Your work is often a symphony for the senses, and “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” is no exception. From “skin and hair are white like the feathers of a white egret” to pink eyes, from the stink of sulfur to the songs of frogs and gators, the story is filled with the wonders and magic of the swampland. What do you feel is the appeal of such sensory impressions that enhance the reading experience?
I’m a great believer in Real Fantasy. If I’m expecting a reader to follow me into the dark woods of folklore, dream, and metaphor, I figure I’d better leave them a trail of good, hard, palpable pebbles to follow, and maybe some interesting smells, a beckoning sound or two, and some nice gingerbread to eat on the way (with details adjusted for regional variation). In other words, I think if the world of the story is real enough, readers are much more likely to accept egret girls and loups-garoux and haunted fiddles as real, too.
What struck me most about this story is your use of dialect both as a narrative tool and as a means of expressing character. Writers often tread a fine line between cultural appropriation/insult and respect of cultural identity when dipping their toes into the waters of various dialects. How do you address the use of language as a major component in a story?
I’d argue that language is always a major component in a story, but then, I’m a language geek. I write mostly historical fantasy, set in cultures I don’t live in, and I have always chosen to reflect those cultures in the language I use to write about them. For me, adopting a new voice is a way of projecting my imagination beyond my own experience. That said, I know that no matter how much research I do, I can never know what it is like to be Cajun or French or Victorian or male. I can certainly never speak to the experience of a whole culture. What I can do is imagine what it is like to be a foundling surrounded by music and dancing and everyday magic, who draws her images from the world around her and her speech patterns from French. It’s part of her world, and so, for a time, it becomes part of mine—and, I hope, part of my reader’s, too.
“The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” takes components of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” and “The Barrow Man” and brings them together in a rich story all their own. What would you say to younger writers if you could speak with them on the importance of blending stories and genres to create something new?
So “Beauty and the Beast” is the only text there I recognize, and I wasn’t thinking of it when I wrote this. I was thinking of (well, stealing, actually), a traditional ballad called “The Bonny Lass of Anglesey,” which I learned off Martin Carthy’s Crown of Thorn album, about a king who gets a girl to engage in a dance competition with fifteen lords who want to take his gold and his land away (youtube.com/watch?v=4VWkxJXGe5s, if you’re interested). But that’s just the plot. The rest of the story comes from having spent a lot of time in Louisiana, from listening to a lot of Cajun bands and learning to dance the Cajun jitterbug, from having read a lot of fairy tales and read a lot of folklore. In other words, stories come from everything you do and see and read and know and live. So do a lot of all of that. And don’t be afraid to write stuff that’s different from the norm. Oh, okay, be afraid—fear is part of the process: I’m scared stiff half the time that nobody will get what I’m trying to do. Then write it anyway.
Many of your stories explore the obligations of one generation to another, the passing and passage of oral tradition. Some scholars continue to see the written word as both the savior and executioner of the oral tradition. As speculative writers, writers of any genre, really, what can we do to support the continued oral traditions of various cultures so that their stories continue into the future?
We can listen. We can listen to old (and even not so old) people with stories to tell. Doesn’t have to be ancient folklore—urban legends are part of the oral tradition, too. So are things “everybody knows.” Listen to the way people talk, the words they use and the images and metaphors they don’t even know are metaphors, because they’ve always said it that way. If we can’t listen because our stories are set in the past or somewhere we can’t visit, then we can read (thank heaven for the written word, eh?) oral histories and original texts. Memoirs are good. So are novels and letters and songs from the place or period we’re interested in. We can be as honest as we can in passing on what we read, showing the good in the bad parts and the bad in the good parts. We can engage in the richness of culture, not just consume it.
Are there any particular writers who tickle your fancy when it comes to getting your regional fantasy on? Anyone who delights your sensibilities when you want to explore new cultures and ideas?
Oh, lordy. Lots. Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter (although a secondary-world fantasy) is imbued with the folklore (both indigenous and colonial) of New Zealand. Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire combines every element I love, and her prose is music. Andy Duncan can’t put a foot wrong in any of his short stories set in the south—read any you can find. Barbara Hambley’s Benjamin January mysteries, set in Louisiana, are wonderfully evocative. Both Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler have written beautifully about California, as has Elizabeth Bear in Karen Memory. Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper is all about oral history and ghosts in Brooklyn, but not the one you usually see in movies. There are more, but this is enough to be going on with.
What’s next for Delia Sherman? What can readers expect in the coming months?
I’m just about to hand in my next book, a middle-grade novel called The Evil Wizard Smallbone. It should be coming out from Candlewick in Fall 2016. Then I’m plunging into a currently Sekrit Project that I will talk about as soon as I can, I promise. It involves more historical ventriloquism, I can say that. I’m also working on a Victorian clockwork-punk mystery. And there should be a story set in that world coming out from Tor.com in the not-too-distant future.
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