An Interview with Foz Meadows, author of CORAL BONES

WIN_20160116_22_18_50_ProI am SO EXCITED to have Foz Meadows drop by the blog today for an interview! Foz generously agreed to answer some questions about her wonderful novella, CORAL BONES.
Foz Meadows is a genderqueer author, blogger, essayist, reviewer and poet. In 2014, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer for her blog, Shattersnipe; she is also a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate, and a contributing reviewer for Strange Horizons and Tor.com. Her third novel, An Accident of Stars, is due out from Angry Robot in 2016.


 

The Miranda in CORAL BONES is such a different Miranda than the Miranda from The Tempest, even in the flashbacks. So much sharper, and more clever, and in the present sections, she’s seen and done so much more. How did you take the source material, where Miranda is hardly even one dimensional, and flesh her out to deeper character?

The heart of all fanfiction – and let’s be honest, writing about someone else’s characters is always going to be fanfiction, even if it’s Shakespeare – especially if it’s Shakespeare, actually; we revere him now, but it’s not as if he shied away from making a dick joke or twenty back in the day – is always in the gaps. And Miranda, fundamentally, is a creature of more gaps than substance: her entire existence is conditional on her convenience to the male characters, because she was written, quite deliberately, as an idealised personification of feminine virtue. Which means, from a fanfic perspective, there are plenty of gaps to work with: all you have to do is find an entry point, and ask enough questions to get the ball rolling.

My entry point for Coral Bones was Prospero’s initial conversation with Miranda, and everything it implies. Prospero says he’s never told Miranda that she’s a princess, even though they’ve been stranded together for over a decade – and then, when her presence becomes inconvenient, he puts her to sleep. When she wakes again, it’s clear she doesn’t realise he’s responsible, which makes you wonder: how often has he done this? When did he start? And what does this say about how he’s raised Miranda? Because of the way The Tempest is structured, we’re not encouraged to think of it as challenging gender roles – Miranda’s marriage to Ferdinand rather gives the opposite impression – but the fact remains that Prospero has been raising his daughter as a single father, a task he is culturally and socially ill-equipped to perform. And he’s a nobleman, too: Miranda’s one flashback to life before the island involves multiple female servants taking care of her, so it’s reasonable to infer that Prospero, when they first arrived, was wholly out of his element.

That being so – and as the only resources at his command were magical – it makes perfect sense that, as a nobleman and a scholar, Prospero would delegate the primary care of Miranda to his androgynous servant, Ariel. Which means that, straight away, there’s going to be a tension in her that Prospero doesn’t necessarily recognise, because Ariel isn’t human – isn’t even male or female, but a genderfluid spirit – and so whatever Prospero tells his daughter about her role as a woman, which is later reflected in how she behaves with Ferdinand (and how, to a lesser extent, she behaves with him), it’s hard to imagine her being the same with Ariel when Prospero isn’t watching; that growing up under fairy guidance wouldn’t have an impact on her knowledge and curiosity. And we know, canonically, that Ariel is bound to serve Prospero, which gives them a kinship of sorts with Miranda, yet also curtails how obviously they can influence her, and in what ways.

This is what I mean when I say that Miranda’s existence, canonically, is conditional on her convenience to the male characters: all that matters is what they see of her, and so that’s all we see. But if you consider her as an individual – if you imagine her internality, separate to her perception, in the context of her raising – then you’re left to draw one of two conclusions: that either Miranda behaves as she would for a male audience at all times, even when alone, or there’s an enormous part of her that we’re not seeing, and a reason why it’s hidden. And as the second option is much more narratively interesting, even if it’s not what Shakespeare intended, that’s what I chose to write.

Years ago, I encountered a striking comment on Jane Austen’s writing: that she never depicted a scene in which two men were alone together, because she was worried that, never having witnessed such a thing herself, she wouldn’t be able to depict it with any degree of accuracy. And yet her male characters are wholly three-dimensional, because – to paraphrase what Dorothy L. Sayers once famously said on the same subject – she was nonetheless aware that men are people: that, even if they behaved differently when she couldn’t see them, those differences remained salient to their personhood without invalidating her perception of them otherwise. And yet there’s a whole body of supposedly classic male writing which fails to extend the same courtesy to women: which constructs them as though their visibility to men is the be-all, end-all of their existence. Which is, partially, the fault of cultures which have, for centuries, treated women as though this were literally the case; and yet it’s also a failure of imagination and empathy in a field which, by its nature, ought to abound in both. Women have never had the luxury of forgetting that men exist in spaces where they themselves are absent, because the business undertaken in such spaces has nonetheless directly impacted their liberties. Whereas a great many men, it seems, have been able to either ignore the existence or elide the importance of women’s spaces, because they believed – however inaccurately – that nothing which went on in them was relevant to men, or represented a threat to their freedom. That’s the difference between Mr Darcy and Miranda: even when viewed by women alone, the former is written as though he still exists beyond their gaze, while the latter is presented as nothing more than a construct of male attention.

Unless, of course, we dig into the inherent contradiction of any person being thus defined, and make a new story out of it.

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What was your favorite part of writing CORAL BONES, and why?

It was immensely cathartic to write Miranda as genderqueer, but Puck was extraordinarily fun to work with, too. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always been my favourite Shakespeare play, and I’ve got a decided soft-spot for mythology’s tricksters. Figuring out how to make Puck helpful without betraying his mischievous nature was very satisfying – as was crafting my own interpretation of the fairy courts.

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Where does CORAL BONES fit with the other novellas in the MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES series? Did you know what the order would be when you wrote it, or was that determined after the fact?

Once the editor, David Thomas Moore, signed the five of us on for the project, he set up a group pages where we could jointly discuss the stories we wanted to tell and the characters we wanted to use, complete with his own notes about the overarching structure – history, worldbuilding, magic – for use as references. We went back and forth with our ideas, and once it was established that everything could fit together without contradiction, we went to work. I think I was vaguely aware that Coral Bones was first up chronologically, but I didn’t quite realise that meant first in the anthology until the novella was being released!

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Compared to your other work (say, your upcoming novel, AN ACCIDENT OF STARS) was it a different process to get the voice right for this piece? To get that hint of Shakespearean cadence and poetry in there without going overboard? Or do you tend to fiddle with style a lot anyway?

I was definitely worried about getting it right! I didn’t think I could pull off actual Shakespearean dialogue, so adopting a first-person poetic style seemed like a sensible way to reference the original language while still writing in my own voice. An Accident of Stars, by contrast, is written very differently – third person, multiple POVs – with an eye to different details. I’ve always had a fairly versatile writing style, but it’s definitely improved since I started immersing myself in fanfiction. The whole idea of writing something just for yourself, as a deliberate subversion of canon and convention, is immensely freeing, and it’s given me a much stronger idea of my own abilities. I heartily recommend it!

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How can readers stay in the loop and get news about your projects and releases?

I tweet, tumble and blog as Foz Meadows, which isn’t exactly a common name, so I’m pretty easy to find online. I do tend to ramble about a whole bunch of stuff, though, so anyone who’s interested purely in my fiction updates – and not, say, a lengthy paean to my feelings about Dragon Age, Teen Wolf or whatever other dumpster I’m currently occupying – might want to brace themselves.

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Anything else you want us to know? Shout-outs? Words of wisdom?

I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN!*

*Translation: I am a terrible dork.

Book Review: CORAL BONES

CoralBones_FozMeadows

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
Ah, it’s like this book was written just for me! A FAAB genderqueer protagonist!

giphy5

IT ME.

UGH. ALL MAH FEELS.

So, yeah, Miranda is genderqueer (genderfluid might be a better word for her1?). And Ariel, too! Which I always felt like was probably true, actually, Shakespeare.

AND. Foz Meadows includes in her portrait of the fairy realm many fairies of color, even as they are described in fantastical ways. Moth might have skin like a moth’s wings–“whites and browns in a calico patchwork”–but her kinky black and silver hair clearly signal she is a person of color. Queen Titania, likewise, has kinky hair and her “skin is the colour of burnished copper.” That’s right, the most powerful person in the story, the fairy queen herself, is coded as Black. Puck, too, has horns but is also brown-skinned. The preponderance of brown fairies normalized the idea of fairies of color within the story itself.


Content Warning:
First a very small spoiler and content warning:

ContentWarning

If you are triggered by incest, you may want to tread carefully with this book. Meadows is careful to state that nothing actually happened between Prospero and Miranda, but that that island was desolate and lonely, and that when she came into adolescence his looks lingered. She definitely felt unsafe. There was definite squick (none of it, course, any fault of Miranda’s; the text is clear on this point). There was a definite sense that something could have happened without her and Ariel’s joint intervention. Just a heads up.


 

Review:
Ok! Now, without further preamble, the review itself!

Coral Bones, by Foz Meadows, is a novella which follows Miranda, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest2, after her return to Europe. Miranda sails away, marries Ferdinand, and that’s supposed to be happily ever after, yes? But what if no. What if being raised by a form-switching fairy on an isolated island steeped in magic leaves Miranda with an altogether different understanding of the world and of herself.

What if the reason she left the island in the first place is not, precisely, because she was madly in love with Ferdinand?

What if there is more than one brave new world out there for Miranda to explore? What if there is more than one brave new Miranda for Miranda to explore?

For Miranda, all of these are questions of gender, and all of these are questions of role expectations, and all of these are questions of agency all at once. It’s really a story about self-determination and self-acceptance, which is very much my jam. But Miran-Miranda (as she comes to refer to herself) is extremely smart, and her allies–Ariel and Puck3–are clever and helpful and respectful. They are both so well-drawn; each are utterly recognizable within the frames of their Shakespearean origins but have been brought to life again as more realized and more weathered creatures. They have worries. They have entanglements.

Truly, I wish this novella was longer. Let me clarify that I don’t think it needed to be longer; the story was well-paced and well-developed. It had a complete arc. I just want more! It ended, and my heart wasn’t ready to move on. But what happens next? What happens now that Miran-Miranda is at Titania’s court? What happens next?

giphy6

FOR FOZ MEADOWS TO WRITE A SEQUEL TO THIS NOVELLA. TELL ME MORE STORY, PLEASE.

I wanted it to be longer partly because here is a main character that thinks and feels and reflect on gender, who embodies gender and experiences it, so very much like I do. And that is incredibly rare. In describing her fluctuating experience of gender to Puck, Miran-Miranda says:

My heart is a moon, and some days I am full and bright within myself, a shape that fits my name, and then I fade, and mirrors show only a half-light shared with a silhouette, an absence my form reflects; and then, in the dark, I am dark altogether, until I regrow again. Why should such a thing be any more difficult to grasp than the fact that some think me dead, and yet I live? The contradiction is only in their perception of what I am.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything that captures my experience as a genderqueer/genderfluid person as honestly or with as much poetry as this. (This also gives a sneak peek at Meadows’ writing, which has lovely Shakespearean flourishes and wordplay throughout).

Beyond that, while Coral Bones is essentially Miran-Miranda’s coming-to-terms tale (coming-out-to-self? Is there a better term for this narrative?), the ending is so full of promise and action that I am desperately curious about the adventures that Miran-Miranda is sure to have after the final line. Just as in The Tempest, the ending posits that this is a new, exciting chapter for her. And I would love to witness it.

I am kind of a Shakespeare nerd. And I’m genderqueer. And I used to work at Renaissance Faires where, as a child, I dressed as a Puckish type fairy. Literally I am the target audience for this novella. But, truly? I don’t think you have to be any of these things to love this book. Miran-Miranda’s tasks and journey to the fairy court have tension and stakes. The plot moves. The writing is clever and not overly Shakespearean, just enough to give nods. You don’t even have to be familiar with The Tempest or Midsummer. The novella presumes no prior familiarity with the source material; you can simply pick it up and go, which I think is one of its great strengths. If you are at all interested in feminist fantasy or in trans/non-binary fantasy, or in really cool fairies, I strongly recommend this fabulous short read.

5 stars

1Miran-Miranda uses female pronouns throughout.

2I remember Meadows tweeting about an idea for a genderqueer Miranda story and I BASICALLY LOST IT because a) I adore Foz Meadows and b) The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play. I’m a little obsessed with it.

3Puck’s reworking here is especially ingenious given the way it ties The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. I loved him here and generally dislike him in the play, but he was true to form. I got the sense from the novella that he has a peculiar and idiosyncratic sense of loyalty that fits so well with the idea of him.


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