Interview: Jeremy P. Bushnell on How He Cut Urban Fantasy to the Bone in ‘The Insides’

 

Jeremy P. Bushnell is the author of The Insides, a gritty and sometimes gruesome urban fantasy about magic and consequences:

Ollie Krueger’s days as a punk kid practicing street magic are are mostly behind her. Now she’s a butcher at Carnage, a high-end restaurant offering deconstructed takes on meat, and on the busiest nights of the week she and her partner, Guychardson, race to see who can produce more finished cuts. Ollie’s the better butcher, but somehow Guychardson almost always wins. And Ollie thinks maybe it’s because the mysterious knife he uses is magic.

Before she knows it, Ollie’s interest in the knife has thrown her square in the path of a dangerous ex-marine called “Pig” and his hired psychic, Maja, who are on the hunt for the knife too—who want it so badly, in fact, that they might kill for it.

Now, magic is back in Ollie’s life and she’s being chased through New York City, with the fabric of space-time tattering around her and weird inter-dimensional worms squirming their way into her kitchen. And before all this is over she’s going to need to face up to the Possible Consequences of some bad decisions, to look at the uncomfortable truths that she stuffed away long ago, deep down inside . . .

In the following interview Bushnell and I discuss fantasy tropes, corporate mercenaries, and the magic of the everyday.


UNBOUND WORLDS: Satan, magic knives… when are you going to settle down and write a normal book like those other nice authors?

JEREMY P. BUSHNELL: Not this year! For whatever reason, when I started writing these weird, speculative novels, I made up my mind that I was going to do three of them, and I’m working on the third now (The Mess). They’re not a formal “trilogy”–they don’t share characters, and they’re not designed to be read in any particular order–but they definitely form a single unit in my mind. Three books just seemed like a nice large goal, big enough that by the time you completed it you could straightfacedly say that you’d gone reasonably deep into the possibility space presented by speculative fiction. Certainly you could spend a lifetime winding your way deeper into it, though, so the question becomes: do you keep going, or do you follow your thread back out, and do something else? And at this point I’m really not sure. I have ideas for a few projects beyond this one–some are speculative fiction and others aren’t, though I will say that even my most normal ideas have a streak of weirdness in them.

UW: The Weirdness and The Insides both involve characters crossing paths with powerful beings that are kind of gatekeepers for a greater universe. That’s a classic archetype one sees often in myths and fairy tales, and in the case of The Insides, there’s another wonderful archetype: the magic sword (or knife). Are you subverting these fantasy tropes or simply making the necessary changes to adapt them to a modern, urban setting?

JPB: Great question, although ultimately I think that it’s not an either/or–I really believe that the subversion is a necessary part of the adaptation. In The Weirdness, for example, I wanted to play with the classic trope of “making a deal with the devil.” But this kind of story, almost by its very nature, privileges a Judeo-Christian view of the world, and I had to subvert that in order to make it a better fit for the modern cosmopolitan world, which is characterized by its heterogeneous mixture of beliefs and creeds. So when Billy, the protagonist of The Weirdness, tells his best friend “I met the devil today,” his best friend ends up saying “Um, I don’t believe in that particular devil, I’m a Hindu.” And Billy has to go “oh, huh, I didn’t think of that.” And so part of the story involves how a being from Christian mythology can be walking around in the world without negating the beliefs of the world’s billion Hindus.

And I think this is right. As modern readers, we should be able to enjoy a story that draws on the Christian mythic system, but not at the expense of thinking about who gets excluded from those stories. We should be able to enjoy stories about mysterious kings with magical blades, but not at the expense of thinking about who suffers at the hands of imperial ambition. We should be able to enjoy stories about faceless Lovecraftian monsters, but not at the expense of thinking about Lovecraft’s racism. And all these little adaptations and course-corrections are a form of subversion. It’s my hope that I’m able to do it in a way that’s not heavy-handed–subversion, at its best, is light, swift, clever, playful even, and I hope that I’m operating in that mode.

UW: Magic features prominently in The Insides, but it’s not a straight-forward urban fantasy. This is a story about people dealing with (sometimes literally) messy chapters in their lives, past and present. Which came first when you were plotting this one out? The fantasy or the drama?

JPB: They’re intertwined. I knew early on that I wanted to do a story about an object that could allow people to manipulate time—that, if used correctly, could enable people to undo the mistakes in their past. Once you decide you’re going to play with that premise, you immediately start to look at your developing cast of characters and think “well, what do these characters regret? What would they fix, if they could?” And that’s a bottomless wellspring of human drama.

UW: As a follow-up, the kind of magic performed in The Insides isn’t all fairy dust and pixie wings, is it? Can you tell me a little bit about the occult aesthetic at work here?

JPB: My occult aesthetic is very married to things–artifacts, objects. And not just the normal sort of magical claptrap that you can get at your local occult supply shop (wands, crystals, etc.) but any kind of object with personal significance. In The Insides that includes bones, figurines, a belt buckle, and a kazoo. I think this aesthetic is partly inspired by Bruno Latour’s concept of the “anthropological matrix”–the premodern idea that everything, including objects, is connected into a kind of animistic whole–and partly by classical Renaissance hermetic magic, which claims that by manipulating talismans in this world you can manipulate energies and powers in a higher world, based on a system of correspondences or similarities.

I think these ideas have more of a toehold in our society than we might readily admit–for years now I’ve taken note of the way that even quite ordinary, middle-class, secular Americans often have some sort of “altar-like” area in their home, a shelf where they arrange significant things. Magic just means thinking of that area as a space to do work. And this shows up in fiction, too: just look at Tim O’Brien’s classic “The Things They Carried” or Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for some great examples of works that aren’t fantasy but derive much of their force from tuning in to the signals given off from meaningful objects.

UW: I’m frightened of Pig. Really frightened. Tell me you didn’t have any real-life inspirations for him. Or do tell me. Where did this guy come from?

JPB: Well, the vision of Pig’s character–this unstoppable menacing force wearing a pig mask–did straight-up come from a terrifying nightmare that I had when I was planning The Insides. I woke up and was like “well, that’s going in the new book.” But people like Pig are out there in real life. He was raised as a far-right nativist ideologue, and if you want to see that ideology fully in play you really need look no further than some of the supporters of Trump or Brexit. At the same time, Pig is also sort of a nihilist–he believes in his father’s right-wing ideology, but mostly because he thinks it’s a route to maximize chaos, to create disruption for its own sake. Again, you don’t need to look far to find people with this ideology, either–just look for the message boards where troll culture has gotten most rancid. A final inspiration for Pig’s character was P. W. Singer’s disquieting book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, which looks at former military personnel who take on shadowy, quasi-legal roles as soldiers-for-hire in global conflict zones. I imagine Pig to have spent some time accruing experience in this line of work, which makes him automatically scarier than nearly anybody that I hope to ever cross paths with.

UW: For the characters of The Insides, getting what you want comes with complications, be it through the use of magic, or luck, or a lot of hard work. What about for you? I imagine that you must have had a different idea of what being a professional novelist and educator would be like before you were either of these things. How has the reality differed from your dreams?

JPB: Nothing comes without its consequences—that’s definitely a recurring caution in The Insides. Though it’s worth noting that it’s coupled with a piece of advice: think about those consequences before you begin chasing after what you want. Think deeply, so you can make a clear-eyed decision about whether you actually want what you think you want. I believe that I stuck to this advice with regard to novel-writing: yes, writing novels has its drawbacks (you spend a lot of time indoors, frowning at a computer screen) but they’re a small price to pay when weighed against the pleasures of the work, and I knew, early on, that I was willing to pay that price. The same goes for working as an educator, which truly has been a source of enduring delight. There’s a consequence to choosing that line of work, of course—I’m unlikely to make my first million anytime soon—but again, I knew that going in, and when I weigh that consequence against the satisfaction of being able to work closely with young people on their writing, and the privilege of having enough free time left over to concentrate on my creative projects, I have no doubt that I made the right choice.