I’ve long been a fan of speculative fiction writer Kat Howard’s lyrical fairytale mashups, whether it’s her stunning collaborative work (as in The End of the Sentence with Maria Dahvana Headley, a gleeful and gory Western by way of Old Norse myth) or her beautiful short fiction (Howard’s numerous accolades include multiple year’s best and best-of anthologies and a World Fantasy Award nomination). (I’m such a fan, in fact, that I published one of Howard’s stories myself.)
Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, releases this month, and it has all of her distinctive hallmarks: gorgeous prose, riveting storytelling, sources that range from Scottish ballads to Shakespeare, a hellish dilemma, and, at its heart, a heroine who’s learning hard lessons about art, sacrifice, and love. When I finished it I turned back to the first page and read it again. Howard was gracious enough to sit down for a conversation on myth, magic, and monsters.
Sarah McCarry: Why “Tam Lin”? And why artists?
Kat Howard: Well, to start with the first, it’s all Pamela Dean’s fault. I read her Tam Lin when I was in high school, and I just fell in love with that book. I read all the books Janet reads, I learned Ancient Greek (yes, I am that exact sort of nerd), if I hadn’t already been fencing, I would have taken up the sport. But aside from basically becoming the biggest possible fangirl, I also fell for the underlying ballad, the story of Tam Lin.
Which sort of leads into the second part. One of the things about the ballad that has always stuck with me was that in the original, Faerie pays a tithe to Hell. Well, how does this happen? How do these two worlds get stuck together like that? When I was at Clarion [Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop], I wrote a “Tam Lin” riff for my Week Two story, one that tried to set up an origin for that part of the ballad. It was not a successful story, and I still don’t actually have an answer to that part of the question, but one thing my instructor for that week, James Patrick Kelly, said really haunted me. I’d had the tithe be artists there, too—too many have died far too young, and so I was trying to wedge their deaths into my plot, but he told me that I really needed to think about why the Fae would choose artists in the first place. And eventually, that thinking, mixed with some other things, became this book.
SM: In the original “Tam Lin,” a woman risks her life to save her (male) lover from the clutches of the Queen of Faerie. Without spoiling anything, why did you choose to subvert the traditional framework of that story?
KH: Hmm. I’m not sure I can answer this question honestly without spoiling, but let me give it a try. Even though I’ve shifted some pieces of the traditional framework around—you’ll notice that Hell isn’t a part of things, for example—one of the questions that I started with was, okay, who would you risk that much for? Who would you be willing to stand against Hell itself, or the collected might of Faerie, or something great and terrible, with odds that you would almost certainly not survive? Like, that is a powerful amount of love. And it’s not that I don’t believe that a pair of lovers could have that sort of connection, but that’s a story that gets told a lot—almost every “I’m going to walk into Hell, and I am taking my person back out with me” is a story about lovers.
But when I asked myself that question, the first person that came to mind was my sister. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when we were teenagers. And she survived—she’s a beautiful, amazing human—but I remember feeling so helpless at the time, because this was someone I loved so much, and would have done anything for, and all I could do was stand by. And so when I knew I wanted to write this story, I knew I wanted to put a pair of sisters at the heart of it.
SM: One of the things I loved about the book is that for me, its focus was relationships between women—there are plenty of great, multifaceted male characters, but the core of the book is the way these different women take care of (or fail to take care of) each other. That sisterly heart—complicated, troubled, but ultimately deeply loving—extends to Imogen and Marin’s housemates at Melete as well. Did you know going into it that female friendship would be so foregrounded in the book, or did the relationships between the characters emerge as you worked?
KH: I really like the way you phrase that—that they both take care of, and fail to take care of each other. I didn’t want to write about Mean Girls or that sort of trope. It certainly has its place, but that wasn’t the story that I was interested in telling. I tried very hard to let these women be people, with all the messiness that implies.
The precise way that their relationships showed up was really something that emerged as I wrote. I knew from the beginning that Helena and Ariel were living in the same house as Imogen and Marin, but I really didn’t have a handle on who they were—Helena, in particular, changed a lot as a character over the course of revising, and as the characters themselves changed, their relationships did, too. And that change sort of built out in the different layers of the story—Beth, for example, was another character who went through huge changes over the course rewriting and revising, and that one was a really conscious change. She was built on the idea that I wanted Imogen to have a particular kind of relationship in her life.
SM: Roses and Rot is very much about artists and the sacrifices they (we) make, and are willing to make, for their work, and there’s a strong contrast throughout the book between the character of Helena, who would give anything to be chosen as Melete’s tithe to Faerie in order to become a great poet, and Ariel, who tells Imogen she’d rather spend the seven years of the tithe working as hard as she can. That tension—between sacrifice and labor—plays out in many ways through the book, sometimes with tragic consequences. Do you think there’s a real-world equivalent to seven years in Faerie? Or do you think hard work is the only way to become an artist?
KH: I think in the real world, I see labor and sacrifice as entwined. Both Helena and Ariel—all of the women at the core of this story—in my mind, they’ve done the work, and they’ve made the sacrifices. For most of us, who are not hugely wealthy with infinite amounts of time, we have to take the time to make our art, and we usually have to sacrifice things to get to where we are—it’s the hours of practice, or the saving up to pay for classes or art supplies, or instruction of some sort. It’s the choosing not to do other things, and to make art the priority of the time and energy we have. Even if it’s something small and annoying—not going out on the weekend because we have wordcount to make—I think we all give things up in the course of that work. And yes, the reality is that some people start in a more privileged place than others and sometimes hard work and sacrifices aren’t enough even when they should be. But I think that, even though those characters can be seen as the opposite sides of that spectrum, the reality is much more connected.
SM: Marin and Imogen have both spent their lives trying to escape their abusive, domineering mother, but there were places in the book where I read the voice of their mother as that awful voice that lives in most of us, the voice that tells us we’ll never be good enough, nothing we make is good enough, our work will never be good enough. Do you live with that monster, too? How do you navigate her?
KH: Oh, I so live with that monster. Like, I turned in the draft of my next novel (totally unrelated to Roses and Rot, which is fully standalone) to my editor at the end of March. And nothing in my life has been so hard to write. It was like at every moment, I found a new way to convince myself that things were going wrong, that I was writing the wrong thing, and that I would never be able to make it right. It got to the point where even good news about Roses and Rot got in the way of working on the new book, because the new book wasn’t Roses and Rot—I had specifically set out to make a bunch of difference choices with it—and so would obviously be worse.
As to navigating—I am in the process of that. Some of navigating the monster is taking care of my own mental health. Some is writing through it—taking that voice, and putting it in a book, and then writing characters who could make their art louder than that voice. In trying to focus on making my art, rather than evaluating it, and in letting the push to be better, to dream bigger, to be ambitious in my work, both on the level of individual projects and on the level of my career, come from inside me. Because I do think there’s a huge difference between saying “I can be better” and saying “you’re not good enough” to myself, so I’m trying to make the first my mantra, and not the second.
SM: That, to me, is also one of the central themes of the book. Is there anything else you hope readers take away from the novel?
KH: In terms of a theme or a lesson? No—I think if I could have articulated anything this book is potentially saying any other way, I would have done so. The way I could say the things that people might find here was by writing this book. And I do think one of the great and powerful things about art is that it’s a space to be interpreted—that someone might find something different than what I might have thought I was writing. So, I guess, I hope that readers find what they need in it.
SM: Ah, I really love that. I think that’s true for me in my own work as well—the story is always going to mean something else to another reader, especially when you’re working with very old myths and recasting them within the context of your own mythology. We all come to those stories from different places.
Much of your work—your short fiction in addition to the novel—centers women who are in some way monstrous—either figuratively or literally—or who fall in love with monsters. Why girl monsters? What is the pull there for you?
KH: Because being monstrous is a way for women to have power. I’m really interested in telling women’s stories, and I’m really interested in the ways women have to navigate a world that is all too often murderously aggressive towards them. So I’m interested in the women who take up space, who want too much, who make bad decisions and have messy lives, and the way the metaphors of fantasy allow me to write about them.
SM: Amen to that.
Sarah McCarry is the author of three novels: All Our Pretty Songs, a Tiptree Award honoree; the Norton award-nominated Dirty Wings; and the Lambda award-nominated About A Girl.