We hope today’s Issue 052 author interview can be a spot of respite in your busy week. Come sit with us a moment as Sarah McPherson tells us about the inspiration behind the soothing trees in her story “Shadow and Ash“.
LSQ: The sense of foreboding you’ve crafted here is incredibly palpable. How did you do it??
Sarah: The kind of scary stories I enjoy are the ones where it’s all about the atmosphere; ghost stories, stories that are a bit uncanny, a bit unsettling. So when I try to write scary (or even just a little bit ominous), that’s what I aim to recreate. The monster you know is there but can’t see – the longer you go without actually coming face to face with whatever it is you’re afraid of, the more the tension builds. I was also aiming for a slightly dreamlike quality to this story, like in those nightmares where you’re trying to get away from something undefined that’s chasing you but you can’t, so you’re just constantly fleeing until you wake up.
LSQ: Alternatively, I could also feel the peace given by the ash trees wash over me. Have you ever been to a place like this? What was your inspiration?
Sarah: Being in the woods and surrounded by trees is something I have always found incredibly calming and peaceful. There are some urban woodland spaces near where I live that have this almost magical ability to make you forget that you’re in the middle of a city and that there are actually only a handful of trees between you and houses and roads. So I suppose that’s what I’m drawing on when I write about trees in that way. The contrast was also important to balance the story – so the peace of the trees had to be powerful enough to stand against the darker elements that threaten the character.
LSQ: Please tell us a bit more about your choice of imagery for this story.
Sarah: I’ve been writing a lot about trees and folklore recently as part of a larger project, so all of this stuff is very much at the forefront of my mind. For this story in particular I started with the choice of tree – ash – and then looked at folklore, traditions, and associations that could work as a jumping off point. Ash trees are very long-lived, and have a place in some mythologies as a tree of life (such as the Norse world tree Yggdrasil). Ash wood was also traditionally burned to ward off evil spirits, as it is in this story. They have winged seeds called keys, which I played on to give the character a moment where she realizes she can make a change, by turning a key. And then once I had established that what she has on her side is fire and light and life, it makes sense for what she faces to be the opposite of that: darkness, shadows, and the threat of death.
LSQ: What is your favorite kind of tree and why?
Sarah: That’s a really hard question! I like all sorts of trees for all sorts of reasons. I love rowans for how delicate they look and for the fact that the red berries stay on the tree after the leaves have fallen, which makes them particularly striking in winter. I love twisty, ancient hawthorns that look like they’ve been lifted straight out of a fairy tale. Both rowans and hawthorns have lots of folklore surrounding them too! And there’s a white poplar near my house that I love because the silvery undersides of the leaves are beautiful in the sunlight when a breeze shakes them.