An Interview with Gemma Files By Derek Newman-Stille
Gemma Files’ short stories have fascinated me for some time, and, although I have just begun reading her Hexslinger Series I am excited to read the rest of the series, but I couldn’t wait to interview her and get some insights from her to share with readers. I am happy that she was willing to do an interview and I hope that you enjoy reading about the mix of life experience and love of literature that was involved in the alchemical process of creating this fascinating author. I will let Ms. Files introduce herself below.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Gemma Files: I was born in London, England (within the sound of Bow Bells, which ostensibly makes me a Cockney, though try telling that to a British person), but have been a Canadian citizen since at least the age of two, and have lived all my life in Toronto, Ontario. My parents, Gary Files and Elva Mai Hoover, are both actors. I have a B.A.A. in Magazine Journalism from Ryerson University, and graduated straight into a recession, which is why—after working as both a security guard and the floor attendant in an upscale sex shop—I only got a permanent job “in my field” by the time I was roughly 25 years old. My later career includes eight years as a film critic (for Toronto’s eye Weekly) plus ten years teaching film history, Canadian film history and screenwriting at the Trebas Institute and the Toronto Film School. But all throughout this same time-period I was writing and selling short stories, five of which were turned into episodes of Tony and Ridley Scott’s erotic horror anthology TV series The Hunger (1997-2000), and two of which I adapted for the screen myself.
In 2008, I lost my job when the TFS shut down, an event which coincided with my son being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder; I spent roughly a year being depressed and acting as his intervener, writing very little except for fan fiction. My friends and professional contacts had been telling me for years that I should “graduate” to novel-writing, because that’s where the money/recognition is, but it really wasn’t until this particular confluence of events that I eventually decided it was time to take the plunge into long-form narrative, so in January of 2009 I began work on what would become A Book of Tongues, Volume One of my Hexslinger Series. By April I had seven chapters and an outline, on the basis of which I sold it to ChiZine Publications, delivering a first draft in November. Amusingly, I was still working off that original outline both all through the second book (A Rope of Thorns) and when I finally finished the final book of what had become a trilogy (A Tree of Bones), in February of 2012.
That said, I’ve always been a writer. My earliest memories are of telling myself stories about characters I particularly loved from the books I read, the movies and TV I watched, the media I consumed…serial stories, usually, jam-packed with questionable content. And though I made a few detours here and there, mainly based on some odd ideas about avoiding working freelance like my parents, I suppose I always knew—read “hoped”—that right here would be where I was going to eventually end up: Pursuing my dreams while working from home, with lying to myself for fun at last my only official “job”.
Spec Can: You show a passion for horror, dark fantasy, and weird fiction in your own creative work, and in your reviews. What inspires your love of the horrific?
Gemma Files: For me, believe it or not, it’s a form of comfort food. Horror forms a far wider spectrum than most people seem to think, in general; I remember back when I was first telling people that I wanted to write horror films, they’d immediately say: “Oh, like Friday the 13th?” (this gives you some idea of how long ago we’re talking about), and when I’d reply: “No, like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser,” they’d have no idea what the difference was. The horror I admire has always lain fairly securely at the Edgar Allen Poe/H.P. Lovecraft/M.R. James/Shirley Jackson end of things, rather than the Richard Laymon/Ed Lee/goreno-splatterpunk end—I like Peter Straub just as much as Stephen King, and my primary triptych of modern influences are people like Kathe Koja (Skin), Poppy Z. Brite (Exquisite Corpse) and Caitlin R. Kiernan (The Drowning Girl). So while my content may indeed graze some pretty gross stuff, what I’m after overall is a sort of poetry and high drama, a creeping dread and emotional punch, a love of language rooted in the appreciation of the odd. I like fatalism, not nihilism, and the idea of a world with fairly clear magical-metaphorical-moral rules in which people often work through their obsessions physically just makes me happy, occasionally in my pants. In other words, I like opera.;)
Spec Can: What can horror offer readers?
Gemma Files: Back when I was still interviewing people like Wes Craven (for his New Nightmare, if I recall correctly, the single most meta of all the Nightmare on Elm Street series instalments), I remember him saying that horror provides a safe space for audience members to play out their worst fears, to work through all life’s potential traumas and emerge at the other side victorious, if only because they’ve done so and survived. And I do think that idea has a lot of merit—just like the way people often conflate finding horror media triggery with somehow being a morally good person is interesting to me, because its inverse implies that there’s something “wrong” with those who don’t feel the same way.
The idea often seems to be that by consuming horror, you’re damaging yourself somehow, stamping out your softer feelings, making it impossible to get the same charge out of milder stuff. I don’t believe that, however, any more than I believe consuming romance either develops or retards a reader’s understanding of love—entertainment and experience are two completely different things. And again, if you’re taking the entire spectrum of horror into account, there are just as many admirable people in it as terrible people, not that I necessarily think finding or creating role models is the point, in terms of storytelling.
In the end, I guess, to me it’s like having the guts to call the yoga pose savasana “corpse posture.” Horror makes us think about things we’d often prefer not to, like mortality, impermanence, responsibility, randomness, the darker emotions we all share—to look at these things head-on, consider them and then realize they’re neither the be-all nor the end-all of human existence. Or just enjoy watching the blood spray for a while, whichever comes first.
Spec Can: Your work shows an intense interest in the monstrous. Why are monstrous figures so fascinating for readers?
Gemma Files: Because we all hope we’re not monsters, while simultaneously wishing that we were. Magic is a fantasy of ultimate power in a mainly-powerless world, but our own self-knowledge quotient means that we know the shadow lurks underneath everything—that whatever good we do by magic means is bound to sour, especially if improperly paid for. We’ve all read most of the same fairytales, so the principles always seem familiar: Horror is fluid, and just like in folklore, the general principle of horror is not only that things can always change, but that if—when—they do, it’ll probably be something that you did which is the cause of that change. Which is sort of positive, in a way…therapeutic, almost. Monstrosity is not a permanent state, or doesn’t have to be, so long as one understands but doesn’t excuse one’s own nature and takes responsibility for one’s own actions.
Spec Can: The Hexslinger series that you have published with ChiZine is in the Weird Western genre. What got you interested in Weird Westerns? What brings the magical and the West together?
Gemma Files: In the case of the Hexslinger Series, it just so happened that I had spent the previous year doing a fair amount of research on life in 1860s America just before, during and after the Civil War, mainly because the last two fandoms I’d passed through were for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The latter is the reason that I’ve never made any bones about Chess Pargeter’s physical template being Charlie Prince (as played by Ben Foster), the ambiguously gay sidekick of Russell Crowe’s villain-turned-antihero Ben Wade—though his personality became all his own very quickly, since even just making him aware of his own sexuality means he’s light-years ahead of where poor Charlie was.
But I’ve always liked Westerns, and I love the idea of adding magic to them, because it doesn’t seem so out of place. I think it has to do with the general feeling of infinite expansion and preordained diminution that comes along with the whole Western package—these stories take place in an indefinite space, where the outside is mammoth and the inside cramped, and nothing is (as yet) fully fixed. So why not posit that you’re just as likely to meet zombies around the next mesa, or werewolves, witches, vampires, mad scientists, anaye, Mayan-Mexica gods? Even technology was pretty suspect; the revolver must’ve seemed like magic, just because you no longer had to reload for six whole bullets.
Spec Can: Your Hexslinger series deals with a gay couple and many of your short stories deal with LGBTQ2 characters? What inspires your interest in queer characters?
Gemma Files: Again, I’ve always been pretty clear about the fact that my interest in two guys together is a genuine fetish. I’ve had it since I first began fixating on things sexually, and it forms the cornerstone of my own understanding of desire. Which is, grantedly, a bit weird, since I’m otherwise a functionally heterosexual, cisgender female, but God knows, the Internet has long since proven that I’m hardly the only one out there.
However, I am also very interested in the idea of inclusion, of representation, because—like a lot of people who fall intersectionally against the mainstream default—I’m tired of a world of media which concentrates exclusively on the concerns and interactions of white heterosexual males. When I was younger, I used to react against the fact that the female characters in any given narrative seemed to always be very securely restricted to supporting roles only—the wife, the child, the lure, the obstacle/bitch, the traumatic inciting incident—by recasting male characters as female in my mind, but as I got older I realized you could, in fact, start recasting everybody if you wanted to, thus “fixing” the multitude of similar clichés mainstream storytelling routinely perpetrates on different types of people.
I was also somewhat inspired by proudly gay SFF author Hal Duncan’s remarks about Brokeback Mountain, in which he essentially said he just wanted to see a story about two bad-ass gay people being bad-ass together, having lots of sex and not dying for it. And while I may have slipped up on the “not dying” part a time or two, I feel like in the Hexslinger series—particularly as per Chess and his homme fatale lover, faithless preacher-turned-outlaw magician Reverend Rook—I really did try my best.
Spec Can: What can authors be doing to further ‘Queer’ Speculative Fiction?
Gemma Files: Try writing not queer characters, so much, as characters who happen to be queer, along with all the other qualities that define them. Try to see queer characters as being not the exception but actually the rule, in terms of human diversity—I mean, even going by the classic “7% of everyone you encounter is probably gay” rule, that means that any one of the characters you may have loved and wanted to emulate might have been the sort of person mainstream media teaches us is weird, unnatural and unlikely. So run with that thesis, and see what happens.
But then again, as I’ve said, I have no huge interest in role models; I like a full range of human capacity, with characters who run the moral spectrum and don’t necessarily stay where they’re put. In terms of Chess, for example, I’ve had readers decry the fact that he’s a violent, unforgiving man who tends to shoot first and like it, exulting in his enemies’ pain, but no one’s ever complained about the pride he takes in himself and his unapologetic zest for life, as well as the verve with which he pursues his desires. This is a guy who starts as a villain and ends up as an antihero at best, but discovers himself capable of far more kindness and sympathy than he’d ever been led to believe he could muster. Even his innate perversity, that contrary impulse to do the opposite of what other people think he’s likely to, becomes a virtue rather than a fault when it’s used to others’ benefit rather than in the service of his own selfishness.
In other words, don’t feel as though representation “has to be” positive or negative. Avoid hagiography and demonization. Just let the people you write be who they turn out to be, and enjoy the result.
Spec Can: How can Speculative Fiction open readers’ minds to further diversity?
Gemma Files: Because I work primarily in the field of horror, the idea of the Alien—the Other—is a really integral one, one which underlies an amazing amount of human psychology. You see it all through history, and it’s not like it’s gone away: This impulse to say some people are different and therefore lesser, undeserving of sympathy, actively malign—people we can call animals, monsters, and feel perfectly fine about routinely trying to contain, police, punish or even exterminate. But the flip-side of this impulse is the realization that “monsters”, Others, Aliens are almost never as different from you as they seem. That you, in fact, are most often a monster’s “monster”.
This is a hard lesson, but a useful one, and Speculative Fiction explores it constantly, over and over. And it does that, I believe, because people both know in their gut that it’s true yet hope against hope that it’s not. This tension drives almost everything, and it’s testing this tension which is Speculative Fiction’s most useful quality, potentially: Our ability to tell and re-tell ourselves metaphorical fables about the things that are happening all around us, set in some pleasantly distant future, past or alternative universe, which may possibly help us to make good decisions about the here and now.
Spec Can: What mythologies influence your work and how does mythology continue to be fascinating to readers? What does the mythic add?
Gemma Files: Well, for myself, I’ve just always loved it. I’m a huge fan of folklore from around the world—some of the first books I remember loving as a kid were the D’Aullaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Norse Gods and Giants, along with books about Ancient Egypt and other archaeological finds, including stories of the Mexica (then called the Aztecs) and Maya.I wasn’t raised with any sort of religion, so it’s all grist for the mill to me, equally accessible; again, I can only think we tell ourselves these tales of gods and heroes, monsters and villains and the many ways one can blur back and forth into the other for a reason, which is why—especially in an age of fandom—we can be equally passionate about The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars as we are about the Qu’ran or the Bible. Thus making every story a sort of myth, really.
Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian Speculative Fiction? What is distinctive about it?
Gemma Files: In her book Survival,Margaret Atwood once advanced the idea that all CanLit centres around a massive, indifferent, rejecting physical landscape and our place, or lack of one, within it. And while I initially found that idea hard to go by, mainly because I was raised in one of North America’s cities. One thing I’ve learned from teaching Canadian film history is that Canadian “culture” is mainly defined negatively, like in the old Molson’s “I am Canadian” beer commercial: We don’t eat blubber, we don’t have a President, etc.
Nine times out of ten, particularly in English-speaking Canada, what we’re defining ourselves against is the spectre of America—if I had a dollar for every time a student of mine from somewhere else in the world asked me to admit there’s basically no difference between us and the U.S., I’d eat free for at least a week. Before that, however, it was about wanting to still be part of the British Empire even after they didn’t have any use for us, and these days it’s about how our vaunted multiculturalism mainly provides a way for us to stay in insular little groups and only interact when forced to. Which does, in the end, actually stem from geography: We’re a country the size of the former Soviet Union with a population the size of California spread out across a very disparate series of environments, most of whom still maintain they were tricked into becoming part of one country united by a railway and a radio-television network.
When you get down to it, our national self-image is entirely imposed from the outside, a generalization cobbled together from dreams and guilt, then historically distributed through a Film Board put together by a socialist Scots expatriate who hated Hollywood and a Broadcast Corporation run from Ottawa. No wonder we’re so unable to explain what sets us apart. I always think about the title of one of Alice Munro’s early short story collections, Who Do You Think You Are?, because it perfectly encapsulates the sort of crushing self-doubt and left-over British class system resentment of the individual’s capacity for change in the face of static stagnation that defines the heart of the non-indigenous Canadian experience. And while it’s slightly different when set within an urban context, it’s not even vaguely as different as most of us would like to think.
Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that there’s a big empty place in the Canadian psyche that takes extremely well to fantasy. Hell, even our “non-genre” literature tends to have a massive streak of surrealism and magic realism in it—think about the work of Michael Ondaatje (a poet turned prose writer, which happens a lot up here), Wayson Choy, Paul Quarrington, Derek McCormack, Michael Helm, Anne-Marie McDonald, Barbara Gowdy, Margaret Laurence, Anne Hébert, Atwood herself. But whether you’re talking about Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay or Susie Moloney, Andrew Pyper and Michael Rowe, our fantasy tends to be rooted in the uncomfortable, the self-reflective, the place where power and freedom come with a price, one that must be paid knowingly, and in blood. We accept coincidence and synchronicity, but also understand hubris, and karma. We expect doom at best, failure at worst. It’s bleak, but it’s familiar, especially to somebody who likes horror.
Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian horror going from here?
Gemma Files: Well, it certainly helps that some of my best friends and colleagues are horror writers who happen to be Canadian, but I see it becoming more and more prevalent. The success that CZP has had since Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi started it up is nothing short of amazing, and while they don’t deal entirely with Canadian authors, the work they’ve done to increase our visibility world-wide cannot be undercut. Similarly, I can’t think of anyone who would deny that David Cronenberg created an entire school of (cold, minimalist, body-based) horror that is still influencing new filmmakers today—I’d love it if any given Canadian horror author could have that sort of genre-wide impact. Actually, I’d love to be that author, though I think it highly unlikely.
Spec Can: What frightens you most and how do your fears influence your fiction writing?
Gemma Files: I’m afraid of the same things that everyone else is, probably—death, pain, bodily decay, the loss of love, the uncertainty of the future. I fear for others, especially my son, who has special needs; I fear what I’m capable of, and incapable of, in almost equal measure. And yes, I’d say that all these fears are played out in my writing. It’s a safe enough place for it.
Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?
Gemma Files: Always. Writing is an alchemical process, a process of exploration. I love it when things shift on me. A lot of the time, I have a very clear idea of where a story starts and where it ends, but almost no idea of not only how to get from one point to the other, but why these things have to happen. And those questions are almost always answered by the characters themselves. So long as I can stay true to who they are, and not “make” them do anything false to their own natures, I’m satisfied, no matter the outcome.
Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to conclude our interview?
Gemma Files: Not really. Thank you for the opportunity to introduce myself, and speak at (no doubt) tedious length about the things which move and drive me.
I want to thank Gemma Files for this fantastic and insightful interview. I really appreciate her insights on LGBTQ2 characters in literature, the future of Canadian horror, and her willingness to really describe herself. You can find out more about Gemma Files at her websites https://sites.google.com/site/thegemmafiles/ and http://musicatmidnight-gfiles.blogspot.ca/ .