I’ve long been a fan of Kat Howard and Maria Dahvana Headley’s fiction; both writers have a magician’s knack for mixing up the uncanny with the real, resulting in haunting stories that stick with you for a long time. I was thrilled to hear they’d joined forces for The End of the Sentence, a collaboratively written novella available now from Subterranean Press—and even more thrilled upon reading it to discover that it was every bit as deliciously creepy and gorgeously terrifying as I’d hoped.
I chatted a bit with Kat and Maria about monsters, love, co-writing, and kissing scenes.
Kat Howard is the World Fantasy Award-nominated author of over twenty pieces of short fiction. Her work has been performed on NPR as part of Selected Shorts, and has appeared in Lightspeed, Subterranean, and Clarkesworld, as well as a variety of anthologies. You can find her on twitter and she blogs at strangeink.
Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the upcoming YA skyship novel Magonia from HarperCollins, the novel Queen of Kings, the memoir The Year of Yes, and co-author with Kat Howard of The End of the Sentence. With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefitting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared on Tor.com, and in The Toast, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead, and will soon appear in Uncanny, Shimmer, and Clarkesworld. Find her on twitter and her website.
Sarah McCarry: I’m really fascinated by the idea of writing collaboratively—had either of you co-written projects before The End of the Sentence? What do you think makes a strong creative partnership for a project like this? Was your thought process different for this project than for the work you do solo?
Kat Howard: When I first started writing, the idea of doing so collaboratively was repugnant to me. I think this is a holdover from too many years of group projects where one or two of us did all the work at the last minute, and it was hateful and frustrating. Then, a couple of years ago, I worked with one of my Clarion classmates, Megan Kurashige, and her sister Shannon, and the fabulous dancers of Sharp & Fine, and made a dance—“A Thousand Natural Shocks.” This was a completely glorious collaborative experience. I got to work with smart, talented people who pushed me to make better art, and I’m delighted to say that was exactly the same experience I had working with Maria.
In terms of what makes a strong creative partnership, I think it absolutely helps to work with someone whose work you respect. And that you are both willing to put the finished product first, and do what is best for the art. I didn’t really change my thought process for this—we had a Skype meeting before we started writing, and talked about some things we did and didn’t want, but I tend to do that sort of thinking before I start anyway. I did change my actual process, in that I composed on computer screen, instead of by hand, which was WEIRD for me.
Maria Dahvana Headley: I’d only done the sort of collaboration where you’re workshopping in a theater—I used to be primarily a playwright—and writing lines on the fly, with actors filling up your creative well. These days, I work closely with China Miéville—we read drafts, plot bits, and work on each other’s work all the time, and sometimes it’s a lot like a formal co-write. But this was a new version, this actual passing a manuscript back and forth and writing chapters, inventing plot, with another writer. It was a very good experience—the voice Kat and I invented for the novella turned out to be one we could sustain, but we both had the pleasure of writing in other epistolary voices as well. Interestingly, the strength of this collaboration came from something I think both of us sometimes find to be a maddening weakness in our own processes. We’re both on the fly inventors when it comes to plot, and to work with someone else who is as unpredictable? Scary! But weirdly, our mutual invention situation served this project well. We both read and wrote it like the next installment of a campfire story, and given the ghostly horror-y content, that totally worked. We basically got to grant each other’s wishes—whenever someone went “ARGH plot fail,” the other went, “hang tight, I can get that bit into the story.” So we had a safety net. And an instant Does-This-Make-Any-Sense reader. It was great.
SM: When I was in eighth grade my best friend and I had this year-long ongoing manuscript we traded back and forth that was basically a soap opera about all of our classmates (obviously, people who mistreated us met bad ends, we were considerably more attractive on the page than we were in real life, displeasing administrators were dispatched with gusto, much over-the-top romantic drama ensued, etc.). There’s still something about the collaborative process that seems a little like that to me—that it’s an extension of a friendship, almost, or a very different part of the brain than solo work. It seems more likely to generate ideas that are spontaneous, maybe more weirdly inventive or ridiculous than you might come up with on your own. I don’t want to say less serious, because obviously the book is quite serious, and very good. But more—I don’t know, playful. Did either of you find that to be true?
MDH: Yes, definitely! Kat & I became friends because of Twitter. She’d post a link to something, I’d shriek, then I’d post a link and she’d shriek. We started a friendship basically because we were comparing shiny objects on the internet. So, The End of the Sentence contains a lot of our collection of shiny objects, though you wouldn’t necessarily know them as shiny if you didn’t know us. It’s basically what happens when Kat & I make a clubhouse. There’s a scene toward the end of the novella that involves a lot of horse-related folklore from around the world. We already had the central object in the story, the anvil, and of course anvils are used to make horseshoes, so I brought the notion of a púca to the table. I’ve always been fascinated by the horse incarnation of that Celtic creature (there are a lot of other versions too, glashtyn, things like that), a sentient black horse with golden eyes, sometimes inclined toward eating humans, and sometimes willing to give a human a wild ride into the night. Sometimes both. They’re scary. We knew we wanted to set the action of the novella leading up to Samhain, because the novella is all about ghosts, and Samhain rituals involve the opening between worlds. Kat brought the notion of All Soul’s Day in, from her Catholic trove. Conveniently, Samhain night turns into All Soul’s Day, and November first is also the only day a púca is traditionally supposed to be tame. Then, once we had a púca, I had to at the last second bring in the Lair Bhan, or the Mare’s Walk, and then, I mean come on, Kat had to bring the Mari Lwyd. Our process was very much akin to two little girls playing with My Little Ponies, except that some of our little ponies had fangs, and some of them were made of bones.
KH: So my freshman year of high school, some of my best girlfriends and I wrote what we called “parodies.” Which were not actually parodies, but were passed around collaborative alt-versions of what we were reading in English, plus also ourselves, and some of our most and least favorite classmates and teachers, plus also The Vampire Lestat, because of course, vampires. Oh, and kissing scenes.
But yes, I joke that writing this novella with Maria was the most fun I’ve ever had giving myself nightmares, but the thing is, that’s completely true. Creatively, it was a complete joy to be able to haul all the gorgeous weird shit my brain has been collecting and show it to Maria, and then to see her collection of astounding brain things, and have the response always be “yes! of course we can use this!” And so there was that freedom to be playful, to talk about the things that I loved that I’d never been quite able to work into stories, and then find a home for them here. We made the world’s creepiest dollhouse. Wanna come over and play?
SM: The End of the Sentence is deeply influenced by traditional mythology; though it takes those influences and shapes them into a world wholly its own, I loved the ways it felt almost-familiar-but-not-quite. What are some of your favorite myths, old or new? In what other ways does mythology permeate your work?
KH: Well, I love the Greek myths—I grew up on them, to the point where I remember trying to convince friends to play Artemis and Apollo at recess (um, I may have been a weird kid)—and I have been doing a lot of work with retellings and revisionist tellings of those recently. I’ve also been rereading a bunch of Irish and Welsh mythology recently, in anticipation of writing in (around, against) those traditions.
I like working with myths because they give me the resonance of This Is a Big and Long-Lasting Story, but there are usually enough cracks in the narrative, or things that piss me off about the way the story is told, that I can get my pen in there, and pry the story apart.
MDH: I’m really interested in Western mythology, specifically in the ghost lore of the American West, which is where some of the guts of this story came from. I’m also interested (and pissed off) by that asinine “cowboys & Indians” mythology, the way a tempting story can create its own blind spots. The way that Native Americans got turned into the scary villains in all these stories, when they were in fact victims of genocide. Long traditions of racism supported by the adventure mythology of the American West. Don’t even get me started on how pissed off some of the research I did for this novella made me. I’m especially interested in terms of classical myth in Cupid & Psyche, particularly the mise en abyme version of it detailed in the second-century Roman novel The Golden Ass. Cupid and Psyche have become shorthand for a certain kind of “foolish girl transgresses” narrative—but in the original, Psyche is hugely brave. The trials of Psyche are a big part of the story. She has to sort grain, get what is essentially fluff of a golden fleece, and gather water from the River Styx, as well as travel through the underworld to gain a box of Persephone’s beauty to bring back to Venus. Psyche opens the box to see what the beauty looks like—and is put into a deathly sleep. At the end, Cupid comes and saves her, and there’s an epic marriage. A bunch of fairy tales were clearly based on the many elements of this story: things from Rumpelstiltskin to Beauty & the Beast, to Sleeping Beauty, to The Great Green Worm.
Basically, myth for me is an outline of an accepted cultural narrative. Working with it is pleasing because it gives a shorthand for transgressing against that, whether through expanding the POV characters, elucidating the motivations of the antagonists, telling the narrative from the monster’s point of view—any of the above, and more. Myths are like pre-built mini-worlds, each with their own moral universe, and part of the fun of working with them is populating them with deeper characters and more complicated motivations.
SM: One thing that’s been really interesting to me, as someone who works a lot with myth myself (in my books, almost but not entirely Western mythology and fairytales) is how common it is for people reading the books to have no knowledge at all of the myths I’m referencing—which was something that actually took me by surprise when I first encountered it. I found myself actively resisting the idea of making the mythology more obvious, or the references more clear, so that readers unfamiliar with the stories would more easily see them. I like asking readers to work a little. Was that something that came up for you as well, and how did you decide to deal with it?
MDH: That’s always an interesting thing: how much background do you need to give? How obscure are you being? Do you have any idea? I never do. Actually, though Kat and I are both gigantic lore geeks, I think we both learned a lot as we were working on this—especially about the recurrent themes in mythology worldwide. If you’re writing a story that takes place on farmland, for example, you’re going to be able to look at a deep set of international myths about animals used to work land, about weather, and about the tools used. This, when you get right down to it, is what a lot of fairytales are about. All over the world, you get myths about food lacking, about iron, about horses, and about hunting. When you go deeper, you find a lot of stories about hunting monsters, because encountering a monster while you’re hunting is a reason for failure to provide. I think a lot of fairy and folk stories started out as distractions from hunger. As far as the Cupid & Psyche and Beauty & the Beast stuff goes, that’s a little more obvious. Once Disney takes on a story… well, it means the story is in the guts of most people already, so we felt pretty chill about playing with the tropes of those stories, without having to be explicit in referencing where they came from. Though I’m not sure everyone has thought about the relationship between Cupid & Psyche and Beauty & the Beast. Very much the same story.
KH: One of the things I hate most as a reader is when a writer over-explains things to me. I hate this so much, it will often cause me to stop reading. I’d much rather have to work a little than be condescended to. So I try to avoid being hitting the reader over the head with explanations and sources in my writing. I particularly try to avoid this when dealing with mythology, because I think that over-explaining a myth is a great way to break it, to strip it of its power. Plus, the cold fact is, if the reference doesn’t stand on its own in the story—if it doesn’t make sense in the context of what I’ve written to someone who has no idea what the source myth is—I’m doing it wrong. So I try to treat the background myth as an Easter egg, and have it be something that might add a layer of enjoyment or depth for a reader who is familiar with it, rather than treating it as necessary knowledge.
SM: The novella is a ghost story, and it’s a scary story, and sometimes it’s a funny story—but for me as a reader, it was ultimately a love story of an uncommon kind. Do you see it as such? Did you know, when you started, that you were writing a love story?
MDH: Yes, definitely. It’s not necessarily one central love story for me, but a variety of love stories, between the living and the missing. Dusha has a love story with three different women over his lifetime. In the case of two of those stories, passionate love turns to hate and betrayal, damaging both parties badly. But there’s also lasting, complicated love here, and new love. Lots of different loves! No, we didn’t know that we were writing a love story, actually, or I don’t think we did. I kind of always write love stories, though, even the stories that initially seem to me to be not-love things. I’m interested in love.
KH: I see it as such now, with all of the pieces of the story in front of me. When I looked back through it, I had this sort of, “oh, that’s what we did” reaction to realizing how much of a love story this is. But I didn’t realize that was what we were writing at all as I was writing it, and I would have been highly suspicious of any such suggestion at the time. But I did know that what we were writing was a story of redemption, and a story or grace (whether or not the characters would choose to accept that grace), and of course love is a powerful agent of grace.
SM: And love in the book doesn’t always look like the love most people think of when they hear the word—romantic love, or sexual love. It takes on many different shapes, and connects many different people in complicated ways. I think everything I write is, in the end, a love story, though almost never romance—do you think the same is true of your work?
KH: There’s this quotation, from David Foster Wallace, that I don’t know the context of, but that I’ve seen a lot, and that is a favorite of mine: “Every love story is a ghost story.” I think that’s true in an almost ridiculous fashion in The End of the Sentence.
But I also think it’s true in a lot of my favorite work—the way the past can haunt us, the way our ghosts rise up, and turn into old loves, and how all of our old loves—even if they are still current loves—are ghosts of some sort. In my own work, I think I come a lot closer to writing hauntings, than I do to writing romances.
MDH: I love that DFW quote. Love love love. Never heard it before! I agree with you both. I write about love all the time, and I’m constantly snarling about how love is seen as a light topic. Love isn’t light. Anyone who has ever been in love knows that it changes your life, and not always for the objectively good. Sometimes it turns you into a monster.
I’m gonna quote a ridiculously silly pop song source here, because I think it applies:
Love, love is strange
Lot of people take it for a game
Once you get it
You’ll never wanna quit
After you’ve had it
You’re in an awful fix
Yes, Mickey & Sylvia. I’m not even going to apologize.
How do you call your lover boy?
C’mere, lover boy.
And if he doesn’t answer?
And if he still doesn’t answer?
The End of the Sentence is at its guts, frankly, quite a bit about what happens if he (or she) still doesn’t answer.
Sarah McCarry is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and About A Girl (summer 2015) and the editor and publisher of the chapbook series Guillotine. Find her on twitter and on her website, The Rejectionist.