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Interview: Mel Kassel on “Crawfather”

giant crayfish sculptureF&SF: How do you describe “Crawfather” to people?

MK: “Crawfather” is one of my favorite titles I’ve ever assigned to a work, so sometimes I let it stand by itself and invite curiosity. Otherwise, I’m pretty literal about it: it’s a story about a Minnesotan family that fights a giant crawfish every year during their reunion.

F&SF: What were some of the things that inspired this story?

MK: So many of the stories I’m working on right now are about the conjoined appeal and danger of unquestioned ritual. Family, in particular, is a petri dish for arbitrary and often harmful ceremony. I wanted to interrogate longstanding family traditions, ideas of monstrosity, and generational divides in thinking.

The setting and some of the broader family attributes are borrowed from the annual trips my own family would take to Minnesota every year when I was young. Each little subdivision of my mother’s relatives would stay in its own cabin, and we’d gather to swim and fish and eat.

Gradually, I came to realize that we were the odd cabin out—we didn’t share the same fundamental worldview as the rest of the family. And as that schism became more and more clear, I became increasingly baffled by what seemed like their blanket opposition to change and newness. I wanted to try on that collective stubborn voice as it was confronted with a more extreme version of change.

I also just love crustaceans! They’re old and hardy and bristling with all these great appendages.

F&SF: Once you have all those pieces of inspiration, what’s your writing process like?

MK: I drafted this story at Clarion in the summer of 2018, so I only had a week to write it, but it was the most enjoyable bout of writing I had there. This was my “fun” story, one with a ridiculous conceit and a slightly atypical POV, so I just leaned into the novelty and humor of it. Creating specific family members for one-off appearances was entertaining—Hank (the childless accountant) is a favorite. Having the setting fully-formed in my mind also made the first draft breezier than normal.

I’m someone who edits as they go, which means I end up with polished beginnings and (very) rough endings. It took a while for me to clarify exactly how Nancy and Archie would take on the Crawfather, and how the rest of the family would react.

F&SF: Last year you won the World Fantasy Award for “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” (published in the Oct 2018 issue of Lightspeed Magazine). What was that like, and has it changed anything for your career?

MK: It was so wonderful to receive that award, and I was especially delighted to share it with fellow winner Emma Törzs. This is perhaps an obnoxious thing to say, but I earnestly didn’t expect it—I was at a screening of “The Lighthouse” in Iowa City while the ceremony was happening in California. I’d read the stories by the other nominees and been so impressed. I figured I’d just check the results after the movie and be content with the nomination. Instead, I had to quickly toggle from anxious bewilderment at the film to surprise and excitement at the win.

I view it as a lovely personal marker. I want my first story collection to have a grab-bag of cross-genre credits, and the award gets me closer to that goal.

F&SF: What are you working on now?

MK: Theoretically, I’m revising the group of stories that will become my first collection, and gathering notes for a novel. It’s a new frontier for me, this much revision and note-taking—it’s hard and I don’t like it. I’m also preparing to teach an undergraduate class on writing and reading fantasy fiction in the fall, which I’m looking forward to very much.

You can find Mel Kassel at these places…

Twitter: @MelKassel

“Crawfather” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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