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Interview: Amanda Hollander on “A Feast of Butterflies”

Tell us a bit about “A Feast of Butterflies.”

A constable assigned to a corrupt and backwater county learns he must solve the disappearance of five young men whose powerful families believe has something to do with a mountain girl who eats butterflies.

 

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

My friend and I were traveling in Bogotá together when we stopped in front of mural that depicted a young woman eating a butterfly. After staring for a few moments, I told my friend that I was going to write a story about it. The next day, my friend’s husband called from Minnesota to say that their house had burned down. We changed our plans, returning immediately to the States. A month later, after I went back to look at my photos from our very short trip and again saw the butterfly-eating woman.

What was she hiding? Who looks at a butterfly and decides to devour it? Then as the answers started coming, I realized I was seeing her from outside, so the next question was who was watching her. The answer became a bit complicated because everyone in her community watched her.

Communities are often incredibly cruel to anyone who refuses to bury the wrongs done to them. Again and again, communities punish victims of crimes, rather than the perpetrators. What do you do when the people who should lift you up decide to ostracize you? To throw you to the wolves for their own convenience of memory? Who is the one person who is willing to look a little more closely, with less bias at the person pushed to the fringes? Answering that led me to the constable. Beyond that pain comes a wonderful possibility: what happens when one person decides to subvert a corrupt system?

 

Was “A Feast of Butterflies” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Profoundly. My friends and I have had many conversations about trauma and justice over the years. What happens when you repeatedly see power so grossly abused in a way that can feel impossible to confront? When two alleged sexual predators hold lifetime spots in the highest court in the nation and another occupies the position of greatest political power? Political abuse and political corruption are old stories. Biblically old. We love fiction about justice, but in reality? To pursue justice as a society means to be willing to accept uncomfortable truths. Without that, we fail. And injustice? (I mean real injustice, not an angry fool who feels things are unfair when they must adhere to a social contract that respects individual autonomy and equity.) Injustice warps you. It seeps into your nightmares. It strangles you in your sleep and when you wake up, you realize with dawning horror that you did not dream. It physically changes you. How do you show that?

In a happier respect, the story also has a landscape influenced by spending time in the Shenandoah Mountains as a child. I grew up in a family of hikers. Summer weekends often involved traipsing on mountain paths. I vividly can picture the swallowtail butterflies there, and the river. I once nearly tread on a copperhead snake that was sunning itself on a rock. I remember other hikers yelling and jumping back, but I thought how amazing it was that the snake ignored me. It just wanted to warm itself. I especially remember the humidity, the way the air settled in my lungs.

 

Can you tell us anything about your writing process for this story?

I knew that I wanted to explore techniques from fabulist storytelling and fairy tales. They allow psychological distance but can enhance emotional intimacy because there are blanks you can fill in. They allow as much room for questions as answers. Also, the naming has such interesting possibilities. What happens when a character is known through their role in a community rather than by a personal name? Cinderella/Ashchenputtel is the ash girl or cinder girl because she is most defined by others for being filthy, which is a result of mistreatment. Snow White has pale skin, often seen a characteristic of those royal or aristocratic who do not labor outdoors but also operates as a mark of frailty and possibly impermanence. Little Red Riding Hood or Little Red Cap achieved renown through her outfit of a remarkable color (for any adherents of Darwinism there’s probably something very interesting to be observed about the color standing out perhaps too starkly in a dark wood). Or you have other characters defined by their professions: the Baker, the Prince, the Woodcutter, the Huntsman, or even more distant, the profession of their husband: the Baker’s Wife, the Fisherman’s Wife. The choice to avoid names and use titles that reflected how these characters are viewed by those around them rather than how they wish to be known. Which is what makes their secret lives so much more delightful. Like all of us, they are more than what the world sees.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Elizabeth Peters, whose quote “Laughter is one of the two things that make life worthwhile” has been a guiding principle for both my life and my writing, even though that may not be obvious in this particular story.

Octavia Butler. My dog-eared, eighth grade copy of Kindred has moved into every home I’ve ever had.

Connie Willis, but especially To Say Nothing of the Dog, Uncharted Territory, and Bellwether, all of which I have re-read in a manner one might describe as obsessive.

Howard Ashman, whose work inspired me to start writing my own lyrics (and built my confidence in learning new vocabulary as, incidentally, he was the reason I became more comfortable with a dictionary thanks to his use of words like “expectorate” and “blather”)

And, in no order whatsoever: Dorothy Dunnett, Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Parker (all the Dorothys!), Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Bizet, Howard Ashman, Mildred D. Taylor, Evelyn Sharp, Mark Campbell, Shel Silverstein (I maintain that “They’ve Put a Brassiere on the Camel” is one of the great classics of American poetry), Mel Brooks, Jean Webster, Gary Larson, Anna Julia Cooper (criminally under-read American intellectual; A Voice from the South should be mandatory reading), Stephen Schwartz, Mary Astell (A Serious Proposal to the Ladies has some of the sharpest satiric lines I’ve ever read), Langston Hughes, Howard Ashman, Isabel Allende, Jonathan Swift, Pablo Neruda, Stephen Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein, Rosario Ferré, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Eva Ibbotson, Marc Chagall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Verdi, Gary Geld, Cole Porter, Arthur Sullivan, Charles Dickens, Samuel Richardson, John Donne, and last but never ever least, Dolly Parton.

Oh, and Howard Ashman.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you to anyone who gave their time to read this story. It’s very near and dear to me.

 

“A Feast of Butterflies” appears in the March/April 2020 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2020-29.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/elizabeth-hand-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-march-april-2020/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

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Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Mural by @veraprimavera

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