Interview With an Author: Lina Rather

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Lina Rather and her newest book, A Season of Monstrous Conceptions

Lina Rather is a speculative fiction author and graduate student living in Central New York. Her short fiction has appeared in venues including Lightspeed, Podcastle, and Shimmer. Her Tordotcom Publishing novella series, Our Lady of Endless Worlds, is about devotion, empire, and nuns living in a giant slug in outer space. When Lina isn't writing, she likes to cook overly elaborate recipes, read history, and collect cool rocks. Her newest book, A Season of Monstrous Conceptions, brings eldritch monsters, secretive midwives, and architectural magic to London after the Great Fire of 1666 and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for A Season of Monstrous Conceptions?

Historical midwifery is a fascinating field, and this book was mostly inspired by the very weird midwifery training manuals and health guides of the 17th and 18th centuries. These books were often very concerned with the so-called "maternal impression," where a pregnant woman seeing a frightening scene might have that imprinted upon her fetus (for example, seeing a wolf might result in a half-dog child). The illustrations in these are completely bizarre and fascinating, and they had a very long publishing life—one particularly influential one, Aristotle's Masterpiece, was published through the 20th century.

Are Sarah, Mrs. June, Margaret, or any of the other characters in the novel (with the exceptions of Sir Christopher Wren and his wife) inspired by or based on specific individuals?

All the midwives in the novella were inspired by two historical figures, Elizabeth Cellier and Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray. Both are fascinating figures who were as active politically as they were medically. Cellier attempted to establish a guild for midwives and was at one point tried for treason as part of a supposed plot against the future English king James II. Du Coudray was so recognized in her field that she was appointed by King Louis XV to travel France teaching midwifery and invented what she called "The Machine," an obstetrical dummy that allowed her students to simulate the birthing process.

How familiar were you with the life and work of Sir Christopher Wren prior to writing the novella? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, what was the most interesting or surprising thing that you discovered in your research?

I was a little familiar with Wren—he's such a prominent figure in 17th-century London that he shows up everywhere if you're researching the period—but for Monstrous Conceptions I read a few biographies of his life to get a better sense of him as a person. I was surprised to learn he had a wild youth—for example, the 17th-century Oxford equivalent of a frat party game was to use the then-new invention of an IV tube to get a dog drunk. During this time, he was also involved in resuscitating (for science, of course) a woman who had been hanged for theft (the woman was allowed to go free after this, as the idea at the time was that if you were revived after hanging you had still fulfilled the terms of the sentence).

Similar question about London during the late 17th century. How familiar were you with late 1600s London? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, what was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered in your research? How long did it take you to do all of the necessary research and then write A Season of Monstrous Conceptions?

A Season of Monstrous Conceptions has been brewing a long time—I started thinking about it during the writing of my college thesis on early modern midwifery a decade ago. From that research, I knew a lot about midwifery in the period, but sitting down to actually write the novella, I realized that I had to do a lot of research to fill in the small details—how did people have their houses arranged in this period? How long would it take to get from Point A to Point B? How would a person carry meat back from the market before plastic or cheap paper wrapping existed? Researching these details took right up through final edits as my editors and I found more places where our assumptions about the past were untrue. One interesting detail I found was that roasted eels were a favorite street snack for 17th-century Londoners!

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?

Oh, for sure—as readers of my Our Lady of Endless Worlds series know, I adore a multi-POV book, and originally Margaret had her own POV scenes. Ultimately, I felt that they distracted too much from the main plot, but she is a character I enjoyed writing.

Your biography says you currently live in Central New York. Have you ever lived in or visited London? Do you have any favorite places in the city? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss?

London was the first place outside the US I ever visited and my first vacation as an adult—my family did not travel internationally growing up so it was somewhere I'd dreamed of seeing for a long time! I also returned this year as part of a research trip for my academic work. My absolute favorite place in London is the Victoria & Albert Museum and its endless and wonderful collections. The museum as a whole is hardly a hidden gem, but for some reason, few people make it upstairs to the glass and ceramics galleries, which are both breathtaking for their scope. And as someone who can't eat gluten, I love Hobson's Fish and Chips, which serves the most delicious gluten-free fish and onion rings I've ever had.

You recently moved from Washington, DC—any favorite places there?

I love the Renwick Gallery for unique art exhibits, Malcolm X Park for people-watching, Slipstream Coffee on 14th st for an iced vanilla latte, and Thip Khao in Columbia Heights for amazing Laotian and the best chicken wings ever. My favorite neighborhood, though, was Mount Pleasant—I hope I get the chance to live there someday.

What's currently on your nightstand?

Currently I'm in a big romance reading phase, so I've got Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur. It's a lot of fun! Also, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars for both school and future writing research.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

In no particular order:

Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Jackson Bennett, Katherine Addison, Elizabeth McCracken, and Martha Wells.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

There were many, but as a very nerdy child, I loved this particular Star Trek: The Next Generation tie-in novel, Dyson Sphere. Readers of Sisters of the Vast Black will probably see some of its effects there, for sure. Ian McDonald's River of Gods and The Dervish House were also hugely influential on me as a young teen, and though I'm not sure how I'd feel about them if I read them today, I think a lot of McDonald's writing style shows in my own.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I'm currently in graduate school, so yes, very many (it goes with the territory, I think). In terms of fiction, I somehow missed the entire Percy Jackson series despite it being a cultural touchstone for my generation and now am forced to nod along when it comes up. Maybe someday I will have to sit down and at least watch the movies.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Oddly enough, a nonfiction book—Charles Freeman’s Holy Bones, Holy Dust, about saints’ relics in medieval Europe. I read it in my early twenties when I was working a job I didn't particularly like and felt really directionless. It reignited my love of history and my dreams of being a historian and pushed me to go back to graduate school, which has been the best choice.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I'm sure I've named this one in other interviews, but I absolutely love Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis, which is a completely bonkers novel from the 90s about humanoid dogs emerging from the Canadian wilderness in 2008 and settling in New York City. It goes in directions you would never expect and yet is also an incredibly touching, disquieting book about what it means to be human and in the community.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. This is the only book I can remember rereading—I didn't even reread books as a child—and to experience the wonder and depth of its world for the first time again would be amazing.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I have really struggled with reading fiction in the last couple of years—between the demands of grad school, writing, and just trying to keep up with life, it's been hard! But I recently read Richard Osman's The Thursday Murder Club, and it was so entertaining that it's reignited my love of silly murder mysteries and just light, fun books in general.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I've moved around a lot in my life, and so my friends are all scattered across the United States and the world—I would love a day where I got to bring them all together! Preferably at my favorite bar in my favorite city, La Gildería in Madrid, where we could while away the time with rounds of vermouth and tapas. Especially after the isolation of the pandemic, I can't imagine a better time than good food and good conversation with the people I care about.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently picking away at a dark historical fantasy take on the Spanish king Phillip II's marriage to Mary Tudor, but there are no promises that it will be finished soon! I often have many ideas going at once until one finally sticks and demands I finish it.

Book cover of A season of monstrous conceptions
A Season of Monstrous Conceptions
Rather, Lina