Whatcha Reading, Maria Dahvana Headley?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Maria Dahvana Headley, is an author, editor, playwright, screenwriter, and monstermaker — to quote her website. She's a bestselling author of the YA space fantasy Magonia, and most recently, The Mere Wife which re-imagines Beowulf in the modern age. She once called Seattle home, but now writes from new York.

A night not to miss: this Monday, September 10th, Nicola Griffith will be interviewing Maria Dahvana Headley in the Microsoft Audtiorium at the central library, a joint production of the Seattle Public Library, and the Elliott Bay Bookstore. Starts at 7:00pm.

What are you reading now?

Sometime in recent months, I discovered that I had four books called The Changeling on my shelves, which tells you something about the kind of person I am. I'm definitely not a changeling — I actually come from a weirdo magic family, and was never trapped among Muggles — but the moment I learned the term, age 8 or so, I was like...OMFG LEMME BE A FAIRYLAND PROBLEM CHILD. I learned about changelings from the Zilpha Keatley Snyder novel (1970), which is actually about class, creativity and friendship between girls, but which deals in the story of an artistic, brilliant, and very poverty-stricken girl who believes she came from the fairies rather than from her own family. I loved Snyder's books because they were about people like me, wandering around rather below the working class, rather than about children who came from money, manses, and well, WWII-era England, however perilous. I was interested in the longform peril of poverty and daily life. Snyder's work was all rooted in imaginative games, and I'm currently also reading this badass academic paper by Cathlena Martin, about how Snyder's The Egypt Game as well as other children's lit preceded and plausibly influenced Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games (which are usually credited to influencers like Tolkien). So, back to Changelings, various versions: Last year, I read Victor LaValle's brilliant novel version in which a couple deals with a horrific and agonizing child-swap. And now, right now, I'm reading Joy Williams's The Changeling for the first time, though I've been a fan of Williams's work for years, beginning with The Quick & the Dead, another book about fiery, difficult, magical friendships between girls. Williams's Changeling is thoroughly my kind of book — the kind that can't be compared to anything, but hey, say, Malcolm Lowry mashed with the surrealist eerie (surreeriealist?) plots of Shirley Jackson. In it, a floatingly aimless mystic of a young woman falls into a strange as fuck clan mostly made of children, but run by an abusive man. Williams is killingly precise and poetic, and each sentence makes me suffer, because each paragraph made of these sentences is basically a novel unto itself. For example: "...after the first (child), Aaron truly believed himself to be a sinful man. He invented the Devil for them then. Emma didn't care. She had always been below good and evil. Her magic had never been anything trivial. No burying of teeth or hair. No communions of blood and excretions. If Aaron chose to believe in something as trivial as the Devil, Emma allowed him his foolishness." This is in a recounting of the child tribe's story of their origins. The particularity of it! The simplicity of it — below good and evil! — and a couple of pages later? "It was Emma that seemed to have an excellent relationship with God. They were like two bears in the same den. Dismissing faith, Aaron took up with superstition." Ahhhh, I'm dead. It's like a four paragraph dissertation on the labyrinthine ways of toxic masculinity. I have to read this book in short bursts. Right now, I'm halfway through, and panting. The last Changeling on my shelf is Thomas Middleton's play from the 1600's, but apparently I could also read some Ōe. I'll no doubt one day give in and write a changeling story of my own. If you let a story concept gestate for 33 years, you know you have to surrender and give it to the fairies. Fine, fine, I'll give birth to this story. Oh, uh-oh, what is this in the cradle?...Welp.

I mean, that's what this whole profession looks like from the inside.

What did you read last?

Last book I read was in Australia, because I was at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and during it, I slunk into several bookstores ostensibly to sign my own books, but really to paw at books I hadn't yet seen in the US. So, on the flight back to the US a few days ago, I read three in a row, and they had things in common, and I was excited! Beyond the Wreck, by Jane Rawson, is intensely researched historical fiction but also has a cephalopod shapeshifting alien, so. SO, it's remarkable. It's got many different POVs and a whole lot of weird, but the weird is firmly rooted in the difficulties of having a mortal body, and conversely in the difficulties of being a wandering lonely creature whose body doesn't work out well on our planet. It's dark and beautiful, and puzzling and unresolved, and I was way into it. Then, I read Flames by Robbie Arnott, which begins with a family of women resurrecting post-cremation and living on for a few days in human/botanical hybrid format, and takes us on a wander through a world in which tuna fishing is done only by fishers who've bonded with seals, fire is a father, and love of creatures and landscapes is a motivating force. Then I read A Superior Spectre, by Angela Meyer, which is a dual/linked timeline story about a near-future dying man from Australia who uses a device to connect his mind to the life and mind of a young woman in 1860's Scotland. He ends up haunting her, but this book is complicated and intriguing in a host of ways, not least because of the way it deals with sexuality, ethical responsibility, and again, toxic masculinity. All these books had in common the notion of melding one's consciousness with the consciousness of someone else, whether human, creature, or alien, and also the notion of time being a fluid concept. They were also all page-turners, however unlikely that sounds. And man, they all made me cry. Cool shit is afoot in Australian lit.

What are you reading next?

I don't have this book yet, because it's not out yet, but I'm coveting Elizabeth Hand's Curious Toys, which I've been coveting ever since I heard about it. It's a novel about Henry Darger, and Liz's work is always erudite, elegant, and scathing. I'm also coveting Jeff Ford's Ahab's Return, which is a Moby Dick riff in which Ahab washes up in a Manhattan full of deep story -—Jeff manages to work in language that often seems domesticated but lands in you like a thing with long claws. And ooh, also That Which Girls Conjure Will Help Them Survive, by Kristen Stone. My friend Sarah McCarry's chapbook series Guillotine is impeccable, always, and this novel is about several generations of building a family, and surviving the inheritance of trauma.