How did this story start for you? Was there anything unexpected that developed in writing “Estella Saves the Village”?
Ellen Datlow and Terri Winding contacted me about an anthology they were editing to be called Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells. They were looking for stories that focused on the Victorian era, but with fantastical elements. At the time, I was finishing a Ph.D. in English literature that also focused on the Victorian era — I was becoming what academics call a Victorianist — so I thought it was the perfect project for me. The story itself came from an idea I’d had a long time ago, based on the Ursula Le Guin story “The Pathways of Desire,” in which an alternative world, a planet, is created by the imagination of an adolescent boy. Well then, why not an older female professor? Victorian literature tends toward the tragic — you can’t read Thomas Hardy and George Eliot without getting depressed. I’d often wondered whether, with a little common sense and willingness to break out of social roles, nineteenth-century characters like Tess of the D’Urbervilles could have had happy endings. And I sympathized with the villainized, like Bertha Rochester. I thought even Sherlock Holmes deserved human happiness. So I created a professor who had imaged her own reality, given her favorite characters happier lives. But what happens when that reality begins to break down? To what extent can we create our own realities? How much power do we have, how much responsibility can we take on? Those were the questions I wanted to answer. And I wanted to write about Estella — I don’t think Charles Dickens is at all fair to her.
The first section does a fantastic job of hooking us in. I’m a big fan of the well crafted opening since reading the opening line in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when I was wee. Beginnings can promise the reader a lot! What’s your favourite opening line or scene?
Thank you! I actually study openings with my writing students. Some of my favorites are the first few paragraphs of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods also opens masterfully. Those are all very different openings, but they all draw you into the stories and tell you so much about what sorts of stories they’re going to be. You’re immediately engaged. And one of the best first lines is still William Gibson’s, from Neuromancer. I’m currently reading Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murder, which has a brilliant opening.
Estella’s power really gives the old metaphor of a story “taking a life of it’s own” a whole new level of sophistication. I really got the message through this story that not only do stories sustain us, but they evolve and give us new ways to cope with challenges. What stories sustain you? Do you go back to particular stories in times of crisis?
Yes, absolutely. I often go back to the stories I read as a child: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and other Narnia books, the children’s books of Louisa May Alcott, The Wind in the Willows. I also like the comfort of a good murder mystery by Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Edith Wharton and Jane Austen are particular favorites, and I’m currently rereading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
What’s next for you?
In 2016 I have several short stories coming out, and in the summer of 2017 my first novel will be published by Saga Press. It’s part of a two-book series, with the second book expected out in 2018. Those books are based on a novelette of mine called “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” first published on Strange Horizons and reprinted in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. So the next thing for me is writing that second book! And of course I’ll be working on short stories and poetry as well . . .
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