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Ruthanna Emrys Interview – Deep Roots

Ruthanna EmrysRuthanna Emrys is the author of Winter Tide (2017), first book in The Innsmouth Legacy series, a wonderful subversion of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936). The series focuses on Aphra and Caleb, two Deep Ones who are the only survivors of the internment camps where the inhabitants of Innsmouth are shipped off to at the end of the story. Expanding on her short story “The Litany of Earth” (2014), the novel mixes historical fiction and cosmic horror to brilliantly dissect Lovecraft’s racism and to look at the real world consequences of oppression.

Deep Roots, the sequel to Winter Tide, is out from Tor in July. Ruthanna Emrys was kind enough to chat with Fantasy-Faction over email about her forthcoming novel, using weird fiction to engage with the horrors of history, and how cosmic horror links with Cold War paranoia.

Deep Roots, your second novel, is due for release in July and sees the return of Aphra and Caleb Marsh from Winter Tide. What new challenges are they facing this time around?

At the end of Winter Tide, Aphra and Caleb decided to rebuild Innsmouth. Of course, a town needs people, and they’re the only People of the Water left on land. However, they may have lost relations—the mistblooded descendants of Deep One and airborn lovers, who left the town long ago. They track down one such cousin in New York City, only to discover that he’s fallen in with a bad—or at least not-particularly-human—crowd. The Mi-Go have their own opinions about Innsmouth, and about human politics in general, and Aphra is quickly in trouble that stretches well beyond her family.

Winter Tide and Deep Roots follow the experiences of two people from Innsmouth who have survived being shipped off to the internment camps at the end of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Where did the idea to use the viewpoints of these characters to subvert Lovecraft’s racist ideas come from?

The Shadow Over Innsmouth (cover)From “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which starts by announcing cheerfully that the residents of Innsmouth have been shipped off to internment camps. To me, that instantly suggests who the sympathetic viewpoint characters ought to be—but of course, in the original, aren’t.

Aphra, Charlie, Ron Spector and some of the other characters all first appeared in the short story “The Litany of Earth”. When did you realise you had a larger story to tell about these characters?

After “Litany” came out, the comment thread at Tor.com started to fill with requests for a novel. At first I ignored them, figuring it was just shorthand for people liking the story. But requests kept coming, including some from editors, and I started to think about what else I might want to say with Aphra and her setting. There are authors whose muses work in splendid isolation, but I find it very inspiring to know that people want to read something. It makes me think about the potential that they’re seeing. “The Litany of Earth” was about Aphra starting to recover personally from internment, and facing the limits of her trauma-born instincts about who she could trust. Winter Tide was about facing her losses more head-on, and accepting some of the things that weren’t lost despite the emotional risk—about how you rebuild community after that kind of devastation.

Winter Tide engages with Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Whilst Deep Roots, by sending the characters to New York and focusing on the immigrant experience, subverts “The Horror at Red Hook” (1937), one of Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist stories. What drew you in particular to these two stories?

Deep Roots (cover)Although I was very aware of “Horror at Red Hook” while writing, I feel like Deep Roots “subverts” it the same way that every other story about realistic New Yorkers and realistic immigrants can be said to subvert it. I hate that story too much to engage closely with it; Victor LaValle, who honestly loves it, did a terrific subversion in The Ballad of Black Tom. For Deep Roots, I was drawn more to The Whisperer in Darkness, (1931), a later Lovecraft story that does more complicated things with Lovecraft’s feelings about urban community. The Mi-Go explicitly describe themselves as “cosmopolitan,” and they offer a devil’s deal where you can be part of this intense discussion among people of all worlds and backgrounds, but you have to give up your body and your autonomy to do it. That aspect of Lovecraft’s bigotry—the fear that diversity destroys identity—is also one that minority communities struggle with, including the Jewish immigrants he hated. And it’s salient for Aphra as well, who grew up in an insular monoculture and now has to decide what her community will look like when that isolation is no longer possible.

The novels use pulp weird fiction tropes to force us to engage afresh with the horrors of American history – Aphra and Caleb’s adopted families are Japanese internment camp survivors – and the legacy of racism whose effects in modern society in the US are all too easy to see. What is it about genre fiction that makes it an effective tool for doing this?

There are two ways to write fantastic oppression. One uses the imagined oppression to stand in for real experiences. You can tell powerful stories that way, but it can also make the real thing invisible, or twist the truth in strange ways. I love the X-Men, but if someone can kill you by accidentally dropping their glasses, it actually does have different legal and societal implications than if they’re gay or Jewish.

My single favorite moment in X-Men is a confrontation between Magneto and Kitty Pryde, both Jewish, that engages with the intersection of real and imagined oppression. It lets the imagined one have its own nature rather than trying to stand in for something else. That’s what I’m interested in doing with Aphra’s stories. What looks the same about hatred or internment, no matter who and what you are? What changes when there’s real magic involved? What happens when you get Jews and Nikkei and Deep Ones together in a room after World War II—what do they have in common, what’s different, what can they learn from that parallax?

Your diverse cast of characters allows you to explore the various ways in which groups of people from different backgrounds, genders and sexualities have been discriminated against and othered by white cis patriarchal culture. Was exploring as wide a range of the human experience important to you?

Yes—but it’s important to me because I write the world I live in. My city, my neighborhood, my kitchen table, are places where people from different backgrounds come together. I want to see people like me in fiction, and write them, but I also want to see and write communities and families like mine. To show what we gain from living and working with people of different backgrounds, and also how we handle the friction that does come from difference. One of the ongoing themes in Deep Roots is that there are real reasons why people are drawn to places where everyone looks like them, but for both privileged and oppressed there’s value in coming together too.

Your novels have strong elements of historical fiction – the background of 1940s America is vividly and realistically realised as a foil for the supernatural, Lovecraftian elements. How much research goes into getting the historical detail right?

Winter Tide (cover)Not enough? I always feel very nervous about my historical research, because I’m a psychologist in a house full of historians. Fortunately I do live in a house full of historians. I did a lot of reading about the early Cold War, and about experiences of Japanese internment. I talked with people who worked in Ivy League libraries before they went non-smoking. (Yes, even in the rare books collections.) I wandered around the San Francisco Nihonmachi, and went into their historical center to ask about food, and told them I was writing a novel but chickened out about explaining anything beyond that.

Language is fun—I’m not a hardass about never using an anachronistic word, but I do care about core ideas where the word didn’t exist yet… the late 40s were a weird linguistic transition for a lot of modern SFnal concepts. “Alien” and “extraterrestrial,” as nouns describing people from other worlds, didn’t exist until the 50s. “Nuclear war,” even though everyone was learning to be terrified of it, wasn’t a common term yet either. DNA hadn’t been discovered. In Winter Tide, every time I found an issue like that, I’d just give the line to Trumbull. Half her purpose in that book, besides providing an outlet for my snark-filled exasperation with humanity, was to take charge of the anachronisms.

Deep Roots was easier in some ways because my dad was in New York in 1949, albeit he was much younger than my characters. At one point a kid runs across the street to catch a ball, and that’s him because he talked so much about the games he played with other boys. A friend who’s an infrastructure geek corrected my ‘49 subway system about 5 minutes before I handed in the proofs, so I’m sure there are still things I’m messing up.

Both books are set against the paranoid backdrop of the Cold War. How does fear of nuclear annihilation and state paranoia link in to Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, and why does it feel increasingly relevant today?

Why does it feel increasingly relevant today? That is a question I ask loudly and with great force every time I check Twitter.

Charlie Stross says, and I agree, that Lovecraft was brilliant at writing about the feel of the Cold War, despite dying before it began. There are these huge, impersonal forces that don’t care whether humans live or die, and the fear of annihilation is something you breathe every day with your oxygen. Amid the anxieties following World War I, Lovecraft captured something crucial about life in an imminent apocalypse. So the Mythos meshes easily with nuclear brinksmanship, and it meshes with epidemics, and it meshes with climate change. It probably meshes with living under the threat of gray goo nanotechnology and AI overlords, too.

Your novels passionately and powerfully critique Lovecraft’s racism and sexism, whilst at the same time having obvious affection for his weird and wonderful monsters. What is it that draws you to the Cthulhu Mythos even as Lovecraft’s horrendous views repel you?

Mi-Go by Tazio BettinEven as Lovecraft’s views are horrendous—and hate and fear of other humans are deeply embedded in his work—there’s a reason he constantly talks about both attraction and repulsion to these cosmic horrors. His narrators, even knowing they’re approaching an irreversibly terrifying epiphany, can’t look away. And his monsters, who stand in for and are worshiped by all us scary Jews and madmen and poor people and brown people… he often seems more intrigued by them, sometimes even more sympathetic, than he thinks he should be. The Yith, the Mi-Go, the Deep Ones—often the “horror” of the story is in how much they really have to offer, and the terrible price is acknowledging that humans (or just white upper-class anglos, which to him are the same thing) aren’t the center of the universe or the pinnacle of history or even especially important. He put enough depth into his monsters that they’re easy to write sympathetically, even while he screamed with every multisyllabic adjective that good, civilized people should resist that sympathy.

The other thing that attracts me is the weirdly optimistic nature of the Mythos. Humans will pass into extinction like every other species—but there are other species, there are other civilizations, and part of our insignificance is that nothing we do can prevent other species from rising and falling, this whole cornucopic universe full of every conceivable kind of life and sapience.

Your work emerged at a time when there seems to be a boom of authors, such as Victor LaValle with The Ballad Of Black Tom, Kij Johnson with The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, and Matt Ruff with Lovecraft Country, all using the Cthulhu Mythos to critique and subvert Lovecraft’s ideas. Do you feel a kinship with these writers, and why do you think this is happening now?

I do feel a kinship. But it’s not only neo-Lovecraftiana where this type of story is emerging. So many kinds of voices are emerging, and being heard more loudly than they’ve ever been before. Sometimes that opens new schools of literature and art, new styles and fresh-hatched stories, and sometimes it results in glorious deconstruction and reconstruction and diversified remakes. Amid all this, I do think Lovecraft stands as a symbol of the “old guard” of stories—partly because of the World Fantasy Award, and partly because he so blatantly valued one set of voices above all others.

Although it is a new adventure, Deep Roots forces its characters, both likeable and otherwise, to face the consequences of their actions in Winter Tide. Was this important for your approach in writing a sequel?

My absolute favorite plot is “characters have to deal with the consequences of their solution to the last problem.” So sequels are fun. I also think we don’t admit, often enough, that all solutions have knock-on effects. Even if the solution is a good one, even if solving the problem was vital, that doesn’t give you a pass, and you’ll always have to follow through solving the new problems.

Across the novels we’ve seen appearances of the Yith, the Mi-Go and their brain canisters, and visits to the Dreamlands, however there are more obscure Mythos references as well. What’s the most obscure Mythos reference you’ve hidden in the books, and has anyone spotted it?

The Litany of Earth (cover)Now I have to see if I can remember it! When Audrey looks up books about the K’n-yan, one of the authors is the first guy who interviewed me about “Litany.” Then Aphra uses a book on summoning that’s written by a sorcerer from Anne M. Pillsworth’s Summoned—Anne is my co-blogger on the Lovecraft Reread—and Trumbull makes fun of his summoning technique. Anne caught that, obviously, and thought the mockery was probably justified. Lovecraft and his circle did this sort of thing all the time, so it’s part of an ongoing tradition. It’s fun, but it’s also a reminder that we’re all playing in the same sandbox—that whether or not Lovecraft would have approved of my participation, I’m joining a century-old conversation. The critiques and the fun references—and adding in new ideas too—are all a part of that.

How many more stories do you currently have planned in The Innsmouth Legacy series?

As many as they’ll let me write. Buy more books!

More seriously (or at least more informatively), the style of series that I’m most interested in writing is along the lines of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, where you follow characters over a lifespan and see how they change and grow. That’s interesting over a human lifespan, and for the Deep Ones longer. How much growth and change, how many new stages of adulthood, can you get to given a few million years? How does that change what you love, what you’re afraid of, how you act on your love and fear?

Which of Lovecraft’s monsters or stories that you’ve not played with yet do you most want to use?

At The Mountains of Madness (cover)The shoggothim, from At the Mountains of Madness (1936) are a bogeyman throughout Lovecraft’s late work. There are so few stories that use them as anything else—Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) being a notable and glorious exception. And yet they are escaped slaves. They were supposed to be these perfect unthinking servants and instead they revolted against their masters The Elder Things. And Lovecraft insists that they have no culture of their own, that they merely mimic a degenerate version of the civilization they destroyed—your eyebrows should be crawling up off your skull by now with an expression of great dubiousness.

Aphra thinks they’re extinct. They are not extinct. And the lesson they learned from The Elder Things (and from the Yith, who in my version replaced The Elder Things) was that other species—even if they’re small and squishy—are always out to get you and can never be trusted.

What’s next for Ruthanna Emrys?

While I do hope and plan to write more in The Innsmouth Legacy series, I’m currently working on a near-future SF novel. It’s been interesting in part because it’s just about as far in the future as Deep Roots is in the past, which gives me some calibration for how much should change. It’s completely different from Aphra’s stories… except that it’s also about people obsessed with water, also has snarky aliens, also aims for both “terrifying” and “radically hopeful.” It’s about the collective governance organizations that arise to successfully address climate change, and how they handle a huge and unanticipated change that they’re not really prepared for, in this case first contact. It’s about parents having adventures while also having to manage the logistics of nursing. It’s about why any species in their right minds might be driven to build a Dyson sphere. Since one can reasonably describe a Dyson sphere as “cyclopean,” and I probably will at some point, I guess that brings us full circle.

We would like to thank Ruthanna again for taking the time to talk with us today. Deep Roots is due out July 10th in the US and August 1st in the UK. To learn more about The Innsmouth Legacy series and her other works you can visit her website or follow her on Twitter @R_Emrys.

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