Author Interview – Sarah Brooks

The Years of the Tarantella is a very rich and evocative piece. Have you been to Calabria, and/or did you borrow details from other locations to flesh out your setting? On a related note, is there a particular musician or piece of music that inspired your main character?

I spent a year teaching English in a little town in Calabria, and I’ve stolen shamelessly from the place and the experience for this story! I had a fabulous time, and the town was very beautiful, perched on a clifftop overlooking the sea. But I always felt there was something vaguely sinister about it, with its crumbling buildings and stray dogs and general faded air. Corruption and organized crime are huge problems in Calabria, so there was the constant sense of something lurking below the surface.

The idea for the story itself came from the time half the town piled onto buses to take the ferry over to Sicily for carnevale. We set off early and when we stopped for breakfast, just as we arrived in Sicily, a few of the men started playing the Calabrian tarantella on their guitars, and everyone started dancing… I think there was a sense of, ‘We might be in Sicily but we are Calabrian! And we will play our Calabrian music to show it!’ And the parade itself was quite strange and wonderful, with its grotesque floats, and everyone throwing confetti, and the sheer number of people sweeping you along with the crowd, whether you wanted to go or not.

What is your writing process like typically? Or do you have a different process for every story?

I always read the answers to this type of question avidly, in the hope that one day I will find the One True Process. Until then, it involves a lot of procrastination, and the guilty feeling that I should be doing ‘real work’.

What is your favorite piece of insect-related fiction?

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. Sniffle.

As we mature, our relationship with the creepy-crawly elements of the world changes, as does our emotional (and sometimes physical) response. Can you tell us one early or notable experience you’ve had with bugs that helped shape how you view them?

I was pretty scared of all creepy-crawlies when I was younger, despite my mum’s best attempts at inoculating me against this by calling all beetles discovered in our house ‘Albert’ and heroically rescuing spiders from the bath. Things weren’t helped when I went on a camping trip to Morocco with school when I was 17, and we came into alarmingly close contact with camel spiders (which aren’t actually spiders but ‘solifugae‘, an order of their own, or so the internet tells me). They scared the living daylights out of us, especially when seen scuttling towards us at a terrifying pace early in the morning, before we’d managed to get out of our sleeping bags. (I have never before or since got up so fast.) Anyway, despite that traumatic experience, I kept travelling, which meant meeting more and (bigger) creepy-crawlies — cockroaches in youth hostels in China, a gigantic grasshopper-type thing (affectionately named Lorenzo il Magnifico) who lived in my bathroom in Italy for a month — and eventually settling into my current state of slightly horrified fascination with them.

What have you read recently/what are you reading currently/what is on your TBR pile that you’re excited about?

I foolishly started reading the Chaos Walking trilogy, by Patrick Ness, just before my PhD thesis was due, and found it so insanely gripping that I just couldn’t tear myself away, despite my looming deadline. An absolutely wonderful series.

What are you working on now/what do you have upcoming that you want people to know about?

Despite the fact that I really, really should be working on some academic articles, I’m writing more short stories at the moment, and also have a story out in the current issue of Interzone [ed. note: issue 249] (also based on travelling -- this time on taking the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing to Moscow).

Since we’re coming up on the holiday season, and there’s no escaping it -- what is your favorite holiday-related entertainment (movie, TV special, song/album, book or story)?

The Muppet Christmas Carol! For me it’s not only the Muppets’ finest hour (especially Gonzo as Charles Dickens -- brilliant) but also my favourite of all the versions of the story. I force my family and friends to watch it with me every year.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

One of my favourite books, that most people I know have never heard of, is ‘Lud-in-the Mist‘, by Hope Mirlees. It was published in 1926, and is very English, and very strange, and about fairies and fairy fruit and general creepiness. Drop everything. Read it right now.

Award Eligible Works for 2013

Unlikely Story published three full-length issues this year. With the exception of one reprint (not included in this list to avoid confusion) every story we published is eligible in the short story category for all the standard awards, Hugo, Stoker, Nebula, etc. Thank you to all our authors for giving us the opportunity to publish these wonderful stories, We look forward to bringing you more incredible work in 2014.

Unlikely Story #5: The Journal of Unlikely Entomology -- May 2013

Ecdysis by Nicole Cipri

Spiders, Centipedes & Holes by Cat Rambo

The Space Between by Lew Andrada

Silent Drops of Crimson and Gold Rain by Pam L. Wallace

The Lonely Barricade at Dawn by Jesse William Olson

Jeanette’s Feast by Michelle Ann King

B. by Nicola Belte

Unlikely Story #6: The Journal of Unlikely Architecture -- August 2013

Go Through by Alma Alexander

Three Adventures of Simon Says, the Elder by Daniel Ausema

The Painted Bones by Kelly Simmons

The Tower by Kelly Lagor

The Dross Record by Matthew Timmins

The Latest Incarnation of Secondhand Johnny by Mark Rigney

Unlikely Story #7: The Journal of Unlikely Entomology -- November 2013

The Psammophile by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Years of the Tarantella by Sarah Brooks

Strange Invasion by Darren O. Godfrey

The Wall Garden by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

A Superfluity by Helen Anderson

Pompilid by Nghi Vo

The New World by Dennis Tafoya

Found Items — Notes and Tapes (Evidence Bag Two) by Mark Rigney

Author Interview – Maria Dahvana Headley

Your story, The Psammophile, started life as a birthday gift. Did the gift recipient inspire the content, or request a particular type of story, or was the story a complete surprise, and if so, what was your inspiration?

It was a surprise, but not without context -- the recipient had introduced me to Thomas Browne’s amazing Musaeum Clausum, and I’d become obsessed. In truth, he has in his head about four hundred collections of astonishing objects, given that he’s a writer too. That’s kind of the whole point of being a writer as far as I’m concerned. It is, however, hard to shop for people like that. So, it was only fitting that I’d write him an imaginary collection catalogue piece for his birthday. I got inspired by both Browne and by Rikki Ducornet -- whose work is amazing. She’s less known than she should be, but everything she writes is incredibly lush, peculiar, sometimes very funny, but always unexpected. There’s a book called The Jade Cabinet, and another one called Phosphor in Dreamland, both of which informed this, in that while reading them I knew I wanted to write something using some of the same technique. Then I just riffed, putting a bunch of favorite things in, both his and mine. The sweet scorpion, for example, is something a bit apocryphal I ran across ages ago in a natural history book. Glucosinolate isn’t sweet, actually, but bitter (as fried scorpions are said to be.) I just felt a yearning to make a glucose compound chitin something one might use to sweeten tea. And then, the psammophile situation, the notion of being something or someone which loves sand, well, that’s a rumination on both love and collecting. You can never know a person wholly, just as you can’t know a beach wholly. Every particle is something potentially new. But you can love it; you can try to collect it all, even as it trickles away. Yeah, a little meditation on time, birthday-appropriate, and love, and the nature of gifts. Obviously, this is the sort of present you only give someone you love, and I never thought I’d publish it, but then this insect call came over Twitter…so I got his permission.

What is your favorite piece of insect-related fiction?

I decided to talk bug fiction on a non-prose level, because though I have lots of favorite bug bits in the prose world, I have GIGANTIC love for the stop-motion animation work of Wladislaw Starewicz. His initial work was filming dead insects in strange, strange narratives (he went on to make the extraordinary short film The Mascot, which I can’t recommend enough, despite a couple of unhappy though quite brief racial stereotypes in the “product of its time” category, sigh). The Cameraman’s Revenge, from 1912 (!!) is completely crazy and brilliant. Two beetles, cheating on one another, him with a dragonfly showgirl, her with a beetle artist. There’s also a cameraman grasshopper who vengefully films one of the cheating spouses, using a host of silent film techniques -- a lovemaking beetle and a dragonfly shot through a keyhole…yeah, it’s insanely great. Oh, now I want to go and watch them all over again.

As we mature, our relationship with the creepy-crawly elements of the world changes, as does our emotional (and sometimes physical) response. Can you tell us one early or notable experience you’ve had with bugs that helped shape how you view them?

I grew up in a former schoolhouse, in the high desert of Idaho, so total insect territory. We were regularly swarmed, once by earwigs, once by a bloom of black widow spiders, once by millions upon millions of tiny gnat like crawlers, which covered every surface, and then, a few days later, were gone. We had wolf spiders, jumping spiders…and most of my childhood was spent at ground level, obsessing on them, staring, cataloguing. I’ve always been interested in miniature worlds, and insect universes are that. I think I’ve always viewed insects as totally sentient things, creatures with their own precise interests. They aren’t creepy to me. Unless they bite me. Then they go full vampire supernatural. Mosquitoes are an exception to my uncreepy rule.

What have you read recently/what are you reading currently/what is on your TBR pile that you’re excited about?

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria is on my TBR so hard. Nicola Griffith’s Hild has been my rave of choice for like, two years now, because I read part of it in mss. It’s coming out mid-November, and everyone needs to read it. And then, in my anticipation heap, I’m screaming for The Chemical Wedding from Small Beer, in a new John Crowley translation. But that won’t be out til 2015, so I guess I just have to suffer. Also, Helen Oyeyemi’s upcoming, Boy, Snow, Bird. I want the fuck out of that, but I have to wait until March unless I can beg an arc from someone.

What are you working on now/what do you have upcoming that you want people to know about?

I have a story in Apex in December, which I’m really pleased about. It’s about memory and dying as well -- but a very different version from The Psammophile -- contemporary, and dealing with, um, mythoneurology. Just finished co-writing an epistle-driven literary horror novella of deathless prisoners and shapeshifting goblins with Kat Howard. The End of the Sentence, it’s called, and it’s for Subterranean Press. It’ll be released as a book sometime in 2014, I think. I’m finishing revisions on my first young adult novel, which will be coming out from HarperTeen next year-ish. It’s skyships and a teenage girl protagonist, and I’m so excited about it, as well as about the sequel I’m soon to start writing. I just finished another novella about 19th century Germany, medical science and a ghost bear, because I’m finishing up a manuscript for a short story collection and it wanted a novella. Yeah, I always think I’m not doing anything, and then apparently I’m doing things in secret behind my own back. By that count, it’s possible I’ll have 3 new books coming out in the next 18 months.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

Ha! I’ve had a particularly weird arc, because I’ve done a lot of different things as a writer. First I was a poet, and I published some poems (it’s possible that the first thing I published was a poem, but it was in some kind of zine and I never got a copy, so, who knows? Also, I think it may have been a pornographic poetry journal? I wrote something completely clueless, and said nothing about my 15-year-old-ness.) Then I was a playwright for a decade so there are published playscripts out there, both kid’s plays and adult plays. Hmm. First thing I think I can link to is this short story from 2003, which was written on a prompt. It had to be 1010 words. I wrote said words in a frenzy, sent it off, and won a contest. And you know what? 10 years later, I still think it’s pretty good. This may or may not post-date another story which I wrote because I wondered if I could write erotica. I tried. It got published. It’s in Susie Bright’s 2004 (?) edition of Best American Erotica, so that went pretty well too. And that one? It’s funny. Is it good? Is it hot? I don’t know. It’s about a girl who is obsessed with the Bronte version of the dark and brooding lover. I was all literary rebellion when I was in my early 20’s. I can’t link to it. It makes me cringe now, probably because it’s a totally straight-genre piece. It’s erotica, however packed full of lit references it is. I’m blushing reading it, because it feels so awkward. And I write about sex all the time! I think I got more comfortable writing hot things in the last 10 years, and now I have a wider range of what might be sexy in prose than I did then. Thank god.

Since we’re coming up on the holiday season, and there’s no escaping it -- what is your favorite holiday-related entertainment (movie, TV special, song/album, book or story)? What is your least favorite?

Let’s go for some song. The Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Christmas in Nevada. What can I say? I like a bleak holiday song. This one’s cheery and nasty. For a companion, we could add Chris Smither covering Dave Carter’s Crocodile Man, which has the best chorus ever: “Sleeping with a stranger in a no-name town, Thanksgiving dinner at the Top Hat Lounge, Christmas Eve at the Fantasy Tan -- Lord have mercy on a crocodile man.” (Which Carter wrote after the day he and his cello were picked up hitchhiking by Merle Haggard. For real.) Top it off with Tom Waits doing Silent Night/Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, and the last song, which has to be Joni Mitchell’s River, because come on, these songs are why bourbon-spiked eggnog was invented. And as you can likely guess from the makeup of the favorites, I have a lot of not-favorite Christmas songs. I want Christmas songs to involve diner coffee.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

This is college (I went to NYU), but I took a class on Byzantine History, mainly because I could smash it into my schedule and still work full time. It turned out to be an awesome class, mainly because we read Procopius’ The Secret History, which is basically an insider memoir about Justinian and (the very interesting) Theodora. Reading it was a revelation, because it gave a juicy, filthy gossipy perspective on history, and suddenly this whole world opened up in front of me, one made of the many ways in which a writer might choose to tell a story. I can date my understanding of genre to that moment. Procopius could have told the Official Version -- and did -- he wrote 7 histories of Justinian’s wars, as well as a panegyric on Justinian’s publications -- but he also chose wickedly to write a secret history. The Secret History contains a variety of snark, and some Weird, as it happens -- accounts of Theodora’s performances which have her performing a somewhat Leda-esque routine with hungry geese (!) and an account of Justinian’s head actually disappearing and reappearing. Yeah. I love secret histories -- and that book showed me that every event has one. That when you look at the world, you should also be looking for the things people are trying to obscure, and for the other side of every story. Not a terrible rule for living, in truth.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

I’m a tremendous fan of the not-nearly-read-enough author, Kathryn Davis. She’s largely claimed by the literary fiction field, but she’s completely a Weird writer. I feel grumpy about her reputation, because neither field, lit or speculative, seems to understand her very well. This is because she’s insanely good, but she doesn’t play by any genre rules at all. I am smitten with her I don’t give a fuck attitude as a writer. Her work is full of magic, ghosts, raising of the dead…but she’s also written a stunning straight novel, Versailles, from the POV of Marie Antoinette. Each of her 6 (edit, now 7!) books is as though written by a different person. They are all works of genius. I’ve read them all. Hear me. I particularly love Hell ( I loved it so much I wrote a lengthy Goodreads review, which is an unusual thing for me to do, but man, it’s a really wonderful book and people didn’t review it there as thoughtfully as I felt they should) and The Girl Who Trod On A Loaf. Davis’ work goes deep with references, layers upon layers of literary history, and it is also exquisitely imaginative. TGWTOAL has a series of imagined operas so wonderful they had me googling to see if they could possibly be real. Hell is to my eye the optimal version of a suburbs-are-hell novel, mashed together with such profound strangeness, a narrative taking place in a dollhouse, a dead girl roaming around, oh, damn. Just read it. You may well hate it. Some people do, but for me? This is the one I constantly yell about. (And in writing this piece, I discovered Davis has a new novel, called Duplex. EEE! I’m going to buy it right this second.)

Issue 7 now available as a PDF

Just up, Issue 7 formatted to be read on your various and sundry electronic reading devices, or even to print up as a keepsake.

Follow this link to download the PDF.

The Journal of Unlikely Story Acceptances

Today, we fearfully open submissions for The Journal of Unlikely Story Acceptances. We want to see your worst work. Flash fiction only, because we hope to see stories so bad that we couldn’t possibly read more than a thousand words of them without removing our eyeballs.

Submissions open for a scant 15 days.

More details (and some rules) at


A Game / A Prompt

Just for fun, we want to play a game. There are no winners. There are no losers. There are no prizes. Just a prompt.

If there is enough interest, we’ll do more of these in the future.


It’s November 25th; Mercator’s Night is just a week away.

For good or ill, Mercator’s Night (Mercatorsnacht, Merca Utsav, Merročki Noć, Mrec-tamash, etc.)  is arguably the most widely — and diversely — observed holiday in the world. Whether as a joyful celebration or a mournful commemoration, Mercator’s Night impacts us all.

Tell us how your family observes Mercator’s Night. What rituals are performed? What foods are served? Are these local customs, or national, or is your’s an immigrant family, still observing Mercator’s Night as it’s done in the old country? Or has your family developed its own customs and rituals?

What does Mercator’s Night mean to you, personally?


Set your response in any world, any country, any time, using any narrator and any family (including any definition of family you like). Make the meaning of this fictitious holiday anything you want (you CAN use real world elements and references, but you don’t need to), just make it robust enough, detailed enough, and imaginative enough that we believe in it (or believe that a world could exist in which it is true).

Post your response on your blog, with a link back to this page. Then reply to this post with a link to your entry, preferably by Mercator’s Night (December 2nd).


The Journal of Unlikely Entomology
Issue 7 — November 2013

Mon Eglise Au Lit by Maarten Wydooghe

Table of Contents

The Psammophile by Maria Dahvana Headley
The Years of the Tarantella by Sarah Brooks
Strange Invasion by Darren O. Godfrey
The Wall Garden by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
A Superfluity by Helen Anderson
Pompilid by Nghi Vo
The New World by Dennis Tafoya
Found Items -- Notes and Tapes (Evidence Bag Two) by Mark Rigney

Editors’ Note:

Welcome, Dear Readers, to another issue of The Journal of Unlikely Entomology. That’s right — after our brief foray into the realm of Unlikely Architecture, we return to the land of things that skitter and crawl. Are you comforted to find yourself on familiar ground? Don’t get too comfortable; we mean to instill at least a little unease. After all, isn’t that what good art is meant to do?

Fear not, Gentle Reader, it isn’t all unsettling. There’s humor to be found in our pages, in the form of a very strange invasion indeed. There’s beauty in the catalogued artifacts of improbable civilizations, and in the slow-unfolding dreams of wasps and nuns. But there is also darkness. Of course, there is always darkness. Unseen shadows lurk behind rapturous music, and the world just might come to an end — or worse yet, a beginning. History extends behind us in elaborate, repeating patterns of violence and beauty and love and death, casting shadows into the future. It’s the circle of life, and often something must die in order for something else to live. And while they say hell is other people, people don’t always remain human.

As in life, our pixilated pages mix darkness and light in this issue, one always sweetening and tempering the other. We leave it to you to determine which does which.

Whatever your tastes, for the shadows or that which casts them, we hope you enjoy these tales.

Cover Art by Maarten Wydooghe.

Interview in Black Gate

Your humble editors have been interviewed in Black Gate. Interested in what goes on behind the scenes, in how we work and what we like? Well, now you can find out:


Announcing The Journal of Unlikely Cartography…and something Even More Unlikely

It is with a sense of sorrow and relief that we bring submissions for The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (Issue 8) to a close. Have something that just didn’t quite get done in time? Worry not, we’ll be doing another cryptography issue next year. In the meantime, we have our work cut out for us, reading all the submissions, and pulling together Issue 7, which we expect to publish mid-November.

In the meantime, we are now open for submissions for The Journal of Unlikely Cartography! We’re looking for stories involving maps, mapping, and cartography of all sorts. Submissions open(ed) November 1st and run through February 1st. Take a look at our submissions guidelines for full details.

But wait! There’s more!

We’re also announcing the highly unlikely Journal of Unlikely Story Acceptances, which will be published on April Fools Day (April 1st, 2014). This 3-story mini-issue will feature the very worst stories that professional writers can bear to submit to us. Details, again, are in the submission guidelines. Please read the guidelines carefully, because there are a few special conditions on this issue.


Announcing the Winner of the Unlikely Theme Contest

Thanks to everyone for playing. We’re very pleased with the outcome of this contest, as it’s given us not just our next theme, but many ideas to chew over for months and years to come.

So, the moment we’ve all been waiting for…

The winner of the Unlikely Theme Contest is:

The Journal of Unlikely Cartography, first suggested by Sarah Pinkser

Our Runners-up were:

  • The Journal of Unlikely Chronology / The Journal of Unlikely Horology
    Kari Fay and Adele Jackson
  • The Journal of Unlikely Gastronomy / The Journal of Unlikely Foodstuffs & Victuals
    Deborah Walker and Tim Burke
  • The Journal of Unlikely Linguistics
    Luna Lindsey

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Journal of Unlikely Likelihood -- Greg Bossert
  • The Journal of Unlikely Musicology -- Ada Hoffmann
  • The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia -- Amy Boudloche Bush

Everyone mentioned on this page will receive something from the not-yet-existent Unlikely Story Store (who knew that taking a few weeks for vacation could throw one’s entire life into disarray?). If we don’t yet have your full contact information, please send your email and mailing address to us at

As for The Journal of Unlikely Cartography, start thinking of your fabulous map stories. Submissions will open November 1st and run through February 1st, with the issue scheduled for June 2014. We’ll post official guidelines soon.


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