Hugo award winner Sarah Gailey lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and their fiction has been published internationally. While they are a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble, they are probably best known for their “man eating hippo mayhem” pair of novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow. Their new novel is Magic For Liars and they recently agreed to be interviewed about it by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Magic For Liars?
I grew up with magical school narratives, but those narratives almost always seemed to focus on a chosen-one, someone who was learning to navigate a strange new world and then mastering it. I wanted to write a story that felt truer to the experience of someone who is outside that world of magic—a story that would explore those feelings of exclusion, longing, and isolation. Noir seemed like a perfect angle of approach because noir is so much about marginalization, loneliness, and the grim reality that tends to oppose traditional fantasy-school narratives.
Are Ivy, Tabitha or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?
None of the main characters are inspired by specific individuals, but two side characters are! Headmaster Torres, who runs the school in the book, is based on a high school principal I used to know. This woman was in charge of an alternative high school for recent immigrants and refugees, and she was one of the most intimidating, kind, formidable people I’ve ever met. Stephen Toff, a teacher at the school, is an amalgamation of every man who has ever tried to explain why I should like IPA.
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?
The first version of this book was a lot lighter in tone—it was something closer to urban fantasy. My editor, Miriam Weinberg, who is brilliant, had me rewrite the entire thing with a different voice and themes. We made the book darker, more personal, and more introspective.
One of the things that had to happen to achieve that was the removal of a central character. I don’t wish that he was still in the book—I think his removal made the book a thousand times stronger—but I miss him! His name was Chuck, and he was Ivy Gamble’s best friend. He was a lot like Chris Hemsworth’s character in Ghostbusters, but also smart. My editor wisely pointed out that the character was a kind of safety net, both for me as a writer and for the reader. By removing him, I isolated my main character even further, allowing her to spiral into the mess she becomes in the book as it currently stands.
If you were found to have magic abilities, what form of magic (theoretical, healing, physical, mathematical, etc. . .) would you pursue?
I would definitely be into theoretical magic. It’s dangerous and ambitious and will kill you if you do it wrong, which is totally my jam. Also, it’s hard to explain at cocktail parties, which seems to be a central theme in all of my interests.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
A white noise machine, a jar with about nine dollars’ worth of loose change in it, a tiny bucket full of discarded contact lenses, a water bottle, and an advance copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (it’s spectacular).
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
When I was an extremely wee child, I was obsessed with Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. It was the book that motivated me to learn to read—I was so upset that I couldn’t read it on my own! I just reread it recently and wow, there’s a lot to unpack there about capitalism and the cost of American industrial puritanism on skilled laborers. At the time, I think I just really liked the idea of a big machine that can dig holes real fast.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Oh, tons of them. I had two older sisters and I was constantly sneaking books from their bookshelves, trying to find books that might have sex in them or drugs, or, I don’t know, crimes. Flowers in the Attic lived in my pillowcase for the month it took me to secretly read it.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
What is a book you've faked reading?
Oh god, The Fountainhead. When I was a teenager I thought it would make me seem smart to act like I’d read it, and I was like ‘it’s a female writer and it’s about communism or something so probably it’s fine?’ I put it on all my favorite-book-lists. It took me years to find out what that book is actually about. I ardently hope that, at the time, it was obvious to everyone that I’d never actually read it.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. It’s not an easy read, but it’s stunningly beautiful, in the prose and in the themes. It’s one of the most achingly compassionate books I’ve ever read, and I bought it because I couldn’t stop staring at it on the shelf.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. I had a spectacular high school English teacher who assigned a ton of novels written by black women. We read them and performed in-depth literary analysis on them. I remember him guiding us through the first chapter of Mama Day, teaching us about rhythm in prose—Naylor is a master at that. Her prose has music to it. I’d never read anything like it before, especially not for school. It completely upended the way I write, and everything I create now is informed by the lessons I learned about prose from that book.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Jade City by Fonda Lee. I am constantly shouting about that book. It’s perfect, I love it with all my heart, everyone in the world needs it.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I read it for the first time last year and it completely toppled me over. The experience of reading that book for the first time—being drawn in, and losing my sense of direction—was incredible.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
All I ever want to do is sit outside and read with a pile of fresh fruit and good bread, ample wine, and all of my closest friends. At intervals throughout that day, I would take breaks from reading to cook for everyone. No one would get dehydrated or mosquito-bitten. Maybe there’s a cool lizard nearby or something. Yeah, a cool lizard sunning himself on a rock. That’s the grace note.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
No matter how many hints I drop, no one ever asks me to share my favorite fact about jellyfish! I really try to leave a lot of openings but no one ever takes them. But now’s my time to shine. The coolest thing I know about jellyfish is that they don’t have any circulatory or respiratory organs, because their body is made of two thin membranes with nonliving goo between them. The goo doesn’t require oxygen, and the membranes are thin enough to just kind of absorb oxygen from the water. So, jellyfish don’t technically breathe! They just respire passively! Neat. Wow, I feel a lot better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished editing my second novel for Tor, which is a story about cloning, murder, heartbreak, and the identities we make for ourselves out of the tools we’re given. I’m about to start editing my third novella for Tor.com, which is a story about queer anti-fascist spy librarians on horseback in the near-future Wild West.
In their debut novel, Sarah Gailey, author of 2017’s pair of “man eating hippo mayhem” novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, mashes up elements of several disparate genres. Magic for Liars is part noir-mystery, part urban fantasy, part Harry Potter and part Mean Girls and the result is, to pardon the phrase, magical!
Magic For Liars is both a wonderful whodunit and an incredible urban fantasy. It is also a reminder that High School, even one where magic is at the center of the curriculum, is usually a traumatic experience for all involved, and it is one from which we may never fully recover.
Book Review: Magic for Liars