Never Too Old to Save the World is now available! This anthology features a collection of nineteen short stories spanning across genres, featuring protagonists who don't fit our usual idea of a savior or vampire slayer:Never Too Old's heroes aren't the surly teens we're used to seeing save the world, but rather those teens' parents (or, on occasion, grandparents), with all of the baggage that entails. Outland's Em Palladino sits down with Alana Joli Abbott, Outland's Editor-in-Chief and co-editor of Never Too Old, to discuss the anthology's themes, messages, and exploring why we so rarely see soccer moms, cat ladies, retirees, and grandmothers as the Chosen Heroes of their stories. Never Too Old is now available in bookstores everywhere and directly through Outland Entertainment
Em: Never Too Old is an anthology of stories many might consider subversive to the Chosen Hero trope, presenting us with heroes who aren’t the teens we’re accustomed to seeing in the role: they’re older, wiser, more experienced. What sort of themes are these stories wrestling with that are unique to the anthology’s angle?
Alana: I think one of the major themes is one that's very clearly stated in LaShawn M. Wanak's story: "I'm too old for this." While a lot of the stories feature triumphant characters specifically because of their life experience, because they're just too fed up with nonsense to take guff from anyone, others really embrace that idea of adventure and magic being something that belongs to the young. But then, of course, they take on the challenge anyway.
While there's a whole genre of "magical girls" stories like Sailor Moon and the Chosen One tropes familiar from not just Buffy the Vampire Slayer but Star Wars and Joseph Campbell, there are fewer tales of magical grandmothers and magical widowers and even magical moms. We all know that moms and grandparents and elders have magic, right? This is an anthology that embraces that notion and lets our authors really dig in to the idea that unlike Trix cereal, being a hero isn't just for kids.
Q: Why do you think the cultural norm of the teenage hero saving the world took root? When did adult heroes fall out of favor?
A: The idea of the hero as a youth is present in many, many early tales; many of the Greek myths feature a young hero essentially leaving home for the first time, and that's when he (almost always he) uncovers his fate. So it's not new. But I think the other reason that so many stories of adventure feature tweens and teens is exactly the reason the viral tweet that started this anthology considered a flaw: it's that underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. Young people tend to have a much higher tolerance for risks in their decision making. As we get older and have more responsibilities, it's a lot harder to leave it all behind because the world needs us—or to take on saving the world on top of everything else. As much as I love to think I'd respond to the Call to be a hero well, I have a sneaking suspicion I'd be far more like Bilbo Baggins and say "No thank you!" After all, as he wisely says, adventures are uncomfortable things that frequently make you late for supper—and when you're the one who has to make supper, that's a bigger problem!
Q: A good number of the stories in this collection show a commitment to representation and diversity: there are black spiritualists with deep cultural ties, trans lesbian witches performing exorcisms. Outside of age diversity, was featuring diverse stories a conscious decision, or was this a cross-section of what the submitting authors were putting forward and thinking about?
A: One of the things that I'm always conscious of when I'm working on an anthology for Outland is that it's an opportunity to reach out to diverse voices, because an anthology shouldn't be all one thing, and people from different backgrounds will inevitably provide different spins on a theme. That's my favorite part! So the inclusion of diverse voices is always intentional. We clearly didn't invite very many young authors to this anthology, given the theme, but Addie King and I really did strive to invite a lot of people from different areas and with different heritages and life experiences. After we got our list together, I realized we actually gathered quite a few authors from the Midwest, which is atypical for a lot of our projects! Even within that geographic similarity, though, the stories are really different, and I like the unique perspectives that everyone brought to the theme.
Q: You wrote one of the stories in the anthology, “Once a Queen.” What was it like to write a story for an anthology you would edit and curate? Do you feel as though Once a Queen communicates with or is informed by the other stories in the anthology?
A: I really wasn't intending to contribute a story to this anthology, but as I was editing, I got hit by the idea for "Once a Queen," my own response to a Narnia story, thanks to another Narnia-inspired tale in the anthology. I always loved Portal Fantasy as a kid, and I think it's one of the parts of that Chosen One genre that's so closely tied to youth that it deserved a couple of reimaginings. LaShawn M. Wanak, who has talked about her story as a Narnia story, is quite a bit deeper than mine, I don't mind saying. But I liked being able to look at the idea of what it might mean to belong to a place that you feel is no longer accessible to you, that you feel like you have to give it up. What would it be like to look back on that, but never find a new place to belong? The idea of that former-Chosen One trope was also inspired by Scott Colby's Stranger than Fiction, which plays with the idea of the teen heroes who are no longer a big deal, and how they cope with no longer being the center of the narrative.
Q: Many of these stories are remarkably funny, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to dispelling our preconceived notions of what constitutes a hero. When it comes to the standard approach of a teenage hero, we often find there’s a level of melodramatic earnestness; everything is felt. Do you feel as though Never Too Old’s approaches are a reaction to the subject matter, or is there something inherently humorous about a soccer mom taking up demon slaying?
A: I think we've got a nice mix of earnest, darker stories among the comedy (and one surprise ending that I did not see coming!). There's absolutely an element of looking at the Chosen One/demon slayer that considers the ridiculousness of the whole genre—really, one person can save the world from demons/vampires/whatevers? Whose idea was that? It's just a poor system. So the authors who were willing to look poke fun at the genre while staying within it really embraced that ridiculousness and ran with it.
Q: Many of the stories in Never Too Old attempt to rehabilitate and reform their demons (real or metaphorical), whereas a Buffy figure would be focused solely on slaying them (albeit appropriate to her title). Does that outlook come with age?
A: There's a line about this in my story, actually, where my main character considers that! It's very easy when you're young to want the world to be easy to divide into good guys and bad guys. It'd be great if life were like a video game, and only the bad guys showed the red lines of a health bar above them, right? Then there's no moral quandary: you just do the thing, because that's how it's designed. But I do think as you realize the world is more complicated and doesn't break down easily into right and wrong—no matter what age you are when you make that realization—you try harder to see things from another person's perspective, or find similarities to your own situation that you weren't expecting. And I think that stories that acknowledge that make for deeper, truer stories, where the characters are seeking a better world, not just for themselves, but for everyone.
Q: All the stories in Never Too Old are a lot of fun, but are there any standout stories for you?
A: Oh, goodness, it always feels like picking a favorite child to choose a favorite story! Clearly, I've mentioned LaShawn's story a couple of times already, so it's obvious that one had an impact on me. I've also watched audiences respond to LaShawn reading from the piece, and it so clearly resonates with others! I also got to work with Vaseem Khan for this anthology; I've been a fan of his mystery work and I was thrilled he stepped out of his genre to write some science fiction for us. Jaymie Wagner's story is this lovely high fantasy piece that feels like a warm blanket, even before you know everything is going to turn out all right. But really there are just so many good stories; I feel privileged to have worked with these wonderful authors, and my fantastic co-editor.