Cassandra Khaw is the USA Today bestseller of Nothing But Blackened Teeth, and an award-winning game writer, award-nominated author, and former scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal. Their work can be found in places like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. Khaw’s first original novella, Hammers on Bone, was a British Fantasy Award and Locus Award finalist. Acclaimed writer Khaw can also talk about anything from punk rock to mythologies from all over the world, to Lovecraftian horror. Their latest novella is The Salt Grows Heavy, and they recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Salt Grows Heavy?
I’m fascinated with animal-wives, with mythological figures that give up divinity to find a mortal love. I’ve often wondered how much of that is motivated by want of the person and how much of it is, I don’t know, conditioning. If you look at Disney’s Little Mermaid, Ariel is utterly enamored of the human world. I’ve always wondered if she fell for Eric because of his Ericness or because he serves as an embodiment of her fascination with dry land.
And obviously, that led to questions like ‘what if the mermaid’s so-called love for the prince is actually propaganda he spread because he captured her and has to tell a pretty story now.’ This combined with my need to see what an egg-laying mermaid could do to a kingdom and a few other things, leading ultimately to the book.
Are the Mermaid, the Plague Doctor, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
The characters aren’t based on anyone, but the relationship between the Mermaid and the Plague Doctor draws from my interest in those liminal relationships that we rarely see portrayed in media. Relationships that can’t readily be confined to terms like ‘friendship’ or ‘family’ or ‘romantic love.’
How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I don’t think I expected the ending to be what it was. The relationship between the Plague Doctor and the Mermaid grew as the book was written, and they surprised me with their tenderness.
The Salt Grows Heavy is a decidedly dark story inspired by traditional fairy tales, particularly The Little Mermaid. Is The Little Mermaid your favorite fairy tale story or is it a different story?
Not the Little Mermaid! My favorite story is a Chinese one. it’s called "Jingwei Fills the Sea" and it is about a girl who drowns in the sea. She is brought back as a bird and becomes determined to fill the sea with sticks and stones as revenge. There are multiple interpretations of this story. Some people say it’s a metaphor for indefatigable determination. Others say it’s more a story about fruitlessly attempting to accomplish the impossible. I like to think of it as the former.
Same question if The Little Mermaid isn’t your favorite or if you just have another great fairy tale inspired novel, film or television show (or one that is so bad it is fun)?
Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how original/traditional fairy tales continue to be a source of inspiration for artists centuries after they were first written down?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. I think it is because a lot of those fairy tales resonate with us on an almost primal level: the warnings and the observations, the lessons and the sorrows. We recognize not only ourselves but each other in these stories. More importantly, I think it’s because fairy tales feel almost like a conversation with past eras and past generations. Through them and through the countless retellings that exist, we learn more about people we’ve never met.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Fragile Threads of Power. The Beast We Are. The Ugly History of Beautiful Things.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
The Reaper Man. It has informed a lot of my understanding about life and death and the beauty that comes with our fragility.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Is there a book you've faked reading?
Probably my actual school textbooks. I was a Grade A student but I hated studying, and would cram at the end of the school year.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Mistress of Spices. I was really intrigued by that one.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories. When I finished reading it the first time, I immediately wanted to reach out to Butler to thank her for the book, the essays, for the vulnerability she showed. It absolutely rocked me when I discovered she had passed on some years before that. I’d always heard people talking about how books had a certain enduring power, how they can reach out across time and space. I didn’t understand that until I read Butler’s collection.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Robert Macfarlane’s somewhat controversial Landmarks. I love it for introducing me to the idea of place-words, for talking about how specificity in language encourages an enchantment with the world, and how the reverse flattens our experience of our environment.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
The Reaper Man. It absolutely rewired my brain as a kid.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Sleep No More. I’d heard wonderful things about it for years and when I moved to New York, I decided I would go see it for my birthday. It absolutely blew my mind. I was also feeling incredibly burned out before that. Life had been especially difficult and I was so disenchanted with everything. The show revitalized my sense of wonder.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
A drink with dead friends. Macabre, I know. But there are people I’ve lost over the years who I’d love an opportunity to spend one more afternoon with. I think a lot of them would have liked each other too.
And then I’d want to come home to my first cat Potter. I loved him completely. He was this massive black tom who swatted away every other cat to try to nuzzle up to me. Potter was my everything. I’d want to spend an evening with him, hanging out, watching TV, and then curl up to sleep together. (I had lost him under horrible circumstances so I never got to say goodbye.)
I guess, yeah, my perfect day would be the opportunity to say goodbye to everyone I never got to hug one last time.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
No one has ever asked me what my favorite dessert thing is. The answer is just about anything with salted egg yolk in it.
What are you working on now?
Probably my plottiest book ever. It’s a convoluted piece I’ve been describing as Battle Royale x Magic School.