Interview: Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman writes books for children and adults. Her most recent book, The Evil Wizard Smallbone, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for childrens’ and young adult fantasy and science fiction, and her previous novel for children, The Freedom Maze won the Andre Norton Award in 2012. She’s also worked as an editor, and has co-written things with her wife, Ellen Kushner. She has a background in academia, a love of fashion and folk music, and a long relationship with New York City, all of which show through in “At Cooney’s,” which is her second story to appear in Uncanny Magazine.

Uncanny Magazine: “At Cooney’s” takes place in the late sixties, which is when you were about the same age as the protagonist, Ali. How much do her observations of the late sixties folk scene and her feelings about her own sexuality reflect your experience?

Delia Sherman: Well, I was a little younger and a lot more confused and in denial about my feelings than Ali was. I was in high school, not college, and my world was pretty narrow. I wasn’t allowed to go to the Village, and certainly not to the Lower East Side, which was considerably more sketchy in 1968 than it is now. This did not keep me from sneaking downtown with my first (secret) sweetheart, but I can’t remember going more than once or twice, since I was an underground rather than an open rebel. It is also true that the Village scared me as much as it attracted me, both with good reason. My strongest memory is of singing traditional English ballads at an open mic (I no longer remember where) with my girlfriend when I was in 11th grade. Which is why I gave us a cameo as the hippie chicks singing in Cooney’s—although I think we sang “Mattie Groves” and possibly “The Great Selkie of Skul Skerrie” rather than “The Water is Wide.”

Uncanny Magazine: Time travel seems to be a trope that draws you, and your characters usually end up finding themselves through being forced into a different period. Taking ourselves out of our usual contexts can be a powerful tool for self-reflection generally, but what specifically draws you to examining character through this particular type of context shift?

Delia Sherman: The truth is that I feel a bit like a time traveler myself. When I say that I was puzzled by the 20th Century, and the 21st Century completely flummoxes me, I am not entirely joking. My parents were both older than most (I was adopted) and Southern, which effectively means that my upbringing was a very Edwardian one. There were rules for Proper Topics of Conversation and How a Young Lady Behaves and Dresses. My school was very old-fashioned: single-sex, uniforms, prayers every morning where we sang hymns and recited (by memory) the week’s bible verses (King James Version). We did have a TV, so I knew there was a war on and that there were hippies and yippies and protests and the Beatles, but neither the political nor the social earthquakes of the period affected me in any significant way (politics was Not a Proper Topic of Conversation). I listened to Joan Baez’s Ballad album and Simon and Garfunkel and a lot of show tunes and opera. And I desired, with a profound desire, the Past. Any past. I was uninformed, of course, and romantic and protected and privileged, without any first-hand knowledge of what it would be like to live without such modern conveniences as indoor plumbing and good health and dental care. I’ve learned more about the Past since, and know (among other things) that I would not have survived childhood if I’d been born even 50 years earlier. Still and all, the past has formed me, in more ways than one, by giving me perspective on the present, showing me how we got to where we are now, both the good parts and the bad. I never really thought about it before, but I guess I’m trying to share that experience—and what I’ve learned from it—with my readers.

Also, there’s nothing like plopping a character down in a setting that both is and is not familiar to bring out the best and the worst in them.

Uncanny Magazine: You are always beautifully dressed, and you clearly care about fashion. Your characters’ clothing is described in detail in this story in ways that often affect the plot. Is this something you think about consciously, or does it happen spontaneously? What were your own fashion choices like in the late sixties?

Delia Sherman: Clothes maketh man. Or woman. It was true in Shakespeare’s time (by law, actually) and it’s true in ours. We say something about ourselves by what we wear, either deliberately or accidentally, and people respond to our messages, even if they’re not conscious of receiving them.  Up through the 50s, one of the strongest messages we sent was about our genders, though things got a little loosey-goosier in the 60s. I remember, when I was 16 or so, an older man yelling at me to cut my hair (it was thigh-length) because I was wearing jeans and a man’s shirt and he simply assumed I was a guy without actually looking at my face or shape. Many men were bearded, but by no means all, and sometimes it was genuinely difficult to tell the girls from the boys—at least until they hit middle age.  I liked that, and the freedom that it seemed to promise.  Living as I was in a world of green serge skirts that had to touch the floor when I knelt and compulsory stockings and hats, I was very conscious indeed of looking, when I was in school, both like everyone else and horribly, visibly different. This carried over into my non-school life as well, since my mother tended to dress me like a society lady. When left to my own devices, I wore granny dresses and maxi skirts and wide belts, with a short and ill-advised excursion into bat-wing Carnaby Street modness, aided and abetted by my slightly older cousin. So, yes. I dress my characters deliberately—more deliberately than most of them would dress themselves. Ali, however, is very conscious of the messages clothes send. When she goes home, she wears neat little mini-dresses (not TOO mini) with tights and clunky shoes.

I still have the granny dress I bought in Greenwich Village, by the way. And the pony-skin lace-up belt I wore with it.

Uncanny Magazine: Folk music is another strong element in this story. You have Ali hearing a lot of war protest songs, but the one that draws her back in time is “The Water Is Wide.” Why did you choose that particular song? You have Grace and Ali bond about blues and jazz and the ways that Black folk music has shaped white American folk music. How do you think Grace would feel about this particular song, which has its roots in seventeenth century Scotland? Do you have a favorite recorded version of it?

Delia Sherman: The truth is that I was haunted by it all the time I was writing the story, so I put it in. But in the end, it turned out to be thematic as well as insistent. Ali has a number of wide waters to cross before she can speak her love, the widest being her own passivity, which she needs help to overcome. It also gave me the waters of time and the image of being loaded deep with love, like a freighter on an ocean (which is not actually in the story, but is, in a subliminal way). And the tune is a real peach. I learned it from my girlfriend and we used to sing it in harmony on the back stairs at school. I’m not actually familiar with a recorded version of it, although I’ve heard it sung many times, mostly unaccompanied. Like Black folk music, it is one of the threads that make up the tapestry that is American folk, and it is the one Ali resonates most deeply to. I’m sure Grace would love it, as Ali loves blues and jazz. Especially if she loves Ali, which I’m pretty sure in my own mind she does. 

Uncanny Magazine: You send Ali back to 1928 and have her experience a raid on a bar for gender-non-conforming people. That time jump is actually nearer to her own time than 1968 is to 2017. What made you choose that particular era for Ali’s time shift? Is Cooney’s based on a real place? How have you experienced attitudes about sexuality and gender presentation change in your lifetime?

Delia Sherman: Originally, Ali was supposed to go back to the Race Riots of 1863, but it just didn’t work. In fact, originally, this was supposed to be a different story completely, with Ali being Jewish and observing all kinds of racial politics from the waves of unrest that swept lower Manhattan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I don’t need to explain why that didn’t work. What did work was the 1928 section. Eventually, I realized that this was really a story about coming out (my first, oddly enough).  All of my stories teach me, sooner or later, how to tell them. This one was just a little coyer than others.

Cooney’s Bar is a composite. The way it looks is what I think I remember about the bar my girlfriend and I sang in combined with an Italian café on Greenwich Avenue—long closed, alas—where I used to write until 2 in the morning when I was interning for Tor in the early 90’s. The way Cooney’s feels comes from the bars I went to in college and graduate school, as does the slightly over-earnest conversation.  

As for the last part of your question: well, let’s put it this way. If anybody had told me that I would ever live in a world in which there were QUILTBAG support groups in schools and colleges and major novels featuring gay characters (sane ones, anyway) on the bookstore shelves, I wouldn’t have believed them. If they had said I’d have a wife and it would be completely legal in many countries, and that we could, if we had chosen to, adopt a child, I would have thought they’d been smoking something illegal.  The world around me decreed that girls were girls and boys were boys, and always would be, whether they liked it or not. Nor, to be honest, did I give possible alternatives much thought until I learned that a couple of women I knew in the SF/F community had been brought up as boys.  This came as a complete surprise to me, because, hey, they were women, and that was (and is) a true thing, no matter what their birth certificates had said. It took me a while to realize how difficult their decision had been and how complicated their lives once they’d made it. I did realize, however, how impossible it would have been in the past, when their only viable option would have been to live a lie even more profound than the one I was living, pretending I didn’t love women. We’re in a better place now, all of us. Sadly, not better enough to protect all non-gender conforming kids from having a hard time. Which, I guess, is why I’m beginning to want to write stories about it.

Uncanny Magazine: Your stories are always beautiful and kind-hearted, which is something perhaps many of us need right at the moment. What can we look forward to seeing from you next?

Delia Sherman: I have a story involving gender identity coming out in Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares anthology of stories inspired by the Alice books. And I’m working on a historical novel (no time travel involved) about a brothel during the Franco-Prussian War. I started it years ago, but didn’t quite know how to structure it and got daunted by the research. I’ve figured out the structure (fingers crossed) and I’m spending a year in Paris, so it seems an excellent opportunity to dust off what exists of the manuscript and dig in.  It is not, I need hardly say, a YA, although the protagonists are mostly in their teens. So far, they’re all gender-conforming, but most of them are queer—which is, to my delight, completely historical. The Past turns out to be a lot more complicated and colorful than one thinks.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for letting us explore the Past with you, Delia!

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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