First off, I want to say that, having studied archaeology in college, this story hit me so perfectly! It conjured memories of nights of just staring at old dig sites with your eyes on the verge of just plain giving out. I think you captured that feeling of being unable to trust your senses very well, and I wanted to ask if there’s something about the study of archaeology (and I suppose the study of the past in general) that evokes that sensation for you?
I spent a while working in commercial archaeology and studied for an MA in Landscape Archaeology at university. I now work mainly with GIS and historic mapping. What they all have in common is looking for details. Whether you’re trying to determine the soil change onsite to recognise an Iron Age pit, identify roundhouse gulleys on aerial photographs, or recognising historic features in the current landscape, you’re looking for clarity and consistency. They all also have their own type of tiredness, whether it’s the eye tiredness of staring at a run of photos, the physical tiredness of putting sections through an Iron Age ditch, or the brain fog from staring at a computer screen for far too long.
In all these circumstances there comes a moment where you need to step away, go for a walk, come back and look at it with fresh eyes. You’re trying to reach a point where you can argue that these pits intercut in a particular order, or this parchmark is a series of ditches instead of underlying geology, and often that means being able to make assessments when you’re tired.
Do you consider Marissa to be an unreliable narrator? I read her as one, and that angle made the story really click for me.
I do. I think the level of grief that Marissa experiences clouds her ability to see the world in any way objectively (if we can, anyway). The loss distorts everything, and that is seen in the way that she sees the archaeology too. Archaeology is always subjective. We always bring our experiences, biases, and perspectives, and I’d argue we can never detach ourselves completely. Luckily there has been a lot of movement over the past couple of decades to acknowledge that. For many people, it’s the social world they’ve experienced that affects the way they understand the past. For Marissa, it’s the grief that lies at the heart of her world.
I really enjoyed the setting of this story, with Marissa in this concrete, windowless basement. It felt claustrophobic and insulated just reading it! That compared with the yawning pits at the open dig site was an excellent pairing that added to the story a lot for me. What is it about these settings that drew you in as an author?
Again, this comes from my time in archaeology. As a discipline it has so many facets, from the very physical experience of digging, to the scientific lab-based analysis that underpins a lot of work, to the very theoretical concepts that guide a lot of interpretation. In that way, there is a real contrast between the outside setting where a lot of the sites exist and fieldwork occurs, and the very internal setting (sometimes in windowless rooms) where the analysis and synthesis of ideas happens. These juxtapositions and tensions in archaeology fascinate me.
Also, I think with Marissa, she has closed herself off from one aspect of her work by working on the photographs in the basement, and when she ventures out, she is confronting something she hasn’t done for a long time.
I loved your similes and metaphors in this story! A particular favorite of mine was “Walking across the moor is like holding the hand of a dying aunt”; that immediately locked the mood and setting of that scene in my mind. What do you think such descriptive language adds to a story like this one?
This is where my writing and my archaeological research interests intersect! When I was studying for my MA in Landscape Archaeology, I read a collection of papers called Embodied Geographies: Spaces, Bodies and Rites of Passage, edited by Elizabeth Kenworthy Teather. Embodied Geographies talks about how we experience place through our bodies, whether that is how children subvert space, how pregnant women’s bodies became public property (people feel they have the right to touch their stomachs), or ableist spaces which are cut off to some people by design or unconscious bias. I started exploring these ideas in past landscapes, how the body is an excellent way to understand the experience of the past.
This also applies to my writing. I always try to move the narrative beyond purely the visual, including texture, scent, and sometimes taste. A reader might not have held a dying aunt’s hand, but they can imagine that sensation through their own embodied experience of the world. They might have held an older relative’s hand, or comforted a dying person. The language grounded in the body can make it more visceral and evoke a very specific mood.
What can we expect to see from you next?
I have two unpublished novels (one set in Art Albion) and an unpublished novella I’m trying to find a home for, as well as starting my second Art Albion novel. I’m currently finishing a commission as part of the Esch2022, European Capital of Culture, collaborating with musical artist Eric Holm. The work is part of a wider project called In the Field for Esch2022 put together by Ensembles 2.2. My contribution is a series of site-specific stories which will be triggered when people enter certain locations. It combines folklore, locations, history, and technology. All my favourite things!
Apart from that, I’m continuing with my Patreon, and writing (hopefully) unsettling short stories. My collection To Drown in Dark Water is now available to buy from Undertow Publications (bit.ly/3lziQip). For more, check out stevetoase.wordpress.com.
Spread the word!