Kristiana Willsey is a writer and an academic who lives in Los Angeles. She is a 2019 graduate of Clarion West, and has published fiction in Uncanny Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and Air and Nothingness Press. She has a PhD in Folklore and teaches at the University of Southern California. “To Put Your Heart Into a White Deer” is her second appearance in Uncanny, with elements of folklore beautifully blended into a dystopian academic future.
Uncanny Magazine: “To Put Your Heart Into a White Deer” brings together a lot of fascinating ideas: fiction translated to code, corporate influences on academic research, a dystopian world. What was your starting point or inspiration for the story? What was your favorite part of writing it?
Kristiana Willsey: This was one of those stories you have to bleed out—I started writing it years ago, when I decided to stop applying to tenure-track jobs. I came back to it periodically and picked at it until it had a shape instead of just being a collection of grievances. Some of my favorite parts of the story are the throwaway details that are inside jokes with myself, like the workspace where the lights turn off automatically every 35 minutes. I stole that from a joint faculty office at a university where I used to adjunct. Being contingent is such ghost-work already, having to wave your arms to remind the building itself that you exist was too good of a metaphor not to use in a story. There are a lot of lines that are things people really said to me, like the idea that eloquence and rigor are somehow opposites, that good writing is an intellectual crutch or a trick. I think we underestimate the power of annoyance as inspiration. I also had a lot of fun imagining what disciplines would exist in a version of academia where all knowledge is (even more) generated by the logic of the market.
I always write myself as the villain, because I think starting with your own bad faith good intentions makes for the most believable antagonists. It’s a near-future dystopia, so I only had to imagine 30 years from now and think about who I might have to be to be successful in this world. I think there’s a lot of good intentions in the creeping corporatization of higher ed. I have so many feelings about recommending students to grad schools, for instance—how do you tell someone they’d be excellent at a job they’ll train for for 5–10 years and probably never get? A version of academia with full funding and employment, where work is measured in terms of its real-world applications, is very seductive! So much of academic governance is already a business, I can easily imagine a world where handing over the reins to corporate powers who want to run universities like think tanks would be the lesser of two evils.
Uncanny Magazine: What research did you do for this story? Was there anything particularly interesting that you weren’t able to include?
Kristiana Willsey: Not exactly research, but worldbuilding. I build the world out from the characters as needed, so the more my characters move around, the more the world comes into focus. Sometimes they brush up against some giant structural issue, and I panic and move them away, because I don’t have time to get into all that. So, there are things in this world I researched for myself but am carefully writing around, like the balkanization of the internet, the privatization of the military, the economics of techno-feudalism, and so on. When I’m tempted to infodump, I try to remember that the worldbuilding of the actual world is also pretty ad-hoc and full of contradictions.
Uncanny Magazine: I love stories that blend genres. “To Put Your Heart Into a White Deer” has an SFnal feel overall, but Elena’s major being in Arts and Literature brings in some fairy tale elements. Do you have a favorite folk or fairy tale? More generally, what are some of your literary influences?
Kristiana Willsey: I love Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Kelly Link, Kate Bernheimer, Ellen Datlow, and Terri Windling’s retellings anthologies—I used to haunt Heidi Anne Heiner’s SurLaLune message board in high school. Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose and Robin McKinley’s Deerskin were hugely formative books for me. My favorite fairy tale is 425A, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” because I never get tired of fantasy adventure romance. But I’ll also mention “Tatterhood,” (ATU 711, The Beautiful and the Ugly Twin) for the ending, when Tatterhood tells her reluctant husband that the goat she rides is a fine horse, that the wooden spoon she carries is a silver fan, that she’s not ugly but beautiful, and as she speaks, makes it so. It’s a sly celebration of the power of storytellers to rewrite reality.
What’s useful about fairy tales, artistically and psychologically, is that the surreal, otherworldly motifs give weight to wounds that would otherwise be so ordinary you’d never get anyone to care about them: my mother loved my sibling more than me, my spouse and I didn’t know each other enough before we married, we couldn’t have children. So, in the fairy tale, the mother’s neglect transforms the child into a hunted animal, the mysterious spouse becomes a literal monster, the couple finds a child made of snow or inside a peach. The storyteller has to use magic to make ordinary pain extraordinary, because from the inside there’s really no such thing as ordinary pain. A good translation isn’t always a faithful one. What I wanted to do with this story was to use genre conventions to make petty snubs and elitism and casual misogyny and toxic mentorship be literally world-ending, because that’s how they feel.
Uncanny Magazine: There’s a lot of interesting tech in this story: the experimental prototype, Elaine, with her near-indestructible silicose skin; lenses to access a wealth of information; self-healing retaining walls. If you could have one piece of tech from this world, what would you choose and why?
Kristiana Willsey: The tech I want, and think I shouldn’t have, is Elaine, which is why I wrote the story. I’ve always wanted to be a beautiful deathless cyborg. I want an assembly line body, ready-to-wear, a body I cannot be judged for managing or blamed for mismanaging. I think so much of academia is a fantasy about being a brain in a jar, this Cartesian hangover of the body as the source of deception and irrationality, sin and suffering. Even subfields that take the body seriously, phenomenology and affect studies and “the reflexive turn,” often feel to me like theorizing the body in order to apologize for having one. But all knowledge comes from bodies in the world, and I do not think that a world where it’s even easier to pretend it doesn’t would be a good world! So, fiction, to exorcise an ugly desire.
Uncanny Magazine: Did you know how the story would end when you started writing it?
Kristiana Willsey: The oldest and least revised parts of this story are the first page and the last. I usually know how my stories will begin and end—it’s the middles that take me forever. Writing is like building the tumblers of a lock, from the inside, by touch. I know what’s on the other side of the door (what I want the reader to feel and understand, the realization or revelation) and I know what the key looks like (the genre/world/characters), but the middle is just tinkering with the lock and trying the key, over and over.
One thing that did change in the very last pass was the title—all the time I was writing it I was using a quote from Paul Valéry, deliberately a bit dry and subtly barbed. But when I was trying to sharpen the connection between Elena’s betrayal of Elaine in the final scene, and her relationship with Celeste, I went back to my invented fairy tale and pulled that line forward, and it clicked in the lock so well I knew it needed to be the title too. A writing tip from studying fairy tales is that you can fake/find significance with repetition—if you aren’t sure what to do with a particular scene or line or motif, try repeating it three times.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
Kristiana Willsey: I have a (long suffering) novella project, a steampunk noir mash-up of The Big Sleep and Goblin Market called Honey to the Throat. It’s about a changeling detective, investigating two sisters whose secret is the key to solving the murder of his fairy double and taking back the life that was stolen from him. It’s a lot about family relationships: how we build our own identities around/in opposition to our siblings (or evil fairy doppelgangers), and what happens when we realize they aren’t who we imagined them.
And I have another novelette, a fabulist postapocalyptic fairy tale about a princess raised as a weapon, who treks through a magic-ravaged Southern California with five unlikely allies to overthrow her father. It’s a road trip-heist-buddy-tragedy about patriarchy and the slippery currencies of power, my spin on the tale type ATU 513A, The Extraordinary Companions, and my working title is “The Giant, the Child, the Cat, the Witch, the Soldier and Death.”
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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