“And The Winners Will Be Swept Out To Sea” is filled with poignant, lonely, lovely images. What inspired you to set this tale to the page?
I ran across a court case from the 1640s, a man who got put to death for consorting with a water nymph. He insisted it had really happened, and he was executed. He could’ve just said it never occurred. That makes me think that it was about love, not just sex. There’s something really moving in the notion, in my opinion, of this guy dying for a woman everyone said was perhaps imaginary. I may write some more about it, actually, even though it ended up a little bit in here. So, this story? Came out of that kernel. And then it grew. I had a dream in which I ran into John Clute, of all people, and he was insisting that I should go to this Burning Man crossed with Venice Biennale festival called End Beach, which is exactly as described in the story. In the dream, I was furious, because John was insisting that sacrifice was actually winning, that I should go right down to End Beach and lay down my treasures, and that if I won, I’d get swept out to sea and eaten. As the prize. I was like, WHY? WHY WOULD I DO THAT, JOHN? HOW IS THAT WINNING? And John, repository of centuries of science fiction and fantasy stories that he is, insisted that there was a long history of such things. There was a second part involving me being chained to a rock, waiting for a monster to come get me. Thank you, Greek myths. I woke up from the dream, and wrote the story in about five frenzied hours, trying to answer the question of how being swept away might be a win.
I write a lot about love, of course, and it’s always about how damn complicated it is, whether between the parties in love, or between them and the world. I’m particularly interested in love between flawed equals. The main character in this story is hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old, and she’s been alone for much of that time, never meeting her match. The story was an exploration of that theme, the possibility of constricting oneself to loneliness for too long, and then being wrested from it by impossible love. The complications of love between two people who both fundamentally require solitude in order to operate, and who both are wildly flawed with messy histories? Yeah, I’ve been there.
Depression and its cousin fear play a major part in the story, both for the main character’s lover and her perceptions of events. Was it a challenge to address the concept in such a setting?
Yep. This one was actually agony to write, which is why I had to write it so quickly. I put everything I know about loving someone who is deep in depression into it, and everything I know about terror of abandonment, too. Dark depression is almost a supernatural occurrence. The person experiencing it is living in an alternate reality, and it’s a terrible one. The main character has already lost a lot, and has spent years protecting herself from losing more. When she meets her lover, she lets her guard down. And then . . . this isn’t a happy ever after story, though I’d say it’s not a misery ever after either. It’s more complicated than that by the end. I’m also always interested in exploring fantastical elements in totally prosaic settings. There’s something really moving to me in extraordinary yet earthbound magic, the magic of the main character slipping down the drain and into the sewers, for example, to explore the city below, coming back up and getting straight back into the shower with her cup of tea. In this case, the story takes place in our known world, in hotels, in waterbeds, in a sushi restaurant, at a hippie festival, in London, in New York, but there are monsters in it, alongside and underneath everything else, and the monsters feel the pain we normally associate with humans. One of them feels that her nature is what it is, and she doesn’t resist it. The other tries to resist, and is made miserable by resisting.
Water is often associated with the feminine in myths and legends, and you portray a vivid, classically elemental character. Becoming one with the rain is no more strange to her than snuggling on the couch. If you were to revisit this world, how would you portray the elements of fire, earth, and air? Would they also be feminine, or would you explore a more masculine perspective with some of them?
I don’t think too much about gender when it comes to stuff like this. I’m all over the map when it comes to narrator’s gender identity, and I feel as comfortable writing from a male perspective as a female one, as long as I’m getting the character down. I think it’s all precise character, not so much any kind of gendered “nature.” Maybe early reading of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando colored my feelings here. I’ve done a female air elemental before — she’s the West Wind’s daughter, in Queen of Kings, and she’s married to a male witch from a tribe that wars with the wind, but she’s the real warrior in the duo. In the case of “And The Winners . . . ,” the female narrator is the elemental because it means she can merge with something larger than herself, very easily. She’s capable of casually becoming one with someone else’s tears, and of dividing herself into raindrops, and becoming an entire sea. I wanted her to have that capacity, because I wanted her to have the perspective that comes from that. She’s always waiting for things to change, because they always do, but she loves someone who sees the world as much more fixed. She can’t understand this aspect of him at all. You can love someone and not understand them. It happens all the time. She keeps trying to advise him based on her own literal fluidity, but he’s not fluid. I could easily see a world in which I reversed all this, and made the character (here depicted as male) female. The problems would be the same, at least in this story. Her problems aren’t the problems of a human woman in human society. They’re something else, problems of nature and character.
In both memoir and fiction, you explore themes such as love, the darker side of passion, pain, and what it means to be a woman, all intricate, detailed subjects. As a writer, what is one topic you’ve always wanted to tackle but haven’t yet?
EEEE. Wow, I don’t know! I guess I see the world in little flashing images, which spur stories that sometimes orbit certain themes, not because I plan them that way due to wanting to tackle specific topics. I do tend to like the challenge of new styles, though, so I often shift genres and play with tropes snagged from elsewhere. Lately I’ve been playing with the Great American Mid-Century Literary Novel tropes of the suburb, both stylistically and in terms of plot. That’s fun, and it’s something I never felt a draw to write about before. I’m also very interested in writing about class politics, so that has some overlap. I like to smash a genre lens onto a known literary structure, if that makes sense, and I’m feeling quite interested in that dated notion of the Problem Novel, a big sprawling epic, seen through a filter wherein fantastical things might happen. I guess that’s a kind of Magical Realist take, huh? Maybe that’s a thing I’m inclined to work at these days, but a very American version of it. I came up reading Sam Shepard alongside John Cheever and Toni Morrison, and I’m interested always in pressing my varied reading history together into my own attempt at an America. That’s the goal, ultimately, huge and crazy as it is. Lack of ambition has never been my problem. Lack of execution on the other hand? Lack of time? I want a thousand years!
What projects are currently in the works? What can readers expect next from Maria Dahvana Headley?
My young adult novel debut, Magonia, is out at the end of April from HarperCollins. Sky skips, pirates, and a broken-hearted girl trying to decide between worlds. Love between opposites in that story, too. I’m finishing up the sequel to that as I write this. Since this story came partially from a dream, I’ll say I’m working on a novella too, which comes from a dream I had while rooming with Sofia Samatar at World Fantasy last year. Explorers and a fairy tale mashed up into a period story I can’t wait to get out into the world, though it might be a little while. Lots of other secret projects, as usual. I just keep shuffling things over from the secret pile to the shouting pile!
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