Do you have a real life ghost story? If not, do you believe in ghosts?
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories. Which is to say, I believe the world is full of inexplicable things — unsolvable crimes, out-of-place artifacts, mysterious appearances and disappearances — and these things can take on lives of their own for the people who encounter them. It’s that second part, the sort of “afterlife” of an inexplicable event, that makes it a ghost story.
I don’t think that I, personally, am very susceptible to haunting. I love mysteries — I’ll devour any online article titled “Five Weird Unsolved Mysteries!” or “Ten Events Science Can’t Explain!” — but while that kind of thing creeps the hell out of me in the moment, it doesn’t stick with me for long. Having said that, the two “real-life ghost stories” that I have are both included in “And This is the Song it Sings.” I’ll leave it to readers to guess which they are.
“And This is the Song it Sings” begins with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (homestar.org/bryannan/duino.html), which is later quoted again and seemingly referenced in the title. Did those poems inspire the story, or did something else? How did it develop and change from there?
This story started with its title, which is from a song by P. J. Harvey. I’d been turning over the idea of a serial killer exchanging ghost stories with his or her victims for a while, but since I’d never written a serial killer story before, it wasn’t getting off the ground. It was the song — whose first line is, “In the forest lives a monster” — that suggested the symbiotic relationship between the murderer and the monster on the side of the road. Incidentally, after writing the story, I’m still not entirely sure whether the monster is real; it might be just another tale the narrator has picked up and allowed to take on a life of its own.
The Rilke book that the narrator finds at a gas station showed up in the second draft, which makes it a relatively late addition. The Duino Elegies are about living intimately with death (and with angels, although that’s another story), so they have a strong appeal for the narrator — whatever she might be.
Some of my favorite things in this story are the beautiful, evocative descriptions of mundane things such as “two grease-golden panini in a pair of green plastic baskets” and “a drunken bee buzzes low over the stagnant water.” Did you take special care to provide details that ground us in a familiar reality in contrast with the fantastic elements?
Thank you — those descriptions were a pleasure to write. I don’t think the mundane details are entirely separate from the fantastic elements. On the one hand, I think stories about inexplicable events are the most chilling when they’re immersed in the factual and the mundane; it keeps you from drawing those “too-sharp distinctions” Rilke writes about. On the other, I think the narrator’s reality is an inherently bizarre one, and there’s something “off” about the details she notices. They’re mostly images of death, decay, and entropy. I went to a reading once where the poet said “A romantic is a person to whom things over-signify” — I think the narrator is a romantic in that sense. She’s hyper-observant, but she places her own morbid spin on what she observes.
You are a prolific writer, as well as a busy editor and student. Do you have a writing routine or a particular creative process that keeps you focused and productive?
I haven’t developed a solid routine yet. I think this might be the result of working on the academic quarter system — my work schedule changes completely every three months. I do make good use of concentrated bursts of activity. So I’ll pull together the first draft of a story in an afternoon, or run through the entire Mirror Dance slush pile in a weekend. And then the revisions or the line edits happen in half-hour segments over the course of a month. I’m also guilty of the old procrastination technique, “Any Work But the Work You Should Be Doing.” Grades due this afternoon? Time to catch up on criticism of H. G. Wells! Short fiction deadline? Why not start a completely new story! It’s not great for my stress levels, but it does mean that all the work that has to get done does get done eventually.
At the moment, you seem to be a confirmed short story writer. Do you see yourself writing novels one day, or are you only interested in writing in the short form?
I’ve been getting asked, “When are you going to write a novel?” with alarming frequency over the last year or so (also “Have you selected a dissertation topic?” and “When are you going to have another committed relationship?” — I suspect there might be a connection.) At this point, I don’t know about novels. I have to admit, I don’t even read novels as often as I used to. I’m very enthusiastic about short stories: I love the games they can play with motifs, structure, point-of-view. I love the pressure to make each scene, each sentence as perfect as it can possibly be. I also love the ability to just admit when a piece isn’t working, and either restructure the thing from the top or set it aside to be cannibalized for parts — something I can do more easily with 3,000 words with than 50,000. So to me, “novels or short stories” is a choice between continuing to stretch my limits in a form that I know and love, or beginning to learn how to do something completely different. Both are exciting possibilities — but I know which one I want to do right now!
What other work do you have out now or forthcoming?
This has been a good year in horror for me. I’m super excited to be the nonfiction editor for Nightmare’s upcoming Queers Destroy Horror! special issue. Earlier this year, I had a weird little tale about haunting, California, and family traditions in the inaugural issue of Aghast, and I have more horror stories forthcoming in The Dark and Shimmer. On the science fiction side of things, I had one story included in Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists (how awesome is that?) and another piece is forthcoming in Lightspeed.
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