Your story, “The Beasts of the Earth, the Madness of Men,” is not your first work to be featured in Nightmare or Lightspeed magazines. Previously you’ve published two stories with us: “Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring” and “Sun Dogs,” although “Beasts” is much shorter than the others. Was it easier or harder to write such a short piece?
I generally find it more difficult to write flash pieces, because the amount of information you have to pack into such a small space is obviously going to be extremely limited. That said, I’m also terrible at writing anything over 7,000 or 8,000 words, which is why my novel-in-progress generally gets to around 10,000 words on any given draft and then dies twitching on the table. This has been going on for five years and counting. Regimes have risen and fallen. Children have been born and learned to walk, dress themselves, and throw horrific tantrums over gadgets that didn’t exist when I started working on the very first draft. Feral cat genealogies across the same timeline run into the tens of millions.
. . . So average short story length is more my wheelhouse, is what I’m trying to say. Anything more or less and the footing becomes a bit shakier.
The story, “The Beasts of the Earth, the Madness of Men,” revolves around Captain Perth hunting down an undead whale. This is reminiscent of Melville’s Moby Dick in terms of subject matter, theme, and style. Was this a conscious decision, or just something that took shape as you wrote?
Well, as far as subject matter and theme go, I think it would be difficult to write a whaling-based story with the theme of obsession (not exactly an original plot, if it needed pointing out) and not have Moby Dick influence you just a little. Reasonably sure that’s impossible, unless you haven’t actually read Moby Dick and need a stern admonishing and possibly a seat in the Time Out corner. I didn’t really start out with Melville in mind, but by the end he was sort of jumping up and down in my subconscious waving his arms and screaming, so I had to address him. I guess you could call it an unconscious conscious decision, if that makes any kind of sense?
That said, I really don’t see the stylistic similarities at all. That’s like saying Blood Meridian and The Monster at the End of This Book are stylistically the same because they use words to create an atmosphere of uneasy tension building towards a horrific, inescapable climax. Same theme, radically different ways of doing it.
My story is The Monster at the End of This Book, obviously.
Captain Perth is driven by a single goal and spends all her time on a wrecked raft in the ocean. Was it difficult to work with such an unchanging setting?
Not especially. If you spend any time around the ocean you’ll quickly notice that it’s not really unchanging at all. There are storms, and sunsets, and big wave days and days when the surface is like glass, and variations in color and shade that are really quite stunning in their suddenness. I’ve seen the same stretch of water go from gray to blue to a green so bright it looked like sunlight through leaves, all depending on how the sun was shining. The sea is actually just about the most malleable setting you can think of.
There is always a sense of strangeness in your work, and your stories lean toward the fantastical in a subtle way. What is it about fantasy and lyrical writing that inspires you?
I suppose it’s the feelings my own favorite pieces of media have inspired in me and an attempt to re-capture those emotions. Desolate places and abandoned things and the sadness of inevitable endings and partings have their own kind of decaying, melancholy magic I try to tap into; call it the alchemy of the ephemeral. Cicada thaumaturgy? You feel it a lot in the video games of Fumito Ueda, the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki, and a lot of stories by Peter S. Beagle and Ursula Le Guin. Even Tolkien’s best works have that vibe. “The moment’s already passed; now it’s gone.” Nature’s inevitable reclamation of things over time is tied pretty heavily into that. I love the natural world, and it’s never so beautiful as it is when it’s poking a belligerent middle finger into mankind’s puffed chest.
I was an only child, and I grew up on a farm in the woods miles and miles and miles from the nearest neighbor’s house. There were boneyards where the farmers would drag dead livestock, crumbling houses in the forest where old men had lived alone twenty or thirty years before gradually being swallowed up by vines and blackberry brambles and leaf drift. Sometimes you’d even find old headstones. It was like Calvin and Hobbes, with the added reality that life always ends in death and dissolution, and nature takes back everything she initially lets you borrow. Which is a fine thing to learn early on, but it does tend to leave you a little funny in the head.
Being a very, very visual person, brought up, as so many of my generation were, before the rise of the Internet but well into the reign of the Great God-King Tele-Vision and his consorts VHS and Betamax, I also enjoy a lush, descriptive style. Show me a sentence by Cat Valente or Mervyn Peake or Cormac McCarthy and watch the serotonin buttons in my brain all get mashed at once. I can’t think of a better way to describe the rush a well-written, beautifully structured sentence gives me. It’s like listening to a really beautiful piece of music (hence the descriptor, lyrical), when the words flow just right and every note is being struck and you’re swept up by it like a kid’s shoe in a storm drain. Conversely, if a story doesn’t have good rhythm, it may end up boring me to the point where I don’t keep going.
I’m just trying to write the kind of things I’d like to read, as a lot of us are, I think.
As an alumna of Clarion UCSD, can you tell us a bit about your experience with the workshop?
I’ve spoken at length a couple of times about what a life-changing experience it was and how it gave me the confidence to begin submitting stories regularly. The connections with other writers and the community you gain there are a nitrogen boost to your burgeoning career, you get to hang out with wonderful instructors and students, the weather is ridiculous, yadda yadda yadda. But have I mentioned the secret handshake before? The treehouse? The hoverboards they give you to get around campus? The pirate treasure six of us died trying to find? The nude beach and the minotaur woman that lives there beneath the cliffs? No?
I kid, I kid. They don’t actually let you keep the hoverboard, and the minotaur woman is actually a huldra.
What current projects are you working on?
With my second and final year of Campbell eligibility looming, I feel like I’d better make good and do it fast. A pulpy cybernoir novelette that owes more to Tarantino and Ghost in the Shell than my usual bent, an upcoming flash piece in the ‘zine Superficial Flesh, the usual smattering of stories about mechanical tigers and 1950s housewife creation myths, and, of course, the ever-present novel, which should be done at some point before I’m a flesh-picked skeleton. Fingers crossed.
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