Evan Peterson on Writing, Academia, and His New Video Game Drag Star!

Evan J. Peterson is a Swiss Army Knife of writers. In addition to being the creator of what he describes as the ‘Evan-verse,’ he has published non-fiction, poems, short horror and science fiction stories, and books, and his publications touch upon the apocalypse, LGBTQ culture, the supernatural, and even the HIV prevention medication PrEP. Peterson teaches college courses and runs workshops, as well as speaks at events and conferences. Peterson’s most recent book is The PrEP Diaries, and he has just published his first RPG app game, Drag Star! (published by Choice of Games), which places players as contestants in a reality TV drag competition. Wanting to learn more about his career and his video game, I was able to interview Peterson for Sequart.

You can learn more about him by checking out his homepage and following him on Twitter at @EvanJPeterson.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you feel have influenced you the most?

Evan J. Peterson: As far as reading, I adored the Narnia books as a kid. But I also got into Dune after seeing Lynch’s film, and I first read that in middle school. It remains my favorite novel. I devoured the X-Men mythos comics, and they still have a special place in my heart. As a young adult, I was very influenced by Anne Rice and Clive Barker’s sensual horror stories. They’re a hugely formative influence. And, of course, I wouldn’t be the human I am today without The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As far as filmic stories, that one predicted and inspired a lot of my aesthetic.

Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a writer?

Peterson: I think it was in second grade that I was required to use all 20 of my vocabulary words in an original story each week. The first time I wrote one, I didn’t know where to stop. I enjoyed writing it so much, it just kept going for way longer than the assignment. I think I realized very soon afterward that I wanted to be an author.

Yanes: Media in general and academia specifically tend to over romanticize the life of a writer. What are elements of being a writer you wish you would have been told years ago?

Peterson: For one thing, you don’t have to write every day, but if you want to produce a long form work like a novel, you should do it anyway. Also, I wish I knew that most full-time authors and writers have a partner who is either the breadwinner or at least splits the bills. That would have helped me be more realistic about some things. I assume I’ll have a day job for the rest of my life, but being a professor keeps me inspired.

Yanes: Academia is slow to change. Given that you’ve published in various genres and now a video game, how would you like colleges to learn to recognize these types of projects?

Peterson: Without throwing shade at any particular school I’ve worked with, I think it’s absurd to ghettoize writers by genre, medium, and even by department. Writing as a discipline can be applied to every major focus; for heaven’s sake, hire a writing professor to teach your STEM majors how to write the narrative of their research. Drag Star! is a work of humor, fiction, satire, and pure LGBTQ empowerment fantasy. It’s backward and even classist to discount its dual role as a novel as well as a game simply because it’s interactive and zany.

Yanes: What was the inspiration behind creating Drag Star!?

Peterson: When I was initially headhunted by Choice of Games, we agreed on a werewolf-themed game. I had to interrupt the drafting process for that when my last book, The PrEP Diaries, came out. By the time I got back to it, I’d been dreaming up many interactive fiction RPGs, and one was inspired by drag competitions. I told my editor, Mary Duffy, that I felt far more motivated to write 150,000 words about that than a YA werewolf adventure, and she approved my outline proposal (Hi, Mary!). In writing it, I wanted to give fans and players everything they aren’t getting from shows like Drag Race or Dragula—people want to see drag queens and kings in the same competition, they want greater diversity of contestants, they want to know what’s going on at the hotel when the cameras stop rolling, and with a limitless imaginary budget, I could make things extra indulgent.

Yanes: How did the experience of writing Drag Star! expand your understanding of drag culture and its representations on television?

Peterson: I’ve been a fan of drag since I was a tween, but I still needed to do my homework. I polled fans to see what they find missing or problematic on television. For one thing, fans resent the fact that, ahem, a certain show did not allow post-transition women to compete until very recently. They only started to allow women on cast right before the game came out. The rule seemed to be: no hormone treatments, no breast implants. So, I made sure my cast included multiple trans and nonbinary people to better represent them within this genre. Trans folks have always been at the forefront of drag, and drag is for everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Yanes: On this note, how did this experience expand your understanding of storytelling? Were there specific challenges you encountered while writing this game?

Peterson: Coding the damn thing was a new challenge. That was a learning curve, but worth it. I had to learn to think like a programmer as well as a narrative author. There are several intersecting and several parallel storylines happening at the same time, and tracking all of that put some new wrinkles in my brain for sure. I wrote an entire season of reality TV by myself; I feel ready to write for the screen.

Yanes: What advice could you share with other writers who are thinking about making their first video game? Is there any specific software you think people should learn?

Peterson: Choice of Games, my publisher, owns their programming language (ChoiceScript). They encourage amateur and non-pro writers to use it in some cases, but you shouldn’t be selling games made with it without their approval. I’ve heard Twine is great software for interactive storytelling, but I haven’t used it. I’d say that you don’t need to know how to code to write for video games, but unless you’re an award-winning author, you should get your feet wet with simpler software for interactive fiction before you try to get a job writing games that have animation and sound. And as Clive Barker once told me, “Games are information gobblers.” Be ready to write a heck-ton of content. You need to manage your time.

Yanes: When people finish playing Drag Star!, what do you hope they take away from the experience?

Peterson: I hope they enjoy the hell out of it, that they feel seen and celebrated, and that they get to taste the fantasy of drag performance. The reviews look great so far, and I just got a fan mail DM thanking me for writing something that represents a wider than usual spectrum of LGBTQ identity. To know that I accomplished my goal of helping other queer people feel seen and celebrated, especially those who are trans or POC, makes me a very proud person.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Peterson: So many things, but I just proposed three new games to my publisher, one of which would be a sequel to Drag Star! Look for a horror game from me next—I can’t say too much about that yet. I have new dark fantasy fiction stories coming out this year with Broken Eye Books, which is exciting. Keep an eye on my social media and website to see what I’m releasing into the wild. I’d like to break into comics next.

Remember, you can learn more about Peterson by checking out his homepage and following him on Twitter at @EvanJPeterson.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on Twitter @Sequart and on Facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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