The setup for this story is clever—a meta-structure where the visitors to the world know they were the creator(s) of the world. How did you come up with the idea?
The idea came to me many years ago, after rereading one of my favorite stories, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges. The Borges story is about a secret society that creates the encyclopedia of an imaginary world, Tlön. Eventually, items from that world begin appearing in ours. Archaeologists start finding artifacts from Tlön. The story is about how imagination creates reality. I started thinking about what those archaeologists would do, and realized that they would have to publish their findings somewhere. That’s when I came up with the idea of the Imaginary Sciences, each of which would have its own journal: Imaginary Archaeology or Biology, for example. The Journal of Imaginary Anthropology is just one of them. And then, from somewhere or other, I got the idea of Cimmeria. I’m not sure where that came from, actually. But I come from that part of the world, from Hungary. So the history of the region has always fascinated me.
I should say, though, that the Americans in the story think they’ve created Cimmeria. The Khan of Cimmeria would disagree, and would call their assumption part of an imperialist way of thinking. If you flip the story, it’s about how a group of people, in this case American academics, believe they’ve created a culture that the people of that culture insist has been there all along. Has it? I don’t know, but aspects of Cimmeria certainly surprise its supposed creators.
You have said adult relationships can be vampiric. The other Shaila could be seen as a vampire—can you elaborate on how the story developed once you had the main character fall in love with the first sister?
It’s difficult to say because I waited so long to write this story—I had it in my head long before I wrote it down, so it sat up there, in my head, developing. And when I finally sat down to write it, most of the story came out in one draft. But I think the other Shaila can also been seen as a victim, the one who is silenced, who is not allowed an existence. Is she vampiric? I’m not sure, unless we think of vampires as part of ourselves. She is the shadow self, both identical to and the opposite of Shaila. Perhaps she represents our inherent duality. I think of her as strong, actually. I admire the other Shaila, although I think she’s also a little scary. She’s going to make a great Khanum.
The students and faculty of the story create Cimmeria for the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology with a middle-Eastern flavor. You often write fantasy set in vivid and almost realistic worlds. Did the setting drive the story or did the story beg for the particulars of this world?
Cimmeria has a middle-Eastern flavor because the ancient Cimmerians are supposed to have been linguistically related to the Iranians. What I wanted to make clear is that Cimmeria is a melting pot of cultures and religions, since that’s true for the region in general. It’s both exotic and modern. It’s a kind of dream, but also a country enmeshed in contemporary political reality. As all countries are, actually. After all, every country is partly imaginary, created through storytelling. Think of the American story, or the competing American stories. Our country is as imagined as Cimmeria. We do part of the imagining, but so do people all over the world who have some idea of what America is, whether that’s based on the news, or magazines, or the latest movies. Reality is always a collaboration between what actually exists outside ourselves and how we perceive it.
In this case, I think Cimmeria came first, and then the story wove itself through the setting, like a vine on a trellis. The trellis gave shape and support to the vine, so you can’t really separate them any longer. They are one thing.
There are several themes running through this story—which is the one you wrestled with and/or find most interesting?
I suppose the theme I started with is the one I mentioned above, of the interplay between what is and our perception of it, which creates the construct we call reality. And how contested that reality can be, particularly from different cultural perspectives. And then there’s a whole other story running through that one, the personal story of Pat and his relationship with Shaila—and the other Shaila. That’s about how you never really know about people, what they’re like inside. We can always only see a part of them, like seeing one side of the moon. But it’s also about a lot of things: how people can get trapped, for example. How they make compromises. I do think about all those things when I’m writing a story, but readers should of course decide what to make of the story themselves—they will find their own underlying themes in it.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently writing a novel based on a story of mine called “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter.” It’s about how the daughters of the classic mad scientists (Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein) all find each other and form a club in late nineteenth-century London. It’s a lot of fun! And it allows me to do what I love most, which is create alternative, imaginary worlds that are nevertheless real, and then tell you what happens in them. In this case, to a group of girl monsters who are trying to fight evil, solve mysteries, and support themselves in a world that barely recognizes their existence. I’m always interested in how women live in the world, how they make lives for themselves. The story of Shaila is partly about that as well.
And eventually I’m going to write more about the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology. My doctoral dissertation focused in part on nineteenth-century anthropology, which is filled with racist assumptions and misapplications of evolutionary theory. I’m fascinated by how we speak about and define human cultures, and how we treat people based on those definitions. I’m also fascinated by academic discourse, and of course monsters (those were in my dissertation as well). So, there will likely be more . . .
Spread the word!