Karen Heuler’s latest novel, The Splendid City, is something truly special. It tells the story of a young witch, Eleanor and her cat, Stan, who is in reality an annoying man… whom she dealt with in the most practical fashion. It is a brilliantly unique book – do check our our review – and it was a pleasure to chat to Karen about The Splendid City, Stan and writing more generally.
GdM: Can you please describe The Splendid City in one sentence for our readers?
A novice witch transforms a bullying coworker into a cat and her coven sends them both to a state that has broken away from the USA and thrives on parades, giveaways, and surprises.
GdM: I absolutely loved reading about Stan, the man turned into a cat. Was he always going to be a cat, and what led you to that choice?
He started out as a cat in my imagination, and then it was easy to see him as a man. Dog humor is mostly joy, and cat humor can be much more deliberate and sarcastic (consider cats knocking things off countertops). He swaggers. He flicks his tail. He shoots people occasionally (but never kills them). He’s that kind of cat.
GdM: Are there any literary witches that particularly inspired you in your writing?
I should probably mention how much this book is a tip of the hat to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a book that had a major impact on me. In it, the devil comes to Moscow, accompanied by a big black cat in order to disrupt the literary politics in the city. My Stan is a descendent of the devil’s cat Behemoth, and in particular the cover of the 1967 Signet paperback edition, which had a big black cat in a bow tie waving a gun. Margarita is a new witch in the book, and I loved her first broomstick ride so much that she has probably become my standard for a witch (not the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz, who is probably the one most people think of). Over the years, the Practical Magic witches (by Alice Hoffman) added to the image I had of witches who are caring rather than frightening.
GdM: Were there any quirky details you found in your research that you weren’t able to put into the finished book?
I would have loved to use the belief that witches stole men’s penises and made them pets. You’d think it would fit in somewhere, but it didn’t.
GdM: What did you enjoy most writing The Splendid City?
Well, Stan, of course. Even though he’s pushy, sarcastic, manipulative and selfish to the core, he’s also funny. I love his comments like “I only shoot once a day,” and “I never kill them, you know.” I also love when, after he and a companion float endlessly down the missing river and discover that it leads to the water bottling site, that the first thing he says is, “Um, I peed in that water. I think you should know.” So much about Stan is our nasty inner monologues being voiced in such a way that he gets away with it. Whenever I’m nasty, it’s never funny, but when he is, I have to smirk. This is entirely irrelevant, but I read somewhere that Kafka used to laugh when he was writing. I did too.
GdM: What comes first for you, character, plot, or setting?
I’m a plot person, primarily, although I had Stan before I really had the story. He’s disruptive, and he represents an amoral urge that we all have to deal with on some level (both personally and politically). When the times themselves became disruptive, he found his setting.
GdM: You’ve been writing – and publishing – for a while. But what stood out most working with Angry Robot in comparison?
I had the greatest sense of a team working together at Angry Robot. I’ve had some wonderful experiences in the past (and a few bad ones), so I was grateful for the many exchanges I had with my editor and marketing team. In fact, they dedicated someone to work on my marketing, and I felt a continued support from them all the way through.
GdM: How are you celebrating your book’s release?
I hate to tell you how addicted I now am to Googling myself. Every new sale is a celebration. I’ve had the president’s head made into paper cutouts, and I made “protest” signs (there’s always a parade or an orchestrated protest in Liberty, to keep things fun). When I do a live reading, the heads and the signs get given out to members of the audience and get raised at the appropriate time. This amuses me.
GdM: What books or other media have filled your creative well recently?
This may not be directly relevant, but the most surprising cultural immersion recently was going to the “American Utopia” production featuring David Byrne I fell in love with him and saw it twice. That’s all. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m thinking of sending him a signed copy of my book and I’m researching love spells. Maybe that’s unethical. But if it works, I’ll live with it.
GdM: What are you working on next?
I’ve just sent a new novel to my agent. I have a story coming out in Asimov’s next year, my first with them and it’s exhilarating. I have a collection coming out from Fairwood Books this fall or winter, and a literary collection later this summer. It sounds like I’m amazing, but the collections and the novel happened over years. I have a lot of story starts I’d like to finish, and then of course, I’m open to a new idea for a book—come this way, new idea. Come here.