Interview with Lydia Peever

An interview with Lydia Peever
By Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo of Lydia Peever

Author photo of Lydia Peever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penning the Subtle Murmur of Death and Splash of Blood

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying (Forthcoming 2013, Exile Editions)

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

By Derek Newman-Stille

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying is just one step abstracted from reality, with one foot in The Weird. Populated with monsters, magic, and folklore, her work is fundamentally about the human outsider experience, the deeper engagement with the world that comes from being on the fringe, looking in at the oddity that is “The Normal”. From this outsider position, her characters navigate a world that is simultaneously familiar and odd to them. The city in Moreno-Garcia’s work, is a place of wonder and misery. She engages with the estrangement of the urban environment and the isolating and abject quality of living in modernity.

Setting most of her stories in Mexico, and exploring Mexican legends and Mexican urban environments, Moreno-Garcia uses the power of being a person between spaces (both Mexican and Canadian) to navigate the duality of her identity, presenting Mexican themes for a primarily Canadian reading audience. Her stories revel in the creative space of between-ness.

Moreno-Garcia provides the deep and intelligent critiques of “The Normal” that can best be expressed through outsider characters and their ability to have a dual vision of society both from the fringes and from within, questioning and interrogating the norms that are constantly being imposed on them. While engaging with monsters, monstrous changes within, and the touch of magic and death on their lives, her characters explore their relationship to the environment, to mortality, critique capitalist disparity, war and violence, and explore their estrangement from others. Her stories swirl around a critique of people who are obsessed with the mundane while ignoring the violence, disparity, and death around them. The glimpses she provides into the dark don’t allow the reader to escape from the reality of horrors embedded in our world.

Penning shadows that soak and stain the page with midnight ponderings, Moreno-Garcia creates worlds of dark wonder that pull the mind of the reader into a dream-like-state of pondering. Courting death and violence as her muses, and breathing them out onto the page, whispering little deaths onto the paper, she evokes the horror that exists around us, constantly being pushed to the shadows by our own desires to ignore it.

Much like the god of the woods in her story Shade of the Ceiba Tree, her voice is joy and love, yet the reader discovers that beneath the layers of beauty in her words is the subtle murmur of death and the splash of blood on the earth. She, too, wields a double-ended blade of fear and desire.

You can explore some of my reviews of individual stories from this volume at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/coyotes-in-urban-turf-wars/ and https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/commodifying-extinction/ .

To find out more about This Strange Way of Dying and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, visit http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/This Strange Way of Dying will be available on September 1, 2013.

Speculating Canada ON AIR – A Radio Interview with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers on Trent Radio

For any of you who missed the On Air interview with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers on Trent Radio, here is a digital version of it for you to download.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

Upcoming Radio Discussion with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers Tuesday June 25th at 5:00 on Trent Radio

Yesterday, I was in the studio at Trent Radio having a discussion with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers, which will be aired on Tuesday June 25th at 5:00. You can check out our discussion at 92.7 FM in the broadcast range or if you are outside the broadcast range, you can visit Trent Radio online at http://www.trentradio.ca, where it will be live streamed if you click on “LISTEN: OGG & MP3 Streams”.

Ian Rogers and Sandra Kasturi in the studio at Trent Radio

Ian Rogers and Sandra Kasturi in the studio at Trent Radio

Hear us discuss dark, weird fiction, the power of smaller Canadian presses, SF cover art, fears, mythology, ChiZine Publications, the blurring of genre boundaries, SF poetry, and the ability of fiction to “weird” reality enough that we look at it from a new perspective. Oh, and for those of you in Peterborough, we also talk a bit about how Peterborough is the ideal place for getting ideas for creepy horror novels.

Sandra Kasturi is the co-owner of ChiZine Publications, editor of “Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing”, and author of two books of poetry: “The Animal Bridegroom” and “Come Late to the Love of Birds”, both published by Tightrope Books. To find out more about her and read some of her poetry, visit http://sandrakasturi.com/ .

Ian Rogers is the local Peterborough author of a collection of dark fiction called “Every House Is Haunted” from ChiZine Publications and “SuperNOIRtural Tales”, a collection of supernatural detective stories,from Burning Effigy Press. To find out more about Ian Rogers visit http://www.ian-rogers.com/.

Thanks are well deserved for the assistance of Trent Radio, Alissa Paxton for her tech skills, John Muir and Kathleen Adamson for finding us a place in the broadcast schedule, and, of course to Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers for coming in to the studio for this discussion. Thank you also to Brett Savory and Kathryn Verhulst-Rogers for contributing to an amazing conversation.

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:

www.undertowbooks.com/issues

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.

Illustrating Speculative Fiction

An Editorial By Derek Newman-Stille

"Persephone" by Derek Newman-Stille. http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Persephone” by Derek Newman-Stille. http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

As an artist, I have always been fascinated with the art that accompanies Speculative Fiction novels. So many readers focus on the cover art when making their decision about which books to read, and often the author has little or no say about which art is attached to their book.

The art of a book is often the first thing that a reader encounters when picking up a book. They see it as they open the cover and it shapes (in sometimes subtle and sometimes significant ways) their experience of the book and what they read.

Various articles keep popping up in my Facebook feed about gender and SF, and particularly the gendering of book covers and how this influences which books for teens are considered “boy books” and which are considered “girl books”.  I gave a paper about 7 years ago on the role of cover art in sexualising books of urban ‘dark’ fiction, particularly the use of cover art that largely focuses on representations of parts of women’s bodies, and what this suggests about the bodily focus of these paranormal novels. The art of book covers can significantly shape the experience of the book, and yet, it is often something that is disconnected in many ways from the author’s experience of creating a book. There is not a back and forth conversation between visual artist and author, but rather a mediated conversation between publisher and artist that only occasionally (and in limited ways) involves the artist. Book covers often follow marketing trends and interests rather than the desires of the author or their focus.

As an artist, I often wonder what processes artists go through to create their cover illustrations. For some, I wonder if they have read the book at all (since the cover is often so dissociated from the plot and general feel of the book).

"Cosmic" by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Cosmic” by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

I was recently asked to do an illustration for a Canadian SF volume, and had to go through the process of figuring out how I would approach it. I can’t reveal details yet until the book is closer to publication. I had to consider how I would approach illustration and how I would both include my own stylistic trends (which were what attracted the publisher) while also making sure to capture the significance of the story and its general feeling. I read through the story I had been given to illustrate several times, feeling through the general experience of it, waiting for certain ideas and images to surface. I jotted down these images – writing text about dominant ideas that surfaced and sketching the various images that bubbled up through my brain as I read. I noticed that my creative mind was having a conversation with the text of the story, responding to the words I was seeing and sending back images that I then checked against the overall experience of the story.

My art work is complicated and difficult to define with a singular paradigm or easy categorisation, but I tend to approach my work through the feeling that various experiences evoke. When painting natural scenes, I try to capture the conversation that is happening between the environment I am seeing and my own feelings. I watch the land and then close my eyes and see how the land changes as I imbue it with myself, with my feelings.  Similarly, when I am trying to capture a theme or idea, I pull the images that filter through my mind out and pour them through my brush (or pencil or pen) into the canvas (or paper), letting ideas flow with feelings. I often capture images that obsess me, a particular curve of a branch or the way snow has drifted, but don’t try to confine them, rather letting them participate in the art, filter through myself as the artist. In a similar way, I approached illustrating a short story as a conversation between the story and myself as an artist, exploring the sensations that it drew up through me: Rorschach patterns, the play of light and dark, hooded figures, conflict, the image of the fist. The story was complex, and I wanted to bring that complexity through into my art, creating a representation that captured the feel of the work rather than a snippet of the action. I wanted my work to explore the complexity that the story represented, the weirdness of it.

Painting a story is a process of estrangement, entering a world created by the author and feeling yourself dissolve into it as ideas and thoughts surface. It is a meeting between artist and text, the strange terrain betwixt one person and another. It was an incredible experience and one that I would like to participate in again at some point.

"Smoke and Shadows" by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Smoke and Shadows” by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

I would love to see more conversations between various art fields – writing inspired by a painting, stories inspired by songs, drama adapted from poems, dance inspired by novels. I am fascinated by intertextual communications, when one type of artistic text speaks to another.

You will be able to see my art work in the upcoming volume of Postscripts to Darkness 4, and I will post further details closer to the release date. You can find out more about Postscripts to Darkness at http://pstdarkness.wordpress.com/

My artistic work tends to be speculative in nature, so readers of Speculating Canada might be interested in it. You can check out my artist page at http://dereknewmanstille.ca/ . Click on Artwork to see some of my paintings.

Dissolving Selfhood

A Review of Brett Savory’s In and Down (Brindle & Glass, 2007)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for In and Down, courtesy of the author

Cover photo for In and Down, courtesy of the author

Brett Savory’s In and Down is a truly horrifying novel, not necessarily because of the haunting images of bodies, clowns, and flies, but because it reminds the reader about the fluidity of identity – that we are not fixed, unchanging things, but are rather constantly changing, malleable, and the core of our being is not unique or sacrosanct. In a world that focusses on the uniqueness of individuals and the rights of personal freedom, Savory questions the idea that there is even a “personal” let alone freedom.

Savory’s novel focusses on the life of Michael, a boy who feels unloved or at least not loved in a way that feels right. He is alone in a male-centred world where masculine performance is valued more than the actual personality of an individual. He characterises male school behaviour as a mixture of bragging, threats, and awkward silences. Home life is characterised by a father who says nothing of consequence and sounds only like the motor of a truck, less focussed on words and more on displays of power and authority. Masculine culture seeks to make him into a figure who is detached, and stuck in a state of suppressed emotions.

Michael is a boy who is full of questions living in a world where males are taught to question and enquire about nothing, a world where acceptance of norms prevails and nothing should shake that foundation. He is in danger of uncovering dangerous secrets.

Michael knows he has been filled up with other people’s views, ideas, thoughts, opinions, biases, hates, wants, needs… he has been hollowed out by others who want to replicate themselves through him, making him into a mirror for themselves. He tries to dig out the little shards of everyone else’s identity that have buried themselves in his inner being, finding himself under the detritus of human cultural expectations. His fundamental self has been whittled down by others, leaving him to debate what is of him and whether there even can be a “him” left. He is cast into a surreal dream world, where barriers between reality and dream blend, mix, and distort one another and he is surrounded with imagery that reminds him of the dissolution of identity: masks, crumbling plaster forms that reveal a different self beneath, carved wooden people, rotting bodies that reveal new features and faces beneath the desiccated shell. Nothing in his world is stable, and even he, himself, dissolves into a place of questions, consumed by his need to find himself.

Brett Savory takes readers to a place where reality and dreams meet, touch, and dance together in a carnivalesque display of the Weird. Readers are invited on a surreal voyage into the imagination of a disturbed child and a disrupted and sick world and are reminded of the hollows within them that are waiting to be filled with the identity questions of others.

You can find out more about Brett Savory at his website http://brettsavory.com/ . To check out In and Down, you can visit the Brindle & Glass website at http://www.brindleandglass.com/author_details.php?contributor_id_1=1940