Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is The New York Times–bestselling author of Magonia, Aerie, and The Year of Yes, among other books. An editor, playwright, and screenwriter, she creates boldly and passionately across several genres and formats, and she’s a great favorite here at Uncanny Magazine. Once a child asked her if she was a princess, or make believe, or both, which pretty well sums up the Space Unicorn attitude towards life. Why choose just one? She’s a fierce and fabulous woman who is openly and defiantly all her own. In “The Thule Stowaway” this fierceness and reclaiming of women for themselves certainly comes across.

Uncanny Magazine: What made you decide to take on this particular story, exploring Edgar Allen Poe’s life, his famous photograph, and also the character of Mrs. MacFarlane, an exploration of Poe’s women in fiction and in life? 

Maria Dahvana Headley: About a year ago, I went to an exhibition at the Grolier Club, which is a rare book collector’s club in NYC. The wonderful Henry Wessells is a member, and he brought me as his guest. It was an exhibition of favorite things from the members’ collections, and in it were several Edgar Allan Poe items, including a cane and a white waistcoat. I tweeted a photo, and instantly five Poe bots followed me on Twitter. So, the idea of being followed by Poe got into my brain in a very literal fashion. At the same exhibition, one of the board members of the Poe museum in Richmond, Virginia came up to me because I have the words “Ultima Thule” tattooed on the back of my neck. The association with Poe is obvious, though my version came from the history of cartography, in which those words were used to connote the edge of the known world. There’s an ink pen nib between the two words, pointing up toward my brain, my own northernmost unknown. So the idea of writing about the Ultima Thule daguerreotype, and the mysterious things surrounding it—all of it came about in a fairly prosaic fashion. But then my brain decided to have a deep dive into wildness and research, which is the usual way of things. The Ultima Thule daguerreotype is real, of course, and the story surrounding it is pretty dark and strange. MacFarlane—the person who met Poe at his hotel in Providence and took him to have the portrait taken—is a person no one has ever been able to identify. Nor has anyone ever been able to figure out why exactly MacFarlane took a despairing, raving Poe to be photographed. Poe was four days post–suicide attempt, and he was in dire straits. He was frantically seeking a wife and failing miserably. As the story goes, Poe turned up alone post–portrait session, to the home of Sarah Whitman, the woman who’d rejected his most recent proposal, saying he was doomed. He is reported to have been screaming and clinging to her garments. To my mind, this could mean only one thing, in the context of Poe and of the mythic history of photography: that his soul had been compromised by the taking of the portrait. This was 1848, and the notion of one’s soul being trapped in a portrait was very much part of the culture. As well, the rather beautiful idea that a photo was essentially a depiction of a ghost. I set about Poe–esque circumstances for the portrait, using the narrative of his poem “Dream–Land,” and the outlines of both his life and art. 

Uncanny Magazine: Wow, I wasn’t expecting a tattoo to factor into your answer! That’s very cool. How much were you immersed in Poe’s work before attending the exhibition last year? Was he always an author who drew you, or is that interest and rabbit hole of research all new?

Maria Dahvana Headley: The short answer is that Poe pisses me off, and tempts me at once. The main thing I knew about Poe’s life when I was younger was his marriage to his way–too–young cousin Virginia, probably because I first encountered Poe’s work when I was about her age. I imagined my 12–year–old self marrying a 25–year–old person, and I felt deeply creeped out, particularly as by the time I was 13, grown men were hitting on me all the time, trying to justify it by telling me that I was really smart, really mature, and really *special*. That took me off Poe for years. 

When I survived to a point where I was more Poe’s age than that of any of his young women, I went back in. Honestly, this is sort of what I do in regard to eating meat, too. I’ve always had problems with it, but I try it every few years, to see if my feelings about how it tastes have changed. I check on my deep freezer full of Great Men of Literature every few years as well, to see if there are new ways I can prepare them for cooking. I’ve been turkey–dressing the corpse of Nabokov for years in my writing kitchen, and the same goes for Richard Yates, John Gardner, and the bro–tastic narrative of Beowulf. My battle with those ingredients made me write a whole book based on a combination of Beowulf, Grendel, and Revolutionary Road (The Mere Wife) which is coming out next year, so yeah, this kind of writing–gnashing–research–diving into acceptably famous things I find maddening isn’t new for me.

“The Thule Stowaway” takes place when Poe is 39, the same age I am right now. He died at age 40. He’d been publishing the same number of years I’ve been so far, so this was also a good opportunity as a writer to look at another writer’s 20 years of worldbuilding. It was interesting to delve into the burden of one’s own creative work after years of writing. The influence one’s had, the things one’s made. Whether or not you’ve created them responsibly. What you regret making.  What you’d want to rewrite, if you knew you were going to die. 

I hadn’t read any Poe for a long time before I started fiddling with this story. He’s one of those authors, though, who seeps into everything if you’re at all concerned with horror, discomfort, and weirdness. Like that of Lovecraft, the influence of Poe is undeniable—and perhaps he is as interesting because of the problematic aspects in his life as because of his work. Victor LaValle has lately delved very effectively into the Lovecraft version of this, with The Ballad of Black Tom, wrestling vividly with all the racist elements of a Lovecraft universe. Same with Kij Johnson and The Dream–Quest of Vellitt Boe

Rock the fuck on, I say. Bring in the rest of the world. Enflesh those sentence–skeletons. Give them the hearts they should always have had. 

Uncanny Magazine: Poe is famous for his women. Lenore and Annabel Lee and Madeline Usher and so on. Scholars of his life also tend to find his relationships with real women fascinating. As someone who’s a very strong and independent woman, how do you feel about his women? Is your MacFarlane reclaiming those women as people in their own right instead of as sort of property of Poe?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I think my career these days is often a lot about writing the hero stories of girls who’ve already been written as iconic victims, as monsters, as ruined. Tilt the story over and it almost always turns out that the woman who has been written as instigator of a man’s hero story is a hero herself. I’m interested as well in literal rebellion of inventions. I have a story coming out soon in a Subterranean Press anthology called The Weight of Words, in which a historical female golem made of wood completely rebels against her maker. My own history, like that of many women, includes dark episodes of men claiming they’ve invented me, and then trying to destroy their invention when it proves to have agency. I’m interested in the foul trope that says providing someone with care, even with love, means that you made her, own her, and own her gifts.  

Cue up me, on loop, shouting Nope, Nope, Nope. 

Also feel free to cue up the soundtrack to this section: “You Don’t Own Me,” as done by Lesley Gore. Now imagine Annabel MacFarlane in her silk dress suddenly bursting out in song with “You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys,” and Edgar Allan Poe trying to rap out a response. And failing. 

This is what it is like when you live in my brain. 

When I was younger, I could clearly see myself in Poe’s girls and women, who tend to be precocious, smart, nurturing, and fucking doomed. All those qualities make them excusable partners for our inappropriately aged hero. They are special and mature, and extra precious, thus SHOULD be partnered with older men, who will appreciate them. You have no idea how many men told me variations on this theme when I was a teenager. My identification with Poe’s girls made it impossible for me to see how all of this was a creation, that all these women were part of, essentially, his Thule, and not really women at all. They’re all hollow–centered icons, even the ones who were real. That made me inclined to dive in and see what I could reshape, both in the man’s own history and in his creative work. He was constantly questing for nurturing and epic attention from women who were either inappropriate or who were already fully established as their own masters, and therefore rejecting his panic–proposals. It will not shock anyone to know that this drives me berserk. 

“Just let me be myself, that’s all I ask of you. You don’t own me.”

In this story, I wanted to reclaim all Poe’s women, both fictional and factual. I wanted them to get LARGE. And they do. Annabel MacFarlane is half invention—the original story calls the person who took Poe for this photo “A Mr. Macfarlane,” so it seemed very reasonable to me that this person would be one of Poe’s women, half invention, half reality. And that she would turn into something major, powerful, and free of the strictures of the Poe–invention. 

Uncanny Magazine: Is this level of research usual for you when you get a story idea? Do you have a typical writing process? 

Maria Dahvana Headley: Yeah, this is typical. Everything I’ve written for Uncanny has been like this for sure, and also everything I write usually is. I love detail, and I love history. As far as this story goes, I love mystery death. Shortly before Poe died, in 1949, he was found at a polling place in Baltimore, dressed in clothes that didn’t belong to him, delirious, and feverish, unable to explain anything about how he’d ended up there. One theory is that he was a victim of cooping—as in, he was kidnapped, dressed in other people’s clothing, made to vote multiple times under different names, and given a lot of alcohol with each vote—which would mean he was a victim of voter fraud. That one is particularly relevant to the modern imagination, and if I could have figured out how to work it in, I would have. A theory that Poe died of rabies came out in 1996, and it was a big deal—I think the doctor makes a major case for this being what happened to Poe, though in the moment this story takes place, that would not have been the problem. Rabies has a very short incubation period. As an explanation for Poe’s last illness, though, it’s very solid. The story of the Ultima Thule daguerreotype, to the eye of a fantasy writer, offers yet another explanation for Poe’s decline: the loss of one’s soul to a monster of one’s own making. I always do tons of research, looking for the gaps in the history, the mysteries. Then I fill them in. My usual process is me having a crazy idea, and then the research is me finding ways to support the idea. In this way, frankly, I’m much in the vein of a conspiracy theorist. Luckily, though, I get to theorize in fiction form. The goal, though, is always to make it feel like this could really have happened, that there really might be a ghostly starry presence in the daguerreotype, and that it might have been mostly brushed away, that there might be a creature creeping from Poe’s work and into the waking world, and back into his imagined, freestanding world again. I always try to support all the fantastical detail with a firm grounding in maybe. That’s what’s fun about this process. Braiding Definitely, to Maybe, to WTF?!

I love adding the WTF strand as much as anything else. Even more I love that often the strands are equally believable to people. Sometimes people think the real details are things I made up, and vice versa. That’s the best. 

Uncanny Magazine: You seem to be constantly writing new work. You whisk yourself away to volcano lairs for a few weeks and come back with finished novels. It’s amazing and wonderful to watch as an outsider. Does this feel as magical to you as it does to me? 

Maria Dahvana Headley: It feels generally wonderful to write the way I do when I go on a writing roam, and to have gotten to a place in my career where I sometimes can do that. I’m a frugal traveler with fancy taste, so I rent glorious places to write, often at major discount. It’s possible to do it if you don’t mind being the only person on the top of a remote volcano, eating only fish bought from fishermen at the bottom of the hillside, and lemons from the tree. Which, um, obviously, I do not mind. The whole thing, though, is based on trusting that I’m good enough to finish things, and that the story is already in my brain, that I’ve already filled my head with the materials I need to do my work. I don’t always know what the story will be, but I’ve gotten to a point of trusting that if I engineer my time and conditions to write, the words will come. That’s what I get from 20 years of publishing all kinds of weird things. It’s a pretty nice thing to have written this much because at least, at this point in my career, I know that I have a history of knowing how to write. Just having that knowledge helps me make new work, quickly, and usually joyfully. I also give myself the great treat of only writing things I am in love with. That means I have fun. Having fun as a writer is pretty damn important, if you want to keep doing this all day and night. 

Uncanny Magazine: Finally, what can we look forward to next?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Lots of things in the next year or so, stories, and books too, hopefully. The Mere Wife should be coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux sometime next year. The Combustible, which is a queer YA superhero novel, will come out from HarperCollins in 2018. Also, I accidentally wrote a miniature detective novel in a sort of Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie vein last month, so at some point I’ll stretch that out and make it a full length novel. I was trying to write a commissioned short story, and a thousand words into what was supposed to be 7,500 words, the manuscript yelled “You Don’t Own Me!” I should know that if one of my own stories says that, I have to listen. Instead I tried to squash the story. It refused my squashing, and ended up at 11k, obviously an oppressed novel. Now it’s sitting on my desk, cackling, because it forced me to hold it back and write an entirely new story for the commission.

Uncanny Magazine: Maria, thank you for being so generous with your thoughts and stories!

Julia Rios

Julia Rios is the reprint fiction/poetry editor and an interviewer for Uncanny Magazine. She is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in several places, including Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. She was a fiction editor for Strange Horizons from 2012 to 2015, and is co-editor with Alisa Krasnostein of Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction series. She is also a co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, and has narrated stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders, and poems for the Strange Horizons podcast. To find out more, visit www.juliarios.com.

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