“Who is Your Executioner?” contains many evocative, recurring images, particularly children’s games and Victorian death photos. What inspired the story, and how did you come to develop it around those themes and those specific games?
This story had a longish gestation for me. Usually I just write and release like I’ve caught a shiny fish, but this one took a while. I was sitting opposite my main collaborator in June 2013 when I happened across a reference to Dead Girl Come Alive. I was looking up the origins of Blind Man’s Buff for some reason, though I can’t now seem to figure out why. As we were both writing and therefore not supposed to be looking at the internet, I texted him a series of illegal OMGs. He’s the reason it got written, because he texted back his own illegal OMG series, and then thought for two seconds and told me the structure of the entire story. That’s how he is. I wish I had that skill because whenever he does it for me, it’s like I’m watching someone walk on water.
The games in the story are all Blind Man’s Bluff (Buff is the original name for it) variants from various places. Dead Girl (or Dead Man) is American, I think—usually it’s a trampoline game. Kagome, Kagome is Japanese, and Poor Mary (or Jenny, or Sally) is English. They’re all a little like Spin the Bottle, except that a dizzy, spinning person is the bottle, and doomed by fate to choose a mate, or (related?) to create the next dead girl. The game’s been around since Roman times. I like the name of that version: Bronze Fly. The old Greek version is apparently called Copper Mosquito. It’s a pretty tempting game, anything that only takes a blindfold to play.
The Victorian death photos are straight out of my own childhood. I found a book of them in an Idaho library when I was little. I’m pretty sure I’ve been ruined ever since. They were on a bottom shelf. There were no names in the checkout log. Unlike the narrator here, I didn’t steal the book, but oh, oh, I thought about it. Not porn but photos of dead people dressed to appear living and as though they were part of family portraits? Yes, thank you. I think I was about seven and romancing Dewey 393—death customs—without supervision when I found it. Then I kept going back and hiding it in different sections, worried someone would find it and take it from me. It was my personal high holy horror book.
I’ve liked the same things since I was tiny. The games in this story are all related to horrifying subtext, as are the death photos. “Who is your Executioner?” I can’t believe that’s a line in a children’s game. But it makes perfect sense that it would be.
What was your favorite game as a child?
I hated pre-existing games because I always lost. Written rules and team games seemed invented to spite me. I had no patience. Instead, I was a wild-eyed inventor of terrifying games for large groups of unlucky children seduced by my bossiness. There are reasons Oona is like she is in this story. When I was in grade school, for example, I invented a particular and very unfun game called Witch of Pinch, which was basically me walking around looking scary, knocking my fists together slowly as though I was a miniature mobster ruminating on a war between families. I convinced a lot of children that if I knocked in a certain rhythm, they’d die on the spot, and that only my mercy would save them. I was aggravatingly tiny, the shortest person in my grade, always. I had to work to get respect. The pinch part of Witch of Pinch involved my fingernails, and the tolerance of the skin of boys. I had a duo of tall girls who functioned as my guards. This meant that we patrolled the playground, me in the center, not walking, but holding their hands and doing a series of front flips instead. I was only active in creating nightmares for other children when I was allowed at recess, of course. For reasons that I now find, um . . . reasonable, as I was clearly a bad element, I was often kept in and forced to play Battleship with my male equivalent, a tiny farmboy genius who could not go outside due to allergies, and whose nose bled from competitive fury whenever we met across the Milton Bradley.
The names Oona and Zellie are unusual. How do you choose names for your characters? Did they have any special meaning for you or the story?
Oona is because of Oona O’Neill Chaplin. I’ve always found her interesting—she was Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, and she married Charlie Chaplin when she was eighteen and he was fifty-four. They had eight kids together. Imagine being the daughter of the most famous tragedian and marrying the most famous clown. The tragedian disowned her. Before she married Chaplin, she dated J.D. Salinger. What? Truman Capote said at some point that he based Holly Golightly on her. Double what? I mean. All of this is pretty intriguing, no? None of this bio ended up in the story, as I’m not actually writing about Oona Chaplin, but some of the extremes of her life did end up here. My Oona is both very charismatic and very worrying. She’s interested in terrible things and simultaneously sought after. She’s a dead girl, but a live girl at the same time. Zellie is named Zellie because I always have somewhere in my head a call back to my childhood obsession with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet and the many variations of a powerful, complicated female character named Zillah in that book. This story has some relation, in that it’s full of might-have-beens. There are lots of time periods happening here. I may never get over my first reading of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. It’s so dark, and the unicorn in it is not a pretty pretty unicorn. I got the Wrinkle in Time series for my eighth birthday. That book was especially a big part of the brewing of my brain, perhaps because it says that with extreme focus of your brain, you might be able to change the path of the past. I judge it now, mind you, for the fact that the good people in it are, over centuries, blue-eyed. When I was little, I didn’t notice the gigantor problems there and just got wooed. Now I notice.
This story jumps around in time as you relate the characters’ past with Oona. Did you always have that structure in mind, and did you write the scenes in a certain order?
I wrote it in this order, present day going backward every few years. It was the notion of counting to five to bring a dead girl back to life, right there in the lyrics for the rhyme. So counting backward would do the reverse, presumably, and since I knew it was a ghost and resurrection story, I was interested in doing both things with the structure. That said, as I mentioned above, the structure wasn’t all mine. The going backwards in time was my contribution, but the idea of five distinct moments over thirty-something years came from my editor/writer/braintrust guy. That said, though the structure’s always been this, I’ve fought with what ended up in those moments. What do you remember if you see someone only every seven years or so? What are the defining moments of the narrative you share?
What work do you have out now or forthcoming, and what are you writing now?
The End of the Sentence, my novella with Kat Howard, just came out from Subterranean Press. That’s ghosty horror, not quite like this, but it has similarities. And Magonia, my YA sky kingdom novel, comes out in May from HarperCollins. So excited about that! I’m working on a bunch of things. A couple sequels. A couple secrets. You know. I tend to have four novels in various degrees because I’m a distractible and suspicious thing and I fear accidental novel-fails. Lots of short stories will be out in the next few months too. I finished up a backlog of stalled stories and suddenly had a bunch ready to go out into the world.
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