“Always, They Whisper” was tough to read. I think there are an awful lot of readers out there who are going to identify with what is a very common experience for women in particular. How did the ideas of contemporary street harassment, sexual assault, and the plight of Medusa collide for you to produce this story?
I was reading yet another article about sexual assault and the comments were dreadful. (No, I usually don’t read the comments; I’m honestly not even sure why I did that day.) There is so much stigma, so much blame, and it all gets shifted onto the victim’s shoulders. They become scapegoats and villains, bearing all the culpability so the real villain can retain an air of false respectability. She shouldn’t have teased him, she shouldn’t have done this or worn that. Ugh. It’s an ugly truth that’s everywhere. Always. In turn, that external blame becomes internal. Why did we go out? Why did we wear that? My fault, my fault, my fault—an ever-present litany of wrongly-placed blame.
Later that same day, I saw a picture of Medusa that someone posted on Facebook, something clicked in the word machine in my head, and the first paragraph came out in a rush. I wrote the rest of the italicized portions, but since I knew I wanted to set the story in modern times, it took a few drafts to get the rest of it to fall into place.
I was fascinated by the elixir; the idea of disguising herself, of deliberately becoming invisible, was one that really resonated with me from my teens and early adulthood. What left me thinking hard after I finished reading was that for Medusa, it stopped working. Can you tell us more about that metaphor and how it went in that direction?
Women learn at an early age that whenever we go out, we open ourselves up to the possible risk of harassment. A lot of men think that catcalls and such are flattering, but, in truth, they can be alarming and often escalate into frightening, e.g., when it becomes a demand of sorts—Hey, I’m talking to you. Why won’t you talk to me?
For me, Medusa’s elixir was the metaphorical equivalent of no makeup, sweats, and a disheveled ponytail. Walking with your head down and shoulders hunched so as not to capture anyone’s attention.
The elixir provided her with the peace of being able to walk freely without harassment; when it stopped working, I was alluding to the fact that, unfortunately, no matter what you wear, no matter how old you are, you can’t hide. And to some, your very existence is an open invitation for their attention, regardless of whether or not that attention is wanted.
Medi’s snakes were part of her curse, but their whispered voices could also be considered the enforcers of it—in that sense, I wonder if it’s even fair to consider them “her” snakes. When she tried to free herself of them, it caused her physical pain. Where is the line between the snakes’ voices and her own, or between the snakes and herself?
To me, the snakes represented the internal voice we all have. In Medi’s case, that voice was turned against her, and the snakes became separate entities of their own, feeding her a steady stream of what they demanded she believe.
She had to reach a point where she was strong enough to recognize that the snakes were filling her with bullshit and lies, strong enough to shed the blame and reclaim her sense of security, of self. I loved the concept of taking the emotional pain of healing and turning it corporeal.
Your novel Ink was recently launched by Samhain Publishing—the book is about a tattoo that has a sinister life independent of its host. Tattoos are such personal things that permanently alter our appearance, and in Jason’s case that part of his appearance betrays him. In that sense, Jason has something in common with Medi. Is this a theme that you explore often in your work?
I don’t consciously write with any themes in mind, yet as a woman, the concept of appearances, being judged by or the betrayal of, is inescapable. I think mostly, though, I’m drawn to emotionally fragile people. Everyone has ghosts and I like to explore what happens when those ghosts finally come knocking at the door, demanding attention.
In Jason’s case, it’s the result of a bad decision made when he’s caught beneath the dark cloud of a dysfunctional relationship’s abrupt ending. He’s developed internal blinders to avoid seeing how broken he really is, which makes him ripe for the tattoo artist’s taking.
In addition to your novel, you’ve had an impressive number of short stories published in the past year or two. What else can we look forward to seeing from you, and what are you working on next?
I have more short fiction forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, and Shock Totem, dark explorations about relationships, the fragility of memory, congenital analgesia, and the ghosts of grief, respectively.
My agent has my next novel in her capable hands, I have two others that need editing, and I’m in the early stages of another that, thus far, is about six families coping with loss that they’re unaware is connected in a dark, supernatural way. It’s the first novel I’ve written that has a very large cast of POV characters, which is both exciting and daunting.
Spread the word!