Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is a writer whose words and imagery are so sharp you don’t realize you’ve been cut until you see blood hitting the page. She can reimagine a classic fairy tale into something hauntingly beautiful and heartbreakingly true. In “The Virgin Played Bass” she takes on a beloved children’s tale, mixes in a bit of religious allegory, and cloaks it in the omnipresent specter of war. Her work deftly navigates the land between bleak and hopeful, with a dash of unexpected humor that leaves you off–kilter and begging for more. It is always a thrill to see Maria Dahvana Headley on the pages of Uncanny Magazine, and her interviews are always a delight. She is a natural raconteur whose presence in the literary world grows bolder with each tale. We can’t wait to see what comes next.

Uncanny Magazine: The Town Musicians of Bremen” is certainly not the first fairytale people think of when they decide to write a twisted, dystopian, religious allegory. So, what made you think, “Hmmm… I’m going to take a go at it.”

Maria Dahvana Headley: The short answer is… man, I don’t know either, I never set out to write a twisted, dystopian religious allegory, and then, it just happens. That answer suffices, in some ways, but…

The long answer is, I woke up one morning from a dream in which the line “The cat is my henchman, I shall not want” appeared. It was obvious that the line wanted a religious story, given that it is Psalm 23 twisted by my brain into something not, so I set about writing one. Right about the time I had this dream, my genius friend, accordionist and composer, Patrick Farrell told me an epic story about an Eastern European tour he’d gone on, and a quest for fish soup. From there came the idea of a traveling band fucking around all over, losing their bandleader, having unholy difficulties on a long tour. Patrick’s a total badass, and a blisteringly strange and funny storyteller. (Go and buy some of his work, either Gold Dust, which is an accordion and trumpet album with Ben Holmes—I’m especially obsessed with Patrick’s composition, “Black Handkerchief Dance”or Yiddish Art Trio, which is modern art weirdo klezmer. This is what I listened to the whole time I was writing this story.) What bandleader would want fish soup, more than a bandleader in the form of a cat? The idea of this really problematic fucker of a cat sharing his lives came in equal parts from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and from Puss in Boots. And then, because I knew I wanted to tell a story about a traveling band, it made sense to go to Bremen. In this case, I was inspired by a Scottish version of “The Town Musicians of Bremen” story, The White Pet.” In that story, the White Pet is a sheep who is going to be killed at Christmas, and he assembles his band out of other animals destined either for feast ingredients or pagan sacrifice, including a bull, a dog, a cat, a rooster, and a goose. It’s darker than the version we know. I guess because “The White Pet” is specifically about a troupe of animals taking to the road in order to avoid being killed at Christmas. So, I thought about darkness and war, about musicians and artists being murdered, deep storytelling cultures being murdered, and that started me thinking about the life and work of Bruno Schulz, one of the most exquisite writers I can think of, who died in 1942 because he was Jewish, shot by a Nazi while walking home in Poland with a loaf of bread. It fills me with rage. So Schulz’s “Street of Crocodiles” and the devastation and horror of war climbed into this story on every level. I’m thinking about that a lot lately, especially as America is refusing to take refugees. What the fuck kind of evil are we denying we’re doing? This is evil. I’ve been thinking about that. The notion of the three Marys being part of the band came from the call and response that is part of miracle play structure and is also part of the Bremen story. The specific miracle play I used here is the very short medieval liturgical drama Quem Quaeritis? which was performed at Easter, another feast period. The three Marys in it tell an angel they are seeking Jesus in the sepulcher, and the angel tells them that he is already gone, he is risen. Oh, and then I listened to The Band’s “The Weight a few million times (the linked version has Mavis Staples, which is an obvious yes, and here is a bonus of Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show doing it too, because damn). I’ve been listening to The Band since I was a baby. Take a load off, Fanny. That song, that chorus. It makes me fucking cry. Put the weight right on me. I just think that should be the offer all the time. That’s what we should be saying to refugees. Also, the history of the song itself? Is basically what I was going for with this story. It’s a combo of holy story, of references to religion, mixed with Nazareth, PA, home base of Martin guitars, people Levon Helm knew in Arkansas, and the heavy influence of Luis Buñuel. Social obligations, travelers’ journeys, music, and “Carmen and the Devil walking side by side.”

So, yeah, that was the recipe for this story. I stuck it in the fire and cooked it. 

Uncanny Magazine: The religious symbolism in this is breathtaking: the resurrection motif; the trinity of Marys; the use of the trumpet; and the idea of death, rather than birth, at Christmas. When approaching such a huge, entrenched monolith such as Christianity, how to you begin to tackle that? Is it small bites of the elephant or do you tackle the entire thing head on?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I just do it. I throw myself at a story and see what happens. If I thought, “I’m going to take on a monolith,” I’d be too stressed. In all my work, I’m always crazy–quilting stories from all over the map together. The idea of death at Christmas is built into the idea of feasting and consumerist shopping, the notion that some people might be unjustly eaten by others. And in truth, I wasn’t specifically only wanting to write about Christianity, not at all. I was interested in writing about cultures, the impact of music on communities, and on the things that carry through war and suffering, people fucking in fields, people eating together, people sharing drinks and beds. The story ended up with themes surrounding Christianity, but the version I’m drawing from is old, and it’s somewhat different from some of the things we think about now. It comes from early miracle literature, early sacrifice rituals, the borders of pagan culture, and Christian culture. I’m always interested in the borders. 

Uncanny Magazine: Do you consider yourself to be religious?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Nope. But I’m very interested in community motivated into action by belief, and very interested in the lived ideas of mercy and compassion to others, which are, of course personified in that case by Jesus. Mind, we’ve mostly gotten far, far from that. I wasn’t raised with religion at all, and I am not religious. I don’t believe in God. I believe that Jesus existed and that he was probably a very good guy, but I also believe there were equally good people throughout the history of humans, as well there should be. I believe hard in community, in love given without expectation of profit, in generosity, and in feeding the hungry, the homeless, the unlucky, in sharing your stuff. I am pissed off to be living in a country wherein those overall values have become very secondary, and I KNOW that’s not the entire nature of the country. It troubles me that it could be this way at all, for any of us.

Uncanny Magazine: The title of the story—“The Virgin Played Bass”—is interesting since the story is told from the perspective of accordion–player Bruno. When plotting this story, how did his character evolve, not only as the story’s emotional center but also the clear narrator of the tale?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Bruno is a cross between my imaginary version of Bruno Schulz and a wandering troubadour. Also he has a great deal of the aforementioned Patrick Farrell’s voice, in terms of style, because his storytelling was in my mind as I wrote. Bruno has a soul motivated by beauty as much as anything. He’s always seeking it, because in his previous life, he was all about himself, all about his accomplishments. Now he longs for the apricots that his family used to make into brandy. He longs for a baby and a wife, for his parents. He also knows that he is less fierce, less forceful, than the women in his band. The cat is crazy. Bruno’s not. But he’s traveling with these three Marys who have been through everything. In the original Mary stories, it’s the same thing. Horrible, horrible things have happened to them, and they are furious, not passive. They aren’t strong because of their history, but strong in spite of it. The idea of the Virgin carrying a bass strapped to her back tells me nothing stops her. So, Bruno tells us about his nine lives with this band. These musicians are in theory the entertainment during a war, but they’re also carrying things from place to place, singing these songs, bringing this miracle to people on the edges. 

Uncanny Magazine: Despite the trappings of fantasy and fairytale, the pain, utter devastation, and futility of war is the cold core of this story. As a writer, do you think it’s easier to deal with the horrific in genre fiction than straight fiction? Do you think it insulates the reader or strips back the complacency we’ve adopted after being bombarded with endless news cycles featuring war and refugees?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I don’t know! People tend to think my fantastical work is dark as dark can be. This story is, but it’s also full of miraculous magic. I also wrote about war in “The Thirteen Mercies,” which came out in the Nov/Dec Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. That’s a very different version, from a condemned and criminal soldier’s point of view, not from the POV of a civilian victim of warfare, walking through lands that have been blasted by fighting. That story was too dark for plenty of people, but I thought it was about right in terms of wrongful justification for war crimes.

All writing from POVs we’ve not lived is fantasy, so I think a lot of writing about war is fantasy. I don’t draw lines between genres, normally, as I could give a rat’s ass about boundaries in that regard. I think all stories are full of wonders and hopes and wished–for outcomes—hence they are all in some ways fabulist stories. I hope that this story’s version of war is resonant for readers, and reminds them of what it looks like to destroy life, culture, farmland, song, forests, in service of… nothing. The war in this story is for something we never hear about. It doesn’t matter what this war is about, ultimately, just that it involves destruction for everyone who lives in the lands the war is walking over. I think this is the case with many wars. So much is lost. So many people are killed for no reason. In this version, as in many real–world versions, those who are victimized by the war have nowhere to go but the warzone.

In the original story “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” the band never makes it to Bremen. We rarely make it to Bremen. So here, I thought, oh let’s get there, let’s try to get there. “The White Pet” ends with the animals living. The last line is: “When the thieves heard that, they did not return to seek their lot of money; and the White Pet and his comrades got it to themselves; and it kept them peaceably as long as they lived.”

Uncanny Magazine: Congratulations on the appearance of your recent novel, Magonia, on The New York Time’s Best Seller list! Are you the type of creator who looks upon that as a crowning achievement and recognition of hard work; or do you see that as a new benchmark with the resulting pressure that brings?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I was delighted!!! I mean, it’s pretty gorgeous to hit that list, from my own personal beginnings, rural Idaho, a loudmouth storyteller, but not someone who was groomed to this. It’s a little like getting to be an astronaut. And it’s really nice. That said, it’s a bestseller list—which has little to do with whether I kick ass at writing. It has to do with lots of other things as well as the writing itself. So, for me, pragmatist that I am, all it means is that I drank some champagne and then got back to work.

All I can do is try to get the writing right on my own terms, and that means I work all the time, trying to keep myself raw. It would be terrible to stop learning new things about the world because I hit a goal. That’s why I do this, not for lists, but for unearthing lost stories, for twisting together startling lives out of words. It will be quite nice to say that I’m a NY Times bestselling author, but all I want really is to keep finding new best writings in whatever form they show up in. I want to keep hitting my own Best Version of Your Work lists, and hopefully leveling up at my own goals as I go along. So, yay for achievements, and also the laptop never closes. I love doing this work. 

Uncanny Magazine: Congratulations again, and thank you for taking the time to talk 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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