The Blade Between is a horror ghost story about Hudson, New York, where ghosts of Hudson’s past join the fight against gentrification. Terrifying and moving, this is a book so nice, I read it twice. Author Sam J. Miller took some time to talk me about the inspiration behind the book, writing process, and books he’s looking forward to next.
Crafting The Blade Between
Which element of this story came to you first? Was it the characters? The theme? The magic? Or something else entirely?
The hate, actually. There is a scene between two characters who see each other at a stop light. The one behind the wheel is a gentrifier and the one on the street corner has lived there their whole life. There’s a rage shared between them, between invader and invaded.
It reflects my experience of Hudson. I am from here, I grew up here, I have this claim, but I am also a person from New York City who comes to visit. In some senses, I have as much in common with the invader as much as I do the invaded. This anger and resentment become further complicated by the fact that I wasn’t doing anything about it.
Hudson really is a whaling town, surrounded by monuments to whaling and symbols on our street signs. That magic has always been there; those whale ghosts have always been with me. The Blade Between started as a short story that ultimately didn’t work because all these feelings demanded more space and attention.
So, basically, first came that hate and resentment, then came the whale ghosts.
This is your fourth published novel, but where does it fall in the queue of books you’ve written? Was it a project start post-debut or pre-debut?
The themes and obsessions mentioned earlier have always been a part of my life. But this particular story did rise to the surface after my young adult novel Destroy All Monsters. Something they don’t tell you when you’re starting out, about the logistics of a writing career, is thinking through the challenges of what book is going to come next. Are you going to pick a lane and stay in it? Conventional publishing wisdom seems to say you should stick to the same genre, build up an audience of people who want that same experience over and over again.
Part of me felt like the “smart” book would have been another science fiction novel in the vein of Blackfish City. But for me, what I wanted to write most as my next book was a horror story about gentrification and ghosts. And that’s what I did. Ultimately, it is a book of my heart, about hot messes who make bad decisions… and charismatic megafauna.
So still pretty on brand I guess.
In The Art of Starving and Destroy All Monsters, you introduce this slipstream of magic and ghosts which may or may not be there. What inspired and influenced this mode of storytelling present in The Blade Between?
That’s just how the world feels to me. Part of it has to do that I’m convinced werewolves are real and vampires are among us. When I was a little kid, my mother would tell me to stop crying because the imaginary things weren’t real, and that never worked on me.
The ocean, for example. That shit is magical. If you look at the prison-industrial complex, that is horror. Mass incarceration in literature, for example, is usually approached like gritty realism…until it happens to you or someone you love. Then it’s horror.
When something intense happens to you, whether it’s the magic of a first romance or the horror of trauma, reality doesn’t feel real anymore. The overwhelming nature of oppression breaks down our impression of the world as a safe, stable, realistic place, and then we enter the world of genre.
Genre is how the world works to me, and how things feel.
Can you share a bit about what the revisions process was like, especially with the multitude of POVs and tight pacing?
I just keep doing it. I love first person narration. I love the omniscient third person narrator, especially that supernatural insight and access to info that none of the other characters do. But I don’t like it to just be a narrative convention.
In Blackfish City, the perspective presented in the podcast/radio broadcast of City Without a Map doesn’t emerge as an unexplained thing, but as a character with technologically enhanced access to information.
The two narrators in The Blade Between are Ronan and the Whale Ghosts. The Whale Ghosts can see into the hearts of people from Hudson. They know about Dom’s interiority and Attalah’s conversations with her mom.
For me, none of this was logistically challenging. As far as the print book goes, there were two chapter headers: Ronan and the glyph (which I designed), which is represented in the story as Tom Minniq’s and Katch’s tattoos. They belong to the supernatural miasma of Hudson as that second narration.
What was your favorite element to work on?
I spent a lot of time doing actual activism and organizing around displacement and gentrification, and it was really exciting to take the training wheels off. There are so many limitations due to reality, so it was exciting to just go batshit crazy with it. What could we do if we didn’t have to worry about “the law” or about ghosts not being real?
I also wanted to explore complex solutions other than just have a side of winners and a side of losers. Of course, the things the characters do are impossible or illegal, but there is a possibility of a shared existence where both sides have to do the work. I wanted to explore the concept of justice as work, especially taking into account other forms of oppression that intersect with gentrification.
What’s Up Next
What are you working on now?
I have a short story coming out in January with Tor, called “Let All The Children Boogie;” it’s essentially the story of my favorite David Bowie song “Star Man,” as a story about queer teens searching for the source of a mysterious midnight radio broadcast. And it will be published on the fifth anniversary of Bowie’s transition to the stars!
I also have a graphic novel pitch out with my agent. I’m so excited about the possibility of working on one. And I’ve got a bunch of short fiction projects in various states of completion.
But mostly, I want to chill out and really take my time with things. The Blade Between is my fourth novel in four years, which is a heavy pace to sustain. I really want to think about what the next book is going to be, and take the time to outline, plot, and structure something that’s a bit out of my comfort zone.
It’s either going to create something amazing and wonderful or be the death of my process and a total failure. STAY TUNED.
What are some books that you’re looking forward to? Tell us what to read next once our minds have calmed the fuck down?
Lee Mandelo’s debut Summer Sons is fucking amazing. It’s super twisted, deep and disturbing, but also beautiful. It’s the kind of gay story that we need more of, and number one of books to look out for that I’ve read in the pre-ARC stages.
Another book is On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. She is one of my favorite short story writers. It’s always really fantastic and really scary when someone transitions from short to novels, and she really pulled it off with that one.
The other one is Daryl Gregory’s The Album of Dr. Moreau. It’s really fun and funny, but also moving in a ridiculous, absurd way.
Sam J. Miller is the Nebula-Award-winning author of The Art of Starving(an NPR best of the year) and Blackfish City(a best book of the year for Vulture, The Washington Post, Barnes & Noble, and more – and a “Must Read” in Entertainment Weekly and O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine). A recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award and a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Sam’s work has been nominated for the World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, John W. Campbell and Locus Awards, and reprinted in dozens of anthologies. A community organizer by day, he lives in New York City.