Please welcome Ruthanna Emrys to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Winter Tide was published on April 4th by Tor.com.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Ruthanna: Clearly there must have been a point in my life when I didn’t write. I can remember learning to read, and it follows logically that I wasn’t writing then. But I have trouble getting my mind around it.
I “stopped writing” for a couple of years in college, intimidated by unconstructive feedback from a professor. During that period I wrote constantly—journal entries, essays, vignettes about role-playing characters. Eventually I started telling a friend (whom I would for good and sensible reasons eventually marry) about the original stories in my head, and she convinced me that they were worth sharing. So that got me writing long-form fiction again. And funnily enough, all that “not writing” practice on other forms improved my work.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Ruthanna: I think of myself as a pantser, but I’m probably a hybrid. I start writing as soon as I have a story idea with some inertia to it. At that point my “outline” is a basic concept and a list of cool things that I want to include. After I’ve gotten a little way in, I usually know what’s going to happen 3-4 scenes ahead. Eventually the outline includes an idea or two for how the book will end, but the climax usually says “and then they do something clever” up until I actually write it.
When I finished Winter Tide, I was totally ready to work on the sequel, but kept getting caught up in edits. I discovered that my mind will go right along filling in new scenes even if I don’t get a chance to write them down, and by the time I started typing Deep Roots I had about the first third outlined. That was less fun, because then I had to turn everything into full scenes when my brain had run ahead. (Hm. Just occurred to me that the editorial feedback to seriously trim the first third of the book may not be a coincidence.)
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Ruthanna: I wrestle with plot, and I’m going for two falls out of three… My brain will wake me in the middle of the night with character and mood and chewy worldbuilding, but shaping everything into a coherent story is something I have to focus on consciously. Fortunately my beta readers and editor and agent are all good at pointing out when I need to make things more story-shaped. But I still—I am one of several authors who are obsessed with Elise Matthesen’s jewelry (this is relevant, I promise). She’s a professional muse who makes these amazing titled necklaces and earrings, and people make stories out of them—“Litany of Earth,” the prequel to Winter Tide, is from a pendant named “Going Between.” It’s a piece with intricate wirework binding an octopus charm to a gorgeous speckled blue stone. But many authors use her beaded necklaces to map out the shape of a story, each bead connecting to a specific emotional beat or plot point. I haven’t yet figured out how to do that, or how to see the connection properly. That sort of very concrete, kinesthetic sense of story-shape—that’s the challenge I’m working on now.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Ruthanna: In addition to my wife’s role in getting me to write fiction at all, I blame her for making it much better. My natural tendency is to wander around with my nose in a book, bumping into things. She will literally, in the middle of walking some place urgent, stop and smell the roses. And then she’ll say, “Oh my god, you have to smell these roses, they’re amazing.” So she taught me to pay attention to the sensory detail of the world around me, and the way people stand and move, and the way I stand and move myself, and that awareness made (and makes) my writing much more grounded.
TQ: Describe Winter Tide in 140 characters or less.
At the start of the Cold War, the last survivors from a town of monsters work to rebuild their community and try to hold off World War III.
TQ: Tell us something about Winter Tide that is not found in the book description.
Ruthanna: Winter Tide is in many ways a book about relationship-building—all the kinds of relationships that go into a working community. There are romances—queer and het, and with varying levels of ease and conflict—but there are also friendships, and mentor/student connections, and family of blood and of choice. Aphra herself is asexual, and when we see through her eyes the focus is on rich friendships, and on the love and the iron sense of duty she feels toward her birth and adoptive families.
The central relationship in the story is Aphra’s “confluence” – the Deep One term for people who practice magic together and in the process develop a constant visceral awareness of each other’s bodies and sensations. (The term ‘confluence’ comes from the idea that their bloodstreams flow together, like rivers.) That intimate and vulnerable connection makes the whole process of study, which might otherwise feel somewhat coldly academic, more personal and more fraught for everyone involved.
TQ: What inspired you to write Winter Tide? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?
Ruthanna: I came to Lovecraft’s work sideways, through role-playing games and plush toys and jokes about things man was not meant to know. After a while I decided to explore the original, and my wife started reading me a Best Of collection while I made dinner. I knew the very basics of “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but even having spent the whole collection mocking his racism, I was shocked when it started with the whole town getting rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This was supposed to be a good thing! I couldn’t get it out of my head. Eventually I had to write the story that seemed obvious from that beginning.
“The Litany of Earth” attracted a lot of attention, and people started asking for more. As it happens, I find people asking to read my stuff very inspiring! So I started thinking about what else I might have to say in that setting, with those characters. Winter Tide was supposed to be “the next Aphra novelette,” but around 5000 words in I realized I was far from halfway through, and that in fact I probably had a novel on my hands.
Lovecraft’s horror can actually be more like steampunk than pure fantasy, because in many cases he was riffing on the best science of his day. A century later we’re pretty sure that islands aren’t formed that way and minds can’t be conveniently switched between bodies, but they’re still fun ideas to play with. I made Aphra’s world more overtly magical to account for this “science marches on” problem—and then suggested that maybe what she calls magic is just early glimmers of a physics that more advanced species treat scientifically.
TQ: Winter Tide is based in Lovecraft's Mythos. What do you think is the ongoing appeal of the Mythos? Do you have a favorite Lovecraft story or story that uses the Mythos?
Ruthanna: For me, the appeal of the Mythos is in its sheer scope. It’s abundant in strangeness: life and mind sprouting fungus-like from every crack in reality. Knowledge, books, and exploration have power—sometimes terrifying power, but the sort of resonance that we all believe, instinctively, that they ought to have. Human life and civilization may be trivial by comparison, but what a comparison!
My favorite of Lovecraft’s original stories is “The Shadow Out of Time,” in which one Professor Peaslee tries to put his life back together after an inexplicable five-year fugue episode. He’s horrified (because this is Lovecraft) to discover that he spent those five years in mental exchange with an alien time traveler. His own mind was back in the Jurassic, in the Archives of the Great Race, learning the whole history of the solar system and talking with humans and aliens from every era. Like I said, scope.
My favorite Mythosian yarn of all time is either Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” or Seanan McGuire’s “Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves.” “Emerald” is a comfort read, the perfect mesh of Holmesian rationality and madness-inducing elder gods. “Deep Down” is a sympathetic yet still disturbing story of the lengths to which Deep Ones will go to help their relatives transition into their fully aquatic forms.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Winter Tide?
Ruthanna: The Japanese American internment camps and post-war culture were fascinating to read about. I visited San Francisco’s Nihonmachi, though it’s moved since Aphra’s day. (Forcibly moved, in fact, only a few years after the war, and that will come up later in the series.) I asked the historical society docent for help with the Kotos’ meals, and told her I was writing a novel, and didn’t mention the aquatic humanoids.
I did a lot of little bits of research to try and get the time period right. Vocabulary—no “extraterrestrial,” no “alien” as a noun, no “brainwashing,” no “nuclear war.” The language and assumptions of the Cold War were still in their formative stages, very different from the late Cold War during which I grew up. Oh, and everyone smoked. Yes, even in the library, a friend who’d worked at Harvard assured me. Even in the rare book room. The past is another, smellier country.
TQ: Please tell us about Winter Tide's cover.
Ruthanna: When I saw that I had a John Jude Palencar cover, I ran around for days shouting, “I’m sharing a cover artist with Octavia Butler!” And an artist who’s worked on both Butler and Lovecraft really was the perfect choice. If it isn’t too hubristic to say so, Winter Tide uses Lovecraftian tools to explore Butlerian themes.
The cover itself is as much mood as depiction of any specific scene—though Aphra certainly does spend time kneeling on the beach drawing magical diagrams. I like how the diagram itself is intriguingly geometric, rather than ornately Victorian, which is appropriate given the degree to which magic and geometry are tied together in Lovecraft’s work. And that sets the tone for the whole design of the book—even the cover fonts are a little non-Euclidean.
TQ: In Winter Tide who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Ruthanna: Catherine Trumbull, secretly an aeons-old eldritch entity from beyond time, was the easiest. I’m normally an extremely snarky person, and Aphra is about as far from first-person snark as you can get and still have an engaging narrative voice. She’s so sincere and thoughtful, and she takes life very seriously. So having someone along who could be sarcastic about everything they’re going through, that was an important relief valve for me! She was also helpful because she’s a time traveler, so every time I wanted a reference or a vocabulary word that wasn’t appropriate to 1949, I simply gave it to her. (There’s one point where she starts to describe something to do with DNA, stops to count on her fingers, and then just tells everyone that they’ll understand in a couple of years.)
Hardest to write was… Oh, I don’t know. I like all my characters and would happily write from any of their perspectives. (Happily enough that the next book includes flashbacks and “flashsides” from nearly all of them.) But probably Deedee Dawson, who absolutely hates letting anyone see what she’s really thinking. The worse a character’s poker face, the easier they are to write.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Winter Tide?
Ruthanna: Given that it’s a story about internment camp survivors trying to reclaim their culture and overcome prejudice, social issues would have been hard to avoid! It wasn’t something I stopped to “choose.” My obsessions show up in my writing. It happens that I’m obsessed with deep time, morally ambiguous aliens, minority community survival, cooking, cross-cultural relationships, and reproductive ethics. You know, the usual things.
I hadn’t intended to write something “timely.” (“It was meant to be a warning,” I groan into my splayed hands.) But I’ve been very glad, these past few months, to be writing something that engages so closely with these questions.
TQ: Which question about Winter Tide do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Ruthanna: Where did the Hall School come from?
In Lovecraft’s stories, Miskatonic is implied to be an extra Ivy League University—all male, as was normal at the time he was writing. But the real Ivies had sister schools. My mom, for instance, went to Pembroke, which eventually folded into Brown when they became coed. But though Lovecraft wrote more female characters than he’s sometimes given credit for, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he always remembered women existed. So Miskatonic students and professors spend a lot of time on intensive discussions of multi-dimensional mathematics and expeditions to darkest Antarctica, and not a lot of time going down the road to dances.
The “Hall School” in Kingsport gets mentioned once, in a throwaway line, as someone’s alma mater. It’s ambiguous whether they’re a prep school or a college, so I waved my poetic license and turned them into the missing sister. I also made their apparent obscurity a reflection of their treatment by the Miskatonic community: the boys’ school grabs the first-edition Necronomicons and the grant money for trips to ruined alien cities, and Hall gets stuck with whatever’s left over. On the other hand they’re much more willing to share their library holdings with non-traditional visiting researchers like Aphra. And they have a fierce pride in their ability to learn (or at least seek) cosmic secrets with little support.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Winter Tide.
Ruthanna: I always enjoy the way Aphra sees religion: a face/vase inverted image from how worship of the Mythos gods is usually treated in cosmic horror. Here, she and her brother visit the Miskatonic University chapel, seeking one particular shrine that isn’t quite like the others:
We slipped in. I kept a wary eye out for priests who might waylay visitors, but the interior was still, lit only by flickering gas lamps. Columns like great petrified trees lined the center aisle, branches entwined in the shadows. Above the altar hung a grotesque statue of their god, bleeding. Caleb stared at it a long moment, expression unreadable.
At the outskirts of the room, we found the shrines: alcoves filled with saints and mythic images. Some appeared to be perishing in worrisomely imaginative ways, but others laid gentle hands on sick supplicants, or stood alone against soldiers and monsters. Winged figures hovered over all, bearing silent witness.
As promised, one shrine was more discreet. A stone altar stood empty except for a single candle. If I let my eyes unfocus, the half-abstract carvings resolved into great tentacles reaching from the altar to enfold the little grotto. The artist, I realized, had placed those who knelt here within the god’s embrace, while making the god invisible to any who did not know to look.
I settled before the altar. I wanted to compose myself, as I might before ritual. But Caleb hovered at the edge of the space, a lightning jag of impatience at the edge of my attention.
“Aphra, if you came here to beg favors of the void, I don’t want to watch.”
TQ: What's next?
Ruthanna: I’m currently doing edits on Deep Roots, the second book in the Innsmouth Legacy series. Aphra and company go to New York to track down distant relatives. My family is from New York, but moved to rural Massachusetts before I was born—I love both places, and can see easily why someone from one would be alarmed by the other. So this was a chance to explore a time and place and a tension that’s part of my own history. New York was for Lovecraft a place of horror: an overwhelming miasma of people who were terrifyingly not like him. Aphra isn’t that kind of bigot, but at the same time she grew up in a town where everyone was just like her, and is now coming to terms with the fact that she’ll never have that again. Deep Roots lays with that conflict between the comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people who understand you, and the diversity and energy and abundance of a big city.
And of course, it has aliens, because everything’s better with aliens. This time out it’s the Mi-Go, another of Lovecraft’s terrific creations. They’re well-known for pulling people’s brains out of their bodies and carting them around the universe in canisters, which is still creepy after a hundred years. Lovecraft also described them as cosmopolitan, a term he clearly intended to be derogatory. They seemed like the sort of people who would show up in New York, and cause trouble. Aphra finds one of her distant relatives staying with them, and discovers that they have much too strong opinions about human politics
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Ruthanna: Thank you for including me!
The Innsmouth Legacy 1
Tor.com, April 4, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 368 pages
"Winter Tide is a weird, lyrical mystery — truly strange and compellingly grim. It's an innovative gem that turns Lovecraft on his head with cleverness and heart" —Cherie Priest
After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.
The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.
Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
Winter Tide is the debut novel from Ruthanna Emrys, author of the Aphra Marsh story, "The Litany of Earth"--included here as a bonus.
Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. She is the author of The Litany of Earth. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog.
The Litany of Earth
Tor Books, May 14, 2014
eBook, 32 pages
The state took Aphra away from Innsmouth. They took her history, her home, her family, her god. They tried to take the sea. Now, years later, when she is just beginning to rebuild a life, an agent of that government intrudes on her life again, with an offer she wishes she could refuse. "The Litany of Earth" is a dark fantasy story inspired by the Lovecraft mythos.