A Review of The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din

Published March 15, 2021 by White Tigress Press

The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din is a fantasy novel steeped within Islamic-Arabian mythology. Throughout the novel, Ana Lal Din’s main characters take center stage in a serious, tragic, and heart-wrenching story.

Readers learn about the world through the eyes of two characters: Roma and Levi. Roma, from the lower zaat (or caste), is a sacred prostitute (read: slave) who refuses to let others dictate what they can do to her body. On the other hand, Levi, a highly sensitive person raised to be a killer and executioner, is the casteless son of a tyrant. The two live vastly different lives, but both strive towards a common goal: freedom.

It is a difficult read. The novel explores a variety of mature themes such as rape, torture, murder, self-harm, trauma, and physical and emotional abuse without any sort of sugar-coating. But that’s also what makes this novel so powerful. Lal Din’s exploration of these two characters, the trauma they face, and the effect it has on their lives are very well-developed. Readers get a front-seat view of the internal thoughts and motivations of these two. But as I was reading the novel, I found myself feeling extremely frustrated. Lal Din expertly frames society as oppressive, often blaming victims for situations that society itself enforced upon individuals. This is true of Roma and Levi’s situations, as well, and I just couldn’t help but desire to protect them despite their faults.

That’s also where Lal Din makes her characters shine: they are very human and complex individuals with oftentimes conflicting motivations. Roma seeks to protect those she loves, but what if that means protecting her oppressor and the other girls who have been indoctrinated by this oppressor? Leviathan wants to see a world where those belonging to a lower zaat don’t have to hunger or want. But what if murder is the only way he knows how to make that happen? The conflict these characters feel and their back-and-forth in emotions show readers just how human they are.

Where the novel falls short, however, is its pacing. Though the plot summary mentions a “tyrant [who] hunts an ancient treasure that will doom humankind,” readers don’t see much mention of this until the last eighth of the book. Similarly, Lal Din dedicates the first quarter of the book to world-building and character introductions. Even then, the world-building still felt incomplete—the characters mention magic at various points, but by the end of the novel, I still had no clue how magic actually works in this world. The vast number of secondary characters also made it difficult to keep track of them all. I found myself flipping back and forth trying to remind myself who each character was. Combined with an excessive amount of exploration into Roma and Levi’s trauma that fails to further the plot, the pacing of the novel needed more work.

Overall though, The Descent of the Drowned is a solid read. While not without its faults, it does transport readers into another world, one that is beautifully described. Since this series is meant to be a trilogy, I can only anticipate what Lal Din will do in her next two books.

April Staff Picks: Video Games, Spec-Fic, AeroGardens, and Terry Gilliam!

Bianca Fogah

I have recently taken to playing copious amounts of hours of Red Dead Redemption 2. A game that I believe captivates the hearts of many whilst taking you through a passage of history from the suffragette movement, invention of the electric chair, and serial killers of the 19th Century. There are so many wonderful and albeit wacky characters you meet on your journeys who even though some are completely fictional will leave you wanting more or devastated by their unforeseen demise. The music, the colors, and the conversations are incredibly beautiful—making it a journey worth taking all the way. I started playing this through “meeting” my current love interest, playing online and riding off into the sunset like the outlaws it seems we were born to be, (I am much more of a liability as he calls it) we are sparking a modern-day 2021 lockdown romance.

Samantha Dow

I can’t think of a single other book I’ve read in the last few years that I’ve enjoyed as much as Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. I finished the novel and its sequel, Harrow the Ninth, in a matter of days—and then reread them immediately, this time taking notes. The blurb on the cover promises “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” and the first two books of the trilogy (the third is due to be released in 2022) immediately deliver, blending to marvelous effect a variety of genres. It’s mystery, it’s horror, it’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, it’s swords-and-necromancy fantasy. The primary plot whips along at speed, propelled by a cast of complex and fascinating characters and narrated by the titular Gideon, a swordswoman whose blunt and humorous voice is an absolute joy to read. It’s grim, gay, heartbreaking, a study of how we struggle to live with loss . . . and often screamingly funny. And it’s full of lore breadcrumbs hinting at an ancient, tragic mystery underpinning the whole of the trilogy, which is what makes a reread so rewarding: with the knowledge gained on the first read-through, Muir’s conversational asides, off-hand details, and subtle literary references make for an entirely new experience the second time around. I haven’t stopped thinking about the series since I first finished it, and I can’t wait for the third book!

Nate Ragolia

This month, I’ve been throwing an hour a night at the re-release of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game – Complete Edition. Originally from 2010, this tenth-anniversary reissue returns players to fighting their way through The League of Ramona’s Evil Exes in colorful, pixel-art majesty. It’s a charming, leveling-based beat-‘em-up that hearkens back to mid-’90s arcade experiences, and you can play it with friends on the couch. Add in the game’s loving, easter-egg loaded telling of the classic graphic novel series and this is an ideal escapism experience for the gamers out there.

If you like movies, check out My Octopus Teacher on Netflix for a stunning, beautiful, and genuinely heartwarming documentary about a man’s journey to escape his stress and the octopus he befriended along the way.

Amber Sullivan

Get a countertop hydroponic garden system! I use AeroGarden, but there are tons of similar brands. Cost-wise, they’re slightly more than you may spend getting soil, pots, and grow lights, but you don’t generally have to deal with any of the bugs or other issues that soil brings. If you prefer soil, you can use the system to start seedlings to transfer to soil later, which reduces the pests you’d potentially bring in from garden stores. But if you leave the plants in the system, they’re practically guaranteed to grow. I say this as a person that is truly terrible with plants—wrote a story about it even.

Speaking of that story, if you have a cat that’s particularly murderous towards green things, use clear tape to make a sticky cage for the plants. Your cat will (hopefully) hate the sticky feeling on its whiskers and eventually ignore the garden. Most countertop hydroponic gardens are designed in a way that it’s easy to run the tape from a platform above the lights down to the base. Just make sure to keep the sticky part on the outside!

Carolyn Janecek

I entered Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi without much context––I was simply enticed by its beautiful cover and my friends’ vague reactions: strange, ambiguous, fantastical. I knew nothing of the characters, setting, or plot, and I think that was the perfect way to enter Piranesi’s unnerving architecture. The main character in all of his isolation is lovable and kind. The setting is alive––a benevolent deity in its own right. This book is a fascinating experiment in de-familiarization and rediscovery and is best read by jumping into its freezing waters without a second thought.

Thomas Chisholm

I just watched Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil for the first time. It’s a cult classic and in my opinion Gilliam’s magnum opus. Oddly, the movie doesn’t actually have anything to do with the nation of Brazil. It is named after the song and central theme of the film, “Aquarela do Brasil” by Ary Barroso. The movie conveys a particularly bleak dystopia that marries the bureaucracy and surveillance of the Soviet Union against the consumerism and empty decadence of American capitalism. Like any Gilliam movie, it has moments of comedy and surrealism. Even with the world of Brazil’s weird magnified computers, tiny automobiles, and working-class superheroes—Robert De Niro plays a rouge plumber/electrician who repairs peoples’ homes free of charge because he’s faster and more reliable than the government technicians—the film somehow feels closer to our present day than any other sci-fi movie I’ve seen. That’s what’s truly scary about Brazil. It feels so much like the dystopia we already live in, only exaggerated. I watched the director’s cut of the film, which I recommend. Gilliam had a long fight with the studio over the final cut of the film, and the director’s cut is his vision fully realized. The ending of the film was the source of conflict, and Gilliam’s ending is truly unforgettable. After just one viewing, Brazil has climbed to the top of the list of my favorite movies.

Sailing Away: A Review of The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle

Published on October 20, 2020 by William Morrow

Female-penned thrillers about bat-shit-crazy women have seen a sort of Renaissance in the last decade. From Gillian Flynn’s ubiquitous Gone Girl to Paula Hawkins’ hallmark The Girl on the Train, female rage and revenge is, well, all the rage right now. But why? Have women writers identified some deep-seated desire in suburban moms to tear their close relationships a new one? Have female audiences finally tired of the tepid, clean-cut morality offered by the works of their male counterparts? Whatever the reason is, I’m totally here for it, and welcome Rose Carlyle’s The Girl in the Mirror into the fray with open arms.

The debut thriller by the New Zealand author, The Girl in the Mirror tells the story of twenty-three-year-old twin sisters Iris and Summer Carmichael—uncannily alike on the surface, but dizzyingly different when the layers peel back. Though they are identical, Iris has always been envious of Summer and her seemingly perfect life. But when a sailing trip across the Indian Ocean goes wrong and Summer disappears, Iris finds herself stepping into her sister’s shoes. Suddenly, she has everything she coveted in her sister: her family’s prized yacht, Bathsheba; Summer’s perfect husband, Adam; and the knowledge that she’s one step closer to the hundred-million-dollar Carmichael fortune. The only problem: she needs to produce an heir before any of her step-siblings, all while navigating the mine-field of her new double life.

At first glance, The Girl in the Mirror seems to have all the elements of a saucy and successful thriller: a sibling rivalry with a sharp edge, a family inheritance with archaic stipulations, and a picture-perfect marriage fraying at the edges. Easily digestible and full of tropical flair, The Girl in the Mirror is the perfect beach read. As a narrator, Iris’s voice is intoxicating; her unapologetic-ally vain ambition and cynical outlook on life holds the reader in enraptured suspense, wondering just how far she would go to secure the Carmichael fortune. It’s a car crash you can’t look away from, in all the best ways. Her voice is emboldened by the twist, which takes your breath away, and a final line whose impact reverberates long after the book is shut.

But where The Girl in the Mirror succeeds in its intriguing premise and the potency of its female lead, it falls victim to a lack of thematic cohesion. Is it necessary for every story to have a moral? Perhaps not, and one could very well argue that its lack of morality is a function of the sphere of privilege the characters inhabit. But even after the book’s end, it’s hard to come to settle on any definitive take-away. The cut-and-dry dialogue and flat secondary characters compounds this effect. A dark current runs through the relationship between Iris and Summer, but the origins of this rift aren’t explored in full. The same stands for Iris’ relationship with her brother Ben, whose appearance is as underwhelming as it is short-lived. The illusion of Adam as the perfect husband shows signs of cracks, but stops short of showing us the full picture. In short, The Girl in the Mirror is commercially satisfying, but it fails to get to the crux of the complexity of the glittering world it creates—the intersections of pain and privilege.

The pandemic-induced social isolation sucks, which is why the escape offered by The Girl in the Mirror comes at precisely the right time. Carve out a weekend, lift the sails and dive in. Taste the sea-salt in the air, let your hair tangle in the wind that rolls off the tide, and steer your boat into uncharted waters. But don’t take your hand off the wheel— you might find yourself thrown overboard.

An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders on Victories Greater Than Death: Spoiler Free

This interview has been adapted to eliminate spoilers about Charlie Jane Anders’ forthcoming novel, Victories Greater Than Death. To read the uncut, spoiler-filled version of this interview, go HERE.

Victories Greater Than Death will be published on April 14, 2021 by Tor Teen.

As I always do, let me open with some cliché questions. What inspired you to write Victories Greater Than Death?

I talked to my agent for a while about writing a young adult book. I thought about when I was a kid, what I wished would happen, what I wanted from the stories I read. And what I really wished would happen was that aliens would come out of the sky and say, actually, you’re an alien and you belong in space with us, like what happens to Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, except, you know, without the mom dying of cancer. I always wanted to be rescued by aliens and go off and have adventures. I’d always loved space adventure stories, like Star Trek, Star Wars,and Doctor Who. I started to think it would be fun to do something along those lines.

I’ve always loved those kinds of stories and wanted to tell my own version, but by making the “be careful what you wish for” theme more complicated. In an early draft, I came up with this girl who finds out she’s an alien. That was something my editor pushed me to change. She really wanted Tina to start the book already knowing, which I think is better and makes it a more YA kind of story because she has more agency at the start and she knows that she has this destiny and really wants to achieve it. But what Tina finds when she goes to embrace her destiny is not what she’s expecting.

The kernel of it was definitely the wish fulfillment of wanting aliens to take you away and knowing you don’t really belong on this planet because this planet is not always the best. It’s obviously our planet and I appreciate that it’s here for us, but it has some issues.

So much of escapist literature, like Harry Potter, is set up with terrible stepparents. Yet I loved Tina’s fake mom, I wanted her to be my mom. What was it like to develop that positive relationship for Tina to leave behind?

In All the Birds in the Sky, the characters have terrible parents, and I didn’t want to repeat that. It felt too easy to have the mom be a monster. Having the mom be a cool person, you can see where Tina gets her ideas about fighting for justice because you get this sense that her mom used to be an activist. I’d been reading a lot of YA books and noticing that a lot of the time the mom is dead, or the parents are dead, or the parents are terrible, or we never see the parents. I thought it would be cool to have a nice, supportive parent in the mix.

In earlier drafts, it was more complicated with the mom. I originally had this idea that the mom was trying to keep Tina so safe that she tries to force her to be normal despite raising Tina to be a nonconformist. But I fell in love with this version of the free-spirited mom who wanted Tina to have a fun childhood before going off to meet her destiny. You’ll get to see more of the mom in some flash fiction I’m writing now that are prequels to the novel.

I was so impressed with the volition and maturity these characters have. I think a lot of adult fiction authors struggle to move into YA and end up making the kids seem too childish. What was it like to balance that line of making sure they’re fully formed humans but still relatable to a YA audience?

I’ve always loved YA books. I need to underscore that because earlier I made a slight criticism of the bad parents in them. But I do love YA books. I’ve been reading them for years, and that was part of why I was excited to write one. My favorite YA books have characters with intelligence, agency, and volition. Holly Black, Tracy Deonn, and Darcie Little Badger’s books all do that really well.

As a teenager, I overthought things and had very pretentious conversations about the meaning of life or whatever. I just tried to make things happen in my life. My friend and I edited a humor magazine when we were sixteen, and we put our heart and soul into putting out the silliest magazine we could. We would even do skits on stage to promote it at school. The thing I love about teenagers is that they’re not afraid to be really serious and super earnest or sincere in a way that adults are sometimes embarrassed to be. I find it kind of freeing to write teenagers because there’s less bullshit around expressing your emotions or expressing what’s going on with you. Part of what’s great about YA books is the emotionality.

What made me want to write YA originally was having seen YA change a lot in the last ten years. We had the era of The Hunger Games and a million other dystopian novels. The dystopian format created a lot of characters being swept along by events. Katniss chooses to volunteer for The Hunger Games to save her sister, but after that, she just has to go along with The Hunger Games for the remainder of the book. The same is true with Maze Runner and other big dystopian YA stories. In the last five years, I feel like I’m seeing more than dystopias. There are fun, colorful worlds where teenagers say, I’m going to explore, I’m going to figure this out, I have goals I’m going to accomplish. I think it’s better for teens to read about characters who act rather than react.

As an instructor, I always think hard about YA. What are we teaching young people? There are so many things in this book I love from that perspective. Like, wouldn’t it be great if the parents weren’t villainized or the source for everything bad that’s happened to a character? What if there was a positive, supportive relationship? I also love what you have to say about friendship. And you’re doing so many interesting things with gender and identity. But at the core of it, there’s this idea that your characters are the primary driver in all of their actions. It’s pervasive in a way that’s subtle and beautiful.

Thank you so much. There was a challenge in having the characters be the driver of their actions. With space opera—which this is loosely—there are two kinds: Star Trek and Star Wars. I’m oversimplifying it, but in Star Trek, there’s an organization, some quasi-military thing that has rules and structure, and people have to obey orders and there are uniforms, etc. In Star Wars, there’s just a bunch of rebels or adventurers who are on their own and for good reason.

Most YA space operas start with some teenagers stealing a spaceship or running away from a space academy so they can have adventures. Something that gets the teenagers on their own with little or no adult supervision, having adventures, and doing their own thing. From a YA perspective, the Star Wars method makes more sense. But I love Star Trek so much, I really wanted to do that version where we’re on a spaceship and there’s organization, rules, uniforms, and principles. That was something I struggled with, maintaining Tina and the other characters’ agency, so it makes me happy to hear you say that.

I love this idea of institutionalization with individuality. I was so impressed with how you wove that into things like their uniforms. What was it like to create your version of the Star Trek: Enterprise that had this bit of flavor in it?

I wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into tropes of rigid conformity. I had an imaginary dialogue in my head with the Star Trek fan or the fan of more military stories where it’s rules-bound and uptight. I didn’t want to reproduce that in an unthinking way. This isn’t a human organization. They haven’t got our military traditions. I was very careful to include this for the people who get upset by how unlike a human military organization this is.

It’s an organization made up of people from different cultures who have different ideas of authority. So, you need a lot of flexibility to make that work—having a rigid, top-down, conformist, and uptight situation isn’t going to make sense.

You’ve done a ton of world-building. There are intergalactic war wounds and darkness in these beautiful histories. You’ve built such a big universe. How did you do this?

I started working on the series in the spring of 2016, around when I quit my day job. It was a lot of trial and error and figuring stuff out—trying to come up with aliens that didn’t feel like they were aliens I’d seen before. I know that part of what teens love about these stories is the complicated mythos and world-building that gives you scope to imagine where you could go in that universe. I was intent on trying to make that as rich as I could.

I created a password-protected Wiki where there’s a bunch of stuff I came up with about the different aliens, worlds, and backstories—I’m still adding to it. It’s one of those things that the more you do it, the easier it gets. The first thing you think about with worldbuilding is a rip-off of somebody else, or it’s obvious or boring. That’s when you have to stop and go okay, we’re not doing that, what’s something unique and weird I can create? It’s about having fun, coming up with stuff that’s out of left field. It just takes a lot of brainstorming.

A lot of what I loved about your world-building seemed to be issues I had as a teen reading sci-fi. For example, why are the aliens humanoid, and of course now I have an amazing answer. Was it something you always wanted to tackle or did it come to you in a moment of inspiration?

It evolved. It was something I would think about, why aliens would be humanoid. There are two main explanations for humanoid aliens. Some scientists believe we could encounter humanoids on other planets and there’s something about our shape that’s optimal—like having two hands and biped bilateral symmetry. Star Trek and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus came up with similar explanations that ancient aliens left their DNA everywhere.

But I wanted to come up with my own explanation for humanoid aliens and use it as a backdrop for the story. I develop the answer more in the following books, too. It was interesting to deal with. I think it’s always important to find new layers to an idea.

I love that you tackled such big topics in a YA book. There’s so much about identity, and you have an incredibly diverse cast. You even have an alien race that always extends their hand politely and announces their gender pronouns. What was it like to dig into that aspect of identity?

I wanted it to be a very inclusive book with different humans/humanoids and approaches to gender, sexuality, and identity. With the pronoun thing, it made sense that, if you had a universal translator, it should let you know someone’s pronouns. When you meet an alien, you’re not going to be able to tell what gender, if any, they might have and how they want to be referred to in the third person just by looking at them. It’s kind of ridiculous in sci-fi, like Star Trek where there are lady aliens with large breasts and makeup.

By getting away from here and now, you get to look at fundamental things from a different perspective. I was interested in pushing this notion of human gender identities because it’s much more diverse and complicated than people give it credit for, but also, if you belong to a species that reproduces differently and has different family structures, they’re going to have different ideas of gender or how they identify themselves. I go deeper into that in the second book.

My sixteen-year-old self would never forgive me if I didn’t ask about the romance. What was it like to write a sixteen-year-old romance?

It was so fun! I didn’t plan on the romance, it just happened. It came out of these characters, how they were constantly butting heads at first. I had to remember how vulnerable and intense it is to have feelings for someone at that age. Your first real romance, which this is for both of the characters, is scary. I had to be true to that feeling of I don’t even know who I am, so how I can give myself to someone else if I don’t know what I’m giving them? That was really powerful to explore.

How did the book evolve? What was the biggest change between the first draft and what I am now holding?

The biggest change was the first third of the book. My original vision of Tina was this alienated, miserable teenager stuck in some boring town. Then, this mysterious woman shows up and says, Hey, guess what? You’re an alien, and you have this amazing destiny. And it turns out the woman is a con artist. Most of what she says is true, but she’s trying to manipulate Tina because she wants to leave this planet. She was this loveable rogue character, like Han Solo. She was fun to write—it hurt to get rid of her, but my editor was right. I hope I can bring her back at some point.

I’m always interested when I talk to debut novelists who think the next book is going to be easier to write. Do you think you’re better at the process now or do you think you struggle just as much every time? Is writing always a messy thing that you need to rip apart?

It gets harder with time because you get in your way more. I’m more aware of my foibles as a writer, which means I have to work harder to avoid them, but at least I know how to watch out for them now.

After everything that happened in 2020, how do you feel about writing weird stories? How is your heart as a writer?

Writing weird stories is important because fiction handles pressing issues by taking them so far out of their contexts that we can actually look at them. I think that is an important thing to do. Coming up with fictional narratives people can read into and find themselves in is more valuable than arguing on Twitter. Reading is also good—I’m trying to read more widely and expose myself to more perspectives. That’s really important.

An interview with Charlie Jane Anders on Victories Greater Than Death: Spoiler Warning!

Spoiler Warning!: This interview contains extensive spoilers for Charlie Jane Anders’ forthcoming novel, Victories Greater Than Death. To read a spoiler-free version of this interview instead, go HERE.

Victories Greater Than Death will be published on April 14, 2021 by Tor Teen.

As I always do, let me open with a cliché question. What inspired you to write Victories Greater Than Death?

I talked to my agent for a while about writing a young adult book. I thought about when I was a kid, what I wished would happen, what I wanted from the stories I read. And what I really wished would happen was that aliens would come out of the sky and say, actually, you’re an alien and you belong in space with us, like what happens to Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, except, you know, without the mom dying of cancer. I always wanted to be rescued by aliens and go off and have adventures. I’d always loved space adventure stories, like Star Trek, Star Wars,and Doctor Who. I started to think it would be fun to do something along those lines.

I’ve always loved those kinds of stories and wanted to tell my own version, but by making the “be careful what you wish for” theme more complicated. In an early draft, I came up with this girl who finds out she’s an alien. That was something my editor pushed me to change. She really wanted Tina to start the book already knowing, which I think is better and makes it a more YA kind of story because she has more agency at the start and she knows that she has this destiny and really wants to achieve it. But what Tina finds when she goes to embrace her destiny is not what she’s expecting.

The kernel of it was definitely the wish fulfillment of wanting aliens to take you away and knowing you don’t really belong on this planet because this planet is not always the best. It’s obviously our planet and I appreciate that it’s here for us, but it has some issues.

So much of escapist literature, like Harry Potter, is set up with terrible stepparents. Yet I loved Tina’s fake mom, I wanted her to be my mom. What was it like to develop that positive relationship for Tina to leave behind?

In All the Birds in the Sky, the characters have terrible parents, and I didn’t want to repeat that.  It felt too easy to have the mom be a monster. Having the mom be a cool person, you can see where Tina gets her ideas about fighting for justice because you get this sense that her mom used to be an activist. I’d been reading a lot of YA books and noticing that a lot of the time the mom is dead, or the parents are dead, or the parents are terrible, or we never see the parents. I thought it would be cool to have a nice, supportive parent in the mix.

In earlier drafts, it was more complicated with the mom. I originally had this idea that the mom was trying to keep Tina so safe that she tries to force her to be normal despite raising Tina to be a nonconformist. But I fell in love with this version of the free-spirited mom who wanted Tina to have a fun childhood before going off to meet her destiny.

I’m also writing some flash fiction that are prequels to the novel. I write from the mom’s perspective about what actually happened when the aliens gave her a baby, and it’s been really fun to write a younger version of Tina’s mom. I also realized I never gave her a first name so now her first name is Gwen.

I was so impressed with the volition and maturity these characters have. I think a lot of adult fiction authors struggle to move into YA and end up making the kids seem too childish. What was it like to balance that line of making sure they’re fully formed humans but still relatable to a YA audience?

I’ve always loved YA books. I need to underscore that because earlier I made a slight criticism of the bad parents in them. But I do love YA books. I’ve been reading them for years and that was part of why I was excited to write one. My favorite YA books are ones with characters who have intelligence, agency, and volition. Holly Black, Tracy Deonn, and Darcie Little Badger’s books all do that really well.

As a teenager, I overthought things and had very pretentious conversations about the meaning of life or whatever. I just tried to make things happen in my life. My friend and I edited a humor magazine when we were sixteen, and we put our heart and soul into putting out the silliest magazine we could. We would even do skits on stage to promote it at school. The thing I love about teenagers is that they’re not afraid to be really serious and super earnest or sincere in a way that adults are sometimes embarrassed to be. I find it kind of freeing to write teenagers because there’s less bullshit around expressing your emotions or expressing what’s going on with you. Part of what’s great about YA books is the emotionality.

What made me want to write YA originally was having seen YA change a lot in the last ten years. We had the era of The Hunger Games and a million other dystopian novels. The dystopian format created a lot of characters being swept along by events. Katniss chooses to volunteer for The Hunger Games to save her sister, but after that, she pretty much just has to go along with The Hunger Games for the remainder of the book. The same is true with Maze Runner and other big dystopian YA stories. In the last five years, I feel like I’m seeing more than dystopias. There are fun, colorful worlds where teenagers say, I’m going to explore, I’m going to figure this out, I have goals I’m going to accomplish. I think it’s better for teens to read about characters who act rather than react.

As an instructor, I always think hard about YA. What are we teaching young people? There are so many things in this book I love from that perspective. Like, wouldn’t it be great if the parents weren’t villainized or the source for everything bad that’s happened to a character? What if there was a positive, supportive relationship? I also love what you have to say about friendship. And you’re doing so many interesting things with gender and identity. But at the core of it, there’s this idea that your characters are the primary driver in all of their actions. It’s pervasive in a way that’s subtle and beautiful.

Thank you so much. There was a challenge in having the characters be the driver of their actions. Like with space opera—which this is loosely—there are two kinds: Star Trek and Star Wars. I’m oversimplifying it, but in Star Trek, there’s an organization, some quasi-military thing that has rules and structure, and people have to obey orders and there are uniforms, etc. In Star Wars, there’s just a bunch of rebels or adventurers who are on their own and for good reason.

Most YA space operas start with some teenagers stealing a spaceship or running away from a space academy so they can have adventures. Something that gets the teenagers on their own with little or no adult supervision, having adventures, and doing their own thing. From a YA perspective, the Star Wars method makes more sense. But I love Star Trek so much, I really wanted to do that version where we’re on a spaceship and there’s organization, rules, uniforms, and principles. That was something I struggled with, maintaining Tina and the other characters’ agency. At a certain point, there’s no adult supervision, and the kids have to fend for themselves. But it takes a while to get there, and in the meantime, I kept trying to find ways for the teenagers to have agency in this situation. I really struggled with that, so it makes me happy to hear you say that.

I love this idea of institutionalization with individuality. I was so impressed with how you wove that into things like their uniforms. You’re a part of this system, but you get this one part on your sleeve to be original. What was it like to create your version of the Star Trek: Enterprise that had this bit of flavor in it?

I added the thing about the sleeves in part because I wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into those tropes of rigid conformity. I had an imaginary dialogue in my head with the Star Trek fan or the fan of more military stories where its rules bound and uptight. I didn’t want to reproduce that in an unthinking way. This isn’t a human organization. They haven’t got our military traditions. I was very careful to include this just for the people who get upset by how unlike a human military organization this is.

It’s an organization made up of people from different cultures who have very different ideas of authority, who gets to be in charge, and how decisions are made. So, you need a lot of flexibility to make that work—having a rigid, top-down, conformist, and uptight situation isn’t going to make sense.

In the second book, we don’t spend as much time as I thought we would at the military academy where Tina and others are learning to join the Royal Fleet. One thing I’m clear about is that there’s no “break you down to build you up”—that’s a human concept they don’t have. It’s much more, we’re going to try to instill some shared ideals and values.

You’ve done a ton of world-building. There are intergalactic war wounds and darkness in these beautiful histories. You’ve built such a big universe. How did you do this?

I started working on the series in the spring of 2016, around when I quit my day job. It was a lot of trial and error and figuring stuff out—trying to come up with aliens that didn’t feel like they were aliens I’d seen before. I know that part of what teens love about these stories is the complicated mythos and world-building that gives you scope to imagine where you could go in that universe. I was intent on trying to make that as rich as I could.

I created a password-protected Wiki where there’s a bunch of stuff I came up with about the different aliens, worlds, and backstories—I’m still adding to it. It’s one of those things that the more you do it, the easier it gets. The first thing you think about with worldbuilding is a rip-off of somebody else, or it’s obvious or boring. That’s when you have to stop and go okay, we’re not doing that, what’s something unique and weird I can create? It’s about having fun, coming up with stuff that’s out of left field. It just takes a lot of brainstorming.

A lot of what I loved about your world-building seemed to be issues I had as a teen reading sci-fi. For example, why are the aliens humanoid, and of course now I have an amazing answer. Was it something you always wanted to tackle or did it come to you in a moment of inspiration?

It evolved. It was something I would think about, why aliens would be humanoid. There are two main explanations for humanoid aliens. Some scientists believe we could encounter humanoids on other planets and there’s something about our shape that’s optimal—like having two hands and biped bilateral symmetry. Star Trek did an episode where it tried to explain that ancient aliens left their DNA everywhere. It’s a common answer—Ridley Scott’s movie Prometheus had a similar thing, too.

I wanted to have humanoid aliens. That’s just where my mind went. I wanted to come up with an explanation and having it turn out that there was a galactic eugenics program felt like an interesting backdrop. You’re inevitably shaped by the time you’re writing. I was working on this trilogy during a time when we were all forced to become more aware of how genocides have shaped our world and how we are all kind of the beneficiary, for lack of a better word, of these genocides, or attempted genocides.

We did an episode of my podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct, where we talked to indigenous speculative fiction authors and futurists about this idea that there was a genocide but that the indigenous people didn’t go anywhere. Their culture is still alive and it’s important to acknowledge their real stories rather than cover them up with unrepresentative historical narratives. We’re occupying land that was taken from those people. I think it’s important to think about that without descending into clunky allegory or writing a polemic. It’s good to find ways to think about what you do with that legacy.

I develop that in the following books, too. For me, what rescued it from being a dumb allegory is that, in the end, you find out that the people who did the eugenics program weren’t trying to create a superior species. They didn’t think we were better. They just thought we could be used in this one project of theirs. That final shoe that drops makes it complicated, weird, and twisted. I think it’s always important to find new layers to an idea.

I love that you tackled such big topics in a YA book. There’s so much about identity, and you have an incredibly diverse cast. You even have an alien race that always extends their hand politely and announces their gender pronouns. What was it like to dig into that aspect of identity?

I wanted it to be a very inclusive book with different humans/humanoids and approaches to gender, sexuality, and identity. With the pronoun thing, it made sense that, if you had a universal translator, it should let you know someone’s pronouns. When you meet an alien, you’re not going to be able to tell what gender, if any, they might have and how they want to be referred to in the third person just by looking at them. It’s kind of ridiculous in sci-fi, like Star Trek where there are lady aliens with large breasts and makeup.

By getting away from here and now, you get to look at fundamental things from a different perspective. I was interested in pushing this notion of human gender identities because it’s much more diverse and complicated than people give it credit for, but also, if you belong to a species that reproduces differently and has different family structures, they’re going to have different ideas of gender or how they identify themselves. I go deeper into that in the second book.

In the second book, you meet one person from a water planet that is frozen half the time and boiling the other half. They lay their eggs, which get buried by ice, and then when the ice thaws they retrieve the eggs. But it’s impossible to find their eggs, so they take eggs that were laid by somebody else. Their culture never raises kids that are genetically related themselves. I thought that was a fun concept. They don’t have families in the way we do.

To talk about the most aggressive thing you did with identity, Tina is a clone. She has another person she should be manifesting into but isn’t for plot reasons. How did you get into her head to write the emotional toll of this insecurity about not being that person?

Thinking about how cloning would work, when you clone someone, you end up with a baby who has to mature. The idea that Tina wouldn’t be able to handle her adult memories before her brain fully developed made sense. There was a moment when I thought should she just get back everything? If she did, she wouldn’t be herself anymore and it wouldn’t be a book about a teenager, it would be a book about an older woman in a teenager’s body. It was clear that couldn’t happen.

I played with the idea that she gets some memories, skills, and knowledge, but she doesn’t have everything. It felt like a rich metaphor for thinking about being alive right now when we have more information than insight. There’s a nearly limitless amount of knowledge we have access to but without the grounding that comes with learning slowly, and there’s a difference between stuff you learn from experience and stuff you learn from just osmosis. It was a fun way to show how that can sometimes be worse than not knowing everything.

My sixteen-year-old self would never forgive me if I didn’t ask about the romance. What was it like to write a sixteen-year-old romance?

It was so fun! Tina and Elza are super close to my heart. Elza was a character I worked hard to get right, to the point where I’ve been studying Portuguese and talking every week to a transperson who lives in Brazil, she’s teaching me Portuguese and we talk on Zoom every week.I read a ton of books, too. I tried to get Elza to be a living, breathing character who’s not a stereotype.

I didn’t plan on the romance, it just happened. It came out of these characters, how they were constantly butting heads at first. I had to remember how vulnerable and intense it is to have feelings for someone at that age. Your first real romance, which this is for both of them, is scary. I had to be true to that feeling of I don’t even know who I am, so how I can give myself to someone else if I don’t even know what I’m giving them? That was really powerful to explore. The early versions of Elza were a little less fully realized, so the more it felt like she had an inner life, the more that romance felt like it was a living, breathing thing.

You did the tension between them so well. I love that it was ideological tension.

If I were smart, I would have kept them butting heads for the entire book and then had a hint at the end that maybe they’ll get together, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I’m too much of a softy.

As for ideology, you’ll see more of the downside of the Royal Fleet as you get closer to its heart in the second book. There’s actually a moment I added recently where Tina says to Elza, you know what, you were right about a lot back when we were arguing and I was wrong. I thought it was important for Tina to admit that.

How did the book evolve? What was the biggest change between the first draft and what I am now holding?

The biggest change was the first third of the book. My original vision of Tina was this alienated, miserable teenager stuck in some boring town. Then, this mysterious woman shows up and says, Hey, guess what? You’re an alien, and you have this amazing destiny. And it turns out the woman is a con artist. Most of what she says is true, but she’s trying to manipulate Tina because she wants to leave this planet. She was this loveable rogue character, like Han Solo. She was fun to write—it hurt to get rid of her, but my editor was right. The storyline with that character was something I was sad to lose, but the book was too slow to get going and that rogue character took away some of Tina’s agency at the start of the book because she was driving events more than Tina was. I hope to bring her back at some point

I’m always interested when I talk to debut novelists who think the next book is going to be easier to write. Do you think you’re better at the process now or do you think you struggle just as much every time? Is writing always a messy thing you need to rip apart?

It gets harder with time because you get in your way more. I’m more aware of my foibles as a writer, which means I have to work harder to avoid them, but at least I know to watch out for them. Overall, though, it gets harder. The sequel to Victories Greater Than Death has been a nightmare because I’m working on how to expand things promised in the first book. The third book looks like it’s going to be somewhat easier because I did all that grunt work in the second, so hopefully it is.

After everything that happened in 2020, how do you feel about writing weird stories? How is your heart as a writer?

Writing weird stories is important because fiction handles pressing issues by taking them so far out of their contexts that we can actually look at them. I think that is an important thing to do. Coming up with fictional narratives people can read into and find themselves in is more valuable than arguing on Twitter. Reading is also good—I’m trying to read more widely and expose myself to more perspectives. That’s really important.

A Review of For Now by Eileen Myles

Published on September 22, 2020 by Yale University Press

When you’re holding Eileen Myles’s new book For Now (from Yale University Press’s “Why I Writeseries), it’s hard not to think of their 1980, black-and-white, Mapplethorpe headshot on the cover of Chelsea Girls. A young, androgynous Eileen, with a stare somewhere between coy and doe-eyed, suggests they know something you don’t. Forty years later, on the cover of For Now, this Eileen doesn’t look at you, but instead they seem to engage with someone else beyond the frame. They’re mid-conversation. They look—to use the title of their 2000 novel—too “cool for you,” wearing a wristwatch with the face turned in, their hands gesturing up explaining something, working through something. It’s a tease: What are they saying, and who are they saying it to?

Those questions soon disappear as you read not just words on a page, but Myles’s intimate thoughts in their present moment. For Now isn’t a self-aggrandizing book in which Myles praises and reflects on past work and accomplishments. It isn’t filled with dense language or conceptual ideas of writing. Myles doesn’t offer tricks of the craft or tell us what we should be doing. Instead, they let us sit with them while they’re writing and thinking about why they write. We accompany them through a myriad of temporal and physical spaces, jumping in time from being a child learning how to ride a bike, to being stuck in Texas during the pandemic with only their dog, Honey, for company. The constant movement in time and space can feel disorienting, but the motion, the speed, and the rhythm with which Myles tells their story invites us to stick around for the ride.

The pages in For Now are honest, like we’re simultaneously inside Myles’s head and having a conversation with them. Maybe it’s the way they resist traditional narrative form, disrupting grammar and mechanics: they omit commas; they use single sentences that span the length of whole pages. Myles even pokes fun at the arbitrariness of it all:

Questions marks are hysterical. I’ll use one.

Maybe it’s that we know exactly where they are when they write. They tell us what their 300-square-foot apartment looks like: “pathetic,” with “bumpy” walls, the “built-in” bed “jammed right up against the window,” and items scattered across a desk which is really a kitchen table. Nothing is held back, even the seemingly meaningless details of what they’ve written on and written with:

I wrote on napkins and I wrote on cigarette packs I wrote in tiny notebooks of all kinds and I wrote on legal pads. Ideally I wrote with a nice thick runny pen, a rolling writer, originally a pentel. It’s moved on to being a Pilot G-2 otherwise known as bold. I like fine you might say. Well I pity you.

Maybe it’s that Myles simply writes their stories, narratives, and poems for an audience who wants to read them. This provocative, unvarnished transparency is why I find their work so compelling.

Like their other works of prose, Myles doesn’t keep us stationary in one chronological narrative for long, constantly shifting anecdotes, memories, thought processes. Just as these elements begin to swirl together and we find the pages turning faster and faster, Myles stops the reader to say:

I’m going to catch you up. I’ve written half. Actually that’s not even true. I’ve written one-third. Which is horrifying.

They don’t romanticize this confession. It’s brutal and relatable—one of the few moments they signal the reader to stop for a second and breathe, take in their writing. It’s satisfying to see Myles—who appears to write with ease—admit that maybe they don’t see an end in sight, that maybe it’s frustrating to consider why they write. To be fair, at times it feels like Myles only wrote this book because Yale asked them to, and then resistantly, because Myles’s core identity as a working-class poet is not a natural match for Yale’s institutionalized wealth.

In pandemic times, you can’t go see Myles read in person, but you can listen to their Aloha/irish trees LP or watch their readings in the depths of YouTube. I can tell you that when Myles performs, it’s uncanny in its ability to sound so unlike a staged reading. They lean into it, hands pushing the words forward, head cocked to the side with hair falling in their face. They are submerged in their work. Active. In motion. Myles—mid-movement on the cover of For Now—positions the reader as the one in conversation with them, allowing us to insert ourselves in the ever-present “you” that they drop in throughout the book, to ride the handlebars of their bike through a narrative that talks about more than writing, but reading and living, home and movement, and absurdities like question marks. It places Myles in the right-now but also in the back-then and what’s-next.

For Now is one of Myles’s most inviting pieces of writing. At less than one-hundred pages, For Now makes it easy to enter into their world, offering an opportunity to know Myles in all of their intricacies and intimacies. It’s a treat for those familiar with Myles’s work, but could also serve as a representative introduction for those just finding it. After reading For Now in one sitting—because I couldn’t help but eat it up all at once—I found myself revisiting Myles’s past work—Chelsea Girls, Snowflake/Different Streets—because as lovely as For Now is to read, it leaves a hunger for more.

March Staff Picks (Intern Edition): Podcasts, Manga, and Aussie Rock!

Ella Fox-Martens

This week I’ve been diving into Alice Vincent’s Rootbound, which I love. Reading about Vincent’s gardening experience in London—which strikes close to home—and how she found value and peace in tending plants and growing things in such a busy and severe urban environment is inspiring. I’m a keen, if inexpert, naturalist myself, and a big believer in the value and importance of green spaces, so I’ve found a lot to mull over and consider in Vincent’s sweet and thoughtful memoir.

The other thing I’ve loved this week is Carla Geneve’s new song “Dog Eared,” which is an instant anthem with some insane guitar riffs. It doesn’t hurt that she’s insanely cool and from my hometown of Perth, Australia, either. If you’ve ever been a disaffected teen or twenty-something, keep an eye out for her debut album, Learn To Like It, in a few months.

Erin Clements

I’m super into the impact that stories can have, regardless of medium, and one of my favorites will always be the Balance campaign from The Adventure Zone. The Adventure Zone is an actual play Dungeons & Dragons podcast hosted by the McElroy brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin and their father, Clint.

I first listened to Balance, the first DnD campaign in The Adventure Zone, a few years back after falling down the McElroy Family fandom rabbit hole. While it has been years and I’ve since consumed at least some of almost everything the McElroy Family has to offer (and that’s a lot of podcasts!), I always find myself coming back to Balance. Balance was never designed to be a full campaign (it was never meant to exist in the first place) but it became a full campaign and so much more. The storyline grows and evolves as the saga continues, and by the end, it feels like catching heartfelt lightning in a bottle.

I don’t want to give away anything because the story is best experienced as spoiler-free as possible, but Balance is a beautifully queer, heartfelt saga full of magic, laughter, love, chaos, and tears. It begins with crazy jokes and weird comedy bits and ends in the most satisfying way ever. I can never recommend this weird, wacky, incredible podcast enough—the narrative has stuck with me for years, just as it has for everyone who recommended it to me and everyone I’ve recommended it to. If you find any value in storytelling and understand the power a good story can have, you’re going to love The Adventure Zone: Balance.

Esther Hsu

Koe no Katachi or, in English, A Silent Voice, is a widely acclaimed film. But what many do not know is that the film is adapted from a manga by Yoshitoki Ōima. While both of these should be seen/read as two separate works since the characters are slightly different in each one, I still recommend the manga over the film.

Koe no Katachi revolves around the story of Shoya Ishida, a boy who bullied his Deaf classmate Shoko Nishimiya in elementary school. A few years later, he coincidentally runs into Shoko, who is still greatly affected by Ishida’s past actions, and he seeks to rectify his wrongdoings.

While I’m not usually a big fan of redemption stories since many of the ones I’ve seen and read have placed too much burden on the oppressed rather than the oppressor, I believe that Koe no Katachi does a beautiful job portraying Ishida not as a guilt-free party, but as someone who works towards redemption without expecting Shoko to accept his apology.

I believe that this manga draws readers in with its beautiful art, multi-faceted characters, unapologetic messages, and hard truths.

Aisling O’Mahony​

Ten minutes into listening to the first episode of No Such Thing as a Fish, I was hooked. The podcast spawned from the comedy quiz show QI and is presented by four of the QI researchers or “QI Elves;” Dan Schreiber, Andrew Hunter Murray, Anna Ptaszynski, and James Harkin, with an occasional, equally amusing array of guests.

Every week, they each share an interesting fact they’ve researched. While that might sound a little like an impromptu school lesson, the facts, and the conversation they spark, are hilariously entertaining. For instance, did you know that every year in Japan there’s an anti-Valentine’s march led by a group called The Revolutionary Alliance of Unpopular Men? Or that the White House only got the ability to print on double-sided paper in 2016?

With the rambling conversation, add on facts, and good-humored mocking, it’s like chatting to a group of old friends at the pub and even if my sporadic bursts of laughter draw some odd looks from the people around me, it’s definitely worth it. If you haven’t listened to No Such Thing as a Fish before, I highly recommend it. It’s an awesome, weekly hour of entertainment that leaves you feeling a little more intelligent and a lot more amused.

Emma Johnson-Rivard 

I have a habit of putting on music or a podcast when I’m cooking. My tastes range from fiction to historical crime, but most recently I’ve been listening to You’re Wrong About, where two journalists look into incidents and people who have been misremembered by the cultural zeitgeist. Topics include the Satanic Panic, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the life of Princess Diana, among a myriad of others. Most of the episodes address events that happened before I was born, or that I was too young to remember fully, so it has the added bonus of teaching me interesting tidbits of history that I wouldn’t have thought to seek out on my own. The hosts have a wonderful rapport and it’s one of the few podcasts I’ve found where the banter genuinely adds something to the experience. It’s fascinating to listen to two experienced authors and reporters do deep dives on topics I’m vaguely familiar with but never looked into myself, and question my own perceptions versus the facts of what actually happened.

A Review of The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

Published September 15, 2020 by Erewhon Books

My favorite book growing up was Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord. It enchanted me with its unexplained magic, the vibrance and agency of the main characters, and—in what is retrospectively a signal of my own young queerness—the kids’ found family. The book felt alive with untamable energy that I’ve found rarely before or since. However, for the first time since childhood, I’ve found a book that has everything I loved about The Thief Lord and more. I hadn’t thought about Funke in years, but The Scapegracers plunged its long fingers into my memory and pulled The Thief Lord back to its place of honor in my mental bookcase, a spot the two books now share.

The Scapegracers is the first installment of a trilogy about growing up, found family, powerful magic, and the sheer ferality of youth unleashed. It’s a stunning debut from Hannah Abigail Clarke (they/he), whose every word crawls on the page itching to escape. It feels almost sacrilegious to read passages aloud, as though the very sound of Clarke’s atmospheric language will awaken something not entirely meant for the daylight of decent society.

But The Scapegracers isn’t meant for decent society. It’s meant for those of us on the outskirts, who crave to be seen but perhaps secretly fear revealing ourselves. There’s something about the experience of reading this book that’s tenderly monstrous in the most intimate of ways.

Sideways Pike is a teenager who, true to her name, has never fit in, and she’s convinced herself that she never really wanted to. She’s a witch and a lesbian, and there aren’t many of either at her high school. When the most popular girls in school offer her $40 for a little magic at their Halloween party, none of them could have anticipated how it would go wrong—or how it would bring them together. Sideways finds herself an unlikely member of a fierce group of friends, and the four of them discover that, together, their magic runs deep. And it’s in danger.

Few books explore the complexity of youth friendship in the way this one does, roiling and recoiling and rebounding into emotions that spill over. Clarke’s writing is dizzying at times, giving the reader that unsteady giddiness of finding your people when you always thought you’d be alone. Sideways, Daisy, Jing, and Yates are far from perfect, but they have a ferocious love for each other that, at first, feels out of place. As the story continues, the reader catches tantalizing glimpses of relationships and shared experiences that draw this new coven to one another, and the diverse cast of characters gain a subtle new depth.

Clarke crafts a refreshingly queer story in every aspect. The book has a wild air, as though the characters themselves have agency apart from the ink on the page, but, oddly, seems to respect their boundaries. Readers will get the sense that there’s much more to the characters than they let on and, in return, the unfolding mysteries of real-life relationships balance with a natural unpredictability. The result is electrifying. Clarke manages to hold the tension between their lovingly chosen words and seemingly uncontrolled chaos in a manner that sits comfortably in the in-between spaces that queer folk know so well.

Even on the grand scale, this carefully constructed story skirts around traditional structures, opting instead for a distinctly queer ebb and flow; rather than rising to a single climax, the plot moves in waves, each bigger but no less important or enjoyable than the last. As Sideways grows into herself and her found family, the waves grow stronger, and I suspect that the next books in the series will as well.

Despite the high stakes of the plotline, Clarke easily balances the action of the story, the stress of high school, and the tentative, then unbridled, joy of being yourself around people who love you. That joy is part of the magic of The Scapegracers, just as much as any witchcraft.

An Interview with Alix E. Harrow

Just in case the person reading this is unfortunate enough to not know anything about you, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into writing?

I am a full-time writer living in Kentucky. I got started writing after grad school when I was having a lot of feelings about the kinds of books that I used to love. I was trying to find ways to regain that sense of wonder but reduce some of the problematic things that I now realize as an adult.

I love that. So of course, The Once and Future Witches is your second book. What other writing have you done before that? What was the trajectory?

I knew I wanted to write novels because that’s mostly what I read, but I very arrogantly thought I’ll just start with short stories. Short fiction would be like training wheels, right? It’s not. It’s totally different. But it did afford me the opportunity to practice basic craft-level stuff. So I wrote some short stories, I submitted them, I got rejected a few times, and then, through writing short fiction was actually how I got my first book deal. I sold a story about witch librarians and it went around the internet a little bit. Then I got a DM from an agent and an editor who said hey, you don’t have a novel, do you? And I said give me a week and I’ll be back to you! So I finished revising Ten Thousand Doors of January and sent it to both of them and that led to both of these books.

Where did the inspiration for The Once and Future Witches come from?

I wish I had a story about how it came to me in a dream, or, I don’t know, the spirit of being a woman spoke to me, but I stole the idea from my husband. The witch librarian story did well early on, and Asher said that I should do witch everything: witch garbage collectors, witch activists, like the women’s movement. So when Orbit, the publisher, asked if I had any ideas for a second novel, I thought, suffragettes, but witches. That’s as much as I knew about the book at that time.

At the core, we have Suffragettes and witches. But we also have this very intense and acrimonious sisterhood. Did you pull that from your own life? Tell me the backstory.

Actually, in the first draft, they weren’t sisters. They were just two women with very different life experiences and their ages ranged a lot more. I got maybe 20,000 words in and then realized that it wasn’t working. I realized that other authors are better at creating immediate emotional relationships between characters who are strangers at the beginning, and I just was not pulling that off. I wanted the characters to have some weight between them already. So when I rewrote it, I realized that they need to be sisters. This worked on a thematic level, too: if you’re talking about sisterhood on a large scale, it worked better to also be talking about literal sisterhood. After I wrote the first draft, I also wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that I was, as an adult, rediscovering my relationship with my younger brothers.

One of the things that I really love is this weight these sisters carry between them. What was it like trying to create these heavy backstories and then slowly unravel them to the reader?

One of the questions that I really grappled with in writing this was how dark I wanted it to be. In the early draft, I kept flip-flopping between whether it was a light, magical romp, like Jonathan Strange, where it’s a period piece with magic, or if this was a true exploration of women’s history and the Suffrage movement, which is extremely bleak. I wanted to find ways to acknowledge the heaviness and trauma without reveling in it on the page, so it was important to me that most of the worst things that have happened to these people have happened in their past. This was more of a grappling and healing than a descending-into-darkness narrative.

Early on, Juniper talks about the idea that a woman’s right to vote and magic are essentially the same discussion. Talk to me about how that came together, from stealing your husband’s idea and then making it so poignant.

Yeah, I mean, that’s why I stole his idea. One of the things that makes me like fantasy so much is that you can take invisible stuff and make it be visible through the use of the supernatural or the magical. Women’s power is generally not something you see or feel—the right to vote is in many ways a theoretical and distant thing, so translating that into literal power kind of feels obvious. It’s using the magic to literalize the sense of women’s power.

Another thing that I really love about all your writing, actually, is just this focus on how important names and titles and labeling is. I love how the sisters’ names fluctuate between how they grew up and how they talk to each other, and how that relates to their father. Where does that sort of power come from, and how do you come up with these enchanting names?

I’m just a sucker for alliteration. And, as I looked historically, many witches had alliterative names. It’s part of their connection to folklore. It’s not an original thing in fantasy—it’s a trope. To name something is to know it and to understand it. And I do understand that that’s a very Western lens of knowledge.

Other than theoretically, I also find it to be true of my own name. I have a girl named Alex after her father like James is named after her father in the book, and my family calls me one thing and my friends call me another and I have a publishing name. I just think that names really are a good shorthand for identity in a way.

One of the other things I found striking about all of your writing is how rich the language is. It’s the little bits of alliteration, it’s the fact that so many things are connected to the senses. What was it like to develop your voice, and how did it shift between these two novels?

I think that’s one of the coolest things about starting in short fiction. It lets you play with voice a lot. If you sit down and start with a novel, you have to maintain a consistent voice for 100,000 words. Doing short fiction, you can fit your voice to the project, so that was a really fun way to explore. It was actually really hard for me to find the right vibe for this book. Ten Thousand Doors was easy, because in some ways, it was talking really specifically to late Victorian children’s literature, and I knew that the main character’s voice would in some ways mimic those styles. But it took me a while to figure out what The Once and Future Witches was speaking to. It was in the third person instead of first, it was in the present tense instead of past, and it didn’t have an obvious antecedent to me. Until, in the second draft, I figured out that they were going to be retold fairy tales and that the entire thing would be in some ways told like a fairy tale, and so I tried to use more repetitive phrasing the way folklore does and more alliteration and make the figures more distant from you and silhouetted because that’s how I feel like older stories and fairy tales work.   

Speaking of older stories and fairy tales, of course, we get interjections of these old folklore pieces throughout. What was it like to do the research on that, and how did you decide what you should borrow, what becomes your own, and how did that whole facet of the book come together?

Slowly. I didn’t have those in the early draft at all. I was trying to jam way too much world-building into the text in a way that felt really forced and terrible. I just felt like stories are how you learn a culture. To me, they’re the most revelatory thing, how we tell stories, and what stories are popular and remembered. I was thinking about how to explain what the perception of witches is and the role of women in this universe. And then I thought, well, I’ll just take familiar stories, things that everybody knows, and show how they would be told in this world. I decided to do this by dragging the witches out of the margins and putting them in the center of the fairy tales. And it was really, really fun.

I didn’t have to do that much research for the more familiar Grimm’s fairy tales, Western ones. Most of the research I did, later there’s a few that are, one that is based loosely on African-American Antebellum folklore, like world traditions, and then there’s one old one from Russian folklore. Those took a lot more research.

I remember very early on when we were talking about Ten Thousand Doors of January, you told me that after you had already moved forward with your agent, she sat down and said that the book was called Ten Thousand Doors but you had very few doors. She said to go back in there and give her more. Was there an equivalent with this book, where you realized, actually, I’m missing this big part of the story?

I actually had to go back way more this time. I really struggled to write this book for a bunch of reasons, one of which was the sort of second-book syndrome thing. Another which is just living in a post-2016 world, I have a two-year-old, and my second kid was born right as I was starting the draft—it was just really hard. It took a while and I kind of struggled through a draft and finished it on time.

I sent the draft to my editor, and she sent back a twelve-page, single-spaced edit letter, which was very intense. Basically, the problem was that there needed to be more everything. I had the same amount of plot, pretty much, and the same characters jammed into about 40-50 thousand fewer words. It didn’t feel great. And in my head, I was adhering very strictly to a word count in my head. I followed my outline, and I should have known that it wasn’t working.

Nothing had a chance to breathe, and there weren’t huge emotional payoffs. I think my editor’s letter said it felt like a mattress shoved into a pillowcase. So the rewrite of this book was pretty much adding more everything—more magic, more emotional connections, more relationships, the rewritten fairy tales. It was awful, because I had to rewrite the entire book in two months, but it was also satisfying work because I was finally making it right. If I just turn off my word counter, it’s way better, because it’s more fun!

What was the first word count you aimed to get when you turned in that draft?

I think I was aiming for 100 thousand and I hit like 110 thousand.

Wow. That’s a tight word count for your genre.

Yeah. Well, they did want it to be lower because they’re sort of aiming for that literary sci-fi. Literary people don’t generally pick up the 500-something page book.

What’s up next for you, a woman who has now achieved her second book?

I’m working on another book, but I can’t really talk about it. The next thing to be published is a Tor.com novella, actually, that was really, really fun. It was the most wonderful thing to write after the second book was just really hard. I got this contract to write what I pitched as Spider-Versing a fairy tale—have you ever seen Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse? So I get to do a Sleeping Beauty retelling where all the Sleeping Beauties crash through the multiverse and claw each other out of their story. It was so fun.

Not to make you talk about the next book, but is the idea your husband’s?

No, it’s not! The next book came out of a John Prine song, actually. The “Paradise” song, “Take Me Back to Muhlenberg County.”

If you could only say one thing with this book, and that could judge whether or not it was successful, what do you hope that any reader takes out of this?

I hope that you end this book curious but also hopeful.

Decluttering 101: Six Things You Can Delete to Make Space in Your Memory

The notifications pop up more frequently now, “Storage is almost full! Delete files to make room.” Deleting files to make space for more is inevitable, but you don’t know what to delete yet. You saved everything for a reason after all. For your benefit and your digital memory’s, here’s a guide to help you let go of the things it’s okay to forget—and to free up some space in your life.

#1: Old files from college projects

If you’re like me, you probably have folders upon folders of old school work. You keep telling yourself, “These will be useful someday.” But I know that in the two-plus years since graduating, I have looked at maybe three of these files. Of these, one shows my ability to replicate others’ writing styles and I use it for portfolios. Another, I revisit because it’s funny to read a heavy analysis of pornographic comics. The last features comics that I made, which I use as inspiration for new ideas. As the most time-intensive and strange pieces I have ever completed, I will never delete it. But the other 100+ files? I know I’m never going to look at them again. They can go straight to the trash—empty bin. Go through your old files. Make a folder for the handful that reminds you that you’re good at what you do. Then, trash the ones you haven’t revisited in a few years to make room for better ideas.

#2: Multiple copies of Civilization saves

How many times are you going to start a game without finishing it? Are you ever going to go back to turn 108 when your current save is at turn 317? Are you going to return to the game where your first city is surrounded by barbarians and you only have a builder? If you answered, “I don’t know, maybe . . . ” to any of those questions, delete those saves! Your civilization has gone without leadership for several real-world months or even years, so it’s better off being deleted anyway. Trying to restart a Civilization game after months away is weird. You will not remember what era you’re in or what goals you were trying to accomplish. You will not remember that a neighboring civilization was on the cusp of declaring war against you. Your best bet is to start from scratch, set your game mode to “Gathering Storm,” and acquire as many resources and wonders as possible before the sea levels rise.

#3: The $100 art program you only used for two days

This one has a caveat: make sure you can reinstall this later! I’m not saying to throw away your money, but if you never used the program, you kind of already have. I wanted to teach myself to make digital comics; I did not. But I definitely spent the money to try. This may not be an art program in your case. Maybe it’s a music mixer from when you wanted to write a song. Or a coding software from when you were going to learn to program. Either way, if you don’t use it, get rid of it. At best, it’s a cool icon on your desktop to show off when you screenshare. At worst, it’s a daily reminder that you didn’t follow through with your side project AND the file is taking up precious computer memory. If you’re able to reinstall the program whenever, delete it now! If you can’t reinstall, put it on an external hard drive. That way you’ll always have it (provided you don’t forget where you put the drive) without it taking up memory space. Redownload the program when you decide you finally have time to focus on your passions.  

#4: The game app on your phone

Remember that time your flight was delayed, so you were stuck at the airport for six hours with nothing to do? Do you remember that merge-three game you downloaded to pass the time? It’s still on your phone. If you haven’t merged or crushed anything in a few months, it’s time to move on. Chances are low that you made any significant progress in the game while drinking airport Bloody Marys. And I doubt there was anything memorable about a game that’s been recreated a hundred times by only changing the color scheme. Delete it! The game was free, so you’re not losing any money. Getting rid of it will clear out space for the next time-sucking app. If you miss the merge, you can always redownload it the next time you’re stranded in the bathroom without toilet paper.

#5: Seventy percent of those blurry cat photos

Matthew Larkin

I know I’m not the only one with pages upon pages of pictures of my cat. I have sleepy kitty pictures and kitty looking out the window pictures. I have pictures of him showing off his belly, pictures of him in places where he shouldn’t be, pictures of him cleaning his butthole. I have a lot of cat pictures. Maybe your pictures are of your dog or snake or rabbit or frogs or whatever other little monsters you have in your home. Either way, A LOT of those pictures can go. I promise you at least half of them are blurry. Delete those. Keep the funny ones, of course, but most of these blurry pictures aren’t funny; they’re just bad pictures. If you find yourself scrolling past it anytime you want to show someone your pet, it can go. Only keep your favorite pictures so that every picture you have of your pet brings you immediate joy. This will also clear up enough memory space for you to take hundreds more bad pictures of your pet.

#6: Voicemails

 For years, I have saved every “Happy Birthday” voicemail I’ve received. I also save the rambling messages my dad sometimes leaves. At one point, I had nineteen saved messages, leaving room for only a single voicemail. I could not bring myself to delete the voices of my now-deceased grandparents or of my parents, aunts, and uncles who are still alive but will not always be. Hearing their voices was like having them in the room with me. But I needed to make room because of the daily incoming messages from spam or robo-callers. Did you know that visual voicemail lets you download your voicemails as Mp3 files? If your phone doesn’t have visual voicemail as an option, playback the messages and record them. Save them to a cloud file that you can access whenever you want. This may not be something you want right now, but one day you will want to remember the people that loved you enough to wish you a happy birthday or to just call you because they were bored and wanted to chat. Save those messages, make copies of them, let them take up some of your memory. But delete the robots.

An Interview with What Big Teeth Author, Rose Szabo

How did the concept for What Big Teeth come to fruition?

Very quickly, and also very slowly. I’ve mentioned before that I wrote the first draft of the novel in about twenty-four hours, but that was after years of staring at a doodle I did and a handful of vignettes I wrote. I imagined a loosely connected series of short stories, possibly in some kind of choose-your-own-adventure format. At one point I thought it was going to be a card game or a divination tool.I took a cartooning class and made a very ugly comic book. I tried everything I could to avoid writing a novel, but it turns out that’s the main thing I’m good at, so that’s the form this story ended up taking.

Your book incorporates a lot of gothic horror tropes. Were those elements present in every draft or did they come as you edited the book? Further, which gothic horror element was essential for you to incorporate into What Big Teeth?

The book Dracula was absolutely crucial to me. There’s no vampire in What Big Teeth—at least, not as far as I’m aware. But the villain, who you don’t meet for a while, is heavily influenced by Dracula, which is to say: a monster who is so old, charismatic, and well-connected that they’re essentially a nation unto themselves, and dealing with them is more like dealing with a national emergency than with a person. In the first scenes where Dracula encounters Jonathan Harker, he behaves really courteously, and we later learn that this is a feat of restraint. I like the idea of that incredible power under incredible restraint, and what it would take to fight back against it.

The essence of your novel has been compared to the likes of Midsommar, Black Mirror, and the Hazel Wood series. How important was it for you to capture that same sense of unease and, oftentimes, terror in your novel?

Midsommar is a very flattering comparison! But I think there is a similar kind of unease there about something really horrible being presented as normal or even desirable. In What Big Teeth, all the drama is domestic and takes place between people who ostensibly love each other. Horror is a great genre for conveying how much human fear is ambiguous fear—am I really in danger, or are they joking with me? I feel unsafe, but if I confront this person, will it be worse than if I just let it ride? How much fear can I bear before I have to admit that I’m afraid? Those are questions that plenty of people have to live with every day, and horror is a genre that allows me to illuminate that.

What Big Teeth features significant generational trauma, especially regarding long-lasting decisions made by the story’s matriarch. Did you set out to write a story so centered on family trauma or did it come naturally as the story progressed?

I think that we write the stories that we wish we’d been able to read. Stephen King, a fellow graduate of the University of Maine English program (I get a real kick out of this), talks about the muse as being the guy in the basement of your brain. When I started writing, I was like so this is gonna be about emotional abuse. But only after several revisions did I start to see that what I was describing wasn’t simply one bad person acting against victims, it was generation after generation of injured people acting out their survival instincts with one another. This book helped me to understand dynamics I saw both in my own family and in other people’s, but it certainly wasn’t what I set out to write. Writing is usually like that, for me: I start invoking things without really knowing what’s going to show up.

Dreams play a significant role in What Big Teeth, often trying to signal important messages or warnings to Eleanor. Why did you pick dreams to convey those messages over the already established breadth of horror and magic?

I feel a little self-conscious about that, actually! Personally, I love dreams, and I’m a very vivid dreamer. But I’ve learned through experience that when you talk about dreams out loud, they usually don’t have the same potency as they do in your head. Originally, I had a second point-of-view character who had almost as much shared space in the book as Eleanor; when that went, I needed to find a different way to get that same information. Some of it went into dialogue or scenes, and some of it went into dreams.

Rose Szabo, photo courtesy of author

The house feels like its own insidious character hiding important discoveries behind locked doors, shadowed corners, and grand trunks. Was it an intentional choice to give the house as much of a role as the characters in the book? And if you had to pick a room for yourself, which one would you choose?

Yes, absolutely—architecture shapes the way we live. This story could never take place in a smaller house; everyone would have talked it out or killed each other in the first thirty pages. I spent the first ten years of my life in a very small house, like building-code-violation-ceilings small. Moving to a larger house made me aware that privacy and distance change how you interact with people, and not always for the better. I pictured the two founding members of the family building a house that was supposed to be chock-full of people, and it being slightly emptier than they’d actually intended for it to be, because of people they’d lost. I wanted it to feel really lively inside, but also slightly cavernous, empty, lonely.

The greenhouse is the room I love the best in this book. Heat, and plants, and the smell of soil, and magnified sunlight. I wish I’d set more scenes in the greenhouse.

Which book (new or old) are you most looking forward to reading in 2021 and why?

I haven’t read Mexican Gothic yet, and I know I’m going to love it. I have it on hold at the library right now, actually. It’s got everything I want in a book, namely: poisonings, investigation, a creepy estate, and Mexico.

In addition to What Big Teeth you write a lot of short stories. How did writing a novel differ from writing short stories? And do you prefer one over the other?

Funny story: I wrote a lot of short stories because I was in fiction programs, where the short story is sort of what they teach you how to write. I have a lot of respect for the short story, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever really nailed it the way I want to. I want more space for my characters to run around and do stuff. The short story I’m the proudest of is “Christmas in the Catskills,” and that’s a behemoth in the short story world at 6,000 words, and so I couldn’t place it. It lives on my website now.

Short stories to me often seem like they’re about the moment that someone enters a crisis. I think about Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” which is about what may be the final fight between a mother and her son. I don’t really know how to skip right to that. A novel gives more context. You can see the crisis coming, like a storm on the horizon, and you get to see how people become aware that it’s going to break.

At times the publishing process can feel more daunting than writing a book. What was that process like for you and what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are about to start or who are in the midst of the publishing phase? 

I’ve talked about my own publication process a bit already, and the short answer is: I have been very lucky, and it took a long time. I met an agent I connected with on my first (and only) query, and she rejected my book; I went and worked on it for three years and then queried her again. Then, she and I worked on the book for about a year and a half. Then it was on sub for about a year before one house made an offer, and then there was an auction. And then it was another year and a half before the book came out. So I have been in some stage of the “publication process” since about 2014. I learned a lot from that first rejection in 2014, namely that the book wasn’t ready.

I feel pretty unqualified to speak about the business end of publishing, which went more smoothly for me than it had any right to. But the editorial process is something that was interesting for me, because I thought my book was basically done when we sold it, but then it went through two more rounds of major edits on its way to publication. I think if I were to say anything, it would be that finishing a book takes as long as it takes. I kept wanting there to be some magical way to be done sooner, but the book wasn’t ready until it was.

A Review of Maids by Katie Skelly

Published on October 13, 2020 by Fantagraphics

Maids, written and illustrated by Katie Skelly, is a historical fiction graphic novel set in 1930’s Le Mans, France. It follows the true events of Lea Papin and her older sister Christine Papin. The sisters, who are in their mid-twenties, serve as maids for the Lancelin family before brutally murdering Leonie and her daughter Genevieve Lancelin. From the first page, Skelly’s minimalist art signals a darkness lurking in the mundanity of the sisters’ lives as maids. The square blocked paneling creates the sense of repetition in the sister’s lives: wake up, cook breakfast, serve breakfast, wash and put away the dishes, clean the masters’ messes, serve high tea, prepare the masters’ dinner attire, tend the garden, prep dinner, clean again, serve dinner, go to bed. The only breaks in their chores are a single smoke break per day and regular chastisement from Madame and Mademoiselle Lancelin. Even though we only see this routine in full once, Skelly’s paneling choices create that repetition in her readers’ minds—every panel is exactly the same shape and size; every gutter is symmetrical and straight across or down the page. Skelly’s limited use of text also forces the reader into Lea and Christine’s world of quiet compliance. Pages pass without a word, but the eyes of the characters say everything we need to know.

Skelly emphasizes the importance of eyes and facial expressions before readers even open the book. The entire back cover is glossy and slightly textured except for Lea’s eyes, which are smooth and matte. It’s not a detail I noticed right away. It wasn’t until the book was sitting in the sun at just the right angle that I saw nothing but a pair of eyes staring at me through the harsh glare of the gloss. It’s unnerving, honestly. And it’s just the beginning of the power of expressions in Maids.

The girls only smile when they are together. This decision of Skelly’s highlights the societal forces against the Papin sisters; everyone else is the enemy, trying to keep them away from each other. The sisters often share glances that communicate more than text could. Their eye contact provides them a world of their own when the physical world beats them down. Theirs is a world of calm, of togetherness, of love. Except when it’s not.

Skelly’s use of color highlights the contrast of wealth and working class, of compliance and rage. The scenes when the sisters are together, not working, are backed in muted yellows and browns. This provides a sense of calm without influence from other forces. The sisters become the focal point, as there is little to no décor in these scenes. This is their world. In contrast, the wealth of the Lancelin family is shown in blues and greens. Genevieve’s blue eyes stand out in every panel she graces. Hers are the only eyes that are not dark, which sets her worlds apart from the Papin sisters, who are of a similar age. She sees a different world than the sisters do. Skelly populates the blue and green scenes with stair banisters, furniture, plants, clothes, and dishes that reveal the Lancelin’s wealth.

The red scenes, naturally, represent rage. The first glimpse of red is a page that reveals the darkness in Lea that began when she was a sister in a convent. Christine was forced to leave the convent to earn money for her family, and every flashback of Lea alone in the convent employs red panels. The truly rageful scenes are almost entirely red with black lines, painting the entire scene in blood red. The only details that possess other colors are often the source of the rage, so those targets stand out in bold. Here, Skelly depicts rage beautifully by showing how it can blind people to everything that isn’t the focus of their anger. Dispersed throughout the book, these scenes fuel the building tension throughout the entire story. Skelly’s use of color alone makes Maids a book that you’ll want to read at least twice, just to pick up on the subtle clues.

As a horror lover, I was expecting to see a bit more from the murder scenes, but that would have detracted from the slow burn of the Papin sisters’ snapping point. Skelly’s Maids is surprisingly quiet for a story about violent murders, but that’s what makes it so effective. Maids isn’t actually about the murders of the Lancelin women; it’s about rage and how it builds and what happens when it’s fueled.