Interview with Lydia Peever

An interview with Lydia Peever
By Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo of Lydia Peever

Author photo of Lydia Peever

I recently had the opportunity to hear Lydia Peever speak at Ottawa’s author reading event “A Midsummer Night’s Scream” hosted by Postscripts to Darkness, and the passion in her voice and her ability to bring critical attention to issues that are often ignored by society prompted me to ask her to do an interview here on Speculating Canada.

Lydia Peever is the author of the novel Nightface and the collection Pray Lied Eve. She is also a photographer and web designer with a particular interest in photographing road kill. You can find out more about Ms. Peever and her work at  http://nightface.ca.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to begin this interview?

Lydia Peever: Sure. I grew up in Northern Ontario. At one point I would be best described as an artsy yet anti-social high-school dropout that messed up at college too. My focus has been split between writing and photography since I was at least ten years old, so art always seemed more important than school. Over the last five years, I became serious about my career as a writer, published, and moved to Ottawa to obtain my diploma in Journalism with honours from Algonquin College. I try to balance the amount of fiction and non-fiction I write since I enjoy both, but right now fiction is winning.

Spec Can: Is there a sense of community among Ottawa authors? What is it like?

Lydia Peever: Yes, but from where I sit it appears fractured. There are very active open groups for general fiction, genre-specific writing circles, and a few seemingly impenetrable covens. It really depends on what you look to get from this ‘community’ as a writer. We have The Writers Festival, which is very rich in content though very narrow in scope. The independent bookstores are amazingly supportive of local authors, though as anyone knows they have their own trouble and seem to be an endangered species. Horror and dark fantasy authors, being the least social creatures in this genus, are harder to find. We seem to be slowly coagulating due to the efforts of Ottawa Horror profiling authors, Postscripts to Darkness publishing many of us and holding events, and the Chiaroscuro Reading Series which launched in Ottawa this year.

Spec Can: Is there a distinctive “Ottawa style” of writing? What do many Ottawa-based authors have in common and what connects them?

Lydia Peever: I would have to say no. Each author brings their own style of writing for certain. Regardless of genre, demographic or particular biography, Ottawa authors could be from anywhere in the world. Like any author anywhere in the world, we sometimes write what we know so stories can be set within the city or fashioned out of a similar looking lump of clay. That isn’t really peculiar to Ottawa authors though. When I talk to authors on behalf of Ottawa Horror, I ask similar questions and get very different answers.

Spec Can: Is there a distinctive Canadian style of horror? What is different or unique about it?

Lydia Peever: Somewhat. I have tried over the last two decades to read as much Canadian horror as I can. For a time I was seeking Canadian female horror authors. There are not many to choose from! I stand to be corrected, but I find we are far less brutal than our fellow North American or British counterparts. I can’t name a Canadian splatter-punk hero nor can I name a Canadian horror author that is a household name here and abroad. We have carved a niche in cinema – a quiet subtle brooding horror – but not yet in print.

Spec Can: Several of your short stories deal with the topic of drug addiction. What inspired you to write about drug addiction?

Lydia Peever: Drugs are mentioned here and there in my stories as a colour to paint a character with. Usually a dark colour as drug abuse is basically a dark thing. In Crocodile Rot, where the sun shines bright on intravenous drug use, I talk about it like it’s happening on our front porch, because it probably is regardless of where you live. Many authors tend to draw as much on life experience as they do on what they see or imagine others experiencing around them. I have seen a lot of drug abuse around me in high school and beyond, sometimes with scarring or deadly affects. My long-term ex was a hard drug user and eventually succumbed to an overdose. Several people I know have entered a methadone management program, and a few have successfully stopped taking drugs. A lot of people I know will never stop. I can’t turn a blind eye to the dark alleys around me since I’ve walked down them. People I knew since childhood have walked down them. I’ve lost people down dark alleys. Stigma and fear surrounding drug abuse and its affects are far more damaging than communication, education and true understanding. I write just as often about mental health issues, which I know just as well and can at times be related.

Spec Can: What can horror and Weird fiction authors be doing to bring social issues and critiques to the attention of their audiences?

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Lydia Peever: Write. It is all we can do, right? If it moves you, it will move your readers. I learned that emulating authors like V. C. Andrews and Stephen King when I was young. Both tend to write very strongly when they had a message about women’s issues (no matter if it were presented inside-out) which is not my forte, but it is how I learned that concept. It is deeper than ‘write what you know’. Much deeper. If you write about the things happening around you that really shake you to your foundations – the stuff that gives you real nightmares that aren’t fuelled by the last movie you watched – people will tune into that. If you have a history with a social issue be it addiction, debt, domestic crisis, sexual conflict, mental health; write about it. Never be afraid to write about what shakes you up, breaks your heart, or makes you scream. If you are afraid to come clean with your own experience, at least fictionalize it or choose a good pen name. Don’t keep that precious dark ink bottled up.

Spec Can: How can horror “teach”? How does it cause audiences to shift their perspective and question things?

Lydia Peever: Any form of instruction starts with a nice theory primer conducted at arm’s length. Horror is kind of like that. You may not have experience with the specific terror or the ‘other’ found in the story, but it explains itself neatly and from a safe distance. You can inspect so many otherwise inaccessible worlds this way. Death, science, religion; and many other things you may otherwise avoid or be loath to discuss with those around you. As with other fiction, there are entire worlds in each book that are based on our own, to one extent or another. The avenues for real world extra-curricular research are unending if you are truly engaged and inspired by what you are reading. Many of my hobbies and much of my non-fiction reading has been initiated by horror I have read.

Spec Can: In what way can horror be an empowering genre for women? How can horror novels/short stories/movies be feminist texts?

Lydia Peever: Think critically when watching. Apply gender issue thinking to what you read and see. This applies to all media, really. The experts on horror and the feminine are now luckily found within universities. Through Ottawa Horror, I was able to attend portions of the Monstrous Feminine course taught by Aalya Ahmad at Carleton University on feminist literature and film. My close friend and colleague Amy Jane Vosper has recently completed her thesis on horror and the feminine. I’m no feminist, myself, so am perhaps the worst authority. As a teen I did struggle with the idea for a while. In the 90s, it seemed there were very few strong women portrayed in horror. It was slim picking, so I identified with Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor even though she had weaknesses I still can’t identify with. Currently, you can’t turn your head without Eskimo kissing a Sarah Connor type in one form or another. Strong women are everywhere, but not without their weaknesses or flaws. I am always on the lookout for realistic females. Being a very independent and childless single girl, I tend to discard the plot device of women as a ‘vehicle for a child-bearing uterus’ which sadly, nearly every story boils down to.  On the other hand, you have ‘jaded harpy’ which is another trope that needs to be discarded. It depends on what kind of women you are. In the last decade, you have a better chance of finding strong women in horror dealing with unimaginable strife but you may have to juxtapose a few of them if you are looking for an ideal archetype.

Spec Can: Do you find that your photography work complements your writing? In what ways can your photography inspire your written work and in what ways does your written work bring your attention and interest to various images?

Lydia Peever: I do. Even if not directly or for the public to parallel. From snapshots of flowers or carefully composed landscapes, I photograph a lot of things that tell a story to me and myself alone. I like to capture desolation or loneliness in many of the photos I take that no one will ever see. Even when doing portraits, I end up taking a few candid shots with pensive, lost or thoughtful looks. Then, you have my fetish, gore and band photos. Those likely complement my writing in the most obvious way. Images of one tied to a St. Andrews Cross or doused with blood on stage come easy to me since I’m not offended by the nature of the concept. Same with images of graveyards and road kill, though those are a neatly captive subject less likely to move into bad lighting or blink.

Spec Can: Your work is often very close to reality, with small deviations into the Weird or horrific. What inspires you to slightly “Weird” reality, while still sticking close to the believable world?

Cover photo of Nightface courtesy of Lydia Peever (artwork designed by Lydia Peever, herself)

Cover photo of Nightface courtesy of Lydia Peever (artwork designed by Lydia Peever, herself)

Lydia Peever: The world is really very weird, if you pay attention. It is all in how you describe it. A psychotic carnival trailer murder scene at midnight can be a very unrealistic and scary place if you zoom in on a scene like that in fiction. Then, if you zoom out and tell the story from the beginning it is all very cozy. The city it is in, the people that are there, the words you hear and events of the evening could be anywhere and lead up to anything. A trip to the dentist can be as fraught with weird as the trip to that carnival trailer after dark. I like living in a world like that, so I pay attention to the weird. Also, having the dark and odd interests I’ve always had, or having come face to face with strife the average person does not usually have to see without the ability to live in La-La Land, I marry the two on a day-to-day basis. It’s how I think, so I guess it is also how I write.

Spec Can: In what ways can horror be a social activist medium?

Lydia Peever: In the same way that you can bring issues that are important to you or the inverse of being able to learn from horror. Infuse what moves you into a story. Let a story sprout from blood spilled in real life. Let those you know or who have passed transmogrify into beast or angels. Write it all down. Sometimes the message is very clear and your story does the heavy lifting for you. Sometimes it’s all very cryptic and subtle. In that case you can dust off your soapbox and append an intro to your story or present it within a themed anthology. There are more and more of these in submission calls every year. You can tour your book to various media outlets and talk about the underlying issue as opposed to talking about your plot. Talking about what drove you to write it and what you learned through that journey or afterward. Talking to readers is another way. They tell you something about your work that you didn’t even see.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to this interview?

Lydia Peever: Yes, a huge ‘thank you’ for enjoying the reading at Black Squirrel Books and for taking the time to chat! Support for artists and authors is just as important to me as getting all my thoughts on paper. Buying books, music and art is one thing, but talking to and about the people that are doing amazing work is just as important. Not everyone can support art with their wallet, and not everyone can make it to every event. Interviews, profiles, reviews, blogs, discourse; it’s all part of supporting us who wring ink into the literary ocean. Thank you.

I want to thank Lydia Peever for this absolutely incredible and insightful interview. As someone who has taught courses about horror, I really appreciate her insights into the importance of horror for shining light on aspects of our society that we tend to stigmatise, repress, and ignore. This was a VERY inspiring interview. To find out more about Ms. Peever, visit her website at http://nightface.ca/portfolio/ .

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Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

An Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
By Derek Newman-Stille

I recently had the opportunity to meet Robert J. Sawyer at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. We only had time for a short chat since both of us had a great deal of events on our plates, so I wanted to have the chance to do a full interview with Mr. Sawyer here on Speculating Canada and give him the chance to provide some of his insights to readers.

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Robert J. Sawyer: My friend David Gerrold and I had a discussion a few years ago, when we were both giving talks in Istanbul, about how one should answer that question. My answer is, “I’m a Canadian science-fiction writer.” David contends that’s what I do, not who I am—but I don’t agree. Over the last few years, I’ve given up using the very nice office in my home and moved to writing in my living room, because I simply don’t make a distinction between work and the rest of my life. Besides, being a science-fiction writer is too much fun to actually be termed “work.”

I was born in Ottawa in 1960, grew up in Toronto, and now live in Mississauga. I write a novel a year, and have been doing so consistently since my first, Golden Fleece, came out in 1990. I’m fortunate enough to be one of only eight writers ever to have won all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which I won for Hominids), the Nebula (which I won for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which I won for Mindscan). Oh, and the ABC TV series FlashForward was based on my novel of the same name, and I was one of the scriptwriters for that show.

Most recently—and of interest to Canadians—I was lucky enough to win three consecutive Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”), one for each volume of my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder. Humanist Canada just gave me their first-ever Humanism in the Arts Award, the Governor-General’s office just awarded me a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the RTA School of Media at my alma mater, Ryerson University, just named me one of the 12 initial inductees to their Wall of Fame. They say a prophet—if a science-fiction writer may be termed that—is never honoured at home, but that certainly hasn’t been my experience.

Spec Can: A lot of your written work shows an interest in anthropology and paleontology (such as Hominids, Humans, Hybrids, and Red Planet Blues). What inspired your interest in these fields? Why do they speak to you?

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: Ever since I was a pre-schooler, I’ve been fascinated by paleontology, and especially dinosaurian paleontology—so much so, that right up until halfway through my last year of high school, I intended to make a career out of being a paleontologist, and was accepted to study that field at the University of Toronto.

I love studying ancient life for the same reason I love the notion of extraterrestrial life: they’re alien beings. Not only is that cool in and of itself, but both are highly speculative areas: in paleontology, we try to puzzle out what dinosaurs might have looked like, and extrapolate from elusive clues what their reproductive strategies, diets, and social structures might have been like. In astrobiology, we go even further, trying to figure out what extraterrestrial intelligences might be like from first principles, without a single actual specimen to study.

My focus on these issues has led me to have a wonderful relationship with the SETI Institute, by the way; I’m the only science-fiction novelist who was invited to their two public SETICon symposia, and their chief astronomer, Seth Shostak, often has me as a guest on the SETI Institute’s radio program “Big Picture Science.” In turn, I named a genus of Martian fossil Shostakia in Red Planet Blues.

The foremost Canadian paleontologist is the dinosaur specialist Philip Currie, currently at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, and others have been kind enough to call me the foremost Canadian science-fiction writer. But Phil always wanted to be a science-fiction writer, and I always wanted to be a dinosaur expert. It tickles us both that in some alternate timeline, he’s me, and I’m him.

As for my fascination with anthropology, and especially paleoanthropology, again, it mirrors my interest in extraterrestrial intelligence. A Neanderthal or an individual of Homo erectus or Homo ergaster is fundamentally much more alien than, say, a Vulcan or a Bajoran. Figuring out what the cognitive processes and lifestyles of our cousins or ancestors might have been like is as thrilling as any detective story.

Spec Can: There is an upcoming conference in your honour called “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre”. What makes SF so interdisciplinary? How does it extend beyond traditional genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: Yes, indeed. This September, McMaster University is hosting this conference, which will surely be the largest academic conference ever held devoted to Canadian science fiction and fantasy, in honour of the donation of my archives to that institution. I am totally thrilled about that. The paper proposals that have come in are amazing.

I’ve often said that science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions. Where else will you find, say, quantum computing and paleoanthropology sparking off each other, as they do in my Hominids, or information theory, primate communication, and Chinese politics jointly driving the plot, as they do in my novels Wake, Watch, and Wonder?

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

For a large number of my books, I’ve focused on consciousness studies, which is the most interdisciplinary area of all: neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, artificial-intelligence researchers, evolutionary biologists, philosophers, theologians, and so on, all have places at the table in debates about the nature of consciousness, and those clashing perspectives have fueled my novels The Terminal Experiment, Factoring Humanity, Hominids and its sequels, Mindscan, Wake and its sequels, Triggers, and the novel I’m writing now, tentatively titled The Philosopher’s Zombie.

Most other genre fiction is plot-driven; at its best, science fiction is thematically driven, and the high-level exploration of a theme—does God exist, do we have free will, what are our ethical responsibilities to other intelligences that already exist or that we might create?—demands an interdisciplinary approach.

Spec Can: Many of your novels blend or bend genres. What are some of the genre-bending novels you have most enjoyed writing? Why were you interested in pushing genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: People who don’t read science fiction tend to think of it as a very narrow category: space opera, and not much more. But it provides the widest possible canvas: all of space, all of time, all forms of life. And beyond that, it let’s you tell any kind of story, including courtroom drama (as I did in Illegal Alien), romance (Rollback), thriller (Triggers), and noir detective fiction (Red Planet Blues). Calgary critic Hugh Graham observed recently that it’s almost impossible to believe that Triggers and Red Planet Blues—so different from each other in style and voice—were written by the same person; that pleased me immensely.

I push genre boundaries for three reasons. First, because I don’t actually believe in the boundaries; our genre distinctions come out of American bookselling, and the attempt to organize the shelves in a store—it’s entirely artificial, and of little artistic interest.

Second, because it keeps me fresh. If I’d been a mystery-fiction writer, I’d very likely be doing my twenty-third novel about my ongoing series detective character; instead, I’ve gotten to write twenty-three very different novels, and that’s very artistically satisfying. I enjoy stretching different muscles with each new work.

And third, because it makes sound business sense. It’s a way to grow my audience, bringing in people who don’t think they’d like science fiction. I love that Penguin Canada publishes my books under their mainstream Viking imprint, and I’m so proud that first Waterloo Region and then the County of Brant chose books by me for their community-wide reading programs (Hominids in Waterloo; Rollback in Brant—which includes Paris, Ontario, and environs), and that I’m currently a finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award for best Canadian-authored fiction or nonfiction book of 2012 (for Triggers). That’s a reach way beyond what an author who stayed comfortably within the SF box would ever normally get.

Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about the characters and/or worlds you create? How does your Canadian identity influence your writing?

Robert J. Sawyer: My novels are mostly set in Canada, have Canadian protagonists, revel in Canada’s diversity, and deal with Canadian themes. I’m a pacifist, and Canada is a country of peacekeepers, not aggressors—and you see that very much in my books. I’m firmly committed to diversity, and I reflect Canada’s multiculturalism in everything I write—and I’m so proud to twice have been nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, which honours works that positively portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered lifestyles. As the Globe and Mail has said, “Sawyer sells so well in Canada because of his celebration of our culture; citizens seek him out for both a good story and affirmation of our identity. By writing about us, he has pried himself loose from the SF purgatory and onto the bestseller lists.”

Spec Can: What distinguishes Canadian SF from that of other nationalities?

Robert J. Sawyer: How’s this for an answer: its quality.

On April 29, 2013, which happens to be my 53rd birthday, I’ll be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a full-time professional writer, something that’s only been possible because of Canada’s wonderful socialized healthcare. Malcolm Gladwell—himself a Canadian—wrote the great nonfiction book Outliers, in which he documents at length how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something. We Canadian writers, because we don’t have to be shackled to a nine-to-five to get health insurance, often get those hours under our belts decades before our American colleagues do, and you see that reflected in how many Canadians show up on the Hugo ballot year after year—in numbers all out of proportion to Canada’s population size.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian SF is heading for here? What does the future of Canadian SF look like?

Robert J. Sawyer: We’ve long had a vigorous tradition of small-press SF publishing in Canada, and that’s going to continue. But I also think the big presses are going to start doing more and more honest-to-goodness science fiction. Penguin Canada was a trendsetter when it acquired me back in 2007, prompting the Canadian publishing trade journal Quill & Quire to opine, “When Penguin Canada snatched up domestic rights to science fiction giant Robert J. Sawyer, it felt like the Canuck industry was finally waking up to an entire genre.” And it has. You no longer have to go to US publishers to make real money writing science fiction in this country, and that’s all to the good.

Spec Can: What new questions or ideas can SF open in the minds of readers? How can SF challenge the status quo?

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: SF is a subversive genre, and always has been. Sometimes it’s done with metaphors and disguises; I certainly did that in Hominids, which is as much about contrasting Canadian and American values as it is about contrasting those of Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals. And sometimes it just stands up and does that. Page one of my novel Calculating God, published in 2000, says this:

The alien’s shuttle landed out front of what used to be the McLaughlin Planetarium, which is right next door to the Royal Ontario Museum, where I work. I say it used to be the planetarium because Mike Harris, Ontario’s tightfisted premier, cut the funding to the planetarium. He figured Canadian kids didn’t have to know about space—a real forward-thinking type, Harris. After he closed the planetarium, the building was rented out for a commercial Star Trek exhibit, with a mockup of the classic bridge set inside what had been the star theater. As much as I like Star Trek, I can’t think of a sadder comment on Canadian educational priorities.

A few Canadians objected to that, saying political commentary doesn’t belong in science fiction. They’re dead wrong, in my view. Going right back to H.G. Wells, it’s always been a vehicle for political comment.

Spec Can: What can SF do that “realist” fiction can’t?

Robert J. Sawyer: First, it’s important to stress that SF can do everything that mimetic fiction can: it can move you to tears, it can make you laugh out loud, it can explore character psychology in exquisite detail, it can dazzle you with stylistic experimentation and beautiful prose.

But on top of that, it can also get you to think about issues you haven’t thought about since late-night dorm-room bull sessions decades ago. All the topics we’re told to avoid in day-to-day life—politics, religion, sex, and alternative approaches to those things—are the core subject matter of speculative writing, whereas they are ignored in much mainstream fiction.

Spec Can: Your work often deals with the interconnection and collision of ideas of past, present, and future. What inspires your interest in the interrelationship between past, present, and future?

Robert J. Sawyer: I don’t write in a linear fashion—I never start at page one and go to page last; rather, I bop back and forth throughout the narrative as I’m constructing it. That reflects my belief that time itself isn’t really linear.  Now is now solely because you and I happen to—for the moment—agree on that point.  But here, a few seconds later, is the new now, oh, and look—here comes another now! Time is endlessly fascinating to me simply because it’s so often not thought about at all by most people, and because we know so little about its nature.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write SF?

Robert J. Sawyer: A confluence of things: seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre in 1968 when I was eight years old; seeing a bit of the original Star Trek on TV; the Supermarionation TV shows of Gerry Anderson; growing up as the Apollo space program was happening; and reading the first few science-fiction books I encountered: Oliver P. Butterworth’s The Enormous Egg; The Runaway Robot, putatively by Lester del Rey but actually ghostwritten by Paul W. Fairman; Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse; Space Skimmer by the same David Gerrold I mentioned in the answer to your first question; and the Asimov collection The Rest of the Robots —which, at twelve years old, I thought was about robots taking a break, not realizing that it was the leftover stories that weren’t in I, Robot.

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

I enjoyed all of those books enormously, and wanted to try my hand at creating my own stories. Ironically, of them all, the one that’s mostly not thought of as an SF book—The Enormous Egg—is the one that probably influenced me most, with its contemporary setting, its focus on paleontology, and its satiric bent.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Robert J. Sawyer: No, not really. They have the personalities I give them; I’m a craftsperson, and they’re carefully constructed pieces of my craft. I think they’re highly realistic, but they’re not voices in my head; heck, if I did start hearing voices, I hope I’d have the good sense to go see a psychiatrist.

Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?

Robert J. Sawyer: The digitizing, copying, uploading, and modifying of human consciousness—which is one of the core topics I explore in my latest novel, Red Planet Blues.

I want to thank Mr. Sawyer for his incredible insights, particularly about the subversive nature of Canadian SF. If you haven’t had the chance yet, check out Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ .

Also, Mr. Sawyer mentioned above the conference Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre. If you are interested, you can explore it at http://www.sfwriter.com/cfp.htm . A conference on Canadian SF, could there be anything more fun? 

Interview with Douglas Smith

An Interview with Douglas Smith
By Derek Newman-Stille

This week I had a great opportunity to chat with Toronto author Douglas Smith to

Author Photo Courtesy of Douglas Smith

discuss ideas about genre-crossing in SF, the ability of SF to challenge the status quo and propose new questions and ideas about how we can view our world, and the power of SF as a medium without boundaries. Interviewing Douglas Smith was an incredible experience because he has done so much introspection about his role as an author and is highly aware of his creative process. I hope that you enjoy hearing about his insights as much as I did.

I want to thank Mr. Smith for being willing to do an interview for Speculating Canada, and I will let him introduce himself and his work below.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to start of this interview?

Douglas Smith: I’ve been writing for about fifteen years and have over a hundred and fifty short story publications in thirty countries and two dozen languages. I have three published story collections: Chimerascope (ChiZine Publications, 2010), Impossibilia (PS Publishing, 2008), and a recently translated fantasy collection, La Danse des Esprits (France, 2011). My first novel, a shape-shifter fantasy set in Northern Ontario, The Wolf at the End of the World, will be released in 2013.

I’ve twice won the Aurora Award, and have been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the CBC’s Bookies Award, the juried Sunburst Award, and France’s juried Prix Masterton and Prix Bob Morane.

A multi-award winning film based on my story “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down” will be released on DVD this year, and other films based on my stories are in the works.

I’m Toronto born and raised, and live in Markham with my wife. We have two grown sons and a beautiful granddaughter. By day, I’m an IT executive, and by night I fight crime in the streets of the city–no, wait–that’s Batman. By night, I try to find time to write.

My website is smithwriter.com  and I tweet at twitter.com/smithwritr.

Spec Can: Your work is extremely diverse. What is the key to being able to write in multiple genres of the speculative?

Douglas Smith: I’m not sure if there’s a single answer to that. For me, I read widely as a kid across genres, especially SF, fantasy, and mystery, but general fiction as well, so when I began writing, it just seemed natural to write across genres. I’m also an avid movie goer, so I’ve been exposed to storytelling (good and bad) across genres in that medium as well. As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed stories that mix genres. One of my favourite writers, Roger Zelazny, was a master of what I call “science fantasy”, stories which have the veneer or trappings of fantasy, but have a core logic of SF, stories like “Lord of Light” or “Jack of Shadows.”

Spec Can: What draws you to write Science Fiction? What can science fiction do that realist fiction can’t?

Douglas Smith: I think that the genre’s greatest power as a literature is, to paraphrase the great SF anthologist Damon Knight, to hold up a distorted mirror to our current reality, to focus on some aspect of our world which needs to change (in the writer’s opinion). It’s that “if this goes on…” type of story that allows SF to provide a social commentary in a way that mimetic fiction cannot.

That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I can tell. The stories still need an internal logic and consistency, but I’m not bound by any concerns of matching current reality. That is wonderfully freeing for a writer.

Spec Can: What draws you to write horror?

Douglas Smith: I actually don’t consider myself a horror writer.  I have only consciously sat down to write one pure horror story ever, and that was “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down.” That being said, my work often gets tagged as horror in “Best of …” anthologies and reviews, and many of my SF and fantasy stories do have horror elements to them. I’ve always thought of horror as more of a mood rather than a genre, so when I include horror in my stories, it’s more that I think those elements fit with the broader character arcs or the plot, rather than that I’m aiming at a writing a horror story. I don’t read horror, beyond some of the classics and the occasional Steven King or Clive Barker.  I do tend to see a fair number of horror movies, but even those tend to the supernatural, rather than the slasher, real world horror stories. Serial killer or chain-saw massacre stories bore me. But I love werewolf or ghost movies, for example. I’ve written several shape-shifter stories, plus one vampire story that I didn’t realize was a vampire story until multiple reviewers began mentioning it as an unusual take on vampirism. And I’m currently working on a zombie story that really isn’t a zombie story.

Spec Can: What can speculative fiction tell us about ourselves as readers and as a society?

Douglas Smith: I’d go back to the “distorted mirror” analogy I mentioned above. Fantasy or SF can use other worlds–future or alternate–to focus on aspects of our real world, our shared beliefs, our conflicting beliefs, our humanity, our inhumanity, our potential, our failings, to let us view ourselves through a different lens, at a slightly different angle. Speculative fiction, by the very nature of its unreality, can make us see our reality in ways that mimetic fiction cannot. How we relate to those views, which messages resonate with us as individual readers, can then tell us something about ourselves.

Spec Can: Where do your ideas come from?

Douglas Smith: www.ideas’r_us.com. Just kidding.  Ah, that question. The one that every writer gets at some point.  It’s a very logical question for a reader to ask, but a difficult and often puzzling one for writers to answer, because, I think, readers and writers come at that question from very different perspectives. A reader sees a writer, and thinks “that person’s a writer. Therefore, they need ideas to write about. I wonder where they get those ideas.” This makes perfect sense, except that the experience for writers is exactly the reverse of that sequence.

Asking a writer where they get their ideas is like asking a beleaguered doctor in an under-staffed emergency room where she gets her patients. And you’ll get a similar response from both: I don’t know and I don’t care. I just try to fix them up as best I can and send them out into the world. But I do wish that whoever is sending them to me would slow down a bit.

Most writers are writers precisely because we are constantly getting ideas. And a lot of us would be quite happy to have fewer of them cluttering up our mental waiting rooms, thank you very much, because the only way to get those ideas out of our heads is to write them down into stories. Until we do that, they exist as nattering voices reminding us that they are waiting to be born onto the page.

Let me give one example: my story “The Red Bird” (which appeared in On Spec #45) is an epic fantasy that combines martial arts, a lonely beach, and a very singular bird into a fable set in what might or might not be late 14th century Japan. So where did I get the idea for the story? I’m not sure, but I can explain the events that led up to the idea arriving.

As a child, I spent many summers with my family at a rented cottage on Georgian Bay, just north of Wasaga Beach. My favourite memories are of early mornings, windy and overcast, walking on the wide sandy beach, alone except for the crashing of waves and the cries of the gulls. Many years later, I began studying karate with my oldest son, Mike. One summer, our club held a weekend camp at Georgian Bay. Much to my surprise, the location they chose was the same collection of cottages from my childhood summers, and I spent the weekend practising and sparring on that same beach. At the end of the weekend, I walked that beach again, remembering those mornings of long ago. Somewhere in that stroll, the story was born, initially no more than a strong image of a strange bird with burning plumage and god-like powers of life and death. I don’t know from where that image came, but just being in that physical environment with all of its past and recent memories stimulated the creative process for me, and influenced many of the elements that appear in the story.

How a writer takes a kernel of a story idea and develops it into a story, however, is something that most writers can answer, and I think that’s your next question.

Spec Can:  Great prediction! What sorts of things are the points of genesis for a story?

Douglas Smith: Sometimes it’s an unusual image, such as that strange red bird. Or a giant arch built from encased corpses (“Enlightenment”) or a house as big as the world (“Going Harvey in the Big House”). Sometimes it’s an opening line or a title, such as “By her hand, she draws you down” or “The universe ended at noon. Again.” Other times it will be an idea or situation, such as a drug that turns all emotions, even pain and sorrow, into joy (“Scream Angel”). I have also written several stories (and plan to write more) that were inspired by a line or situation in a Bruce Springsteen song (“Going Down to Lucky Town” and “Radio Nowhere”).

Finally, it can be a character who shows up, and you know you need to figure out their story, how they came to be where they are, and where they will go from there.  Or how they ended up where you’ve found them, because many of my story ideas start with the last image, the last scene. I rarely write a story in order, and often write the last scene before any other.

And not all ideas that show up are good ones, so a writer has to perform some sort of triage on the ideas sitting in their mental waiting room, to reuse my earlier analogy. I have to decide which ones need to be pulled into O/R now and written before they drive me crazy (crazier?); which ones need more time to diagnose and should be kept waiting; and which ones are the malingerers–ideas so incredibly stupid that I’ll try to ignore them and hope that they go away and stop bothering me until I see someone else resurrect them in a movie.

Once I’ve decided to develop an idea into a story, for me, I need to know my characters. I can’t tell any story unless I can tell it as a character’s journey. If I don’t understand my characters, who they are, what drives them, what they want, then I can’t tell the story. For me, everything in a story is character. Plot turns must be based on character decisions. Even setting is character, since what the reader learns about the story’s setting must be through the senses of the story’s point-of-view characters, so what that character notices and cares about in the setting is what the reader experiences as well.

I’ll give one detailed example of the genesis of a story, which also illustrates something else that I’ve discovered–that a single idea is often not enough. A story is stronger if it combines multiple, often seemingly disparate ideas.

Early in my novelette, “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by Van Gogh,” the main character Maroch reads a plaque beside the painting of the story title:

“This still life is not mentioned in van Gogh’s letters and has puzzled scholars as to its place in his artistic production. Most certainly a late work and possibly the Museum’s first painting from his Auvers period (May-July1890).”

That is taken from the actual plaque in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the actual painting, “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase” by van Gogh.

Art is a passion of mine (as a viewer, not a creator). When I travel, I try to visit the local art museums in that city, with a special interest in European art from the mid-1800’s through the surrealists. But my favorite artist has long been Vincent. I’ve seen (I think) every publicly viewable painting of his in every museum in every city I’ve ever visited. I’ve read his letters with his brother, Theo, and ever so many biographies.

I’d always wanted to write a story about Vincent. I’d tried to write that story many years ago, a story about a woman in our time in love with Vincent and who (somehow) actually managed to meet him. The “somehows” that I tried didn’t work for me, so that story stayed in my head as one of those annoying little voices tickling me every now and then to remind me that it was still waiting to be born, until I found myself in front of “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase” in the MMoA.

I’d never seen the painting before, which was cool enough, but when I read the plaque, I knew that I had to use this somehow in my Vincent story. Van Gogh is one of the most researched artists of all time, and because of his extensive letter correspondence with his beloved brother, Theo, we have a running commentary of his entire artistic career, including what paintings he was working on at any time. For a painting to be unmentioned and undated was a wonderful mystery.

But I still didn’t have my time travel “somehow”. Then one evening, a writer friend was discussing remote viewing and how it had been used in the field of one of her own passions, archeology, to search for the lost tomb of Alexander the Great.

Somewhere in that conversation, the penny dropped, and I knew I had my time travel “somehow” to link my heroine in modern time to Vincent in the past. I did some research on remote viewing, from which came another part of my story: my main character, a former CIA operative. I added some tragedy in his past and a search for lost paintings, and the story (finally) started to take shape.

So sometimes a story idea has a very long stay in the waiting room.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian Speculative Fiction is going from here?

Douglas Smith: I have no idea, beyond bigger and better and more well known. We have an astoundingly talented array of speculative fiction writers, both established and emerging, all across the country, in all genres. At one time, I could give a list of recommended Canadian speculative fiction writers, but now I won’t even try because I know I’ll leave someone out and feel bad about it.

As a timely example of both Canadian writing and the themes that it can deal with, I’ll point to the brand new anthology, Blood and Water (Bundoran Press, 2012), edited by Hayden Trenholm and featuring stories from Canadian writers about “the new resource wars that will mark the next fifty years – stories of conflict and cooperation, of hope and despair – all told from a uniquely Canadian perspective.” Full disclosure: my shape-shifter, logging activism story “Spirit Dance,” which is the prequel to my novel The Wolf at the End of the World, is included.

Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about your work? What Canadian themes do you work with?

Douglas Smith: Another tough question. While I’m thinking up an answer, why don’t you check out Karen Bennett’s wonderful “Fantastic Toronto” web site (http://www.karenbennett.ca/FantasticToronto.html), which is an extensively researched bibliography of science fiction/speculative fiction, fantasy and horror that is set in (or has major mentions of) Toronto.

You’re back? Damn, I still need an answer. Well, beyond the Canadian and Toronto settings in many of my stories, now that I think of it, one of themes that recurs in my work, especially the Heroka shapeshifter stories, is that of the conflict between our civilization and the natural wilderness, as our resource-based industries, which feed our cities’ growing hunger for timber, water, power, minerals, and land, consumes more and more of the natural world and habitats of our wildlife. Our country has always been defined by its vast wilderness areas, and yet the huge majority of our population lives in only a few highly urbanized pockets of that vastness.  So there’s this destructive dichotomy between us and the land we live in–we live off of the land but we don’t really live in it. But for those who do live there and for the wildlife species that live there, we’re destroying more of that wilderness every year to feed the hunger of the cities. This is the central theme in The Wolf at the End of the World and in most of my other Heroka stories. The Heroka are a race of shape shifters whose vitality as a race is tied directly to the vitality of their totem animal species, species that are dwindling as their natural habitats are destroyed by logging or mining concerns, or flooded for hydro-electric projects.

Other Canadian themes in my work include a suspicion of both corporate and political power, a suspicion that I think is greater here in Canada than, for example, in the US.

Spec Can:  What are the values of writing short fiction?

Douglas Smith: I think that short fiction remains the best way to “break in” as a speculative fiction writer and to build a reputation with sales and awards. It’s also the best way to learn the craft of writing prose. Short stories allow a writer to write across genres, to learn different techniques, to try different approaches from one story to another that the novel form doesn’t permit (or rather, it would take longer to do over multiple novels).

And finally, quite frankly, if you’re a beginning writer, I think it’s wiser to invest your time in writing a few short stories and trying to sell them than in writing and marketing a novel. It’s a smaller hill to climb to find out if you can sell what you write. And to find out if you actually enjoy writing.

For me, at this point in my career, I’m spending most of my writing time on novels. But I love short stories, both to read and to write, and will (I hope) always continue to write them.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write the short story By Her Hand, She Draws You Down? What ideas did you deal with in this story?

Douglas Smith: I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process and have written several stories about other creative arts, such as music in “Symphony,” sculpture in “Enlightenment,” dance in “The Dancer at the Red Door” or art in “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by Van Gogh” and “By Her Hand…”

The genesis of the story came while engaging in that favourite past-time of writers, staring out a window, this particular window being on the GO bus (Toronto commuter thingy) that I was riding home that evening. I’ve found that a flow of images in that sort of situation seems to trigger some sort of subconscious creative process. Anyway, the opening line to the poem that opens the story and forms the title to the story arrived from somewhere, and then Cath, the tortured artist of the story, showed up to audition for the lead role shortly thereafter.

This was the first pure horror story I ever wrote. It was an Aurora finalist and was selected for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #13. A movie adaptation of the story from TinyCore Pictures toured film festivals in 2010-2011 and is included on the horror anthology DVD, Gallery of Fear.

Spec Can: What social issues can Science Fiction and Horror explore?

Douglas Smith: I’ve touched on many of these in my answers to some of the earlier questions, regarding the power of SF and Canadian themes, so I’ll give a short answer here:

Anything. Literally, anything.

If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue. I really see no limits. Rather, I think that SF&F offer more options for doing so than within the restrictions of mainstream mimetic fiction.

Spec Can: What role does diversity play in your work?

Douglas Smith: I certainly aim at a good balance of gender diversity.  About half of my stories have females as the main character or a key point-of-view character. My upcoming novel, The Wolf at the End of the World, has three female and three male POV characters. Beyond a gender diversity, half of the main characters in that book are Anishinabe, both Cree and Ojibwa. Plus there’s a blind POV character (which was interesting to write). One of the characters is even dead, which is a sector of our society that is usually not given a voice, so I’m trying to do my part. My next novel, an urban fantasy set in Toronto, has a gay character. But I’m sure I could do more and plan on having even more diversity in my cast of characters in future stories.

Spec Can:  What is the virtue of creating characters outside of the mainstream?

Douglas Smith: I’m not sure how virtuous it is, but it’s certainly fun from a creative perspective. Aside from that, characters outside the norm, whether they be aliens in our universe, humans from our possible futures, or characters from an entirely different reality, alternate or fantasy, aid in bringing the distorted mirror into focus. These characters can look at our world, our societies, our problems with fresh eyes and fresh outlooks, and thereby show readers a different perspective.

Or they can just be freaking cool, giving a reader that sense of wonder that only speculative fiction can deliver.

Spec Can: Your stories deal with some mythical characteristics. What can myths teach people in the modern world? How are myths still active in our world?

Douglas Smith: The ancient myths were the way that humans tried to explain the unexplainable, and writers and artists are still trying to explain the universe and our place in it. Our myths simply change as we learn more. Science replaces a myth, but each answer we find simply leads to another area where we know nothing. Myths rush in to fill the void. We are story tellers and will always be story tellers. It’s part of being human–it’s hard-wired in us. We will always use stories to try to explain or to process our world and what it means to be human. So we will always be building myths–stories that try to explain, stories that everyone knows are myths but enjoy by pretending they’re real.  The best stories, like the best myths, contain an element of truth that helps to make it all make sense.

Here’s an extract from my upcoming novel, The Wolf at the End of the World, which has an animal habitat / environment destruction theme, and draws heavily on Cree and Ojibwa stories and myths. In this scene, the Cree spirit Wisakejack is explaining the Cree story about the creation of the world to a boy named Zach who will play a part in an impending and mysterious battle:

“In the beginning,” Wisakejack began, “Kitche Manitou, the Great Spirit of the People, dreamed of this world. Kitche Manitou knew that dreams are important, even for him, so he meditated on his dream and realized that he had to bring what he had dreamed into being.

            “So, out of nothing–the nothing that we’re floating in right now–he made four elements–rock, water, fire, and wind. Into each, he breathed the breath of life, giving each its own spirit.”

            Zach suddenly felt solid ground under his feet. Rain wet his face, and a breeze moved his hair. He felt the heat of flames and smelled smoke. He still could see nothing but mist.

            “From these four elements,” Wisakejack said, “he created the four things that form the physical world: the sun, stars, moon, and earth.”

            Zach gasped. The grey mist was gone. A red sun sank over a broad bare plain of gray rock cut by a winding river, while a full moon peeked yellow-white over a tall, barren mountain under a canopy of stars in a black sky.

            “Then Kitche Manitou made the plant beings in four kinds: flowers, grasses, trees, vegetables.”

            From the bare expanse of rock, a forest of huge trees and undergrowth suddenly arose. Zach sensed something primal about this place. Something old–very, very old–and yet, at the same time, something still new, virgin.

            “And to the plants, he gave four spirits–life, growth, healing, and beauty.”

            “He liked to do things in fours, didn’t he?” Zach said, looking around in wonder.

            Wisakejack grinned. “See? You are learning. Next he created animals, each with special powers–two-legged, four-legged, winged, and swimmers–yep, four again.”

            Zach heard chirping and looked up to see a blue jay on a tree branch. When he looked back down, the coyote from his first dream sat beside him.

            “Wisakejack?”

            The coyote’s outline shimmered, and Wisakejack took its place. He stood up, brushing himself off. “Last, Kitche Manitou made the People. Humans.” He raised a finger. “Last–not first. That’s your most important lesson tonight. The plants came after the physical world, cuz they needed the earth, air, rain, and sun to live. The animals came after the plants, cuz the meat-eaters needed the plant-eaters, and the plant-eaters, well, they needed the plants.”

            “And people came last,” Zach said slowly, “because we depend on everything–sun, water, earth, air, plants, animals.”

            Wisakejack grinned. “Yep. None of the other orders of life needs humans to survive, but people depend on everything. You’re the weakest of the four orders–something the white man has never figured out. But Kitche Manitou wasn’t finished. Because the People were the weakest of his creations, he gave them the greatest of all his gifts–the power to dream.” He looked at Zach hard, his grin gone. “You believe that, kid? That dreaming is a power?”

Spec Can: You are able to really get into the minds of your characters. How do you get into the minds of alien or other than human characters?

Douglas Smith: I don’t really differentiate between the human and non-human characters. Writing a story for me means understanding my characters and telling the story via their journeys through it. An alien may be completely different from us in physiology, intelligence, culture, spiritual beliefs, and moral code, but all sentient creatures will be motivated by something, both as a race and as individuals. It’s just a matter of understanding what is important to a character.

And when I say understanding a character, I don’t mean completing one of those ridiculous “character sheets” that often get foisted on beginning writers. I couldn’t care less what my character’s favourite colour is or what they like for breakfast. If those details are needed in a story, fine, I’ll figure them out when I need to. But that isn’t understanding a character. Understanding a character means knowing what makes them tick. What gets them out of bed each morning? Or why do they dread getting out of bed? What are their passions? Or maybe they don’t have any. What do they truly fear more than anything? What do they want more than anything? What would they die for? What would they kill for? And most important for any story, what are they are missing in their lives right now that will drive all their decisions in their story?

Spec Can: What is the role of the urban in your work? What can SF teach us about the city and cityscapes?

Douglas Smith: I’d say that I have always enjoyed stories set in our modern cities where something of the other intrudes, unnoticed by most except (of course) by the story’s main character who is brought to a close encounter with the strangeness, either by chance or by intent. It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy the work of Charles de Lint so much. Other works that come to mind are the openings in the first books of Zelazny’s Amber series, Andre Norton’s Witchworld series, and Farmer’s World of Tiers series.

Regarding what spec fic can teach us about urban life, it’s back to the distorted mirror again. We are becoming increasingly dependent on technology to make our complex urban civilizations run. But at what cost? SF contains multitudinous extrapolations of what our cities and city-dwellers might become. We’ve gone from the fanciful city of flying cars in early SF to darker and dystopic views, and I’d include my own “Going Harvey in the Big House” in the latter category.

Spec Can: Is there anything else that you would like to mention to our readers?

Douglas Smith: Just that I hope they’ll visit my web site at http://smithwriter.com and take a tour. If any of your readers would like to check out any of the stories I mention here, they are all available as individual ebooks at all major etailers or from the store on my web site, and are also included in one of my collections, Chimerascope or Impossibilia.  And please look for my urban fantasy, The Wolf at the End of the World, in early 2013.

Thanks for the invitation to be interviewed here and for the thought-provoking questions.

I want to thank Douglas Smith for sharing his insights with us and provoking new thoughts and ideas about the future of SF and of human beings. To read more about Douglas Smith, check out his website at smithwriter.com. Click on Douglas Smith in the Tags on the left of this website to read some of my reviews.