In the past few months, World Weaver Press has released the next two installments in Rhonda Parrish’s Magical Menagerie anthologies: Corvidae and Scarecrow. In Corvidae, “birds are born of blood and pain, trickster ravens live up to their names, magpies take human form, blue jays battle evil forces, and choughs become prisoners of war.” In Scarecrow, “ancient enemies join together to destroy a mad mommet, a scarecrow who is a crow protects solar fields and stores long-lost family secrets, a woman falls in love with a scarecrow, and another becomes one.” These two fascinating works feature many bright authors, and I had the opportunity to interview some of them.
The second is Kat Otis, who lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there’s no country music involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction and Penumbra eMag. Her story “Whistles and Trills” appears in Corvidae.
Hal J. Friesen: Your story hints at events happening on a larger scale than what we glimpse in Morgaine’s tale. Do you have any plans to expand on those ideas, or have you already?
Kat Otis: I haven’t made any specific plans to write other stories in this world, though it’s definitely a possibility. I find twentieth-century history to be insanely depressing so it isn’t my go-to period for historical fantasy.
That said, part of the initial inspiration for this story was my research on twentieth-century spy pigeons. I cannot emphasize enough how awesome spy pigeons are, especially when you’re trying to communicate information in a way that can’t be easily intercepted by the enemy. Almost two thirds of the WWII Dickin Medals (the UK’s award to honor animals in war) were awarded to pigeons! So there are definitely a lot of possible “spy corvidae” ideas floating around in my head and it’s likely that I’ll eventually write some of them.
HJF: Can you give us your take on why the corvids in your story were on a prisoner transport?
KO: The Nazis attempted to purge Germany of all “undesirables” – most famously Jews, but also Roma, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, and many others. Alas, it doesn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination to lump their resident non-humanoid intelligent birds into the same category.
HJF: How did you come up with the lines to separate the warring creatures in your alternate world?
KO: In general, the frost giants, corvidae, and sea serpents would prefer to keep to themselves rather than involve themselves in human infighting. But the geographical proximity of the Axis powers to the Alps (where I imagine many frost giants live) provides a strong incentive for the Nazis to woo their various chieftaincies into a military alliance. And the Nazi leadership has the requisite ruthlessness to give the frost giants whatever they want to make sure that alliance sticks…
The corvidae’s entrance into the war doesn’t involve unilateral support for the Allied side – the Nazis might have burned their bridges there, but they weren’t the only Axis power. And a lot of corvidae are going to want to stay neutral, seeing this as a primarily human concern.
As for the sea serpents… if I ever get the desire to write a submarine story, then we’ll see. I should mention I was just at a submarine museum a few weeks ago…
HJF: Which side of the war would Phasianids be on?
KO: The dinner plate? Okay, okay, seriously. I think there would be Phasianids on both sides of the war. Unlike my frost giants, who are limited to specific geographical regions, Phasianids are pretty much everywhere and would have evolved a variety of relationships with local powers during the war. Each different species, and each species in each nation, would have different goals, motives, and politics.
HJF: The details depicted in all the flight scenes are very authentic. Did you draw from any aviation experience(s) of your own, or was that just a result of good research?
KO: I come from a family of pilots, though I’m not a licensed pilot myself. The last time I flew a plane, I nearly flipped it on take-off. It’s extremely hard to keep a plane level when your co-pilot decides to open his bloody door, and no, I don’t care if the seat belt was caught in it! Ahem.
Anyway, I’m glad the flight scenes come across as authentic as I spent several days picking various family members’ brains to make sure I got things right. They’re not writers themselves, but they are extremely enthusiastic when I hijack family gatherings with things like, “Help me crash a plane!”
HJF: Why do you think stories of the magical, the fantastic, are relevant to readers today?
KO: I think speculative fiction is vital to fostering readers’ imaginations and helping them see beyond the limits they’ve been taught to impose on themselves and the world around them. I’m reminded, in this moment, of one of my favorite childhood movies – Flight of Dragons – where the wizard explains that things like the crystal ball inspired mankind to invent radio and television. If we didn’t dream of dragons and winged men, would we have ever learned to fly?
When it comes to historical fantasy and alternate history, in particular, I think that these stories are vital in helping us understand past events and cultures. They let us explore historical contingencies – the “what might have been” if just a few little details get tweaked – and reveal the extent of human uncertainty and agency in a history that readers tend to think of as somehow inevitable and foreordained. They also let us explore the mind-sets of historical cultures; I don’t have to convince readers that people weren’t stupid for believing in X, Y, and Z, I just make those things real and then my readers willingly come along for the ride. In general, if authors push the boundaries far enough, they can bring readers past their preexisting opinions and prejudices to a better understanding of the historical past and what it means for the present – and the future.
HJF: You list many online forums as writer resources on your website. Have you been involved in any of these forums personally, and what can you share with us about the experience? Are you still active on them?
KO: I’ve been active on all the forums that I’ve listed on my website, though it’s been a while since I visited some of them. Hatrack and Critters were the first online writing sites where I participated in on a regular basis. The advice and support I got there led to me attending Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp and my first professional sale! Absolute Write is my go-to forum whenever I need an expert to help me with some aspect of story research – there are some great folks there who are willing to answer all sorts of wacky questions. It also has a much broader focus, for those people who aren’t solely SFF writers.
My current “home” forum is Codex. It’s a wonderful resource, full of awesome people, and provides a good kick-in-the-pants to write by hosting a rotating series of contests. Probably my favorite is the Weekend Warrior contest: for five weekends in a row, we have from Friday night to Sunday night to write a prompt-based flash fiction story, followed by a weekend in which the die-hards attempt to write a short story or novelette in the same length of time. I’ve gotten a lot of great stories – and sales – out of that contest.
HJF: What advice do you have for budding authors?
KO: Expect rejection. I know, that sounds depressing, but I think it’s important for budding authors to know rejection is a fact of life for all writers who are out submitting their work on a regular basis. It’s normal. It doesn’t mean that your work is awful. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should give up on your dreams.