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An Interview with Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, River of Teeth, which is forthcoming from Tor. As always, I’ll start things off making introductions by shamelessly stealing from Sarah’s author bio…

Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native and an unabashed bibliophile, living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. She enjoys painting, baking, vulgar embroidery, and writing stories about murder and monsters. Her fiction been published internationally; her most recent credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, the Colored Lens, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable, Tor.com, and the Boston Globe. You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com. She tweets about dogs and makes dad jokes @gaileyfrey.

Congratulations on the publication of your novella! Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about River of Teeth?

River of TeethRiver of Teeth is a the first book in a duology about hippos and the cowboys who love them. In River of Teeth, a team of hoppers (that’s the cowboys who ride hippos, if you weren’t aware) are hired by the federal government to rid the Mississippi River of an infestation of feral hippos. They’re up against a cold-blooded riverboat kingpin and a brace of bloodthirsty ferals who have developed a taste for human flesh.

Without giving away the plot, I can tell you about The Crew! Winslow Remington Houndstooth, The Brains, is a handsome Brit with a thirst for vengeance and an eye for lovely things (“things” ranging from clothes to knives to, ahem. Romantic conquests). Regina “Archie” Archambault, The Con, is a fat frenchwoman who is more than prepared to seduce your wallet right out of your pocket. Adelia Reyes, The Assassin, is a cool and collected woman who knows a thousand ways to kill a man and would like very much to use all of them on the next person who gets into her personal space. Hero Shackleby, The Tech, has come out of retirement for one last job, and they’re hoping that their explosives expertise and poisoning skills will make this gig run smoothly enough to sail them right back into retirement. Bringing up the rear is Calhoun Hotchkiss, the river rat — he knows the Mississippi like the back of his hand, but frankly, he’s in over his head.

I adore the idea of feral hippos in the Louisiana bayou, and the people who wrangle them – I have to ask, where did the seed of this fantastic concept originate?

This is a real thing that almost happened! In the early 1900’s, our country was going through a “meat crisis” — there wasn’t enough meat to feed our growing population. A guy named Robert Broussard proposed that we import hippos for meat: they’d eat the invasive water hyacinth that was choking off the Mississippi, we’d eat the hippos, everybody wins. (Well. Except the hippos. They don’t win). I knew that I wanted to write an ensemble cast — a heist-ish narrative — and the hippo plan was a perfect fit!

Given that this is alternate history, how much research did you have to do to make the world feel accurate? Is there anything you included that actually did happen that people are bound to think you made up? Are there any fun facts, historical or otherwise, that you learned but just couldn’t fit into the book?

I cheated a little bit with River of Teeth by pushing the whole narrative back by 50 years. I wanted to have cowboys riding my hippos, and I figured that if readers could deal with hippos in the waterways of the Mississippi, they could also handle cowboys.

That said, one of my favorite parts of writing River of Teeth was the research. I had to do a good amount of looking into types of knives and explosives that would have been used at that time. I think that readers will be skeptical of the explosives that are used in the book, but I can tell them with absolute certainty that they were around in the 1890’s!

I’d like to talk about Archie for a bit. She’s fat, and you were quite firm that she be shown as such, and not slimmed down or thin-washed for publication. Could you talk a bit about her, and why fat representation is important to you?

I will warn readers now: Archie is the best. Everyone who has read this book has got a crush on her, and you will too.

First, let me say: I have been so pleased with the amount of pushback I got from Tor.com on having a fat character in my book and on the book’s cover. That amount of pushback was absolutely zero. That said, going into conversations around publication, I was very explicit about having her on the cover as a fat woman.

My attitude toward Archie’s representation stems from the same place as my attitude toward the rest of the cast, which is diverse along several intersections. A lot of people who I know and love (and, obviously, a lot more people who I don’t know) have spoken publicly and privately about the pain and frustration that they feel when they see themselves misrepresented or unrepresented in stories and media. My friends who are fat frequently see themselves represented in harmful ways — or, they see themselves erased altogether. When I think of them reading my book, I don’t want them to read something that hurts them or makes them feel unseen. So, the answer to “why is X representation important to me” is really… I don’t want to harm people. While I’m not the right person to tell a story about what it’s like to be fat (or to experience any other oppression that’s not personally mine), I can put a fat character in my book, and I can sure as hell put in the time and effort to make sure her story isn’t a hurtful one.

Shifting gears a bit, I’d like to ask about your wonderful Women of Harry Potter series at Tor.com. Obviously you’re a fan, but how did the essay series come about? How do you feel about the movie depictions of your favorite female characters versus the way they’re written in the books? Are there nuances you feel my have been lost from page to screen, and conversely, were there any places you felt the movies improved upon the written work?

Oh man, that series was so much fun! I went in knowing that I wanted to write about women for Tor.com, and they specifically focus on SFF. I wrote the Hermione essay right after my Defense of Villainesses, and it felt so right to explore this character who I think often gets short shrift in the narrative of the book. I asked my editor how she would feel about me exploring some of the other women in the series, and she was totally on board. As I wrote the series, I started to understand some of what I think J.K. Rowling was trying to do with the female characters that she wrote. Many of them are fierce, courageous, and principled, and they have an enormous impact on the story. They fight for what’s right, and they fight against tyranny, and I think the movie depictions lose a lot, partly due to ~*Hollywood*~ and partly due to time constraints. For instance, I think that we lose out on Hermione’s awkward adolescence in the movies (largely because Emma Watson is just unrelentingly beautiful). Rowling makes a point of telling the reader over and over again that Hermione is not pretty, and furthermore, that she’s sometimes really bothered by that. I loved reading that, because so often we either get an ugly girl who is obsessed with becoming beautiful, or who doesn’t care about or notice her looks at all. Hermione, on the other hand, was written as a pretty well-fleshed-out adolescent girl who is unsatisfied with how she looks and occasionally makes attempts to change how she looks, but who isn’t constantly focused on her appearance.

Conversely, I think the movies did a much better job with Umbridge than the books did. Rowling has a lot of problematic narratives, and the fatphobic lens through which she wrote Umbridge is one of them. I think the films handled her characterization better than the books did, by making her evil unconnected to any physical characteristic, and by eliding the focus that Rowling placed on her body composition as a sign of her villainy.

Now that River of Teeth is out in the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything in particular you want folks to know about that you have upcoming or that you’re working on?

Right now I’m working on the sequel to River of Teeth, which is called Taste of Marrow. I can’t tell you much about it without spoiling the first book, but I can tell you this: there’s a kidnapping, some blood, a lot of fighting, several great outfits, and a lot of kissing. You won’t want to miss it.
Other stuff I’m working on: an unrelated novel which is not about hippos at all. Also, keep an eye on Tor.com for my upcoming essay series on iconic costumes of SFF!

Both of those sound fantastic. I can’t wait to read them. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

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