After an embarrassing amount of fumbling over time zones and how to make a long-distance call from the States to Australia, I finally connected with the talented Dread Grace. We had an audio connection over Skype before the video cooperated; I was instantly charmed by her warm voice, enthusiasm and kindness. Have you ever heard someone before you saw them? In our world of internet dating and telecommuting, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced making a mental picture of someone based off their voice. When the Skype video suddenly popped on, revealing an author in her natural habitat, I nearly laughed aloud. She looks exactly as she sounded to me.
Right off the bat, I asked about her name. Grace laughed, no, it’s not her birth name, it’s a pen name. She explained that she’s a teacher and thought it might be best to keep these parts of her life separate- the woman who deals with students and parents, administration and bureaucracy, and the creative woman who writes bold, feminist stories rooted in ancient mythology. I can see where she’s coming from. Many creative people find themselves “sock puppet-ing” (pretending to be different people under different names or media accounts) to some extent or other in our bizarre age of online personas.
Grace sat at a table, surrounded by the semi-tidy chaos I’ve come to associate with imaginative coworkers and friends. Saying her home looked like that of a wizard or mad-scientist would be an exaggeration, but it’s the right archetype of décor and organization. Therefore, it didn’t come as a shock when she said she teaches science. A science teacher who writes urban fantasy rooted in mythology: that’s the one-line summary of the woman I came to know in our call.
I scribbled as fast as I could to capture her exact words, but my lack of technical savvy (I’m sure there could have been a way to capture the audio of that call) and terrible handwriting has since obliterated my ability to relay direct quotes as one should properly do in an interview.
We talked a little about mythology and world setting, about her latest work and current imaginings. When Grace mentioned that her work was feminist in nature, I nodded. Of course, it is. Women have been undervalued for far too long. Our characters have been helpmates or silent or submissive. We have been reduced to tropes of maid or whore, mother, witch or crone. We need feminist works. But are we really getting them? Far too often, I find modern feminism has a taste of anti-male, or that being a feminist is being indistinguishable from being male. At least in many novels, feminist characters are just as trope-ridden (if not more so) than their old-fashioned submissive archetypes. Then Dread Grace said something that really caught my attention: her feminist character is struggling with a miscarriage.
Now we’re getting somewhere. I was instantly hooked on this idea and wanted to read her work: a strong female lead who doesn’t ignore the fact that she has a reproductive system, and instead, her character is shaped by being feminine? Yes, that’s exactly the kind of feminist we need more of.
So where’s the mythology? Grace’s latest work-in-progress includes delightful, visionary and poignant story telling inspired by the Phoenix. Before our call, I was unaware that the idea of a self-resurrecting bird is near ubiquitous around global cultures. Grace lit up at that question: are there other phoenixes? Yes! So many stories, so many visions of flight and rebirth all over our world. And I have to tell you, this woman has really done her research. What followed was a fascinating education on a mythology I thought I already knew.
The most universal characteristics are those mentioned: it’s always a bird (usually with bright plumage) and has the ability or instinct to self-resurrect.
Most Western imagery of the phoenix is from Greek mythology. This bird is often depicted like a cross between and eagle and peacock, bearing feathers in red, orange and purple.
In Hindu stories, the phoenix (Garuda) is paired with the god Vishnu as his ride or chariot. Sometimes this phoenix is depicted as a creature part man-part bird.
The Chinese phoenix, the Feng-huang, is a truly immortal being representing completion. This bird is said to have contributed to the creation of the cosmos, along with the dragon, tortoise and quilin.
Perhaps equally as formative as the Greek stories are the Egyptian Benu interpretation of this archetype. Many people would recognize Egyptian inspired drawings or art of the phoenix as ‘how they imagine’ the mythic bird.
And that’s not all. The phoenix appears in Japan, Persian culture, Russia, and more.
Ever the science teacher, Dread Grace continued that she tries to root her fantasy and mythology to some analogous real-life phenomenon. As it turns out, there is a jelly fish with phoenix like characteristics; the moon jellyfish has the ability to age backwards and regenerate damaged tissue. Once I did more digging on the internet to learn about phoenixes, I appreciated the name of this jellyfish in a new way. Many phoenixes are associated with the moon, not the sun as I had initially assumed.
I felt we could chat all evening, but time was running short on my end. I had dinner to prepare and a child to care for while Grace was just starting her day in Australia. With profuse apologies for my own lack of scheduling prowess, we concluded our too-short call, and I looked over the conversation notes again. I admit it: when people find out that I’m an editor, they immediately want to tell me all about their book. Most of the time, the books do sound interesting and I can envision a market in which it would be successful (if it’s well written and edited). This time though, I personally wanted to pick up the book and read, I wanted to meet the characters she spoke of, and walk through the world she described.
It was with a bit of restraint that I didn’t email the next day to say “um…you’re writing, right? Right?! Finish that story!”
So how does the phoenix relate to nuanced, feminist, urban fantasy? Well…you’ll just have to keep up with Dread Grace to find out.