Hugo and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and she is a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. Her most recent fiction credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her debut novella, River of Teeth, comes out in May 2017. She has a novel forthcoming from Tor Books in Spring 2019. Gailey lives in beautiful Oakland, California with her husband and two scrappy dogs. You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com; find her on social media @gaileyfrey.
The first time I met Chamuco, I took my shirt off and he traced the outline of my back onto a sheet of paper and we talked about the shape of the universe. The design I wanted was stark, simple, and infinite.
Everyone wants to know what it is and what it means. The amount of explaining I do largely depends on who is asking.
Random guy at a festival who grabs me by the shoulder so his friend can take a photograph of my back gets “not your fucking business.”
Stranger at a con who asks politely, interrupting a conversation I’m having with a friend gets “it’s a tree.”
Casual acquaintance gets “it’s tree roots.”
Friend who I dearly love and who has just purchased me my third glass of champagne gets this:
Dendritic patterning is a motif that is already intrinsic to my body. It’s the pattern that’s found in neurons, and lungs, and blood vessels. It’s also the pattern that’s in tree branches, and lightning, and river deltas. It represents my faith. It represents the way that my past connects to my future. It represents the infinite smallness and infinite largeness of everything I am and everything I do. It represents all the terrible things in my life, and the way all of those terrible things came together to point to a path that I’m glad to be on, and the way all of those things will eventually prove to be small in the great scope and scale of my life.
The first time I met Chamuco, I told him what I wanted, and he responded with a sketch that filled the top third of my back. The session took four and a half hours. Chamuco started at the bottom and worked his way up. I braced my arms against the back of a plastic-wrap-covered office chair and told him about my life as he worked. At the very top of the piece, he shaved off part of my hair with a straight razor. The tattoo needle made my skull vibrate so hard that my vision blurred, and I saw what pain feels like.
When I came back, Chamuco put an octopus on my thigh.
I trusted him by then. I trusted him so much that I indicated a span of flesh ranging from the top of my pelvis to the top of my knee, and I said “put an octopus there, whatever you want.” Chamuco was pretty excited — it turns out he’d spent days and nights at the Monterey Bay Aquarium studying the way tentacled creatures move. He gave me my second tattoo in another 4-hour session.
I didn’t come back again for five years or so. I’d gotten a lot of skin covered in a short time. I didn’t want anything else yet. I sent friends and family to Chamuco, and I kept up with him on social media, and I followed his artistic career as much as I could. It felt like a shorter time than it really was.
When I came back, I wanted my upper arms covered. They had scars on them, and they embarrassed me in that way that things only you ever notice can be embarrassing.
“What do you want?” he asked me, after we caught up a little.
“White ink,” I said. I liked the way it looked, and I liked how it would make my scars blend in. “Something that will go with my back piece. Whatever you want.”
I was wearing a strapless dress, and I rolled it down so that Chamuco could see my back piece. I stood with my arms outstretched as he drew on my skin, freehand, with a sharpie. I looked in the mirror at the curling, lacy wings he was applying to my shoulders and upper arms, and I smiled. I asked for one small adjustment — a curl where there was a straight line — and within a couple of hours the filigree was permanent.
I came back a week later for touch-ups on my back and thigh, and I realized how good I had it — that I could come to someone and ask them for something that would be on my skin forever, and I never once had to worry about whether or not I’d love it. Chamuco’s additions make me feel like art. When River of Teeth comes out in May, I’ll be sporting a new piece — a blood-spattered water hyacinth. I won’t know what it looks like until it’s finished. I won’t know what he has planned for me until it’s done — but I know it’ll be good.
It always is, in the end.
About this post: Inksplanations (and variations thereon) is the name for a series of short interviews with a number of genre writers about their tattoos. Why they got them, what they mean, how getting ink did or didn’t change them–any and all of these topics are fair game. What drives a literary artist to literally become canvas for an image or epigram? Did they get what they were seeking? I wanted to know, especially after I got my 2016 poppies from Toronto artist Lorena Lorenzo at Blackline Studio, and so I did what any curious writer would do. I asked.
The always-lovely Simon Bestwick invited me to do an interview on The Lowdown not long ago and as of yesterday it’s up and readable. In it, naturally, I talk about my upcoming novel and the books that went before it, current projects, and my writing process. They’re the sort of questions writers often answer. People, whether they’re mostly readers or are aspiring writers, tend to like to know how and when the words get made, to see if there’s any common ground, any insights to be gleaned.
This is a hers and hers interview; Bestwick also interviewed Kelly and her post will be up Friday.
Interviews happen well before they see publication, and one of the other things in this one is a bit of contemplation of how and when I might get the tattoo that became my 2016 poppies. The poppies, when I was conceptualizing them and as I actually got them, were meant as a celebration of the amazing year I was having. I wanted to celebrate, in part because so many people I knew were finding 2016 to be a bear.
All of that optimism and cheer, of course, predated the U.S. election result and the terror and despair spreading from that event. It seems a million years ago. I am generally upbeat and ebullient, but this is a blow. I don’t know when–if–I’ll bounce back to a sustained state of perkiness. I want to. At least one person has said a thing I can do for them is get back to my upbeat magical-unicorn posting habits. And despair, as you all know, just isn’t a great place to live.
Anyway. The interview is a slice of me-from-the-past, and if it seems tonally peculiar, that’s why. My hope is that there’s a me from the future who’ll be able to connect with it, one day in the not too distant, one who can lighten–if only fractionally–not merely my load but that one on your shoulders too, if you’re looking for it.
It was a Saturday sometime in August and I was on Queen Street, schlepping home the sandwich we favor for weekend lunch. The weather was glorious, late-summer heat and all the sun you could wish for. Thanks to the particular perversity of the retail ecosystem, one of the clothing boutiques had a fall coat in the window.
Friends, humans, countrymen, this was an exceedingly awesome coat. I don’t remember what it looked like, because… well, I never remember what things look like. But I do remember knowing it would’ve looked flat-out smashing on me. I absolutely believe that if I’d had cute shoes and a dusting of snow in my hair, along with that coat, Dr. Who would have spontaneously a) become real; b) materialized in Toronto; c) offered me a gig as the TARDIS’s first Canadian Companion. Which all things considered wouldn’t have been 100% great. So much danger! All that yelling! Daleks! But I digress.
I didn’t use to have an eye for cute coats or charming frocks, or to be honest much interest. But there it was, adorable as fuck, siren-songing with wooly autumn vigor, in defiance of the heat and humidity, and because I tend to squirrel my spending money away, I could have walked in right then and there and claimed it for my own.
The internal chorus kicked in: Weren’t you kind of thinking about a tattoo?
Well, maybe. Yeah. No. Yeah. Like, okay, but for my next divisible-by-ten birthday?
Which is years off. Are you looking at that fucking coat? OMG, buy it, buy it!
But that artist I saw on Instagram…
On the one hand, she’s not likely to be available before you are. in fact, fifty. On the other, you can save up tattoo money again by 2018.
Such was the power of the coat that the yammering went back and forth for rawther a long while before a louder, deeper and utterly certain voice said: Hey! You are having an amazing year. Celebrate properly, mark the occasion with blood and pain and beauty and screw this BS about waiting for a mere birthday.
Oh! I thought. I am having an amazing year!
By the time I got home, I’d decided to have someone zorch poppies into the flesh of my arm. I was sure enough by then that I actually told Kelly about the coat, which was an act of staggering generosity and considerable risk to the laws of physics, as it would also have looked so mind-bogglingly incredible on my wife that everyone standing within fifty feet of her would probably have become invisible, possibly forever. Unbeknownst to us, the boutique was going broke at pretty much that exact moment… and so it was not to be. You can thank market forces for your continued existence on the visual spectrum.
Anyway. I’ve blogged about all the amazing travel experiences I had in 2016. Those experiences came with so many museums, meals, meetings with loved ones, and marvels! But there has even more this year. Embarrassments of riches. My fifth novel, The Nature of a Pirate–which also represents my first completed and published trilogy–will be out from Tor Books in December. Its predecessor, A Daughter of No Nation, won the Aurora Award. I had not one but three incredible teaching opportunities and hit them all out of the park. I gave a talk on terraforming, “How We Became LV426” at the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium this year, an event whose headliner was Margaret Atwood. I co-edited my first anthology, Heiresses of Russ 2016, with Steve Berman. There were so many great things, in fact, that I am probably forgetting four or ten or a dozen more.
Atop it all, I got to watch Kelly’s career blossom, with a spectacular list of stories published that turned into an equally spectacular list of award nominations, Year’s Best selections, translations, kudos, great reviews, and an Aurora Award in the short fiction category for Waters of Versailles.
So! A tattoo to celebrate, courtesy the remarkable Lorena Lorenzo of Blackline Studios on King Street. In the photo above, Chinchilla’s a little bored with the whole concept. I, on the other hand, am delighted with it. I’ll talk about the design, and why poppies, sometime in the not too distant. But as part of the fun I’m also going to interview some writers about their tattoos. The when, the why, the symbolism… well, really, whatever they want to tell you about their ink is up to them. You’ll see Inksplain interviews here at Planetalyx starting this Wednesday with an essay by Emmie Mears. I hope you enjoy them. And if you have any questions about the poppies, the artist, or my amazing 2016, just go ahead and let me know.