Advertisement

Interview: Christopher Caldwell

Christopher Caldwell is a queer Black American living in Glasgow, Scotland with his partner Alice. He was the 2007 recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship to Clarion West. His work has appeared in FIYAH, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Strange Horizons. “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste” is his fourth story in Uncanny, an exploration of faith and truth, set in a richly developed world.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste” is a story that examines faith and truth, vengeance and love. What drew you to these themes?

Christopher Caldwell: I come from a family where faith and its accompanying symbols are very important. One side of the family is very Catholic; I can remember my great-grandmother’s enormous backyard with a consecrated grotto that had life-sized statues of the Holy Family and prie-dieu where she could kneel to take Holy Communion. My maternal grandmother was very active in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church, and it really was her social nexus. I was raised Catholic, but I went to Vacation Bible School, family picnics, etc. For her church and community were essentially the same, and I think a lot about what it might have meant to her if she had lost that.

In my teens I was very religiously devout; I attended teen ministry, went to a Catholic High School, I was a confirmation sponsor, and considered joining Holy Orders for a while. I think being a queer person means sometimes having a difficult time reconciling what the life of faith says it offers and how people of that faith actually treat you, and the tension between those two states is something that has always fascinated me even if it also caused me cognitive dissonance!

I think one of the things that a strong pull to religious faith engenders in you is a dislike of injustice, and really it’s very easy to move from a hatred of injustice to feelings of vengeance; there’s so much wrong in our world, and when I create an imaginary world, I sometimes feel the need to reflect that. One of the elements in this story is how people actually complicit in Saint Ignace’s destruction have twisted the story to make it theirs, and that’s definitely influenced by how, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s work fighting for racial and economic justice has been twisted and perverted by people who don’t really stand for those things, and how they distill his message down to a single line from a single speech without even any examination of the context of that line within the speech.

And whenever I examine human relationships through fiction, even adversarial ones, the first thing I think about is what those humans want; I don’t think you can do that and not explore love or one of its permutations.

Uncanny Magazine: What was your favorite part of writing this story? What was the most challenging thing?

Christopher Caldwell: Usually writing for me is something like riding a bicycle up a hill. It’s hard to get started, but if I get a good feel for it, I can go at a steady pace. It requires a lot of concentration and control, and if I’m honest I’m pretty tired at the end of drafting a scene. This felt more like riding a wave. There were periods where I felt like I wasn’t in control and I was just being swept along by something more powerful than I was, and that was a thrilling experience. One night I was sitting in a windowsill in a pool of moonlight trying my damnedest to get down everything as it occurred to me, and I felt like a heroine from a gothic novel or some sort Byronic hero.

I wrote the majority of this story in the hospital. In August 2021, I was hospitalized because of a life-threatening level of calcium in my blood, probably caused by a combination of a chronic condition I have, sarcoidosis, and an over-prescription of Vitamin D supplements. The core of the story came to me when I was moved from an intensive ward to a less restrictive one with a view of Glasgow’s gothic cathedral and glimpses of its hilly Victorian necropolis. And I started to write on my smartphone. I hate typing on my phone! I barely use it to text if I can avoid it, but I composed the first draft of this story with my thumbs while I was recuperating in the hospital because it felt like something I had to get out of me.

Uncanny Magazine: I love the elements you’ve combined to build the religion in this story: the yellow-throated swallows, the watch, the calcified heart. Did you have all of these elements in mind when you started the story, or did you discover them as you went along?

Christopher Caldwell: The world in which this story takes place existed before the story; another story published in Uncanny, “If Salt Lose Its Savor,” takes place contemporaneously, although in a distant locale with an entirely distinct culture. I think I’ve always had dim concepts about the various religious practices, and cultures throughout this world, but the ones particular to this story were certainly expanded on and newly solidified for me.

I’ve lived in Glasgow, Scotland for the past ten years. The coat of arms of the city of Glasgow and its ancient university both feature images of a bird, a bell, a fish, and a tree. There’s an accompanying rhyme:

 

Here is the bird that never flew,

Here is the tree that never grew.

Here is the bell that never rang,

Here is the fish that never swam.

 

Glasgow was at one time a cathedral city, centered around a gothic cathedral and the university that sprang up around it. The rhyme and images on the coats of arms are associated with Saint Mungo—who is also called Saint Kentigern—a 6th century missionary who is Glasgow’s founder and patron saint. Each of those items is associated with a miracle performed through Mungo. My favorite, the fish, involves the Queen of Strathclyde being falsely accused of infidelity by her jealous husband. Her wedding ring had vanished, and she was in danger of being executed for her unfaithfulness, even though in reality, the king had stolen her ring and thrown it into the river Clyde. The queen asked Mungo for aid, and Mungo told a messenger to go to the river and catch a fish. When the fish was cut open, the ring shone forth from its guts, allowing her to refute the accusations through divine providence.

The thing that interested me though, is that the rhyme doesn’t actually make sense! The bird, for example, was killed and then brought back to life miraculously—it not only flew, but presumably flew after it should not have been able to! The tree certainly grew before it was turned into firewood, the fish swam, and I’d guess the bell probably rang. Even if we take for granted the miracles happened—and the ring story is similar enough to a number of folk stories and legends that it might be considered its own motif—there’s a layer of falsehood baked into the whole thing that is just sort of taken for granted.

When I was creating my saint, I could see Mungo’s cathedral from my hospital room, and Glasgow’s coat of arms worked into lampposts. I wanted something similar for my religious order, and decided to use symbols that meant something to me. I spent the majority of my childhood in southern California, and a thing I used to look forward to was the swallows returning to the mission in San Juan Capistrano every year; in my youth those birds epitomized faithfulness and loyalty. The watch was partially inspired by a beautiful bronze mechanical watch that my spouse gave me for our anniversary—I wore it in the hospital until my wrist swelled up, and then kept it next to me the entire time—but it also represented to me the concept of how we mark time itself, especially the time we spend together, which is why I used it as a symbol of commitment for the imaginary people of the world (their watches are pocket watches, and much larger than my wristwatch, of course).

The heart was inspired by Mary Shelley. Her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned young and was cremated, but during the cremation process his heart did not burn. Mary Shelley kept the heart and reputedly carried it around for the rest of her life. There was a kind of serendipity when I discovered later on in the writing process that the reason that Percy Shelley’s heart didn’t burn was probably because of calcification due to tuberculosis, a disease which causes granulomatous formations similar enough to the ones caused by my condition, sarcoidosis, that it’s one of the things they need to rule out when symptoms first appear.

Uncanny Magazine: Who are some of your literary influences?

Christopher Caldwell: For this story, I was influenced by the rhythms of Shakespeare, the visionary, ecstatic terror of William Blake, and the sort of delirious feel of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe stories, where something secret is revealed. There is a kind of lonely melancholy to one of my favorite pieces of writing, Bodas de Sangre by Federico García Lorca that I tried to emulate a little. But also very much Virginia Hamilton’s book The People Could Fly, which is a collection of folk tales and stories from the African diaspora all re-told with a distinctive authorial voice. Also on my mind was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which charts the Great Migration—a period where Black Americans left the American South for the north and west in the early to mid-twentieth century—and how it relates to my own family history.

Uncanny Magazine: The acolyte discovers the truth about the Mother of Mákhesthaines, but decides to hide that truth out of love for the city and its citizens. Is there a city you love enough to lie for?

Christopher Caldwell: One of my favorite cities in the world is New Orleans, but this love is certainly not absent a high degree of ambivalence. All four of my grandparents were born in south Louisiana and so in varying degrees within the larger sphere of New Orleans’s influence; none of them lived anywhere near the city during my lifetime. All of them were part of the Great Migration. Despite being shaped by and also shaping the culture there, there’s a legacy of pain and a history of betrayal that goes very deep.

Whenever I visit New Orleans, I inevitably run into someone who looks a little like me, and it may turn out they’re a lost cousin. I can eat food that tastes like things my grandmothers make. But there’s also the knowledge that this is a place where some of my ancestors had their names, and their families, their entire histories stripped from them. There’s the knowledge that this is the closest thing I have to an ancestral city, because beyond that is the terrible Middle Passage and the unknowable.

I’ve never lived in New Orleans. When I visit, I think of it as “going back,” but I don’t know if that’s a lie I tell myself to soften the sting of feeling rootless.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Christopher Caldwell: I am working on a novel set in the larger world visited in another Uncanny story, “Femme and Sundance.” The protagonist is someone who has abandoned the use of magic because he decided it was unhealthy for him, only to be drawn back into some very destructive patterns by grief. I think it’s about how we escape self-destructive practices when larger structural forces compel us towards complicity in oppressive systems, but we’ll see how it shakes out.

The other thing I am working on is a novella set in the world of this story and “If Salt Lose Its Savor.” It’s about two rival poisoners employed by feuding noble houses, and feels to me sort of like if Paris is Burning met Dangerous Liaisons.

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

Advertisement

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-time Hugo and five-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.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.