When did this story introduce itself to you?
Like most stories, “The Night Princes” came together from a heap of disparate scraps. The title occurred to me while I was assisting with summer classes at a middle school near my university over 2011 or 2012, and I found myself supervising the basketball court at recess (although why my students struck me as royalty of the nocturnal variety, I don’t recall anymore). Later that year, still in my student teaching, I experienced my first school lockdown, and that experience—waiting in a small space for who-knows-what, surrounded by the familiar objects of my classroom while startling and unfamiliar noises sounded in the hallway—ultimately shaped the frame story of Batul in her apartment. Ever since writing “Lessons from a Clockwork Queen,” I’d been gathering ideas for another series of fairy tales, this time a riff on Somerset Maugham, about Death and the mortals she outwits; the first story was going to be about the man Death fell in love with and trapped in a well . . . At some point over the years, I realized all these fragments were part of one text.
The character parallels between the apartment and the tale of the Princes is clear, but are the stories meant to intersect in other places? For example, the fat coyote on the far shore of the Prince’s story might be one of the ones that ate the man in the ravine before Batul was born.
I don’t know that the storyworlds intersect quite so literally, but there are definitely connections. Batul is weaving stories out of her own life—sometimes out of concrete details, as you note with the coyote, but more often out of a kind of emotional coloring. For example, the fear Michael feels when she discovers she’s contracted the sickness in the plague city is the same fear Batul feels in her stairwell, when she thinks she’s about to be murdered.
You mentioned in another spotlight that you take an interest in the way tropes and themes change in the slush pile. Are there any tropes or themes that have been particularly dear or troubling in your own work that you’ve changed your mind about?
That’s a great question. Like many writers, I think, a lot of what I write is in search of how I feel about something, so I’m still drawn to themes I’ve always had questions about. It’s not so much that I’ve changed my mind as that I’m still looking for an answer in the first place.
One trope that seems to put me out-of-step with a bit of the SF/F/H short fiction community (and the queer SF/F/H community in particular) is my fascination with characters who don’t find their “home” by the end of the story, whether that’s a place or a found family or a way of living. I feel increasingly turned off by the tidy ending that says: “No matter how weird or special you are, there’s a place for you.” It’s not that I don’t think this is true, or should be true—but I think most kinds of belonging demand a sacrifice of another kind, and the trend towards happy endings and hopeful stories in speculative fiction seems reluctant to grapple with what has to be given up in exchange. That may be why I’ve found myself writing more and more horror and dark fantasy; these genres seem more willing to accept untidy endings, or at least to accept that some of what we give up in exchange for a happy ending still deserves to be mourned.
Looking at my recent work, I also notice an increasing concern with how we make sense of or assign meaning to the sometimes sickly ironic turns our lives can take. (“The Oracle and the Sea” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and “A Nearly Beautiful Thing” in Syntax & Salt are two recent examples.) Perhaps this comes from the same impulse as my rejection of homecoming stories. As a fiction writer by vocation and a scholar of narrative by profession, I guess what I really want to know is: What about all the turns and junctures in our lives that stories don’t prepare us for? Or, what if being able to tell a story about something that’s happened to us winds up making that thing feel uglier and less meaningful? If we genuinely believe stories are powerful—powerful enough to heal or give hope—then I think we need to accept that they can also cause injury and despair. And I find that utterly fascinating.
Did this story challenge you in a way you didn’t expect? How close was the final version to what you initially pictured?
Surprisingly, for a story that took me at least seven years to write, the final version and my initial vision—a woman trapped in her apartment while a battle rages outside, telling stories about Death—are quite close. The part I wasn’t sure about when I started, and which took me a few years to figure out, is exactly where those stories would bring Batul. I wanted her to achieve that new and satisfying understanding of Death, an image of Death as a friend and companion; but it ultimately seemed wrong to tell a story about a victim of violence who learns to accept violence as inevitable. Yet I couldn’t imagine a satisfying alternative. It took me a while to accept that the lack of closure in the story—the sense of a storyteller defeated by her own material—may be the only just way to conclude.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I have several new stories about violence, belonging, and using fiction to make sense of our lives forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, The Dark, and Asimov’s. Readers can check my website for updates at meganarkenberg.com.
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