I met Cassandra Khaw at one of Unsung Stories’ splendid spoken word nights, where she was one of the writers reading their short works aloud. I was struck by the beauty of the language in the story, its unique imagery an the romanticism of its fantastical central relationship. She read this story just before the publication of her novella ‘Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef’. Just savour that title for a while, like a fine, blood-red wine. I did, and bought and enjoyed the novella.
Cassandra has kindly agreed to be a guest on my blog and is, indeed, the FIRST EVER ONE. It is a fittingly wise, wacky glimpse into her creative world and is one of my favourite posts so far.
Cassandra’s new book, ‘Hammer on Bone’, is out now. You can find a link to her website at the end of the post. Enjoy.
1. Cassandra, you’ve written a number of short stories for some of the biggest genre mags out there and at least two novellas. Which form are you most comfortable with?
Nonfiction. I’m still wrapping my mind around the idea of fiction, which surprised me by being an entirely different universe from journalistic work. Like a lot of people, I waltzed into the scene, thinking all my knowledge would carry over. Some of it did, obviously. I know how to arrange words in a pretty way. I am happy with murdering my darlings. I’ll even bury them myself. But at the same time, fiction caught me off-guard by being so … visceral. Nonfiction writing only demands that you convey information clearly and eloquently. Fiction demands an incisive appreciation of the words themselves, a knowledge of the subconscious image you’re building. It’s different and I’m still feeling my way through.
2. Do you fancy writing a full-length novel at some point? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
I’m working on one right now, actually! Eight Hundred Names is an upcoming space opera that meshes a cold look at Malaysia’s political scene with uh, John Carpenter’s The Thing. Interpret that as you will.
3. Which do you find easier, commissions or work you originate yourself?
Commissions. Definitely. I enjoy operating within pre-set parameters. It’s comfortable. Which is why I’m galloping towards original work. Comfortable is lazy. Comfortable is the mind killer. Comfortable is – you get the picture.
4. Who are your favourite authors, and why?
Frances Hardinge tops that list easily. Because she’s the one who illustrated the precise beauty of words. I devoured every single book in her back list before going, “They’re all Middle-Grade!?” And was just astounded by her craft.
5. You mention a deep South-East Asian influence, which I’ve certainly enjoyed in your work. Can you tell us more about it?
Malaysia is, was, will always be a big part of me. I spent twenty-five years there, growing up on an agnostic diet of multicultural animism and science. It is gritty, urban, terrifying, harmonious, seething with political unrest, a place where everyone grows up with three languages on the tip of their tongues, their soul enriched by the cultures of their neighbours. It is bathed in problems, drowned in corruption and yet so very utterly beautiful. There are ghosts here. Everyone grows up with a story of a haunting, an anecdote about a friend who’d suffered from an encounter with an apparition. Yet at the same time, I don’t think I knew a single person in Malaysia who doesn’t believe in evolution unconditionally.
So yeah, that kind of thing just sticks with you.
6. Rupert Wong with its evocations of visceral horror in service to a supernatural world was very squishy. ‘Hammers on Bone’ sounds very crunchy. What’s that about then?
I grew up wanting to be a coroner or, someone involved with corpses. I don’t actually know why. I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that my parents exposed me to body horror at an uncomfortably young age. Consequently, I’ve always had a strong fascination with how we operate. If you think about it, we’re just miles of glistening offal and filaments of nerve, electrical impulses passing on secrets like children playing a game of Telephone. It delights me how all that can, you know, dream and hope and hate, can invent things like Pokemon.
7. ‘Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef’ and ‘Hammer on Bone’ feature male protagonists. Do you find writing male characters straightforward, or is it that the needs of the created worlds necessitate them?
I completely protest the idea that male characters are straightforward. We both know that men have as much emotional and cultural baggage as anyone else. But the short answer to that question is: the needs of the created worlds necessitated them. With Hammers on Bone, in particular, I wanted a traditional gumshoe so I could upend some of noir’s tropes. (If John Persons was a Johanna Persons, I suspect that it would be a very different book.)
8. Your characters are what could be called necessary outsiders: private detectives, supernatural bagmen; how do you relate to those characters?
I’m an unnecessary outsider too, albeit not in the same way. Over the last six or seven years, I’ve spent a lot of time on the road, never really settling in any country. A month, a few weeks, a year before I’m en-route somewhere else again. So, I can identify with that, with the sense of being close enough to normal, to having friends and routines, but never quite belonging. Because to dig roots into the world, you need time. And when you lack that, you become something of a ghost.
9. One of a number of moving elements in Rupert Wong’s story is his loving relationship with this undead wife and demonic child, all of whom live quite contentedly in an apartment. However, the family is under threat and Rupert’s investigation turns out to be a doomed family affair, while the stories of yours I’ve read are beautifully mournful elegies to a kind of hopeless love. Are you likely to write a happy ending?
First of all, thank you! That’s such a kind description. As for happy endings, the answer’s a triumphant yes. I think I’ve written a happy ending. One. For a novella that I sold to The Book Smugglers. It’s a paranormal rom-com with werebears, vampire roommates, billionaire fae, and queer women. Yes, I’m totally serious. Yes, it’s a thing. Why are you looking at me like that?