Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Megan Arkenberg

“The Suicide’s Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition” is a fantastically visual story. How did it start for you?

I honestly don’t remember! It’s as though the concept for this story didn’t exist until the first draft was already written. I do recall that right after I received my liquor license (Oh, the glamorous day jobs of the American college student!) I began compiling a list of names that, for whatever reason, intrigued me when I saw them on the shelf. I’d previously read up on absinthe and its drinking culture during my first burst of passion for Oscar Wilde: Now I was interested in all of its exotic anise-flavored cousins, Sambuca, ouzo, Pernod and the rest. But as to how I decided to situate the fruits of my research in Pandemonium—I don’t have a clue. I must have been reading Milton.

One thing I do remember about the first draft is how reluctant I was to include specific cultural references. In a story about absinthe, the atmosphere has to be fin-de-siècle, but instead of naming Beardsley and Wilde and green ink, I gave these vague hints about café patios and decadent poetry. Of course, that draft didn’t have anything of the texture I wanted. Once I took on a first person narrator and started naming names—putting whatever and whomever I wanted in Hell—the writing became a lot easier, and a lot more vivid.

How was the process different in writing this story from writing “How Many Miles to Babylon?”

Writing “How Many Miles to Babylon?” was a very straight-forward process. I knew my characters and my setting from the start, and the plot emerged clearly as I added the details—the darkness, the radio messages, the narrator’s step-daughter. Once I’d written the first scene, the story came together in about two weeks.

“The Suicide’s Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition” took much longer to draft—a year and a half, maybe two years. The first version of the story was actually the Guide itself, with directions for the three methods and short descriptions of Pandemonium, the café, the fallen angels. I sent it out to two or three places and collected some well-deserved rejections. There wasn’t enough emotional payoff. But I had other stories on my plate at the time—“Lessons from a Clockwork Queen” among them—so I set the piece aside.

I came back to it twice, once to give Pandemonium more texture and to add some second-person narrative that was separate from the Guide excerpts, and a second time to retell the whole thing through a first-person narrator. That was how I came to include the story of the best friend and the Suicide as an active character. Once I wrote a draft in first person, I couldn’t believe I’d attempted to write the story any other way! At the very least, it gave me new places in Pandemonium to explore.

Your aesthetic in this story seems to have a sort of awfulness as well as beauty. What made you choose this?

The pairing of the beautiful and the grotesque suits the fin-de-siècle and absinthe-centered culture of Pandemonium—I’m thinking of Gustave Moreau and the symbolists, Huysmans and À rebours, Wilde and Salome, and certain chapters of Dorian Gray. Beauty, terror, and the sublime are also a huge part of the appeal of fallen angels, from Milton to Doré. Pandemonium had to combine the richness and luxury of the Aesthetic movement with the brimstone and gore and decay of Hell. Hopefully, readers find the result as disturbingly appealing as I do!

It seems that the main source of torment for the souls is watching the angels fall. Is there more you could say about that?

It’s the same terror that permeates the worst kind of nightmare: knowing that something horrible is about to happen to someone but not being able to stop it. And those nightmares themselves are a lot like living with a person suffering a severe mental illness—the unpredictability, the helplessness, the guilt. So watching the angels fall has a specific awfulness for the narrator. It forces her to relive the worst experience of her life—the friend’s paranoia and suicide—repeatedly, indefinitely.

What’s next for you?

My writing output this year has been abysmal. I’ve raised starting stories I can’t finish to an art form. Fortunately, I’ve had short stories accepted for the erotic fantasy anthology Thrones of Desire (a new genre for me!) and Dagan Books’ Bibliotheca Fantasatica, and poems upcoming in Strange Horizons and Asimov’s. For my works-in-progress, I’m reading up on exorcism, Aztec mythology, and zombies. I’ve also started the second draft of a story about wine and Martian agriculture—putting that liquor research to work once again!

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Robyn Lupo

Robyn Lupo lives in Southwestern Ontario with her not-that-kind-of-doctor partner and three cats. She enjoys tiny things, and has wrangled flash for Women Destroy Science Fiction! as well as selected poetry for Queers Destroy Horror! She aspires to one day write many things.