Sarah Pinsker’s first novel, A Song For A New Day, won the Nebula Award for best novel, and her collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea won the Philip K Dick Award. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and other awards. Her books and stories have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, and Mandarin, among other languages. Her second novel, We Are Satellites, will be published in May 2021. She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums and another forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore with her wife, their dog, and a lot of guitars. “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” is Pinsker’s seventh appearance in Uncanny, an intricately structured story featuring song lyrics, a small English village, and slow-building horror.
Uncanny Magazine: This story has a lot of elements: a complex structure, a full set of lyrics, an unsettling horror that gradually builds as the story progresses. What did you start from, and how did the story come together?
Sarah Pinsker: I had the idea for this story several years ago. I was reading The Rose and the Briar, the book on American ballads that Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus edited, and I had the idea of writing a song that was a story that was a murder ballad. It’s been on my to-do list as “murder ballad story” since 2014 or 2015. I had played with an old-time song in my story “Wind Will Rove” but I wanted to try something else with this one.
Then I had to look up the lyrics for something one day, and I went to the lyric website Genius, and that particular song was just covered with comments and interpretations and back-and-forth between commenters. The song was a modern version of a traditional ballad, but one comment was talking about how a verse was about a psychedelic trip, and then a whole bunch of other people had given the comment thumbs down because the comment assumed the song was written by the Grateful Dead when it predated them by centuries. I realized what I wanted to do was write a murder ballad and place it in history, and then have a bunch of internet song critics have their way with it, some accurately and some way off-base. That would allow me to present the song but also focus on both the specificities and the vagaries of the lyrics, the different interpretations, and the ways that various versions could change the meaning and purpose of the song. I wrote the main lyrics first, then started figuring out personalities for my characters and how they would each approach the lyrics, then adding and deleting and moving verses and comments as needed.
Uncanny Magazine: I love the descriptions of the village of Gall and the surrounding woods. Is it based on a real-world place?
Sarah Pinsker: I originally wanted to place it in a real English village, and did a fair amount of research to choose one, but in the end I decided I wanted the geographic freedom that would come with inventing the village. Google Maps only takes you so far. I needed a place with a woods and a bridge and an embankment and a one room historical society & gift shop, but in the end I was also going to need specific trees to be around and not around, and it made sense to just invent it and place it where I needed it.
Uncanny Magazine: What research did you do for this story? Did you turn up anything interesting that didn’t make it into the story?
Sarah Pinsker: I did a ton of research for this story! On the non-song side, I started with trees, and a botanist friend supplied me with that cool detail about leaf color and climate. I researched the history of hanging as a punishment. Famous Robert Butchers. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century perspectives on anatomy. The Roud index and the Child ballads and the Lomax field research, and Child’s introductions to each song’s history. I’m a fan of the Child ballad “Henry Martyn”—there’s a great version by the Canadian band Figgy Duff—but I’d never read the Child introduction to the song. I liked how it sprung from another song called “Andrew Barton,” or possibly “Andrew Bodee” and there are versions with each. Also his line about how “Robin Hood is always at the service of any ballad-monger who wants a name for his hero,” followed by a version of Henry Martyn where Robin Hood took the ship’s helm.
The other interesting thing with the Child ballads is the notes about the provenance of different versions. To use “Henry Martyn” again, one variant was from a printed broadside, another from Yorkshire fishermen, corroborated by a very old woman who sung it ninety years ago, another from a “coal-heaver,” another “communicated by Mr. George M. Richardson, as learned by a lady in northern New Hampshire more than fifty years ago from an aged aunt.” That showed the way songs were changing as they moved to various communities, but also that the old versions were often still in living memory at the time he was doing his research. I love that they’re recognizably the same song, with some small differences and some larger ones.
Uncanny Magazine: You are both a musician and a writer, so I’m curious—did you create a melody to go with the lyrics? Have you (or might you in the future) performed/played this song?
Sarah Pinsker: I did! This one had to work as a song as well as a story. I almost always do write at least some lyrics and the melody for the songs in my stories, but I usually deliberately leave the lyrics out of my fiction, and this time they were the core of the story. There are an intimidating number of verses to memorize, but I’m thinking of recording one version for fun. I’ve sent it to a couple of friends for their versions as well.
Uncanny Magazine: Music is a recurring theme in your fiction, appearing prominently in both your short fiction and your longer works. What other things do you find yourself returning to repeatedly?
Sarah Pinsker: Hmm. I love exploring the places where music and fiction collide. I like exploring memory and nostalgia and history. I like looking at limitations of power and also ordinary people finding strength/power, even when it’s limited. Beyond that, this might be something for other people to look at in my work. I’m afraid if I self-analyze I’ll become too conscious of it.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
Sarah Pinsker: My second novel, WE ARE SATELLITES, will be out on May 11 from Berkley. It’s a different near-future from A SONG FOR A NEW DAY, looking at a brain implant and how it affects the members of one particular family.
I don’t know if you’ve found this, but it’s been hard to concentrate on writing this year. I’ve particularly struggled to write anything near-future, which is usually my jam. Hence murder ballads and historical stuff. The other big project I have underway is a historical novel. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but the research has been fascinating.
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
© 2021 Uncanny Magazine