Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 71: An Interview of Regina Hansen

On this episode of Speculating Canada, I interview the brilliant Regina Hansen to talk about the interrelationship between academia and speculative writing, on the ideas of haunting, and on notions of place and identity. 

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files. 

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Spectres of Homophobia

Review of Michael Rowe’s Ghosts (Postscripts to Darkness 2014, http://pstdarkness.com/2014/08/08/ghosts-by-michael-rowe/ )

Photo of the painting that was used for the cover for Michael Rowe's "Ghosts", courtesy of Postscripts to Darkness. Painting by Derek Newman-Stille

Photo of the painting that was used for the cover for Michael Rowe’s “Ghosts”, courtesy of Postscripts to Darkness. Painting by Derek Newman-Stille

LGBTQ2 populations are haunted by the spectre of violence. Our lives are inscribed with threat and many of us have been victims of multiple violent attacks. Stories like that of Matthew Shepard who was beaten and left to die in a field by homophobic groups haunt queer experience, even, in that case, entering into the artistic world and songs like Melissa Etheridge’s “Scarecrow”.

This experience of feeling haunted by the spectre of violence, of having one’s life marked by the potential of being the victim of homophobic attack marks the lives of LGBTQ2 people. Perhaps that is why it is so refreshing to see Michael Rowe’s story “Ghosts”, where in addition to queer populations being haunted by the spectre of violence, those who have allowed that violence and created a culture of permitting it are haunted by the ghosts of loss and regret.

“Ghosts” is a tale about a brother who hated his younger brother for being gay, seeing his brother’s homosexuality as a threat to his own masculinity and reputation. When friends of Robert, spurred on by his own homophobia beat his little brother Scott to death, Robert comes to realize the loss he has experienced and the absence left in his life at the loss of his brother. The pain is his to experience as someone who permitted anti-gay violence to occur. Robert sees the spectral presence of his younger brother everywhere, his life marked perpetually by what he allowed to occur.

Rowe’s story is so refreshing because it facilitates the idea that a life lost through homophobic violence is a loss for all of society, not just for the LGBTQ2 population and the loss should be sharpest and most haunting for those who let that violence occur, who stand by and do nothing, or who spur on that violence even if they are not directly perpetrating it.

Rowe reminds us that we, as a society, are haunted by the spectre of homophobic violence and that it should not be just LGBTQ2 populations that feel this loss and feel the presence of those killed or harmed by violence, but rather all of us as a society.

This is a painfully beautiful story about family, homophonic violence, and loss.

You can read this story online on Postscripts to Darkness’s website at http://pstdarkness.com/2014/08/08/ghosts-by-michael-rowe/

To find out more about the work of Michael Rowe, you can visit his website at http://www.michaelrowe.com

Shattered Glass

A review of Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell (ChiZine Publications, 2013)

Cover photo of Wild Fell courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of Wild Fell courtesy of ChiZine Publications

By Derek Newman-Stille

Our worlds are shaped by memory, by our own histories and those of the people and places around us. Memory haunts the pages of Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell, and so does the loss of memory.

Jamie’s life has been shaped by memory and loss. His father is gradually losing his memory to Alzheimer’s, and, after a car accident, Jamie lost his own memory, and, particularly his own childhood, to brain damage. He is left in an uncertain place, a strange place between what he knows to be true and what he can’t trust in himself. He is left in a haunted space.

Ghost stories are dark reflections of our dreams about the past, our anxieties, our worries, and the things that we repress, and, from an early age when Jamie looked into his mirror, he could see a dark reflection of himself, a haunted presence from within, a friend within the mirror who haunted him and pushed him toward change. As a child, Jamie had created a friend to deal with loneliness, Mirror Pal, but over time she gradually started to take on a life of her own, shaping herself in his image and taking on an identity of her own as Amanda. She would speak through the young boy’s voice, shaping his throat into her words and trying to shape him into her own image by pushing him gradually to make decisions that she would make. His Mirror Pal made him her own dark reflection.

Small towns are haunted places, shaped by their own history and the gossip that permeates them, and Jamie is pulled toward the small Northern Ontario town of Alvina by this mirrored friend from the past. She leads him to a new home, abandoned to history and myth: Wild Fell. Jamie is led to this new (though ancient) home through a combination of losses – his father, his memory, his marriage, and his job. He seeks to create a new place of belonging… in a place that resists newness, an ancient house in the middle of an abandoned lake outside of a small town.

Wild Fell itself stands as a dark, ancient character, standing ominously on the precipice of history and evoking a timeless quality and the haunted potential of abandoned historical houses. It literally refuses to age, seeming to await its owner as though still occupied, as though its inhabitants are merely on a temporary vacation and will return at any moment. It is a place of returns.

We like to think of ourselves as having all of the power when buying a house – making it ours. But what if we are claimed by our houses? What if they chose us? What if ownership in turn owns us? We are terminal beings and our houses can outlast us – is it any wonder that they begin to accumulate memories, myths, and murmurs of the otherworldly? We are haunted by histories we are not part of – foreign terrains of the past that invite investigation.

In Wild Fell, Rowe reminds us that we create reality through memory, construct it out of flashes of neurons… and that reality can change as our memories change. Nothing is fixed, nothing static, but all shiftings of sleep sand and illusions. Wild Fell serves as a dark reminder that everything about our identity is changeable – gender, identity, personality, and desire. Our bodies and spirits interact in complex ways, and nothing about ourselves is stationary. Rowe explores the way we can change with changes in our memories, exploring the relationship between abuse and forgetting – memories that are erased due to trauma that re-surface late like an island in the centre of a dark lake. Wild Fell is made timeless by the abuse within its walls, the haunting return of the repressed – the shattered glass of our mirrored, reflected selves.

To explore some of Michael Rowe’s other work, you can explore his website at http://www.michaelrowe.com/ .

To get your own copy of Wild Fell, check out the ChiZine Publications website at http://chizinepub.com/ .

An Interview with Michael Kelly

An interview with Michael Kelly by Derek Newman-Stille

I was very pleased when Michael Kelly was willing to share some insights with readers of Speculating Canada. I have been reading his work for years, and was impressed at the depth of his insights and thoughts about Canadian horror. I hope that readers enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Author photo courtesy of Michael Kelly

Author photo courtesy of Michael Kelly

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

Michael Kelly: Thanks, Derek. I’m an author, editor, and publisher based near Toronto, originally hailing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. My work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Black Static, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Postscripts, Space & Time, Supernatural Tales, Tesseracts, and others. I’ve been a finalist for The Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Society Awards.

Spec Can: What inspired you to become a horror author? What appeals to you about horror?

Michael Kelly: Horror’s appeal is that it is, to me at least, the broadest and most inclusive of all literary forms. It truly has the widest canvas. If we are to categorize literature into genres, then certain works of science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, and mainstream literature can easily fit under the horror umbrella. Douglas Winter famously opined that horror is not a genre, it’s an emotion. Though that is a bit simplistic, I do ascribe to that basic notion, somewhat. Horror is a mode of literature more than a genre.

When I write, I don’t actually aspire to genre. I don’t sit down to write horror. I just write. What comes out, I guess, can loosely be described as horror. But, if we are to categorize (and I understand people’s need to do so), then I guess you could call my work horror, for the most part. I prefer Robert Aickman’s term “strange stories.”

Spec Can: What do you hope your readers will take from reading your fiction?

Michael Kelly: I hope they experience a shift in their perceptions, a slight subversion of the every day, a queer unease. Whether my approach is ontological or psychological, hopefully I can reveal to readers some small insight into human nature.

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian horror from that of other nationalities?

Michael Kelly: Is Canadian horror different from other horror fiction? Well, some say my raison d’etre is promoting Canadian horror. It’s the reason I edit the Chilling Tales series for EDGE Publications. Volume 2 will be out soon.

Canada is certainly fertile ground for imaginative minds.  What I’ve discovered is that Canadian writers explore the same themes as their contemporaries. Stories of corporate horror; side trips into surrealism and modern supernatural horror.  Tales of loss.  And the all-too-real horrors of everyday life, of existing in harsh climates, whether literal or psychological.  Not unlike any good horror fiction, then.  Except I sense a distinctly Canadian worldview, a disquieting solitude, perhaps, or a tangible loneliness, that permeates these stories and makes them truly chilling Canadian tales. There is definitely a Canadian aesthetic.

Cover photo of Scratching The Surface courtesy of Michael Kelly

Cover photo of Scratching The Surface courtesy of Michael Kelly

Spec Can: What can horror do to inspire readers or challenge the status quo?

Michael Kelly:  Hmmm, well, other than to entertain, much of horror fiction is grounded in philosophical treatises. Horror is, to me, so inclusive of themes and ideas, the outré, that by it’s very nature it challenges the status quo. Much of it is reliant on mood, atmosphere, and the unknown. It is a mode, especially, I think, in the short form, that tests our meager existence.

Spec Can: You have been instrumental in creating Undertow Publications, a small press that produces horror work. What is the virtue of small independent presses?

Michael Kelly:  I am a very small press, a micro-press, to be sure. I prefer the term independent press, though. Years ago, the independent press was a vital outlet for writers; a place where you could find literate, daring, and avant-garde fiction that bucked the mainstream, and eschewed commerciality. You can still find that, to be sure, but with the proliferation of DIY publishing, and the publication of four-hundred new eBooks every twelve seconds, it’s become increasingly difficult to find that fiction. It’s almost not worth looking for, but, like finding that needle in a haystack, the small amount of pain is worth the discovery. There’s good, bad, and terrible writing in both the traditional and self-publishing arenas. The independent press still plays a role, to be sure, and the savvy reader, whether by word-of-mouth, recommendations, or simple sleuthing, can usually find those innovative works. Hopefully, out of the morass of the DIY culture, we still have some savvy readers.

Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about the anthology Shadows and Tall Trees that you edit? What are some of the key things that you hope the anthology will focus on?

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Autumn 2012 issue, courtesy of Michael Kelly

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Autumn 2012 issue, courtesy of Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly: I’ve just published issue 5 of Shadows & Tall Trees. It’s a journal of weird fiction, and strange stories. I’ve had the pleasure of publishing a number of distinguished authors in its pages, including Robert Shearman, Alison Moore, Steve Rasnic Tem, among many others, and Canadian writers Sandra Kasturi, Richard Gavin, Ian Rogers, and Simon Strantzas.

My focus is thoughtful, intelligent weird fiction. Fiction that gives you that genuine frisson. So far, I think I’ve accomplished that. It’s been very well received, with praise from Ellen Datlow, and Peter Straub. Five stories from the first four issues have been selected for reprint in six different “Best Of” anthologies.

Spec Can: You have written about and published stories about ghosts. Why do ghosts inspire our fascination as a society? What appeals to the human imagination about the idea of haunting?

Michael Kelly: Most of us have a good dose of empathy. Ghosts are mostly born from trauma or tragedy. When they return, when they haunt us, we still empathize with their circumstance, their condition, whether malevolent or not. It’s an interesting dichotomy — empathy for the dead. Ghosts, you see, aren’t about the dead, they’re about the living.

Spec Can: As a horror author, what frightens you? What inspires your fear?

Michael Kelly: I suspect the things that frighten me – loss and abandonment – are the same things that frighten many writers. My fears are less tangible, perhaps. It isn’t spiders or snakes or dolls or clowns. Those things are creepy, yes, but I am not afraid of them. I fear losing my children, my wife. I fear loneliness and aging. Death. Who doesn’t, on some primal level, fear death?

Spec Can: How does fear inspire your work?

Michael Kelly: It spurs me to write while I’m still among the living.

Spec Can: What mythologies inspire you? What mythical themes and ideas imbue your work?

Michael Kelly: I wouldn’t say any particular mythology inspires me. My fiction is often reality based, psychological in nature, with an emphasis on characters, mostly flawed.

Spec Can: What can horror do that realist fiction can’t?

Michael Kelly: Oh, gosh, that’s a good question. The short answer is ‘I don’t know.’ I think of my fiction as realist. If you say “horror,” a set of readers are going to have certain expectations. Mostly blood and viscera. That’s not me. My definition of horror is broad. “Alien” is a horror movie. “The Road” is a horror novel. Weird fiction that takes an ontological approach can open a new philosophy to some. But realist fiction can do the same. It’s all in the writing.

Spec Can: Why is so much of horror literature fascinated with the body? What can horror reveal about the body?

Michael Kelly: We’re made of blood and bone, skin and gristle, teeth and tissue. These are the fragile vessels that propel us around this fragile world. Bodies give us pleasure and pain in equal amounts. When the body is invaded and hurt, when it is mutilated or begins to erode, when disease attacks, it reminds us of our mortality. But there’s also, to some, something inherently deviant and taboo about seeing unnatural things happening to our bodies. Body horror brings a new level of intimacy to our lives.

Spec Can: In what ways do you hope your fiction will inspire readers? What do you hope readers will take away from reading your work?

Michael Kelly: Other than what I mentioned further above, I just hope readers enjoy the tales, and that the themes and ideas resonate. Hopefully the stories will linger a little with the reader.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian horror going from here? What does the future of Canadian horror look like?

Michael Kelly: Canadian horror fiction is having a renaissance. It’s definitely in a good place, thanks to publishers like ChiZine and EDGE, and authors like Craig Davidson, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Sandra Kasturi, Lisa L. Hannett, Helen Marshall, David Nickle, Ian Rogers, Michael Rowe, Simon Strantzas, Tia Travis, and Halli Villegas, to name a few. The future of Canadian dark fiction is bright.

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Summer 2013 courtesy of Michael Kelly

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Summer 2013 courtesy of Michael Kelly

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to this interview or any other ideas that you would like to share?

Michael Kelly: Thanks, Derek. I’d just like to point readers to Shadows & Tall Trees, the journal I edit. As a one-person operation it is hard to get the word out. I think lovers of weird and strange fiction will enjoy the journal. As a very small independent press the only way to keep afloat is to sell copies. Issue 5 is now available at all the major online retailers. I do hope you’ll take a look. I guarantee it’ll be worth your time and money. You can find more info and order back copies at:


I want to thank Michael Kelly for this incredible conversation about Canadian Dark Fiction and being willing to share his passion for the dark and the thoughts and speculations that come out of pondering the dark.

Magic, Mazes, and Math

A Review of Ari Goelman’s The Path of Names (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)

Cover photo courtesy of http://arigoelman.com/blog/

Cover photo courtesy of http://arigoelman.com/blog/

By Derek Newman-Stille

Despite wanting to go to math camp and magic camp, Dahlia is convinced by her parents to attend Jewish camp. It comes complete with everything she would expect – sports, crafts, outdoor activities, friends, Hebrew lessons, and mean girls… and a few things she doesn’t expect – dreams from another person’s memory, sudden knowledge she didn’t possess before, kabbalistic magic, possession, conspiracies, and dead girls. Jewish camp ends up combining the best and worst of math and magic camp with real supernatural events and important magical numbers from kabbalistic literature.

In Ari Goelman’s The Path of Names, Dahlia’s diseffected boredom turns into desperate battle she learns that she needs to solve mysteries both magican and murdrous in order to save her fellow campers. She just wants to be normal, like other kids her age, but she is an outsider not just because she is clever and has an interest in math and magic, but because the magical has an interest in her and the numbers are not in her favour.

Dahlia has to prevent secrets of Judaism from once again being stolen from the Jewish people and used for personal gain.

To read more about Ari Goelman, you can visit his website at http://arigoelman.com/ . To read more about The Path of Names and other Arthur A. Levine Books, you can visit their website at http://www.arthuralevinebooks.com/ .

Rejected by Magic

A Review of Erin Bow’s Plain Kate (Scholastic Inc., 2012)

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

By Derek Newman-Stille

In a world where magic is real and witches are hunted, Erin Bow’s Plain Kate explores society’s trend of scapegoating people who are different, making villains out of people who don’t fit the ideas of normal behaviour. Plain Kate is a woman whose appearance is plain, but who has two different coloured eyes, marking her as a social target. She is made even more of a target because she is clever and talented. Others can’t accept that her skills are natural or due to incredible effort on her part, they automatically attribute her skills to witchcraft and persecute her, driving her out of her home and away from her community.

In her desire to find a place for herself, and escape from the hate around her, Plain Kate makes a deal with a witch who has come to town: she trades her own shadow for a way to survive on her own… and in the process unintentionally expresses her secret wish for a companion. Her cat is suddenly gifted with the ability to speak and becomes something in-between human and cat as Plain Kate becomes something between living and dead, a woman without a shadow who feels herself fading away.

Kate takes on the name “Plain Kate”, trying to mark herself as plain in appearance, not noticeable and easily missed. Giftedness is dangerous in her community, so Plain Kate finds other social outcasts, outsiders and those who have been expelled from their societies. Plain Kate finds a group of people called Roamers, other people who are persecuted who live on the fringes. She learns their customs and finds a new place for herself, a family.

Plain Kate is not left alone with her new community, she is followed by a sleeping sickness, a monster in the fog, and a witch bent of vengeance for his sister’s death.  Plain Kate’s shadow has been shared with a rusalka, a figure from myth: a drowned woman who haunts the edges of life. Kate’s compassion compels her to sacrifice herself for the very community that had rejected and outcast her.

Plain Kate is a novel steeped in magic, where the mysteries flow off of the page and into your imagination.

To find out more about Erin Bow, you can explore her website at http://www.erinbow.com/ . To find out more about Plain Kate, you can check out Scholastic’s website at http://www.scholastic.ca/titles/plainkate/

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night…

A Review of Ian Rogers’ SuperNOIRtural Tales (Burning Effigy Press, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for SuperNOIRtural Tales courtesy of the author

Cover photo for SuperNOIRtural Tales courtesy of the author

I was so excited to see that Ian Rogers had collected a number of his Felix Renn Black Lands novellas into one volume and published it as SuperNOIRtural Tales. I had reviewed his novellas Temporary Monsters (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/performing-the-monster/), The Ash Angels (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/spectres-spooks-and-supernatural-s-a-d/ ), and Black-Eyed Kids (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/when-death-is-better-than-continuing-fear/) and was happy to see that they were brought together with extensive new materials on the Black Lands and a new story titled The Brick into this fantastic volume that blends the supernatural with a detective noir novel.

Ian Rogers twists and warps the natural world in his Black Lands stories, taking normal experience, normal reactions, and normal people and placing them into contexts where they are forced to face trickles of the weird drifting in from otherworldly portals from the monstrous Black Lands. This is a world where children, for generations told that the monsters that they imagined under their beds are now real and are taught how to cope with the monstrous in their school. A world with governments like ours who are coping with a populace afraid of invisible, sudden, and unexpected threats and are coping (much like ours) by keeping details secret and doing horrible things in their belief that they are preserving the public interest. Where in our world, government secrets, the policing of people, and militarism are focussed on issues like ideas of global threats like nuclear militarisation, the spread of viruses, environmental degradation, and ideas of border security, the borders of Ian Rogers’ world are that of the Black Lands, a realm of the monstrous where everything is potentially a predator, where secret agencies cover up public dangers, where disappearances could be related to the supernatural or to those who might be considered a public threat, where military groups are sent into the ‘enemy territory’ of the Black Lands, and where the Black Land portals can be considered a spreading taint that can appear without warning. Like in our world where the permanent, nascent fear of catastrophe has permeated aspects of social and political life, the Black Lands is highly politicised and represents the anxious currents of the world surrounding unknowable threats.

But, like in our world, the nascent anxiety of potential danger becomes a background noise, fearful whisperings in the dark, and people in the world of the Black Lands novels learn to ignore the reality of the monstrous threat that stands a thin reality line away in order to cope and live normal lives. They know that the world as they know it can change at a moment’s notice, that constant interruptions to the world that they view as normal are possible, likely, and increasing, but they cope with the low-level anxiety in order to maintain their thin conceptions of a normal world.

Rogers plays with the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary, illustrating how ordinary people can learn to cope with the introduction of the Weird into their everyday lives.

In the newest Black Lands story in this volume, The Brick, Ian Rogers focusses the idea of disruptions interrupting the norm on a place that most of us most associate with safety, security, and normal existence: The Home. Felix Renn is brought into a case involving a girl who disappears suddenly from her home, and, in his search to find her, encounters a real estate agent friend who specialises in buying and selling haunted houses. The house becomes an unsafe space, its insecurity and lack of safety exposed: Ian Rogers ‘Weirds’ the home, disrupting the safe blanket of domesticity that has become the foundation for Western modernity. Houses become things that can attack people, that can kill, that can be possessed… and even the bricks of the home itself can become infused with the ‘Weird’. They can be tainted spaces, infused with the miasma of the Black Lands.

Even people in The Brick can become tainted, contaminated by exposure to the Black Lands in a syndrome that has been labelled by society as “The Influence” and dubbed by Health Officials “Black Lands Syndrome”. The body, the most fundamental particle of our identity structure, can be changed, touched by darkness, and can become unfamiliar…. and more frightening…. the monsters can sense this taint and some like to keep their privacy enough to hunt the people who have contaminated THEIR world…

You can explore more about SuperNOIRtural Tales at Burning Effigy Press’ website at http://www.burningeffigy.com/ . To find out more about Ian Rogers and his other books, check out his website: http://www.ian-rogers.com/ . And, to feed your love of the Black Lands, there is even a Black Lands website at http://theblacklands.com/

Interview with Holly Bennett

An interview with Holly Bennett by Derek Newman-Stille

It is always exciting to meet an author who lives in the same town as I do, so I was really pleased to come across Holly Bennett’s name when I was searching for new authors on Kobo, and then to find out that she also lives in Peterborough. I was very pleased that she was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada. If you have an interest in Teen Fiction, music, Peterborough, the role of fantasy writing to open up new ideas, ghosts, character development, or myth, I think you will enjoy hearing Holly Bennett’s insights.


Author photo courtesy of Holly Bennett

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

Holly Bennett: Oh dear. I’m sort of embarrassingly average, really. I grew up in Montreal, came to Peterborough to go to Trent, and turned into one of those Trent alumni who stay — we are legion. I did live in Toronto for a while after graduating, but came back to Peterborough in search of a cheaper, saner lifestyle, mainly so we could afford to have kids.

Career-wise, I started out in non-profit work, doing research and program development with various Aboriginal organizations (my undergrad degree’s in Native Studies, and I studied Adult Education at OISE). Then a couple of years after moving back to Peterborough I lucked into a home-based job as an assistant editor at Today’s Parent. I loved the work, and discovered I am pretty damn good at it, and have made my living as an editor and non-fiction writer ever since.

I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.

Spec Can: Why is the supernatural so popular in Young Adult fiction at the moment? What is the appeal of the supernatural for teens?

Holly Bennett: I think it’s the same appeal as for adults, really. The supernatural — or let’s broaden that out to fantasy in general — it’s the appeal of what lurks at the edges of things, I suppose. The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, “What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?”  At the same time, fantasy stories allow us to grapple with huge issues— questions of good and evil, oppression and freedom, terror and courage—in a kind of “safe” way. We know it’s not real, so that frees us to dive into things that might be too painful or threatening in ‘real life.’

I do think the ‘quest’ nature of many fantasy stories is very well-suited to this age group. It’s the mythic journey of the young adult, really. So it resonates with kids who are starting to imagine and test themselves as young adults.

Spec Can: What are some of the key differences in writing characters for YA than for adult fiction?

Holly Bennett:  Well, publishers will tell you the main characters in YA must be young people themselves. I’ve broken that rule fairly often myself, and so have many others. I think it’s a rule that’s easier to break in the fantasy genre, but I do think you need to create characters that teens can identify with and/or think about how to draw them into the world you have created. Another way to look at it is, are your characters dealing with issues that teens can relate to? The classic mytho-fantasy themes are pretty ageless: readers of any age (if they like the genre) can relate to them, even if the character is older. But if that character is feeling bored and depressed by his retirement, or trying to come to terms with a marriage gone stale, then no, that’s not going to captivate many young readers.

For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are.  What is often different is the pace of the writing. You don’t have a lot of room for descriptions of anything, including characters, so the characters have to unfold, to a large extent,  through their actions and the plot.

Spec Can: What myths of the magical do you draw on when you write?

Holly Bennett: I’ve been especially drawn to the Irish Celtic myths — two of my novels are retelling/embellishments of old Irish stories that date back to the Iron Age, which I found really resonated richly for me. But I find I also borrow quite a bit from some of the spiritual ideas and practices I learned back in Native Studies at Trent — in the Warrior’s Daughter for example Luaine attends a kind of sweat lodge ceremony, and she also does a version of a dream fast. The Celts did have some kind of sauna or sweat lodge, and they did have the “bed of dreams” I described in the book, but we don’t have much knowledge about their ceremonies or practices. I drew on aboriginal ceremonies I’ve attended when imagining what actually happened.

Spec Can: What is the role of the outsider in your work? How do you bring ideas of diversity into your work?

Cover photo of Shapeshifter courtesy of Holly Bennett

Cover photo of Shapeshifter courtesy of Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett: It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too! Dirk, in The Bonemende, was my first outsider character, and he started out as a simple plot device. Then Gabrielle brought him home, and the second book was really spurred on by my need to explore his experience.

Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey. In The Bonemender, the Greffaires are just “the bad guys” until we meet Dirk.

I think another form of the Outsider is the Outcast. That was a really dominant theme in Shapeshifter, where Sive is forced to leave not only her world but her human form. Thinking about the loneliness of that experience, the struggle to adapt and yet still hold on to who you are, was very moving for me. And there are so many real, contemporary human experiences that would be in some way like Sive’s. I think of the experience of refugees, of the homeless, so many others.

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?

Holly Bennett: Oh yes. I think this is my very favourite part of writing, and also sometimes the scariest. At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.

This happened with my very first novel, The Bonemender. I looked down at my computer screen and saw that Féolan had just decided to travel over the mountains into Greffaire territory, and I had not planned that at all. My first thought was, “Oh crap. Now I have to come up with a whole new country, and a whole new subplot.” But it was absolutely the right thing, both for Féolan and in terms of keeping the story interesting.

I don’t mean to suggest that as a writer you end up at the mercy of your characters.  It’s more that as the characters develop and change, the story has to kind of adjust itself around them.

Spec Can: Your novel Redwing follows the lives of musicians. What role can music play  in literature? What appealed to you about writing about musicians?

Holly Bennett: Some of my favourite books are infused with music. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is so full of music Tim O’Brien made an album of it.  It’s tricky, because music is not going to speak to everyone, especially described in print! But music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.

It’s amazing, really, that I haven’t written about musicians earlier, considering I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t play. At a certain period of our family life, it wasn’t unheard of to have four instruments going at once, and not together—from traditional Irish fiddle to black metal guitar. So it’s been an important backdrop to my life for a long time.

Spec Can: In Redwing the ghost of Rowan’s sister forms an ever present voice, preserving him from danger the same as she did while she was alive. How do ideas about ghosts and haunting add to the human experience? What do haunting narratives teach us?

Cover photo of Redwing courtesy of Holly Bennett

Cover photo of Redwing courtesy of Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett: I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear. Somehow even people who firmly reject the notion of an afterlife are attracted to the thought that the people we love could still exist in some form, or even communicate with us. It’s a very seductive thought.

I think because of that shared desire — who hasn’t thought, “if only my Dad could see this” or “I wish I could talk to Grandma now”?— the idea of ghosts can seem more “possible” than some fantasy elements.  I’m attracted to these supernatural or fantasy elements that seem like they could be possible; we know there are many things about our natural world that we still don’t understand or perhaps even know about, so why couldn’t there be the Second Sight or a genetic mutation that enhances telepathy or a spirit energy that remains after death? To me, these ideas are more intriguing than magic swords or invisibility cloaks.

Spec Can: As a Peterborough author, how have you found this area as a place to create a writing community, and how has this place influenced your writing?

Holly Bennett: I confess I’m kind of a solitary writer. I tell myself from time to time that I should join a writing group, that it would be fun and make me a better writer, but the fact is I don’t like to share writing-in-progress. I just don’t.  I do have some people I consider my “writing buddies” and at least one of them is here in Peterborough but they tend to be scattered about.

However, I do believe living in Peterborough has helped me write. First, the thriving arts community here is simply encouraging — all kinds of people I know, of all ages, are making different kinds of art. Second, living here gives me more time and mental space to do the writing. Because we could live cheaper here, I was able to work four days a week instead of 100% full-time and that was a fantastic gift.

I want to thank Holly Bennett for being willing to share some of her insights here on Speculating Canada and hope that we get a chance to hear from her again. If you haven’t yet had a chance to explore Ms. Bennett’s work, you can check out her website at http://www.hollybennett.net/ . There is also a review of her novel Redwing on Speculating Canada at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/

Upcoming interview with Holly Bennett on Wednesday, January 30th

Holly Bennett is a fantasy author living in the same city as I, Peterborough Ontario, and I was excited to find another author in the same area. She is primarily an author of Young Adult fiction, and it is great to get the perspective of a Canadian YA author since many of the authors I have interviewed write primarily adult fiction.

In a very typically Peterborough way, I first encountered Holly through her books and only later discovered that we knew many of the same people. Peterborough is one of those strange towns where even if you think you may not know someone, odds are that you have a connection to them – the perfect space to inspire fantasy writing because the unusual just seems to happen here.

In our upcoming interview on Wednesday January 30th, Holly Bennett discusses her transformation from being a non-fiction writer to suddenly developing the confidence to write fiction, the appeal of fantasy to our society, the difference in writing fantasy for teens versus fantasy for adults, the ability of fantasy to deal with social issues, the role of the mythic,  the power of music, hauntings from the past, and the strength of characters to wrestle the plot away from author and make their story their own.

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Holly Bennett: “I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.”

Holly Bennett: “The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, ‘What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?’”

Holly Bennett: “For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are.”

Holly Bennett: “It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too!”

Holly Bennett: “Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey.”

Holly Bennett: “At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.”

Holly Bennett: “Music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.”

Holly Bennett: “I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear.”

Check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday January 30 to see the full interview with Holly Bennett. You can check out my review of her book Redwing at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/ if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet. You can also explore her website to find out more about her at http://www.hollybennett.net/ .