Issue 037 Author Interview: Mab Morris and “Laughter in the Graveyard”

Hello again and welcome to another interview with one of our fabulous Issue 037 authors! This week we chat with Mab Morris about her short story “Laughter in the Graveyard.”

LSQ: The world of your story spurns women, yet much of it takes place in a temple that once revered a queen. How do you think huge societal shifts like that come to be?

Mab: Oh, there are so very many reasons. We only have to look at our political climate and not be surprised. It took a ridiculously short time for that shift. Time changes everything. New knowledge, science, and so on. Agricultural shifts can change things.

There was an article that I read not too long ago about the worst year to be alive. Somewhere in the 600s, I believe. There were a series of volcanic eruptions, including a super volcano. Then a plague. So . . . the Dark Ages started. To give you a comparison, the super volcano was similar in size to the one that caused the year without summer in the 1800s—which killed more people by starvation because of a lack of, well, food. Food doesn’t do well without sunlight, or in unseasonably cold weather. When people get desperate, or feel threatened, they . . . get back to “basics.” One could say they get selfish and nasty.

There’s a great passage in Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art called “Resistance and Fundamentalism”. A revealing quote:

“The beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism . . . cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past . . . He gets back to basics. To fundamentals . . . In [the humanists’] view things do progress, life does evolve; each individual has value . . . The fundamentalist cannot conceive of this . . . When fundamentalism wins, the world enters a dark age.”

In creating a planet the way I am, it was an interesting idea to change a society over time. There will be other stories that look at how mythology changes—it’s mentioned in Sen of the Woods which I’m still working on. I think there’s always this seesaw balance or cyclical movement of light and dark, reasoned and unreasonable, humanist and selfish. I like to believe that we continue to evolve into increasingly better, more humane societies. A more specific example, related to this story, that reflects this idea: even if one is ruled by a woman, there will always be men to objectify her. One can be fully clothed, completely covered and still be objectified by men. There are many incredible men out there who don’t, and never would, but . . .

The revered queen, Kuen from Fate of the Red Queen, wouldn’t have suffered such temerity, and the people she saved were pretty much focused on survival, even working and befriending their enemies. I could say they didn’t have time to show off more revolting sides of human behavior. It’s not as if it wouldn’t have happened on that planet somewhere, and probably did. I just didn’t write it. Still, I like to think all of Yezgini people in Fate would be turning in their graves to see what happened ages later. If they’d have known they might have gone, “Hang on a minute . . . let’s re-think this.”

LSQ: Are the xidachene creatures of your own invention? Could you tell us a bit more about them?

Mab: I believe the xidachene are my invention. Around the time I wrote the first draft of “Laughter in the Graveyard” I was working on a draft of my novel Sen of the Woods, and doing this crazy culture crafting of blending Ndeble healing ritual with Etruscan mythology. I found notes where I was working on some conlang for that book. There’s a lot of mythology and healing based on ancestors. I do remember looking at different words for spirit, ancestors in both African and Asian cultures, though I can’t find the specific blend of those words to come up with xidachene.

In many African cultures the ancestors can haunt someone, usually making them ill if they haven’t been respected. Many Asian cultures have something similar. It’s where the idea of the cursed land, the Jungle of the Dead came from in Fate of the Red Queen—that and the Swamp of the Dead in Tolkien’s books.

In Manila’s North Cemetery there are people who are paid to visit graves so that a family’s dead are not forgotten. They pay someone to let their ancestors know they’re still being thought of, even if they don’t have time to visit. If you see pictures of the trash between isles of stacked tombs, it is really not a place to visit, much less live—though people do. It’s better than the slums that often get flooded.

Frankly it was interesting to play with how the people who once lived in the Jungle of the Dead became something more zombie-like, or even similar to the xidachene. Mythological shifts are interesting to contemplate as I age the planet.

LSQ: Gazev takes on her sister’s burdens as a way to hold onto her, rather than more positive memories or feelings. Does this speak to the atmosphere of your world as a whole, or is this Gazev’s choice and why?

Mab: There are two somewhat dark elements that inspired the atmosphere. Not, perhaps, as a world as a whole—since I have a distinction of culture crafting as I world build a multi-cultural planet book by book, story by story. I could say that it is a servants’ world. Gazev only has a few good memories of her older sister Sonalie. I probably wrote both women into a menial position not just to make it harder for them, but also because of memories or stories about servants my relatives had in South Africa.

Years before apartheid ended, one of my aunts had a servant she, supposedly, considered her best friend (I’ll admit the inequality of their status makes it repulsive if I could believe it, especially since many members of that side of the family tend to be fairly racist). Her house was huge. He lived in a room only as large enough for a narrow bed and a small desk. If his wife came to visit, she had to have an overnight pass. Getting one was not always easy, because it had to be proven she had work. He was rarely given full days off; I believe it was once a month? Bussing to and from any city residence was ridiculously long, and getting caught out past curfew, he was subject to fines. He actually built a house for his family on those rare visits. Despite fuzzy details, I do know his family time was rare.

I know that often in poorer cultures that’s sometimes the norm. Get a job in the city, send money back home. The stories of my South African family’s servants told me that clearly there could be some very strong family bonds, even without daily contact. I still find it depressing to think of, and I’m glad that apartheid ended. However much we can celebrate that, it didn’t end the unfortunate tendency towards unequal, and demeaning relationships. My own upbringing by South African parents was far more open minded and celebrated the cultural diversity rather than the divisions of that country. Still, those memories and stories give me a wealth of things to draw on when I craft culture and world build. Some even darker than that, some even more sad.

So for Gazev to have very few happy memories of Sonalie was realistic, along with the deep love she had for her. There was this social, cultural knowledge that I brought to the plate to write the story and . . . well . . . there’s a bit of a depressing “And . . .”

Part of the story was inspired by trying to understand someone’s PTSD from years of sexual harassment. Women are harassed every day of the week to varying degrees of harm. I’ll admit, as close as I am to this person I couldn’t quite come to grips with her pain. She’s like one of the first people you’ll see to bow up and defend someone. Sadly there are times there’s only so far one can empathize with another person’s reality. One can still love them.

Gazev’s burden to a large extent started out as an echo of my distress. I wanted to try and bring some compassion into my thinking. It made the story one of the hardest I’ve written. Earlier drafts were not satisfying. I’ll admit I don’t feel as if I achieved a real sense of understanding for Sonalie. And still: Sonalie saves Gazev, really. I’d like to believe she saved herself in the end as well, even if she didn’t believe it possible. I left that open to interpretation.

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

Mab: I think perhaps my favorite part is the photo series that inspired some of the imagery. I’ve looked for the series so I could reference it. I can’t find it. I would love to stumble across it again! It was posted sometime in 2015, maybe earlier. I think it made the rounds on Facebook. The images were: the children under the table; the stacked graves which echo Manila’s North Cemetery with their broken lights and radios, people eating on tombs, or using a tomb as a bedroom; the image of someone on a ledge in a lit city on their prayer rug; an ornate brilliantly white mosque. I believe that the images are by a Filipino photographer named Noel Celis, but I can’t get more than a couple of images such as the one featured in this article.

Those images have stayed with me. I can see those two faces from under the rug. I can’t find the reference, and would love to. It made me think about Yezgin in a much different time—farther in the future than our modern time, but probably not too much out of it.

I think that I enjoyed using these images as a reference. It added a cerebral side to a rather difficult story.

LSQ: Are you working on anything else at the moment? If so, can you tell us a bit about your other projects?

Mab: That’s almost always elicits a “Where to begin” answer. Currently I have seven novel projects in various stages of completion. Seek the Monster is at my editing chair. I’ve already started going through my developmental editors’ notes. She and I talked about what her work has so far inspired. “Seismic shifts” was the word she used. She’s not far wrong. It is taking some work to get it ready, and I’ve been sidetracked by getting ready for the Dahlonega Literary Festival as a regional writer, the Wine & Words monthly events I’m setting up for DLF, The Southern Penn Bookstore’s upcoming workshop, where I’ll talk about editing, as well as judging their Self Published book award, and starting up my editing service. The book requires more focus than I could give it. It’s not a sequel to Fate of the Red Queen, but Kuen is in this book, as is Humna from The Red Khémèresh.

Sen of the Woods is with a beta reader while I let it percolate till the next revision phase. It’s the one I started when I first crafted “Laughter in the Graveyard.” It’s also set in Ihyel, but an island country north of Yezgin. There’s enough time after Fate of the Red Queen where there’s a lot more seafaring trade, and Sen gets to drink famous Yezgini tea—but not the kind that gives you endless life and turns your teeth red. Just plain green I’m afraid.

Neither Kuen nor Humna are in this one—though they have been known to travel to different countries. There are new demi-gods based on Etruscan mythology, but also from the Gods I created in my first book. That book is lost. I wrote it on a Kaypro in the early 80s, and different computers and formats after that . . . well . . . I have pages. Not a full story.  It would probably be a trunk book, anyway. I mean, I wrote the thing in high school. Someone described it as histrionic. It did teach me a lot about writing.

Both Seek the Monster and Sen of the Woods are set in Ihyel during their of Age of Reason, like our Renaissance. I jokingly say that Seek is at the last gasp of the Age of Heroes.

After I do the massive revisions first up in the queue, I want to finish writing The Lost Ship Queen Amadelia—it’s a science fiction novel—and the second Bone Reader novel Blackened Bones. I absolutely could go on with this list. When I finish a full draft, I generally start work on something else, so that when I get back to it, I’ve got fresh eyes on it. When I’m happy with it, I send it to an editor, and go at it again. So there’s always a pile of work to do.