Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Cassandra Khaw?
Cassandra Khaw is definitely not used to talking in the third-person, so I’m going to make the switch back to first-person perspective. Most days, I’m the business developer (aka BUSINESS CAT) for Ysbryd Games, a Singaporean micropublisher that specializes in beautiful, narrative-rich video games. What this actually means is that I spent a lot of time sending emails. (So many emails. So many.) I also do other things like handle appointments, talk to reporters, talk to developers, talk to civilians, and bounce between countries like a pingpong ball on a caffeine high.
It’s great. Sometimes.
I also occasionally write for Eurogamer and Ars Technica. In the past, I worked as a tech and video games journalist for a variety of outlets, but that has taken a backseat with the proliferation of games we’re releasing and a focus in fiction.
When I’m not involved in all of that, I write video games and punch things, and occasionally people.
Tor.com will be publishing a pair of your novellas this year. Both of which look very interesting. Let’s take each separately… How would you introduce Hammers on Bone to a potential reader?
Hammers on Bone is a gritty, unpleasant Lovecraftian neo-noir set in the heart of Croydon. It isn’t a kind read. Not that anything that draws inspiration from Lovecraft ever is. But Hammers on Bone goes into some trigger-y places, examining themes such as domestic abuse and sexual violence.
In the Living City looks pretty different – what’s the pitch for this one?
A mother who is slowly turning into a building races time to save her daughters in a sapient city gone mad. Because really, does anyone need a prince to come to the rescue? Like my other novella, In the Living City is heavy. But where the former muses over our blindness to our neighbour’s wrongs, In the Living City asks a different question: what do you do when you know you’re going to die?
Are either of these novellas part of a planned series?
God. So yes. Hammers on Bone, if it all works out, will be a trilogy that fucks with time and narrative structure. As for In the Living City, that depends, but I have Ideas. Mwahaha.
What inspired you to write the novellas? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
As you might have guessed already, the short answer is: nothing pleasant.
Hammers on Bone has an especially tragic beginning. I began writing it after I learned that two kids that I know were subjected to horrific domestic abuse. I didn’t have anything to give them. I was an outsider. I could offer time and attention, help where I could, but I still felt like I wasn’t doing anything. So, I wrote. I guess part of it was selfishness, a way to put my rage into words. I was angry for them. I was angry about how easily things like this happen, because when you’re not looking for the signs, you don’t see them.
It is so, so easy to be blind.
So, Hammers on Bone became a way of talking about what happens behind closed doors, except that instead of an abusive parent, you had, well, an abusive parent who was also a monster. I wanted to show readers how easily we can miss things, how easily monsters persist in our world, how we let them walk about and not care.
And I also wrote Hammers on Bone because I wanted to tell the kids in the heart of this story that it is okay, that they’re not helpless, that even if they feel that way, there are always options. All monsters bleed, and as long as they remember that, they can stand up to anything.
In the Living City follows a morbid train of thought, but where Hammers on Bone was fueled by anger, this one is fueled by a kind of quiet grief. My parents had me pretty late, late enough that I worry about my mother being able to do things, like, see any children I might have graduate into conversational ability. (My dad passed earlier this year, too, to cement that idea.) Every now and then, she tells me about a lump that she might have, a strange headache, an inability to remember even watching a specific movie – it all evokes a kind of terrified dry heaving whenever I hear about it. One day, my mother will be gone too. And the enormity of that is something I can’t even begin to contemplate yet, but have to.
Which is where the subterranean city in question comes from: it’s an allegory for the feeling of being trapped, of knowing there is no way out, but having enough to pretend that normalcy can persist for an indefinite period of time.
But that is just background? In the Living City, in many ways, is dedicated to my mother. For all of my panic and paranoia, she addresses the idea of her own mortality with a strength that is staggering. She is prepared for it. She has, like, six dozen insurance plans and a thousand ideas as to how to deal with any terminal illnesses. My mother, for all of her faults, is the strongest woman I know.
So yeah, I guess In the Living City was inspired by death, a fear of death, the strength to continue even in the face of death, but mostly, my mother.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
Both of my parents worked. I was very loud and fussy and prone towards being bored, so they did the best thing they could have done for me: they dropped a pile of books on my lap. In the beginning, it was just fairy tales from other countries and Enid Blyton (YA genre? MAYBE? WHO KNOWS), but then they made the mistake of letting me soak up Dragonlance and it all went down from there.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I like it a lot! I’m aware that it is a difficult space for queer, Asian woman from a third-world background but frankly, after clawing my way into the tech/video games industry, it’s … nice.
I’m not saying there aren’t problems. Every week, it feels like there’s something that makes me grind my teeth and froth with rage. But it definitely feels as though publishing cares about doing it right. People are loud here. People want to be heard. It could just be that I exist in a fortunate echo chamber, filled with progressives who care to make a difference, but I’d like to think I’m not.
As someone who has just broken into the publishing industry, it feels as though that publishing does a better job at holding its people accountable. Possibly because there are less layers between creators and their audience. With video games journalism, for example, there are things like house style, the whims of an editor, the necessity of the much-vaunted click. A story is never necessarily what it started as. And more importantly, the story is often regarded as a part of the outlet as a whole. Unless there is a specific reason to despise a writer, no one even looks up the byline.
Which is not to say that editors do not give a shit. The people I’ve worked with in places like The Verge, PC Gamer, Ars Technica, RockPaperShotgun – they are all conscientious human beings. But as long as someone is not visibly an asshole, it’s possible for everyone to keep trucking on. (Which is not to say that I haven’t seen editors shut down problematic writers without missing a beat. But we’d need a whole different interview to talk about this topic..)
Fiction, on the other hand, is a direct conversation with the reader. It isn’t a five-minute read (unless we’re talking about flash) but a genuine investment. So the identity of the author matters. Their behaviour matters. Their personal philosophies, their internalized bigotries, their understanding of race? All this matters because it comes out in their writing and that can be problematic in a hyper-competitive industry where, as far as I can, everyone’s doing their best to find the next big thing and to make the next big thing stick. (Which can be hard to do if an audience swimming in options hates your Next Big Thing.)
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Um. Nothing specific. I try to hit 1000 words minimum a day, which has been horrifically difficult. But my research can be weird. I write a considerable amount of gore into my work, and routinely find myself investigating autopsy images to ensure I have a proper grasp of how the anatomy bends under certain kinds of trauma. (I’ve freaked out slightly too many people in the coffee shops.)
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
Funny story. I’d committed to the idea of being a great nonfiction writer, but completely shrugged off the idea I could do fiction. Until I somehow had the opportunity to write a tie-in novel for Codemancer, an edutainment title designed to teach kids about programming. At which point, I went, ‘OH CRAP. I SHOULD LEARN HOW TO DO THIS.’
And I ran off to figure how to do that which led to a landslide of short story sales, other work, and – *flail*
Also yes, I do look on all of this quite fondly.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I haven’t spent enough time in the industry to be a proper expert on the subject, but what I can see makes me feel very fortunate. I hear war stories from older authors, how difficult it was to break in, or to get a point across. I’ve heard things. But right now, all I’m seeing is change, and it fills me with a kind of mad hope and gratitude.
I don’t know! I mean, I mostly write bleak and gristly worlds, most often in the category of urban fantasy. But I also wrote and sold a paranormal rom-com recently, so it’s all up in the air.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on my debut novel currently, although I keep getting sidetracked by other projects. I have a novella that I’m creating for Big Robot Entertainment, a few solicited stories I need to get squared away at some point, multiple tie-in novels, a guest-writing gig with Wadjet Eye Games, and about twenty things I can’t talk about yet.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Devil and the Bluebird, I Am Providence, everything that Michael Wehunt and Dale Bailey ever wrote because they’re lovely. Also picking through The Bone Witch, which I’m not sure I love yet but want to. (Girl in the Well was one of my favorite books.)
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m actually a fantastic archer; or, at least I used to be. Also, I bloodied a guy’s mouth for cheating at cards. In my defense, I told him I’d beat him if he tried looking at my cards again. He did.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I can’t tell you because I’m literally under NDA right now for a variety of things, but there are amazing possibilities lingering on the horizon, two of which have me kinda rolling around going ‘EEEEEE’ plenty.