A Conversation with Kat Howard

Kat Howard's short fiction has been performed on NPR as part of Selected Shorts. She has recently been published in the anthology Oz Reimagined, edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen, and in Apex and Subterranean magazines. A recovering academic, she now lives and writes in the Twin Cities. And in a rather startling coincidence, she and I found out recently that we both went to the same high school outside of Seattle. The world is both fantastical and tiny. You can read her short fiction online at Subterranean, Apex, and Lightspeed, among other places.

We were both raised Catholic, and we both ended up writing stories of complicated girls wandering dark paths through the fantastical. Are those two things connected at all for you? How did the mythology of the church affect the mythology of your fiction?

So, I'm going to answer the second half first, because that's a lot clearer for me. First, I'm so glad you used the word "mythology." I feel like the Christian mythos gets segregated from the other large mythic cycles in a way that can be really poisonous, and that prevents people from engaging with it as Story. Like, I have so many issues with Milton, but I would love to see someone take on a project like Paradise Lost, and I fear that wouldn't happen because of the idea that Christian mythology is so extra-special that we can't touch it in fiction. Which is ridiculous.

Sorry. Back on point.

I grew up on the stories of the saints, and honestly, those things can be batshit. Saint Christopher, who is invoked against werewolves, and has the head of a dog! Christina the Astonishing, who likes to pop in and out of people's ovens for fun! I mean, if you want to write speculative fiction at all, read Jacob Voragine's The Golden Legend, which is a collection of saints' lives. It will set you right up.

But behind the sort of delightful oddity (and sometimes wonder, sheer, actual numinous wonder) of the saints' lives, there was also the serious problem of the treatment of women in them. If you were a woman, you became a saint by being a virgin, or a martyr, and you were quite often martyred in preservation of virginity. Being a Catholic girl who becomes a saint is worse than being the girl who has sex in the horror movie and then dies first--if you decide you don't want to have sex, you'll be horribly martyred, and then spend eternity being depicted holding your severed breasts on a plate. Ungood.

So for me, one of the big things that is (to the extent that a person can know this about her own fiction) a part of my writing, is that tension between the desire for the numinous, and dealing with that institutionalized dark path, the one that says men can be saints for thinking deeply about faith, and for fighting for it, but you, well, you're a virgin, or you're dead, and often both. I feel like Joan of Arc haunts a lot of the women that I write, and I'm happy to have her do so.

But at the same time as I say, yes, Christian mythology is a mythos that should be open for writers to work in, it's often not the one I'm interested in working directly with in my writing. I mean, if I'm going to send a girl to Hell, I'm not going to send her to the Christian Hell, I'm going to send her to Hades, and tell her not to look back when she leaves.

Which I think is a preoccupation we both share, so I am very interested to hear your take on this.

I'm very partial to Hades myself, as you know. And for me, too, those mythologies are what most intrigue me as a writer: Persephone, Eurydice, Medea. The lives of the lady saints are not especially appealing narratives for me; I want the women who are stabbing their husbands in the bathtub and sleeping with their stepsons and turning their romantic rivals into cows.

But Catholic mythology specifically is so delicious to me--there is obviously a history of real-life horror and genocide and Inquisition, which I do not mean at all to overlook, but there's also centuries of, as you said, batshit political intrigue and puppet kings and competing popes and corruption and thrilling scandal. And what is really a belief in magic, a very pagan sort of magic, and fascination with ritual. I'm reading Victoria Nelson's book Gothicka right now, which is a fabulous study of permutations of the Gothic, and she points out that even in very Protestant America, if you want an exorcism or the removal of a displeasing vampire, you don't call a Methodist, you call a Catholic priest. (She quotes Elizabeth Kostova: "The hospitable plain Protestant chapels that dotted the university... didn't look qualified to wrestle with the undead.")

So if anything, growing up Catholic raised me to believe in magic, which I am sure was not the intent of my Sunday school teachers. What about you? How did you get from the Christian hell to the much older one?

Gothicka looks kind of amazing. [It is. --ed.] I must add that to my reading list.

Your comment about growing up Catholic raising you to believe in magic, but that not being the intent of your Sunday school teachers really struck a chord with me, because it is the ritual, and the magic, and the strangeness of the Church where I find myself most comfortable (I wrote my dissertation on the writings of women mystics). For me, anyway, that magic, that sense of this is an extranormal thing, is the attraction of a belief in a life outside of the mundane. At the same time, I feel that it's a thing the Church has always struggled with addressing, the people whose spirituality involves extraordinary expressions, ecstasies and voices, the medieval people who would run from church to church, so as to witness the consecration over and over again, much to the grumpiness of the local hierarchy. I don't go to mass often anymore (see: the current real-life horror going on in the organized Church), but when I do go, I look for a place where I can maximize my exposure to the formal rituals that invest the event with that feeling of, well, magic. I want to feel that I am participating in an event that is ancient, that has a couple of thousand years of meaning built into it.

The switch from the sort of literary fascination with a Christian mythos to a broader one came about pretty early for me. It was, of course, the fault of books. One of which was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I read it for the first time when I was seven, and even then, I got the whole, "Aslan is Jesus" thing. Being Catholic, I didn't really see the problem with that then. But what I did see was that Narnia had a ton of other cool things in - nymphs and dryads and dragons and all of that. I've always been a person who wants to Know Things, so I turned from Narnia to fairy tales and Greek mythology, and I never looked back.
Some of it was, even from a very young age, it seemed to me like there was more space in those other, older stories. As you know, Catholics don't interpret the Bible literally, but still, Hell is Hell. And for a much of my youth, Heaven seemed like it pretty much had to be something like Church turned up to 11, which I knew I was supposed to think was awesome, but honestly sounded kind of boring. Whereas Hades, or the Elysian Fields, or Annwn, well, those places had room in them. You could go and Have Adventures. You could go and come back. Those stories had cracks, had interstices, had places where I could imagine things.

There was also space to disagree with the older, and non-Christian stories. It took me quite some time to be able to look at the Christian mythos and say, oh, hey, this thing here, it's a problem. Let's talk about why that's a problem, and maybe address it. Whereas it was a lot easier to say, oh, man, that Zeus. He should really maybe ask a lady before attempting swan-shaped congress. And for me at least, when I'm engaging with those older stories in my writing, a lot of the times I am engaging with them because of the problems, because of the raw edges, because I disagree with the story as it has been told.

Especially considering the women you named above (Medea!), I am wondering if this is a similar thing for you.

Oh my god, my poor Sunday-school teacher, he was just some nice hapless volunteer dad, and here I was pointing to the Old Testament at the age of six, saying, you know, "So this passage here where Lot offers his daughters up to the townspeople, can you clarify what exact transaction is occurring here?"

Anyway, for me there is more space for retelling in the older stories. The female saints, to me, are largely very passive--I know lots of other women disagree with this, and see the saints' narratives as ones of resistance and strength, but those elements just aren't there for me. (Like you said, boobs on a plate and virgin forever: super not appealing.) But "evil witch" or "lady who bakes her husband's children into a pie and feeds them to him," I could rewrite those stories all day. I love female characters who are terrifying and amoral and sinister and straight-up evil, whatever that says about me.

I guess for me growing up Catholic was just a straight route to the pagan. I still have a lot of reverence for the symbolism; when I was in Europe, I went in literally every cathedral I passed, and a lot of them were so beautiful they made me cry. But that wild mystery isn't there for me in the church (or the Church). You and I both write in the tradition of the fantastical--what made you go there, instead of more mundane (for lack of a better word) retellings of traditional feminine narratives?

Part of my attraction to the fantastical is that those were the stories I grew up loving. I mean, there were about two years where I wanted desperately to be cool, and I thought that maybe if I read Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club, I would be. It didn't work. Though it was in a SVH book where I first read Edna St. Vincent Millay, so there's that. But I never recognized myself in those stories - there was no place in them for someone like I was, or at least, someone like I saw myself.

Whereas I could see myself in Meg Murray, in Madeleine L'Engle's books. I wanted to be a girl version of Bran (because he had the coolest Dad and the best dog) in Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising books like nothing else. Those stories, the stories of the fantastic, were my stories, and once I turned back to them (it was Jane Yolen's Briar Rose that rescued me) I pretty much never looked back. The fantastic was what I steeped myself in.

But also, I love the possibility for metaphor in the fantastic. Like, if I want to talk about how high school is hell, if I'm working in the fantastic, I don't have to spend the time building up all these layered references that maybe a reader will get, and maybe they won't. I can just set the building on a Hellmouth (hello, Buffy) and start from there. I get to start my story at a different place, and have a different sort of conversation with a reader that way.

There is also the question of, as you put it, the elements available in the narrative. I've always been very interested in women's stories. And at least at this point in my writing, the tropes of the feminine that I'm most interested in engaging with and subverting are the tropes of the fantastic.

Oh, totally. I teethed on the Dragonlance books--which are sort of wonderfully terrible, but even in those books there are more options for ladies than just "babe." (I mean, you can be "babe magician," "babe warrior elf," "babe dragonlord," etc.) And Patricia C. Wrede (who in retrospect is totally feminist), Madeleine L'Engle, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, Ursula K. LeGuin, Elizabeth Hand, Mercedes Lackey... it wasn't a conscious thing at all, when I was a kid, but I grew up reading so many women writers who were using the fantastic in really political ways (or even just writing interesting female characters, which I didn't find nearly as often in the more conventional fiction I was reading). And then I discovered writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, who were using speculative fiction to talk about race as well. And, too, there's just a sense of possibility in speculative fiction--there are no limits to the world you can make up, other than the limits of your own capacity to imagine. I think at its best there's such a great willingness to take risks in speculative fiction, to really push the limits of what a story can do or talk about. And sometimes it's just really, really fun. I mean, I remember reading Interview with the Vampire in eighth grade, and thinking, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT ADULTHOOD MUST BE LIKE I CANNOT WAIT.

Which did not turn out to be true, unfortunately.

For me, that sense of possibility in speculative fiction is also the thing that engages me as a writer. And, to bring the conversation sort of back around to where we began, it's also the thing that engages me as a person of faith. I wrote my dissertation on the writings of medieval women mystics, but I dedicated my dissertation to Madeleine L'Engle, because it was through her presentation of the idea of tessering that I understood the writing of the 14th c. mystic, Julian of Norwich. And in my head, it made complete sense to view a medieval mystic through the lens of a 20th century science fiction writer. Part of the sense of possibility that speculative fiction has for me, is that way of engaging with the numinous, of the impossible, of the things out there that are bigger than I am. Reading speculative fiction expands my capacity for belief, and I don't just mean belief in the sense of faith, but in the sense of everything. In what we as humans are capable of. For me, it is that possibility that is most worth believing in.

Right--and for me, coming out of the same background, I ended up in a different place spiritually (like, The Land of the Hippie Witch), but a very similar place in terms of aesthetics and what I'm drawn to and the kinds of stories I want to tell. All those different mythologies I grew up with complemented each other in rich and very rewarding ways. I love your suggestion that story can expand our sense of faith. And, of course, hippie witchery.