Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Maria Dahvana Headley

It’s great to see your work in Lightspeed again. I’ve heard this story described as mummy-confectionary-cannibalism, which made it impossible not to read. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired “Bit-U-Men”?

It is a little odd, looking back on this, that I’ve now published two very different honey-themed stories in Lightspeed! I promise, I write about things other than honey. For this one, Jared Shurin and Anne Perry of Jurassic London got in touch ages ago, requesting a mummy story for their anthology The Book of the Dead, a co-pro with the Egypt Exploration Society. (The whole book is going to be amazing—there are stories by Gail Carriger, Paul Cornell, Adam Roberts, and many more.) I wrote a novel about a monster-y Cleopatra, so I can see how it seemed that I might be the sort of person who could have a mummy story lurking in an office sarcophagus somewhere, but I had nothing. Somehow, though, as the deadline neared, I ran across a mention of mellified man (a likely apocryphal type of mummy, typically described as being created by a dying man eating only honey for a year, until said man’s entire body converted into crystallized honey—take it from me, a diabetic, this isn’t how it works), which led my brain to thoughts of the ingredients of the (in my opinion singularly nasty) Bit-O-Honey candy bar. That led me on an obsessive research wander to learn more about the creation of the Bit-O-Honey, and when I discovered that it was invented in Chicago in 1924, shortly after Tut’s tomb was opened . . . well, hello there, darling. I thought that was all I needed for something rip-roary. Then, goddamn. I found other things. Things about the last bottle of ink made of mummy, a quote from Thomas Browne’s 1680s Fragment on Mummies decrying the eating of Egypt’s ancient philosophers as ground-up medicine . . . and then, I learned that the alleged medicinal substance thought to be derived from mummy was bitumen. Which was not even part of actual mummy, but a mistranslation: The Persian word for bitumen is mumiya, so people thought bitumen was the embalming agent for mummies. Eating mummy, therefore, was totally something people did, from about the 16th–18th centuries. (Mixed with things like pulverized rhubarb: delicious.) All that left me with the Bit-U-Men Bar. I made wicked shrieks and ran through the house in writerly ecstasy, trying babblingly to explain to my roommate why all this was so cool.

The whole time I was doing this research-fevered wander through candy-making and mummy-nibbling history, I was in a paranoid panic that another contributor would write this story before me. To me, in that moment, all the above seemed like HELLO, OBVIOUSLY THE STORY EVERYONE WOULD WRITE ABOUT MUMMIES. I was morose, convinced that Jared and Anne would receive a whole book of identical stories about the tilted ancestry of the Bit-O-Honey. Weirdly, they did not.

The setting is evocative. What kind of research was required in order to do this story justice? What can you tell us about the creation of this world?

I did lots of research into candy-making in the ’20s in Chicago. The candy industry in Chicago was a big deal, and the stuff in the story is pretty accurate as far as that goes, the female workers, the kinds of machinery, although also, given that it’s a story about a candy factory, I went Wonka on the list of things Chet’s father brings in from his travels. Only a little, though—most things in this story are things you might find in the real world. Besides, of course, the talking, tasty mummy. I like writing worlds that are tilted, but almost possible. And as noted, I did a lot of research into labels and language from candy bars of that moment—I altered the original Bit-O-Honey blurb a bit, but they were all written in that great, breathless style. I knew the story was going to end with another product, ink made of mummy, so I did some research into that, and found a terrific tiny story in a 1964 issue of Time Magazine about the last bottle of Mummy Brown—a marketing director from the paint company basically talks woefully about how mummies are now in short supply, and announces that the ink has been discontinued (if you’re hunting for it these days, look for Caput Mortuum, or dead head, seriously—brownish purple ink, minus the mummy bits). Edward Burne-Jones apparently really did bury a bottle of Mummy Brown in his garden, horrified to discover he’d been painting with the dead. So . . . candy making, art history, ink recipes, advertising, confectionary around the world . . . this was pretty research-heavy, but it was all totally fun research. Come on, I got to wander the blogs of people obsessed with eating deadstock candies. Oh, for an Old King Tut bar!

What’s the appeal of speculative fiction for you? Why use a fantastic setting to tell this story?

Talking mummy. The appeal of the speculative in this case is definitely all about that talking mummy. I suppose I could have told a similar story from a non-speculative angle—the manager of a candy factory takes delivery of a mellified mummy meant as an ingredient for a candy bar, and has a moral dilemma regarding cannibalism—but I’m more inclined toward weirder narratives, with assortments of elements. This story ended up one part love story, one part mummy’s curse, one part alt-history of the 20th century, one part hijinks, one part tragedy . . . maybe a few more parts labeled “Other.” There is, of course, a great tradition of talking mummy stories, particularly set in the 1920s, and I wanted to play with that kind of silent film and early talkie-era milieu. I was interested in the notion of a mummy that is cursed, but is a bit shoulder-shruggy about the whole thing. It’s not the mummy’s fault. It has desires of its own. Why should it not get what it wants? (Related: the terrific Josh Ritter video “The Curse.”)

Love, and often the darker aspects of love, is a common theme in your writing. What would you like an ideal reader to take away from this story?

I’m actually a bit puzzled at my recent slew of love stories—everything I’ve published at Lightspeed is a love story, and they’re all different kinds. But, fuck it, I’m completely interested in dramatic actions, in people doing crazy things, and a lot of the time? People do those things for love. In this case, additional to all the above things, I was interested in writing an Earth-based, human-based love story in which one of the characters is of a gender we never actually learn, and in which that character’s gender really doesn’t matter. The other characters perceive the mummy as basically whatever they desire: Chet sees the mummy as one gender, and Miss Klein sees the mummy as another, but to my mind, the mummy doesn’t see itself as gendered at all, and nothing about the mummy’s gender is ultimately relevant to its future. I’ve been interested in that lately, for obvious reasons—politically, I’ve been getting increasingly furious about acts of violence, bias, and harassment committed due prejudices about the victim’s gender. Since I’m apparently a politically wrathful romantic, I wanted there to be real love here, too, between Miss Klein and the mummy. So, it’s hot. Real love is often hot.

As for the cannibalism, sometimes real love is also about eating one another, what can I say? I wanted to portray that in a different way than we usually see it: It’s an act of love here, which has various repercussions, both world-altering and life-altering. In lots of ways, this is a tender story, particularly by the time we get to the end. But hey, people spontaneously combust as well, so maybe my notion of tender is, as ever, skewed.

You’ve got an amazing range of writing experience, including novels, short stories, editing, as a memoirist, and as a playwright. Do you have a preference for working in any particular form? Outside of the fact that novels require more time, do you take a different approach to writing novels as opposed to short stories?

I like writing everything—hence credits all over the place. I especially like to try things I haven’t tried before, so writing in different genres and styles is appealing. That’s part of what I love about writing short stories: they take less commitment, but give a lot of satisfaction. An entire novel set in the “Bit-U-Men” world, for example, would be a lot of style and worldbuilding commitment, though honestly, now that I’m thinking of it, it’d be fun to write, and the structure lends itself to that. At some point, this might be fun to expand. I’d kind of love to spend a little more time with those characters, over the decades. Do I have time in my schedule right now? No, alas. So, a short story it is.

Generally, short stories are pleasing because I can approach them as a weekend trip to an invented island: Pack your bikini and sunglasses, you don’t need the rest of the closet. Novels are a full household move to an invented country, boxes and bags and trucks full of tools, yowling cat in the passenger seat. Editing, in contrast, is a visit to someone else’s country, or someone else’s island. It’s this gorgeous tourist experience, but the kind of tourist experience where you’re helping the local build a house.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about “Bit-U-Men”? What’s next for you?

Nothing more on “Bit-U-Men” that I can think of, beyond this link to a 1960s Bit-O-Honey TV beach-party commercial referenced in the story, in which a bunch of bikini clad girls and a guitar-playing boy are excited to an unlikely level by honey toffee. I watched it a lot as I was writing this. I think I may still have research fever, because I also happen to know about, though sadly have never seen, a psychedelic Bit-O-Honey commercial from the early ’70s, done by the noted Pop Art animator Fred Mogubgub, (if only I could have smashed that name into this story) which apparently gave people seizures, and got pulled from TV. I hunted that ad all over the internet, but it seems to be nowhere. If anyone can find it, tell me.

As for upcoming . . . an assortment. I just sold a young adult pirates-and-skyships novel to HarperCollins, and Kat Howard and I finished work a few weeks ago on a novella for Subterranean Press, which is horror, horseshoes, a dab of Cupid & Psyche, plus some serious monster, set in the contemporary American West. I think that’ll be out as a book in 2014. There are two new forms for you. Here’s a third, because I can’t keep to two things: I just started working with a co-writer on a comic book, and it is going to kill. I had an out-of-nowhere idea a few months ago that caused us both to scream, and it’s only gotten better since he came on. Follow me on Twitter, and you’ll see updates.

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeilKevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.