Variations on Death and Love

I have two pieces published this month and they’re both about death. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The first piece is an article, Danse Macabre: Equality in Death in Medieval Istrian Frescoes published in The Deadlands. This wasn’t the first time I connected my art history knowledge with my publications in speculative fiction magazines, but it was the first time I wrote a non-fiction piece about my own cultural heritage. If you want to know more about medieval representations of death and about the role of death as the great equalizer, read the article. Also, the frescoes are amazing.

Party like it’s 1474

The second piece is The Collector, published in the September issue of Cossmass Infinities. This one is not really about death, although the main character is Morana, the old Slavic goddess of death (who is, BTW, also the MC in my dark fantasy novel I’m querying right now). My main focus in this story is on migrant workers and on how hard it is to leave your country and your heritage behind, even if you are a deity. It sucks to be a foreigner, far from the people who believe in you, metaphysically or otherwise.

The story is on the Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction list on Tor.com, where Alex Brown wrote an amazing review:

We’ve all read tons of stories about Death gods and soul collecting, but there is something special about Jelena Dunato’s story that stuck with me. Morana, an ancient Slavic pagan deity tied to death and winter, travels to Italy to retrieve the soul of a dying elderly woman. But the woman’s house becomes a battlefield as other Death gods seek to claim the woman’s soul. I think what I appreciated the most was how Dunato threaded in the complexities of being a migrant in a place that needs your labor but does not care about your life, where ties to family and land become both stronger and more tenuous.

This month I’m also collaborating with the wonderful  A.R. Ward on Ghost Orchid Press’s new anthology, Beyond the Veil. This one is not about death, thank goodness, but about love. Queer, supernatural love. Send us your stories, we are eager to read them.

Pogača

My new story How to Bind a Sailor’s Heart is in the May issue of Mermaids Monthly.

Charles Payseur writes about it in Quick Sip Reviews

A grim and bracing story, but one that acts as a fierce warning, full of haunting beauty! 

To celebrate its publication, I decided to share my recipe for pogača – the dish described in the story (without the gory details, of course – but feel free to be creative if the circumstances demand it).

Komiška pogača is a traditional filled bread from the island of Vis. This is my version of the recipe – delicious and really easy to make.

Mermaids? What mermaids?

Komiška pogača

Dough

  • 600 g plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 7 g dry yeast
  • a splash of virgin olive oil
  • 400 ml warm water

Filling

  • 50 ml virgin olive oil
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 500 g tomato puree
  • 8-10 anchovy fillets
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 1 bay leaf
  • rosemary
  • thyme

Instructions

Prepare the dough: mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, add oil and water. You can use a hand mixer at this point. Knead the dough until you get a nice, smooth texture. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and let it rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.

Prepare the filling: chop the onion and sauté it in the virgin olive oil over medium heat for 10 min. Add the garlic, sauté for 1 min then pour in tomato puree. Add bay leaf, rosemary and thyme and simmer for about 20 min, until it thickens. Set aside to cool.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Assemble the pogača. Take the risen dough, knead it and divide it into 2 equal parts. Roll the first part into a round shape and transfer it to a baking tray lined with baking paper.

Spread the tomato sauce, arrange the anchovies in a circle and dot with capers. Roll the other part of dough into a circle and cover the first part. Fold the edges and seal them with a fork. Bake the pogača for 30 – 40 min, until golden. Slice it into wedges and enjoy.

New stories

I have three new stories published this month, which is a personal record.

The first one is Immortelle in The Dark Magazine. It is a very dark story about bleak landscapes and bleak outcomes. Charles Payseur wonderfully summed up the whole issue in his Quick Sip Reviews:

A grim issue full of stories about people trapped in yearning. In want. Isolated and alienated from the world they move through. Because they don’t fit or because they’re vulnerable and just want somewhere safe. Whatever the case, though, that yearning is used against them, used to draw them into something like a trap, something hungry and knowing exactly how to prey on them.

It also made it to the Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction list on Tor.com:

This one gripped me hard and hasn’t let me go. A young woman in an unspecified historical era is murdered by her lover after she finds out she’s pregnant. But she is not content to stay dead. A haunting story of vengeance and consequences.

Alex Brown

Fun fact: before the cosmetic industry turned immortelle into a priceless elixir of youth, the locals on the island where I live deemed it worthless because the sheep wouldn’t eat it. They used it as fuel for fishing lanterns. Those fires must have smelt wonderful.

The second one is Perfect Date in Future Science Fiction Digest. That one is more upbeat, with some humour thrown in, though the subject is serious. Personally, I’ve always found dating exhausting and exasperating, which made me wonder what kind of technology could provide women with a more positive experience. Unfortunately, it seems that in my imagination, even the most perfect dates have flaws.

Short and sensual and complicated, looking at the distance between someone’s frustrations and their desires. I really like how in so short a space it takes on AI, sex work, fantasy, and safety. Really a lot to unpack here, and a really strong story!

Quick Sip Reviews

The last story is The Echo in Dark Hearts: Tales of Twisted Love published by Ghost Orchid Press. It’s a truly wonderful collection of dark stories about love gone wrong. Mine is no exception: it’s a story about domestic violence, which is a subject that never fails to make me angry and sad.

Perhaps now that the spring is here, my writing will become optimistic once more. I’m working on a steampunk novella and I’m still trying to find an agent for The Book. I could really use some luck.

Hello darkness

I have recently volunteered to be the first reader for The Crypt Magazine, an online magazine of dark fiction and poetry published by the Ghost Orchid Press. I’ve often read and critiqued my fellow writers’ work, I’ve been a beta reader and critique partner, but I’ve never been a slusher. I think it requires a completely different set of reading skills and I’m really looking forward to it.

Between working with the Ghost Orchid Press and writing my recent stories, I’ve figured out something I’d been completely unaware of: I naturally lean towards writing dark fiction. I’ve always thought of myself as primarily a fantasy writer, especially historical, sword-and-sorcery type of fantasy. But whatever I write these days, comes out very dark – and I’m quite comfortable with that. It feels like I opened a dam and black water flowed out. It might be because it’s been a year – officially – since the beginning of the pandemic and my way of coping with anxiety and stress is to dig deeper and go darker, or it might be because it’s always been lurking inside me but I just haven’t recognized it. In any case, I’m ready to embrace it.

Oh, and if you have a dark story/poem under 500 words, The Crypt will open for subs on 1st March. Check the submission call.

White whale has landed

Those outside the querying trenches often mock those inside them for comparing the process of researching on-line, writing a letter and hitting “send” to the experience of sitting in a freezing hole in the ground while shells explode above your head. However, in my humble opinion, those who’d never tried to run the minefield of MSWL, died an agonizing death in no man’s land while waiting for requests, or felt the bayonet-in-the-guts pain of the full rejection have no right to express their opinion on the subject.

However, I’m not here to moan but to celebrate an extraordinary occurrence, the white whale of story writing: four days from the first word written to the story acceptance. Call it a wild fluke or karma or divine benevolence, but it was a ray of sunshine in my trench. Started the story on Friday, sold it on Monday. Admittedly, it is a very fast market and, also, I had a hunch that the story was right for them, but it’s still a miracle. What makes it even more important, on a personal level, is that the story was my reaction to the anxiety and heartbreak of the querying process.

I suppose it’s better to pour out your pain and sell it than to keep it in.

Anyways, Immortelle is coming soon. It’s dark, violent and crawling with zombies.

Colombina, or how a story wove itself from art and mist

Sometimes a story appears whole and perfect in a writer’s head and all they have to do is write it down. Unfortunately, that almost never happens to me, and Colombina is no exception. Writing it was a meandering process of trial and error, trying to fit different pieces together without a clear image of the finished picture in my mind. But in the end, some magic must have been involved because, once the pieces found their proper places, the story shone.

It started with a writing prompt: write a story from the POV of a magical object. A sword or a ring or a lantern would have been an obvious choice, but I didn’t want it to be obvious. I wanted an object that had power on its own, even without the magic, an object that could transform its owner. As it was almost the Carnival season (the Carnival tradition is religiously observed here), it crossed my mind that my narrator could be a mask.

Mead Schaeffer, Forbidden Lover

Just as I started thinking about masks, I came across Mead Schaeffer’s Forbidden Lover. It is an eye-catching illustration, pretty and borderline kitschy, but what is important is that there’s a story in it. You look at the masked lovers and you think, “Who are they? Why is their love forbidden?” And that’s how Caterina and Domenico were created.

By this point, it was clear that the story had to be set in Venice, which was a wonderful challenge for my inner art historian. The canals, the gondolas, the mist – those were the staples. But what particular details could one highlight in a city that is filled with magnificent works of art?

First, I needed a church. Santa Maria della Salute presented itself as an ideal choice: you can approach it by water, it’s famous enough for the readers to know it or find it easily, its style corresponds with the story’s setting and one can easily imagine it appearing from the fog, imposing and beautiful.

After the church, I needed to choose a palace and, honestly, it could have been any of the amazing buildings on the Canal Grande. But I chose the Palazzo Dolfin Manin because it’s one of my personal favourites and because it was designed by Jacopo Sansovino, who created some of the greatest Venetian landmarks.

Alvise Manin is an imaginary character, but he owes his name to the Manin family, who owned the palace in the 18th century.

The interior of the palace was decorated by Tiepolo, but his art did not fit the mood of my story, so I chose a different painting for Manin’s study. The Toilet of Venus or Venus with a Mirror is a popular subject and there are wonderful examples by Bellini and Titian, who are both locals. However, their goddesses are absorbed with their own images and pay no attention to the viewers. I needed a goddess who could meet the eye of the viewer. For that purpose, I chose Rubens’s version. I don’t specify this in the story, but I held it in my mind as I wrote.

Peter Paul Rubens, Toilet of Venus

The question of Caterina’s costume was also a challenge. I didn’t want her mask to be generic, it had to turn her into someone else. I needed a stock character: vivid, recognizable, fitting the story. Commedia dell’arte offered a solution. Colombina is a comic servant, a perky maid, clever and resourceful – a perfect character for Caterina to turn into in order to save herself. But also, perhaps a little less noticeable, hidden in the shadows, I used the motif of the hopeless lovers, Gli Innamorati, for Caterina and Domenico. And of course, Caterina’s father is the head of the household, Il Dottore, and Alvise Manin is the rich old fool, Pantalone. Basically, you have the whole cast of the Commedia dell’arte on stage here.

Writing about all these elements now, I’m surprised that I managed to weave them all together, but some of that work was unconscious. My previous knowledge, my interests, things I’ve read somewhere. I am very happy that it all clicked together. I hope the readers will enjoy the story as a whole and also wonder about the historical details.

In the end, I must add a disclaimer: this is a fantasy story in which I tried to make the real details as accurate as possible. If I have made any mistakes, I apologize for them.

Oh, and there was a wonderful review in the Locus

Colombina” by Jelena Dunato is told from the perspective of a sentient mask that attracts a young woman to pick it up. Follow­ing the beats of commedia dell’arte it identifies the core drama of the woman’s life and the key players within, and helps her avoid the clutches of a lecherous Pantalone and run away with her Harlequin. It’s very cleverly done, and the mask has a great voice.

Karen Burnham

The Book

Let’s make this clear: The Book is not the first novel I’ve written nor it is the last, so all the drama connected with it is purely subjective. But it is my current project and it has taken me on a roller coaster ride of hope and disappointment of epic proportions (subjective, remember!).

I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript in the summer of 2019. I’ve found some great beta readers (thanks, Scribophile) that helped me with the plot, characters and prose. I edited it and sent the first few queries in November and December. I had no luck with agents in that first round, so I went back to the manuscript, did a complete structural edit, rewrote some chapters and added new ones. I polished my query and synopsis. And started querying again.

In April, an agent saw my Twitter pitch and asked me for a full. In less than a month, I had an offer of representation.

And then… nothing.

Global pandemic struck and I think the agent just didn’t handle it very well. There were enthusiastic emails and chats about future plans, but those things never materialized. In the end, I got no agent and my manuscript got no attention and no opportunities to get published.

But the manuscript is still here, complete and polished. I just need to gather the courage to go back to querying. Wish me luck.

Look, I’ve made such a lovely mood board for The Book.

Suck it up, brain weasels!

2020 has been a good year.

Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement. 2020 has been a terrible year in so many ways. The pandemic, the lockdown, the fear, the crumbling economy and the horrors of homeschooling. It was a tough year to live through and I’m glad it’s almost over.

And yet… it’s been a good year for me, although there hasn’t been any special turning point, no epiphany to speak of. It’s just that I’ve finally allowed myself to do what I’d been wishing to do these past twenty years – let other people see my work.

To be honest, there has never been a time when I was not writing. But scribbling things in the wee hours and then burying them on your hard disc does not make you feel like a real writer. Nor does it give you confidence. It leaves you alone with brain weasels whispering in your ear that you’re not good enough, that your writing is trash and that no one will ever want to read it.

Brian the Brain Weasel

But in 2020 I decided I’m done with being my own greatest obstacle. 2020 was the year when I admitted to myself that I wanted to write speculative fiction, I wanted to write in English and I wanted to publish my work.

Five short fiction sales later, I think I’ve made the right decision.

So suck it up, brain weasels!