Sarah McCarry talks about the links between science and myth in this week’s interview with a speculative fiction writer. Sarah is the author of three novels and is the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a literary chapbook series. Her most recent novel is About a Girl, which was a 2016 Lambda Award Finalist. Sarah has also had her short fiction and non-fiction pieces featured in numerous publications including Tor.com, Glamour, and Lenny.
About a Girl is not your average coming-of-age story as it includes particle physics, mythology, punk rock, and an epic quest. What interests you about juxtaposing scientific thought with the mysterious?
I think science and myth have a lot in common, actually, although don’t tell any scientists I said that! Ultimately, they’re both frameworks for explaining how we came to be in the world and how we move through it, and they are preoccupied in different ways with the same questions. The more you learn about science—about particle physics and cosmology and astronomy in particular—the more you realize that the universe is a very extraordinary place where many things are not what they seem to be. The same thing happens in mythology. So for me, they’re two ways of telling the same story, and I love teasing out the places where myth and science intersect, or where an element of one is a beautiful way of talking about the other.
About a Girl and your two previous novels, Dirty Wings and All Our Pretty Songs, feature young women who go through great changes as they encounter new experiences in the world. What is your process for developing a protagonist in one of your novels?
They just kind of show up, to tell you the truth. I am the worst at answering craft questions, because when I write I do feel in many ways that I’m channeling something I’m not entirely in control of. I think that the more you work, the more you make space for that to happen—as you write more and more over a longer and longer period of time, you’re sort of smoothing out the conduit, laying the groundwork for the torrent, if you will. People work so differently. Some writers are extremely methodical in how they work out characters and write up outlines, and they do a lot of work on paper before they actually start the book. I tend to do a lot of thinking over a long period of time and then the characters eventually come into my head as fully-formed people.
You are also the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a series of literary chapbooks. How do your roles as an editor and a publisher inform your work as a writer?
I love the opportunity to work with other people’s work. It’s a good break from going around in my own brain. So I’d say that those roles don’t so much inform my own work as take me out of it. I think learning to be a better editor actually has taught me to be a better reader, more than a better writer; it’s a particular and useful skill to learn how to look for the story someone else wants to tell in a piece, rather than the story you want them to tell. It makes me ask better questions even when I just read for pleasure. And the physical work of publishing is also something I enjoy—I letterpress-print the chapbook covers and hand-bind them, which is another thing that gets me out of my head for long periods of time.
What makes up a good writing session for you and what are your indispensable tools?
Hmmm, I’d say an extended period of time where I feel like I’m fully focused on the work I’m doing and where I figure out something new about where it wants to go. Indispensable tools—solitude, but that’s pretty much it.
What do you love to geek out about?
Science! No surprise there. I get quite interested in random periods of history—I’ll read a bunch of books about Victorian spiritualists, or theories of goth subcultures, or a history of poisoning during the rule of Louis XIV—I’ve got a bit of a grasshopper brain. Astronomy and astrophysics are the big ones, though. I’ve loved them since I was a little kid; that geekery is sticking around for sure.
For more from Sarah McCarry, visit her website www.sarahmccarry.net and follow her on Twitter. Be sure to check out her chapbook series Guillotine and her recent story “Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” on Tor.com.
// Images courtesy of Sarah McCarry.