H.P. Lovecraft. BAM.
If you’ve read any of his stuff you know what I mean by alien horror. Not as in Ridley Scott, but as in so utterly alien and impossible that to even scarcely glimpse it is to go insane.
Lovecraft’s contribution to the world of horror and science fiction is irrepressible. So when I tell you that my short story “Black Leaves” is in the latest Anthology put out by Innsmouth Free Press, a Canadian micro-publisher of dark fiction and horror with an affinity for H.P. Lovecraft-inspired works, I know you’ll be so excited that you’ll go out and buy twenty copies. One for each finger and toe!
Not to mention high-caliber. Editors Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles have a sharp eye for discovering unique and compelling voices. (And I’m not just saying that because they published my little story!)
In fact, I discovered the up-and-coming author Mae Empson whose story “An Interrupted Sacrifice” was inspired by her study of the Moche civilization which flourished in Peru during the first millennium. They apparently had a demon sea-god with tentacles for a face… Can you say Cthulhu fhtagn?
Seattle-based author Mae Empson is a relative newcomer as a published writer, but her work belies a deep and fierce commitment to her craft. I have the pleasure of asking Mae some questions about her short story and about the craft of writing.
First of all, satisfy my burning curiosity. Is it raining right now in Seattle?
Yes, it is currently raining in Seattle. (Laughs)
Your story “An Interrupted Sacrifice” takes place in the coastal deserts of pre-Columbian Peru—a decidedly un-Seattle-like setting.
I think living in Seattle is a useful background for writing about a culture that is very dependent on the weather, and praying for rain. Our winters are very dark and wet. Our summers are brief and glorious, and there is an element of sun worship--praying for the endless rain to break--only possible in an environment where the sun shines so infrequently and the summer days are as long as the winter days are short.
The Moche had the opposite problem: drought, which features in the story. They lived in a coastal desert, bordered on one side by mountains, and on the other by a hostile sea that occasionally flooded them. These threats usually followed predictable cycles, but then in the 6th century they experienced a massive drought that exceeded all previous memory. In the historical record, it is one of the forces that led to the collapse of their civilization.
Is it safe to say that a sacrifice is interrupted at some point in the story? (Said in my best dead-pan)
From the title, everyone ought know that a sacrifice is going to be important to the story, and that it will be interrupted. The first line builds the expectation that it’s the sacrifice of the protagonist’s lover, and that she (the protagonist) is going to be the interrupting force.
There is also the alluded-to ill-fated sacrifice that the protagonist’s mother was involved in which is a sort of parallel for the situation your protagonist faces when the story opens.
I like cycles and echoes in stories, and skewing expectations. And I wanted the title “An Interrupted Sacrifice” to have different meanings.
Your first line really struck me because it firmly sets up the conflict and deftly tells us the core premise: the protagonist is to sacrifice her lover.
I wanted the reader to “meet” the triumvirate of gods quickly—sea, land, and sky, since that structure describes the relationship of both the gods themselves, and of their three associated high priests/priestesses. I also wanted the reader to recognize immediately that this is a historical story about a culture that is extremely devout, and to feel the alien-ness of that mindset, and how that changes the stakes of this primary conflict. Given the demand to sacrifice her lover, her conflict isn’t whether to do it. She never considers that. He (her lover) never considers it. The question is: how to do the sacrifice in a way that does not anger the gods, and that allows her to preserve a desperate hope of seeing him again in a post-sacrificial form.
It’s a well-honed and meaningful first line. Did you write and rewrite that? Or was it one of those first draft surprises?
Personally, I find getting the right opening to a story to be one of the hardest parts of short story construction. For this particular story, I benefited from a long plane flight where I didn’t have access to my computer, so I kept outlining and world building rather than jumping into drafting since those are tasks I enjoy doing on paper. By the time I stated writing the story itself (on the second leg of the flight), I had a clear vision of the plot and the opening conflict. That definitely helped me to start at the right place, and to articulate the conflict that is driving her initial action clearly. The only difference between the first version and the final, for that first sentence, is that I often do my first draft in first person present tense, and then convert to third person past tense during editing.
That is by far one of the most unique writing habits (or methods) that I’ve heard of. Was that a conscious technique, writing in 1st person to then change to 3rd person? Or did that come about by necessity, as editors seem to favor 3rd person narratives?
A little bit of both. I think writing in first person helps me stay very close to the narrator's point of view, and writing in present tense builds tension for me because it feels like each choice can still make a difference in the outcome of the story. It's also a very fast way for me to write, to get the draft written so that I can begin editing in earnest. It's probably more of a habit than a conscious choice. I got in the habit of starting in 1st person and moving to 3rd person since editors tend to prefer it. Then, I was so excited to sell some of the stories that I repeated some of the happenstance techniques (like starting in 1st person) as something of a good luck charm.
“An Interrupted Sacrifice” is full to bursting with fascinating cultural references. You obviously researched the Moche people and pre-Columbian South American cultures.
I love researching historical cultures and their beliefs. The Moche are particularly interesting because they had no written language. Everything we know about their beliefs is an inference from their art. That’s a very powerful opportunity for a writer, since I can research the same facts and artifacts used by academic historical researchers, and then offer my own explanation for the beliefs that might lead a culture to the practices and pantheon known through their art.
Excellent point. Writers’ imagination flourishes between the cracks and in the gaps of hard facts. I’m interested to know a little about your research habits and how your research affects your story.
The way I research is primarily through the internet. I start with broad resources, and then dig in on details. I try to get to pictures – primary sources, so I’m not having to work from someone else’s description. I build a file of facts and pictures. My file for the Moche is over one hundred pages long. At this point, I’m just trying to learn, and follow interesting trails. I’m not sure which pieces are going to be important to any given story yet, but I’m looking for world texture and for curious things that could be brought to light in a story.
While in the research mode, I ran across the notion that their gods may have been organized around the sea, land, and sky, and that there may have been priests aligned with each. This may simply reflect the desire of researchers to sort through the references in the art – crabs and fish and tentacles, bats and birds, and spiders. Many of the historical researchers note that the god with the “cat-face” and ring of tentacles is a sea god, though few have referenced the cat-face specifically as a sea lion face, but that seemed logical to me. And naturally I invented the name “Octopus Lion God”, but the images of him are exactly as described.
A tentacled sea god? How Lovecraftian. It begs the question: since there is no written record and all we have are educated (or uneducated) guesses, what elements of your story are based on historical record vs. imagination?
We know that the bird priestess had a ritual that involved taking a woven reed boat to an island, with what may be sacrificial victims and vessels on the boat with her. We know that the mountain/spider god and his associated priests played a key role in the blood sacrifices, and the drinking of blood. I invented the detail that each god received a piece of the body, with the eyes for the sky, and the skin for the sea. Their art includes the demon-fish (fish bodies and the feet of a man), but this might have been repetitive depictions of another god. It is my invention that the demon-fish are the servants of Octopus Lion God.
In researching the blood sacrifices and decapitations, I saw the evolution of historical research about the Moche, where researchers initially thought the images were purely fiction, then found archaeological evidence that the sacrifices were performed (in the bones of the victims and the teeth of the blood drinking priests) and an assumption followed that it was a violent war practice. Then ultimately, there was a recognition, from other clues in the art and archaeology, that it was a highly ritualized practice with losers in symbolic ritual games going passively to the sacrifice. I wanted to reflect that last understanding – highly ritualized sacrifice of willing victims. It certainly lends itself to a Lovecraftian story!
Indeed! But even though we focus on their horrifying practices (to our Western eyes), obviously the Moche culture wasn’t all blood and Cthulhu-worship.
One of the interesting things about the Moche is that their crafts are extremely advanced relative to other markers of “primitive” culture. Their vessel painting is individual and realistic – every face is unique, with the full range of human facial expression. Their metalwork was ornate and more technologically advanced than other early civilizations. They crafted intricate body ornaments and masks from gold, silver, and copper. They inlaid their metalwork with turquoise and lapis lazuli.
You mentioned that they were a highly ritualized a culture; which of the rituals portrayed in “An Interrupted Sacrifice” are conjecture, and which are true?
The notion that intercourse for procreation only occurs in a particular ritual context is supported by the record of their art. This ritual art does include images of some kind of sky blessing, where bats carry vessels from the sky and pour them over the participants. I don’t know if this is symbolic of rain or something else.
We also know that their ritual sacrificial practices included dropping victims from heights. It’s my own invention that whether the skin is broken in that fall has a ritual meaning.
The story is written from the point of view of a young Moche priestess whose world is fairly removed from that of 21st Century readers.
And not from the perspective of a cultural outsider (the educated researcher) trying to make sense of something alien and horrifying.
Which is the usual device of Lovecraft.
Right. I wanted to tell the story from inside the cult, from a narrator who doesn’t find her beliefs and practices and gods to be horrifying.
A huge challenge in this story was to convey to the reader the exposition about how their society functions, its rules, etc., in a way that made sense. The narrator is a part of their world. She doesn’t wake up in the morning and think about their beliefs and rules except as they matter to her day-to-day action. It’s like writing about an alien society from the perspective of an alien. I had to be very conscious about what it would make sense for her to reflect on, or remember, that would provide key detail to the reader sufficient to make the world and the plot accessible. Being able to reference her mother’s experience was a logical thing for her to think about that allowed me to convey some key information about how their society works.
You have mentioned to me that myth (particularly the nexus between myth and history) is an integral part of your writing.
The ideal short story, for me, weaves in history and myth while telling a moving story about real characters who feel three-dimensional. Folks that do this exceptionally well include Charles de Lint and Catherynne M. Valente. I think of myself as a mythpunk writer, though I’m not sure that I’m good enough yet to claim it as anything but a personal goal.
What Charles de Lint does that I wish I could do is make all of the individual stories live within a single highly textured consistent location – the city of Newford. Newford becomes a character in its own right, and characters thread in and out of the stories, a protagonist in one and a side character in another. Right now, my stories are each set in a different universe, with wildly ranging times and places, running from pre-historic Peru to medieval Ethiopia to modern day.
What Catherynne Valente does that I wish I could do is write exquisite, evocative prose that absolutely sings. There is a poetry to her writing that I can only admire from a distance, and wish I could achieve.
Poetry in prose is one of my loves. When done well they can be interchangeable. *sigh.
But, you talk about what you admire in these other writers; however, your style is very well-developed. Not only the one being published in Historical Lovecraft, but I particularly enjoyed your story featured in Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine, titled “Little Rattle Belly”.
Thanks! That is one of my very favorite stories that I've published. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's another good example of interweaving myth and history, but with less of a Lovecraftian flavor.
Going back to “An Interrupted Sacrifice”, there is a certain ‘turn’ in your story which changes everything for the protagonist. What I admired most about the way you wrote it was your economy of words. You didn’t beat it over our heads or spend a few paragraphs telling us how astonished your protagonist was, or how astonished the reader ought to be about it.
This sort of controlled knife-edge prose is quite a talent. Do your drafts start out terse and sparse then you add as needed in subsequent drafts—or are you voluble at first and then find yourself trimming back the forests of words?
We have in common that we both write both prose and poetry, and move stories back and forth between the two modes. I think writing poetry is very useful in teaching economical expression.
However, left to my own devices, I can write extraordinarily long, cumbersome sentences, that feel very accessible when I’m writing them in a stream-of-consciousness style, but that require paring to assure that the story is ultimately crisp and readable. It’s something that I work on in editing. One of the things that helps me to edit is a strict word limit. Stories like this one are usually way over limit in my first draft, and the need to pare down the word count helps to force me to pare down the sentences.
I do try to match the style to the narrator, in terms of culture and age. Featherhair [the protagonist of “An Interrupted Sacrifice”] has complex ideas, but she exists in a society that doesn’t even have a written language. She’s not going to think in paragraphs—dense word forests—tied together by semi-colons, etc. I have indulged in somewhat more verbose writing for an older narrator in a Victorian period, for example, where I believe structure of internal thought might have been more complex.
I wouldn’t claim this is something that I always get right, but it’s on my mind.
I do struggle to make sure my narrators don’t just sound like me. Dialogue is not my strong suit. It’s an area where I’d like to grow as a writer.
One line that stood out as delightfully creepy was: “His skin will rot on his bones… which was the worst of fates.”
As our stories are being published in a Lovecraft anthology, it’s safe to say there is a strong element of horror to them. However, elements of horror and the macabre appear in every genre. So where do you see your writing style fitting in terms of categorization? (For the record I believe that too many writers are categorization-obsessed; good writing is good writing. So I ask this in the general sense.)
What is consistent in my short stories is the use of myth and history. I have written fairy tale, fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, erotica, gothic/detective, and spiritual short fiction. I think each genre has a useful lens on human experience, and a given story can mix-up genres as well.
As a reader, in the past I have not read much horror. However, when I started writing, I found that horror elements crept in. The line between fairy tale and horror is quite thin. So, now I read more horror short fiction to better understand the craft, and find that I enjoy writing it very much, and have become more active with local horror writers and the horror writers professional association.
I would like to write science fiction, and enjoy historical speculative science (i.e., steampunk-esque stories), but science fiction is, in general, by far the most challenging speculative fiction genre for me. I’ve only written one short story with science fiction elements so far, but I commend it to readers of Historical Lovecraft as probably the only other speculative fiction story to be published in April 2011 (and possibly in 2011 at all) about the Moche. It’s in the In Situ anthology by Dagan Books.
I like that you are challenging yourself as a writer. So what’s next in your writerly future?
I've begun submitting poetry for publication, though I still spend most of my time writing short fiction. It would be exciting to try a longer piece—i.e. novel—at some point, but I work full-time, so short fiction seems to fit my schedule better.
But for now I'm focusing on short stories while submitting to larger and more challenging markets. I try to keep about 10 pieces out with publishers at a time.
Now that is a most motivating factoid. Listen up folks: try to keep 10 pieces out with publishers at all times, you heard it here.
Well Mae, here’s to your very bright career as a writer!
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. It has been a delightful and eclectic interview. I particularly enjoyed digging into some of your writing techniques.
Make sure you all stop by http://maeempson.wordpress.com/ and check out Historical Lovecraft at http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/