Like many writers, I started as a voracious and unsatisfied reader. I’d read a novel and think, “I could do better.” (Did I mention I was in middle school at the time?) I memorized every book my library had about writing science fiction and fantasy and wrote a hundred thousand words or so of a truly abominable novel. (The first in a trilogy, naturally.) In high school, I began writing short stories to experiment with point-of-view and other techniques, and the rest is history.
Can you tell us about how you came up with your story for us this month, “How Many Miles to Babylon?”?
In the June 2011 issue of Mirror Dance, I published Sylvia Adams’ enchanting poem “Babylon,” which opens with the famous nursery rhyme. I couldn’t get it out of my head: Why are they going to Babylon? Why do they need to travel by candlelight? And as M. R. James’ protagonist asks in one of my all-time favorite short stories, “Doesn’t Isaiah say something about night monsters living in the ruins of Babylon?” It took me a while to flesh out the protagonist—I knew from the beginning that I wanted a post-apocalyptic monster hunter—but once I knew about her deceased stepdaughter, the story came together pretty quickly.
Lovecraft wrote “The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” How do you think your story fits with Lovecraft’s test?
Well, the monsters are weird, but they’re certainly not as cosmic or incomprehensible as Cthulhu. They’re at least “human” enough to work a radio and understand (and manipulate) Biblical quotations. But I guess they’re creepy in a different sense—something thoroughly inhuman behaving in almost-human ways. Lovecraft’s dexterous blending of science fiction and horror was certainly an inspiration for this story, but I can’t claim to produce anything near his level of cosmic dread.
There’s an interesting tension between the partnership and marriage of David and the narrator—she speaks for him, but seems uncertain herself. For example, she says “We haven’t seen a town in months. I think the trees consumed them, swallowed them up. I’m not sure how literally I mean that . . .” but her views on David seem to be concrete. What made you choose this?
It’s always difficult to write dysfunctional or semi-functional relationships, because to a certain extent you have to defend how these characters got together in the first place. I really wanted to avoid that kind of question about David and the narrator. She really knows him—they’ve been partners for years. The strain on their relationship comes from being thrust into a completely unknown situation with the monsters and, in the narrator’s case, from not being able to fully empathize with David’s loss of his daughter. She’s completely uncertain about how to understand the Darkening or Salem’s death, but she still knows and loves the man she married.
The narrator tells us that no one talks about what Nimrod hunted, and it seems like at that point in the story, the narrator transforms from being a runner to a hunter. It’s wonderful. Why do you think she chose to fight, and why then?
It’s at the point in the story where she really has nothing more to lose by seeking revenge. Their flashlights are dying, and without the possibility of resupplying in Babylon, they’ll soon be lost in complete darkness. David is profoundly depressed and has begun to distance himself from the narrator. She realizes she needs to do something desperate to save him, and decides to take revenge for Salem’s death.
As I mentioned earlier, I knew from the beginning that this story was going to be about a monster hunter, but it wasn’t until I created David and Salem that I understood her motivations enough to finish the first draft.
Anything you want to tell us about your upcoming work?
A science-fantasy story of mine has been accepted for an upcoming issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and two post-apocalyptic pieces—one story and one poem—will appear in Asimov’s next year. I’ve also got a weird little reworking of the Persephone myth coming up in Shimmer, and poems and short stuff slated for a number of smaller magazines throughout 2012.
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