“What the Dead Birds Taught Me” was a wonderful walk through the shadowlands. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind this story that touches on the meanings of life and beyond?
A documentary about the unsolved murder of a young woman got me thinking about what we call justice for murder victims. These quests help family and communities heal, and of course murderers should be kept from hurting anyone else, but it breaks my heart that the victims will never know about any justice. It’s over for them. And meanwhile, more women fall victim to violence at the hands of men who aren’t held accountable. It made me sad and furious.
Then I thought about “Bluebeard,” and how even after six wives had died, another family was perfectly willing to throw a daughter to him. I wanted to write Bluebeard’s last wife as a necromancer, because I wanted her to have something up her sleeve. I took Stephanie M. Wytovich’s wonderful LitReactor class “Reclaiming Archtypes in Witch Lit,” and one assignment was a fairy tale retelling. That helped me shape the core of story that became “What the Dead Birds Taught Me.”
The story brought to mind old fairy tales, the troubles of a young adult/new adult novel, and the chill darkness of Bluebeard. What is it about weaving old threads into new and brilliant stories that appeals to you as a writer?
Many fairy tales hold up well in retellings, and I think “Bluebeard” does better than most. There are many threads to pick up from “Bluebeard”—and its relatives “Fitcher’s Bird,” “The Robber Bridegroom,” and “Mr. Fox”—and authors from Angela Carter to Helen Oyeyemi to T. Kingfisher have created fine work from them. One of my favorites is Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” which changes the setting to the Caribbean and adds societal elements to create a new story that’s immersive and utterly terrifying.
I honestly hadn’t thought about mixing YA/NA with the Bluebeard story as such, but it’s a good observation. One thing that holds true in most “Bluebeard” retellings is that Bluebeard is older and of higher status than his bride, and those things put her at a disadvantage. Mary’s YA-type family problems and her NA problems of defining herself in the world make her look like easy prey to a grown man who has money and respect.
“Society would rather have a dead girl than a living woman.” What are your thoughts on the representation of women in horror? Do you feel they have changed in recent years or do they remain trapped in history’s quagmire?
I never feel that I’ve read or watched enough to answer these questions adequately! That said, in the last few years, I am finding more to read that acknowledges women as worthy characters, not just moms, love interests, or victims. There have always been some good representations, but they seem easier to find now. The positive trend isn’t advancing as fast as I’d like, though, in either written fiction, movies, or journalism.
It’s especially disturbing when a story concentrates on the youth, beauty, or “purity” of a female victim, as if that makes her death a greater loss than the death of a less innocent (or youthful, or beautiful, or feminine, or chaste) woman. The corollary that women who fall outside the antiquated “perfect girl” stereotype are less worthy of life is both unfair and dangerous. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, both in fiction and in life, to change these harmful attitudes.
You’ve written both non-fiction and fiction, copy edited Shimmer and are the copy editor for The Deadlands. What started your love affair with short fiction?
All fiction that kids read is short, and I guess I just never stopped. Even when I was reading longer books, there was still Encyclopedia Brown, and then Sherlock Holmes, and then Saki. The harder thing was finding fantasy and science fiction short stories; libraries didn’t always stock those anthologies. I was too much of a scaredy-cat for Goosebumps.
It’s very powerful to read a story in only one sitting, without breaks or time to sleep on it. Short stories allow intense focus. I love the medium. I’m very lucky that between writing, copyediting for The Deadlands, and co-hosting Story Hour every week with Daniel Marcus, short stories are a big part of my life.
What’s next for Laura Blackwell? What can eager fans look forward to in the second half of 2022?
Publication schedules are unpredictable, especially in these days of paper shortages and shipping delays. By the time Nightmare publishes “What the Dead Birds Taught Me,” Weirdbook #45 will likely be out, and it includes my short story about Grendel’s grandmother. Sometime in the fall, Written Backwards will release the horror/Weird antho Chiral Mad 5 (ed. Michael Bailey). I’m fortunate to have a story about a smoke-eater in that one, the end to a beloved series of anthologies.
You can find me at Story Hour pretty much every Wednesday, sometimes reading my own work, more often enjoying the stories that two other writers read for us.
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