Happy release day to The Story of the Hundred Promises. When trans sailor Darragh learns that his father is terminally ill, he goes on a quest to find the Enchanter who helped him transition when he was a child. A story centering queer voices and queer optimism unfolds with all the tropes and aesthetics of classic fairy tales.
I’m so glad to have Neil on the blog today to talk about how the stories within and the overarching plot of this book came to be, the research behind it, what he’s working on now, and what he’s reading next.
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Weaving a Fairy Tale
What came to you first? The characters, the stories, or something else entirely?
In this case, it was the character of the Enchanter. I went to see the Emma Watson Beauty and the Beast when it came out, and one of the (only) things I liked about it was that the Enchantress stuck around in the story. Originally, I wanted to just write about that character as someone who appeared in several classic tales but was the same person all along. At the time of writing, though, I was still early in my transition and dealing with a new wave of familial rejection. Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite fairy tale, and in the end it made sense to draw on elements of it to process what I was going through, both in terms of accepting my new position in the world and letting go of the things I couldn’t hold onto.
Where did the fairy tales themselves come from? How did you decide which would appear diegetically?
Some of the fairy tales, like Beauty and the Thorn, were explicitly there to give necessary backstory. As for the rest, I spent several months researching fairy tale structure and symbology and used that to build tales that felt authentic, as if they could be in a Grimm collection–with some queer spice, of course. I built Merrigan’s backstory around the tales, using them as guideposts to mark certain periods in eir life.
The worldbuilding is lush and the world feels lived in. What did you draw from to craft it?
I am a big proponent of the idea that speculative fiction writers should be students of history. My particular special interest is in medieval and pre-modern England, and in the last few years I’ve shifted away from the more political histories and onto work that focuses more on artifacts of daily life. I highly recommend books such as Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guides, Cræft by Alexander Langlands, and The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger. The BBC has also produced several experimental archeology series, such as “Tales from the Green Valley” and “Secrets of the Castle” (both available on YouTube), which feature archeologists like Alexander Langlands and Ruth Goodman actually living in period clothing and accommodations, performing tasks as they would have been done, to the best of their knowledge. Anything like this, and particularly any practical experience you can get, is invaluable when it comes to worldbuilding.
Textile and fashion history is another special interest of mine, which is where all the inspiration for the sumptuary laws in Promises comes from. These were real laws in many places in the world that limited what people of various stations could wear, from fabric to color to metals. Gender was also clearly enforced in these laws, all the way through the mid-twentieth century when gender-nonconforming people in the US could be arrested if they weren’t wearing at least three pieces “gender appropriate” clothing.
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
Oh, this is a tough question, but I think it’s chapter 27, The Surveyors, where Merrigan meets an inquisitive young surveyor’s apprentice. This scene was in the very first draft, and was one of the ones where I really got into the flow of Merrigan’s personality.
In terms of the order you’ve written and published your books, where does The Story of the Hundred Promises fall?
Promises is the seventh novel I’ve written and the third to be published.
What are you working on now?
My agent is currently pitching my first graphic novel project, an explicitly queer Twelfth Night retelling, and I’m in the researching phase for my second graphic novel, which will be a kind of cozy haunted house story. Soon, I’ll be revising my next novel, likely to be the first in a high fantasy trilogy.
What books out now or coming soon are you looking forward to?
I’m currently reading and loving The Boy with A Bird in His Chest, a beautiful trans allegory by Emme Lund that came out in February. I am also SUPER excited for Hollow, a queer Sleepy Hollow graphic novel retelling by Shannon Watters, Branden Boyer-White, and Berenice Nelle, which shares a release day with Promises! Also very excited for Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s new comics project, The Night Eaters.
Neil Cochrane is a queer, trans author and artist living and working in Portland, Oregon*. He writes speculative fiction that centers queer characters overcoming obstacles and building families. He has worked in and around the publishing industry since 2012, in such various roles as editor, literary agent assistant, marketing director, and bookseller. He is represented by Michaela Whatnall of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret.
His artwork likewise centers queerness and family as lights against the darkness of the world. Self-taught aside from drawing classes in high school, he started with watercolors and has now begun to branch into oils.
*on land belonging to the Cowlitz people, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Clackamas people, and Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.
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