The language in this is gorgeous! How many unusual words came straight from your rapacious mind and how much did you hunt down for this story? Do you have a list of fantastic words you want to use in a story someday?
It’s hard to say what came from my mind per se, but a lot of the Victorian slang—especially the sexual slang—came from Internet sources. I did, indeed, make a list of the words I really liked, but I couldn’t fit them all in. Some just didn’t fit the sections I was writing, and others weren’t really appropriate to the story at all, especially the ones about women. So I ended up copying the words I couldn’t use and putting them in another story, which was published a few years ago in PANK Magazine.
To begin at the beginning is my favorite opening to any story, ever since I heard it in Under Milk Wood. How has Dylan Thomas influenced you? When did you discover his work?
Actually, it’s in Alice in Wonderland! Well, actually in Through the Looking Glass. The White Knight tells Alice to begin at the beginning.
What draws you to Alice in Wonderland?
It’s one of my father’s favorite books (along with The Wizard of Oz), so it was always present for me growing up. There’s even a huge print showing some of the original illustrations in my parents’ dining room. When I started working on the story, he gave me his worn, annotated copy that’s about as old as he is.
As a kid, I always loved collecting different versions of the same stories. Considering all the retellings I write, I guess I never got over it. We had VHS copies of various productions of Alice in Wonderland, which I’d watch over and over. There was a Masterpiece Theater recording of a Broadway production which had Nathan Lane in it, and a couple of children’s productions which I called Alice Blue Dress and Alice Orange Dress. One of them had Carol Channing in it. I had the Disney version, too, but I wasn’t as attached to it, except for the sequence where she finds weird Wonderland animals.
I like the total, delusional sense of Alice in Wonderland. I know that some of it reads differently if you look at it as political satire, but if you take it out of that context and just look at the odd images, it’s a very disconcerting experience in the best possible way. I also love that the writing is so witty. I went back to read The Wizard of Oz a couple of years ago, and while it’s still got a lot going for it, there’s also a lot of cute or sentimental moments where Dorothy seems to basically be a cipher for Girl. Alice in Wonderland’s not like that; the cleverness of the prose keeps it reading as sharp and savvy.
What is it about hats? What is your favorite hat?
The first thing this question makes me think of is Elaine Stritch growling her line in “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Does anybody still wear a hat?”
I like old, grand hats, with sweeping brims and sort of asymmetrical, elegantly composed accessories. Like, Ascot hats. Give me my pick of every hat from every Ascot scene of every production of My Fair Lady ever made and I would be quite happy.
My current favorite hat in our house is a bigger, red version of this terrifying Angler Fish: bit.ly/sm_angler_fish.
The number of authors you’ve quoted and referenced is so impressive. What was it like searching for all those quotes and what was the most interesting person you discovered while looking for quotes?
It’s been a few years since I did this, but if I remember correctly—I searched for the quotes by key words. For the Hatter and Hare’s conversations, I picked interesting quotes from the right time frame and put them in a document and then sort of poked them to see how they might go together, and in what orders, and what kinds of meanings they might create. When there were holes (there were often holes), I’d go back and find more quotes by key word, often a different key word.
Some of the passages about time, for instance, I did by dipping into Google searches and picking up common mentions. From that, you get a sense of what images people associate with time, how they think about it, what they most often say. You can build from that, curating which ones you include, placing them together to create certain kinds of tension, and stuff like that.
These are both poetry-writing techniques which I’ve found useful for prose. They’re interesting exercises; for me, at least, they stimulate a part of my brain that composing fiction from a raw page doesn’t. There’s an intellectual puzzle-piece part of it, and this stimulating artistic sense of discovering and unearthing and clarifying. It can be a little like making a mosaic.
This story feels so layered and employs a range of interesting devices. What was your process writing it?
I often start stories with an idea in mind, but this time I didn’t really. My friend Erin Cashier told me that she was planning to write a story to submit to an anthology of erotic Alice in Wonderland stories, and I was in a weird mood, so I tapped out some prose. My freewriting only got me a scenelet or two, and it wasn’t really appropriate for an erotica anthology, but I liked the way the prose sounded, so I tucked it away.
Over several years, I built on that, piece by piece. The story didn’t develop in a very linear way at all. It felt like a very different headspace than my normal writing one—a lot of playing, of shuffling, of not knowing what would happen next. I spent a lot of time chasing things, tidbits of humor, which made the process of writing pleasant, though not predictable.
A surprising amount of the text was shaped by almost coincidental factors. For instance, I’d sit down and write a parody of one of the poems from the original, and however it turned out, I’d steer the conversation there. When I was looking for quotes, what I found often shaped the turns of the conversation—this quote could stack with this one and that one—and it steered the motion of the narrative. (Of course, I went back to revise everything, so what were initially almost arbitrary things became inherent to the story.)
I don’t know if I could set out to write another story like this one, because the process was so idiosyncratic. But I really loved the way it turned out, and hopefully some of your readers will, too.
Do you have any projects you’d like to tell us about? What next?
At the moment, I’m working on a retelling of Galatea called “Love Is Never Still” which should be out in 2016.
Once that’s finished, I’m planning to create a novel composed of thematically linked stories (a bit like China Mountain Zhang) which are—you’ll never guess—retellings! In this case, retellings of fairy tales through the lens of American Civil Rights history. It’s an ambitious project. It works in my head; I hope I can get it to work on the page.
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