Spotlight on: Sarah Gailey
Your first novel Magic for Liars is forthcoming from Tor in June (exciting!) and combines detective story and magic school tropes. Tell us a bit about the book. What appeals to you about those particular tropes? Did working with both create extra challenges or just give you more elements to play with?
Magic for Liars follows Ivy Gamble, P.I., as she investigates the murder of a faculty member at a high school for magical teens — the school where her estranged twin sister just so happens to work. Ivy is not magically gifted, but her sister is. The book explores family, identity, class, academia, and the lies we tell ourselves.
I grew up in the golden age of magical school narratives; in Magic for Liars, I wanted to examine the underbellies of the stories I grew up reading. Detective noir is a genre that’s all about underbellies. For every tale of fulfilled-destiny, there’s bound to be a parallel narrative of misplaced hope, intense social pressure, hubris, and fury. Those elements point to violence, murder, and heartbreak. Noir is a genre that opens doors into new, untold stories, and bringing those open doors to a magical school narrative gave me the opportunity to explore parts of that world that had always felt hidden to me: love, sex, power, hatred, and the consequences of institutional failure to protect children from harm.
You made a big splash in 2017 with your American Hippo novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow. Tell us about those stories and that world. Any plans to do more there?
The American Hippo stories are pulp-western alternate histories. I usually pitch them as “queer westerns where the cowboys ride hippos instead of horses.” I wrote the two books as a complete duology. The first novella is essentially a heist narrative, an ensemble adventure featuring sex and murder and explosions. The second novella is the other half of that story — what comes after the heist, when the members of the ensemble are processing what they’ve experienced. They’re traumatized by their half-success, and their relationships to each other have changed drastically. When I started writing River of Teeth, I wanted to give readers something fun and pulpy; by the time I finished writing Taste of Marrow, I had built something different than what I originally intended. American Hippo changed as I was creating it, and in the end, it became a way to process the cost of a hard-lived, complicated life.
Your story “STET” is a Hugo Award finalist, and has an unusual structure (and great emotional power). Tell us about it, and how you came to write it.
“STET” is a story that explores human priorities, AI, responsive algorithms, and the trolley problem. It’s structured as a paragraph from a textbook about autonomous vehicles, with footnotes. The reader then gets to see the conversation that occurs between the author and the editor, revealing the author’s personal connection to the subject matter. I decided to write this story after a conversation with someone who couldn’t believe that an author of genre fiction could possibly have an interest in or understanding of literary fiction. That person’s vehement skepticism drove me to write a piece in the mode of one of my favorite stories, which is told through the footnotes on a paragraph from a textbook. I wanted to explore themes of human accountability for failures of machine morality, and discussing that within a single layer of story seemed impossible, so this format suited the concept perfectly. The story is also an examination of how people, women in particular, are expected to suppress emotions like grief for the sake of professional objectivity — which is itself already myth. On one level, this is a story about grief; on another level, it’s about a woman refusing to have her grief silenced.
You won a Fan Writer Hugo Award last year. Tell us a bit about your fannish activity.
Most of my fannish activity comes in the form of literary analysis of genre media. I write essays examining literary themes and symbolism in books, movies, and television shows. Some of my work is tongue-in-cheek — for instance, my It’s Not That Deep series for Tor.com, in which I try to justify needlessly deep dives into movies that don’t really support any analysis at all. I also write completely sincere analyses, like my discussion of imperialism in feast narratives at Barnes & Noble.
What one story of yours are you most fond of, that you’d like to point our readers toward?
I already discussed “STET” above, which is certainly one of my favorite short pieces. Aside from that one, “Bread and Milk and Salt” is perhaps my most personal short story. It’s the story of a fairy who becomes obsessed with a boy. He becomes obsessed with her right back, and both of them reap consequences they could never have predicted. It explores cycles of abuse, and the way breaking those cycles can be an ugly, triumphant thing.
What’s the particular appeal of science fiction for you? Why write that instead of, say, mysteries or literary fiction?
For a long time, I would have answered this question with my thoughts about why science fiction and fantasy are more interesting than literary fiction. But the more I write, and the more conversations I have with fellow writers who are much smarter than I am, the more I come to realize that those distinctions aren’t necessarily useful for me. In a recent conversation I was part of, someone suggested that the boundary between literary fiction and genre fiction is one of focus: literary fiction, they said, focuses on character, while genre fiction focuses on plot. Whether or not this is entirely accurate, I find myself returning to it frequently as I try to define my own work. Character interests me a great deal more than plot or worldbuilding; as a result, most of my plot and worldbuilding extends from my characters, rather than the other way around. This isn’t the right way to do the thing, because that doesn’t exist, but it’s what I find most interesting and enjoyable, and so it’s how I write.
The genre I choose for a story is an extension of that interest in character. I love having the flexibility to set a story in the genre that will nourish it best. I haven’t yet written a story that is best served by a realistic contemporary setting — but I would never rule it out. Some characters grow best in haunted houses, and others grow best in spaceships, and still others will only be able to put down roots in the house next door to mine. That’s what matters most to me, more than allegiance to genre, and more than fighting the needless battle to maintain distinctions between the worlds of literary fiction and genre fiction: writing the thing the way it should be written, and doing the best that I can do give every story what it needs.
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