Please welcome Maria Dahvana Headley to the blog! Her new book, Magonia, just came out yesterday, and she stopped by to answer a few of my questions about it, and more!
Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a bit about Magonia and what inspired you to write it?
Thank you so much! Magonia is a fantasy adventure about a girl on earth who’s been sick with a mysterious disease her whole life, and who ends up on a ship in the sky, in kingdom full of squallwhales, song, and stars, which is at odds with earth. Basically. Lots more to it than that, but those are the bones. I was inspired by a scrap of old folklore I ran across, a story about an anchor being dropped from a ship in the sky and getting stuck in the ground down here. There are several references to a sky kingdom called Magonia in the 8th-11th century. So, this is me leaping off from that notion. There’s actually a wonderful short poem by Seamus Heaney based on the same lore. It’s called Lightenings viii, and it ends rather more happily than the original story does. In the original, a man climbs down the anchor chain, trying to get it untangled, and drowns in the air. In Heaney, the people on the ground help the sky sailor get free, and he”climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.” That’s so beautiful it almost makes me cry.
Will you tell us more about the world of Magonia and your heroine, Aza Ray?
Magonia is a skysea, located above the heads of people on Earth. Basically, for Magonians, we’re the people under the ocean – in the book, humans are called Drowners. In Magonia, song is powerful, and politics are furious. There are Magonians – a species who carry songbirds called canwr in their lungs and sing with them – and Rostrae, the feathered class, who can transform between bird form and a more humanoid form. The Rostrae work on Magonian ships, and there are a lot of problems with that in Magonian society. As well, the sky sea contains whales called squallwhales, who are responsible for clouds and rain, stormsharks full of lightning…yes! All kinds of oceanic and celestial things up there. Aza Ray ends up on a rogue ship, and has to learn a shipboard life that might be more 19th century than ours, but which also contains giant bats employed as sails. Yes, it’s pretty weird, what can I say? I like weird. 🙂
Did you do any particular research for the book?
Lots – in addition to the things mentioned above, I went deep into Grimm’s (yes, that Grimm, as in fairy tales) encyclopedic volumes of folklore, and into everything I could turn up on the history of UFO’s – there’s a ton of really interesting early alien lore out there, and the notion of alien societies dealing with weather magic and stealing crops is actually a very old one. Aza and her best friend Jason are both research fiends, so a lot of the research I did, they did too. They are geeks like me.
You’ve co-edited an anthology for teens (with Neil Gaiman), but why did you decide to write a book for a younger audience?
My life was changed by the books I read when I was a kid and teenager. I basically spent all of my time sitting in the top of a tree, reading everything I could find, so once I had an idea for this book, I knew I could write a wild-eyed fantasy for younger readers, and those were the things that made me a writer. I was already beginning work on this when I started working on Unnatural Creatures with Neil, and doing that book inspired me even more. There’s so much wonderful kid and teen literature out there, and Neil and I both like things that tilt out of the normal universe and into the world of weirdness, so I got to read some things that really inspired me as we were working.
You have a very interesting and unusual background. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself?
I’m from Idaho, from about 10 miles outside a town of about 500 people. My dad raised sled dogs and my mom is an artist. I basically lived in an imaginary place, as far as the rest of the country and progress were concerned. My childhood home was an old school house with drinking fountains and gymnasiums, a little south of the part of the Oregon Trail where everyone died of thirst. It’s rough, surreal country, a little bit Cormac McCarthy, a little bit Garcia-Marquez. I spent my childhood bossing everyone else into my version of reality (sometimes I think people liked this – I was like a ferocious miniature film director – but sometimes people found me maddening) and my teenage years working for the Idaho Shakespeare festival, writing plays, and performing poetry in coffeehouses. Can I tell you how joyful I am that there were no cell phones? I am haunted by the “poetry” cadence I used. Thank all that is holy, there are no videos. I hope. I moved to NYC sight unseen when I was 19 to go to NYU, and that, to me, felt like an imaginary place too. After a while, I moved to Seattle, and worked for a time in the maritime business, doing all kinds of things, from helping to coordinate a search for Amelia Earhart’s plane to talking on satellite phone to pirates. I’m pretty sure everything I’ve ever done ended up in this book somehow. I’m back in Brooklyn now, and I still feel like New York is fantastical. I love it here.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
When I was 11 or 12 (7th grade?) I wrote a big chunk of a fantasy novel involving a prisoner tunneling out of his modern day prison and into a world that was more or less Robin Hoodian. It was supposed to be a two page story. I lost control. I turned in 75 handwritten pages, and wasn’t even close to done. My prisoner had only just arrived on the other side of the wall and discovered a bunch of opinionated maidens with bows drawn and arrows aimed at him. My 7th grade teacher (who is now my FB friend!) was like…”hmmm. I think you might need to be a writer?” She was right. It was more a matter of need than necessarily clear want. I didn’t know people wrote for a living. I just knew I had a frenzy that could, thank god, be channeled into piles of pages. I’ve done that ever since. Not a bummer to discover your calling when you’re 11.
What are a few of your favorite books? What was a favorite book of yours when you were a teen?
Favorite books are in the question below! When I was a teenager, I was prone to jumping up and down in a frenzy with every new thing I read, but especially Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I read for the first time when I was about 17. I also read E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime about then, and that blasted me too. I think I’ve been trying to write epic historical strange things ever since. The line between history and imagination is permeable in both those books. Magonia isn’t that, but it has some elements of those early interests in it, given that I scavenged its guts from history. I’ve always been interested in maybes rather than in definitelies, if that makes sense. I don’t think history is ever written from an unbiased POV, and so I’m always looking for the cracks in the accepted narrative. That’s where I like to write.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
I’m obsessed with the writer Kathryn Davis. She’s a fantastical literary writer, everything in a completely strange universe that is ours and not ours. Some of her books are quite straight (she wrote a novel called Versailles, about Marie Antoinette for ex) but full of stunning stylistic weirdness nonetheless. I’d love to go back into her novel Labrador. It’s her first novel, and it’s based in folklore and myth, two sisters, a world that starts out familiar and becomes radically strange. Someone once called Davis the “lovechild of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll.” Yes. Ooh, which reminds me that I’d also love to go back and read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber for the first time. I read it first when I was about 19, and it blasted my soul. And then I’d read Marilynne Robinson’s divine, divine Housekeeping again for the first time. I didn’t read it til I was about 30, because I was sure I’d hate any book that was called Housekeeping. What an idiot. I wish I’d read it when I was 16. It’s magic. It’s not about brooms and dusting. Put me in a tower for a month, and I’d re-read all those a few times, and come out renewed.
What are you currently reading? Is there anything you’re looking forward to reading this year?
I’m currently reading Ali Smith’s How to be Both, which is amazing, and I’m re-reading a small heap of Toni Morrison’s novels, which is always something one should do. Also, I am behind on her work. What else? I just saw that the astonishing Rikki Ducornet has a new essay collection, called The Deep Zoo, and I can’t wait to read that. In the YA realm, I’m very very excited about Sarah McCarry’s About A Girl, which is the 3rd in her Metamorphoses series. It’s transgressive, beautiful, and intensely moving. Reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Hand, another writer I love, who has a short horror novel Wylding Hall coming out soon. I have so many books I want to read (and write), just thinking about it makes me want to hop around and light fireworks.
What’s next for you?
Finishing up the Magonia sequel. Then, so many 3/4 finished projects! I think the next couple of years are going to be loud with me yipping and seeming to publish a new book or do a new thing every few months, because I had a serious backlog of projects on the burners. Thanks for the interview!
Maria Dahvana Headley’s soaring YA debut is a fiercely intelligent, multilayered fantasy where Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in a story about a girl caught between two worlds . . . two races . . . and two destinies.
Aza Ray Boyle is drowning in thin air. Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.
Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia.
Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?