Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!
Today we’re joined by Maria Dahvana Headley, author of the young adult fantasy novel Magonia, available from HarperCollins. With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the anthology Unnatural Creatures, and with Kat Howard, she is the author of the novella The End of the Sentence—one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014. She lives in Brooklyn with a seven-foot stuffed crocodile and a collection of star charts from the 1700s.
Join us to find out which classic monster fuels Maria’s creative fires, and which bizarre sandwiches help get her through the long nights of endless writing.
Battle to the death, which weapon do you choose: A) Phaser, B) Lightsaber, or C) Wand?
Wand. Is it not utterly clear that having a wand is the best thing? It means you can do any kind of magic, and while I’m unversed in swordcraft, I’m very versed in classical theories of spell-shouting. The other two weapons are limited. Also, if really necessary and stuff has gone completely wrong, a wand can be used as a brute instrument and shoved up someone’s nose.
The idea for Magonia came about because I was doing research for another book, and happened across a casual one line mention from several-centuries ago. It was a discussion of some dude climbing down an anchor chain from a skyship and drowning in the air. All I could do was shout WHAT?! And then I had to Google frantically to see if anyone I knew had written that novel yet. They hadn’t. So I wrote Magonia.
Name your favorite monster from fiction, film, TV, or any other pop culture source.
Grendel’s Mother. Always. Ever. I’m loyal since childhood. She’s ferocious, miscategorized, constantly messed with, and she’s also a warrior. I feel for her, admire her, and am fascinated by her. I have a particular fondness for female monsters, and a particular additional fondness for female monsters categorized as hags. There’s always more to them. “Hag” is something that consistently gets said about noncompliant women. (Seriously: whenever I’m particularly outspoken on the internet, the trolls always come to tell me NOT that I’m intellectually wrong, but that I’m physically ugly, and that therefore my points are moot. Aw, I feel so sad they think I’m not pretty!) It’s an attempt to disempower women by taking away the qualification of their physical beauty, and since I’m ongoingly furious about how a woman’s physical beauty has long been the foremost valuation point for her work, Grendel’s mother fuels my creative fires.
Do you have a favorite underrated/unknown/under-read author?
I’m obsessed with Kathryn Davis, author of seven novels, each of which is better than the last. They’re weird as hell, and totally different from each other, and she’s the only author in the last couple of years whose work I’ve found so compelling I’ve had to read EVERYTHING. The last time that happened, it was Angela Carter. She’s a very hybrid stylist, and her work often contains elements of the fantastic. Duplex, for example, her most recent novel, has robots and magicians, science fiction mashed with fantasy, glorious sentences mashed with depictions of miserable marriages. It’s a crazy, crazy novel, and you have to read it twice. At least. Davis isn’t easy reading, but when I read her, I find myself both totally inspired and totally outclassed by her imagination, and that doesn’t happen to me terribly frequently. Normally my own brain gives me plenty of thing to play with. Reading Davis is like a whole new playroom. Her books are stellar. All recommended, but I’d go with Hell, Duplex, and The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf first. Then all others.
What’s the best Halloween costume you’ve ever worn?
I was the Voynich Manuscript a couple of years ago—for those who don’t know, the Voynich is a fantastic anonymous illustrated manuscript from the 1500s, written in a language no one has yet managed to decode, though there’ve been lots of attempts and guesses. I painted pages from the Voynich on canvas, made them into a dress, then painted myself white with lines of encrypted language all over my skin, and wrapped twine around my head to suggest bookbinding. I went to a big party, figuring that anyone who knew what I was would be my instant friend. No one knew. Or at least, no one I wasn’t already friends with. So last year, I was Amelia Earhart. I already had the flightsuit. That was a pretty good one too.
What’s your favorite sandwich?
A tie between pickle, very spicy mustard, and very sharp cheddar on black bread, and a sandwich I made last year in a book-finishing frenzy, which was baguette grilled on the gas stove, smeared with melted dark chocolate, sea salt, and olive oil. That sandwich was the stuff dreams are made on, folks, and I ate it at 3:30am while finishing a draft. I know both of these sandwiches sound like food for pregnant people. Writing books is like constantly being pregnant with more than one slow-gestating elephant child. I treat my writing meals as though this is literally true.
If you could design a line of clothing/accessories based on your favorite fictional character, what would it look like?
This is so much my dream alternate career that half my Twitter feed is dedicated to inventing fancy Elsa Schiaparellian gowns, embroidered tuxedoes and things of that ilk. I’ve been making a Magonia jacket for a few weeks now. So, it’s not my “favorite” character, exactly, more that I like to dress up like books and go wandering around looking like something someone invented, even if the inventor is me.
The Magonia jacket has a vintage solar system chart embroidered up the back, a comet and stars on the shoulders, and a hidden yellow songbird in the back lining, because though the outer jacket is black, the interior is sky blue silk, and I thought there should be a Magonian bird inside it. Any line of clothing I designed would be 75% fancy slinky evening wear, and 25% customized flight suits and coveralls, because that’s what I wear, and I’d have to design what I know.
What was your gateway to SF/Fantasy, as a child or young adult?
I found Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Margaret Storey, and Madeleine L’engle at the same moment in 2nd grade, and I was done for. Snyder gave me darkness, L’engle gave me Weird, and Storey gave me calmly depicted magic in daily life.
What would your Patronus/familiar be?
I have a 13-year-old half-Bengal cat named Wampus who is legendary. He balances out my prickly soul with rapturous calm, total love, and the occasional act of wild-eyed fury. As far as Patronus’ go, a Bengal tiger-sized version of Wampus would be guaranteed to protect me from anything. He’s the cat everyone wants. No villain would dare cross him. He’d show his spotted belly, and they’d be conquered.