The dark side of the circus midway is territory we’ve tread many times before, but as Steph Post is apt to do, she refuses to make her new novel Miraculum, forthcoming from Polis Books on January 22, your typical sad-day-under-the-big-top tale. The fantastical historical fiction is stacked with subversive characters who thrive in the roving reality they’ve built. Our heroine, Ruby, a walking mystery with an ancient prophecy inked into her skin, is never in the market for a savior; and unforgettable villain, Daniel, doesn’t court redemption. It’s old-fashioned storytelling of the finest order, continuously plummeting forward, and staying fiercely loyal to its characters.
I first heard Post read from her novel at AWP Tampa in early 2018, where she drew us into the world of shows and secrets in the first chapter, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting the chance to devour the novel in its entirety ever since.
I spoke with Post this winter about how, exactly, the marvelous circus is made.
The Rumpus: I’m high-key obsessed with first lines, and I love yours: Daniel stood in the center of the midway and felt its beating heart. Was it your first actual sentence or something that came together after cutting that beginning throat-clearing?
Steph Post: Ah, thank you! I think first lines are so important—they set the tone for the entire novel. I always think of an opening line as a promise. Like a secret, between myself and the reader. Hopefully, it’s a promise I can keep. I do a huge amount of revision during novel writing—it’s a constant process of layering—and Miraculum, in particular, had many changes along the way. The first line, though, stayed the same from the very first moment I scrawled it down in one of my many, many notebooks. It just came, fully formed, and I knew it was right. You know, now that I think about it, I almost never go back and change the opening line of a novel from the very first draft. Everything else, yes, but somehow that promise always comes out right on the first try.
And concerning this line in particular—I absolutely wanted to open with Daniel standing on the midway, the carnival blossoming all around him, because that’s where I wanted the reader to find herself as the journey of the story begins. In a strange way, too, Daniel is our guide into this topsy-turvy world. He’s the most mysterious character, but he’s also an outsider to the Star Light Miraculum and so we’re able to learn about the carnival through his eyes.
Rumpus: I can feel that writing magic in that sentence, that fleeting, unpredictable, muse-gone-crazy sensation when inspiration is taking the driver’s seat and the writing doesn’t quite feel like work anymore. Were there any other scenes or sentences that stick out in your mind as being this natural to create?
Post: All of Daniel’s “monologues” came out like falling water. I think, perhaps, because I knew his character so well. When I would give him a chance to speak directly to the reader, I had that sensation you’re talking about. Where it was just like opening up a vein.
Rumpus: Conversely, were there any chapters or sections that gave you trouble, that you had to spend the most time to get just right?
Post: I wouldn’t say that I was blocked at all, but there were parts that were frustratingly difficult to write. The end scene and the scene in the geek tent—I could see what was happening in these two scenes in my head, but it was murder trying to get it exactly right on the page. These scenes are so important to the narrative and so pivotal to the characters and I had to do them justice.
These scenes were difficult, also, because I’m trying to express the inexpressible, in a way. I’d like to think I’m a very cinematic writer—but here I was trying to write actions that would have been troublesome even to film. (not that I’m averse to anyone trying, ahem, Hollywood…) But to try to capture these almost sublime experiences between Daniel and Ruby, well, it was something a bit new for me. I think I pulled it off in the end, and I’m extremely proud of both scenes, but they gave me a run for my money. I guess the good ones always do.
Rumpus: Daniel is a character with such a fascinating history and future. I couldn’t help but want to follow him down rabbit holes of ancient times and Hollywood. Do you feel that you’re through with the character, or that there are more adventures to trace with him?
Post: Oh, Lord. Out of every character I’ve ever written, Daniel has my heart. He was the most fun to write and the absolute most fascinating to create. There are so many layers built into his character, especially with regards to his symbology, and I hope that readers catch on to at least a few. Daniel is one of those characters who will forever haunt me. I’ll never quite be able to let him go.
That being said, his story is at an end for now. I would love to one day check back in on him. Not to give anything away, but the ending of Miraculum is both open and closed at the same time. There are elements of him, however, in another character in my current work-in-progress. I wouldn’t be surprised if he shows up in strange ways in other novels as well. I love to hide little Easter eggs in all my novels, referencing past stories, symbols and characters. I’m sure we’ll see hints of Daniel again…
Rumpus: Is it creepy how sexy I find him? Like, that’s kind of creepy, right?
Post: I think he’s tremendously sexy. I’m attracted to him, and I created the damn character! Of course, this is coming from the lady whose first crush was Darth Vader in third grade… But, truly, I’ve always fallen for the villain in a story. I think a lot of people do. I mean, it’s fiction. Reading, or watching a film, or settling into a comic book or graphic novel—it’s our chance to flirt with the dark side.
And half of Daniel’s premise is his sexiness. His ability to make men and women fall in love with him. If I can get the reader to feel even a tingling of that, then I’ve done my job as an author.
Rumpus: Well done. And I love that you had a crush on Darth Vader. I was also a weird crush kid (Gilligan and Darkwing Duck stand out in that category). One of the things I’ve found curious is the trend to humanize characters that were, in the past, contentedly relegated to the “evil” category. Darth Vader is a major one here, what with his whimsical children’s books, Mr. Potato Head figurines, and Robot Chicken parodies (even though he vaporized an entire planet). It’s like we’re obsessed with making terrible creatures ordinary, which has had horrendous repercussions in our actual world. This was something I thought that set apart Miraculum, that you didn’t try to give Daniel a tragic backstory. He’s hot but awful. And not remotely human. How did you walk that line between making us intrigued by a character without falling into a sympathy trap, and was this something you were conscious of?
Post: I like villains who are villains. In my Southern crime series, my main villain is a Pentecostal preacher. And she’s evil. Really. And she owns it. It doesn’t make Sister Tulah any less complex of a character; it just makes her more authentic. Daniel is the same way. He can been charming and sexy and, especially at the end, I think there’s a temptation to root for him. To feel a bit of sympathy, because we finally see a weakness. But he never lets you forget who he really is. He makes a point to remind the reader of what he’s done, how he feels about it—like Sister Tulah, he owns his badness.
I love a sympathetic villain, I really do. BUT, I don’t like it when we learn the “secret trauma” that made the character that way. This is sort of like one of my biggest pet peeves with a certain type of female character. The heroines who can be badass or vengeful or tough, but only if they’ve been raped in the past, or been through some terrible trauma at the hands of a man. If she has, she’s sympathetic. If she hasn’t, then she’s just a bitch. This is such a common trope nowadays and it pisses me off. Why can’t a chick be a badass just because? Why?
Rumpus: Speaking of circumventing tropes, I found it interesting, and to be honest, refreshing, that Ruby did not reconcile with her father. In pretty much every other narrative I can think of, such a rift between father and daughter would necessitate compromise and forgiveness, with Ruby bearing the brunt of that labor. In a similar twist, the sultry and flirty January is never seduced or proven dishonest. I’m curious if you were, at any point in the writing or editing process, pushed to place these characters in more traditional molds?
Post: I’ve never actually considered it, which is why I love it when readers notice things like this! I was conscious of walking a fine line with Ruby’s gender expression. I didn’t want her to be just the “tough girl in trousers”—the sort of revisionist heroine that drives me crazy sometimes. I wanted her to be as real as possible, but also true to the constraints of the 1920s. As for Ruby’s relationship with Pontilliar… this is probably way too personal, but I can’t stand father-daughter reconciliation scenes. It’s sort of an issue with me. It never once crossed my mind to have Ruby forgive her father. And also, it wouldn’t work for the story. Ruby just isn’t the forgiving type.
January’s situation is a bit trickier now that I look at it. You’re right, the typical “twist” would be to have her character fall in some way. But, that just wouldn’t be her character, either! A novel, for me, is always led first by its characters. I love twists and secrets and big reveals, but they have to stay true to the character, though the reader may still be surprised.
Rumpus: I love your dedication to character. I think that something I have a problem with in fictional storytelling is when writers betray the characters they’ve written. I’m thinking primarily of TV and film, when stories go on too long and to liven things up, we’re supposed to accept actions and decisions outside of the boundaries of the universe that was originally created. Asking as someone who has never written successful fiction and marvels at your accomplishment with a particularly slack-jawed wonder, how do you draw these boundaries, and have you ever had to give up a twist or idea for the sake of staying within them?
Post: Yeah, but you write incredible creative nonfiction and I’m stumped in that area, so… I just wanted to point that out. Eats of Eden is fabulous.
I feel the same way, though, and I hate it when stories go past their expiration date. It eventually takes away from the power of the whole body of work. I always have ideas that are bigger than the narrative at hand, but if I’m in doubt, I look at the truth of the character and the story and use that as my guide. Without giving away the ending of Miraculum, I will say that I was tempted to have Ruby make a different choice. It was sort of a dark temptation and one I definitely flirted with, but in the end, it would have gone against what we know of her character.
Rumpus: On the subject of history, the historic role of traveling circuses and entertainment, and their contributions to both static communities and as their own roving microcosms, is central to the book. How did you research this? Was it something you’ve always been interested in, or did you dedicate specific research to the book?
Post: I’ve always been interested in outsider narratives. Characters and stories on the fringe. I don’t have any personal history or experience with circus or carnival life, but I watched HBO’s Carnivale many years ago and that sealed the deal for me. I knew that one day I would have to write about a traveling carnival.
But there was so much research. Books and more books and documentaries and photographs. I visited the Ringling Circus Museum, but by that time I was firmly invested in writing about carnivals as opposed to circuses. I also did a ton of research on the 1920s, on mythology, folktales, languages, etc. My hope is that the reader finds the world authentic, without seeing all of the work that went on behind the scenes. Fortunately, I love the research phase of novel writing, so it all works out.
Rumpus: I assumed you were going to say “my mom has been the headmistress of a circus history museum for thirty years and I grew up with it,” because the world feels that real to me. I think you’re going to pique the traveling circus history curiosity for many of us who pick up the novel. Can you recommend any particular books or media that Miraculum fans might enjoy? Are there any amazing anecdotes or historical figures you couldn’t work in that you’d love to share?
Post: Oh my goodness, there’s so much. American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman would be a great place to start if you’re interested in carnival performers. I also learned so, so much by reading Joe McKennon’s A Pictorial History of the American Carnival. It’s as authentic an account of carnival history as you can get. [And check out Steph’s recommended books to “quench that desire for the topsy-turvy” here. – Ed.]
There’s a lot of sadness in carnival lore—a huge, dark history of exploitation—but I love the stories of the sideshow performers who exploited the system back. The ones who completely embraced the glamour of the lifestyle. I also find the “true life” stories of many sideshow performers interesting. Just for example, take Grady Stiles Jr., aka Lobster Boy. When his daughter once tried to elope, he shot and killed her fiancé. He pulled the trigger on the gun with one of his claws. He was eventually murdered by his own wife and son in Gibsonton, Florida. I mean, it’s terrible, but fascinating, too. No one, not even a Lobster Boy, is immune from the drama.
Rumpus: I had never heard about a “circus geek” or person who bites the head off a chicken onstage until reading your novel, and your decision to put such a particular, unnervingly measured character in that role added to the creepiness. Interestingly, you didn’t have a scene in the book that depicted what Daniel was like in his role as a geek, which I thought was curious. Was this a willful omission?
Post: I did have a brief scene with Daniel on stage as a geek in the first draft, but I cut it almost immediately. I’m the sort of reader who can’t deal with cruelty to animals. Yes, we know what Daniel is doing to the chickens, but also, I think, it was creepier to have the scene with Daniel and January next to the cage of chickens, rather than to depict the geek act itself. In the horror genre—which Miraculum brushes against in places—I find what can’t be seen so much more troubling than what can. A guy going after someone with a chainsaw is just gross. But the tension created by the unseen, that’s what I find fascinating.
Also, I raise chickens. I love them. I already feel bad enough as it is about having Daniel be a geek.
Rumpus: Yes! It was the unseen nature that made it so much worse. That scene in my head is so fucked up.
Post: MINE, TOO. It’s funny, with all the horrible things that Daniel does in the book, it’s the chickens that get me. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s the truth.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned to me in the past your love of Tarot, and I’m new to the cards myself. Does your Tarot practice play into your writing process in any way?
Post: Not the actual process itself, but I’m using some of the Tarot archetypes to guide a part of the character development in my current work-in-progress. When I wrote Miraculum, three years ago, I didn’t know much about Tarot and it wasn’t on my mind at all. Now that I’m going back and creating artwork for the book, I’m incorporating some of the Major Arcana motifs. I’m giving the main characters cards—Daniel, the Magician, Ruby, the High Priestess, Samuel, the Hierophant, and so on—and it’s just another way of creating and linking symbols from the novel to the artwork and back again. It’s just adding on more and more layers to the story.
Rumpus: Okay, real talk… you’re running away to join the 1922 Spectacular Star Light Miraculum. What’s your act and what’s your stage name?
Post: Oh! Such a good question! I’m trying to think of something realistic here—my first impulse was a trapeze artist, but I’m not the most graceful—so I could run a trained chicken act, I suppose. I’ve read about a few “trained chicken” shows that were popular, where chickens could solve math problems, play a tiny piano, dance, and perform all kinds of magic tricks. I’m currently raising a new batch of chicks, maybe if I started now, I could train them. Maybe I could even get some of the dogs to join in. Like, have a chicken ride around on Juno’s back. That would be fantastic! I have way too many ideas now. And as for a name… how about… Stephiana, the Chicken Magician! …I’m probably going to regret this, aren’t I?
Rumpus: Please just give me the time and GPS coordinates of Steph’s Fowl Fantasia and I will be on the next flight out!