Friday, October 10, 2014

Peering behind the curtain

Earlier this summer, the fantastic Gwenda Bond interviewed Maria and me about our novella, The End of the Sentence. We had such a great time answering her questions, that we went on a little longer than was convenient to run in the Subterranean newsletter (where an excerpted version of this interview appears.) However! If you want the full thing - including a few behind-the-scenes emails that we exchanged during the writing process - here it is!

How did this project come about? What led to you deciding to write a novella together?

MDH: Kat and I have been friends for a few years. We were both Subterranean Press Guests of Honor at conFusion in January 2013 and we were paneling together and doing a lot of things (including a day of fencing, at which Kat is expert! At which I am desperate!). Somehow, in the con bar, it came up that she was thinking about writing an epistolary novella. I said that sounded like fun. And somehow we merged desires into one epistolary novella, which ended up being not actually wholly epistolary.  This whole conversation happened in front of Bill Schafer of Subterranean, and he said he’d buy the novella – ultimately, we wrote a ballpoint contract on Bill’s forearm and John Scalzi tweeted a photo of it, and it was official. Not quite written in blood, but…

KH: It felt like such a gift, to be able to work together on a project. I’m a huge fan of collaborative art, and this was really a pleasure. I know also, for me, having it be such a spontaneous project really freed up space in my head to just have fun writing.

How did you actually write it? Together, or passing back and forth? Did you surprise one another?

MDH: We originally pitched a completely different idea of what we were going to write, but once we started to think about that story, in August of 2013, we felt limp and didn’t want to do it. So, we started coming up with the basic ingredients of The End of the Sentence – the letters from a deathless prisoner, the goblin Chuchonnyhoof, the anvil and its mythology – and we passed it back and forth, usually each of us writing about two chapters. I wrote the first two, and then Kat wrote the next. I was sitting in a living room in London, and she was at her place in Minnesota, so the time difference meant we both often woke with new pages in our inbox along with mutterings from the writer who’d written them, saying “Well, this happened, and I don’t even know why, can you work with it? Can you help make it make sense?”

We also passed research kernels back and forth – things like “oh man, we have to use THIS bit of crazy regarding for ex. Gretna Green, or early prosthetics,” and then the next writer would put it in. We had a kind of ongoing list of elements, and we built the story around them. We didn’t have a plan for the structure of the story, just a few loose ideas of what might happen. We totally invented it as we went along. For some people this would be scary, but for us it was fun, like telling a story around a campfire to each other. It evolved significantly – SIGNIFICANTLY – as we wrote – and I’d say that both of us were regularly surprised (and/or terrified, because of scary bits) when the other’s chapters showed up. Then, we went over it, revising each other and smoothing edges. At this point, I don’t think either of us is wholly sure who wrote what. The whole process took a month. We were shockingly fast – definitely faster than we’d have been alone. The novella itself is almost entirely intact from that first draft. We only had to add one major scene in revisions. We didn’t expect that! We figured it might be a mess, but somehow, our rebel without a plan collaboration worked.

KH: There were definitely scary bits! Someone else asked what working on this novella was like, and I described it as the most fun I’ve ever had giving myself nightmares. True! There were also some technical surprises. I draft longhand, for example, and that was something that just was not going to work here. I mean, I suppose I could have taken iPhone photos of the day’s pages and emailed them to Maria, but that would have been bonkers. So I learned to write first drafts on the computer, and to write without looking back – both of us trusted the other to fix and loose ends and to know how to deal with the weird stuff that we knew had to go in the story but didn’t quite know how to fit. And it happened. I don’t think we ever hit a day where one of us said, “look, I just can’t do this, can you grab this bit, too?” and that was wonderful.

Where did the story emerge from? Did you start with an idea or from something else (theme, a certain influence or influences)?

MDH: The original bones came from the fact that the former inhabitant of my Brooklyn apartment, one Olivia, had been receiving a lot of letters from prisoners around the East Coast. Olivia is long gone with no forwarding address, but she still gets about two handwritten letters a month, from people she didn’t know, who are looking for love. So, that notion was perfect for an epistolary novella.

I’m going to include here, for some process fun, and for some epistles (!), an excerpt from our first emails so that you can see how we wrote this. It’s interesting looking at these now, how closely we came to writing the novella we discussed in these first exchanges about the story.


August 4, 2013
Hiya from London:

Alrighty....I've written 2000 words, because I'm me, and I’m a fucking chaos monster. I set it in Oregon, and put a nice little monster in it. The monster (Chuchonnyhoof) is underknown, from the Kalapuya tribe, and a beautifully named goblin otherwise known as Ironhide, though it's not like it's been all over pop culture. I googled and found pretty much nothing. But see:

There is a maximum security prison in Salem, Oregon, which has a crazy history of riots and escapes. Gary Gilmore was executed there. He was killed by firing squad. He donated his corneas. (that's just a sidebar, a little WTF!!!) Also, just the Salem of it all is nice, given the kind of story this maybe wants to be. Um, it wants to be scary from here. I named the prisoner Dusha, which is Russian for soul, and can be male or female. Olivia is here, but not at all written yet. I think maybe an Olivia letter next chapter? And I named the resident Malcolm but that’s a whatever. 

There is also something we might like to use in here as far as the crime our prisoner went in for - it's a story set at the Yaquina Bay lighthouse near Newport. This was published in 1899 by a woman named Lischen Miller (that name is so great too!!!) The Haunted Lighthouse. It's a bit like Picnic at Hanging Rock. I kind of love it. I think we can play with it a bit - just as a side thing, a useful scary thing.

Given the iron door in that story, and the iron hide on the goblin, I don't know, might be fun.

So, yeah. A little Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, a little The Green Worm, a little Cupid & Psyche, a little Stephen King. Kinda?

Whatcha think? Tag!
But we should discuss so that we keep a narrative track happening...


August 5th, 2013
Okay. Here's about 1300 or so new words.

This? Is really fun. Some thoughts:

The whole ironskin thing makes me think of Weyland Smith. So maybe he is the family thing that Olivia's family have, this facility with iron and ironworks, and that Dusha wants to be bound to them? And Olivia wants none of it, which is why her relationship with Dusha is so strained. (Maybe she never wrote him back? Maybe the person before her did, but if so, we need that letter next. No is also fine.)

I also feel like the house should respond to having someone take care of it. So the more Malcolm interacts with the house, the more the house does things to help him out. And I feel like he wants, very much, to make the place his. Olivia, I feel, never really embraced the house or who she was, which is why things are in such disrepair.

Malcolm's son is a puzzle to me. I cannot see forward to him yet. Part of me thinks he is somehow in the same prison as Dusha, but why? And why would Malcolm think him lost, then? Part of me thinks my brain is crazy. But the rest of it I feel pretty confident playing in.

Yes? No? Maybe?


August 7th, 2013
I'm working away on this. Have a chunk, and just discovered a couple of really interesting things. I'm actually from a family of 200 years of blacksmiths, so Weyland is great to use. I'm gonna put an anvil in the basement of the house. An anvil used for shoeing the hooves of things like Chuchonnyhoof, shall we say? Maybe the ironhide is a shifter and shoeless is powerless. Something like that?

Also: Whoa. Okay, this is super interesting and might be fun to draw from. Love Cult, Holy Rollers, Salem Asylum, Assassination of a cult leader....

Interesting paper involving history of Oregon's death penalty:
August 7, 2013
Love the anvil in the basement, and shoeless as powerless. (it works so well, because of course something can bind you into shoes, but you can also choose to have them put on.)

Read the Great Green Worm - I'm fascinated by the pull quote on the first illustration - "You would fear me less if you knew me better." because it can be nice, but also, not.

And I am never not going to be creeped out by the practice of calling people who have waived their appeals "volunteers" for execution.


August 7, 2013

Ah, here we are, another 1800 words. I didn't get to the anvil or the horseshoes yet, but I did set some traveling out of the house up, and a bit about his son. I think he killed his son, accidentally, and Dusha is magic and has some way in, to reclaim souls. So it's a barter...? I think Malcolm needs to meet some townspeople. Love the sections you wrote. The letter is terrific. The bath. so good. 

Check out the stuff in this next link about the discovery mid-50's of the people who'd been related to this love cult 50 years before, the founders of the town, etc. Even more, I love the mugshot of the preacher Creffield. All day, I've been picturing Dusha as this guy. 

I can't decide what exactly Dusha is, but now I think we've got thoughts. An Ironhide,needing to be shod. But shod with shoes made of the blood of true lovers, maybe? The iron in the blood distilled into horseshoes? A speciality of the Weylands? And  that's what Dusha keeps trying to get the house occupants to do. Kill lovers and distill blood. Bring the shoes to the prison so that Dusha's power returns? Maybe?

Oooh, you would fear me less if you knew me better. That's lovely. Maybe that's something we use as epigraph?

And right? Volunteers. It's amazing. We must use it, I think. It's so great. 

WE ALREADY HAVE 5.5 K!! Holy shit! Hurray!

Yeah, this is what it looks like if you collaborate with us, apparently. Inventing a novella on the fly!

KH: The other thing that was really there from the beginning was the Beauty and the Beast riff – the idea that there was this love story running through things, and it was one where appearances couldn’t be trusted. It was always a very monstery love story. And I think that expanded nicely as a theme, because there wound up being a lot of people and places in the story that look like one thing, and are actually another.

The characters in this novella are so well-drawn and memorable, and I include here not just the main character Malcolm, but the invisible presences in the house who care for him (something that seems so appealing when he, say, finds the meals, and yet quietly menacing too), and also Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, who we get to know primarily through creepy missives and then the stories of crimes long past. Can you talk about them a little? Favorites?

MDH: I know I fell in love with Dusha over the course of the novella, and I think Kat did too – the course of the story totally shifted because we both started loving him. At first, I thought he was evil, and then he evolved over the course of the writing. He’s just what he is, but he’s also had a long life, and he ultimately isn’t what you think. That’s where the Beauty and the Beast things came in. There are a couple of beautiful beasts in the novella. I think we’re both interested in appearances being deceiving, in one’s perception of events perhaps being totally wrong. That’s true of Malcolm and his ideas about Chuchonnyhoof.  I also have a particular fetish for Abigayl Weyland, the blacksmithing love of Chuchonnyhoof. She’s only in the novella for a little, though crucial section, but I had a magnificent time researching female blacksmiths in centuries past. The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths is a real thing, and its 1725 roster contained sixty-four brethren, and two sistren.

KH: Yeah, Dusha changed hugely for me over the course of the book, pretty much in the way that Maria described. And that was great, because as he shifted, it became easier to see the way the other characters in the book were complex and multifaceted. And I adore Lischen, as thorny as she is. But if I had to pick a favorite, I think it would be Olivia, who cares very much, and tries very hard, and is aware in this sort of heartbreaking fashion that sometimes, neither of those things are enough.

How much fun did you have writing those creepy letters?

MDH:  So. Much. I especially had fun writing the letter in which Olivia talks about going to watch Chuchonnyhoof’s (failed) execution, describing how he looks for the first time, and then lays out how she’s attempted to forge his shoes. She’s very conflicted, and the research I did into Oregon’s (also conflicted) death penalty policy was put to use here. It was creepy. I spent several days immersed in visuals of execution chambers. What fun for a summer’s day of writing…But it was fascinating to get to write in several voices over this novella – and also for Kat and I to write in the same voice throughout. We actually had almost no trouble in that regard – our voices merged into the multiple voices pretty easily.

KH: Yeah, death penalty research days were kind of really unfun. There was the day I found pictures of one of my distant relatives, Black Jack Ketchum, immediately post his hanging. The hanging had been flawed, and he was decapitated. And yes, that picture is on the internet, too. (I had known he was not a nice man, but I hadn’t realized before researching this novella how bad he had been. Or how he had died.)

But creepy letters? Very fun. Originally, the epistolary nature of the project was a way to try and be sure our voices wouldn’t clash when we wrote – a way to smooth over the two of us having different writerly voices, so that there weren’t jarring transitions on the page. Turned out, writing in the same voice worked. And it worked so well that, as Maria said, there were moments in the editing when both of us forgot which of us wrote which part, So when we got to do the letters, and the different character voices, it was such a pleasure. I loved writing them - my favorite part that I wrote is probably the last Olivia letter – but getting them from Maria as part of the day’s pages was also great. It’s part of why I like the epistolary form so much, the sensation of reading a letter.

There are so many and varied influences at play here—the book description cites mythological influences from Kalapuya, Welsh, Scottish, and Norse, and of course there are also echoes of bizarre true crime stories. Did you know at the start you wanted to create such a rich mix or did that emerge in the telling?

KH: In a way, both of those things are true. Partially, the mix emerged in the telling. The internet was great for that, in that when we’d send links to each other, it was so easy to keep clicking and finding things that fit together in terms of story, even if, on the surface, they didn’t seem obviously connected. Or life would connect them for us – I went on a tour of Saint Paul’s Union Station while writing this, and there were these ancient horseshoes that had been found during the excavation in a display. Maria found sconces made of horns at a market.

But I think also one of the reason that such a variety of influences came in is that, in the planning stages, we basically just threw everything we loved in the basket of ideas, so the aesthetic of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast got given the same weight in terms of story potential as the Mari Lwyd. Having a lot of things to draw from made it feel like we had a lot of possibilities, which made it easier to write.

MDH: Definitely as Kat says – I think the first bits of the mixture came from western myth – I was looking into things from this part of Oregon, because I spent my childhood traversing some of the roads that Malcolm does, and I’m also very interested in things like the Wendigo, which makes little bit of a reference point here too. So, Chuchonnyhoof coming from Kalapuya lore, that’s because of the place where we set the novella. And then we went deeper into what it might mean to have iron skin, which led us to anvils, which led us to Gretna Green and anvil weddings, which led us to blacksmithing themes, which led to horseshoes, which led us to shapeshifting horse myth (pooka) and on from there. There are lots of themes that recur across cultures, and we were interested in certain threads, so we pulled on them, and ended up braiding together a lot of things – though these stories are from all over the world, they mostly come from two sectors: myths/lore about farming and working the land, and myths/lore about the activities of the dead. Which, when you think about it, are also entwined. The dead are usually planted in the earth, and ghosts are a kind of strange harvest.

There are a lot of ghosts permeating this story, both in the literal sense, but also in the form of the pasts of various players in the tale. At times I even found myself wondering which were the most formidable to face. I’m assuming that blending and layering, the sense of being haunted by what seems (at least at first) to be inescapable, whether it’s the threat of Dusha or of the terrible thing in Malcolm’s own past, is part of your intention here. Can you discuss that a bit, and/or the idea of atonement?

KH: It’s funny. Our main ghost was one of the least scary things for me to write, the least difficult of the various hauntings to confront. But yes, that layering was intentional. One of the big moments for me in understanding Malcolm’s character came at the beginning, when he considers the fact that his house may be haunted, and basically decides that ghosts are fine, he’s dealt with worse. And it was like “Oooh, so what’s the worse? What else can he be haunted by?” It led into the realization that there was a lot of haunting, of a lot of kinds, going on here.

Which I think also ties in with the idea of atonement – that sometimes you do need to atone in order to lay the ghost that’s haunting you, and sometimes the ghost that’s haunting you is your self.

MDH: I just had to text Kat and ask which main ghost she meant! Apparently in my head all ghosts are main ghosts. I think the story is very much about the layers of ones history – and of history itself in this case, generations of the dead, generations of entwinements, the way that might shape a person’s future. When Malcolm takes possession of the house he buys, he has no idea that an entire history is coming with it, and that his own ghosts will need to merge with the one’s he’s inherited. That now they all belong to him. That’s how it goes, though, in life. You have to share histories, or you end up very alone. You have to be generous. So, the notion of atonement for me is as entwined with forgiveness as anything. Malcolm is never going to get over his tragedy, but he may be able to forgive himself, to be forgiven. Same with Lischen. Same with Olivia (the main ghost Kat refers to!). We’re all haunted by our histories, and being haunted by regret is sometimes worse than being haunted by fear.  

You manage here a sort of horror fairy tale that feels both fresh and classic. There is something timeless but modern about this novella. Do you think that’s because so many things in the story—loss, longing, love, damage—are universal?

KH: I think if you hang around people talking about writing or about telling stories for long enough, you’ll start to hear things like “there are only seven plots” or “there are only three stories in the world.” I don’t want to try and reduce things down completely to numbers, but I do think that we as storytellers, we as people who are interested in stories, do tend to have favorite themes. The big ideas, that we are haunted by, that we wrestle with, that we try and make sense of. Those ideas are the ghosts in the house of story.

And so we recognize them as things that are ours, no matter how old or new the story we read them in is, no matter where their source material is from.

MDH: Thank you! As you see in those early emails, we were drawing on a few centuries of things, from old French fairy tales to contemporary horror, and twining them all into a very contemporary, and indeed unglamorous setting, which I think can be a helpful thing when you’re seeking to create a world wherein familiar elements – the Beauty and the Beast story, for example - feel fresh again.  But yes, as Kat says, there are favorite themes, and they’ve driven storytelling forever. In this case, it’s Something Precious Has Been Lost.  I suspect that’s happened to every single one of us, whether it’s the loss of love or of the one true ring. When I’m writing horror, I tend to think of my own worst nightmares. Permanent loss of someone I love wins for me, as I suspect it does for lots of people. That happens to several characters in this novella.

Do you each have one or two favorite books from Subterranean Press to recommend?

K: It’s hard to pick one or two, because I am one of those people who loves books as physical objects, and one of the things I’ve always appreciated about the books that Subterranean Press puts out is how gorgeous they are. They’re a pleasure to hold and to look at.

But if I had to stop and pick favorites, right now I’d go with Kelly Link’s short fiction collection, Stranger Things Happen and China MiĆ©ville’s The City & the City, because in both cases it’s not just that the contents are excellent, but that the design of the book completely complements what’s inside.

MDH: Cruel, cruel Kat! She got this question first. I am at my desk literally looking at a Subterranean Press copy of Stranger Things Happen right now, and you know that’s what I was about to write down. Not to mention the fact the China’s C & C has the best and coolest design, but fine! Fine! We might have slightly merged over the course of this novella. Hmm. Looking at my pile of things I actually possess, how about John Crowley’s collected nonfiction, In Other Words. It has an essay on utopian fiction that kills, and one on scholar Ioan Culiano that blistered my brain. Whole thing is fucking brilliant, frankly. I’ve also got The Shop of the Mechanical Insects in my heap, and that’s gorgeous. Ray Bradbury short story, illustrated by Dave McKean, and basically come on, it’s entomology heaven. Illustrations integrated with text in a delicious fashion. Mind you, both those books I just recommended are totally sold out. I have them only because I was released into the Subterranean warehouse and pawed the boxes like a wild beast. I’d also recommend Rachel Swirsky’s How the World Became Quiet, because I’ve read most of the stories in it, and seen but not held it. I want it. It’s sold out. My frenzied pawing was before it was in warehouse.

And what’s up next for each of you? Any stories or books on the horizon besides The End of the Sentence readers will want to look out for?

KH: I have a number of short stories coming out this year – a couple in Lightspeed and one in The Journal of Unlikely Cartography called “All of Our Past Places” that I’m particularly happy about. And I’m working on some longer things as well.

MDH: In the nearish, there’ll be a sad water nymph monster love story in Lightspeed – “And the Winners Will Be Swept Out To Sea” and a scary children’s games and conjuring story in Nightmare - “Who Is Your Executioner.” There’ll also be a scary/sad novella about 19th century Germany, corneal transplants and ghosts – “What There Was To See – in the summer issue of Subterranean online. Then, whee! In 2015, we’ll have Magonia, from Harpercollins. That’s my young adult novel debut, and I’m so excited. It’s a fantasy involving a girl from Earth, a sky kingdom, and badass female ship captains.

Kat Howard

Subject: DONE

I think it's solid.

Obviously, we'll want to go back and smooth out any remaining roughnesses, and also, if you think I did something catastrophically wrong at the end, we can talk about it and fix it. But I think it doesn't suck.


Maria Dahvana Headley:



I'm gonna go in and add some details - I think it could stand a little fleshing out, the ghosts, the descriptions in the forge, a feeling of the room populated with the dead, but this is the right version, yes.