Here at Apex Magazine, we pride ourselves on finding shining new voices in genre fiction. From the smoothness of Ginger Weil’s “The Stagman’s Song,” you would never guess this is her first fiction sale. With imagery pulled from her childhood, Weil has woven an eerie tale of hunting, of isolation, of family curses, and of escaping the trappings (literally) of living on the mountain.
It’s a special kind of imprisonment when one of the prisoners knows she can leave at any time. But what will happen to those she leaves behind? Will they face an even greater danger? It’s the elephant in the room, that in “The Stagman’s Song” the family is loath to admit they are trapped by a curse. They all say they won’t leave because this is their home. And that’s another kind of trap, the one that gives you comfort and joy, and squeezes the life out of you until you no longer have the will to attempt to leave.
And being trapped is only the lightest theme Weil touches on in “The Stagman’s Song.” Like an oil painting seen from across the room, the subtleties and directional brush strokes gain substantial depth as you step closer to what lies beneath the surface of this story.
Ginger Weil still lives in the hills of Vermont, where she knows where all the libraries and coffee shops are. She’s had a multitude of careers, including bookseller, baker, librarian, and office manager.
APEX MAGAZINE: A big theme in “The Stagman’s Song” is that of being trapped. Susan’s family is trapped on their mountain and trapped in their occupation, and the society in which they live shows no interest in helping them choose a different life. What inspired you to write a story with these themes?
GINGER WEIL: That sense of being trapped definitely reflects some of my own experiences. I grew up in very small towns, and we were not–very–well–off. I was lucky to have family and friends who were able to offer me a lot of opportunities and help that not everyone has access to. My sense from reading in politics and economics is that it can be really hard to grapple with how much individual choices are constrained by knowledge of a situation, by the context of history and culture and a specific environment. The Leclairs are physically trapped because I wanted to make those limitations very concrete. I wanted to put Susan in an environment where her challenge was to make, not the best choice, but the best available choice out of a slew of not–very–good options.
AM: The story takes place in the mountains of New England, and you live in Vermont. Is Susan Leclair’s home based on somewhere you’ve lived or visited?
GW: The house is not a real house, but the land is a real place. Most of it, the feelings, the bones of it, the shape of the hill and the color of the light, comes from the mountain where my grandmother lives. The view out the kitchen window and the pine trees on the edge of the clearing are borrowed from my grandmother’s house. The rest of the mountain I stole in bits and pieces from places I’ve hiked with friends and family, especially Mount Equinox and Lye Brook Falls.
The house is patchworked together from places I’ve lived and worked and visited. A lot of the housing stock in Vermont is over a hundred years old, and the cracked plaster came directly from the wall behind my television. I spent a year once working in an unfinished fieldstone cellar. I visit the Shelburne Museum as often as I can, and the wide planked floors are based on the attic of an old inn that has been relocated there.
AM: Plenty of families across the country hunt, be it deer, pheasant, turkey and other animals that will feed their families through the winter. Susan’s family hunts the stagmen, a hunt that comes with a curse. How did you come up with the idea for how the curse works?
GW: I have family, friends, and neighbors who hunt. Absolutely I know people who rely on hunting to get through the winter, who depend on that chest freezer filled with venison. Hunting is also an important thread in the history of New England, and hunting plays significant roles in many of the intersecting cultures of the area. Coming from an area where hunting is part of daily life, I was interested in the kind of hunting stories I found in myth and folklore. Pwyll chasing the white stag in the Mabinogion, the myth of Diana and Actaeon, the Hunt of the Unicorn in the Unicorn Tapestries — the stories I knew best with these elements tended to deal with nobles, gods, and powerful people. I wanted to explore that kind of mythic hunt in the context of everyday survival: not knights with golden bridles, but regular people with overdue bills.
The curse was the first thing to draw me in to this story and one of the last things I fixed in revisions. I had a really clear picture of the protagonist standing on the mountainside with the gun, not wanting to fire and have the weight of the curse settle on them. I knew the curse had to have three parts because it is a fairy tale curse and fairy tale things happen in threes. I knew it started with a mark and ended with a death. From there it took me quite a while to work outward to the details of the curse, to figure out the nature of the mark. And getting the middle of the curse right didn’t happen until I took a long look at why the characters didn’t just leave the mountain, and realized that they couldn’t.
AM: There is also quick mention of borders on the mountain being closed, the stagmen being trapped (perhaps on the wrong side?) of the border. Do you see yourself writing more stories that connect with “The Stagman’s Song,” perhaps exploring some of this fae–ish world building?
GW: There are a fistful of stories that I’d like to tell set in this world. There are abandoned brass railroads built by robber barons who hoped to trade with the kingdoms under the hill, there are loggers who work with stone axes because cold iron destroys the trees they fell. The Green Mountains are very old, all metamorphic rock and layered folklore.
AM: What was the most challenging part of this story to write?
GW: I wanted a lot of ambivalence in the story about whether the stagmen are more like stags or more like men. Do the Leclairs hunt animals (even if magical animals) on that mountain, or are they killing people? That’s a question both Susan and Ronnie have grappled with. I struggled to find a way of characterizing that question in the text: giving the stagmen hands did not make a strong enough statement, and if the stagmen spoke directly with the Leclairs that would close up the narrative space too much. I took the idea for the song from a conversation with a friend. Having the stagmen sing felt like it gave the story the right amount of uncertainty, and then the song ended up weaving through the narrative and pulling the pieces much more closely together.
AM: At the end of the story, Susan makes a choice and a promise. Do you think she will succeed?
GW: I do. I think it will take a long time, and I’m not sure that it will feel like success for Susan. Because what success looks like depends on who you ask. For Uncle George, probably Susan would have to find a solution that preserved their way of life as it is but kept them safe. For her mother, I think Susan has already succeeded by leaving. Susan won’t be able to come back and have a chance to make change for her family until she can decide what that success looks like for her, and I think it will probably be a struggle for her to hold to that vision when it comes in conflict with the competing visions that the rest of her family hold. But I do believe she will succeed.
AM: What inspired you to become a writer? Who are some of your favorite writers?
GW: I started writing because I needed to tell myself stories better than the ones the world was telling me. I feel lucky because I had a lot of tools that helped me to do that. My family really encouraged me to read and write and talk about stories. My mom wrote stories for me as presents and drew pictures of the stories I wrote. My grandmother read to me and my sister from a rocking chair when we slept over at her house. My dad wrote for the humor papers at his school and college, and his dad wanted to write short stories for the pulp magazines of the 50s. My aunt and my sister both write, too. There were always fairy tale collections on low shelves that I could steal away and read on the sofa during holidays.
My favorite books that I borrowed from my mom’s shelf when I was learning to read were Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. (My mom has pretty great taste.) I love the way language and history layer together in Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth books and Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon books. I buy pretty much everything Seanan McGuire and Sarah Rees Brennan write, and the books are usually devoured before I even make it home. My favorite writers are always the ones telling me stories I need to hear. What I need from stories, what I need to hear, is always changing, so I’m glad that there are so many different writers telling their stories.