From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Siobhan Carroll, Author of The Black-Iron Drum

Siobhan Carroll grew up in Canada and (briefly) Saudi Arabia, where she developed a taste for international travel that will no doubt serve her well in her villainous quest for world domination. When not trekking through exotic lands or building armies of superbots she is hard at work writing her dissertation at Indiana University. In her nonexistent free time she dances, sketches, and consumes more media than is good for her. Her fiction has been published in magazines like Realms of Fantasy, On Spec, and Son & Foe, but so far this has not appeased her desire to conquer the multiverse.


Tell me a little about The Black-Iron Drum. What was the first image or phrase or impetus that made you sit down and spin it out?

This story owes a clear debt to trauma theory and to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I taught when assisting Susan Gubar in her “Writing Disasters” course. While playing around with different metaphors for trauma, I thought of the first line of this story, and the rest seemed to follow naturally. Managing the central metaphor of this tale was a challenge: I wanted to experiment with the fantasy genre’s capacity for realizing metaphor without being too obscure or too obvious, and it’s very easy to tip over into one or the other when you’re working with a literary conceit.

The vampire plotline came out of some research I’d been doing on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I was reading about Stoker’s source material when I came across a line that said (and I paraphrase) that anyone who was born out of wedlock needs to be buried at the crossroads, because he or she is doomed to be one of the restless dead. I was struck both by this superstition’s dim view of illegitimacy — sorry kid, but because your parents were unmarried you’re going to turn into a bloodsucking monster — and by the phrase “the restless dead” — as though all corpses have the potential to get up and shamble around, and it’s just that some have more get-up-and-go than others.

As I was working on the “heartless” story, as I was calling it then, the vampire plot seemed to work in naturally. Like ghosts, vampires represent a past that will not stay buried, but unlike ghosts who (usually) can only scare you or pass messages from beyond, vampires have an inherently destructive effect on the living. They’re parasitic; they drain the life out of people, preventing them from living happy, normal lives. And my central image in this story was of a woman who, in the process of surviving a great trauma, had turned into something terrible. It seemed right that these two images of the ongoing effects of trauma should meet, and that my protagonist would take her first steps towards resolving her past by laying a vampire to rest. My writing group (hello Scatters!) urged me to not make my ending too depressing; my tendency in first drafts is to make my characters’ lives as miserable as possible, so I owe the (somewhat) happy ending to the feedback I received. Given my subject, though, I didn’t want to make the ending imply that trauma is easy to overcome, or that people who suffer truly horrible experiences will just “get over it” one day. When your life has been shaped by trauma, it’s always going to be part of you. But how it affects you and how you deal with those effects varies with time and with the individual in question.

For the psychologically ignorant, what’s trauma theory, and how does it relate to the story?

It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that doctors realized that accident victims could continue to suffer the physical effects of an accident even when they bore no visible scars. The word “trauma” was coined in to describe the invisible aftereffects of a terrible event. In the 20th century, doctors reluctantly came to accept that trauma could also be manifested psychologically: a WWI veteran might be physically unharmed but have shellshock, for example. Psychologists developed trauma theory in an attempt to catalogue, explain, and treat the symptoms of psychic trauma. Basically, survivors of horrible events tend to display very similar symptoms — flashbacks, a sense of emotional detachment, guilt for surviving when others didn’t, etc. Literary theorists who refer to trauma theory are usually referring to how the construction of a novel — its use of fragmented sentences, narrative gaps and repetition — tries to replicate for its reader the ongoing experience of trauma.

My story is nowhere near that fancy. I was trying to talk about trauma in a purely metaphorical sense: here’s this person who, in order to live through a horrific event, refused to let herself feel anything. She survived, but she is no longer the person she used to be. She doesn’t know how to change back.

What are your creative hobbies — other than writing?

Art and dance — though I don’t pretend to be particular good at either.

What are you writing at the moment?

I’m working on a couple of short stories, one which is set in the same world as “The White Isle” (my story in the Dec 2007 issue of Realms of Fantasy) and one about a navigator of the Great Desert. My priority has to be my dissertation, though, and on that front I’m researching and writing about 19th century cave exploration.

Ever written or have plans to write fiction about 19th century cave explorers? That seems like a natural setting for fantastic happenings.

It is! Sadly, one of the side effects of writing a dissertation is that when I have free time I don’t want to have anything to do with it. So the fantasy cave exploration story will come along one day, but not until the dissertation beast is dead.

What is your favorite historical era?

The 18th and 19th centuries, with the caveat that I wouldn’t particularly like to be a woman or lower class in those time periods. They’re fun to research and read about, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

If not yourself, who would you be?

Er. Possibly some combination of Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Bennett and Ripley living in a fabulous mansion in the disease-free tropics. And I’d have cable. With a channel dedicated to new episodes of Project Runway. And The Office.

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