Interview: Sherri Cook Woosley
Today we’re talking to Sherri Cook Woosley, whose debut novel Walking Through Fire hits shelves September 4th, 2018 (available for preorder from Amazon and Barnes and Noble in print and from Brilliance Audio as an audiobook). Described as “absolutely fascinating” by Abyss & Apex Magazine, Walking Through Fire is a dystopian fantasy about the unbreakable bonds of family, set against a backdrop of a magical war tearing through the American heartland. There’s also zombie horseshoe crabs.
Hi Sherri, thanks for taking the time to chat!
Hi, Harrison! Thanks for having me.
Let’s get right to it. You described Walking Through Fire as "American Gods meets The Road". How did you decide to cross the two inspirations? What elements from each one appealed to you as a storyteller?
I deeply admire both Neil Gaiman and Cormac McCarthy, so somewhere in the “book hangover” state I wanted to glom onto parts. From The Road I wondered how the story would change if it were about a mother and son instead of a father and son. And if there were dragons. From American Gods I wanted deities who were quite literally walking around pursuing their own plans.
Confession: In first drafts it was hard to marry the two storylines: 1) mother and son with cancer and 2) Mesopotamian gods break free from sky prison and reignite war games using humans as pawns, but that was always my vision for the novel.
Other than Stephenson's Snow Crash, Walking Through Fire is the first genre piece I know of to really delve into Sumerian mythology. What made you want to focus on this particular cosmology? How does it differ from Greek or Norse mythos that most genre readers absorb by osmosis?
Five fun facts about the Sumerians and why they are cool.
1) They reported their facts pretty liberally. For example, on the clay tablet called “King List” one early king is said to have lived for 43,200 years. On the same list is a woman named Kubaba whose career started as a tavern-keeper before she became ruler. You better believe THAT is going to show up somewhere in my Misbegotten books. The mix of historical fact and myth makes it easy for me, as a fiction writer, to use my research literally.
2) Also, Sumerians invented writing, the wheel, the plow, law codes, blah blah blah and BEER. Ninkasi is the goddess of brewing. Please notice: goddess. Women were the early brewers of beer and wine. (Suck it, Dionysus)
3) Mesopotamia is the land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphates – everyone knows that. But, as a historical region it was home to the Sumerians, followed by the Babylonians and the Assyrians, and really open to trade with neighboring countries. Several scholars credit the open trading and the combinations of styles, beliefs, and behaviors contributed from many groups of people as the reasons for Mesopotamia’s endurance. Being inclusive for the greater good. Sounds like good advice to me.
4) Finally, I taught both Inanna, Queen of Heaven (by Wolkstein and Kramer) and Gilgamesh (Gardner and Maier) when I lectured at University of Maryland. The stories are sometimes bewildering and usually entertaining, lyrical and still accessible. Gods and goddesses get mad at each other, have trouble getting pests out of trees, descend to the underworld, write poetry to their sexual parts…you know. The things we do today.
5) I should note: Sometimes (often!) the stories contradict themselves. For example, In one region Inanna and Erishkigal are sisters, but in another they each have a different set of parents. This actually gives me more artistic license because there isn’t one canonized version of Mesopotamian mythology. In the Misbegotten novels I’m conflating the goddess Nammu and Tiamat. Someone somewhere is going to write me a nastygram about their being two different goddesses. Yes, they are. AND. No, they aren’t. I will point to Diana and Artemis and happily keep writing. You’ve been warned, nastygram-writer. And, just to belabor this. Nammu OF THE WATERY DEEPS and Tiamat OF THE PRIMORDIAL WATERS. I’m conflating. You can’t stop me.
Your novel presents gods not just as abstract figures, but as actual characters with their own motivations, foibles, and personalities. What made you want to explore them in higher resolution than off-stage presences? How did you translate from the "source material" to our contemporary world?
Another great question. There’s a provocative Bible verse --Genesis 6:4 -- where the sons of God and the daughters of man “knew each other” and produced supernatural offspring. And then the next verse is about the flood and goes on from there and I’m like, “But, wait, back up. I need to know more.”
Those offspring became the gods that populate my novel. The “false idols” of the Old Testament. They are Misbegotten because they aren’t supposed to exist…but they do. Some want to work out a path to forgiveness and others want to embrace their time on earth and exercise their jealousy on humans.
So, between that Nephilim passage and the flavor of stories from 5,000-year-old Sumerian mythology, I created deities with petty disputes and personal stakes. Then I made them fun. An, who used to be the most powerful god in the pantheon, but was “retired” by the Babylonians a thousand years later, became a character from a spaghetti Western who likes The Beatles. Inanna, the sensual goddess of knowledge, looks remarkably like Beyonce from “Sorry” on her Lemonade album and lives in Chicago in a female-centric territory where men are second class citizens.
Other depictions of supernaturally-warped environments tend to portray them as uniformly, deeply sinister (a la VanDerMeer's Area X trilogy). On the other hand, your works shows a variety of different reactions to the return of the Sumerian gods: rejection, acceptance, exploitation...How did you conceive of how characters with different backgrounds (e.g. suburban housewife, park ranger) would react?
Wow! That’s really astute. [ed note: she actually said this, I didn’t make it up] But, yeah, you’re right.
I wasn’t seeing mothers that I wanted to read about in genre fiction. There have been many strong women characters, but I wanted someone I could identify with – someone to whom strength wasn’t about shooting a gun or having a superhero power that made her jump over buildings or being so detached that she could take down an empire (I’m looking at you, Baru Cormorant). I wanted someone who has the “weakness” of loving her child. And that’s where Rachel started. She has panic attacks, she overthinks everything because that’s what anxious mothers do. We try to think of everything that could happen and prepare for it. But, even Rachel can’t prepare for the return of Sumerian gods.
And Scott? I love him. He takes being a park ranger very seriously. He’s a great guy and someone I would like to hang out with, although I’m pretty sure there would be random five-minute lectures on local flora and fauna. And, his facial expression the first time he realized that Cedars of Lebanon were growing in the Appalachian Mountains. Cracks me up every time I imagine it.
Walking Through Fire takes place as Rachel is taking her son to Baltimore, anchoring the work in a real-life setting. How did you decide on Maryland as the backdrop to their story? What real-life considerations did you have to think through to ensure the verisimilitude of the story?
It was always set in Baltimore. I ask readers to trust me -- to leap between this is a mother and son driving down Orleans Avenue toward Johns Hopkins and the moment that there is a dragon in the sky and the city is burning.
Post-apocalyptic tales help us to envision what life could be like in the future, but they also tend to reflect anxieties and hopes about life in the present. What types of emotions surfaced during the writing of Walking Through Fire?
Oh yeah, for me the post-apocalyptic genre is all about fear.
I’m scared about pediatric cancer. Why does it only receive 4% of the federal budget [for cancer research]?
I’m scared about climate change. And this was written BEFORE the current administration.
I’m worried about runaway technology and the impact on human spiritual growth.
I’m scared about…well. It’s all there, in the book. Even the zombie horseshoe crabs in the Chesapeake Bay.
Walking Through Fire is a post-apocalyptic story, but it's also an intensely personal one. How did you conceive of the relationship between Rachel and her son Adam? What elements of their relationship did you want to examine using the lens of the world falling apart?
So…um. Yeah. My world changed? Imploded? when my 2 ½ year old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. She and I spent the first 30 days starting from diagnosis in room 833 at Hopkins. As difficult as the next three years were, it was my relationship with my son that fell apart. He was in first grade when she was diagnosed and he didn’t understand why I was gone. He didn’t understand why I didn’t come to his soccer games anymore. He was jealous of his little sister and angry and I didn’t blame him. But, I couldn’t leave the hospital because every day, at the beginning, was brutal.
And my 2 ½ year old didn’t understand the tubes coming out of her either.
So, I wrote this book for him. I wrote at the desk in the hospital room after she fell asleep at night and I’d tell him parts over the phone. “Today Rachel and Adam met this guy named Scott. Rachel didn’t like him, but Adam knew…” I loved him through this story; it was my offering.
That’s an incredible offering. I think it’s wonderful you were able to use your talents to connect to your son at a time like that.
On a much lighter note, how did you come up with the title?
Ha ha, this one is easy. I didn’t!
I’d originally named the novel GARDEN OF WYNTERHALL. The homestead was a metaphor for the Garden of Eden and returning to what had been lost. (This is still referenced in the cabin’s name: Hiraeth).
My agent, Jennifer Azantian, pulled out the phrase WALKING THROUGH FIRE and when she told me…that was it. That’s what the whole book is about.
What question would you like to ask the next author to be interviewed here?
Has to be: What critters are in your novel? Who are they and what purpose do they achieve?
Sherri Cook Woosley’s short fiction has been published in Abyss & Apex, Pantheon Magazine, and other top SF/F venues. Her stories have been finalists for awards from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, Indies Unlimited and Bewildering Stories. Check out her blog at https://tasteofsherri.wordpress.com/, and follow her Twitter musings at @sherriwoosley .