Welcome, fellow scavengers! In each issue of Lammergeier, we sit down with one of our authors to pick over the bones of their work. For our first fiction interview, we discussed the blurred and blurring boundaries of literary fiction, Shakespeare, and the oft-overlooked hyoid with "Gallows Apple" author T.R. North!
Ethan Brightbill: Your work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications ranging from the prominent horror podcast Pseudopod to the University of South Florida’s Saw Palm. With that in mind, how do you approach the concept of literary fiction? What does it mean to you?
T.R. North: I don’t think there’s as much daylight between genre fiction and literary fiction as there used to be, which is probably in everyone’s best interests. I’ve personally always wanted something to happen in the stories I’m reading, and it’s a taste I’ve kept when it comes to the stories I’m writing, but I’ve never understood the old idea that action had to come at the expense of beauty or characterization.
We’ve all had moments when we’ve listened to a practiced musician hit the right notes at the right time, or watched a comedian deliver a polished routine, or seen an aesthetically beautiful piece of art, and realized that it lacked any sort of passion. It hit the right marks at the appropriate places, and it was technically proficient, but there was no life to it. Literary fiction is, to me, that life that’s missing from the carefully manicured lawn and the formally arranged garden. It’s the fire that’s supposed to animate the story, to breathe life into our monsters.
When I’m reading something, I want action, sure, but as much as that I want catharsis, I want triumph, I want heartbreak, I want to know that a character can bleed even if they don’t happen to this time around. I want rhythm, I want clever turns of phrase, I want a visceral sense of place or an airy, vast sense of dislocation or that alien intimacy of looking at life through someone else’s eyes. When I’m writing a piece, I try to bring as much of that to the table as suits the tale, and chart a path from beginning to end that lets a reader feel like it was all in the service of something.
EB: Your 2018 chapbook from Sword and Kettle Press, Of Witches and Wolves, also deals with sorcerous women. What about them captures your imagination? And how does that play out in “Gallows Apple?”
TRN: For me, sorcerous women are a natural window into ordinary life made extraordinary. So much of what has been traditionally considered women’s crafts or women’s trades are arts which are fundamental to life and prosperity and also borderline-miraculous. We don’t often think of how much effort or cunning it took to coax wool or hemp or silk into fabric or how wild it must have been when the mechanics of brewing and bread-making were first figured out, but the sense of it persists in the idea of women who can take raw materials and secret wisdom into their own hands and rewrite reality with them.
By design, Of Witches and Wolves features stories where optimism and hope are never far away and the characters are doing their best in strange and grim circumstances. Magic is generative, and there’s the promise of renewal. Even the narrator in “A Eulogy for the Wolf’s Husband” chooses to move forward with her life instead of wallowing in the bitterness of the past.
“Gallows Apple” is very much an outgrowth of that work, a story in which the widow’s efforts to restore what’s been lost turn back on themselves like a plant burrowing back into the soil, and ruin is simply waiting in the wings for a little while longer before making an entrance. Hope fails, here. Instead of renewal, the magic can only generate more rot, and the miracle the widow produces ends finally in tragedy.
EB: “Gallows Apple” is a language-driven story; the sentences fold in on themselves even as the plot does the same. What authors shaped the way you use words?
TRN: Lewis Carroll, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allen Poe were early, formative influences for this sort of jaunt into the unusual and voluptuous. Later on came Warren Ellis, with his fearless and absolute determination to cram every possible word into the slim and liminal spaces, and Daniel Mallory Ortberg, whose bracing, horrible honesty has a way of making you acknowledge truths you’d rather not and whose way with words can make you feel like your own mouth is full of marbles.
For “Gallows Apple” specifically, I turned to Shakespeare for inspiration. I’ve always loved the sort of merciless pace of his wordplay, the quick-footed turn from one meaning to another in the service of a joke or a criticism, the way the words’ meanings are belied by their speaker’s actions even as they’re delivered so artfully the audience wants to be deceived. His tragedies also have the same sense I wanted to capture here, the inevitability of disaster due not to divine intervention or inexorable fate but to the predictable actions of flawed human beings.
EB: Where do you want to go next with your writing? What themes, formats, or concepts do you hope to explore moving forward?
TRN: I’m very interested in exploring the nature of identity and the interplay between a person’s public personae and the selves they inhabit in more private spaces, and for my next piece, I want to bring that to an examination of the attention economy and social atomization. We have such a deep hunger to be seen, and to be understood, but so often when we come close to achieving it we flinch away from it because we realize that we’ll be seen and understood. We don’t trust ourselves to be able to withstand the scrutiny we at the same time crave. I feel it dovetails neatly with the effect of modern capitalism’s philosophy of constant expansion on the artistic drive, even in areas that have nominally resisted commercialization.
I’d also very much like to experiment with a more epistolary format in the near future. It’s not a convention I’ve worked in before, but my interest was ignited by a reminder that the first act of Dracula is related in the form of Jonathan Harker’s journal, which slowly takes on the character of letters to his loved ones as the danger grows and with it his fear that he’s writing a dying declaration which may or may not ever reach his loved ones.
The entries function as a narrative, of course, but underneath that is their impact as a diary, a confession, a plea for understanding, and an indictment of the forces aligned against him, all functioning in their own way to pull the reader into the story being built brick by brick to withstand the necessary transition away from that character’s strict point of view. It’s a magnificent bit of work, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of epistolary fiction as well as the limitations.
EB: Finally, a truly Lammergeier question: what’s your favorite bone?
TRN: The hyoid. If any bone could be an Emily Carroll story, it would be the hyoid. It just floats suspended like a bridge in the space of your throat, keeps your trachea from collapsing on you, and tells on your murderer during an autopsy. What’s not to love?