Issue 040 Author Interview: Janessa Mulepati and “Liar, Liar, Tongue on Fire”

Each week we post a chat with an author in our current Quarterly issue. This week we had the opportunity to pick Janessa Mulepati’s brain about her short story “Liar, Liar, Tongue on Fire.” Enjoy!

LSQ: The punishment for lying in this story is extremely harsh. What does this say about the society you’ve created? How does that mold the citizens?

Janessa: Liar acid is certainly a horrible punishment, but only certain lies are punished, so there’s a power dynamic in deciding which lies count. Specifically, it’s perjury that leads to acid. Lying within the court is what matters, not necessarily the nature of the lie itself. For me, that says something about the ruling body of this world—about the degree to which order and obedience are valued. I don’t see liar acid as indicative of a society that holds a severe stance on lying in general. Rather, I see it as a reflection of how firmly authority is impressed upon people, especially when you consider how publicly liar acid is administered.

LSQ: Pan struggles to understand how punishment fits the crime. How does this define his character and his later actions?

Janessa: The power dynamics of lying are why I chose to tell the story from a child’s perspective. Because how would you explain that one lie leads to this gruesome punishment, but this other lie doesn’t? How would you tell a child that the justice system might be more concerned about adherence to the law than the severity of the crime? Those are questions of relevance that go beyond any specific story, and they’re questions with which Pan grapples. The logic he follows in answering them—in coming to terms with liar acid—defines his actions, except his logic is based on all sorts of assumptions about how authority and justice operate. I would call the whole thing a brutal coming-of-age story.

LSQ: What was the most challenging part of this story to write and why? What’s your favorite aspect of this story?

Janessa: The most challenging part was Pan’s perspective. I rarely write from a child’s viewpoint, and I wanted his logic to come across as genuine without being simple, because children are anything but simple. They’re very aware of the world around them, even if they’re not connecting all of the dots.

My favorite part of this was surrounding the characters with world details like nosebleed purple and acid lizards. I love world-building in general, and Pan’s illiteracy makes the threats of his world that much worse. He was the right character for exploring this setting.

LSQ: Are you working on anything else at the moment? If so, can you tell us about it?

Janessa: This short story actually grew out of Sparrow’s Lullaby, a novel manuscript of mine. There’s a single line in that manuscript about liar acid—a character makes a joke about it—but the acid’s never seen since it’s a relic of the world’s past. I’m currently revising and tightening various elements of that manuscript, which is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, because I love all of my characters, good and bad. Where all of that will lead, I can’t say, but I certainly hope to publish it one day. Sharing my work with others is part of what makes writing so wonderful.

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