“A Bird, a Song, a Revolution” took my breath away, a beautiful story of life, transformation, and the magic of curiosity and wonder. What was the inspiration behind the tale?
Thank you so, so much! So, the entire reason I originally started writing fiction in the first place was due to my background in history and archaeology, and I’ve been wanting to write a piece following a cultural artifact over decades or centuries for ages. I’ve also been wanting to write a piece specifically about how art can low-key inspire resistance and rebellion for a while (not that that isn’t an omnipresent theme in most of my recent work). As usual, the two ideas had a head-on collision in my head and hey voilà, a story!
I adored both Whistlecage and the nameless girl, how the crone played the end of one world to save another, how the girl unknowingly played the destruction of one world and the birth of another. The nature of this story lends itself to thoughts of the birth/death cycle, of reincarnation versus dissimilar lives bound by a slender bit of bone. Was there a larger idea you hoped to explore with this story?
I’m constantly thinking about the way art influences and moves us to action, and how those actions can change the world. Not all resistance is violent or visible. Not all art is designed to intentionally create a change, but you can never predict what’s going to stick a match to someone’s fuse, or how long that art will continue to work its magic. I think it’s important to create things regardless of whether or not you think it’s going to appeal to a wider audience, because you are the only one capable of expressing the thoughts inside your head. You’re not making art for everyone. You’re making it for other weirdos like you, so they can be inspired to create things for their generation of weirdos, and so on, and so on. Who knows who or what it may inspire?
Another aspect of the story that I appreciated was the gentle flow of the narrative voice and the very meta style of third-person storytelling blended with the much more intimate point-of-view. When writing, do you intentionally set out for a specific tone or do you play with the narrative voice, allowing it to develop as the story progresses?
With me, tone/voice generally comes first and everything else falls in line behind. The way a character sees and experiences their world is necessarily going to influence how they express themselves and what decisions they make along the way (and on a worldbuilding level, what details they choose to notice or mention), so if you start there, a lot of questions get answered before they ever pop up and the story shapes itself along those lines.
Music is subversion and inspiration, entertainment and introspection. Whistlecage hungers for the music all around her, while the young girl views the flute first as a means to ease her hunger and then as a curiosity. Through the ages, governments and religions have sought to condemn or celebrate music as a way to control the populace. What sort of influence has music had on your life? Do you have any preferred styles of music or favorite artists?
Music has had a tremendous influence on me for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of being completely fascinated with the film scores of James Horner, Basil Poledouris, John Williams, and Alan Silvestri, how integral they were to setting the emotional tones of the movies they were in. I was never a fan of the ones where characters would burst into song, but I was all about the swell of the London Symphony Orchestra. I was a weird kid, what can I say? The only problem was, I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s in a very rural area without a record store or access to actual copies of this music. The best I could do was watch the movies over and over until the scores were more or less memorized.
As I got older and started delving into more popular music, that was still a problem. In those days you heard about bands through word of mouth, through older siblings or whatever MTV or the radio chose to play. You didn’t have the Internet, or YouTube, or a million different streaming services to turn you on to new bands. You got what you got and that was that.
Which leads me, at last, to Nirvana.
I still love Nirvana’s music. I loved them when I was sixteen and had never heard anything like what they were doing before, and I love them now, when they are (God help us) certified Classic Rock. The primary thing Kurt Cobain did for me, though—and for a lot of other kids stuck in rural dead-end backwater towns—was this: He gave us a great big ringful of keys to other music beyond the stuff they were playing on the local rock stations. He namedropped his own friends and influences endlessly. The Pixies, the Wipers, Flipper, Shonen Knife, Big Black, Bikini Kill, Meat Puppets, the Butthole Surfers, the Buzzcocks, the Vaselines, on and on and on. If you have a name, you have something you can search for the next time you’re within proximity of a record store. And once you start digging into, say, the Buzzcocks, you find out that Howard Devoto was also a founding member of Magazine. You learn that Steve Albini, in addition to producing In Utero and Surfer Rosa, also did amazing work on any number of Jesus Lizard records. Cobain essentially threw down a ladder rope for every other kid from the ass-end of nowhere who came after him, and whatever else you think of the dude, that is such a tremendous kindness. People growing up in the age of the Internet won’t understand this, but trust me.
Nowadays my tastes are all over the map. Still love any and all of the above named bands, plus a million others too numerous to be named. Bowie is obviously a huge influence, both music-wise and in his dedication to evolving his art over the decades. Radiohead, Dirty Three, Queen, Neko Case, Nick Cave, scratchy Alan Lomax field recordings, Django Reinhardt, Othar Turner, Tom Waits, Nobuo Uematsu, Yoko Kanno, Syd Barrett—if it’s interesting and has heart, I’m fuckin’ there. I like the Beatles and the Stones, and ain’t nobody can stop me.
. . . I have a lot of feelings about music, yeah.
Curious minds want to know. What does your writing process look like? Does it differ depending on the length of a project?
Most of the time it goes like this: I get a central image or idea in my head and I keep on writing out from it until the story is told to my satisfaction. I am not an outliner or a planner. I am most comfortable letting the plot develop organically. Occasionally when I’m writing for an anthology and the piece is only supposed to be 8,000 words and it decides it wants to be a 17,000-word novelette, that’s a problem, at which point I have to figure out if it can be scaled back and still effectively tell the story I want to tell.
It’s interesting how these things develop, though. When I initially began writing, I felt lucky if I could write a story topping out at four or five thousand words. These days I’m hard-pressed to keep anything under ten. I’m hoping that’ll help as I continue throwing myself at finishing a novel, which uses entirely different creative muscles than short fiction. You have to unlearn some things and learn others completely from scratch. All novelists are heroes to me at this point because it is not easy. I generally write one very clean draft and then I’m done. You can’t really do that with a novel, turns out! You have to let it suck! I’m not good at letting something suck! But I think I’m figuring it out. We’ll see, at any rate.
You are a delightful storyteller. What can readers look forward to in the second half of 2019?
And you are a delightful interviewer, bless you! The second half of 2019 may be a bit quiet on the short fiction front as I continue trying to finish a novel draft before the end of the year. I’ve got a couple of short pieces in upcoming anthologies and I may find time to whip something out if the right cocktail of inspiration and time show up at my table, but otherwise think good, novelly thoughts for me as the year draws to a terrifyingly swift close.
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