Interview: Kat Howard

Kat Howard is a graceful and lyrical writer who rewrites myths, subverts magic, and cast spells with her luxurious prose. She is known for her deft hand with short fiction. She is a World Fantasy Award nominee, and her work has appeared in “best–of” collections, as well as been performed on NPR. Turning her eye to longer stories, her first novel, Rose and Rot will be released by Saga Press in May 2016. Kat’s stories weave in and out of genres and pull you into their core with amazing heart and feeling. In “The Sound of Salt and Sea,” we get a story of love and loss and reclamation formed around a hauntingly beautiful ghost story. She is a writer whose work never fails to delight and who paints a picture that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Uncanny Magazine: Color and scent are used brilliantly in “The Sound of Salt and Sea.” While the use of color is a standard in many writers’ toolboxes, scent seems to be used less frequently. What was it about this story that made you specifically stretch toward these two senses?

Kat Howard: Scent is actually one of my favorite things—I’m a huge perfume fan (and if you are, too, let me recommend Alyssa Harad’s gorgeous memoir, Coming to My Senses), so it winds up being a go–to descriptor in my writing. But for this story in particular, when I think of the ocean, the first thing I think of is the way it smells, so for this setting, it made even more sense to me.

As for color, and red specifically—I’ve been fascinated by bone horses since first reading about the Mari Llwyd in Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree. And that bone horse has red ribbons around its skull. So the choice of color was very much meant as a tribute to my story’s inspiration.

Uncanny Magazine: You have a luxurious eye for domestic detail. Your descriptions of Rowan’s preparations as well as the salt–encrusted detritus of domestic normalcy on Far Island are amazingly evocative. These are the type of details that add depth and resonance to an already hauntingly beautiful story. Are these things that you naturally gravitate toward in your writing or is the story the thing and the domestic details arise out of the narrative?

Kat Howard: I think some of it is that I naturally gravitate towards this sort of detail—while I would never snoop in someone else’s closed drawers or cupboards, I would definitely be the person who comes over and reads all the titles on the books on your shelves, or stands rapt in front of the china hutch, looking at all the dishes and glasses inside. I like seeing what people choose to collect.

But also, for this story—I wanted the sense that Near Island (and Far Island, too, at one time) were normal. Places where people made homes, had lives. I wanted descriptions of domestic normalcy as a way to set up that these were really normal places where one really weird thing happened. Seeing the normal helped set up the weird.

Uncanny Magazine: The concept of choice is such a strong theme in “The Sound of Salt and Sea.”At the heart of this story is Rowan’s choice and the repercussions of that choice being taken away from her. The fact that Rowan uses her own blood to wrest that choice back from Conor is hugely powerful and reflects larger themes and issues in the real world. How much of what is happening in the real world bleeds, literally, into your work? Do you consciously try to make those connections or do they creep in unawares?

Kat Howard: I do sometimes try and bring in or make reference to the real world, though I almost always slap a nice coat of metaphor on top of it. That said, I wasn’t consciously thinking about any events or trying to push real world issues in writing this. So whatever might be there leaked out because that’s what I’m steeped in.

Uncanny Magazine: This story has a strong fairy–tale element, a theme that you also visit in your upcoming novel Roses and Rot (Saga Press, May 2016). Why do you think fairy tales are still relevant?

Kat Howard: I think because they are very mutable, or, at least they’ve become so. We recognize certain elements of them, and those elements have become so weighted with symbolism that they can do a lot of the story’s heavy lifting if they’re used well. At the same time, there’s a lot of room for transformation. As an example, I think of Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” which—if you know fairy tales at all, you know which one he’s retelling just from the three words of the title, but at the same time the actual story goes in a direction all its own.

When I think of working with retellings, whether it’s fairy tales or myths, which are also a form I revisit a lot, I think of it like writing a sonnet, or other structured poetry. There are rules—there are pieces that you need to give your audience, so that they’ll recognize what you’re doing—but at the same time, there is utter freedom within those rules to make something that is your own.

Uncanny Magazine: You said in a recent blog post that you cling to the mirage of perfection, that the best and truest form of a story will appear in the first go. As a seasoned writer, and as an editor who works with emerging writers, how do you reconcile the reasoned, intellectual approach to writing (i.e., the one you tell your clients) with the day–to–day emotional response toward perfection in your own work?

Kat Howard: Wait, I was supposed to have reconciled this?

I mean, it’s always easier to be more generous to other people. One of the things that I do try very hard to emphasize to my clients is that there is no prize for writing something in the fewest drafts, that it doesn’t matter how messy something was the first time you wrote it, the thing that matters is the end product. And I absolutely mean those things.

With my own writing, I have come to accept that I am much better at revision than I am at drafts. So I just try to remind myself that, whatever it is, I can fix it in revisions.

Uncanny Magazine: Your work is wide–ranging in topic and themes, yet it feels like there is a certain quality that makes the reader say, “Yes, this is a Kat Howard story.” While a writer’s voice is ever–evolving, how do you, at this point in your career, define a Kat Howard story?

Kat Howard: This is actually a question that I am actively wrestling with, as I’m thinking about stories to go in my forthcoming short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, and how those stories will fit together. I definitely have my obsessions—fairy tales, myth, birds, ghosts, disappearances, sisters, saints, bones, roses, the ocean—but I don’t know if I could put together a working definition. Perhaps I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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