Any month in which Cassandra Khaw’s fiction graces the table of contents of Apex Magazine is a good month. “Bargains by the Slant-Light” marks her fourth appearance in Apex Magazine this year. Your time will be well spent checking out “What to Do When There’s Nothing but Static” (issue 107, April 2018), “A Priest of Vast and Distant Places” (issue 106, March 2018), and “The Ghost Stories We Tell Around the Photon Fires” (issue 104, January 2018).
Writers and readers often ask the editors of Apex Magazine what kind of fiction they are looking for, and the answer often includes the alluring yet vague tagline of the magazine: Strange. Beautiful. Shocking. Surreal. Not quite sure how the editors define those adjectives? Read Cassandra Khaw’s fiction, and you’ll know. In one of my personal favorites, “A Priest of Vast and Distant Places,” her protagonist befriends airplanes, and argues with them about if the sky is home or not. They beg her to stay with them, believing they can make her happier than her family. Maybe they can. Perhaps more soothing than shocking, it is a beautifully surreal and quite strange story.
To make up for that lack of shock, this month we are thrilled to present Khaw’s flash fiction story “Bargains by the Slant-Light.” It is strange, it is shocking, it represents what Apex Magazine searches for in the slush. I guarantee this story will catch you off guard. I guarantee you will be in one mindset at the beginning of the story, and will have flipped sides by the end. Such is the power of such well-written flash fiction—it strips away everything, leaving you with only what you absolutely need—black and white lines, stark dialog, and so much left unsaid. Flash fiction is the art of negative space. Looking for more? Cassandra’s fiction has appeared in The Dark, Uncanny Magazine, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Fireside Fiction, and Shimmer, as well as elsewhere. Her nonfiction articles have appeared in Ars Technica, Eurogamer, The Verge, and Engadget.
For those of you who prefer your fiction on the longer side, Khaw has you covered. Her Gods and Monsters series includes the urban fantasy magical mystery thrillers Food of the Gods, Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, and Rupert Wong: And the Ends of the Earth. She is also the author of A Song for Quiet, Hammers on Bone, and Bearly a Lady.
Oof! She is a busy writer! A fountain of ideas, prose that edges towards poetry, and characters and plots that span the globe, Khaw has easily written something for everyone. She travels for her job in the computer gaming industry and rarely spends more than six months at a time on one continent. With all that on her plate, she was still able to cram me into her schedule to answer a few questions about “Bargains by the Slant-Light.” Her other fiction that has appeared in Apex Magazine, the fascination of points of decision, the strange “not-place” aspect of airports, adventures in writing computer games, and more.
Let’s get to the interview!
APEX MAGAZINE: I’m fascinated with flash fiction—I always wonder if the story was originally longer (or shorter!), or if the author just wrote until the story told them it was finished. “Bargains by the Slant-Light” has a beginning that perfectly reflects its end, but while you were writing it, did you know it was going to end up this length and in that fashion? Did you have a plan of how long you wanted it to be?
CASSANDRA KHAW: God, I wish. I generally don’t ever plot anything when I write. My brain’s peculiarly visual and the only way I’ve ever been able to describe it is that when a story *hits*, I see it almost as an overlay. A persistent daydream that won’t go away until I’ve chased the images down to their end. I knew it was going to be short. It had that *feel* to it, but I wasn’t sure about any of the other details.
AM: What inspired this story?
CK: We’ve all been in that place, I think. Wanting to be better for someone, wanting to love them less, love them better. Often, these people don’t warrant that love but we try. We turn ourselves inside out, hoping it’d be the right thing. So, it’s that: the story’s about that aching melancholy need to be someone better, no matter what.
AM: What kind of person will she be once she has the heart she wants? Will this make her happier or sadder? Stronger? Weaker?
CK: I think it will bring her happiness, but not the way she expected.
AM: Earlier in 2018, Apex published your short story “A Priest of Vast and Distant Places,” and that story spoke to me in ways I can’t even explain. I used to travel for my job, and this story brought to mind the white noise of being on an airplane, the hum of the air filters (or whatever that sound is that sounds like humming), how easy it is to hear things in the white noise, the “not-space” of the whole experience, the liminal in-between-ness of airports and being on airplanes. I appreciated that for the airplanes, the sky and the tarmac is their home, and they really don’t understand family dynamics at all! Can you tell us a little about what went into “A Priest of Vast and Distant Places?”
CK: Thank you! I am very glad to hear that. I find it hard to put into words what it means to be a traveler in that sense, to get to a point where you’re used to the idea of ghosting through airports. It’s *different* from traveling for pleasure, isn’t it? Something about the airports becomes a sacred place. In part, I think, because once you’ve traveled enough, that you realize airports are genuinely a no-where place, full of things you sort of recognize, but also nothing familiar at all.
And that sense of kinship with the ragged, sleep-deprived passengers you see throughout these places. Rarely do we ever talk to our fellow travelers, but we see them, we understand that look on their face, and that specific expression that surfaces when all thoughts fade away, when there’s nothing but a pang and an emptiness and an urge to be home, home, home.
The story, as you might have guessed at this point, stems from that. I’ve been traveling regularly for ten years now and by regularly, I mean I rarely spend more than 3-6 months in any one continent. I live my entire life out of a suitcase and a half (it’s become two suitcases recently) and it’s gotten to a point where I’m familiar with all the cities I regularly visit, but I only feel at home in airports.
I wrote “A Priest of Vast and Distant Places” on a particularly long flight, in fits and starts, while running on fumes from 20 hours of spotty consciousness; I think the weirdness comes through.
AM: Your short stories may feature galactic vistas or futurist soldiers, but your stories also focus on very intimate and often private scenes, often at a crossroads in someone’s life. Are there certain themes you find yourself returning to, or certain story telling styles you prefer?
CK: I like experimenting with prose and voice, but I’ve always found that point of decision to be an endlessly fascinating thing. We often attribute enormous life changes to months of thinking and planning, which is not untrue. But at the same time, there’s always that pivotal moment, that heartbeat before you decide ‘yes, I’m taking that plunge.’ I love how that unfolds.
I also find myself coming back to themes of home, of animal-brides undoing their obligations, of teeth, of monstrous women who are only monstrous because of their circumstances.
AM: When you’re not busy writing amazing science fiction, urban fantasy, horror, and even the occasional romantic comedy, you’re working and writing in the gaming world. What does writing short fiction and writing video games have in common? How are they different?
CK: Game writing is entirely more structured. There are a brief, hard limits on how many nodes you’re allowed to use, a need to balance ‘obvious’ with artistry, a lot of repetitiveness, and I *know* I’m making it sound like the worst thing ever, but it’s also an incredibly fascinating discipline. There’s a magic to game writing that I hadn’t expected. Open-ended games aren’t open-ended. They’re just really clever at convincing you that this isn’t the case, and it requires so much craft to make that illusion tenable.
Alright, I’m rambling. Um. The TLDR version of that is I wasn’t expecting it to be so completely different from traditional fiction, and in many ways, the only commonality they share is that organic dialogue matters.
AM: Many of us end up in an industry and we expect it to be a certain way (and then of course, it isn’t that way at all!). What’s been the biggest surprise for you in the gaming world?
CK: *points above* o_o
AM: What have been some of your favorite games that you worked on?
CK: I don’t think I’m allowed to pick favorites. If I do, someone might yell at me. A-all of them?
AM: What exciting projects are you currently working on?
CK: A number of them! But the ones I can tell you about is Wasteland 3, a post-apocalyptic RPG, and Project Wight, which I don’t even know where to begin to explain yet. But it’s glorious.
AM: Sounds exciting! Thank you for letting me interview you.