Today I speak with Rudi Dornemann, writer of science fiction and fantasy, and other odd things including one of my favorite short stories “Sunfast, Shadowplay, and Saintswalk”, about his work, mummies and monsters, and his short story “Fog Marsh” from the SPIRITS UNWRAPPED anthology out now from Lethe Press.
Daniel Braum: Can you please tell us a bit about your writing and your body of work. Please feel free to include any story links. Is there one story that you feel is a good introduction to readers who might not have yet read your work.
Rudi Dornemann: I see myself as being a fantasist more than anything, a creator of imaginary places. I’m happy when I feel like one of my stories has captured a glimpse into another world and shows what life is like there. The story Sunfast, Shadowplay and Saintswalk, which appeared in Strange Horizons, was a time when everything seemed to fall into place.
It’s set in a city with a rich and somewhat unsettling history, and follows two sisters. The older participates in a coming-of-age festival that involves being possessed for a day by the Saints who are worshipped there. The story is told by the younger sister, who watches everything unfold, helps when she can, and worries when things start going wrong…
If anyone’s curious about checking out more of my fiction, my website (www.rudidornemann.com) should be a good place to start.
Recently, a couple people who’ve read quite a few of my stories gave me the feedback that they saw them falling into two groups—the really immersive stories, and the ones that play with something external that the reader might already know about, like other works of fiction, paintings, or history. For example, I’ve got a story told from the point of view of a demon in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the one about what Jorge Luis Borges did after faking his death in 1986, and a set of flash fictions set in the exurbs between Italo Calvino’s invisible cities. I think I create little worlds in each of those, but I can see how a reader might not get lost in them in quite the same way as with a more totally invented worlds. I hope “Fog Marsh,” in Spirits Unwrapped is working on both levels—that the reader can get caught up in the world, but also that the texture of the historical background comes through.
DB: I’m very happy to interview you for this project. We were students together and have worked on several projects together over the years. One of those projects was the Daily Cabal, a flash fiction project. Could you tell us about the project and why you created it? What is the appeal of flash fiction and what have you learned from it?
RD: The Daily Cabal was a project that posted a new speculative fiction short story every weekday. It ran for over three years and 1000 stories, and involved a gradually-shifting slate of wonderful writers.
The graphic novelist and author Warren Ellis, in one of his online musings about projects that might be interesting to undertake, mentioned the idea of a group blog of short fiction. I said something to Jeremiah Tolbert like “wouldn’t it be cool to do something like that… I bet we know a group of writers who could create a pretty good mix of stories” and somehow that led to Jeremy (very generously) coding and hosting (and writing for) the site.
The thing I like about flash fiction is that it gives just enough time to dip the reader into a world and a situation, to meet a character and follow them through perhaps just one significant moment. There’s plenty of potential for suggesting even more about the characters and their world, everything that’s happening outside of the frame—and that’s something I love doing.
On a writing level, the practice of trimming so many stories down to fit our 400-word limit helped me develop an eye for more compact language, which comes in particularly handy when revising.
On a project level, one key learning I took away from the Cabal—which can apply to any project that involves publishing something on a regular schedule—is that you always want to have as many installments as possible finished before you start publishing, because the schedule like a slow-moving but unstoppable zombie that’s always gaining on you, steadily eating through your backlog. With strict release schedules as with zombies, a good head start is essential.
One of the absolute best things about the Cabal was seeing all the amazing stories that you all came up with. I’d open my email almost every day, and someone would be sending in something else completely unexpected. I still regret that we weren’t able to gather a larger audience for the site so that all the stories could have reached more people. However, it’s been great to see how many writers who were involved have gone on to gather their own audiences through the stories and books they’ve published since.
DB: Back in 2005 I published and edited a small run / limited edition mummy chapbook with the same name as Spirit Unwrapped. In the book were stories by Catherine Dybeic Holm, Brendan Day, and Sharon Woods along with your novelette “The Tenth Hat” which received an honorable mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Datlow, Grant and Link. Can you tell us about that story and the appeal of Kubla Khan?
RD: The period of Kublai’s reign was interesting because his government was not only a mix of his own Mongol culture and the culture of the China over which he now ruled, but also incorporated people from other Central Asian cultures and Tibet. I found a really good, thorough biography of Kublai, but I also kept getting pulled back to the imagery of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, which paints a far more exotic and fantastical image of the Khan’s court. So I started thinking about what would have seemed exotic to Kublai—what would give him, the leader of the largest, most powerful, and arguably most advanced empire in the world at that time, an experience of wonder?
Also, I liked the idea of setting a mummy story in the past and having the mummy come from an era so much earlier that it seems ancient to the people of that time. I’d read about some mummies that had been discovered in the Tarim Basin of what’s now far Western China, one of whom was buried with a number of interesting hats.
I arranged the story around a tension between the mystics of Kublai’s court and the more practical tendencies of the people representing the military who’d built the empire and the bureaucracy who made it run. Even though Chao Pi, the eventual antagonist in the story, is someone who’s recorded in Chinese historical sources an example of a bad advisor, I wish I would have come up with a character who was more clearly distinct from a scheming courtier stereotype—particularly since that stereotype is itself not all that far from stereotypical depictions of Asians in Western stories. Also, now that I know at least slightly more Chinese history, I have to admit that, given a time machine, I’d probably drop in on Kublai for an hour or two to see what he was up to, and then spend a few weeks hanging out in one of the cities of the Southern Song before he conquered them.
DB: Your stories always feature a wide range of interesting settings both from the here and now to imaginary and secondary worlds. How does setting fit into your creative process?
RD: I tend to start from settings, and from the feel of a place. Online, I’m a sucker for articles on architecture and urban theory, and can easily get lost in photo galleries show a place in a way that conveys some emotion. When I remember dreams, it’s often the place and the sense of being in that place that stays with me most strongly.
So place is often where my ideas begin, or else the place quickly fills in around other kinds of inspiration. I can work for quite a while with just a place, or with a place and a character, before developing ideas about the events that might be happening in their life that could fit together in to a story.
As much as I enjoy world-building in the privacy of my own brain, when I’m writing I have to shift to building that world in the reader’s brain. I hope I get to a point where the reader follows the characters into an experience, an emotion that can only exist in that place.
DB: “Fog Marsh” is your second “mummy” story. What was your decision making like when making the pre-writing choices. Once you decided you wanted to write about a bog mummy what came next for you?
RD: What really caught me about bog mummies was visiting the British Museum, turning a corner, and coming face to face with the bog mummy known as Lindow Man. Mummies that are created by desiccation have always made me a bit uncomfortable when I’ve seen them in person, but something about just how lifelike the bog mummy looked didn’t trigger that reaction. I knew at that point that I wanted to write something about a bog mummy, even though it was quite a few years before I came up with a story.
I’d really enjoyed the research I’d done for “The Tenth Hat,” so I decided to go even further this time. I figured I’d see what kind of story ideas I had after a month of reading about bog mummies as well as what we understand of the cultures back in the times when the people lived who became the mummies. As a precaution, I set myself a time limit so I wouldn’t completely disappear into the books and online resources.
When I was in grad school, I’d done a yearlong course reading Beowulf in Old English, so the scene where Beowulf dives into the lake to fight with Grendel’s mother was strong in my mind, and I thought I could do something with that. In the end, that scene only came into the story indirectly, but it made the connection to Denmark, which worked because it’s one of the countries where bog mummies are found.
I kept a long file on my computer where I noted down particularly interesting bits of research and started sketching out images that came up along the way.
I owe a big debt to the people who keep the State of Maine interlibrary loan system working, and especially the librarians at the Portland Public Library who put up with me appearing as soon as the computer notification came in, sometimes before the books had even gotten to the check-out counter.
I mined a lot of good sparks from the classic late 1960’s/early 1970’s books by the Danish archeologist P.V. Glob, which are full of interesting facts and connections. It was through Glob that I found some key historical accounts from Tacitus and Ibn Faldun. Also in the mix were Seamus Heaney’s poems and the scholarship of Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Karin Sanders, Heather Gill-Robinson, and Karin Margarita Frei. If you’re interested in bog bodies, I highly recommend seeking out writing by all of them.
I’m definitely making all kinds of impressionistic connections in “Fog Marsh” that are only loosely supported by the things I read. For me, there’s a tension between the lifelike state of bog bodies and the way that so many of them show the marks of having been killed in multiple, violent ways.
I had the idea that maybe the two were connected—maybe the bodies were healing from their wounds and had been killed in so many ways in order to stretch out that healing time. That, for instance, a bog mummy that looks like it’s been killed with a triple death might actually be halfway through healing from a sevenfold death. The story took off from there.
(And this is probably a good time to mention by way of a trigger warning that the opening of the story is quite violent, since it begins with the narrator being sacrificed.)
DB: What about mummies appeals to you as a reader?
RD: With mummies, as with any of the “classic” monsters, I’m always curious to see what new how a writer is making the monster new. So reading through all the other stories in Spirits Unwrapped definitely gave me that kind of experience—repeatedly.
I think, as a reader (and as a writer), mummy stories offer the potential to show one time and/or culture coming into contact with another. My favorite story in Spiritis Unwrapped, Marissa Lindgren’s “In the Ancestor’s New House,” is centered on encounters across cultures.
DB Is there any “monster” you enjoy reading about more than others? Is there one that you feel is under-represented or just one you cannot get enough of?
RD: I’m a big fan of griffins and they seem to be due for a comeback. As dearly as I love dragons (and I’m a huge, huge dragon fan), they seem to have become so prevalent that they’ve stolen some of the cultural spotlight that other charismatic, hoard-oriented, mythic megafauna might otherwise share.
Griffins do have a certain medieval bestiary mix-and-match feel to them which maybe makes them seem a little less organic at first glance, but they’ve got deep roots, going well back into ancient Mesopotamia. And I have this feeling, not necessarily based in anything rational or logical, that if you’re a human character in a story and you have to interact with a griffin, that interaction will be very different from the interaction you would have had with a dragon or other monster, even if everything else about the situation (proximity to treasure, thinly veiled threats of being eaten, etc.) is similar.
As the son of an archeologist, RUDI DORNEMANN has seen his share of mummies and admits that, frankly, they creep him out. He doesn’t mind writing about them, though, and appreciates that working on a story for Spirits Unwrapped gave him the excuse to disappear down a few particularly arcane research rabbit holes. His short fiction has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, Conduit, and Realms of Fantasy. He instigated and contributed to flash fiction website The Daily Cabal, occasionally writes for The Rain Taxi Review of Books. His story, “The Tenth Hat,” featuring a mummy at the court of Kubilai Khan, was included in the 2005 chapbook forerunner of this project. Dornemann was the second season host of Why Why Why: The Books Podcast. His set of six microfictions, Invisible Edge Cities: Calvino Remixes was included in a gallery exhibition of constraint-based art at Northern Ohio University.He lives in Portland, Maine, in house full of books and surrounded by gardens. He can be found online at http://www.rudidornemann.com
DANIEL BRAUM is the author of the short story collections The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance), The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions 2017) and Yeti Tiger Dragon (Dim Shores 2016). His third collection, Underworld Dreams is forthcoming from Lethe Press in 2020. The Serpent’s Shadow, his first novel, was released from Cemetery Dance eBooks in July 2019. He is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology from Lethe Press and the host and founder of the Night Time Logic reading series in New York City which can also be heard on the Ink Heist podcast. He can be found at https://bloodandstardust.wordpress.com, www.facebook.com/DanielBraumFiction, and @danielbraum
SPIRITS UNWRAPPED can be ordered by your favorite local bookseller and also at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and direct from the publisher.