In Which Writers/Spouses C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez Talk Inspiration, Craft, and New York-Bizarre

Today, we’re pleased to offer another installment of Other Halves, our irregular interview series in which authors are interviewed—about their books, writing process, and the weirdness of the literary life—by their spouse(s)/partner/significant other.

Today’s post includes not one author, but two: C.S.E. Cooney, author of Bone Swans and the new fantasy novella Desdemona and the Deep; and Carlos Hernandez, the writer behind the bestselling book for middle-grade readers, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe.

They’ll take it from here…

I think we both get our kicks by seeing how far we can push our imaginations, how ludicrous and excessive we can make an image or an idea. What’s one of your favorite fancies that you have in reserve right now that hasn’t yet made it into a story or poem?

Claire: Well (“as you know, Bob”), we live in Queens, near a footbridge of the LIRR. Once, crossing it, I saw a little girl—no more than four—standing in the middle of the bridge like some kind of sorceress, arms extended, inviting a train from one direction, and holding back another, grinning wildly. She needs something. A story, a poem. She needs a world to work her magic in, a dragon to ride; she needs to straddle ley-lines full of lightning and work splendid spells suspended in the air over some old railroad track. I love her, whoever she is.

Carlos: And, of course, you have been working on a little something that captures this image, yes?

Claire: Okay, fine, yes! I admit it! Twist my arm! I was asked to write a poem for an anthology about dragons, and I decided to use this opportunity to write something called “The Wyrm of Lirr.” It is New York-bizarre (weird Queens specifically), and it took some doing, but I am very pleased.

Did you ever do anything like my kid on the bridge, Carlos, when you were a child? Conduct the world? What sort of magical ideas did you have before you knew the difference between fantasy and reality? Did you have any Emily of New Moon “flashes” that made you a writer before you could write?

Carlos: Oh yes. I had (have!) this recurring image of being able to shout down a mountain. I just walk up, let rip a stentorian scream, and the peak is cleaved asunder and it collapses in an avalanche of rubble. One time, in a dream, a marching band emerged from the rockpile and played a victory march for me. Have always clung to that dream. It makes me feel powerful.

It’s why I write, in a nutshell. Nothing makes me feel more powerful, more like a wizard. In school presentations I’ve been giving lately, I’ve been making the argument that writing and spellcasting are the same thing, except that spellcasting is faster at achieving results. In what ways is your writing like spellcasting?

Claire: Did you ever see Disney’s Fantasia?

Carlos: A childhood favorite. I loved the alligator-hippo ballet!

Claire: I love the Hall of the Mountain King part the best. But the section that stays with me, in a kind of rueful writerly way, is the part with Mickey Mouse in the role of Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He’s so young. He doesn’t know much, not like his wizard master. But he knows just enough to get things started. And does, with enthusiasm. The dishes wash themselves, the mops replicate, the suds proliferate—but he doesn’t know how to stop it. His master has to come along and deus-ex-machina the problem away, probably saving the world from drowning in dish soap, and poor Mickey is sent back to his scullery.

And yet, it’s heartening, don’t you think, that he could do so much already, even knowing so little? Maybe my writing is like that. I work with a lot of little ideas, which results in chaos and catastrophe, and hope some bigger idea will start paying attention, maybe even come along and save me. And the story.

Speaking of big ideas, one of things we often say to each other when we see something overwhelmingly beautiful is that line from the movie Contact: “They should have sent a poet.”

Carlos: I mean, we have literally used that line to describe Krispy Kreme donuts, so.

Claire: Well, yeah. Krispy Kremes can be poetry too! Life is full of poetry. For example, in Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, you boldly embed both theatre and verse in a significant play-within-a-story chapter. What did you hope to accomplish with this? How does your long love affair with poetry and literature influence your current writing as a Middle Grade Science Fiction author?

Carlos: Anyone who doesn’t include poetry in their SFF is missing a key part of worldbuilding. Put another way, just as I was walking to the train today, I saw a father and his maybe four-year-old daughter walking ahead of me. The daughter cavorted around her father, improvising a song. Now, it didn’t scan perfectly or anything, but she was dancing and delighting in the sound of language, of putting words together. That’s how fundamental poetry is. All of us are poets from the moment we first speak.

We live in an age right now where describing a book as “fast-paced,” “relentless,” “breathless,” and “non-stop” are compliments. For myself, I would love it if we, as a culture, remembered how much joy in reading can come from lingering inside of, lounging in, and savoring a plot. The play within a play in Sal and Gabi is plot-bearing, sure, but really, it’s meant to be a set piece to delight readers, show them new sides to characters, and advance the playful tone of the book, as opposed to the action.

You linger and lounge in your new novella, Desdemona and the Deep. It’s one of the reasons I love it so: it’s gorgeous, excessive—three worlds in one! Namely, the human world, the fairie world, and the goblin world all collide as our eponymous protagonist traverses them, attempting to right an unspeakable wrong. What draws your imagination to seelie and unseelie realms?

Claire: Mythically, you get your Seelie and Unseelie realms very much like you get your Summer Court and Winter Court, or your good angels and bad devils, or your beautiful and your ugly. I guess I’m drawn to cyclical things, but I’m not drawn to the binary. Three’s a more interesting mix of worlds, with none of them being wholly good, bad, beautiful, or ugly, but each stuffed full of everything and yet still entirely alien from each other.

What would a gentry entity (or “fairy” in your words) want from a human? One answer is art: which bursts forth from an entirely mortal fear of death and a striving for something slightly more, if not eternal, than longer-lived than the artist. One of the immortal gentry cannot make that. Even to touch it, to look upon it, acts upon them as a drug.

What would a human want from one of the kobaldkin, the goblins who live in the world beneath the world beneath? Oil, coal, metals, minerals, the stuff of the deep. This makes for an interesting commerce, sets the scene for all sorts of bargains and conflicting desires.

Anyway, more worlds are more interesting than one. That’s the stuff of science fiction and fantasy! You, for example, not only deal in many worlds—you deal in many universes! You’ve dabbled in the multiverse before, in your short story collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. When did you first encounter many worlds theory? What draws you to it metaphorically?

Carlos: You said it: more worlds are better than one. Many Worlds Theory as a metaphor perfectly captures one of the hardest parts of being a human: specifically, that choices are irrevocable. If you mess up in life, there’s no “continue from your last save?” option you can use to try to get a better outcome. You also have no real way to compare the choice you made with the choices you could have made.

But writing a Many Worlds SF story lets you explore what if. It’s a method we can use to conduct thought experiments about what it means to be alive. Since, in Many Worlds, anything that could happen does happen, somewhere, it’s a great way to explore extremes in human thought and behavior. I think your mind leads you to use the fey and the koboldkin, mythical living creatures who, in some ways, are caricatures of certain human tendencies. Same philosophical ends, different approach. Would you agree?

Claire: Oh, yes. I like exploring the “what if” of immortality, and mythical creatures are very useful for that. All our choices would be different if we had the option of living forever. Or rather, they might not be so different in the beginning—for a while. And then we’d get bored and have to try something different. All of our desires would be different. And exploring desire is some meaty—heady?—well, complex, anyway—stuff.

Carlos: Complexity is definitely something we both crave, isn’t it? We write about boggling, unanswerable questions, yet we do it through the clarity and the focus that characters and plots provide. And the writing provides all sorts of answers: just never to the questions we happen to be asking at the time!

Claire: One of my favorite things you say is, “We must remain complex.” It helps me see the world a little more bravely, and love it a little more dearly, and give it what I can of the art I make.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe and Desdemona and the Deep are both available now.

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