With of the release of her collection Cosmobiological, Jilly Dreadful spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Claire Shang about Virginia Woolf, the utility of the classics, and the vital role of hope in science fiction.
Claire Shang: The first story in Cosmobiological opens with the line: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.” Throughout the collection, the narrator speaks to a second-person presence. Can you talk about using the second-person point of view, and how that impacts your relationship to your audience?
Jilly Dreadful: It’s a completely safe form of time travel without disrupting the space/time continuum. My favorite stories growing up were the ones where the narrator has a conversation with the reader, like Middlemarch. There is a comfort in the knowledge that even though I was born in the wrong century, I still get to interact with George Eliot in some way.
And, to be honest, a number of the stories in the book were originally written as love letters to my friends. The theatricality of storytelling is part of the conceit in pieces like “The Frog Maiden.” But that element of time travel is always important to me because I always want the reader to be able to go back to that story, to that moment in time, and feel like we are drinking lemonade on a porch somewhere together.
CS: You frequently invoke Greek gods along with those of other cultures, yet but in your text they are often characterized with a modern spin. What do you think is the value of the classics in today’s literature and life?
JD: Remember that line in The Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”? It has always been one of my favorite lines. It is simultaneously a command and a plea, but when I was old enough to realize the utter desperation behind the words, the line suddenly became heartbreaking. The Wizard of Oz is just a white dude trying *really* hard… at something. This is a man so preoccupied with controlling how he is perceived that he couldn’t let go of the levers controlling his projection long enough to at least build a secret control room. Then here comes along a young girl and her dog and they’re able to yank back the flimsy fabric. It’s the ultimate example of imposter syndrome.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I find writing terrifying most of the time because I’m worried there’s nothing left for me to say in a meaningful way. During the moments when I feel like I have something to contribute, my brain injury can undermine my clarity or progress. And then I can spiral off into The Eeyore Tangent and be like, “What’s the use of writing when I live in a universe where Shakespeare existed?”
But when I realized Shakespeare just wrote Ovid fan fiction, my whole world changed. “The classics” provide opportunities for us to practice touching stories we were once told were untouchable, and they provide fertile ground in which we grow our own seeds.
If that ground is full of bullshit, though, it’s up to the writer to decide whether that’s a good or bad thing. Ultimately, writers need to have the blustering confidence of The Wizard, but with the reality check of Dorothy.
CS: How do Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West fit in among the book’s roster of characters that span the mythological and scientific, such as Hades and The Woman Made of Water?
JD: In their story, Vita and Virginia are artificial intelligence programmed to think they are the cybernetically reincarnated versions of their historical counterparts in order to produce stories for The Story Factory. As characters, I supposed they fit in amongst the others as my version of fan fiction. But the trajectory their story takes leans very heavily into that notion of The Man Behind the Curtain.
Vita and Virginia’s real life, historical letters to one another have been preserved and published as a collection—the beauty of their letters is only rivaled by the violation of privacy publishing the letters constitutes. I wondered about the series of choices people made, everyone from Vita’s son to the publisher, who decided this was a good idea. I’m not making a judgment call on whether it was “right,” “good,” or “moral,” to publish their letters—especially since I am deeply grateful to have read them because they enriched my life. But the machine of industry is reliably repetitive, and, as a culture, we’re always interested in reboots; so, it made sense to me that, sometime, way in the future, we will not only continue to reboot stories, but we might eventually become capable of rebooting the storytellers themselves.
Vita and Virginia’s relationship is programmed to produce art, but the art that they end up producing doesn’t “compute” to the factory, and so the factory ends the program—as they have done countless other times—and will try to reboot these consciousnesses again at a later date. In this way, the characters share similar traits and values with a number of characters in the collection: thinking critically, questioning structures, and trying to protect one another during the process. And even though we are not always capable of protecting each other, and even though sometimes we are victims of the machine, I like to hold on to the trying. Trying matters.
CS: Can you speak to the book’s recurrence of mermaids, a figure both human and not?
JD: Mermaids are a powerful symbol in my work that I invoke to communicate the complexity of women. In “Mermaid Café,” it’s why I play with the cultural expectation of what a mermaid is—because, both mermaids and women are often reduced to bitesize, easily digestible concepts. In a world where women are consistently pit against one binary or another, the mermaid, as a symbol, has the capability to be polymorphous and resist those culturally imposed binaries.
CS: What does “Cosmobiological” mean to you? How does the word encompass the stories in thise collection?
JD: Every person is stardust stuck in a meatsuit, and, from time to time, it’s helpful to be reminded that, within us, we contain a motherfucking galaxy. This magic we all possess is powerful and humbling at once. It might be ordinary, mundane, everyday magic. Maybe you can’t wear a watch because you drain the battery, or you’re really good at switching channels between shows you’re watching and missing every commercial. Maybe you meet someone who got their copy of Dragon Warrior 3 stolen from their locker in high school, too. Or you just have perfect timing and reach out to a friend at the exact right moment and save their life without even knowing it. There’s magic in the meatsuit, honey bunnies.
Also, I’d like to mention, that I thought I came up with this word myself. But, it turns out, I’m fairly certain I absorbed it through osmosis from Mystic Medusa. About six months after I finished editing my collection, I saw she used the word “cosmobiogical” in one of her blog posts, and I was gobsmacked. It turns out she has occasionally used this word over the years—but I had never read the posts where this word appeared. I know I have a brain injury, so it’s possible I read the posts and didn’t remember, but no nagging feeling of memory fired while I read the posts. I kinda dig it this way to be honest.
CS: In “Ink Can Take Many Forms If You Allow It,” you write that “since every page is a text, every page is a body unto itself.” What does it mean that the page itself becomes characterized—what possibilities does an empty page present for you?
JD: Healing. For me, an empty page has the potential for healing past trauma—and sometimes, if I’m lucky and clever enough, that work helps other people heal, too.
CS: The stories in your collection take many forms: a series of letters between teenage campers, a Ph.D. candidate’s textual criticism. Tell me about the way form and science fiction further and expand upon each other.
JD: I’ve always been obsessed with the shapes stories take. I think it started with The Monster At The End of This Book, and then my obsession was cemented with my boglin, Dwork, that I got in 1988—I was fascinated by the field guide to boglin biology on his cage. But texts like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, ARGs like those started by the marketing for the film A.I., Carrie by Stephen King, the video game BioShock, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, Hunt-A-Killer, and every single comic book I’ve ever read: the bits and pieces all require a form of cognitive closure that animates the story. I call it narrative transmography, and it’s partly what I wrote my dissertation on, and I published an essay about it called “The Cyborg in the Basement Manifesto” in Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. The ability for the medium of the story to be as important to the story being told is one of my favorite things of all time. I love how making connections is an act of creativity while reading. I love how the loss of linear storytelling can be the mundane horror fueling or lurking below the surface of a story.
CS: While sometimes occurring quite literally in different worlds, these stories share underlying motifs of perseverance, togetherness, and faith. The collection even ends with a discussion of the importance of hope. What do you think is science fiction’s relationship is to hope?
JD: We all know science fiction’s power isn’t to predict the future, but to reflect our contemporary society. Although hope is often at the core, I don’t want to downplay the deep anger that provokes us to shine a light on the darkest parts of ourselves as humans, and what we are capable of doing to each other (and the planet). Anger and hope are inextricably connected. Although I think we have been conditioned to either ignore or avoid anger (in the United States at least), anger can be a powerful and productive emotion that inspires us to change our circumstances, while hope gives us the stamina to keep trying. Anger doesn’t always have to be a destructive force, it can be a creative one fueled by hope.
I was trying to figure out what the style of my writing is when I came across Alexandra Rowland’s definition of hopepunk, and it’s exactly exactly right: “Well, there’s the glib answer: ‘Hopepunk is the opposite of grimdark’, and there’s the more nuanced answer: Hopepunk is a subgenre and a philosophy that ‘says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.’… Whichever you choose, it’s important to remember that punk is the operative half of the word—punk in the sense of anti-authoritarianism and punching back against oppression.”
CS: In “Inherited Forms of Pyromancy,” a mother tells her son to “be discontent with everything. I want you to be discontent with cultural canons. I want you to question who you read and why, and look for the stories no one is telling and listen for the music no one is singing.” How has this instruction motivated your writing of Cosmobiological?
JD: Allie Marini shared with me her definition of literary citizenship years ago. I can’t paraphrase her version here because my memory is more like foam than a photograph these days, so just know that my interpretation grew from Allie Marini’s seedling.
It’s not enough to just be a good writer. As writers, we are part of a community, and contributing to the community creates a healthy ecosystem. Everyone needs to figure out what their contribution will look like for them. It might be starting a writing group, or it could be looking for voices that need to be heard, or it could be making space for those voices on a reading list in a classroom or as a publisher, or any number of things.
As a maker, it’s important to participate, and not just consume. That’s the heart of Cosmobiogical: create; participate; do no harm, but take no shit. (Pay no attention to the worm Idh-yaa behind the eldritch text curtain in “De Deabus Minoribus Exterioris Theomagicae,” consuming the world is her form of creativity.)
Jilly Dreadful was born under a water sign and earned her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. Her stories are challenging like Pluto, but with the dreaminess of a Neptunian chaser, and can be found in placeslike Lightspeed Magazine, Rough Magick edited by Francesca Lia Block and Jessa Maria Mendez, and the first all-female Lovecraftian anthology, She Walks in Shadows. You can find her work at jillydreadful.net
Claire Shang is a freshman at Columbia University, where she is an editor with The Columbia Review. She is a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, and a reader of mostly everything. Her work has appeared in or been recognized by Peach Mag, No, Dear Magazine, and Smith College.