Maria Dahvana Headley: Divine Monsters
Maria Dahvana Headley was born June 21, 1977 in Estacada OR. She attended NYU, where she studied dramatic writing. She lived in Seattle for many years before returning to New York, where she lives now.
Headley’s first book was memoir The Year of Yes (2006), chronicling a year in which she said ‘‘yes’’ to every person who asked her on a date. Her debut novel, Queen of Kings (2011), is a historical fantasy about an immortal Cleopatra, and begins a trilogy. With Neil Gaiman she edited anthology Unnatural Creatures (2013). Story ‘‘Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream’’ (2012) was a Nebula Award finalist.
‘‘I tried to sell a short story collection, and had a meeting with an editor. Collections are notoriously hard to sell, but as I was trying to dissuade him from abandoning our meeting, I started telling him funny dirty dating stories, just from my life, and ended up discovering that I could sell a memoir. That’s how I started writing The Year of Yes, about a year when I went out with everyone in New York who asked me. Part of that was my neurotic cocktail party conversation. I feel like I’m very gregarious, but in my childhood I couldn’t talk. If I felt nervous, I would meow and hiss compulsively. Later I evolved to the point where I learned to tell funny stories as a defense against meows. The dating stories were nonfiction – they all happened when I first came to New York from a 500-person town in Idaho – but they were first told as meow-defense.
‘‘I got an agent and published The Year of Yes with Hyperion in 2006. I’d been a writer for ten years before that, writing totally different kinds of things, and suddenly I was on the Today Show, talking about kissing boys and girls. It was unexpected. I still think it’s a good book, but it was always an anomaly in terms of my interests, writing-wise, and that’s more true now than ever.
‘‘Queen of Kings was my first novel. It was an interesting experience when the book came out, because everyone could see an genre angle to it but they couldn’t quite figure out which to choose. It got reviewed by historical fiction people – the Historical Society Novelists had it on the cover of their magazine. Some readers were horrified when they opened it and found supernatural things happening alongside the history, but most people from that community were incredibly lovely about the book despite all the fantasy elements – respectful of all the research that went into it.
‘‘Originally, I had this idea that I knew everything about Cleopatra because I’d read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and seen the production several times. But once I got about five minutes into writing the book, I realized I needed to read everything else. So I read a bunch of things, starting with pop-biography stuff. And then I read the contemporary sources, of which there’s not that much. It’s the story of someone who was extremely charismatic and very powerful, but we don’t have any of her own words. There’s so little about Cleopatra because when her city was sacked, the records of her reign were destroyed, and so we know nothing for sure. There’s just a little bit from the Romans talking about Cleopatra – saying, ‘Oh my God, this woman, she’s inappropriate!’
‘‘My book fills in the gaps in history with magic and mysteries and witches, and battles that I invented. Cleopatra is a soulless monster. But I continued with the research, and I loved it because it can give you such a sense of possibility.
‘‘I can write a good first draft of a story really quickly, but it just has the look of being done. Then I pick it up and discover that the end should be ten pages earlier or later. This year, for example, I got to write a story for an anthology co-published by the Royal Observatory of Greenwich and Pandemonium London, The Lowest Heaven. Each writer got assigned a planet. China Miéville was approached to do Earth, but he had no Earth story, and to my good fortune, I’d just handed him a draft of ‘The Krakatoan’, which existed because of this field trip to the Palomar Observatory with Kit Reed, Rick Wilber and Ben Loory during World Fantasy two years ago. Kit insisted (much to my grumpiness, because I thought I was too busy) that we all write stories about the place.
‘‘Kit wrote like five stories during the time that I was procrastinating my one, including the one about feral Girl Scouts, ‘The Legend of Troop 13’. I was forced to write my story by a group reading at Readercon, where we all read our observatory stories. I was convinced I’d finished it, but they all told me, ‘This story is not done. It simply does not have an ending.’ I had no idea what the story was about. I went back and wrote another 3,000 words (apparently it was only half done), and now it’s a story that I love.
‘‘The opposite thing happened with my Nebula-nominee story, ‘Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream’. It was 7,000 words long when I woke up the morning I was supposed to have an 8:30 a.m. reading at ICFA. I knew I could not read 7,000 words in 20 minutes, so I chopped out almost 3,000 words that morning. I hacked away all the junky pretty (I hope). It was the desperate edit that finally made it right.’’