Emma Törzs is a writer and teacher based in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, and honored with a 2020 NEA fellowship, a 2019 World Fantasy Award, and a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Loft Literary Center, the Jerome Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the MRAC, the MSAB, and Norwescon for financial support through the years, and she’s an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017. Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2023 with William Morrow. “The Path of Water” is her fourth appearance in Uncanny, a darkly beautiful twist on the traditional fairy tale.
Uncanny Magazine: “The Path of Water” is a wonderful title for this story, and I love the conversation that the characters have about how water flows the easiest way. Did you know the title when you started writing, or did it come to you later? What was your inspiration for the story?
Emma Törzs: I am glad you like the title! It was (as is usually the case with me) the last thing…though the conversation you mentioned does dovetail into your question about inspiration. I was thinking about the iterative nature of fairy tales and the oral tradition, which is a process somewhat echoed in the iterative process of river-making, and the story began when I asked myself: What if a character in a fairy tale woke from a long enchantment and had to piece together their own history and identity by reading different versions of their own story; by trying to trace a river to its source, so to speak?
I also knew I wanted to write a fairy tale that was full of classic fairy tale tropes and symbolisms, yet in the end remained resistant to any fixed A-to-B metaphors. I was hoping to unsettle questions or problems/problematics rather than try and settle them, though of course readers will judge the success of this project for themselves.
Uncanny Magazine: What was the easiest part of writing this story? What was the most challenging thing?
Emma Törzs: The easiest part was the opening scene at the wedding banquet, which I wrote a few years ago in one sitting then left alone for a long time, unsure where it was going. So that scene was also the most challenging part of writing—it was full of promise, I thought, but a promise of what? I ended up bringing it to a kind of informal workshop with a few friends, who talked me through my ideas until I found a way forward. I just checked my notes from that conversation and one reads, “He obviously has to eat birds.” Obviously!
Uncanny Magazine: There are vivid descriptions in the story from the monster’s point of view, dark and beautiful, with an animalistic quality to them. Did you use a particular animal as your inspiration?
Emma Törzs: No, I had no particular animal in mind.
Uncanny Magazine: If you had to choose, would you be the monster, the princess, or the witch?
Emma Törzs: I think I am probably already the monster.
Uncanny Magazine: This is a wonderful twist on traditional fairy tales, and I loved that the characters tried to piece together their own past from oral and written stories. What draws you to folklore and fairy tales? Do you have a favorite?
Emma Törzs: Fairy tales and folk tales are some of the first stories I (and many people, I assume) remember experiencing as a child, and always in multiple renditions. A parent would read me one version of a story, then a book at school would have a completely different version, then Disney’s greedy mouth would spit another version at me, etc. The mutability stuck with me—it was my first lesson in the nature of history, and the fact that stories change depending on who’s telling them. I remember getting my ten-year-old mind blown by a collection of (in retrospect, deeply unsubtle) “feminist fairy tales” from the late ’70s, years before I discovered Angela Carter…
I don’t know that I have a favorite, but one that I’ve always come back to (and am playing around with currently) is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which I first encountered in Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book and have since read at least thirty different versions of. It has always seemed a strange, wandering mishmash of a story, with hints of Psyche and Eros and Beauty and the Beast, and full of the kind of symbolic fairy tale/myth objects I love: golden apples, spinning wheels, candle wax, snow…Plus a theme I keep returning to, for reasons not entirely clear: human to animal transformation.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
Emma Törzs: I am deep in edits for my debut novel, which will be out next summer with William Morrow. I was describing it as an “adult fantasy” until someone gently suggested I might be giving the wrong idea. A grown-up fantasy, then? I feel like “grown-up” is the least grown-up way to describe grown-ups.
Anyway, it is—to awkwardly quote the press material—about “two estranged sisters tasked with guarding their family’s collection of rare and dangerous magical books. When their father dies suddenly, they must work together to unravel the secrets their parents kept hidden from them—secrets that span centuries and continents…and even other libraries…”
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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