Tell us a bit about “The Cellar Dweller.” How did you come to write it?
See tweets below, from July 2014. I was fiddling around with rhymes for the alleged most beautiful words in the English language, “cellar door.” These are the kinds of things that occur to me when I’m supposed to be doing other things. I’m interested consistently in what is considered beautiful, what isn’t, and why. It’s a thing I could rail about for days, on really any topic, whether it be human physical beauty, or sonic beauty, anything. I find lots of things beautiful, and they are frequently things that’ve been intermittently categorized otherwise throughout history. So I tweeted:
“Cellar Door.” “Dweller Snore.” The alleged two most beautiful words, little shift, and WHAM. Nevermore.
This makes me think I oughtta write a story with cellar doors, dweller snores, seller roars, hellebore. Troll + witch, night market.
I tweeted those, and got a lot of responses from people wanting me to write that story . . . so I did. In truth, once I tweeted that second tweet, I knew I’d have to write it. It was already there scribbled in space. It turned out that I loved grubbing around in phonaesthetics. The idea that cellar door would be inherently a beautiful phrase is relatively longstanding. There are some interesting hypotheses as to why, in Geoff Nunberg’s essay “The Romantic Side of Familiar Words” on Language Log — he connects it to portal fantasy, the notion of a romantic Narnian unknown. You should also read the “On Language” essay by Grant Barrett which inspired Nunberg’s essay. A fascinating selection of people, including Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Parker, have agreed that cellar door is the one true phrase. All these things combined into this story about “beauty,” and what is done to those who don’t have it.
“The Cellar Dweller” is told in something of a fairy-tale mode, and it includes some nursery-rhyme recitations. Were there any real-world fairy-tales that inspired the story?
Shortly after I started writing this story, I flukily moved into a house with actual cellar doors, and a speakeasy behind them. (There’s another nice 1919 reference as to why the words cellar door were considered beautiful — they led to speakeasies, and Prohibition was on!) I’d like to tell you that there’s nothing awful beneath my cellar, but I live in NYC. 1827 was the year that the last slaves were freed in NYC, but New Amsterdam had cellar doors opening onto evil beginning in 1626. The same is true all over the country, when we talk about the catastrophic and arbitrary aesthetics of America (part of my family came over on the Mayflower, so I think about this often) and to anyone who isn’t seen as beautiful and good — those qualities assessed by a narrative Anglo-Saxon American voice built on enslavement of one group of fellow humans and theft of land and genocide of another. America is a country built on a bone-filled cellar. That’s historic, but it’s also fairy tale. Maybe because in fairy tales we can be insulated in our honesty. We can say: “We built a house out of bones,” and have no one judge us for actually doing so. The role of fairy tales is something I could go on about — and I’m speaking as someone who sometimes writes them. Sometimes I think they’re used to distract from real blood.
The best ones, though, are used to point at real blood. For example: I was talking to a friend about Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” the other day. I hadn’t read it in a long time (I just did again as I write this interview — and damn, as ever, damn) but of course it’s one of the great ones. He’d been a teacher years ago, and assigned it to a class of teenagers. In the discussion, my friend asked the classroom of very privileged kids whether they’d stay in Omelas, or walk away, knowing about its condition for existing. There was uncertainty, until one kid unscaled their eyes by saying, “Guys, don’t you get it? We live in Omelas already.” The teacher couldn’t say that, but the story, disguised as fantasy, could lay privilege on them. There’s an example of a fairy tale which points at real blood very successfully. I’ve talked to lots of people whose lives radically shifted upon reading it.
Relatedly, I’m also inspired by “The Lottery” here. Neither of those are fairy tales, exactly, but both feel slightly dreamlike, until they bite. I’m disinclined to allow the all too real human urge toward injustice to be categorized as fairytale, though here I am, writing these strange stories about the things that make me furious on our living, breathing shoot-unarmed-people-in-the-back and starve-our-daughters planet. But sometimes, you can talk about some of this, and shout in a way that makes for a story with fairies and trolls and hellebore in it. Nursery rhymes, notably, are often just history and catastrophe distilled into pretty little songs.
You’ve got a young adult novel recently out. Care to tell us about it?
Love to! Magonia came out in April from HarperCollins. It’s based in medieval lore about a shipping kingdom in the sky, something I ran across in the Annals of Ulster, and spun out into a contemporary story about a sick girl on earth who ends up on a ship in Magonia. She’s dropped into the center of political and familial battles, while trying to decide where her loyalties lie — with her family on earth, or with her new family in the sky. It’s a YA book, but anyone who’s read my work and liked it should like this too — I tend to orbit around themes you’ll recognize from everything I shout about in all the places I shout — in this case, who gets the food? Who has to starve? Who decides that? Among many other things. It’s also got squallwhales, stormsharks and a heavy dose of sky pirates. It’s an adventure full of love, pain, and uncertainty.
What are you working on lately?
Everything. I have five or six projects on the go, several almost done things I’ve owed for a while. The craziest one is a rewrite of a Broadway-bound cabaret show. There’s a Magonia sequel. There is an adaptation of one of the big huge classics of the universe. I just worked with a co-writer to do something totally whack with Arthurian mythology for an anthology we both owed things to. I’m writing a historical epic TV show pilot. I’m made of whirr. Some days I’d like to be less busy, but then who would I be? Not this person.
If you were a fairy-tale monster, which one would you be?
Baba Yaga, but I consider her a heroine.
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