I absolutely loved the story and its rich, sumptuous telling. What was the first seed of this story? Did it come out the way you imagined or transform into something bigger?
Story time: this story actually started out as fairy tale erotica. I began writing it for a contest, which asked writers to take a lesser-known fairy tale, place it in an interesting setting, and make it sexy. I’d long decided on a setting—upper-class black society, from Reconstruction to the early twentieth century, which I’d been reading about and now wanted to write about. My choice of fairy tale was more random. I spent a few hours digging through Wikipedia and emerged with a Norwegian story called “The Lindworm.” The story is about two princes, one born human and the other a lindworm. The lindworm, embittered by the curse upon him, thwarts his brother’s every attempt to get married. Finally, one of the human brother’s brides goes head to head with the lindworm and saves the day. Alas, the fairy tale erotica never saw the light of day. I spent so long laboring over the first two paragraphs, trying to achieve the requisite sexy tone, that the contest deadline came and went. But there was a silver lining: the first two paragraphs made it intact into the final draft.
About a year after I had tried, and failed, to write my fairy tale, I was applying for Clarion West and decided to finish the story, since it was literally the only short story I had that I could conceivably finish by the deadline. I’d been tweaking the story in the meantime: the lindworm brother had become the current protagonist, and I’d grown interested in the mother’s story—who was this woman who, in the tradition of other fairy tale mothers, had to see a mistake she’d made revisited on the child she’d borne? And what was her relationship with the child who was bearing the brunt of that single, reckless error? I was still trying to be true to the story of the lindworm prince, but a lot changed in the desperate weeks it took me to finish the story. For example, the original fairy tale featured three luckless brides; I was only able to shoehorn in two. Overall, I think the story is better for the ways in which it diverges from “The Lindworm”; the original story gave me boundaries to test and ultimately transcend and allowed me to find themes that resonated with my interests.
I found myself watching Clara and Josephine the way the protagonist does. It seems as though the brides’ ability or willingness to hear the protagonist, to seek her out . . . they’re the only ones recognizing her existence. Is there a kind of bond among the women in this story and how they face or turn away from secrets they might come to share?
The primary bond among the women in this story is their relationship to shame, which is a bond and burden I think many women, especially black women, share. The protagonist and her mother live with a lot of shame—body-shame and the shame of the curse, of being its cause and its consequence. Clara and Josephine haven’t yet experienced the shame of being a Clay, of having to live in that house, no matter how much they think they know about Cornelius and his family, and this is why they’re willing to seek out the protagonist. They’ve come from a rarefied existence, from households where they’re allowed to hold up their heads and no one requires them to take responsibility for secrets outside their control. Not to say that Clara and Josephine haven’t had their own share of difficulties before they have the misfortune of meeting Cornelius Clay and his family—they come from black families living in the United States not long after the Civil War, after all. But what I was interested in exploring here was the ways in which shame manifests even inside the closed circle of one’s own society, one’s own family. I wanted to write about the experience of living with shame, day in and day out, no matter where it comes from.
The conjure woman said to eat only one seed, but gave Mrs. Clay a pouch full of them. Was it Mrs. Clay’s desperation, arrogance, or failure to listen the trigger for the curse? What was most damning about her actions?
It was Mrs. Clay’s failure to listen that triggered the curse, but it was the fact that she let human frailty—that is, her desperation—get the better of her that was her most damning action. I think of Mrs. Clay, pre-birthing scene, as similar to Clara and Josephine—she’s still so new to this world that she’s married into and she hasn’t realized the rules she lived by as a girl no longer apply. She, like Clara and Josephine, still thinks she controls her own world. And why shouldn’t she have control of her own world? Why should both she and her daughter be punished so harshly for Mrs. Clay’s newlywed indiscretion? It’s a problem that she disobeyed the express instructions of the conjure woman, and it’s a problem that there was no leeway for mistakes, that both Mrs. Clay and the protagonist have to live with the consequences of a single mistake for the rest of their lives.
The house, both the building and the family, are a huge part of the personal identity and the world these characters inhabit. The protagonist describes herself as “wages of her mother’s greed,” and the mother spent those wages on ignoring her daughter in favor of her son. Is there any other scenario where such an extraordinary, powerful, brilliant being could be part of the household or legacy of the family?
I certainly hope so! That’s my dream for this story and these characters, anyway. A scenario like that would take a series of major shifts: emotional, social, personal. First and foremost, the protagonist and her mother would have to unlearn their shame, which has become so essential to their lives. The protagonist would need to feel safe, before she could even begin to conceive of herself as an extraordinary, powerful, brilliant being. Secondly, any change that would allow the protagonist to be a part of the family could not depend on the mother and daughter alone: the sense of shame with which they live and that I keep coming back to is much bigger than the both of them, inherent to the world in which they live. But even in the face of these large structural shifts, a more hopeful scenario could unfold in a series of small gestures: Mrs. Clay, seeking her daughter out. A word of affirmation. A single touch.
When Mrs. Clay stabs her daughter in the back, she repeats that she’s doing it for her son. What would you most like readers to take away from this story?
I’ll admit: I have an idea of what I take from that scene and the story in general, but I’m really interested in other readers’ takeaways. I had so many diverse reactions from my beta readers, and I’d love to hear what others are taking from the story!
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to next from you?
I have two short stories about women and monsters left from Clarion West that I want to finish and another one—also, incidentally, about women and monsters—that needs a complete overhaul, so those are going to keep me busy for a while. I’ve also been contemplating how many moments from black history I can combine with fairy tales and tropes from speculative fiction, an exercise that satisfies the fanfiction writer and amateur historian inside of me. For example: the westward migration of African-Americans told in the style of the Oregon Trail game (fording rivers and dying of dysentery since 1848) and the Great Migration . . . in space. I’m a slow writer, and have slowed even further as a great deal of my energy is going into finishing a B.A. in a field grossly unrelated to creative writing, but I have a few short stories laying around waiting to be finished. The moment my muse decides to stop sleeping on the job and gets to work, I will let you know!
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