You’ve seen Kris Millering’s fiction in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Devilfish Review, and The Colored Lens, and this month Apex Magazine is proud to present “Coins for Their Eyes,” a grim but hopeful story about a woman who was recruited into a very strange occupation on the day she refused to die.
The story has a supernatural bent to it, with the narrator only learning in dribs and drabs how her new “life” is supposed to work. How long will she be required to do this job? And more importantly, how long has she been doing this? There’s no way to know how much time has gone by, or how much is yet to pass. The Crossroads Man can give her back bits of her memory, but every time he does, she keeps her mortality a little longer. Is he training an apprentice or a pet?
If you read the story first and then came over to read this interview, I’ll tell you right now that, yes, Kris knows all about dolls.
Working at a tech firm by day, Kris always finds time for her passions of writing, photography, tinkering, and being the Communications Specialist for Clarion West. She lives in the foothills of the Cascades in Washington State. You can learn more about her writing and the work she’s done with Clarion West and their Write–a–thon at her website, krismillering.com.
Questions about the story “Coins for Their Eyes”.
AM: “Coins for Their Eyes” is a deeply focused and grim story involving what happens on the other side of violent deaths. What inspired this story?
KM: I’ve always been fascinated by different cultural beliefs about death and what happens afterward. The psychopomp, the figure that guides the newly dead from life into death, is a powerful and recurring figure in so many belief systems. I’ve always wondered what someone who did that job would be like as a person. What would it be like to live in the thin space between the world of the living and the world of the dead? What kind of person could live like that, on both sides of the door and neither?
AM: The unnamed narrator is a creator of “ghost dolls,” and over the years, she’s become a very talented and efficient doll maker. The doll making scenes felt authentic and natural. What kinds of research did you do on dolls and doll making?
KM: I actually have a small collection of the kind of dolls the narrator works with, so writing the scenes where the narrator works with the ghost dolls came pretty naturally. I’ve only painted a few of them myself — my hands aren’t particularly steady, so I generally leave the painting to people who are far better at it than I will ever be. I’ve done everything else that the narrator does, from stringing and restringing, replacing and positioning eyes, to making clothes and shoes so many times that it’s become pretty ingrained.
AM: The people she makes dolls for are people who died before their time; they are mostly women, and often they died in violent manners. Was she chosen for this occupation because of what happened to her right before she walked through the door?
KM: The short answer is yes. The long answer is that she was chosen for her force of personality and her great will, as well as the fact that she died during a liminal phase of her life, literally while she was on the journey from her childhood with her mother to whatever her adulthood would have been like. She was stuck on the threshold of her own life, and it was the same with her death.
Mostly, however, she looked at death and said I refuse. The Crossroads Man liked that about her, and while he couldn’t take her back into life, he could offer her a reprieve.
Beware the kindness of supernatural beings. It rarely ends well for mortals.
AM: What’s next for our narrator? Do you think the Crossroads Man will ever let her go or at least make her life a little easier?
KM: I don’t think he’ll ever let her go, as such, but I think her life will get easier now that she remembers what happened to her. In the end, a lot of the story is about occupying liminal spaces and how people become comfortable in those spaces. It’s a lonely life for a psychopomp, and I strongly suspect that our narrator and the Crossroads Man will eventually become friends — but that’s a story for another day.
AM: Due to the way the story ends, it feels like a prologue, like it’s part of something so much larger. Is this a world you think you’ll ever return to? What are your thoughts on writing multiple stories (or novels) that aren’t a series per se but all take place in the same world?
KM: I’d like to return to this world at some point. I have another story brewing about ghost apples, inspired by some friends of mine who have an actual ghost apple tree on their farm. This narrator also tends to pass through the background of other stories of mine, as well. One of these days, she might even tell me her name.
I do like writing multiple stories set in the same world, though these days I’m a slow enough writer that I don’t manage it often. I love reading linked short stories, though, and with a setting like this one I feel as though there are many more stories to be told in it.
General Questions on writing:
AM: Earlier this year, you were the Communications Specialist for Clarion West. What did being the specialist entail, and how does the Clarion Write–a–thon work?
KM: I am actually still Clarion West’s Communications Specialist. I am responsible for most of the communications that come from the organization — social media, site updates, the Alumni News, the emails we send out a few times a month, publicity for both the Six–Week and One–Day workshops, and a lot more. I have a lot of help, since Clarion West is fortunate enough to have a large number of passionate and talented volunteers and a small and dedicated staff.
The Write–a–thon is Clarion West’s major yearly fundraiser and community event, and works much like a walk–a–thon for writers. Writers sign up and commit to writing goals, and sponsors support them and the workshop by donating in their names. It’s a fun way to bring together the worldwide community of writers and readers who support the workshop.
2014 was my first year being involved in running the Write–a–thon, and I was very impressed by the diversity of writers who signed up for the Write–a–thon. There’s a lot of passion around Clarion West, and it’s really fun to participate and write alongside the students who are going through the life–changing experience that is the Six–Week Workshop.
AM: Can you tell us a little about your writing process and about where your ideas for your stories come from?
KM: Ideas are the easy part — they’re everywhere, free for the taking. I do a lot of reading about science and art, and I have a habit of going on long wiki–wanders. I have several groups of writer friends, which is a tremendous help with story development. We can chatter all day about what we’re working on and talk about where we’re stuck.
As for process, I’m a “write anywhere and anytime” sort of person. I’ll often do several short stints of writing throughout the day as I have time and breaks from whatever else I’m doing. Short story writing, for me, often starts as a kernel of an idea that I write to find out what it’s all about and to discover what sort of meaning it has for me personally.
AM: Who are some of your favorite authors? Where have you drawn inspiration from?
KM: Oh gosh, I love this question. I really look up to my friend Cat Rambo, who writes stories that reliably transport me to far–off worlds and into beautifully scary futures. I love everything I’ve ever read of N.K. Jemisin’s and find her worldbuilding to be incredibly thought provoking. Melissa Scott and Sherri S. Tepper have both written books that had a profound impact on me as a young writer — Trouble and her Friends by Scott and Grass by Tepper are books that I’ve read a number of times. Nicola Griffith, Kelley Eskridge, Elizabeth Bear, Glen Cook, Caren Gussoff… the list goes on.
AM: What are you working on now? I hear you have a novel in the works?
KM: I do! I was recently writing a political fantasy novel that I’ve set aside while my subconscious works on figuring out where the gap between the book I’ve written and the book I want to have written is. Right now, I’m working on a space opera caper novel, which is basically Ocean’s 11 in space, only instead of getting away with the heist, the crew accidentally starts a revolution. It’s a tremendous amount of fun to write, and I really hope it’s going to be fun to read, as well.