EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ellen Kushner Talks About ‘The Children of Cadmus’

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]

Ellen Kushner’s first novel, Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners, introduced an urban historical fantasy setting to which she has since returned in The Fall of the Kings (written with Delia Sherman), The Privilege of the Sword, and several short stories. Her second novel, Thomas the Rhymer, won the Mythopoeic Award and the World Fantasy Award. Kushner has taught writing at the Clarion and Odyssey workshops, and is a co-founder of the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Upcoming is an anthology of “Bordertown” stories co-edited with Holly Black. Kushner is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the host of the national public radio show Sound & Spirit , and (in collaboration with Shirim Klezmer Orchestra) as the creator of “The Golden Dreydl.” Kushner lives in Manhattan with author & editor Delia Sherman. (Photo by Tim Atkinson)


Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, why is the story of Actaeon one of your favorite stories?

Ellen Kushner: I read it at an impressionable age: I was 7 years old, living in France, and one of the few English language books* we owned was a collection of Greek myths – and not one written for kids. Nonetheless, I devoured it regularly. I have no idea why I loved the story of Actaeon in there so much. I also loved the stories of Niobe, Medea and Phaethon. I guess I’m just hardwired for tragedy.

CT: How did you conceive of using an alternating POV for the story?

EK: I’ve actually been doing that a lot in stories lately (“Dulce Domum” for ECLIPSE 3; “The Man With the Knives” for Temporary Culture) — but this was probably the first of them. Why? Well, I guess what interests me the most in stories is the people. I know it sounds trite, but anyone familiar with my work knows I tend to privilege characters over plot and even setting (with language coming in a close second). In the case of this particular story, the sister’s viewpoint is so tight and so intense that I felt we needed to see another version of the events from outside of her very narrow focus – and also, musically, we needed another texture of sound & rhythm in the piece. I enjoyed giving the brother a different voice, and giving a voice to my own version of the famous doomed hunter, Actaeon.

CT: For me, the two central themes of the story are love and sacrifice. Did you arrive upon these elements consciously or did it evolve as you wrote the story?

EK: I leave the analysis of my themes entirely up to the readers & the critics. In the words of the immortal Gahan Wilson cartoon, “I paint what I see, child!” In other words, I tend to follow the emotional logic of a given story, and figure it will all work out; that if the rest of the story’s aesthetics satisfy me, it will also turn out to have some kind of coherent theme. I’m glad you think it does.

CT: As the Beastly Bride is considered a YA anthology, do you find it difficult writing short stories geared towards YA readers?

EK: I love writing YA. It’s what I’ve always enjoyed reading, and what I always intended to write. It was a bit of a shock to me when all my novels turned out to be for adults. But over the decades, the definition of what’s “Young Adult” literature itself has changed dramatically. Someone recently told me that in their opinion, all of my novels are really YA. Go figure.

CT: What’s the appeal of the Beastly Bride concept for you?

EK: I’ve always had a big thing for Animal Transformation. It’s funny that I haven’t written more about it – I guess the novel I wrote with Delia Sherman, THE FALL OF THE KINGS, is the only piece of mine that really works deeply with that. The deadline for this anthology came at a time when writing was very difficult for me, so I jumped at the idea of retelling a myth I’d always loved, where at least I had a plot already made; but in another year, I might have written another story.