I met Sarah McCarry on the Internet. I’d published an essay at Bookslut, about death and novels and Mia Zapata, and she wrote to say “Mia Zapata!” and that she’d grown up in Seattle, too. It felt like we were the two girls at the show who should be friends because they have the same weird hair, which is a wonderful feeling I thought I didn’t get to have anymore.
Then Sarah and I became actual friends, writing each other actual in-the-mailbox letters from our apartments in New York and Chicago, and even when we left home to write in Port Townsend and Boulder. I taped one of her cards above my desk. Her handwriting is clean and sure, like someone who talks with her hands and her eyes, too.
Still, I was nervous when Sarah sent me her first novel, All Our Pretty Songs, the first book in the Metamorphoses Trilogy. What if I hated it? What if it made our friendship weird?
Luckily, Sarah’s first book rules. A reweaving of classic Greek myth told by an unnamed teenage girl narrator, All Our Pretty Songs is set in a Seattle like 1990s Seattle, only with gods—like how Weetzie Bat’s Los Angeles is like 1980s Los Angeles, only with fairy tales. It’s about two girls, Aurora and the narrator: actual girls who love each other like sisters, and get nervous and beautiful and fierce and horny—and sad. Plus, they actually go to hell to find Aurora’s father, a Cobain-esque musician. (As much as I love Cynthia Voigt’s Orfe, another retelling of this myth, Orpheus makes so much more sense as Kurt.) Dirty Wings, the next book in the trilogy, is due out in July 2014.
Meanwhile: read Sarah’s blog The Rejectionist (recent tags: “all the punks got is each other,” “Lisa Brackmann”); Guillotine, her bonkers-great series of letterpress chapbooks (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay “Censorship and Homophobia” is available this month); and her zine, Glossolalia. I love Sarah for writing in all these voices and homes, many of which make me want to pogo again, even though I’m getting old and crabby.
The Rumpus: Neither of us lives in the Pacific Northwest anymore, but it’s in our hearts in an active, daily way. Plus it’s where All Our Pretty Songs is set. What was it like, writing about that part of the country—that home—while living on another coast?
Sarah McCarry: I will be writing about Washington forever, about the Olympic Peninsula especially—and it’s funny, because I’ve lived all over Western Washington, and I lived in Portland for five or six years, but there’s nowhere else out there that has the same effect on me that the Peninsula does (and Seattle, to a lesser extent).
I mean, you couldn’t pay me to go back to Portland—I can’t even watch that show Portlandia without becoming suffused with rage—but five minutes in the Olympic rainforest, and I am crying all over myself and vowing to find a way to buy land out there and having these dopey, constant, very obvious epiphanies about Home and Self and My Roots. It’s sort of exhausting but I keep doing it.
Rumpus: I used to think it was because Seattle is where I first read a zine, but now I feel very dopey even about that kind of green, that pearly light and the water—I feel a safety there I don’t feel anywhere else. Is it like that for you, too?
McCarry: It’s not safety, exactly. It’s this really visceral sense of home, but it’s a home-ness that doesn’t extend to my head. My heart is there but the rest of me isn’t, and I think I am still dealing with that rift. It’s also such a physically beautiful place that it’s hard to keep leaving.
I was lucky to grow up there during the time that I did, the mid-‘90s, even after the music industry had completely pillaged the city and all this tech money had moved in; even with all of that, there was still a lot of the dirty, old magic lying around, waiting for you to find it.
Rumpus: How did you make a living? Did you have a writing routine then?
McCarry: I did a million different things. I worked on a timber crew, and I worked in bookstores off and on for a while, and I worked on-call overnight shifts in domestic violence shelters, and I managed a letterpress shop, and I washed dishes, and I worked in a hippie grocery. I don’t even remember half the jobs I had. My whole thing for a while was working ten jobs at once and saving a bunch of money and then quitting them all and going adventuring. I’ve never really had a normal job for more than half an hour at a time, and to this day, I always have three or four or ten jobs at once.
Writing “routine” is really generous. Mostly in my twenties, I had a drinking routine and a getting-in-trouble routine. I always wrote about what I was doing—I’ve kept an obsessive journal since I was four or five, I made zines, I wrote terrible short stories. I wrote a million letters, I wrote essays for long-defunct anarchist publications. But it’s really only in the last few years that I’ve made up anything routine-like, and even then it’s pretty haphazard. I’m a work-in-progress.
Rumpus: So did you choose to set your first book in the Northwest, or was that a given?
McCarry: I knew I wanted to write about the specific mythology of Seattle—and the Seattle in the book hasn’t existed for a long time and maybe never existed in the first place, except in my imagination when I was a teenager. I don’t actually think of my own book as being dark at all, but I think about that aspect of the Northwest a lot, too.
There is also a darkness to the Northwest that’s more than just small-town darkness—I always think of Lynda Barry’s book Cruddy, which is so brilliant and so disturbing and captures that energy so well. Or Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen, which is dark but also very funny. Or Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, which is so bleak and so genius and so exactly that darkness that I mean.
I’ve been plotting out a punk noir set on the Peninsula for a couple of years now, and I think that’s where I’ll go next, after this trilogy is finished.
Rumpus: Okay, so then how did this story start?
McCarry: It started with Orpheus and with Seattle—I start with stories usually, rather than Characters or Themes and Messages. All Our Pretty Songs originally had a happy ending, and it was terrible. There was nothing about it that worked—it was just unbelievably dopey. I knew there was something terribly wrong with the book but I wasn’t sure what it was. I gave it to my friend to read and he was like, “This is great until the end, which is stupid.”
And then of course it became very obvious that a happy ending was the wrong choice—and I don’t know why I even started out with one, I love writing heartbreak endings and I love reading them. (Maybe because of growing up Catholic, or goth, or both, I don’t know. I am wired for torment.) It’s not like the original myth is particularly cheery. But to me, the ending is also very hopeful, although I think I am maybe the only person who thinks that.
Rumpus: What was the narrator like when you first met her? Did you get razzed for not naming her in the book?
McCarry: Some people got agitated about her not having a name and some people didn’t even notice. I get asked a lot if I know what her name is. (I don’t.) She was pretty fully-formed when I started the book—I knew, going into it, that she was young and that she was someone who was willing to go to hell, literally, for the person she loved, and that’s a lot to know about someone already.
I’m one of those people who thinks about a story for a while and then the characters just kind of show up—that makes me sound really woo-woo (which, okay, I am a little, but not about writing). But I don’t know how to explain it, exactly. They’re real people for me while I’m working.
Rumpus: Aurora and the narrator have a really strong friendship, which you describe in detail. Where did that energy come from? Why write about girl friendships?
McCarry: Some of that is my own experience—it seems common for women, especially young women, to have these intense, all-consuming friendships, and I’ve heard from a lot of women that they related strongly to that aspect of the book. I had one friendship like that in particular, when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen—and when that friendship fell apart, it was much more devastating to me than the end of any romantic relationship I had until I was in my late twenties.
I wasn’t thinking of any specific books in terms of inspiration while I was working, but girl friendship is definitely one of my favorite literary sub-genres—Brian Hall’s The Saskiad, which is an unbelievably beautiful book and criminally under-read. Bett Williams’s Girl Walking Backwards. Amanda Boyden’s Pretty Little Dirty. Francesca Lia Block writes a lot about that kind of friendship. Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters. And there was a period in my life where all I read was Jeanette Winterson and Elizabeth Hand and Angela Carter, so.
Rumpus: I loved your piece about Medea at The Book Smugglers, and not just because it’d be nice to say so. How did you first meet her?
McCarry: Oh, thank you! I am proud of that piece. I met her when I was a kid—I had about a million books of Greek and Roman mythology. And again and again—we read Edith Hamilton at my middle school and Ovid in high school. I knew who she was. But when I was beginning to research the third book, my friend Hal gave me Apollonius Rhodios’s Argonautika, which I hadn’t read, and whose Medea is so amazingly alive and modern and so obviously a teenager.
It had never before occurred to me to think about her that way: here’s this girl, super-sheltered, who’s a witch, yeah, but is also just falling really hard, for the first time, for this dude who’s a total dick and just using her for her skill set, which is considerably more valuable than his own. He takes her away from her family, from everything she’s ever known; he gets her to kill a bunch of people, and then when she has given up basically everything for him, he totally fucks her over. She became very human for me.
I mean, we all do some ill-advised stuff when we’re young. You can read that in Euripides, too—he gives her some amazing lines, which I don’t think he would’ve done if he wasn’t at least a little on her side.
Rumpus: In that same piece, I loved your line about how your first three books, and all the books you love best, are about “love and sex and death and growing up.” (Mine, too.) Then I thought of Raoul. I was glad he was in All Our Pretty Songs—he loves the narrator but never creepily, and he’s an adult without belittling her good heart. Also, his steadiness balances her when she’s not. I’m thinking in particular about where he tells the narrator that it’s okay to be selfish. I think other books about love and death and sex and growing up—and girls—don’t always say it’s okay to be selfish. They don’t even use that word.
McCarry: The whole book is fundamentally about love, about the different kinds of love, and Raoul’s love is the most stable, the most grown-up and wise. I don’t think I could have written Raoul at a different point in my life. It took me a long time to realize that love doesn’t always have to be an epic ongoing disaster in order for it to be real. In some ways I was writing him to myself—I was going through a difficult time when I wrote the book, and it was nice to have his voice in the back of my head.
And that word, “selfish”—I think selfishness is essential to being an artist, and it is especially essential to being an artist writing from a position that’s historically been marginalized, or othered. I think saying, explicitly, that your work is more important to you than anything else in the world—lovers, partners, friends, kids, family, pets, whatever—is really, really powerful. That particular kind of selfishness doesn’t have to preclude empathy or compassion or being a decent human being or loving people, at all. I think I am a very selfish person, and I like to think that I am also a very compassionate and loving one.
And it’s scary—you know, there’s always that voice (for me, anyway), saying, What if I give this my all and just turn out to be really bad at it? But for me, at least, it was necessary to make that selfishness a conscious decision. I don’t think artists get a free pass to be shitty people at all (although I am someone who will forgive a lot of shittiness in a great artist), but for those of us who have been told all our lives that our work is less valuable solely because of the bodies we were born in, the assertion that our work matters, our stories matter—it has a lot of radical potential.
So, the selfishness that I mean, that Raoul means, is the assertion of the self, that the self is valuable. That the work we are doing as ourselves and for ourselves has to be important to us, and that we get to insist on its importance, too.
Rumpus: Agreed. I insist on that too, but then have a hard time going into isolation to write. I do it anyway, of course, but that’s probably the hardest part of the process for me.
McCarry: I actually really like being alone; I have the opposite problem, where I will go for a long time without human contact unless I make a conscious effort to see people. I am someone who needs a lot of time on her own in order to function optimally.
Rumpus: How do you feel about this book being labeled Young Adult (YA)? Is your ideal reader someone who reads both All Our Pretty songs and the Guillotine chapbooks?
McCarry: Hugely ambivalent, to be honest. There’s a lot of baggage that comes along with having your work marketed as YA that I could do without. But you know, I am in this pretty extraordinary position in my career where, at least for now, I get to write the books that I want and have them published. That’s a huge, huge gift, however the work ends up in the world.
I don’t think about audience or if different kinds of people will read different things that I write or publish. Eve Sedgwick wrote that what she was proudest of was “having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart,” and that’s, for me, the ultimate goal.
I put a lot of love into everything I do, whether it’s publishing other people’s work or writing my own, and I made the decision a long time ago that I wasn’t going to waste my time with work that wasn’t honest, wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing. It’s not likely I will make a living writing books and I’m certainly not going to make a living as a publisher, so I might as well be doing work that brings me joy.
Which is a really long way of getting to your question about ideal readers: I think people are hungry for that kind of love and honesty and I have found, in my own career at least, that people who respond to that kind of work and that kind of love will respond no matter what form they take.
Rumpus: I think YA readers are super-savvy, though. For example, I brought up Imogen Binnie’s Nevada with some adults the other day and they fell all over themselves, but when I talked about it with some teens they were all, “So Maria’s trans, and then…”
McCarry: Oh, yeah, the issue isn’t teenagers. Teenagers are great. It is generally adults who are the problem.
My editor is amazing and has never once asked me to change anything that wasn’t something about the story that wasn’t working. I had heard unbelievable horror stories from other writers, especially writers who got published as YA. I mean, not just like “no cussing or boning down”—like editors telling them to make characters white instead of people of color, straight instead of queer. “This character is too slutty, no one will like her, what a bitch. Why’s she so gay? Why can’t she be white?” Et cetera. I am not talking about isolated incidents here.
And this stuff is infinitely, infinitely worse for writers of color. It’s always easier for white writers to get published writing characters of color (which has been true for me, too, and believe me, I know it). Publishing as an industry has a huge, huge diversity problem. A huge reality problem, to be honest.
But the first time I talked to my editor on the phone, she said,“Such-and-such scene isn’t working, fix it,” and I was like, “But they can still cuss and do heroin?” And there was this startled pause and she was like, “Why wouldn’t they be able to?” So that was just very good luck. She’s been hugely, hugely supportive, and very trusting of me as a writer, which is not common. I have massive issues with the industry, but as an individual, I’ve been really lucky.
Rumpus: It makes me happy, how you’ve continued to publish your zine on top of your chapbooks, on top of your novels. When you want to publish something, how do you decide where it goes?
McCarry: Oh man, the zine comes last these days. I have a lot on my plate, and a lot of that sort of writing goes on my blog now. But I’ve been making the zine since 1999 and I have no intention of stopping, even if it only comes out once a year.
Featured photograph of Sarah McCarry © Meg Clark. Second photograph of Sarah McCarry © Ruby Fitch.