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Interview: C. S. E. Cooney

C. S. E. Cooney is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Bone Swans: Stories. Her short novel, The Twice-Drowned Saint: Being a Tale of Fabulous Gelethel, the Invisible Wonders Who Rule There, and the Apostates Who Try to Escape its Walls, can be found in Mythic Delirium’s recent anthology, The Sinister Quartet. Both her forthcoming novel Saint Death’s Daughter and her story collection Dark Breakers, will be out in 2022. Other work includes Tor.com novella Desdemona and the Deep, and a poetry collection: How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which features her Rhysling Award-winning “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction and poetry can be found in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Dragons, Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere. When she’s not writing, she’s designing games with her husband Carlos Hernandez, and recording albums of mythy-type music under the name Brimstone Rhine. Cooney has appeared in Uncanny four times previouslywith one story and three poemsand she now returns with “From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account,” an emotionally powerful story of witches and wolfcasters, academia and art.

 

Uncanny Magazine: This story has so many lovely elements—a magic system of witches and wolfcasters, a university and a museum, a heartbreaking crime committed against the protagonist. What was your starting point or inspiration for the story?

C. S. E. Cooney: So, Carlos and I are designing a GM-less TableTop Role-Playing Game called Negocios Infernales. The main mechanic is a bespoke deck of cards. On each card there is a suit (seven suits in all), an image, and an idiom. Carlos and I wrote the idioms together, and we hired artist Bek Huston for the art, and worked with her to build the images and suits of the deck.

All this to say: the cards, separate from the game, work really well as story- and poetry-prompts. Last year, in March of 2020, on the day that Broadway went dark, we went to visit my mom in Phoenix. We thought we would be staying just a week, but news from Queens, New York was so frightening—and my mom would start crying every time we talked about getting a flight home—that we ended up staying for three months. Carlos was on sabbatical, and my job as an audiobook narrator was certainly on pause, and so we were very, very lucky to be able to be so harbored.

During our stay, we did a lot of writing together, particularly experimenting with using our card deck—“La Baraja del Destino”—to inspire us. One of our writing exercises resulted in “Eerie Skins.” Particularly: a card that says, “You are the fuel your anger consumes.”

It’s a card from the Rayo (Lightning) suit, and it shows a person with a wolf’s head breaking out from their burst ribcage. We were doing question prompts that day, and Carlos’s question for me was, “What is hunting the Wolfcaster?” The anguish of the image, and the subversion inherent in the question (Carlos is so smart)—turning what is normally thought of a predator into prey—and having, personally, a great deal of built-up dudgeon from living in our fucked-up world, resulted in my story.

Uncanny Magazine: “From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account” is a written transcript of an oral history, and it feels a bit like a fairy tale wrapped in the pelt of an academic paper. What drew you to this structure?

C. S. E. Cooney: Last year, summer of 2020, my good friend, the writer Patty Templeton, was just about to graduate with her Master’s in Library Science—with a concentration in Archival Studies. This was just so cool, and a Master’s degree is so intense, that I wanted to make sure I was feting her for many months in a manner to which she (and all my friends, really) should become accustomed. (I.e., having artists of all sorts lavish them with works dedicated to their genius.)

Also, writing it this way was a structural challenge. I often look for interesting structures in a short story, and as it’s not my strong suit, it’s something I have to work at and have an eye out for. Structure is, perhaps, especially important for a first-person account. Because there’s always that question, isn’t there, about to whom, exactly, one’s narrator is talking? Also, this archival structure was an excuse to ask Patty a lot of impertinent questions about archive-y things, all those fascinating little steps, labeling and boxing, and preservation techniques, because, really, what do I know? All mistakes are mine; Patty was a CHAMPION beta-reader.

Uncanny Magazine: I loved the protagonist’s mother, and the dynamic of their parent-child relationship. Interesting, well developed characters and relationships are a strength that features strongly in your fiction—what sources do you draw from in creating them? Do your characters ever do things you don’t expect?

 C. S. E. Cooney: I’m from a big family—five brothers, the darlingest mother (all right, I admit it, almost everything I said about the protagonist’s mother can be said about my mother, and where I did or did not blur some lines might surprise you, re: claws and stuff), etc.

Long-term friendships, a close-knit community, and a municipal system in all its parts—education, peacekeeping, the arts—working together to “bend toward justice,” all of these are incredibly important to me in my real life, and I just think…I just think it’s something that should be in my fiction, too.

Do my characters ever do things I don’t expect? That’s fascinating. That’s like asking me, do you ever surprise yourself? What about your brain? Does your brain ever surprise you? …yes? All the time? I know what I am, but not what my story may be. Or how my story might then change me. I mean, sometimes I start a story and I kind of know the ending. Ahem. The story arrives as (forgive me) “AN ABSOLUTE UNIT.” But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I just want to try something. Or I had a cool image. Or a dream. Or a feeling.  Or a character voice. Or a line. Or a world in mind, but the world that is empty, and I heard Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing screaming, “THE WORLD MUST BE PEOPLED!”

So much is discovered not in the first draft—which is like choosing one’s chunk of marble for a sculpture, whether commissioned or just ’cause—but in all the drafts to come, wherein one hews out the form and figure, sometimes according to one’s own plan, sometimes according to the marble’s.

I didn’t know the end of this story when I started it. About halfway through the first draft, I drew another card from our Destino deck. (Carlos was also writing a short story; we drew together, and asked each other questions again, based on our cards, but this time, also based on whatever text we had already originating from the first draw). I don’t know when I knew the story would end with performance art. Not till the near the very end, I think. Any reference to the end at the beginning of the story went in at a later draft.

…This is a very whirligig, widening gyre-ish sort of answer, and maybe a bit ambiguous. I don’t mean to be coy. It’s just…stories surprise me. First they don’t exist, and then they do, and it’s all our own fault. Thank goodness for the drafting process.

Uncanny Magazine: If you lived in the world of this story, would you rather be a wolfcaster or a witch?

C. S. E. Cooney: Oh, WITCH ALL THE WAY. I have a huge soft spot for my witches. Wolfcasters are a new discovery, and I have to get to know them a little better. I admit I’ve spent a bit more time with this world’s witches in my novella “The Witch in the Almond Tree,” and also a little bit in my story “Witch, Beast, Saint.” The witch Mar, who has a cameo in “Eerie Skins,” is the main character in “The Witch in the Almond Tree.” Her fellow archivists are also characters in that story.

FWIW: Doornwold itself (and its plague) is mentioned in my novella “The Bone Swans of Amandale” by the rat Maurice, also a skinslipper—so I gave a little nod to him in “Eerie Skins” in that bit about rats. (Blink and you miss it!) I always meant to write another story with Mar and friends that takes place during the Plague of Doornwold and the reign of the Witch Queens. Now, if I do, I have another character—Firi, my main character in “Eerie Skins”—to play her part as a supporting character.

Whether or not that ever happens on the page, who knows? But it’s happening in my brain! Most of my stories are linked, at least by a single sentence, often more, but I like to be a little sneaky about it sometimes.

Uncanny Magazine: You have a strong background in many different arts—poetry, theater, music, prose—and I love that the climax of this story hinges on a piece of performance art. How much do your other art mediums seep into your fiction? Do you find that your prose writing influences your approach to other types of art?

C. S. E. Cooney: Well! Take “Candletown” for instance. Candletown Coal Company started life as something I mentioned in “The Canary of Candletown,” a short story I wrote for Steam-Powered II: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. It went on—in Ballads from a Distant Star, a concept album I’ve been working on—to be the location whence a bunch of miners and their families are abducted by aliens (with the permission of the company bosses, in exchange for alien tech), and taken to mine on a distant planet. Particularly it’s mentioned in the song “Sisters Lionheart,” which I wrote with my friends Dounya and Amal El-Mohtar in mind, and “Little Man Jamie.” Later, Candletown Company features in Desdemona and the Deep, my novella published by Tor.com as the name of the coal company owned by Desdemona’s father, and the site of the story’s central disaster. So, that’s one example. But in general, I’d say, yes. Seepage. Seepage everywhere. I’m a seeping sort of artist. (Eww.)

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

C. S. E. Cooney: THANK YOU FOR ASKING! I am currently working on my Dark Breakers manuscript for Mike Allen at Mythic Delirium. It collects the first two novellas set in the same world as Desdemona and the Deep, as well as three new short stories and novelettes set in that world as well. It comes out next year, around the same time as my novel Saint Death’s Daughter.

After that, I have two novellas (which are probably actually short novels, but they’re still in their first drafts so it’s hard to say) that I drafted in the latter half of 2019 that I am very eager to get back to. One’s called Fiddle and one’s called I Will Make a Ruin of Myself. I’d love to have those up and on submission by the end of the year. Carlos and I were asked to collaboratively write two short stories for two different anthologies and magazines in the meantime. I also have this very odd short story “Kissing Babies” I’ve been dying to write. Carlos and I are continuing to iterate our Negocios Infernales TTRGP game throughout the end of this year. Our publishers want to start crowdfunding for it in February 2022. And I’m wanting to get back to my Distant Stars album; I’ve been working on it for years! And also I have this shared-world collaborative poetry project in mind, and the main poet I wanted to collaborate on it with me has JUST AGREED. So YAY! And a few other things…

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

 

Art by Bek Huston:

A card depicting a wolf's head bursting from a person's chest, in profile. It reads: You are the fuel your anger consumes. Orange thunderclouds and a sailboat on water border the image and words.

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Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-time Hugo and four-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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