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Feature Interview: Seanan McGuire

Winner of the prestigious John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010, Seanan McGuire is a force of nature, a creative phenomenon. In a little more than a year, McGuire has released five novels; she has become one of paranormal fantasy’s elite writers with her saga featuring half-human half-faerie changeling October Daye (Rosemary and Rue, A Local Habitation, An Artificial Night, and the recently released Late Eclipses) and has revolutionized zombie fiction with Feed, the first installment of the Newsflesh trilogy, written pseudonymously under the name Mira Grant. Feed was not only selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010, it was included in a National Public Radio listener poll of the top 100 thriller novels of all time! (Its sequel, Deadline, was released in May.) And I haven’t even mentioned her short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and award-winning filk music yet!

We recently caught up with McGuire to ask her a few questions about her work and her life, and to also verify that she is, in fact, real, and not a commune of artists working under one name…

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I have to admit, Seanan, when I read your debut novel Rosemary and Rue in 2009, and began researching you for a review, I was blown away by your biography. You’re amazing—a poet, a musician, a cartoonist, a blogger, and a paranormal fantasy and zombie fiction (as Mira Grant) novelist. For a long time, I didn’t think you were real—I thought maybe some collective of artists combined their talents under one name in some mislead marketing scheme … You’re obviously an intrinsically creative person. Were you this creative as a child?

I was possibly more creative as a child, since I didn’t have a day job or a sense of restraint to protect me from my own desire to find out what would happen if, say, I were to coat the side of a local hill with Crisco and then go sledding on a cookie tray. I used to wrangle my cousins into these huge, elaborate sort of proto-LARPs, and I filled notebooks with the details about the worlds they were playing in, their politics, their species, everything. I was writing short stories by the time I was seven, and essays and songs and lengthy defenses of my position on the works of Stephen King by the time I was nine. Since this was all pre-computer, I was doing most of this writing on an electric typewriter that weighed as much as I did, and that sounded like gunshots going off when I started hammering away at three o’clock in the morning. My survival to adulthood is something of a miracle.

When I was … oh, eleven or so, my mother went to the flea market, and came home with a more than twenty-year run of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, all of them protected by those yearly cases they used to sell. I spent most of the summer sitting under my favorite willow tree at the creek near our house, chewing through classic short stories and dreaming of someday being half as awesome as some of those people. I don’t have the willow anymore. I still have that particular fantasy.

I was so impressed with the originality of Rosemary and Rue and all the subsequent installments of your October “Toby” Daye saga. What was the initial inspiration behind writing this series?

So I went to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park with some friends of mine, and I managed—being the graceful flower that I am—to get myself hopelessly stuck at the top of the Moon Bridge. Like, “I am not moving, I live here now” levels of hopelessly stuck. So they’re trying to coax me down, and I’m looking down at the water, watching the koi. And the line “Spending fourteen years as a koi fish in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Gardens does very little for one’s outlook on life” just sort of hit me in the head. I started thinking about that line, and finally, the desire to go home and write the story to go with it got me down off the bridge. I produced a fourteen-page short, said “Right, that was fun,” and went back to my regularly scheduled programming.

Only one of the friends I’d shown the story to was convinced that it was the start of the novel she’d been bugging me to write. So she started saying “Toby wants a novel” every time she saw me. I think I started writing Toby’s novel out of self-defense. I like to say that my subconscious is a liar; I rarely understand the scope of an undertaking until it’s too late to back out. It was that way with Toby. I wrote a short story that was actually a novel, and a novel that was actually a series.

There’s a decidedly hardboiled edge to this series—and it goes beyond Toby being a private investigator in the realm of humans. At points, the narrative tone is gritty, decidedly dark—reminiscent of the mystery pulps of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Like this line from A Local Habitation:

I’ve seen that mixture of resignation and hopelessness before; it’s usually in my mirror.

But then you balance that starkness, that existential angst, with breathtaking images of magic and beauty. Here’s a description of the Garden of Glass Roses in Shadowed Hills from Rosemary and Rue:

White crushed quartz pathways glitter in the sunlight that filters through the roses, throwing up glints of prismatic color. And everywhere, roses, growing in wild, seemingly unfettered profusion. Their slight transparency seems odd at first glance, until the mind admits what the eye is seeing: every flower, every petal and bud, is living, blossoming glass, stained with washes of flawless color…

The dichotomy between worlds—human and faerie—is just profound. Two questions here: Are you a fan of classic hard-boiled detective novels by authors like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc.? And do you find writing your October Daye novels comparable to writing poetry? There are numerous sequences where your narrative becomes undeniably lyrical…

I am less a fan of the classic hard-boiled detective novels, and more a fan of grindhouse cinema and classic horror movies, which also tend to be very bleak, very stark, in part because they have no real budget to speak of. I do like noir as a genre, and I love playing with its toys. Remember that traditional fairy stories are also very bleak, but they pepper that bleakness with beauty that’s all the more incredible because it’s surrounded by such a dark landscape.

It’s hard not to get lyrical when I’m writing about Faerie itself, because it really is a world that operates according to an entirely different set of linguistic rules. The sky is a different shade of blue. I don’t find it comparable to writing poetry because I still have to stay grounded, and that’s the service that the darker parts of the narrative can provide for me. They anchor things, and that is an invaluable service.

The utilization of folklore and myth is obviously nothing new in fantasy (and poetry—I loved your poem “In Persephone’s Garden!”)—the October Daye novels are just saturated with elements from various mythologies. I could be completely wrong here but did I read something somewhere about your grandmother being a folklorist? How much influence did she have on your writing?

My grandmother was a banker. She had a huge amount of influence on my life—I lived with her for years, and even though she was a very practical woman who read category romances when she read at all, she was completely supportive of my desire to be a writer, and she was happy to read every word I wrote. I genuinely regret the fact that she didn’t live long enough to see me finally start publishing, and see me realizing the dream she nurtured. She passed away a few years before I signed with DAW. I miss her a lot. I actually called her number when Rosemary and Rue came out, and asked the woman who has it now if I could just tell her about my book. She let me, and she thanked me for being a good granddaughter, and then she hung up. That was when I finally deleted Gramma’s number from my phone.

I connected with October Daye right off the bat. She’s the proverbial outsider. And I’ve heard similar comments from numerous readers—Toby just resonates with readers. From Rosemary and Rue:

My name is October Christine Daye; I live in a city by the sea, where the fog paints the early morning, parking is more precious than gold, and Kelpies wait for the unwary on street corners. Neither of the worlds I live in is quite mine, but no one can take them away from me…

How much is October Daye like Seanan McGuire?

Not very! If I have a “cognate” in Toby’s world, it would actually be her Fetch, May. I am a classic Marilyn Munster girl. I wear pink and decorate in cobwebs. My bedroom is orange and green with bats hanging from the ceiling. I live inland, in a small city that was semi-rural during my childhood; we get an annual tarantula migration here. Toby is sort of my invisible best friend who occasionally lives in my head, but she isn’t very much like me at all. For which all my friends are profoundly grateful, as it means they don’t have to deal with many bloody shoot-outs in the middle of their living rooms. Toby is hard on the people she loves. I’m just occasionally hard on their nerves.

Paranormal/urban fantasy has been experiencing a Golden Age of sorts over the last few decades. It’s evolving before our eyes—blending elements from a diversity of genres (fantasy, romance, horror, etc.) and creating something new. Do you see this disintegration between genre boundaries continuing? Where do you see genre fiction a few decades down the road?

I studied folklore in college, and I’m still studying it now, as an adult. I expect to be studying folklore for the rest of my life. With that in mind, I truly believe that the current blurring of the borders between fantasy, horror, and romance are not representative of a mutation; they’re representative of a bunch of walls we didn’t really need finally coming down. The oldest stories we have were, at the time, what we would classify as “urban fantasy” today. Thomas the Rhymer?  His mother was dead when he was conceived, and he was carried to term in her coffin (horror). He fell in love with the Queen of Faerie, calling her “Queen of Heaven” and charming her heart (romance). So she took him to the fairy lands to dwell by her side (fantasy), even though they had to wade through red blood to the knee to get there (horror). Eventually, he chose to leave her to return to his own kind, and she cursed him with honesty (fantasy). In the end, he returned to her, and to Faerie, forevermore (romance). When this story was new, the settings it used were as familiar to the people who heard it as Chicago or Melbourne or San Francisco will be to modern readers of urban fantasy.

In some of the oldest forms of the Snow White/Rose Red story, there’s a third sister, Lily Fair. I like to say that urban fantasy writers are the Children of Lily Fair, the ones seeking the balance between Snow White’s fantasy and Rose Red’s horror. We’re the place where the lines drop away, and that’s a beautiful place to be.

You won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010. That puts you in an elite group of writers—C.J. Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, Lucius Shepard, Nalo Hopkinson, Cory Doctorow, Jay Lake, John Scalzi, etc. Was winning the award a surreal experience? Any interesting stories from the ceremony?

Oh, wow. Oh, yes. Even being nominated was surreal. I was on the phone with my friend Claudia when the email asking if I would accept the nomination arrived, and I literally screamed out loud. Sorry, Claudia. When I won … I was sitting in the front row, clutching Cat Valente’s hand like a lifeline, just sort of waiting for it to all be over. And then they said my name, and I didn’t move, because by that point, I could taste sounds and hear colors, I was so freaked out. Cat had to push me toward the stage. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life, it really, really was.

My escort for the Hugos was my good friend Jeanne, and she and I went to Cat’s room to get ready for the ceremony, along with Cat’s friend Gretchen (now a mutual friend, because wow, bonding experience). When we got to the room, Cat told me to close my eyes, and led me inside… and one of the beds was covered in tiaras. Like, totally covered. “We wanted to make sure that no matter what happened tonight, you’d go home with a tiara,” she said, and they were from all my friends, and I cried. And then we all sang SJ Tucker’s “Shipful of Monsters” and my “Wicked Girls” as we got ready, and we found out that our friends in Seattle were holding a Hugo party at the Night Kitchen, so they could see the results live. Apparently, they all screamed when I won. It was just the most amazing night. We wrapped the arms of our community all the way around the world.

As much as I enjoy your October Daye saga, Feed—the first installment of your Newsflesh trilogy—written pseudonymously as Mira Grant, just blew me away. I ranked it my #1 zombie fiction read of 2010.

A fusion of post-apocalyptic horror and cerebral political thriller, Feed is nothing short of a labyrinthine masterwork. Set in the year 2039, almost three decades after “the Rising”—essentially the end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it when two revolutionary cures (for cancer and the common cold) were unleashed upon the world and, after mutating with one another, created a virus that reanimated dead flesh—the world is now radically depopulated, with entire cities and states turned into literal forbidden zones…

Poetry, music, faerie-powered urban fantasy—and the zombie apocalypse! I know you’re into horror movies. Was this something you’ve wanted to write about for some time?

I have wanted to be a horror writer my entire life. The fact that Feed is more science fiction was sort of accidental, because I am in love with the transcendent “why,” but I wanted to write my take on zombies so bad. What’s kind of funny is that Feed was started long before the current zombie “boom.” I spent a couple of years kicking the world around in my head before it got a story to go with it, and then it took me about two years to write the book, because I was still trying to feel my way into things. So the timing of it all was just an incredibly happy accident.

You referenced George Romero in Feed (as “one of the accidental saviors of the human race”). Was he an inspiration?

Weirdly, not so much! James Gunn, definitely, and Aaron Sorkin, to a lesser degree. I think the primary inspiration was actually Warren Ellis, and his amazing comic, Transmetropolitan. I wanted to tell a zombie story, and I wanted to use the news to do it, and Ellis had the sensibility that I was trying to capture already nailed down fast. I love Romero, I really do, but post-Rising fiction isn’t going to depend on him as much as during-the-Rising fiction.

Lots of excellent social commentary in Feed. I particularly enjoyed the character Georgia’s blogs, for example:

This is the truth: We are a nation accustomed to being afraid. If I’m being honest, not just with you but with myself, it’s not just the nation, and it’s not just something we’ve grown used to. It’s the world, and it’s an addiction. People crave fear. Fear justifies everything. Fear makes it okay to have surrendered freedom after freedom, until our every move is tracked and recorded in a dozen databases the average man will never have access to. Fear creates, defines, and shapes our world, and without it, most of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves.

Our ancestors dreamed of a world without boundaries, while we dream new boundaries to put around our homes, our children, and ourselves. We limit our potential day after day in the name of a safety that we refuse to ever achieve. We took a world that was huge with possibility, and we made it as small as we could.

I couldn’t agree more. How cathartic is it to write stuff like this?

Extremely, even if it does make me worry that I’m going to wind up on a watch list somewhere. Georgia at her most judgmental is sort of my darkest view on human nature. The blog posts of hers that I included in the book were all from her op/ed column, rather than from her straight-up news reports, because I don’t really have the training to write news of the caliber that she does, but golly, can I rant about the world being messed-up over the insane desire for safety at the expense of every other possibility. I am fairly reliably depressed by the way we comport ourselves as a species, which is probably why I watch so many horror movies—bad things happen to good people in them, but at least you can pick up a shotgun or a machete and fight your way free.

Just clarifying here—you’re really not a group of artists living in some commune, right?

I can say with complete sincerity that I am not a group of human individuals working to produce my annual output. I cannot comment on the possibility of my actually being an alien hive-intelligence here to conquer your world, but it might be a good idea to practice your hive-intelligence placation skills. Hive-intelligences like Diet Dr Pepper and candy corn.

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Paul Goat Allen

Paul Goat AllenPaul Goat Allen has been reviewing science fiction, fantasy and genre fiction in general for almost two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and Barnes & Noble. He is also a moderator for BarnesandNoble.com’s Paranormal/Urban Fantasy and Fantasy/Science Fiction online book forums as well as a weekly contributor to BN.com’s Explorations and Unabashedly Bookish blogs.