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“The Drowning Girl”: Three Questions for Caitlín R. Kiernan

Kiernan drowning girl cover

Caitlín R. Kiernan has steadily moved beyond an early reputation as an heir to the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft and Southern Gothic literature to become one of the most original and audacious weird writers of her generation. In addition to her many award-winning novels and stories, Kiernan has written scientific papers that reflect her love of herpetology and paleontology, also reflected in her fiction. Perhaps more than any other writer of the past thirty years, Kiernan places the reader somewhere alien and inhabits points of view that seem both luminous and edgy.

But, as she has throughout her career, Kiernan has begun to move in new directions yet again. Her last two novels, The Red Tree and just-released The Drowning Girl have contained more overt elements of autobiography while retaining the talent for the uncanny that marked Kiernan’s earlier work.

The Drowning Girl is told by India Morgan Phelps—Imp to her friends—who is schizophrenic. She can no longer trust her own mind, because she is convinced that her memories have somehow betrayed her, forcing her to question her own identity. Struggling with her perception of reality, Imp must uncover the truth about an encounter with a vicious siren, or a helpless wolf that came to her as a feral girl, or neither of these things but something far, far stranger.

That description of The Drowning Girl may help orient the reader, but it cannot really convey the genius of the voice Kiernan has created in the novel. It’s rare that a writer can create one memorable character, let alone two such voices, perfectly balanced and devoted to telling a unique and beautifully written story. As Peter Straub wrote of the novel, “With The Drowning Girl, [the author] moves firmly into the new vanguard, still being formed, of our best and most artful authors of the gothic and fantastic.”

Omnivoracious caught up with Kiernan via email to ask three questions about The Drowning Girl How is this new novel different from your others, either in conception, writing process, or focus/intent?

Caitlín R. Kiernan: That’s not an easy question, or questions, to answer, but I’m finding most questions people are asking me about The Drowning Girl aren’t easy questions to answer. I wanted to convey the experience of schizophrenia, but not by writing about schizophrenia, but, instead, by allowing a schizophrenic to speak for herself. One reason it took me so long to write this book, and why there were several false starts, was that I needed a while to realize I had to stop trying to speak for Imp and simply allow Imp to speak for herself. Which actually means that I had to stop trying to describe my own thoughts, and, instead, write my thoughts. My early novels, before The Red Tree, I’m trying to translate my own mental processes into what I always believed a novel ought to be. I did that right up through Daughter of Hounds, and probably the only genuinely honest parts of those books were dream sequences. And, too, in this novel I knew that I wanted to examine the nature of hauntings. Not ghosts rattling chains in an attic. Not what most readers expect when they hear a novel involves the paranormal. But what it actually means to be haunted. How a haunting is created, how it’s propagated through, for example, artwork. How my haunting can become your haunting. As Imp says in the novel, how hauntings are memes, pernicious thought contagions. And, as has often been the case in my work, I wanted to offer up a narrator who’s honest about being unreliable. All our first-person narrators – the characters I call “interauthors” – are unreliable. But most authors and readers don’t understand, or won’t admit, that’s true. It’s too disturbing, admitting how faulty our memories are and realizing we cannot accurately convey absolutely objective truths through fiction.

Kiernan author photo Your last two novels have contained more overtly autobiographical elements, by your own admission. Why now? And what do you think it lends your writing going forward?

Kiernan: Partly, what I’ve already said. My characters – all of them – have always been extensions of myself. But with Sarah Crowe and The Red Tree, I needed to write who I was at that moment and where I was, mentally and emotionally, at that moment. I was tired of telling my life dressed up as fairy tales. No, of course I have not literally lived in a decrepit farmhouse haunted by a wicked old tree. But the tree is only a symbol, just as Eva Canning in The Drowning Girl is a metaphor. The “demons” in my life that I’m trying to understand and survive. Imp and Sarah are two sides of the same coin. It’ll be hard, I think, for a reader to read Sarah, abrasive, argumentative, fatalistic, jaded, self-destructive Sarah, and then read Imp with her worldly innocence and desperate struggle to find a way to reconcile her insanity with the world in such a way that she can live through all the hauntings in her life. But they are two sides of the same woman. They are. And they are me at two different stages of my life. When I wrote The Red Tree, I’d pretty much given up. Things were that bad, and there it is in the book. In no way should that be taken as dismissive of The Red Tree. I think you won’t truly understand The Drowning Girl if you haven’t read it first. Anyway, on the other hand, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, that’s me two years later, and I still don’t know much about people and how they behave and expect me to behave, but I’m trying very hard to, you know, just live through this. Sarah is at the end of her rope. Imp is determined never to slip that far. I think it was Jack Kevorkian who said, “When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” And that’s what both these novels are saying. What influences on the novel might surprise readers?

Kiernan: Both novels have fairly exhaustive afterwords listing important influences. My editor asked me to include those, by the way. Authors, poets, painters, composers, bands, songwriters, etcetera. There are things in those afterwords that will likely surprise people who’ve read the book. Henryk Górecki, for example, or the writings of Sir Ernest Henry Shackelton, Winslow Homer’s "On a Lee Shore." I’m just guessing here, because I cannot possibly know what will surprise someone who’s reading the novel. I suppose they won’t be surprised that Peter Straub’s Ghost Story was a major influence, or Angela Carter, or Anne Sexton. But I can imagine they may have more trouble with Kristin Hersh’s autobiographical Rat Girl, which, by the way, was the key that showed me how The Drowning Girl could and should be written. And I think a lot of readers still equate me with goth subculture – as opposed to Gothic literature – and emo and authors like Poppy Z. Brite. They believe I’m still the person I was in 1996, when I finished Silk and was fronting Death’s Little Sister. And I’m not. Sure, that was part of the road to where I am and who I am now. But that’s not what you’ll get from these novels. I don’t want to alienate those earlier readers of mine, or readers who are just now discovering my work, but they need to understand these two novels were not directly influenced by the things that influenced a novel like Silk. Worse, they might think I’m a “horror writer.” Worse yet, there are people who think I write “Paranormal Romance,” which is patently absurd. Just read the books.


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