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Sunday, June 12, 2022

Interview with Karen Heuler, the author of The Splendid City

Book links: Angry Robot, Amazon, Goodreads

Read FBC's review of The Splendid City

AUTHOR INFO: Karen Heuler is the author of The Splendid City. Her stories have appeared in over 100 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, from Conjunctions to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to Weird Tales, as well as a number of Best Of anthologies. She has received an O. Henry award, been a finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award, the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction, and a bunch of other ritzy awards. Her stories and books often feature women facing strange circumstances on this world and others. Karen Heuler lives in New York City with a large dog and two alarmed cats. Find Karen here.

Thank you for joining us, Karen, and welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.

I started out as a literary writer, and got published in lit mags for many years, even though some of my stories were at the edge of reality. Then I jumped over to SFF. I’ve had over 120 stories published, and this is my tenth book.

Who are some of your favorite writers, and why is their work important to you?

It’s a huge list! Lewis Carroll, Mikhail Bulgakov, Philip K. Dick, Brooks Hansen, because they all contain surprises inside their work, a lifting up and away from the constraints of reality. The mind broadens with new associations and with new strands of wit. I also love Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Pat Barker because of the very human strengths their characters show. It’s a smaller world view, but one that requires sharp intelligence and strength. Also, they are very moral, and I admire people who strive to live morally (not necessarily in a religious sense). For that reason, I also admire Susan Palwick, Eleanor Arneson, Mary Doria Russell. I love Lois McMaster Bujold because her books are so much fun--and so many others. And I’m grateful to be friends with a bunch of writers I admire and love.

What do you like most about the act of writing?

When writing goes well, I’m in a different world—which is always interesting—and I can keep moving characters around until they’re just as interesting as the world they inhabit. Plus there’s that whole wonderful thing where the dialogue is smooth and uninterrupted by “uh” and “like” and assorted tics. I love good dialogue. I love good action. For a while, I’ve got them both. I suppose all arts share this same sense of shaping a new world, and when it goes well there’s a dreamlike concentration. It feels like you’re living in it. When my mind drifts, it goes back to the world of the book or story I’m writing, and I long to visit it again. This world lives both in the book and outside it, a kind of ongoing lucid dream.

The Splendid City sounds like a thrilling and fun story. What came first, the world or the characters? And how did the story take shape in your head?

That’s a good question. I usually have an image that starts a book or story. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was a revelation when I first read it, a masterpiece that broke through the kinds of literature I was studying in college. I majored in 19th c Russian and Victorian literature. The Russians did tend to go to the fantastic—Gogol also interested me—as well as the intense (here we have Dostoyevski), so it wasn’t the first fantastic book I’d read. But it exploded. The cover of the edition I read had a black cat with a gun and a bowtie. I always loved that. In it, the devil comes to Moscow and heats up a (literary) political situation. Why? The devil doesn’t need a reason.

Like many other people, I was stressed by the previous American president, and most especially by how easy people found it to believe lies, even when the truth was right in front of them. Consider, for instance, how he mocked and imitated a disabled man and denied it—when it was televised. Or the things he said about women. Or the lies he told about who would pay for that obscene border wall. It goes on. The situation seemed surreal, and I think many people were entertained by it; it was thrilling for them.

We’ve got desperate water shortages in the West. And some companies take the water and bottle it. So there were a great many concerns that seemed absurd already, and the tone just seemed to fit in with Bulgakov’s tone. The book resulted from all those things and more mixing together in my thinking.

Let’s back up to how you got here. How did you get your first book deal?

My first publications were in literary magazines, and my first book deal was with a university press. The stories were a bit slipstream, or magical realism. A lot of my literary stories pushed against reality a little, and then a little more. The ones I loved the most were not appropriate for literary magazines, and I eventually found the doorway into SFF. It was odd that it took so long, since science fiction was my mainstay in my twenties. But in 1995, the University of Missouri press published The Other Door. The wonderful thing about that first book was that the New York Times had a section called “Books in Brief” back then, and they published a very short review, calling it “haunting and quirky.” As you can imagine, getting your first book reviewed in the Times was heady stuff. I thought for a while that it would change my life. It didn’t.

How would you describe the plot of The Splendid City if you had to do so in just one or two sentences?

Some blurb or description said it was a “genre-blending story of modern witchcraft, a police state, and WTF characters” (which I like). A novice witch and the man she turned into a cat without the coven’s permission are exiled to the breakaway republic of Liberty, formerly Texas, which covers its nonsense with constant parades and giveaways while the water gets rationed and animatronic presidential heads watch everything.

Who are the key players in this story? Could you introduce us to The Splendid City's protagonists and antagonists?

Eleanor is a novice witch, who gets discovered by the coven and is invited to join. It’s a wonderful discovery for her, since she didn’t know she was a witch and she finally feels she’s discovered family. But she’s impulsive and she turns a bullying, manipulative co-worker into a cat, without including the key that would allow her to reverse the spell. The coven sends the two of them to Liberty, where a witch has disappeared. Eleanor is charged with finding the witch and whatever mission Stan was sent on is completely irrelevant. He likes his tacos, his beers, his eavesdropping, and occasionally shooting someone (“I never kill them, you know.”)

The Splendid City is, at times, deliciously absurd. What do you like in satire?

Satire takes a situation and stretches it out so that you can have the pleasure of laughing at it while feeling you understand it better than anyone else.

Let’s talk Stan, comically-self absorbed, delusional „cat”. How much fun did you have writing his chapters?

I enjoyed Stan immensely! He’s so self-absorbed that he can turn anything he comes across to his own benefit. We all know people like that, and they can wear you down with their own conceit, but he does it brilliantly. You have to admire his bravado even as you laugh or smirk. He never stops twisting things, and he’s smart and funny. He’s horrible. He’s terrible. He says things I wouldn’t dare to say, and he gets away with them. But every so often, this bombastic idiot says something I actually agree with. He makes me smile.

What do you think characterizes your writing style in general?

I think it’s literary and imaginative and a little sneaky.

Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of The Splendid City?

I love this cover! It’s eye-catching and it contains clues to the contents—the witch, the cat, a card game that introduces Eleanor to the coven’s workings and also alerts her to her own powers. And it highlights the two main characters on a kind of seesaw, almost—which is true. Eleanor’s story needs Stan.

Have you written The Splendid City a particular audience in mind?

If you love fantasy and fast dialogue and overhearing conversations and some political mockery, then this might win you over. I suspect you’d have to be somewhat liberal. It certainly has a viewpoint.

What are you currently working on that readers might be interested in learning more about, and when can we expect to see it released?

Asimov’s magazine just took a story of mine, coming out next year. Plus I’ve just finished a new novel, and I expect it will annoy some people. Fairwood will be publishing my next SFF collection, A Slice of the Dark, in late fall/early winter, and I have a literary collection, Forgetting, coming out in August.

Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

Save the world! Vote smart! Never trust a talking cat!



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