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An Interview with Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, A Song for Quiet. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Cassandra’s author bio…

Cassandra Khaw is a London-based writer with roots buried deep in Southeast Asia where there are sometimes more ghosts than people. Her work tends to revolve around intersectional cultures, mythological mash-ups, and bizarre urban architecture. When not embroiled in fiction, she writes about technology and video games for a variety of places including Eurogamer and Ars Technica UK.

Welcome, Cassandra, and congratulations on the publication of A Song for Quiet! As I understand it, this novella brings back John Persons, but is not a direct sequel to Hammers on Bone. Without giving too much away, can you give readers a taste of what to expect in A Song for Quiet?

A Song for QuietSouthern Gothic Lovecraftian with a heavy note of the blues.

Man, I wish I thought of that logline before this. Um. Anyway. A taste of what to expect? If you’re coming straight from the epilogue of Hammers on Bone, I’d say: expect the unexpected. In that A Song for Quiet is a drastically different book from its predecessor. Hammers on Bone laid on the neo-noir thick; it growled, it grumbled, and it smelled of neon-lit rain and cigarettes.

A Song for Quiet, on the other hand, is a hush. It’s a quiet book written to the meter of some old blues classics. It’s a book on grief, a book about helplessness, a book about finding hope in dark places. It isn’t a book about the people history remember, but a book about the heroes that time forgets. More than anything else, A Song for Quiet is a book of my grief and if you’ve wondered why it was like to hear someone’s heart breaking in half, this book’s for you.

I love the cover art for both of your Tor novellas. Did you have any input in the process, or did they come as a complete surprise?

They come as a complete surprise! Well. Sort of. Jeffrey Alan Love, who I’d just been a fanatical fan of, is basically the artist associated with the series. So long as Tor.com keeps publishing the Persons non Grata series, he’d be cover artist. (At least until whatever arrangement they’ve got going change. I don’t know how it works.) In that sense, the cover for A Song For Quiet wasn’t a surprise. I knew it’d be Jeffrey. I just didn’t know what would be going down.

That said, it’s Tor. I’d trust them with any of my covers any year. Like, wow.

Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet mash-up the genres of noir and Lovecraftian fiction. You’ve also drawn on Lovecraftian fiction in your short stories, specifically An Ocean of Eyes, which I loved. What appeals to you about playing in those worlds, or in the broader genre of dark fiction and horror generally? Is there an sense of subverting or reclaiming spaces and tropes that have historically been male-dominated, and in some cases outright misogynistic and racist?

I keep hearing this question and I keep revising my answers. There are layers to it. Like, to begin with, Lovecraft felt utterly impenetrable the first time I read his work as a teen. English’s my third language and the lexicon of words he used, the structure of his prose. It felt … inscrutable. Alien.

Of course, that meant I just wanted to beat my head against the challenge until it all made sense. So, that’s one reason for my fascination with Lovecraft. One of the other reasons, curiously, is a sense of empathy. More than anything else, Lovecraft felt absolutely terrified of everything. The world, the people who inhabited the world, the nature of his own skin, the flesh, the grim inevitability of the void. Every time I think about him, he always seems so scared. Not cowardly, per se. But just so very aware of how terrible the world is.

And I get that. I look up into the sky and there are days, especially now, when I see nothing but the hungry void. I read the news and it’s nothing but stories of powerful, inhuman creatures tearing apart the world. It scares me too.

But where Lovecraft was resigned to accepting his world of monsters, of seeing everything foreign as terrifying, I’m, like a lot of people who are messing around in the toolbox, not. I wouldn’t call myself optimistic, however.I think the world is a terrible place. But I think it is one that needs people reminding children that they can fight their monsters, that incremental improvements are worth fighting for, that the future’s worth a legacy of pain. That the moment that you give up, that’s the moment that the monsters win.

Every second before that, though? You’re still fighting to bring a light into the dark.
… I have no idea if that answered the question. I hope it did.

Now that you have a few novellas under your belt, do you have any interest in moving to novel length work? How does your writing process differ tackling longer versus shorter fiction?

Yes. I’d just submitted A Language of Doors, which is a sequel to my story in Shimmer, ‘In the Rustle of Pages.’ I think that’s my last novella for a good long while; my post-apocalyptic fairy tale mermaid novel is next. My writing process? It feels almost entirely the same, to be honest. I’m a pantser in the sense that outlines mostly just confuse me. My work tends towards being atmospheric because the process of writing them inevitably feels like a sustained delirium. I’m chasing snatches of dream towards its ending. With longer work, these waking nightmares just last longer.

With your non-fiction writing, do you ever get sent cool pieces of technology or get previews of video games to review? Does your non-fiction writing ever inform your fiction writing in any way, or do they live in two totally separate compartments of your brain?

I got a PS Vita as part of a job once. And I’ve been sent a Kindle Fire. I’ve lost track of the number of games I’ve received ahead of the release date. Won’t lie. It’s swell. My non-fiction brain has absolutely influenced my fiction writing and in the worst possible way! It took me almost a year to stop trying to abbreviate everything in a way that would be acceptable to my media training. (My fiction brain has done some beautiful things to my non-fiction brain, however My non-fiction now emerge as sumptuous, shameless things full of defiant word-beauty.)

Completely switching gears for a bit, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I spent a week selling fish in a supermarket. It didn’t inspire any stories. But I was nineteen and my mother had gotten confused in regards to what an internship meant. We’d expected me to be plunked down in someone’s office, settled in behind a desk. Instead, I ended up spending a week in a supermarket, loudly encouraging housewives to check out our imported meats. My life’s been weird.

Now that A Song for Quiet is out in the world, what’s next for you?

I’m head down in my day job, which is the COOLEST DAMN THING BUT I CANNOT TELL ANYONE WHAT IT IS YET. AGH. And I’m pecking away at my mermaid novel because I promised my agent I would and it’s been forever.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for having me!

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