On Strangers, Slowness, and Embodying Community: An Interview with Casey Plett

On the other side of my laptop screen, author Casey Plett sits on a park bench under the trees of an unmistakably New York City avenue.

On the other side of my laptop screen, author Casey Plett sits on a park bench under the trees of an unmistakably New York City avenue.

As she settles, earbuds in, I sheepishly confess that upon reading her Wikipedia page before our call, I discovered our birthdays are one day apart. We proceed to squeal enthusiastically (as fellow Geminis should) and I can’t help but think that if my copy of her latest book On Community is underlined beyond recognition, I can’t imagine her personal notes!

Throughout our interview, Casey speaks swiftly and with intent, pausing every so often to gaze into the distance in search of a memory or phrase to carry her responses across. The cacophony of blasting radios and honking trucks in the background impeccably mirrors her innate persistence to cut through the noise.

Community, for me, has always been about healing and togetherness. In a society that is so intent on convincing us that we must do it alone, being in communion with others has taught me how to make something out of nothing, and how precious it is to find a home away from home.

Amidst all these definitions and (re)interpretations of “community,” Casey Plett truly embodies the nuances, spits on assumptions and holds space for the real, the ugly, the bittersweet and everything in between.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alexia Bréard-Anderson: What inspired you to become a writer, and how did you discover your passion for storytelling? Was there a specific ‘aha’ moment or did it unravel in a different way?

Casey Plett: Two things come immediately to mind. When I was 16 or 17, I wrote this random thing in my LiveJournal, just online blog toss-off stuff, and a few of my friends said they liked it. I remember being intrigued by that. And then at 19, I had just dropped out of my first undergrad program and had a really weird week. I was writing in this Starbucks when I thought that maybe I should give this writing thing a try. I never looked back.

Alexia Bréard-Anderson: A leap of faith! Funny how writing, after a while, writes itself. How do you know when a piece is finished and ready to be shared?

Casey Plett: I know when it’s not. (laughs) I can tell when a format isn’t working, or when I haven’t unpacked something enough … In contrast, I can write pages and pages of something until I realize that it can be said in one paragraph. It’s a very tricky thing, to know when another push will get something over the hump, or when you're asking your body for something it can’t do, and end up overworking.

AB: Do you find it challenging to switch from writer to editor and back again, as a co-publisher of Little Puss Press?

CP: Honestly, editing is a lot like writing. You’re using the same muscles and delving into the same problems. I love how refreshing the rest of publishing is … boxing up books and putting them in the mail, paying bills, booking someone’s plane ticket, haggling with a journalist on how you want the book to be represented … it takes up another part of my brain.

AB: How very Gemini of you!

CP: It’s so funny because I have two Gemini magnets on my fridge with little cartoon characters. One has traits such as: fun, creative, life of the party. The other one says: moody, undependable, two-faced. (laughs)

AB: That duality is so real. Throughout the book, you discuss the paradox of a space or group being both communal and exploitative at the same time. How do you reckon with this ongoing issue?

CP: There are good parts of ‘community’ which are really necessary and then there are the really ugly parts to tease out. Writing about this made me realize that I’m not sure if you can even separate these things. On a base level, as soon as people gather, there are power dynamics that form and people who are excluded or on their way to being excluded. I would say it's a near instant process, and I don't think you can tear those things apart from each other.

And yet of course, community is so incredibly necessary. I’m skeptical of individualism and that subconscious push from society that we don’t need others. Even those with the best relationships would never say they’re easy or that they haven’t had their grim or toxic moments. For me, the takeaway is to never ignore the ‘ugly,’ or give up completely on community either.

AB: In On Community you write a lot about how important it is to remain open, even when everything is conspiring for us to remain insular, suspicious, bitter or closed off—that whatever the community doesn’t want to look at is, ultimately, what it should be delving deeper into. Do you think individualism keeps us from approaching conflict in open and healthy ways?

CP: Yes! Just look at the pop psychology diagnosis of narcissism in our society! It reinforces the false binary that some people are selfish and never think of others, an idea that’s always perpetuated by those who, magically, always claim to think of others. False binaries like this don’t really have anything to do with how human interaction actually works.

AB: I’m always skeptical of writing somebody or an entire group of people off. I often wonder if there’s room to approach something with more attentiveness or care.

A very beautiful part of my adult life has involved being around others who’ve shown me that you can have conflict, bitter exchanges and a lot of really intense disagreements … but that doesn’t mean you’re giving up on each other.

CP: I’m especially concerned with disposability and how easily we get pushed away from more difficult interactions. I was raised in a culture that was really quiet, where any sort of disagreement or antagonism was explosive. Talking with my mom the other day, she shared that never mind yelling at each other, just saying the word ‘very’ loudly was cause for concern!

A very beautiful part of my adult life has involved being around others who’ve shown me that you can have conflict, bitter exchanges and a lot of really intense disagreements … but that doesn’t mean you’re giving up on each other. I feel blessed to have this, and am always curious about how society encourages us to not come back for another round, when we should.

AB: It saddens me how much of this disposability stems from wanting to feel validated. And how quickly rejection becomes ghosting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for honouring space, limits and boundaries—but I feel people get stuck when it comes to actually expressing them. How to say no, how to say yes, how to walk away from something while still respecting the other person …

CP: Yes. It’s tricky because toxic relationships are real.

AB: Within all of these intentions to grow and strengthen communities and be in community with one another, you mention how important it is to make room for random, organic interactions. What has this looked like for you recently? Where has this popped up in your life, or in the lives of those around you?

CP: This happens a lot at readings with trans writers, and I remember being a little resistant about it at first. When I first started doing readings for my debut novel Little Fish, we were at one with Cat, my friend and business partner, and we saw two quiet people. Both of them had come without knowing anybody, and they had ended up talking to each other. I remember Cat saying something like, “Look! This is happening because we did this event.” And I understood that, but like, don’t put that on me, you know? I’m just here to show up and read and do my thing.

But I thought about it afterwards for a while and actually no, that is real. That’s not something you can get away from. You throw an event and people will come to it and there are choices about what you want that to look like. I always try to make room for people to just hang out.

Another example was Windsor Pride. I’ve never been much of a “Pride” person, I don’t have a problem with it, it's just never really been on my personal map … but this year obviously with the backlash it was very emotional for a lot of us. As I walked along the parade, I slowly realized it wasn’t about the parade floats or the fun little acts—it was running into all these people I knew. We didn’t even need to talk or interact in a specific way. Just recognizing each other doing this thing together was enough.

AB: After all the definitions and expressions and organizing, you just need to let go and just be, and let others be.

CP: I think this is why it’s so challenging to recreate this approach in virtual events. Virtual events are obviously really important for accessibility reasons, for people who can't be in that same town … but it’s such a challenge to translate them successfully. I don’t have a solution to this, other than I think that as an arts community we can keep working on it.

You’re usually acting instinctively or quickly in community, and it’s so important to slow down and reflect. I’m very interested in the degrees to which we know in our bones the best way to approach something, rather than get in our brains about it.

AB: Yes! All of these online platforms are tools and serve unique functions, but to create an ‘organic’ gathering space somewhere like Zoom is so contradictory! Similar to what you discuss in the book about social media, these virtual spaces are not necessarily the cause for disconnection … if anything they’re mirrors, revealing our challenges with relating and being in communion with one another.

For example, you mention the luxury of slow consideration in your book, and so much of being in community with others does not involve that luxury. It’s different when you have people right in your face, or someone breaking down, or issues with safety.

CP: Absolutely. You’re usually acting instinctively or quickly in community, and it’s so important to slow down and reflect. I’m very interested in the degrees to which we know in our bones the best way to approach something, rather than get in our brains about it.

As for safety … so many of the people in my life who are open and gracious with strangers are people who have suffered really terrible things at the hands of strangers. When I first realized this, it became so obvious! And it helped shape my own experience as well.

AB: How did this (in)form your writing?

CP: I started writing On Community right during the post-vaccine period in the summer of 2021, where we were collectively figuring out how post-lockdown would work. It was so curious, because we’d been removed from so many interactions for such a long period of time. Tons of this book comes out of old stuff in my life that I’ve obviously thought about many times … but the needs in the moment were always more pressing. I wouldn't have written a word of this had I not really slowed down and made myself.

AB: It can take so much energy and time to truly embody and learn things to eventually put them out there. I feel like it’s another reminder that there’s always space for introspection, even in moments of very real urgency.

CP: Yes! Look at a romantic partnership for instance. You don’t spend most of your time thinking about your relationship, usually you’re just in it. And although we all know how it feels to be figuring something out with our partner, close friends or God knows, with family. (laughs) ... But the majority of our time together is not about that—it’s about being with them, and truly in those interactions.

AB: And because sometimes we just can’t interact … What’s your favourite thing on the internet right now? Any recent reads you’ve particularly enjoyed?

CP: Did you know PostSecret is still around?! I’ve gotten reacquainted with it and it’s become a really gentle punctuation to my weeks. As for books, I just picked up Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki which is really, really good. I also recently reread Noor Naga's If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English ... such a moving reminder that there is always more to learn, to grow from.

AB: It really is a slow, trippy unfolding. What’s next for you in this journey?

CP: I’m trying to write fiction again. No more opinions for a while. (laughs)

About the authors

Alexia Bréard-Anderson is a writer and cultural producer from Buenos Aires, based in Toronto. Alexia is incredibly passionate about music and has a deep love for supporting independent artists through storytelling and collaborative space-making. She has a web of experience developing events, exhibitions, mentorship programs, art residencies and workshop series over the past decade and currently works behind-the-scenes at Sofar Sounds and BSMT 254 and has contributed to publications such as RANGE Magazine, Femme Art Review and The Ex Puritan. She also writes about music, spirit and in-betweenness in her monthly newsletter MANZANA and has just released her debut indie electronica EP 'Entre Mundos' as Golondrina

Casey Plett is the author of A Dream of a Woman, Little Fish, A Safe Girl to Love, the co-editor of the anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, and the Publisher at LittlePuss Press. She has written for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Winnipeg Free Press, and other publications. A winner of the Amazon First Novel Award, the Firecracker Award for Fiction, and a two-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award, her work has also been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.