Scottish author Sam Fleming competes in triathlons, bakes bread, has a day job that includes saving the world, and writes fiction that refuses to be categorized. Her work has appeared in Black Static, Fish from Dagan Books, and Looking Landwards from NewCon Press. You can learn more about Fleming on her website, ravenbait.com.
“She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow” can be seen as a post-apocalyptic story, a straight up fantasy, a study on coping mechanisms, and a view from the inside. I was immediately drawn towards Chancery and Hedron. How did he find her, and why did he rescue her? What exactly is their relationship? What the hell is going on with his filthy hat, and why aren’t I afraid of it? Shouldn’t I be afraid of him, or at least of his hat? I’d love to get to know Chancery more, but I know she wouldn’t want to get to know me (which says more about me than it does about her). Those are my favorite kind of characters—the ones I imagine myself trying to form a friendship with, or at least have a conversation with. I really think you’re gonna love this story. You’re gonna love reading it, and then you’re gonna love teasing it apart to see the truth of the reality that lives beneath, or what Fleming calls its “beating heart.”
By the time you get to the end of “She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow” (it’s cool, I’ll wait right here for you), you’ll know Sam Fleming is an unusual individual. Synaesthetic and a sufferer of hypergraphia, Fleming is uniquely positioned to tell those unexpected stories with flavors that shouldn’t mesh but do and characters who typically wouldn’t be center stage but are the only ones who can properly tell a particular story. This is where sound and words have shape, color has a taste, and interaction with the world is something completely different.
Fleming is an author I’m looking forward to reading more from. Even if that means angering Hedron by accident.
Questions about the story
APEX MAGAZINE: Due to a disability, Chancery isn’t affected by a lemming like disease that caused millions of people to walk into the sea and drown themselves. She doesn’t like people, and now there aren’t any. Tell me about how you developed Chancery’s character and her coping mechanisms.
SAM FLEMING: Her coping mechanisms are not all that great. The story is, at least in part, about her finding a place where she doesn’t have to use them. Chancery doesn’t dislike people so much as fails to understand them. People are weird and mystifying. They have rules about how to interact with each other that somehow you’re supposed to know without anyone ever telling you explicitly what they are. Chancery would have memorised Debrett’s and been bullied for it. “People don’t do that,” and “It’s just what people do,” are things she has heard so often it’s clear to her she can’t be people. People are the ones who expect her to behave in a certain way, or to understand certain things, even though they haven’t stated their expectations explicitly. Anyone who is prepared to interact with her on her level can’t be people. People don’t do that.
I have a huge amount of sympathy for Chancery in this. People are mystifying; their motives can be unintelligible, their expectations bewildering. They say one thing and do something completely different. There are social rituals requiring one to either know or guess what they want and what they’re thinking. I was once told, “A good friend would know that.” I thought, “How would they know? Who tells good friends this is what is expected of them? How does one know when one has achieved good friend status, and thus must abide by a different set of rules and expectations?” This thing didn’t seem at all obvious to me—I can’t even remember what it was. Then there was the corollary—if one does not know this thing, one cannot be a good friend, even if this information has been withheld. There’s no manual for this, just a lot of social convention, which isn’t even universally applicable. People like to feel you are one of “them”, which usually means understanding the rules by which they interact. It’s tough when you’re not.
I suppose Chancery is what happened when I went to open the door in my head marked “BEWARE: Here Be People” and then thought, “What if there weren’t?”
AM: Hedron rescued her, and they live on his island. Hedron is such a mysterious character, we don’t know who he is or where he came from. So, who, or should I say what is Hedron? Where did he come from? (and I mean that literally and metaphorically).
SF: “His island” is really “Great Britain”, but then Britain is a collection of islands, after all. I have a few ideas about where Hedron might have come from, although he sprang into existence fully formed. He could be cousin to Tove Jansson’s Snufkin, who was my favourite character in the Moomins when I was younger. They’re not entirely dissimilar in appearance. In the story, it was important to me to leave it ambiguous. He might be some sort of nature spirit, or a representation of the Walkers’ hive mind; or maybe a personification of the disease in Chancery herself, and this is how her mind works with her immune system to keep it under control. Or maybe there is no disease, and everything that happened was simply one young woman with previously-undiscovered superpowers having a meltdown and making everything in her world more peaceful and understandable. Perhaps, in a moment of extreme frustration, she turned all the people into not-people, who wouldn’t expect things of her she couldn’t understand, and Hedron turned up because she’s been taught to believe she’s only safe when there is someone to take care of her. There is no right answer. He just is.
AM: Is Hedron real? Also, Please tell me everything there is to know about his amazing crazy hat!
SF: He’s real to Chancery, and that’s the important part. He can effect change in the world, which gives him a degree of objective weight. Objective reality is a slippery beast. So much of the world operates by consensus. Part of my goal in the story was to explore what consensus reality might look like if given wholesale to someone who doesn’t normally get to add to the stories we are told about the world in which we live. Chancery’s consensus reality is created by her, Hedron, Skook, and the Walkers. They know all the rules for living in it, nobody holds her to a standard she can’t understand, never mind meet, and she’s happy.
Hedron turned up in his hat, and I knew from the get-go that the hat and the disease were intimately connected. I can’t imagine Hedron being parted from his hat any more than I can imagine him without his teeth. It is to the disease as a magnet is to iron filings, collecting everything that would otherwise cause it to advance in Chancery. The filthier it gets, the less space it has to take on more grot, and the sicker she is, which is why he cleans it frequently in ordinary circumstances. It’s big and floppy, which is ideal for protecting her. In the story, Hedron faces balancing the need to weaponise his hat with Chancery’s increasingly ill health. I think that’s why he was so angry with Kay. She made him take risks with Chancery, and he’d do anything to keep her safe.
AM: What triggered the creation of this story? Where did the idea for Chancery, the Walkers, Hedron, where did it all come from?
SF: It was a moment of extreme introvert frustration compounded by being in the company of some very noisy people. I’m lucky in that I can find a quiet space, gather myself, and put my game face on again, but what’s a happy ending for someone who can’t even pretend to be gregarious and sociable occasionally, who is hyper-sensitive and incapable of developing the social skills necessary for success in an increasingly-difficult economy? I’m irritated by memes insisting anything is possible if only one puts one’s mind to it, and one should follow one’s bliss. There’s a huge degree of privilege inherent in that assertion. It assumes that we have or can create the same opportunities and capacities.
In this part of the world there are people who live in castles and stately homes, rattling around in airy attics and enormous dining rooms. We have an oil economy here, and property is expensive. I don’t work in oil, and I’m not heir to a vast fortune. I’d like to live in a castle or a lighthouse, to have that space, that lightness, that room to breathe, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact it’s not going to happen. The only way I’d ever be able to live in a place like that is if everyone suddenly had no desire for them.
Apocalyptic stories so often show the end of the world depicted as a terrible thing. There’s something to be said for a world in which plague has rendered nearly everyone mute and migratory, reduced to the most simple state of existence. No cars, no air pollution. Plenty of peace and quiet. Nobody making strange and arbitrary demands. I think we’re back to that sense of space again, the luxury of being away from people. One of my readers suggested cutting a big chunk from the start of the story, because it wasn’t horrible enough, and I realised it was very important to me to show Chancery happy. She deserved to have that.
It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. That’s the story in a nutshell.
Stories about writing and everything else
AM: What is your writing process like? How do you get from idea to story on the page?
SF: I’m a pantser. I think it must be genetic—I’ve tried often enough to work it all out beforehand and my brain rebels. I often start from weird dreams (I have really strange dreams), although most frequently it’s a brief scene that pops into my head and then I have to work out what happened before and after. I just finished a novella that grew from a scene I found in my head while I was swimming laps in the pool. Recently, in an effort to curb my word counts, I’ve been trying to outline more. I use a combination of mindmapping and asking myself the hard questions: why, how, and have you really thought this through?
The characters are what drive me, and I find it tough to outline plot in anything other than vague terms. I have a world, and characters in the world, and it seems to work best when I put the characters in motion and see what they do. This means I end up writing a lot and cutting away to the find the beating heart under the flab. Sometimes I don’t really know what the story is about until I’ve finished it.
AM: You’ve mentioned on your blog that stories you’ve worked on were supposed to be flash pieces or short stories, and the word count just kept growing. Have you plans to expand any of those pieces into novels?
SF: I’m already working on it. I started with long form, back in the days when my writing wasn’t anything I had considered showing to people, just something I did. Even though I’ve become quite good at cutting, the word counts are creeping up and up, so I might as well just go for it.
AM: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received? What was the worst?
SF: I’ve had lots of good advice. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know some really excellent writers, one or two of whom have turned out to be equally excellent teachers. It’s tough to winnow it all down to one, but the importance of good crit buddies isn’t news to anyone (I have marvelous crit buddies, and I treasure them), so…I was in a class Cat Rambo was teaching, and she talked about finding the core of the story. What’s the story about? Not the plot, or the character’s main desire, or the conflict, but what I described above as the beating heart. Find what your story is about and slice away everything not relevant.
The worst was not to try writing for publication at all. “If you write for yourself you’re still a writer, and you won’t have to cope with the endless disappointment of rejection.” If you have no intention of finding a reader, you don’t make the effort to learn how to communicate more clearly, and that’s what it’s all about. Otherwise, it’s just patterns of lines on a page. I’ve done both, and what I’ve learned is this: you should always write for yourself, but edit for someone else.
AM: Is there anything better in life than freshly baked bread and a good cup of coffee?
SF: The blog posts! I’m fussy about food because the second brain in my gut has the personality of an unruly toddler, and if I tried to stuff any old thing into my face I’d soon be extremely ill. There’s something deliciously decadent but wholesome about freshly baked, slow-fermented bread. Still, if you asked me to choose between fresh bread and my bicycles, I’d stop eating bread altogether. Coffee and tea, however, are one of the major food groups, as far as I’m concerned. Ask me to choose between either of these and my bicycles, and I’d have to ask Hedron to bring his hat for a visit.