"River of Teeth" - Not Just a Place but a Point of View

Adrian Liang on September 06, 2017

River of Teeth by Sarah GaileyIn Sarah Gailey's novella River of Teeth, feral hippos make traversing America's southern swamp lands a perilous ordeal in the 1890s. Only the domesticated hippos ridden by Winslow Remington Houndstooth and his comrades have any chance, and that's just what Houndstooth is counting on when he takes on a shady job that will also inflict revenge for damage done in the past.

Here, Craft Sequence series author Max Gladstone asks Sarah Gailey about her unique vision of what-could-have-been and how she tries to be clear-eyed about historical realities.

From the opening of River of Teeth:

Winslow Remington Houndstooth was not a hero.

There was nothing in him that cried out for justice or fame. He did not wear a white hat—he preferred his grey one, which didn’t show the bloodstains. He could have been a hero, had he been properly motivated, but there were pressing matters at hand. There were fortunes to be snatched from the jaws of fate. There were hors d’oeuvres like the fine-boned man in front of him, ripe for the plucking. There was swift vengeance to be inflicted on those who would interfere with his ambitions. There was Ruby.


Max Gladstone: Don’t grey hats also show blood pretty well? Maybe it’s a dark grey.

Sarah Gailey: Is your blood not grey? I thought most blood was grey. Anyway, I’m talking about bloodstains, which everyone knows fade to a pale nicotine-brown with time, exposure to sweat and sunlight, and weathering. No offense, but your question makes me think that maybe you’ve never gotten blood on your hat, Max.

Gladstone: I tend to dry-clean hats after the thing with the blood. Which, admittedly, limits certain sorts of activity to within reasonable distance of reliable dry-cleaners. I’ll have to look into this dark grey situation.

Gailey: You could also hire a dry-cleaner to follow you around, although that would admittedly make stealth blood-activities challenging. Follow your star.

Gladstone: On a related note: how bad of an idea is hippo ranching, on a scale from one to two tons of galloping river death monster?

Gailey: If you’re a hippo, it’s an AWESOME idea. If you are any kind of creature that wants to boss a hippo around, it’s a TERRIBLE idea.

Sarah Gailey_300

Gladstone: You’ve written powerfully for Tor.com, and elsewhere, about received, textbook history as a form of “alternate history” in itself—a story in which enlightenment values progress forward and outward, and genocide, racial prejudice, and sexual exploitation are historical, resolved issues. Do you see yourself as writing against that narrative of inevitability?

Gailey: I see myself as slowly trying to peel the layers of that narrative off my eyes so I can see real stories. The process of being educated in our “everything is fine” society is like building a baklava, with absurdly thin lies pressed one over the other to form a dense and many-layered pastry that’s sweet, sweet, too sweet to stomach. Every time that I think I’ve peeled all the layers back and am finally  seeing clearly, I discover that no, another layer is still there, obfuscating my view. My writing attempts to write what’s behind the “everything is fine”—not stories that oppose the idea of “fine,” not stories that insist upon not-fine, but stories that reflect something truer and more real than “fine.”

Gladstone: History is like an onion: you start peeling back layers, and then your eyes hurt, and then you’re crying, and somehow you have a knife, and perhaps we should move on from this analogy?


Gladstone: You have burst onto the science fiction and fantasy publishing scene in the last year and a half, garnering praise for nonfiction and short fiction, and a Campbell Award nomination. Congratulations! And: how does it feel to have everything start to happen at once?

Gailey: Thanks! It feels like <throat opens and screams pour out like lo the very waters of death>! But it’s also fun. Every day is a surprise right now.

Gladstone: I’ve found that constantly running around as if Adremalech, President of the Senate of All Demons, is hungry for your shadow, gives one the right motivation. And on the plus side, if Adremalech, President of the Senate of All Demons, really is after you, you’ve lost nothing! Not that that’s ever happened to me of course. Speaking of which, how do you feel about lunar eclipses?

Gailey: I love the way they make me feel, but hate the things they make me do.

Gladstone: Do you think writing has a purpose? More directly: do you think your writing has a purpose? (Or a set of purposes?)

Gailey: I primarily write to fulfill a bargain I made with a woman I met in a cave near the sea. She told me that if I wrote down all of the things that she whispered into my ear, I would be allowed to live, but that if I failed to write any of the things, I would be bound to return to her within four years of our meeting so that she could eat my skin and drink my cerebrospinal fluid. So far, I’m keeping just ahead of her. The trouble is that she just keeps whispering. No matter how far from her I flee, no matter how loudly I play music, no matter what I use to stop my ears—I hear her, not with my ears but with my soul, and so I must write.

Writing at large, I assume, holds all the women in caves by the sea where they are. For now.

Gladstone: Speaking of women in caves, have you ever heard Townes Van Zandt’s "The Hole"?

Gailey: A lot of people don’t know this about me, but Towne Van Zandt is actually my middle name. I’m not saying I use it as a pseudonym or a stage name, but I’m also not not saying that.

Gladstone: Here’s to keeping the caves sealed, anyway—until the time comes for the women to stride forth.

Gailey: It shall be a glorious and terrible day, Max, and I will not invite anyone to hide with me in my cave-woman-proof bunker unless they’ve read River of Teeth.

Gladstone: What piece of writing advice do you feel you’ve most had to outgrow?

Gailey: “Show, don’t tell.” This is a piece of advice that I needed early on and that a lot of people need and that has its uses! But also, it’s a piece of advice that relies on two things. (1) Everyone has to be on the same page about the status quo; and (2) the reader has to want to see the same things that the writer wants them to see.

Gladstone: Those are great points! Can you expand on them a little?

Gailey: Namrata Podar wrote a great piece on this idea for LitHub—that “show don’t tell” exists for people who are nodding along with an outdated narrative. I mean, I run into this just about every time I write nonwhite characters. As someone who was raised with the idea that the best way to be antiracist is to pretend that racial differences and divisions don’t exist, it goes against my instincts to name a character’s race outright in the text. As someone who grew up reading lots of characters’ races hinted at by references to skin tone, eye shape, and hair texture, it feels like bad craft to tell a character’s race instead of trying to show it. This became much less challenging when someone pointed out to me that lots of people will bend over backwards to assume that a character is white. And it’s true. You have to shout it into their ear canals: THIS CHARACTER IS NOT WHITE! And still, sometimes they decide to read what they want to read, which is “everyone is white.” Obviously race isn’t the only way that “show, don’t tell” falls apart, but it’s a big one. I’m still learning (and still getting comfortable with) the idea that you can “show” things that fit with a historical narrative of everyone being and looking and acting a certain way—but you have to “tell” things that even slightly disagree with that narrative.

Lightning Round:

Gladstone: Are there hats?

Gailey: No. There are no hats, nor have there even been hats, nor will there ever be hats. What you think of as a hat is nothing more than a subconscious extension of your mind’s desire for camouflage. When you think you have seen a hat, you have in fact merely seen the truth: that others are more concealed than you are, and with greater flourishes. Do not fear your hatlessness; fear only the hats of others.

Gladstone: Best mode of bloodletting?

Gailey: Severe application of the serrated edge of a frog.

Gladstone: Most apposite seasoning?

Gailey: The tears of a man who was once certain of his marrow but who has recently been forced to face truths about the universe that he was ill-prepared to hear. Or nutmeg! I use it in meatballs and people are always pleasantly surprised.

Gladstone: Shot put, hammer throw, or javelin?

Gailey: I already ate, but thank you for offering.

Gladstone: Sour beer.

Gailey: How dare you.

Gladstone: Four to seven words that will freeze a river in summer?

Gailey: “Your deadline is coming up soon”

Gladstone: Favorite major arcana?

Gailey: The Hanged Man always reminds me of soothing bedtime stories from when I was a kid.

Gladstone: Tastiest snake?

Gailey: MAN.

Gladstone: What quality do ohms measure?

Gailey: <raises fist> Resistance.


The second volume of Gailey's series, Taste of Marrow, releases on September 12.


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