An Interview with Emmy Jackson, Author of Empty Cradle: The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson

An Interview with Emmy Jackson, Author of Empty Cradle: The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson

the untimely death of corey sanderson coverOH MY GAWD. I loved The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson. Seriously. It’s a dusty, road-dog, land-pirate adventure ride reminiscent of Mad Max. Comparing it to the Mad Max franchise may be unfair because The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson has SO MUCH MORE. There are shapeshifters! And I actually got to see a plethora of women in the world – evil women, good women, women on the road, women in town, women who have guns, women who have families. It sounds silly to crow about women – but a lot of books only have like…eh, maybe two women characters and one is usually a girlfriend. The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson is a fast-paced, post-apocalyptic road trip full of compelling characters of all ages, genders, and species. And, holy crap, the WORLDBUILDING! There are class issues. There are townies vs. road folk politics. There are gender and conception talks to be had. I want to see more of this world. I want to talk about this world with other people. I am so glad this is a SERIES.

Oh? You want to know more? What’s it about, you ask? I’ll tell you!

Ivy Anarim is scav. She drives the country delivering packages from one town to the next, scavenging for anything she can sell or trade along the way. She’s gotten used to being alone, though she’s searching for her twin sister, Holly. What Ivy doesn’t need is a bastard gleaner beating the crap out of her, trying to steal her rig.

The man who attacked Ivy did it near Hanson’s Home, a small town in the middle of nowhere. Hanson’s Home, they’ll aid her, but it isn’t outta kindness. Ivy is untouched by Empty Cradle – a disease that can hit a woman at any time in her life and leaves her barren. A woman untouched by Empty Cradle, that’s hard to find and Hanson’s Home wants a baby for their trouble.

Corey Sanderson wants to get the hell outta Hanson’s Home. He’s a kid who’s sick of living in the sticks. He wants to see the world and Ivy and her truck are the only ticket outta town.

Do Ivy and Corey make it out of Hanson’s Home? Where would they go if they did? Can a town kid like Corey Sanderson make it on the open road? Will Ivy ever find her twin? What the hell kinda weirdos are they gonna meet on their journey?

I KNOW! So good. Go buy it. I’ll wait.

I ended up getting so stoked about The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson that I says to myself, I says, “WHY NOT TALK TO THE AUTHOR?” Which was more of a declaration and a self-high-five (re: clap above the head), than a question. Which is why, dear reader, people look at me strangely when I’m sitting in public. But also why Black Gate scored a speechification meetin’ with Emmy Jackson.

Here’s our conversation.

Black Gate: Emmy Jackson, what the hell is this book? Is it dieselpunk? If it’s dieselpunk, you’ve made me love whatever that is.

Emmy Jackson: It’s actually, technically, not dieselpunk. All of the “-punk” genres are pretty sketchy definition-wise, but generally dieselpunk is considered alt-history that takes place between WWI and WWII or thereabouts. Sometimes it extrapolates forward with a major world-event-change set in that time-period, so you get future settings with that…well, anyway, technically EC is post-apocalyptic, and because there are shapeshifters and magic (of a sort) it falls into urban fantasy.

It seems dieselpunk-y because the technology level is about that of the 1920s-40s, but the major history change itself happened in the late 1990s, in my story.

I usually tell people it’s a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy, which is really hard to say if you mumble.

I have been telling people it’s a rad book that’s all Mad Max, but if Mad Max had strong female characters outside of Tina Turner.

author emmy jackson
Empty Cradle series author Emmy Jackson

That works! I have also called it “The Road Warrior with shapeshifters,” which is only about 70% accurate but sums the world up nicely. (Also, I always thought Aunty Entity was kind of a jerk.)

(Aunty Entity = jerk = yes…but I STILL want that silver dress)

The dieselpunk fans who’ve read it seem to like it, but I wouldn’t define it as such. Steampunk and dieselpunk people get really caught up on definitions and what “is” and “isn’t,” and I’d rather not be sucked into that vortex to be honest.

Steampunk fans kinda remind me of metal fans, in that sense.

Oh, very much so.

So, if one of *them* wants to say my book is dieselpunk, then yay! go for it, but I wouldn’t use the label myself. The genre’s pretty wide open. I guess it’s like anything, I’d rather let it be defined than try to define it myself.

What was the spark that started The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson? Did it begin as a short story or did you always know it was gonna be a novel? And then, oh man, did you go in this knowing it was gonna be a series?

And holy crap, I can’t wait to read the next one.

It was kind of a slow-growing fire. I created Ivy and Shiloh to play around in a post-apoc world that was in my head, just noodling and daydreaming, like you do. After a while I thought it was cool enough to share, so I put together a free-form roleplaying game to let some of my friends meet them and run around in their world. This led to the creation of a bunch more characters (Swan, Kroni, Marcus, Holly, and others) and the world’s growing and fleshing out over the course of the campaign, which lasted on and off for 5 years. I had lots of EC-world short stories collected, mostly ephemeral ones, when I decided to write Ivy/Holly/Shiloh’s stories.

Black Gate interruption: ***SPOILER WARNING*** but it really isn’t a spoiler…considering what the title of the book is. Go ahead, read the title one more time. If you are truly a spoiler stickler, then skip down to the word “Additionally.

The lightning bolt was actually Corey’s death–I wanted to write a book in which one of the main characters totally bit it at the end. (This was before Game of Thrones made this a drinking game) And I kind of wanted the one who died to be a precocious kid, the kind that usually has immunity from serious physical harm in these sorts of books. So it was intended to be a novel from the start, and I started it with the idea of writing three books in mind, and with the understanding that there’s more to write about if people are interested. The intent was to do Ivy’s story, then Shiloh’s, then Holly’s.

I suppose Corey’s death isn’t technically a spoiler, since it’s in the title. About 1 in 20 readers has been surprised to find that it isn’t metaphorical.

I wanted to bring that up! Corey’s death. Okay. Seriously. YOU KILLED HIM.


I mean, I know. I know. The title says you are gonna do it…but I always thought you’d weasel your way out of it somehow…And then HE DIES.

And it was a pretty abrupt and meaningless death too.

And we don’t have to say how or why or when, but he does. Let’s not do too much of a spoiler…but his death made me GASP OUT LOUD. I do not usually gasp at books. My friend was eating cereal across the table and started laughing at me because I sounded like a dramatic Victorian.

I really wanted it to be a little bit pointless, even if it was poignant. I like the sense that, while our “heroes” are awesome, there’s also this big old world grinding along above it all and it doesn’t know or care about how much you’ve developed or what amazing things you’ve done; sometimes something stupid and unfair happens and you die.

It was brutally perfect.


Additionally, Corey is a precocious kid, but he isn’t too perfect. I like that he’s smart, can learn, but is by no means this tiny genius who gets everything right all the time. I have a pet peeve against “perfect genius children” because they’ve been done so much in literature over the past ten years.

Oh, so true. No, Corey’s a typical idiot 13 year old. Some good, some bad, some dumb, some smart.

I’m generally not a character-whackin’ author. I get really attached to my characters. In the second book, in Shiloh’s story there’s a minor character named Blue who was going to get horribly killed about halfway through. And I got attached to her. I couldn’t do it. She’s not a major character at all, but she’s just so damn *nice* in a kinda-dopey way, that I couldn’t kill her, I threw someone else in her place.

Which is not to promise that something terrible won’t happen to Ivy or Kroni, just that you should know it’ll hurt me as much as it hurts the rest of you. Probably more.

What? What??? I…If you kill either Ivy or Kroni…I’m gonna have serious words with you, man.

(Here is where Emmy Jackson dramatically paused and refused to tell us anymore.)

I want to know more about Kroni and Swan (two friends: a shapeshifter and a badass woman). What a weirdo rad relationship they have.

empty cradle: the untimely death of corey sandersonSwan and Kroni have an awesome bro-dude unrequited love thing going, it’s pleasantly complicated. They kind of write themselves.

They are fabulous. She is so brash and loudmothed and action action and he’s a great counterpart – just as dangerous, but he has an elegance to his nature. Think there will ever be a Kroni/Swan prequel or does their backstory get expanded on elsewhere?

Their respective stories come out along the way. A prequel could be interesting…where they’re going is interesting too. *Cue me stifling myself from 13 paragraphs of analysis of their relationship and where it’s headed.*

There is a short prequel scene floating around the Empty Cradle Facebook page somewhere. I wrote what happened right before they met Corey.

::glowingly stoked to read more about them::

I tend to be a bit of a nut for character backstory, pretty much all of them have one, in varying levels of interest/depth. Especially the “lead” characters but even the backing characters.

So what yer telling me is that there can maybe just possibly hopefully even be a short story collection someday?

Sure! I am collecting EC stories as I go. I don’t write a lot of short stories but I save all of the random scenes that turn up, whether they involve the main group of characters or not. There are whole other groups wandering around in the EC world, doing whole other things.

Heck. Yes.

Going back shapeshifters…are they the only magical element to your world? How did they come about? Was it a part of the Fall of earlier modern civilization?

They are not the only magical element, and oddly enough they had nothing to do with the Fall. Previous to that, sometime in the late ’90s, physicists actually discovered something they called “hyper-natural energy” (HNE) that was the driving force behind what people spoke of as various forms of “magic.” Without unusual natural ability or careful manipulation it’s hard to even show that it exists, but the HNE labs that were up and running before the Fall were able to do all sorts of amazing things, from “spellcasting” to genetic manipulation, hence the shifters. (Cue a f-ton of possibly spoilery backstory here). So they existed before the Fall. They started out as an attempt to find a cure for Empty Cradle, and ended up the focus of a huge civil rights dispute.

For instance Amanda, the nomad who takes Judah in, really is prescient. She has a high level of natural HNE that allows her visions of the future.There are other examples as well. I didn’t want the story to be all MAGIC MAGIC MAGIC, there’s just a bit of a supernatural thread woven into the world, to make in interesting. Like the real world should be!

I thought one of the most interesting subplots to the book, that didn’t get to get explored all that much yet, was the civil rights issues between shifters and “normal” people.

Yeah, that one comes up hardcore in book 3.

Also, DUDES THAT TURN INTO BEARS. You can’t pretend that’s not kind of awesome.

Correct. Dudes who turn into bears are definitely awesome.

Totally other subject: was it a purposeful choice for you to fill your world with women…because I was like, “There’s another one! And another one!” I am (unfortunately) used to books and movies where even if the lead is female..she is the extraordinary exception.

It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I tend to let characters show up as whoever they happen to be. In EC, gender politics tends to wobble back and forth, so when meeting people of social/political power gender is a total coin toss (even weighted toward females in many places). And perhaps because of that balance, women are as likely to run around getting themselves killed as men. And since the author’s a little genderqueer and self-identifies as female, that may have skewed it a little bit too. In the end, Ivy’s just Ivy and Swan is just Swan and Kroni is just Kroni. I don’t generally think about it. I’m a bit worried that I’ll get accused of a) intentionally creating Action Girls™ to jump on the bandwagon, or b) creating insanely unbelievable female characters, but that doesn’t seem to have happened so I try not to think about it much.

Actually…I don’t see them as all action or too perfect. Ivy is brilliant at mechanical things, but can get her ass whooped and lose her temper. Swan may be a bit Tank Girl, but she can’t save everyone around her and she is stronger for having a partner rather than doing things herself.

And speaking of Ivy’s technological aptitudes, EC is full of mechanical knowledge. I can’t even change my own oil, yet I didn’t feel overwhelmed anywhere with the tech. How’d you do that?

I am a gearhead. I have been a crazy car nut for pretty much my entire life.

Getting tech into the story without making it boring was a challenge. I’ve been a freelance writer of car reviews for, um, 15 years now, so that helped.

Did you find yourself overdoing it and then cutting a whole bunch or just letting beta readers help you balance how much you needed?

Usually I will let myself write everything I want to, and then trim the shit out of it. Beta readers helped. So did writing a Big Stupid Car Novel with wayyyy too much detail, to get it all out of my system! But seriously, It was a lot of trimming. I start with the gearhead knowledge that Ivy’s rig is a 1969 Cadillac hearse on a Ford Super Duty 141″ wheelbase chassis with a heavily reworked Isuzu NPR drivetrain, Ford transmission and 35-inch tires, and work my way backward from there. I can’t seem to go the other way.

1959 nash metropolitan
1959 Nash Metropolitan

In my head, it can’t be “just a car.” I need to know WHAT it is. Being able to drop out the stuff that Ivy wouldn’t know (she’d have no idea what a hearse is, for instance) helped.

I just looked up a 1969 Cadillac hearse and they were gorgeous.

Which leads me to a question that is completely not book related, except that it kinda is…what is your dream car? No mods. The One. The Precious.

There are several.2004 Subaru Baja. 2012 MINI Cooper S Clubman. 2002 Mazda Miata. 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque. 1959 Nash Metropolitan. 1973 Citroen SM…If I were forced to choose…I might just explode. Also, the longer I ponder the question the more cars I’ll think of. It’s a sickness.

Here is a mean question: If someone offered you one of those cars free and clear or its coequal amount in books, what would you take?

The car.

I kinda figured.

I would of course then use it to go GET books. And probably put it in a story or two.

Trigger warning: rape issues

Here’s one more mega serious question…there are rape issues within the Empty Cradle world. It’s a given. There is a disease that strikes most of the world’s women as barren so fertile women are seen as both gems to protect and resources to be owned…What’s your stance on rape as a plot point and how did you want to handle these situations within your own work?

That’s a good one. I don’t like pointless rape-as-drama in stories. The trope where it’s the Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen to a female character is really tired. That said, that doesn’t mean that I think it can’t be used effectively – whether it’s as a tac-nuke “Oh, NO” moment or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, where it’s happening with such a horrifying frequency to create a particular atmosphere of underlying unpleasantness in a world (e.g. war-torn dystopian landscapes). I find it problematic when it seems to be tossed off as just another bullet in an author’s Incident Arsenal, or when it’s used to motivate a male character to revenge without considering its effect on the actual victim. Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series was guilty of this (not surprising considering when it was written, but it’s Modesty Blaise f’gosh sakes!).

As for dealing with it in my own story, I didn’t want Ivy to wander through the world going from almost-rape to almost-rape, so I considered the context of the world in which she’s living. Yes, fertile women have potential value as a commodity, but they’re also still people. People who have seized a fair amount of political power in the places where there’s civilization (so rapists are often prosecuted much more harshly than now), and people who will fight back in places that are less civilized.

Ivy’s encounter with the gleaners in Tennessee is there to nail this point home – would-be rapists hoping to impregnate a fertile woman don’t just have to do the deed. You’ve then got to keep a woman against her will for the next few years, until the child’s old enough to live on its own. Even if she’s a submissive broken-bird, there’s a good chance that she (or someone acting on her behalf) is going to f— you up during that very long time period. The costs of rape tend to outweigh the benefits in many places, in EC. In that respect this world might be a bit of a “world as I’d rather see it” vision, but oh well.

Outside of the biblethumps, there’s a much more relaxed attitude toward sex in EC‘s North America. So, if an adult wants casual sex and isn’t a complete asshole about it, he/she can get it. Men often don’t force themselves on women because it’s just a good way to get killed. And, hopefully, because they recognize that it’s wrong!

A few more light questions, and I’ll let you alone for the day.


The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson could be considered a nontraditional road trip story…have you been on many road trips? If so, will you share a favorite moment?

I have been on a huge number of road trips – the 3 years I spent living in an RV probably constitute one big road trip, with lots of favorite moments. One standout came before the RV trip, when I spent 3 weeks wandering aimlessly around the country in a Miata. I stumbled across a little junk shop somewhere in Tennessee, in the mountains, that had a lovely old Firestone antique bike rusting in the back. The price tag was $250, but the owner wanted it gone and said I could have it for $50. It was a huge old rusty cruiser bike, but I had to have it. I actually had to buy it, then drive for an hour to find a town large enough to have a bike shop so I could buy a bike rack (Miata, after all) then go back to pick it up. The thing looked like it was as big as the car, hanging off the back. And from there, I decided to drive to New York City just so I could race taxis through Times Square at 3 in the morning. And I did. With that giant-ass rusty bike hanging on the back of my car. It was glorious.

I think you are my new favorite person.

And that definitely beats my “meeting foreign Elvis impersonators outside of the Graceland gates late at night” story.

Whaaaaat? That sounds amazing!

We near The End! Two more questions.

Hit me!

What’s next up on your reading list?

Probably Twenty Thirty, by Albert Brooks, though I haven’t devoured any steampunk for a hot minute, so I might jump queue on that. I’m working through The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod now. It’s picking up steam, so that’s cool.

Last question: what are you working on right now? Is it EC book 3 or something completely different?

empty cradle shiloh in the circle coverIt is the third EC book, because I think I may be burned at the stake if I don’t get to it quickly! And because I’m an idiot and leapt headfirst into a research-heavy setting. There is a semi-silly superhero novel kicking around in the background, but I think it needs to incubate for another year or two before it’s ready to fly. I play with it when I need a break from EC.

I let you go to do this most honorable work. It has been a pleasure talkin’ to you.


Good friends! Emmy Jackson can be found at his website, Looking for Strange. The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson can be bought here! Seek out Emmy Jackson and read his fiction, especially if you are in the mood for a wholly original post-apocalyptic world.

Now, if you excuse me, I have to go buy book two, Empty Cradle: Shiloh in the Circle…it stars a SHAPESHIFTING, TRAVELING CIRCUS PERFORMER!


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Allen Snyder

Thanks for the recommend; the books sounds awesome. Just bought the Kindle versions of the first two books at Amazon.

[…] the best book I’ve read this year, There Is No Lovely End.  She chatted with me about EC for The Black Gate; maybe there’s a secret or two to be found […]

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