Interview with Ursula Vernon7 min read

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British folklore offers the story of “Rawhead and Bloody Bones,” a cautionary tale about a boogeyman who lives in ponds and sometimes under the stairs. Rawhead is a horrid looking monster, and if you see him, you’re done for. In the American South, the story changed to follow Rawhead, a wild boar befriended by an old, lonely woman. When she finds out her only friend has been killed by a vindictive hunter, she conjures the boar back to life to avenge his own death. In “Razorback,” Vernon puts her unique spin on the American South version of “Rawhead and Bloody Bones.” A ghost story with an aftertaste of empowerment, revenge, and of knowing when it’s your time, it’s a story of how far people will go for the ones they love. The original stories were horror stories, stories designed to scare children. This one won’t scare you, and it’s not meant to. It’s meant to show you a side of an old horror story you’ve never seen before — the “why it happened” that so often gets hidden behind the “what happened.” And if this is the story that’s hiding behind a tale meant to terrify, what might be lying behind your other favorite scary stories to tell in the dark?

One of the many things I love about Vernon’s work is her simple refusal to stick with any one genre, subgenre, or even type of book. She’s created webcomics and graphic novels written for young readers, older readers, and adults. She’s done self-publishing, small press publishing, and worked with traditional publishers, as well. Her mid-grade novel, Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible was recently optioned for filming, and her graphic novel series Digger has a cult following and a Hugo award. If you only know Vernon for her short fiction or her webcomics or her YA work, I highly suggest exploring the rest of her oeuvre.

Nebula and Hugo award winning author Ursula Vernon lives in North Carolina, where she can often be found writing at the local coffee shop, doodling, gardening, and observing nature in her neighborhood. She’s the author of the DragonbreathandNurk books for young readers, Digger, Harriet the Invincible, and Castle Hangnail, among others. Under the pen-name T. Kingfisher, Vernon has recently published the adult fantasy titles The Seventh Bride, Toad Words and Other Stories, and Bryony and Roses. Her short story “Jackalope Wives” (Apex Magazine Issue 56) won the Nebula Award and was nominated for a World Fantasy award.

She was kind enough to talk with me a bit about “Razorback,” the excitement of Hollywood, pen-names, and how the “animal books” she read as a kid have a profound influence on how she writes about humans and animals.

Apex Magazine: How did you come across the “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” story? Which were you exposed to first, the European version or the American South version? Which do you like better?

Ursula Vernon: I had heard the name before, in fantasy novels — I think it might have been one of the Anita Blake books where it’s a villain — but I stumbled over it again while I was reading up on Southern ghost stories. As soon as I read the old American South version, my brain started working. I’ve always loved boars, and here was a story about an old woman and a boar who was her friend and it went from there.

AM: Sal provides many needed “community services,” but she lives a life of poverty. Sounds like most of what she does is herbal medicine, building up people’s confidence when they need it, and knocking it down when they need that instead, and women’s health issues. And for her trouble, she’s ostracized. Seems the people society needs most are often treated the worst. Why do you think this is?

UV: I suspect people don’t like to admit that they need certain things. When you need someone, you’re vulnerable, and nobody likes other people to see them when they’re vulnerable. Plus, when you get into women’s health issues, there’s a long and grim history there that continues to this day.

AM: Tell me more about Paul Silas. Who was he before he started bothering Sal? Why is he so obsessed with her?

UV: I don’t know much about him, honestly. There’s a hunter in the original story, and I suspect in the original, he’s merely stupid and kills Rawhead out of greed, rather than malice. But greed and stupidity aren’t quite enough for me as an author to feel good about having a zombie hog maul you to death, so I brought out something a little darker. Lord knows, there are plenty of people out there who you meet sometimes and think “I’m glad I’m not alone with you …” I don’t know that he’s obsessed with Sal in particular, but he feels superior to her and I suspect it infuriates him that she doesn’t agree with that assessment.

AM: Not to spoil the ending (much), but I love that reincarnation makes it into this story. Thanks to those sentences, my tears came from a different corner of my heart. How did reincarnation get into the story?

UV: …’cos I’m a big old softie. *grin* I can’t really kill off the animal companion in a story. Too much Old Yeller, too much Where The Red Fern Grows — schools seem to positively delight in making kids read books where the dog dies as a form of improving literature. I think that sucks. Certainly it turns a lot of kids off from reading, if you teach them that a good book is one where all the animals snuff it to teach the boy (it’s almost always a boy) a valuable lesson about manhood. Feh, sez I.

AM: You’ve published your own webcomics, and your work has been published through publishers large and small. Earlier this year, you self-published The Seventh Bride, and the title was later picked up by 47North. Having done nearly every type of publishing that’s out there, do you prefer self-publishing, traditional publishing, or something in between? Are there certain projects of yours that are better suited for one type of publishing or the other?

UV: *laugh* Oh lord! I like the money in trade publishing, that’s for sure. I like answering to no one but myself in self-publishing.

It’s absolutely a matter of what project fits best where — kid books are absolutely a bad prospect for self-pub, because distribution is so hard. Very few kids read e-books. The day will come when somebody invents an indestructible e-reader that costs $20 that you can hand to an eight-year-old boy with confidence, but until that day, the kid market for e-books is nearly nonexistent. So you have to get stuff in stores, and that’s simply not gonna happen on a large scale with self-pub any time soon.

By the same token, there are weird little projects that I love writing — usually under the pen-name T. Kingfisher — that are the wrong length or don’t fit neatly in a genre or whatever, but which will sell five or six thousand copies in e-book, and will continue to sell at a trickle for years to come. Which isn’t commercially viable for a trade publisher, but is absolutely worthwhile for a one-woman operation. So I go by “what project goes best where.” And occasionally one does well enough in self-pub, like The Seventh Bride, to get picked up by a trade publisher again. The circle of life!

AM: Speaking of projects, I read on your livejournal that your newest project is tentatively called The Raven And The Reindeer. What can you tell us about this new project?

UV: It’s another T. Kingfisher fairy-tale retelling, this time based on The Snow Queen. It’s more of a love story than I’ve written before, between Gerta and Janna the bandit-girl, and there’s a raven and skinchanging and … uh … giant white otters …

I’m bad at blurbs.

AM: In other big news, your children’s book Castle Hangnail was recently optioned by Disney. Congratulations! What was it like to get that phone call? Which of your other titles would you love to see make it to the screen?

UV: *laugh* I am the worst at getting Big Important Phonecalls! I think I said “Oh. Cool! Sounds good?” I once talked to a director while pulling weeds, because I only get good cell reception in the front garden and since I was there ANYWAY, and … yeah. He said, rather plaintively, “No one’s ever pulled weeds on a con call with me before.” My agent laughed until I thought she’d rupture something.

The problem is that none of these things really seem real to me. It’s completely absurd to think somebody might make a movie out of one of my books — or buy a six book deal, or republish one of my self-pubs or whatever — so while I don’t disbelieve it, I also am never quite convinced it’s happening at the time.

About six months after the fact, I actually start to believe it, and by then it seems weird to go around saying “OMG I GOT A MOVIE DEAL” because by then it’s old news.

AM: Let’s end this interview by blowing up everyone’s Books I Want To Read lists. What have been some of your favorite recent reads? Any titles you’re looking forward to in the upcoming months?

UV: I loved Uprooted by Naomi Novik (like a lot of other people!) Also really enjoyed Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones, and Dreamer’s Poolby Juliet Marrillier. And Diane Duane did a self-published Young Wizards book called Interim Errantry, which included the novel Lifeboats, which I loved.

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