Some writers and stories can best be described as Lovecraft-esque. But in her dark fantasy series The Innsmouth Legacy — which began with the 2014 novellete “The Litany Of Earth” [which you can read here] and continued with last year’s novel Winter Tide — writer Ruthanna Emrys is telling new stories in Lovecraft’s (hopefully) fictional universe. In the following email interview, Emrys discusses how the third and latest installment, Deep Roots (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) continues this ongoing saga.
To begin, what is The Innsmouth Legacy series about, what is Deep Roots about, and how does Deep Roots connect, narratively as well as chronologically, to the first book in this series, Winter Tide?
Aphra Marsh, last daughter of Innsmouth, is trying to rebuild her life and community after eighteen years imprisoned by a government that hates and fears her people. Her people happen to be Lovecraft’s monstrous “Deep Ones,” amphibious humans who eventually, if no one locks them up in the desert, take on aquatic form and live for eons beneath the waves in wonder and glory.
In Winter Tide, Aphra and her brother Caleb return to Massachusetts seeking to recover books stolen during the Innsmouth raid and now kept at Miskatonic University: cookbooks and diaries, but also sacred tomes of eldritch magic. The government she hates has offered to get her in the door, provided she helps identify Russian spies who may be using that magic in the burgeoning Cold War.
Deep Roots follows a few months after Winter Tide. Aphra and her family — blood and found — head to New York in search of long-lost cousins, descendants of people who fled Innsmouth long ago with their “mistblooded” children. However, one of those cousins has recently vanished, and the aliens behind his disappearance have their own ideas about what’s best for humanity…
This seems like an obvious question, but where did you get the idea for the plot of Deep Roots, and how different is the finished novel from that initial idea?
My initial idea was simply, “Aphra goes to New York to find long-lost relatives.” Then of course I wanted to throw in more of Lovecraft’s monsters — in this case the brain-stealing Mi-Go — and more Cold War intrigue, and threats to Aphra’s growing family. But the core remains the same. Lovecraft hated New York, this cosmopolitan community of immigrants from all over the world, and the place where my own ancestors came into the country. I love the city passionately. I wanted to play with Aphra’s own ambivalence; she’s originally from a small, isolated town where everyone shares a culture and a religion, but she’s drawn to a more varied crowd of friends even as she desperately misses that certainty. New York epitomizes for her all the attraction and risk of living every day alongside those differences.
Deep Roots seems to be a horror story. Do you agree with this assessment, or do you think there’s a better way to describe it?
I like playing around with horror tropes, and you can’t effectively deconstruct cosmic horror without keeping some real horror in the final product. Or at least I can’t. Some of the fun is in what’s no longer horrible that was scary in the original, and what’s now horrible that wasn’t before. Aphra is justifiably terrified of the Mi-Go, who think it’s a great gift to pull your mind out of your body and drag you around the universe, whether you want to go or not. She’s also terrified of human authorities, who remain capable of destroying her family a second time, or of destroying everyone in a fit of Cold War paranoia. And she can’t just run away, she has to work with them both.
But I think of the Innsmouth Legacy books as fundamentally dark fantasy, or even hopepunk. Stephen Graham Jones says that horror is “leading people by candlelight into a dark room, then blowing out the candle.” Whereas I want to start you in a dark room, and show you around by touch. Dip your fingers into pools of ichor, brush tentacles gently through your hair, walk you through the draught where the cold wind whispers the shape of walls and doors, and place your palm on the shelf with the candles and matches. Same tools, same setting, but ultimately different goals for mood.
As you’re well aware, Lovecraft was not the most tolerant of people. Something that’s sadly still a problem. Have recent current events have any impact on what happens in Deep Roots?
There’s apparently a game among editors of finding the spot in a manuscript where an author was on November 8th, 2016. I’ve done considerable editing since, so it’s harder to pick out now, but the election was definitely clarifying. The book got angrier, but also more stubbornly hopeful. I particularly sharpened the Mi-Go, how even the ones who like humans, who love us and want to protect us, can do great harm because they don’t respect or understand us. And how vital it becomes to connect with people who are wildly alien but willing to work for that more difficult sort of empathy.
So aside from Lovecraft, are there any other writers who had a big impact on Deep Roots but not on Winter Tide?
My big influences beyond Lovecraft are often authors whose styles or attitudes stick with me, and make me go “I want to do that.” Geraldine Brooks writes these intricate historical novels where every detail is telling and beautiful. Elizabeth Bear has her own jewel-like descriptions, of emotions as well as settings. I first read Becky Chambers right after the election, and loved the way she handles ensemble casts, the way her characters’ relationships are a source of comfort in the midst of danger and anxiety.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have an impact on Deep Roots?
Not so much any of those particular media. Screen time is one of the things that falls by the wayside when I’m writing. But there are a lot of photography collections of New York in the ’40s. I spent a lot of time pouring over those, and my dad’s Back In The Bronx collection. Old maps and films of Coney Island. I wandered around the National Aquarium trying to decide what sort of sharks Deep Ones have domesticated, none of which actually showed up in the book.
Speaking of movies and whatnot, I have to ask: Is there any connection between Aphra Marsha and the character Doctor Aphra from such Star Wars comics as Darth Vader: Volume 2: Shadows And Secrets and, of course, Doctor Aphra: Volume 1: Aphra?
Aphra has no particular connection with Doctor Aphra, who had her first appearance about a year after Miss Marsh. Though as the Yith would point out, time is an illusion. If they ever met, she’d have some words with her namesake about proper respect for ancient artifacts. I also didn’t name her after 17th century playwright Aphra Behn, who I hadn’t heard of when I wrote “The Litany Of Earth,” though I rather wish I had. I picked a Puritan name with a meaning — “ashes” — that seemed appropriate for the character.
Deep Roots is the second book in your series, The Innsmouth Legacy. What can you can tell us about this series?
Innsmouth Legacy is meant to be an open-ended series. My model is [Lois McMaster] Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, where we follow characters as they grow and change over a lifetime. And Deep Ones have quite a lot of lifetime to play with. The books each work on their own, but they fit into a larger, ongoing arc. I know a lot about what will happen over the next few years, and one bit in the late s’60s, and a far-future story where Aphra has to deliver a certain letter. I’m willing to keep writing them as long as Tor.com is willing to keep buying them. Which will happen if they sell enough of them…which hasn’t happened yet. So right now I’m working on an unrelated near-future sci-fi novel, but if hard copy sales for Winter Tide pick up I’ve already got the first two chapters of Seas Rise Wild written and would be delighted to get back to it.
So has there been any interest in adapting Winter Tide, Deep Roots, or The Innsmouth Legacy series as a whole into a movie, TV series, or video game?
I had a nibble from someone who wanted to put together a TV pitch, but it never happened. A TV series would be fun, especially if you could convince Hollywood to cope with an ugly heroine who likes to wear long skirts. If they couldn’t manage that, I’d probably prefer a series about the Hall School girls sneaking out and having occult adventures. Or I’d really love not just a video game, but an alternate reality game with people sneaking around a real city looking for clues to some eldritch mystery.
If Winter Tide, Deep Roots, or The Innsmouth Legacyseries was being adapted into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
I’m terrible at fantasy casting. I’m somewhat faceblind and have particular trouble with actors. So my usual fantasy answer is Janelle Monae [Hidden Figures], Katharine Hepburn [The African Queen], and Patrick Stewart [Logan] playing everyone depending on what body language is needed.
And if was made into an A.R.C., who would you want to make it?
I’d want some of the people in the Nordic gaming community, who’ve done all sorts of wild things with the limits of what games look like.
Finally, if someone enjoysWinter Tideand Deep Roots, what work of Lovecraftian fiction would you suggest they read next and why that?
Dreams From The Witch House is my favorite anthology of Lovecraftian fiction: modern works by female authors, some staples of Neo-Lovecraftian writing and some who normally write elsewhere but took it as an opportunity to hit one out of the park. Sonya Taaffe’s “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” is among the latter and my favorite of the whole book: an extraordinary story of the Innsmouth diaspora that’s very different from mine except in the places where it isn’t.
Getting away from Innsmouth, I also love Victor LaValle’s The Ballad Of Black Tom and N.K. Jemisin’s more subtly Lovecraftian — or anti-Lovecraftian — short story “The City Born Great.”