Year in Review: What is Canadian Speculative Fiction – from the authors

People are often asking if there is such a thing as “Canadian identity”, something that differentiates Canada from other nations. I thought I would ask authors if theyfuture spec can thought that there was something distinctly Canadian about Canadian Speculative Fiction or how much they felt that their Canadian identity influenced their writing.

I have provided links to the full interviews below each author’s comments so you can re-read them or, if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, to read them for the first time.

Claude Lalumiere:

“I know that [my Canadian identity] does [influence my writing], but I am not sure if I’m equipped to know how, aside from the fact that Montreal is often an important setting in my stories. On the subject of my being a Canadian writer, Paul Di Filippo, in his introduction to The Door to Lost Pages, wrote, ‘Claude Lalumière is not only a universal author but a regional writer. His native Canada, specifically the city of Montreal, is as much a player in these stories as the people, even when not specifically named. There’s some numinous element of these tales that acts as a counterbalance to the hegemony of US fantasy trilogies. We are hearing a voice literally from beyond the lands we (we American readers) know.’”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/interview-with-claude-lalumiere/

 

Steve Vernon:

“We Canadians are champion diehard storytellers. I mean take a look at our winters. Take a look at our television network. Take a look at our mosquitoes. What else have we got to do but to tell stories to each other?

“In some ways my Canadian identity limits me – in that it is harder to find my place in the international market. But my Canadian identity helps make me the writer that I am today. Remember – I have a half dozen regional books out at this moment from Nimbus Publishing – Nova Scotia’s largest publishing network. I am also close to signing a contract with another new Canadian publisher for a series of YA horror novels. My regional books have sold in the thousands – which makes me a bestselling author in Canada.”

“Nova Scotians are the true storytellers of Canada. We have an even worse selection in television, bigger mosquitos, and less opportunity for honest work. Again I ask you what else can we do but sit around and spin out yarns?”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/interview-with-steve-vernon/

 

Ian Rogers:

“Is there something that makes our stories inherently Canadian? Possibly, but it would probably take someone who isn’t from here to determine that. They say you should write what you know. I agree with that, but I would add a corollary: you should also write where you know. I know Canada, specifically Toronto and the GTA, so that’s where I typically set my stories.”

“I like to think that Canadian authors are reclaiming the “horror” word in much the same way David Cronenberg reclaimed it for Canadian film.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/interview-with-ian-rogers/

 

Nancy Kilpatrick:

“I think my work is multi-national, multi-cultural and encompasses a lot of attitudes and values that Canadians hold to like gender equality and equal pay for equal work.  For example, I’ll use fairness.  Canadians like to be fair and that leads to that stereotyping of people from this country always apologizing.  But really, it’s not so much apologizing out of guilt–as the Americans imagine–as Canadians being polite, acknowledging the other person’s existence and that they, too, have rights.  I think my writing incorporates that even in the conflicts of the story, even when a character is obnoxious.  I try to give the characters the chance to do the right thing.  If they do, they are holding to my values and the values I see around me, despite how much the current climate tends to try to erode those values.”

“I’d say that in general, Canadians write with intelligence, and that includes the darker genres.  They are educated and that becomes clear when you read the stories and novels.  Nothing here is slapped together and I suspect that’s because in the past we didn’t have a horror publishing industry so writers have had to work harder, knowing their English-language markets were in the U.S. and Britain, and the French markets in France.”

“Besides being thoughtful and intelligent, Canadians write from their experience.  Cities here are different than cities in the U.S.  For example, our citizens don’t carry guns.  Our landscape involves a lot of nature, which is important to Canadians, and that allows for a certain type of horror that can be both visceral and psychological.  Characters in the stories and novels produced in this country — and I’ve read a lot of short fiction for the four anthologies I’ve edited for Edge (two were all Canadian authors and the other two have a goodly chunk of Canucks) and the eight before those for the U.S. market — read like real people, well-constructed, with depth and lives and thought-processes which aren’t stereotyped.  Because the characters are intelligent, even if a tad whimsical, readers can respect them.  There’s nothing worse in a horror novel or story than the clichés, for example:  “Let’s split up!” Stories by Canadians strike me as having characters who are loners, not necessarily out of some twisted or evil past but more because of the way we live here, a kind of self-sufficiency that isn’t bitter.  What I mean is, you get characters who just get on with it and deal with things to the best of their ability.  And most of the time they don’t have arsenals at their disposal so they have to use brain-power while coping with the emotions evoked by the horrific situation.

“Don Hutchison, who was the editor of the wonderful anthology series Northern Frights, used to say he thought Canadians wrote with a sense of place, and that might be what I’m getting at.  But I think it’s more.  I think the place shapes the person and their world view and how they cope with everything.  What I like about what I’m reading by Canadians — besides  the fact that they like to slide between genres, which I find fun — is that they bring themselves to the fore and that Canadianism is recognizable.  In my view, we don’t need the government shoving Canadian content down our throats as if it has to be protected or die out, or shoving language down our throats, ditto the reasons.  These things already exist and can stand on their own.  It’s who we are and it shines through in the writing.  When travelling, one can usually spot travelers who are English or French or German because they are distinctive.  But you can also spot Canadians because we are distinctive in our way.  Canadians are nice, fair, friendly without being in your face, and honest.  Why Canadians don’t see and appreciate these rare qualities in themselves, I don’t know, but it’s also in the writing and in the books we’re now producing that are in the horror/dark fantasy genre and that’s one of the reasons Canadian fiction stands out.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/interview-with-nancy-kilpatrick/

 

Paul Marlowe:

“If I can depart from the standards of civil debate for a moment, I would suggest that in a country where anti-intellectualism is on the rise – where anyone interested in technology or SF is branded a geek, and where a political leader such as Stéphane Dion can be discredited amongst the public by being called “professor” by that weird gang of mediocrities, cranks, embarrassing amateurs, control-freaks, spin-doctors, and corporate sock-puppets comprising the Government – the question facing Canadian SF is: how many of us want to think?”

“It’s probably premature to begin identifying what, if anything, differentiates Canadian from international steampunk. If its popularity survives for more years, then a comparison might be worthwhile. In some ways, the real history of Canada is kind of like an alternate history of the United States – we were the part of British North America that chose to stay British. Those who didn’t want to become republican Americans came here as Loyalists.

“Once you get past the superficial bric-a-brac of steampunk that is common in books from various countries, the Canadian angle has interesting opportunities, since it places the reader in North America, and yet also in the greatest multinational empire that has ever been.

“For a writer of fiction, the fluid, evolving nature of the empire that Canada was a member of provides plenty of opportunities to imagine what it might have become, for better or worse, had its evolution proceeded differently.”

“Not being a scholar of Canadian SF, I don’t know if my forecast would be any better than those of Environment Canada since their budget cuts. It looks like SF will continue to be sidelined, culturally, for the foreseeable future, since there’s a sort of literary apartheid in Canada (as in other countries), which places SF down in the lowest class where it can be disenfranchised by excluding it from the grants, prizes, reviews,  media attention, and the rest of the grease and hot air that lets the literary machine chug along, hoisting books out of the shadows and into the public eye.

“Some countries, perhaps, do a bit better than Canada. In the US, where every stage of the Lit Cycle from writing to reviewing to award-giving isn’t subsidized by a federal or provincial ministry of official culture, there seems to be an acknowledgement that literature consists of something beyond self-conscious nation building, lyrical tales of suicide on the prairies during the Great Depression, and other dismally “realistic” but morally uplifting fare. Coincidentally, the US also has a huge SF publishing industry, attracting writers from, among other countries, Canada. And there’s probably a reason why writers like Sir Terry Pratchett appear in the UK, and not in Canada. Despite there being the same tendency to pretentious literary cliques in the UK as we have here, Pratchett was knighted (the equivalent of a Companion of the Order of Canada), his works have been performed as stage plays, as TV programmes, and on the BBC, and he won this year’s Wodehouse Prize (equivalent of the Leacock Medal, but with more pigs and champagne). Writing SF requires imagination, but I’m not sure that I have enough to imagine a Canadian fantasy writer being similarly celebrated by his or her country.

“Government assistance was certainly necessary here to kindle a national book industry and literary institutions. Unfortunately for many “genre” writers, it’s now simply supporting an industry that does little for them but denigrate and ignore their work. Canadian literature won’t be as rich and varied as it might be until the bigotry of the industry abates. I suppose the best way for that to happen might be for more people involved in Canadian SF to sit on grant & prize juries, write reviews, and speak out when they’re discriminated against, not on their literary merit, but on their choice of subject matter (or choice of friends).”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/an-interview-with-paul-marlowe-about-the-wellborn-conspiracy-series/

 

Douglas Smith:

“Well, beyond the Canadian and Toronto settings in many of my stories, now that I think of it, one of the [Canadian] 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.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/

 

Kelley Armstrong:

“I don’t think [Canadian supernatural fiction] is heading anywhere different than supernatural fiction in general, which is beginning a downswing. It will never go away completely, but the market will be smaller.”

“There are differences in the [Canadian versus other nations’]markets. What is a bestseller in the US will not necessarily be a bestseller in Britain. That’s the same for all geographic areas—Canada also has differences from both. The literature produced in our country reflects the differences in regional taste. I’m not sure it affects the supernatural aspects of the story as much as the general ones—the tone, the themes etc.”

“[My Canadian identity] makes it easier to do Canadian characters and settings 🙂 On the other hand, it makes it harder to do American ones, and that’s where a lot of my stories are set, for the simple fact that I can have a larger cast of supernaturals that way—it’s easier to speculate that so many supernatural beings go unnoticed if the population is much larger. Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s had much impact on my opportunities as an author or how I’m treated.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/interview-with-kelley-armstrong/

 

Chadwick Ginther:

“I quite enjoyed blending Canadian folklore with other myth cycles. It’s a sandbox I could see myself playing in for a long time. It’s easy to think that Canada doesn’t have a folklore unique to our borders. But I don’t think that’s the case. I would love to see our own folk stories and tall tales take centre stage. I would also love to see Indigenous writers bringing modern takes on their myths and folklore to the fantasy genre. Something I’ve so far only really seen from Daniel Heath Justice.”

“Because I so enjoyed mixing myth and Manitoba, I also hope that Thunder Road can inspire readers to look more closely at their homes to find those ties to the mythological past.”

“I have to be honest, I’ve never thought about my work in [the] context [of its Canadian identity]. I certainly didn’t set out to write the Great Canadian Fantasy novel and am woefully unfamiliar with the Canadian literary canon (perhaps if it included more dragons and robots…). I suppose one could say there is an element of the immigrant’s tale to Thunder Road, not a uniquely Canadian experience, but we are a nation built by immigrants. It’s one of the reasons I decided not to make Manitoba Ted [the main character from Thunder Road]’s home. Having him trying to start a new mundane life in an unfamiliar place echoed his becoming a part of the Nine Worlds, and the new fantastical life that awaited him.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/chadwick-ginther-interview/

 

Karen Dudley:

“I do believe that Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian. I’m not sure an American, for example, could have written a book like Food for the Gods. Canadians also have a reputation for being nice. I’m not sure if I’m nice or not (I like to think I am!), but as a Canadian, I can’t relate to the more extreme or paranoid political cultures. This can’t help but inform my work, and my characters tend to display a certain tolerance and trust in their world which matches my own.”

“Apart from the same way it speaks to any modern reader, I think here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/interview-with-karen-dudley-about-food-for-the-gods/

 

Liz Strange:

“I try to set a majority of my works in Canada, or at least have a Canadian character represented.  Our recognition in the world as peace keepers, progressive thinkers and top providers to our citizens is very important to me. I am proud of my nationality and our country’s history, and come from a long line of writers, historians, politicians and educators.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/interview-with-liz-strange/

 

Helen Marhsall:

“Canada has always seemed to me to be a place struggling with memory. Both of my parents emigrated to Canada just before I was born, my mom from South Africa and my dad from England via Zimbabwe. I didn’t feel a strong connection to Canadian history. I grew up reading books about European history, reading children’s literature that was grounded in mythologies that seemed very distant. Stories were things that happened in other places. As a medievalist in Canada, I find I always have to explain why I do what I do. When I go to England, they get it. Because it’s a part of their history and it matters to them. I’ve learned to live with that dissonance.”

“I think the macabre in Canadian fiction accomplishes what the macabre accomplishes in all fiction: it gives us a sense of our own mortality, of the body as something that will inevitably die. It reacquaints us with fear, and at the same time it enlivens us. Does Canada have its own unique brand of the macabre? Most definitely. Canadian literature has been traditionally considered to have a strong vein of realism to it, but the macabre, the Weird—the kind of books that ChiZine Publications has championed–are doing something to open that up. That’s good. I don’t believe in straitjacketing literature.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/interview-with-helen-marshall/

 

Nina Munteanu:

“Canada is a truly multi-cultural country and serves an excellent fractal microcosm for writing about mixed civilizations in the universe.”

“[Canadian Speculative Fiction] tends to be darker and more reflective. With fewer happy endings… LOL! Who else but a Canadian would write a science fiction romance with a tragic ending? When I wrote The Cypol (Extasy Books) I discounted the protocol of the romance genre for happy endings. The Canadian publisher accepted the novelette, which says a lot. Even though the critics liked it, romance fans hated the book. LOL! I think that Canadian SF authors bring a dark edge to the genre that slides a bit into literary fiction. Again, perhaps why Booker prize-winner in literary fiction Margaret Atwood finds herself writing speculative fiction. Her works are a good example of what Canadian SF writers do best: infuse meaningful reflection and deep allegory in speculation. I think much of Canadian speculative fiction springs from our multi-cultural and northern setting.”

“I feel a strong Canadian identity and I’m certain it imbues my main characters and the cultures I portray. Firstly, I make a point of using Canadian places as settings for my fiction (if set on Earth, that is).

“I like that Robert J. Sawyer, back in the 1980s, either set part of his novels in Canada or made at least one of his main characters a Canadian. This was in a time when it wasn’t vogue for a large American publisher to set your novel outside the USA unless it was some place globally recognized, like Paris. Sawyer wasn’t the only one; other notable Canadian SF authors who set their stories in Canada include Charles De Lint, Cory Doctorow and Guy Gavriel Kay.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/

 

Nancy Baker:

“One reviewer called my characters “kinder, gentler vampires”, which strikes me as very Canadian.  I certainly felt that you could not have the kind of violent, predatory vampires in Toronto that seemed common in U.S. vampire fiction – though one New York writer I shared a radio panel with seemed appalled at the idea that I assumed you could leave dead bodies all over Manhattan and no one would care.  However, I don’t think there’s any particular type of Canadian vampire.  Mine might be “kinder and gentler” but those are the last words you’d use to describe the vampire in Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night. One of the interesting things about that book is that the demons that must be confronted are deeply rooted in the book’s Northern Ontario setting and in a part of Canadian history we’re conditioned to think of as something boring to study in public school.  The evocation of nature as a shaping, often inimical,  force is one of the things that is considered traditionally “Canadian” and it works brilliantly in that book.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/interview-with-nancy-baker/

 

Gemma Files:

“In her book Survival, Margaret Atwood once advanced the idea that all CanLit centres around a massive, indifferent, rejecting physical landscape and our place, or lack of one, within it. And while I initially found that idea hard to go by, mainly because I was raised in one of North America’s cities. One thing I’ve learned from teaching Canadian film history is that Canadian “culture” is mainly defined negatively, like in the old Molson’s “I am Canadian” beer commercial: We don’t eat blubber, we don’t have a President, etc.

“Nine times out of ten, particularly in English-speaking Canada, what we’re defining ourselves against is the spectre of America—if I had a dollar for every time a student of mine from somewhere else in the world asked me to admit there’s basically no difference between us and the U.S., I’d eat free for at least a week. Before that, however, it was about wanting to still be part of the British Empire even after they didn’t have any use for us, and these days it’s about how our vaunted multiculturalism mainly provides a way for us to stay in insular little groups and only interact when forced to. Which does, in the end, actually stem from geography: We’re a country the size of the former Soviet Union with a population the size of California spread out across a very disparate series of environments, most of whom still maintain they were tricked into becoming part of one country united by a railway and a radio-television network.

“When you get down to it, our national self-image is entirely imposed from the outside, a generalization cobbled together from dreams and guilt, then historically distributed through a Film Board put together by a socialist Scots expatriate who hated Hollywood and a Broadcast Corporation run from Ottawa. No wonder we’re so unable to explain what sets us apart. I always think about the title of one of Alice Munro’s early short story collections, Who Do You Think You Are?, because it perfectly encapsulates the sort of crushing self-doubt and left-over British class system resentment of the individual’s capacity for change in the face of static stagnation that defines the heart of the non-indigenous Canadian experience. And while it’s slightly different when set within an urban context, it’s not even vaguely as different as most of us would like to think.

“Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that there’s a big empty place in the Canadian psyche that takes extremely well to fantasy. Hell, even our “non-genre” literature tends to have a massive streak of surrealism and magic realism in it—think about the work of Michael Ondaatje (a poet turned prose writer, which happens a lot up here), Wayson Choy, Paul Quarrington, Derek McCormack, Michael Helm, Anne-Marie McDonald, Barbara Gowdy, Margaret Laurence, Anne Hébert, Atwood herself. But whether you’re talking about Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay or Susie Moloney, Andrew Pyper and Michael Rowe, our fantasy tends to be rooted in the uncomfortable, the self-reflective, the place where power and freedom come with a price, one that must be paid knowingly, and in blood. We accept coincidence and synchronicity, but also understand hubris, and karma. We expect doom at best, failure at worst. It’s bleak, but it’s familiar, especially to somebody who likes horror.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/interview-with-gemma-files/

 

Jerome Stueart:

“I think Canadian SF is darker and more experimental than mainstream American SF.  I think the publishing industry allows for more kinds of individual author development—we have smaller publishers with greater weight in Canada.  In the States, where every microgenre gets codified and calcified, I see a lot more of the same stuff coming out for consumers.  I see a lot more undefinable genre in Canadian SF.  A freedom because, partly, there’s not a lot of fame on the table, but also because there’s a desire to create a Canadian SF.  It looks like we’re nowhere near nailing a specific kind of SF, though, more inviting people to play.  Look at Evolve from Edge—the SF future of vampires; look at anything Chizine is doing, which is so out there!  It massacres genre-expectations.  It also gives authors so much freedom.

“Canada has the opportunity to show what the future of Canada will be through SF, and use our regional identities as a way to forge a truly unique version of Canadian SF.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/

Year in Review: Speculative Fiction Versus Realist Fiction – from the authors

Alien mountieWell, we have had an amazing year in 2012 on Speculating Canada…. one could even describe it as a fantastic year. Although Speculating Canada has only been around since July, it has been an incredible opportunity to explore Canadian Speculative Fiction and explore the incredible amounts of knowledge that authors bring into the world and lens that they place on exploring social issues.

Re-reading all of the interview posts, I am reminded of how incredible these interviews were and the gems of information and insight that writers have provided. I hope you enjoy being re-enlightened by our authors. Every interview I have done has been an incredible learning experience for me.

claudegeo

Author photo courtesy of Claude Lalumiere

Claude Lalumiere:

”So many authors who work within realism do not realize that they are operating within the confines of a genre with very specific rules and tropes. I’m not a fan of realism’s hegemonic stature in literature and culture in general. There’s nothing inferior about romance (in the classical sense) or escapism. All fiction is literature, all fiction is art. That doesn’t mean that all of it is good, but there’s good stuff and bad stuff in all genres, including realism.

“Fantastic fiction (as I like to call it) does have the quality of seeming to have no restrictions whatsoever. And that journey into the unknown can be thrilling, dangerous, intoxicating, wondrous – or, best of all, all of that at once.”

“My fiction tends to ask questions, not provide answers.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/interview-with-claude-lalumiere/

Steve Vernon:

Steve Vernon with a beaver... so Canadian!!

Author photo courtesy of Steve Vernon

“Monster stories help instill the belief that the human spirit can will out and triumph over the power of evil.”

“I’ve long been fascinated with seeing how ordinary people deal with the face of evil. That’s who my favorite characters are – just regular downhome kind of people. I like to imagine them brave and wild and romantic and full of life – because we all have that potential buried deep inside ourselves. So – when I sat down to write Sudden Death Overtime I just took the toughest people I had ever dreamed of and threw them up against the forces of darkness.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/interview-with-steve-vernon/

Ian Rogers:

Ian Rogers Author Photo, courtesy of the author.

Author photo courtesy of Ian Rogers

“I’ve always said that if people are only interested in my work purely as entertainment, then I’m cool with that. I think every story needs to keep the reader amused as the first goal. If your story is full of theme and depth, but it’s boring as all hell, then who cares how deep your work is, or how much inner meaning there is, because no one’s going to bother to read it anyway! And quite frankly, if you are consciously trying to pound a message or meaning into your story, I assure you it’s going to come across that way to the reader and they will be turned off. Guaranteed. The best stories with meaning or theme or depth are the ones that allow the readers to come to those conclusions naturally and on their own terms.”

“When I write a story I’m trying to come up with something that, while entertaining, also makes some sort of sense. It doesn’t mean I believe in ghosts or monsters, but it’s important that my characters do. Part of building a world where these things exist is to cement them in the world I know.”

“I’ve always felt that it’s the little things, and the little “real” things, that truly make a story. Sometimes it’s realistic dialogue, sometimes it’s a strange habit of one of the characters. Whatever it is, it’s usually a small touch, but it goes a long way toward making the reader feel more at home in the story, and consequently more accepting of the fantasy you’re trying to give them.”

“I think most people have an inherent attraction to the fantastical. Ironically, the spec fic stories I like best are the ones that are rooted in some semblance of reality. The ones that seem like they could actually happen. In terms of horror fiction, I find that sense of realism adds to the feeling of terror and dread.”

“I think there’s more to horror fiction that a monster or a supernatural element. Lots of things that may not seem horrific on the surface can be turned into a horror story. That’s one of the great things about horror. It’s insidious in the way it can sneak into a story — a story that might not be neatly slotted in the Horror section at the local bookstore.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/interview-with-ian-rogers/

Nancy Kilpatrick:

Photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

“We’ve become politically correct, which isn’t always repression.  Sometimes it entails a true acceptance of ‘other’, the ‘other’ being someone or something that is not us and previously was suspect and/or frightening.  Because we no longer see strangers as monstrous, we no longer see monsters as strangers.”

“I’m focused on readers first.  My readers are not run-of-the-mill people.  They are smart and like my dark take on material.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/interview-with-nancy-kilpatrick/

Paul Marlowe:

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

“There was a time when it was considered normal to imagine the future of Canada, and to work towards building that future. Now, with it more important than ever to imagine alternative futures, we avoid it, because taking the future seriously would require making drastic changes right now in the lifestyle of affluence and luxury we enjoy, and would require terrible sacrifices – like driving our cars less, or not taking that flight to Florida. We’ve grown used to thinking of sacrifice as someone else’s job.

“Speculative fiction has as one of its goals the imagination of alternative futures. It also reconsiders the past. Not infrequently it raises big questions. By sidelining it, and focusing exclusively on fiction dealing either with the present and the narrowly personal, or resuscitating yesterday’s controversies, we’re avoiding some of the major problems – like global warming, population, distribution of wealth, mass extinction, the ethics of technology, the role of government in pursuing the common good, the increasing alienation of people from their own governments, the individual vs the group, and threats to individual privacy – that will dominate history in the coming generations. While speculative fiction doesn’t exist simply to prophesy or to provide political stimulus, it offers the opportunity for those kinds of explorations.”

“By looking past immediate present experience at possible worlds, good SF can offer what is so needed but so little found: intelligent thought about the world beyond our own little rut. The problem it faces is whether anyone is interested in hearing what SF writers have to say, and whether – in the welter of distraction that we’re immersed in – stories make any real difference.”

“If SF is to have an influence not only on where Canada is heading, but on where humanity is heading, it will have to do something other than shock us will apocalyptic visions, since those have become entertainment. It will have to make us think.”

“If the books contain thought-provoking ideas, too, so much the better. In that environment, SF is not at such a disadvantage.”

“The criticism often levelled at SF by Lit types and by more literal-minded readers – that it is “mere escapism” – has less sting when directed at YA books because adults sometimes condescend to allow children the opportunity to indulge in frivolous pass-times, such as imagination.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/an-interview-with-paul-marlowe-about-the-wellborn-conspiracy-series/

IMG_2426

Author photo courtesy of Douglas Smith

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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“I think that the [Speculative Fiction] 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.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/

Kelley Armstrong:

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University's Alumni House

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University’s Alumni House

“The supernatural can be a way of showing people dealing with issues in a larger-than-life fashion. I often have issues of identity in mine—finding one’s true self, accepting the self, finding one’s place in society. Having a character deal with being, for example, a werewolf lets me do that in a fun and entertaining way.”

“Speculative fiction helps expand the world of possibilities. Readers—and students—see new possibilities for new ways of thinking and living. The fact that it takes place in a fantastical world often makes it easier to consider those challenges and issues, divorced from the emotional baggage of a reader’s own world or experience. For example, science fiction novels often include elements of racism—how does one alien race treat another—and that allows readers to consider the issues in an abstract way and then transfer those ideas over to the realm of their own world and experience.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/interview-with-kelley-armstrong/

Chadwick Ginther:

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

“People call speculative fiction “escapist,” as if that is a bad thing. I live a realistic life. Why would I want to spend my time writing about only the drudgery of everyday. I want things to happen. Things that couldn’t happen to me. But that doesn’t mean good prose has to be sacrificed for plot. With mythic fiction, and really all of speculative fiction, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have an exploration of deep philosophical issues or the nature of humanity side by side with big, bold ideas and an action-packed read. I can’t think of another art form that blends the two sensibilities better than speculative fiction does. Besides which, all fiction is fantasy. Even if a writer is basing a story on real events or real people, they are inventing thoughts and feelings and the little details. Fiction by definition isn’t true, but it can hold truth—even when you’re writing about the god of lies.”

“I don’t think Mythology will ever stop being relevant. It was our ancestors’ way of trying to explain what they couldn’t understand. At their core, people have the same basic desires, faults and virtues as we ever have, some of us are kind, some jealous; we’ll always be able to see something of ourselves in these stories from the past. Otherwise the myths would have faded with their original tellers.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/chadwick-ginther-interview/

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Author photo courtesy of Karen Dudley

Karen Dudley:

“[Writing Speculative Fiction] can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!

“At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.”

“The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/interview-with-karen-dudley-about-food-for-the-gods/

Liz Strange:

Photo of Liz Strange (Courtesy of Liz Strange)

Author photo courtesy of Liz Strange

“The monster is romantic and sympathetic, because it lives in all of us. Human beings are complicated, challenging, frustrating, wondrous beings, capable of many things both inspiring and horrifying.”

“I like my readers to be entertained, first and foremost, but I also like to spark some interest in things they may never have thought of before. I like to intrigue, incite curiosity and challenge people to think outside their comfort zone. The world is a big place, full of wonder, mystery, beauty and misery.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/interview-with-liz-strange/

Helen Marshall:

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

“Weird fiction, at its best, unsettles us. Realist fiction can also do that, but that isn’t necessarily its goal. I love the idea of a kind of writing designed deliberately to shock, to surprise, to unbalance and unnerve. It has a kind of intensity to it, and it makes us consider ourselves from oblique angles rather than head-on.”

“For me ghosts are terrifying because they are us. What I see when I look at a ghost is myself. And so if the ghost is really just an image of your own future—that is, you when you are dead, the you that you can’t comprehend or imagine—then in some way you are also the ghost of your own future self. We leave things behind, and mostly those things are former versions of ourselves. It seems natural, then, that ghosts are also a figure for something that wants to be remembered, even if we want desperately to forget it.”

“What I try to do is find a bizarre premise and use it as a way into something that is deeply emotional: every new oddity ought to feel like a natural extension of the rules of the world. It feels like it fits. For me, the process of writing strange fiction is falling into a world where each new revelation comes with a shock—but also with a sense of recognition.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/interview-with-helen-marshall/

nina-fireplace-crop01-close2-web

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu:

“The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

“Curiosity is a wonderful trait to cultivate. When you’re curious you step outside of yourself into a wonderful world. One of the things I re-learned from my son was how to stop and look. Really look, as in bend down on hands and knees and peer close, get dirty. Curiosity feeds our souls. It slows us down so we can pay attention. It teaches us to be interested in our world, to observe and feel. It helps us crawl outside the box, peer around corners into dark alleys where thrilling adventure lurks.”

“The science fiction genre is the pre-eminent literature of allegory and metaphor. By describing “the other” (what does not yet exist, what might never exist) science fiction writers describe “us”. Through our POV characters and their world’s reactions to the unknown.

“Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/

Nancy Baker:

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

“At its best, horror and fantastic literature can show us the darkness that humans are capable of and to reveal that the reader shares that potential.  It can also show us that the “other” is sometimes as deserving of compassion as we hope that we are.”

“Vampire fiction has been used to look at issues of addiction, oppression, disease, predation, and sexuality.  It’s also been used just to scare the hell out of us.  Every new generation of readers and writers has the advantage of looking at what came before (from the classics such as Carmilla and Dracula to Salem’s Lot and Interview with the Vampire to Twilight and The Passage) and reacting to it, either by emulating it or turning it on its head.

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/interview-with-nancy-baker/

Gemma Files:

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

“Because I work primarily in the field of horror, the idea of the Alien—the Other—is a really integral one, one which underlies an amazing amount of human psychology. You see it all through history, and it’s not like it’s gone away: This impulse to say some people are different and therefore lesser, undeserving of sympathy, actively malign—people we can call animals, monsters, and feel perfectly fine about routinely trying to contain, police, punish or even exterminate. But the flip-side of this impulse is the realization that “monsters”, Others, Aliens are almost never as different from you as they seem. That you, in fact, are most often a monster’s “monster”.

“This is a hard lesson, but a useful one, and Speculative Fiction explores it constantly, over and over. And it does that, I believe, because people both know in their gut that it’s true yet hope against hope that it’s not. This tension drives almost everything, and it’s testing this tension which is Speculative Fiction’s most useful quality, potentially: Our ability to tell and re-tell ourselves metaphorical fables about the things that are happening all around us, set in some pleasantly distant future, past or alternative universe, which may possibly help us to make good decisions about the here and now.”

“Magic is a fantasy of ultimate power in a mainly-powerless world, but our own self-knowledge quotient means that we know the shadow lurks underneath everything—that whatever good we do by magic means is bound to sour, especially if improperly paid for. We’ve all read most of the same fairytales, so the principles always seem familiar: Horror is fluid, and just like in folklore, the general principle of horror is not only that things can always change, but that if—when—they do, it’ll probably be something that you did which is the cause of that change. Which is sort of positive, in a way…therapeutic, almost. Monstrosity is not a permanent state, or doesn’t have to be, so long as one understands but doesn’t excuse one’s own nature and takes responsibility for one’s own actions.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/interview-with-gemma-files/

Jerome Stueart:

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

“Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.  Silent Spring is a “speculative novel” written as nonfiction by Rachel Carson with such an apocalyptic vision of the dangers of DDT and other chemicals we were putting on crops and in the air—with real evidence– that it scared people into regulation.  Carson used speculative tools to give reason to turn the boat around.

“Unfortunately, speculation in the wrong hands can just be fear-mongering.  Recent commercials against Obama speculated a world four years from now full of apocalypse!  Without any evidence.  It was cheap scare tactics, but they worked on some people who couldn’t extrapolate from evidence, or who couldn’t question the premises or the evidence.  I saw that in both political parties.  If we don’t “produce” thinking minds—in every place in society—fear mongering will work, evidence won’t count.  That scares me.

“Climate Change has to find a way to alert people to change without becoming alarmist—but we have a society less-inclined to think for themselves now, and less-inclined to value knowledge and preventative measures.  We’re all about reacting now.  We’re all about consuming.  We’re living like it’s the last days on Earth and we want our feast.  Anyone who says we have to “cut back” which is the message of climate change—restraint—is taking away “our fun.”  We are such a Mine Culture, not a Mind Culture.  We may live together, but we don’t think together.

“I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom starting with Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change series, Science in the Capital—or his Three Californias. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

“I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

“The danger of SF, though, is that it inherently likes NOT so positive paths.  They present more of what readers desire: conflict, danger, suspense.  So we get much more apocalyptic SF which shows us what NOT to do, but rarely shows us HOW to get to the change.

“The challenge for SF writers is to imagine us a path to get to the change and show it as a positive one.  And that I think is the most fun.  Star Trek cheated a bit by shooting so far in the future that all those things like poverty, greed, violence, were all gone by the 24th century.  We’ve been spending the last 45 years trying to figure out how Gene thought that might happen!  But at least it modeled diversity for us.  I recall Nichelle Nichols’ wonderful story of her encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. just before she was about to quit the show.  He encourages her to stay on because he too believes that SF is the literature of change.  He saw her presence on the bridge as a model for behavior and hope for a positive future beyond Race.  So in this way, SF is a model for change—it models good behavior, even if it doesn’t have all the answers.”

“Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.

“But again, it also has a chance to be more society-scaled prescriptive—and model societal behavior and model change that realistic fiction can’t.  SF is the quantum reality of realistic fiction.  While realistic fiction might concentrate on individuals and their changes, SF goes wide to take the choices and changes of a large group.“

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/

Noah Chinn:

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

“You’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure.  But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned.  You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on.  You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/interview-with-noah-chinn/

“Everyone wants to go home. That’s what home is. Home is the place you want to be coming to, even when you wish you were leaving it. The world is only so big and a man can only travel so far before he finds himself curving back to where he started from.”

-Helen Marshall Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine, 2012)

 

Quote – Everyone Wants To Go Home

Interview with Helen Marshall

An Interview with Helen Marshall

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

By Derek Newman-Stille

After reading Helen Marshall’s new book Hair Side, Flesh Side and seeing her interest in the role of memory and the body, I wanted to inquire further about her writing process and get some insights on the interplay between texts, memory, and the body since this is something that has been of interest to me in my own academic work. This incredible interview grew out of that inquiry and I hope that all of you enjoy Helen Marshall’s insights as much as I did. I will let Helen Marshall introduce herself below.

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

Helen Marshall: I’ve worked as an editor for several years for ChiZine Publications, and in addition to that I’m currently finishing off a Ph. D in medieval studies on fourteenth-century manuscripts. This means I spent a great deal of my time traveling and pouring over ancient tomes in libraries across England and the United States, seeing how they were stitched together, comparing and identifying the hands of medieval scribes, measuring punctuation marks…

This might seem like painstaking and ridiculous work to many of you, but I find it genuinely exciting. I love the feeling of reclaiming some piece of the past that was otherwise lost. Even if it is only the barest trace of human presence in an object that seems otherwise opaque and indecipherable.

Spec Can: What role does the macabre have in modern Canadian fiction?

Helen Marshall: When you say “role” it seems to imply that the macabre is accomplishing something specific… if it is, I’m not sure what exactly that might be. I think the macabre in Canadian fiction accomplishes what the macabre accomplishes in all fiction: it gives us a sense of our own mortality, of the body as something that will inevitably die. It reacquaints us with fear, and at the same time it enlivens us. Does Canada have its own unique brand of the macabre? Most definitely. Canadian literature has been traditionally considered to have a strong vein of realism to it, but the macabre, the Weird—the kind of books that ChiZine Publications has championed–are doing something to open that up. That’s good. I don’t believe in straitjacketing literature.

Spec Can: Where do you see “weird fiction” going from here?

Helen Marshall: Jeff VanderMeer recently wrote a wonderful article on how “weird fiction” is moving past H. P. Lovecraft (available here). That’s a good thing: not because Lovecraft doesn’t deserve to be studied and reread, but because he himself has become something of a straitjacket. He has created a pattern or a template that is, perhaps, a little too easy to follow right now, and so perhaps it is time for something new.

China Mieville’s success (and those who have followed him) ultimately convinced publishers that there was a market for strange, dark fiction. It gave them someone to point to in the same way that Stephen King did for the horror genre many moons ago. But what I find I love about “weird fiction” is the utter delight its authors take in surprising the reader, giving us something we haven’t seen before, taking risks in both form and content. It’s a great genre precisely because it isn’t really a genre: it isn’t codified, it doesn’t have rules. It means you can have some real fun with it.

Spec Can: What is it like to shift back and forth between author and editor? How do you manage both your life as an academic and as a fiction author? How do they support each other or conflict with each other (or both)?

Helen Marshall: I feel like my work as an editor, an academic, and as an author all feed into one another. The process of writing Hair Side, Flesh Side was the process of trying to explain to myself how that might work. Both the role of the editor and the academic are about finding some piece of truth in another person’s writing, and then uncovering it and helping it into the light. A good academic makes writing come alive. A good editor does exactly the same. An author, though – an author has to find a way to shut up all those bits that are outwardly focused, at least for a moment. It’s still a process of uncovering. But it’s about bringing to light something that you feel deeply, and in the end the thing you are revealing is yourself. That’s scarier in many ways, and more exhilarating. But working as an editor and an academic has given me a depth and shape to that process.

Spec Can: As someone who studies the past and someone whose fiction work often involves concepts of memory, what role does the past play in your fiction writing? What is the importance of memory? How do memories haunt people?

Helen Marshall: The past and memory are interlinked for me. To some extent, Hair Side, Flesh Side comes out of the fact that when I was in high school my dad suffered a serious brain injury that played havoc with his memory. Around that time, I was developing an interest in the medieval. Looking back, it’s probably no surprise that those two things are related. The study of the past is a way of recovering memories, I think, of rediscovering things that have been forgotten, lives that have been lived. And art, or writing anyway, is really a way of making ourselves live longer and speak louder than we might otherwise.

Canada has always seemed to me to be a place struggling with memory. Both of my parents emigrated to Canada just before I was born, my mom from South Africa and my dad from England via Zimbabwe. I didn’t feel a strong connection to Canadian history. I grew up reading books about European history, reading children’s literature that was grounded in mythologies that seemed very distant. Stories were things that happened in other places. As a medievalist in Canada, I find I always have to explain why I do what I do. When I go to England, they get it. Because it’s a part of their history and it matters to them. I’ve learned to live with that dissonance.

Spec Can: What role does the body play in horror? Why is the body so important?

Helen Marshall: I suppose, at its most basic level, the body is where horror happens. We desperately want a control over our bodies we don’t have. That scares me. That scares me a lot. There’s something terribly frightening about the idea that the thing that seems to be most me is something I can’t control.

Spec Can: In your short story Sanditon (from Hair Side, Flesh Side), the protagonist

Cover Photo of Hair Side, Flesh Side courtesy of the author

discovers that her skin has become a text and she becomes hollowed out inside. As an editor, do you ever feel like you have been hollowed out by other authors’ work? How does this story speak to you?

Helen Marshall: The obvious answer is, yes, absolutely. Sanditon, and a rather large chunk of Hair Side, Flesh Side, came out of a four-month period of study abroad I did in Oxford. It was amazing to spend weeks at a time in the Bodleian with really old books, but it was also fantastically lonely. That loneliness was what gave me the chance to write, but it is a strange feeling to realize that you are devoting your life to the study of authors who have been dead for six hundred years while you yourself are still alive. Sanditon came out of that. It was about me trying to figure out what it meant to be a writer. But it isn’t just about the way that the work of dead authors can hollow you out: it’s also about the rather crushing and self-destructive relationship between Hanna and Gavin. There are a helluva lot of ways to get hollowed out by another person and they don’t all have to do with writing.

Spec Can: Two of the short stories in Hair Side, Flesh Side feature skin as a text. What is the significance of skin for you? What do you feel is the social significance of skin for our society overall? How can the body be a text?

Helen Marshall: Medieval manuscripts were written on the skins of animals that had been stretched on a frame, scraped, and rubbed with pumice and chalk until they were smooth. So when you look at the page of a medieval manuscript, you still see it as a piece of skin: it has a hair side (the part of the skin facing outside the beast) and a flesh side (the part facing the muscle and organs). They have a different texture. You can even see the hair follicles. So here’s a time when writing was closely linked to the death of an animal.

And there’s a trope in medieval writings in which Jesus Christ is figured as a charter. The fourteenth-century Short Charter of Christ, for example, imagines the body of Christ as a written document with his wounds figures as seals to mark the text’s authenticity:

“In this way Christ, when his hands and feet were nailed to the cross, offered his body like a charter to be written on. The nails in his hands were used as a quill, and his precious blood as ink. And thus, with this charter he restored to us our heritage that we had lost.” [from Siegfried Wenzel, trans. Fasciculus morum : a fourteenth-century preacher’s handbook (University Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), p. 213.]

I think it’s a gorgeously powerful metaphor for writing, but it’s also a metaphor grounded in horror, as was made clear to me when I went to a talk by Bruce Holsinger that later inspired “Skin”. I love the contradiction: Writing as a means to immortality comes at the cost of genuine sacrifice.

Spec Can: Your work reads like a surreal dream. What is the role of dreaming in your stories and for story formation overall?

Helen Marshall: I attended the Clarion West Writing Workshop over the summer, and Kelly Link said something that really stuck with me: there’s daytime logic and there’s nighttime logic. Daytime logic is automatically familiar to us. We know its rules. But nighttime logic has a power of its own. It may be associative and subconscious, but it still has a certain truth to it. Surreal or absurdist writing can sometimes come out feeling very cold because we can’t see ourselves in it. We know, at a gut level, that it is not our world and so the consequences don’t feel real. What I try to do is find a bizarre premise and use it as a way into something that is deeply emotional: every new oddity ought to feel like a natural extension of the rules of the world. It feels like it fits. For me, the process of writing strange fiction is falling into a world where each new revelation comes with a shock—but also with a sense of recognition.

Spec Can: In your short story No ghosts in London, the main character escapes to the city to avoid ghosts. What is the role of the urban environment as a place of escape and forgetting?

Helen Marshall: I spend a lot of my time traveling. When I stay in the same city for more than a couple of months, I start to get edgy.  Travel to new cities opens up in my eyes to the world around me again after I’ve got a little too comfortable. But at the same time the city is a place where it is easy to disappear. Or to reinvent yourself. It seems to give you the promise of a blank slate. But the problem, of course, is that everywhere you go, you carry yourself with you. When you wipe the slate clean, you’ll always find a point where bits of your old self start to bleed through again.

Spec Can: Ghosts often feature as figures of memory or reminders of the past in your work. Where did this idea come from? What inspired you to view ghosts as figures haunting us from the past?

Helen Marshall: Ghosts scare the Hell out of me. Really. I tried to watch the Japanese movie Juon a couple of months ago and it terrified me so badly that I burst into tears four minutes from the end and demanded that we shut the movie off. Even though I knew I would feel better if I saw those final four minutes and got some closure to the story, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

For me ghosts are terrifying because they are us. What I see when I look at a ghost is myself. And so if the ghost is really just an image of your own future—that is, you when you are dead, the you that you can’t comprehend or imagine—then in some way you are also the ghost of your own future self. We leave things behind, and mostly those things are former versions of ourselves. It seems natural, then, that ghosts are also a figure for something that wants to be remembered, even if we want desperately to forget it.

Spec Can: Several of your stories involve Jane Austen in some way. In what way does Austen speak to you? Inspire you?

Helen Marshall: I think there’s something intrinsically funny about Jane Austen. And sweet. And sad.

Spec Can: What can Weird Fiction do for readers that realist fiction is not able to do? How can it inspire or challenge readers?

Helen Marshall: Weird fiction, at its best, unsettles us. Realist fiction can also do that, but that isn’t necessarily its goal. I love the idea of a kind of writing designed deliberately to shock, to surprise, to unbalance and unnerve. It has a kind of intensity to it, and it makes us consider ourselves from oblique angles rather than head-on.

Spec Can: What questions do you hope that your work evokes for your readers?

Helen Marshall: All the questions above are a pretty good start!

I hope my readers think about my work. But I also hope they just experience it and see what comes to them. The thing is, it’s terribly difficult to predict what’s going to resonate with a reader, what’s going to work for them, what’s going to touch them.

The biggest thing I fear I have to fight against with my academic background is demanding that the reader bring a toolbox with them when they come to my writing. Whatever happens when they read happens. It ought to have a little magic to it. A little spontaneity.

I want to thank Helen for taking the time to do this interview and provide such enlightening and well-thought-out replies. You can read more about Helen Marshall’s work at http://www.manuscriptgal.com/ . She has a website totally dedicated to her book Hair Side, Flesh Side that you can also explore at http://hairsidefleshside.com/ . If you are interested in reading a sample of her work, you can check out her short story “Blessed” for free at http://hairsidefleshside.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/BlessedPromo.pdf

Since Helen has mentioned ChiZine a few times in this interview, you can check out their website at http://chizinepub.com/  and perhaps find some additional exciting and interesting fiction. You can check out some of my reviews of ChiZine books by clicking on ChiZine in the Tags section of my website.

Upcoming Interview with Helen Marshall on Thursday November 15

Helen Marshall’s book Hair Side, Flesh Side has recently been published. I was so excited about reading it that I wanted to interview her and get some further insights.

You can check out my review of Hair Side, Flesh Side posted on October 27, 2012.

Check out this interview on November 15 to get some more insights on the interplay between memory and haunting, the role of Weird Fiction, the importance of the body in fiction, the way past authors speak to current authors, and Canada as a place that is struggling with ideas of memory.

Here are some highlights from the interview to tease and intrigue you:

Helen Marshall: “I love the feeling of reclaiming some piece of the past that was otherwise lost. Even if it is only the barest trace of human presence in an object that seems otherwise opaque and indecipherable.”

Helen Marshall: “I think the macabre in Canadian fiction accomplishes what the macabre accomplishes in all fiction: it gives us a sense of our own mortality, of the body as something that will inevitably die. It reacquaints us with fear, and at the same time it enlivens us.”

Helen Marshall: “What I find I love about ‘weird fiction’ is the utter delight its authors take in surprising the reader, giving us something we haven’t seen before, taking risks in both form and content”

Helen Marshall: “An author has to find a way to shut up all those bits that are outwardly focused, at least for a moment.”

Helen Marshall: “The study of the past is a way of recovering memories, I think, of rediscovering things that have been forgotten, lives that have been lived. And art, or writing anyway, is really a way of making ourselves live longer and speak louder than we might otherwise.”

Helen Marshall: “Canada has always seemed to me to be a place struggling with memory.”

Helen Marshall: “We desperately want a control over our bodies we don’t have. That scares me. That scares me a lot. There’s something terribly frightening about the idea that the thing that seems to be most me is something I can’t control.”

Helen Marshall: “For me, the process of writing strange fiction is falling into a world where each new revelation comes with a shock—but also with a sense of recognition.”

Helen Marshall: “Travel to new cities opens up in my eyes to the world around me again after I’ve got a little too comfortable. But at the same time the city is a place where it is easy to disappear. Or to reinvent yourself. It seems to give you the promise of a blank slate. But the problem, of course, is that everywhere you go, you carry yourself with you. When you wipe the slate clean, you’ll always find a point where bits of your old self start to bleed through again.”

Helen Marshall: “For me ghosts are terrifying because they are us. What I see when I look at a ghost is myself. And so if the ghost is really just an image of your own future—that is, you when you are dead, the you that you can’t comprehend or imagine—then in some way you are also the ghost of your own future self.”

I hope that all of you enjoy her interview on November 15 as much as I enjoyed the experience of interviewing her. You can read a bit more about Helen Marshall at her website http://www.manuscriptgal.com/ . If you haven’t read Hair Side, Flesh Side yet, you can get a taste of her work by reading her short story “Blessed” for free at http://hairsidefleshside.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/BlessedPromo.pdf

Textual Bodies

A Review of Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine, Forthcoming November 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo courtesy of the publisher.

Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side is a textual body in itself. Each of the short stories contained in the volume is named after a body part, and her work focusses on the body as a textual entity, as something that is written upon, written about, and that writes itself. She shows a fascination with defamiliarising the body, making the body (once something familiar and known) into a foreign territory full of questions, ambiguity, and terror. The reader is hyper aware of their body at the same time as they are driven to question its very nature.

Helen Marshall’s passions as a scholar of antiquated texts comes through in her stories, illustrating a passion for ideas of past and memory. Her characters are haunted by the past, objects and bodies from the past infiltrate the modern, texts from beyond the grave write themselves on the living, researchers are haunted by past atrocities. Marshall illustrates that the past is only buried by a thin layer, a skin of present-hood that contains a deep, living body of history. Memory is something that haunts the living, returning and reminding us of things that have been lost, buried, or broken. Objects, physical things, come to embody memory and hold feeling in Marshall’s work, and the body is an object that is inscribed with layers of experience. People are manuscripts of memory.

Hair Side, Flesh Side encompasses a wide variety of stories and is not bound by one genre, but rather the general “Weird” category that orbits around Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and all of the genres in between. Marshall illustrates her strengths in each of these genres.

The stories in this volume vary around the theme of the unfamiliar. A man is compelled into a perpetual flight due to his fear of home and settling, the ghosts of dead authors haunt living experiences, speaking to and acting through modern bodies, a woman exists only at the moments that others approach death, angelic narrators of death are forced to question the permanence of things and the lack of narrative in God’s plan, the social desire for perfection results in mass transformations into statues, the desire to consume runs rampant and becomes a vehicle for change, hearts torn out in mourning return to haunt the melancholy, ghosts seek oblivion in the urban rush, things forgotten fade, and skin is written upon, haunted textually by the past. Death, memory, forgotten things, and the past are always writing themselves on our experiences. Marshall illustrates for her readers that death is an ever-present part of life, haunting us in memory of place, relationships, bodies, and objects that surround us.

To read more about Helen Marshall’s work, visit her website at http://www.manuscriptgal.com/ . To explore Hair Side, Flesh Side, visit ChiZine at http://chizinepub.com/ . You can also check out the website for Hair Side, Flesh Side at http://hairsidefleshside.com/ to check out the book in detail.