Kirsten Imani Kasai's new novel, Tattoo, was just one of the many, many advance reader copies sent to me by various publishers, and so it went on the huge pile of incoming books in the living room library. But when I did my periodic browse of forthcoming novels, I was flipping through Tattoo when I discovered that unlike many of its companions... I could not put it down. The author's voice was so utterly compelling and the style was stunningly unique: bold yet lush, muscular yet intricate and detailed, unafraid to change register and effect as necessary. When you discover that kind of writer, which happens only once every couple of years (if you're lucky), you're willing to follow them anywhere.
Where, exactly, will Tattoo, the sequel Kasai's prior novel Ice Song, take you? To "an environmentally fragile world where human and animal genes combine, the rarest mutation of all--the Trader--can instantly switch genders. One such Trader--female Sorykah--is battling her male alter, Soryk, for dominance and the right to live a full life. Sorykah has rescued her infant twins from mad Matuk the Collector. Her children are safe. Her journey, she believes, is over, but Matuk's death has unleashed darker, more evil forces. Those forces--led by the Collector's son--cast nets that stretch from the glittering capital of Neubonne to the murky depths below the frozen Sigue, where the ink of octameroons is harvested to make addictive, aphrodisiac tattoos. Bitter enemies trapped within a single skin, Sorykah and Soryk are soon drawn into a sinister web of death and deceit."
Tattoo might have come into the house with an unassuming title and a standard unassuming advance reading copy cover, but it's entirely a mimic in that regard: this is unique stuff, and powerful in all senses of the word. You can also buy an enhanced e-book of Tattoo that contains four bonus short stories related to the series. Recently, I checked in with Kasai via email to ask her about her writing and the new novel.
Amazon.com: Can you tell Amazon readers where you are while answering these questions?
Kirsten Imani Kasai: Sitting in bed, eating chocolate chip cookies I just took out of the oven and drinking tawny port. Listening to Harold Budd & Brian Eno's The Plateaux of Mirror--my go-to thinking/writing music and vaguely hoping one of my friends will text to see if I want to go out. My seven-year-old son is asleep next to me. He was worried about having nightmares and when I asked him to explain what he was afraid of, he replied, "It's complicated!"
Amazon.com: The list of your general influences on your blog is amazing, everything from Angela Carter to Octavia Butler and beyond. But what influences on this series do you think readers might be surprised by?
Kasai: I have a wide and varied reading list, but some of the ingredients that went into Tattoo include Greek mythology, Dr. Jekyll & Mister Hyde, Edgar Allen Poe, "Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels," Dead Can Dance's "Severance" album, some of my dreams (the Jerushian church with dollhouse doors), my love of clackety old trains and fascination with purported aphrodisiacs/hallucinogens/remedies, such as absinthe and laudanum. There's a sorrowful nod to Mary Wollstonecraft in Tattoo, as well. I sometimes cast the characters. A young Robert Carlyle would be the perfect Plaid Lad, with Sophie Okonedo as Jandi. And the somatic bombmaker Tjaler looks a bit like Steven Tyler!
Amazon.com: Can you give us a glimpse into your writing process. How, when, where? Do you outline? Do you write all the way to the end and then revise, or"¦?
Kasai: I take dictation! I "watch" the movie of the story as it unfolds in my head and write down what I see. Ideas seed themselves in my brain and germinate, or aggregate, really, over time. Storylines accumulate heft and complexity from the news, nature, science & history programs, etc. I generally have a sense of where we're going but the characters often surprise me or make choices I don't agree with. I write all the way to the end as a willing co-conspirator, then don my editorial hat and go back for rounds of revisions. I can't outline, but Larry Brooks' Story Fix provides a scaffolding upon which to build, so I made a worksheet that helps me gets the basic plot points down. I write in the evenings at home and on the weekends for a couple of hours at Starbucks.
Amazon.com: The way things are said is clearly important to you. What's your personal relationship to words, in terms of your writing style?
Kasai: Mmm, I'm one of those word geeks! Prose is as musical as poetry, and has its own meter. There is definitely an element of composition to my work. I do like the specificity of certain words, as well as their sound or mouth-feel.
Amazon.com: What kinds of things make you want to toss a novel across the room, and what will make you forgive a novelist almost anything else?
Kasai: Boredom! If I find that I'm editing as I read, I usually chuck it.
Amazon.com: Several reviews of Ice Song focused on your treatment of gender issues, in part because the main character can change gender. Is this the focus you'd prefer? And is anything being missed or not picked up on as a result?
Kasai: Being a Trader is Sorykah's primary personal conflict, but in terms of overarching themes, I think the book is much more a story about parenting and motherhood. Every choice she makes is shaped by her relationship to her children. The gender thing tends to overshadow the essence of her difficulties, which is really about the commodification of women and the trauma of two separate people sharing one body and one mind--anima/animus.
Amazon.com: How is Tattoo a different book than Ice Song, thematically, stylistically, or any other way?
Kasai: Ice Song was deliberately designed to be a fairy tale (quest, obstacles, helpers), while Tattoo is more adventurous and less structured. The pacing is faster & the sentences tend to be shorter. It's also more external and much of it takes place in urban environments.
Amazon.com: Sorykah has already gone through a lot by the time Tattoo begins. How has she changed or not changed, and how does that affect her decisions in the new novel?
Kasai: She begins Tattoo with a new, if tremulous, sense of personal power. She becomes proactive, rather than reactive, and comes out of her shell a bit due to the various awakenings she's experienced (literally) at the hands of Sidra and Chen. In Tattoo, Sorykah's story is one of self-acceptance, evolution and discovery. She's coming rather late to the grown-up table.
Amazon.com: Sometimes readers don't see SF and fantasy as being autobiographical, even though it often is. What about Tattoo is either overtly or secretly autobiographical, if transformed?
Kasai: I like to think that my writing really has nothing to do with me, but I'm sure that people who know me well will recognize that I'm totally working out my sh-- on the page!
Amazon.com: Tattoo features powerful, complex writing and characters. What was hardest part of getting it right?
Kasai: Letting them suffer! It was hard to frog-march them down these difficult roads. I think of them as real people. Sometimes I just wanted to give them a cuddle and say, "My poor darling! I'm so sorry this is happening to you!"
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Kasai: The Book of Blood Magic. It's a Gothic horror novel about voodoo, a time-traveling succubus and the Creole plantation owner she bedevils into an asylum. Loads of sex & gore! Hooray! There's also more to Sorykah's story, and we follow little Tezsla as she matures, grows into her rightful role and works to unify an increasingly fractured country. Hopefully, Tattoo will do really well so the next book/s will get picked up!
Amazon.com: And, finally, is there an issue related to writing that's been worrying at you lately, and if so do you mind sharing your thoughts about it?
Kasai: I'm steeling myself to run the gauntlet of reader and critical reviews. It's like standing in the town square stocks and taking tomatoes in the face. The compliments from readers who really connect with the story are as delicious as summer peaches but I have to be careful and protect myself from too much exposure to the snark arena ('net). Those anonymous little digs eat away at my confidence and suck the joy from writing. Luckily I've been through it before and know what to expect. It's just another opportunity to practice Zen detachment and strengthen my resolve. Ain't gonna let no joy-suckers steal my fun!