After six years of solving user experience and interface issues, Daphne Wert Strasert tackled a different kind of problem: monsters. The Rice University Computer Science alumna (B.S. ’12) is now a published horror author.
“I always thought I was afraid of horror stories,” said Strasert. “But I enjoyed TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and I read a lot of paranormal chapter books. I even taught a class on monsters my senior year at Rice.
“The class was supposed to cap at 15, but we ended up with more because I couldn’t say ‘no.’ We had a lot of fun with the topic, and the essays I got from my students were often very tongue in cheek. I’d spent all my spare time that summer researching and preparing to teach the course –but my first priority that summer was a full-time internship, which resulted in a return offer.”
Students in her course showed up at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights to earn a single credit for completing “Werewolves, Zombies, and Why We’re Afraid of the Dark: a Brief History of Monsters.” Strasert created the course around her own observations of how monsters have changed over time, and how those changes have been reflected in film and literature.
She said, “There is a big difference between Dracula (1897) and Edward Cullen (2005). Had that transformation happened to all types of monsters? What was true mythology for monsters, and how we do we represent them now?”
Her journey from CS major to horror author has its own twist in the tale. Strasert was the only girl in her high school computer classes in Missouri. No one in her area had attended Rice, and she only learned about the university through an admissions postcard. On a college tour that included other Texas campuses, Strasert visited Rice and fell in love with the school’s liberal arts aspect.
“Most of the other schools I considered would have limited my direction. I wanted broad options to study other things beyond my CS major. But I also wanted to be really challenged academically, and I planned to choose the most difficult school that admitted me,” she said.
Strasert triple majored at Rice, earning a B.S. in Computer Science and B.A. degrees in Psychology and Cognitive Science. She loved problem-solving with code, and her experience with web design in high school had sparked her initial interest the CS major. It was her CS trajectory at Rice prompted the second and third majors.
“I was doing the B.S. in CompSci and one of the specialty options included human computer interactions (HCI), with overlapping classes in Psychology. Once I’d taken those courses, I was only a few classes from a double major. And if you do that, you are only one course away from a CogSci degree.”
Her HCI focus led to an internship and subsequent jobs in accessibility, usability, and the user experience. Her specialty was making computers and their programs easier for others to use. Then a writing competition opened a new door for Strasert, and she stepped through it without a backwards glance.
“I’ve always loved writing and solving problems, and my direct knowledge of CS helps my sci-fi writing. The story in “Kill Switch” is very CS-based. In a different story, one of my novella characters has been sucked into a program –like an active mind in a paralyzed body– and she is trying to code herself back into her bodily functions.
“Some skills are common to both CS and writing. When you create a new program, you first break it down into smaller problems. When you create a new story, you begin with an outline for the overall story as well as what needs to happen with each character, and how that interconnects with characters.”
Her penchant for order works well with her writing methodology. She enjoys working on the outlines and developing neat notes before she starts to write. But she also accepts that readers want a story to unfold in a certain way.
“There is a lot of instinct in writing, and also a definite formula to it –for example, about 25% of the way through, the stakes need to get higher. There are surprises for the writer as well. When you get down to the details, you never know how your characters or situations are going to work –and that’s a lot like a program, too.”
During her years at Rice and her work as a UI design engineer, Strasert’s guilty pleasure was writing fan fiction. She had no publishers to satisfy and felt the immediate satisfaction of seeing her work online. Watching readers respond to her work was also gratifying. Over time, her fan fiction evolved to the point that her spin off stories were almost unrecognizable when compared to the originals.
Strasert said, “Whenever I had down time, I was writing. It got to the point where I started thinking about doing it full time, so I submitted a 100-word story to a horror writing contest. They accepted me into the contest and I did very well. Then I had to write a bunch of different styles of horror and discovered that while I don’t like jump scares, I do like gothic horror and gothic romance. When I learned what I liked, it became something I could write.”
She has published several stories and has two books in the works, but Strasert’s annual income does not yet compare with her work in the software industry. She has no regrets.
“I will never NOT write,” she said. “I know I am a good writer. Now it’s about finding the right story that will sell. In the first book, I learned a lot. Now I’m in final edits with book two. Working with other writers to read and edit each other’s books is also part of the learning curve. You learn to edit your own work when you read, edit, and analyze for others.”
Strasert has focused on her writing full-time for two years, and her career shift now shapes her advice for CS student and alumni. She said no one should feel compelled to retain career decisions they made at age 18.
“There’s no shame in switching. We feel all this pressure to choose the right major, choose the right job. Yes, it’s a lot of time and money you’ve invested. But if you find yourself longing to do something else, you should pursue it.
“You have the rest of your life to be happy and you should be. Changing careers doesn’t mean you are a failure, it just means you’ve found something else.”
Daphne Strasert’s short stories can be found in the following collections: