Michelle Hart talks about the queer conundrum that inspired her first campus novel

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Michelle Hart. Photo by Candice Singh.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Michelle Hart’s deep commitment to LGBTQ literature in recent years, from her perch at the book desk of OprahDailyto learn that his own first novel is a magnificent and emotionally perfect achievement. We do what we do in the dark traces the relationship between a young student, Mallory, and an older, scholarly, married professor (this woman is not named in the book). Few titles capture the charged provocations of their lyrics so well – of course, much of our intellectual work is devoted to what we do (or want to do) in the dark; but the title also highlights the way Mallory grasps and gropes for stability and recognition during a thorny affair. Hart began writing this novel ten years ago, during his own college years. Here, the New York writer shares with us some of her most powerful and delightfully queer inspirations. —CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN

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Battlestar Galactica

A reader of We do what we do in the dark would probably never imagine that one of its biggest influences is this sci-fi show about a robot rebellion and the apocalypse. I watched the show for the first time – the first of many, many viewings – when I was in high school and college and was almost immediately fascinated by Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck, a boyish fighter pilot lack. Looking at it, I felt this inherently bizarre conundrum: Do I want to be that person or be with her? But it wasn’t just the fact that Starbuck was a gay “root” that influenced me. The show jumps back in time at the end of the second season, launching us a year after some very dramatic things happened. It’s a compelling storytelling device that asks viewers to fill in the blanks for what we haven’t been able to see. I fell really in love with this leap forward technique – something I would later learn in literary form from writers like Alice Munro, Tessa Hadley and others. Using this technique, time itself becomes a plot; instead of propelling the audience forward by asking what will be happen, the question becomes what has arrived and Why.

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Before sunrise/before sunset

Along the same lines, few films have had such an influence on my writing as Richard Linklater’s first two “Before” films (although Before midnight, the third in the trilogy, is also excellent). I remember watching before sunrise in college and thinking of it as some sort of elevated romantic comedy – swooned and philosophical, a bit bittersweet, just two strangers talking to each other in private. And then there is before sunset, which takes place ten years later. What happened in the decade that followed, and why? Our lovers are now older – are they wiser? — and that big time gap caused them to reconsider and recontextualize that youthful banter and how it affected the rest of their lives. After watching it, I knew I wanted to tell a story about a loving couple over a long period of time, how that relationship changes or not, how their perception of the relationship changes or not.

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michelle hart

It follows

I’m a big fan of horror movies, and It follows is among the best I’ve seen. In the seven years since I first saw it, I’ve been chasing the same high; it’s the perfect blend of lizard brain thrills and slick, methodical, darkly visceral atmosphere. I like the way the film plays with light and dark (probably the most “scary” scene takes place during the day). Its aesthetic, including its fluid, synthetic score, perfectly matches its premise: a sinister supernatural entity is “passed” from person to person via sex, after which it begins to stalk them. It’s an extended metaphor for the cataclysmic consequences of physical intimacy, the way stigma persists unwittingly. There’s a deceptive simplicity to the film, a quasi-minimalism – if it were transposed into text, there would be a lot of white space. That’s part of what makes it so compelling. It’s destabilizing because it leaves a lot of room for the viewer. My book is not at all a work of horror – I hope! – but I admire the melancholy thoroughness of the film.

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michelle hart

Mac’s “invert colors” feature

Speaking of light and dark, one of the weird things that contributed to the writing of this book was the discovery of Apple’s “invert colors” option, which can turn a document black on white in white text on black. (On my Macbook, it’s command+option+control+8). It’s a bit easier on the eyes, but more thematically, I wrote a lot of the evening scenes from the novel – including the characters’ first time having sex – using white text on a black background. It helped me channel the weird, secret eroticism of the night.

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Michelle Hart at the Salem Witch Museum. Photo courtesy of Michelle Hart.

Salem, MA

My experience of Salem was seeing it in the sun. It was a few years ago. I was about two-thirds into writing my novel and trying to figure out how it would end. I attended a wedding in Salem, on a cold but very bright winter’s day, and was immediately struck by how this almost mythical town, grappling with its infamous past, oscillated between shame and pride. The city treats its history with both hushed remorse and almost boastful glee. It was basically weird. It also fit with the theme of the book, the interplay between light and dark, truth and obscurity, innocence and malice. I guess you could say I was bewitched.


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