5 min read

Letter of News: Columns of Witches Dressed as People

Close up on a pinecone ornament dangling from a bare branch on a bright sunny day against a snowy background.
This pinecone is like my body inasmuch as today the sun touched it.

Dear friends,

February's felt uncharacteristically long, and I think it's mostly been the snow. But today the sun touched my body and I briefly came into ecstatic, feral life, so here's a newsletter before I succumb again to torpor.

I paused to fact-check myself before continuing, and must grudgingly report that in January Ottawa had both more snowfall and more snow days, but what can I say: February still felt longer, and more immuring. Maybe because in January I was sick and in February I was better, and the desire to leave home and venture towards rivers and trees and birds was stronger? Maybe because so much of what I had to defer in January accumulated, snow-like, in February, and I've been shovelling my way out of more work than I expected? Or maybe because the month has been such a yo-yo, having both the hottest February day on record and the coldest, within about a week of each other, and I keep reading calamity in the weather, and hearing Florence Welch sing what if one day there's no such thing as snow?

Winter aside, though, I have some cool things to share and some lovely things to look forward to.

First: I have a new column up at the New York Times Book Review, in which I cover Frances Hardinge's Unraveller, Annalee Newitz' The Terraformers, and Freya Marske's A Restless Truth. (That's a gift link, so anyone should be able to access it.)

Second: I saw Dressed As People! While dressed as a person!

The empty stage for DRESSED AS PEOPLE: AN UNCANNY TRIPTYCH. The stage is lit in cool blues and set with three minimalist stations for each monologue, each marked out by an outfit hung from the ceiling. To the far left is a modest shirt and cardigan next to a stool; in the middle is a fur-lined cloak atop a stool wrapped in brambles next to a bottle of wine; to the right is a snazzy short-sleeved button-up shirt with tie, over a stool set with glasses and a water bottle.
Photo by Kelly Robson

In 2021, my dear friend Margo MacDonald invited Kelly Robson, A. M. Dellamonica and me to each write her a monologue on the theme of "uncanny abduction." We did, and the result became Dressed as People: A Triptych of Uncanny Abduction. It debuted during Ottawa's virtual Fringe Festival, where it took home the Audience Choice & Outstanding Solo Performance awards, but this year it's getting tangibly staged twice, and the first set of shows took place during Ottawa's Undercurrents festival last week: directed by Mary Ellis as before, but this time with sound design by Alli Harris and lighting design by Laura Wheeler.

I caught it on closing night and it was, frankly, a triumph. I fully expected Margo to be mesmerizing and to blow me away, because I've been watching her perform for just over 20 years; what I didn't know how to expect was the dimension and texture added by the set and sound and light design, how it would feel to get to see these pieces take up space. My sister described experiencing Kelly Robson's devastating "Skinless" as "a dull ache" in her heart; A. M. Dellamonica's "Repositioning" had us roaring with laughter and then going suddenly, tensely quiet with every almost-revelation.

My piece, titled "The Shape of My Teeth," was between them, and despite having heard Kelly's name announced with her piece before Margo began performing, I was completely unprepared for hearing my own name spoken over the sound system. It was the first of several knocks at my heart; at one point I found myself leaning forward, mouth open, tearing up, unable to believe that I'd written anything of what Margo was saying, because surely if I had it couldn't affect me like this, but I had, and it was, and that's theatre.

The audience that night sounded so young and so passionate and so queer. People came up to us afterwards to talk about the pieces and how much they loved them, and I felt like some dark, dusty room inside my body had lit up – dimly, the bulb flickering and confused, but still showing the contours of the space in which I used to talk about art and life and love in crowds of people, filling each other up with excitement and joy and gratitude and the terror and relief of being seen.

I really wasn't planning on going to see it in Toronto, but now I must. At least once. You can too, if you want: it's playing at the Red Sandcastle Theatre from March 7-18. Tell your friends, plan your journeys! I'll be doing the same – I just want to be in this photo again.

Selfie with my friends, in black and white. Clockwise from left: Margo MacDonald, me, A. M. Dellamonica, Kelly Robson, V. W. Titus
Clockwise from left: Margo MacDonald (performer), A. M. Dellamonica, Kelly Robson, V. W. Titus, and me in the centre.

Third: The Book of Witches!

Selfie in which I'm holding up my advanced reading copy of THE BOOK OF WITCHES while grinning widely.
Close up on the cover of THE BOOK OF WITCHES, edited by Jonathan Strahan, held up in my hand. The illustration by Alyssa Winans depicts a stylized witch presiding over a bubbling cauldron in a clearing in the woods, all drawn in a slender, spooky cartoonish style in purples and acidic greens; the woods in the foreground look like slender-fingered hands reaching towards the central figure, whose own hands hover over the cauldron, from which a wispy green glow emanates, framing her.

I received my advance reader's copy of The Book of Witches, an exciting anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan and illustrated by Alyssa Winans, with a table of contents that makes me want to drop everything and just curl up with it for a weekend. My own contribution is called "John Hollowback and the Witch."

I've mentioned in previous letters that this story broke a short fiction dry spell of a few years' length – the last one before this being "Florilegia: or, Some Lies About Flowers," which came out in an anthology called The Mythic Dream (2019) – and I had quite a hard time writing it:

Anyway after a Bold Edit courtesy of my beloved C. S. E. Cooney, and after taking my own oft-cited advice and reading the whole thing out loud, things clicked, got fixed, and I'm very happy with it. Here's the first page:

First page of my story. It reads as follows: The witch had no name that he knew. John Hollowback found her house at the far end of a fallow field, browning with the fall: a small cottage of wattle and daub, with a thatched roof and a smoking chimney, nestled up against a forest of birch, poplar, and pine. He could see a well nearby, a tidy garden, and a store of seasoned wood stacked against the eastern wall. It was a pretty place. He thought perhaps he was mistaken; it did not look like the home of a witch. Still, he walked to the door and knocked three times. The woman who answered was most certainly a witch. Her hair was dark, greasy, wisped in grey and falling messily out of a loose top knot; her skin was sun-browned and crinkled around her eyes, which were a strange, flashing blue. She did not look very old, but was hideous enough to be recognisable as one who practiced magic. “What do you want?” Her voice was low, but clear. “I want a whole back, instead of a hole in my back,” he said, firmly. She squinted at him, and gestured for him to turn around, poking at him curiously while he did.

The Book of Witches will be published on August 1, but you can pre-order it now!

Finally: welcome to new readers, and thanks so much for signing up to read these letters. This is the first one I've sent since redesigning the website, and I hope it's all working smoothly!

That said – since I have this whole beautiful ARC to explore, and a brand new comment section to break in, why don't we play a game: leave a comment naming your favourite witch, and I'll randomly pair you with a story from the anthology, and share its title and first line with you. Good for up to 29 comments!

Thanks again for reading, friends.

Wishing you all good things in the week to come,


PS: Next letter will be a bit different – an edited transcript of a keynote talk I gave in November. It's about birds. Most things in this newsletter are, as it turns out.