Saturday, April 20, 2019

Caroline Ratajski

It was really great to have Carrie on the show. I'd just seen her on the last Friday night when we both read at the inaugural meeting of the Parallel Lit SFF reading series, which meets in the East Bay (check out the link for details).

Carrie told us her favorite genre is atmospheric horror. She explained that she's not into blood and gore, or thrillers, but prefers the Shirley Jackson-style psychological and moody form of horror. She also said that she tries to end her work with hope when she can. She said her favorite part of writing is atmospheric description. She loves to "roll around in these delicious environments," such as the slow decay of an elaborate mansion.

Currently, Carrie is engaged in a novella project on Patreon, a horror retelling of The Secret Garden set in space. The main character in The Secret Garden is the sole survivor of a cholera epidemic; the main character of The Untended Rue is Lennox, the sole survivor of an outbreak of what amounts to space dysentery.

I asked Carrie about a reading she did at FogCon from this early section of the book, where she talked about the people going into the space station and discovering all the dead bodies. She explained there are so many ways to describe bodies. She's a huge fan of Caitlin Doughty, who runs the vlog "Ask a Mortician." Carrie describes her videos as wonderfully researched pieces about her work as a mortician, including mummification methods, and how people deal with the emotions of death across cultures. It turns out that the question "what is the oldest mummy" has quite a complex answer. It's also complex to determine who owns human remains after a certain period of time. Caitlin describes states of decomposition and gave Carrie the idea that dead bodies act like acids. A dead body left out can disintegrate and decay things around it. The stomach is full of hydrochloric acid which is contained by mucus and enzymes the body produces. When you die, the acid gets released and affects its surroundings.

Carrie told us she wanted to have a developed enough space environment but really concentrate on the messy human interaction that came with it. She spent time thinking about murder in space and what would happen in a space station. The materials used to make the space station might not hold up to having a body decompose, and you might learn an expensive lesson if a body decomposed while hidden and, for example, depressurized a part of your station.

Our discussant Kate found this particularly interesting and brought up the fact that the moon mission used ships like "tin foil." If you were to put a body closer to the outer skin of a ship or station, the evidence might freeze-dry.

We asked Carrie how she was approaching the social aspects of The Secret Garden. She said that she was focusing on the family situation specifically, and the metaphor of the garden left to rot being like the way grief causes harm when it goes unaddressed. The character of Mary, who is Lennox in the retelling, has a lot of angry frustration, and has to learn how to form connections with people. She does have a cousin who is believed to be ill. The character of Dickon in Carrie's novella is genderflipped and expanded to give her more layers.

I was quite fascinated with the form of translation that Carrie is using when moving from the original book to her altered retelling.

Carrie explained that in the original book, she felt Dickon came across as a concept or role, someone to show the way but who was not entirely grounded. Therefore she's working to make her new Dickon character more grounded. She wanted her to be on the space station for a reason, working on a garden of food intended to supplement more "modern methods" of providing station residents with lab-grown protein. The plants in the garden are also a wealth display, because algae or bacteria would be cheaper. Kat noted that this recreates the issue of socioeconomic disparity we see in the original book.

Carrie said she really doesn't want Dickon to be a "magical peasant." She described The Secret Garden as "baby's first gothic romance," with the isolated sprawling home on the moors. With the way that it's isolated, and the way you could get lost and even die if you were caught outside, it seemed to her a lot like a space station.

I asked Carrie what the seed of germination was for this story. She told us she started The Untended Rue for a very personal reason. She had had a fallow year during 2018 and didn't realize she was ill with Graves' disease, which has anxiety as a side effect, and she was feeling she was terrible at this. So now she's decided to go back to stories that she loves. She told us The Secret Garden was one of her favorites. "I did laps on that book." She would read to the end, flip it over and start again.

Carrie told us she wanted to have her story have the same heart of "pushing the boundaries of civilization" but leave behind the problems of the original. The space station Lennox lived on was out on the edge of occupied space, and people living there wanted to be on the edge and have a lavish lifestyle out in the darkness. Our discussant Kat thought this sounded like The Secret Garden meets The Masque of the Red Death.

Carrie told us that Edgar Allan Poe is definitely one of her influences, though she hasn't referenced him specifically.

She has been working on the character of Lennox's cousin, asking "How do I make this kid the brattiest kid alive but still redeemable?"

She says this story has allowed her to rediscover what she loves in writing, and the Patreon is a space where she can be a little more self-indulgent.

We asked how writing a chapter every two weeks for an audience affects her writing process. It does put certain limits on her. She can't revise anything that came before. She needs to give events a runway, wants to avoid writing a specific year when events occurred, etc. She has an outline, and she has an outline of how the characters should interact and grow over time. She also has a sense of how she wants the garden to develop, and what she wants the climax to look like.

Carrie described this as the "fanfic model of writing." She used to write fanfic, so it works for her. The response of the audience buoys her. She says this has all the advantages of fanfic, and also The Secret Garden is out of copyright, so that saves a lot of trouble. Patreon is a good vehicle for serial storytelling. Carrie said she wasn't reinventing anything. The original book was also a serial that was collected into a book. Carrie explained that she is not echoing the chapter structure, but following the narrative beats pretty closely. Lennox does meet her cousin in secret. She does have a somewhat combative relationship with her maid, though in the retelling, the maid is not Dickon's sister.

I asked whether Carrie had a sense of how long the whole story would end up being, and she said, "I always think things will be done faster than they are." Initially she was estimating 12-15 installments, but now she says she doesn't know how long it will take. So far, she's quite happy with the pace. When you work online, there's less of a limit on length.

Carrie has numerous other projects she works on, including game reviews. She wants to continue to revisit old stories looking for a new take. She also streams horror games. She told us that when she has to speak for hours at a time, she uses a carefully softened voice to protect her vocal cords. She uses past vocal training to protect her voice, and told us she's an engineer in her daily work so she doesn't talk much.

One piece of literature she really admires is House of Leaves. She told us how she loves the way it plays with structure, especially the labyrinth chapter, which sends you into a series of footnotes and endnotes (like a labyrinth) while the characters explore a labyrinth.

A lot of her writing lately is exploring issues of trauma and healing. Carrie said that  a lot of literature puts too much emphasis on the trauma part without giving space to the healing part. There is a way to cope. She wants to deal with all different kinds - death, being rejected for who you are, complicated grief and cross-generational grief.

It's always fun, she says, to ask "How spooky and decaying can I make this house?"

Carrie loves Star Wars because it has an environment that feels very lived-in. We speculated that she could start a new genre of gothic and decay in space, and she said "that would be lit." Kate suggested that's one of the things that makes The Expanse work, and Kat said it was why she forgave Firefly for its fail.

Carrie suggested that we have developed disillusionment in the idea of the bright gleaming future. We carry our same baggage as people, and that will always complicate things. Gadgets break. Why don't lightsabers or Star Trek message pads break?

Carrie says she often asks, How intensely realistic do I want to be? She thinks a lot about air circulation and waste management and other hidden topics. For things like faster-than-light travel, though, she handwaves so long as it doesn't break the story. She doesn't approve of swords that never chip, and appreciates the way Sansa in Game of Thrones is always thinking through how to feed an army and dragons.

Thank you so much, Carrie, for coming on the show and for this incredibly interesting and entertaining chat! Good luck with your projects. Thank you also to everyone who participated.




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