How to Start a Coven: An Interview with Author Deirdre Danklin

By Corinne Shearer

How to Start a Coven: An Interview with Author Deirdre Danklin By Corinne Shearer

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Corinne Shearer: Hi, my name is Corinne. I am the book review editor for OyeDrum Magazine. I am on the line with Deirdre Danklin, who is the author of How to Start a Coven. How are you, Deirdre?

Deirdre Danklin: Hi, I’m doing well.

CS: Great. So I thought we would start with a short reading from you to get sort of the flavor of the work we’re going to talk about.

DD: Okay, great. Yeah, I thought I’d start with just the title story of my chapbook, How to Start a Coven. It’s pretty short because these are all flash fiction pieces. So I’ll just read the whole thing if that’s okay with you.

CS: Yeah, Great.

DD: Okay, “How to Start a Coven:”
Try to get a friend who has a view of a cemetery from her apartment. Remark upon it every time you go over. Notice the play of pink sunset on the tooth white gravestone standing silent sentinel on an ancient pagan hill.

Say, “we should start a band.” Get shut down because everyone wants to sing but no one knows how to play guitar.

Accumulate friends who remind you of animals, whose hair grows faster than a corpse’s, who validate your moods by wearing black and nodding in agreement when you plot murder.
Say, “we should sew our limbs together and travel the country as a wandering attraction voicing prophecies at 20 bucks a pop.” Get shot down because one of your friends is married and can’t fuse into a mythical woman beast with the rest of you.

Gather at the apartment across from the cemetery to complain about the men in your lives. Watch three crows fight over a raccoon carcass as a mist and shadow moves over the moon. Watch your friends stir soup on the stovetop and think the words: hearty, helpful, homey, safe.

Say, “maybe we should start a podcast?” Get shot down because they are afraid that, after a while, their voices would melt together and sound with the echoes of bottomless
underwater caverns.

Go home alone and stand in silence, waiting for a revelation. Have a dream about an open window and the howling of wolves. Feel the boundless void around your soul, cold, reaching for you. Touch it when it asks you to and fill it with thoughts of soup. Wake up and text your friends, “we should start a coven.”
Wait for the rest of them to wake up. Sit on the cold metal of your fire escape stairs and think that a cemetery is a better view than a brick wall. Climb the iron ladder to the low-slung roof of your row house and watch the sunrise over your street. Feel something in the air like the howling of wolves; hear the mechanical voice of the bus say, “pedestrians, bus is turning,” and feel grateful for the warning. Check your phone as the sun makes the white roof orange. Your friends are talking, each disembodied in their own little boxes, gray, blue, pink, green.

“We could have a potluck at my place,” your friend who lives across from the cemetery says. Hear the birds shake and tweet themselves awake, hear your neighbor argue with the man on the phone.

Say, “maybe we should start our own planet.”

Say, “maybe, before it’s ruined, we should get into a silver spaceship and shoot ourselves into the black void of space, wheeling among the burning stars.”

See the neighbor’s cat stretch and yawn on its porch and feel a deep kinship with its fur and whiskers and pink triangle mouth.

“We could be a space coven,” your friend who is married writes, “and we’d be safe out there.”
Climb down off of the roof. Re-enter your kitchen at the start of a new day. Drink coffee, brush your hair, answer a few emails while a siren wails and starts the neighbor’s pitbull barking.

Put on a blazer to mask your lack of confidence. Walk out your front door thinking, “space coven, space coven,” with every footfall until it becomes the meter in which your life is lived. Never start a band, join the circus, found a podcast, or go to space. Feel the disembodied voices of your friends as their messages land in your pocket. Space coven, one step. Space coven, wait at the light. Space coven. The words are enough to carry you through the day.

CS: That was wonderful. Thank you so much.

DD: Yeah, no problem.

CS: Welcome to you to our coven, of course.

DD: Yay, wonderful.

CS: So, my first question is where does your interest in the occult, the mystical, the
otherworldly, those kinds of things come from? Do you feel like this interest permeates other aspects of your life?

DD: Yeah, everybody or every girl I knew anyway in middle school went through a witch phase. I don’t know if that was true in your life or not. It might be because I went to Catholic school in particular, which is very incense-heavy and like, you know, watch out for demonic possession sort of thing. But I was always very aware of the witch as an archetype while growing up, being like, you know, what would be really cool is if I had magical powers and was able to circumnavigate the helplessness that comes with being a young woman. So then when I got older, I never really shook my witch phase. I read a lot of books about witch trials. I know a lot about the history of, you know, women’s health care and how that was dismantled and things like that. And then just recently, when I was in grad school, which is when this story, “How to Start a Coven” was written. The witch aesthetic was like a really big thing. I don’t know. I don’t have Instagram, but
like Instagram witches were a really big thing. And they started being very popular. And so then I became one of those annoying people who was like, ‘I liked this before it was popular.’ I was the one with all my friends who was like, ‘actually, the history of covens is this… And did you know that Wicca was invented by a man in the 60s and whatever, whatever…’ So they were like, ‘okay, Deirdre, we can start a coven.’ I had three really close friends in my grad school program because they only let in four students per year and we were all women around the same age. So we all got really close. And it was just really helpful to have that support in grad school and to have a close group of girlfriends. And I think the coven and the witch aesthetic, and the history of female solidarity and female friendship was just a really useful language for expressing how I felt about those sorts of relationships in my life, if that makes sense.

CS: Yeah, no, I love that. Talking about your grad school experience, I’d like to ask you a craft question.

DD: Yeah, sure.

CS: Most of the pieces here are really short– I see them as flash fiction pieces, I don’t know if you’re thinking of them that way. I wonder if this length of piece is kind of typical for your work or did you specifically make the choice to create a collection of short pieces?

DD: Yeah, flash fiction was definitely a deliberate choice that I made for each of these pieces when they were originally published. There are lots and lots of magazines online and in the writing community that feature flash fiction pieces. They’re really easy to read quickly on your phone, right? That sort of thing. So they kind of reach people where they are. And they have a lot of room for craft stuff that longer short stories don’t, right? You can take more risks in a shorter piece because your reader only has to go with you for 500 words instead of 4,000 words, right? You don’t have to sustain an extended metaphor for 20 pages. You can sustain it for like 450 words. Then your readers can be more impacted by that. So it’s definitely a form I was interested in playing with and in publishing. And then once I had a fair number of flash fiction pieces that had been published and had won awards, and been on lists, and stuff like that, there was the literary press, Variant Lit, who published this chapbook, who mostly did poetry – poetry chapbooks – but was interested in expanding to flash fiction as well as poetry. So, I reached out to them and I had enough pieces and they said, ‘yeah, this looks good.’ This looks like something we’d be interested in publishing. So I compiled all of my published pieces for them and then they are the ones that put it together and published it.

CS: Cool. I’m hearing you talk about your readership, maybe thinking of potential readers. Who do you see as your audience? Who are you writing for?

DD: Yeah, I mean, I am writing for anyone who likes flash fiction that has magic in it, right? Some people don’t like speculative work and that’s totally fine. I get you, but
then you’re not my reader, right? And somebody who has time for a little bit of art every day, right? Like, I’m really busy too. I have a three-month-old baby, I have to teach classes– like we’re all very busy, but if you can sit down and read a little bit every day, right? Flash fiction is really good for that because it’s so short. Then you get your little shot of art in the morning before you go and take care of everyone else.

CS: I really like that idea. That’s a nice sentiment. It really seems like the magic aspect is really tied to your notions of art and what those things can do. To me, this collection really feels like it’s leaning into the magical realism genre. Are you aware of this tradition? Are you intentionally writing into it? Who or what influenced your writing?

DD: Yeah, absolutely. I am really familiar with magical realism, specifically as an art movement that came out of Latin America, right? And Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the archetypical guy we think of when we think of magical realism. That’s not 100% my tradition, obviously, because I’m not from Latin America. I’m not writing in that very specific tradition, but I do enjoy cross-genre, hybrid, and speculative work as well. I’m half Irish, half Jewish, so I come from two traditions with a lot of folklore and magic in there. So we’ve got fairies and golems and things like that that I was always interested in, and was raised on fairy tales. So I would say that folklore had a big influence on me when I was growing up. You know, my name is Deirdre. That’s this tragic queen of Irish history, who I always thought was really cool, and she dies really tragically and there’s lots of magic and interesting stuff happening in her story, so that was kind of my gateway into folklore and oral traditions in that way. And it was always interesting to me that most of the time the oral traditions are kept alive by women, and fairy tales, and folklore, and things like that tend to be considered less literary or less important than your great novels of any different country, and in different traditions. But I always thought that they were more revelatory of the cultures that produced them than, perhaps, some of those big, old novels are.

CS: Yeah, maybe looking at the other component of the magical realism idea, the ordinary is very much a part of your collection. The everyday is what all this is rooted in. I’m thinking about, specifically, the one story, “Tortoises.” As much as I could not relate to your adoration for the cushioned toilet seat in that story, I really appreciated its significance: the way the ordinary, everyday, even silly things can carry real meaning and symbolize something much more. I’m wondering what are your feelings about the importance of writing about the ordinary or everyday?

DD: Yeah, that’s always very important to me because the ordinary and everyday is where we live. It’s where most people live. And I actually have gotten more vehement responses about “Tortoises” than any other story in this collection for sure. Just for people listening, it’s about a couple that goes to the Home Depot to get a new toilet seat and also they’re reincarnated giant Galapagos tortoises. It’s just about loving your husband essentially. It’s not really a complicated story, and nothing really big and exciting happens. They just go buy a toilet seat. That was just something that happened in my life. We lived in this crappy apartment and the toilet was too close to the sink and to the bathtub. When you would sit on it, the toilet seat would crack because there was no comfortable way of sitting on it. We went to the Home Depot and had to get a toilet seat. While I was there doing that with my husband, I was like, this is hilarious. This is the funniest errand I’ve ever had to run in my life. And also, what is magical about it? The magic in that moment is just the people that you live your life with, you love them in this transcendent way even when you’re doing really hilarious, silly errands. I brought in the idea of centuries-long reincarnated love that’s really heightened and then put it right next to shopping for a toilet seat, which is very low in diction and theme– and that contrast I really like to play with in a lot of the pieces in the collection.

CS: You know, I read How to Start a Coven a couple months before I actually returned to it and wrote these questions, and found that so many themes are really potent; I realized how many had stuck with me over that time–

DD: Oh, great.

CS: Yeah, that’s apparently one of the themes that’s been on my mind.

DD: People have an opinion about “Tortoises” for sure.

CS: That’s great. I want to turn to the story, “The Saddest Thing About Magic.” I’m just going to quote you a little bit from it: “[My friends] tell me that tarot is a metaphor like religion is a metaphor like capitalism is a metaphor like disease and love and childbirth and psychedelics are metaphors.” You go on to talk about the internal metaphors that we hold on to in order to, I think, give us some semblance of control over what you call “that dim horizon of reality.” You close out this moment of speculation by admitting that the saddest thing about magic is that it isn’t real. Can you elaborate on this idea of metaphor and also, in light of the kind of magic-infused stories you tell, what magic might do for us regardless?

DD: Yeah, I think that this story in particular came out of something that always happens to me, which is that I always pick the death card in tarot when I’m having brunch with my witchy friends and we’re doing our witchy stuff. They’re like, ‘let’s do tarot’ and I’m like, ‘no, I’m going to get the death card’ and they’re like, ‘no, you won’t. You don’t get it every time.’ And I literally do. Like, I absolutely do every time. I’m not exaggerating. And then they’re always shocked, and then they’re always scrambling to come up with a reason why it’s fine. They’re like, ‘oh, it’s not really death. It just means transformation is coming.’ And like, you know, ‘it’s fine, anyway…’ And this is us putting too much of our own meaning into the tarot spread. Like, obviously I’ve gotten the death card dozens of times now and I have not actually died yet, so that’s good. So I think it’s pretty clear that like it doesn’t exist literally in the way that we literally want it to, in the way that when you’re twelve and you join your first coven, you want desperately for your magical powers to be literally real, right? And then when you grow up, you realize that it’s not real in that way. Like you can’t actually tell the future through tarot cards. But the way that it is useful is that it can help you think about the world and organize your thoughts about your life and what you want in a way that uses metaphors, right? So if you get the death card and they’re like, ‘oh, a big transformation is coming in your life,’ then you can think about what in your life you would want to transform, right? And then that helps you think about your future and your goals and what you want to happen. And it’s not so much about it being literally real, or really predicting the future, but more about how it helps you think about your life. But it’s a little sad to me that it’s not literally real.

CS: Totally. Thinking about the future and goals, what are you working on right now?

DD: Well, right now I have a novella out on submission with some presses– so fingers crossed for me on that front. I have one novella actually published already with the Texas Review Press. It won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Here’s a plug: You can get it wherever books are sold. So I like that form too. It’s like flash fiction for novels because it’s just a short novel and you can really play with form and experiment. So, I have another one out on submission right now. It also has magic in it like mermaids, and fungus, and all kinds of crazy mushrooms, and stuff. And it’s about going through fertility treatments, and why you would want to create a family at the end of the world, because everyone’s very concerned about climate change. Like, I can’t go outside today in Baltimore because there are fires happening in Canada and there’s a code red air pollution warning, so I can’t leave the house today. And everyone’s like, ‘well, why would you have a baby if the world is burning down?’ And I wrote a novella to try to answer that question using the metaphors of magic and different speculative elements that I always use when I’m writing.

CS: Very nice. Alright, well, thank you so much. That concludes our interview.

DD: Excellent.

CS: Anything else we should know about how to find this chapbook or where to find more of your writing? How do we connect with you?

DD: Yeah, absolutely. I have a website that’s just which is my because I’m the only Deirdre Danklin in the world. So you can find me there. I’m also on Twitter, but Twitter is, like, on fire at the moment – like a total hellscape – it’s @DanklinDeirdre. If you figure out where we’re all going, because Twitter is sinking, let me know because right now everybody’s like signing up for all these different social medias. And I’m like, I just don’t have time to sign up for twelve. So if you figure out where we’re going, let me know and I will sign up.

CS: Yeah, I have similar questions, just trying to ride it out.

DD: Yes.

CS: Alright, thank you so much!

DD: Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to interview me, it was great.

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