We all (okay, a lot of us) seek approval. We want someone to choose us, someone to want us. What happens when the choosing is inconvenient, when we wish it was someone else who was chosen? What happens to someone’s psyche when they have to face the fact that they weren’t chosen, that at this exact moment, they aren’t the person who is wanted?
The narrator protagonist of Stephanie Malia Morris’s powerful short story “The Chariots, The Horsemen” will do anything not to be chosen. She literally chains herself to the furniture in her house. She does things to her body that make it difficult for her to easily move around. But, as with many things in life—they choose us; we are powerless. Oh, did I not explain? By chosen, I mean chosen by God to ascend into Heaven, without having to die first. Not unlike the prophet Elijah, the narrator’s great-grandmother was visited by horses pulling a flaming chariot, which pulled her up into Heaven. Since then, the women of the family have developed a habit of almost ascending. They’ll float up into the air, stopped by someone grabbing their foot, or getting tangled in the branches of a tree, or hitting the ceiling of whatever room they are in. Her preacher grandfather, the lone male in the family, is the only one who can’t ascend. Has he been left behind? Is he not pious enough? Does God not want him?
While reading this story, I got happily stuck on wondering what her grandfather is so afraid of, and wondering why only the women in this family can ascend (am I reading too much into it to wonder if their ascension is a metaphor for things that only women experience, like having a baby?). What is her grandfather so afraid of? Is he afraid of being left behind, of just being left alone? Does he fear losing his family, or does he fear his family gaining their freedom? In this family, the Venn diagram of “freedom” on one side and “entering Heaven without dying” on the other might be one large circle. But this is not grandfather’s story. When it comes down to it, it is not our narrator’s problem if her grandfather feels he has not been given his portion.
All this ascending stuff, and how to protect yourself from it, seems pretty everyday-normal to the narrator and her mother. They know how to chain themselves to the ground, they know what to do when an ascension starts. Sure, it’s a little scary, but it’s become a normal occurrence for them. (And I’m suddenly having a harder and harder time divorcing myself from the idea that ascending is a metaphor for natural things that happen to women. Menstruation, having a baby, menopause, etc., completely natural things that we’re not bothered by. Sorry, Stephanie, if I am reading things into this story that you never intended!)
What I love about this story is that it doesn’t start where it starts, and it doesn’t end where it ends. Trust me, that is a good thing. Like the best short stories, “The Chariots, The Horsemen” starts right in the middle of the action—the narrator knows exactly what’s going on, the reader hasn’t any clue. Don’t worry, Morris catches you up quickly, not only with what’s going on, but with why her characters are so tormented by what is happening. Yes, this is a fully realized short story with a concrete conclusion, but I think you’ll agree with me that the end is just the beginning.
Stephanie Malia Morris is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Apex, Nightmare, and Pseudopod. She has narrated audio fiction for Uncanny, PodCastle, PseudoPod, EscapePod, Cast of Wonders, and StarShipSofa, among elsewhere. You can learn more about her fiction and her podcasting adventures at stephaniemaliamorris.com or on Twitter at @smaliamorris.
Stephanie was kind enough to walk me through the genesis of this story, her experience at Clarion West, the joys of working in a library and at a bookstore, and some behind the scenes details on being a short story pod-caster.
APEX MAGAZINE: I notice in this story that it’s only the women who ascend—the narrator, her mother, and her great-grandmother. Is ascending something that only women can do, or something that these specific women can do because of some unique quality they share?
STEPHANIE MALIA MORRIS: The world of this story is much larger than this family—for example, the picnickers in the first scene don’t react to the narrator’s ascension with surprise so much as with silence. They look to the grandfather for guidance on how they should react. Ascension, therefore, is not something that is out of place in this world—people know about it, enough to temper their reactions, enough to treat it as something shameful. I think there’s a possibility that anyone in this world might ascend—but what triggers ascension is something I like to leave to the reader’s imagination (i.e., I haven’t worked out why and readers’ imaginations are far more intriguing, to me, at this point, than my own).
AM: Where did the idea for this story come from? How did you go from “Elijah was cool!” to a family nearly mirroring his story and women who float away when they least expect it?
SMM: It was actually the other way around—I imagined the ascending women first and found my way to Elijah during the writing process. The first draft of this story was about a girl whose responsibility was to keep her aunt—a woman so desired by God that he kept trying to steal her away—tethered to the ground. (I still wonder how that story would have turned out.) In expanding it, I switched the POV from the niece to the aunt, and in the process of writing—nearly a full twenty-four hours, in which I parked myself on a bed and wrote until I fell asleep on top of my laptop at unmentionable o’clock in the morning (also known as the Clarion West effect—this was my week five story)—I found other stories of ascension. Elijah’s, specifically, because he leaves someone behind. That’s a big part of my process: I start writing and stumble across other stories that illuminate and amplify the one I want to tell. I then proceed to absorb them through osmosis.
Fun fact: this story was supposed to be five hundred words, to fit the maximum word limit of a flash fiction contest I wanted to enter, but the awesome folks in my Clarion West class talked me out of it. (Thank you and love to you all, CWest ’17!)
AM: To keep herself safely grounded, our narrator takes drastic steps. She gains copious amounts of weight. She wears a metal chain around her waist and uses it to anchor herself to furniture. Why is it so important to her grandfather that she not ascend?
SMM: The grandfather sees ascension as proof of God’s favor, and in taking up his mother’s mantle, he sees ascension as his right, not his daughter’s and certainly not his granddaughter’s. But even more than his desire to be rewarded for his devotion, this is what drives the grandfather to keep his granddaughter tethered: he cannot bear to be left behind a second time. In seeking to escape his own trauma, he inflicts trauma over and over and over again.
AM: What’s going through her mind in the final scene? What’s going through her mother’s mind and her grandfather’s mind?
SMM: Let’s put it this way—two people in that scene are reliving their worst nightmares, and the third has decided she is done with nightmares.
AM: What are some of your favorite themes to write about? Are you drawn to a particular type of story structure or prose style? How has your writing process or writing style changed over the years?
SMM: I seem to literally only write about mothers and daughters (though once in a blue moon, I will write about other family members). It’s not a conscious obsession—color me surprised every time I open up a Word document and discover that this is yet another story about a mother and daughter (who could have ever guessed???). I love retelling other stories, a love that comes from my background in fan-fiction. Fairy tales, Greek mythology, the religious stories I grew up with, histories told and untold—I’m drawn to the process of transforming once-told tales through the addition of new perspectives, characters, locations, themes. I’m also drawn to beautiful prose styles—rich detail, the elegant use of language. This, to my detriment because after spending years crafting a single paragraph to my own exacting specifications, I will step back and realize I can’t remember the story I was trying to tell in the first place.
AM: You recently attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop. What was the most surprising thing you took away from that workshop? What was the most valuable?
SMM: Truth be told, the most surprising thing I took away from Clarion West was that the mythology of Clarion West is not an exaggeration. Never once did the workshop disappoint. The stories that surround it are all true: the long, desperate nights of finishing stories, drunk on all that sleep you’re missing. The wealth of knowledge six weeks of reading, writing, critiquing, and talking with industry professionals will impart. The amazing people you will meet. Dark lunch. But the most valuable part of Clarion West was, for me, the reassurance that I am a writer and I belong here. Ted Chiang talked to us about the shelf space that only you—the general you—can fill, how each and every writer who embarks on this grueling and glorious adventure has stories that only they can tell, in their particular voice, in their own time. This is the insight that has done the most to keep me going, outside Clarion West—because as a writer, it’s so easy to doubt yourself: you write too slow, you don’t submit enough work, you haven’t published enough, your writing is awful. But knowing that there is a space on a bookshelf somewhere that only you can fill at your own pace and in your own voice, helps counteract the writerly dread—because I really, really want to read the stories on that bookshelf.
AM: You’re a podcast short story narrator at Uncanny Magazine, and you’ve done podcasting for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, and other sites as well. How did you get started with podcasting and narrating audio short stories? I know some audio narrators read the story cold, so their first reactions can be captured, and others read the story through a few times, so they can be more comfortable with the rhythms. What is your preference when you prepare to record a podcast? Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get into audio short story podcasting?
SMM: I started podcasting with the Escape Artists podcasts waaaaay back when, when it was still just the big three: EscapePod, PseudoPod, and PodCastle. The podcasts put out a casting call when I was getting to record short fiction, and I already had an established love of acting, as the many roles I’d played on the stages of weird churches as a kid will attest. So, when I learned about the call, I auditioned that same night—and heard back! (Surprising, considering the poor equipment I was using at the time, yikes.)
I always read the stories out loud at least once before I start recording, so that I can warm up my voice and familiarize myself with the rhythm of the story, just like you said. Reading through the story beforehand also allows me to complete recordings in one take, for the days when the power is out, the story is due, my laptop’s battery is down to 35 percent, and the only sit-down place with Internet is the library in the next town over. Alas, the perils of living in the country. It keeps my narrating work interesting.
I’d advise anyone looking to get into narrating short stories to look for open calls—or even just to check out the websites of your favorite podcasts. Venues like PodCastle and Glittership have submission portals dedicated to recruiting podcast readers, and with so many short story podcasts out there, there are lots of opportunities to get into narrating.
AM: You’ve got my dream job; you work at a library and a bookstore! Talk about a book lover’s dream! What do you enjoy most about working in the print-book-o-sphere? How many stacks of books do you bring home every week? Any funny stories to share?
SMM: Spending my days among books is bliss. My favorite part of working in both a library and a bookstore is the constant stream of new, and new-to-me, books I come across. My TBR stack is ridiculous, and at this point, less a challenge to be overcome than a teetering archive of my ever-shifting interests. The library supplies me with an endless supply of just-published books in every genre, still warm from the bookseller, while the bookstore is therapeutic in another way: it’s full of used books and polite dogs (all of whom browse with their owners and somehow know about the treats behind the counter). The bookstore also has an unofficial mascot: the baby squirrel a customer noticed climbing a stack of Civil War histories. For hours, the bookstore devolved into one of those kid’s movies about clumsy humans chasing swift, clever animals, complete with pratfalls and towers of books spilling across aisles (okay, okay, it was just one tower). We never caught the squirrel, but rumor has it that the squirrel was seen scampering through the chaos to freedom.
AM: Thanks, Stephanie!