Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley, author of “The Traditional”

Interview by Patrick J. Stephens

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the young adult skyship novel Magonia from HarperCollins, the novel Queen of Kings, the memoir The Year of Yes, and co-author with Kat Howard of the short horror novella The End of the Sentence. With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefiting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared in Lightspeed (“Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream,” “The Traditional”), on Tor.com, in The Toast, Clarkesworld Magazine, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Uncanny Magazine, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead, as well as in a number of Year’s Bests, most recently Year’s Best Weird. She lives in Brooklyn with a collection of beasts, an anvil, and a speakeasy bar through the cellar doors. Find her on Twitter @MARIADAHVANA, or on the web at mariadahvanaheadley.com.

What is the appeal of apocalypse fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I think maybe we’re all considering apocalypse on every level, most of the time. Humans are self-involved creatures, and we’re all thinking about dying. So, from the get-go, this is a story arc we know. The apocalypse scenario of ‘almost everyone dies’ is kind of a comfort, looked at that way. You’re not the only one ceasing to exist. Everyone else is going out too. And of course, if you’re one of the few survivors, or your character is, there are instant high stakes, instant bravery, instant basic story building blocks. Personally, I tend to like to be as interested in the prosaic moments of apocalypse as anything else, the basic goodbyes to civilized un-necessities, things about which we nonetheless feel a kind of tenderness: sliced bread, coffee, pie, poetry. I suspect this is because my early childhood was spent in the woods in British Columbia at a log cabin fishing lodge, and the other part was spent in remote rural Idaho in a 1950’s schoolhouse turned family home, with a father who raised many, many sled dogs. Lots of city dwellers would look at my formative years and figure I grew up in an apocalypse. Writing settings where civilization gets pared away comes naturally to me, because I didn’t really grow up in civilization. My earliest memories are not of humans, but of dogs and wolves howling, moose walking through the lake, and tiny float planes landing to bring us bits of the world we couldn’t reach by road.

What are some of your favorite examples of apocalypse fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I don’t read tons of it, actually! But I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s recent novel Station Eleven, completely. The technique I describe above, the listings of lost things, is all over it. As well as the endurance, post-apocalypse, of things like memorized playscripts, memories of performances, music, love. It’s fucking gorgeous.

The second person point of view presents many challenges to writers, especially those working with an apocalypse. How did you approach the narrative voice in creating “The Traditional”? And, as a writer who found success with a memoir (The Year of Yes), and has a strong connection to that community, how much of your own voice influenced “The Traditional”?

The voice in this story is tonally different from the apocalyptic content, which pleases me. I have a theory about the second person POV. I think it’s a myth that it’s more challenging to write in it—it’s actually a kind of vaudevillian intimacy shortcut. For example: When you’re performatively telling a story, you might speak the whole thing in second person. “So, you walk into a bar … ” It has a kind of jokey colloquial comfort—you’re saying, essentially, “We’re the same, imagine yourself in this situation.” If you can make a reader feel comfortable, you can wriggle under their skin more easily.

A second person POV is inherently fake when you see it written—as in, you know it’s not a spoken voice, but it feels acceptable, because you feel addressed by the speaker as someone who is part of the story. So you can (hopefully) also get away with some styling, like I did here, while retaining the juice of it seeming like something that could be spoken, a riff. It’s a happy little cheat. Second person feels deceptively real—hence, I suspect, your question about autobiographical voice. It’s fun to write in it, because you can add uncomfortable things, things like “You touch his brain with your fingertip.” And the reader feels it as a sympathetic action before they can judge the character for the creepiness. More daredevil is the first person plural, which I’ve never yet tried. That’s saying here we are, we all did this. It could be exquisitely used in a dithyrambic scary story. Maybe that’s next. (Oh no, this is dangerous. I shouldn’t think about new stories.)

So, as for the genesis of this particular second person POV, I happened, at the time I was writing this, to be reading Junot Diaz’s great new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, which is mostly written in badass second. Junot’s work is bawdy, brainy, extremely precise, and blisteringly funny. It also always manages to break my heart. Dude just kills it. I first tried to steal Junot’s voice from Drown, back in my playwright days, 1996 or so. His stories are very much like monologues, and so I copied the fuck out of Drown, and failed. Years passed. Now Junot’s a friendly acquaintance of mine, and here I am, stalking his voice again. With “The Traditional,” I thought, let’s see what happens if I use a second person bullshitter voice like his—but a girl bullshitter. I really can never get enough of female bullshit artists as characters.

Is this my own voice, this story? Or, more simply, am I a girl bullshitter? Yeah. Writer = liar, but in this case, my narrator isn’t me. She has a lot of me in her—the mimeograph exorcism in particular, is something that actually happened to me. But her voice, the truth of this story? Is sideways. The joy of writing speculative fiction rather than memoir is that you can throw some enormous worms into the story right alongside anniversaries and drinks and love. They can all coexist.

Whether it’s the giant worms or opening the main character’s chest cavity in a show of affection—is there an image from “The Traditional” that remains just as haunting as when you wrote the first draft?

I wrote this—you can laugh—as a present for my then-boyfriend who’d had his wisdom teeth out, and given me one as a present. He’s a writer too, and we got to riffing on traditional anniversary gifts, what else a person might give of their body. Their bones, skin, brain, et cetera. In my mind, and his too, this was a sweet story, like, total romance. (I didn’t think of it as scary at all, until my friend Kat Howard told me she’d had a nightmare in which she was trapped in it, trying to kill worms with a weapon made of fingers.)

Our riff slithered, as our riffs do, over to what would happen if you wrote a filthy mash-up of O. Henry and J.G. Ballard. As in, the super-romance of Gift of the Magi + the kinky questionable of Crash. Gift of the Magi has always creeped me out, which is probably a flaw in me and my understanding of what you’re supposed to be willing to do for love. I remember reading it as a little kid and feeling infuriated. So I think it’s always been in me to write some kind of rebel version. Ballard, well, he creeps me out less than O. Henry does. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I’m interested in wide-ranging notions of eros and despairos. (Maybe I apologize for that word, maybe I don’t.) The sexiness of universal disaster. It ended up being a grind I could dance to, so I wrote it.

As for haunts: It’s the worms. Giant tunneling worms are not my terror. Tiny parasitic worms are my terror. Like I said, I grew up surrounded by sled dogs. Worms, man. Worms. Tiny worms that get bigger as they eat you from the inside? Oh, holy. There’s something about how worms are, the way they can subdivide. Chop them up, and back they come. That’s some classic nasty. I have a small wrong theory that the notion of the Hydra is based on an ancient balladeer’s childhood bad deeds with worm dissection. How many times can I chop it in half? How many times will it grow back? Ahhh! It’s a monster! It doesn’t die! Fucking scary. Also, anything that’s got extra hearts freaks me out. You have an extra heart, it doesn’t matter to you what happens in the moment. The most dangerous sort of heart-breakers are people who act like they’ve got a spare.

If you were a character in “The Traditional,” who would you find yourself socializing with—those like our main character and her love interest, or in a land far away, battling the worms?

I’ve always said that I’d suck it in an apocalypse, because I’m a Type 1 diabetic and I have to take insulin or drop over dead. I’m essentially science fiction made flesh. I travel around looking like a normal person, but my insulin pump is cyber life-support. So, you know, if the worms were nearby and I could bash one in the head with my high heel, okay, I’d love to, but heading out to the desert to put dynamite in wormholes would probably be beyond me. However, I’ve always had an airplane/subway/bus defender fantasy of stabbing a syringe of insulin into a hijacker. I grew up in a family that was very apocalypse-centric, and we made contingency plans. Every time I get on public transportation, I consider my battle options. How do you battle? With the tools you’ve got on you. Your bone-comb. Your insulin syringe.

You’ve just been nominated for a Nebula with “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream,” so congratulations are in order. You’ve also experienced great success with The Year of Yes, and Queen of Kings. How (if at all) has this affected the way you approach new stories?

Thank you! It was so flattering to be nominated for the Nebula. As for being successful, I’m not sure it changes anything for me, really, in terms of story approach. A friend of mine once described it as, well, you get a story in the New Yorker, or you get a rave in the NY Times, or you hit a bestseller list (all of which would be amazing, don’t get me wrong)—and even as those social markers happen and your mom is proud, you’re looking to the next project and moaning because you still don’t know how the hell to be a writer. That would be the way of the screwed-up vocation. I’d be suspicious if I ever felt comfortable, because a big part of my urge to write comes from discomfort. So many nice things have happened with the things I’ve written, and that’s always lovely, but all I want to do is write things I haven’t written yet. Some people in my life find this approach maddening, but it’s working for me.