Tell us a bit about “Little Widow.” What inspired you to write it?
A combination of things. I’m from a very rural place in Idaho, and the setting of “Little Widow” is based on the wide-open high desert I’m from. There were lots of edge religious personalities in that part of Idaho, including a lot of Fundamentalist Mormons, and several families of what now seem to me to be very conservative branches of Pentecostal Christianity: all daughters, who were not allowed to cut their hair, and only allowed to wear dresses. Some of those families seemed to work okay, and others . . . not so much. Daughters died of things like tetanus and “cat-scratch fever.” At least one of these families also believed in snake handling. One of my childhood best friends was a daughter of one of these families, an outcast in our grade due to her height, her dresses, and her long blonde hair. This was the ’80s.
I was an outcast because I meowed compulsively and because my father had a hundred sled dogs. And our other friend was an outcast because her family raised bull terriers in a trailer. Yeah, I think you can see what kind of a strange place this was, and how it’s related to this story. Over a couple of years, two daughters in one extended family died, one of scarlet fever, and the other of a rattlesnake bite. I felt as a child, very fervently, that I’d like to go flying at the fathers of these families, and kick some serious ass. This fell under religious freedom, and thus it seemed to me that it was legal to kill one’s daughters with medical neglect. (And frankly, it was. It isn’t legal to do this to a minor child, but the social services in this part of the country are radically lacking, and horrible things of this kind happened all the time.) The men could, of course, wear and do whatever they wanted to.
I’m a God wrangler: Though I’m not a believer, I’m perpetually interested in the parts of the story that say men can do certain things to their fellow man (and usually woman) that to me seem absolutely ghastly. I’m way interested in belief, and in stories about it. There are lots of stories about cults run by men, multiple wives, these charismatic suicide cults. Hence, Little Widow. A cult full of women and girls, and a suicide plan to take over heaven that the patriarch decides to weasel out of. This leaves some angry, living girls, who take action.
Oh, and somewhere in here I read an article about feathered dinosaurs, and thought about enormous feathered Tyrannosaurus hens, angels, and carnival geeks at the same time, and since this was a raw western town, I thought about a chicken-biting carnival geek showing up . . . and I don’t know what happened. My brain does things with interesting information, and it tends to be a mysterious process, even to me.
By and large, though, this story is about my rage about the things people do to girls. It’s pretty much an endless fount of rage. I like to write stories that deal in bloody reparations. I’m a pretty nonviolent person, but people who hurt children? They bring out my fury.
You do a lot of work, in “Little Widow,” to humanize the Heaven’s Avengers cult, and to create sympathy for those left behind. Is the real horror of these sorts of events always in the aftermath? How do we understand those stories?
I think in any scenario like this, there are always so many victims, who got sucked in by either wanting to believe in something brighter than living in this world, or by being born into it, or brought in as small children of cult members. I can’t imagine being born into a cult, but well—I guess I can. There are cult aspects to all society. The beliefs we’re given as tiny children form the rest of our lives, and they’re hard to resist. Patriarchal society is a cult. It isn’t logical. It’s a bullshit hierarchical belief that people have agreed on as a society. So, resisting those “normal” societal ideas is often like trying to leave a cult. It’s hard. You have to keep examining your beliefs to see what they really are, and what they logically should be. That’s one way to think about it. Another way is to think about what it would feel like if everyone you knew went to heaven, and you got left behind. Terrifically traumatic. I read interviews with survivors of several suicide cults, and that’s what they said. It was very hard to let go of the fear that the cult was right, and you were wrong. Certainty is persuasive, because being human is confusing. Cult leaders always have certainty. Inside the cults, there was always a ferociously charismatic and convincing leader—Jim Jones, for example, who killed over 900 people on his Guyana compound, with cyanide laced Kool-Aid. For some it was a suicide, but not for everyone. Many people had no choice in the matter. Babies had cyanide squirted into their mouths with syringes. The interviews with people who escaped—they’re devastating. Some mothers were there because their babies had been kidnapped into the cult by other family members. Only one cemetery would accept the bodies of the dead, and there’s a mass grave there of over 400 people, mostly children, because there was a belief that they were impure. Oh my god, it’s horrific. Then there’s the Heaven’s Gate cult—upon which I partially based Heaven’s Avengers’ optimistic belief that they were off by suicide to fight a turf war in heaven. So, yeah. Cults are full of humans, and humans are vulnerable to listening to those who seem certain. Sometimes people who seem utterly certain about the rules of how humans should live are very, very evil. I mean, quite often, if you think about it. Charismatic evil has often, throughout human society, been incredibly persuasive.
What are you working on these days?
I’m writing The Combustible, a new YA novel for HarperCollins about superheroes and supervillains; finishing up edits on The Mere Wife, which is an adult novel for Farrar, Straus & Giroux inspired both by translation fails in Beowulf and suburban malaise novels like Revolutionary Road and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children; and writing The Devil’s Halo, a crazily epic three act, three century musical based on an unpublished Anne Rice short story, with my collaborator Lance Horne. Among other things, I’m also writing some kind of longish nonfiction/fiction piece based on the women and girls of Peter Pan, a novel based on volcano myth, and a short story that is a furious retelling of Rapunzel. Never not busy here.
Any upcoming publications or exciting projects that readers should watch for?
Lots of things coming in the next few months. Here are a few! Lightspeed has my story “See the Unseeable, Know the Unknowable” in September, which is another “circus comes to town” story, but very different from this one. This one’s about solitude rather than sisterly solidarity. It’s a little Something Wicked This Way Comes, a little Twilight Zone, with a desperate woman at the center. Actually, they’re kind of great companion pieces, though it’s total coincidence they’re being published so close together. I wrote them years apart! Aerie comes out in October from HarperCollins—that’s the sequel to Magonia, at last! And I have a Weird horror story in Ellen Datlow’s Children of Lovecraft anthology, coming out in September: basically The House of Bernarda Alba with a monster in said house.
What’s your best advice for surviving an apocalypse (dinosaur or otherwise)?
Look the trouble in the eye, and if you have to go down, go down singing. I suspect I’d be watching the comet fall, whirring at the dinosaurs, and dying in a ball of fire. Maybe I’m not an apocalypse survivor. I’m not the person you’d find in a bunker in twenty years, unless I happened to already be in a cave somewhere when the apocalypse hit. I’m too obsessed with humans and with life among the living. My mottoes for survival involve ferocious trust, and always have. I put my life in other people’s hands on the regular, because I don’t know any other way to live. Plus, hey, I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic. I need civilization in order to survive. So, who knows? I might advise people to fling themselves up on the dinosaur’s back and ride. That’s what I’d try to do.
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