Claire Humphrey writes novels and short stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons and subTerrain. She works in the book trade as a buyer for Indigo Books, and she volunteers as a slush reader atIdeomancer. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise.
First, could you tell us a little about your story, “The Tongue of Bees?”
I have a file of notes for future stories; I’ve been keeping it since I was a kid. This story was based on the very first such note: about twenty years ago, a friend of the family told me he’d eaten deadly nightshade, and I asked him what it was like, and wrote down the answer on a bit of envelope.
I attended Viable Paradise last year, and one of the workshop assignments was a dark fantasy story with an American setting, and I realized it was finally time for the nightshade. Then I just had to figure out who ate it, and why.
In “The Tongue of Bees” Raymond finds inspiration in Baudelaire and Poe and wants to fly to the exclusion of study or riding. What books inspired you when you were Raymond’s age?
Unlike Raymond, I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted; as a young teen I was into Jack Kerouac, Jim Carroll, Susan Musgrave and William Burroughs. I had a sense they were teaching me things I was still too young to learn, things that would make more sense to me later. (I was right.)
Did you always want to write? When did you start?
I’ve always written. Before I could make words for myself, I would dictate stories to my mother. As a child I wrote fantasy; my first novel, finished when I was thirteen or fourteen, was a hilariously awful quest novel featuring characters who fainted all the time. Since then, I’ve experimented with different forms and genres, but I still seem to find excuses for my characters to lose consciousness more often than is statistically likely. I’m working on that.
Raymond lives in upstate New York with his mother and siblings. He feels that the soil of New York is dull but the air magical. What elements of New York inspired you to set “The Tongue of Bees” there? Are you yourself drawn to visit or write specific places or environments?
A friend of my father’s lived near Ithaca; he was an artist and seemed to me to enjoy a sophisticated and hedonistic life, with excellent food and wine and a sprawling library. When we visited him, I was about Raymond’s age, and I remember feeling that sense I mentioned before, that I was just getting a glimpse of a life I was too young to fully understand. I haven’t visited that part of New York as an adult, so it still holds that particular emotional resonance.
I like to use places where memorable things have happened to me. Other recent stories have been set in Chicago, a veterinary clinic in Toronto, and a house I rented in university (although the house is disguised as a duelling school). Sensory detail is important to me, so I tend to favour places I can easily revisit or remember clearly.
To follow up on that question, did you always envision the events of “The Tongue of Bees” in a late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century setting? Dr. Radcliff, the local physician, perceives Raymond and his mother as weak and recommends a strong masculine presence, but Raymond and Mummy are the ones who are receptive to witchcraft and who get to fly. The Ithaca-based bookseller introduces yet another type, a meld of the independent man, the occult-oriented enthusiast, and urban merchant. Which characters developed first in your creative process? Was it difficult to navigate turn of the century ideals of masculinity and femininity?
I tend to feel my way through stories without much advance planning, so Raymond was the first character I thought about. His unhappiness with the gender paradigm of his time is something that most of my protagonists have to deal with, one way or another, because I can’t escape it myself. I like to use other time periods as a way to interrogate the present; I don’t believe we’ve actually come as far as we’d like to think.
The adults in Raymond’s life are all people who have had to compromise between their identities and their culture, and each of them takes revenge for this compromise by attempting to exercise power over Raymond. I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to the time period of the story, but the period was an easier choice for me because I’ve studied some of its gender discourse.
When Raymond is blocked from entering houses during his flight, he fears he will not be able to return home. Do you think his mother would also be unsettled by the inability to enter other homes?
On the contrary–she’d delight in watching her neighbours secretly from outside, and she wouldn’t even be very concerned by losing access to her family if it meant gaining freedom and a wider sphere. She craves power where Raymond wants understanding and connection.
Raymond and his mother seek special abilities to share between them. If possible, which ability would you like to have: speaking with bees, communing with plant life, flying, or something entirely different?
Bees, please! I have a fascination with bees and wasps… I’ve been stung a lot (seventy times or thereabouts) and I’d really like to be able to ask them to forbear, next time.
Ms. Humphrey, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and for your story “The Tongue of Bees.” Before we conclude, could you tell us what is next for you?
I’m working on a novel about a witch and a former Cossack. In shorter fiction, I’m writing a series about a woman who craves violence (the first one will be in Strange Horizons this winter) and another series about a crippled magician and his protégés. They’re all about people struggling with gender and power. I don’t know if I’ll ever be done exploring those things.