Legends Made Modern: An Interview with Kat Howard, Author of A Cathedral of Myth and Bone: Stories

In Kat Howard’s ravishing story collection A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, the mundane becomes magical and Arthurian legends come to life in the 21st century. Drawing on a deep well of myth and medieval tales of the saints, this collection subverts gender stereotypes and delivers imaginative surprises.

I caught up with Kat to talk about her journey to becoming a writer, the inspirations behind this collection, and more.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone presents a compelling intersection of fantasy, modern life, and themes from medieval literature and hagiography. Age-old myths—Arthurian, Christian, and more—come to life in the present day. Can you talk about how you were drawn to write fantasy in this vein?
I talk about this a little bit in my introduction to the collection. These sorts of stories were the first kind I distinctly remember finding and loving as a reader. Part of the reason that I loved them was because they had enough flexibility in how they were told that when I was a child, I could imagine myself in them, could make them part of my own life. So when I began writing, I was drawn to write the sort of story that I had loved reading—one that had resonance with the past, and with previous stories, but that was at the same time brought forward into a modern framework.

Like the fairy tale retellings of Angela Carter, your works are explicitly feminist—and when you take on a more male-centered myth, like that of King Arthur or Sir Gawain, you “tell it slant” to center women in the narrative. Can you talk about this aspect of your work—this reclaiming, in a sense, of traditionally male-centric stories?

First, let me just die of happiness a little to see any part of my work compared to that of Angela Carter’s. She’s a great writer, and a huge influence on me.

As to my version of this feminist work, it is very much done deliberately. I want to see more stories about women. Full stop. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in reading stories about men or about people who aren’t on the gender binary. But because I want to see more stories about women, that is what I choose to write. I want to show that there is no story that women don’t belong in, and also, to show the way that showcasing the presence of women in the narrative can change the way we think about stories that are otherwise familiar to us.

In the Acknowledgments you cite Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk as an inspiration for your Arthurian novella, “Once, Future.” As someone who also admired that book, I’d love to hear more about how that book sparked the idea for your novella.

It’s sort of a difficult thing for me to explain, because I can feel how it all came together in my head more than I can quite articulate the logic of it. But H Is for Hawk is a book that sort of knocked the top of my head off with how gorgeous it is. It made me rethink what I wanted to do in my own writing, made me feel brave and expansive. And because T.H. White is such an important figure in that book, it called me back to one of my favorite books, The Once and Future King. I’d been trying to write a version of what became “Once, Future” forever, but reading MacDonald’s book was the thing that finally made the pieces click for me.

Of the many versions of the Arthurian myth, which are your favorites?
I have an incredible and powerful love for the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone, and [as stated] for White’s The Once and Future King. I also love the weirder Arthuriana—”The Dream of Rhonabwy” from the Mabinogi, the fourteenth century Welsh poem, “Preiddeu Annwn” (“The Spoils of Annwn”).

You have a deep academic and professional background. Can you talk about your journey to becoming a fiction writer?

Haha, yes, in case the answers to the above question didn’t give it away, I am indeed a medievalist by training. I wasn’t one of those people who always knew they wanted to write. I didn’t try until I was an adult. I was two years away from defending my dissertation, my personal life had just undergone a fairly large upheaval, and I learned about the Clarion Writers Workshop. I applied, was accepted, and was fortunate enough to be in a situation that meant I could go take six weeks and write. By the time I came home, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. My academic advisor—the woman Cathedral is dedicated to—was incredibly supportive of me, and I started writing fiction while I finished my dissertation.

You recently announced that a sequel to your novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, is in the offing. Can you offer any details?
I can! A Sleight of Shadows will be out in June of 2020. This is the next and final piece of Sydney’s story, and I’m extremely delighted to be spending time with her again.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is available now.

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