An Interview with Nik Shultz on “To Build a Queer”

This interview explores graduating UMF senior Nik Shultz’s Wilson Scholar project on queerness and monstrosity. The president of UMF’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, Anastasia Mertz, interviews Shultz, who is also a member of Sigma Tau Delta, The International English Honor Society.

Anastasia Mertz (A): Tell me about your project.

Nik Shultz (N): My project was to do an independent study and the first part of that was reading a lot about monster theory, like how the psychology and sociology of human’s creating monster stories and the social implications that a monstrous character has. I looked at a lot of monster media like Scooby-Doo movies because that was the monster media I had as a child. I also looked at the early 1930s/40s movie adaptations of monster stories like Dracula, etc. I choose to look at monsters through a queer lens because I am queer.

Last semester I took a class called Literature and Gender and we read Dracula and other stories. We looked at how queerness is written into stories and how it shows up in stories. And I remembered that when I took a class called Studies in the Graphic Novel, we read this graphic novel called My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. It is a great graphic novel about this young girl who sees herself as a werewolf and draws herself as a werewolf. She has a crush on this other girl who really likes vampires and she draws her as a vampire. It reminded me that when I was a kid that I had a childhood best friend who eventually became my first girlfriend. When we would pretend I would play as a werewolf and she would often be a vampire. I thought that this was a really oddly specific way to relate to this. For this class we had to write blog posts and I wrote a blog post on the question of if it was inherently trans to relate to werewolves and lesbian to relate to vampires. Neither of us really knew we were queer at the time but it is clear that this is an experience that other queer people have, feeling connected to monster characters in monster media.

There is something that is very trans about werewolves, and something about vampires that is very lesbian, but I don’t think it fits to 1 to 1. Werewolves aren’t just trans, and vampires also have been used as trans allegories. I had been doing all this research about the cultural and psychological ways monsters are influenced [by culture] and their representation of queerness. Generally what monsters warn against is the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in the cultures they are created in. That kind of presents the message that queerness is bad. I wrestled with the question of how to create monster media that isn’t queerphobic because a lot of queer people are really into reclaiming that monstrostity.

I’ve gotten off topic from your question. I wanted to look at this question of how we use this knowledge in this research on how we make better monster stories moving forward that aren’t about making queer people evil. So I made this chapbook that has an introduction to a novella that has a collection of monster writing that I have done. I wanted to do a chapbook because I had done a bookbinding class once.

A: Could you tell me more about the novella you’re working on?

N: I wanted to write a lesbian werewolf story. That was how I would put werewolves into the chapbook, because I was doing something with Frankenstein and other works. In my childhood I was really into werewolves. I just think they’re neat. Because it was so connected to my childhood best-friend-into-first-girlfriend arc I wanted to write a story about that. I wanted it to defy the stereotypes. I wasn’t sure how female werewolves were portrayed because generally werewolf characters tend to be very masculine. When they do have a female shapeshifter it isn’t about the violence but about the sexual urges. There are so many plot lines of female werewolves where becoming a werewolf helps her to come into her sexuality. I thought that was really weird. I think that it could be interesting to look at that in a more queer way.

I made my werewolf into a popular girl who was very good at performing femininity. The narration point of view is from this love interest/childhood best friend who never really succeeded at performing femininity in a socially acceptable way. I was really interested in twisting those stereotypes. You think it is the character who doesn’t fit in who is the monster, but really it is this aspect of the build up of resentment and pain from trying to force yourself into a societally accepted role that creates this monstrousness.

A: I was wondering if you looked at race too or if your project was more focused on sexuality and gender?

N: I tried to stay more focused on sexuality and gender. Obviously, that is still very intertwined with race. It comes up a lot in reading monster theory because obviously queerness isn’t the only thing that isn’t put into the monstrous category by the rest of society. Like when you look at Dracula, he is obviously a queer man. But he’s also a foreigner invading and that represents that fear for the time period as well as the fear of homosexuality. But I tried not to focus too much on that. In my writing I tried to avoid making my characters coded something other than white because I am a white writer. I don’t think it’s my place to reclaim that monstrosity for other people. I don’t want to imply anything, because it’s coming from a white mouth, I don’t want to say: this race is monstrous. It does come up a lot in the research of the study. A lot of the classic monster movies and the depictions they spawned, and the classic texts, are super racist.

A: Could you describe how you put the chap book together and what it looks like? How did you format it and organize it?

N: So I wanted the construction to be a little bit janky. I wanted it to have a bit of monstrousness and weirdness and queerness to it. So I did a spine up here [points at the top of the chapbook] instead of along here [points to where spines are typically put]. I was originally going to make the cover fit the paper, so it has some edge that makes it look like it’s going to have the spine here but it actually opens up like this [like a laptop]. It’s like it’s sewn together from a broken up book. All of the pages are pasted in there and there are parts that unfold in an expansive nature with the stories.

With the art I made AI generated art. I thought it would be interesting to put this on the cover. So I went to an AI generator that makes art from a text prompt. I started with “Queer Monster,” and that’s what ended up on the cover. It came out really cool, so I tried “Trans Monster” and it made something that felt really transphobic. I thought that was really messed up but I could see that it was drawing off of the internet and those associations. There is a lot of transphobic stuff on the internet. So, I asked a bunch of transfriends to give me photographs instead that I could combine in an AI generator to make some transmonsters so that I could start at the base of trans people instead of the internet’s crappy drawings of what they think a monster is. It’s showing that the actual nature of transness and the variety and spectrum of trans presentation and gender being close to normal and more monstrous is really wide and expansive and varied than what society expects it to be.

Then I did this poem in which I printed some pages from Frankenstein and cut it up and pasted it together. I sewed parts of the page and I took a photograph and stuck it in here. I provided a typed up version for ease of reading. Part of it is that you can read it in multiple ways. I think the physical creation of a text needs to be a little janky and monstrous to match what it’s doing. 

A: How much of this project was done alone and how much of it was collaborative?

N: Misty [Misty Krueger, Nik’s faculty sponsor] was very helpful and offered me a lot of help and support, but also gave me space to run wild and free and do what I want. I’m a terrible procrastinator and do things at the last minute, so I avoided Misty’s help so that Misty wouldn’t see how little I had done so far. A lot of it was done on my own but I couldn’t have done it without her support.

One of the poems in here I wrote for my Advanced Poetry class so I had the help of people workshopping it and I had friends looking at my other pieces to tell me what they thought. I had to ask Misty for help for more of the bureaucratic work like, what’s the paperwork I need people to sign so I can use their photographs? I asked, “Hey guys, would any of y’all be willing to send me pictures to be turned into monsters?” Not everyone was comfortable with it and not everyone volunteered photos. A lot of people were like, “Heck yeah, I love queer monsters.”

Definitely a lot of people’s input went into it [the project]. I would say that it was collaborative in the way most work is collaborative in that nothing is truly independent. Everybody has to draw support from somewhere. But I largely did hole myself up in my room and worked on this by myself like Victor Frankenstein hiding in his dorm for two weeks.

A: What were the questions you had going into this project? And what were the answers and conclusions you came to?

N: I came into it with a lot of questions that were fundamentally flawed. I felt like I knew a bunch of stuff already, but I learned a lot that I didn’t even expect to learn, like that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a werewolf story. I was really interested in this question of which monster means what. But I learned that most monsters can’t fit into a single category because that’s the point of monsters, that they defy categories.

I hadn’t really fully formulated the question I ended up tackling with this chapbook. I knew I wanted to make a book about monster stuff but I didn’t really know going into it how much I was going to be working with this question of how do you make a monster story that is sensitive, that’s not hurting anyone, and if that’s possible. Is there a way that is completely against cultural biases?

A: How does your research fit into the context of contemporary monster theory, movies, books? Is there a movement of queer monsters? Have there been significant changes from the 1940s to today? Has it gotten better, worse, or is it just different?

N: Monster theory itself is a relatively new or not that widely known academic field. It really only became into official being in the 90s. There’s stuff out there, but not as much as you want there to be. When looking for baseline books, there’s just 2 books that are compilations of all of the monster theory. There is a really big difference now between the 1930s and 1940s, or in the Victorian era when Dracula was being written.

A lot of these monsters aren’t seen as so scary anymore. They sell things to children, they teach children how to count on Sesame Street, they sell chocolate cereal. There is all of this children’s media, like some of the early 2000s Scooby Doo series and the Hotel Transylvania series, that’s like look! They are the good guys now. But those series always take the queerness away from those characters and try to make them like “we are just like you. We have wives and daughters.” They make Dracula a dad in any cartoon or movie in which he isn’t the villain. Which was really surprising to me. It was so weird that I was seeing that happen so much.

But now there is this new hunger for more queer monsters, and there’s a lot of people that are trying to make media about queer monstrosity. It’s not necessarily about literally transforming monsters but sometimes more like the real world monstrosity. There’s a whole can of worms with the Hannibal Lecter stuff. There’s a tradition of that being very transphobic and bad, but there’s some recent adaptation that is very good at making the story queer without making queer people as monsters. There’s apparently this zombie TV show that has a canonically queer character, and pirate shows with canonically gay, like Black Sails and Our Flags Mean Death. There’s a lot of people that want that, canonical queerness. Even when it is not canonically there, there’s people writing about it in fanfiction and trying to make it better than how it is portrayed in the actual media. People are talking about Harry Potter werewolf characters and Teen Wolf and stuff like that. 

A: Did you read more contemporary fiction that uses monsters?

N: I wanted to. I read a lot about them. I got to read all about Hannibal Lecter and the various adaptations. I mostly watched some more recent stuff like the Scooby Doo movies and Hotel Transylvania. I had a book I wanted to read but didn’t get to called The Unbecoming of Elizabeth Frankenstein. It’s from an author I really like who wrote a series imagining Vlad the Impaler as a woman. I really wanted to read that book because it is the story of Frankenstein from Elizabeth’s perspective. I did read My Favorite Thing is Monsters, which came out relatively recently. I read a lot of papers about more recent things. I mostly looked at the children’s monster media of recent times because they are adaptations of these classic monsters.  I read about TV shows that are happening now that are like True Blood, that vampire one that came out in the early 2000s, geared more towards adult with queer characters or queer coded characters.

I couldn’t fit in watching a whole TV show at this point of the semester, so I mostly read about them. I watched Vamp, which is an 80s movie, so that’s relatively more recent than the 1890s when Dracula was written. I did look into a lot of contemporary stuff, but there is much more of a market for television shows about this than there is [in other media]. All of the horror movies now are making their own monsters – which is good and everything – and I probably could have gone down the route of looking at these movies, but to be honest I don’t love horror movies, which seems wild since I am doing this project. I don’t really like the jumpscare sort of stuff. I did read about Babadook, which is a queer icon, but in the actual text of the movie is a metaphor for grief. I am familiar with the Monster High series and those movies. Oh, and I watched Turning Red, which is a shapeshifter thing. 

A: What are some of the key concepts or terms that you learned about in this that might help people going into Monster Theory?

N: The very first thing I read was these seven theses of monster theory that really sums it up very well. I did my own version of that that’s not quite the same on the first page of this [the chapbook]. The important thing is that monsters cross the lines of category and blur the boundaries. They very rarely die without coming back again… it’s a trope but also it means that they never really die. They are drawn from cultural stereotypes and what the cultural fears are. They are very specific to cultures. They usually represent a warning that doing “this” sort of thing is bad. Looking at it from a writer’s perspective, you don’t want to get “queerness is monstrous,” but “monsters are themselves inherently queer” because they cross lines and don’t fit into boxes and they explicitly reject categorization. And that is what queerness is, messing with the categories. Some of the important things for the old texts are like Freud’s “what makes something uncanny.” Julia Kristeva’s abjection is another important concept. 

A: What is the significance of the name of this project?

N: To Build a Queer. I titled the name of my presentation How to Build a Queer because I wanted to focus more on the theory and the steps on what I think is important doing this work instead of just talking about the work I did. I chose that because I was going to do How to Build a Monster but I think there are lots of guides on how to build a monster on the internet. To me, it wasn’t just about writing a monster but queerness in monster stories. There’s also the shock value to it, that this is an unapologetically queer piece of work.