According to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great blues guitarist. It’s something I was reminded of while editing the following interview with writer Cassandra Khaw, whose new novella, A Song For Quiet (paperback, digital) — the second book in her Persons Non Grata series after last year’s Hammers On Bone — tells the tale of a blues saxophonist who realizes his music doesn’t just cause people to get up and boogie.
What is A Song For Quiet about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to Hammers On Bone?
A Song For Quiet is a weird combination of things: H. R Giger, blues music, Lovecraft, and how humanity react to bigotry, hatred, and insurmountable odds. It’s also about grief. My father died while I was writing this book and his death fueled its span. It’s also a story about a blues musician who finds himself coming to Arkham, half-aware that there’s something growing in his head, something that brings about monsters when he plays his saxophone.
Chronologically speaking, it takes place before Hammers On Bone, but in terms of sequence, it’s a standalone sequel to the former.
As for how it all connects, I can’t tell you. That’s a secret.
Where did the idea for A Song For Quiet come from, and how different is the final novella from that original idea?
Originally, this was intended to be a pitch to something I can’t reveal. I’d gotten through a sample chapter, some world-building, but later had it pointed out, in the kindest way, that it didn’t quite fit. Ordinarily, I’d have just have chucked the story aside and gone on to do something else. But the voice of Deacon James had a kind of slow rhythm to it, a kind of beat that wouldn’t let go of me. I let it percolate for months. Didn’t think about it until after I’d written Hammers On Bone. I knew I wanted a sequel. When I started pecking at A Song For Quiet, lo and behold, it all started to make sense.
There are a lot of subgenres within the horror genre. Where do you see A Song For Quiet fitting in and why?
I never really think about that stuff. I don’t really set out thinking about categorizations; I mean, should I? That might be good to know for the next few books. I guess if pressed, I’d say that A Song for Quiet is a Lovecraftian Southern Gothic.
This is a stupid question, but I have to ask: Crows are often used in symbolic ways in horror stories. But given that your last name is Khaw, do you find yourself not wanting to use crows in your stories?
[face palms] Next question.
I told you it was a stupid question. Anyway, while A Song For Quiet is, as you said, connected to Hammers On Bone, you’ve also said it’s a stand-alone novella. Why did you decide to make A Song For Quiet stand on its own?
Technically, it was semi-requested of me. For reasons of publishing magic. But I also like the idea of building a world that isn’t lashed to the camera, so to speak. It always weirds me out that so much of fiction gives the impression that if the Chosen Protagonists are not present, nothing happens. Everything exists in service of the story. It’s kind of mad. Luckily, things have grown more interesting as of late with writers building dizzyingly complex and diverse worlds, but still.
But is there’s a reason someone should read Hammers On Bone first?
Hammers On Bone is entirely from John Persons’ perspective and, without giving too much away, you get a glimpse at his alien nature, but you’re never forced to observe him from the outside. A Song For Quiet, among other things, will let you observe John from the outside, and I think it’d be very interesting to see him that way, after you’ve investigated his internal thoughts.
Also, there’s a cameo you’d absolutely miss if you don’t read Hammers On Bone first.
So is your plan going forward that every Persons Non Grata novella will be a stand-alone book, or are you planning to do something that continues the story you started in Hammers On Bone? Or A Song For Quiet for that matter?
There is a loose connection between the things I’ve got planned. The characters in this universe all have their own agenda, their own plots and plans; the books just happen to be windows into a specific timeframe. Sometimes, we’ll see how all those overarching narratives interact and sometimes, we won’t. People get to have their lives outside of the camera.
So what can you tell us about the series. Like, do you know whether it will be an ongoing series or a limited one, and if it’s a limited one, do you know how many books it will be, when they’ll be out, and how it all ends? Oh, and no spoilers, please.
Why do you ask these complicated questions!?!
Ahem. In order:
We’ll let you know as soon as we can.
It’s a surprise.
That depends on circumstances.
In a spray of blood, most likely.
You’ve also written a lot of short stories. Are any of them part of the Persons Non Grata series?
None of them are Persons Non Grata-related, actually. I did have something I was planning to make into a related story, but then it became a novelette and now it’s on its way towards becoming the third bloody book.
What about your poetry, of which there’s some examples on your website. Are any of them part of this series? And are there any plans to collect them into a volume?
Hah! No. But you’ve given me an idea. It could be possible. I could see it. I’d have to ask my agent. Poems Non Grata has a nice ring to it.
Writers hate talking about their influences. But since journalists love asking about them, I’ll ask you this: Are there any authors or specific novels that you feel were a big influence on A Song For Quiet that did not have as big of an impact on Hammers On Bone?
Oh, that one’s easy. John Hornor Jacobs [The Southern Gods] is one of my biggest recent influences in regards to Lovecraftian Southern Gothic, but more importantly, I remember being struck by the way he worked a musical rhythm into his prose. Being exactly the type of person than I am, I pretty much immediately ran off to see what I could do with the idea. So, yeah.
What about non-literary influences? Are there any movies or TV shows you feel were a big influence on A Song For Quiet?
Mieka Pauley, Shawn James, Skip James, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Johnny Cash. I listened to a lot of slow, eerie music over the course of writing this. In fact, I’d argue that music drove most of the writing. To the exclusion of all else. And in every way, really, but primarily in regards to the prose. A Song For Quiet is, in some ways, trying to capture that soundtrack in words.
Obviously that’s all music. But if Hammers On Bone or A Song For Quiet was to be made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast as John Persons and the other main characters?
Oh, man. That’s interesting. John Persons is actually based very specifically on a person I know in real life. So, him…assuming he’d take acting classes for this. But failing that person in particular, I’d absolutely could see an older Rami Malek [Mr. Robot] playing John Persons. Amandla Stenberg [The Hunger Games] is my Sasha. A younger Don Cheadle [Captain America: Civil War] is absolutely my Deacon James, and if we could travel back in time for Cheadle, I’d love to go beg a younger Ruth Negga [Preacher] to play my Ana as well.
Now, when not writing fiction, you write about video games for such outlets as Eurogamer and Ars Technica UK. What’s your favorite scary game, and do you think people who liked Hammers On Bone and A Song For Quiet would like that game as well?
That depends. A Song For Quiet is, in part, inspired by Dark Seed, and that game’s nothing but a hive of problems. I don’t think people would enjoy playing it. As for what my favorite scary game is, it varies. Most recently, I think that honor belongs to Alien: Isolation, which is an entirely different kind of horror.
Finally, if someone enjoys Hammers On Bone and A Song For Quiet, what would you recommend they read while waiting for the third Persons Non Grata novella to come out?
Oh. God. Um. Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels, Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs, Kealan Patrick Burke’s Sour Candy, House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, to which there’s a tribute in the third Persons Non Grata book.