Sorrowland tells the story of Vern, an albino Black teen who escapes a cult, gives birth to twins in the woods, and is haunted by ghosts from a past that might not immediately be her own. This book covers so much ground, has so many layers. There is horror, there is fantasy, and a brilliant voice at the heart of it all. I’m thrilled to have gotten a chance to talk to Rivers about how fae put all the pieces together.
Which element of this story came to you first? Was it Vern and her journey, the Cainites, or something else entirely?
I find it so hard to trace the origin of a story. My brain tends toward the chaotic, and getting to the root of a thing is like picking through an infinite ball of tangled yarn.
I had an idea for a story about a young woman who was a memory keeper for her people, and those memories were locked in an exoskeleton that was slowly shedding. Her people wanted to extract all of the memories before she molted, which was a very painful process. Many of the ideas for this story ended up actually becoming my 2019 release, The Deep, but for those who read Sorrowland, there will be clear thematic links.
The most final version of Sorrowland came with Vern. I’d been struggling with how to write this book for ages, until one day I wrote the first scene on my phone in a manic burst — a scene that has remained largely unchanged. I think it came to me so quickly because of the force of Vern.
What kind of research, if any, did you do to bring Vern’s story to page?
I enjoy the process of researching for a book — as an adult, it’s probably how I do most of my learning; even my political and social education often comes from book research — so I probably do more of it than is necessary for any story, and certainly do more than what ends up in the final piece. I researched albinism, nystagmus, blindness, fungi, wildlife of Texas, how to tan skins, the Black Israelites, nihilism and nihilist philosophers, the Black Panthers, the history of frankly wild medical experimentation in the US, CIA ops, various Lakota peoples and histories, hunting seasons.
How did you choose the names Howling and Feral for the twins?
They’re both names I’d not be brave enough to use on myself. I like the way they sound, I like their wildness, and so does Vern.
Between the first draft and the final copy, are there any moments that stayed the same? Did any change in their entirety?
Most of it stayed the same, in fact. Some elements had to be rejiggered to tell the story more effectively. The speed of the release of information changed, for example. Otherwise, the story is largely unchanged from how it first came out. Except for the end! But I can’t give anyway anything there!
Your previous works, An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep, seem to neatly fall into science fiction and fantasy, respectively. What genre would say applies most accurately to Sorrowland?
I fluctuate between calling it gothic, horror, and thriller, but who knows. Different people mean different things when they talk about genre. Sorrowland is certainly SFF, but there’s always the work one has to do of managing reader expectations — and also getting your book into the hands of people who will enjoy your story; and sometimes, the way we use or talk about genres can get in the way of that, I think.
So, I’d rather talk about my books these days in terms of what a reader is going to get out of reading experience: lush prose and lyricism (I hope), a certain level of darkness and upset that we often associate with horrors/thrillers and gothic fiction, and a contemporary setting. Themes of disability, Blackness, and dykery abound.
Is Sorrowland your third book or are there others that you wrote either before or in between your other releases?
Sorrowland is my third finished book, at least. I have many, many works in progress, though, most abandoned but some I still hope to finish some day.
What can we look forward to next?
I’m currently in the middle of writing my fourth book — it’s on submission, so I don’t feel I can say too much about it — except that it’s both startlingly on brand but also completely different than anything I’ve ever written before. I think it’s going to be a real fucking treat, and I’m having so much fun writing it.
What are some books that you’re particularly excited about, not limited to 2021 releases?
I am desperately excited for The Unbroken (on hold at my library) and The Jasmine Throne. I’m lesbian trash. I just…need those. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan and Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars. Goodness, what a good year it is for SFF! Lately, I’ve been mostly reading “literary” fiction, as well as a lot of nonfiction, but these titles really excite me.
Rivers Solomon is a dyke, an anarchist, a she-beast, an exile, a shiv, a wreck, and a refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Fae writes about life in the margins, where fae’s much at home.
In addition to appearing on the Stonewall Honor List and winning a Firecracker Award, Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts (Akashic Books) was a finalist for a Lambda, a Hurston/Wright, a Tiptree, and a Locus Award, among others. Solomon’s second book, The Deep (Saga Press), based on the Hugo-nominated song of the same name by experimental hip-hop group clipping, was the winner of the 2020 Lambda Award and is on the shortlist for a Nebula, Locus, and Hugo award. Faer third book, Sorrowland (MCD/FSG) is out on May 4, 2021.
Solomon’s short work appears in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Guernica, Best American Short Stories, Tor.com, Best American Horror and Dark Fantasy, and elsewhere.
Rivers Solomon uses “fae/faer/faer/faers/faerself” and “they, them, their, theirs, themself” pronouns.