Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Sarah Gailey?
Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native currently living in beautiful Oakland, California. She enjoys painting, baking, vulgar embroidery, and writing stories about murder and monsters. Her fiction been published internationally; her most recent credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, the Colored Lens, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and she is a regular contributor for Tor.com.
Your new novella, River of Teeth, will be published by Tor.com. It looks rather fabulous: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
River of Teeth is the first novella in a duology. If I only had ten seconds to convince someone to read it, I’d say this: Cowboys riding hippos and trying to blow up the Mississippi River.
If I had a little longer, I’d introduce potential readers to the backstory of the book: that in the early 20th Century, America genuinely considered importing hippos (which are notoriously difficult to manage) as a meat product. I would tell those readers that River of Teeth is an action-packed close-up vision of the America that could have been. I would tell them that it’s got everything: love, lust, a diverse cast, some explosions, and, of course, hippos.
What inspired you to write the story? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I heard about the Hippo Plan ages ago. I dined out on it for years — the fact that our country almost had a whole industry around the farming, husbandry, slaughter and consumption of the deadliest megafauna in Africa is always a crowd-pleaser. I was never able to shake the what-if: how would our country be different? How would our lives and history have changed?
At the same time, I’d been wanting to write an adventurey, heist-y ensemble story for a while. I was bored by all of the straight-white-male-ness of so many of those stories. When I decided that it was time to finally write the Hippo Plan into a story, it was a perfect fit. How better to explore this story than through the eyes of a diverse, badass cast of the kinds of bloodthirsty outlaws who could survive a hippopotamus-infested America?
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I grew up with genre fiction. My mom worked at a brick-and-mortar independent bookstore, and she would bring home galleys and ARCs and let me read them. I read everything she gave me, but I quickly found myself drawn to genre over literary fiction. It fed a part of my imagination that was unsatisfied with being a small, frequently-sick little kid. I loved the recurring themes in genre fiction of people defying expectations and bucking off limitations that they were told they could never surpass.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love it. Writing is the first creative outlet I’ve found that fuels itself — the more I write, the more I want to write. And, while the publishing industry (like any other) has its drawbacks, I uniformly get to work with people I like, respect, and admire. I am constantly challenged, I feel like the work I’m doing is important, and I get to learn new things every day. I couldn’t love it more.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
For a short story, I usually just sit down and write until the words won’t come out anymore.
For a longer piece, I get together with my best friend and tell her my idea. She will then proceed to poke holes in the idea for a few hours, and out of the patches I use to cover those holes, a story emerges.
Once I’ve got the story, I grab a glass of wine and a notebook and I write down the bullet points. Once that’s roughly sketched out, I expand it into a real outline. I have a massive spreadsheet template that I use for outlining, which encompasses pretty much everything I can think of in terms of story and character development.
Then I start writing the thing and all of that groundwork goes out the window when I realize that actually, I want to write about something completely different than I’d planned.
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?
I’ve always loved writing. My first story was a hand-illustrated picture book involving vats of acid and limousines (the two things I was most obsessed with as a six-year-old, read into that what you will). But it didn’t occur to me to try to publish anything until a couple of years ago. I’d written a couple of short stories, but didn’t take a real run at professional-author-ing until early 2015.
I definitely look back on that time fondly — I’d just quit a job that was slowly turning me into someone I didn’t like, and I had the luxury of taking a month off between jobs. I was going for hikes every day, and cooking, and taking bubble baths, and generally learning to enjoy my life again. I had this huge burst of joyful creative energy — I think I wrote five short stories that month, one of which was the first one that I’d ever get published. On the days when writing feels like a slog, I think back to that time, and I remember that writing is what I want to do when I’m happiest in every other facet of my life.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think we’re experiencing an amazing moment in genre fiction right now. I think — I hope — that we’re starting to see a greater volume narratives that are not white-Western-heteropatriarchy receiving recognition, and that’s a fabulous thing for the SFF community and for our readers. People are taking risks and expanding their perspectives in all kinds of brilliant and beautiful ways. I think the upcoming cohort of authors is very interested in questioning their assumptions and using the answers they find to build rich and complex narratives. That’s where I would hope that my work fits in: in the interrogation of tradition, and in the introduction of narratives that have been previously erased of undermined.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I sure do! I just finished my first full-length novel, Constellations of Blood and Bone, which is a contemporary-fantasy-noir set in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s about family, loss, limitations, and blood. So much blood. I’m also currently working on two other novels, a short story, a flash-fiction serial, and a bushel of nonfiction essays.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I just finished The Bear and the Nightingale, which was absolutely fantastic, full-stop. Amazing work, gloriously nourishing prose. Next, I’ll be mainlining book 3 of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It’s one of my annual rereads, an eternal favorite. It replenishes my creative aquifers every time I read it, and leaves me feeling like there are stories around every corner.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Most people are surprised by how small I am! I suppose they expect me to be bigger, because I have a big mouth and yell a lot, but I’m not. I’m very tiny and dense, like a neutron star or an osmium rod.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
The release of River of Teeth is pretty high up there! I can’t wait for this book — and the sequel — to be out there in the world. I’m also looking forward to finding small moments of rest and refreshment in the midst of what promises to be a whirlwind of a year — hikes with my puppy, dinner with friends, an hour or two under a barbell. Those tiny oases of calm are what will get me through 2017.
Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth is published by Tor.com in May 2017.