Interview with Maria Dahvana Headley14 min read
Maria Dahvana Headley is not your average writer. She wears ball gowns and tiaras while writing on occasion. In New York, she once dated everyone who asked her out for a whole year just to see what would happen. She’s been on the Today Show. She’s a monster mythology maven. Did I mention she has a seven–foot taxidermied crocodile? Because she does. She’s also the author of Queen of Kings, a historical dark fantasy novel about Cleopatra, and was a 2012 Nebula Award finalist for her short story “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream.” She’s also got lots of secret projects up her sleeves — maybe ball gown sleeves. She’s unfettered and fascinating, and this month, Apex Magazine is thrilled to bring you her short story, “What You’ve Been Missing.”
APEX MAGAZINE: To get the preliminary question out of the way: What was the genesis for this story?
MARIA DAHVANA HEADLEY: I bought a set of beautiful Art Deco brass hippocampus bookends on eBay. Seriously. This story came from me wondering why they were called hippocampi, that sparking a memory of brain diagrams, and then wondering why there were parts in the brain with the same name as these mythological winged horse–fish… so, research. Turns out there’s an obvious reason — as in, the brain’s hippocampi are seahorse–shaped and were therefore named after the mythic animals. But as usual this reason a) wasn’t enough for me, b) had possibilities, and so I wrote a story. The brain’s hippocampi are the seat of memory. That, these creatures, their affiliation to the seat of memory, led me to this story. My beloved former father–in–law was a tremendously intellectual man, a professor, pioneer of public broadcasting, and a WWII vet who, at the end of his life, suffered from Alzheimer’s. When he died, it was after years of his mind piecemeal disregarding the rules, flinging his past and present off like a series of shirts. Though I knew him well, I never knew the person his sons had known. His loss of memory, of sentience, was slow and excruciating, but occasionally momentarily joyful. He’d transformed from a stoic person to someone who could love giddily without history, and sometimes he did. The cat in his lap, a kind person, a bright lipstick. This story, while not about him but an invented character and an invented character’s world, is nonetheless me looking for any spark of joy in the dark. I’m kind of always looking for joy in the dark. There’s not enough joy in the world, and some things are so painful that I write in order to try to make them a little better.
AM: In a lot of your other fiction, you include mythic creatures from various cultures and time periods. The hippocamp in “What You’ve Been Missing” was a great one to pick, because it doesn’t seem to be utilized nearly as much as it ought to. What drew you to the hippocamp for this story, versus another mythic creature?
MDH: See above. The hippocamp was where the story came from. But yes, once I started thinking I might write a hippocamp story, I was intrigued to discover that there aren’t a lot of them out there, which is very odd, given how ancient the notion of them is. I guess we’re typically tempted by Pegasus, maybe? And by unicorns? (Some of my own childhood love affair with the animated version of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn climbed into this story, actually — that sea of unicorns chased back by the bull has always haunted me.) Hippocamps are strangely complicated physically. They’re like exquisite corpses, bird wings and mermaid tails and horse torsos. What? But I love that they’re sea creatures, and also that they’re employed sea creatures, that they specifically draw Poseidon’s chariots. They aren’t just hanging out being beautiful. They’re working. So for two hippocamps to one day disregard their responsibilities in someone’s brain was also a useful place for this story to start. It makes sense on several levels.
AM: You mentioned in your interview with Lightspeed regarding “The Traditional” that much of your drive to write comes from discomfort. Was there any element in “What You’ve Been Missing” that made you uncomfortable?
MDH: Oh, hell yes. This story is, of course, about any writer’s major fear, losing your mind, your memory, the things that make you YOU. I watched two of the great storytellers of my life lose their stories as they got older, my grandfather and my father–in–law. Of course that terrifies me. It’s full of personal, as is everything I write, really, but I wanted to get it right, because it was about something many people have had pain over. So many people have lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s and similar conditions. These are long deaths, and agonizing for those attempting to be with the dying, sometimes watching loved ones disintegrate mentally and emotionally for years at a time. The possibility of being forgotten by someone you love is also very frightening to me. It was uncomfortable to write Bette’s anger with her husband, the fact that he was not dead, but actually forgetting her. I wasn’t sure if it was okay for her to be angry, if her anger with someone so ill made her seem as though she didn’t love him. I wanted us to know she loved him, and also to know that love in such a situation can be so complicated that you want to hurt the person you love, that perhaps you actually want desperately for them to die. I think that’s honest. My grandparents are in here a bit too, the rage my grandmother felt when my grandfather’s mind began to go, and his careless cruelty as he failed to recognize her — he was looking for the woman from their old pictures, her as a young woman. They were married for over fifty years, and I think loved one another, but all long relationships have old wounds in them, right alongside the old joys, and both can come out in times like these.
AM: I absolutely loved that the beach in the story is strewn with items and objects from memory and the past. If you were to wind up on that beach, are there any particular items you’d expect to see from your own life and history? Things you hope would be there? Things you’d rather wish weren’t?
MDH: Oh, man. That’s a good question. The things that recur in memory aren’t always the big moments. Sometimes they’re just these flashes, things you can’t categorize. I’d see my dad’s sled dogs, I think — I grew up surrounded by them, and their evening howls are a huge memory from my desert childhood. Probably there’d be a lot of beloved cats wandering around, carrying beloved books from my childhood on their backs. I’d love to see my grandfather there, because I miss him. He died when I was 18, and he was the guy who taught me story. I’d love to/be scared to see my dad, because he committed suicide when I was 27, and I miss him too. I never really got to know him as an adult, because he was far gone for the last ten years of his life, and that was tremendously painful. To see him on that beach, walking around with any kind of happiness, would be a gift. If we’re fast–forwarding that beach to years from now (and I hope we are — I have no plans to die!) I’d hope to see all the people I love now, and will love, and have loved, and have us love one another still. As for things I’d hope not to see… well, there’s not a lot of that in my history. The deep people who are angry with me, or who I am angry with, I’d like to see, if only to have a clear–eyed reckoning. I’ve learned things over the years, and surely they have too. Anger is frequently the flipside of love. Thing about this story though, is that it’s one person’s version, not everyone’s memory beach. So there’s that factor. It’s solitary memory, not collective reality. We’re forgiving one another in our imaginations. Maybe that’s as good as you get sometimes.
In my optimal version, though — and mind you, the ultimate moments of this story are as close as my personal mythology can get to heaven, with all its complexity — in my optimal version of this beach, we’re all there, on the sand, in the water.
About Writing in General:
AM: Unnatural Creatures, which you edited with Neil Gaiman, came out in April of this year. Can you tell us more about that anthology? What did you find was the most challenging thing about editing an anthology? What was the most fun?
MDH: It’s an anthology of mostly reprint and a few new pieces of monstery natural history, for young adult and up, a charity anthology for 826DC. It was challenging because when I came on, things had slid due to confusions and miscommunications. All that existed was a list of stories, and the book was, er, very due. Neil’s a friend. He called 911; I came on as an anthology medic. I added to Neil’s list, we batted things around, we shrunk the list, we added more to the list, and then I got permissions, illustrations, a manuscript. It was a big job, but very worthwhile. The theme of the anthology was fun, in terms of adding a few extra stories. And even more fun was learning about some stories I’d never read. The Samuel R. Delany story, “Prismatica”, for example, had never crossed my path before, and it’s wonderful. And I’m really pleased I got to bring Briony Morrow–Cribbs on for the illustrations, which are stunning. She’s one of my favorites — her work is on my apartment walls.
AM: You’ve written in all kinds of formats and genres, from memoir to dark historical fantasy, from plays to short stories. Is there one you feel particularly compelled towards, or is the joy in the jumping from one type to another?
MDH: Jumping. I’m a Gemini. I don’t give a shit about genre and not genre. I want to try everything I can try as a writer before I die, so I’m doing that. This doesn’t mean I don’t love writing in certain formats — I just sold two young adult novels, and they’re the culmination of years of testing different things, and braiding them into this one, and it’s awesome to write in that format. I respect the intensity of working solely in a single format or genre, but for me, a huge part of the joy of being a writer is testing new things, seeing if I can learn how to do them. Ultimately, though this approach is pretty scattershot, I end up writing things I’d like to read. I think I’m getting more experimental as I get more experienced, and to me, that makes sense. It’s quite easy to stop having fun as a writer. It’s hard work. It’s brain–draining. But if I stop having fun, I will suck. So, I keep inventing new things to try.
AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you write your first drafts very quickly, but that rewriting is where the real writing is (though you’ve compared rewriting to awkward teenage sex, so maybe not the more fun part). Could you describe your process for editing a work like Queen of Kings or its upcoming sequel? What about for a short story like your Nebula–finalist piece, “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream”?
MDH: Oh man. It’s always weird when you see something you apparently said with confidence quoted in another interview. I keep changing my process. I generally rewrite the whole time I’m writing, particularly the first 3/4 of a project, after which it suddenly clicks into place and I can just fling it down. Then I rewrite some more. First drafts flow usually for me pretty well, in a deceptive way, because they often have giant problems. This is much more true in longform than in short, because longer things are much harder to hold on your head — and thus harder to fix in a rewrite. So, Queen of Kings, I wrote in a five–month frenzy, and then revised with notes for another five months, gnashing and fighting my own brain. Give Her Honey was written in sections — there are two tracks running through it, new lovers & jilted lovers, alternating. Or maybe three — there’s a monster track too. At one point, I replaced the entire “new lovers” track with a totally different version, because it wasn’t right. And after I thought it was all done, I got a note and went back and gave it a more hopeful ending, because everyone who read it wanted to die at the end. Now people feel better. I wanted it to be hopeful, not bleak.
AM: Writing can be a very solitary and isolating career. You’re married to a writer, so there’s someone in the house who understands the demands of the job, but what gets you going when there’s a long day’s work to be done? (And the real question: do you really wear ball gowns or tiaras while writing? Because that sounds kind of awesome.)
MDH: Also writing can be a weird career, because you write about things and they become permanently logged on Google… and then, um, things change. So, I’m not actually married to a writer anymore. Not married at all anymore, though my former husband is still dear to me, and is still a brilliant writer. (He has a play coming to Broadway this season, and it rocks.) I do, however, still wear ball gowns to inspire writing, and sometimes tiaras. I also just bought a flight suit, Amelia Earhart–style, for particularly snarly writing days. It has tons of zippers and pockets in the calves in case I need to stash my pen, fold up and eject myself from the plane. You never know.
AM: You’ve done loads of research on the classics and mythology during your work on Queen of Kings, and probably a lot more since then for the sequel. In your searchings, have you found any mythological creature, idea, location, or item that you haven’t yet had a chance to incorporate into a story that you’d really like to sometime?
MDH: If I had, I’d never put it into an interview! I’d be all secret–hoardy. And in fact, I have a whole file of things like that. My partner in writing crime has a file too, and occasionally we swap treasures and write about each other’s hoarded items. I have a story coming up in the nearish future that came from a scrap of amazing saint and miracle research he’d hoarded for ten years before he gave it to me as a present. I’d feel guilty about that, except that I give him equally awesome presents, and we edit each other.
AM: A lot of beginning writers are encouraged to attend conventions and workshops not only to enjoy the camaraderie of other writers and to learn from experts in the field, but also to network. How important have you found networking to be for you, or how unimportant? What was your first convention, and which is your favorite to attend nowadays?
MDH: Networking? Hmm. I’m a social person already. I like conventions, because mainly I just like to meet interesting people. I don’t know that meeting interesting people has ever caused me to sell work, and certainly not longform work. Finishing writing projects has caused me to sell work. First convention was Readercon in 2011. I’m new to the field. 🙂 I like Readercon and ICFA both, but I’m not hugely experienced with conventions, because I didn’t come up going to them. In truth, it’s just about hanging out with smart people in the bar. There are lots of smart people to be found in the bar. I’ve been known to find a happy seat between John Clute and John Crowley at Readercon. I have no complaints in such company.
AM: Reading is so critical to being a good writer, from improving one’s craft, to learning new things about the world, to simply enjoying a rollicking story. How much time do you estimate you spend reading in a day or a week? Do you have any recommendations that you’ve particularly enjoyed lately, fiction or non–fiction?
MDH: More when I’m not deadlined. Never as much as I’d like. Maybe 5–6 hours a week, on a good week? I’ve been reading all the Jeff Ford I can get my hands on. The writer Ben Loory recommended him to me ages ago, and I didn’t get on it. When I did, I became completely addicted. Jeff and I have some of the same obsessions, and when I read him, I am both jealous that he got to certain things first, and delighted that he was the one who got to them. I read Crackpot Palace and was floored by everything in it, especially “Relic”. As for nonfiction, I’m reading my friend Jay Kirk’s Harper’s Magazine article “Bartók’s Monster” right now — that’s marvelous, an article about Bartok traveling through Transylvania with his “monster” — a cylinder recording device he used to record the songs of peasants. I’m planning an attack on Renee Gladman’s novels soon, because I just read an excerpt — “Six Enclosures” from Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge — in The Brooklyn Rail, and it was amazing.
AM: Because all of these questions have been very business–like up to now, I must ask a sillier one: for one so well versed in monster mythology, which monster do you find the most terrifying and why?
MDH: Most terrifying… hm. I can only say most favorite, and most favorite is Grendel’s Mother. She’s the scariest, angriest, and most long–suffering thing in Beowulf. One day, I think I’ll write a suburb story like Revolutionary Road, but starring Grendel’s Mother. The scariest monsters are the ones you sympathize with, and I sympathize with Grendel’s Mother. Her son is too sensitive, and not strong enough. She wants to protect him. It doesn’t go well. As well, of course, the ongoing debate regarding translation and assumptions of what Grendel’s Mother actually is… well, there’s a case to be made about some vehement class stuff too, and in that case, Grendel’s Mother may well be a broke and badass warrior woman living in a cave, a monster in translation because she’s both female and not part of the culture that deems Beowulf a Hero. So, she’s fascinating. I love her.
AM: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming months?
MDH: Tons. A novella from Subterranean Press co–written with Kat Howard. A young adult novel from HarperCollins. Possibly another adult book too, not from Harper. A secret project. Another secret project. I have a list of like 10 projects right now, and half of them are secret, which maddens me, because all I want to do is tell everyone everything. I’m finishing up a short story collection too… I think the largest thing to expect from me is that I might be invisible due to being wildly busy.
AM: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t get a chance to touch on earlier?
MDH: Rihanna’s Umbrella sung as a cover features in [“What You’ve Been Missing”], obviously, (I find that song both totally silly and totally moving, and in truth, it’s been known to make me cry) and I’d love to put up this link to kinda the best cover version ever.
The Baseballs, doing it like Elvis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DM2177pHMT0#t=62
AM: That’s great! Thank you so much, Ms. Headley, for giving us this little insight into your life and writing, and also for sharing “What You’ve Been Missing” with us here at Apex Magazine!