An Interview With Cassandra Khaw

Header for review The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

Cassandra Khaw is an acclaimed game writer and author of over ten books. Their breakout horror novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award, Shirley Jackson Award, and World Fantasy Award.

Cover for The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard KadreyKhaw is publishing two new books in 2023: the dark fantasy novella, The Salt Grows Heavy and the urban horror, The Dead Take the A Train. The latter is co-authored with veteran horror writer Richard Kadrey.

Khaw recently took time out of their busy schedule to chat with us about their new books and writing process.

[GdM] Thank you for joining us for this interview! Please tell us the origin story of your collaboration with Richard Kadrey. How did you two meet and develop the idea for co-authoring a novel?

[CK] Through Twitter. I got intensely upset about someone stealing my Kindle, and Richard shared my apocalyptic fury about the whole situation, which was how we got to talking. I’d been a fan of his for years; I basically immediately wanted to work with him on something and he was sweet enough to not bonk me on the head and laugh.

[GdM] What was the collaboration process like working with Richard Kadrey? Was it easy to find a groove writing together and to converge on a unified narrative voice?

[CK] It took a few tries. We’d initially set it up so that we’d alternate chapters, but discovered quickly that Richard likes having the context of previous chapters to write his—so my erratic skipping around was messing with his rhythm. Things sped up when we realized it wasn’t a bad idea to have one person writing first and then the other almost editing them, with the first checking in regularly. As for the unified narrative voice, I think that came from rounds of edits, where we made little tweaks to each other’s work until we ended up with a truly different thing.

[GdM] After reading The Dead Take the A Train, I assume that you are… not a fan of American corporate culture. I love the unrestrained way you skewer boardroom culture and the obsession with climbing the corporate ladder. Could you tell us how you developed this satirical aspect of the novel? Did the idea come before or after choosing New York City as the setting?

[CK] Hahahaha. Most of my inspiration comes from the games industry. I love my work. I love so many of the people I’ve worked with. I can’t imagine working anywhere else. But some of the personalities you meet and some of the ways the bigger companies allow little pieces of shit to perpetuate an environment of abuse while they look away—well, woo boy. Anyway, a lot of observations about that definitely seeped into the book.

[GdM] Who were some of your influences when writing The Dead Take the A Train? It’s such a unique read, and hard to make comparisons to other novels.

[CK] Romantic comedies as a genre, haha. If you really pay attention, if you look through the curtains of hanging entrails and baby hands, The Dead Take the A Train absolutely is a rom-com. I swear. Honest.

[GdM] Julie Crews is a great protagonist in The Dead Take the A Train, bringing chaos wherever she goes. She seems to be equal parts self-destructive and destructive of everything around her. Were there any particular inspirations for her character? She seems like a lot of fun to write.

[CK] God. A lot of it is derived from memories of being young and stupid, I think. (At least on my end.) Like, if you’re in your twenties and you had a rough past but can fight like a cornered pitbull, you start testing the world to see what you can get away with. It was certainly true for me. I got into so many fights. I was so angry; I hated how the world expected me to be a meek little thing and just snarled at anything that moved. And it’s a defense too, honestly. People don’t hurt you if they know you’ve got teeth. (It also makes it difficult for people to get close to you and people to show you that not everything is suffering, but those are the lessons you learn in your thirties…)

[GdM] The Dead Take the A Train is the first volume of your planned Carrion City duology. What can you tell us about the follow-up novel?

[CK] … there is a fox and the fox got stuck and the thing the fox got stuck in was a corpse. She has no idea how she got in there, but she’d really like Julie and Sarah to find out.

[GdM] I read an interview on Clarkesworld where you talked about generational trauma and how women are viewed. “…the idea that good women are seen, not heard; good women work hard and don’t complain; good women give everything in hopes that the people who come up after them might have more…A lot of my work, I think, screams at the idea of that silence, that sense of being restrained and small, of not asking too much, of being tidy.” Did you write Julie with these ideas in mind? She is certainly not a woman to be silenced or restrained.

[CK] I think I write all my femme-presenting characters that way. I don’t think it’s possible for me not to. I am surrounded by so many powerful AFAB people, people who push back against impossible odds, people who have survived incredible horrors, people who choose to be soft and who choose to be kind and who choose grace despite the world. Everyone I know is someone who won’t be extinguished by the world, and who burns with want to make it better. How can I write anything else when I’m surrounded such fire?

[GdM] We are so accustomed to Disneyfied versions of fairy tales that tone down many of the dark aspects of the original stories. But The Salt Grows Heavy goes in the opposite direction, giving a chilling variation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. How did you develop the idea for this book?

[CK] I think the world is a feral place. I was nomadic for about ten years of my life, and it quickly became clear to me how easily one can just vanish. What we see as a civilized world is really a facade. Some of my tendency to darken fairytales is because of that. The other inspiration for the book, hilariously, is 9gag. There was a CollegeHumor college strip from years and years ago that asked the question, ‘What if Ariel laid eggs?’ I naturally had to take that to a horrifying conclusion.

[GdM] I’m also intrigued by the plague doctor in The Salt Grows Heavy. Is the plague doctor meant to provide a comment on the COVID-19 pandemic? Or did you have something else in mind when developing this character?

[CK] Nope! Not commentary on the COVID epidemic. I did have an idea some time to go to play with the imagery because of what the plague doctor used to represent to so many medieval communities: how their coming often signals terrible things, even if they had nothing to do with the plague itself. (The plague doctor is also, in many ways, a representation of what it is like to be queer, to grow up under so much external pressure, to have your early life torn apart and built by people who don’t really care much about who you really are. They’re a complicated beast and I love them so.)

[GdM] We had a raging discussion on Twitter about whether a mermaid eating human flesh constitutes cannibalism. Would you like to give a definitive answer to this question?

[CK] It is totally cannibalism, at least to me.

[GdM] Your prose in The Salt Grows Heavy is absolutely beautiful. How many rounds of edits did it take to get this polished to perfection?

[CK] Oh, man. That’s incredibly kind. I edit as I go so I don’t know how many rounds of edits. Sometimes, I spend hours on a single sentence until it sounds right in my head. (I have synesthesia and a lot of my writing involves writing so it ‘sounds’ right. Because if it doesn’t sound right, it’s just, well, it’s a lot like trying to practice with a guitar that hasn’t been tuned. You might get all the notes right but god almighty, your ears are gonna hurt.)

[GdM] For all its darkness, the ending of The Salt Grows Heavy is actually rather sweet. Is it important for a horror novel to provide a ray of hope in a world of darkness?

[CK] I think so. At least it is for me. There are plenty of people who would say otherwise. I think I’ve seen numerous discussions on Twitter about how it isn’t really horror if there’s some kind of happiness at the end; horror needs to break your heart.

But I don’t think I can do that. Not in this time of the slow apocalypse. I need something to survive the darkness otherwise, it feels a bit pointless. (Is this how all horror should be? No. Horror is all-encompassing. Horror should have everything for everyone—same with any other genre.)

[GdM] Could you tell us about some of your work as a game designer? Did you work on both video games and tabletop games? How has your career as a game designer influenced your writing?

[CK] I am not a game designer, per se. I’m a narrative designer; we do a lot of work trying to figure out how to bridge story and gameplay, how to enhance the latter, how to build something that is faithful to the creative vision. (I’m also very often just a game writer and it’s a lot of the same thing, except with less official focus on how the game works).

I’ve worked on tabletop games and also video games, yes. I’ve been very fortunate that way. And I haven’t felt as if there was any correlation between my video game work and my fiction writing. They’re different mediums, different fields.

[GdM] You work in multiple areas of creativity: game design, novels, short stories, poetry, and editorials. Is there a commonality between all these areas in approaching a creative project? Do you start with an idea, a feeling, a setting, or a character?

[CK] I’m definitely noting a pattern to my approach. Regardless of the medium, I often block out the big ideas and vibes first and figure out a vague flow to things before I kick off any project.

[GdM] I am fascinated with people who can write poetry. You mentioned in an article how Accents by Denice Frohman moved you and made you want to write poetry. Could you talk a little about that? Why did this particular poem strike a chord with you?

[CK] Because of my own accent. These days, I sound like I moved to the States in my teens: you can hear the ghost of an Asian accent in the way I put emphasis on certain words, and how I can’t pronounce ‘th’s. That was intentional. I learned quickly that people dismiss you if you sound too Asian and I basically did everything to iron out my history from my voice. Frohman’s poem, however, made me want to be kinder to my voice; it made me see again the poetry (if you’d excuse the pun) in the musicality of it. And it left me utterly awed by how the poem captured Frohman’s love for her mother’s voice.

[GdM] You are one of four esteemed guest lecturers at this year’s Alpha Workshop for young writers in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. What are some of the key pieces of advice that you offer to young aspiring writers?

[CK] Mostly, that it is okay to want to make money off your passions. I think there are a lot of people out there who act like it’s a bad thing to want to make your writing a career and that you should be grateful to even be published. But the truth is we live in a hard world and you damn well are within your rights to demand for more.

[GdM] What are you doing next?

[CK] Richard and I have another novel to come up with. I’m also working on a big dark academia novel, an IP-related novel, and am really excited about some game stuff I probably can’t talk about for another decade.

Read The Dead Take the A Train

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This interview by John Mauro and Beth Tabler was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #35.

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Elizabeth Tabler

Elizabeth Tabler

Elizabeth Tabler runs Beforewegoblog and is constantly immersed in fantasy stories. She was at one time an architect but divides her time now between her family in Portland, Oregon, and as many book worlds as she can get her hands on. She is also a huge fan of Self Published fantasy and is on Team Qwillery as a judge for SPFBO5. You will find her with a coffee in one hand and her iPad in the other. Find her on: instagram.com/elizabethtabler https://beforewegoblog.com/ https://www.pinterest.com/scottveg3/ https://www.goodreads.com/Scottveg3 https://twitter.com/BethTabler