A. B. Young learned to tell stories from playing with Barbies. She learned to tell stories well at California College of the Arts. She now teaches kids how to read stories and write essays about them as a high school media and English teacher.
“Vain Beasts” was originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.
The unheard-breach of faith not
Feigned feeling to fill other vacancies
—Gloria Frym, Mind Over Matter
Dorian Gray forgets to pray most nights, listening instead to the cat caw on the back porch; listening with the cat for the crows to caw back. Wind whispers to the tired plaster walls, and sweat drips from the roof to the carpet of browning roses.
Dorian Gray crosses the village square on shoes that click as they lift from the cobblestones. The seamstress and her beau, with fingers curled around the edges of each other’s pockets, pause to watch him pass but don’t notice that the footsteps sound out of time. They look, instead, at the mask he wears beneath his hooded cloak. It is the taxidermied face of a fog-white wolf, fangs bared, eye cavities excavated. He walks with long, sure strides in the fading light.
He speaks to no one, but does turn to look at those who stop to watch him. The wolf mask sits slightly crooked on his face, and the long snout tilts, as if the wolf’s head is cocked. Murk glares out from where eyes should be.
When he reaches the edge of the woods, he follows a hard, worn path through the trees and to the grove of the moon goddess. An altar sits beside a shallow pool, and on it black roses float in a bowl of water.
He stops walking at the edge of the pool. The sound of his clacking footsteps continues for several seconds after.
He waits, silent, still. He waits for six minutes.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
I began “Vain Beasts” during my undergraduate degree at California College of the Arts. It started as a prose poem that I wrote for a class—the assignment was to take a passage from another text and use it as inspiration. I grabbed Gloria Frym’s Mind Over Matter from by bookshelf, and found the epigraph of “Vain Beasts.” The reason those lines stood out to me was because of a disagreement I had with Gloria (one of my professors at CCA) in her class the previous semester. I remember we derailed the seminar to unpack the difference between ’faith’ and ’belief’, and after class she sent me an email telling me she wanted me to write something about faith sometime.
How long did it take you to write this story?
Almost five years from conception to publication. From the original prose poem, the story kind of continued to build on itself, and I would open the document every couple of months to add, subtract, rearrange. Every time I returned to the story, I had different ideas about its meaning, and about what I was trying to achieve.
There’s a wonderful rhythm to so many of these sentences, often for paragraphs at a time. For example, “Calluses capture splinters as the woodcutter handles his kindling.” What, for you, makes for a good sentence? Does it have to do with sonic quality? Rhythm? Something else?
Rhythm is absolutely the focus when I’m line editing. My favorite writers are the ones who make me feel like I’m caught in a rip, being dragged helplessly away from shore. I want to have no choice but to keep reading (or to have to struggle to pull myself out of the story!). A good sentence, for me, is one that carries the reader into the next, and into the next, and the next, until they feel like they’re inside the story.
Your story relies on familiar elements of fantasy and fairytale in order to relay this eerily delightful tale of the ways people choose to live their lives, and the repercussions of those choices. What do you think magical realism, or fantasy, or fairytales can do differently, or more successfully than stories that rely or utilize only realism? Is there a freedom in writing from the tradition of fairytale that you don’t find with other literary traditions?
This is something I think about constantly, because so much of my writing draws from fairytales, but I don’t know that I have any real answers around it. As a high school teacher, I know discomfort is necessary for learning. I think realism can definitely create extreme discomfort, but that the uncanny has a certain power here because it’s inherently disruptive to expectations. I like that folklore’s structures for storytelling permeate all the stories from that culture that follow after. I like the way you can track the concerns of a society through the ways their artists choose to mythologize the issues they’re facing. I think that making space in culture for our imaginations to run rampant is crucial to progress. I think there’s value in making yourself uncomfortable through your own art. For me, I guess fairytales are where I am simultaneously most at home, and most at odds with the world around me.
Who would you consider the protagonist to be in your story? And the most vain?
Originally, the only characters in this story were the woodcutter and his wife, so I guess they were the protagonists. Dorian Gray was the first character about whom I wrote a full scene, so I think he was the protagonist for a while. At one point, I thought Juliet was the protagonist (Beauty who kills several Beasts). When I teach my students the definition of protagonist, I teach it as “the character whose decisions drive the plot forward.” Under that definition, it could be Juliet, but maybe it isn’t. Right now, I think of all the characters as iterations of the same person. I think the fairy is the most vain iteration.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
When my best friends tell me I’m wrong about something, I can say to them, “Well, I’m an award winning author, so . . . ” I win a lot of arguments now.
In all seriousness, this was really unexpected. I spent a long time trying to find a home for my weird genre-spanning piece of fiction, and I was impossibly honored that Gavin Grant and Kelly Link (who is my favorite short fiction writer) liked my story enough to put it in their lovely zine. For this story to be called one of the “best” debuts of the year, and for it to exist in an actual book, is still pretty baffling. I’m absolutely riding the high of validation to get as much written as I can before the self-doubt creeps back in!
What are you working on now?
I have a few short stories in various stages of drafting and editing, and the YA novel I’ve been working on for over a decade is nearly at the point where I won’t be able to do anything else to improve it on my own. I’m also doing a lot of collage, and have a zine series of found poems using the lyrics of mid-2000s emo bands in the works.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Lately, I’ve actually been discovering amazing new YA writers at work. My grade seven students have this fortnightly library lesson where they read silently for a period. I’m supposed to model good reading by reading silently alongside them. Multiple times this year, I have picked a random YA novel with a pretty cover off the shelf, and have been blown away by how much YA is changing as a genre. The artful prose and honest representations of the real, important challenges that I know my kids are facing (and which I remember facing when I was their age, but that no one was talking about) is incredible. My most recent find was We Are Okay by Nina LaCour.
Also, I discover a lot of poets through zines. Here in Melbourne (Australia), we have an amazing shop called The Sticky Institute, where zine makers can sell their work. I have found countless poets who resonate for me in the hours I’ve spent browsing Sticky’s shelves.