Transcript - Episode 52: Sarah Gailey
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 52. Today’s guest is Sarah Gailey.
Hello, hello, hello, and hello, how is everybody today? Or tonight, or whenever you’re listening to this. Maybe it’s afternoon for you, maybe you’re on your lunch break. Maybe you’re just turning on your windshield wipers to clear the dew from your windshield as you head to work. Maybe you’re sitting in an elementary school parking lot waiting for the bell to ring so you can pick up your kids. Ahhhhh… maybe I should start the show. I mean, maybe. You know, don’t want to rush to any conclusions.
So I mentioned in the last episode that I was going to be attending the Medium Festival of Photography, that would be the weekend before last as I record this. This was the first time since 2013 that I didn’t do the portfolio reviews there, which kind of made it more fun and more relaxed, obviously, since I didn’t have the pressure of having to present my own work, but then it was also a little, I don’t know, it made me feel a little bit more on the outside of things, you know, when you’re hanging around in the lobby waiting for your next review session and so is everybody else in the room, there’s a kind of camaraderie in that, you know, a feeling of community. But then on the other hand now that I’ve been going to this event for so long and I’ve become more connected to the artistic community here in San Diego, there’s a different kind of community feeling that is just as wonderful, and getting to connect with everyone is great.
One thing I wanted to talk about, since I was thinking about Medium and how it went this year, was about celebrating other people’s work. I think, you know, there’s this way that sometimes it can seem like we’re supposed to be in competition with each other as artists, as writers, whatever. Like there are only so many gallery walls and only so many books published in a year, and only so many awards given out, and I know that there have been times in the past where seeing other people’s accomplishments has made me feel insecure. But you know the longer I’ve been doing this, the more I feel like people in the arts are pretty damn generous and helpful, and life’s just too short for stuff like envy. I mean, I dunno, I guess what I’m saying is that maybe the trick, and you know, I’m still working on this, but maybe the trick is getting to the point where if you value what you’re doing on your own terms, if you set the parameters for what it means to be successful rather than relying on something outside yourself, then it gets easier to just be happy for others when good things happen to them. Ah, I dunno, I’m not trying to get preachy or whatever, just, I know for myself that when I started letting go of chasing success and starting just making work on my own terms, it made the experience of making my own work a lot more fulfilling, plus it made me appreciate my friends’ work all the more. And, you know, being happy for your friends is one of the great joys in life, I think. So, why not?
OK, so today’s guest is writer Sarah Gailey. I first found Sarah via her Twitter presence, which, let me just say, if you’re on Twitter and you’re not following her, I mean, to say the least you are missing out. Anyway, Sarah is a Hugo and Campbell award finalist. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and her fiction has been published internationally. She is a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. This year, 2017, Sarah had a duology of novellas published by Tor, River of Teeth which came out in May, and the sequel Taste of Marrow, which came out in September, just a couple of weeks before we recorded our conversation. She also has a novelette called The Fisher of Bones which is being released by Fireside Fiction both as an online serial and as a print book and e-book. I give all of those my recommendation and if you’d like to check them out yourself I’ve put purchase links in the show notes.
Also! I’m doing another giveaway! Two lucky listeners will win signed copies of both River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, so stay tuned after the show for details on how to get in on that.
OK, let’s get going then. As always, if you’re on Twitter you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPod to join in the conversation. And now, here’s my conversation with Sarah Gailey.
Mike Sakasegawa: So how are you today?
Sarah Gailey: I'm doing great. It is a gorgeous day here in beautiful Oakland, California.
MS: Yeah, it's not so bad down here in San Diego either. So, a lot of times when I'm going to talk to somebody for the show, I try and go back and think about when I first became aware of them, like as a creative person or whatever. And I knew that the first experience I had of reading you was on Twitter actually, but I couldn't quite remember what it was that somebody must have retweeted that I had first seen. I thought that it was when you were live-tweeting the first time you saw the movie Alien. But then I went back and looked and I've actually been following you since before then. And the first thing that I ever retweeted of yours was your story about the green stuff?
MS: Which still still still kind of haunts me to this day.
SG: It haunts us all.
MS: I'll try to find it again for the listeners and I'll stick it in the show notes, but it's really... It's really something. But, yeah, I knew of you as a Twitter personality first and then that was I found your writing, which I sort of always find is sort of an interesting thing. There's a bunch of people now where that's happened rather than the other way around, which I feel like is maybe what used to happen. But it's been pretty rewarding in a lot of cases and especially in your case. I really admire what you do on Twitter a lot. Both, you know, just as a person with a sense of humor but also as a person with a point of view.
SG: Oh, thank you.
MS: Yeah. Which, that sort of leads me into this—the first official, published stuff of yours that I can recall reading, which was, rather than the fiction—which is what I've most recently read of yours—is your more cultural critique pieces. Um, a lot of them have been on Tor I think.
MS: Yeah. And these actually got you nominated for some Hugo awards at one point, right?
SG: Yeah, yeah. Just the past year I was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Work for my series on the women of Harry Potter.
MS: Yeah. And I've got to say as a—so, I'm a dad and I have three young kids, my oldest is nine and I've been reading through the series with him. And it's really—it's been an interesting experience coming back to that series as an adult, but then, you know, sort of bringing it to the next generation. And reading your pieces on that, both that series on the women of Harry Potter and then other things that you've written about it. Like you just had one a week or two ago, I think. Is that right?
SG: Oh gosh, I've lost all sense of time. I want to say it was last week.
MS: Yeah, I think that's right. But, you know, really putting it in a context for how we understand these things now and how they're relevant to our current political situation or social situations has been something that's been really valuable to me as I've been reading through this with my son and then, you know, as I go forward, I plan to read them with my daughters as well once they get a little older. And I guess the first thing that I was sort of wondering about. You write about these books very passionately and with a perspective that I think maybe wouldn't occur to everyone. And I guess I sort of wondered what prompted you initially to want to start talking about these books in that way?
SG: Oh my goodness, that's such an interesting question. You know, when I started writing for Tor.com they said, "What are you interested in writing about?" And my first response to them was the thing that I always say when someone asks me to write a nonfiction piece, which is, "Well, I don't know anything about anything and I don't have any opinions or ideas."
SG: And then they always say, "That doesn't seem true." Then I've got to come up with something. Early on in writing nonfiction and trying to pitch pieces, my process always included sitting down with my best friend and telling her that same thing, "I don't have any thoughts or opinions or ideas," and then trying to come up with things that I know about because I felt at the time—and occasionally still do—feel very unconfident in my ability to write academically and politically. And so, you know, early on I was going, "Well, what's something that I for sure already know about that nobody can call me out for faking knowing about this?" You know, I have that stereotype threat of the Fake Geek Girl. And she said, "Well, you never shut up about Harry Potter."
SG: And I went, "Well, yeah, but everything that I have to say about Harry Potter is, it's all things that people already know. Like how Molly Weasley is the true leader of the rebellion." And she went, "Yeah, I think maybe you think about these things more than other people do." So I went ahead and pitched my first Harry Potter piece, which was on Hermione Granger as the true hero of Harry Potter. And it did all right and people seemed to be surprised by that analysis. And so I started looking at the other things that I had assumed were kind of universally understood about Harry Potter, and I realized that these are things that are all universally understood in the tiny little universe of my brain and nowhere else. So I went ahead and pitched it as a full series about the women of Harry Potter. And I've got to say, the editor at Tor.com was incredibly supportive and have been incredibly supportive of all my crazy ideas and said, "Yes, absolutely do it." And it took off from there.
MS: I'm really surprised to hear you describe yourself as someone who doesn't know anything and doesn't have any ideas or opinions.
MS: Like that actually seems to be like the opposite of my impression of you. Like just from the interactions that we've had on Twitter, a few interactions here and there and, you know, seeing you talk about stuff, you really come across as a very knowledgeable and passionate person who really—you know, one of the things I've always admired about you is how unafraid you seem to be to just put it all out there and let people know what you think about things and be unafraid to be judged on that basis. And it's something—I mean this in a really sincere way—it's actually something that I feel like I've learned a lot from. Watching you do that is something that—you know, I hate saying to people, "You're an inspiration," but like literally you are.
SG: Oh my goodness, thank you. That means so much to me. You know, I think what it is really is I've got all of these opinions and ideas that stem from a very sincere place. And the moment that someone says something to me like... So I was doing a panel recently and someone said, "Hey, what's your favorite book?" And immediately it was as if I had never read a book before in my entire life. I was like, "A book? Do I even know the title of a book?" I couldn't think of anything. And it feels the same way when people say, "Hey, we want to give you a forum to write about or discuss anything at all that you have an opinion on." You know, instantly I'm like, "Oh gosh, what are opinions?" And then, you know, of course, the moment that you ask me about something, I have all of these very staunch and firm opinions and ideas that I'll talk about until you want desperately to send me home.
MS: I really feel like not only has it been, you know, getting your perspective on some of these things, whether it's been through more formal published essays or whether it's just been through tweeting, that I actually have been able to learn a lot about a lot of different things from listening to your voice on these things. And whether that's mental health or whether that's the women of Harry Potter, or even like, you know, lifting. I mean, I dunno, there's just a lot of stuff in there. And also I've just, you know, another thing that I always find so wonderful about your Twitter presence is how much generosity you have in this. Like I think maybe one of the first things that I can remember was—it was just one of those times that you do occasionally where you just say "Here, tweet something at me and I will compliment you." And, I dunno, just Twitter can be such a cesspool at times where people are so angry, and snark is the currency of the medium. And, you know, not to say that you haven't at times been able to be devastatingly witty as well, but the way that you are also able to just be a very generous and kind person on there, that's something—when I saw you doing that the first time I thought to myself, "I'd like to do that, too." So very literally, in a very real way, you were a role model for me in that way.
SG: Oh my goodness. Well, thank you. I'm so glad that I've had a positive impact in that way.
MS: So another piece of yours that I can recall, a different series that you had on Tor that I also remember finding very interesting was the series on storytelling through costuming.
SG: Oh yeah, that was so much fun.
MS: Yeah. And you've talked a lot about—because you make your own costumes and clothes as well. That's sort of like a hobby or something, right? Is that right?
MS: Yeah. And seeing some of the work that you've done there, when you post pictures of it, it's like—I mean, I know a lot of artistic people and I try to do things with my hands as well. I'm always super impressed with people who can manage very detailed work that way. And there's so much that goes into it, too, the knowledge of, not just the craft of it, but the context of it all. I find it very impressive.
SG: It's absolutely a language.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, can you talk a little bit more about that?
SG: Yeah, I would love to. I mean, so I'm terrible with actual languages. I've tried several times to learn other languages and I'm just awful at it. I've got no retention. But when it comes to the language of how we communicate nonverbally I'm really fascinated, maybe because I'm so bad at actual verbal languages that I need something else to cope with. Costuming and the way that we dress—when we talk about costuming, you're usually thinking about dressing fantastically or in some context that doesn't fit our day-to-day lives. But costuming from a theatrical perspective, which is my background, is about finding the context and what you can say in a given context with whatever you're wearing. So having a woman who's walking around in a 1940s period costume, but her shoes are red and her lipstick is red, communicates something enormous about her to the people around her.
SG: And if you play your cards right with all of the context clues that you give your audience, you're giving the audience a clue about her too. When you think about costuming in a day-to-day perspective, the entire world is your audience. And so you're communicating in a language with them that they all hopefully speak and that you're trying to tell them things about yourself with what you're wearing. And that for me is true if I'm sewing... Like I sewed my gown for the Hugo ceremony, when I sew Dickensian costumes, and when I make anything at all, I'm trying to communicate with all the people around me so that they can understand what I want them to understand about me. And that will inform the way that they respond to me and the way that they treat me.
MS: Hmm. It's interesting too, because in the series that you were writing, one of the things you talked about that I thought was really interesting to ponder was how that language and how that cultural understanding of appearance and costuming and things like that, how it does so much of this heavy lifting in a lot of characterization in films. And more than that, not just how it communicates something to us, but how it can either reify certain stereotypes or cultural norms that we have or can work to subvert those ideas depending on how the costuming is used. I thought that was just fascinating.
SG: Oh, it's definitely, it's a cyclical thing, right? We have a cultural understanding and we refer to the cultural understanding, but when we refer to it, we're also reinforcing it, right? So if you've got like a Jessica Rabbit character, we put her in a form-fitting red dress because our cultural understanding that exists is that the form-fitting red dress says "This is a sexy lady." But in having her character then be a sexy lady, we're reinforcing what we think about the red dress already. So it just kind of is a continual building of layers of understanding that we develop and that's how we create this language of how clothes refer to character
MS: Even Jessica Rabbit, I kind of feel like—somebody pointed this out to me, you know, she has that line where she says, "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."
SG: Yeah, that's her. Oh god, that's such a good line.
MS: Yeah, I love that.
MS: So, I do want to say congratulations on your two new books.
SG: Thank you very much.
MS: Yeah, so River of Teeth came out this spring, right?
SG: Yeah. River of Teeth came out in May.
MS: In May, and then Taste of Marrow just came out—well by the time this airs, it will have been a month past, but it just came out like a week or two ago, right?
SG: On the 12th, yeah.
SG: Thank goodness I have my calendar right here to look at.
MS: So I read both of these, and I just tore through both of them pretty immediately as soon as I got my hands on them. They're just a ton of fun to read. I of course would like to have you intro the books, but one of the things that I was thinking about these books in the context of the rest of your fiction writing that I've read, short stories and stuff like that, and... Well, actually before I say too much more can I have you intro the books a little bit?
SG: Sure. River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow for those who have not heard of them are two novellas from Tor.com. They take place in the 1890s, cowboy time, and they're alternate histories about an American South in which we as a country imported hippopotami for purposes of farming for meat, and things went horribly awry, as they ten to do when you introduce megafauna to an ecosystem. It's a Western-style pulp caper involving a extremely diverse cast of hippo cowboys pulling off essentially a heist narrative in which they try to blow up the Mississippi River.
MS: [laughs] I mean, that is a hell of a summary. One of the things that I was thinking about as I was reading it—there's so much going on that I would love to talk about. The first thing though that I was thinking about when I was reading them was, like I said, in the context of your other fiction that I've read, is I feel like one of these very consistent threads that runs through your fiction is that whether it's more lighthearted or a little darker or rough-edged or whatever, that there is just this joyfulness about the way that you write. And going back to short pieces of fiction like "Bargain" and "Rescue," these short stories about a demon and a dog that were hilarious and adorable but also just joyful was the word that that really came to mind.
MS: And it's something that I feel like, especially in speculative fiction and especially more recently, that joy isn't necessarily something that writers are going for. That in fact, starting in maybe... Well, I guess really starting in the 70s, but really ramping up in the 90s and early 2000s that people are really going for this really dark, gritty, sort of unrelenting brutality in a lot of speculative fiction. And, not to say that that doesn't have its place, but just being able to read something exultant or fun or joyful, it doesn't seem like exactly what people are going for. And so it was something that really stuck out to me about your work.
SG: I cannot begin to tell you how happy that makes me to hear. You know, something that you pointed out earlier is that my kind of "brand aesthetic" on social media is very joyful and hopeful and exuberant. And that's something that, you know, as someone who struggles with mental illness and depression, I really lean into exuberance and joy because I feel like we've got so many opportunities to be unhappy, and so many reasons to be unhappy. But if we're going to be unhappy, I don't know, I want to at least be enthusiastic, if that makes any sense at all.
MS: Yeah, absolutely.
SG: I never want to bring a sense of despair even when it seems like all is lost.
MS: Yeah. I think people are coming around to this idea that you can have meaningful art that engages with positive emotions, that it doesn't have to be all noble suffering or even un-noble suffering. That you can have a happy ending or that there can be something just pleasurable about a story or a piece of art, and that doesn't invalidate it as a work of art, you know?
SG: Yeah, I feel like there's a little bit of pendulum swing going on where for a long time joy and hope were very consumer concepts, right? It was, you know, "Buy things and be happy." And so leaning into that sense of despair and nihilism was a little bit of a rebellion against that, right? It's an opportunity to say, "No, I'm not going to buy into this notion that keeps on getting pushed at me, that I have to be joyful all the time." Right now I feel like, again, there's so much to despair about that it's almost rebellious to be hopeful and enthusiastic and exuberant.
MS: Yeah. I mean, like you say, the current moment socially and politically is just a hellscape at times, and it'd be easy to get down. But l think sometimes the function of hope—I mean, it's like in Rogue One, right? "Rebellions are built on hope."
SG: Exactly. I consider that part of my job is giving people something that can help refill their constantly draining aquifers of hope.
MS: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's working for me.
SG: I'm glad.
MS: Another thing that I was thinking about as I was reading these books is, so the Western genre is one that obviously has a very long tradition in both film and literature in America. It's a very American genre, obviously—it's about America in a lot of ways. I remember I took a film class in college where the professor was talking about how Westerns are the most American genre films, because they are always explicitly about America and how we view ourselves. And in that, the way that you've constructed the story in a way that is very sort of genre-bending and bending a lot of other things is... I dunno, it just struck me as a profoundly subversive, rebellious kind of thing to do, where you have in this story—the bones of it are a really sort of... I don't want to say "standard" because that sounds condescending, but there's a way in which it engages with the genre caper tropes that are very familiar, but then you—
SG: Oh, absolutely.
MS: Yeah. But you populate it with characters of all different races and sexualities and gender expression and body types. You're really mixing it up in a lot of ways, not only—which, by the way, I feel like other people could... If I said a list of all of the characters and their characteristics, it would almost feel like it wouldn't work. Like, I could imagine somebody saying, "Oh, you're just making a diversity checklist" or something, but it really doesn't feel like that here. It feels very organic and natural. But then placing those characters in that milieu, I feel like it really invites us to reconsider this American image. And I was wondering to what extent that was intentional and to what extent it was just like, this is a story that seems like it would be fun and I want to tell it this way.
SG: That's an almost impossible question for me to answer because both are true. When I started writing the book, I was like, "I'm bored by stories about white dudes having adventures." And I'm heartsick about the number of my friends—who, you know, relatively few of which are white dudes—I was heartsick at the amount of my friends who didn't get to see themselves in stories. And so I thought, "Okay, I'm going to write a story with not a lot of white dudes." But the instant that I started... not even outlining, before I even start outlining, as I was conceiving of this story, I remember thinking, "Oh, I'm going to tell a story about real America." You know, we've got this kind of bullshit cultural narrative that real America and average Americans are heterosexual white dudes from the heartland. And it's just not true. I mean, everyone who lives here is an American. And throughout history, that's been true, even though the way that legally we've defined who's allowed to be an American and who's allowed to live here, that hasn't always been applied to everyone equally. America has always looked the way that it does in River of Teeth. We've always had people who aren't cisgender, straight, white dudes with able bodies and able minds. We've always had an extremely diverse group of people having adventures. And just because we don't tell their stories very often doesn't mean that they don't exist. Right? So as I was writing this story and preparing myself for all the people who I knew would say, "There's just no way that these people could have these adventures," I got more and more invested in the notion that, no, this is just reality. Whether the way that the characters are treated in the book is how they would be treated in reality is a different matter, but their existence isn't fantastic, if that makes sense. I love the Western genre for a lot of reasons. I love the exuberance of it. I love the pulpiness of it—which, something that I've appreciated is the way that people have started catching onto the fact that River of Teeth is pulp, for sure. I love some of the formulas in the Western genre, in both literature and film. But I really object to the notion that it's the most American genre in terms of American reality. I absolutely support the notion that it's the most American genre in terms of our Western exceptionalism and our cultural narratives of conquering an untamed country that actually is not untamed at all. And the erasure of colonialism that we like to employ. But, that said, the stories that we tell in the Western genre are often so limited and narrow. And as someone who loves that genre, in writing River of Teeth I was just like, "Let's do it better."
MS: Yeah. I think the point that my teacher was trying to make wasn't so much that it reflects what America is, but when he says it's the most American genre, I think what he was getting at is that this is what America tells itself about itself.
SG: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. That rings completely true to me.
MS: Yeah. The history, too, of revisionist Western novels and movies always ends up—if I remember this right, he was saying you can see these really big trends that always end up happening with... People come back to the Western very strongly, often when we're going through a period of social or political upheaval. Like the kind of Westerns that were being made in the 70s were—at that point the Western movie genre had sort of fallen off a bit but then had this big resurgence—his argument was largely due to Vietnam and how people were questioning what America was in light of that event.
SG: Oh, that's a great perspective.
MS: Yeah. And you see a lot of revisionist Westerns coming out in the 70s and early 80s, that he argued were a response to Vietnam. And I think that it's fascinating, too, because I've seen a few speculative Westerns—I'm not super knowledgeable, I'm sure it goes beyond [and] before this—but yours and Elizabeth Bear I think had some—
MS: —spec novels that were Western, that they seem to be becoming more trendy right now. I don't mean that in a condescending way, but I mean there seems to be a trend where this genre is being revisited more and it kind of makes sense to me in so far as we're really grappling with our identity as a nation right now, I feel like.
SG: Absolutely. And you know, I love Elizabeth Bear's—I believe she wrote Karen Memory.
SG: Yeah, that's the one I'm thinking of. I think what our two explorations of that genre have in common is that we're both trying to explore who we are as a nation that we've tried to erase, right? So her book, which is fabulous and I can't recommend it highly enough, is written from the perspective of a prostitute in the Pacific Northwest. I want to say Seattle.
MS: I think that's right.
SG: This is that thing whereas soon as I try to remember facts, it's like I've never learned a single fact in my life. And you know, the, the history of prostitution in Seattle is something that we don't like talking about very much. Right. We don't like talking about the way that Seattle history is laced with corruption. And we don't like talking about the way that women and people of color were treated in our early history because Seattle is such a flagship of Western expansion. And then you go on these tours of Seattle and they're like, "Oh, this is the secret history of Seattle that you don't know about." And so in that she's writing a Western that explores the narrative that we try not to look too closely at as a country. And I find that interesting that that is our current revisionist Western is not necessarily the Westerns that are all about, "Oh, here's how the West was won and here's why the white guys were really the heroes." Instead it's about, "Hey, don't forget who we need to be looking at when we talk about our history."
MS: Yeah, yeah. You even wrote like a whole essay—I can't remember if it was on Tor or somewhere else—about American history as alternate history, which touched on a lot of these things. And I thought it was very astute and on point. But clearly this is a subject that you've been thinking about a lot.
SG: Oh gosh. Absolutely. So when I wrote River of Teeth, I thought myself as writing a Western, not as writing an alternate history at first. And someone had to point out to me that I was writing an alternate history. And I realized that that's something that I've been reading about and thinking about and talking about for longer than I've been writing at all. The way that the version of American history that a lot of us know is a complete fiction. And it's a fiction that serves a purpose. That essay of mine on Tor.com, "American History Is Alternate History," kind of gets shared around every time that someone tries to say, "Oh, the Confederacy wasn't so bad." Or, "Oh, we've never done anything wrong, basically." And that's the history that we learn in high school. That's the history that you have to unlearn when you go to college to study history. The first thing that they do is say, "Okay, all that stuff you think you know is completely wrong." But it's the history that we're taught because it feeds into an American propaganda machine that tells us that, "Hey, what we're doing now is okay, because what we did then was okay."
MS: Yeah, it feels insidious and even in a way that... Like, I don't even think a lot of the people who are teaching that accepted history even realize the insidiousness of it, you know? And then the trick for me is always, growing up with not just what I learned in history class, but also the stories that you get from your own family. My family is historically a military family and we're very patriotic, and trying to square the stories that we have with what you learn to be reality later in life is one thing. But then also being able to not go 100% in the other direction, you know, still being able to find ways to say like, "Yeah, this country has done a lot of really awful things, even in very recent memory, but also it's still my country and I still love it." It's a tricky balance to try to find, I feel like, but I'm actually really heartened because I feel like people are starting to have that conversation with themselves and wrestle with those things more broadly than I can recall that happening previously in my lifetime.
SG: I think so too. I think that that's a shift in a lot of different conversations. It's the notion of being able to love something enough to criticize it. You know, when I was growing up for sure there was this idea that if you criticized America, it meant that you didn't love America and, you know, this is such harmful rhetoric, that if you ask questions then you're not a patriot. And that's the kind of thing that we say about other countries when we're criticizing the way that they're run, you say, "Oh, people aren't allowed to ask questions. People aren't allowed to protest." But it's something that I've seen us lean into in the last decade or so especially hard is this idea that, you know, if you say that America is doing things wrong or has done things wrong than you must not love America. And of course, shrill liberal feminist that I am, I think that's total bullshit. But that's something that I'm really hopeful about and also really nervous about is that I am also seeing the way that that rhetoric is shifting and seeing the backlash to the way that that rhetoric is shifting. You know, there's always going to be people who dig their heels in harder the more that you tell them that you think they're wrong. I have high hopes that we'll be able to overcome that urge to dig our heels in.
MS: Yeah. Yes.
SG: And I'm a hopeful person.
MS: I try to be hopeful.
SG: Relentless optimism is my whole thing.
MS: Yeah. We probably need to wrap this segment up pretty soon, but I didn't want to finish the segment before we talked a little bit about Fisher of Bones. And actually the thing that I was thinking ties in a little bit with River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow. So Fisher of Bones is your serial novel or novella that you're putting out on Fireside Fiction.
SG: Yeah. Serial novelette, actually, I don't want to get anyone's hopes up that it'll be longer than it is.
MS: Yeah. One of the things that I find interesting about both that and your novella duology is the format of it. Having serialized fiction isn't something that I have a ton of experience with, even though I know it has a long history. But it seemed like wasn't as common more recently. With River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow you have these two books that are relatively slim, they're novellas, and each is a complete story in itself. But you put them out so close together. I guess I'm not exactly sure what the question here is, but there's something interesting to me about the way you've structured and released these stories.
SG: Sounds like the question is "What's the deal?" Which is very valid question. With the novellas I will say—this is something that I want all aspiring writers in the world to hear: I had very little say. You write the story and you edit the story and most of the other stuff is up to the publisher. That said, when Tor.com said, "Hey, we want to release these within the same year," I was totally on board because each book is its own story but when put together, they describe full character arcs.
SG: Right, that was my goal with these is to have the characters start in one place, end in another, and they take a complete journey between the two.
SG: And I wanted people to have that whole journey accessible as soon as possible. Frankly, I feel like the timing has been perfect because just as people were finishing River of Teeth and going "Ah, I want more," we were able to say, "Hey, you can preorder for Taste of Marrow. You can get this sooner than you think." The serial was so much fun. It was a total blast. It was also just bonkers trying to write it because, you know, I've never written a serial before. What the heck do I think I'm doing? When Fireside came to me and said, "Hey, we'd like you to do this." They said, "We want you to write a flash fiction serial." And flash fiction, for anybody who doesn't know, is around a thousand words. So they wanted a serial of about a thousand words per chapter. And flash fiction is incredibly challenging because it's so concise. It's really difficult to communicate everything you want to communicate and build a world within a thousand words, right? And then doing it as a serial, you need each chapter in and of itself to be its own story so that people who come in in the middle are interested and want to read more and want to go back and read what they missed. And then they said, "Oh, P.S., we're also going to release it as a collection so it needs to be something that you could read as a book all by itself." So all of that put together, I said yes. And then I walked away from that conversation and went, "What have I done?"
SG: But it's also so cool, right? Because serial—you know, we've got a couple of venues that are doing serialized fiction right now, but it's really fallen out of favor because people want everything all at once, right? They want to be able to get sucked in and read the whole thing. They don't want to have to wait and think about what happens and wonder in between. This is part of why I think we love binge-watching so much more than we love [the] weekly situational comedy format for television. People don't want to wait. They want the whole story, they want the answers, they want to be able to get everything with a sense of immediacy. And so working in the serial format is like... I don't know, it feels like I'm challenging my readers a little bit to be patient and I'm also challenging myself to trust them to be patient and to come along for the ride and to invest a long time in waiting to find out what happens at the end of the story. I will tell people who haven't read it yet, I think Fisher of Bones is among the best things I've ever written. It is a horror story at its heart. And so I want readers to, you know, maybe have read other things that I've written that aren't horror to be prepared for that. But it tells a story that I think belongs in the serial format because it's one that is supposed to take a long time.
MS: The way that the release schedule that Fireside is using, it really is—like they seem to have it timed exactly to the point where I'm... I read the chapter that comes out and I'm like, "Argh, what's going to happen next?" And then right when I'm starting to get distracted and start thinking about other things, then the next one comes out and I'm like, "Oh yes!"
SG: They're brilliant. I have got just bottomless admiration for the way that they run things over there.
MS: Yeah. I've become quite a fan of theirs. There was another thing where I only found out about them because of Twitter. I think you or maybe somebody else, I don't know, maybe you or maybe Sarah Hollowell or somebody else retweeted something of theirs at one point. But the stuff that they put out is just great. So yeah, I've started following them and, you know, the stuff that you can find out on Twitter is so amazing sometimes.
SG: Oh yeah, I mean the literary community on Twitter has become so strong and so mutually supportive that it feels like just the best place to find new things to read. And Fireside, I think, puts out some of the best short fiction on the market. I've always thought that and they've never once let me down.
MS: Yeah. Yeah, they're pretty fantastic. We should probably take a quick break and then we can come back and do the second segment.
SG: All right, sounds fabulous.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always ask my guests to bring a topic and it can be whatever you want to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
MS: Hmm. Yeah, so you mentioned those names to me and I have no idea who these people are, so lay it on me.
SG: Okay, this is my favorite thing in the world because nobody has heard of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, and everybody should know about Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg. They were the first out gay celebrity couple in the United States of America. They bribed an entire small town out of homophobia so that they could revive the newspaper that made Mark Twain into Mark Twain. And they did it after singlehandedly inventing American cafe society in New York.
MS: Huh. All right then! [laughs]
SG: They were the first to use the word "partner" to describe a romantic relationship that is not husband and wife. And they're amazing. They shaped American society and culture. We wouldn't have Twitter if not for Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg. We wouldn't have Instagram. We wouldn't have reality television. They created celebrity gossip culture in New York City.
MS: Wow. So, like I just said, I hadn't heard of these gentlemen before. And you said, too, that most people haven't heard of them before. So how did they first come to your attention?
SG: A very good friend of mine told me about them. He's a writer and I asked him what the book of his heart was and he told me that it was a narrative nonfiction about these two men. And I was like, "Who the heck are they?" And he told me, and then he said, "Yeah, but I just don't really have yet the energy and the time to devote to working up to writing it." And not too long after that, I'm gonna say like three-quarters of the way through a bottle of wine, we decided that this is something that we should start looking at as a joint project.
SG: So the reason that you haven't heard of them is because we as a country kind of like to believe that homosexuality was invented in like 1968. And you know, these guys were not just confirmed bachelors living together in post-Depression New York, right? They were gay. They were out, people knew about them. They were established and they weren't ashamed or afraid of who they were. And that's kind of terrifying to a certain swath of our national narrative, right. Like you and I were talking about earlier, we don't like to believe that these things have always existed and these people, these gays have always been around. But, sorry, we have.
MS: It's pretty amazing, the length to which people who have this investment in a certain social structure can... I guess it's not surprising to me that they would want to be able to erase certain aspects of history, but that they're able to do it, and the degree to which people have been able to do this kind of thing is kind of startling when you first become aware of it.
SG: Oh yeah. It's stunning. I always talk about my process of learning these things as like the process of peeling back layers of the history that we've constructed I think of as being kind of like a baklava, right? Like made up of all these very, very thin layers that don't hold up at all when you try to take them individually. But we stacked them very densely to form a history that then we bite into and it's so sweet to some people that they're like, "Yeah, this needs to be what everyone eats." Every time that I think I'm to the bottom of that baklava and I'm like, "Now I know the real story," I find something else that I believe, that I've believed without question, you know, for probably like three quarters of my life, never questioned the notion that everybody was great in history and that all of these men who lived together were confirmed bachelor friends and that all these women who lived together, were like a spinster and her maid or whatever. Even though when you look at it, it's kind of silly. We go to these great lengths to believe these lies and for the sole purpose of reinforcing the idea that people who are the way that they are now are in some ways sick or wrong because of modern societal ills.
MS: Yeah. The other day I went down a Twitter rabbit hole that led to a Wikipedia rabbit hole that just went all over the place that was talking about, I think it was King James of England was apparently like—everybody knew that he was gay and had a gay lover and... I'm going to try and find the Twitter thread for the show notes, it was amazing. Just wonderful, like talking about his partner who he created a secret passageway to go from his bedroom to the other man's bedroom, whose name I can't remember unfortunately. And that this was just something that everybody at the time knew about. Everybody in court knew about. And it wasn't even really an open secret, it was just not a secret. It was just something that everybody knew. And then the other thing that King James is known for is, of course, translating the Bible, which according to this Twitter thread he mainly did to sort of get people off of his back. I just thought that was just so fascinating.
SG: Then when you take the fact that for a lot of very, very conservative, especially Southern Baptist Churches, the King James translation of the Bible is the only acceptable translation of the Bible, boy that concept that he was gay would probably be tricky for them.
MS: Yeah. So do you have one or two favorite bits or stories about Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg?
SG: Oh my god. Do I ever. Okay. So I think my very favorite thing is telling people the way that they met.
SG: I happen to have a somewhat tricky to get a hold of copy of a collected works of Lucius Beebe called the Lucis Beebe Reader, which was put together by Clegg. Lucius Beebe died of a heart attack and Clegg dedicated the rest of his life to maintaining Beebe's legacy by making sure that all of his works were published, by putting together these collections, and by trying really hard to publicize the work that Beebe had done. And then when Clegg was the same age as Beebe to the day that Beebe was when he died, Clegg killed himself. But before he did that, he put together these collections and in Lucius Beebe Reader, Clegg actually wrote an introduction, which was the most like glowing dedication of love that I've ever seen.
SG: It opens with the phrase, "I feel that I should give you an idea of the man," and then it's all these anecdotes about Beebe. One of the anecdotes is how they met. They met at a lunch that was being given by a woman who at the time owned the Hope Diamond and her name is in my memory somewhere. Evalyn Walsh. Evalyn Walsh would throw these brunches at Friendship, which was the name of her mansion, and she would invite all sorts of people to these brunches. They were society brunches. It was a huge deal to get an invitation. She would have the Supreme Court there, she would have Tallulah Bankhead there. She would have Lucius Beebe there because he was a society reporter who was a member of the cafe society crowd. So she has the brunch, and apparently Clegg catches sight of Beebe across the room. Beebe is—he would never say "drunk," he would say he was "in wine."
MS: [laughs] Early 20th century euphemisms are just the best.
SG: Oh my God, they're so good. I never say that I'm drunk anymore. I'm always "in wine." Not that I'm ever in wine, kids, don't—
SG: Stay in school.
SG: So Clegg catches sight of Beebe for the first time across the room wearing the Hope Diamond as a gag, with three Pinkerton detectives in badly-fitted evening suits closing in on him slowly. Later in the night, Clegg and Beebe are having a great conversation, they're some of the last people at the party, they're talking to their host and then they discover that they're actually both houseguests in her mansion and that they share a connected bathroom. Clegg goes out with some friends, come home, goes into the connecting bathroom to find Beebe fast asleep in the bath tub, fully dressed in his evening attire, covered in specks of blood and the shards of a gorgeous china pig that he had apparently liberated from the parlor of this mansion. Clegg akes Beebe up, gets him dressed for bed, showers off the blood, cleans up the pig, gives Beebe a stern talking to about how one should comport oneself when one is a houseguest in a nice house with a good reputation, goes off to the bedroom in a huff gets in bed, lights a cigarette, falls asleep, and promptly lights himself and the mansion on fire.
SG: And this is how the two of them met, and from that night forward they were inseparable.
MS: That's the... [laughs] I always love how when you come across stories like this and you realize, you know, if you wrote that as a scene in fiction, nobody would believe it. Everybody would say you're being fantastic, but it actually happened and, oh, I love it.
SG: It actually happened. About a year later, Lucius Beebe always said that the most important thing to do at a party was to leave while it was still good and he made the decision to leave New York City. And there's a lot of different things that you can attribute to this. He himself said that it was because he was starting to notice the decline of manners in New York City. I would speculate that it was also related to the fact that some other newspaper columnists were starting to out him and Charles Clegg. They were not closeted in cafe society, but Beebe was a nationally published columnist. He was a household name. You know, he was read in like every housewife's kitchen across the country and that would have been pretty tricky for him to navigate for his career. I also have a thesis that he wanted to be able to have a life with Charles Clegg, kind of just the two of them outside of the grind of society life, which is you're up until three in the morning drinking and then you wake up at noon and start drinking. Right. So anyway, around this time, Lucius goes to Virginia City to see the premiere of a play in which he was referenced and he comes home and he says to Charles Clegg, "I have found a city with a population of 400 people and 20 saloons. That is one saloon for every 20 men, women, and children. And if that's not progress, I don't know what is." And this very sweet thing that Charles Clegg quotes him as saying, which is that they could live their completely inconspicuously. And they move to Virginia City. They move away from New York and from the society life that they created, that really the Beebe created with his column about cafe society. They move to Virginia City, they buy a house, it's a small town and people start going, "Uh, there's two dudes living in that house together and they're not brothers and what's going on?" And Beebe nips this in the bud by going to the mayor and saying, "What does your town need?" And the mayor says, "Well, I dunno. I mean, I guess we don't have a fire engine." So Beebe buys them a fire engine. Buys the town a fire engine. Then he and Clegg install a swimming pool in their yard and say, "Hey, your kids can come swim in the pool whenever they want." And the town goes, "Yeah, all right. You guys can be gay." And they revive the newspaper in Virginia City, the name of which is currently escaping me because I have remembered far too many things for me to be able remember this one detail. But it was the newspaper where Mark Twain started his career and they turned it into the fourth most widely distributed newspaper in the country.
SG: Yeah. I love that they bribed an entire small town out of homophobia.
MS: That is excellent.
SG: With a fire engine and a swimming pool.
MS: Yeah. Wow, well gosh, I always say you learn something new every day, but it's not always something this excellent. So thank you. [laughs]
SG: They were amazing. And they coauthored several books. They actually ended up becoming the nation's foremost expert on trains. Back then, private rail cars were, they were like the RV of the day and these guys loved traveling by train and so they wrote all these books about trains. If you talk to train people, those are some of the only people left to know the names Beebe and Clegg. But they traveled the country by rail car and had a whole life together, coauthored a bunch of books, although Clegg until his death said "Lucius wrote all the books and I had the honor of coauthoring them."
MS: Gosh. Get you a person who will say that kind of thing about you. Right?
SG: Yeah, no joke.
MS: Well, gosh, I have enjoyed the hell out of this conversation. There's one question that I always like to end with—and I was realizing when we started that this might be a little tricky, but we'll see what we can do—is if there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you. I know you don't like being put on the spot, so I feel a little bad, but—
SG: No way. I've got something in my head right now because I have been shouting about it on every platform available to me, including rooftops: Jade City.
MS: Oh yeah, I saw you mention that.
SG: Not only is it fantastic, but it has changed a huge section of my life. So, Jade City is Fonda Lee's upcoming adult fantasy novel. It comes out in the fall. I want to say November. Oh god, I just said "in the fall" as if it's not fall now. It's fall now. How'd that happen?
SG: Sorry, that's a little overwhelming. So I managed to get my hands on a copy of Jade City and it is amazing. I for over a decade have had an annual tradition of rereading The Godfather. It is the book that has informed how I do business and how I handle interpersonal conflicts, which if you know me, that explains a lot about me. And you know, The Godfather, the book, is also weird and racist and misogynistic and has so many problems. And Jade City is a book about crime families that is everything that The Godfather ought to have been. Every problem that The Godfather had, Jade City says better plus there's magic in it. If you like The Fifth Season, you'll love Jade City. If you like The Godfather, you'll love Jade City. If you like reading at all, you'll like Jade City. And I think every single human being in the world should own it and read it. I'm obsessed with it. And staring at it right now and like my face is that heart eyes emoji.
MS: Yeah, I saw you tweet about this the other day and and I immediately put it on my to-read list. So yeah.
SG: Cool. Well I'm just shoving it in everybody's face right now because it's just so good. I devoured it, I could not put it down.
MS: Great. Well I will make sure and put a link in the show notes to that. Thank you so much for being on the show. I really appreciate it. I had a great time talking with you.
SG: Yeah, this was so much fun. Thank you so much for having me and for putting up with my little technical difficulties.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Sarah’s books River of Teeth, Taste of Marrow, and The Fisher of Bones are all available for purchase now and I’ve put links into the show notes, you should definitely check those out. And follow Sarah on Twitter at @gaileyfrey, you won’t regret it.
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