Did you conduct a lot of research to write this piece? Do you often incorporate mythology into your work? Do you enjoy tracking myths through time and space?
I think the development of mythology is one of my favorite things about Story, full stop; the elements that stay the same across centuries, the ones that carry a thousand miles, the ones that change to suit the speaker and the listeners and the times, the ones that can be strangely specific in creepy ways, the ones where the meaning is fixed and the ones just waiting for new meanings. In researching sin eating, it was interesting to find localized traditions versus much wider constants, and how different mythologies and traditions approached the same concept of devouring sins, while leaving room for interpretation. And I’d have to say all stories, whether or not they’re conscious of it, are incorporating mythology into their work; some of the mythology in this story is intentional, and some of it’s probably by accident.
Sin eaters carry a heavy burden and suffer terribly from their work. At one point the protagonist states that someone “is born to be forced into it” but then also suggests running from this fate; starving to death if necessary. Can sin eaters choose not to do what they do?
For me, sin eating is particularly interesting as a perceived supernatural ability exactly because of the balance of revulsion and power involved—the actual ability is both incredibly powerful and completely terrifying. And that’s one of the questions the story poses; if you’re born into an expectation of that magnitude, with such compulsion for doing it and such consequences for refusing, what does it mean to refuse? Does taking up the profession mean giving up any hope of staying yourself? Will the narrator’s own refusals be worth what she suffers for them?
It seems the events in this story could serve as a metaphor for many real-world issues including those relating to class, race, and privilege, to name a few. Do you agree? Was this your intention?
I think some themes in any story serve as metaphors for real-world issues, even (maybe sometimes especially!) if they’re not intentional. So while sin-eating was definitely something I wanted to explore in both a literal and metaphorical sense, the narrator is explicitly mixed-race, and her own perception of her abilities is caught between her cultures and their mythologies, as well as strangers’ and clients’ very literal and real-world assumptions about those. And there’s absolutely a class dynamic at work; the narrator is using a power that has essentially no upside to get one over on the people so privileged and terrible they hope to be able to buy their way out of sin. In that way, I think, she’s the last judge at the threshold.
In addition to fiction, you also write nonfiction including reviews of television shows and movies. Has this exercise informed your fiction writing in any way?
I thought I was my own worst critic before I started professionally writing about how story is constructed in film and television. Turns out I had been going easy on myself.
What’s up next for you?
My second novel, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, comes out in June from Atria, and I have a few short stories slated for later this year, as well as a novella, Dream Houses, which should be out in October. Between those, I’ll probably be watching TV!
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