Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is a hurricane in a ballgown, a woman who spent a year saying “Yes” and writer who can spin truth into fairytales. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award–nominated short fiction has graced the pages of top SF/F publications and has been consistently featured in “Year’s Best of” anthologies. Her 2006 best selling memoir The Year of Yes was followed by a dark fantasy/alt–history novel (Queen of Kings); a co–edited anthology with Neil Gaiman (Unnatural Creatures); a novella, co–written with Kat Howard (The End of the Sentence), and a soon–to–be published YA novel Magonia (HarperCollins, 2015). She collects ideas and nuggets of fact, carefully hoarding them in a secret file of curiosities until they are ready to be polished into something magical. Her stories make you believe in the world you can only see out of the corner of your eye. But be careful if you’re offered a drink as you may be getting more than you bargained for. To learn more about Headley, visit her website at www.mariadahvanaheadley.com.

Editor’s Note: Headley provided photos to illustrate this interview. However, due to copyright issues we can only provide links to the websites featuring the photos. Do take a few moments to click—the facts behind this story are fascinating. Warning: Uncanny Magazine is not responsible for the hours that will be lost following this link trail!

Uncanny Magazine: “If You Were A Tiger, I’d Have To Wear White” is a wildly fantastical story peppered with real people, places, and history. What factual nugget first caught your attention and inspired you to spin this into a debauched fairytale?

Maria Dahvana Headley: It was the Mabel Stark part of it that first grabbed me—for those who don’t know, Mabel Stark was a real person. She had a checkered history, almost all of which is accurately depicted in the story. She was a wildcat trainer for over 50 years, was Mae West’s double in I’m No Angel, worked until she was 79, trained dozens of tigers, and was tremendously eccentric. She really did wear a custom–made white leather suit so that certain feline, um, raptures would look like mauling to the audience.

Photo Links:
Mae West and Mabel Stark, 1933
Mabel Stark at Jungleland with Satan the Tiger (really), 1967

I’m not sure how this happened exactly, but somehow my editor/collaborator boy and I were deep in another discussion and he said “It’s like the tiger lady and her sponge–cleanable white leather suit…” How had I not heard of this?! He showed me. I screamed. I thought of the title for this story, and then we both screamed, because it was clearly a story that needed writing. It started out being only about Stark and her tigers, but then I researched her later years at Jungleland and it grew into this half Jungle Book, half broken Hollywood fairy tale situation. Mr. Ed really lived there. So did all of the MGM lions, until 1969. I went pretty deep to find accounts of everything in this story—various anecdotes by children who went to Jungleland in the 50s, old circus brochures, the specifics of the auction that sold off the animals, and the various woeful overdose deaths of Mabel Stark, Bamboo Harvester (the horse actor that played Mr. Ed)…yeah. Also, there’s a lot of photographic evidence of the amazing weirdness of the place. It actually was a kind of retirement home for animal actors. Gable and Garbo really visited. The photos I describe in the story are real, though their context is not!

Photo Links:
Greta Garbo and Leo the MGM Lion, 1926, Jungleland
Clark Gable at Jungleland with lion cubs, 1946

So, there’s the real stuff, the history…the debauched fairytale aspects came from me, obviously. Those are because I (of course) adore Angela Carter. The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride, well, they’re both obviously part of what got me going into this story. Carter is so dark and hot and strange, I wanted to do a riff like that, set in the late 60s, with black humor mixed into longing for a lost world, which frankly is exactly what was happening in the late 60s anyway. The back to the land situation, flower children—that’s always sounded very Ovidian. And so this is a bit Ovidian too.

Here’s what I usually hate about Beauty and the Beast: The Beast so often has to transform into a handsome human prince in order to stay involved with Beauty. Why? Fuck that transformation. The Beast stays beast in my versions of this kind of story (also in The End of the Sentence, which Kat Howard and I wrote together). Humans are beasts too. We’re ALL bloody beasts, damn it! (Forgive me while I hop onto my soapbox regarding not giving a damn about commercialized standardized prettiness.) I don’t think we have to be the same to love one another. (Note: I don’t literally think love affairs with tigers and lions are a good idea for humans either…) So I always want to write stories where the beasts stay themselves and wherein love is as complicated and beastly and bewildering and between opposites as, well, love is.

In The Tiger’s Bride, Beauty transforms. Here, no one does. Everyone is what they are, albeit all the animals are talkative. It’s an experiment. Sidebar: I love lost world stories and in this case, a retirement home for animal actors meant that I could have all these animal actors in a kind of surreal Sunset Boulevard scenario, lamenting the loss of their previous golden age fairy tale, even as Hollywood changed too. Now Jungleland is a shopping mall, and actors like Garbo and Gable? Come on. But this story is inspired by one part Angela Carter, one part Kipling. The third part, what can I tell you? That’s my own skewed head.

Uncanny Magazine: It is fascinating to see the layers of storytelling in this tale unfold and build upon each other. With so many powerful characters and intriguing stories, how did you decide upon the narrator and framework?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I was obsessing on the notion of the hostile subject. The infamous Esquire Magazine Gay Talese profile of Sinatra “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was written at around the same time Jungleland got auctioned down to the dirt. Talese, of course, never managed to interview Sinatra, but he wrote a powerful piece of narrative nonfiction about the man’s outlines nonetheless. I’m not sure how I started thinking that the MGM lions were like the Sinatras of Jungleland, they’re the Kings and famous only for their roars, after all, (though I suppose I could’ve made this an Elvis and Graceland story). But I did, and that’s how I got here. I wanted an outsider to tell us about the place because an insider in Jungleland would be too focused on their own role in the place’s history.

You’re right: there were so many stories at Jungleland. I wanted to be able to touch on as many as I could. I was already doing the research a reporter would and bringing a struggling reporter in as my narrator made that a bit easier. And I love that kind of classic Hollywood trope, the young reporter investigating with an inexperienced–yet–jaundiced eye, and finding something much deeper than he’d imagined. I like loss of innocence stories too, apparently. The world is wide. There are such fucking astonishing things in it. You don’t even have to dig very far down.

Uncanny Magazine: There is an underlying theme of commercialism and exploitation in this story—what the characters, both human and animal, will do for their craft, for fame and to stay relevant. As an artist do you feel a kinship to the circus atmosphere of Jungleland? Is there ever a struggle to reconcile your art with “business”?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Hmm, I guess I don’t really see a massive difference between “art” and “business.” I’ve been allowed to be a tattooed lady dressed in spangles for years, and to also be the circus girl who gets invited to parties in the mainstream world where socialites show me their own tiger tattoos, frankly.

Otherwise, I’m lucky to have a mind that has typically been quite willing to think up stories that have a gettable hook, while being very odd in content nonetheless. So, that’s fortunate in business terms! My Glitter & Mayhem story, “Such & Such Said to So & So,” was, for example, a police detective noir with talking animals and sentient cocktails, but I just described it as a story about a nightclub in which the cocktails came alive. Anyone who’s ever liked a drink too much understands the dangers of a seductive cocktail. I try to ground my bizarre plots in known boilerplate truths of human society: Here it’s “You fall for someone everyone else thinks is wrong for you, and it has to be kept secret.” But my most recent project, the YA novel Magonia, is Earth girl ends up on a sailing ship in a sky kingdom. I wrote it in a frenzy, simply because it was what I wanted to write. When I sold it, the publisher, HarperCollins, apparently had a meeting in which they declared it the weirdest, but also that they didn’t care that it was weird, and that it was coming home with them. My feeling is that you just have to be able to quickly convince readers that they want to live in your world. I think it helps, of course, to be able to boil something seemingly crazy down into an appealing one–liner. I learned that from writing screenplays and plays back in my first career.

I’d love to make lots more money, and I suppose if I wrote straight commercial things—particularly screenplays, maybe I could? But who knows? I think Hollywood wouldn’t be inclined to make “If You Were A Tiger,” into a movie even though it’s all about Hollywood! I only like inventing when my inventions startle me by exploding, though, and so, here I am. 

Uncanny Magazine: This story is evocative of both Golden Era Hollywood and Hunter S. Thompson–inspired Gonzo Journalism. If you could to be whisked back in time, which era would you choose to live and why?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I like this time, despite everything that is broken about it. Insulin–dependent diabetic that I am I really like being able to have insulin, which has only been around for roughly the last 100 years. Before that you’d just die of diabetes. I like the internet, and the universe at the touch of a fingertip. I’m a gobbler of glories and to live in this moment in history means that the glories are right there for the taking in terms of thousands of years of art and words. How could I find better? The internet equalizes information access in a way we’ve never had before. I think about this particularly because I grew up broke in a rural area of Idaho, and were I to live in another time, I’d be more likely to end up without status in a place without access to arcane information, rather than hitting some kind of class jackpot and getting to hang out in the Library of Alexandria, able to read all the texts in all the languages. Besides, I can write myself into other times. That’s part of what’s great about being a writer. You can imagine yourself into all sorts of places. But the places I imagine are full of fantastical elements, so they’re better to imagine than to live in, I have no doubt.

Of course I’d like to have a visit to Elizabethan England to see the first performance of The Tempest, but if I was whisked there and was me, a thirty–something woman, I’d most likely be very busy running around wrangling pigs and small children. Truth is that throughout a lot of human history, no matter what my brain was like, I’d look like a woman undeserving of knowledge. I realize that to lots of people all over the world, women still look that way, and it makes me furious. I guess the good news if I’d time traveled is that maybe I could have fought for earlier access to the vote/education/reproductive rights for women. But then I’d not likely have had time to write.

Uncanny Magazine: “If You Were A Tiger, I’d Have To Wear White” is set in the recent past. The recently released novella The End of the Sentence, co–authored with Kat Howard, also has a contemporary setting. As a SF/F writer, are you more attracted to stories set in our very recognizable world or world–building your own universe? Do you find one to be easier than the other?

Maria Dahvana Headley: If there’s an equivalent, it’s that I’m a mixologist. I like to tilt our world ‘til three parts of it spill out, and then pour in three shots worth of something else entirely, some bitters, some sugar, and shake it. I usually want our known surroundings in there as the main ingredient, though, by which I mean, most of my stuff takes place on Earth, in human history somewhere. Even “Dim Sun,” which was in Women Destroy Science Fiction, and is set in a sort of Douglas Adams–y outer space, goes deep into the memories of the characters and their time on an odd version of Earth. I love grabbing and scrambling history from deeper than the last 100 years, of course: Classical Rome, 19th century Germany. I’ve done both of those.

The people I know who invent entire worlds, they rock my brain. It’s like they’ve made a new kind of whiskey out of some astral ingredient. I don’t know how they do what they do. Even though I do some alternate world–building myself in things like Magonia, I’m so attached to Earth, to its oddities, to its tender strangenesses, to its particular flaws, pains, and glories.

I was just reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and I tweeted that it was like a book–length version of my favorite part of Our Town, the speech when a newly–dead Emily Webb says good–bye to everything in her living world. That speech takes me down (who am I kidding—the whole play gets more genius every year older I get) because it’s the common things she’s listing: It’s clocks ticking, it’s coffee. Everything I write has a little of that in it because I first read it when I was 15 or so and it hit me hard. I look at Our Town now, and of course, it’s a fantasy. It has ghosts and a Stage Manager narrating life as it goes along. It’s marketed as being naturalistic, but it’s totally stylized fantasy, set on earth, amongst humans. So, that’s one of my touchstones.

I could probably keep diagramming the wonders of this world forever and then garnishing them with almosts and maybes and I wishes. I mean, in this story Siberian tigers named Satan are both animal show performers and famous for acting in Chekhov’s plays. So, clearly? I muddled our known world together with some talking tiger liqueur and some Russian bitters.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for chatting with Uncanny Magazine and sharing the fascinating photos and links related to your amazing story!

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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