Brooke Bolander was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing. To get started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Brooke’s author bio…
Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. She attended the University of Leicester 2004-2007 studying History and Archaeology and is an alum of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Uncanny, Tor.com, and various other fine purveyors of the fantastic. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards, much to her unending bafflement. She can be reached at her website (brookebolander.com) or on Twitter @BBolander
Welcome and congratulations on the publication of The Only Harmless Great Thing! Without
giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of what it’s about?
The Only Harmless Great Thing is my weirdo prose-poem alternate history novella tribute to two really terrible, mostly forgotten bits of ephemeral American history: The 1903 public execution by electricity of Topsy, an abused circus elephant, and the deaths of the radium girls, factory workers employed in New Jersey and Illinois to paint watch dials with radium-laced dye. Nobody bothered telling them that the paint was toxic, and none of the girls suspected a thing until, one by one, they began to sicken and die of radiation poisoning. In the universe of the book, things work out a little differently for all involved. Bonds are struck and terrible choices are made—choices that will also have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future. It’s a book about anger, and injustice, and women, and friendship. It’s about stories–how they shape narratives and who gets to shape those narratives. It’s about coming together, solidarity in anger and in the fight.
Also: Wooly mammoth folk tales. I can never forget to mention the wooly mammoth folk tales. If you’ve been dying to read a wooly mammoth folk tale, boy have I got the book for you.
Since the book is rooted in events that actually occurred in the early 20th century, what kind of research did you do to inform your writing? What drew you in particular to that time period, or to the story of the radium girls and Edison’s experiments with electricity?
I’m a history student slash historical buff, so a lot of this was already rattling around in my head, looking for a way out.
The late 19th/early 20th century is such an odd period; industrialization rattling on at an ever-increasing clip, making the lives of many better while crushing the poor and the marginalized to feed the altars of Our Sainted Lady Progress. So many things we’ve come to rely on in modern life were invented then. So many of our problems now come from callous decisions made around that era, broken, unsustainable, exploitative systems cemented in on which our own personal Omelas teeters and sways. Want to understand why things in the States are splintering the way they are now? Trace the cracks and fissures back to the period after the Civil War and go from there. You can do that all the way back to the beginning–the systems this country built itself on were always, always rotted through–but recently I was watching a documentary on New York at the turn of the last century and it was remarkable how much you could pinpoint at that nexus leading to where we are currently. The same systems that gave us the freedom of the automobile belched pollution into the air, necessitated the creation of the assembly line, and tore highways through urban neighborhoods with a callous disregard that’s breathtaking. There’s very little we have now that didn’t come with a price. The rich and the powerful wrote the tunes we’d be dancing to on down the decades.
So I think about that a lot, especially recently for, y’know, reasons. The exploitation of the radium girls was just one case in a long, long line of horrible incidents around that time: The matchgirls who came down with fossy jaw in London, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, and the radium girls of New Jersey and Illinois. The first two were such public outrages they sparked protest and change; the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 was a reaction to the growing number of fossy jaw deaths, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 (the doors to the factory floors were locked from the outside to prevent union organizers from reaching workers; a fire broke out and 146 women, mostly young immigrant girls, burned to death) led to slightly improved factory safety standards and the organization of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. But until recently, the radium girls had been mostly forgotten. Their deaths sparked no grand revolt or reform. The lawsuits against their employers were stalled and put off long enough that most of the girls were dead before it was all settled. The best they could hope for was a payout for their families and the shutting down of the factories so that no more women would come to such an end. Nobody taught their story in schools; the only monument that stands to mark their passage was erected in Ottawa, Illinois after a schoolgirl learned what had happened and, horrified at her community’s silence over the matter, fought and pressured for a statue.
The past deserves telling. Even the nasty parts. Especially the nasty parts. If the stories aren’t told, they die, which is also a big theme in the book.
And Thomas Edison, as usual, has been credited with yet another accomplishment not his own, having precious little to do with Topsy’s death. She, like many a ‘performing’ elephant before and since, was so ill-treated she finally snapped and killed a man, at which point the Forepaugh Circus sold her to Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, owners of Coney Island’s Luna Park. Her handler there was an alcoholic. There were more incidents, some involving the police, none of them really her fault. Eventually Thompson and Dundy decided to get rid of her, and what better way to both take care of the problem and promote their soon-to-be-opened park than with a public execution?
The confusion arises from Edison’s penchant for frying animals during the War of the Currents and the fact that the film crew sent to record the event were from Edison Studios. Edison was a terrible guy who deserves everything bad smeared across his name, but the Current War had ended fifteen years earlier, and Edison Studios took no direction from the man himself on who or what they filmed. As far as anybody can tell, he never even knew Topsy existed. She, like the radium girls, was simply another victim of a brutal, uncaring system. Her death served no purpose, for good or ill.
Your short fiction has been multiply award nominated at this point. Do you remember the first nomination, how you found out about it, and what you did to celebrate?
That would have been the Nebula nomination for And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead in early 2016. SFWA calls you for that one, on the phone; I believe I was standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn when they rang, and for once I actually picked up. I’m pretty sure I said “thank you” a whole lot, got off the call, and went to go stare at a wall in a daze for the next half-hour. I was coming off a pretty rough winter, a bad time, and it just made everything extra surreal. I felt a little like Neil Patrick Harris in the final shot of Doctor Horrible.
But thankfully everything seemed to pick up from there, at least personally. Hearing that I’ve been nominated for something has never gotten any less weird, though. “You mean people LIKED that? … That much? Good lord, really?”
Completely switching gears for a moment… At the time this interview is being written, the background image of your twitter account is a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. How great is that movie? It’s sort of a perfect storm of things that shouldn’t work together, but they do, and can never be replicated. (I may be a touch obsessed.) What is you favorite thing about the movie? Favorite character? Seriously, how freakin’ great is it?!
Bless you a thousand years for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favourite movies if not my absolute favourite. It is great in so many ways I don’t even have space to go into them all here. It’s absolutely ridiculous that it’s so damned good, but I’ve been watching it since I was 7, and it just keeps getting better the older I get and the more I learn and learn to see. It’s a movie that never should have gotten made, a logistical nightmare both in the level of special effects needed and the constant wrangling to keep both Disney and Warner Bros and every other company with a character in the damned thing happy. And who the hell pitches a comedy/all-ages noir based on the same concept as an unmade Chinatown sequel with a Robert Moses figure as the villain, razing a marginalized community to the ground to build his precious freeway?
(True story, folks; it had the working title Cloverleaf and was going to go into the sordid land grabs that made the Los Angeles highway system possible. Considering how The Two Jakes came out, this was probably the best case scenario.)
My favourite thing about it is how deft and tight the storytelling is. It’s a movie that never bothers infodumping about this bizarre world it takes place within when a shot of a photograph on someone’s desk or a single line of dialogue will do. We learn about Eddie Valiant almost entirely from his interactions with others. From Dolores and Lt. Santino we get that he used to be a great guy and an A+ detective, but unresolved grief over his brother’s death has turned him into a reactive, alcoholic mess taking muckraking jobs just to pay rent. From a really beautiful, wordless montage panning over their desk, we learn that Eddie and Teddy started out with the LAPD before hanging up the shingle on their own with Dolores to become respected PIs. The camera deliberately scrolls backwards chronologically through Valiant’s past until it ends on a shot of Eddie, Teddy, and their dad together in the circus–a single frame explaining why Eddie and Teddy were so open to taking Toon cases in the first place, how bitter and damaged the loss of Teddy has left his now-humourless brother, and, finally, how Eddie knows all those cool clown moves he makes use of in the finale. How the hell do you tell that much in ONE FRAME?! Cinema has its own language, and that entire scene rings like ‘cellar door’ to me.
And of course, none of this would work without Bob Hoskins acting his entire ass off, taking everything almost as seriously as his role in The Long Good Friday (Eddie, as you may have already guessed, as my favourite character). The scene where he has to confront his unaddressed PTSD over Teddy’s death and go back through the tunnel to Toontown–again, almost wordlessly; this is a movie that knows when to keep quiet–lives or dies on Hoskins’ ability to emote, and boy does he bring it. The acting on display would be phenomenal in any film; here it’s absolutely jaw-dropping. Watch: He’s nakedly terrified. He breaks out in a sweat, probably remembering in vivid detail his last visit there. He goes to take a drink of bourbon for courage, but stops with the bottle halfway to his lips. Slowly, like a light has just gone on, he lowers it, considering the label like he’s never really seen a bottle of Wild Turkey before until this moment. No, you see him decide, finally, I’m goin’ in there clean. He pours the contents into the gutter. He’s still terrified, but something has changed. And it’s not even sudden, this epiphany! The entire movie has been building to it. Once he takes Roger under his wing, he never takes another drink. He’s tempted, but the bottle always stops halfway.
… Also it’s still a really fucking funny movie. And I have gone on way too long here about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, sorry. You did ask!
There’s no such thing as going on too long when talking about Roger Rabbit! However, topic hopping again, you studied History and Archeology at University. Has any of that background made it into your writing thus far, or do you think it might in the future?
I think it informs everything I do or write in some fashion or another. Being a student of history means you have that much more of an informational back catalogue to dig into when you need a subject to write about. So many interviewers have asked me how I learned about these things, and it’s very strange because an awful lot of the time they’re already sitting around in vials in my head, waiting for a moment to react with something. “BREAK GLASS TO RECEIVE STORY.” History is nothing but stories interlinked, after all.
Now that The Only Harmless Great Thing is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?
I’m currently working on a fantasy novel. I have always been working on this novel. Presumably I will be working on this novel until we go all the way back ’round the horn and start relaying stories solely as an oral tradition again, at which point the entire damn endeavour will be moot. Story of my life.
Besides that, though, I have an upcoming novelette at Tor.com about (what else) extinct animals and the end of the world. I swear up and down that my next piece will be about kittens on fluffy duvets and nobody will die or be angry, ever. Honest.
Thanks for stopping by!
Thanks for having me! And for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Because Who Framed Roger Rabbit, y’all. Forget about my book: Go re-watch it. Seriously.