Ideas for fiction come from strange places. Twenty years ago I stumbled across the art of Henry Darger, a Chicago writer and artist who labored in secrecy, developing entire imaginary worlds that were only discovered after his death. His art was compelling–and disturbing. What prompted him to invent stories about children who suffered horrible fates at the hands of brutal adults? Why did so many of his drawings feature naked children of ambiguous gender? What drove him to pen tens of thousands of pages about a slave rebellion in the “realms of the unreal”?

I looked up what books I could find at the time. One (I can’t remember which) fabricated a psychological portrait of the artist and hinted at the possibility his obsession with child murder indicated he, himself, was a killer. As disturbing as I found Darger’s work, I found that suggestion an aggravating stretch, one based on the too-common conflation of mental illness with violent behavior that so often inspires crime fiction.

Years later, the feelings Darger’s art stirred in me two decades ago became the germ of a plot idea. I wanted to explore the idea of creative work pursued so privately, outside the pressures that artists feel in our era of the attention economy. At the same time, I wanted to probe the ways we attribute sinister motives to people who live outside the boundaries of social expectations. And I was interested in revisiting characters from books I published years ago–without getting caught up in the publishing world. I’ve done that (not especially successfully) and I didn’t enjoy it.

A few years ago when I decided to step away from the world of commercial publishing, I explained that decision in a 2016 blog post in these words:

You have to be really good and really lucky to make it in traditional publishing. I read a lot of books and I’m grateful to the authors and publishers who feed my reading addiction, but I haven’t been good and lucky enough to break out, except in hives. Turns out I’m severely allergic to the business end of publishing. Why try to do something that makes you miserable?

“Indie” publishing isn’t the solution for me. You have to be really good and really lucky and willing to produce like crazy to make it in self-publishing. I can’t write that way. My muse is like a toddler taken for a walk. Forget about getting anywhere fast. Besides, I think our fetish for productivity is irreparably harming ourselves and the planet. So that’s out for me.

Combine my slacker tendencies and an allergy to the business of publishing with serious reservations about Amazon, the leading platform for self-published books, it makes sense for me to try something that fits my personal values better. More like the zine world–hand-made and imperfect and shared for love, not money. To be honest, most fiction writers are motivated more by love than money because hardly any make a living at it. But even so, productivity, sales, and frantic marketing efforts infuse the writing world and that’s what I want to leave behind. It’s inconsistent with my anarchist tendencies and my own mental health.

If you’re reading this, thanks for spending time in my imaginary world. If my story gives another person an hour or two of entertainment, that’s reward enough. Thanks, too, to my partner who has always been my first reader and chief motivator, and to Minitex for funding the Minnesota Library Publishing Program’s instance of PressBooks that I used to produce this book.


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In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.