Perhaps my greatest joy in reading “Brightly, Undiminished” is the sheer sensual beauty of the prose, the way you encapsulate plot and emotion in every tiny detail. Imelda’s hair, the tangle of legs beneath the blankets, the indulgence of shadows. Were there any particular challenges in painting these words onto the page?
I also read and write poetry, so vivid prose is my happy place and comes naturally to me. The challenge, though, is keeping the story moving forward. Rich imagery can enhance emotional flavor, but too rich and you’ll give the reader a stomachache. Part of my routine second-draft edits for this and other stories is to ask whether the timing of a particular image or a prose flourish deepens the impact of a scene. Often, I have to eliminate whole sentences I love because they’re just too stylized, and slow the action. Maintaining that balance can be difficult.
But for the most emotional scenes, I let myself unleash all the language and imagery. That’s my favorite part.
What inspired this tale of magic and love?
My father passed away in 2019. My parents had been a couple since they were thirteen. I met my partner when I was eighteen, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the devastation of losing a long-time love.
Just before the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, the pandemic hit. I was seeing so much loss and pain, just an overwhelming quantity of people enduring that level of pain at once. I think, ultimately, it was too much to process, and I needed an outlet.
At the same time, I also lost touch with a very close friend who works in healthcare, and was just too busy with Covid-19 to engage anymore. I had a recurring, intense dream about that person—and that dream was the seed for this story, and is reflected in Mercer’s dream of Imelda at her altar with her back turned, spinning spells.
I was both intrigued and enamored of your description of magic: “You were born a witch, or your weren’t.” Inherited magic is not common in contemporary fantasies and here you cement it in the setting with both the idea that magic has limits and that it exists side by side with the more mundane world. Did you envision magic in the story as a known presence, something as obvious as electricity or cars, or was it a fleeting shadow seen out of the corner of your eye and quickly forgotten?
I definitely envisioned it as somewhat secretive, a hidden and inherited talent shared either with others who possess it, or with close loved ones.
I conceptualized it as similar to empathy, in some respects. Unlike magic in this story, most people are capable of feeling deep empathy. (Whether they choose to indulge it or not is a very different question). Some people, however, inherit a much more intense capacity for feeling empathy toward others—which can make relationships much more enduring and satisfying and joyful, and can absolutely saturate the world in emotional color.
That’s what we see in Mercer’s feelings for Imelda: She and her magic have brightened his life so completely that he’s convinced he can’t live without her.
But at the same, that level of empathy can become a vulnerability, and can be exploited or manipulated, or make a person the target of intentional cruelty. Like witchcraft, it can get you burned at the stake. And so Imelda’s witchcraft is both an inheritance and a private gift, one she shares completely with a person she loves.
In that same vein, if you could be a witch in this world, what is one spell you would want to cast?
I would sprinkle everyone in a pinch of empathy-dust. I expect that would solve many of the world’s problems.
You began running marathons in 2019, and kudos to you for that level of dedication. What set your feet, literally, on that road? Do you find any similarities between writing and running?
I was never an athlete, and never conceived of myself as remotely athletic until I was almost thirty years old.
But I have two children, and my older child has spina bifida and is severely disabled. He’s nonambulatory and depends on a home ventilator, among many other medical complications. His birth and early childhood called into question my very definition of “athletic.” I can walk; I can run; I can breathe even when I feel like another quarter mile will literally kill me.
That was a profound realization. I don’t need to be a champion. No one needs to be a champion. My body moves the way it does, and I’m blessed to have the ability to simply put one foot in front of the other. That’s huge. Just being alive and moving and breathing is huge.
And I would be lying if I said distance running is easy. It’s not—there’s generally a moment of despair toward the end of every long run.
So I bribe myself with pizza.
Which is very much like writing fiction, I think. Some mornings, I just don’t wanna. There’s a lot of self-bribery involved.
Tell us a bit about what’s next for Sarah Grey. What can readers look forward to in 2021?
In a word: more!
Like most people, I have high hopes for this year. I’ve adopted a more sustained schedule of short fiction production, with a focus on more hopeful, upbeat content. I’ve also written quite a bit of poetry lately; I love speculative poetry and I hope to continue publishing it regularly.
I’m also planning to start a novel this year. I have several ideas circulating, and the most promising developed out of one of my previous Lightspeed stories.
A novel is truly a marathon, though, so there will be a mountain of pizza-bribes when I cross that finish line. I hope readers will be there to celebrate with me.
Spread the word!