C. S. E. Cooney (A.K.A. The Glorious Claire) is the author of Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015), the title story of which was nominated for the 2015 Nebula Award. Her novella The Two Paupers, the second installment of her Dark Breakers series, will shortly be appearing in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and the Rhysling Award-winning author of the poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction can be found in Black Gate, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Clockwork Phoenix 3 and 5, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Steam-Powered II, The Book of Dead Things, Cabinet des Fées, Stone Telling, and Goblin Fruit. She lurks on Twitter as @csecooney.
1. What do new readers need to know about C. S. E. Cooney?
What I’ve noticed is reviewers often describe C. S. E. Cooney as “playful” and “lyrical.”
Now, I tend to like the former better than the latter, because “playful” draws more readers to my sandbox. Which is just where I like them! So I can play with them! Whereas “lyrical,” you know, might frighten them away again. It would intimidate me. Unless someone went on to explain, very gently and enthusiastically, “You know, lyrical. Like Dr. Seuss. Or Edward Gorey.”
(My father once described my early poetry as a cross between Shakespeare and Edward Lear. So of course I had to go and re-read “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.” And whaddya know? He was RIGHT!)
Other adjectives that seem to pop up are “ wild” and “gleeful” and “macabre.” I feel like I should come with a warning label!
But one of my favorite things anyone has ever said about my writing came from my friend Amal El-Mohtar. In addition to being my shield-sister and sometimes-collaborator in a performance group called The Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, she is also one of the finest writers in my circle, and one of the first editors to publish my poetry. She told me, after reading my novella “The Big Bah-Ha,” “Your writing has such muscular velocity.”
So, I guess . . . Let new readers know that C. S. E. Cooney is the lyrical lovechild of Doctor Learspeare Goreuss. She is the abattoir where fairy tales go singing to the slaughter. She will happily flex her writerly writing muscles for you while bouncing up and down at impossible speeds. Her sandbox wants you in it. She likes to play.
Oh, and. Maybe you should drink tea before reading. PG Tips preferably. Coffee if you insist.
2. What was the inspiration for your collection Bone Swans?
I had this novella, “The Big Bah-Ha,” that had been published by a small press that had since folded. I took it to my buddy Mike Allen, a fine poet and writer and editor himself, who’d mentioned at one point some things he might have done differently had he been editing my text. I said, “Now that it belongs to me again, can you maybe tell me some of those things? I want to re-release it as an e-book. Self-published, that kind of thing. Better than languishing.”
He said, “I’ll do you one better. Want to put together a collection?” He was doing a Kickstarter for a new Clockwork Phoenix anthology, and wanted something new to offer to his backers. I’d be that new thing.
And I was like:
SMILEY EMOJI DEVIL EMOJI EXCLAMATION POINT GOAT ICON HEAVY METAL ICON AAUGHH MIKE ALLEN AAUUGH!!!
In a nutshell.
Four of the stories were previously published. “Life on the Sun” (Black Gate Magazine) and “Martyr’s Gem” (GigoNotoSaurus) were both based on dreams.
“Milkmaid” (also GigaNotoSaurus—one of the few novella markets) came from this idea of non-beautiful characters getting beautiful love stories. Also maybe it was time to flip some old tropes upside-down and see what crawled out from beneath.
“The Big Bah-Ha” was born of a few previously mentioned characters called “The Tall Ones” demanding further stories. They’d only gotten mention in poems before—like in “Wild Over Tombs Does Grow.” The Flabberghast, in particular, insisted I devote more ink-on-page to his magnificence. His time to shine, he claimed. From that white light he swallowed, right up through his diamond teeth.
The title story was original to the collection.
The story behind “Bone Swans of Amandale” is this. So, for a few seconds, I was involved in a New York City writing group. This included Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Catherynne Valente, Kat Howard, Lev Grossman, Theodora Goss and myself. One day, I was flipping through a Mercer Mayer illustration of The Pied Piper while Doctor Goss stared out the window like a Swan Princess surveying the Hudson. She remarked, apropos of nothing, that she’d love to have a rose named after her. A Mercer Mayer rat winked up at me from the page.
That was when it happened. SHA-BOOM went the cannons! Dora Rose, the rat Maurice, beautiful Nicolas. There they were, cavorting. I couldn’t write the thing fast enough.
3. What is it about folk and fairy tales, myth and legend that attracts you?
They’re like the bullet points on an outline that ends in a trilogy ten years later. The thread and buttons and length of cloth that become a gown, if you have the right machine, the template, the time.
Like items on a shopping list that, with the application of labor, a liberal hand with spices, a pre-heated oven, music to dance to, a bottle of wine to make the work of cooking a bit more giddy, turn into a feast.
They’re a place to start.
4. What was the first story you ever told?
You know those games you play on the playground where the sand is the lava and you leap from obstacle to obstacle to get to the castle, and there are pirates and a drawbridge and big spiders because you watched the movie KRULL too many times in your 80’s childhood?
I wrote something based on that, in third grade. My first chapter book. THE HALLS OF DIFFICULTY.
5. Who were/are your literary heroes/influences?
Early childhood: The Brothers Grimm. Hans Christian Anderson, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rogers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Stories for Free Children, Reading Rainbow.
Middle Childhood: Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Victor Hugo, Gaston Leroux, Susan Cooper, the Trixie Belden books, Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, L. M. Montgomery.
Teens: Robin McKinley, Patricia A. McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, the Brian Froud Faerielands series, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Mercedes Lackey, the Datlow/Windling Fairy Tale Anthologies, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Georgette Heyer, Charles De LInt.
Twenties: Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula K. Leguin, James Enge, Ysabeau Wilce, Sharon Shinn, Dorothy Dunnett, Terry Pratchett, Bulgakov, Voltaire, Peter Barnes (“Red Noses” in particular), Caryl Churchill (“The Skriker”), Tony Morrison, “Beloved”), Dostoyevsky, N. K. Jemisin.
Thirties: Kage Baker, Liz Duffy Adams, Carlos Hernandez, Nnedi Okorafor, Lin Manuel Miranda . . .
Actually, it seems now that I am surrounded by the most marvelous writers, and I have the least time to read I ever did!!! And it’s a pity. Because this is the time I’d be best at reading, maybe. The time I’d be paying closest attention. Probably also why I’ve gotten so slow. I only ever just ate books before.
6. What was the impulse behind the very saucy and wonderful The Witch in the Almond Tree?
Heh heh heh.
7. You’re a writer, a poet, a singer, a narrator, an actress and all-round amazeballs talented human being – how do you manage to balance ALL OF THE EVERYTHING?
Well, I wasn’t ALL those things until last year. For a long time I worked at a used bookstore, which gave me a lot of time to read, a lot of exposure to books and authors. Didn’t pay much, and I had a long commute—but that let me read. And I wrote along the edges, deep into the night, and on weekends.
Then I moved to Rhode Island, where I sold admission tickets for three years to Mystic Aquarium. Again, the pay wasn’t much. There would be weeks wherein I only worked a day and a half. Sure, I had college debt, and did most of my grocery shopping at food pantries, but I also had plenty of time and quiet in which to write.
I was so grateful—both for having a job at all in that economy, and also for the time that poverty afforded me.
Time. It’s so beautiful. And so expensive.
When I got my audiobook narrating gig last year—the best job in the world!!!—all my time to write and read disappeared. I had a new job, new roommates, new commute, new long-distance relationship. I had no idea how tired all this would make me, how riled and restless my mind became trying to juggle it.
I no longer had hours and horizon to fill. I had trouble with my, er, “sitzfleisch,” as it were.
But my beloved Carlos Hernandez, himself A MOST EXTRAORDINARY WRITER, has this GREAT HABIT of popping awake at 3 in the morning. You know, to grade papers and stuff.
Now, I wasn’t going to pop awake at three. No way, no how. But I could just about manage 4:30 AM. (Plus, we don’t live in the same state, so it was an opportunity to Skype him and coo over his curly hair.)
And so, writing on Skype dates from about 5 AM to 6:30 every morning, writing in tiny, scratchy, flaky, teeth-to-cement amounts, I managed to finish the fourth draft of a novel. Which I didn’t think was possible under the circumstances.
So that’s about how I manage my time these days. I am very jealous of it. I covet it. I get a bit wild-eyed and sharp-tongued when it’s threatened, even by so fine a thing as an invitation to spend time with people I love.
At least this year I’m not also trying to crowdfund for two EPs. Then figuring out how to make them.
I’d never done such a thing before! My “Brimstone Rhine” project was a whim. I thought it was important. The sort of hubris that says, “Even though I’ve never written songs before, HEY, GUESS WHAT, these songs I wrote are pretty great!!! PEOPLE SHOULD HEAR THEM!!!”
And then, not knowing how, not even being able to play my own instrument, just sing a little, make an album happen. What was I thinking? But the thing is done. No regrets. I wouldn’t necessarily do it again—at least, not like that. But I don’t regret having done it.
Which is not the same as saying I WOULD have done it had I but known THEN what I know NOW.
8. You are allowed to invite five people for dinner and shenanigans – characters or writer: name them and why are they on your guest list?
Cordelia Vorkosigan (Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor), Gabi Réal (The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria), Mary Griffith (Kage Baker’s Empress of Mars), Aphra Behn (particularly, in the play “Or,” by Liz Duffy Adams), and Hypatia of Alexandria.
Because I want to be a fly on their wall, dude.
9. What is your favourite story, novel or short or novella or epic poem, of all time?
Uh. That changes.
But my CURRENT favorite NOVEL of ALL TIME is Cordelia’s Honor. (It’s been on my list a while.) On that list has also been The Master and Margarita. And also the entire series known as The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett.
Novella: “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire,” by Ysabeau Wilce. (Again, these are just present favorites. But once a favorite, always a favorite. But I do get to have other favorites. There just isn’t enough time to be monogamous about literature.)
Epic poem, epic poem, epic poem . . .
Well. It’s a long poem, but I’m not sure if it’s epic. “The White Road” by Neil Gaiman had a profound effect on me. When I first read it as a youngish twenties-something, I thought, “CHRISTINA ROSSETTI AND I ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES WHO WRITE STORY-POEMS, WHAT?”
I mean, not including Homer and The Highwayman. You know.
That said, every time I hear Rose Lemberg read a poem aloud, I sort of collapse into happy lava inside.
10. What’s next for C.S.E. Cooney?
I HAVE FINISHED MY NOVEL MISCELLANEOUS STONES: ASSASSIN.
First, it goes to the writing group. Then, it will find an agent. THEN, IT WILL TAKE THE WORLD BY STORM!!!
ALTERNATELY, nobody or their mother will want it, and then I WILL WEEP ALL OVER MY FACE, and then I will SELF-PUBLISH IT and write MORE. Because this is the 21st CENTURY, YO!
I want to write the third installment of my Dark Breakers novella trilogy, called “Desdemona and the Deep.” Then maybe collect all three self-published ebooks and sell it as a print book called DARK BREAKERS. To someone. Somewhere.
And I want to write the continuing adventures of a few characters from “The Bone Swans of Amandale” in two stories called “Nicolas and the Oracles” and “Silver and Bone.” Then collect all three in something called SILVER AND BONE. And try to sell it to someone. Somewhere.
And I want to write a musical. And more albums. And help design a few games. Games are fun, I’m learning. Slowly, but I learn.