I love the way whimsy intertwines with painful reality in this story—it made me think of Fern Gully at times, and folk tales (the Brothers Grimm kind, not Disney) at others. What sources of inspiration went into it?
Thanks so much for saying so, and for the excuse to go back and watch Fern Gully! Gosh, what a movie. Fairy tales (the darker and more troubling, the better, I’m afraid) are always creeping in from the edges when I write. I owe a great deal to the folks who write (or write on) fairy tales and fairy tale retellings: Angela Carter, absolutely, and also Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Helen Oyeyemi, Kate Bernheimer. I so dearly admire writing that keeps some sort of lightness or whimsy about it—in fairy tales, these are fabulist settings, mind-bending setups, the turns of phrase for which antique genres, like the fairy tale, often leave extra space—but that don’t rely on that whimsy in order to carry the story.
For me, that’s the deeper storytelling work: making honest attempts to reflect messy human emotions in complicated social, cultural, and environmental contexts. A charming concept, a lovely turn of phrase, a funny line: As far as I see it, none of these matter if they’re not tethered to something recognizable and human. In other words, whimsy isn’t story.
It’s hard not to think about climate change as you read this. What are your thoughts on wrestling with that particular looming specter in speculative fiction?
I love speculative fiction for how much it can make us recognize the real, even if we’re in alternate dimensions or in fables where bears can talk. We’re not going to die of bugs. Probably. But I wonder how the veneer of fiction (that it’s happening in not quite the same way, that it’s happening to characters with whom we can empathize, who are nonetheless not quite us) sucks us into familiar situations before we realize where we’ve gone. The climate crisis is a particularly well-fit subject for speculative fiction because of its looming, uncertain future—we can see it on the horizon, even if we’re foggy on some details—and that foggy, terrifying space allows a lot of imaginative room. But then we’re back to the balance of whimsy and darkness; look at all this room we have to play with an absolutely horrifying apocalypse, and no one is doing anything about it, and no one is listening to the children who beg us to save them! It’s grim any way you spin it. But speculative fiction is a genre that spins well.
An ongoing theme in the story is how Yasmin remains wilder, more fey, while Ingrid is staid and dare I say it, civilized. Do you think this makes Ingrid better or worse equipped to cope with the events of the story?
Big subject. I’d been considering the girls in terms of maturity, and how Yasmin’s immaturity shows itself, often, as wildness—but like lots of folks who still have some child left in them, that wildness lets her hold onto the forest after Ingrid has had to let go of it. Ingrid is the one who’s vigilant about their safety, about feeding them, about negotiating the fine details of their lives. It’s no fun being the one equipped to take all the responsibility, and it means that the worst parts of the city (its economies, its predators) are the parts to which Ingrid needs particularly keen sensitivity. In other words, their displacement is more traumatic for Ingrid because of how she needs to be sensitive to it. Yasmin’s childishness lets more of the city roll off her back.
I suppose this is again a matter of what speculative fiction can mirror, including displacement and disenfranchisement. Ingrid’s staid disposition forces her to see more clearly what the city is doing to them, and how the apocalypse is coming. I don’t know who I would rather be, by the end: someone who knows they can’t do anything, or someone who wrongly still hopes they can.
Or, to put it another way—can it be proof of maturity (yes) to choose optimism, and to remain ill-fit for surroundings that never intended to accommodate you?
The ending left me bereft—I was so hoping for a glimmer of magic to emerge, or to see the sisters’ fate through to the end. What were the thoughts behind ending it at that point?
I hear folks expressing concern that in fiction about the environment, despairing endings encourage complacency. So the thinking goes, these endings don’t allow us to imagine taking action. And I do understand that concern. But I think fiction also offers us room to grieve, and this story was, for me, as much about grief as anything else: grief in abandoning childhood, grief in leaving—or being made to leave—our beloved homes, grief in watching the world change around us.
But I hope there’s hope in here, too. Relationships, to me, are inherently hopeful: here are friends sticking together, here are sisters weathering tough times and still, every day, choosing each other. My stories don’t always end on these kind of bleak notes! The conversation comes down to what kind of writing I want to put into the world, and who I want to be as its writer: Am I someone who devastates, or someone who uplifts? The answer, it turns out, is both. I’d imagine that’s true for most of us.
What’s next for you? Any cool upcoming things you’d like to share with us?
I’ve just finished revising a story collection on fairy tales and apocalypses (and “Sleeping Girls” may just close the book? Meaning, yes, “Sleeping Girls” closes the book). And a final handful of those stories will appear next year in jazzy venues!
I’m also working on two novels, one for grown-ups and one for kids. Both land on some imaginary whimsy-dark spectrum: The Good Place and The Addams Family. But my goodness, novels are hard. Right now, both have their papery hands on my throat. Hopefully we’ll all come to an understanding soon.
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