This year, I’m pleased to present an interview with New Hampshire author Kat Howard, whose debut novel Roses and Rot is a refreshing new take on the perennially popular story of Tam Lin. Here, the traditional woman-rescuing-her-lover plot is complicated by the presence of a pair of sisters, both talented and creative in different ways, who must work through some painful choices to conquer the demons of their past and find a way forward. With its interweaving of many fairy-tale motifs into a very modern tale, it’s a rich exploration of the creative process, of female power and relationships, and of the stories that inspire us. (Don’t miss the chance to win a copy in the Witch Week giveaway!)
I asked Maureen, who blogs at By Singing Light, to interview Kat for us, knowing that she would come up with a fantastic set of questions — and she did. Enjoy!
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
Maureen: I loved that Roses and Rot referenced so many folk and fairy tales, even beyond Tam Lin. What stories were you conscious of engaging with, and how did they influence the shape of the book?
Kat: For me, it wasn’t so so much of a conscious choice, necessarily — no “now it’s time to reference “Beauty and the Beast” or anything like that – so much as I wanted the story I was telling to feel steeped in fairy tales, surrounded by them. Fairy tales had made Imogen the kind of person that she was, and they were almost a sort of language for her. So I tried to draw on recognizable symbols and notes and themes, and to include those whenever I had a chance to, so that they built an atmosphere.
It seems like Tam Lin retellings often engage with a relationship between artists or creative people and fairies. (I’m thinking of both Fire and Hemlock and Pamela Dean’s version.) Is this something you were engaging with consciously? And if so, was there an aspect you were hoping to draw out?
Well, because of the aspect of the tithe in Tam Lin (in the original ballad, the sacrifice that the kingdom of Faerie paid to Hell every seven years), there’s sort of an inherent need for some sort of contact in the human world, because otherwise the Fae are paying with one of their own. And when I was at Clarion (a writers’ workshop), I wrote a short story where the Fae paid their tithe with artists. The story didn’t quite work, partially because I hadn’t quite made clear why the Fae would choose artists — in my head at the time, it was because I could think of a lot of artists who had died far too young, and it’s nicer to think of someone as just being away with the Faeries, instead of being dead. But I wanted to try to give a better, clearer explanation this time.
You’ve written many short fiction pieces, and co-written a novella with Maria Dahvana Headley. How has writing this novel been different than your previous work?
This is going to sound like I’m being a smart ass, and I swear it’s not that, but one of the biggest differences was that it was longer. I had more space to tell a story. Short fiction, it’s sort of like you have your idea, and you get in and get out. Even with The End of the Sentence, there were bits and pieces that Maria and I both loved, and could have happily spent more time in, and that had to go because they weren’t necessary for the part of the story that we were telling. There’s a different kind of story that you tell when you have three thousand words or thirty thousand, or ninety thousand. And so here, with Roses and Rot, I really got to linger in the story, and spend time with the characters and the world, and that was really a pleasure for me.
There are so many different strands running through Roses and Rot, from the fairy tales to Imogen and Marin’s history with their mother, and the reflections on art and creativity. How did you weave them together and create a cohesive story?
This is going to be the most boring answer ever, but lots of revisions. I tend to write very sparse early drafts — like the Grinch’s heart, they grow three sizes before they get finished. And so while I knew from the beginning that I wanted all of those pieces in there, often, the earliest versions of scenes would only hit one theme, or one piece. So I went back again and again and layered the pieces until the story had the weight that I wanted it to.
Beyond fairy tales themselves, were there any writers or stories you were influenced by when you were writing this book?
Obviously, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin was a huge influence on the story. And of course writers who engage with that sort of fairy/ fairy tale sensibility in their own writing — Terri Windling, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Holly Black. I’m always influenced by Cat Valente’s extraordinary talent with language. Nova Ren Suma, for making me want to write a book about sisters. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.
Basically, this book had a lot of fairy godmothers.
Fairy tales are so often about girls in a magical and dangerous landscape–I’m interested in how that’s reflected in Roses and Rot. Were there any particular things you wanted to show in your landscapes and in Imogen’s reaction to them?
I think if you read fairy tales, you know that once the character heads into the woods, that’s when the story really starts happening. It’s where things are allowed to get a little bit strange, a little bit dangerous. I mean, Stephen Sondheim has an entire musical about this! Even A Midsummer Night’s Dream — all the parts with the fairies in happen once the human characters are in the woods. And so really, the landscape choice was just a way of working with this idea.