C.S.E. Cooney talks about performance, melding politics with art, and the importance of writing and studying genre.
C. S. E. Cooney is an audiobook narrator, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, author of World Fantasy Award-winning Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium, 2015), author of the Dark Breakers series of novels, as well as several poetry and prose anthologies such as How To Flirt in Fearieland. Cooney's work blends inspiration from fantasy and myth, while also maintaining a fresh voice and lyrical cadence well-suited to be read aloud. I had the lucky chance to talk with her about her past and future work, as well as topics such as performance, melding politics with art, and the importance of writing and studying genre.
You write across many forms of prose, poetry, and some enigmatic mixes of the two. Your work often falls into fantasy with roots in European folklore and mythology. Has your work always swayed towards the fantastic?
Oh, you know, I was born in 1981. My childhood was Krull and The Dark Crystal and Legend and Labyrinth and Willow and Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer and Faerie Tale Theatre and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Add to that a liberal dose of musical theater blasting about the house—Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, but above all—Stephen Sondheim!—and that’s a helluva lot of fairy tales and show business.
I was born “swayed.”
Your full-length novels, The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers, are parts of the Dark Breakers series. How did you go about worldbuilding for the Dark Breakers series? Is there anything more for the series?
I started with the notion of an alternate world. Somewhere very like Earth (very like, in fact, Newport, Rhode Island, circa 1900-ish), but not Earth. I decided to stick the Dark Breakers series in the same world as some of my shorter fiction, but further up the timeline. In other words, a fantasy world that had had its industrial revolution, and its vaccine shots.
Seafall and Southern Leressa are both mentioned in my novella “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One,” in my collection Bone Swans. But in the Dark Breakers novellas we’ve fast-forwarded about a thousand years give or take. Whole eras have passed between the “then” of “Milkmaid” and the “now” of Dark Breakers, with great shifts in politics and technology and even mythology.
As far as world-building for Dark Breakers, I feel like I’m continually doing research on early 20th century America, and then bending that research to my will. I want verisimilitude, but I’m not interested in unadulterated devotion to fact. That’s why I write fantasy; it’s a whole different world! And it’s MINE! That means the parallels between Earth’s history and Athe’s history don’t have to be exact. I can play with patents and fashion and invention and slang. I just want the worlds to be similar enough that Athe will feel familiar and welcoming to the Earthling reader. Then I can make the really weird stuff happen. I found the books Gilded Suffragists: the New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote and The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensics in Jazz Age New York to be particularly inspiring.
The Bone Swans of Amandale was directly inspired by the Pied Piper myth, but told with elements that you filled in yourself. How do you balance inspiration from the old with your elements of the new?
You know, a former classmate of mine at Columbia College Chicago, Luke Herman—he took some of the same playwriting courses I did—once told me that my works were “marvelous collisions.” Leaving “marvelous” aside, I think the keyword is “collisions.” That’s where the newness occurs. In the “What if?” What if I took “The Pied Piper” and rammed it at full speed into Grimms’ “The Juniper Tree” and gave it a 1st POV named Maurice the Incomparable? What if he were a RAT? That would be funny, right?
That’s not so much an act of balance between old and new as an act of, I don’t know, cheeky alchemy. I don’t want to ever depend upon a reader’s familiarity with an old story to carry my new one. Myself, I’ve come to so many story origins backwards, and never lost a moment’s enjoyment because of that.
For instance, I saw The Sword and the Stone first, when I was little. And then I listened to (and memorized) the musical Camelot. Only in my late twenties did I even read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which was the seed of both the Disney cartoon and the Broadway musical. And I confess, I haven’t even read Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur yet, which is the seed of The Once and Future King. To take another example: I learned the musical Rent in high school. Later on in my teens, I was reading an old book of opera stories I’d picked up for a dollar at a library sale. I came upon the description of La Bohème, and went shouting through the house: “THIS SOUNDS JUST LIKE RENT! Look! There’s even a MIMI! Only she dies of CONSUMPTION, not AIDS!” And my dad said, “I think you’ve got it backwards.”
If someone comes to “The Bone Swans of Amandale” before they ever encounter the myth of the Pied Piper, I want my Pied Piper to leave such a lasting impression, that when they finally stumble across the Arthur Rackham illustration, or the Brothers Grimm story, or the Robert Browning poem, or even Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (which I never even READ before I wrote “The Bone Swans of Amandale”; I named MY Maurice after the illustrator Maurice Sendak, misremembering him for Mercer Mayer in my faulty brains!), they will say, “Hey! This is just like that C. S. E. Cooney story!”
Do you believe there is a performance aspect to your readings? Has your work as a singer and musician informed this?
I so very much believe in writers learning to perform their own work well that I sometimes teach workshops about it. Seriously, it’s called “From Page to Stage.” I’ve had the advantage of intense theatre training for most of my life—both at Columbia College, where I minored in Acting—and before that at my performing arts high school, Arizona School for the Arts, where I double-majored in Theatre and Voice. And before that, from years of children’s theatre and choir, and a captive audience of younger brothers and a mother and a best friend who listened to me read aloud, and, and . . .
I’ve felt the double-call of vocation my whole life—as both an actor and a writer. Sometimes, I was working so many jobs, I didn’t have time to be in plays, and the only time I got to perform was my own work at open mics and fiction readings and 24 Hour Festivals. Now, I’m an audiobook narrator, so I get to read books aloud all the time—and pay off my college debt with a job in the arts. WHO KNEW SUCH THINGS WERE POSSIBLE?! I don’t get to sing in public very often anymore. Usually, I have to put on a concert as a birthday present to myself, just for the pleasure of singing my songs in front of people. Sometimes I embed songs in my text just so that I’ll get to sing them aloud at a reading. That’s sort of cheating, but that’s okay. It’s all in good fun. It’s super important to know how to read out loud well for an audience—sometimes, it’s a reader’s first impression of your work, and might inspire them to go out and pursue more of it, or recommend it to friends!
Do you think it's important for all writers to study genre fiction, even if their own work may not be? Why or why not?
I recently heard writer and National Book Award-winner Will Alexander tell an audience, “Read widely and wildly.” I love that. Let’s do that.
Anyway, to ignore genre is to ignore the current culture. What’s hot, what’s selling. It’s Star Trek and Star Wars and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and Zombies and American Gods and Superheroes and Dystopias. That’s genre. Also, to ignore genre is to ignore possibility. To limit your own horizon. It’s sort of like a poet saying, “I want to write ONLY LIMERICKS. Sonnets, go sit in the corner. I don’t even want to be in the same room as those haikus. The sestinas can sleep in the barn.” But, also, more practically: “genre” is as much a marketing term as anything else. It’s arbitrary. It changes. I studied Toni Morrison’s Beloved in one of my Fiction classes at Columbia. It’s a ghost story. It’s horror. It’s pure genre. We also read Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” in a Dreams and Fiction Class; that’s Magical Realism, a Latin American sub-genre of the Fantastic. Genre! It’s everywhere!
Where do you think the modern fantasy genre is going? Of your peers, what themes or root texts seem to be taking center stage?
I think Modern Fantasy is at the vanguard of a larger literary movement that will be remembered as the most diverse, the most inclusive, many-voiced, many-peopled, genre-exploding, gender-bending dazzling firmament of genius and imagination that the world has yet known. I think, finally, we will begin to see literature in all genres that will reflect the world around us in all its variety, and not just the received narratives of conquerors.
I see the roots of it now. And the burgeoning wings. And I think the artists upholding and driving this movement will take us to places even science fiction writers cannot yet imagine.
Well, yeah, okay. Maybe them. They probably can.
Interviewed by Bec Ucich
July 10, 2018