Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Kelly Barnhill

“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” You’ve served up some delicious Weird here. What was the seed for “The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story”?

You know, it’s funny. This story originally started out as an odd little tale to go in John Joseph Adams’s recent anthology exploring the Oz universe. Or the Ozziverse. Or whatever. The trouble was, as I was an obsessive Oz reader as a child and knew the stories backward and forward, that my imagination had pounced on a rather obscure character in the canon—the Woggle Bug—and pushed him so far afield that we found ourselves far outside of Oz. I mean, heck, we might as well have been in Kansas. Anyway, Mr. Adams kindly let me know that, while I had somehow produced a story that would never find a way to fit in the anthology, it did stand on its own feet. So now my beloved Insect and my beloved Astronomer may live in Lightspeed, and that feels good.

How did you visualize the Insect? I had been thinking a cricket-y type creature (the endless influence of Disney and waistcoated crickets, I suppose), but then I looked up “pulvilli” and there were photos of the hairy legs of ticks and houseflies. *shudder*

In my mind he was somewhere between a beetle and a cicada and a boll weevil. (Though less evil than a weevil, obviously. And more insufferable. And, yanno, gigantic.)

One of my favorite passages in the story was: “The Insect agrees to stay the night at the home of an aged couple in the village that sits in the shadow of the Astronomer’s tower. They are extraordinarily kind. They have tender smiles and searching hands and glittering eyes. The Insect loves them. Their house is cozy and warm. Their food makes him sleepy.”

So many sweet words undone by just a few sinister ones. What was the purpose of having the Insect undergo this experience just before completing his quest?

So it is with every hero’s quest—there is a moment when the hero has an opportunity to choose ease and tranquility, where the object is obscured from view, where the sails go slack and resolve fades. And they may choose to give up and give in and give way to bliss and sweetness and sleep—and it is perilous. The Insect is fragile and vulnerable in his spirit, but he is in his body, too. And it was important show that.

FYI—I totally made all that up. Did it sound smart? If so, it was a ruse, alas. When I write stories, I do so as an act of discovery and with no outward planning at all. I operate entirely in the dark, with no map, no tools, no identifying marks. Only my intuition. I had no idea that he would end up at the old couple’s house. He just went there. And it was terrifying.

The Latin phrases work so beautifully in the story, achieving their own naturalness—were you concerned about how to handle so much footnoting without interrupting the narrative rhythm? (Or has Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell freed us from that fear forever?)

Oh! How I love that book! You know, it’s funny, I wasn’t intending to use any Latin at all, but while I was writing the story, my fifth-grade daughter was in the midst of studying for a big Latin exam, and I was helping her to fill out flashcards, and was checking her homework (thanks, Google Translate!) and she and I started throwing Latin sayings at each other at random—she, the ones that she learned at school, and me, the ones that I memorized from good ole Wikipedia. And truly, I didn’t worry about interrupting the flow at all, given that my Insect seemed the type who would likely think with footnotes anyway. Heck, his footnotes would probably have footnotes.

“The Insect and the Astronomer” reminds me a little of your story “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife.” What was it like to hear someone else read that story aloud?

I’ve had the experience a few times, actually, because both of my novels are available as audiobooks—though I must say that the experience of listening to “Taxidermist” was less stressful than for the novels. First of all because they had male actors reading both The Mostly True Story Of Jack and Iron Hearted Violet—one American and one British gentleman. And they both did a fine job, it was just hard for me to force myself to listen. With “Taxidermist,” Kate Baker just did a marvelous job, but even more, the fact of her gender made the story feel more natural to my ear. Because I read my work out loud approximately one million times before I send it out into the world. Her reading matched the inflection and rhythm that I typically used, which put me instantly at ease.

I was reading your blog, and many of your posts are in the same lyrical voice as your story. You also write poetry, read aloud your own stories and stories by others, and are attracted to books with a strong aural sensibility. All of you bends toward the music of words. Do you ever find yourself stuck between the beauty of a passage and needing to let it go for the sake of the story? Can you delete a beloved line or lines before you have replaced them with something of equal beauty?

Oh, honey. Let me tell you a thing or two about deletions.

I delete everything. All the time. I am a slash-and-burn sort of self-editor. Nothing is sacred, nothing is impervious to loss. Once, while writing a novel that never sold (but that was important for me to write because I learned how a novel is put together), I was at around page 130 . . . and my laptop burst into flames. Smoke. Heat. Actual flames. Terrifying. Obviously nothing could be saved. And, alas, I had backed up exactly nothing. After weeping and wailing for a few days, I returned to the page—that clean, open, limitless space—and began to work, re-experiencing the story from memory. And it was awesome. I wasn’t bogged down, I wasn’t heaving idea to idea like heavy stones tied to my back. Everything was possible and exciting and new.

Which is why, when I am revising a novel or a story, I always start with one easy step: Select All, Delete.

I highly recommend it. Okay, I don’t really. It sucks up a sheet-ton of time and energy. Not to mention sanity. Still, it’s the only way I know how to do it.

I think part of it, for me, is just the fact that I have such an aural and tactile sensibility to my work. I like how words feel in the mouth; I like the insistence of sound in the ear; I like the rhythm of the jaw, the swish of the tongue against the teeth, the rise and fall of the voice, and the slide of breath in the open places. Writing and re-writing is very physical for me. I stand; I pace; I spin around. My body is fully engaged.

Wait, what was your question? Oh yeah, deletions. Honestly? I think that if you are fashioning phrases that you can hold in your hands, and that you can feel their weight and heft if you let them fall onto your lap, nothing is really deleted. Your office is crowded with raw material. You pick up sounds, hold them next to your ear, and pin them to page. If they don’t fit, you let them fall to the ground with a crack, and start over.

Does that sound nuts? It does, doesn’t it. Ah, well.

What’s next for you? Any new projects coming out?

Well. I’m just about to turn in my last revisions for my novel The Witch’s Boy, which will be published by Algonquin Books for Young Readers next fall. And then I’ll have another book with them after that. I’m also busy working on a new novella (“The Unlicensed Magician”) and several short stories that I’ll kick off my desk in the next couple months. It’s good to have projects—it keeps us off the streets. Because the last thing we need in this country is roving gangs of SFF authors wandering the alleys like a bunch of hooligans and stirring up trouble. And shenanigans. We do better when we are chained to our desks as a general rule. It’s best to stir up trouble on the page.

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Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.