After the first part of our interview, I couldn’t wait to sit down with Hannah Lackoff again. Her answers are excellent, and carefully in-depth. If her name catches in your memory, Hannah recently released her first collection After the World Ended, and a gothic Sherlock Holmes novella, The Speckled Band.
This week, we released a free ebook collecting some of Hannah’s favorite and award-winning stories from After the World Ended as a teasing enticement of what wonders you’ll find in the full book.
1) Welcome back, Hannah. Today we’d love to talk about your new collection, After the World Ended. In the book’s description, there’s a statement about how “like so many great authors before her settles in with the bones of old stories, clichéd tales, and urban legends and builds them into her exhibits.” What brings old stories, clichéd tales, and urban legends to your attention, and inspires you?
I love taking a story everybody already knows and delving deeper into it and finding out what really happened. These stories are already in our collective consciousness and make a great background. There’s something to be said about really understanding your source material and allowing it to create something entirely new yet still familiar. It’s comforting and also strange, and allows a writer (as well as a reader) to pay attention to different things. It’s great exercise for the brain.
2) What drove you to use them as source material?
I find them hard to escape, actually. They are a great jumping off point in so many different ways: you can keep the story basically the same but focus on a different character, you can take a familiar trope and turn it on its head, you can use an ancient structure to say something about a current issue. Reading a fairy tale or watching a horror movie and wondering “what if?” is a great source of inspiration and a potential cure for writer’s block.
Lately I’ve been really interested in taking these common genres or tropes and removing a key element: An outer space adventure without the aliens, a ghost story where it turns out there is no ghost, a superhero without any powers. Things that sound fantastical or magical but turn out to have a perfectly logical explanation- or do they? I love a story that could explain everything but choses not too; a story that assumes its reader is smart enough to figure it out on their own.
3) How did you select those 18 short stories for After the World Ended?
At the time, these stories were the bulk of what I had written. As I looked them over, I realized that they all had a common theme: someone’s world was ending, in a small way or a big one. Sometimes it was literal, as in the title story, but sometimes it was smaller; the death of a loved one, a divorce, strange weather or an impulsive phone call. Each story contains a fundamental shift in a character’s world view. Worlds are ending all the time, everywhere you look.
4) Your characters have unusual, powerful names. What inspires these? How much time do you spend picking out the right name?
Names are very important to me. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to find the right one and sometimes the character springs to life fully formed, complete with a name. For example, Sturgeon and Petrel were always named Sturgeon and Petrel, and the rest of the story kind of developed around them. But in “The Mirror,” I wanted the names to have literal meaning, and spent some time looking on databases of Russian names and their meanings. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites and google translate, either looking for a name that means something or one that just feels right.
5) “After the World Ended,” the story, is such a great post-apocalyptic story. You never mention the nature of the apocalypse. Do you think that is essential to the tension and storytelling?
My focus on this story was not on what happened to end the world, but rather what happened later (hence the “after”). I didn’t want to focus on the details of a pandemic, or a nuclear holocaust, or an alien invasion, or any of the other things that could have gone wrong. It doesn’t matter to the plot what happened before the story opens; except for the fact that we don’t have any idea what happened, and so we have to take the characters word for it. The reader is dropped right into the middle of the story (or maybe the end of a different story; the one about the pandemic or the nuclear holocaust or the alien invasion) and has to hit the ground running. And in the end, it’s not about the whole world at all, but just about the world of one family.
6) When you write about loneliness and the loss of a loved one, it’s particularly heartbreaking. On the TVCU podcast, the hosts kept mentioning how much you made them cry. How do you put so much emotion into your stories? Do you have a certain writing technique? Is it all about putting yourself into that frame of mind as you write—or something else?
It just happens! I don’t mean to make everything I write dark or sad or difficult- but that’s what seems to come out. For an example, “The Dead Do Not Come Back At Night” was my attempt to write a ghost story, but it turned into what I was talking about earlier- a ghost story without a ghost. Some of this certainly stems from fairy tales and myths; more often than not those are pretty grim, but a lot of it is all my own.
Rather than putting myself in the frame of mind to write something sad or dark, I put myself in the frame of mind of the character I’m creating and let them tell the story. I find it especially easy to write these kinds of stories from the point of view of children or younger adults. Not only are their emotions bigger and closer to the surface, but everything is new to them. They have no frame of reference yet. Everything is possible.
7) “The Mirror” is one of our favorite stories. In the afterword to the story, in Those Who Live Long Forgotten, you mention many more stories that use magic mirrors. Do you think you’ll ever write a sequel, expanding on those old bones?
I am currently working on a novel that expands on Grisha and An’s story. I found there was so much more to it than a short story could explore, and I couldn’t get them out of my mind. There are more retold fairy tales that go along with their story, though none of them use magic mirrors in quite the same way that “The Mirror” did.
There are so many stories that use literal mirrors, and so many more that use mirrors as a metaphor, whether it be reflections, doubles, shadows, parallel worlds, etc. There is certainly space for a sequel, or perhaps whole volumes. I love myths and fairy tales, and I have no doubt I will continue to explore them in my work.
8) You have exceptional skill at controlling your diction so that every story feels almost like a stand-alone story in that character’s style. How do you accomplish this?
I read a lot. I write a lot. I watch movies and tv shows and plays. I keep myself exposed to different styles and voices, but I rarely consciously try to emulate someone else (an exception being “The Speckled Band”). I find that each character naturally comes with its own voice, and it is just a matter of me discovering its rhythm and figuring out the right way to put it on paper.
9) Are there any you’d like to touch on at some point—some legends or tale that just hasn’t found its home in a story yet?
Little Red Riding Hood has always been one of my favorites. I did a lot of research for a capstone project in college, and it’s really stuck with me. I’ve always loved Selkies, and, more generally, Irish and Scottish mythology, and anything having to do with the ocean.
10) As always, Hannah, I have to ask. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there?
Keep writing! Keep sending your work out! Don’t give up, but at the same time, feel free to just give up on that difficult piece, or cut out that paragraph, or that chapter, or that character. When I get nervous about getting rid of something I make a new file of things that I have cut. I rarely put them back in, but I like knowing they are there. Go back and reread everything, a lot, including those stories you just couldn’t figure out from years ago. And take out your commas and semicolons; if you write first drafts the way I do you probably have far more than you need.
11) Do you have any other recent work you’d like to promote? Where can our readers find you online?
I had a piece of flash fiction “Slippage” published recently on 365tomorrows.com. My fairy tale-esque piece “Beast” will be published in November in Spirit’s Tincture, and “The Fat Man” (also in “After the World Ended”) will be on Drabblecast around Christmas. You can always find more on my website: hannahlackoff.wix.com/writing.
If you missed it, you can check out the first part of our interview, which took an in-depth look at The Speckled Band, right here. If you’re impatient to start reading After the World Ended now, you can download the free preview, or buy the full collection. You can find The Speckled Band here.