Sarah Gailey’s debut novella, River of Teeth, is now out. This means that one of my favourite novellas this decade is now available to the public. You really, really should check it out. It’s a fiercely creative, very funny, very smart and gleefully subversive Western. Which is also an action movie. And a heist story. And features hippos. I talked to her about these things and much more.
Alasdair Stuart: Could you talk a little about the frankly amazing alternate history that led to the story?
Sarah Gailey: I can talk about it for ages. Basically, in the early 1900s, America was facing a meat shortage. Our waterways were choked with invasive water hyacinth, which was impacting trade. We had problems, and a very smart guy by the name of Robert Broussard proposed a solution: import hippos from Africa. The hippos eat the hyacinth, we eat the hippos, everybody wins!
The bill Broussard proposed almost passed into law, before—at the last minute—someone alerted congress to the fact that hippos are incredibly dangerous. River of Teeth imagines that Broussard’s dream came true, and that hippos came to America…and immediately did what hippos do—which is to say, whatever the hell they want because you try telling a hippo it has to stay behind a fence.
AS: That’s an incredible piece of historical near miss. How easily did the story assemble around it?
In hindsight, I feel like the story fell together pretty easily, although I’m sure at the time it felt like torture. I bumped the historical context of the story backwards by half a century so that I could write about cowboys. After that, I knew I wanted to write a heist story, which gave me a pretty solid outline to work with already: first, you find out the job; then, you meet all the characters; then, everything goes horribly awry. The trickiest part was figuring out how to introduce these incredible characters while making them seem like ordinary parts of the world they inhabit. Once I got that figured out, the rest of the story happened organically enough.
AS: Was there anything you had to cut? Either from historical records or your initial plans?
SG: I definitely cut a lot of things from historical records, and because I was working in a shorter format, I was able to do it with some judicious handwaving. The book takes place in the 1890s, and features a diverse cast that encounters very little discrimination. If someone were to extrapolate the history of the world that had to develop in order for this story to happen, they’d probably need to cut out a lot of slavery and colonialism and Western Imperialism from America’s history.
AS: I love how you systematically build up what seems to be a classic Old West heist story and then spend the entire book gleefully revealing just how different from expectation these characters and this plot are. Were there any historical figures you had in mind when you were putting together Houndstooth’s team?
SG: The historical figure I drew on most for this book was Bass Reeves. Gran Carter, Archie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend (and, in my opinion, the only man truly worthy of her affections), is loosely based off him. He was one of the first black U.S. Marshals, and he was a legend in his own time—a superior marksman, a sharp detective, an imposing guy with a serious passion for his work. By his own report, he arrested over 3000 felons without ever getting injured (although apparently he had his belt shot off multiple times). I knew that I wanted to refer to him in the character of Gran Carter, who needed to be the only person who could ever catch Archie.
AS: I really responded to how so many of these characters were traumatized but none of them were controlled by that trauma, Houndstooth in particular. It’s especially impressive given how grim the genre can often be and I was wondering if there were any unique challenges to putting together a fundamentally hopeful Western?
SG: At first, it was super difficult! The first draft of River of Teeth had a tragic ending. I thought that was how the genre had to go—the main character suffers, suffers some more, suffers a lot more, and then at the end… everything is bad. But an early reader challenged that notion, and as a result, I wound up doing a huge rewrite that reassessed the need for a tragic narrative. Figuring out how to stay true to the genre while still subverting that arc of suffering was an enormous challenge—but once I realized that I didn’t have to keep regurgitating the grim narratives I’d already seen a hundred times, the doors were wide open for me to write a story that didn’t rely on hopelessness and suffering.
Once I did that, I realized that there were other tropes I was leaning into, and I did more rewrites that made River of Teeth a more fundamentally hopeful book. The big challenge there was learning to identify and remove the tragic, grim, exhausting themes that are in so much fiction—at some point, they had become background noise to me, and once I started noticing myself using those themes, I realized how much they were bogging down my writing.
AS: How did the tone of the world inform the characters? Or did it?
SG: The world of River of Teeth draws heavily on the boom-and-bust sentiments of the California Gold Rush. Everyone is out for themself, and everything should be really grim and bleak. The characters who make up the ensemble cast of the book are tough as nails, and when I asked myself what they should be like in a world like that one, the answer felt obvious: they should be happy. It takes a thick skin to survive in the world they inhabit, and an even thicker one to find joy in the kind of work that they do. So, all of the characters are informed by their refusal to bend under the weight of the cutthroat world they live in.
AS: Hero’s pronoun choice is one of my favorite beats for several reasons. I love how up front you are about it and how perfectly it fits. It also informs and subverts the mythic elements of the old west in some amazing ways, and Hero strikes me as one of the characters with the most backstory. Will we be seeing more of that?
SG: You absolutely will get to see more of that! Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that in Book 2, Hero and Adelia take a front seat in the narrative. I let Hero be a little more enigmatic in Book 1, because they’re an intensely private person who the reader is meeting for the first time, but in Book 2 the reader will get to see inside their head a little bit and will have the opportunity to learn more about who Hero is.
You’re totally correct when you say that Hero has more backstory than anyone else. They have this intense push-and-pull going on—between their ambition, which is enormous, and their desire to settle down and live a normal life. That’s a big part of their backstory and a big part of what drives them. I can’t wait to share that with readers.
AS: Archie is the best. THE BEST. Discuss.
SG: This is absolutely correct and Archie would agree with you wholeheartedly. She’s the queen of all she surveys. Everyone should have crushes on her, even though you know she’ll use your crush on her as an opportunity to steal your wallet and buy herself a new suit.
AS: One of the many things I loved about the book was how lived-in the world felt. There’s no sense of this being the first time with these characters or the world not existing before the first page. How much under-the-surface work was needed to get to that point?
SG: LOTS. My friends put up with a lot of three-hour-long conversations about how one would get a saddle on a hippo, and what kind of materials a cowboy should wear if he’s going to be in the water all the time, and what types of knives you’d carry if pistols were useless. I’ve got spreadsheets of information on hippopotamus lineage and ranching strategies. At the end of River of Teeth, there’s an appendix with a timeline that outlines the legal background of the Hippo Bill and the land rush that followed its passage—and that timeline is the tip of an iceberg that is absolutely packed with perma-frozen hippos.
AS: The sequel is out later this year, correct? What’s next for you after that?
SG: Yes! The sequel to River of Teeth, titled Taste of Marrow, comes out in the fall and I’m so excited about it. After that, I’m working on a lot of projects—but the big one right now is my first novel! It’s in the editing stage, and I’m working with the magnificent Miriam Weinberg to make it great. There are no hippos in that project—it’s the story of a nonmagical P.I. who is hired to investigate the grisly murder of a beloved teacher at a high school for magical teens. It’s the high school where her estranged twin sister just so happens to work. There’s a lot of blood. It’s gonna be fun!
AS: Your own personal hippo of choice?
SG: You know that awful giant steampunk-robot spider from the movie Wild Wild West? That, but a hippo.
…And that is the best possible image to leave you with; a colossal steampunk hippo. Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth is out now, is fantastic and absolutely needs to be read. It’s what Archie would want.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.