Halli Starling (she/her) writes fantasy worlds, vampires, and romance, focusing on stories with deep emotional investment. And the occasional bloody bit of violence.
Halli, you are currently a GM for Terrible Party, group that streams TTRPGs, video games, and charity events. Can you tell us a little about the show?
We’re an international group, and the pandemic hit us hard in a lot of different ways, so we’re just now coming back from long break! We started 4 years ago, and at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing or what technology I needed. We recorded everything, but didn’t start streaming until 2-3 years ago. I’ve almost always been the GM with mostly the same people the whole time.
Our first stream was a charity event, because Chris (a dwarf cleric in our first campaign) worked with a variety of charity events over the years. I coordinated this the event as admin, and we’ve been doing charity events ever since.
When did you start playing D&D? What drew you to the game?
I was an early fan of Critical Role, and I mean episode 10 early! I knew of tabletop games, but hadn’t had the chance to play in any at that point. When I finally stumbled into it, I thought, “This is exactly what I thought I wasn’t brave enough to do.” I had always wanted to do improv but was too scared. D&D combined improv and storytelling in a way that just fit me perfectly.
At the time, I wasn’t happy with my own writing, and D&D helped with that too. Playing gave me a chance to learn narrative storytelling that is 90% thinking off the top of my head. It allowed me to grow as a writer in some really interesting ways. For instance, I was able to explore vulnerability and character depth in a way that felt safe. When I was writing, I would stare at the same page, the same lines, not knowing how to progress because I was stuck in my head. I didn’t know how to write a character honestly and vulnerably without making them into a whiny baby. But when I started playing characters in D&D, I was developing them in a series of snap judgements that felt so much easier than writing ever did.
As a queer person, have roleplaying games helped you explore or express your queer identity?
For sure. I have the benefit of being white, middle class, and in a seemingly heterosexual marriage. People assume that we’re both straight, although there is better understanding not that that isn’t always the case. When I was 14 or 15, I realized I wasn’t straight, and at the time I called myself bisexual. Now I prefer the label “queer” because it’s all encompassing. There’s still a lot about myself that I don’t fully understand, and “queer” leaves room for that.
I’ve been very lucky that the group I play D&D with is very queer, with people of varying ages who are transitioning and asking questions. It was very affirming to me. Being with them made me feel more secure and more open. As I learned about different ways that people view themselves on the queer prism, I felt more comfortable exploring that too.
Playing D&D allows me the freedom to live out different aspects of myself. I like to play characters that, for all their bluster, are big mushy softies. Eggs (a character I played for years) is a two foot tall ball of chaos, but she got to fall in love with a seven foot tall warrior woman. Getting to play that out was vulnerable, but it didn’t make me feel fragile; it was like it was meant to be there.
In your professional life, you work in the book world. What do you think is the importance of storytelling?
There is no other way that we encapsulate our life experiences – shared or alone – except through words. It is how we encapsulate everything, from Reddit themes to award-winning books.
You’ve written several books, including Wilderwood. When I read it, I was delighted by how queer it was, as well as the “Why have love triangles when you can have polyamory?” vibe. Why did you choose to tell such a queer story?
My first encounter with polyamory in fiction was in fan fiction (which I’ve also written for two decades). I saw it represented, and I thought it was interesting. The visual novels that Lunaris Games creates show polyamory too. They show healthy relationships with no fear of insane jealousy with people who can form bonds with more than one character. Romance novels are often predictable – which is why they’re comfortable – and lately we’ve been getting gay romances, lesbian romances, different ideas of queer romance. But I still don’t often see polyamory.
When I wrote the first encounter between Bel and Octavia in Wilderwood, I thought something was missing between them. They were madly in love, but they had more to give. It came together very naturally that they would need someone else to complete them. I didn’t intend to write a queer story, necessarily. Bel was the first character that sprang to mind, and they just made sense. They don’t see themselves as male or female – they just are who they are. They have a specific vulnerability to them that makes me want to protect them, and I think Octavia was written out of it.
How do you work to represent varying genders and sexualities accurately?
I trust my close friends, who are very diverse. We talk, and I hear what’s going on with them and how they’re feeling. They provide me with the nuances I still don’t see in books very often, like polyamory, nonbinary characters, and the fluidity of gender. When I was younger, I knew things theoretically but didn’t know people’s stories. Games brought me into a world with people who I could relate to and who could teach me more.
I try to write as authentically as I can secondhand. I study, learning about queer history – how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. And I always solicit feedback when my manuscript is done.
I wanted to write it as secondhand authentically as I could. Solicit feedback when manuscript was done.
Wilderwood belongs to what I would call a dark fantasy/horror/gothic genre. What draws you to that kind of story?
I’ve always loved darker stories; in fact, Dracula was one of the first classics I got into. I love gothic stories set in the Victorian era that have lean into dark fantasy and horror. The movie Crimson Peak is a great example of what I’m talking about. There’s no better monster than what we can come up with in our heads, and gothic fiction plays on this. It’s also important to me that a lot of gothic novel authors are women, and they’re often queer. We can learn so much about how these women used stories to represent how they were feeling about being pushed to the side. It’s absolutely a genre of the marginalized.
Do you have any projects coming up?
I wrote a set of short stories called Twelfth Moon that is coming out December 7th. I’m donating 50% of the proceeds to The Ozone House, which works with displaced and recently homeless young adults, a lot of whom are queer. Twelfth Moon is fluffy and seasonal with interconnecting stories – the best kind of queer Hallmark holiday content!
Do you have any recommendations of queer nerdy content that you would like people to know about?
- Lunaris Games – highly recommend! It’s inclusive and queer with great storytelling and art. Stories include: When the Night Comes, Errant Kingdom, and the forthcoming Call Me Under
- The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard: I have never, ever read a character study so intense or so intriguing…especially not in over 900 pages. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.
- KJ Charles: My introduction to m/m historical romance that wasn’t cringey, weird, or stereotypical. Her books are also closer to the 200 page range, making them good for anyone wanting a well-told story that doesn’t drag on and on. I love all her books but An Unsuitable Heir broke me, I was left happy and sobbing at the same time. It features a disabled detective (Mark has a prosthetic arm) and a nonbinary trapezee artist (Pen is magnificent, vulnerable and stubborn in equal measure) as they untangle Pen and his sister’s past and its ties to a noble family.
- Believe Me by Eddie Izzard: There was so much I didn’t know about Eddie’s life. Her incredible story – including losing her mother at a young age – is, I think, best heard from Eddie’s voice through the audiobook for Believe Me. And given her incredible talent and timing (everything from standup comedy to the role of Dr. Abel Gideon in Hannibal), it’s a story worth listening to and experiencing.
- The Luminous Dead by Caitlan Starling: What I’ve learned about timing – dreadful, suspenseful, dark, meaningful – was honed through Starling’s writing. The Luminous Dead is a great concept – a cave diver takes on a mineral mapping job for pay she desperately needs. The job should be easy. But soon you and Gyre realize that Em, the person funding the expedition, has other motives…and control of Gyre’s diving suit. Ignore the comparisons to Jeff Vandermeer and Andy Weir. Starling’s book is far better.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Play tabletop games if you don’t already! I think it is so fun to see that moment when a new player realizes why TTRPGs are fun. We’re bound up in our own brains and hesitancies that roadblock us, and playing games with other people is so freeing.
Thank you, Halli. Check out her website to find more information on her books and TTRPGs!