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Interview With an Author: Ruthanna Emrys

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Ruthann Emrys with her book covers

Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog and she recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog about her novels Winter Tide and Deep Roots.

What was the inspiration for Winter Tide and Deep Roots?

I heard about H.P. Lovecraft a long time before I read his work. He’s hugely influential in horror and speculative fiction, of course, but my college friends were particularly into the Illuminatus Trilogy, the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, and other works that drew on the Mythos, so we were talking and joking about this stuff constantly. A few years ago I decided I finally needed to experience the originals, so my wife started reading his stories aloud to me while I made dinner. It was very interactive—we exclaimed over the worldbuilding and made fun of the vocabulary and ranted about the racism. But The Shadow Over Innsmouth went beyond what I’d already known about that last. The story—it was written in 1936—starts by telling you that the residents of this town have all been rounded up and there are rumors of concentration camps. And then you’re supposed to go in with this as foreshadowing that there’s something wrong with the town! I couldn’t get past that—if someone is rounding people up and putting them in camps, I know who the bad guys are, and they aren’t the prisoners. I’d heard a million jokes about Innsmouth and its “batrachian” inhabitants, and somehow this wasn’t the first, last, and only thing that people discussed about the story. “The world probably doesn’t need stories about Deep Ones in concentration camps,” I said to my wife, and I wrote my first story about Aphra Marsh that night.

What drew you to work within the Lovecraft mythos? Were you ever concerned about using/interpreting elements from Lovecraft in the telling of your own stories?

Lovecraft, as mentioned above, is notoriously racist. But he’s a good enough writer that you can often see other ways of interpreting the situation, the sympathetic view of the monsters that he either refuses to acknowledge openly or brings up only to reject. There’s this weird guilt, where he’s tempted to get along with the Other, but he knows it’s wrong, obviously if you did that the whole of civilization and the tenuous structure of reality would collapse. Which is frustrating but also makes it easy to turn his worlds inside out, and use them to talk about the horror of his own bigotries. And beyond that tangle, they’re such exciting worlds to play with!

As for worrying—Geraldine Brooks’s first novel was fanfic. Carol Nelson Douglas publishes fanfic. Jasper Fforde publishes fanfic. I hear William Shakespeare did it too, sometimes. I’m happy to be part of the conversation.

Are Aphra, Caleb or any of the other members of Aphra’s confluence, or the F.B.I., based on specific individuals?

None of them are based on specific individuals, but they all draw on some aspects of me and the people I know. Aphra has my urge to connect people, Audrey has my wife’s social observation skills, and so on. Ron Spector is an odd case. He grew organically, as characters do, from my need for an FBI agent to whom Aphra would willingly talk. Partway through writing Winter Tide, though, I started researching references for what he’d be wearing. I asked my mother for pictures of relatives—Jewish men from New York at about the right time period—and got, not only photos but stories I’d never heard before about my great-uncle Monroe, who was a gay Jewish New Yorker working for the government, in his case, an embassy, in the 40s and 50s. So I should have based Spector on Monroe Stern but didn’t unless someone is messing with causality.

How did the novel 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?

Some of my favorite things to write were the sideflashes—scenes paralleling or flashing back from Aphra’s main narrative, from the point of view of other characters. But trying to figure out how they fit into the overall structure was harder. I spent so much time during revisions moving them around, and adding new ones, and cutting old ones! There was a scene I loved, where one of the aliens is working on making new baby aliens (not a turn-on for humans unless you’re really into the telepathic equivalent of external fertilization), but it revealed exactly the same things as another scene I’d written earlier, so I had to cut it.

But on the whole, I’m very happy with the changes. My editor, Carl Engle-Laird, was very good at pushing everything into shape by force and snark and sharpening all the scenes we left in, to fine points. And he didn’t make me cut any characters!

The world you’ve created is incredibly rich, while also reflecting familiar aspects of the US post-WWII and into the beginning of the Cold War. What was it about this period that appealed to you for the setting of Winter Tide and Deep Roots?

The whole timeline for the Innsmouth Legacy books grows out of the raid on Innsmouth in Lovecraft’s original story, which is January 1928. So the People of the Water are in a camp in the southwest, as far from the Atlantic Ocean as the government can think to put them, the outside world’s memory of them gradually fading. Then World War II comes, and the government suddenly decides it needs more camps in a hurry, so logically they reuse the mostly-empty one that they already have lying around. When I first wrote this, it was historical detail and maybe meant as a warning; I never expected it to become a comment on current events and I’m pretty upset about the unplanned “timeliness.” Then after the war is over, the government releases the Japanese Americans. And by that point, it just makes sense to let everyone out. And there’s Aphra, coming up on the start of the Cold War.

I grew up during the end of the Cold War, and my childhood horror stories were mostly about nuclear apocalypse. I was obsessed by them; I met my wife in a class on Cold War Culture focused on films from the period: The Day After, Doctor Strangelove, way too many creepy PSAs. So I was drawn by the excuse to set something then, and intrigued to learn about the differences between the Cold War’s beginning and end. This has become more urgent to me as the parallels with our own time have become more obvious: something new is rising, something bad, but we don’t fully understand its nature or how long it will last or how much we can do to shape and stop it. How do we figure it out? How do we act and stay hopeful?

Deep Roots has a clear, strong ending, but also seems open to the possibilities of more stories about Aphra and the other characters. Will there be more books in this series?

Innsmouth Legacy is meant to be an open-ended series—each story standing on its own, but part of a larger arc, following characters over the years, and given some of the characters, possibly centuries or aeons—I know at least one thing that happens about 17,000 years after Winter Tide.

I’ve written the first two chapters of Seas Rise Wild, which is the working title for the next book—but whether any more get published is up to my publisher. You could ask them if you want to up the odds.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown is this amazing book about surviving and organizing in dystopian times, built around Octavia Butler’s Earthseed philosophy from Parable of the Sower. I’ve been going through it slowly to give it the attention it deserves. Below that is T. Kingfisher’s Summer in Orcus, the hardcover version from the Kickstarter—snarky Baba Yaga is a lot of fun. Bygone Badass Broads by Mackenzie Lee is full of short, enthusiastic profiles of awesome historical women. Books of Vandana Singh and Jo Walton shorts, Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars, Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet. Also a clay pendant that says “May the Force Be With You” in Sumerian.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Depending on what part of my childhood you’re talking about, it would’ve been either If I Ran the Circus by Dr. Seuss, My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Styles Gannett, or The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts. So, basically, I went from wanting to have strange supernatural critters as pets or companions, to wanting to be one myself!

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

Clan of the Cave Bear! In retrospect, this was entirely unnecessary—my mom is a librarian who puts together the banned books display at her library every year, and I don’t think either she or my dad batted an eye when I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land right in front of them at a yard sale. Prediction: they will read this interview and tell me now, thirty years later, “Well, honey, we were a little concerned...”

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

Mixing favorite with influential, a partial overlap:

  • Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book is my favorite of her work, and emblematic of the rest. Layers of detail, archaeological sentences with jewels glinting in the crevasses. Lois McMaster Bujold – The Vorkosigan Saga is one of my favorite series and go-to comfort reading. It’s also my model for how to write an ongoing series; I love the way we see the characters grow and change over time, and the way what makes a story for each of them also changes over time. Cordelia as a young woman has space opera adventures and romance over shared danger; Cordelia 40 years later has romance over shared goals and speculative bioscience. Miles as a teenager is trying to see who he can fool; Miles as an adult is trying to stop fooling himself. I want to write as well as she does about what it means to grow up, and keep growing.
  • Octavia Butler – I can only try to engage as completely as she did with power and helplessness, justice and injustice. We share a cover artist, an extraordinary honor that I try to be somewhat worthy of.
  • Marge Piercy – Her poetry helped shape the way I think about religion in the world and embodied spirituality. And Woman on the Edge of Time shaped the way I think about justice, and what we should be aiming for as a species.
  • Robert Anton Wilson – It’s his fault that I read Lovecraft in the first place, and perhaps the reason I so intuitively tie cosmic horror to politics and human folly and stubborn absurdity.

What is a book you've faked reading?

This is a tough one to answer because I’ve tried to avoid this ever since it got me in trouble a couple of times in college. There’s pressure, in both fandom and academia, to have Read The Thing, and it takes an effort of will sometimes to admit that I have not Read The Thing and may well choose, ultimately, to continue not reading it. I actually started the Lovecraft Reread series, in part, so I wouldn’t be tempted to pretend to have read all of Lovecraft’s work if quizzed on it—I’m a woman writing Lovecraftian fiction, need to be able to show my credentials, right? And yet, it’s still tough to state outright that I haven’t read most of the scholarship on him, or most of his letters.

I wish I’d faked reading Great Expectations, in high school—I’m still not a big Dickens fan, can’t remember much about it, and probably could have devoted that time more fruitfully to reading more Vonnegut.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Right after my youngest kid was born, I bought Diana Rowland’s Mark of the Demon, not for its own cover, but because a later book in the series has this badass urban fantasy heroine, swirled in eldritch flames, glaring defiantly from the cover while holding her baby. I was perfectly happy to tear through the first six books to get to tough magical moms having adventures with their kids.

That sort of thing is still an instant purchase for me. Promise me world-saving action with intermittent diaper changes, and I’m there.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft aggravated me so much that I had to go and write stories in response! That worked out really well, actually.

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

See below.

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

Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman. I’ve reread it dozens of times and picked up new clues each time, but there’s one perfect mind-blowing, slow-burn spoiler that I loved the process of figuring out on the first round. This is also my “evangelist” book, one I wish I could successfully recommend to people with no description other than “go read it, if you like speculative fiction you’ll like this”. I will say that it’s an ode to reason and discovery in the form of a quest, it has close female friendship as the core relationship and reading it makes me love the world and want to ask all the questions.

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

- Going to the Harry Potter release day party in a Chicago suburb where they had three blocks and a park done up as Diagon Alley. At sunset, we found an amazing French restaurant that we’d never seen before, that impressed even my friend who’d just come back from Paris. It was gone, of course, when we looked for it again a month later…

- Sitting around a friend’s cozy living room, drinking tea and having amazing conversations with even more fascinating friends, knowing that I can go off in a corner and write whenever an idea strikes me.

- Hiking in the Berkshires in the Fall with a notebook and a backpack full of food, and no deadline to be home, only the scent of leaves and mountain air.

- Going on a road trip with my wife, watching the patterns of clouds and scenery, stopping at roadside attractions and farmstands whenever the fancy strikes us.

- Curling on a comfortable couch with an unexpectedly amazing new book, and reading for hours, completely uninterrupted.

What are you working on now?

Something a little different—my current novel-in-progress is near-future science fiction, with world-saving action and intermittent diaper changes. As described above—we’re gonna make this a Thing. Diaperpunk? It’s about the people who’ve finally started to do something effective about climate change, and how the new collectives they’ve created to deal with this specific crisis handle something completely different—in this case, first contact with aliens who are determined to save humanity by getting us off-planet. By force, if necessary.

I say it’s different from the Innsmouth Legacy books, but it does have big found families and snarky aliens and an obsession with water, so I guess that’s what you can expect from my books, regardless of subgenre, for the next few decades.

Emrys, Ruthanna,

Emrys, Ruthanna.