We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 18 by talking about all sorts of “magics” (bold or subtle) with our authors, and what inspired their stories.
Lackington’s: “Song of the Oliphant” is set in a near-future Canada. You’ve mentioned that some of the settings in the story are real places you have visited. Can you talk a bit about what it means to you to set this story in Canada, and how this near-future vision of the country differs from today?
KTB: I write a lot of Canadian-content fantasy! Mostly, I enjoy writing about places I love, and I love quite a lot of places in Canada. In the case of “Song of the Oliphant,” it was a roundabout process. I had this amazing night at a neighbourhood pub. Soft-glowing pink lights, a good friend, live music, people spontaneously dancing… It was one of those absolutely wonderful, transcendent nights, and I thought then, “This is going to wind up in a story one day.” Well, the pub was on Roncesvalles Ave, in Toronto.
Maybe a year later, I stumbled across a ballad retelling of The Song of Roland, which reminded me that Roland’s last battle occurs at…Roncesvalles Pass. I just had this image of people dancing against a terrible calamity while the Oliphant sounded. And let’s face it—you can draw all sorts of terrible calamities straight from the headlines. This near-future Canada has buckled to a totalitarian United States. Though of course, nominally, the atrocities are more muted, more moderate, more “Canadian” north of the border. The intense summer thunderstorms Toronto’s been suffering have also gotten worse as climate change continues, and snow is a distant memory.
The sad thing is, it’s a near-future vision that I can see coming true all too easily. We like to think we’re protected—muted, moderate, Canadian. But what happens down there eventually shows up here…
Lackington’s: The narrator in “Song of the Oliphant” calls herself a witch. Witches have appeared commonly both in literature and in history. Did you have any particular past witches in mind when you were writing this story? And if so, how do you view your version of a witch in conversation with that?
KTB: I didn’t have any specific person in mind, no. But in history and literature, witches were often women who lived on the margins, women who didn’t fit into society’s mould. Single women (especially older single women), financially independent women, women with “unconventional” skills and knowledge…in short, women with their own means of strength and power. Terrifying, right?
Though I didn’t consciously think of it whilst writing this piece, I think my narrator would appreciate the book Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. In sum, Lolly (Laura) Willowes tires of being a live-in spinster aunt, moves out on her own, and takes up witchcraft, thus finding her independence. A quotation from that book that’s always stuck with me is, “What can there be, but witchcraft? Even if other people still find them [women] quite safe and usual…they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are!”
So I suppose my narrator’s witchcraft falls into that line of unassuming strength. Strength doesn’t have to look like swords and war-horses. It can look like brewing tea and comforting people at midnight. But in patriarchal societies, that sort of strength is viewed suspiciously at best. But I wanted the witchcraft in my story to be “no big deal,” as it were. Again, I’m interested in this idea of unassuming strength. I find it’s the variety that more often leads to kindness.
Lackington’s: This story is written in something approaching hardboiled style. Yet, like the Roland legend you reference throughout, it’s a story about inaction. There’s a tension in expectations there: we expect the heroes to be acting, fighting, saving the day. But seemingly all they do is wait. Can you tell us about that?
KTB: Quick recap on The Song of Roland: Roland is leading a rearguard of Charlemagne’s fighters when they are ambushed. Sir Olivier, who’s pretty smart, begs Roland to blow his magic horn (the olifant/oliphant) to call Charlemagne back for reinforcements. Roland resists, believing it to be an act of cowardice…except finally, when it’s too late for Charlemagne to actually help, he blows it to summon revenge and subsequently dies.
At first, that image of one last, defiant stand struck me. Knowing it’s too late, and blowing the horn anyway? That seemed poignantly tragic and beautiful. Of course, Roland would’ve been much better off calling for help sooner. He got the honourable martyr’s death he wanted, but what about the rest of his party? Surely, he failed in his duty to them. When does bravery turn to arrogance?
And so the story got messier: defiance, yes, but undercut by regret at not acting sooner. There are obvious parallels to political situations today, of course. Wait it out, or act when trouble first appears?
Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?
KTB: In terms of story structure, I…do not write conventional narratives very often. There tends to be a lot of weaving back and forth between past and present, older stories and this story. Really, I think it comes down to my interest in contrasts. I like contrasting timelines and seeing how choices and trends in the past have consequences for the present (that’s the historian/museum worker in me). I like throwing fairy-tale imagery against modern-day settings. It’s like a chiaroscuro effect: the interplay heightens the impact of both.
It’s interesting, I hadn’t really considered that this story is unconventional in terms of its characters’ apparent inaction. Maybe that’s part of why having space for unconventional stories is important; different elements resonate with different readers. Also, it’s no fun if stories always work the way readers expect! Good stories push us into new territory. How can they do that if they’re always retreading old ground?
KT Bryski is a Canadian author, podcaster, and playwright. Her short fiction has appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She is a Parsec winner, Sunburst finalist, and Stonecoast MFA alum. She lives in Toronto with a strongly opinionated cat.