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Kirsty Logan: On Moving Through Grief by Writing, the Art of Worldbuilding, and Her New Novel ‘The Gracekeepers’

Kirsty Logan: On Moving Through Grief by Writing, the Art of Worldbuilding, and Her New Novel ‘The Gracekeepers’

Author: Sara Rauch

May 12, 2015

“I think that the world of The Gracekeepers is as accepting and as intolerant as our own world–that is to say, some people are incredibly tolerant of difference, and others just shriek about burning the witch (whoever and whatever the witch may be).”

Kirsty Logan’s new novel, The Gracekeepers, weaves together the stories of two inimitable female protagonists, North and Callanish. Set in a world where water has almost completely covered the earth, The Gracekeepers draws a new geography and reimagines boundaries—all while remaining deeply human. Richly detailed and hard to put down, Kirkus called it “[a] beautifully strange debut novel… haunting, spare, and evocative.”

Logan is the author of The Rental Heart and Other Fairy Tales, about which Roxane Gay said: “If you want to be captivated, if you want to be utterly taken, reach for this book and don’t let go.” Logan is a writing mentor for WoMentoring, and she writes a column on the X-Files for The Female Gaze. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in print and online, recorded for radio and podcasts, and exhibited in galleries. She lives in Glasgow with her fiancée and their rescue dog.

Logan spoke with Lambda Literary Review about The Gracekkeepers, the process of writing it, what inspires her and her love of fairy tales, and what’s next in her literary career (hint: it’s coming soon!).

Where did the idea for The Gracekeepers originate?

It began with the loss of my father when he was 58. He died very suddenly, and we still don’t know how or why. I’d never known such loss before, and I spent a long time stumbling through my grief.

About a year later I was out on a boat, and I saw floating buoys with lights inside them. To me they looked like birdcages, and I began to daydream about why there would be birdcages at sea. Grief and mourning were still very much on my mind, so I had the idea that the birds would serve as grave markers, and the lifespan of the bird would mark the mourning for the person who had died–so when the bird died, the family could stop mourning. It appealed to me as I craved some sort of structure to pull me through my grief.

But although the novel began in a sad place for me, it’s ultimately a love story, so I hope it will be an uplifting experience for the reader.

What does your writing process look like? Do you write linearly? I’m curious about that especially because of the way The Gracekeepers is told—relatively linearly but with a number of different POV characters—do you know the structure of a piece before you start writing? How did you choose who was going to tell what, when?

I don’t always write linearly, but for The Gracekeepers I did. I didn’t want to lose my sense of momentum or bore myself, so I didn’t let myself skip ahead while writing. I was only allowed to make notes on future chapters, not actually write them until I arrived at them. And I knew the rough structure of each chapter before I began it, but I didn’t know much further than that.

EL Doctorow said: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” And I completely agree. I knew how everything would come together at the end, but in terms of details I was only ever looking one chapter ahead.

Tell me more about crafting this world. You write in such a vivid, evocative way, and yet so subtly, that it feels like you know this place inside out. Did you know the world in your mind before you started writing, or did you discover it as you went, or was it a little bit of both?

I had a sense of the world before I began, though many of the details came to me as I was writing. My process for coming up with a storyworld is 10% reading and 90% daydreaming. I get on a bus or train, put in my headphones, and listen to music while watching the scenery pass by. I need movement–a walk is okay, but a trip on public transport is best. By the time I get to where I’m going, the story has always taken shape in my mind.

For me, a storyworld tends to begin in the senses. I don’t necessarily know what will happen, who it will happen to, or exactly where it will happen–but I do know the tone and feel of the story, certain sights and smells and sounds, perhaps the temperature of the air or the texture of the ground.

Often my stories are set in unreal and unspecified places: the woods, the island, the city. I think this is the influence of my love of fairy tales, as I often write in ‘fairy tale time’: a vague past, a once-upon-a-time that might not be historically real but is real in a timeless sociological and emotional way. It’s similar for The Gracekeepers –I’m happy to leave it open to interpretation whether this is a future world, a past world, or an alternate world.

Otherness is a big theme in The Gracekeepers, and there’s a certain tense dichotomy that’s both overt and organic throughout this novel—in the landscape, in the setting, in the characters—sometimes it’s subtle, like with the genderplay of the Glamours, others it’s more obvious, like with the disparity between the landlockers and the damplings. But, as is so often the case, as you dig and reveal, there is actually a certain fluidity beneath what appears to be set in stone. What’s your take on the importance, or necessity, of otherness? Do you think the world you create in The Gracekeepers is somehow more accepting of otherness as a reality, or at least less shocked by it? Or is it really a different manifestation of the same clash we see in contemporary society?

I think that the world of The Gracekeepers is as accepting and as intolerant as our own world–that is to say, some people are incredibly tolerant of difference, and others just shriek about burning the witch (whoever and whatever the witch may be). In the book there are certain factions like the military and the revivalists, who have their own prejudices, and then there are the old-fashioned and well-off landlockers, who have different prejudices. That’s not to let the more marginal characters off the hook, either: the circus folk and other damplings have their own prejudices. Just because we’re marginalised, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily tolerant of other marginalised people.

For me, the book is about moving beyond a binary. There are several binary conflicts: land/sea, male/female, gay/straight, security/freedom, wildness/domesticity. By the end, I hope that the characters (and maybe the reader) have begun to feel that their world (and maybe our world) is not just a choice between two things: there is a third path, even if we have to mark it out ourselves.

I’m always really fascinated by secrets—because there’s so much power in them. In writing, it can be a fine line to walk, revealing what when, but especially how to let the reader into a character’s world without overloading or bogging down the story. The Gracekeepers is rife with secrets, every single character has something they’re concealing. Will you talk a little bit about navigating that as a writer? And also, perhaps a little more about how you view the dynamic interpersonal maneuvering that secrets create?

Every character in the book has secrets because I think that every person in the world has secrets. It might just be a tiny thing, but everyone has something that they’ve never told – and so it should be. Secrets can often be damaging, but they don’t have to be. If you have a secret, then no one can ever put you in a box because they don’t really know you. They don’t know your layers, your sharp edges, your tender hidden parts. There’s strength in having a precious gem of a secret, wrapped in velvet somewhere inside. As long as hiding it doesn’t hurt anyone, I think it’s healthy to have a secret.

In terms of interpersonal manoeuvring, the things we know about a person affect the way we speak to them, act around them, and reveal ourselves to them. There can be layer upon layer of secrets in interactions: I know this thing about her, but she doesn’t know that I know it; or I think she knows this thing about me, but I don’t know for sure, so I’ll try to figure out whether she knows the thing without actually revealing or hinting at the thing. It’s complex! Every single social interaction we have contains layers of secrets and truth and pretence.

As a writer, I think it’s a case of deciding when it makes sense for the character’s secret to be revealed – sense in terms of the story, and sense in terms of what that character actually would reveal, and to whom. Often the reader knows a secret before the character reveals it to the other characters, and sometimes the reader even knows it before the character themselves knows. It wasn’t a case of thinking, ‘right, each character must have a secret’ – it’s just that I think that’s how the world is. People have secrets. That’s how we all are, for better or worse.

On that note, about dynamics and movement, what was it like creating this spirited cast of characters? You do a remarkable job of representing this feisty crew—of making sure each character is both flawed and sympathetic. What’s your process for crafting all those unique voices? And do you have a favorite among the characters?

I’m fond of all the characters. I think a writer has to love their characters–you spend an awful lot of time with them over the course of writing a book, and in creating the characters you have to really understand them, to know what makes them tick and why they do the things that they do. If you don’t care about someone, you won’t want to explore their motivations. If we’re cut off in traffic or someone pushes in front of us in a queue, it’s easy to think ‘that person is a total arse,’ without wondering why they’ve done it. But a writer can’t get away with that–we have to know why a character acts the way they do, even if it’s not explicitly explained in the text. A writer can never ignore their characters’ motivations, the way that we often do with real people.

I couldn’t say whether he’s my favourite, but I’m intrigued by the character of Flitch. He’s a messenger, meaning he travels around the world delivering parcels and messages (both written and verbal) between the islands and boats. Like most of the characters, messengers exist on the margins, never stopping anywhere, never calling anywhere home. Even the damplings have a home on their boats, but the messenger boats aren’t really a home. My favourite scene is the one where Flitch and Callanish are floating in his tiny boat, lost in the misty sea, and she’s shaving his head, wielding the blade so close to his skin–and he trusts her, even though he shouldn’t. I love the tension between them.

There’s a lot of myth and magic woven in to The Gracekeepers. What’s your background with all of this—is it something that you’ve studied or explored in depth, or did it rise up out of this particular story?

I’ve always loved mythology, folktales, fairy tales, and odd old beliefs. I’ve studied it formally, as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on retold fairy tales, but most of my reading has just been for my own pleasure and personal education. Almost everything I write is inspired by myth in some way – it’s the well I keep returning to.

I’m curious especially about Callanish’s webbed fingers and toes, and the baby that North carries, and the idea of evolution. I know it maybe seems like a bit of a leap, but on some level, given the world you’ve created in The Gracekeepers, wouldn’t it make sense that humans would begin to evolve toward a more aquatic body? But, of course (and this ties in to the otherness we talked about above), many of the characters in The Gracekeepers are actively resistant to change and otherness. Do you think of the ending of this book as happy? As inevitable? As the beginning of something larger and more open to change?  

To me, it made perfect sense that in a world that’s mostly sea, humans would evolve to be able to live in the sea. After all, we came from the sea in the first place. I’m not trying to say that I genuinely think this is the way we’ll evolve – I’m certainly not a scientist, and have done absolutely zero scientific research on this subject! But in terms of the story it made sense, and in a metaphorical way I do think that we as a species need to evolve to accept a spectrum of ways of being. For me, Callanish’s webbed fingers and toes represent this third way I mentioned; this moving beyond a binary to find a way to live in the world without just having to choose one thing or another. I hope the book’s ending is happy, because it represents the beginning of a new way of living.

What inspires you, as a writer?

I’m inspired by everything I read and see and hear, by the first cup of coffee in the morning, by myths and folktales, by my childhood, by standing with my feet in the cold sea, by children’s ghost stories from the 1970s, by riot grrrl music, by paintings in dark corners of galleries, by online feminist activism, by my friends, by my father’s old journals, by long train journeys, by stills from films I’ve never seen, by my own secrets.

What are you working on these days?

I’ve just finished my third book, a collection of linked stories called A Portable Shelter (due out in August). It’s inspired by Scottish and Scandinavian folk tales, and it’s all about loss, identity and the purpose of stories. And again, it centres on a lesbian couple who may or may not have a happy ending.

And last question, because I always want to know: what are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading (and loving) Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, which is equal parts beautiful and horrible. I’m also very much enjoying Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us, which reminds me of Rene Denfeld’s brilliant The Enchanted; and Laird Hunt’s Neverhome, which is so beautifully written that I have to stop every few pages just to close my eyes and swoon at how glorious it is. There are so many wonderful books being published lately, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to enjoy them all.

Photo: © Monkeytwizzle
Sara Rauch photo

About: Sara Rauch

Sara Rauch is the author of WHAT SHINES FROM IT. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family.

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