When promoting a novel, publishers sometimes describe them in ways that don’t align with how the author sees their story. But while writer Margaret Killjoy fully embraces how Tor called her new novella The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion (paperback, digital) a “punk fantasy,” she explains that it’s not “punk” as in the aesthetic but “punk” as in the value.
Let’s start with the basics. What is The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion about?
Sure! Plot-wise, The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is about a woman, Danielle Cain, who heads off to a squatted town called Freedom, Iowa to find out what drove her friend and mentor to suicide. She gets caught up in the occult, and the protector spirit that watches over the town has turned on its creators.
Mostly, though, it’s a book about utopia, and the frightful things people are willing to do to one another and themselves in the name of utopia. Which sounds more cynical than the book actually is.
Where did the original idea for The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion come from, and how different is the finished novella from that original idea?
This story probably has a longer journey than anything else I’ve ever published, actually. In 2013, I wrote a long novella called A Country Of Ghosts that explored an anarchist utopia in a 19th-century secondary world. I finished the first draft of that and then…just kept writing. I was a traveler at the time — I’ve spent most of my adult life on the road — and it was just too much temptation not to write a wish-fulfilment novel about finding a home. Then I realized no home is perfect and that books need conflict, so I wrote the first version of this with a similar theme of a town being torn apart, though by more mundane processes.
But, to be honest, I wrote that first draft for me, not for an audience. I wrote it because I needed to read it. But it wasn’t very good yet. I put it down after that first draft and kind of forgot about it for a few years. It was just another abandoned novella on my hard drive until I realized it needed the paranormal. I more or less rewrote the entire thing, keeping only a few of the core characters and the town itself. It’s actually harder to rewrite one book into another one than it is to write a book from scratch, but it was worth it to keep the town of Freedom, Iowa alive.
The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion has been called punk fantasy. Do you agree with this assessment, and if not, what kind of fantasy would you call it? Prog-rock fantasy? Folk fantasy? Free jazz fantasy?
Oh, it’s definitely punk fantasy. That’s a better name than “urban fantasy” for a story like this anyway, because the story isn’t urban at all, it just takes place in the modern world. But it’s not punk like studs and safety pins and pink hair. It’s not punk like the musical genre or its attendant aesthetic subculture. There’s this whole generation of punk that doesn’t have a ton to do with loud guitars and has more to do with punk values, like DIY and anarchism and caring for one another and living outside the system. This version of punk bleeds over into aesthetic, but I know plenty of punks in town with stick-and-poke tattoos and/or undercuts who mostly listen to pop country or whatever. I’m probably a punk — I’ve even got a spiky vest— but I mostly listen to more mopey folk and goth music, and I listen to at least as much metal and hip-hop as I do punk.
Most of the main characters in The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion are the town’s resident squatter Goths. And there’s a bit of a Gothic vibe going on underneath it all as well, both in the subcultural sense and the literary sense. So…Gothic punk fantasy? Things get a little weird when you throw too many labels at them, though, so let’s stick with punk.
Sure. What writers, and which of their works, do you feel were the biggest influences on what you wrote about in The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion and how you wrote it, but were not as much of an influence on your previous stories?
I write in a few different styles and voices, depending on the project and what I’m trying to say. The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion was written in probably the style I’ve been writing the longest: first-person stories about wanderers and squatters. The first novellas I ever wrote, which are zines floating around somewhere in the zine-ether of the world from 2003 or so, were written in this kind of style.
The writers who’ve influenced that voice more than anyone else are probably Aaron Cometbus and Enola Dismay. Cometbus is most famous for his eponymous zine Cometbus, but he’s written two stand-alone stories that are very influential on my work: I Wish There Was Something I Could Quit and Lanky. No one writes about the nostalgia and loss in punk/DIY as eloquently as Cometbus. Dismay writes a zine called No Gods, No Mattress that autobiographically chronicles her adventures as a wanderer, but she has a way of incorporating the surreal and supernatural in a way that leaves you questioning your own reality.
From a genre fiction point of view, the single strongest influence on this mode of writing of mine are the two Will Shetterly’s Borderlands novels, Elsewhere and Nevernever, which I read as a kid and were two of the punkest things I’d ever read. As for how to write political fiction as non-pedantically as possible, I’d really have to say my role model is Ursula K. Le Guin. I think she’s a master of turning political metaphor into engaging world building and storytelling.
What about non-literary influences, do you think any movies, TV shows, or video games were an influence on The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, and if so, in what ways?
I’m certainly not above being influenced by media, but for this book I was more heavily influenced by history and by the personal experiences of my friends.
Thematically, the largest influence on this book is the Russian revolution, and in particular the authoritarian betrayal of that revolution by the Bolsheviks. This is scarcely referenced in the book itself — I’m not trying to write just for people who geek out about leftist and anarchist history as much as I do — but the central theme of the book is the lure of power and authority and how those creep into even the most radical people and cultures. In Russia, there was this popular revolution composed of all kinds of different people with all kinds of different ideas of how to replace capitalism with communal forms of living, and rather than letting it develop into a pluralistic society, the Bolsheviks came in and literally annihilated the competition after using them to help drive out the other enemies. From an anarchist point of view, the most famous moment of this in Russia proper — there was heated fighting in Ukraine as well — was in Krondstadt in 1921, when Trotsky led a detachment of the Red Army to put down revolutionary and anarchist sailors and others who were fighting for things like free speech, free assembly, equal rations, and the right for smallholders to work their own land provided they don’t employ others in the process. Trotsky killed thousands of people in the ensuing conflict.
There’d always been unease in the left between those with authoritarian and those with antiauthoritarian dreams, but Russia was the first place where that really played out dramatically and it cemented a divide that continues to this day. But I’m not trying to write about one political ideology versus another one, or one political faction versus another. I’m more interested in The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion about the actual seed: authoritarianism itself.
As for the characters, and their pasts, those are influenced by the lives of the people I’ve met in my travels. Of course, it’s an interesting challenge to avoid borrowing too directly from any given individual while still remaining authentic.
Wait, Scooby-Doo? Does that mean the plot is undone by some meddling kids?
Well, I’m not saying that the longer run of the series doesn’t involve some meddling wanderers in a van investigating the occult…
Ah, so then The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is not a stand-alone novella but the first book in a series, then?
It’s the first book in the Daniella Cain series. When I’m describing the series to my friends, I usually say something like “my anarchist paranormal demon hunters series.” I knew from the start — well, from the rewrite — that I wanted this to be a series. I really like writing episodically, following characters through various adventures, and this has been one of the first chances I’ve had to really give that method of writing a real shot. I like the idea that it will let my character grow and adapt in a realistic way, rather than just over the course of a single story like you have to do with a single long novel.
So what can you tell us about this series? Will it be ongoing or be a set number of books? And how much of it do you have figured out?
I’m not totally sure how long the Danielle Cain series will be yet, which I suppose means it’s ongoing. I do know that the sequel, The Barrow Will Send What It May, will be out in 2018, and I’ve got some of the longer plot arc worked out for what the next several after that could look like. I’ll see how the response to these first few is and go from there, most likely.
Each book will have its own occult, supernatural mystery or adventure for our protagonists to deal with, but will tie into larger arcs. I’ve got the larger arc already in my head, so I can drop seeds of it in the two I’ve already written, but I don’t know the specific adventures yet.
I asked earlier about movies, TV shows, and video games that might’ve been an influence on The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion. But has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game based on your novella?
There has been, but I can’t really say anymore more about it.
Sure, sure. But if they asked you, who would you like to see them cast in it and why them?
It’s scary to watch a subculture you live and breathe be represented on screen. Almost every attempt at showing punks and anarchists has fallen short. But I’ll tell you what, Hannah Marks played Penny in Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk II, and put on one of the most authentic punk performances I’ve ever seen. I’d cast her as Danielle Cain, the protagonist, or as Brynn, the street fighter. Oh, and Alia Shawkat, who was in Green Room, I’d cast her as Danielle or Brynn also.
I’d also get Woody Harrelson to play Anchor, because besides being a fantastic actor, Harrelson is one of the only actors I know of who’s willing to call himself an anarchist. Charlie Chaplin did too but, alas, it’s too late to get him in. Plus, Anchor is sort of minor role, so that might make Harrelson easier to get.
This is a fun game, I don’t know why I haven’t played it in my head before with my books.
Whoever would play Vulture, I just hope the people making it don’t pull that usual bullshit where they either rewrite the character cisgender or cast a cis actor for the role.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Well, if you can’t wait until next spring or so when The Barrow Will Send What It May comes out, I’d recommend my other utopian novella, A Country Of Ghosts. It’s secondary world, and more overtly political, but it explores comparable themes, about what it takes to defend freedom.