Issue 036 Author Interview: Sarah McGill and “Down Among the Fireweed”

Our Issue 036, the Crones issue, is up and out and walking around with thirteen speculative fiction stories by women authors in its guts. Do go check it out, and pay close attention to Sarah McGill’s story “Down Among the Fireweed,” the subject of our interview today:

LSQ: The style of this piece reads almost like a long poem. Is this the sort of style you usually write in? What do you like about it?

Sarah: To write a story about a Jack o’ Lantern-type character, meeting the devil on the crossroads, and bad bargains, I needed a style that I hadn’t written in before. I wanted something that read like an old English ballad. When I read Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes, which passes between prose and iambic pentameter – she describes it as “dissolved pentameter, half water and half ice” – I was completely taken by it. I love lush, almost impossible styles and Gilman’s is mythic, rooted, and ruddy. The rhymes and cadence give her stories an archaic, spell-like quality, which greatly influenced how I approached telling “Down Among the Fireweed.” If anyone’s telling this story, it’s Tom Scratch and this is how he’d tell it – with a focus on words, winter, and liminality.

LSQ: This issue’s theme is “crones.” Is there anything in particular that drew you to this topic?

Sarah: To me, the style of this story demanded bargains, cold roads at night, and crones. While Marjorie physically fills the role of ‘crone’, what’s more crone-ish about the story is the way it feels. This story is about death, witchcraft, isolation, and those who wait on dark forest paths. It’s also about people with the wisdom and experience to accept their mistakes and those who do not.  The idea of cronehood loomed over the story and worked its way in like hoarfrost in the earth.

LSQ: What was your favorite part about writing this story? What was the hardest part?

Sarah: The rhyming was both the hardest and my favorite part. This is not a straightforward style and sometimes I had to choose between imagery and clarity. I especially spent a lot of time reworking dialogue where I needed to convey a specific idea, retain the cadence, and end with a specific rhyme.

But I love what the rhymes allow me to convey. Each character has a rhyme: Tom’s is ‘scratch,’ Marjorie’s ‘weave,’ and Jack struggles to hold onto any particular rhyme, although he relies mostly on ‘chain.’ Characters use rhymes to control the conversation and as soon as a character uses another character’s rhyme, they’ve given in. Tom Scratch is a trickster and all about bargains and words, so the moment another character uses his rhyme, they’re in a lot of trouble. And since this story is all about words, Tom is always in control because this is his element. Jack’s rhyme is not nearly as strong and he lacks control all the way through. The rhymes also allowed me to surround a character with a set of words – like in film how characters are given musical themes that morph and break and reassemble. Marjorie in particular has a lot of lovely, witchy words – cleave, leave, deceive, sheaves.

LSQ: Are there any writers who have influenced your work?

Sarah: Greer Gilman, without who’s work I never would have found the right style and imagery for this story. Catherynne Valente, who’s work showed me how in fantasy an author can take an insubstantial idea – like the fear of death, the cyclical nature of time, and comfort – and crystallize them into physical objects or phenomena that can be touched and explored. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also name Rachel Swirsky, Sofia Samatar, Anne Carson, and Margo Lanagan.