JANELLE JANSON: What is the lore behind the Heian ghost bride featured in Nothing but Blackened Teeth?
CASSANDRA KHAW: There isn’t, actually. She’s entirely made up. Well, let me walk that back a little bit. With the ghost bride, I wanted to build something that feels authentic to the spooky stories that I grew up on. It had to feel like it could be real, had to have enough of the bones of a true thing, while also being something wholly invented. I pulled from bits of actual lore, and from half-memories of rumors I’d heard before. And it seems to have worked. I can’t count the number of people who have puzzledly asked, “So, which legend is this from exactly?”
JJ: What was your inspiration for the book?
CK: In my thirties, I came to realize that there are a lot of people in our lives that we keep there for no other reason than they’re familiar. People who might have been good once to us. People we might have cared for. But also people we now find ourselves awkwardly defending, people who drive us to say, “yeah, he’s an asshole but he’s our asshole.” People we brace ourselves for. People who make us sigh and go, “I can’t deal with this person unless we’re all drunk or in a group.” It’s just a thing we all do, and it got to me. I wanted to write a book of what would happen if friends of such a stripe got together, and if they had an excuse to act our their worst impulses.
JJ: Do you believe in ghosts?
CK: I do, and I do not. And that is as far as I’m going on the topic.
JJ: What are you working on next?
CK: I am plotting a dark academia book right now! Very slowly, but it is being plotted. (I am not usually a plotter, but this one is going to be very intricate and I will die a death of plot holes otherwise).
JJ: Can you briefly summarize what your short story collection Breakable Things is about? Is there a common theme?
CK: Monsters! Monstrous women and impossible situations. Love and grief. Choosing each other despite pain, despite obstacles.
Smarter people than I have noted that the underlying theme behind my short stories is intergenerational trauma, and I don’t disagree with them at all. It’s something I wrestle with constantly. All my life I’ve always had a little voice in my head, reminding me I am the product of generations of sacrifice and that I have a responsibility to make that sacrifice worthwhile. I have pushed myself hard because of that voice, and I owe a lot of my success in life to that desire to do right by my ancestors. But at the same time, that voice is also the one that says being abused is okay, that pain is something to swallow without question. It is the thing that drove my parents into becoming what they are, for better or for worse. Needless to say, it’s something I am actively working on.
JJ: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
CK: “You Do Nothing but Freefall.” I’m not at liberty to explain why, but it’s that one for sure.
JJ: Do you feel more comfortable writing short or long fiction? Why?
CK: Oh, God. Short fiction, probably. And that has a lot to do with the fact I was a journalist for far too many years. I had brevity beaten into me. (Which is probably why—ironically—I love baroque prose so much.)
JJ: I recently discovered your artwork after it was shared on social media by your fellow authors. Is this also something you do professionally?
CK: Yes. I’m a full-time creative in video games and writing.
JJ: Do you have a book you’d like to recommend to our readers?
CK: Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones. And Premee Mohamed’s melancholic The Apple-Tree Throne, which I reread recently and loved.
JJ: Mongrels is one of my favorite books. If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
CK: Honestly, I’m exactly where I want to be right now, and I can’t imagine wanting to go anywhere else. New York is one of my two great loves (the other is Edinburgh), and after literally a decade of fighting to figure out a way to come home to her, I now live here. I don’t want to be anywhere else.
JJ: Lastly, I have to ask, what are your cat’s names? What breed are they? They are huge!
CK: They’re both Maine Coons! And their public names are Big Orange and Tortie. I’m weirdly possessive about their real names, and I can’t yet figure out why.
Pictured left to right: Nothing but Blackened Teeth, Breakable Things, The Salt Grows Heavy
Nothing but Blackened Teeth, from Tor Nightfire, and Unbreakable Things, from Undertow Publications, are available wherever books are sold. The Salt Grows Heavy, from Tor Nightfire, will publish May 2, 2023.