Never Afters, by Kirstyn McDermott
I don’t tend to read the works of Kirstyn McDermott. Even though she’s a friend. And not for the usual reasons that friends give, either; instead, it’s because she is too good. Kirstyn tends to write horror, and I tend to find her work just too distressing.
We’ve also had fruitful and fascinating conversations about the nature of horror as a genre, so I’m not going to say that this novella series, the Never Afters series, isn’t horror. Perhaps they’re gothic and gothic is the overarching category and horror fits in that, as I believe Kirstyn would argue, and perhaps other people would formulate it differently; I don’t know. All I know is that these fairy tale continuations, while not exactly the stuff of Disney-fied dreams, also aren’t quite the stuff to bring me nightmares. So that’s nice.
#1: Burnt Sugar. Now adults, childhood long behind, Gretel is a baker and Hansel is drunk more often than not. So far, so not exceptional. But Gretel brought back more than memories from the gingerbread house…. I appreciated that the siblings’ past trauma was dealt with sympathetically without making them only victims (they’ve managed to build a life around it). I know I said these novellas aren’t the stuff of nightmares; maybe what I should have said is that it’s not more nightmarish than the original stories. Because the truth is that this is a horrific story, in the ‘being controlled is terrifying’ way. Very clever.
#2: The New Wife. I don’t think of Bluebeard’s story as being in the same category as Hansel and Gretel – perhaps my fairytale omnibuses (omnibi??) left it out, or I skipped over it in an early aversion to horror? Who knows! But this may be my favourite of the Never Afters. Unlike Burnt Sugar, this story begins within (what I remember of) the original: the new wife unlocking the room that she was never supposed to enter… and goes from there in a rather different direction, involving ghosts, and what I understand is a classic gothic trope – the terrifying house.
#3: After Midnight. How do you do a new take on Cinderella?? Add a few decades, make the prince-now-king as feckless as such types often are, and the now-queen mother to only daughters – and also hardened by her experiences (or maybe she was always so?). Make the story a diary, complete with crossed out sections. Make veiled suggestions about what other things might be happening. Maybe this is my favourite, actually.
#4: Braid. I’d read this one previously – I don’t remember where – but I do remember a conversation about how hair, out of its appropriate place, is surprisingly distressing. Because Zel’s hair is as surprising and unexpected as it was back when she lived in the tower. Like Burnt Sugar and After Midnight, this is set many decades after the time of the fairytale, and deals with what it’s like to live with the consequences of those seemingly romantic and dramatic events of youth. Zel’s life has been complicated, mostly in mundane but nonetheless real and emotional ways – good and bad, love and loss. You just keep living…
#5: By the Moon’s Good Grace. In some ways the least unexpected of the stories. Like The New Wife, it picks up in the middle of the classic story; this has Little Red learning important truths about who her family is, who she is, and the consequences of that.
#6: Winterbloom. Somehow I know the Beauty and the Beast story least well, since I had completely forgotten that the whole saga starts with the father picking a rose without permission. This final novella is another set some years after the fairytale. The Beast is a composer and musician, Beauty is intrigued by roses and creating hybrids; their marriage is generally fine but shows some cracks. And then they have a visitor, aaaand… well. That’s rarely without consequence. Maybe this is my favourite instead?
Alone, excellent; as a set, they show how old stories continue to have resonance, can be used to explore modern and perennial themes.
The books can be bought from Brain Jar Press.
Cranky Ladies of History
This is another book that I’ve given my mum recently. She started reading it and rather smugly emailed to say that now she doesn’t feel so bad about being one sometimes. She says:
I particularly loved “A Song for Sacagawea” because it is the story of all those unsung women who were forced to help conquerors take their lands. They were looked on as trade goods, but much of the exploration/exploitation wouldn’t have occurred without them. There is a similar story of a woman who translated for the conquistadors in Central America [she means Malinche]. Much as I admire those women, their treatment really p….d me off, of course. Don’t quote me on that, though.
Anyway, I am so totally excited that this book exists. I supported it in its Pozible funding, I did a little bit of supporting in terms of writing a blog post (I had big intentions to do a few but whoosh there went the month), and generally YAY stories about real historical ladies!
So I finally got around to actually reading it. Firstly let me say I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE WITH THE ORDER OF THE STORIES, TEHANI AND TANSY.
The first few stories were the sorts of things I expected. Mary I as a child, Lady Godiva, Mary Wollstonecraft… and then Bathory Erzsebet. Who is someone I had never come across and who was very, very not nice. Very not nice. Like, Deborah Biancotti you had already scarred me with your Ishtar and now my brain is even WORSE. Because this story does not redeem Erszebet. It shows that women are quite capable of being cold and cruel and nasty. And, at a chronological and geographical distance, this is almost something to be pleased about… since after all, we are just human.
Hmm. Getting to Erszebet has meant skipping over Mary (a story showing how difficult her childhood must have been, thanks Liz Barr), and Godiva (thank you, Garth Nix, for making her more than just That Nude Lady) and Wollstonecraft (Kirstyn McDermott, I have always loved her at a remove – that is, knowing only basics of her life, I knew she was wonderful. This fictional take helps just a bit more).
Leaving Europe, Foz Meadows goes to the Asian steppes with “Bright Moon” and a fierce tale of battle and kinship obligation; Joyce Chng to China and silkworms and captivity. Nice Shawl teases with “A Beautiful Stream” by talking about events and people from the 20th century I felt I ought to know and drove me to google find out if I was right (yes); Amanda Pillar pleased me immensely by being all provocative about Hatshepsut, one of my favourite historical women ever.
Sylvia Kelso stunned me by talking about two women from Australia’s history that I had no knowledge of (a doctor? lesbians?? in the early 20th century?!) and Stephanie Lai puts flesh on the bones of Ching Shih, the female Chinese pirate I’ve only encountered in passing. I would like to thank Barbara Robson profusely for writing Theodora so magnificently and by incorporating Procopius, to show just how such historical sources can be used. Lisa L Hannett continues (what I think of as) her Viking trend, while Havva Murat takes on Albania’s medieval past and the trials of being born female when your father wants a son.
I don’t mean this as a negative, but I am so not surprised that Dirk Flinthart wrote of Granuaile, the Irish pirate. I was surprised where he took her; pleasantly so, of course. LM Myles brought in one of my other very favourite and bestest, Eleanor of Aquitaine, this time as an old, old woman – still cranky and sprightly and everything that was great about her. I didn’t love Kaaron Warren’s “Another Week in the Future,” but I have no knowledge of Catherine Helen Spence so I had no prior experience to hang the story on. Laura Lam brought in a female pirate I’d never even heard of, the French Jeanne de Clisson, while Sandra McDonald writes a complicated narrative of Cora Crane: there are unreliable narrators and then there are unreliable timelines and sources and they get fascinating.
Thoraiya Dyer introduces someone else I’ve never heard of, by way of 19th century Madagascar and a royal family negotiating the introduction/imposition of European ideas. Juliet Marillier brings a compassionate, loving and beloved Hildegard of Bingen, while Faith Mudge caps the whole anthology with Elizabeth I.
Look, it’s just great. A wonderful range of stories, of women, of styles, of close-to-history and far (but still with that element of Truthiness). I think we need a follow-up volume. I’d like to order Jeanne d’Arc, Julia Gillard, the Empress Matilda, Pocahontas, Eleanor Roosevelt, Malinche, and the Trung sisters. Kthxbai.
You can find Cranky Ladies over here.
Snapshot: Kirstyn McDermott
Kirstyn McDermott has been working in the darker alleyways of speculative fiction for much of her career, with many critically acclaimed and award-winning short stories under her authorial belt. Her two novels, Madigan Mine (Picador, 2010) and Perfections (Xoum, 2012) both won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel in their respective years, and a collection of short fiction, Caution: Contains Small Parts was published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2013. Both her novels are to be reissued by Twelfth Planet Press in 2014 – Perfections for the first time in print. When not wearing her writing hat, she produces and co-hosts a bimonthly literary discussion podcast, The Writer and the Critic, which generally keeps her out of trouble. After many years based in Melbourne, Kirstyn now lives in Ballarat with her husband and fellow scribbler, Jason Nahrung.
1. Congratulations on “The Home for Broken Dolls” picking up a Ditmar this year! You said at the time that it was a horrible story and seemed surprised that it won the award… how hard a story was it to write?
Thank you very much, I was so pleased with the Ditmar! Emotionally and psychologically, “The Home for Broken Dolls” was the hardest story I’ve ever written due to the nature of the research involved, and the need to stay intimately connected to all of that, to remain open and not inured to it, during the year or more I was working on the piece. Technically, it was difficult as well. The tone of the novella very much reflected the protagonist, Jane, so the writing itself needed to be calm and controlled and, to some extent, distant, almost clinical in its observations and descriptions. It was a departure in style for me from a lot of the work I’d done in the past, a commitment to a type of minimalism that was quite confronting. When you’re writing such sparse, deliberate prose, there really is nowhere to hide, artistically speaking. I actually learned a lot about myself as writer from working on “Dolls”, although, for various reasons, I didn’t actually compose another word of fiction for more than a year afterwards.
2. Twelfth Planet Press recently picked up and published Perfections, which is really exciting. What’s it like to have a book given a second outing?
Exciting is definitely the word – and it’s such a relief to see it published again, especially in print. The amount of people who asked about the availability of a paperback when it was only a digital release was heartbreaking. I’m exceedingly grateful to Alisa from Twelfth Planet Press for picking Perfections up, dusting her off, and sending her out into the world with a swank new party dress! It’s a novel I’m very proud to have written, even if it did steadfastly refuse to be the novel I thought I wanted to write for much of its creation. It’s funny, but when I was proofing the manuscript for re-publication, I started to see some precursor themes and ideas – and even stylistic notes – that would later become core elements in “The Home for Broken Dolls”. I guess my own personal obsessions and concerns are never really far from the surface . . .
3. What are you working on at the moment? Do you have lots of stories waiting impatiently to be told, or do they form an orderly queue?
I’ve started a PhD this year, so my creative work for the near future will be in that arena. I’m writing a suite of short fiction that I think of as post-fairy-tales – the stories of what happens after the fairy tale ends, when the fairy tale girls become women. And because I’m also doing oodles of research on fairy tales, I actually do have a whole bunch of stories percolating in my mind right now, some more ready to be told than others. There’s no queue as such – I only ever really work on one story at a time, so whichever one is speaking the loudest once the current work in progress is finished will get my attention. I’ve spoken in the past of how I see my creative process as akin to walking around a junkyard, finding interesting bits and pieces and putting them in my pocket for later. After a while, sometimes after many years, I’ll stumble across a piece that fits with two or three others I have and – voila! – there’s a story to be written. It’s still the same process now, I suppose, only I’m exploring a much larger junkyard at the moment, my searching is a little more targeted and I’m finding a whole lot more interesting bits and pieces!
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ve been catching up on story collections over the past year and have been so damned impressed by the wealth of talent we have here in terms of short fiction writers. The Bride Price by Cat Sparks, The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton, The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins, and Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer are all absolutely sterling books, imaginative and intelligent and exactly the kind of eclectic speculative fiction that I adore. Very recently, I read Dead Americans by Ben Peek, a collection I had been looking forward to for ages and which was well worth the wait – I’m even more keen to get my hands on his upcoming novel, The Godless, now.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be writing in five years from now?
I can’t say that any recent changes in publishing have affected how I work to any significant extent. I realised quite a few years ago that I’m not a highly commercial writer and – barring some miraculous confluence of events – the kind of writing that I do, the kind of writing that I am interested in doing, will never really be highly commercial. So I’m never going to have a writing career that will pay a mortgage but, on the other hand, I’m never going to have to rely on a writing career to pay a mortgage. Swings and roundabouts. I do find the recent developments in crowdfunding and regular patronage models fascinating, though, and I love the idea that this is where the former “midlist” might find a home, with a direct connection to a readership. That would be a model I might be tempted to consider in the future, if I had the right project for it.
As to what I see myself writing in five years from now, I haven’t really thought about it. Barring incident, I’ll be finished my story suite and PhD by then so who knows? There is a quasi-SF novel that’s been loitering about in the junkyard for a while now and I might have found enough pieces to start putting it together by then. Or the Dolls might have finally convinced me to write their novel, or else I might have stumbled across some other compelling idea that I can’t put down. Five years is such a long time. As long as I’m still writing, and developing as a writer, I’ll be happy.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: