2011-2021: A Reflection on the Last Ten Years

On December 12, 2011–my 30th birthday–my mother and I rolled over the Rhode Island state line in her burnt-orange Honda Element, our Uhaul trailer trundling behind us. Years later, after I met Carlos, that Honda Element became a vehicle of marvelous escape in one of his dreams, and he thereafter referred to it as “the car of my dreams.”

With the help of our friends the Kendzias, we soon found an apartment in Westerly, near Wilcox Park (which we always called “the Victorian Strolling Park,” because it was). Julia Rios came down from Boston to help us unpack. It was raining and freezing, and I had more than 50 boxes of books that we carried up to our garret apartment. Years later, when new roommates Jessica P. Wick and Betsie Withey moved in, we referred to that apartment as “the Belfry.”

Neither my mom or I had jobs. In 2011, we were still deep in a recession. People kept asking us why we moved to Rhode Island of all places. But to two women from Phoenix and Chicago, Rhode Island might as well be Avalon. It was as mythical and beautiful and strange as any story. I had visited once when I was 9 or 10 and I’d been wanted to return for 20 years. It was a whim, perhaps, but it was a whim I’d worked for the last three years to make happen. That my mom was making it happen with me (it was the first time we’d get to live in the same state, in the same town, in the same house for over ten years, and it was about time!!!) made it even more adventurous.

We were very poor. We had to apply to SNAP benefits. We got groceries from two of the local food banks. We went to the library a lot. When we did get jobs, they were part time and for minimum wage. My mom worked at Home Depot. I worked at Mystic Aquarium, in Admissions. Later, she joined me there in the Membership Department. We cooked a lot of food together with the groceries we had. We joined the community garden. We went on walks in the local nature preserves–Rhode Island is rich in those!–and on beaches. We made day trips to exciting new places. We made friends. Some of our first friends in the area were Ken Schneyer and Janice Ookomian in Rhode Island, and Faye Ringel in Connecticut.

Sometimes, when I could scrape a few dollars together, I went down to Perks and Corks for a chai tea and to watch whatever band was playing. Sometimes it seemed that Westerly was made of musicians. So I started making up music. I think I wanted friends, but I didn’t quite know how to make them. I was fairly solitary for about a year and a half–with the exception of my mother and a few friends I saw once every few months–and then people started saying enough was enough. I had to get out more.

Now, I’d been fairly social in Chicago. So much so that I was socializing more than creating, which felt unbalanced. By the time I left Chicago, I was really ready for some alone-Claire writing time. And I had it! I’d been writing.

Between 2012 and 2015, when my mom moved back to Phoenix to take care of her house there, and my two new roommates moved in, I’d published (some small press, some pro-rates–which really helped with groceries and bills, let me tell you!): “Canary of Candletown,” “Witch, Beast, Saint,” “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One,” “Ten Cigars,” “Martyr’s Gem,” “Godmother Lizard,” and “Life on the Sun.”

I’d self-published The Breaker Queen, The Two Paupers, and The Witch in the Almond Tree.

In 2015 and 2016, Bone Swans and Jack o’ the Hills came out, as well as my poetry collection How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes.

I’d written a lot of poetry in that time too, much of it published in Goblin Fruit and Mythic Delirium. Some of the songs I was writing with Caitlyn Paxson for our “Distant Star Ballads” album project (ha! Still in the works) had done enough world-building for me that I was able to write a poem featuring some of the same characters “Voyage to a Distant Star.” I’d written two EPs worth of music in 2014, for which I crowdfunded via Indiegogo in 2015, resulting in Alecto! Alecto! and The Headless Bride, both which I had pressed into CDs and made digitally available on Bandcamp under my (LOL) rockstar (more like folkn00b) pseudonym “Brimstone Rhine.”

A few years later, we finished Corbeau Blanc, Corbeau Noir: the backers’ album, songs written for those who helped fund the first two EPs at a high level.

In 2012, Caitlyn Paxson brought me to Canada. I’d adapted my story “Braiding the Ghosts” into a two-woman show for the Ottawa Storytellers, and performed it with Ruthanne Edward at the National Arts Centre. After, I flew to Prince Edward Island to meet my two best friends since high school, Mir and Kiri. Kiri paid for the house. All I had to do was get there. My stipend from the NAC performance paid for my ticket. Meeting in PEI in our thirties was a pact we’d made as teenagers. An extraordinary time. And also a strange, bittersweet one. We were not who we used to be. I’d love to try it again, now that I’m older and know to expect that, even to celebrate it.

I met Carlos Hernandez in 2014 at Readercon, befriended him in a very casual Facebook-y way, and then in a deeper way in early 2015. We collaborated on an epistolary short story “The Book of May,” which ended up in Clockwork Phoenix 5, and decided we wanted to keep writing each other letters, but as ourselves this time. He lived in New York. I lived in Rhode Island. We had a romance of letters. And visits. And Skype. And phone calls. And trains. And long commutes. That was from 2015-2017, when we were married in October.

I was in theatre, too–which, to get back to an earlier point–is when I actually made local friends in my area. I had a great deal of training in the theatre, but very little opportunity until that point to put it to use. I’d always been working 2-3 jobs in Chicago, and my most recent job ended too late in the evening, and was a 90 minute commute from home, for me to ever make rehearsals. I could be involved in 24-hour theatre festivals, but that was about it. Most of my performing outlet was at writing conventions, where I got to perform my own work–prose, poetry, and music–for an audience. I craved theatre. But at that point, I wasn’t even sure if I could do it anymore.

Enter Flock Theatre. Faye Ringel was acting as dramaturge for Anne Flammang in Flock’s production of As You Like It. She had a few people already in mind already for her leads. The director worked with the company before and had a fairly good idea of its stable. I was an unknown quantity, but she thought I’d be good for the shepherdess. I went to the audition and the callback. I rocked it. What’s more, I knew I’d rocked it—with a certainty. (All I ever wanted to do was Shakespeare and Sondheim. This was like finally being able to breathe. Like being let off a 10-year leash.) I went home from that callback exhilarated but also resentful that I’d end up a shepherdess. But life surprised me.

Reader, I ended up with the leading role of Rosalind. Ellen Kushner sent me several articles about drag kings, so I could really think about my inner boy. I knew I could do the role. But it was a role I’d only seen more, well, thin bodies pull off. I had this image in my head of “trouser roles” like Rosalind belonging to a certain type, and I was not it. But those articles were really helpful, and it made me start thinking wider… about those who identify as men and boys in my life, and how they came in all sizes and types. And I figured my inner Ganymede was kind of cranky, kind of sarcastic, liked chewing gum, wore spectacles and a Kangol cap (at least, in rehearsal), and, when roused, had a great deal of ebullient, trickster energy. I loved him.

With Flock, I went on to appear as Mrs. Daldry in In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play. I was a witch and a murderer in Macbeth, the evil queen in Cymbeline, and both a courtesan and an old woman in Dangerous Liaisons. Later, after moving to New York, I did a brief stint as the maid in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night–in the Monte Cristo Cottage, Eugene O’Neill’s childhood summer home, where O’Neill had actually set the play!

I made many friends in Flock, but in particular Eric, Dorian, and Kelsey. We still group-text sometimes, and see each other whenever I’m back in the area. I miss having friends and theatre so close. It’s funny to have moved to New York City, but to feel further from the theatre than even when I lived in Chicago. It just seems less… accessible to me here.

Now that I was on the East Coast, it was easier to attend the Boston cons. I was also invited to be a part of two writing groups. One lasted just a few sessions. It consisted of Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Kat Howard, Lev Grossman, Theodora Goss, and Cat Valente. But most of us didn’t live in the same state, some of us had demanding jobs or children, and it fell apart quickly. But one of those early meetings was the inspiration for my novella “The Bone Swans of Amandale,” so I’ll always be grateful for that. At the time, I felt so low on that particular literary ladder as to be invisible. I knew I was workshopping with giants. It made me dizzy.

The next writing group–which also met in Ellen and Delia’s living room–is still more or less ongoing. We call ourselves RAMP, for reasons I will not get into, but trust me, nothing you imagine is the reason why. It’s Ellen, Delia, Carlos, Joel Derfner, and Liz Duffy Adams. They’re very precious to me. I still feel I’m workshopping with giants, but it also feels like family.

From 2012-2015, I’d done some narration work for Podcastle, Uncanny Magazine, and Tales to Terrify. Between that and my recent stage work with Flock, my resumé was brolic enough and my audition professional enough to land me a contracting gig with Tantor Media, where I became an audiobook narrator. I always wanted to be an actor for living. All my life I’d been told I could never make a living acting. So I’d bent my will and energy to writing books instead. But in 2015, finally, I was making a living wage–ACTING! And acting in the service of books. Which was where my particular expertise lay.

2015 was an enormous year of change for me. My mother returned to Phoenix. I got new roommates. I had a new job in my field–and it demanded resources from me and a sort of personal upkeep I’d never paid attention to. (8 hours of sleep had never been so absolutely necessary before.) I was in a romantic relationship for the first time since I was a teenager–and a long-distance one, no less. I was recording albums, to the best of my ability. I had what I can only describe as panic attacks, except they kept happening for good things, which was confusing. Things were changing fast, and I was hard-pressed to keep up. Some things fell by the wayside, and some people too. That was hard on all of us.

Between 2015-2017, I was recording maybe 2-3 audiobooks a month. I was commuting to New York to visit Carlos. I was getting my novel Saint Death’s Daughter (it was called Miscellaneous Stones: Necromancer back then) submission ready for agents, and submitting it, and then getting feedback, and revising it (again and again) and submitting it. In the fall of 2017, just before I got married, Markus Hoffmann of Regal Hoffmann and Associates became my agent. He called my manuscript a diamond, the kind of thing someone like him always hopes for. He gave me concise but intense feedback. I started drafting again.

In 2017, Carlos got his Disney Hyperion contract to write for Rick Riordan Presents. Rick Riordan had read Carlos’s collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria from Rosarium Press and passed it on to his editor, Stephanie Lurie. found Carlos on Twitter and asked him out to lunch. They bonded over a legendary Cobb salad.

It’s funny: Carlos and I sometimes reflect on the odd parallels of our careers. My collection Bone Swans and his collection Quantum Santeria came out within 6 months of each other. I won the World Fantasy Award for Bone Swans, and Carlos got a Disney contract, and our careers sort of went molten at the same time, though in different ways. Until then, we were both revising the fourth drafts of our respective novels, and dreaming of one day having a book contract.

In 2017 and early 2018, I was working on Desdemona and the Deep as well as revising Saint Death’s Daughter. In 2018 Ellen Datlow accepted Desdemona for publication from Tor.com. It came out in 2019. At the end of 2019, I wrote The Twice-Drowned Saint for Mike Allen and a little novella project with a few other authors we’d been talking about, A Sinister Quartet. Of course, what was meant to be a 40,000 word novella turned into a 65,000 word short novel, but that couldn’t be helped. That came out in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, when Carlos and I were sojourning in Phoenix: a blessed but accidental exile that started out as a week-long visit and ended up being three months. Also in that time, we got an offer for Saint Death’s Daughter.

At the end of 2019 and in the early months of 2020, Carlos and I were commissioned to collaborate on a screenplay for an indie filmmaker. It was a format in which neither of us had written. It was interesting work, and I’m deeply sorry it fell through. I learned a lot, struggled a lot, and still feel slightly sunburnt about it all. I don’t regret the experience, but I am not eager to try again soon. At least, not in a writer-for-hire capacity.

I knew Saint Death’s Daughter wouldn’t be coming out till 2022, and I didn’t want a whole year to go by with nothing to show for it. I’d always wanted to re-write those first two self-published novellas The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers (which were set in the same world as Desdemona and the Deep), and to add a few other stories as well to make a collection called Dark Breakers. Either I would self-publish it or propose it to a small press. I did mean to get it all done sooner, for a 2021 publication date, but… You know. The best-laid plans and all.

So in the first half of 2021, I finished all that up. Rewrote those novellas, adding about 15,000 words each. Wrote a new novella “Salissay’s Laundries,” a novelette “Longergreen,” and a short story “Susurra to the Moon” and handed it off to Mike Allen at Mythic Delirium for Dark Breakers. I am so grateful for Mike and Anita Allen, for taking so many risks on me.

In 2021, I was also finishing the final sets of edits for Saint Death’s Daughter, collaborating on a few promised short stories with Carlos, and working with him on our storytelling RPG Negocios Infernales.

From July 2020 to October 2021, we had my best friend living with us, taking refuge and taking stock during the first year of the pandemic. Imagine us: a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, two professors teaching from home, and me in an office made of bookshelves in my bedroom, trying to write. Certainly my audiobook narration work had dried up in 2020, but this year, I got to do nine of them–and I could even walk to the studio. A nice change from my 3.5 hour commute from New York to Tantor’s studios. Though I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if it were safe.

On December 12, 2021, I turned 40. Those were my thirties. Those, and so much more. So much even I can’t remember. Friends made. Families bonding. Roads traveled. Countries visited. Mentors lost. Friends lost. Family lost. Careers careening. So many opportunities. So many pitfalls. Such love. Such love. Such love.

I could never have imagined my thirties in my twenties. All I knew was what I had been promised, that “your thirties will be your throne. You don’t know spit till you’re thirty,” as my friend Stephanie Shaw said.

I look to the next ten years. I hope I survive them. I hope I thrive–that we all thrive. I know I’m in for heartbreak. But I know I’m in for exquisite heart-flowering too: that vital rose aflame, that crown-knot of fire.

Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

T. S. Eliot

1 Comment

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One response to “2011-2021: A Reflection on the Last Ten Years

  1. How full of wonders! It reads like the best sort of novel. (Also: happy birthday!)

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