This story has it all: Doyle, Lovecraft, hints of Christie, wrapped tight in a David Attenborough narration. What inspired this particular montage of horror and the natural world?
It was inspired by a science article. I didn’t really make anything up in this story. I remember the first thing I had was the title, and then that naturally informed the voice of the story. A lot of what I do these days, novelistically, is based off newspaper research and old crime cases and things like that, but I also find science articles really inspiring. I did a story for Nature recently based off of an academic paper called the “The Wasted Chewing Gum Bacteriome”—which is such a wonderful title! The scientists studied discarded chewing gum to see the types of bacteria that inhabited it, and I loved that idea. I like to pay attention to the things we never pay attention to, like discarded gum or the fact wasps might have a weird symbiotic relationship with even smaller parasites. So nature makes my life very easy in that sense—all I have to do then is imagine things from the point of view of the bacteria, or the wasp.
Your prose is a wonderful blend of minimalist sensibilities and rich details. In “Dr. Wasp and Hornet Holmes” we see these aspects play off of one another perfectly in elements such as the opening scene and meeting the queen. How important is it to you to find the right voice for a story? What do you feel a proper voice gives to the narrative experience?
One thing I like about short stories, or even, say, the long episodic novels I’ve been writing more recently, is that you can change voices and styles and genres with each one. I’m really interested in form. If you look at, say, By Force Alone, which is nominally an “Arthurian” novel, but I got to do one section as, say, this grand mythological thing, then the next will be hardboiled, then there’s a kung fu story, and a science fiction story! And you get to blend them into this one thing that is (hopefully) more than the sum of its parts and does something new with it. And then in, say, The Hood, I went off into the gothic a lot more, or the western in The Escapement, and so on.
One thing I discovered I really enjoy is the sort of golden age crime puzzle story, which is a very formal exercise—it’s like writing a sonnet in some ways! They’re very structural, the sort of thing Raymond Chandler dismissed as a story where the murder serves “just to provide a corpse.” So “Dr. Wasp and Hornet Holmes” sort of plays with those tropes, but with a kind of paranoid PKD sensibility, I think. Which is an interesting combination!
The author’s note speaks to some of the less glamorous facets of nature, less fantastic and more quietly invasive in a way that humanity often cannot be bothered, or doesn’t even think, to notice. Do you often find inspiration in nature?
I don’t know that I do it often. But I try to look for whatever is real, because that grounds the most fantastical take. My recent work isn’t genre, it’s based in historical archival research (a lot of PDFs!), but I think that applies to everything. It’s as simple or as complicated as, say, when you mention there’s a bird outside the window, you have to start asking, well, what type of bird is it? What sound does it make? Will this bird be in this particular place in that particular time? And just what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? Which I just looked up, it’s approximately 20.1 miles per hour, apparently.
You have a wide body of work, and in January, Head of Zeus announced that it had acquired your upcoming novel Maror. How do you balance writing and your everyday life? What does your writing schedule look like?
I tend to write at night when it’s quiet, edit and do that sort of work in the daytime. But mostly I try to do it between the constant interruptions of everyday life!
Writers write and writers read. Who do you turn to when you want to turn the page?
A lot of my reading has become work, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it! I read a lot of science fiction short stories as the editor of the Best of World SF series. And I’ve been writing a genre book column for the Washington Post with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which gives us the unenviable task of trying to keep up with the field, which is pretty much impossible. So currently I have advance reading copies all over the place. And for my new novels like Maror, as I mentioned, there’s just a lot of (admittedly very interesting!) deep dives into newspaper archives, and I get quite lost in ancient crimes and really getting to play historical detective in a way with it!
So it doesn’t leave a lot of time, but there’s still nothing better than finding a new author that just blows you away and informs how you think about writing. I recently discovered the Polish author Marek Hlasko, that’s probably my most recent “How did I never read this before?” discovery.
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