When the Mask Comes Off: An Interview with Steph Post




STEPH POST’S LATEST NOVEL, Miraculum, follows a traveling carnival during the 1920s, carefully — perhaps even tenderly — portraying the backstage lives of performers, freaks, and roustabouts alike. There’s an alligator lady and an ossified man, Russian acrobats and clowns. At the center of this serpentine tale is, appropriately, a tattooed snake charmer named Ruby who sees the truth of her role: “It wasn’t about darkness and light. It was about existing in both worlds and navigating the space between them.” Post also seems comfortable occupying the in-between and has been blurring genres since she first put pen to paper.

Post is the author of three previous novels, including Walk in the Fire, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. When she’s not combining Gothic fiction with noir or fantasy, she can be found shooting arrows, playing with her dogs, or tending to her fast-growing brood of chickens. We corresponded via email about the attraction of outcasts, the weakness of tricksters, and the drama of hens.

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ERICA WRIGHT: Early in Miraculum, Ruby believes that the purpose of life is to survive, “waking up each day and taking a breath and then fighting for that breath.” How did this theme of survival influence the novel?

STEPH POST: I think this line sums up a huge part of Ruby’s character. Ruby has had a tough, tough life on a lot of levels. She’s jaded, yes, and recognizes her limitations, but I wanted to make it clear that she has this grinding tenacity under the surface as well. She may not be the most optimistic person, but she’s fiercely clinging to what she has, what she has made for herself, which is also part of the survival theme. Bad things happen to her, but she always has agency, she always exercises her choices and dictates how she interacts with the world, even if her world is confined to the boundaries of a traveling carnival. She takes nothing for granted, but instead stubbornly claims whatever she can reach for. And she isn’t afraid to fight for it. I really do love this about her.

The world of this story is populated by outcasts, people who for one reason or another can’t live openly in the Deep South of the 1920s. What drew you to these characters?

I love writing about outsiders. I think every book I’ve written has a cast of misfits, trying to navigate a world that has largely tossed them aside. I wish I had a nice, succinct reason for why I’m drawn to these characters, but I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that in real life, these are my people. I’ve always felt a little on the fringe, sometimes dancing back and forth between two worlds. And, honestly, aren’t these characters the most interesting? With the Starlight Miraculum setting, I wanted to be able to let these outcasts roam. The carnival is their turf, a place with their rules, and there’s a clear demarcation between themselves and the “rubes” and “marks” they pander to. They have the power in the story, and I really wanted to play with how much they own that knowledge, but are still trapped by it as well.

You seem to like forgotten places as well as forgotten people in your work. What is it about a backwoods town that appeals to you?

I grew up in an area, and on a piece of land in particular, that felt out of time in some ways. As a kid, I dug up buried treasure from river pirates and played in an old sharecropper house. I was keenly aware of the land itself and what was underneath it — a Native American burial ground in one part, the ruins of a mining camp in another. I spent more time climbing trees, swimming in the river, and hiking through the swamp than hanging out at the mall. The ghosts haunting the landscape were real, whether as memories or apparitions. If I write about forgotten places now, it’s because I called one home in my formative years.

I’m not sure I’d even know how to write about the modern city, though I’ve lived in one since. I’m back to living out in the backwoods again, and I feel so much like I’ve returned to my roots. Writing about backwoods towns is what I do, because it’s what I know.

I love that, by the way, your phrasing of forgotten people and places. Though they seem like such different elements in my work, they really do come from the same place, don’t they? Perhaps I write about outsiders because I grew up in a place somewhat outside of time.

What was your research process like? Is Ruby based on a particular snake charmer?

I so wish I had some really interesting story to tell in answer to this question! I wish I could say that I apprenticed myself to a sword-swallower or spent a year tailing a carnival doing undercover research. But honestly, my research was confined mostly to books and documentaries. Ruby wasn’t based on any particular snake charmer, but I was fascinated by the research I did for her character. Some snake charmers were practically terrified of their own snakes. One woman I read about kept a sponge soaked in ether inside her costume to keep the snakes subdued. Yet another snake charmer, Damajanti with Barnum & Bailey, thought of the snakes as her pets. She bathed them every Saturday night and was careful to wrap them up in blankets.

You are pondering some pretty big questions in this novel, including what sort of person would choose mortality over immortality. Were you intimidated by the philosophical aspects of writing Miraculum?

I did some research on nihilism for Daniel’s character, but mostly I did my best to get inside his head, which, considering what he is, was a difficult prospect at first. I so wanted to tell this story of a human going up against a god and not with a magic stone or a flaming sword. Not with force, but with cunning. I wanted the human, Ruby, to try to trick the trickster, so I had to figure out what Daniel’s weakness could be. Considering he has all these powers, I had to figure out what was the one thing he didn’t have — mortality. So, I didn’t get too deep into the philosophy behind his desire, I just tried to work out as best I could what it would actually be like to be Daniel, a god, but one fated to live among humans.

The villain of the story regrets not leaving the carnival sooner, particularly because he finds it too “honest.” With all the tricks and costumes and performances, why is it honest?

When he joins the carnival as a geek, Daniel is able to peer behind the curtain and see past the shimmering facade that he encounters in the opening scene. He becomes one of workers “with it” (a term for being part of the carnival world) and is now on the opposite side of the line as the “rubes.” He sees the glamour removed, the makeup wiped off. He sees that it was all an act, whereas before he only knew it to be so. He sees that the carnival performers are just regular people, with ordinary cares and complaints. Instead of making them more approachable, or at least relatable, to one of us, Daniel finds himself even more distant from them. He is a being who thrives behind a mask. When that mask comes off for the crew of the Starlight, and all the mystery is laid out plainly, he grows bored. Whereas most readers would love to see what happens behind the scenes in a show, Daniel wants to see only the masquerade.

Your Judah Cannon books have memorable female characters — my favorite being the terrifying, poison-happy preacher lady — but they are Judah’s stories ultimately. Did you make a conscious choice to write about a woman in Miraculum?

Yes and no. I actually wrote Miraculum between writing Lightwood and Walk in the Fire, the two Judah Cannon books, so I was flip-flopping back and forth between protagonists. I knew that after Lightwood, I wanted to write a story with a female lead for contrast, but I also just followed my instincts as the characters developed. I had Ruby and Daniel in my mind for a long time as this pair of perfect, dueling opposites and so I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

All of your books (so far) have at least a couple of snakes, and I know you live in Florida, so I have to ask — what’s your best, personal snake story?

Wow, you know, I need a really interesting snake story, don’t I? For all my animal adventures (don’t ask me about the palmetto bug incident…), I’ve always had only calm, civilized encounters with snakes. Maybe this just says something about snakes in general. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to them — I’m a pretty jumpy person and yet every time I’ve ever held a snake or even been around one, I feel this pressing sense of calm come over me. I guess because you don’t want to make any sudden moves when dealing with a snake, but I’m sure it also has something to do with the presence of the snake as well. We’ve had a few encounters with coral snakes and rat snakes here, the occasional hog nose, but, as I said, it’s all been very courteous and civilized.

And please tell us about your chickens. Why did you decide to raise them, and what’s surprised you?

I’m surprised that I’ve become a crazy chicken lady, that’s for sure. I had chickens growing up, and they were cool, but I wasn’t, like, obsessed with them. Two years ago, when still living in the city, I started out with four. It was actually my husband’s idea. He wanted to build a chicken coop in the backyard. I wanted a koi pond. He obviously talked me into the coop. Then four became 10 and now that we live out in the middle of nowhere, we’re up to 24. I have a feeling it’s not going to stop there. Chickens are like tattoos, once you start it’s hard to stop. So this whim of a few urban, backyard chickens has now become a full-blown part of my life.

About the chickens themselves — I was surprised to learn that they’re all such bitches. No, seriously! I love them to death, but a coop is like a high school. I’ve taught an all-girls class before and the drama there had nothing on what goes on in the pecking order between chickens.

Let me ask you about one more sliver of wisdom from Miraculum: “We’ve worked with people who looked like monsters. Real, true monsters. That didn’t mean they were. You, of all people, should know that appearances mean nothing.” What do you hope readers gain from mulling over this advice?

Like Ruby in Miraculum, I have a lot of tattoos. I was getting tattooed before it was popular and as acceptable as it is now, and I can so remember random people coming up to me and telling me I was going to hell. Or must be uneducated. I remember one lady told me I must have been pretty “before.” As if I had become a completely different person by acquiring tattoos. I’m sure this was only the smallest taste of what some people deal with every day — especially as racism and xenophobia are only ramping up in this country it seems — but it stuck with me on a personal level. I hope that readers take away the simple, and quintessential, truth that what you look like does not determine who you are. Who you are is within you and, more importantly, is a choice you can make. I hope readers can recognize, and respect, that fact in others and in themselves.

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Erica Wright is the author, most recently, of The Blue Kingfisher.

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Banner image by liz west.


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