Hellnotes Interview – Emily Cataneo – “Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories”
HELLNOTES: Congratulations on your first collection! When did the idea for this collection start coming together? What was the process like of narrowing down your work in order to compile the final table of contents?
EMILY CATANEO: Thank you! I first started thinking about putting together a collection last year, when I realized I’d published a number of stories all clustered around particular themes, all written when I was in a particular emotional place in my life. I tend to think that writers go through obsession cycles, where they focus in on certain topics and wring them dry before moving onto something new. During this period, I was obsessed with loss, isolation, and loneliness (also, bad choices. There’s a robust number of bad choices in these stories). I’ve since moved on from that obsession cycle, but I knew that all the stories that I’d written and published during that time spoke to each other, and would work well together as a collection.
Then, serendipitously, I received a Facebook message from JournalStone editor Jess Landry, asking if I had a collection to submit to an open submissions call (actually, the message went to my Facebook Messenger spam folder at first, so I didn’t see it for several weeks. Let this be a lesson! Always check your spam folders!) I thought that this set of loss and loneliness stories would be perfect for JournalStone. I selected my favorites that had been published during those years, as well as several originals written around the same time that fit with the others, and sent them off. The most important aspect of this stage of the process was theme. If a story didn’t fit with the others, no matter how much I loved it, it didn’t get included. That’s what future collections are for, right?
HN: The collection takes its title from your story “Speaking to Skull Kings.” How did you decide that this story would be the titular one? Were there other stories, or other titles in general, that you considered using instead?
EC: Of all the titles of all the stories in my collection, I figured that “Speaking to Skull Kings” best spoke to my themes of isolation, loss, and the often-fraught nature of relationships and friendships. The story “Speaking to Skull Kings” is about a girl and her brother trying to find their guardian—who happens to be a giant bird—in a strange forest full of creepy creatures called skull kings. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but when you speak to skull kings, you tend to receive unpleasant knowledge, knowledge that doesn’t exactly fill you with la joie de vivre about your interpersonal relationships, shall we say. I figured that the title “Speaking to Skull Kings” was mysterious and evocative enough to draw in people who don’t know the story, and symbolic enough to unite the collection for people who do.
HN: Although no one likes to pick amongst their children, do you have a personal favorite of the stories in your collection? Conversely, while I would never ask you to name a least favorite, is there one that stands out as having been particularly more difficult to write than the others?
EC: Tough question, but I think “The Firebird” is my favorite. It’s funny, because when that story came out in Steampunk World in 2014, I saw several reviews from people who didn’t like the story because they felt as though the main character was a bratty, unsympathetic asshole. But that’s precisely why I love this story so much. I love writing about and reading about characters who I wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life (and frankly, I’m sick of the whole “male characters are allowed to be anti-heroes but female characters have to be nice” thing. It’s 2017. Women can be shitty too). Elena, the protagonist, basically transforms into a revenge machine after living through the Russian Revolution, losing everything, and watching her parents die in front of her. For me, imagining how someone might really react in a situation like that—as opposed to how we would want them to react, if we wanted to believe that humans are ultimately forgiving and nice and sweet all the time—is the rich stuff of literature. Plus, the story takes place in early twentieth century Russia, which is a time period I just can’t say no to (if you follow me on Twitter, this perhaps won’t surprise you, as you probably know that about 25 percent of my tweets are about Rasputin).
You’re quite right that I wouldn’t want to name a least favorite story, but I will say that “Hungry Ghosts” was the hardest story to write emotionally. My husband always asks me, “why are you always thinking about the past?” Well, I’m a writer! What else are my experiences for, if not for my writing? But sometimes, of course, this mindset leads me to dwell on unpleasant memories, to go back to the places that I’d perhaps forget if I were a non-writerly sort. Writing this story required me to do that.
HN: The biography on your website make no bones about your central motifs, including “female protagonists and feminism, the Victorian occult, mysterious animals, strange museums, early twentieth century Europe and the aesthetic of fairytales.” While it can be hard to tease out the threads of influence, what draws you to these themes? Are there other themes in your collection that readers might not be expecting?
EC: Makes no bones! Was that a purposeful pun? Please tell me it was. There are so many bones and skulls in my work. Anyway! In talking about central motifs, I think it’s useful to distinguish between theme and aesthetic. The Victorian occult, mysterious animals, strange museums, early twentieth century Europe and fairytales are integral parts of my aesthetic, in nearly all of my fiction. Why? Well, that’s a harder question. It’s probably because there are certain images and motifs that just speak to us on a visceral, atavistic level, perhaps because they remind us of something that both horrified and captivated us as children. As a child, I read books of fairytales with bright, lurid illustrations and journeys through the snow; I gravitated towards tales of wolves on the moor and seductive monsters in the cavern. I think these childhood obsessions follow us around our whole life, and I suspect that’s why I’m drawn to them aesthetically and why they appear so often in my work.
Meanwhile, female protagonists and feminism are more connected with theme than with aesthetic. My interest in these topics stems more from an intellectual place than an atavistic one. Feminism is extremely important to me, and writing stories about women that challenge and smash the stereotypical narratives we usually consume about women is an essential part of feminism.
As I said above, though, this collection also deals quite heavily with themes of loss, isolation and being trapped, all obsessions that I don’t engage with as much anymore, so readers who only look at the current biography on my website but aren’t familiar with my earlier work might be a bit surprised (and delighted, one would hope!)
HN: Your fiction has appeared in many well-regarded venues, including journals like The Dark and Black Static, as well as collections edited by Michael Bailey. You’ve also attended both the Odyssey Writing Workshop (2013) and Clarion Writers Workshop (2016). How, if at all, do you feel those workshops influenced your development? Are there any examples of that influence in the stories collected here?
EC: Oh my, a better question would be, how HAVEN’T those workshops influenced my development? I would highly recommend both of them to anyone who has the ability to attend, but since most of the stories collected here were written after Odyssey and before Clarion, I’ll mainly talk about Odyssey. Before that workshop, I wrote by instinct. I didn’t understand why or how the stories that I told worked or didn’t work: I simply fiddled around with different moving parts until I had something resembling a tale. I also read by instinct: either a book or a story captured my imagination, or it didn’t. At Odyssey, instructor Jeanne Cavelos pulled back the curtain on literature for me. Suddenly, I became a critical reader and writer: I was able to analyze what worked and didn’t work in my own stories, as well as in others. It was a watershed moment for me, realizing that writing is a craft as well as an art, that I could take a certain set of tools and consciously decide whether or not to apply them to my own work. I held all the lessons of Odyssey in my mind while writing these stories.
HN: Since you’ve been through the wringer more than once, what piece of writing advice would you give to our readers who are also writers? What was the best piece—or the worst piece—of writing advice you’ve been given?
EC: There are so many pieces of writing advice that I’d love to give to new writers, but here’s the most important one: don’t lose the joy in it. Don’t let stress, rejections, self-doubt, and all those demons take away the fun of writing. As I’ve gotten further in my career, as I’ve battled disappointments both huge and mundane, I’ve struggled with those days, weeks, even months when the act of writing is just not as fun as it used to be. Those are the moments that break my heart, and I would advise other writers to do the best they can, when faced with those moments, to step back and remember what they love about writing in the first place.
The best piece of writing advice I’ve received is ancillary to this idea. It’s from Ted Chiang, one of my Clarion writing instructors, who told me to give voice to my astonishment, that is, to write what I was most passionate about, to write whatever lit me up inside. The worst piece of writing advice I ever received was the opposite of that: from an undergrad creative writing professor who told me that the problems with my story stemmed from the fact that I had chosen early-twentieth century Europe and Russia for my settings; he told me to stick with the easier, safer mundanity of present day. What dreadful advice. The worst thing you can do to a young writer is look at an imperfect piece of his or her work and say that the problems stem from the aspects that make the work special. The best thing you can do for a young writer is what Ted did: look at his or her work and say, “I see what’s special about this; I see what’s important to you. I’m going to help you make this the best it can be without losing that intrinsic quality of specialness.”
HN: In addition to writing fiction, you also work on non-fiction, including journalism for outlets like the Boston Globe and the Financial Times. Do you find that these two aspects—fiction and reporting—influence each other? Has your experience in one area bled over into the other?
EC: Yes, absolutely. At the end of the day, writing is just writing, and working as both a fiction and non-fiction writer has taught me that all pieces should have some kind of narrative arc, some kind of flow to pull the reader forward. But beyond that, there are specific skills that I’ve developed in each genre that have bled over into the other. Reporting requires an attention to detail—to names, places, events—that has been instrumental in fiction writing. It also required me to transform from a shy introverted nineteen-year-old to the kind of person who can charge up to random people, ask them questions, and think about them and their lives with compassion and consideration, all skills that have helped me as a fiction writer. Plus, journalism taught me to respond to deadlines. In the newsroom, I transformed from the kind of writer who never finished anything to the kind of writer who can ruthlessly and effectively write one story per week, as I did at Odyssey and Clarion.
My fiction writing has also informed my journalism: it’s allowed me to bring a vividness and beauty to the real-world events that I describe in my non-fiction. I recently wrote a longform travel piece about the haenyeo, a group of South Korean women who make their living by diving into the sea to gather abalone, conches, and other treasures from the ocean floor. I definitely used my powers of description, and my enthusiasm for creating magical, memorable tableau, while writing that story.
Readers of this collection will also notice that there is even one story in here about a local Boston reporter—the only fiction story I’ve ever actually written about my life as a journalist, although I hope to write more in the future.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up on your horizon? Not just what projects are coming out soon, but also what ideas are you playing with that maybe haven’t been worked out yet—can you give us something concrete as well as something abstract to anticipate?
EC: I have several short stories coming out this year. “Glasswort, Ice,” a story of old age, regret, resistance, and music, will be out in Lackington’s at some point; “Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse,” a story about fate, class, and female friendship, will be out in Interzone in May; and “Seven Steps to Beauty for a Girl Named Avarice,” which is about witches, will be out in Nightmare at some point. I’ll also be appearing at Wiscon in May for my first-ever paneling experience, which I’m excited for; one of my panels is about women in gothic horror, and really, who could ask for anything better?
On the abstract side of things, I’ve been mulling over my love for the gothic novel, and have been thinking about potentially writing one that pays homage to and subverts the form and also involves strange sea magic. That’s basically as far as I’ve gotten in the brainstorming process, but, stay tuned.
Emily B. Cataneo is a writer and journalist currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in and is forthcoming from publications such as The Dark, Nightmare, Black Static and Interzone. She was longlisted for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, and is a 2013 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a 2016 graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop. As a journalist, she’s written for publications such the Boston Globe, Financial Times, and Roads & Kingdoms, and has reported on stories in Germany, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. She currently works at a non-profit online feminist historical archive, and she likes history, dogs, and crafts.
Pre-order your copy of Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories here!