinking about his motivations in terms of—he’s so, so rigid that he cannot operate in a world that doesn’t center him.

Rumpus: On the flip side, you gave the actual protagonist a pretty positive ending after everything she goes through. Again, some of that doesn’t reflect reality. How did you come about that decision, to give her a hopeful ending?

Osworth: That is also something I knew was going to happen from the outset, that she would end hopefully. One of the reasons I wrote this book was that I was mad. I got mad and that’s because in 2014 and 2015, there were a lot of media attempts to look at this nerd community, even through a fictional lens. And I remember one particular episode of Law & Order: SVU that was so fucking weak that I couldn’t not be mad about it. The protagonist in the episode suffers horrible consequences and [quits] at the end. I realized in that moment of watching that Law & Order: SVU episode, looking at this like, sort of toxic nerd, toxic gamer culture and its impact on women and folks with marginalized genders that there wasn’t a narrative I could see where the woman doesn’t quit, and I got pissed. So it is, again, what we write against when we’re writing. I think it’s perfectly fine for a book to get born because you get mad.

Rumpus: Oh, I love it. Okay. So you’re white and one of your main characters is a Black man. A lot of the conversations that have happened lately about how to ethically write fiction representative of identities other than those of the author. How did you approach this?

Osworth: I will be the first to say that I’m not one hundred percent sure I got it entirely right, because I’m white. But I do think it’s more important to try than to not. It is everyone’s responsibility to write characters that look like them and characters that don’t, and characters that have the same experience as them and characters who don’t. And so I listened really hard to people who share more of Devonte’s experience than I do and that was the first thing.

At the outset of 2020, I actually was in a workshop with Namwali Serpell for short stories at Tin House. And one of the things that she did with us is this exercise about sort of backing into someone else’s voice. It was honestly my first introduction to what if you really, really intentionally throw your voice? And so being able to, from my vantage point, imagine somebody else’s stuff without being like, Well, I must walk a mile in that person’s shoes. No, that’s not possible, you can’t do that.

But being able to say, Okay, if I made some opposite choices, if some things that were true for me, that aren’t true for me now, what actually would I do? And that’s what, with both Devonte and Suzanne, neither of whom are white, a lot of what I chose to do. But I will say that the character who speaks closest to how I speak is Suzanne, one hundred percent.

Rumpus: Did you have a sensitivity reader, or Black and Asian friends who looked at this?

Osworth: The nice part about my MFA program and in particular, my thesis group, is that everyone in that group brought really different backgrounds and sensibilities and expertise. Yes, I have had folks read this book who do not look like me. I also never ever pushed my friends to act as a sensitivity reader for me because I love them too much. And because I would rather be their friends than request or require that of someone in the same way that, of course, when I read my straight friends stuff or my cis friends stuff, I am necessarily bringing my perspective as a trans person, as a queer person to those reads.

But you know, the people who love me dearest are never asking me to do that because they also know the truth. And I know the truth, which is that one person reading this makes actually no difference because one person cannot represent the interests of an entire community—it doesn’t work that way. There will be people who hate the way that I have done XYZ characters. There are a lot of characters in here, and there will be people who hate it and people who love it, and that’s ultimately fine and human and I will listen to all the people who hate those things as well, and I will learn from that.

Rumpus: One of the driving questions in this book that I found really fascinating is: how real is harm done in online spaces? And how real are the genuine connections made in those online spaces? I’m curious how spending much of the last year in lockdown and connecting with people online might have affected your answers to those questions.

Osworth: Honestly, I feel like people have joined me in my answer to this question. Not that my answer has changed because I have always been of the mind that digital space is real space. You will never catch me personally saying “in real life” when I am describing physical space versus digital space. It’s all real life, and I know that. I feel like people have joined me in thinking that digital space is real space. And I know the digital space is real space, because the consequences are real. If the consequences weren’t real, then sure, we could call it imaginary, but that’s not true. The consequences of what happens online are real consequences. And, the joys of what happens online are real joys.

I feel like now, when I say that, people don’t look at me funny, and that’s the biggest impact of a lockdown. Everyone has joined me on this hill that I thought I was going to die on alone. Even people who are really resistant to technology, even my friends who are, who wish that they could just throw all of their technology into the sea and never look at it again, have joined me on this hill now—reluctantly, but they are here. And so [the] biggest change has been people believe me when I say that.

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Photograph of A.E. Osworth by Lou Bank.


Eve Ettinger is an adjunct professor at a community college in southwest Virginia. They are a board member for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, and served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan (2015-17) as an educator and community organizer. Their writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Autostraddle, The Establishment, Cracked.com, and Cosmopolitan. They have discussed homeschooling reform with outlets like NPR's All Things Considered, the BBC, and more. You can listen to their podcast, Kitchen Table Cult, which they co-host with Kieryn Darkwater and follow them on Twitter. They are working on a memoir. More from this author →