From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Never Let Linguists Write Fantasy: Keffy R.M. Kehrli

Where did this story come from? What was your inspiration?

This story is based in a world setting I’ve been working on for years. I have novels planned in that world, and this story would be relatively ancient history by the time the first novel starts. I have a problem in that every time a historical figure or deity is mentioned in passing, I immediately want to put together a piece of fiction related to that character. I was thinking about the historical background of that world, and this story fell out.

I’m also interested in the power that narrative archetypes have over people. The archetype (or cliché, depending on who you ask) of the “chosen one” is very common in epic fantasy, and even though I have seen it done to death, I still think there’s something worth examining in that type of story. These narratives have such a hold over us, these cartoon versions of our reality. I want to explore that.

Okay, I’d like to talk about world-building a little bit. You’ve created quite the exotic setting in this story. What real-world cultures, if any, served as your inspiration? What steps did you take to keep the world-building consistent throughout the narrative?

This is a difficult question to answer.

In general, all of my world-building comes from paying attention when I hear about how people live. I try not to specifically think of any single culture when I build a setting because I tend to get annoyed when I read fiction in which culture X is obviously the English or culture Y is obviously meant to be the Japanese. I try to spend less time with culture-specific details and more time with the broader implications and power dynamics of the different conflicts between them. No culture exists in a vacuum, so if I build a fantasy culture, I also spend time thinking about what contact exists with the others in the world.

One of the more evocative aspects of your narration was the character and place names themselves. How did you go about naming your characters and settings?

I usually start with a basic phonological basis for the language, and then decide if I want the name to be another form of a name I’ve already created for another culture in this world. Sometimes I just think, “Well, I want this language to sound a bit like X real language.” Other times, I make a list of common and uncommon sounds or syllables and build names out of those.

Descriptive names are fun and sometimes I end up deciding things about the grammar of that particular language by what happens in the name. In Berai, for instance, if somebody is doing something to themselves, that’s shown through reduplication of the verb.

When I start naming things, I often get too deep in imaginary-language-land. Not only do I have to worry about whether or not the names mean something in languages I don’t speak, but I often get so deep that I don’t realize that the name is an English word pronounced differently until it’s pointed out to me.

Never let linguists write fantasy.

For me, as a parent, the emotional heft of the story came from the image of a mother who no longer knows her son, who may never have really known him at all. Where did this theme come from?

Parents are often treated in fantasy literature as being too inconvenient, which is why we have so many stories about magical orphans. . .

I think that all parents have an idea of who their children are, and I think that this idea is not always entirely accurate, for various reasons. I’m transgender, so it’s easy to say that I’ve never quite felt like the person my parents thought they were raising. I wanted to think about the other side of things for a while, and to be honest, it is easier for me to do that through fiction.

So, what’s next for Keffy R. M. Kehrli? Do you have any upcoming publications we can look forward to you would like to mention here?

I have three short pieces due to come out by the end of the year. “Shoes Worn Once” will be appearing in Electric Velocipede #21, which should be out in August. “The Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived” will probably be in either the October or December issue of Intergalactic Medicine Show. I also recently got an acceptance for “A Well-Embroidered Heart,” which will be in the Beauty Has Her Way anthology.

T.J. McIntyre has seen his short fiction and poetry published in numerous publications including recent appearances in Everyday Weirdness, Ruthless Peoples Magazine, and Scifaikuest. He is a member of various writing organizations, including the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), and serves as a moderator for the Lobo Luna and Western Writers writing communities on LiveJournal. Until earlier this year, he published Southern Fried Weirdness, an anthology and web zine celebrating speculative fiction and poetry with a Southern perspective. He lives in a busy household in the muggy heart of rural Alabama with his wife, two young sons, an aging Doberman mix, five tiger barbs, and three salt-and-pepper catfish.