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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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Fall Book Love: Ghosts and Bones

Chilly weather makes it the perfect time to curl up with a good book. Here are three recent reads I’ve loved. Hopefully you’ll love them, too. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)

Ghost TalkersMy first exposure to Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal was hearing her read an excerpt at World Fantasy, back when it was still a work in progress. I was immediately hooked and wanted more. The core concept of the book was just so cool: a group of mediums works with the British Army during WWI, collecting and relaying intelligence from soldiers killed in battle. Kowal takes the story far beyond a cool concept, however. There is an immediate sense of the emotional and physical toll communicating with the dead takes on the mediums, not to mention the horrors of war itself. Kowal doesn’t shy away from the violence, and she immediately makes the impact of war personal. Her protagonist, Ginger Stuyvesant, is one of the few Americans involved in the war before America’s official entry into the conflict. Her fiancee, Ben Harford, is killed early on, remaining with Ginger as a ghost, determined to uncover the traitor in the British ranks before he can move on. Kowal shows us Ginger and Ben’s loving and playful relationship, and almost immediately pulls the rug out from under the reader’s feet by killing Ben. Having him return as a ghost never feels like a cheat. Loss is threaded through his ongoing presence; the longer he remains on the mortal plane, the more he forgets of himself, bits of his personality drifting away, burning up more quickly when manifests himself as a poltergeist to protect those around him. Kowal makes the reader care for every one of her characters – Helen, the medium working with Ginger who comes up with the method of binding soldiers so they’ll report in as ghosts, Lady Penfold, Ginger’s aunt and founder of the Spirit Corp program, Pvt. Merrow, Ben’s assistant, and the men and women of Ginger’s circle who help keep her grounded as she communicates with the dead. The novel is part war narrative, particularly focusing on the roles of women, frequently overlooked in the dominant cultural narrative of war. It’s also part murder mystery, love story, and ghost story. Kowal slips in bits of humor as well, with the banter between Ginger and Ben, as well as references to Doctor Who. It’s a wonderful novel, with elements to appeal to fans of historical fiction, speculative fiction, and romance.

CloudboundCloudbound is the follow-up to Fran Wilde’s brilliant and award-winning Updraft. It continues the story of the city of living bone, showing the fraying edges of that city in the wake of the Spire’s collapse and the removal of the Singers from power. While Kirit is still close to the heart of the story, in Cloudbound, events are told from the point of view of Nat, Kirit’s best friend. This is a brilliant choice on Wilde’s point, allowing her to show the city from a different angle – literally, from the new areas explored, and figuratively, filtered through Nat’s perspective. Since the Spire’s collapse, there’s been a struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the Singers removal from power. Nat is a newly-minted Counselor, struggling to do the best for the people he represents, and his family – his mother Elna, his partners Ceetcee and Beliak, and the child they’re expecting. Nat’s heart comes through in every decision he makes, as does his inexperience in the world of politics. The web around him is tangled enough that he cannot see through to the end of every thread, but that never stops him from trying, or from fighting for those he loves. His point of view is contrasted perfectly with Kirit, who has been hardened by her experiences in the Spire. She’s come out the other side quicker to judgement, to action, and more war-like. There’s tension between the characters, and tension in the world itself. The crumbling city is a clock ticking down in the background, a constant reminder of how wrong things have gone, and how much worse they can get. As in Updraft, the descriptions in Cloudbound are gorgeous, and the action sequences stunning – whether fighting, flying, falling, or simply exploring, the details are beautifully wrought and visceral. As fantastic as the world is, it feels real, as do the characters. The novel ends with another world-altering event for the characters, their lives once again upended as secrets are revealed, and the danger level ramped-up. I’m already looking forward to the next installment in the Bone Universe series, which is due out next year.

Hammers on BoneHammers on Bone is a novella from Cassandra Khaw, whose short fiction I greatly admire. John Persons is a private detective approached by a young boy who wants to hire him to kill his stepfather in order to protect his younger brother. From the start, it’s quite clear there is something strange about the boy, the stepfather, and Persons himself. There’s a ghost yammering in John Person’s head, likely the real John Persons, as the being calling itself John Persons now is anything but a person. Lovecraftian horror and Noir fiction seem made for each other, and Khaw blends them effortlessly here into a slick and stylish whole that drips with atmosphere. I’m a sucker for both the Lovecraftian and Noir genres, and this novella was everything I hoped it would be. I’m hesitant to say too much or give too much away, especially since at novella length, Hammers on Bone is a quick read. I recommend diving in and devouring it all in one delicious and darkness-tinged bite. If you’re a fan of the hard-bitten detective genre, or weird horror, this is absolutely the book for you. I’m delighted by the fact that Khaw has a second novella forthcoming from Tor, which sounds every bit as wonderful – a sentient, living city losing its mind. What more do you need to know? I’m eagerly awaiting the release of In the Living City.

And because there’s no such thing as too many books, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading this Fall? What have you loved? What do I need to add to my already precarious and teetering TBR pile?

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