The Mind Behind a Modern Queer Fairytale

We interview Daniel Sheen about his work, queer love and 90s nostalgia

Daniel Sheen he/him is a queer, multidisciplinary artist and writer, currently living in the UK. Right now Daniel is working on his debut novel, a queer coming of age fairytale set to a backdrop of brutal rural America in the 1990s. Daniel’s visual and written art beautifully and unflinchingly portrays the experiences of being a queer teenager in a rural area, the pain, euphoria, longing and loneliness. We were honoured that Daniel agreed to share his unseen work with Queer Cumbria readers, here we catch up with him about his inspirations as an artist.

Can you tell us a little about your book project?

It’s called Everything Gets Brighter As The Night Grows Darker, and it’s a modern fairytale, a queer, coming of age epic set in America in the 1990s. Essentially, it’s a chaotic teenage love story featuring loneliness, mental illness, grief, addiction, parental neglect, childhood trauma, road trips, homelessness, found family, and the power of art to transcend the darkest of times. It was important for me to capture the essence of a wild, rural upbringing—like my own—because it feels like this sort of experience remains conspicuously absent from the literary landscape, particularly within the domain of the queer narrative. Consequently, my characters also defy the confines of conventional queerness; they love bands like Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, they’re skater boys, they hang around with punks and goths. My aim here was to illuminate the less-explored facets of the queer spectrum, and in doing so, amplify the voices of the marginalised, working class kids who filled my teenage years with such joy; the metalheads, the indie kids, the skaters etc.

The 90s were particularly isolating for young queer people, with things like section 28 and coming out of the AIDS crisis – do you think that sense of isolation plays out in your work?

I think being queer in general is often lonely and confusing, but I reckon that goes double coming from a working class, rural environment. And whether that’s the Cumbrian fells, the heartlands of America, the mountains of Europe, or the forests of South America, it’s all the same in the end; when you’re cut off from the world, devoid of points of reference, you know nothing but yourself. And that can be scary experience. Especially in the 90s, before the rise of the internet. Although I’m sure it’s a similar story today, even with the internet making the world a much smaller place. Personally, I’ve spent most of my life homesick for something I have no name for. But by being creative, I use that to my advantage. I turn my loneliness into something beautiful.

How much of the book is based on your own experiences of queerness? Where do we see you in the story?

Oh, I am everywhere! I think there’s nothing more necessary than self indulgence in a novel. What the hell are we here to write about other than what we’re obsessed by? If you’re not writing with passion about your deepest obsessions, then your work is going to be of the collective, not of the individual. It will be cookie cutter and boring. I’d much rather bebanned than boring.

Would you think it’s fair to say your work sits at a meeting point between darkness and romance? Do you think the same can often be said for queer identity?

I think so much of being queer is about finding joy in what would otherwise destroy us. Queer folk have always lived on the edges of society, out near the borders, in the wilderness, where the shadows lie. We make our home within the darkness, because to us, the darkness means protection. It’s where we feel safe. And what’s more romantic than finding love in the darkness?

Do you think queerness is represented enough in literature?

No, but we’re getting there, slowly. Just in the last few of years we’ve had an explosion of queer literature right across the board, but especially in literary fiction, horror and YA, which has been wonderful to see. But we need to keep pushing, we can’t take our eye off the ball for a second. The mainstream would love nothing more than to crush us. You only have to look at the horrifying amount of anti queer / anti trans legislation that has arisen in America over the course of the last year to know that’s the truth. They’re not even being subtle anymore.

What or who are your main inspirations?

My God is teenage, feral, a dark shape with glowing edges. Go figure. So. Writers like J T Leroy, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tart, Dennis Cooper, Jon Ransom, Max Porter, Lucas Rijneveld, Ocean Vuong, Scott Heim, A M Homes, Jim Grimsley, Maryse Meijer, as well as folklore, fairytales, nature writing, loneliness, childhood, nostalgia, and a deep longing for everything that no longer exists, for everything I can never have.

How has the process of writing a novel been so far?

The best three and half years of my life. Although I’ve still got a while to go before the finish line. Turns out that editing a 891 page manuscript is rather complicated!

Do you have any advice for young writers who might be reading this?

I know this is boring, but for me it’s been crucial. Write every day. The more you live within your world, the more you’ll understand what needs to happen within that world. Surrender to your world. Same with your characters. Spend time with them. Get to know them. Find out what makes them tick. Don’t worry about plot, worry about how your protagonist is going to change over the course of the story. The plot will take care of itself if you know your character arcs. And it doesn’t matter how your words come out. Just get them down. Editing is your friend. You can fix anything in editing. Lastly, make sure to create only for yourself. There is no audience. If you write what you love (what you’re obsessed with) with passion, then your audience will come to you. Do not be left stunted by censoring yourself.

Anything from the 90s that you would resurrect?

Grunge, Britpop, early Nu-metal. And Edward Furlong lol.

A parting message for queer youth?

You are not alone, no matter how alone you think you are. Go find your family.

Art by Daniel Sheen / @disaffected.youth /