Debut author S.M. Wheeler discusses her first foray into fantasy, Sea Change, a dark fairy tale in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm.
Sea Change came out in June, so since you’re a relative newcomer
tell us a bit about yourself. What inspires you? When did you start reading and
read fantasy and science fiction since I was young. Literary
fiction has also always been a strong influence on me. Lately I’ve been reading
a lot of the classics of genre fiction; I want to catch up on everything I feel
like I missed all those years I wasn’t alive actually.
What's stuck out so far?
Stranger in a Strange
Land was fascinating to me for the fact that it’s so outside a lot of the other
science fiction I had read in the sense of the tone. It was fascinating when
mixed with that more straightforward science fiction.
When did Sea Change
start to take shape? When did Lilly as a character come to you? Did the plot
inform the character, or vice versa?
It was always character driven in the sense of where she was
going to go from any particular obstacle, but those obstacles themselves were derived
somewhat from Grimm’s Fairy Tales—from that ethos, that very violent universe.
As to when characters started forming it was a stylistic exercise.
I’ve given so many different years for
when this was written, so I think I won’t lie to you and pretend I know. I just
had the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and this character who seemed like she’d really
work with it. And then I couldn’t stop writing.
Are you an avid reader of other fairy tales?
My introduction to fairy tales was a Russian folklore book,
and then I moved into Grimm’s. I read the whole Jack Zipes translation in a month. That will
really influence your writing brain, if you binge on something like that.
80 percent of my book library is folklore. Part
of what makes folklore so attractive is how strong the archetypes are. When you
have that strong of archetypes it can be fun to subvert them.
Sea Change isn’t necessarily fantasy as escapism—it
incorporates very real elements with very surreal elements. Did you find it
difficult to weave the real world with the other world?
It’s an interesting question because I think it’s advice
bandied about quite a bit that to maintain a reader’s belief in the surreal or
the fantastic, you need to have a grounding in realism. You can
have a dragon there and the reader will shrug and be like, I’m reading fantasy, it’s
okay. But if your character does something ridiculous—I’m actually thinking of
Ayn Rand for some reason. In Anthemsomeone jumps through a window and then runs
for five miles, and I’ve never forgiven the book for that detail. And that’s the thing—that’s what will break a
reader’s attention. Not the really fantastic.
Does that say anything about your worldview?
That there are fantastical elements found in everyday life?
I’ve always been really attracted to the ideas of the preternatural, the superstitious
as concepts, even if I don’t necessarily believe in it as something in the real
world. Maybe part of why I bring so many surreal elements to my fiction is because
I kind of wish they were in the real world—maybe
not as violently as they are in Sea
In the story, Lilly
befriends a kraken named Octavius. Why a kraken?
It was the contrast. Lilly has the birthmark; it’s got that
kind of rough, dark texture. If you look at an octopus, they’re just so smooth
and so sleek. I don’t know if you‘ve had a chance to touch one, but it’s very
cool. It’s like wet velvet or wet suede. That contrast in textures was the
focus of that stylistic exercise. Once I had the kraken in there and had tentacles
and all the ways they move and all the cool anatomical details, I wasn’t
willing giving that up--even if another mythological creature would have been attractive. I it's guess not genre typical, exactly.
Of all the themes in Sea Change—love and loss, friendship,
agency—what do you hope resonates the most with readers?
I actually dislike speaking about the themes in any
specificity because I’ve always been one of those people where I’d much prefer to
listen to somebody talk about the novel and say what they’ve got out of it than
me telling them what they should’ve gotten out of it. That seems to break the
contract between author and reader. But there
are elements of isolation that I hope some
people will see and feel that resonance and nod along and say “Yeah, yeah I
remember that from my childhood.” I do think too the violence can be cathartic
in parts. That’s less wanting them to take a certain theme away and hoping you
can evoke a productive emotion with what you create.
What's next? Is a second book on the way?
My process is really scattered. I’m one of those people where
I sit there and I write from different parts of the book. You can probably see
in Sea Change there’s a certain segmented nature to the plot. Going back over previous
drafts those bits had been moved around until they could be connected and made
sense. That makes it very hard to say where I am with any particular project. So
I can say I have 50,000 words worth of fragments of the future with Lilly in
it, but goodness I could not swear to that being done any time soon because I’ve
got billions of other projects. Quite a few of them are set in a secondary world
that’s of the more developed kind than in Lilly’s. It doesn’t have the same
fairy tale aspect. Though
I can’t get away from the folklore--it’s too attractive.