In which Octavia Cade talks about writing The August Birds…
“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Today, we are delighted to host Octavia Cade – one of our favourite writers AND Book Smugglers Publishing author – to talk about The August Birds, her first ever novel (we read it. It’s awesome), which is out now.
Please give a warm welcome to Octavia!
Several years back, I wandered into a cinema – as a grad student I went quite often in an attempt to avoid writing my thesis – to see a film about Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki raft. (An ethnographer, Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia in a balsa wood raft to prove it could be done.)
The PhD research I was doing was in science communication, so I figured it probably counted.
Anyway, I noted while watching that Thor and Co. washed up on the 7th of August, 1946. This date caught my notice because it was exactly two years and a day after the bombing of Hiroshima (part of my thesis looked at poetry about that bomb, so it was engraved on my procrastinating brain). And I began to wonder – how many interesting science things happened in August? Could I fill up the entire month? I couldn’t, as it happened – or at least not in chronological order.
I’m sure such a thing is possible. What I’m saying is I didn’t do it.
But if I took the Augusts out of order, cherry-picking over a span of centuries… that was a different kettle of fish. And out of all the Augusts came August, the protagonist of this, my first novel.
There’s a lot of books about dying kids out there at the moment. I know. It’s kind of a thing. I haven’t suddenly woken up as John Green; I just wanted to write about death and science. Because I like science, and because everyone’s got a streak of morbid in there somewhere.
Hence, The August Birds.
August is nine years old, and his dream is to be a scientist. It’s a dream that will never come true, because (and given the above, this’ll be no surprise) August is not long for this world. He’s never going to be an astronaut or a marine biologist. If he’s really lucky, he’ll make it to his tenth birthday – which happens to be the last day of the month he was named after.
Sometimes, when we’re dying, small dreams are what we have.
But August gets hit up by the supernatural version of Make A Wish, because on the eve of his birthday month, he’s visited by two time-travelling ravens. Their names are Muninn and Huginn, of Norse mythology (hi, Thor’s dad!), and they’ve come to give August a gift. For every day of this last August, they’ll take him back in time so he can experience a piece of science that happened on that day. Through them, August can have his dream.
Or at least, through Muninn. She’s August’s true companion, the one he talks with and tries to figure out death with. Huginn’s really only along for the ride – a mute, surly presence who thinks August is nothing but a nuisance.
The August Birds is quite different from a lot of stuff that I’ve written. Most of my fantasy stories revolve around myth and legend, because I love using the symbolism you can find in those sorts of stories. It’s resonant, something that lingers. But that resonance is something I find in science as well – the capacity for metaphor, at least. Science doesn’t get used a lot as metaphor, really – certainly not in comparison, so one of the things I’ve tried to do in The August Birds is to give it that mythological plasticity; to subvert science by making it a vehicle of indirection. As August himself is told, more than once – you never look straight at a solar eclipse. That’s an easy way to blind yourself – you’ve got to look indirectly, to see through a glass darkly, if you want to understand suns.
That’s what August and Muninn do. They talk in metaphors, they make mortality and magic of science. They talk almost in thirds.
One of the big challenges of writing this book was these three strands of conversation, all happening simultaneously even if, sometimes, subconsciously. That’s what myth is, after all: a story-way of accessing what swims beneath the surface… and science can also be myth. (Ever hear of Galileo dropping different weights from the Tower of Pisa? Probably didn’t happen, sorry. It’s a myth… but it doesn’t matter. It gets people thinking about gravity, and that’s the main thing.)
August and Muninn talk about science, of course, and that’s the first conversation.
But August is a bright kid, and he doesn’t take long to cotton on to the fact that the science is a cover for another conversation entirely. He and Muninn might be discussing comets or spectroscopes or the atom bomb, but the subjects are superficial ones… tools, if you like, by way of which they can talk about death. Specifically August’s death, and how he’s coping with it as it comes for him like a train, comes with a quick end and a certain one.
But beyond that, seeded through the chapters, is the third conversation – the one that Muninn is having with August. It’s not until the end that Muninn’s motivations become clear, that all this shaded talk of August’s death is itself revealed as a cover for something else entirely. It reframes the narrative, gives their conversations another dimension.
But it’s a juggling act. August is nine and he’s pretty clever, but he’s no genius and I never wanted him to be. He’s a bit of a nerd and he loves his science, but he’s still a kid. I couldn’t give him the dialogue of an adult, and I couldn’t have Muninn talk to him like they’re on the same level. She doesn’t talk down to him, but she does talk simply – I’ve had some people read this book who are subsequently convinced it’s a children’s book, or YA, but it really isn’t. It’s got those layered conversations and it relies very much on context, on some of the acquired knowledge that comes mostly from adult readers. Though the odd kid might like it anyway (it’s pretty PG friendly), so what do I know?
And because Thor got me into this, I’m going to hope he does the same for you. Just below you can read one of my favourite chapters from The August Birds. It’s 1946. August has just come from Hiroshima, but he’s also seen Caroline Herschel discover a comet, amongst other things, and on balance wonder is still outshining horror. That’s why he’s on a raft…
AUGUST 7, 1947
RAROIA ATOLL, POLYNESIA
“You have come from fire and into water,” said Muninn. Her wings were spread as if she were sunbathing, soaking up the heat, and her iron claws dug into balsa wood. August sat next to her with his legs dangled over the side of the Kon-Tiki, and though they were too short to reach the water they were sprayed sometimes, when waves splashed off the side of the raft, and the water and the sun together were so warm they made him sleepy.
“I’m glad you came back,” he said. “I’m sorry I told you to leave.”
“I know,” said Muninn. “It’s alright.”
“I thought I didn’t want to see you again,” said August. “But then I remembered Caroline and all the rest…” and with that weighted against him he could push down the burning to a little box inside and try his hardest to forget it.
It was easier for him to look at Huginn today. The bird circled above as he had done at Hiroshima–circled in slow, lazy spirals but the sky was clear, unstained by smoke and debris, and the air smelled of salt and ozone instead of burning flesh.
August lay back, his body pressed against the warm wood, and after a few minutes he forgot to flinch when a crew-member wandered by. There were six of them, and the raft was open to them, but “Don’t worry,” Muninn had told him. “I did not bring you here to be noticed, and you cannot interfere.” And though he had felt the vibration of footsteps beside his head, none ever touched him, and the men avoided his corner of the raft and were not aware that they did.
“They have come such a long way,” said Muninn. “It would be a shame for them to trip over you now.” And though the great blunt beak could not twist into humour, August felt the smile she might have made had her body been different.
“A very long way,” the bird said again, her eyes closing and drowsy in the heat. “All the way from South America.”
“Why?” said August.
“Because journeys are important,” said Muninn. “Because they make us change inside ourselves. Because they make us change the way we think.” One out-stretched wing flicked at a tall blond man packing papers into watertight bags, packing to preserve his records. “Because Thor there wanted to see if it could be done.”
“And it could,” said August.
“Yes,” said Muninn. “He has sailed for a long time, and this is the last day. He has looked forward to success for a long time.” And she pecked at August then, gentle but insistent, until he raised himself up on his skinny little arms and saw the water ahead, all broken up in long waves of bursting white and the atoll after that, the clean lines of yellow and green against blue.
“What is it?” said August, squinting. The sun on the water was so very bright it hurt his eyes. He was used to artificial light, to the flat fluorescence of hospitals and the softer shine in his bedroom, with the quiet bulbs and the nightlight and the sticky glowing stars April had set upon his ceiling.
“That is the end of their journey,” said Muninn.
“It looks nice,” said August. “Pretty.”
“To some of them it seems like paradise,” said Muninn. “Restful. A place of peace at the end of a long journey. A place where they can stop after the voyage is done.”
“Only some of them?” said August, and Muninn glanced again at the tall blond man.
“A voyage can be a difficult thing,” she said, and August rolled his eyes where she could not see, used now as he was to raven responses that were answers and not-answers at once. “It can take a long time, and there are losses along the way.” Above, them, Huginn squawked as if he were a parrot, and then laughed his hoarse raven laugh and Muninn determinedly did not look at him.
“It changes you, a voyage,” she continued. “It changes how you think, and your relationships with other people. It changes your body, even,” and August, whose shrinking, failing self was turning under the sun just a little pink at the edges, nodded. He knew about change–about hospital visits and operations and the scars that they left, about loss and lack and prices. His own voyage had left him unfit for one like this, for long days under a hot sun with salt all around and a horizon without end.
“And sometimes the change is gain, and sometimes it isn’t,” said Muninn. “And sometimes it’s so long and so hard that when it’s over, and when you have reached the atoll at the end of it, there is nothing more you want than to rest, to lie in peace on a strange beach and be still. But sometimes… sometimes when you see that beach, and know that the voyage is nearly over, there are some who picture themselves lying on that sand and wish that the voyage remained to them. Some who wish the atoll further off, in another part of the ocean, and the journey not yet done.”
“Endings are hard sometimes,” said August, and his eyes were fixed against the glare on the atoll, on the green and yellow of end-times and exhaustion, of trees that stood above the ocean like candles. He didn’t want to look away then, to look at the vast and beautiful breadth of ocean beyond him, the ocean he would never explore because his time upon it was limited, and failing. And the atoll before him was pretty, so pretty, but it was an ending for all that and he could understand, in his way, that for some of the sailors aboard the Kon-Tiki the ending was bittersweet.
He understood it, and he was only a little boy under a hot sun, wanting to sail away from the atoll, to sail away forever and float in a calm sea with the water peaceful all about him.
“It is not always calm,” said Muninn, and she was not talking about storms or swells or the hard wash of current, but the broken water ahead, the sharp knives of the reef and the waves that pounded on it as anvils. “And the reef is not peaceful.”
“Do they have to go over it?” said August, but even as he asked he knew the answer, for he could see no other way to land, no safe path between the churning. And the balsa raft was busy with preparation, with the anchor drawn up and lashed to the mast, with a home-made, make-shift anchor of empty cans and scrap, of mangrove wood and dead batteries, ready to be drawn behind. There were life-jackets then, and shoes on sunburned feet, the sail taken down and the cabin all covered in canvas and the bamboo deck taken up in parts to get at the centreboards, to bring them up and make the raft more fit for shallows.
“That is the way of it,” said Muninn. “The end of a journey is often the hardest. It is where the last struggle comes in, the place of greatest danger, the place of hard roads. And then it is done,” she said, “and over.”
And August said nothing. There was nothing to say, for he knew the end of journeys and all the hard places. Knew the scraping over rocks, the battle for breath and the difficulty of keeping whole, the final struggle. Knew the way it would get harder and more hurtful for heart and lungs and brain, until he could slip over the final reef and let the journey go.
“Hold on to me, August,” said Muninn then, and she was in his lap with his arms about her, the iron shape of her warm on his skin, warmer than water, warmer than sunlight. And he was not the only one holding on, for her claws gripped him tightly as the men around him gripped, holding tight to balsa and ready to be broken up and floated ashore, their knuckles wet and white with strain and their eyes alight with hope and with a fear that held as much of excitement as it did of endings.
And then the reef was before them and under them, the hard red rock of it grating against the bottom of balsa and the raft was screaming and creaking and then Muninn had him, her claws hard around him and they were winging upwards, above the white water and the foam and the fear of wreckage. And they were beyond it then, beyond the men who had sailed an ocean over and had washed up ashore, washed up at a place of resting, of relief and regret both, and August was carried away with his own reef ahead and still to come.
The August Birds is currently out on Kindle, and will soon be available via Smashwords. And I’m graduating with my PhD in science communication this coming (yes, you guessed it) August.
About the Author:
Octavia Cade has very nearly finished her PhD in science communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cosmos Magazine and Aurealis, amongst other places. Her most recent novella, Vita Urbis, is also stuffed full of retellings.
We are giving away two digital copies of The August Birds. The giveaway is open to all and will run until Saturday July 18 11:59 AM. To enter, please use the form below: