How did this story come about?
By the grace of Vylar Kaftan!
I’m a member of the Codex message board (it’s a group for writers who are just pre-SFWA-qualifying, up through professionals), and one of the best parts of it is that every year Vylar Kaftan runs a contest called Weekend Warrior. For five weeks, people get together and write a flash story every weekend, based on Vylar’s excellent prompts. The original version of “Innocent Bird” was 750 words. It grew in the rewriting.
I wrote this one in 2020. I actually don’t remember the original prompt, but somehow it got me thinking about the idea of a “reverse selkie”—someone who would be transforming in such a way so that they lose the sea by becoming their “true shape.” Likewise, in this story, love transforms Shoko into her “true shape”—whereas in a traditional selkie story, “love” (usually kidnapping) means being forced out of your real skin. Shoko’s mother still abandons her, as in a true selkie story, but she doesn’t have to in the same way that selkie mothers do. Selkie mothers are forbidden the sea; she still has access to the sky; she just wants to leave.
The other generative influence is a phone game about an anime show called Love Live!. During hard periods in my life, I have often connected deeply with gentle media about friendships. That’s what Love Live! is—a very gentle franchise about nine girls who are in a musical performance group together. Conflicts are minimal and easily resolved. Plus, they have pretty costumes.
Shoko, Ichika and Hitomi are very loosely associated with three of the characters from Love Live! Sunshine!!. One character (Kanan) scuba dives, and another character has bossy traits (Dia) and an anxious sister (Ruby). I kept the setting in rural Japan. Otherwise, there aren’t too many overlaps. In the anime, the girls do these glamorous musical performances—I gave them a low-key a capella club instead, and my characters definitely aren’t celebrities. The anime doesn’t usually have parents around which became absentee parents for Ichika and Hitomi. Love Live! is a mostly realistic world that presents a fantasy of emotional safety and low conflict—so, in a way I reversed it with a world that has high magic, along with emotional risk and dramatic conflict.
I considered moving the story into the United States—I live here, after all—but it felt in a way disrespectful to the inspirational core, even if the actual story is very different. It felt also . . . like a cop-out to just make that choice because it would be easier for me to not to have to think outside myself. So, I did my research instead and afterward went to a consultant for some double-checking. Thanks to Akemi Marshall for her advice and expertise, such as very kindly telling me (among other things) that the “shoe box of photographs” should be a “candy tin of photographs.” Also, that eel roe is not a culinary thing, partially because eel reproduction is shrouded in mystery, which is terribly interesting! We’re learning, though: bit.ly/34CQWc5.
Is this a world you might return to?
I have a couple of other drafted stories about girls in their a capella group falling in and out of love. Each of them has her own odd, minor magical power. I don’t know how the stories fit into a whole yet, though—other than “girls in a club, loosely connected with an anime about singing.” I greatly admire Isabel Yap’s series “Hurricane Heels,” which is inspired by magical girl anime, and follows a group of magical girls . This isn’t quite the same enterprise, but I think the solution may fall on a parallel line. I think there has to be some kind of arching theme about love that I haven’t grasped yet. Either that, or I’m overthinking it. Also possible.
I haven’t written a story about Hitomi yet, but I’m looking forward to trying it. I think she may be able to perceive the souls of ghosts in beach pebbles.
How would 2006-You have written this story?
So, I sold my first story in 2005, but I think it came out in 2006. It’s also the year I started graduate school at the University of Iowa, and it may be the year I first sold something to Fantasy Magazine (that may have been 2007).
I would have been working primarily at night, which I don’t anymore, as I struggle to be diurnal these days with my husband who gets up at 5:30am. When we lived at my parents’ house, I wrote a lot at the desk in my room while he was sleeping next to me; when we visited other people, I wrote a lot at other people’s kitchen tables; in graduate school, I wrote at my desk, or on the couch, or in a cafe, or wherever I could get up the concentration. I used to listen to music when I wrote, so I probably would have listened to music from the anime. These days, my audio processing isn’t great for multiple channels, so I either write in silence or to the noises of rain or a fake coffee shop. I ended up doing most of the rewrites on this story on the couch of my friend, P H Lee, whose fairy tales have appeared several times in Lightspeed.
As I mentioned before, this first version of this was a 750-word flash piece. I expect that 2006-Me would have left the story closer to that length; I’m guessing something like 1,500 words (the 750 was really too much of a squeeze). I didn’t have as much inclination then to probe into relationships. I think I would have been happier with Ichika—and especially Daishiro—being painted impressionistically into the background. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but these days, I find myself pressed more with questions like “why does she love Ichika?” Not just love as an abstraction, but love as a specific. Why Ichika? I wanted to see them in motion together. And then I wanted to see Daishiro in motion—or lack of motion—with Shoko’s mother. Once I had started to probe into those things, I found that they interrelated. Shoko’s images of romantic love are based on this strange, broken relationship of which she only has impressions. Of course that’s going to influence what it looks like for her to fall in love.
I actually initially went into submission with a version of this that was 1,000 words shorter. After getting a couple of very kind rejections, I let it lie for a while, and the next time I looked at it, I felt like the story had a reserved quality to it that didn’t seem appropriate. My graduate training—along with a lot of other aspects of contemporary aesthetics—strongly veers toward keeping emotions subtextual in this very discreet fashion. I went back into the story to let the heartbreak go straight onto the page. Shoko is a teenager; she’s full of these big emotions. She doesn’t express them to other people which only means she’s constantly inflated with love and distress and confusion and uncertainty about her future that she has no escape valve from. I think she tries to distance herself from that internally to some extent—there are moments when she underplays what she’s feeling—but she shouldn’t be written like a middle-aged literary professor wrestling with a midlife crisis. She’s a lovesick teen, literally transforming into something she doesn’t understand. I think the story really needed that last rewrite, to breathe through the moments when her emotions are raw and clear and accessible.
2006-Me would probably have left the story short, but I imagine the emotional viscerality would have been present anyway. The emotions in my stories were usually very accessible then, sometimes too much so. I’m glad to have learned some restraint for those moments when restraint is called for, but sometimes I need to get that rawness on the page.
What is the best fan feedback you’ve ever gotten on your writing?
Whenever people tell you that you’ve moved them, that’s important. It’s—groundbreaking, really. It justifies the writing; it makes it feel like there’s purpose in what I do.
Specifically, I’ve been told by people that a story was important to them, or that it helped them process something intense in their lives, or that it made them cry. Someone told me once that they shared a story of mine with their new wife on their honeymoon. That was very cool.
To be honest, people reading my stories at all is an honor. I’m grateful for all the support I get.
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
I’ve sold several stories this year and I’m very excited about that!
For the past—gosh, maybe ten years?—I’ve been working intensely on novels. I did finish one (nine years ago!), but alas, it was not ready for prime time—it was, in fact, ready for the trunk. I’d love to take it out sometime and make it better, but it needs substantial reconception.
Anyway, this means that I’ve produced a huge number of words that I haven’t been able to put out into the world, which understandably puts a crimp on my published word count. It feels really good to have stories coming out with Uncanny, Lightspeed, Tor’s novella line, and Apex Magazine.
While I’ve been working on novels, I’ve still been drafting short stories, I just haven’t been giving them the love and care they need to become polished. I counted recently and have something like thirty drafted and/or partially complete stories in my “desk drawers.” I’ve managed to get several of them out the door this year, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep up speed. The one I’m working on right now is about the ghosts of three grumpy, elderly sisters who are stuck in the same house after death that they were stuck in together when they were alive.
Mostly, I hope I can get one of my three in-process novels ready for my poor agent! They keep accreting, but they haven’t hit that ultimate moment where they come together. If my history is any indication, I’ll probably end up finishing all three at once, ha.
I’m excited to share them . . . once they’re ready to share!
Spread the word!