A Review of Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

Published June 22, 2021 by Tordotcom

“All martyrdoms are difficult.”

So reads the tagline of Kerstin Hall’s latest novel, a gripping exploration of power and agency within oppressive systems.

Elfreda Raughn has a problem. A member of a magical Sisterhood, it’s her duty to maintain order and keep Aytrium floating upon the magical pillars that the Star Eater established a millennia ago—lest the city crash into the abyss of monstrous Haunts below. It’s the duty of every Sister to produce a daughter who will one day devour her mother in search of magical power. Conception is ritualized and abortion is forbidden. Terrified of falling pregnant, Elfreda wants out at any cost. Blackmailed into assisting a shadowy rebellion, she gains access to both the highest levels of the Sisterhood and the complex mysteries surrounding the Star Eater.

A story of monsters, ritual, and the weight of obligation in the face of love, Star Eater begins with a deceptively conventional opening before shifting into something stranger and much more interesting. Featuring a complex system of magic, belief, and the varying intersections of faith and ritual, Star Eater’s one flaw might be combining too many characters and plot elements into a single storyline. It’s a difficult balancing act to handle a conspiracy, a murder mystery, and a chosen-one narrative on top of an incredibly complex system of magic and worldbuilding. And, to Star Eater’s credit, it’s a balance the story mostly manages to strike. The characters have enough breathing room to develop, the world of Aytrium reveals itself in intriguing ways through both the mundane and the utterly strange, and it avoids falling into the more common pitfalls of modern horror fiction. The story feels lived in without needlessly info-dumping, though there is one moment toward the middle involving details of the magic system that would have benefitted from some fleshing out before it became an important plot element instead of being revealed in-scene the moment it becomes relevant.

I have to admit that I’m a hard sell on first-person narratives. Call it a stylistic preference. I’m happy to report that Elfreda makes for an intriguing narrator, balancing the line between absorbing introspection while never getting too quick or too slow to pick up on the plot twists. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but one that Hall handles masterfully. Star Eater’s emotional arc concerns Elfreda’s relationship with three other characters; siblings Finn and Millie, both of whom Elfreda has known since childhood and has complicated romantic feelings for, and her mother, Kirane, who has since been martyred and left alive only so the other Sisters can devour her body to increase their own magical power.

I am also a hard sell on love triangles. To Hall’s credit, she doesn’t shy away from exploring the complexities of love under these circumstances, both familiar and romantic, and how the characters compromise and change in order to survive an imperfect world. Elfreda is flawed and her power makes her dangerous, as does her participation in a system that oppresses the people around her. Her journey from reluctant but willing participant to active rebellion comes organically, in fits and starts as she swings from acting out of self-preservation to genuinely believing change is possible, and with more than a few twists I didn’t see coming. And while the ending hits quickly, it does so in a way that ties all the narrative threads together in a neat, cohesive whole.

Star Eater’s deceptively conventional opening implies a far more mundane story with a love triangle and a murder mystery that I’d seen many times before. But the actual story is interested in deeper and stranger questions about human nature, how people endure under oppression, and the power of belief in the face of overwhelming odds, and far more interesting. It is also extremely, enthusiastically, queer. I highly recommend it.

The Witch King : An Interview with H.E. Edgmon

I’ll open with the single most cliché thing: what inspired The Witch King?

The big factor that pushed me to finally write this book was fanfiction. I have multiple marginalized identities that take place at different intersections, and when I grew up, I never saw myself reflected in mainstream media, whether that was published books or TV shows. So, I retreated into fandoms for a big part of my life. In fanfiction, characters can be whatever you decide they are. I’d always known I wanted to be a writer, but I was trying very hard to write stories that I felt would be more mainstream, which means writing only cis characters, and they didn’t really reflect the people in my circle or who I really was.

Finally, one day I said, I’m going to tell a story that feels authentic to me because I want to make people feel the way that fanfiction allowed me to feel, which included reclaiming the tropes that had been denied to us in mainstream media and seeing ourselves as the main characters.

Can you talk to me about your worldbuilding? You tap into a bunch of interesting genres, and you have so much worldbuilding around the monarchy and how the magic works. Where did each of those pieces come from?

I’ve always been super interested in pocket worlds, which are worlds that exist alongside but separate from ours. A popular example is Narnia. You step into this doorway, and you’re in a wildly separate place. I’ve always been fascinated by this idea that there are hundreds or thousands of pocket worlds, and these creatures can come in and out of these worlds through doors. That was the basis for my worldbuilding, this pocket world, and what would happen if the creatures that were over there stepped through and came here. As for the fae, when I went into the book, I had not read a ton of works about them, so I asked myself what do I find most compelling about magical races? I basically built my own dream monsters.

I loved your note at the beginning of the book, where you talk about this brutal honesty in the way you wrote it. What was that experience like, tearing off all the band-aids and saying this is what I’m going to write, directly from the heart?

I grew up in the very rural, very conservative Deep South. I had known I was queer and trans as far back as I can remember, but I was also surrounded by very conservative ideals. In my childhood, I never saw anyone like me because typically people like me get out of the very deep conservative pockets of the South as quickly as they can. I didn’t know I could be the person I am and have a happy life. I spent a big chunk of my life trying to turn into someone who I thought was more deserving, instead of creating the happiest, most authentic version of myself. That did not work; it was painful and uncomfortable, and I was very unhappy. Eventually, well into my twenties, I realized, largely thanks to online trans communities and friends I made as an adult, that it was entirely possible to be the most authentic version of myself.

Since writing the first draft of this book, I have come out publicly, and that has been kind of a brutal process. It was as brutal as I thought it would be. I did lose people in that process, but I am going to keep creating this happy future for myself. I think that it’s important for this book and books like it to exist with these characters at the forefront who create their own happiness. I want kids who are like me, who are a generation behind me and a generation behind that one, to know much earlier than I did that this happiness is totally achievable for their most authentic self.

I think that’s wonderful. One thing I found really striking was just how funny the narrative is. You’ll be in the middle of an incredibly dramatic point and then there are these weird jokes that felt authentic to how someone’s mind would actually process something like their magical ex-husband breaking in on them. Was that natural to the way you speak and think, or did you try to imbibe that bit of humor?

Dialogue has always been something I’ve considered to be one of my strong suits. Here’s some advice for anyone, particularly people who are writing YA novels right now and tapping into that Gen-Z-type humor: TikTok. Listen to how teenagers talk to each other because the jokes are there, and they are hilarious. Their sense of humor has shaped my sense of humor and the humor of the book.

The Witch King is a beautiful fantasy, with powerful statements about gender, identity, and how society thrusts things on us, and how we rebel. Those are really adult topics. Did you ever feel there was anything you weren’t able to write because of the YA genre? Did you have to hold back anything that you would have put in an adult book but felt you couldn’t put in this?

Honestly, no. The way you approach certain topics is different because you are presenting them to teenagers, but I don’t think there is anything you can’t discuss in a YA book. For anything that can happen, there is definitely a teenager out there who has experienced it, who is going through it, whether that’s a good thing or not. In talking about what some people try to “dumb down” in YA, I’ve observed it’s often political in nature. Way back before I agented, long before I had a book deal—when I was first getting feedback on my manuscript—I had somebody say to me that the character Briar, who is very involved in political activism, was very unrealistic for a teenager. I don’t agree with that because teenagers have always been invested in activism, now probably more than ever with all the information available to them. Teenagers care and are a lot smarter than we give them credit.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What it was like to get the courage up and make a real go at it?

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was a very young child. I watched my father playing Dungeons and Dragons, and though I was far too young to participate in his campaign, I loved this whole idea that you can just sit down with a pen and piece of paper and build entire worlds. That was the coolest magic to me. I remember being seven or eight years old, sitting down with my notebooks. I would write twenty pages of handwritten notes about these fantasy worlds I would create. I existed entirely in my own head, and it was so fun.

I didn’t know that writing could be a serious thing to do until I was in my early twenties. I’ve dealt with some pretty severe mental health issues and sort of spun from my teenage years into my early twenties. I was twenty-two or twenty-three when I started to feel in control of my life again. I had to think about what I wanted to do, and I decided I was going to write a book. So I did. It was not very good; it did not get published, and I did not get an agent. Then, I wrote another book, and it also did not get an agent and did not get published, but it was a little better. Then, I wrote The Witch King, and now here we are.

I recently lectured at a university where students asked me if no one likes my manuscript, should I just self-publish it? I told them they need to keep writing and improving before they decide that because every great author I’ve known has burnt a couple books along the way. It hurts, but you just do it.

It does hurt. There were other books I started. I realized, sometimes as deep as 50,000 words in, that it was unsalvageable, I was going in the wrong direction, and I needed to just shelve it and be done. I don’t know much about self-publishing, I’ve never tried any of that, but I do know from what I’ve been told that it is a lot more difficult than people anticipate.

With every word you write, you get better.It is difficult, especially when you don’t have time to write because you are not paid to write. It’s difficult to hear just keep doing it and maybe it will pay off. I, unfortunately, do not have a solution to that.

When you were writing this book, did you feel this one was different from the ones before or were you just as in love during the writing process as you were with the scrapped books?

At the point when I started writing The Witch King, I had queried two other books, and I had abandoned two or three other manuscripts along the way. I felt like I was running out of time. I was still in my twenties and not actually running out of time, but I felt like I couldn’t keep putting all this time and energy into it. I was going to have to start making money. When I sat down to write The Witch King, I told myself I was going to make this the most honest, raw, and real story that I could. If it still didn’t work out, I was going to need to figure out a different path. From a logistical, financial standpoint, I couldn’t pour so much time into something that wasn’t going anywhere. So, as I was writing, I knew a lot was riding on it. It felt very different from the first two because it was the first time I had sat down with the resolution this is going to be my last shot, I’m going to give it everything I have. It was painful in ways to write because it was so real to me.

It shows how much heart went into it; it’s a fantastic novel. So, tell me about the technical side of things. You have a manuscript, and now you’re ready to query it. What was that query process like?

I had a few people that I’d queried originally who requested full versions of the last manuscript and passed on it but told me to let them know if I wrote anything else. I sent it to those people first. I also participated in a Twitter pitch event. The Witch King had some very flashy comparisons when I did the pitch event. It was compared to The Cruel Prince by Holly Black and Fever King by Victoria Lee, which I think got people’s attention. I got a lot of full requests very quickly because of that. Most of them didn’t pan out, but I did end up getting a couple of representation offers from the Twitter pitch contest. Then, one of the agents who I had sent it to previously and who had read another of my manuscripts also made an offer. And that is who I ended up signing with.

Once it was picked up and you worked with your editor, what was the biggest change between the draft you submitted and what I’m now holding?

The biggest change was Wyatt’s motivations. The first draft was a lot more violent because he was considering getting out of this marriage through murder. It was a darker story. The feedback I got was love the book, however . . . Wyatt is kind of irredeemable. And I said, I hear you.

Changing that one plot point overhauled the entire book. I rewrote most of the book in revisions to make it less of a super dark murder story. It was an interesting time. I signed my book right before the pandemic, and I also had a baby right before the pandemic, and then I had to rewrite the entire book. That was a time.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m working on the sequel. The Witch King is the first in a duology, so the second book will come out the summer of 2022. I’ve been having some very exciting conversations with people in charge about plans for the sequel. I also have a few other things in the works unrelated to this series—that I can say absolutely nothing about yet, of course.

We also have a preorder campaign of The Witch King. There are some really awesome incentives. We have signed book plates that are beautifully illustrated. I also made a custom The Witch King tarot deck. People who order during the preorder campaign have a chance to win a deck, but only five people will be chosen as winners.

A Review of Salamat sa Intersectionality by Dani Putney

Published May 18, 2021 by Okay Donkey Press

Dani Putney’s debut poetry collection Salamat sa Intersectionality is a dynamic lyrical exploration of identity and evolution. Reading these poems felt like walking through Putney’s life—in each section, they create meaningful narratives of change and growth that kept me enthralled. Their poetry is both playful and intensely contemplative, and poems like “Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf Talk on My Thighs” are beautiful analyses of gender and language. As a nonbinary, mixed-race Filipinx, and neurodivergent individual, Dani Putney skillfully brings in different aspects of their identity to show the world from their perspective. In doing so, they create a radical understanding of self through poetry.

The collection takes the form of a poetic triptych, where each panel captures different aspects of Putney’s evolution: “Youthful Absolution,” “Salted Pores,” and “Taken Root.” In “Youthful Absolution,” the reader sees how Putney explores gender as well as their relationship with their parents. For instance, the poem “To Judith Butler” questions the boundaries of gender, while “My Mom Was a Picture Bride” shows the complex meaning of Putney wearing their mother’s cheongsam. Ancestry is a strong theme in this section, and I enjoyed seeing the different directions in which Putney would take the idea of youth.

The following section, “Salted Pores,” is lush with poems of queer sexuality. In these, Putney describes various physical encounters and examines the depths of desire. Poems like “Berm” portray the familiar embrace of a lover, and “Hyacinth” shows an ephemeral impression of attraction. The relationships in these poems are complex, with Putney showing both loving partners and layered conflict. There are cycles of tension and release, which create a growing anticipation as the poems advance toward the next movement.

Finally, “Taken Root” establishes how Putney sees their own self. “Scar” is a playful-yet-dark poem about Putney’s admiration for Scar from The Lion King, and “Stuck in Primordial Soup” hints toward ideas of apocalypticism. This section is probably the most varied in the collection, as it extends outward to ideas on the universe, parasites, video games, and geography. It’s fun to puzzle out the different possibilities of identity, and in doing so, complete the triptych.

One aspect I appreciated in Salamat sa Intersectionality was how many of the poems are connected by a sense of geographic space. Putney travels through imagery of California marshlands, Nevada deserts, Texas highways, and even Talisay City in the Philippines. Their poems vividly situate the reader in space, and then explore how identity is shaped by place: “lips were earthy / like his desert origins / each chapped sliver of skin / a horseback ride / through sagebrush.”

Salamat sa Intersectionality is a journey through how youth, sexuality, and sense of self all converge into identity. After reading this collection, I found myself thinking more about how bodies are shaped by this space-place complex, and I could flip to any page in this collection and discover something I didn’t realize before. Reading these poems feels like an adventure, and I would recommend Dani Putney’s Salamat sa Intersectionality to anyone interested in more Filipinx and LGBTQ+ poetry.

The Deep : An Interview with Alma Katsu

What drew you to the sinking of the Titanic and the Britannic?

After The Hunger, the natural question was what big disaster will you turn to next? But answering this is harder than it appears. Not to sound too callous but it’s got to be the right disaster, to have the right elements for a novel (mystery, adversity, challenge, and triumph; it can’t be all doom and gloom). There’s arguably no greater disaster in most people’s minds than the Titanic so it seemed the logical thing to tackle, though daunting. It’s so well-known and held in such esteem by so many people that you risk displeasing some of them, no matter what you do with the story. But it seemed like a grand challenge, and I love a writing challenge.

The sinking of the Titanic (and, to a lesser extent, its sister ship, the Britannic) occupy a very specific place in the public imagination. Regardless of the actual historical facts, the events have become mythologized. How did you grapple with that when writing The Deep?

Ah, the conundrum of every writer of historical fiction. Where to draw the line between fact and fiction will vary depending on the story we want to tell. And will my work of fiction only contribute to the mythologizing? Readers who prefer novels that are practically nonfiction won’t find my books satisfying, I’m afraid, but hopefully they’ll know what to expect as we try to make clear up front that these are reimaginings with an added element: horror.

Even with that warning, however, readers’ expectations are still in the back of your mind. Luckily, my readers seem to have come to enjoy the blend of fact and fiction and have made a game of discovering for themselves where the line falls. Many write to tell me the novels have spurred their interest in the actual history, and that they’re reading all the nonfiction accounts they can get their hands on, which is music to my ears.

Perspective is incredibly important within The Deep. Characters move through the novel as the heroes of their own story, each interpreting events a certain way. How did you balance the characters’ vastly different perspectives of the same events?

One thing I try to do with these books is reflect the issues of the day, and, for that period in time, the two big issues were class and wealth disparity (a small number of rich, dynastic families getting disproportionately richer and a growing number of the population falling below the poverty line) and women’s rights. Making sure these two issues were represented in the story guided a lot of choices in terms of who would be the POV characters, what their concerns were, and how they viewed the world around them. For instance, the main character is a poor Irish maid, not at all worldly, thrust into a completely alien situation—the great tumult of the Titanic’s maiden voyage—alongside Maddie Astor, new wife of the richest man in America.

Building off of that, Annie’s perspective is suspect from the beginning. The reader isn’t certain whether or not to trust what she tells them. Was this a challenge for you to write?

Extremely difficult! Because it’s easy to frustrate the reader if the narrator is too wild or seems to contradict herself too much. It’s a delicate balance and I wish there was an easier way to do it other than lots of trial and error. Lots of rewriting. It helps to have models in mind, an example of the exact note you want to hit. Mine was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, where the mystery was just enough to keep you off balance.

The Deep weaves together two different timelines and two different disasters. Was this your plan from the beginning? Did anything surprise you about working with two separate timelines?

Once you find out the sister ship also sank, then there’s no way you cannot use that in the story, don’t you think? It raises the possibility of something supernatural at play, that somehow it was fated to be, and for a writer that’s impossible to resist—even if it makes plotting difficult. Really tricky.

A project like The Deep must have involved extensive research and planning, and that’s not even factoring in the time to write. How long did you work on The Deep from start to finish? What was that research process like?

The research on books like The Deep and The Hunger is considerable, but I was a professional research analyst for most of my life so I don’t think it’s as daunting as it might be for most people. I am strict with myself and don’t allow for a lot of getting lost in rabbit holes, if you know what I mean. I do a lot of spot research as I’m writing. For me, it’s not the writing that’s a time-sink as much as the rewriting, as my books tend to go through a couple rounds of heavy-duty revisions with the editor.

Every writer is different, but for me the first draft stage is usually six months or less and that includes research. Each revision can take one to three months. Of course, that might mean fifteen-hour days when I get close to deadline.

The character of Violet Jessop is an interesting one. She’s also a historical figure who lived a varied—and at times tragic—life. How did you first learn about her? What drew you to write about her?

Violet was the reason there’s a book, really. My husband was watching a documentary on the first visit to the Britannic wreck and they mentioned there was a woman who had survived both sinkings, and I knew there had to be a story in there! Obviously, a lot of Anne Hebbley, the main character, is patterned on Violet but with all the things that happen to Anne and that needed to be in her backstory, it didn’t feel right to simply put all that on Violet. The right thing to do was make a fictional character, but Violet is so special in her own right that I still wanted her in the book in some way.

The Deep blends the supernatural (or, perhaps more importantly, what the characters believe is supernatural) with a real, historical tragedy. How did you balance the two when you were writing? Was that a challenge? 

The guiding premise is the question of whether magic is real. So, The Hunger and The Deep examine where the dividing line is between magic and what we believe to be reality. Are the two completely separate, or could reality be a mixture of the two? Is magic simply another interpretation of our experience, or what we have come to think of as science? Medicine and treatments that are common today were the realm of alchemy or treated solely through spiritual means just a few centuries ago. As our modern world becomes more and more science-based, it does get harder to carve out a space for magic and the power of belief.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication? What projects are you currently working on?

It’s important to have goals, and easy in this profession to fall into a groove, I think. One big challenge was writing my first spy novel, which may seem like it’s coming from left field but makes more sense when you learn that I was a career intelligence officer. I didn’t start off with spy thrillers for a couple reasons, mainly waiting until I retired so there would be fewer complications with the home agency. Red Widow just came out and I am ridiculously proud of it, as I set out to write a book that was perhaps a truer representation of what the life inside is like, particularly for women.

I’d also hoped to break into film and TV (as I’d seen so many of my fellow writers making the leap) and I’m happy to say Red Widow is in development with FOX, and I’m getting a front-row seat as one of the executive producers. The Hunger is also about to be pitched to studios, too, and it’s kind of amazing to see these long-held goals be realized.

These Violent Delights : An Interview with Chloe Gong

So, what inspired you to write this book?

The first sprig of the idea was that I wanted to write a blood feud story. I thought it would be interesting to write about two characters caught in a conflict between their families. And they’re so alike and work so well together, yet the circumstances pull them apart. Then that seemed to come across as an innocent, star-crossed lovers’ story. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this sounds like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The more the story came to life, and the more that the elements were coming together with writing gangs and reimagining how a story like this would play out in the true historical context, I thought it would be more interesting to lean right into doing a Romeo and Juliet retelling.

This interest in blood feuds, is that because you grew up with divergent families that hated one another? Or did you just really find it fascinating as a reader?

I just found it fascinating because I love stories that come with intense conflicts. I grew up reading so much YA, and I always loved it when there’s a plot but also a couple to root for in the sub-plot. They go so nicely together when it’s the world itself trying to keep these characters apart. So I thought, I love a blood feud for the main plot, and it’ll be interesting getting into those character dynamics.


You’re in university right now. What’s it like to write a book while you’re going to school?

It’s a lot to handle. Back when I was doing the brunt of the first book’s revision—when I was working with my editor the first time—to get through the roughest draft of it was a lot of tearing it completely apart. And there was a lot of building it from the ground up, and I was doing that during my most intense course load.

Growing up, I’d always thought of writing as a hobby. But in college, I had to treat it as something to take really seriously so that I wasn’t falling behind on deadlines. After I got the deadlines in, after the book itself got into its final “pretty stages,” it was quite nice to just be in school. It was an interesting experience in the sense that it was really hard to do, but once it got done, I felt very privileged to have that role.

Did you try to somehow overlap it? Like if you had a book deadline, you thought okay, I’ll make sure to take a Shakespeare class and something about the history of China—did you try to use school to your advantage, or were they completely at odds?

I did try. I’m doing a Chinese minor, not Chinese language, but history—it was almost as if the classes I naturally gravitated towards were the stuff that was relevant anyway. I had the book together after freshman year, and then sophomore year I took a lot of classes like Monsters and Literature, East Asian Diplomacy, and Intro to Russian Literature. In all of those classes, I would pick up bits and pieces that helped me understand more. But I didn’t necessarily insert anything in. It gave me an angle to think about it again, and when I went back to revise, it was almost like I had more of a lens. My brain felt bigger.

You’re literally marketing to a group that you’re still vaguely in. Usually, when we talk to YA authors, they’re in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and a big question is how do you get yourself back in the mindset of being a teenager? What was it like to write inside the group that you were catering to?

It felt very natural because it was all that I knew. The only books that I had read were young adult, so when I was writing one, it never occurred to me to write adult fiction, because I don’t know what that is. I don’t know how adults think; I don’t know what adults do. From about thirteen onwards, whenever I was writing a book, that character would be my age, because as I was growing up, I was putting myself into the pages.

I wrote These Violent Delights when I was nineteen. I got the idea when I was eighteen, so Juliette in the book is just eighteen. I was translating myself over in terms of what I knew. After I spoke to my agent, she said that this book could actually cross over into adult. I was shocked. I thought how did I accidentally write something that adults want to read? I really like the fact that apparently my writing is accessible, but given that I was so rooted in the teen space, and I know what these teen readers like, I was comfortable in the teen space. It was always the path I was going to go down. I guess it will be interesting now, growing up, to see whether I expand into adult. I’m kind of poking my fingers into it.

I always love when I find a YA book like yours that just isn’t afraid to have really creepy monsters and people ripping their own throats out. What was it like to lean into that darkness? Have you always been interested in that aspect of writing? Or was that something that came out with these themes?

I think it was something that emerged with these themes because I wanted to work with Romeo and Juliet as inspiration, which comes from a relatively violent place. Then I was setting something in 1920s Shanghai, which was, in history, very ruled by gangs, so lawless streets was effectively the atmosphere. So even when I added a supernatural component, I wanted to embrace the natural dark atmosphere of what would have been true to the time. Because my first audience was myself—again, since I belong to the audience—I knew that teens wouldn’t balk at it in the same ways that older adults writing for the teen audience might have to be more hesitant, because they aren’t entirely sure what goes and what doesn’t anymore. But I knew that the recent reads my friends and I were into had no problem embracing the darker side. Teenagers don’t necessarily flinch at those things in the way that adult gatekeepers of the industry might think. I didn’t have an issue writing that, as long as it was true to the story I was trying to tell.

One of the things I loved about the book was your voice. It was this great merger of the more lyrical work that we’ve all grown up with in classic literature, but it had its own unique style. Did the voice just pour out of you? Did you agonize over it?

I do a lot of editing as I go, so when I write I have to make sure that the first things I’m putting down on the page are what I want them to be. So I guess in a way I do agonize over making sure that the setting on the page is sounding how I want it to sound. But I also think because of the world that was naturally in place, I was reading a lot of primary sources from people describing the city at the time and I was reading some translated literature pieces, and the way that the description tends to come about usually has that more lyrical, omniscient sense to it. So I went in with that intention, and in that sense, it made the tone quite natural to me as I went on. But to make sure that I was following through with it was always in my head. Prose is really important to me. I love YA for its quick pace and the character work, but I also never want to sacrifice the craft of it. When I write, I have to make sure that everything YA values is going on but my words have to sound pretty.

Are you the kind of writer where you knew exactly what direction you were racing in and you had the plot thought out, or do you write and let the muse take you and try to clean up everything that broke while you wrote?

A bit of both. I outline a lot. I try to know everything I write before I write it, but sometimes the story goes in its own direction completely, and then I have to readjust my outline. But even when that happens, I tend to erase a bit of what I have in my outline document and rework that, then go back to the novel itself. I hate writing words that I know I’m going to delete. I always have to feel the usefulness of something before I’m actually putting it down. I feel that I have to get the wrong part in my brain first and rework it before getting it down on an outline. That’s why my first drafts already turn out quite clean. I’ve already stumbled on it so much in its first stages.

Talk to me about the actual publishing process. You had this great idea, you thought it was viable—did you just look up how to query an agent on the internet?

Exactly like that. I used Google so much. I had the finished book, and I wanted to get it published, but I had no idea how. I typed “how do you get published” into Google, and then I sifted my way through. I realized that traditional publishing was what I wanted and realized how to query an agent, what happens after you sign with an agent, how to get in the hands of editors. I did so much research and looked up agents that represent the genres I write in, then I looked up how to approach them. I wrote my query letters and sent them all out, then once I actually signed with an agent, I had my foot in the door. Then I had someone to guide me through the industry.

How did you go about selecting an agent that you knew understood your message?

I queried the agents who represented the type of stuff I had written and was planning to write in the future because I wanted a career agent. I would check out some of their social media to see how they’d work with people and their vibe. I queried the ones that I would like to work with, and after I got a few offers from agents, I got on the phone with them all and my agent now was the one I vibed with the most.

Objectively, all of the agents who made me offers were amazing in terms of their approach, their vision for how the book could go. But I think my agent was just the one who not only did I agree with her interpretation of the book, but she was the one who talked about it and my career going in a way that felt good to me on a personal level. That was really important to me because at the time I was nineteen. I wanted someone who would take me seriously and treat me as an equal, and she absolutely did. We’ve been working together ever since.

You had a quotation about how you’ve written like eight books since you were thirteen, and you’ve really honed your craft. What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned from between being an adorable thirteen-year-old who’s just picking up the pen to someone who’s professionally writing?

I think a lot of writing will genuinely have to come from experience. And drawing rough stories and having them sound completely bizarre and just moving on from them. There’s a misconception that you can easily learn writing by reading enough prompt books or taking up advice. And while that is really helpful in the sense of understanding how story arcs go and how to create compelling characters, I think writing is one of those things that is genuinely like muscle memory.

What about writing from your own experience? You write about romance and so many adult themes. Have you tried to go out and live a bit recklessly so you could pull from experience? What was it like to connect on a human element?

I went about it more with the imagination route than the experience route. With cultural inspiration, I would take from stories I have heard my family talk about, and stories my parents told at the dinner table. Things like human yearning and human ambition—things like Juliette feeling frustrated that she keeps getting overlooked as the heir of a gang—all of those things, they’re very foreign to me. I would never know what it’s like to fight over an underground empire. My imagination is what I sink into for that. That’s why I love fantasy so much. You can look at the complete extremes of what someone could experience, but real-life people won’t necessarily experience. I do think that getting out into the world is something that’s helpful to gain insight into the human experience, but I think that some young writers will imagine things very deeply, and I think that gives them an edge as well.

Is there a character that you found the most natural to write? That you identified with? Or maybe someone you didn’t identify with at all and that made them so much easier to write?

For most of the characters, I took a certain part of myself and shoved it in there. That was what helped make them three-dimensional in my eyes. For example, most of Juliette’s identity crises come from my lived experiences being part of the diaspora in the Western world. But then other parts of her personality are completely unlike mine. With Benedikt, his obsession with the world and his anxiety is mine, but other parts of him are completely made up. When I create my characters, they’re all equally hard to write in the sense that I give them a part of me to make them feel real, and then I expand more on the very basics of who they should be to create a new person who feels real in their world. If it felt too easy, I would think it was getting too biographical. I like the fact that it feels difficult to make them all feel unique. Then it feels like they’re real people that someone could meet on the street.

In addition to this book, there’s a sequel. Was it an intended sequel?

It was intended in the sense that it’s always been the whole story, but it was originally one book. It was one quite big manuscript, but then my editor said that we should break it apart because it was quite chunky. I jumped at the opportunity to split it into two books. I changed the story a lot when I did this. The sequel has always existed, but what’s in the sequel now is completely different from how the original story once went.

When you originally queried the two books as one, what was your word count?

It was actually lower. I want to say it was 117,000. When you’re getting an agent, they like to keep it under 100,000. I think the current word count is 120,000. So it did grow. It’s so frustrating that it’s an industry standard to keep it under 100,000 words. Sometimes people really pull it off—the pacing is good, all of the words are needed. But because the way the industry works, they say get it under 100,000 and then grow it again once you have a book deal.

What is the one thing you really wanted to say with this book?

With this book and the duology itself, and starting with Romeo and Juliet, I think the big theme is to choose love in a place of hate.

Loose Canons: Adventures in the Literary Multiverse

In celebration of the recent release of F(r)iction #18: Legacy, we bring you this read-along . . .

In the editor’s note of F(r)iction’s LEGACY issue, editor-in-chief Dani Hedlund asks, “in the end, is our legacy completely out of our control?” Reading further, all signs point to ‘yes.’  The achievements of the individuals featured in Gerald Malone’s piece Blanked from History went uncelebrated because of the social politics of their times, while Dorian Karahalios’ story Old Man Miller depicts how, long after her death, a murdered teenage girl is rebranded from victim to villain, misrepresented to serve a narrative.

After we die, we can’t say with any certainty who will end up with our sweaters, so any conjecture about our own legacy—how we’ll be remembered (or forgotten), or what others will do with what we leave behind, is—at best—a guess thrown into the wind. William Wirt Winchester couldn’t have predicted that his widow Sarah would use his financial legacy to build an ever-changing mansion of secret passageways and staircases leading nowhere as protection against the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles any more than Shakespeare could have foreseen that his literary legacy would one day include a version of Hamlet narrated by a fetus.

While legacy preserves the fruits of an author’s labor, adaptations use those fruits as ingredients to make their own preserves; concoctions that alter the flavors of familiar stories by filling in narrative gaps, providing context about why antagonists became who they became, correcting injustices to maligned or underserved characters like Bertha or Miss Havisham, or re-examining stories from alternate POVs or timelines.

Retellings can be great fun, a way for authors to play with other people’s dolls. Seeing how the source material functions within a different time period, location, or culture or tweaking its dynamics by changing characters’ race, gender, or sexual orientation have inspired reimaginings as varied as Jane Austen’s beloved characters facing a zombie invasion, Beowulf in suburbia, or Othello in grade school.

Whether the original authors would approve of these literary staircases built on their legacy-mansions or would instead haunt the folks building them is anyone’s guess—although famously racist H.P. Lovecraft would’ve been horrified by Victor Lavalle’s treatment of his most famously racist book, Homer would probably be cool with Madeline Miller intensifying the implicit bromance between Achilles and Patroclus.

Here are ten adaptations of literary masterpieces for your assessment: are they lode-bearing constructions or ornamental doors to nowhere?


Sex and Vanity

by Kevin Kwan (Doubleday, 2020)

Retelling E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View

From the author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy comes a frothy romantic comedy of manners featuring a crazy rich half-Asian woman named Lucie Churchill, for whom being biracial means having to navigate the conflicting expectations, demands, and snobbish sniping from both sides of her Chinese/WASP family tree. A successful art appraiser with a wealthy fiancé, Lucie is living a seemingly charmed life amongst New York’s mega-rich elite when the handsome and vexing George Zao—whom she’d met, detested, and kissed five years earlier—comes back into her life, reigniting old feelings. Their meet-cute, at a wedding in Capri, involved him offering to swap lodgings with her so she could have…wait for it…a room with a view. Yesiree, this modern rom-com romp is a flashy reboot of E.M. Forster’s novel about love, class, and repression in Edwardian England given a new culture-clash twist.

The Swallowed Man

by Edward Carey (Riverhead, 2021)

Retelling Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio

Charlotte Brontë never explained how Heathcliff got rich during his three years away from Wuthering Heights; a narrative lacuna into which multiple authors have planted their speculative novel flags. But until now, none had imagined what Pinocchio‘s Geppetto was doing whilst trapped in the belly of The Terrible Dogfish* that swallowed him during his search for the wayward puppet-son who ran off after an argument. This book is Geppetto’s diary, written (and illustrated) by candlelight in the belly of a ship in the belly of a beast; the words of a lonely artist reflecting on his life: fatherhood, aging and creation. He goes a little mad in the relentless solitude, staving off loneliness by drawing pictures of Pinocchio, sculpting new companions, and—briefly—befriending a crab.

* NOT Monstro the whale from the same Disney film that redacted Pinocchio killing the talking cricket with a hammer and Geppetto imprisoned for child abuse.

Killing Commendatore

by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2018)

Retelling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Having completed the first-ever Japanese translation of The Great Gatsby, the next logical step for Fitzgerald-superfan Murakami was to retell the tragic story of loneliness and obsession from a different angle. First, he relocated the story from a glitzy Long Island mansion to the remote mountains of Japan. Next, he changed . . . nearly everything else. 500 pages longer than the original, this is Gatsby strained through Murakami’s signature magical realism filter and then shoved through the looking glass repeatedly. The Gatsby scaffolding is the relationship between the unnamed protagonist and his wealthy, enigmatic neighbor, but it’s supporting a reference-laden, Gothic/metaphysical meditation on art, music, war, the creative process, and enlightenment, sprinkled with literary cameos, paintings come to life, a trip to the underworld, and the personification of literary devices. Oh, and Fitzgerald’s symbolic green light is represented by a bell here, which is a real game-changer.

Country

by Michael Hughes (Custom House, 2019)

Retelling Homer’s The Iliad

Adaptations build new worlds around familiar stories to show how society has changed—or hasn’t—in the years between the tellings. This novel is a perfect example of how, when it comes to the business of war, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Hughes recontextualizes the events of The Iliad by setting them in 1990s Northern Ireland during a ceasefire between the IRA and Britain towards the end of the Troubles. Retaining the cadence of the original, with slightly modified names and divine roles recast with mortal characters, this is a surprisingly faithful retelling of Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War; one conflict sliding easily into another. It’s very butch and visceral; men and guns and violence and blood, and while it may not feature the diversity of . . . every other recently published Homeric rework, it is an unquestionably fine achievement in both historical fiction and literary adaptation.

Quichotte

by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2019)

Retelling Cervantes’ Don Quixote

Cervantes haaaaaated the first adaptation of Don Quixote. Like some 17th century George R.R. Martin, he took ten years off to write the second half of his epic, during which time an unauthorized, anonymous (or pseudonymous) sequel emerged, taking personal shots at Cervantes, who bitterly clapped back at the unknown author in DQ Part II. Rushdie’s homage is less antagonistic, modernizing the original while respecting its bones (a complexly structured picaresque adventure with metafictional flourishes), meat (the Indian-American Quichotte taking a road trip towards an impossible love “accompanied” by his imaginary son Sancho), and spirit (satirizing the popular culture and contemporary values of the times). Cervantes’ story of a man driven mad when his devotion to chivalric romances blurs his perception of reality and fantasy may seem quaint, but Rushdie’s update—Quichotte driven mad by reality TV’s blurring of news and entertainment—is a sobering reflection of the modern condition.

Unforgivable Love

by Sophfronia Scott (William Morrow, 2017)

Retelling Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses

If you only know Les Liaisons dangereuses via the glossy-magazine film Cruel Intentions, you’ll think it’s about a couple of horny socialites ruining people’s reputations out of boredom. It’s legit entertaining, but it cuts motivation-corners by ignoring the fact that the whole thematic raison d’être driving LLd is power imbalance. As an aristocrat, the Marquise de Merteuil had social status but was denied power because of her gender. Behind her cultivated guise of demure gentility, she manipulated Valmont by weaponizing her sexual currency, strategically deploying him onto a path of destructive seduction to get what she wanted. Scott doubles down on this—set in Jazz Age Harlem, her Mae Malveaux is not only a woman, but a woman of color whose wealth affords her certain freedoms and elite status within Harlem’s social hierarchy, but there are external, systemic forces beyond her control * preventing her from achieving her goals. Machinations ensue.

*wink

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook

by Christina Henry (Berkley Books, 2017)

Retelling J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

A character-redemption tale positing that Captain Hook was not a villain, but a whistleblower passionate about child advocacy. Here, the notorious Peter Pan nemesis reveals that he was once just a lonely little boy named Jamie; the first Lost Boy to follow Peter through to Neverland, where they remained the very best of friends until Jamie started feeling a little conflicted about Peter’s penchant for luring young boys away from their families with promises of fun and adventure, no rules or adults and never growing up. Because never growing up doesn’t necessarily mean living forever. Sometimes it means dying young and being replaced by another batch of abducted boys. With an immortal’s disregard of mortal limitations, and a forever-child’s lack of responsibility or consequences, Peter is careless with his playthings, and after a while, Jamie gets tired of burying little boys and has to put his foot down.

Even in Paradise

by Elizabeth Nunez (Akashic Books, 2016)

Retelling William Shakespeare’s King Lear

Some literary adaptations are meant to operate as correctives; overwriting and supplanting their problematic predecessors, others are tangential “yes but” responses acknowledging the original and offering an alternate perspective. This one’s more like an echo. Set in present-day Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica, it’s a multicultural spin on King Lear that co-exists in the world with King Lear. So when the inheritance drama of wealthy Trinidadian landowner Peter Duckworth and his three daughters begins to unfold in uncanny parallel to Shakespeare’s tragedy, narrator and interested party Émile Baxter is familiar enough with the play to comment on the situation’s similarities, but unable to prevent the inevitable fallout of life mirroring art. Lear is the centerpiece of the novel, with its themes of greed, betrayal, and familial discord, but Nunez surrounds her family drama with lush descriptions of its Caribbean location and additional complications of race, class, poverty, and colonialism.

The Charmed Wife

by Olga Grushin (Putnam, 2021)

Retelling Charles Perrault’s Cinderella

We were assured that Cinderella and her Prince lived happily ever after, but a mere thirteen years later, this wellness check of a novel finds her a frazzled queen, beseeching the witch and her fairy godmother for a spell to kill her man. How could a relationship based on a shoe size and a one-night ball possibly turn sour? The realities of marriage, motherhood, and life’s myriad stressors have chipped away at the fairytale’s promise, but this isn’t your typical feminist fairytale retelling; it isn’t a retelling at all, but a prismatic piece of experimental fiction that explodes the rules and conventions of both fairytales and narrative storytelling itself, breaking down the walls between fantasy and reality, looping in characters from neighboring stories and the adventures of talking mice, where ‘good’ and ‘wicked’ are rarely what they seem and happily ever after can only begin once the fantasy ends.

Frankissstein: A Love Story

by Jeanette Winterson (Grove Press, 2019)

Retelling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 

All adaptations are Frankensteins: new ideas stitched onto old bodies, but Jeanette Winterson frankensteins Frankenstein itself into a very modern Prometheus indeed, which revisits and updates the question of what can be done with a body. Split between that 1816 Lake Geneva summer when Mary conceived Frankenstein, hands-down winning the competition between herself, boy-Shelley, Byron, and Polidori, and a present-day storyline featuring doppelgänger versions of that Swiss family writer’s circle, in which Ron Lord sells sentient sex-dolls and Mary is transfigured as trans man Ry whose lover Dr. Victor Stein is a TED-talking AI expert with visions of transhumanism dancing in his head. The novel has as many moving parts as Shelley’s monster, but its central preoccupation is the body: characters transcending its limitations, pushing past boundaries, imagining the what’s-next possibilities—why settle for your birth body, a human body, or a physical body at all?

A Study in Classics: Mrs. Dalloway in a Post-COVID World

COVID-19 has lent many things a new lease on life: Zoom, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, sourdough starters and drive-in theaters, just to name a few. As the anxiety-fueled days of quarantine and social distancing trudge on and with new lockdown measures a guarantee for some, is it any surprise that many find themselves looking back on the past to find answers in the present—and perhaps to help us contextualize this “new normal?” As literature lovers, we know that there is no better vessel for such nostalgia and life lessons than a timeless book. And one classic many have been reaching for in the past few months is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.  

Lauded as one of Virginia Woolf’s best novels and the bane of high schoolers’ existence everywhere, Mrs. Dalloway details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for an evening party—something that is almost unthinkable for us in the present. Its opening line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” has spawned anxious Twitter variations in light on the pandemic, as noted by The New Yorker (the most recent popular iteration seems to be in reference to Trump’s infamous press conference flub: “Mrs. Dalloway said she’d book the Four Seasons Total Landscaping herself.”)  

Fueling this association are the novel’s opening pages, which contain perhaps the most involved and glamorized depictions of running errands in all of literature. In her morning jaunt through the crowded city, Clarissa notes the vitality she feels—“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar . . . in the triumph and jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”—something almost alien to us now that a simple grocery run carries a level of risk.  

But beyond the perhaps obvious callback, Mrs. Dalloway contains a near-perfect framework for thinking about adjusting to a post-COVID world. Set in 1923, five years after the 1918 flu pandemic that claimed upwards of 50 million people and the end of World War I, the novel captures the strangeness of life in the shadow of unspeakable peril. Though the beginning of the novel finds Clarissa in seemingly high spirits, she notes that, “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” This latent dread feels all too familiar right now, especially when its indicators are largely visual: masked faces, empty cities, ambulances and full hospitals. 

Though it lacks true social distancing, the characters display a marked level of disconnect from everything going on around them. Peter Walsh, an old friend of Clarissa’s whom he once proposed to and was promptly rejected, recalls the time they spent in London in their youth and “the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known.” Lady Bruton, a friend of the Dalloways, notes how once her friends leave her, “they [go] further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin thread . . .” Rezia Warren Smith cries “I am alone; I am alone!” to herself after a futile attempt to remind her husband, a shell-shocked war veteran by the name of Septimus Warren Smith, of their first meeting and courtship in Milan at the end of the war. These insights, afforded to Mrs. Dalloway by virtue of its shifting point-of-view, provide a familiar glimpse into how tragedy can wreck our relationships. Just as Clarissa and co. feel socially adrift in a world where the loss feels so large it must be given a seat at the table, so are we struggling to connect amid grief and fear, knowing that getting close is a risk in itself. Social media, once the great connector, has been fatigued by the proliferation of Zoom and rampant video conferencing: reaching each other via the screen has never felt more isolating. We miss real, physical connection.  

Despite its short length, Mrs. Dalloway tackles a number of big themes: the passing of time, mental illness and depression and existentialism. Meanwhile, the inevitability of death hangs over the novel’s happenings, though politely out of sight. Clarissa herself narrowly escaped it— we are told that she was one of the lucky few who recovered from the Spanish flu, though she has a weak heart and has “grown very white since her illness.” She is similarly described as “a nun withdrawing.” She sleeps alone, a sort of physical isolation in itself. Knowing she has it better than others but still struggling under the weight of that grief, she asks herself: “Did it matter then . . . that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” 

The answer, one that we can cling to in our present uncertainty, comes near the end of the novel when, during her party, Clarissa learns of Septimus’ suicide: “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.” In light of this revelation, she leaves her own party to be alone. In the quiet of the room, she looks out the window and at an older woman in another. She thinks of Septimus, just as we think of those we might have lost, and when she is done mourning, acknowledges that “she must go back. She must assemble”—and so shall we.

April Literary Horoscopes

Aries

The Ram / Courageous, Adventurous, Independent / Domineering, Selfish, Arrogant

Man, you’re on fire, Aries! The stars were aligned in your favor last month, and April seems to be continuing the trend. You know what I say? Go crazy with it! Kick back and enjoy your month. For the foreseeable future, the stars are gloriously aligned in your favor.

And don’t forget your unique story pick:

  • Teaser: “Symptoms may include ambivalence about parenthood, an impulsive desire to have sex on the couch in the middle of the day, and a lingering sense of uncertainty about your new husband. These symptoms often go unrecognized until a catalytic event heightens their effect.”

Taurus

The Bull / Loyal, Friendly, Resourceful / Self-Indulgent, Possessive, Greedy

Believe it or not, April will be a transformative time for you. Put your friendly nature to use and connect with people through your sweet virtual setup. Join an online book club, try something new. Remember: Self-care isn’t selfish.

Speaking of self-care, check out this gorgeously written poem for April:

  • Teaser: “Draw us family-style nibbling raspberry bodies, / all hue and scent, rustling of silk and tang against / the roof of the mouth. Fresh from the west corner / of the garden, seeds of spell crushed between teeth, / tongue swollen with longing.”

Gemini

The Twins / Intelligent, Adaptable, Creative / Moody, Opportunistic, Inconsistent

March might have been a pedal-to-the-metal kind of month, but April is the perfect time to focus on your family! Now, don’t groan—it’s not polite (I’m winking, if you can’t tell). Set aside some time for your loved ones. And no, a two-minute phone call doesn’t count.

Well, maybe it does a little.

Teaser: “In my dream, I am making a scavenger hunt for my son, who is ten and too big for scavenger hunts. He has been too big for scavenger hunts since he was poppyseed sized, rooting around in my uterus for good soil.”

Cancer

The Crab / Honest, Generous, Faithful / Insecure, Needy, Crabby

It’s official: the butter-side down days have hit. Sorry, I forgot to warn you! Expect some fallout in your professional life and a few partings in your personal life. Maybe adopt an “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality?

It can’t hurt to distract yourself with this monthly read:

  • Teaser: “With its silver lining and the fake handkerchief sewn into the top pocket, it had properly looked the business.”

Leo

The Lion / Cheery, Noble, Imaginative / Demanding, Boastful, Melodramatic

Try not to rely on others too much during the second half of spring. You got to recharge last month—kudos on the hot n’ heavy courting of the robe/couch variety—but now is the time to look inward. Give your future some serious thought and think about where you’d like to be in five years.

After all that fun meditating, be sure to dip your toes in this moving read.

  • Teaser: “The lemon ginger lasts all morning, slow and steady, like the thaw of late March.”

Virgo

The Maiden / Practical, Diligent, Kind / Obsessive, Self-Righteous, Compulsive

April might be topsy-turvy for you, Virgo. You’ll be an absolute pro when it comes to the three f’s: friends, family, and fabulousness. Work is another story, though. Your practical nature will demand that you fix this—and you should—but remember to put chill time on your to-do list, too.

First things first: Read this poignant, vibrant story pick.

  • Teaser: “The trees are green now, except for the one right next to the road, the one that was probably struck by lightning. It has a gaping hollow so big I could hide myself inside.”
fantasia one by narghee-la

Libra

The Scales / Compassionate, Trustworthy, Peacemaker / Disorganized, Materialistic, Indecisive

This will be a full-steam-ahead kind of month for all you balanced people out there. Revisit your New Year’s resolutions and embrace 2021 like it’s going out of style. If you’re lucky enough to work from home, then don’t hesitate to set a schedule for yourself. Those goals won’t reach themselves!

As a reward, read your lovely story pick for April:

  • Teaser: Oblivious, I lay prostrate on a bed of wind-fallen lemons and sang to the fingernail sliver of moon that peeked through the branches.

Scorpio

The Scorpion / Purposeful, Charismatic, Cunning / Aggressive, Manipulative, Possessive

Bad news, my charismatic friend: April probably won’t be filled with spring fever for you. More bad news: Your current relationships are going to become more complicated than ever. Why, you might ask? Apparently, the universe chose you for some delightful chaos.

When you’re not shaking your fist at the sky, check out this stellar read:

  • Loyal,” by Laura Valeri
  • Teaser: “For the last two years of my father’s life, my mother, every day, cooks all his favorites, minestrone, apple tart, onion frittata. She delivers his lunch in a glass container at noon, and trades it for the dirty empty one of the day before.”

Sagittarius

The Archer / Straightforward, Optimistic, Adventurous / Careless, Impatient, Hotheaded

Treat bustling April as an opportunity to make up for lost time. You might prefer winter months, but when it comes to relationships, the season of love is your best friend (see what I did there?). And don’t give in to your hotheaded tendencies all the time. C’mon, I know you can do it!

Your reward is this eye-opening read:

  • Teaser:I knew the exact moment she decided to leave me: Mile 25, the penultimate mile, when she said, ‘Do you want to go ahead?’”

Capricorn

The Mountain Sea-Goat / Traditional, Responsible, Ambitious / Unforgiving, Blunt, Pessimistic

For you, the flavor of April is romance. You just might reel in a total cutie around the end of the month. Jumpstart this goodness with Skype dates and scandalous texting—the works. I wouldn’t even blame you if you started singing in the shower (your roommates might, though).

Save this monthly read for when they’ve locked you in your room.

  • Teaser: In the far corner, aggressively eating what appeared to be breadcrumbs, was the Witch. A veteran of the circuit, she was the least anxious of the group. She’d appeared in countless dramas, mostly uncredited and, therefore, largely unpaid.

Aquarius

The Water-Bearer / Intellectual, Open-Minded, Outgoing / Unpredictable, Self-Conscious, Chaotic

Let’s be honest: Last spring was difficult. Mac without cheese. Brownies minus a glass of milk. Bread butter-side down (on shag carpet). Keep fighting the indoor blues with a new nest by your window, on your balcony, or in your backyard. Let the sun touch your skin while you immerse yourself in wonderful stories.

Speaking of…

  • Teaser: I’ve cooked for Kings. Ramses The Great, Attila The Hun, and Ivan The Terrible have all sung my pies praises. I was cooking on the Mayflower and the first moon cruise ship. I cooked pork in cherries on the first fire lit by a human. Now I cook on the space station orbiting Saturn.”

Pisces

The Fish / Charitable, Intuitive, Artistic / Timid, Impractical, Indolent

You might experience cabin fever around the height of the month. Combat it by taking time for yourself each day. Do the best that you can, even if that means getting out of bed. Cozy up with some coffee or tea and that embarrassing shirt you keep hidden in your sock drawer. You know the one.

Now, you’re ready to crack open this absorbing read.

  • Teaser: Watching from a distance, I learnt that death repurposes rather than uproots, that the ground does not mean silence, that everyone needs somewhere to go.”

March Literary Horoscopes

Aries

The Ram / Courageous, Adventurous, Independent / Domineering, Selfish, Arrogant

In February, you found the jelly to your peanut butter. The Nutella to your spoon. The sprinkles to your sundae (okay, I’m done). Now, it’s time for a little spring fever, which means you should make a change. Let loose so your adventurous spirit can go wild, and follow that off-road path wherever it takes you.

Before you hit the bricks, check out this monthly story pick.

  • Teaser: “We are warm and comfortable only so long as we circle from a distance, wear dark glasses, stand in the shade, protect bare skin, guard as much of ourselves as we possibly can.”

Taurus

The Bull / Loyal, Friendly, Resourceful / Self-Indulgent, Possessive, Greedy

While you can handle Debbie Downers like a pro, you should still watch your step around the workplace. Last month may have been dull, but in March, avoid pesky things like coworkers or squabbles or credit-stealing-gremlins. Really, anything related to your coworker—avoid that. 

And check out this story pick on your next break. It’s sure to stay with you long after your first read.

  • Teaser: “After a while, we kick through the leaves, walking home, holding hands like we used to do when he loved me, when he loved himself.”

Gemini

The Twins / Intelligent, Adaptable, Creative / Moody, Opportunistic, Inconsistent

Oh, Gemini. So far, 2021 may have been tedious and boring, but spring will be a pedal-to-the-metal kind of season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though; you’ll be the recipient of a rare opportunity toward the end of March.

Enjoy this unique story along the way:

Teaser: “Jordan fell in love with himself every time he stepped into the hot tub. With every inch he further immersed into the water, the more enamored he became.”

Cancer

The Crab / Honest, Generous, Faithful / Insecure, Needy, Crabby

Guess what, Cancer? A new friendship could be yours! Look for it around the height of the month, when you’ll be your best outgoing-while-virtual-self. But try to keep the neediness to a minimum, at least until the second Zoom call (or the end of the first one).

In the meantime, I have a mesmerizing poem for you.

  • Teaser: “decades pass & you pluck your daughter’s / ears enough to vent: Osarenoma, never forget where you came from.”

Leo

The Lion / Cheery, Noble, Imaginative / Demanding, Boastful, Melodramatic

February was all about making choices and testing your cheery nature. Think of March as “opposite day.” So, put on that comfy robe and kick back after work. There may be a personal anvil (or two) around the end of the month, though. Sorry to break it to you!

Enjoy the for-now-calm with your story pick.

  • Teaser: “My own jellyfish was still in the sky, flirting with a dragon. They couldn’t stay away from each other, they dared not get too close.”

Virgo

The Maiden / Practical, Diligent, Kind / Obsessive, Self-Righteous, Compulsive

These last few months have been fun but tiring for you, with all those dates and life changes. Try to kick your feet up in March. Really, take some time for yourself. That could mean online retail therapy, a new home spa, or watching one of a hundred streaming services.

You could also indulge with a lovely story: 

  • Teaser: We spend the summer picking kumquats from neighbors’ trees, all bare feet and little girl giggles and sun-bleached hair. We eat the kumquats peel and all (the sweetest part) and leave no trace except sticky fingers and a neighborhood of bare Nagami trees.”
mad hat alice & cheshire cat (crazy cat lady) by narghee-la

Libra

The Scales / Compassionate, Trustworthy, Peacemaker / Disorganized, Materialistic, Indecisive

Good news, Libra! You should be a magnet for monetary goodness this month. Toward the middle of March, you’ll also find a new friend in your orbit. Enjoy some hot and heavy courting of the platonic-and-remote variety. It sounds like a thrill a minute.

In the meantime, I’m predicting you’ll fall in love with this poem.

  • Teaser: Best to admit they never loved you, these strangers / among whom you lived and worked, these dear / damaged machines

Scorpio

The Scorpion / Purposeful, Charismatic, Cunning / Aggressive, Manipulative, Possessive

Obstacles are stacking like boxes in your professional life. Work off your frustration with some fitness goals and, you guessed it, new workout clothes! That’s right, it’s time to bust out the neon spandex and exercise videos. There might be a few clouds on the horizon, but no need to worry about them. Much.

Anyway! Save this compelling piece for a well-deserved treat.

  • Teaser: “They don’t talk to me, so I sit in the demon tree. The black leaves tickle me and grush to ash on me. Ash goes mothish round me and flies high as the grey tree goes. Higher till it gets lost in the sky. I tilt my head back and watch it. And I feel flying, too.”

Sagittarius

The Archer / Straightforward, Optimistic, Adventurous / Careless, Impatient, Hotheaded

March will be quiet as a mouse, which is your kryptonite. Sorry, all you archers—change won’t hit till the early days of April. You probably want to know if that freight train is good or bad news. Because I’m feeling charitable, I can tell you it’s the kind of change that is both good and bad (I’m winking, if you can’t tell).

You can always distract yourself with some good reads!

  • Teaser:When I was done, I held my heart in my hand. A little like raw steak. A little like Jello. I put my heart on the tray, just as the doctor had asked. I lay it down gently.”

Capricorn

The Mountain Sea-Goat / Traditional, Responsible, Ambitious / Unforgiving, Blunt, Pessimistic

This month, you might be a smidge disappointed with your family. Try to remember that they’re only human. According to these tea leaves, the other areas in your life will be smooth sailing without a cloud in sight. Some areas may even improve (gasp, I know!)

Your monthly read is the kind of poem that will stick with you.

  • Teaser: My mouth still full of poetry, I fall asleep, / despite my mother’s warnings, / loose-leaf pages for pillows under tangled couplets in my hair, / haiku soft against my cheek, ode between my thighs, / a sonnet in my fist.

Aquarius

The Water-Bearer / Intellectual, Open-Minded, Outgoing / Unpredictable, Self-Conscious, Chaotic

Don’t worry about any gossip you might hear in social circles. After all, you’re fluent in sarcasm and drink tears for breakfast. Plus, you’ll be rewarded for good behavior around the height of the month. Not only will you have a professional breakthrough, but that recent flirtation just might turn into the best date ever.

On a coffee break, delve into this incredible story.

  • Teaser: It blew against the swaying yellow wheat of the field, the cacophony of it sweeping around a thin, pale teenager, and for a moment, it appeared as if he was at the center of the world.”

Pisces

The Fish / Charitable, Intuitive, Artistic / Timid, Impractical, Indolent

Finally, it’s Pisces season! Feed your artistic side with some fun projects. Revise your schedule to include more you time, purchase some home-spa gifts and pamper yourself. It’s your time to shine, and shine you will, you delightful thing, you.

This story pick is sure to put you in a creative mood.

  • Teaser: I feel young when I admit to my friends that I have only been hunted once before.”

February Literary Horoscopes

Aries

The Ram / Courageous, Adventurous, Independent / Domineering, Selfish, Arrogant

They say not to fight fire with fire. When it comes to your love life, you’d better toss that advice out the window! Embrace fire or air signs during the month of love~ Behind door number one? Leo, Sagittarius, and your fellow Aries. Open the second door for Libra, Aquarius, or Gemini, who really counts as two.

As for door number three, I’ll let you discover that reward for yourself:

  • Teaser: “I trace the blue inside your wrists with this parched tongue and you smile, say remember when it rained for forty days and forty nights and I say that’s a story, what used to be a nightmare but now sounds like a dream.”

Taurus

The Bull / Loyal, Friendly, Resourceful / Self-Indulgent, Possessive, Greedy

For the most part, February will be a dull month. Try to accept it with some meditation, hot yoga, etc. While you’ll still have fun on Valentine’s Day, it’ll either be unremarkable or spent without the one you want. Speaking of, keep your eyes peeled for all signs water or earthy—we’re talking a five-chili pepper rating for Virgo and Capricorn here.

And read your story pick, of course. This CNF piece is wonderfully written, painfully relatable, and somehow hopeful, all at once.

  • Teaser: “The redbuds are scrappy and hardy at once, teeming with a color found nowhere else in nature, almost blinding in their sudden spring blush.”

Gemini

The Twins / Intelligent, Adaptable, Creative / Moody, Opportunistic, Inconsistent

Moody people like yourself—er, I mean adaptable—often vibe with air and fire signs. This could be trustworthy Libra or fun-loving Leo. So, pursue your romantic interest(s). Try virtual speed dating, send that first text; I don’t think you’ll regret it. Be true to yourself but don’t muzzle that closet romantic in your heart. Much.

If you need a break from romance, though, this mesmerizing read is framed by a different kind of love.

Teaser: “The first dead mother was mine. Fifty-eight years old and dead seven Tuesdays ago, not from an incurable disease, nor from a car accident.”

Cancer

The Crab / Honest, Generous, Faithful / Insecure, Needy, Crabby

Strut your stuff in February and flash your romantic side. You’ve never been an old hand at the game of seduction, but I know your secret—at your core is an adventurous crab that wants to have some fun. Spoiler alert: You can indulge the most with earth and water signs.

Speaking of indulgences…

  • Teaser: “Maya has an athlete’s body and an assassin’s stealth. Her voice is smoky, with a trace of a Slavic accent. She moved from her lonely Latvian town to London three years ago.”

Leo

The Lion / Cheery, Noble, Imaginative / Demanding, Boastful, Melodramatic

In an ironic twist of fate, your cheery nature will be put to the test. Some of you lions will even be torn between two love interests (hint: they’ll be fiery or up-in-the-clouds). I know, it’s the rom-com moment you didn’t ask for. Valentine’s Day could be spent with McRam, McArcher, or McTwins. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure story!

But first, pick secret option #4 and read this stunning poem.

  • Teaser: Gentle tap of spoon against shell / where feathers stick wet and splayed / a crack. The hard-outer layer splits, spits / pieces, and sound drums deep in the skull /revealing soft yolk, the centre of feeling.”

Virgo

The Maiden / Practical, Diligent, Kind / Obsessive, Self-Righteous, Compulsive

January may have been cloudy, but February is grey with a sprinkle of love. Now, don’t sigh—this isn’t the start of a corny movie. It’s the start of your entire month! Steer into the skid and shed that cool-kid aura. Be a tad vulnerable. C’mon, V-day only comes around once a year.

And no, you can’t hate me. I bring you this awesome story pick.

  • Teaser: He was so lovely in the moonlight that I almost believed that he was a gift, left just for me to find him.”
native by narghee-la

Libra

The Scales / Compassionate, Trustworthy, Peacemaker / Disorganized, Materialistic, Indecisive

If last month started the good times early, then February will be more of a cool-down period for you. You might even forget about Valentine’s Day. And that’s fine. This year, you won’t be interested in celebrating with chocolate or air and fire signs. Stay true to the course, my friend.

I have just the story pick for you:

  • Teaser: “I’d say he never gets mad either, yet I now know him well enough to claim otherwise; he gets mad all the time, only he’s good at hiding it. Until he feels safe enough to explode. He’s an endless, recurrent bomb. Never tired of exploding, when the time is right.”

Scorpio

The Scorpion / Purposeful, Charismatic, Cunning / Aggressive, Manipulative, Possessive

Guess what, Scorpio? This month will be all about fun and frivolity. While scorpions like yourself tend to charm the pants off people, you’ll have to get creative during this pandemic (hint, hint). Start with those fluid water signs and grounded, earthy folks.

Your February read is striking, just like you.

  • Teaser: “I thought the garden would bloom spectacular from the amount of emotion I left in that dirt. Lush. Heavy blooms. Straw mushrooms under the peppers and okra after a good rain.”

Sagittarius

The Archer / Straightforward, Optimistic, Adventurous / Careless, Impatient, Hotheaded

Happy Galentine’s Day! This month, you’ll be all about ladies celebrating ladies. Call your gal pals and shake it on the dance floor (i.e. your living room). Or enjoy virtual drinks from one comfy couch to another. Some of us prefer takeout on Christmas, and Galentine’s over Valentine’s. You do you.

Before you gel with those fire/air signs, though, indulge with a poignant read.

  • Teaser:Jade was celibate seven years when we met. The reasons were vague, but involved a failed marriage to a classical musician, abuse, divorce and a lengthy period of self-isolation during which she produced stacks of abstract paintings.”

Capricorn

The Mountain Sea-Goat / Traditional, Responsible, Ambitious / Unforgiving, Blunt, Pessimistic

You might think love should be easier to find. Sometimes, you have to go looking, but other times, it’ll crash into you like a ton of bricks. It could be a new coworker, or someone standing six feet away in the checkout line (hey, it could happen). Try and put yourself out there: An earth or water sign could be the peanut butter to your jelly.

Reward yourself with this thought provoking story pick:

  • Teaser: “I thought it was a wonderful idea. I’ve never liked ripping Band-Aids off. Slow peeling is better.”

Aquarius

The Water-Bearer / Intellectual, Open-Minded, Outgoing / Unpredictable, Self-Conscious, Chaotic

Sorry to give you whiplash, but it’s time to swap those priorities again! February is all about you. The stars will align, the odds will be in your favor, all that jazz. You’ll be romance central for most of the month, too. Whether you meet someone new or a friendship turns into something more, you’ll be on cloud nine with other air and fire signs.

When you come back to Earth, check out this truly sublime read:

  • Teaser: The old soul wakes in the top of its cypress tree, beak tucked under wing. It readies its bones for flight knowing the sun will stretch fingers over the horizon line soon.”

Pisces

The Fish / Charitable, Intuitive, Artistic / Timid, Impractical, Indolent

For you, the flavor of February is romance. Get creative and whisk your partner away for some safe but hot n’ heavy dates. Tip: Water and earth signs usually dig the outdoors. If you’re solo, channel that energy into your own happiness. Hey, you deserve to be romanced, too!

Your monthly read is this vivid, moving poem.

  • Teaser: Finding my seat, I stowed her snugly / in the storage bin directly over my head, / and as we crossed time zones and into night, / we talked in whispers, illicit lovers on a redeye flight”

Portrait of a Girl Named July

Winner of F(r)iction‘s Spring 2020 Poetry Contest.

July slips out of Mother’s rusty womb
Tonguing red wails: 妈 for mother, 爱 for love. 

Her cheeks fleshy, she blinks innocently, 
Giggling. The gunfire reverberates outside. 

Leaving the hospital, Mother thumbs the
Party’s Manifesto down her throat; July coughs. 

Soon, she’s taller. Her hands grow steady; she
Learns to walk. She sings melodies of a strange

World: of peace, of books. Mother frowns.
Her hands sting July’s face.

The house turns less home, more cage. 
July yearns to sing, to dream. But her

Skin’s still rusty from Mother’s womb. 
And as she stretches, she cracks. 

It’s midnight and July is crouched in the attic, 
Fingers running over yellowed photos, silently

Mouthing her song. Her cheek is smeared red. 
She cannot remember the words. 

A Review of There is a Man by Pete Hsu

Published on January 12, 2021 by Tolsun Books

Sharp and ingeniously layered. That is, quite simply, how I would summarize Pete Hsu’s arresting debut, There is a Man. The three short stories in this fiction chapbook experiment with narrative style and structure in ways I have never experienced before, bringing such a subtle yet powerful dynamic to the whole work.

The chapbook opens with “Asleep for Days.” At once absurd and painfully relevant, it depicts a world in which “everyone has a gun” and is eager to use it at any provocation—from short-tempered adults to literal infants. “The Lovecats” then tells a story of tragedy through a series of sections, labeled as numbered “examples,” each one laid out with the dispassionate style of a textbook physics problem. And finally, “Mission Concept” shows us the consequences of sacrificing family relationships for long-distance work.

“There is a man,” as each story opens. He is the reckless driver who aggravates our first narrator into a shootout. He is the lone figure on the ledge of a hotel rooftop. He is an astronaut and a distant father working in trade. He is different in each encounter.

There is something methodical in the structure of all these stories, and the narrative progression is always anything but straightforward. The first two stories, organized into a series of days and examples respectively, build suspense and intrigue as each successive section adds more complexity and context to the opening premise. “Asleep for Days,” for instance, follows a series of unnamed narrators over the course of eight days, during which the feeling that they are entitled to use violence over the slightest inconveniences leads to increasingly sobering confrontations across the nation, creating a powerful satire on gun use and possession. The chapbook’s final story, “Mission Concept,” is structured slightly differently but it is no less striking, opening with a sweeping frame narrative that then narrows down to a single family and their problems. The emotional toll of the father’s work is palpable in juxtaposition with the ever-distant “astronaut.”

Though the details of the characters and settings are often sparse, Hsu nevertheless achieves remarkable poignancy and emotion in these stories. “The Lovecats” is my personal favorite. The first section, “Example 1,” sets the somber tone of the rest of the piece: the protagonist is standing on the ledge of the hotel roof that he visited with a close friend before her death. Each subsequent example begins similarly but then adds a little more context, as if the narrator is attempting to re-explain a difficult problem—or methodically rationalize and process the trauma of his friend’s death—over and over again. Each character comes into being slowly but starkly, and by the time we come to understand the hints folded throughout, the ending is all the more gutting.

What is most fascinating about these stories is not what they are about, but rather how they are told. Hsu’s words are straightforward and his descriptions short and factual, so much so that at first I thought the narrative style would be off-putting, too distant to resonate. Perhaps it would have been, had Hsu not accompanied this narrative style with such effective layering that it becomes one of the greatest strengths of this chapbook. Hsu writes with a masterful command of the narrative voice, each word intentional and restrained—the perfect example of “show, don’t tell.”