The latter part of your story brought alive memories of the Liveship Traders trilogy, though the ending, of course, went in an entirely different direction. Was Robin Hobbs’s work one of the seeds of inspirations for “Ushakiran”?
Not consciously—the story was inspired by a picture of a ship I found and carried around with me for ages. I often use pictures for prompts, and I always knew I wanted to write about this ship because it just looked so alive and spectacular in the picture, with its sails and flags blowing in the wind and people rushing about on deck. That impression of movement and the idea of life infusing an inanimate thing is maybe what made me want to write about a person who becomes one with a ship. It was originally the story of a baby girl, adopted by a ship’s crew as their luck, who lived out her life on the ship and slowly melted away into it, becoming intangible, a kind of ghost. I don’t remember at what point I decided to have her become the figurehead instead, but, of course as soon as I thought of it, I was aware that I was in Liveship Traders territory. It’s a different approach—the liveships are creatures of wood who are remarkable because they are sentient and can communicate, they resemble humans but aren’t human, and, for me, that’s what makes them so interesting and magical—they’re ships come to life. Ushakiran is a human who becomes trapped in a ship and, eventually, identical with it. I’m sure there was some unconscious inspiration though; I read the Liveship Traders books at a formative age.
Why does she hear the answering cry of the Leviathan at the end?
That’s for the reader to decide. I personally like to think she becomes one of them—that is, that ship and girl together make a creature which is neither but something entirely new, and somehow akin to the Leviathans. So it could be a cry of welcome—but maybe they are scenting prey, or warning her off, or afraid of her. There’re multiple possibilities.
You had some amazing authors reviewing and giving you input on “Ushakiran”: did any of their input surprise you?
This story was written at Clarion West last year and I was lucky enough to get feedback on it from both George R.R. Martin and Kelly Link so, yes, pretty amazing! Plus, of course, I had the reactions of my seventeen equally amazing classmates. I don’t normally talk about stories I’m writing, but in this case I got very stuck in the middle, so I did, and people had some very cool ideas. One of my classmates, Henry Lien, thought up the idea of Ushakiran hearing what was going on around her through vibrations in the wood of the ship, which helped move the plot along a lot.
I don’t think I got any feedback that surprised me exactly. I got lots of conflicting opinions, as you would expect, on things like length, tense, point of view, and how much information to give or withhold in the story. I didn’t revise any of my stories until a few months after the workshop, just to give all those different voices time to settle in my brain. When I did come back to it, I found it immensely helpful and reassuring to have all this guidance from people whose opinions I respected, but that also meant some tough choices.
What was the most difficult choice you had to make during the revision of this story?
Probably the number of viewpoint characters—some people felt there shouldn’t be so many and I was a little uneasy about that myself, but I liked it that way for this story, and enough other people liked it that in the end I decided to keep it that way. Also a few people felt I should make it longer and tell more about the world of the ship and Ushakiran’s life. My short stories are usually pretty short and I was worried I would mess up the pacing if I added things, but in the end I realised there did need to be at least a couple more scenes, just for clarity, so I agonised over it for a bit and then wrote them.
Is the world of Currents and kelp and magic and Leviathans one you’ll return to?
Possibly. I often do as much worldbuilding for a short story as I would for a novel, but in this case I was improvising wildly, and only got the ideas for kelp and Leviathans as I was writing them down—so this world is a bit of a mystery to me and I find it intriguing. This particular narrative feels complete to me and I don’t think I would want to write any more about the characters on the Day’s Eye (though I do wonder about Jathe’s early life. That has to be one of the most delicious things about writing stories—knowing where a character ends up, and wondering how they got there.) I hadn’t thought I would write in that world again, but I’ve had a couple of people now, when I was moaning about having nothing to write about, say that there’s scope for a whole novel there. So maybe I will.