Issue 037 Author Interview: E.H. Mann and “Two Monsters Down in the Dark”

In case you missed it, we released Issue 037 last Friday. Filled with a dozen speculative fiction short stories by women authors and graced with gorgeous cover art, we could not be more thrilled to share it with you. Starting this Tuesday, we’re featuring an author interview with the corresponding weekly featured story. Today, the story is “Two Monsters Down in the Dark.” See what author E.H. Mann has to tell us below.

LSQ: The push and pull of Benji’s and Ellie’s sibling relationship is relatable and realistic. Did it come naturally given their characters or did it develop over time? What character was easier to write: Benji or Ellie?

E.H.: No question, Benji was the easier character to write. His wants are simple and straightforward: he wants to get rich and he wants his thick-headed sister to stop dragging her feet. He’s a very reactive character in this story – ironic, considering he’s always been the instigator out of the pair.

Ellie, on the other hand, was a real challenge to get right; she has evolved hugely over the many rewrites Two Monsters has seen. This story started out as a writing challenge to myself: could I write about a character betraying someone such that the readers’ sympathies were with the betrayer? It turned out to be a very hard ask.

I wrote the story in first person because I felt strongly that I needed readers to feel close to my betrayer, but doing it that way meant that Ellie’s internal world became vital to how her actions would be perceived. And since I wanted to keep her ulterior motive uncertain until after her moment of action, that meant focusing on her more obvious and immediate motivation: Benji. The way she sees her brother – and the way she sees herself in relation to his own less-than-complimentary assessment of her – has changed repeatedly as I sought to build a relationship between them that felt close enough for her betrayal to come as a surprise, and yet damaged/damaging enough to justify her eventual actions.

LSQ: The dragon appears almost as a kind, elderly woman toward Ellie, almost like a mother-figure. Can you tell us what made you portray a dragon in this way?

E.H.: I’m honestly not sure I can! Sometimes characters/relationships are the result of careful planning and development, and sometimes they just show up fully formed and knowing exactly what to do. I vastly prefer the latter!

In a more general sense, though, I can say that I like writing dragons that aren’t the stereotypical fire-breathing monsters, just as I like writing big, hulking humanoids that aren’t the stereotypical aggressive thugs. Reality is never as simple as the cliches we make of it, and that’s where some of the most interesting stories lie.

By the by, I feel you could argue equally for Ellie as the mother figure in this story – she’s the dragon’s protector, after all. Or perhaps it’s just the nature of parent-child relationships to reverse as the parent ages and grows fragile, and the child matures and learns to be strong.

LSQ: The title is compelling and reveals a different meaning after the story is read. What are you saying about the characters of Ellie and Benji as compared to the dragon herself?

E.H.: It’s more what I’m trying to say about the nature of monsters, really. That sometimes the monsters aren’t who we think they are, and sometimes the monsters aren’t who they think they are.

LSQ: Please tell us a bit more about Ellie. Why is seeing the dragon egg’s destruction sort of her breaking point when standing up to Benji?

E.H.: The egg is the point of no return. Ellie is a lot like me (perhaps like a lot of us?) in that way: faced with an impossible situation, where she knows whatever decision she makes will lead to unhappiness, her instinctive reaction is to not make any decision at all. It’s the emotional equivalent of burying your head in the sand, and about as effective.

It’s almost like she’s grown up being told repeatedly that she’s too dumb to make good decisions.

Ellie is used to being a very passive participant in her own life. She’s always let her brother take charge – because he’s older, because they both believe he’s smarter (after all, he’s the one who remembers big words and always talks with confidence, and eloquence equals intelligence, right?) and because it’s easier and safer not to antagonize him. Between her home life with Benji and her experiences walking through the world as someone visibly different, she’s learned that action is dangerous: action draws attention.

With the death of the unborn dragonling, Ellie’s forced to face the consequences of her inaction. Even then, her first instinct is to look for an out – will the old dragon take action so she doesn’t have to? – but finally she accepts that she’s the only one who can save the rest of the eggs, even if she has to destroy the only life she knows to do it.

LSQ: What’s your favorite dragon story and why? What do you think is so compelling about these creatures that we keep writing about them and wanting more stories about them?

E.H.: The answer that leaps to mind comes straight out of my childhood: Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, which I first read as a teenager.

Hambly’s Morkeleb remains one of the most complex dragon characters I’ve ever encountered. He blurs the lines between antagonist, anti-hero, and force of nature, embodying the stereotypically draconic characteristics of arrogance and greed in ways that make them unexpectedly accessible, though still not exactly sympathetic. Plenty of fiction rebels against the traditional incarnation of the dragon by making them the good guys – Morkeleb has no interest in being a good guy, but you can’t finish Dragonsbane thinking of him as simply a villain either. He goes his own way.

More recently, I love the combination of charmingly human and interestingly alien characteristics of the dragons in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and how she convincingly (to me, at least) inserts them into early 19th century society in ways that allow for a very modern re-examination of issues like slavery and gender equality.

I think what’s compelling about dragons is that they can represent so many different things to different writers (and readers). Unicorns are pretty much always unicorns; orcs are pretty much always orcs. But dragons can be fearsome or wondrous, selfish or wise, enigmatic or animalistic, noble steeds or oppressive rulers or squabbling magpies, all while still embodying that unmistakable essence of dragon. Open a dragon story and, if you’re lucky, you ever quite know what you’re going to get.

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