“The Modern Ladies’ Letter-Writer” is rich in historical detail. What sort of research went into writing the story?
The story sprang out of a small, lovely book I picked up at a yard sale—The Ladies’ Letter-Writer—published in Great Britain in the early 1900s. You can see similar volumes on Google Books, all of them harkening back to an era when we relied so much on written correspondence. The sample letters cover many common occasions such as marriages, births, and deaths. The tone is very calm, the circumstances sometimes heartbreaking: for example, “Letter of Condolence to a Lady on the Death of Her Little Boy.” Once I knew that I wanted to use variations of the letters, the next part of research was Susie Lovecraft and what her life would have been like in the early 1870s as a teenager living in Providence, Rhode Island. Everyone loves to argue about Howard, but I’m more interested in the mother who so dominated and influenced him—the woman behind the curtain.
I loved the voice of the opening narrative, the instructions for correspondence, the commentary about behavior and social perceptions. What do you consider to be the most important element of finding a narrative voice that will draw a reader in and not let them go?
I love working with narrators who are unreliable or withholding information, and when the reader realizes there’s something amiss in the story they’re listening to, there’s a delicious dance of tension and skepticism and discovery. That’s what keeps them reading. But let me back up, because the most important element of any story is beginning in a way that surprises in some way—rising above the fray in a way that delights or angers or intrigues. Maybe it’s with an original observation. A flash of humor. A perfect line delivered like a dagger. But it can’t be just a one-time trick, because a bored reader either develops hostility to the work or wanders away, never to return.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft has long been a controversial figure in genre history, from the nature of his early works to his racist and sexist views. With this story, his attitudes and worldview are the result of a conscious choice of his mother seeking to make her own way and happiness in the world, defying the constraints of society and the grip of shadows. Did you find it difficult to walk what some people might consider a fine line of fiction versus Lovecraft’s behaviors?
For me, debates about Lovecraft’s views are less interesting than refuting sexism or racism through my fingers and keyboard. Until we invent time travel, I can’t sit down with Howard to point out all the areas where he did great things and all the other areas where he’s wrong about women and people of color. The line of writers wanting to have a talk with him would probably be very long. My only solution, then, is to take his creations and mash them up in feminist ways, and thus I can contribute to the Lovecraftian landscape. Here, I wanted Susie to strive for her own freedom and happiness—but because this is horror, it doesn’t work out the way she expects. What’s interesting to me is the question of how much of the narrator’s threat she actually hears or believes, and how “conscious” her choices are. Or any of our choices, actually.
Representation is vital in the realms of fiction, the recognition that all readers are entitled to see themselves portrayed in a story. Your work spans the spectrum of genre and literary interests, and you are known for your in-depth, realistic portrayal of GLBTQA individuals and issues. If you could speak to today’s aspiring writers about encouraging representation in their writing, what would you tell them?
When I talk to my college students about the characters in their stories, I ask them who they are writing to. Who they are writing for. Whose voices they are channeling. Who needs their help in reaching the world. Who doesn’t need their help, but wouldn’t it be nice anyway. We talk about storytelling as opening the reader’s mind to new people and new experiences, and how to push beyond the color, gender, and orientation we see in our own mirrors. Often, they are afraid of “getting it wrong,” and I try to persuade them the reward is worth the risk—not in the sense of commercial or critical success, but because it makes us better people. Or one better person—for as a practicing Buddhist, I believe that the thing that looks through your eyes is the same thing that looks through mine. Unfortunately, experienced writers also tend to play it safe rather than step off into the demanding realm of paying attention to things they’re not comfortable seeing.
Are there any particular writers who tickle your fancy when you want to get your horror on?
I’m always going to love Stephen King, but right now the book that repulses me the most (in a good way!) is The Library on Mount Char by Scott Hawkins—I can only read it one page at a time. I am also slowly, slowly, devouring Jesse Bullington’s The Folly of the World, which is a masterpiece of darkness, smartness, and the most cheerful, prolific use of profanity I’ve ever seen.
What’s next for Sandra McDonald? What can readers look forward to in 2016?
I am still very interested in Susie Lovecraft, so expect more of her. Soon, I’ll be finishing up a Lovecraftian novel about a female military lieutenant in space and what it’s like to live in a galaxy ruled by Cthulhu. And finally, I’ve been spending time in ancient Britain, doing a riff on King Arthur for readers who like time travel, romance, and GLBTQA characters. I wish I could clone myself to get more and more writing done.
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