Your story, “Dreaming Like a Ghost,” is very lyrical and even brings up, several times throughout, poetry. Is poetry something you’re inspired by, and, if so, what poetry influences you most?
Poetry is very much an art form that inspires and influences me. I love the way that poetry can both be very structured—in forms like the sonnet or the sestina, for example—and at the same time, there is such freedom in those forms. You can use them to say anything. I also love the way that poetry engages with the flexibility of language, the way it uses rhythm and meter and sound to give what is being said power, that it can be either utterly stark or fabulously baroque. Basically, I think words are fun, and poetry is a different kind of fun than prose. I try to read some poetry every day.
As to what influences me . . . Well, I currently have two tattoos, and both are lines of poetry. One is from Shakespeare and the other from the mystic Julian of Norwich by way of T.S. Eliot. I was fortunate enough to have corresponded with the great poet Seamus Heaney, and his poetry has been hugely important to me ever since I discovered it. Anne Sexton’s astounding collection, Transformations—the first time I read that, it was like having the top of my head come off. Anne Carson. Recently, I’ve been obsessively rereading Craig Arnold’s Made Flesh, lots of Mary Oliver, and Olena Kalytiak Davis. And I read the C.K. Williams translation of The Bacchae as background for “Dreaming Like a Ghost.”
Do you think there’s a relationship between poetry and death, or even writing and death?
Well, there’s the elegy, the form of poetry which is specifically a lament for the dead. That’s a true answer, of course, but I think things are more complicated than that. I think death and grief are huge things, and when there is something huge, it can break language. We all know that, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” no matter how genuinely meant, no matter how much love is beneath those words, is never enough. The sentiment is never as big, as healing, as we want it to be. Language fails.
But I think art—and so that includes poetry, as it includes prose, and dance and sculpture and music—can be a way to deal with the failure of language that happens when things are too big to be processed otherwise. I think making art is a way of pushing against entropy, of saying, I know things will end, I know I will end, I know the odds are against me that anyone remembers this next year, much less after I am dead, but fuck all that, I am going to make something anyway. And maybe what I make will last. I mean, think about Sappho—what we have of her poetry is fragments, sometimes just a word, and yet, it’s enough. It still speaks, it still moves us.
You tell the reader from the beginning that “Dreaming Like a Ghost” is no ordinary ghost story, and, in fact, it isn’t. What was it like playing with the conventions of the traditional ghost story and turning them on their heads to produce a piece of horror?
I fear I am about to give you a very unsatisfactory answer, because the shift didn’t really come by my doing any sort of clever, writerly business and thinking about what might be expected in a ghost story, versus what was necessary to write a work of horror. The original draft of “Dreaming Like a Ghost” was very different to this one, much more like a traditional ghost story where the haunting is the important thing. Also, it wasn’t very good. It was sort of aggressively fine, and I couldn’t figure out the thing that I needed to do to make it worth reading.
Then, I had this email conversation with my friend, the writer Sarah McCarry. (If you haven’t read her book, All Our Pretty Songs, let me encourage you to remedy that as soon as possible.) We both love fierce, monstery women—who are not always thought of as appropriate, or the most likable people—and in the course of that conversation, I realized what was wrong with my story. The focus shouldn’t be the haunting, the focus should be Tamsin. Because Tamsin, I realized, was not a nice lady who wanted to help the poor ghost in her backyard but actually full of rage, and quite capable of becoming a monster. So it wasn’t so much a convention-driven shift, but a desire to write the correct story for the character.
You recently wrote “A Tornado of Dorothys” for the anthology Oz Reimagined. Is your writing process different when you work on a piece for an anthology as opposed to a standalone short story?
When I agree to write for an anthology it’s because there’s something in the prompt that makes me think, “Oh, there’s enough there that I can get a story out of this.” So I have some basic idea where the parameters are before I begin. If I’m writing a standalone short story, there’s a lot less initial guidance—I’m the one making up the rules for what I want the story to be, and it usually starts because the magpie part of my brain has fixated itself on something shiny. For “Dreaming Like a Ghost,” the shiny bit came from the Wilis in the ballet Giselle, who are the vengeful ghosts of girls jilted by their lovers. They give twigs of mistletoe to young men who they then make dance to their death. I wanted a scene with a sisterhood of ghosts rising from their graves like Wilis, and so I wrote a story I could put it in.
Your short fiction has been performed on NPR as part of their Selected Shorts series. What’s it like to hear other people reading your fiction, especially on the radio?
I love it. It is a pleasure that will never get old. I was fortunate enough to be at Symphony Space for that particular episode of Selected Shorts, and so I heard the actress Marin Ireland perform “A Life in Fictions” live. As she did, I had goosebumps, because her voice of the story matched up so precisely with the voice of the story that had been in my head as I wrote it.
What project(s) are you currently working on? Can you tell us a bit about it/them?
I’m generally superstitious about talking about unannounced or in-progress projects, so I will say that I am working on a novel, as well as other short fiction projects. But in terms of forthcoming work, I am very excited about a novella, “The End of the Sentence,” that I wrote with Maria Dahvana Headley, coming out in book form from Subterranean Press in August. It’s epistle-driven literary horror, sort of a shape-shifting goblin meets Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast via a multitude of mythologies story. Working on that was the most fun I have ever had giving myself nightmares.
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