The opening scene of “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” pulls no punches and I was immediately and gloriously drawn into the narrative. Tell us something of what inspired this story.
I spent a large chunk of my childhood in Gainesville, Florida, where the local fauna are as much a part of your property as the front door. We had gators in our yard after it rained, an armadillo living under the porch, and a long pile of rocks against one side of the house that sheltered a huge snake. Every so often, we’d find one of its shed skins wedged between the rocks. Because I never laid eyes on it, and because its skins told us that it was quite big, it took on a mythic status in my mind. My mother guessed that it might be an indigo snake.
I’d known for a long time that I wanted to write about that particular snake, and that I wanted to tilt the idea of snakes as utterly sinister beings. I love snakes—I think they’re beautiful! I also wanted to work on a Faustian bargain story that wasn’t a repeat of what’s come before.
This story encompasses a range of nuanced elements: LGBTQIA+ themes, addiction, Christian origin stories, three-fold goddess imagery, feminism, self-awareness and forgiveness, the delicate dance of truth and perspective. Did you initially intend to weave so many elements together or did the imagery fall into place as the story came to fruition?
I knew I wanted queer representation, addiction, snakes, and deals at the outset. But I had no idea how (or if) these elements would gel. I tend to plan my stories around one or two snapshots that keep cropping up in my head. In this case, the snapshots were the snake-in-the-rocks that I remembered from Florida, and the image of a snake and a woman sleeping together, their relationship strong but entirely nonsexual. I initially tried to avoid referencing religion, but those connotations ended up being harder to dodge than to include and reinterpret. So, there were a lot of unexpected elements that slithered in, by the end.
One thing I admired about “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” is how you touched on stories and symbols inherent to both western monotheistic religions and more global representations of both pantheistic goddess worship and a reverence for snakes. In particular I loved the passage where the main character lets Drymarchon sleep with her for the first time, almost an expression of the feminine divine. Do you have an interest in religion and myth?
I’m so glad you enjoyed that scene! It’s probably my favorite. I’m super interested in religion and myth, specifically the roles of animals in human stories and the weight that we assign to ritual. But I haven’t studied any of these topics in an official capacity (unless you count being forced to attend Hebrew school as a kid). I love reading about them when I can, and I’d like to broaden the scope of that reading.
The main character’s gambling addiction drives both the internal and external conflict, lending strength to the final scene, the final line. To you, what makes an interesting conflict in a short story?
Oof, tough question. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many of my stories feature characters who are lying to themselves. I think that’s a conflict that reliably pulls me in—someone whose perception clashes with what the reader knows (or comes to realize) is true, and a sense of how the character struggles with that clash.
But honestly, I think any kind of conflict can be made interesting if you’re drawn to the people experiencing it and/or the conceit it exists within. I can get lost in a story about someone trying to choose between fried or scrambled eggs if they have a compelling-enough voice, or if they’re sitting in a compelling-enough diner.
You have a number of short story sales under your belt. What writing projects you would like to tackle in the future?
In the next couple years, I’d like to put together a collection of short stories and start work on a novel. I have some idea of how to go about achieving the first goal, and no idea of how to approach even thinking about the second. But it’s safe to say that both will involve animals and body horror. Probably.
What’s next for Mel Kassel? What can eager readers look forward to in the coming months?
My dream is to help close the imagined gap between speculative and literary fiction—a gap that is already being interrogated by a great many writers and magazines whose work I admire. So, although I don’t have a hyper-specific sneak peek of my own work to offer at the moment, I hope it’s all right if I direct readers to some of my Clarion 2018 buds who are publishing short fiction in that vein: Senaa Ahmad, Ploi Pirapokin, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Audrey R. Hollis, and Daniela Tomova.
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