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Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley on “The Thirteen Mercies”

– Tell us a bit about “The Thirteen Mercies.”

It’s a story about a group of soldiers who are convicted in a tribunal for war crimes, in this case torture using some really dark war magic. They’re sent to a jungle prison to rot, and to be punished by something that ends up being beyond their imaginations. It takes place in our world, sort of, but a bit worse. Only a bit. Our world is pretty damn bad right now. The soldiers are using a set of spells which are based on the 13 attributes of mercy, except that the way they’re using them is reversed. So, they are practicing anti-mercy. For me, that means they’re doing the worst thing I can imagine. The story comes from everything I’ve been seeing in the last few years in regard to war, refugees, and the concept of “enemy.” It continues. I continue to be disgusted, but for me the only way to survive rage and disgust is to try and understand. So, deep curiosity: I wanted to write a story from the POV of people I’d consider to be my own enemies. I want to understand my enemies. This is a story about that.


– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

On a  lighter note! The Thirteen Mercies started on Twitter, because I’d impulse bought a Victorian taxidermied crocodile.

When I tweeted about finally hanging up my crocodile, there were instant clamors for a story based on the line I’d tweeted, “Today, we hang the crocodile.” So I started there. The poet Matthew Zapruder, one of my favorites, suggested that it sounded like the first line of a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez story, and I was off. I think someone else said it should have an unethical general. Mind, it got weirder and darker from there. As is usual with me, I added in all the things I’d been thinking about.  As I was writing the story, The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture was published. I read it. It is worse than fiction.


– Was “The Thirteen Mercies” personal to you in any way?

Combination of my crocodile joy and my political rage, so yes. Everything I write is personal, because I tend to write from fury or love, and sometimes both at once. This was both. I wanted to make a world in which there was, at least at some point, actual justice.


– What would you want a reader to take away from this story? 

I would’ve said, a few months ago, that most people in America weren’t pro-torture, but looking at it from November, 2015, I think I was wrong. Maybe not most people, but many people believe that torture works as a method for gaining information. It’s been proven and proven that it does not, but the climate in America tells me that we once again have urges to torture the people we’re frightened by. Mind, this is part of American culture from the beginning. Slavery is torture. All racist culture is torture, and America has been engaging in very deeply internally in the last couple of years. Thing is, a lot of our fright is artificially created by political pushers. I’m in a constant state of rage and sorrow, listening to much of the things people are saying about how America is supposed to be this homogenous thing, this place that accepts no refugees, this place that accepts nothing in the way of religious diversity, nothing in the way of ANY diversity. What exactly do we think that leaves us with? It is a lunatic assumption, the one that says “normal” is good, and then defines normal as “white.” I’m consistently disgusted. All of the current fearmongering radically ignores American history, and also American responsibility, and it infuriates me. This story, to my mind, is about what happens if we let the voices of fearmongers get loud enough to drown out compassion. The original version of the 13 mercies is a bullet pointed list of ways to forgive, attributes of God. It’s forgiveness and mercy all the way down. It’s beautiful and correct. I don’t happen to be a religious person, and I’m not a believer in God, but I am a fervent believer in mercy, compassion, and self-education.  So, if anyone leaves with any of that, I’m happy. They can also leave with some whoa, surrealist story involving crocodiles and hallucinatory warfare, and that’s good too. I do write fiction for entertainment purposes too. I think it can be used in lots of ways.


– You recently sold a book to Farrar, Straus and Giroux that you wrote in a month.  Tell us all about that – the book, what it was like writing it, the experience of FSG buying it at auction, etc.

I went to an artist’s colony in Italy for a month, with a ferocious goal to write a draft of a novel I’d been planning for a couple of years. I had about 30K of it written, and I wrote another 50K in about three weeks. I don’t know how I did that either, except that I’d been dying to write it. It’s based on Beowulf, and set in present day NY, both in the city and upstate. I woke up every morning, drank coffee, and wrote like a demon for 8 hours. The wifi was shaky on the mountaintop, and that was very useful. As well, there were other artists there, painters and musicians, and there were also a pack of wild-boar hunting dogs on the mountain opposite – it was a perfect location from which to write a story about the clash of remote and established life with a new and opinionated civilization, which is what I think Beowulf is about. The story focuses particularly on Grendel and Grendel’s mother, who are, as in the original, living in the wilderness and disturbed by loud noise from Herot Hall. I got back from Italy, sent it to my agent and she said “Okay, let’s send it out!” Which…I wasn’t expecting. Sometimes, though, to write something so quickly kills the internal editors, and those editors, at least for me, can be derailing. So, we sold the first draft a few weeks later. I know how crazy that sounds. But it was a first draft informed by two years of major thinking, and 20 years of writing other things. 38 years of living and roughly 35 years of reading. Everything makes everything. It comes out probably in Spring 2017, and I’m so damn excited to be at FSG, with Sean McDonald, who’s edited some of my favorite books, including Nicola Griffith’s HILD. I mean, come on. Life can be pretty great.


“The Thirteen Mercies” appears in the November/December 2015 issue.  You can buy that issue here:

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One Response to “Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley on “The Thirteen Mercies””

  1. The Thirteen Mercies (von Maria Dahvana Headley) – Die Gedankenecke on January 1st, 2018

    […] bleibt die Intention der Kurzgeschichte hinter der verwirrenden Handlung versteckt. Durch ein Interview der Autorin wird deutlich, dass die Geschichte aus Verzweiflung über Militärpraktiken entstanden […]

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