Yesterday I reviewed Angela Slatter’s excellent Of Sorrow and Such, published by Tor. Today here’s an interview with Angela about the book, the way it uses community and history and the other stories in this vibrant and brilliant fantasy world.
Tell us a little about Of Sorrow & Such.
Well, a few years ago I wrote a collection called Sourdough and Other Stories. There was a story in there called “Gallowberries” and it featured a bright young witch called Patience Sykes. Patience had just taken revenge on some righteous townsfolk for the murder of her mother … instead of getting out of Dodge quick smart, she hung around … and stuff happened.
I’d maintained a soft spot of Patience and always thought I’d like to tell more of her story … then the chance came along to do a Tor.com. Of Sorrow and Such sees her in her middle years, she older, wiser, a little less feisty, but still no less dangerous to cross. She’s dedicated to her own survival and that of those she loves; she’s pragmatic and ruthless, loyal and clear-eyed. Oh, and a witch. A true witch.
How did you find working at novella length?
I luuuurve working at novella length because I find it relatively easy to plot. This is the second novella I’ve written − and I’ve got two more drafted − I can confidently say I’ll return to this form!
Because it’s shorter the chapters are shorter (d’uh) and the pay-off comes a lot more quickly. Because it’s much pacier, I find it easier to keep the excitement going. Though it’s not as sharp and precise as a short story, the advantage is that you can add in extra descriptions and secondary characters that would most likely (and probably should) be cut out of a short story. I do like writing towards plot points and chapter endings − I get there much faster with a novella.
I’m not one of those writers who says “Hate writing, love having written”, but I am the writer who loves writing but loves editing more. So the faster I finish the first draft (AKA brain-vomit), the faster I get to the editing stage.
Can you tell us anything about the new novellas?
One is called The Briar Book of the Dead and its set in the same world as Of Sorrow and Such, but in a town called Silverton. Silverton is run by the Briar Family, a group of witches; the town operates under a dispensation from the religious leaders in Lodellan (which sets them aside from most places in the Sourdough world), but there are conditions on practicing their craft. There are five younger girls in the family, each competing for the position of the Briar Witch; except for the protagonist, Annie, who’s the only one of the family without magic so she’s out of the running. The town is preparing for Balefire Eve, which is when they sacrifice the tree-wife/wood-wife to keep themselves safe throughout the vicious winter. The safety of Silverton’s folk depends on Balefire Eve going off without a hitch … but of course it doesn’t. There’s murder, deceit, and after an accident Annie gains a power: she becomes the Speaker for the Dead, a position no one’s held for a couple of hundred years so she’s got her work cut out for her, laying the restless dead whose sins have left them unable to sleep. This power, of course, puts her in the running to become the Briar Witch, which doesn’t entirely please some people.
The second is called Darker Angels, and it’s basically a gothic tale in which a young girl and her brother and their mother go to live with a mysterious grandmother and uncle of whom they’ve never heard. Eliza’s father dies suddenly, leaving the family penniless, but Uncle Sebastian turns up on the doorstep offering to solve all their problems. Eliza’s mother is happy to accept, but Eliza isn’t prepared to be so trusting.
Talk us through the Sourdough universe that this novella is set in. What other stories are available?
The Sourdough universe is basically the fairy tale mish-mash in my head! I talked about it over at Tor.com in a post on worldbuilding http://www.tor.com/2015/10/13/once-upon-a-time-in-worldbuilding/ about how I get to be the boss of the world and put all my favourite things in the one place, such as art, costumes, architecture, etc. To me it’s mess of medieval Europe and Victorian England in places, all a bit mad but it makes me happy. I’m always fascinated to see that some people identify it as purely medieval, others as purely fantastical.
The first collection I did in this universe was Sourdough and Other Stories, then followed up with The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection (tying with Helen Marshall’s most excellent Gifts for the One Who Comes After). Then I wrote Of Sorrow and Such to revisit the character of Patience, who first appeared in Sourdough. The Briar Book of the Dead is, as I’ve said above, also set in this world, but I’ve not yet found a publisher for it.
I’m currently editing the third book in the Sourdough cycle, The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales, which I sort of feel at this stage will finish off the series (although I do have some other ideas for novellas and a novel). This collection/mosaic takes place in a time when magic seems to have been hammered out of the world; Cordelia, a trophy wife in Lodellan, has a rude awakening about how the world really is, and the people she’s trusted in her life, so it’s a tale of her fall and rise and evolution. One of the Tallow-Wife tales is Bearskin, which was published online this year at The Dark, so readers can get a feel for what’s to come.
Community is something that’s central to the premise of Of Sorrow & Such. How did the location influence the story?
Well, it’s a made-up place like all of my Sourdough universe, but when I’m dreaming up a place I really like the idea of small communities with a particular kind of picturesque look, something that’s a mix of a timeless medieval/pastoral thing … but with more indoor plumbing, less bubonic plague.
And yes, community is really important to me, the ideas of having people around us, managing relationships with them, keeping secrets from those who’ll harm or judge us, keeping those we love safe. A small town/large village like Edda’s Meadow gives room to play with the idea that most folk know each other, some folk know others better depending on social status, etc. It’s a great tableau for the kind, the bad, the petty, the ignorant, the brave, and the vengeful all to do a little turn and show off their wares, so to speak. It tends to make the narrative mix richer. A smaller setting feels, to me at least, like I can showcase a broader spread of characters.
You play a lot with the ‘accepted wisdom’ surrounding witches. What sort of research did you do? And why do you think the ideas you push against have bedded in so much in myth and culture?
Well, reading about fairy tales and folk lore and the history of the persecution of witches was a hobby before I became a writer, so it’s a lifelong accumulation of knowledge and ideas. For instance, in Of Sorrow and Such, there’s a bit with the cats … I carried that bit of lore around with me for over thirty years, gleamed from a book my dad gave my sister and I when we were little, called The Everlasting Cat by Mildred Kirk.
Lore and myth and tales have always been my preferred reading materials, so the stories I’m coming up with now are absolutely infected and inflected by a lot of reading over a really long time. It annoys me that there’s so much judgment of witches, so much the assumption that they worship Satan and therefore must be punished, when witches came out of the times before Christianity held sway; they were healers and guides, not just lonely old women with warts and cats. I must admit to throwing things at the television when American Horror Story: Coven finished up on just such an ignorant judgmental note (not to mention the plot holes).
The ideas I push against in this novella − victimisation of women, fear of the other, destruction of that which is inconvenient, silencing those who disagree with you − have embedded in society because they serve ruling structures. Make your population fearful and they’re easier to control … but make them fearful of those in their communities who are different and are not in a position to strike back. While the population is too busy tearing itself apart looking for scapegoats, it’s too busy to notice what you’re doing as either a political or religious leader.
I love how one of the only weapons your characters have here is the oral history of the witches. What sort of things influenced how the witch society is laid out?
I feel like ‘society’ implies more organisation than there actually is! I think of my witches as more of an underground movement, fairly anarchic. What was important for me was that magic was real in this world, that not every woman could do magic, that witch blood is a wild unpredictable inheritance, and that every bit of magic costs something. I don’t think there’s any great hierarchy of witches because most everyone who’s got powers is hiding them in order to stay alive!
One of the groups in The Bitterwood Bible was the Little Sisters of St Florian, who lived in the Citadel at Cwen’s Reach, where they kept an enormous library of all kinds of knowledge, harmless and personal (such as the little Books of Lives, which collected tales of ordinary people’s lives) to terrible and frightening books such as The Compendium of Contaminants, a legendary poisoner’s bible (the story in which this featured won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy story this year and can be read for free at Tor.com http://www.tor.com/2015/05/19/st-dymphnas-school-for-poison-girls/). Some of those Sisters were witches, too, but the community was devoted to the preservation of knowledge; it was a safe place.
But the idea with the Sourdough world is that there are still some of these books floating about, they are expensive artefacts collectors might seek, as well as heirlooms held and hidden by women who practice magic. That’s another one of the novellas I want to write, explaining how there came to be so many fragmentary versions of The Bitterwood Bible in the world.
Are you going to be returning to these characters?
Yes! I think that secret is out based on my earlier answers.
What’s next for you?
At the moment I am:
- Doing the edits on my debut novel, Vigil, for Jo Fletcher Books (out 2 June 2016).
- Finishing the sequel, Corpselight, to deliver in March 2016.
- Plotting for the third book in the series, Restoration.
- Editing two new stories for a mostly reprint collection with Prime Books (US), called A Feast of Sorrows.
- Writing a new story for a mostly reprint collection for PS Publishing (UK), tentatively called Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales.
- Writing five commissioned stories.
- Researching for a book for Electric Dreamhouse Press about the Karnstein films by Hammer Horror.
- Finishing a novel called Scandalous Lady Detective (which features the same main characters as my novella Ripper, which appeared in Stephen Jones’ Horrorology: The Lexicon of Fear), for which I then need to find a publisher!
- And planning a new illustrated storybook of my story Skin with my friend and collaborator Kathleen Jennings. We’ve done a storybook version of my tale Flight with Tiny Owl Workshop in Australia and it will be beautiful when it comes out next year!