Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Author Spotlight: Maria Dahvana Headley

The second person point of view presents many challenges to writers, especially those working with an apocalypse. How did you approach the narrative voice in creating “The Traditional”? And, as a writer who found success with a memoir (The Year of Yes), and has a strong connection to that community, how much of your own voice influenced “The Traditional”?

The voice in this story is tonally different from the apocalyptic content, which pleases me. I have a theory about the second person POV. I think it’s a myth that it’s more challenging to write in it—it’s actually a kind of vaudevillian intimacy shortcut. For example: When you’re performatively telling a story, you might speak the whole thing in second person. “So, you walk into a bar . . .” It has a kind of jokey colloquial comfort—you’re saying, essentially, “we’re the same, imagine yourself in this situation.” If you can make a reader feel comfortable, you can wriggle under their skin more easily.

A second person POV is inherently fake when you see it written—as in you know it’s not a spoken voice, but it feels acceptable, because you feel addressed by the speaker as someone who is part of the story. So you can (hopefully) also get away with some styling, like I did here, while retaining the juice of it seeming like something that could be spoken, a riff. It’s a happy little cheat. Second person feels deceptively real—hence, I suspect, your question about autobiographical voice. It’s fun to write in it, because you can add uncomfortable things, things like “You touch his brain with your fingertip.” And the reader feels it as a sympathetic action before they can judge the character for the creepy. More daredevil is the first person plural, which I’ve never yet tried. That’s saying here we are, we ALL did this. It could be exquisitely used in a dithyrambic scary story. Maybe that’s next. (Oh no, this is dangerous. I shouldn’t think about new stories.)

So, as for the genesis of this particular second person POV, I happened, at the time I was writing this, to be reading Junot Diaz’s great new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, which is mostly written in badasssecond. Junot’s work is bawdy, brainy, extremely precise and blisteringly funny. It also always manages to break my heart. Dude just kills it. I first tried to steal Junot’s voice from Drown, back in my playwright days, 1996 or so. His stories are very much like monologues, and so I copied the fuck out of Drown, and failed. Years passed. Now Junot’s a friend of mine, and here I am, stalking his voice again. With “The Traditional,” I thought, let’s see what happens if I use a second person bullshitter voice like his—but a girl bullshitter. I really can never get enough of female bullshit artists as characters.

Is this my own voice, this story? Or, more simply, am I a girl bullshitter? Yeah. Writer = liar, but in this case, my narrator isn’t me. She has a lot of me in her—the mimeograph exorcism in particular, is something that actually happened to me. But her voice, the truth of this story? Is sideways. The joy of writing speculative fiction rather than memoir is that you can throw some enormous worms into the story right alongside anniversaries and drinks and love. They can all coexist.

Whether it’s the giant worms or opening the main character’s chest cavity in a show of affection—is there an image from “The Traditional” that remains just as haunting as when you wrote the first draft?

I wrote this—you can laugh—as a present for my boyfriend who’d had his wisdom teeth out, and given me one as a present. He’s a writer too, and we got to riffing on traditional anniversary gifts, what else a person might give of their body. Their bones, skin, brain, et cetera. In my mind, and his too, this was a sweet story, like, total romance. (I didn’t think of it as scary at all, until my friend Kat Howard told me she’d had a nightmare in which she was trapped in it, trying to kill worms with a weapon made of fingers.)

Our riff slithered, as our riffs do, over to what would happen if you wrote a filthy mash-up of O. Henry & J.G. Ballard. As in, the super-romance of Gift of the Magi + the kinky questionable of Crash. Gift of the Magi has always creeped me out, which is probably a flaw in me and my understanding of what you’re supposed to be willing to do for love. I remember reading it as a little kid, and feeling infuriated. So, I think it’s always been in me to write some kind of rebel version. Ballard, well, he creeps me out less than O. Henry does. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I’m interested in wide-ranging notions of eros and despairos. (Maybe I apologize for that word, maybe I don’t.) The sexiness of universal disaster. It ended up being a grind I could dance to, so I wrote it.

As for haunts: It’s the worms. Giant tunnelling worms are not my terror. Tiny parasitic worms are my terror. I grew up in Idaho, surrounded by sled dogs. Worms, man. Worms. Tiny worms that get bigger as they eat you from the inside? Oh, holy. There’s something about how worms are, the way they can subdivide. Chop them up, and back they come. That’s some classic nasty. I have a small wrong theory that the notion of the Hydra is based on an ancient balladeer’s childhood bad deeds with worm dissection. How many times can I chop it in half? How many times will it grow back? Ahhh! It’s a monster! It doesn’t die! Fucking scary. Also, anything that’s got extra hearts freaks me out. You have an extra heart, it doesn’t matter to you what happens in the moment. The most dangerous sort of heartbreakers are people who act like they’ve got a spare.

If you were a character in “The Traditional,” who would you find yourself socializing with—those like our main character and her love interest, or in a land far away, battling the worms?

I’ve always said that I’d suck it in an apocalypse, because I’m a Type 1 diabetic and I have to take insulin or drop over dead. I’m essentially science fiction made flesh. I travel around looking like a normal person, but my insulin pulp is cyber life-support. So, you know, if the worms were nearby and I could bash one in the head with my high heel, okay, I’d love to, but heading out to the desert to put dynamite in wormholes would probably be beyond me. However, I’ve always had an airplane/subway/bus defender fantasy of stabbing a syringe of insulin into a hijacker. I grew up in a family that was very apocalypse-centric, and we made contingency plans. Every time I get on public transportation, I consider my battle options. How do you battle? With the tools you’ve got on you. Your bone-comb. Your insulin syringe.

You’ve just been nominated for a Nebula with “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream,” so congratulations are in order. You’ve also experienced great success with The Year of Yes, and Queen of Kings. How (if at all) has this affected the way you approach new stories?

Thank you! It was so flattering to be nominated for the Nebula, because it’s a peer award. It’s pretty great to have other writers thinking you’re good.

As for being successful, I’m not sure it changes anything for me, really, in terms of story approach. A friend of mine once described it as, well, you get a story in the New Yorker, or you get a rave in the NY Times, or you hit a bestseller list (all of which would be amazing, don’t get me wrong)—and even as those social markers happen and your mom is proud, you’re looking to the next project, and moaning, because you still don’t know how the hell to be a writer. That would be the way of the screwed up vocation. I’d be suspicious if I ever felt comfortable, because a big part of my urge to write comes from discomfort. So many nice things have happened with the things I’ve written, and that’s always lovely, but all I want to do is write things I haven’t written yet. Some people in my life find this approach maddening, but it’s working for me.

In the previous Author’s Spotlight in July 2012, you mentioned a sequel to Queen of Kings and a YA work in progress—how are these coming along?

The YA book just got turned in to my agents. Hopefully by the time this interview comes out, it will be sold, and then I can talk about it at long last. I’m in crazy love with it. It’s a contemporary pirate-y kind of riff, and it was beyond fun to write. In truth, anyone who likes this story probably will also like that book. The narrator is sixteen, but there are very few restrictions these days on what you can do in YA, so it’s quite dark, and full of scary strange. It’s also full of funny. Girl bullshitter. Yes.

The Queen of Kings sequel—utter opposite of the YA book, in that it’s alt-history and Elizabethan England—should also be turned in by the time this interview comes out. I had a personal apocalypse year and things got a bit slowed down, but with every apocalypse comes the hope of fantastic reinvention. I’m excited about all the things I’m writing/finishing/starting right now. Just answering these questions gave me two new story ideas! In two different genres.

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Patrick J Stephens

Patrick J Stephens recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh and, after spending the entire year writing speculative fiction, came back with a Master’s in Social Science. His first collection (Aurichrome and Other Stories) can be found on Kindle and Nook.