Mato J. Steger discusses their novel, Nebula Scars, and the power of exploring trauma through fiction in this week’s interview. Visit them at fantasyandcoffee.com
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The Spoonie Authors Podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network, a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts of this podcast are also available on the Spoonie Authors Network.
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[This transcript has been edited for clarity and accessibility.]
Dianna Gunn: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the Spoonie Authors’ podcast, a podcast where we explore the life and stories of a different disabled author every other Friday. I’m your host, Dianna Gunn, and joining us today is Mato J. Steger. Mato J. Steger is an openly out and proud Anishinaabe fantasy and science fiction author, who can’t resist the touch of romance in their stories, with several published short stories in anthologies, several articles published through the Huffington Post’s Queer Voices and a loving non binary partner, eight ferrets and one goofy cat, they have somehow still find time to work and attend university full time, all while writing books. Hello Mato, I’m glad in the midst of all that you found time to talk to me.
Mato J. Steger: [00:00:52] Yeah, no. Some weeks I have more time than others.
Dianna Gunn: [00:00:58] Fair enough. This particular week there’s nothing but time.
Mato J. Steger: [00:01:02] Yes, no. Time is paused right now. So there’s so much time.
Dianna Gunn: [00:01:08] Yes. Just for reference, we are recording this interview in advance. So for people listening, it is now closer to the end of November. But as we are recording this, it is election week because apparently it’s a whole week now and-
Mato J. Steger: [00:01:24] It’s been Tuesday for three or four days now. I can’t remember.
Dianna Gunn: [00:01:29] Yeah, but I don’t want to linger on that. So can you tell us a little bit about your novel Scars?
Mato J. Steger: [00:01:37] Yeah, so Nebula Scars is the full title, which I actually had run a poll on Twitter for people to choose the title for me because I couldn’t decide and then I ended up not going with one they picked because I ended up liking Nebula Scars way more than the other one, which I can’t even remember. That’s how long ago it was. But the pitch, which is actually what got me my, like, foot in the door, was: “Elliot’s first year of school should be studying and homesickness not being placed in a woman’s dorm because he’s trans and not being outed as a witch and definitely not falling in love with a charming witch hunter’s apprentice.” And so, the whole concept is that Elliot is a witch, Elliot is trans, and has been removed from witch society because he is no longer useful, in witch society, because he won’t be spreading or continuing the bloodlines. So, it’s very much witch society is very much like, oh no, we need to keep it pure, but it’s all about the blood itself. And it’s not your very Nazi thing, but they are also very Nazi in the way that they believe. So the story is like queers against their own society, being thrown out of their society because of being queer, which obviously is something a lot of queer people deal with literally in real life. I actually had the story for Elliot in my head for a while, and it comes, obviously from my own personal experiences.
My first year of college, I was told that I was not allowed to use the men’s restroom and that I was not allowed in men’s spaces even though I had a beard, which like, explain that! Ya know? And so I like making everything very fantasy related because I feel like there is not enough queer people in fantasy spaces. And so, Scars was all about that. It was all about going through that thought process of how queer people work in a world where they’re cast out, but also, fighting back and trying to fall in love at the same time, because that’s where for a lot of us, that’s what it comes down to, is either falling in love or if you’re aromantic or asexual, not (laugh) falling in love.
And so I started that. And I want you to know that scars actually started as a rom com. It started at this very fluffy, cutesy thing. And then I was like, this is not working. This isn’t working. And so I completely rewrote it. And, it became incredibly dark even in that first draft. And I can’t say a lot about it because my agent doesn’t want me to give any bad spoilers. But like primarily, it is definitely about falling in love and falling in love quickly when you’re queer and it’s your first love, but also realizing, oh, shit, maybe I fell in love with the wrong person. (both laugh) And then it kind of counters that how we don’t know everything that’s going on in somebody’s life idea, and if you’ve seen the Disney version of Hercules, it has that very essence of Herc and Megara. But gay. Very gay.
Dianna Gunn: [00:05:30] I have to be honest. I know I’ve seen the Disney version of Hercules, but it was so long ago that I don’t really remember anything except give you a few vague images in my head.
Mato J. Steger: [00:05:42] So it’s weirdly romantic, like my favorite Disney movie, which I know that’s not normal. Most people are like, Oh, Beauty and the Beast that I’m like, but Megara. And so the story (Disney’s Hercules) is basically about how Megara works for Hades and because she sold her soul to him to save the life of her lover and her lover leaves her for another woman. And so she’s still bound to Hades. And then so she meets Hercules and he’s (Hades) like, yeah, you’re going to use the fact that Hercules is attracted to you and draw him so that I can basically kill him and get him out of my way, which is kind of the same thing that’s going on with our witch hunter and our love interest in Scars, Dean. He’s working for this witch hunter and doing his bidding in order to save someone he loved, but that ended up backfiring on him. So, that’s kind of the heart of the story. It’s not the whole story. There’s a whole lot more that goes on the first draft that I sent my agent was seventy five thousand words and she was like, I love you. I love the story, but I need these things worked on in this story. And I was like, you’re right. You’re very, very right. I sent it back to her two months later at ninety six thousand words. I had cut twenty thousand and then wrote forty k.
Dianna Gunn: [00:07:20] Wow.
Mato J. Steger: [00:07:22] Yeah. And she’s like, when I saw that, I was a little shocked. (both laughing)
Dianna Gunn: [00:07:29] Honestly that sounds like one of my edits.
Mato J. Steger: [00:07:32] Yeah. You know why it’s so much stronger for it. And then I sent that to her and I wasn’t expecting to hear back for a while. So, I just started writing book two because I couldn’t get my characters out of my head. So that’s where I was that with that. And then she read the book in a week and was like, hey, can we get on a zoom call? And I was like, oh shit. How do I human? So, that’s where that came from,
Dianna Gunn: [00:07:58] I’m pretty sure.Oh, shit, “how do I human” is a thought that every single person has had at some point this year. (laughs)
Mato J. Steger: [00:08:07] Yeah. No, that’s fair. That’s definitely true.
Dianna Gunn: [00:08:13] All right, Nebula Scars explores a lot of dark themes, which you already touched on already sort of talked about how it draws on your own experience as a queer person in a society that doesn’t actively make space for queer people. Did you find that writing about these issues and experiences in fiction and specifically in fantasy was cathartic for you or helped you process those experiences in some way?
Mato J. Steger: [00:08:40] I think yeah. Like a lot of my writing, I think is more therapeutic. And that’s actually why I started writing to begin with. But for Scars specifically when I went back through and I was dealing with the theme of the book, which is the theme of the book is literally scars and scars is such a identifying word for so many things. You have scars on your body, scars inside you and emotional scars.
And for me, you know, I have been completely abandoned by my entire biological family for coming out. And except for like one person who barely talks to me and, you know, my dad, the last thing he said to me five years ago was, “When I think about you, I cry, please never speak to me again.” And so, I’ve honored that. And I haven’t spoken to him in years and I have zero intention of speaking with him. But, you know, I pull on that and I pull on the fact that society has told me over and over and over again, there’s no room for you.
When I was fired from one of my last jobs because my personality didn’t fit in after the hiring manager had seen my vaccine records, which had my gender marker on it. I suddenly did not fit in with the rest of the people there.
And so, I deal with a lot of those internal scars. I get into it in book two as well on a different level, because one of my things is that you can’t go through all this traumatic stuff and have all these horrible things happen to you without having some kind of backlash or effect from it. Personally, I have severe PTSD and I was diagnosed suicidal depression when I was 19. And I dealt with a really severe drug addiction for over two years or so. And I’ve been recovered for like 10 years or something like that now.
And it’s going through all these things for Eliot and going through all of these dark things, he has to deal with, like feeling like somebody he loves betrayed him, feeling like his best friend’s lied to him and feeling like he is trapped and like he has to hide not only who he is, but everything about him, he is worried that if he’s not out, you know, if he’s even somewhat Witchey, someone’s going to see it or there’s going to be backlash from the elders or something is going to happen. And he doesn’t really feel confident in himself, because when we start the journey, he also actually kind of sucks that magic. He’s just a shitty witch. And, you know, when he was 13 and came out as trans, his family was supportive, but the rest of witch society was like, “uuuh no.” And so he never got that support that he would need to develop his magic. And so he just didn’t really use it. And at the very beginning of the book, he gets a new roommate who has to share his space with him. And she’s also a witch and recognizes that he’s a witch and has very irritatingly like in his face about it when all he wants to do is just pretend like witch society doesn’t exist. (both laugh)
But so he’s constantly confronted with his emotions and he’s constantly confronted with other people’s emotions and realizing that he can’t keep running away, which is what he keeps trying to do. So that was me tackling that concept of I can’t keep running away from myself and my issues. I can’t keep running away from the fact that I have PTSD. I have to just face the fact that I have this and I have to move forward with it and understand it. And so for me, the biggest thing is, yeah, I’m rebuilding on those emotions of being ostracized and pushed out of society, but I’m also building a hope for other trans queer people, which is super important to me. Which is a really long way of saying yes. (laughing)
Dianna Gunn: [00:13:32] Well, if we finish things in if we answered questions in a single word, we wouldn’t be able to write whole books, now, would we?
Mato J. Steger: [00:13:41] That is very true.
Dianna Gunn: [00:13:44] So as cathartic as it can be, exploring our darker side and our darker experiences in fiction can also be difficult, and especially when we’re already struggling, as frankly, I think most of us are or have been at some point this year. So how do you take care of yourself when you are dealing with these subjects in fiction? What self care routines do you build in?
Mato J. Steger: [00:14:17] So that has taken me years to build coping mechanisms that work and aren’t like toxic. For me I did take a large break in between books and I did nothing but play video games and just like murdered vampires, because that was the easiest way to deal with things. And but when I started writing book two, there was a moment where I was writing a scene where Elliot gets stopped in the airport by TSA for having a foreign object in his pants, which is his packer that makes him, ya know, look like he’s got something going on down there. And it was really emotionally trying for me because when I first started transitioning, I got stopped by a cop and literally felt up by said cop because they were trying to figure out what I was stealing from the store. Mind you, I had walked out of the store to get a cart because I forgot it was like 4:00 in the morning. I was tired. And so drawing on that, I did break down like emotionally but by sitting with it and talking with people that I can speak with confidently or that are understanding. I was able to kind of work through those emotions. But Hoo boy, that was I was not sure I was going to finish the book type scene.
And so, yeah, I think that, you know, finding something outside of what you like, you love to do, like I love to create art and I love to write. But these are also things that make me money and I have to find something that’s a hobby that I can suck at. And having a hobby that you can suck at is like the best way to cope because your brain is like, I’m just happy I made a thing like, yay, serotonin. I also I did join a gym recently, which helps me kind of like numb my brain for like an hour a day. So those are parts of it. But yeah, it’s mostly for me, it was about finding something that I could really suck at. And I do kind of suck at video games. So it’s cool if I die, though, because it’s just a video game and, you know. If I draw, I don’t always, like, think of my actual sketching and stuff as something that needs to be good, it just needs to just make me happy. So that really works for me personally.
Dianna Gunn: [00:17:05] Yeah, I think it’s important to have those outlets and definitely video games are also great because you just, you know, exit this world and this world is stressful sometimes. Stepping out of your stressful story and into real life is not always a great thing.
Mato J. Steger: [00:17:26] It’s not in 2020 for sure.
Dianna Gunn: [00:17:30] It’s like, oh, I just finished reading this really heavy, intense scene and now you’re going to tell me about the news. And it’s 2020.And I just know this is going to get worse. OK, hand over the whiskey.
Mato J. Steger: [00:17:42] Right? Just drink my feelings away. Thank you. (both laughing)
Dianna Gunn: [00:17:49] Yeah. So. That amusingly brings me to my next question, which is how do you balance your writing with maintaining your health? Because I understand that you also have some physical health issues and, you know, also living in 2020.
Mato J. Steger: [00:18:12] Yeah, yeah, yeah. So my meat suit is garbage. But I have a severe mobility disability and primarily walk with a cane, and I started physical therapy digitally because interestingly enough, the pandemic has made things more accessible. And so I started with just basic stuff that I could do on my bed, and I moved to being able to actually go to the gym and work out a little bit and get very, very sore very quickly, because my body is like, no, I don’t do these things. And I’m like, Yeah. Yes, you do, because I’m not dying at 60.
So that’s a lot of it is I’m trying to make sure I am making time for my body to do the right things. And one of those things is also making sure that I’m eating. I am terrible at making sure that I eat, which is probably normal for most writers. I don’t think any of us remember what time is, but yeah, so I make sure that I eat, make sure that I’m taking time to stretch because I spend a lot of time in this chair right here, like 12 hours a day, eight of it for work and then the rest for writing. And it can be a lot on my body. And I also use a heating pad, which I feel like everyone should have a heating pad just attached to the lower part of their work chair because your body deserves it. (both laugh)
But yeah. So that’s honestly that’s a lot of it is just trying to remember. Oh right. I need to take care of the thing that holds me together because my brain is like I’m the only thing that matters. Just pop me in a cyborg body. We’re good to go. (laughs)
Dianna Gunn: [00:20:17] Yeah. I’m busy trying to write all of these books. I don’t have time to make food or do these things. And it’s like, OK, but you understand, eventually you do break down when you neglect these things and it happens faster when you have a disability.
Mato J. Steger: [00:20:38] Yep. Yep. For transparency, I also do use CBD, so that does help. I don’t have healthcare because America is garbage. So, CBD seems to work for my pain management for the most part because like I said, I have a mobility disability, but it’s focused completely around the fact that I have two fractures in my spine, I have degenerative disc disease, I have mild scoliosis, bone spurs and muscle spasms. So my spine is literally falling apart, like all the time. And then, recently I dislocated my knee, which is fun for the whole family. (both laugh) And about seven or eight years ago, I tore my left rotator cuff in my shoulder. So aside from the fact that parts of me are just falling apart, I am very clumsy. So I’m constantly injuring myself. I punch a screw the other day and cut open my hand. It was just bleeding. And so while I get a lot done, I do write and I, I get my work done. I work with a lot of clients and I do go to school full time and everything. I get a lot done, but at the exact same time I’m just constantly destroying myself in the process. So I have to fight that by doing all the little healthy things.
Dianna Gunn: [00:22:14] Yeah, that is quite the collection of problems with your spine. I’m sorry.
Mato J. Steger: [00:22:22] Oh yeah. And that’s just the physical stuff here. Things just skyrocketed to the hellscape. I have a disorder that makes lights give me migraines and I’m autistic and I have PTSD and I have suicidal depression and ADHD. And you know what? I don’t know how I continue to just breathe and exist every day. (laughs) I just do in spite of, you know, at this point I’m just like my dad hates me. So if I keep living, it’s just going to make his life hell.
Dianna Gunn: [00:23:02] Spite can be a powerful motivator.
Mato J. Steger: [00:23:05] It is. It is it.
Dianna Gunn: [00:23:07] So that brings me to. The one question that I use to tie all of the podcast interviews together, which is how would you like to see the representation of disability not just in publishing but in media as a whole, change in the coming years?
Mato J. Steger: [00:23:27] Oh, man. Did you watch The 3% on Netflix that show?
Dianna Gunn: [00:23:33] No.
Mato J. Steger: [00:23:34] OK, so there’s this show on Netflix. I think it’s still on Netflix is one of the best representations of disability I’ve ever seen in my life. You have a guy who is tied to a wheelchair and they’re offering him to go to this special island where people have like a better life. But in order for him to go there, they have to cure his disability. And he’s not sure if he wants that because he’s so identified to being in a wheelchair. And but, of course, at the same time, he’s like walking again. And I want to see more of that. I want to see more people who have lived with their disability for so long, they don’t know how to not be disabled. And at the same time, I also want to see it just being normal, did you read Six Acros by Leigh Bardugo?
Dianna Gunn: [00:24:30] Not yet.
Mato J. Steger: [00:24:32] I’m going to throw books at you. It’s fine. So Leigh Bardugo is also disabled. She’s a disabled author and the main character of Six of Crows is physically disabled. He fractured, I think, his pelvis or his knees in his past and has to walk with a cane. And I cried probably during that entire fucking book because it was just so relatable and it was the first time I saw me in a book. Like just someone like me, someone who hurts when they walk without their cane, and she describes it so well, obviously, because experience. And I think that that’s something that a lot of abled authors don’t get right, is they think that all of us want to be just cured and go about our lives. But for a lot of us, that’s not a possibility. And this is who we are now. And the one trope that I hate the most when it comes down to this is I am sick and tired of seeing magic curing illnesses and not like, oh, you have a cold. Let me give you something for that. But like, if someone—-In one of my books, a character goes blind and another character tries to use magic to cure his blindness, but all he accomplishes is making him very, very, very far sighted. So he can see, but not very well, (both laugh) and he ends up needing glasses, and I feel like there needs more of that. Well, you may be a little bit magic can push it, but it’s not a perfect thing. There’s a book I didn’t read, that one of my friends is talking about. I can’t even remember what book it is because I probably just erased it from my brain. The character, I think loses a limb or becomes physically disabled at the very end of the book they’re like magic, he’s better now. And that trope makes me want to literally just scream into the void. And I want to see less of that and more of the characters who feel pain. And it’s part of how they exist, but it doesn’t make them absolutely useless. Like, because I’m not a useless person. And the fact that people treat me like I’m useless drives me nuts to the point where I’ll be having a conversation with somebody and my disability will come up, and then if we’re online, they just stop talking to me. I get that it’s uncomfortable, but like it wouldn’t be so uncomfortable if they’ve seen this media representation their whole life.
Dianna Gunn: [00:27:29] Yeah.
Mato J. Steger: [00:27:29] That’s the thing I want to see normalization of disabled people just existing and being human and you know what? Also maybe throwing some fucking magic around that’d be cool. I do in book two have my antagonist and one of the good guys are both disabled, physically in different ways. And I use them kind of polarizing each other. Unfortunately, the antagonist had to be disabled because one of the main characters in book one injures him. So there’s that. (both laugh) Oops, I had to do it. So I did fall into that. But yeah, I really just want to see more normalization of people who are badasses who happen to be disabled and not like I just do things and I’m not actually disabled. Like oh like. Daredevil is blind, but if it rains, hey. I get that he’s supposed to be like a bat who can use sonar, but the way they describe it is like he could just physically see.
Dianna Gunn: [00:28:42] Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous.
Mato J. Steger: [00:28:45] Have you seen Avatar, The Last Airbender? The show?
Dianna Gunn: [00:28:47] Of course.
Mato J. Steger: [00:28:49] OK, OK, Toph. Perfect representation of a blind person who uses their magic abilities to see she doesn’t see. She can tell where things are. So perfect representation. Yeah, that’s that’s it. More of that, less of the other shit.
Dianna Gunn: [00:29:09] Yes, so we are closing in at the end of our time, so where can people go to find out more about you and your work?
Mato J. Steger: [00:29:19] So the best option is to just type fantasy and coffee dotcom into the search bar on their website and it goes right to my website and or they can find me on Twitter, of course, at JM_Steger or Instagram, which is the same thing, but instead of an under dash. It’s a period because they don’t let you use under dashes on Instagram. I also have a YouTube channel that is just Fantasy and Coffee. And if you go to it, it’s literally writing advice.
Dianna Gunn: [00:29:53] Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of the Spoonie Authors podcast, the Spoonie Authors podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network, a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts of this podcast are also available on the Spooning Authors Network. To learn more or become a contributor, visit Spoonie Authors Network Dot blog. And of course, if you enjoyed this podcast, make sure to leave a five star review on your favorite podcast streaming platform.