What was the inspiration behind Upon the Body?
For a long time, I had been toying with an idea of writing a story about a sin-eater. Originally, I imagined that the story would be a much more authentic in terms of its portrayal of a sin-eater. Likely, it would be a poor man who, through food and drink, took on the sins of a recently deceased by a way of consumption, and by the end of the meal, he would rise up and leave, having taken on this new burden. I think—in my original idea—I had him showing up in a kind of lawless, borderland place, and the story would take place over the pace of the meal. I had this idea to play around with notions of power, especially with the divisions that exist between positions of power, and a lot of it, really, still exists in the piece. In fact, I think I wrote the opening line about the sin-eater and the gunfighter long before I sat down to write the rest of the piece.
Of course, once I returned to write the rest of it, all my original idea began to grow and twist and turn, and the story became what it is now.
Sonia wishes to have the marks of her husband’s life cleaned from his skin. Why do you think we desire to wash away the sins of someone once they are dead?
Well, for Sonia, the desire stems from her own empowerment, so it is important to note that, first and foremost.
Traditionally, a sin-eater had two functions. First, he/she existed to free a family of shame, and secondly, he/she existed to ensure that the soul of the recently dead did not wander the world in purgatory, or some such thing.
As for modern day desires to wash away the sins of the dead, I suspect it is a complex issue, arising from a mix of the original reasons sin-eaters existed, to politeness, and empowerment, and legacy. In the last case, it is much easier to create a legacy of a man/woman after they are dead than it is than when they were alive, for example. There are a number of authors—Lovecraft springs to mind—whose sins of racism are quietly pushed to the side, or viewed as lesser, for the sake of their legacies.
In the world of your story, a mortician is not someone who prepares a body for death, but who marks a life upon a body. What made you decide to change the meaning of the word?
I originally did it a few years ago, now. Maybe six, seven. Maybe more. I wrote a story entitled “Under the Red Sun,” in which a man goes to his ex-lover, who is a mortician, to find the body of his sister. Most of the story was inspired by my interest in grave robbing, if I was to be completely honestly, but while I was making the world, the word came to mean what it does now: which is a profession that tattoos into the skin of men and women, their life story so that an uncaring god may read it once they are dead.
There’re about six or seven “Red Sun” stories now, and morticians feature in a few of them, because I quite like the idea of your life being recorded on your skin, which, really, isn’t that much different from how some people view tattoos anyhow.
It’s interesting that to retouch the tattoos is vanity, but to do them in the first place is not. Why is that?
It is mostly linked to the idea of going back and polishing the stories from your earlier life, streamlining your personal history so that it isn’t contradictory, or self-incriminating, or so forth.
Which author(s) or work(s) would you say most inspire your writing?
Ah, man, y’know, it really depends on the day you ask. Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter was a big influence. Octavia Butler’s work. Fritz Leiber. Orson Welles. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Lydia Millet, especially her novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Iain Sinclair. Jorge Borges. Haruki Murakami. Graham Greene. Kathy Acker. It’s a long list that keeps going on. Another day, another bunch of people would be there.
What work do you have out now or forthcoming, and what are you working on now?
My collection of short fiction, Dead Americans and Other Stories, was released a few months ago by ChiZine Publications. If people liked “Upon the Body,” they’ll be interested to know four of the other Red Sun stories appear there.
In August, my novel, The Godless, will be released in the UK, US, and Germany. It is the first book in the Children Trilogy and is set in a world in which the bodies of the gods lie across the world, dying, while an army marches up to attack a small town on top of a mountain. It has the giant bodies of gods in it, damaged immortals, saboteurs, and a cartographer’s apprentice who may, or may not, wield a burning sword at one stage. Well, okay, she does: the covers really give that away. But it’s pretty cool and I hope people check it out.
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