Madeleine Sardina in conversation with DW McKinney
Madeleine Sardina is a writer of all things weird and magical. She’s been published in Psychopomp Magazine, Entropy, 45th Parallel, and elsewhere. She’s also the author of the fiction collection Lonely Creatures. She grew up in North Texas and can now be found in grainy photographs taken in the forests of Oregon or online @mgsardina.
Our Web Resident, DW McKinney, spoke with Sardina via email about her short story, “Permineralization” Read their conversation below.
How does your own life inform the stories you choose to write?
My life tends to bleed into the emotions of a story more than the plot. It’s difficult for me to separate whatever I’m feeling in the moment from what I’m writing, especially since I use writing to process a lot of emotions. Frequently I won’t even realize what I’m feeling until I reread a thing and I’m like, “Wow, am I really that angry right now?” That, and I always end up making everything gay.
What are recurring themes in your writing?
There’s a lot of loneliness and monstrosity. Lonely things trying to find or make themselves. On the other side of that, there’s also a lot of monsters looking at the monstrous parts of themselves and caring for them instead of turning away.
Let’s talk about “Permineralization.” It’s partly filtered through an archaeologic and geologic lens. Are these subjects that you are familiar with, say in your educational background? Ultimately, what is your research process like?
I have absolutely no educational background in archaeology or geology or any kind of science. I’m an English major through and through. Just a big fan! I find a lot of inspiration in nonfiction and because of that my research process is a bit backwards. I’ll read about something and then try to take all that new knowledge and write a story with it. At the time I started writing “Permineralization,” I had just finished reading Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould, so my brain was full of paleontological words. After I find a plot to work with whatever bonkers thing I’ve been obsessed with lately, it’s a lot of quick searches to get the details (what kind of tools does a paleontologist have in the field, what does a broken jaw look like, etc.).
“Permineralization” is the type of story that makes you grit your teeth, especially in the climactic scene because you’re not sure what is about to happen even though the opening scene indicates that something traumatic does happen. What inspired you to write this particular story?
I don’t often start off writing with an overall theme or even a plot. Usually it’s just one line or an idea like, “What if someone found some bones they weren’t supposed to find?” I’ll figure out the actual story I want to tell in the revision process. I wrote probably half a dozen drafts of this story exploring different relationships — a daughter finding her deceased father’s bones, someone finding their living mother’s bones, someone finding their abuser’s bones. I think I decided on the narrator finding their own bones because I wanted to tell a story about a type of forgiveness — not of a survivor forgiving their abuser, but of a survivor forgiving the person they were before the abuse, or during it. It can be very easy to think of all the things you could’ve done differently to avoid a traumatic experience, and in that way blame yourself. And of course reminding yourself it wasn’t your fault at all is important, but I think it can be just as important to forgive the version of yourself that you might blame.
It incorporates a slight thread of the strange and supernatural that is not fully explained. How do you balance explaining the magic in your story versus trusting it to come alive on its own and letting the reader infer whatever they want?
This is actually something I struggle with and it takes a lot of drafts and a lot of asking other people to read it and explain what they think is happening. If their interpretation doesn’t take away from the overall theme of the story, then I don’t sweat it too much. I tend to lean very heavily on the reader when it comes to magic. Especially with stories like “Permineralization,” which has some actual science that I needed to flub a little, it can get too bogged down in trying to explain everything. Like, it’s magical that the bones of recently living people would be fossilized, but it’s also magical that we would be able to test the DNA of fossilized bones at all! The line varies from story to story and learning where to draw it takes experimenting.
What do you see as the role of magic as a medium for transformation?
I think magic’s role is to show externally a change that’s happening inside. Probably when you see the words “magic” and “transformation” next to each other, most people’s minds go, “werewolf.” That’s what my brain does, at least. The full moon rises and forces some poor soul to become a big, sexy, violent animal. Maybe they struggle with this change, can’t handle the theft of their autonomy, can’t handle everyone seeing them as a monster because of preconceptions they have about very large canines. Maybe they think it’s cool as hell. Using magic to show that internal struggle or to bring an internal conflict into tangible reality forces the narrator to confront it in a way the reader gets to participate in.
“Permineralization” centers on abuse and its effects, but you write with an eye toward healing and empathy and without grossly traumatizing the reader. How do you tread the line of “first, do no harm” when writing human stories?
I think it comes down to balancing the action of a story and trusting the reader. I need the reader to know what’s happening but I don’t need to paint them a bloody picture. I can show a burst of violence and then cut to a quieter moment, or I can show the effects of abuse instead of showing the abuse itself and trust the reader to fill in the blanks. I also think the key part of this question is “human stories.” In stories with more fantastical monsters, I can go off with the violence, and probably should because the reader most likely can’t relate to whatever magical horror I’m trying to convey. But when I’m trying to tell a story about a person experiencing a trauma that real people experience all too often, there is absolutely no need for me to be explicit about it. The reader knows what’s happening. I feel like a lot of the time, creators feel the need to traumatize the audience to get them to empathize with a character, and I really just don’t think that’s necessary.
At the end, the main character handles the bones with gentleness. Given what trespasses in the story, do you think it would have been a different narrative if they instead smashed the bones?
I don’t think it would change the narrative, but it would’ve changed the emotional tone for sure. If only their treatment of the bones changed, it still would have been a story of overcoming abuse and a survivor finding themself on the other side. Certainly destroying something that reminds you of an abuser can be a form of catharsis. But I think smashing the bones would’ve shown the narrator at a different point in their recovery, or a narrator who is less compassionate towards the person they used to be.
What would you like readers to take from this story?
I don’t know if I want to tell readers what to get from this story! There’s a lot of feelings swirling around in it. I will say when I finished the final draft, it was a far more compassionate story than the first draft. I think if readers can come away with a little more tenderness towards themselves, that would be good.