Interview: Alexandra Duncan on “Swamp City Lament”
– Tell us a bit about the story.
“Swamp City Lament” is set in the near-future. A girl named Miren is growing up in the wake of a disaster that has wiped out most of the earth’s plant life, decimated the human population, and left most survivors sterile. Miren’s father is a nomarch, a feudal lord of one of the last enclaves of civilization. Her mother is one of his many mistresses. When her father’s official consort dies, Miren’s mother sets her sights on the throne, while Miren and her half-brother Belly try to unravel a mystery on the city’s rooftops. As it turns out, the stakes in both pursuits are higher than anyone anticipates.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I had just finished writing a novelet called “Amor Fugit,” which was a story about first love and coming of age set against a backdrop of sweeping, mythical forces. I wanted to explore the opposite side of growing up. I wanted a shabby, hardscrabble world with a foul-mouthed, very human main character who couldn’t afford to be naïve. I keep a file labeled “interesting things” on my computer, where I jot down images or ideas I find compelling. I went back to that file when I finished “Amor Fugit,” and the phrase “a mistress’s daughter” caught my eye. The two halves of the concept snapped together, and the rest of it came very naturally after that.
– Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way is this story personal?
There’s a dangerous question! I’ve heard other authors say you inevitably leave pieces of yourself in your stories, and I have to agree. Miren’s love/hate relationship with the people in her family and her distance from her parents definitely stem from my memories of what it was like to be an adolescent. The story is also full of ideas that resonate for me, especially the running theme of neglect and Miren’s lone act of hope in the face of a crumbling world. Whenever you invest a story with an idea that’s important to you, you’re signing up to expose a piece of yourself to the world. But I think you have to risk showing that piece if you hope for other people to find a common trace of humanity in the story.
– In the past year you’ve had four stories published in F&SF, all four encompassing varied and disparate themes and sub-genres. What motivates you to cover such wide literary territory?
As a reader, I love everything from steampunk and horror to historical fiction and magic realism. Writing, like reading, is a kind of exploration. I love ranging around the different corners of genre and literary fiction and seeing what I can do. I want to push myself to experience as much as possible as a writer. I’m in it for the adventure.
– What kind of research did you have to do for the story?
I spent a good amount of time researching curses for Miren and Belly to hurl at each other. Most of them came from Peter Novobatzky and Ammon Shea’s Depraved and Insulting English, a dictionary of historical insults, complete with helpful illustrations. A lot of the other details came to me piecemeal in the course of reading or obsessively listening to NPR. For example, I picked up the term “nomarch” when my husband and I were on a long car ride, listening to a lecture series on ancient Egyptian warfare.
– What are you working on now?
I’m revising a short novella I wrote this summer. It’s a historical retelling of the fairy tale “Rapunzel,” set during the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in 11th century Spain.
– Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, I’d like to thank F&SF for taking a chance on me when they published my first short story last year. I love having the opportunity to (hopefully) entertain other people with my stories.
For anyone who’s interested, I blog about wizards, pie, books, and birds at http://alexandraduncanlit.blogspot.com/.
“Swamp City Lament” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2010 issue of F&SF.
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