‘Exquisite: Angela Carter gone feral with Ursula le Guin. It is like a folk tale, but seen in its tattered shreds, glimpsed, but then utterly realised in language. It makes me glow; it makes my fur rise.'
- Jay Griffiths
In a ruined world, what survives are the tales we tell.
Tatterdemalion is a post-apocalyptic novel rooted deep in the folkloric traditions of Old Europe, and set in a wildly re-imagined Northern California. It begins when the boy Poppy, who speaks the languages of wild things, goes east to the mountains with the wheeled and elephantine beast named Lyoobov. He is seeking answers to the mysteries of his birth, and the origins of a fallen world. Up in the glacial peaks, among a strange, mountainous people, a Juniper Tree takes Poppy deep into her roots and shows him the true stories of the people who made his world, people he thought were only myths.
Their tales span centuries, from three hundred years in the future all the way back to our present day. There, two disillusioned artists named Rose and Ash dream the beast Lyoobov up out of the very earth and watch him become a living vehicle of revolt. After them come waves of revolution, and the women, men and children who witness the Fall of the world: Margaret, who tells the story of Before from a cloister in the shattered city; Wheel, who dances as the Fool for one of the totalitarian Camps after the Fall, and her escape to the treetops; Anja, Wheel’s daughter, whose birth heralds a new era, the era of the Wild Folk, guardians of all the wild places and beings of the world that have been too long abused by human need; and the tale-telling wanderers called Bells, Perches, and Boots who carry Anja’s story far and near through the broken land.
It is through the mysterious history of Anja that Poppy begins to weave a wholeness out of all of these pieces, and to understand the story of his own past, and his place in the present. Transformation always starts, after all, with a band of outcasts, but we only know it in hindsight.
What makes this novel unique is that it’s a collaboration between myself and the extraordinary painter, Rima Staines. Instead of starting with the text, as illustrated books usually do, this novel began with the pictures. The set of fourteen paintings in Tatterdemalion spans almost as many years in Rima’s life as an artist, the earliest of which she painted when she was just eighteen. The stories in the book emerged from the paintings as I wrote, each image a doorway into a world at once familiar and strange, a world that Rima and I both seem to have accessed, albeit through different rabbit holes. Writing in this way, with paintings as doorways, allowed me to create stories from a very deep and primordial place. The result is a creation that invites each reader on a journey, a total immersion into a realm of feral, but ultimately redemptive, myth.
I’ve a fox-swallowed heart I do. It was made underground, you see, in the ribs of Lyoobov, who has known gunfire but has regrown like any wise plant will do from her trunk, from her waiting roots. The only difference is that this Lyoobov came back as a female, not a male, like plants that have both the ovum and the pollen. Red alder trees for example. She found that was easiest. She found it was necessary, this time, to be a she instead of a he. A mama-beast, not a papa-beast.
Of course you want to know that story of resurrection, but I’m not much of an alchemist. I know nothing of the metaphysical. I know only that I walked because I was looking for newts but I found no newts in the creek, so I walked further, and further, and I seemed to have some fire in my soles so I kept going. It was like following a red string or the path of a doe and all of her arrowed hoof-prints. I walked and ate rosemary cakes from my mother. The stellar’s jays cackled, flaunting their black combs and spreading flashes of indigo with their wings in the prickly oaks. I poured them perfect worms from my coffeepot and they quieted down, even left me a handful of blue feathers, which I put in my hair.
My need to keep on walking was like what you’re filled with when you meet a pretty girl and something about her is a whole hillside of purple lupines in your blood and you can’t do anything except hold her in your mind’s hands and follow wherever she goes. I know you think because I never could speak to you your way that I was simple or dumb or made in the wrong body with longings only for coyote-girls or something, but you are all mistaken, of course. I have loved quietly like any boy of fourteen. Annabelle, yes, I see you there turning pink because you remember how I watched you through the window of your father’s place where he fixed up all our shoes with tree resin and old rubber from the beach, string from the guts of rats. It was like that, the feeling as I walked for days—that kind of longing, except my longing wasn’t lust at all, but some need for wholeness. I barely ate besides the rosemary cakes and new huckleberries in the woods, tart ones that made my tongue dry.
At the end of my walking, Lyoobov and I just found each other, in the middle of a field made all of tar broken in fissures and veins by a thousand thick dandelions and milk thistles and clusters of lemon balm. It was like Lyoobov had been there all along, my whole life singing my small name, Poppy, Poppy, to the wind in thousands and thousands of small seeds. We are parts of the same thing, she and I. I am hers and she is mine, phantom limbs of each other. Lyoobov is not the same as before, not quite, because her bones came apart and then reassembled and she had to grow ligaments, veins, skin, which the broad-footed moles helped with.
She told me that all the barn owls gathered blood from their prey in their beaks until there was enough to fill her whole body. Her heart grew from iris tubers, from a thousand million lacey pieces of mycelium knitting and knitting at all the last red thimbleberries and freshly dead fox hearts of that great meadow where she was buried hundreds of years ago by the woman named Margaret who had watched him die. Before, Lyoobov was the map through the World as They Knew It and Out the Other Side, and he was a boy, like me. Now, Lyoobov, she is a Maker, that’s what she says, and so she is a girl.
None of that, which we shared, leaving together from the broken up tar field at the confluence of several asphalt branches that were hard and hot under our feet, matters much, though I can see you are lighting tallow tapers and you are bringing all of your rare blue treasures to give her: that seaglass, those blossoms and tile shards and scraps of wool and bottles full of nettle liquor and plastic balls.
Listen: I rode on the back of Lyoobov all the way east up the big mountains to where the snow starts and the sun rises and the clouds drop everything and the waters flow down.
Listen: I can tell you what happened to Anja, whose name you are always murmuring. Anja protect my child, Anja bless this bread, Anja heal this wound. I can tell you her story. We are carrying it, me in my little chest-country and my silver coffeepot, Lyoobov in the great chamber of her abdomen which I have slept in through a small trapdoor beneath her.
But listen: all stories are hitched to a hundred others, like the spokes on Lyoobov’s wheels, like the stars and how they are also many people, dancing. We are carrying their voices, from Before. All the threads that made Lyoobov, that made Anja, that made me.
It’s all candle-lit and red inside of Lyoobov, and she has been keeping these Stories safe too beside the heating hearth of her heart, where my coffeepot rests, near to boiling, ready to pour. You’d never believe it, what my pot brews on the hearth of Lyoobov’s heart.
You are whispering loud, you are coming closer. Yes, I do mean Anja born from the buckeye whose mother was Wheel. Yes, like Bells, Perches and Boots have told it, kestrel-watched, cowbell-clanged, sole-trod. I don’t know how to tell a thing like they do. I only know how to say it all fox-swallowed and then spat up again with fur and bones on these pages which are and are not like new white milkmaid flowers perpetually blossoming and then dropping their petals all over our feet, growing with their roots right in Lyoobov’s ribcage, where I was, after all, born.
I will tell it all to you, the life of Anja. But I will have to tell you from the beginning,
Before the Fall.
First, I will tell you how we came to know any of this at all.
* * *
Well, wonderful readers, what a fantastic five days it has been since Tatterdemalion made its first appearance! We are so grateful and filled up by all of your support. Quickly we are nearing 50% funded-- goodness!--so if there is anyone you know who you think would love this book, now would be a wonderful time to share it!
But more importantly, I have something very delightful to share with you…
For those of you nearabouts Wales this weekend, that beautiful country of green hill & wild mountain, Rima will be in conversation with our publisher John Mitchinson this Saturday evening at 8:30 pm at the Hay Festival! The brilliant Tom Hirons, Rima's partner, will be reading an excerpt, which will surely be a treat as he is a completely marvelous storyteller. That's this Saturday…
Dear Wonderful Readers,
By now, most if not all of you should have your special edition of Tatterdemalion safe & sound in your hands, with its beautiful dust jacket-painting and luscious endpapers.... It is truly a thing of beauty, I am overjoyed every time I look at my own copy by the extra care and time the Unbound team put into bringing this book to life. And I very much hope you are all enjoying…
Hello dear Tatterdemalion-supporters,
Just a very brief note here to let you know that although I had thought in my last post that the book would be in your hands by Christmas, I'm afraid that due to the normal sorts of delays that generally accompany the publishing of a book, Tatterdemalion will not be on your doorsteps until some time in January or at latest early February. I'm SO sorry if this…
Along a ragged, root- and fire-cracked path a band of wanderers make their way from dark to light, from some city of the end-times to snow-green star-milk mountain and Beyond. Here are a motley, wild and storied bunch of characters... some recogniseable from Sylvia's uncanny and beautifully-wrought pages, some strange and unknown, all following that Wheeled creature of this Tatterdemalion world…
My dear wild ones,
It has been a while since an update, do forgive my delay! Much has been afoot, especially on Rima's end, where, besides moving in to a fully fledged Hedgespoken truck, she has been painting the most glorious cover you've ever seen, hand-lettering each & every section-title through the book, concocting bewitching endpapers, and more... All of this we will reveal VERY soon, so…
The design of Tatterdemalion is burgeoning like a ripe fruit, but as yet I can share no glimpses with you. Only know that the good people of Unbound are working together with me and Rima to create a thing of immense beauty. There has been talk of cloth binding, gold lettering, a beautiful set-in cover design, endpapers of great magic and enchantment... Oh my! Rima is hard at work…
Hello Dear Readers,
Well, things continue apace with both the doings of Tatterdemalion and our both of our writerly and painterly lives, on two distant coasts. I thought I'd give you a quick update amidst various writings and wanderings, because something Quite Exciting has at last come to pass, and while this doesn't directly concern Tatterdemalion, at least not literally, it does on a much bigger…
Hello dear readers,
I've recorded one of my very favorite passages from Tatterdemalion for all of you, the passage inspired by Lyoobov. It was the very first piece I wrote, the one that started it all. Reading it still makes me want to weep. And it also gives me a chill, these days. I wrote this passage almost four years ago, but today, it feels more apt than ever, as more and more and more proof…
Spring in California, dear readers, is a tangle of blossoms and births. Creamcups, irises, California poppies (above), strawberry flowers, red elderflowers, buttercups, Indian paintbrush, pink currants, milkmaids, baby blue eyes— they are all up. Imagine it-- how all year they wait underground for this brief green season of glory. Meanwhile, little baby animals are being born—river otter pups…
Dear & Marvelous Readers,
This morning, I watched in a matter of 20 minutes as the pledges still needed went from 6, to 5, to 2, to 1, to--- 100% funded!! The great bright flag of Complete! The mountain top, wreathed in banners of beautiful mist. Wow, what a ride it has been this month, as the fruit trees outside have blossomed and leafed furiously under the sun. We are so, so grateful to every…
The final ascent is upon us. The path feels steep, but the beautiful granite peaks are in sight, all rimmed with snow and cloud. We are getting so close! And oh, what a delight it will be to reach the summit and to sit down with a long, big cup of tea. And oh, how I wish I could share that cup with all of you!
In the meanwhile, there are a few very special pledge-levels with only…
My goodness, we are galloping toward the finish line, at 78% in a little less than three weeks! What a heart-warming, exciting process it has been! Thank you each and every one of you, recent supporters and those here since the very beginning! Truly, this is a great weaving of collaborative effort, and we couldn't do it without you.
Perhaps we can reach the finish line by the…
Hello dear readers,
We are truly staggered, and thrilled, and so grateful, for each and every one of you & your incredible support! There are now over 300 of you wild souls who have joined the Tatterdemalion caravan, and we really can't wait to share the book with you. Here in California, the weather is unseasonably warm and everywhere the flowers are starting to bloom. The plum trees are all…
My dear good people,
What an extraordinary first day it has been for Tatterdemalion! I launched this project yesterday morning just as it was getting light outside, after having looked for a while at the great scoop of the Big Dipper and the north star from my front steps. Then, last night, giddy at meeting 17% funded already, I watched the Big Dipper again, this time flipped around in the sky…
These people are helping to fund Tatterdemalion.