Last month, Sarah McCarry‘s novel About a Girl was released, bringing to a close a trilogy that brought together Northwestern punk rock, element of Greek mythology, and explorations of unconventional families. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the generations of characters that she’d previous established, and its moves further afield from the Seattle settings of its predecessors. (And, in narrator Tally, it also has an impressively distinctive voice leading the reader along the way.) I’d interviewed McCarry twice before, and the end of the trilogy seemed like a good time to look back on both the latest book and the work as a whole.
I liked that the “perpetual 1997” that the trilogy exists in now extends to New York City–Cass and Maia are aging, but Brownies is still around your version of NYC. After two novels largely set in Seattle, how did you select certain timeless elements to garnish the trilogy’s version of New York?
Ha! Well, time doesn’t really work in the books the way it does in real life, obviously. The science Tally cites–especially on dark matter and dark energy–is quite current, but there are other real places in the book (Melville and Co., RIP; the original Bauhaus, RIP; P.T. Bunny, which no one misses) that haven’t been around in years. I think of the books as being anchored by objects and places that are touchstones of a certain aesthetic, a 1997 of the mind if you will, as you said. So with the New York bits, I asked friends who grew up there what their iconic places were, in the same way that Aurora and the narrator of About A Girl sneak into the OK Hotel (also RIP). In a small way the books are a kind of eulogy to the places that shaped me as a young person and aren’t around anymore, so I wanted those kinds of New York places for Tally’s story.
Through Tally’s interests, you brought some fairly intense descriptions of science into this novel. How did you find the right balance between that and the novel’s more surreal and mythological elements?
That’s very nice of you to say that I did. One reviewer said the book reads like a science textbook. But–so, like, you’re not supposed to say this in front of actual scientists, they do not like woo, but astronomy and cosmology, especially at the very large scales of space and time, and when you’re talking about the early universe, basically are magic. You’re talking about science that is so wild and beautiful and unknown that it inspires in me the same sense of wonder, of crossing over into a world that’s full of mystery and the divine. And of course the stars are very tied into mythology, and magic, in the sense that ancient cultures believed the constellations were gods or people, or that the gods turned people into stars–there’s a lot of that in Greek mythology, which tied in nicely with the book. So for me, honestly, magic and science aren’t that different, but don’t tell a hard science fiction writer I said that. There was so much I learned that I wanted to put into this book and didn’t that I’m seriously considering writing another book about Tally as a postdoc.
Each of the three novels seems to have its own degree of clarity or vagueness about the mythical elements that play into the plot. How did you determine that as you went about writing each of the three books?
To a certain extent it’s determined by how much the characters themselves know. The narrator of All Our Pretty Songs is more inclined to believe in magic when it’s happening, so magic is more present. Tally fights it pretty hard. In the end, though, everybody still has to go to Hell.
Looking back at the trilogy as a whole, what surprised you most about the directions in which it went?
Hmmm, that’s a good question. It was a surprise to me originally that it was a trilogy at all–I’d written the first book as a standalone and my agent sold it as a trilogy. Moving back and forth in time let me work with fate and myth as they intersected with these characters’ lives over generations, which was a lot of fun. I’m surprised at how sad I was to let them go–I spent four years with them, thinking about their stories and how they would play out, and I definitely miss them. Tally in particular was a great joy to write.
Is there anything that, in retrospect, you’d have preferred to do differently in these books?
I probably would have made more money if I’d given someone cancer or a redemptive arc.
What have been the most memorable reactions you’ve gotten from readers of the books as a whole?
People either really love them or really hate them, which doesn’t surprise me, but the people who really love them really get them, which is lovely. It’s easy to feel alone in the world you’re making, but realizing how much these stories have resonated with a certain kind of reader has felt amazing. I think there are just so few stories that get published by commercial houses that talk about myth and music and being a teenager, and that center on the experience of teenage girls in particular, that people are very hungry for them.
There’s a nod to the d’Aulaires’ books on mythology in About a Girl. Were there any books on mythology that inspired you as you worked on these three books?
My friend Hal Sedgwick gave me the Argonautika when I was working on About A Girl, which was a huge influence. I read Craig Arnold’s book Made Flesh about a hundred times. I also spent a lot of time with Lovi and Tirion’s Men, Monsters, and the Modern Universe, which is an incredible (out of print, but pretty findable) reprint of Alexander Jamieson’s 1822 Celestial Atlas with commentary that includes all of the mythology for each constellation.
When we talked last time, you mentioned Port Townsend as an influence on the place that Tally travels to over the course of the novel. What appealed to you about it as a setting? How close is the actual town to the fictional version of it that appears in your novel?
I have a long history with the Olympic Peninsula in general and Port Townsend specifically, which has its own kind of creepy and gorgeous magic underneath the touristy veneer. It’s a place that I love to an irrational degree. The fictional town is very close to the real one; there are some places in the book that don’t exist anymore, and some others that are composites of real places, but for the most part it’s pretty much a verbatim transcription of the real-life town.
Has your time editing Guillotine had any impact on your work as a writer?
I think of Guillotine as being an entirely separate part of my brain, which is actually a nice break–I can look for different things in other people’s work than what I’m doing in my own, and approach writing from a very different place. The hands-on aspects of the press–printing the covers, sewing the chapbooks, literally assembling everything by hand–is a nice change from trying to make things up in my head.