How did this story come about?
I was approached by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling to contribute to an anthology called The Beastly Bride, which was part of their Mythic Fiction series for young adults. The stories in the anthology were themed around the concept of animal/human marriages or matings. I’d always been fascinated by the Melusine legend, which hinges on the rules of a marriage, and was also thinking a lot about the modern state of marriage, and how definitions of marriage were beginning to change, particularly in regard to same-sex marriage, and particularly the conflict around it in traditional quarters of society like the rural town where Meg and her family reside, which is similar to the town where I was raised.
Until Meg folds her arms under her breasts, we don’t see any clues for our protagonist (and we don’t get her name for quite a while). It’s still refreshing in a world that defaults to certain white male presumptions to not have her gender immediately signposted; being human and female shouldn’t be that unusual. As someone who has been shortlisted for a Tiptree and who writes nuanced female characters, how do you fit gender work into your fiction and how does it effect your creative decisions?
For me, when I write a character, I have to have their voice in my head and hear that clearly before I can proceed with doing any other work in a story. I have to know how that character would tell it before I can actually inhabit them and go forward. So when it comes to gender, I tend to let the character bring in details that signify their gender in wherever the most organic and logical place in the storytelling might be.
For Meg, that first detail you mentioned comes around the end of the first manuscript page, or the beginning of the second, and it’s in reference to how her brother has depicted her in one of his paintings. Since the majority of her story revolves around her relationship to her brother and her brother’s partner, as well as to her family and town, bringing in the first reference to her gender seemed most likely when she begins to describe one of her brother’s paintings of their family, which Meg dislikes because she finds them to be exaggerations of who they are, instead of realistic.
In other stories, my character’s gender might be displayed earlier or later, and in some other fashion other than through a visual detail like the one in this story, but in each case, however their gender is cued, it’s largely based on how that character relates to their own gender and where and when they find it appropriate in their story to realize that aspect of their identity. It’s not for the reader so much as it is for the integrity of the character and how they present themselves, as we all do. I don’t like getting hung up on traditional rules about denoting every aspect of a character’s identity in the first paragraph of a story. Usually when people bring that rule up, it almost always goes back to gender identity, which I find suspicious, because there are so many other aspects of identity that no one decries hasn’t been announced in the first paragraph. Race, age, sexuality, class, etc. Why not all of these other markers of identity in the first paragraph? Instead of making rules for writers about what they need to get into the first paragraph in regard to their main character’s identity, I think we should probably focus on how that character would present themselves.
I enjoyed the way you depicted the complexities of life in a remote and rural community alongside how remote communities can be depicted in the arts. How important was exploring this concept for you, and was this setting inspired by a particular rural community?
This was a hugely important concept for me, both when I wrote the story back in 2007, and it still is nearly a decade later, in 2015. My most recent novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, was just released a few months ago, and it takes place in a small town very much like the one in this story. It’s a setting that, no matter what I name the town (or even when I don’t name it), is inspired by the rural community in which I grew up in northeastern Ohio. Growing up on my family’s small beef farm, among a wide network of family members—grandparents next door, uncle and aunt down the road, a brother and sister-in-law who later built a house next to the one my parents built—was a bit of a throwback in an age when most people were growing up in suburbs and cities, and the agrarian world was growing smaller and smaller, particularly as industrial farming encroached and drove most family farms out of business.
I left that community and went to college, and then traveled the US and lived in other states, and then in other countries like Japan, and the majority of my friendships in my adult life were with other writers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals, which wasn’t really the case in my childhood and adolescence. When I came across depictions of rural life in a lot of stories, I felt like they were either overly reverent and pastoral, in the old tradition, or else incredibly exaggerated in a way that made rural people more into caricatures than real people. I felt like, in the character of Tommy, I had an opportunity to explore the complexities of all of this in one story, though I still think I have lots to say about the subject.
Tommy’s current art series is called The Sons of Melusine. Melusine is a sort of water nymph, often with the body of a mermaid, but able to take human form (and more inclined towards marriage than drowning the impudent). The most common legends revolve around a noble falling in love with a beautiful woman who will only marry him if he will keep her privacy bathing and thus keep her serpentine nature secret. When the promise is inevitably broken and her true form revealed, the Melusine is revealed. This son of Melusine seems to have broken the family tradition by living a life somewhat less closeted (at least with his love). Was the duality of forms and secrets something you wanted to explore in this story? What concepts in the legends of Melusine call to you the most?
In some of the Melusine iterations, it’s mentioned that she has had many children, and after her husband breaks his promise not to watch her bathing, she reveals her serpentine nature and flees, but continues to serve as a protector in various ways to her descendants. I wondered, to some extent, about those briefly mentioned descendants, and what they might look like in modern contexts, and how the rule of privacy in regards to certain aspects of their identities (such as sexuality) might figure into a story that plays with some of the same conventions as the old story does. There’s the son having broken tradition by living out in the open in regard to his sexuality, and there’s also an extension of that briefly mentioned detail from the old stories about how Melusine goes on to protect her descendants in various ways. I was trying, in some ways, to explore the idea of protecting people who are different (which surely Melusine’s children must have been, if we want to bring a lens of realism to the myth of a water nymph who has children with a human), and this theme is mostly realized by Meg, who, despite her problems with her brother, is inherently moved to fight against a number of injustices in the world. I’ve always thought she’d go on to become an amazing social activist.
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to next?
I’m nearly done with forming up a new collection of short stories that are all retellings of either classic genre fiction or else fairy tales or children’s fantasy stories. I’ve always been interested in revisionist stories, and many of mine appear in my first collection, Before and Afterlives, but in recent years I’ve given myself over to that impulse to write an entire collection in that vein, partially because I love to reinvent stories, and partially to explore the various boundaries and forms retellings can take. I’m not sure if the collection’s title will stick, but as I’ve been working on the stories, I’ve been thinking of the collection as a whole as Monstrous Alterations. However, there have been a lot of books with monstrous titles released in recent years, so I might need to reinvent the collection’s title.
I’m also at work on a new novel, which I can’t talk very much about just yet, but it’s set in a small town like “Map of Seventeen” and is replete with ghosts and possessions.
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