Welcome to my virtual summer porch! There are even a few fireflies about. In other words, it’s a perfect night for a chat about all things writing. Christopher M. Cevasco was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his story “The Happy Island” now out in Corazon Books’ anthology, Distant Echoes. The anthology features selected Historical Novel Society Short Story Award winners and finalists from the past few years. To start things off, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly lifting Chris’s author bio!
Christopher M. Cevasco writes fiction inspired by history. Some of his most recent stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Space and Time, and the Prime Books anthologies Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War and Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages. He is seeking representation for a recently completed novel of murder and political mayhem in Viking-ravaged England as well as for both a psychological thriller about Lady Godiva and a novel of English resistance and rebellion in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest.
JCD: Congratulations on your inclusion in the Distant Echoes anthology! Care to give readers a hint of the sorts of stories they’ll find in the anthology’s pages? For those of us without a deep historical fiction background, what is the Historical Novel Society and how does it connect to your work in historical fiction?
CMC: First, thanks for inviting me to your virtual porch. The anthology features a wide range of stories exploring love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, the common thread among these stories is that they are all set in the historical past. My own story is set in early 19th-century Newfoundland, Canada, among the last surviving members of the indigenous Beothuk people. As for the Historical Novel Society, it’s a fantastic literary society devoted to promoting the enjoyment of historical fiction in all its forms. It puts out a print magazine that, among other things reviews newly released historical novels, holds annual conferences (alternating between North America and the United Kingdom each year and with an additional conference every two years in Australia), and maintains a dynamic website and social media presence. The society also sponsors periodic awards for original short historical fiction, and my story, “The Happy Island” was short-listed for the most recent award given at the 2016 HNS conference in Oxford, UK.
JCD: What was the inspiration for this particular story? Did you write it with the intent of entering the Historical Novel Society’s contest? What drew you to the time period and location of this particular story? Where you already familiar with the setting and time period or was deep research part of your process?
CMC: I was inspired by the true personal story of Shanawdithit, the last known living member of the Beothuk people. Although it ultimately contributed to their collective demise, her people remained fiercely true to their cultural ideals, passively and sometimes actively resisting assimilation in a way that helped preserve their historical legacy. Because of Shanawdithit’s own personal strengths and contributions, we know more about the Beothuk today than we do about many other indigenous North American cultures that went extinct after contact with Europeans or with other encroaching indigenous peoples. Before writing this story, I was already familiar with some indigenous Arctic cultures, particularly with the extinct Tuniit/Dorset people who thrived in Greenland and elsewhere before being displaced by the Inuit and to a lesser extent with the Sámi culture as it existed in northern Norway during the 11th century. I’ve written about both of those cultures before, but this was the first time I’d turned my attention to the Beothuk. I’d been fascinated by Shanawdithit for a long time and had been wanting to write a story about her, and the HNS contest seemed like a good excuse to do so!
JCD: You’ve published short fiction in horror/ dark fantasy magazines, science fiction magazines and historical fiction anthologies. What draws you to these various genres? How different do they feel to you? Do you know what type of genre you’ll be writing when you begin a new project? Is it a conscious choice?
CMC: I rarely set out to craft a story to fit a particular genre. More often than not, I’m drawn to history when I write, so frequently my stories are set in the past; I see historical fiction as an immersive way of falling through a window into another time and place–sort of like a written form of time travel. And most of the time I find my stories taking a decidedly dark or weird turn, such that when the story is finished it feels more like dark fantasy or horror than anything else. I think this is probably because to me–as with HP Lovecraft who was known to have said the same thing–I’m less drawn to the stories of people’s interaction with other people than I am to people’s interaction with some intangible force such as mortality or inner demons or spirituality (or the lack thereof). I’m interested in exploring characters who are struggling to find their own place in the world or who are undergoing a crisis of faith or conscience or who seek to reconcile themselves to seemingly overwhelming obstacles or crushing defeat or great loss. All or most of these subjects tend to get a bit dark. Which is not to say my stories don’t also feature hope or beauty or joy, but the end result is more likely to find a home in a venue publishing dark fiction.
JCD: You’ve written a few novels. How is that process different for you from that of writing short stories? What appeals to you about short fiction as a form?
CMC: The appeal of novel-writing is really all about breathing room–having the space as an author to explore longer or more complex character and plot arcs and to really immerse the reader in the setting so that the setting becomes almost like a character unto itself. My own personal writing style lends itself more to this form, I think. But I do also enjoy writing short stories, which requires a much more focused approach in which the same end result must be achieved through fewer and more subtle brush strokes–the trick is to figure out which brush strokes will work best to achieve whatever tone or idea or emotion you want the story to evoke. Working to get that just right is challenging but can also be very rewarding.
JCD: You have undergraduate degrees in both Medieval Studies and English, as well as a law degree. On your blog you describe your interest in history as having been with you from a very early age. When writing historical fiction how does your expertise come into play? What periods interest you the most?
CMC: I do draw upon my Medieval Studies degree somewhat, but most of what I know about history has been self-taught subsequent to college. All of my novels have been set in either 11th-century England, Normandy and Norway or in late 10th-century England. With my short fiction, I’ve also ranged farther afield, having written about Roman-occupied Britain in the first century, the Classic Mayan Era, the fourteenth century at the time of the Black Death, medieval Greenland, Hudson Bay in the early 20th-century, the U.S. Civil War, World War II, etc. My science fiction is, of course, all set in the future, but even those stories tend to have some element of history woven into them.
JCD: Your blog describes a childhood spent in rural New Jersey. How much have you traveled in your life? How have these travels affected your historical interests?
CMC: I’ve done a fair bit of traveling, mostly in Europe and Asia, and I was able to do on-site research for each of my novels at various sites throughout England. One place that ended up inspiring more stories than any other specific place I’ve ever been to is Orkney; with their rugged natural wonders and abundance of historical ruins ranging through virtually every period of history as far back as the Neolithic period, those islands led me to write three separate stories and also feature prominently in a couple of chapters in one of my novels. Most recently, this past summer, I visited Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and toured the extensive ruins of the cliff dwellings that were constructed there by the Ancestral Pueblo people, mostly in the 13th century. I was blown away by what I saw, and ever since have been itching to write a story inspired by those structures…
JCD: To wrap things up, what writing projects are you currently excited about? Do you have any new projects in the works?
CMC: I will probably write a short story or novelette about those cliff dwellings, as I mentioned. I’ve also recently begun working on a new novel that will go in a very different direction for me. It’s shaping up to be pure epic fantasy in a secondary world setting. I’ve always loved reading fantasy, and I’m having a lot of fun writing it!
JCD: Thanks so much for chatting with me on this lovely virtual evening!
To read Christopher’s work, order the Distant Echos anthology.
To find out more about Christopher, visit his website.