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.)

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