How did this story come about?
This is one of those very rare cases where I can pinpoint exactly where I got a story idea. In November of 2019, I was invited to be a guest at the National Book Festival in Malta. I had never been to Malta before—had never even considered going there—and so I took the opportunity to spend a week exploring and enjoying. (Remember when we could travel? Before the plague? I remember those days.)
In one of the museums, I read about an invasion and siege in 1551, when ships from the Ottoman Empire attacked the island of Gozo and carried away some five or six thousand people, leaving only a tiny number of the island inhabitants behind. I immediately started wondering about those few people left behind, about what you can do when invaders steal away everybody you know, about what’s left when you’re the one who gets away.
This story is not a fictionalized version of that event or a metaphor for that event in any way—being inspired by an event in space and time is not the same thing as writing about that event—but I was definitely compelled by the history to think about different threads of what-if and what-could-be and what-the-hell, and to weave all of those possibilities into something weird and fantastical. Some of the best story ideas come from looking at what happened in history and thinking, “Okay, but what if it was stranger? What does that mean for people? For one person?”
“Salt Warrior” is rich with both familiar and tantalizing cultural clues: barbarians and tricksters, raiders and scavengers, priests and saints, monks and bishops, blessings and prayers, Parable of the Queen of Mists, Latinate names, Caius and the Green King, patriarchy, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. Can you talk about the choices you made in worldbuilding?
A lot of that goes back to the initial inspiration, although obviously it does not stay rooted in the real world. Part of my interest in the vaguely medieval Mediterranean setting was in the presence of a dominating and patriarchal religious system—it’s not quite Fantasy Catholic Church, but it’s also not exactly not that, to be honest, so that’s where the ritualism and structure and Latinate names come from. (The same is not at all true of the mysterious invaders—they are not based in any real world invaders at all and as such bear no similar characteristics. I wanted them to feel wholly Not Of This World, at least as far as what the islanders know about them.) I was aiming for a flavor that evoked the place that had inspired me, even if I wasn’t actually writing about the place that inspired me, if that makes sense.
When we’re writing, the methods we have for establishing how the story feels—the tone and atmosphere of an imaginary world—all come from the words we use and the feelings they evoke. All SF/F is a translation, an exercise in making readers feel the presence of an imaginary world, and that often means drawing in real-world words, descriptions, and reminders that build the setting we want to build.
I also wanted to establish that the world is bigger than it looks from within that system—and connected enough that even people who never leave their homes know about the larger world. There is a tendency in SF/F, I think, to assume that pre-industrial societies means people who are necessarily ignorant and isolated. But that’s never been true in the real world—people have always traveled and traded and warred widely—so there’s no reason for it to be true in imaginary worlds.
Why does the saint arrive in a coffin-shaped box filled with straw and sawdust?
Well, I wrote it that way because it was kinda creepy and also sensible to keep him confined and keep his nice shiny armor from getting scratched. But my writing group immediately decided it meant he was some kind of vampire . . .
So, hey, whatever works! I’m afraid the true, heartfelt reasoning behind that particular choice is “because I thought it was cool.” I’ve learned over the years to let myself go with “because I thought it was cool” more often than not. What’s the point of writing SF/F, after all, if not to give ourselves a chance to play around with all the weird, strange, creepy, inexplicable stuff that catches our fancies? Where’s the fun in not writing about metal-clad blood-drinking boy-saints shipped across oceans in coffins filled with straw?
How has the pandemic impacted your writing and writing life? Any surprises?
I know I’m not alone when I say that writing this year has been a massive, endless, stressful, soul-crushing pain in the ass. I’m not sure any of that counts as a surprise, especially not once it became clear that the US was going to do literally everything wrong that it could do wrong in terms of pandemic response, but it does kinda keep hitting me, over and over again, just how hard it is to focus these days. And I’ve got it easy compared to many people! Writing is my job, I’m fairly healthy and secure, I have no kids to deal with—my situation is so much more stable and manageable than many people’s, and it’s still ridiculously impossible to focus on any kind of creative work.
I’ve adjusted by setting my goals way, way low. Where I used to write 2,000 words a day regularly, I started out earlier this year aiming for 200. Then I aimed for 500. Now I’m aiming for 1,000 and mostly hitting it, but I’ve also had to change how I draft things. I used to be a “write from beginning to end without leaving gaps” kind of writer, because regardless of what happens in the structure and timeline of the story itself, that’s what makes most sense to my brain. But now I find myself leaving huge gaps, not because I don’t know what happens in them, but because I just don’t have the energy to fill them right now.
I am also taking full two-day weekends for the first time in my life. I stop working on Friday afternoon and start on Monday morning, even if I have deadlines. The world is just too exhausting to keep up my previous “work every day for as long as you are enthusiastic” method of writing.
The weekends are good for me, but as for the rest, I hate that the world is the way it is, that none of this had to happen, and I hate that it’s causing so much stress and anxiety for so many creative people. We all still crave the joy that creativity and fiction and imagination bring us, so it seems a little extra mean, to steal that joy away along with so much else. It’s a constant adjustment. I’ve gotten used to that by now, and I’ve figured out how to keep working, but I’m definitely not happy about it.
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
My next novel will be coming out on March 2, 2021 from Berkley. It’s an SF mystery/thriller called Dead Space about a unwilling scientist-turned-detective investigating who killed a friend of hers on a remote asteroid mine. It’s got claustrophobic space stations, a grumpy cyborg who is so over this shit, tragic space disasters, artificial intelligences, reluctant allies, evil corporations, and all of it takes place inside an extremely large chunk of rock.
I think it’s a good time, full of fast-paced twists and turns, and I hope readers agree! It’s available for preorder now wherever books are sold—which means from your local indie bookstore, which definitely needs the business right now.
Spread the word!