The author of the magnificent mosaic, Sourdough and Other Stories, talks about her book; about fairy tales, red hair and writing; and about much else.
All the stories in Sourdough are set in an imagined world that has the city of Lodellan at its centre. How much detail did you work out about this world before writing the stories? Have you (for your own use) a map of the place? Did you have a particular historical period in mind? And a related question: did you work out the genealogy of your characters?
The name of the city came from my friend Lisa Hannett – her knowledge of Old English, Old Norse and any other kind of ‘Old’ language means she’s awesome at coming up with names that sound real, but aren’t. I did scribble a nerdy little map of where I thought everything was located in my world. The historical period – because it’s a fantasy world I didn’t really have a time period in mind – it’s just a mix of different elements, some Medieval, some faux-Victorian, some kind of Renaissance. And no, I didn’t work out a genealogy – as I wrote, I just knew which characters were related to other characters… but I did write down some family trees at the end.
For ‘Gallowberries’, did you have an actual fruit in mind? And were you aware when you wrote the story of the belief that mandrake would grow where a hanged man’s seed fell?
I knew about the mandrake, but the word ‘gallowberries’ kept popping into my brain. Berries are a bit more compact than a mandrake and I wanted something that seemed innocuous, but could rip open worlds. I wanted something that looked tasty, like a cherry, but tasted foul.
Does red hair have a special significance to you? (I’m thinking of ‘Dibblespin’ and one or two other stories where it also features.)
It’s just based on the old idea that people with red hair were either mad or witches. It’s become a bit of shorthand for me when I write, if I want a character who needs to stand out and who I want to seem a little different, I often go for the red hair. My grandma had red hair.
What triggers a story for you?
It can be an image, a song, a word, a sentence, an idea in another book – for example, Miéville’s Perdido Street Station has a scene where Isaac enters a pub and when I read that scene, I got the picture in my head of the Golden Lily inn.
What license do you give your characters?
Oooooh, each one gets their own limits – it depends on what the story needs and what path I need my characters to tread.
Would you say your stories are in any way political?
Do you believe in evil?
What would you find it difficult to write about?
Anything that I’m too close to – sometimes things have happened in my life (death or love or other loss) and I think ‘I’ve got all these feelings welling up inside – I’ll write about that’, and then I get pen to paper and I go blank. Whatever I’m feeling seems too big and my ability to do it justice seems too small. Another element is that I find a large part of fiction is truth that’s been washed and filtered and changed – I think when you’re still too close to something that process hasn’t yet been completed. For instance, I’ve had a lot of pent up emotion about the deaths of my grandmothers and never been able to write about them, until a few months ago it all came out in a really nasty tale called ‘Winter Children’ that I sold to PS Publishing. There’s nothing in that story that bears any resemblance to my grandmothers’ deaths or their personalities – but the feelings I had about being old and the forgetting that comes with it are very definitely the foundations of that story. I just found a way to express it at long last.
A lot of your work seems influenced by fairy tales (e.g. the story ‘Little Radish’). Can you recall the experience of being read fairy tales as child?
Yes, very vividly. My mum read us fairy tales a lot and then when I learned to read I kept reading them myself.
Do you have a favourite fairy tale?
Oh, they’re all lovely and disturbing. Donkeyskin and The Goose Girl are great, as are Bluebeard and The Little Match Girl. There’s an Aztec one called The Hummingbird’s Fear and a Mongolian one called The Fern Girl.
Would you say that there is something about the tropes of the fairy tale that is especially attractive to female writers? I’m thinking also of the work of Angela Carter and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya in this regard. If so, what might this be?
I wrote a Masters thesis on this! In a very simplified manner: I think it lies in the colonisation of fairy tales by male transcribers over the years – what started out as tribal tales to teach everyone how to negotiate the paths of life, eventually became stories told by nurses and governesses, grandmothers and the like – women who kept the tales changing and dynamic. When fairy tales started to be written down, they became to a certain extent ‘static’, the endings became set and they became rule books on how children should act – especially little girls, who were told to be good and golden and pretty and inactive (an article I wrote about it can be read here). That’s how you got chosen to be the prince’s bride. Boys were told to be bold and active and go off on adventures. The Brothers Grimm collected their stories from old wives and wrote them down – over about 7 different editions, they edited out the voice of the female characters – Ruth Bottigheimer did a quantitative study on this and by the later editions, the characters that spoke most were the males (and the ‘evil’ female characters who invariably got punished).
I think the reason the fairy tale form is so popular with women writers is that they are reclaiming the form – the old story tellers used to finish with ‘This is the tale you asked for, I leave it in your mouth’ and I think new female fairy talers are taking up the torch. They’re taking the tales in their mouths and making them their own once more.
How old were you when you started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
Probably in my teens, but I always read. I stopped writing for 4 years at one point, then finally made the decision to do it for real about 7 years ago.
What book(s) are you reading now?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; The Whisperers by John Connolly; Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa Hannett; and an advance copy of A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones.
Do you have a favourite book or author?
I always go back to Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series and Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves. I think Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire and Cat Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales are amazing. It’s too hard to choose just one.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?
Be persistent. Grow a thick skin. Learn your craft to the best of your ability. Know that your job isn’t finished just coz you’ve written ‘The End’. Be polite to everyone. Don’t be crazy.
What are your current writing projects?
An urban fantasy duopoly Brisneyland by Night and Vigil, and the other fantasy duopoly Well of Souls and Gate of the Dead. Also a mosaic collection with Lisa Hannett, Midnight and Moonshine and a follow on from Sourdough and Other Stories, called The Bitterwood Bible.
Finally (back to Sourdough once more), do you cook and is there a baking recipe that you could recommend?
Ha! Yes, I cook but I don’t bake much nowadays due to a gluten allergy. But if I did bake, it would be jam drops – easy and they cook in about ten minutes.