Interview: C. S. E. Cooney

C. S. E. Cooney is a singer-songwriter, audiobook narrator, actor, poet, and writer. She won the Rhysling Award for her poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride” in 2010, and the World Fantasy Award for her prose collection Bone Swans in 2016. Her alter-ego, the rock star Brimstone Rhine, has produced two albums with more in the works, and she has narrated over 60 audiobooks. Her work spans genres and media, but all of it is infused with a dazzling and infectious energy. “Though She Be But Little” is not her first piece to appear in Uncanny Magazine, but it is perhaps her most experimental.

Uncanny Magazine: I had the strange privilege of being there in the nascent stages of this story a few years ago. You asked my mother about Bunco, and later dedicated it to her and to me. Thank you! I’ve never had a story dedicated to me before! Did you have any idea then about what kind of story it would grow into way back then?

C. S. E. Cooney: Weren’t we on our way to the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts when that happened?

Uncanny Magazine: We were, yes.

C. S. E. Cooney: And was that the first time I met your mom? Maybe the second? I bet I was over-excited, what with the road trip and the prospect of Ferris wheels and fried food and all… and then to come across a word like BUNCO! I remember fixating on it. BUNCO! I mean, it’s built for ALL CAPS, isn’t it? Shouting. Ringing bells. Wearing feathers and beads. It’s like Mardi Gras in the mouth! 

For all the semi-hysterical excitement of discovering a new word and imagining Chihuahua ladies (I imagined Chihuahua ladies almost simultaneously with the word BUNCO, but I can’t remember why… unless… does you mom have a Chihuahua? Did someone else in the car? That’s the only logical explanation).

Uncanny Magazine: My mother used to have a Chihuahua. He was black and his name was Batley. He was a great dog. We might have been talking about him that day, though I can’t remember.

C. S. E. Cooney: I’d almost forgotten the origin story of this story by the time I finally finished it three years later. I’ve reconstructed most of the pieces since then, but what I can tell you for sure about it is, when I stumbled across the first three scenes from “Though She Be But Little” in January earlier this year (then titled “The Post-Argentum Face-Off of Emma Anne and the Loping Man”), when I was looking for inspiration in my “To Be Finished” folder, I had no idea where this story came from, why I wrote it, what I was thinking, and how the heck I meant to finish it. 

Totally clueless. I just read through it, barked out a giggle-cuss, and then Carlos Hernandez, who was in the other room asked, “What happened? Why are you laughing?” 

To which I replied something like, “I just found the weirdest half of a story I ever wrote in my whole life—including The Big Bah-Ha!—which is saying something!!!—and I have no memory of writing it.” 

I was having the experience, I realized, of coming to my own writing the way an absolute stranger would. For example, my novella The Big Bah-Ha, which is… um, a post-apocalyptic katabasis story with dead children and clowns… makes PERFECT sense to me in its entirety. It does, in essence, exactly what I meant it to do. (Whatever that was.) But I imagine that someone coming cold to that particular novella could be like, WTF??? 

And there I was, WTFing myself in Hernandez’s living room in Queens, but also laughing my butt off—which I took as a pretty good sign. So I sat down with this little fragmented story and decided, “Well, hey! This is a great opportunity to write an Exquisite Corpse with myself. HOW OFTEN DO I GET TO DO THAT???” and finished it in a couple of days. 

However—and this is kind of funny—I did have to go onto YouTube and watch a bunch of ladies tell me how to play Bunco, because I’d forgotten everything your mother had ever told me… even, at that point, the fact that she’d told me! Those YouTube Bunco ladies cracked me up. Bunco is basically an excuse to have a party with a lot of women friends, and drink what you want, and make a lot of loud noises. I sort of love it! 

As I was trying to figure out how to finish “Though She Be But Little,” I kept picking at that blank spot in my memory, trying to see what it veiled. I was REALLY glad I saw the dedication at the beginning of the story; that was my first clue. “Oh! It’s dedicated to Jill and Julia! That’s nice. Gosh, I wonder why???” 

Little by little, most of it—not all, but most—started coming back to me. Facebook helped too, I think. You, particularly? 

So. Let’s see. The description of the abandoned lot with the smokestack comes right out of a walk I went on one afternoon with author Francesca Forrest. We were wandering around the feral campus of what had once been the Belchertown State School, which closed in the early nineties due to inhumane conditions. That place was so wild, so serene, so luminous—and so laden with frightening history. It marked my memory; as my friend Samu Rahn said, after reading Nabokov: “It leaves a bright scar.” 

How quickly the green and gold overgrows the bones. It was on that walk I learned about “brownfield sites”—both their difficulties and their enormous potential. That sort of community-changing hope out of decades of despair, with time and a wilderness between them, makes me restless with story. 

Another piece I recalled about beginning “Though She Be But Little” is the protagonist’s name. I named her after my friend Emma Hanson. We were both working in Admissions at Mystic Aquarium at the time (this was before I started narrating audiobooks), and she was studying to be an X-ray tech. She’s a big reader, and so am I. Sometimes we’d read together, or I’d be writing. I don’t know if it was one of those, “Want me to name a character after you?” moments or what. But I thought she was very impressive. An X-ray tech! So fascinating! And fabulous! I don’t have a lot of friends who aren’t artists of one variety or another—so, an X-ray tech! That seems as far-fetched and alien to me as a Pirate Queen! Or a Wall Street broker. 

Speaking of pirates, I don’t know exactly where Margo Howard came from, but her flying alligator is, of course, straight out of Peter Pan. Well, Captain Hook had a crocodile, but… I think the alligator’s hovercraft capabilities are an improvement to the design, personally. And anyway, isn’t a pirate captain even more terrible if their coincident man-eating reptile is their ally rather than their natural predator? 

Maybe I was thinking about feral children. Girls, in particular, who do not or cannot grow up. I had this old idea since I was a teenager about “The Everlasting Tiger Lily,” a deathless warrior-girl to hold up against Peter Pan’s tenure as a professional perpetual trickster boy. But, really, I’d rather build my own world than muck about in Barrie’s. 

Lastly, praying mantises are REALLY COOL. And scary. Did you see that photograph of the mantis totally pwning that hummingbird? Well, I don’t think I had, at that point. But there were a lot of mantises hanging around the aquarium for some reason. Also, I was probably thinking about the nature of urban legends, like that Slender Man pop culture thing that was making its whip-arounds at the time, and wondering how to make my own post-urban legend walk as creeptastically as that.  

I mean, I say all this, but the truth is, I’m not really sure. I don’t have any idea what I was thinking. I think I was dreaming out loud.

Uncanny Magazine: You noted that this story feels a bit like your novella, The Big Bah-Ha, but it shares some common themes with your other work as well. In particular, you seem to be drawn to examining childhood as a surreal, sometimes comedic, and often grotesque country. How well do those things match your lived experience of childhood? What were you like as a child? Were you fierce, or timid, or both at once, a bit like Emma Anne?

C. S. E. Cooney: After I finished “Though She Be But Little” and really took a long look at it, I realized it was eerily like The Big Bah-Ha. At first it disconcerted me. I wondered, “AM I REPEATING MYSELF? ALREADY? BALLS!” 

But then I comforted myself with the notion that composers do that little “variations on a theme” thing, and—after all—it’s not really the same story. Is it? (Big eyes.)  I do think all those kids from the two stories would probably be friends, though. And I’m almost sure Margo Howard and the Flabberghast would share a bottle of wine at sunset, and drink to the end of the world. Maybe someday I could put together a “Feral Children at World’s End” collection, or maybe I’ll stop at two, though that seems unlikely. 

I think part of my predication comes from reading too many fairy tales and too much Stephen King, both of which (whom?) like to thrust children into scary situations, and watch them triumph. Or if not triumph, at least kick ass before dying tragi-heroically. Or if they DO die tragi-heroically, they also get cut out of the belly of the wolf, and have a chance to kick ass again. Writer Sharon Shinn once told me that all authors have a Thing they write about. Hers, she said, was lost children. Mine, she said, was sacrifice and death. Or more, death and what happens after. I hope I don’t ALWAYS write about that, jeez, but so far she’s pretty right about it. I looked at my story collection Bone Swans in a new light after that. And also my novel Miscellaneous Stones: Necromancer. I mean… NECROMANCER???

My own childhood? I think I was fierce with my brothers, and retiring in large parties. Unless, of course, they asked me to sing something, and then I was not shy. But I often had to be coaxed at family parties from behind the furniture where I was hiding with a book. And by coaxed I mean “scolded.” Usually by my Mima. But I wasn’t just fierce with my brothers. We did a lot of playing pretend, and myth-retelling, and acting out musicals, and reciting poetry out loud. We had a dress-up trunk that gradually turned into our regular wardrobe—to a greater or lesser degree, for some of us, but even as adults, we all still love costumes. 

My mother’s greatest concern about me, when I was a child, is that I hardly ever seemed “here.” I was so often dreaming into my own future, or really into exploring any other world but this one. I lacked curiosity about here. (I found it in my twenties, at least. Thank goodness.) I was oblivious and a bit bewildered, absorbed in my own thoughts. I think I saw this world through an overlay of several other ones. I had a habit of mythologizing my friends. Or turning them into characters in my books. I still do, I guess.

I was fairly solemn, I think—until I turned thirteen or so. My sense of humor took several years to develop, or for me to understand that I even had one, or how it worked. I can remember the first time I laughed at a movie because I thought it was funny (The Lion in Winter), or laughed out loud while reading a book (a play, actually: Moliere’s Tartuffe). My sense of humor, when it came, it sprang out pretty feral and fanged, talking in a thousand cartoon voices. It’s highly influenced by early exposure to Sondheim and Shakespeare, Edward Lear and Tom Lehrer. No one ever told me I was funny (in the comedic sense) until college, although they often called me strange to my face. 

That’s mostly what I remember feeling, as a child. Strange. 

Maybe that’s a universal experience. 

Uncanny Magazine: If the world experienced a great tumult like the one in “Though She Be But Little” where everyone transformed into something that reflected their true selves, what would you be, and what kind of endowments would you have?

C. S. E. Cooney: Ah, jeez. I’d love to be a mime. Maybe one of those gold lamé mimes?

A really good one, you know? And glittery. And I love to be able to have the power, as a gold lamé mime, to shape something out of thin air until people believe in it SO MUCH, it stays there. Invisible, but solid. Coils of ropes. Rowboats. Hammer and nails. Bouquets of flowers. Just tripping people up, or being there at the exact right time an invisible coil of rope would be most useful. 

That would be awesome. My gold lamé would be my endowment. And gold body paint. Lots of it. All over. Everywhere. Plus, invisible glass boxes. You never know when you need an invisible glass box. 

Now, as you’ve read in “Though She Be But Little,” Emma Anne’s endowments are a stuffed tiger and a stuffed weasel. I must herein confess that I do indeed already own a stuffed tiger. His name is Stripes (my youngest brother named it “Stripes” when he was a toddler) (actually, I stole it from him) (I was in my twenties, and I stole a stuffed tiger from my nine-year-old brother) (I have since retroactively asked his permission to keep it and he’s pretty okay with it) (I mean, he’s all grown up and graduated from college now, and really into MUSCLES) (basically, he became the tiger I stole). I also own a stuffed weasel named Leonardo. 

You, Julia Rios, gave me that weasel (or maybe it’s a ferret) (doesn’t really matter; I think of him as a weasel) (even though he’s a ferret) one afternoon when I was at your house.

Uncanny Magazine: That plush toy was an impulse purchase from IKEA back when we first moved to Boston and were furnishing our place. IKEA no longer carries it, but all the eBay listings call it both a ferret and a weasel, so I think you’re all right either way.

C. S. E. Cooney: I happened to see him on your bookshelf, and fell in love with him. I did not, for the record, steal him from you. I merely announced that he was beautiful. And my friend. Possibly the love of my life. Very loudly. Often. And then, VOILA! MAGICALLY you gave him to me! Out of the magnanimity of your gracious self. And then I named him Leonardo after my favorite Da Vinci painting, Lady with an Ermine. Or maybe Woman with the Weasel. I’ve seen it both ways.

Uncanny Magazine: This story is set in Rhode Island, your home of the past few years, yet it’s a topsy-turvy Rhode Island. Do you think you will ever write something with a more concrete and less surreal interpretation of that area?

C. S. E. Cooney: Gosh, I don’t know. That would require research. I wrote a poem in the same magic Rhode Island-ish vein called “The Hooligan” once, published in Goblin Fruit (Spring 2013), but I don’t often write straight-up in this world. I just don’t think I’m very good at it. Everything in this world has a name and a past. A tree is never just a tree. There is science and history and vocabulary in the outline of a roof, in a water tower, and I think the sheer volume of named objects in a world I did not have to invent would overwhelm me. The thisness of things. Their haecceity. Or—as Carlos Hernandez might say—their “qualia.” 

Rhode Island is a shared world, and I’m just a small part of it. What if I get it wrong? No, no. Far easier to turn the sky into silver, and see what falls from it. 

Then again, life is long (if we’re lucky). I might write a thousand million things I cannot guess at. How terrible to set boundaries for myself out of fear. I fear (to go back to an earlier question) I am more timid as an adult than I was as a child. Except about dogs. Child Claire and Adult Claire are both scared of dogs. Only teenaged Claire, who had a dog, was a bit more mature about them. 

Uncanny Magazine: One intriguing thing about this story is the variety of complex female characters in it. The only ones we really see speaking to each other at length are Emma Anne and Captain Margaret Howard, but there are also the Chihuahua ladies, who appear in person only at the end, but whose shadows reach long over the whole narrative. All of these women seem sometimes one way and sometimes another. Timid, fierce, biting, generous, enemies, friends. Did you think about these complexities deliberately when you were writing? What drew you to them?

C. S. E. Cooney: Oh, people are never one thing or another. Though I admit I haven’t seen many Chihuahua ladies got up in red high heels and Bunco bells. Me, I can go from sunny to stormy to pensive to petulant in the course of five minutes, and that’s just me alone with myself. Add a friend into the mix—of any gender—and the resulting chemical cocktail is minxish to say the least. I’ve had the experience of loving my friends (or myself) but just not LIKING us very much. I have to go put myself in a corner or something until I can think clearly again, be less intolerant, less exasperated, less raw.

Also, a thought: two people who are friends in one set of circumstances—social status, the habit of long years, location—won’t necessarily find it easy to be friends in another. Like, when you’re both sixty-something-year-old neighbors, and suddenly one of you is eight and one of you is an alligator-riding pirate. What happens when you turn into an archetype, with archetypal expectations and endowments thrust upon you, very much at odds with who you used to be? 

A friend of mine once told me, “I think you’ve an outdated opinion of yourself.” What if that happens to the whole world? It changes, and everything you thought you knew until that point has to be re-examined. What act of kindness or loyalty might renew a long-standing friendship under those trying circumstances? Feed each other. Extend a hand when you can, or an invitation, or a word of advice. Celebrate hard after life’s great battles. Love what changes, and what remains. 

I don’t know. I don’t have answers. And I’m not sure I was thinking of any of this while I was writing. I just liked these characters, and then there was a story. Or was it the other way around? 

Uncanny Magazine: Your work is fascinating and vibrant, and I can never get enough of it. What do you have coming up?

C. S. E. Cooney: I’ve a novel making its Great Agent Quest right now. Which reminds me, I must submit twelve billion kajillion more query letters; excuse me! It is the aforementioned Miscellaneous Stones: Necromancer, and it is about a girl who grows up in a family of assassins, but with one catch. She has an allergy to violence. Her body/mind repels violence and death so exuberantly that, after a great deal of training, she’ll one day have the ability to raise the dead. Very prestigious. If she can survive childhood. Spoiler: which she does. And then the novel happens. 

Then, there are my Dark Breakers novellas. It started out as a self-publishing project, mainly inspired by people like you, and Patty Templeton, and other writers of my acquaintance who can DIY like badasses. I wanted to see if I could. So I wrote The Breaker Queen, and then The Two Paupers, and put them up on Amazon, with the intention of doing the same to the third novella, Desdemona and the Deep. (Whose protagonist, dear Julia, as you know, I named after your wonderful cat, whom we all miss very much.)  

To my everlasting amazement, The Two Paupers got picked up by Rich Horton for his Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. Then, in early July 2017, I signed a contract with Lightspeed Magazine to reprint The Breaker Queen. Now, I’d just finished a first draft of the third novella, Desdemona and the Deep—which gave me all sorts of ideas about how to go back and fix the first two. So, when the Lightspeed thing happened, I sort of panicked and asked editor John Joseph Adams if I could do “a light revision” on The Breaker Queen. He said sure. It was VERY MOTIVATING. With the result that I revised that, started revisions on The Two Paupers, and am working my way back up to Desdemona

What I’m hoping, once the next draft of Desdemona and the Deep is finished, is that I can either find a publisher for it, or publish it myself. In any case, the next step after that is to collect all three chronological novellas into a single manuscript called Dark Breakers, and see if I can sell it somewhere. Writer Delia Sherman says something like that would be called “a mosaic novel,” a phrase I find VERY PRETTY.

Meanwhile, I’ve started a new novel. Or, at least, the plot is brand new, and the world is new, but some of the characters are old friends indeed. I thought I’d give them (and me) a new playground to romp about in. It’s called Shadowstalkers. A working title. It’ll be a sort of political intrigue thriller taking place in the University City of Kelciel. With cool magic. And spies. And maybe some theatre. 

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for allowing us to come on a wild alligator airship journey through your storybrain, Claire!

Julia Rios

Julia Rios is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. Currently the Fiction Editor for Fireside Magazine, she won the Hugo award in 2017 as Poetry and Reprint editor for Uncanny Magazine, and was a Hugo finalist as a Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons. She is a co-host of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, a general SF discussion podcast, and Walkthrough, a discussion of exercise and geekery with Amal El-Mohtar and Layla Al-Bedawi. She has narrated stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders.

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