I fell in love with A.E. Osworth’s writing the first time I read it. I came across an essay of theirs and read it over and over and over again, and then used it as a prompt to inspire some of my own. Eventually, I slid into their DMs and we became close, allowing me to love them as a person, too. They are now a very dear friend of mine.
When I first read their debut novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, I devoured it over the course of a single weekend, during two very long stretches in the tub. The book follows Eliza, a programmer, as she deals with sexist harassment that becomes increasingly terrifying. It is narrated completely by two alternating collective voices, with a group of Redditors serving as one set of unreliable narrators, and The Sixsterhood, a collective of queers, serving as the other.
The book is a masterpiece of craft, thoughtfully assembled. Part mystery, part crime thriller, part social commentary, it also asks deeper questions about how we create our reality, who is impacted by surveillance culture, what role community plays in the world, and how misogyny can poison us all. I was lucky enough to speak with Osworth — or, as I know them, Austen — about their book. I hope you will pick up We Are Watching Eliza Bright so that maybe you, too, can fall in love with Austen’s writing.
I once asked you if being mad was a good enough reason to write a book, and you responded by telling me it was the reason you’d written this one. Can you tell me more about that?
A.E. Osworth: I got pissed about GamerGate [a campaign of targeted, sexist online harassment in gaming culture]! I was working for Autostraddle as Geekery editor, and part of that is covering nerd culture. So I was just watching this unfold. And just getting madder and madder and madder — I thought I was a cis woman at the time lol.
It’s okay, we've been all I've been there.
AO: Fair! But the fact that I'm not doesn't change how mad I am that there is an entire segment of the population that is subjected to this online. Basically, anyone who is not a man and who is not specifically a straight white cis man is subject to an elevated degree of harassment. That makes me upset, because I love the internet and I want everyone to be able to just use it however they would like.
But also, I have a really big giant personal ethos about the act of play. I think it is potentially the most valuable thing that we do. Because it both lightens us as people and also we learn from it, and human adults are so discouraged to play already. And so watching GamerGate fuck with the human act of play on top of fucking up people's lives, that's like, a double whammy for me. So I was super mad at that point. And when I'm that mad about stuff, and I can't stop thinking about it, writing is a way to get it into a form where I can actually see what all of my thoughts are and process them. I did not know if anyone was going to like or read the book. But I did know it had to get out of my body.
I know the main protagonist here is a cis woman. But what I was really intrigued by were the men in this book. Because yes, some of them do terrible things and they're evil and bad. But every man in this book is complicit in different ways. Some of them are trying to be good guys, but because they are men who have been conditioned to see the world in a certain way, they're not capable of seeing the true harm. I think about this with a character like JP, who's uncomfortable with Lewis’ actions, but he doesn't really know how to tell him to stop. Or Preston thinking a slap on the wrist will be fine. And it's not until the wheels come off and things have gotten way out of control that some of these “good guys” realize how bad it is. I'm assuming that this was a way of showing the spectrum of harm that men, or misogyny, can cause — whether it's intentional or not?
AO: That was an interesting place for me to occupy, because while I am trans, I am not a man. So I had to sit down and think, If these things were true for me, what would I be thinking about and what would I not be thinking about? For instance, Preston never deals with the problem of his location services, even after he faces consequences for having them turned on. Because in the end, Preston has never had to think about it before. And he's got a degree of privilege. That means that even if everyone knows where he is at all times, he thinks he’s gonna be fine.
And of course, you know, I can't represent all men — no one can. And so that's the beauty of fiction is that I get to have a bunch of men try to do it for me, that I made up. I get to explore a lot of different kinds of masculinity. And also, I don't know that I have it right. But I also don't know that I need to have it right.
I think it was really true to reality, though. Because even the inciting incident seems initially like it's not a big deal. It's just lines of code that spell the word “boobs.” It seems like a joke, but the way it spirals shows how the root of the misogyny under the joke is so toxic.
AO: You know, I workshopped this in my second ever workshop in grad school. I was one of three people in that workshop who were not men. And one of the primary critiques that I got in that workshop, that I had to sit down and go, I'm going to ignore this, even though I am conditioned to listen to everything that these people say, was that [the code] was just a joke. And it wouldn't escalate in the way that it does in my story, it’s not enough to kick off a whole book.
But even people who are not men can internalize this stuff. I think the Delphine character is an example of that. She’s a woman who has internalized these victim-blaming narratives and “not like other girls” and this internalized misogyny that so many of us have had to dismantle in ourselves.
AO: Delphine was added after that workshop! And what's funny is after adding Delphine, another big piece of feedback that I kept getting was that it was too unrealistic for a woman to be thinking and saying those things. And I was like, I know that that's wrong. I know that it's super realistic because it's in me, too. It's in all of us. We all live here, we all hear the same stuff, we're all getting the same messages. We are all steeped in this shitty tea.
Let's talk about your narrators. This is narrated completely in the collective — there's two different collective narrators. Can you talk about the decision to narrate this as a collective?
AO: I knew pretty much from the jump that it was going to be narrated in that collective, but how they knew things was something that went through a lot of transformation. I originally had this idea where it was going to start as a big group and go down to one person. And I scrapped that because in the end, that wasn't as interesting to me. I didn't find it realistic, because these communities really do operate collectively.
I looked at fandoms on the whole, and this is what happens a lot: people make a lot of assumptions about what is in someone else's brain, heart, life, and then talk on the internet like they know it for sure. And that is how they come to know what they know, which is that they're making things up, they are speculating. And there are some touchstones [in the book] where they get to try to prove themselves right. For example, they can see the character sometimes in the game [they all play]. They see some of the characters on television, there are even some places where they imply that they're in physical space for the characters, as well. Though I have had a couple of readers tell me that they wondered if that was real — if they were in physical space. And, I will not tell you if I think it is real or not.
The other thing about your narrators is that it’s not just collective, but unreliable. You use the narrative device throughout the portions of the book narrated by the Redditors where you say, this happened, or this happened, or that happened, or maybe this other thing happened. And I think it does a good job allowing the reader to understand how the subreddit is creating the reality within itself. But it also makes the reader question what they know to be true, it distorts reality for the reader. There are some things that, even when we’ve finished this book, we still don't actually know what really happened.
AO: I think that's the way reality is constructed, especially collective reality — especially, especially on the internet. There will always be some things that, when we’ve finished the book, whatever the book is, we still don't know. The “ors” got born so that I could signal to the reader how the collective knows what they know. And the function of the “ors” got more complex as I kept writing. Like, I actually did not understand the full function of the “ors” until I added my second narrator. And the second narrator plays against that function, and so I was able to clarify what that function actually was.
Let's talk about The Sixsterhood, then, because that’s the second narrator. They shelter Eliza when she is dealing with the stalking and threats. I love this narrator because it feels like a representation of our [queer] community, a little bit of a send up of our community, but it feels like it's done with love. What was the function of this second narrator?
AO: I had been really at war with myself about the argument about community that I was making. By only showcasing the Reddit narrators that are really toxic, I did not agree with the argument that I had wound up accidentally making, which is that this is what community looks like and this is what collectives are. So The Sixsterhood gave me the opportunity to portray another collective, one that I find more successful and more intentional — though they are certainly problematic at times. They're made up of people, they have to be flawed. They are not perfect, but they are very kind. And it allowed me to expand the argument I was making about community.
Something appreciated about The Sixsterhood — and I don't know if cishet people will necessarily get this — but I laughed out loud at many things that were in that section. They were jokes that were made for me, for people like me, which I appreciated. But I also wondered about the tone of this narration, which is much lighter, in a book that's very serious, heavy material. Was that an intentional breathing space for the reader?
AO: Yes, it was. It is. And it also is intentionally for you. It is intentionally for my people. The Sixsterhood is my love letter to my people. What's interesting is that I had to back into that voice. What is interesting is that I also wound up with a voice that is not that far off from how I talk. And I didn't think to put it in a book, which is upsetting.
I've just been re-reading “How to Unlearn Everything” by Alexander Chee, and it is about writing people who do not look like you. But it also is about writing people who do and who are a part of your culture. And he says sometimes he encounters in himself or in his students a tendency to write straight white guys, when one is not a straight white guy. And it is upsetting to me that I had to back into writing the way that I speak. I didn't think to put it in a novel. Which is sad, because it means I didn't see it in a novel. So I didn't think it should go there. I didn't have a concept of The Sixsterhood as a voice because I had never seen voices like mine, voices like my community, in a book.
Is there something that you are hoping to be asked that you haven't gotten to talk about yet?
AO: I really thought that everyone was gonna ask about the VR. And everyone has talked to me about the narrators, which is great, it's my favorite part of the book. The Sixsterhood, in particular, is my favorite part of the book, because it's my love letter to my people. But no one has asked me questions about the virtual reality!
Okay, then! Did Suzanne and Preston have sex [in the VR world]? And if so, does it count?
AO: Um, does it count? I posed the question in the book with a couple of different answers, because I think it is up to people if it counts individually.
Well, if they did, then — spoiler for the fans at home — we did.
AO: Mmmhmm, I was about to say, if it were me, I think that counts. Suzanne doesn't think it counts. And I have met people who would not count it. And I think it is up to you, whoever is engaging in those acts, whether or not it counts. But to me, it counts because the consequences of the virtual world are real. The consequence of that sexual encounter is a real consequence. Now I will pose the next question to you though, which is: Do you actually think that they did do this thing, or do you think that something else happened? I think it counts as real sex but I will not come down on the side of whether or not they really did the act at all.
Well, the queer in me wants to say no.
AO: And see, the queer in me wants to say yes. But I think there's a read for either way.