Exclusive Interview: “Tell Me I’m Worthless” Author Alison Rumfitt
A lot of people have written haunted house stories. But in the following email interview with author Alison Rumfitt about her new novel Tell Me I’m Worthless (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), she talks about how her haunted house story isn’t just about a house that’s haunted.
To begin, what is Tell Me I’m Worthless about?
It takes place in a city on the southern coast of the United Kingdom, and its story concerns a house built there and two girls who become entangled under its influence.
In the press materials for Tell Me I’m Worthless, it says this is a, “work of trans fiction that examines the devastating effects of trauma and how fascism makes us destroy ourselves and each other.” Did you set out to write something with a social or political theme, and this is what you thought of, or did you think to incorporate these elements after you came up with the plot?
I suppose I wanted to write on a basic level about fascism as a haunting or haunting as fascism. That was the core idea, everything else spiraled out from that.
Why did you want to write a story about these themes, what made you realize that story should be a horror story, and what inspired the novel’s specific plot?
I think it just seemed like a compelling metaphor…. I’m a big horror fan, and I knew I had a good understanding of the genre space, I knew it would allow me to really go there in a way other genre spaces might not. The specific plot just came out of trying to work out which people would provide interesting lenses for me to view it through, really. I can’t say more than that because it seemed very simple in my head. Honestly, I originally didn’t want to write about transphobia but you can see that didn’t go very well.
In a way less important vein, is there a reason you set Tell Me I’m Worthless in a house as opposed to, say, an abandoned hotel or an old church or some other place that could be haunted?
Beyond the Hill House of it all, I’d say a haunted house is maybe the most purely iconic haunted location. The others just don’t hit quite the same…
So aside from being a supernatural / social / political horror story, are there any other genres at work in this story?
It’s a love story, of course…there’s also a bit of a miserabilist social realist energy to the prologue that honestly, I wish I could have done more or because I think that’s maybe the purest expression of Britain’s shittiness. If you want to know what I mean watch a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh film.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is your first novel, but not the first thing you’ve written, as we’ll get into in a moment. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a particular big influence on Worthless?
There’s a bit of an endless list that I could end up writing: Helen Oyeyemi, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter…. A lot of women who write or have written in this literary horror / fantasy genre space. Also, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is maybe my favorite book ever written and certainly my favorite about Britain — or England specifically.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Do you think any of those things had a big influence on Tell Me I’m Worthless?
P.T., the teaser for the unmade game Silent Hills, that was extremely important, as was the YouTube video “my house walkthrough,” the Netflix version of Haunting Of Hill House, Neon Genesis Evangelion…do you want me to keep going? I really could [laughs]. I’m probably influenced by other art forms as much as I’m influenced by books. William Blake is obviously very important to the last act of the book. I went to see an exhibition of his work just before COVID. It was cluttered and had some odd political framing, but the art itself outshone those issues. I probably wouldn’t have been able to write the book without having seen those paintings.
Along with Tell Me I’m Worthless, you’ve also published a collection of your poetry called The T(y)ranny. How do you think writing poetry — and, I assume, reading it — may have influenced how you wrote Worthless?
There’s a part of Worthless that is just a poem. Beyond that, I think from poetry I learned to construct images. My poems were always heavy with these vivid, violent images, and I took that forward. I loved the modernists when I studied poetry, so I suppose I got that from Mina Loy and T.S. Eliot.
Tell Me I’m Worthless sounds like it’s a stand-alone story…
I mean never say never, but I can’t imagine writing any sort of continuation. If I were, it would probably be so different that it wouldn’t even be obvious to reasons that it was a continuation. Like, what’s logically next? I think that’s clear from where the book ends.
So, what are you doing next?
My next book is called Brainwyrms [out October 10th], and whilst it’s not a sequel, it is also a British coastal horror story about a real asshole trans girl. So I guess I’ve a type.
Earlier I asked if Tell Me I’m Worthless had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think Tell Me I’m Worthless could work as a movie, show, or game?
Of course, it could work…probably as a film, because I think TV book adaptations are currently doing a very bad job of being anything other than glorified audiobooks. But who knows if anybody would want to make it into a film. It is quite nasty.
If someone did, though, who would you want them to cast as Alice, Ila, Hannah, and the other main characters?
Unknowns. Probably get someone more well known for some of the side characters such as William Martin, but you know. I don’t think we’re going to be casting Hunter Schafer [Euphoria] here for Alice…unless she wants to do it of course.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Tell Me I’m Worthless?
My next book is out this year! Also, go nominate it for an award or something. I don’t know. I’d like one.
Finally, if someone enjoys Tell Me I’m Worthless, what scary novel or novella of someone else’s that you read recently would you suggest they check out?
I’ve been awful at reading recently but God go read Negative Space by B.R. Yeager.