Interview With an Author: Marion Deeds

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Marion Deeds and her latest novel, Comeuppance Served Cold
Author Marion Deeds and her latest novel, Comeuppance Served Cold. Photo credit: Liz Miller

Marion Deeds was born in Santa Barbara, California, and moved to northern California when she was five. She loves the redwoods, the ocean, dogs, and crows. She's fascinated by the unexplained and curious about power: who has it, who gets it, and what is the best way to wield it. These questions inform her stories. Deeds has published Aluminum Leaves and Copper Road from Falstaff Books, with short works in Podcastle and several anthologies. She reviews fiction and writes a column for the review site Fantasy Literature. Her new book is Comeuppance Served Cold and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Comeuppance Served Cold?

My original inspiration for the novella was a desire to write a Dashiell Hammett-style novel, with magic and a female protagonist. The city of Seattle provided a lot of inspiration, especially the Olympic Hotel, and helped the setting come into focus. I had some ideas for the magic and the way it would integrate into a Hammett-style book, and Seattle was a great playground.

Are Dolly, Sofia, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Dolly, in particular, is based on—or, more accurately, a reaction to—a Dashiell Hammett character from The Maltese Falcon. The other characters more or less started, in my mind at least, as Types; "rebellious heiress," "speakeasy owner," and so on, and I fleshed them out from there.
Because I was trying for a Hammett-like style, I think all these characters adopted some of the characteristics of his characters, but it isn't any one-to-one correspondence except for Dolly.

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?

Characters evolved, definitely. Fiona Earnshaw, the heiress Dolly is hired to watch over, changes from a flat character to someone with a story and motivations of her own. In an earlier version, I had much more detail about the early lives of Philippe and Violet, and Violet's husband, Pedro, played a bigger role. With the necessary word count limit and the pacing of the story, those sections didn't stay. They might show up somewhere, maybe in a later work someday.

How familiar were you with late 1929 Seattle prior to writing the novella? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Comeuppance Served Cold?

My familiarity with the time period came mostly from period mystery novels and biographies, which was useful but limited. Thank goodness for the internet. One surprise was how many photos of things I could find. And there is a treasure trove of information about 1929 fashion and cars, for instance. And I had a lot of fun researching menus for social events and parties.

A couple of books helped me out, particularly Bill Speidel's entertaining and decidedly irreverent histories of early Seattle, The Sons of the Profits, and Doc Maynard's, The Man Who Invented Seattle. I also gleaned a lot from The War on Alcohol by Lisa McGirr. I think I spent a few months researching, usually in parallel to the writing. I was actually quite far along in the revision process when I went to Seattle and walked around the neighborhoods. That served me well, though, and I worked geographical and architectural changes into the work at that point.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

It doesn't play directly into the story, although it's mentioned, I was startled to learn that Washington had become a dry state a few years before the Volstead Act was passed. They went dry in 1916. I think that gave some context to the bootlegging industry in Seattle—they had a few years to rehearse and practice before the federal law came in.

It was no surprise to me that Seattle had a big bootlegging industry because it's close enough to Canada and accessible by water, so smuggling was a time-honored tradition.

Comeuppance Served Cold ends with the beginning of what seems to be another major adventure/chapter for Dolly. Are you considering another novella that will take readers on that journey?

I may or may not be working on a new adventure for this character. I will say that the Dolly character had a job go badly in San Francisco before she came to Seattle, and there is unfinished business for her there (and some people with grudges). If I were working on another Dolly story, she might be headed to San Francisco, and if she did go to San Francisco, she would probably cross paths—and match wits—with a private detective she's met before, who, like Philippe, is a shape-shifter. And if that happened, odds are good she would also visit a small town north of San Francisco called Petaluma.

What's currently on your nightstand?

Right now, I'm browsing Comrades and Chicken Ranchers by Kenneth Kann, about Jewish communist immigrants to Petaluma, California at the turn of the 20th century, and their legacy. In 1992, Kann compiled a rich oral history of the chicken ranchers and the part they played in the town's growth. It's fascinating.

Mary Roach' s Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law studies the "overlap" where humanity and wildlife intersect, whether it's garbage bears in Aspen, Colorado, USA, or leopards accused of killing humans in Pauri Garwal, India. Roach always packs an amazing amount of information into an entertaining, lively package and this book is no different.

Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures rounds out the stack. She had me with the octopus.

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

Charlotte Bronte. Bronte published four books in her lifetime. I didn't love The Professor, and Shirley was a whole different reading experience, (more overtly political), but Villette is one of my favorites. I love it even more than Jane Eyre. Bronte used her keen observer's eye and a nearly bottomless reservoir of anger to write vividly about the emotional reality of being a woman in her time and world, while providing a great story—she's been a role model for me.

John Crowley makes the list for his influential Americana fantasy novel Little, Big. It's a difficult book to read now, and several tropes make me cringe, but Crowley did something original with the form—and his prose is wonderful. I also loved a recent book of his, Ka, about a crow who gets hold of immortality.

As far as being influential, Patricia McKillip, for her beautiful, strange fantasy books. In the seventies, she was writing fantasy characters that were nothing like the hardy warriors or lost heirs that were standard fare in the genre, and her glowing, translucent prose is breathtaking.

Isabell Allende has to be on the list, especially for her earlier works. And I am aware that's only four!

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

As a very young child, I had an old copy of one of the My Bookhouse books. My mom found it at a church rummage sale and probably paid a dime for it. The stories were mostly reprints of British stories or even excerpts from British classics that the editors thought would appeal to children. I remember a story of a little boy and girl who hide a Brave Cavalier in the priest hole of their manor house when the Evil Roundheads (I'm capitalizing because you practically have to) came to the house. That kind of thing. I mean, I had no idea there was historical context to that story, but—the suspense! Mean guys in helmets! A priest hole! Anyway, I loved it.

The book that inspired me the most as a child (and you hear this from lots of writers, I think) was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle . As I got a little older, I read every Andre Norton SF book I could get my hands on, and fortunately for me, she wrote a lot of them.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My parents encouraged me to read and read widely, so there was very little I had to hide. I say "very little" because I'm sure I hid some erotica from them—or thought I did anyway.

My junior year in high school, a book by Erica Jong, Fear of Flying, came out, and I wanted to read it. My mother did not approve of the book (she'd heard it talked about sex with no consequences, and that wasn't okay with her!), but she didn't forbid it. I think I mostly read it in my room, though, and not around her.

My dad used to read the same science fiction/fantasy books I did, and we'd talk about them at dinner.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

It is a sad fact that I never finished Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I tried more than once. I was just out of my teens, and I think part of the problem was that someone told me she throws herself in front of the train at the end, and I just didn't want to go there! Because I'd read nearly halfway through, I've successfully faked my way through discussions more than once over the years.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Changed my life? Maybe not. Changed how I viewed the world? Definitely. I read When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, Le Ly Hayslip's memoir of her childhood in Viet Nam during the war, when it first came out. For the first time in my life, I saw a different perspective on colonialism and all the ways we weren't "the good guys." Hayslip came to the USA after the war, and she isn't bitter in the book, but I couldn't read that child's experiences with army after army—and it never mattered which army it was—and not see what war, and imperialism, really do to the people and the land.

A recent book that blew my mind, to use a very retro expression, is Merlin Sheldrake' s Entangled Life. It's about fungus and lichen. That's right, fungus and lichen. It changed my view of the natural world in many of the ways Richard Powers talks about in The Overstory.

When I was a lot younger, I read Patricia McKillip’s fantasy novels, particularly the Riddlemaster of Hed and the others in that series. I suppose, on reflection, I could say her books changed my life because they showed me a model of storytelling I hadn't seen before…something I thought I could do. They were beautiful, and they encouraged me to write.

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

So tactfully worded! My friends would say, "What book are you trying to force on us?" It's a great question. I was mesmerized by The Overstory by Richard Powers, and I talked about that book a lot. A lot. I finally figured out that not everybody could navigate the book's structure. (An aside—I'm old now, and I've realized that not every book is for everybody.) I finally had to start saying, "It's awesome; give it a try, and it may not be for you."

I gave about six people Entangled Life as holiday or birthday gifts, so that's one I definitely encourage. Underland by Robert MacFarlane is another one. His brilliant descriptions of various underground locations, natural and human-made, resonate with his meditations on the things we try to bury and the ways they resurface.

For people I know who love Fitzgerald' s The Great Gatsby, I've been known to wave around a copy of Nghi Vo's fantasy retelling, The Chosen and the Beautiful. It's the Gatsby story set in a USA that has magic. Instead of Nick, Jordan Baker is our narrator, a woman with her own story and her own secrets. Following the plot beats of Gatsby and capturing Fitzgerald's sensibility perfectly, Vo turns the story on its head. For the people I know who hated Gatsby, I offer the book for the same reasons.

And while I'm here, here's an author I think not enough speculative fiction readers are reading: Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Moreno-Garcia is known as a horror writer because of her editorial work, and she can write horror, definitely. Her best-known book is Mexican Gothic, a creepy and suspenseful period piece. She can also write futuristic vampire novels, like Certain Dark Things; a lush, magical novel of manners (The Beautiful Ones) and a nineteen-seventies-vintage crime novel. Her characters are always compelling, her vision original, and I love her prose.

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

I had to think about this one for a while. In the end, the book I would love to have the experience of reading fresh, with no knowledge or preconceptions, is Ursula K. LeGuin' s Left Hand of Darkness. Views on gender are markedly different now from when she wrote this—I would like to see how my mind and underlying assumptions about gender would assimilate her world now. Would it be less of a struggle? This "first time," would I focus more on the politics of the story than I did on that original read?

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

Nearly a year ago, I saw a Day of the Dead exhibition at a local arts center. The work included sculptures, installations, murals, paintings, and altars. It was an interesting time. Sonoma County, where I live, still has people recovering from the effects of the wildfires, and fire recovery figured prominently in the imagery. So did the pandemic. Overall, though, the place was filled with reverence, vitality, and, strangely, joy. Many altars remembered ancestors and loved ones, reminding us that they are with us as long as we have memories of them.

In a completely different vein, PBS recently showed the Windmere Children. Completed in 2020, the documentary addresses the Jewish children from Prague who were brought out of the concentration camps in 1945 and flown to Britain. They were raised in a compound on Lake Windmere. Much of the documentary consisted of the words of those survivors, now in their 80s.

One man, who was old enough to remember his experiences in the camps, had maintained his composure as he talked about thinking every day, "I hope it's not today," meaning he hoped that day was not his day to die. When he shared his first night at Windmere, he described being led to a room. He paused, choking up, and wiped away tears, and said, "There was bed. It had sheets." He had to stop again. "And there was a pillow and a blanket I could use to keep myself warm." It was such a simple thing, and seventy years later, it still reduced him to tears. He hadn't choked up telling us about living in the mouth of death. It was experiencing hope that still opened up his heart.

What are you working on now?

I have a finished first draft of something completely different from Comeuppance Served Cold. Set in the present, it's fantasy, about spies from two competing organizations who join forces with a self-aware fungal colony to protect magic from a group that's poisoning it. It's got codes, disguises, fight scenes, at least one agency mole, a pre-cognitive person, a kidnapping gone wrong, and a teleporter. It was lots of fun.

As I said, I may also be working on a Comeuppance sequel, but I'm going to be cagey about that.

Book cover for Comeuppance Served Cold
Comeuppance Served Cold
Deeds, Marion