Magic Realism, Family Sagas, and Punk Rock: An Interview with Sarah McCarry


Sarah McCarry‘s novel All Our Pretty Songs was one of my favorite books of last year: its story blended smart observations about music and a loving portrayal of Seattle with mythological overtones. Said novel is the first book of a trilogy; the second, Dirty Wings, leaps back in time to examine the friendship of Maia and Cass, whose daughters were at the center of All Our Pretty Songs. (I should probably mention now that I’m part of a group that’s thanked in the acknowledgements of the new novel.) McCarry is also the publisher of Guillotine, an excellent series of chapbooks. I’d talked with her about that earlier this year; with the new book out, it seemed like the right time for another conversation. And so I checked in with her over email about Dirty Wings; About a Girl, the forthcoming third book in the trilogy; and more.

In your interview with Kat Howard, you talked about how it’s a perpetual 1997 in your novels. Is that also meant as a comment on the way the grunge era still has an effect on music in Seattle? (I’m thinking now of TacocaT calling their latest album N V M.)

I honestly haven’t paid much attention to the music scene in Seattle in years, but I don’t know that the city still lives up to its flannel-and-shag stereotype–these days whenever I go back it seems pretty much sterilized with Amazon money. So no, for me it’s not so much a commentary on Seattle now as much as an evocation of the Seattle that never really was, if that makes sense–the Seattle that was turned into a mythology of its own by “grunge,” and by Kurt Cobain’s death and everything that went along with that.


How conscious are you of specific elements tying your story–particularly in Dirty Wings–to specific years? Reading it, the fact that Joy Division and Dead Can Dance are mentioned means that it’s set after a certain point, but not necessarily now, which I really liked.

Well, the “perpetual 1997” is definitely 1997 that never existed! The William Kentridge production of The Magic Flute that Maia’s mother attends took place in 2007 in the real world; the music videos Cass and Maia watch are from the 80s. The car the girls steal is a diesel Mercedes. So the chronology is very fantastical, in the sense that it’s not actually possible–which, yes, was something I thought about a lot. I started out initially with a very mathematical working-out of what year Dirty Wings would have to take place in in order for Cass and Maia’s daughters to be teenagers in the nineties. But I quickly realized that that kind of specificity took out a lot of the mythical feel of the books for me, so I just abandoned it completely, which allowed me to take all sorts of liberties with the references. I really wanted The Magic Flute in there.


What was your first introduction to the Kentridge production of The Magic Flute? And, in terms of incorporating it into this narrative: what was the appeal for you of having it in the background as well?

The MoMA had a big Kentridge retrospective a few years ago. I’d already moved through room after room of his work, which is so painful and beautiful and intense, and so much of it is about things I spend a lot of time thinking about–what does it mean to be a person living within and complicit with this terrible, terrible system, what does it mean to be responsible for something you can’t undo; he’s talking about apartheid specifically, but as the events of the last few weeks have reminded us, those are still very relevant questions for those of us whose bodies are privileged within tyrannical systems of power. MoMA had a whole room set up with one of his set models and the opera playing, and I walked in right in the middle of the “Queen of Night” aria and just sat there and cried for ten minutes.

As far as the book–the character of Maia’s mother is an awful person in so many ways, but I wanted her to be human, too, and to show the reader some of those moments that make her more than just a monster. She’s very academic and rigid, but that production seemed like something that would move her, so I gave it to her.

Am I wrong for noticing, as the books take on a larger span of time, that there are some elements of a family saga in here? There’s the difference between who Maia is in her 30s and who she is in Dirty Wings, for one thing–the way that the young protagonist of one story can become the conflicted (semi-)authority figure in someone else’s.

Oh, for sure. It’s been a great joy for me to get to work with these characters over the span of generations–the third book, which comes out next summer, is about Maia’s granddaughter, and all the young characters from the first book come back as adults. I do think of them as an extended family, and their familial relationships become even more complicated in the final book; it was a lot of fun to play around with that, and to spend so much time with them.


You’re showing the central characters of these books at significant points in their lives; I’m wondering: as you’re writing these, do you have a sense of what’s transpired in the time in between? 

Between the second book and the first one, mostly really terrible things. Actually, between all of them, a lot of terrible things. (Sorry! The third book has a happy ending, cross my heart. Mostly happy. Happy in comparison.)


From the preview of About a Girl that’s in the back of Dirty Wings, there’s a shift in location for the third book, to Brooklyn. Do you see yourself revisiting Seattle in more fiction? And if the version of Seattle in these books is in an eternal 1997, what year corresponds to Brooklyn?

The third book actually moves from Brooklyn to a very small town on the Olympic Peninsula that a number of people might recognize as Port Townsend. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s 2014 in Brooklyn, but it’s definitely a bit closer to the present we live in than the first two books.

And yes, I’m working now on a horror novel set in the town I grew up in, just outside Seattle. (Which takes place in the real present. They even have smartphones.)


In the scene in Dirty Wings where Maia and her father go to New York, we get a sense of who he was as a younger man, which I think furthers the generational aspect of the book (and the books as a group). Did you originally have more of the history of Maia’s parents in there? 

I had less, actually, in the first draft, but then reading through it I realized they were sort of like the parents in Charlie Brown–you know, mumble mumble mumble in the background. I wanted them to be something a little more complex than just generic overprotective authority figures. It’s entirely possible I had a lot of fun making fun of literary New York in the process, but of course I’ll never confirm or deny.


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