Behind the story "Among the Sighs of the Violoncellos"

On Monday my short story "Among the Sighs of the Violoncellos" went live on Strange Horizons (also in podcast form, wonderfully read by Anaea Lay). Obviously I'm proud of the story and thrilled to have it in Strange Horizons. When I first started reading short fiction, SH and the shortly lived Lennox Avenue were the two that I focused on, reading not just to see if I had stories that might fit, but to learn from the stories that they published. Now almost ten years later to see my name in that long-familiar format is very cool.

So where in the world did this story come from? I mentioned when it was accepted that the title of the story comes from a line of a poem by Rubén Darío, "Era un aire suave." I was playing around with translating the poem, and the last line of the first stanza translates literally as "among the sobs of the cellos" (violoncello is an older English word for the instrument, now rarely used but still around, I guess: Spanish retains the full word, violoncelo). I liked the flow of the line better with "sighs" and went with the older English term.

That's about as far as I got with the translation, but I really liked the line itself and thought it should be the title to a short story. So I created a file in Google docs, gave it that title...and then sat there. I had no story. Sometimes having a title, I can trick myself into writing even without knowing the story, but it didn't work that time.

The file sat empty for days. Weeks. Months. Periodically I'd look at it sitting there in my Google docs and think I should just delete the file, since it wasn't even a draft I should keep in case it proved useful at some point. But I never did.

The problem was, Darío's poem centers on a garden party of high society and the flirtatious, sometimes cruel marquesa who presides over the party. But...high society rarely inspires my stories. Given the time period of the original poem, a steampunk story could have fit great, and there's definitely a tradition in steampunk for the parties of society. And while I have nothing against reading such stories, it's one part of steampunk that I've never been tempted to write about. My stories (steampunk or otherwise) almost always focus on the down and out people, people struggling to get by. Every time I thought of trying to set a story in a fancy garden party, I lost interest before I'd written a single sentence.

Certainly, the title didn't demand the same setting as the poem. But it was so strong in my mind, that I couldn't pry it free to do something completely different.

Then finally last summer, I was thinking about Darío and the modernist movement in Spanish poetry. For them, the perfect symbol of ideal beauty was the swan. And without thinking ahead, I starting writing about a perfect swan, made of clockwork, and realized that its perfection would drive away any real swans. There! I had my entry into the story at last. The playful whimsy of wish-tails and prophetic flowers and a fairy-tale tree just accrued, all with the undercurrent of these never-quite-identified workers (servants? slaves? captive duende creatures?) who narrate the story--it was the perfect balance to keep me invested in the story.

The only thing that's left to mention is that I nearly deleted it before submitting it. After I finished, I became wrapped up in some other things--a middle grade novel I wrote for my son, then the bundle releases for Spire City season one and the beginning of season two (back when Musa was still publishing the series), and a surge of short story writing that I dove into near the end of the year. When I came up from that, I'd half forgotten that I'd written the story. Looking around my Google docs files, I again had that thought I'd had periodically earlier: should I still keep this empty file, or just delete it? It was only the briefest question, before I remembered that it wasn't an empty file at all... So I took it back out, revised it and polished it and sent it in to Strange Horizons as soon as they opened for subs for the new year.

And that was that.


Ryan said…
It was a fantastic story -- I loved everything about it.
Daniel Ausema said…
Thank you, Ryan! Always good to hear when someone enjoys a story.
Kurt Hunt said…
I just read this today. Fantastic piece! The plot really crept up on me, and reflected the POV character's disorientation very well without losing me. And there's some killer lines... I was particularly found of the orphan farm boys "improbably gifted at swordwork."