Thank you for taking some time to chat about your story. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and what inspired “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep”?
There are two answers to this, one geekier than the other.
The first is that I’ve always been fascinated by whales. Their incomprehensible bulk, their music—particularly their music, which is so serene, and beautiful, and painfully, painfully in contrast to the violence we’ve visited upon them.
The second is that I’m obsessed with the videogame series Dishonored, which is set in a world built on a massive whaling industry, with its technology powered by volatile, frosted blue-white canisters of thick whale oil, magical charms carved from whalebone, and an enigmatic god who lives in a void where whales swim among the inky black. I love Dishonored’s meaty, grimy aesthetic to bits, and it was a big influence on this story.
. . . Also, one of my favourite YouTubers (bit.ly/1tzyc56) wrote a fansong for the first Dishonored game, with a haunting chorus that goes “Shades of the whales in the painted deeps /Maimed and impaled in their pain they sleep.” The first note of this story chimed in my brain while I was listening to that song, and I think I had it on loop for most of the time I spent writing it.
As for my process, it’s changed a lot since Clarion West. I like language that’s evocative and visceral, that’s located in the body, so I try to extract taste and touch and smell and colour for a reader to experience. I’m very much the kind of writer who has to know how the story is going to end before I can begin—of course, the ending I have in mind usually changes by the time I get there, but it’s important to me to work towards some idea of what kind of emotion or idea I want to leave a reader with as they finish.
The atmosphere is evocative. I found myself thinking of Moby-Dick and H.P. Lovecraft at different points. What kind of research was required in order to do this story justice?
Oh, my Google search history was a joy while I was writing this—it ranged from “what does whale meat taste like” (there’s a whole Quora page of people weighing in) to “how many barrels of oil does a sperm whale provide” (which led me to discover that my first draft had erroneously tripled the count, thereby accidentally introducing the titular leviathan ten pages earlier than intended!), and even “he’s-at-homes” (which, if you were curious, were plaster dildos the wives of whalers were rumoured to employ during the long months their husbands were away at sea).
The deepest rabbit hole I went down was when I discovered a batch of digitized ships logs from vessels—some of them whaling ships, some of them not—from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A lot of these were nigh-illegible to me, not because of handwriting or deterioration, but because they were densely packed with absolutely fascinating jargon—I remember struggling to translate something like “the starboard wildcat refused to take the chain so we had to take the anchor with the devil’s claw” (my best guess is that it has something to do with a windlass).
Regardless, the digitized logs were probably the most valuable thing I found in terms of research. They gave me a tone and voice to emulate, period-authentic jargon to make it real, and most importantly a picture of the preoccupations of daily life on a whaling ship—winds, direction, repairs, etc.—so I could shatter that picture when the voyage went terribly off course.
As I read the story, I thought about how technology is often developed and used for violent purposes before consideration is given to how it might be used to benefit society in other ways. Is this a theme you feel strongly about? Does your work tend to explore particular themes?
I think the character of technology is determined by the people who control it. The captain is hungry for fame. Glass is hungry for knowledge, I suppose, but also for recognition, fueled by hubris and a belief that science conquers all. The industry they’re both part of—and by extension, I suppose, capitalism—is always hungry for more; more profit, more money, more returns. So, of course, the technology they implement is meant to feed their hunger, without a thought to those they devour. In the end, they discover that when you try to steal the voices of your victims to turn them against them, you might not have control over what those voices choose to say.
The theme of hunger shows up a lot in my work. The other story I have out at this time, in issue two of Anathema Magazine, is about a Bengali foodie who ends up possessed by a hungry ghost—and both it and this story were part of my MFA thesis, which was a collection of short stories centered on hunger and consumption. I’m fascinated by our complicated relationship with food—some of my academic interests are horror cinema and Gothic literature, and food shows up richly in both. Both thrive on rupture and destabilization, on opening the door to let the dark things in the night come in, and it’s no surprise that this often means reminding us how helpless we are when hunger comes knocking, whether our own or someone else’s. Who decides what’s a delicacy and what’s disgusting? How does food intersect with gender, in terms of whose bodies are rendered consumable and whose appetites are catered to? How do we negotiate our own appetites—or harness our own hunger to turn against those who want to consume us whole?
The ending left me satisfied, but with questions of what will happen when the crew of the Herman run into other whale ships. Why did you choose to end the story at this point? What would you like an ideal reader to take away from this story?
Well. They’re not going to look like humans by that point. Nor are they going to be able to communicate with their fellow humans, except in whalesong, which we already know whalers aren’t particularly sympathetic to. They are, in fact, going to look exactly like the creatures they once hunted. So . . .
I think good horror is as dependent on what you don’t describe as what you do. An incomplete glimpse—like the eye under the water, leaving you struggling to comprehend the whole. A fragment, a shadow, angles that don’t cohere. The unsettling implications, left unsaid. There’s also the fact the story isn’t just in first-person, but quite literally in the form of a journal. It seemed apt to end at the moment the writer of that journal realizes he is about to lose both his ability to write and his human voice.
As for what I’d like a reader to take away from this story . . . I hope it will make them think about music, and violence, and ignorance, and empathy, and the pain we’re willing to inflict on others in the pursuit of our own appetites.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about this story? What’s next for you?
This story was my very first sale—not my first pro sale, but my first sale, period, and I feel so incredibly lucky to have it be at a market like Nightmare. I’ve had another story come out since I sold this, and I have work forthcoming at Fireside this year. I’ve signed on as Assistant Editor for Glittership (glittership.com), a queer SFF podcast that does absolutely brilliant work. And finally, I just successfully completed my MFA!
Where do I go from here? Well, it’s going to depend on how well I navigate the shark-infested waters of the American immigration system—but I certainly plan to keep writing, and hope to start moving beyond short stories and experimenting with interactive fiction as well.
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