Issue 033 author Katharine Coldiron explores a dystopian future where her protagonist hunts down a once simple but now almost impossible pleasure: the sound of opera. Go read her short story “C-A-L-L-A-S” first, then continue below to our conversation with Katharine about her story and writing in general.
LSQ: Your dystopian future created by an infectious agent is very unique given the bacteria in your story don’t appear fatal, just linguistically so. How did this idea come about?
Katharine: I don’t remember where I was exactly when the seed of this story came to me, but I was somewhere full of collective human conversation, like a restaurant or a coffee shop. In half-eavesdropping on a few different conversations, I grew astonished, because I considered most of the words being spoken around me totally unnecessary. So many dumb conversations, people saying cliched things that anyone could say, instead of saying something, anything that mattered. I started wondering what circumstances could exist that would make people think about their words, and choose them carefully. I believed the answer was scarcity – the idea that any word could be the last one you speak. From there it was just coming up with a set of circumstances in which this was possible.
I placed this set of circumstances in a dystopian future mainly because I’d been reading the MaddAddam trilogy [by Margaret Atwood], and dystopia seemed so likely. I genuinely tried to imagine what an American society would look like after a few generations of ever-accelerating technology, unequal wealth distribution, and global warming (plus the voice-eating bacteria thing), and this story was the result. I don’t think our world will end, but I do think we’ll have to make agonizing adaptations. Imagining what those would look like was equal parts fun and depressing.
I added the opera element after thinking about what would be precious in a society wherein the human voice was rare. I’d been wanting to write something about opera anyway, and in a story about the human voice, it seemed a good fit. After that, I let Solomon and the story take me where they wanted to go.
LSQ: There’s an eerie resemblance to Lenore and the prostitution of her voice — is this what you intended?
Katharine: I did intend for Lenore’s use of her voice and the payment she tries to extract for it to resemble prostitution. When a commodity is scarce, people are going to offer and pay for that commodity in all kinds of unpleasant ways, especially if it’s scarcer than the demand. In my story, I wanted to demonstrate the sanctioned way the commodity of voice is valued and traded (the speechmakers) as well as the more black-market ways (Lenore).
I think it’s been this way throughout human history. Bodies in Babylon, Barbies in the Soviet Union, a song in the distant future.
For the record, I didn’t mean much by naming her Lenore. I’m no Poe fanatic. If I hear that name out in the world, my mind automatically supplies “the lost Lenore”, and the Lenore I wrote certainly is lost, but that’s about all.
LSQ: Do you have a background or interest in opera?
Katharine: Background, no, interest, yes. I love, love, love opera. It wasn’t something I was introduced to by my family – I came to it in adulthood – so it feels like a treasure of my own. I was encouraged to write this story by a friend who told me that, no matter how self-conscious I felt at the start, I needed to write stories about my own passions, the things I love in my life, not topics that I thought I should write about. She was right.
LSQ: What was the most difficult aspect of this story to write? What came easiest?
Katharine: At the time I wrote this story, more than five years ago, I had a lot of trouble simply making scenes interesting. I had major uncertainty about what to put in and what to leave out, especially when blocking scenes physically, and how to make the prose sing. My work has moved in very different directions since then. As I look back on this story, I have great affection for it, but if I wrote it now, it would scarcely resemble what appears in LSQ.
The first finished draft had a whole lot more prose in the first couple of pages, and I didn’t figure out how to trim it down until it’d collected half a dozen rejections. I had a hard time putting in background and world-building without making it hopelessly dull. But eventually I decided that my lengthy exploration of Dystopian Napster could probably go in the trash, and it became a better story.
Writing about Callas herself, and describing the Willow Song, was the easiest part. The ending, too, came fairly easy. Deciding to take a chance on Capone and his very specific weirdness was tough, but I’m happy with that choice.
LSQ: Are you working on other projects at the moment? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?
Katharine: Only about a zillion! I’m hardest at work on a hybrid essay collection, where each of the essays incorporates fiction, memoir, and film criticism. Two of the essays have been published (“The Girl on the Bike,” which was nominated for a Pushcart, and “Underside“), and I’ve written two others, with several more to go. I’ve got an essay about Nigel Kneale to put on paper as well as one about Louise Brooks. I’m also trying to find time to write a novel about Ilsa from Casablanca, and I’m shopping a couple of finished manuscripts, but in the meantime I write a lot of book reviews. Information about a lot of this work is on my website, kcoldiron.com, which has links to my blog and my newsletter.