In May, L.S. Johnson and I shared a series of emails and Twitter messages as spring blossoms expanded around us and much of the world contracted with pandemic protections. The world is suffering now, and it is more important than ever to think and talk about not only our understanding of suffering but also the structures which perpetuate suffering. Digging deep into these ideas, we look to the old tales and their modern re-tellings, and the way these old tales echo throughout speculative fiction. What can these stories tell us about the ways that we related to each other? What gifts do they impart to our lives now? How can story reveal new ways to understand how we hurt and help one another in troubled times? L.S. Johnson drew from her story “An Elegy for Landings,” and her larger body of work, to tackle these questions and more.
EGL: When I first read “An Elegy for Landings” I understood it as a take on selkie stories, but Germanic legends, like the story of Swanhilde or the Völsunga saga, perhaps track more closely to what you depict in the story. What were your main influences and if they come from more than one source, how do you see them working together?
LSJ: Actually, the initial starting point was about structure: I was thinking a lot about elegy as a poetic form, its three parts and the emotional journey it encompasses. The examples I was reading were about mourning the dead, but there are many other losses we mourn, including loss of freedom, loss of culture, loss of self.
As for the myths I’m drawing from, it was primarily swan maidens and selkies, but also Ovid and fairy tales like The Crane Wife. There is so much violence in those tales, framed as acts of love—violence and loss of agency. I wanted to center that brutality and how it would impact everyone in its radius.
EGL: I loved how even though much of the source material for stories like these dwells with the male gaze – the human men in search of wives ambushing the selkie or the swan maiden, for example – but in “Elegy” the first gaze we encounter is between two swan maidens, in a moment of warning. How are the female gaze and female solidarity working in this story?
LSJ: I was raised in New York City, and as a young woman navigating the city I quickly became reliant on other women for guidance. How to move through a landscape fraught with bodily and emotional violations, how to negotiate for space and autonomy when your right to such is not a given. As I grew up, it became apparent to me that my male friends saw the world, and were seen by the world, far differently—and my outrage wouldn’t be enough on its own to change this.
Without other women sharing their wisdom and validating my experiences, I shudder to think how my teenage years would have gone. And when I write about violence against women, as I often do, my instinctive story arc has been shifting from retribution-driven outcomes to solidarity-driven outcomes. Solidarity is such a powerful driver for change; even if it leads to retribution, it’s a retribution shaped by knowledge and choice, rather than the predetermined outcome of a binary of violence.
EGL: The “elegy” of the title underscores the melancholy ending – we know that the freedom of flight is fleeting, the world of the swan maidens (or at least individual swan maidens) will come to an end. But your prose is very sensual in its descriptions of the kind of love that the swans have for the earth. Are those sensory passages there only so that the ending cuts deeper, or do you see any possible positive developments between swan maidens and the world of men or the land itself?
LSJ: Well, an elegy is something that comes after great loss, and part of the elegy structure is praising the idealized dead. There is consolation in Micha’s flying, there is her hope for a different world … but I drafted this story in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, and revised it during the Kavanaugh hearings. “Until” felt like the best I could do at the time. In many ways it still does.
EGL: Your “Until” reminded me a lot of the penultimate line from Joanna Russ’s short story “When It Changed”: “All good things must come to an end.” Russ was living through a time that was perhaps similar to ours in some ways; she and other feminists had been inspired by the civil rights movement only to have their hopes crushed by the social contractions of the 1980s. In “When It Changed” Russ follows up this line about the end of good things with “Take my life but don’t take away the meaning of my life.” I’m wondering if you’re finding meaning in the works of other women writing speculative fiction and if so, who are they and how are their stories influencing you, either in your craft or in life?
LSJ: Well, I was a teenager in the 1980s, so I understand a little of what Russ was feeling. Even to my naïve self, it felt like we were regressing as a society. All these years later, I have moments when I realize I’ve been repeating certain arguments for decades now, and it’s very hard at times not to give way to despair.
In my fiction reading I gravitate towards big canvases: duologies, trilogies, series. As a reader I don’t like to fill in gaps; I want to immerse in another writer’s world. I tend to write long (“Elegy” is that rare beast, a story of mine that’s less than 8000 words), and my work-in-progress is a historical fantasy series, so my reading serves a craft purpose, but even when I was little I preferred large, immersive tales. What I’ve come to realize over time is that these expansive stories help me understand people—as a deeply anxious only child, other people were often intimidating ciphers—and, more recently, power. I don’t feel like I understand power, and coming to grips with it feels like part of my life’s work. The larger the narrative canvas, the more I can see the mechanisms of power and try to understand the motivations behind its use.
To that end, I’ve been reading N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, and Ada Palmer; I’ve got the second Fonda Lee on the TBR pile, and the last Hilary Mantel, which I include here because I think historical fiction should be considered a speculative genre. I’m also slowly accumulating several of the Vorkosigan books; I’ve dipped into them here and there but never close enough to link them up, but I have more time to read right now. Being furloughed does have a few benefits.
When I truly feel hopeless, though, I return to Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse stories, which feel like they contain a truth of the world I can’t quite put into words but is a tiny yes to all my swirling untils.
EGL: Do you have any future plans for stories that include “Elegy” characters Micha or Brea, or for stories that take place in this world? To what extent do fairy tales or myths inform your fiction in general?
LSJ: I hadn’t thought to return to Micha and Brea, though I’ve been writing off and on for three decades now, and if there was one continuity in my process, it’s that I endlessly circle many of the same themes, tropes, even imagery. So I may come back to this story again, and again.
I do gravitate towards Western mythology and fairytales as story-bones, skeletons to lay flesh over. I’ve written stories around the Fates, Sleeping Beauty, and Philomela and Procne, to name but a few, and my novella series plays a bit with the Book of Job. In a bid for extra credit I read Jung in my senior year of high school—far too early to have any kind of critical engagement—and that blind encounter shaped how I approached mythology: I came to view myths as ur-texts, and thought myself a Sophisticated Writer if I could somehow fit my few life experiences into the grandiose structure of, say, Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s a habit I haven’t quite been able to shake, though I’ve become more critical of both those stories and the degree to which they keep finding expression in Western culture.
EGL: Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about this story or other related writing?
LSJ: Only that if they liked “Elegy” and were interested in reading more of my work, I have two collections available: Vacui Magia and Rare Birds.
EGL: Could you tell us a bit more about your collections (especially how you’ve drawn from fairy tale or myth)?
LSJ: I have two collections available. The first, Vacui Magia, I self-published in 2016. My impetus was to create a kind of mixtape of my work, instead of having to send people to a half-dozen magazines to read my stories. I had worked in publishing for over a decade so I knew how to make a book, and I just went for it. It won a prize, and it made the finalist list for World Fantasy, though in all honesty I submitted it to the WFA because it was a chance to send my work to Nalo Hopkinson and that felt like a milestone in and of itself.
It’s eight stories loosely joined by theme, a formula I repeated with Rare Birds, my second collection. They both draw fairly heavily on myth and fairy tales; off the top of my head I’d say more than half the stories reference some older tale. But even when there’s no direct reference, the stories are about metamorphosis. In Vacui Magia the metamorphoses are in reaction to imposed circumstances: how we change to adapt, to fight back. In Rare Birds the stories are about how relationships shape and alter us—for better or worse.
BIO: Eileen Gunnell Lee is a teacher, lecturer, and writer of sff and other interstitial stories. She is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Stelliform Press. Eileen recently completed a PhD in English literature in which she focused on conceptualizing ecological breakdown and mythological exile in feminist and Indigenous science fiction from 1970 to the present. Her own fiction confronts the emotional and ecological effects of climate change and often hybridizes the scientific or technological with folk landscapes and ways of being. Eileen’s fiction has appeared on the Escape Pod podcast and in the 49th Parallels anthology from Bundoran Press. More stories are forthcoming from Galli Books and Selene Quarterly. Eileen is currently under the thrall of her two children, one ex-racing greyhound, a calico cat, and a growing collection of rare aroids. She enjoys walking among trees and foraging for wild mushrooms. She hasn’t poisoned herself yet 🍄.