Friday, February 11, 2011

Interview with Gemma Files

Gemma Files is the author of short story collections Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart and the novel A Book of Tongues: Volume One of the Hexslinger Series. A Rope of Thorns: Volume Two of the Hexslinger Series will be released on May 31, 2011. Gemma is currently working on the third book, A Tree of Bones.
 
What drew you to the horror genre?
 
Emotional resonance, initially. Also a certain “realism” in terms of characters/character development, which may seem ridiculous given the genre we’re talking about, but at the time--the early- to mid-1980s--I found it considerably easier to identify with the frustrated, frightened, flawed people inhabiting books by Stephen King, Peter Straub and Michael McDowell than I did with the brave, noble, special people living a Star Trek/Star Wars or Epic Swords & Sorcery universe. I was young, depressed, and found taking the attitude that life was difficult at best a more practical option than desperately attempting to hope it would get better and better, especially considering the plain fact that no matter which turned out to be true(r), I’d still end up dead.
 
Now I’m older, and I feel...pretty much the same.;) But I think that what continues to attract me
to horror is the opportunity to test-drive terrible scenarios under controlled conditions--to sample the worst, inhabit a certain thematic mindset for a while, then return to the familiar, feeling oddly fortified. And the type of horror I like is a fairly specific one--supernatural, literary, emotionally acrobatic and resonant, imbued with a different species of beauty rather than a mid-numbing, gut-churning crawl through filth (not that there’s anything wrong with that...): Opera, in other words, rather than goreno. It’s comfort-food, inspiration, a well-spring from which I pull fresh, creepy delights. And while I can appreciate a lot more points on the narrative spectrum, these days, I do keep on coming back here.
 
What scares you?
 
The same things that scare other people, I’m sure: Death, dissolution, hurting/being hurt by 
those I love, the threat of loss. I’m not fond of pain, obviously, but physical pain has a limit, whereas grief goes on and on. I’m afraid there’s nothing more than this. I’m afraid there is something more than this, and I picked wrong. Etcetera.
 
Why do you think there are fewer women writing horror than men?
 
Socially, I think women are conditioned to shy away from horror on an almost superstitious basis.
I know a lot of women (my Mom included) who find the idea of watching most horror movies pornographic, in the worst sense--they think of them as indulgent, grotesque, the vivid and disgusting acting-out of thoughts no one should entertain, let alone fashion into entertainment. Possibly this is because most women live in a world full of very real, immediate threat, so playing out similar scenarios in literary or filmic venues has no apparent utility to them; I always recall that observation by Gavin de Becker: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.” Or kill their kids, or rape them, do all three...so in a way, I think we’re taught that to vent these ideas, or even share in them when other people vent them, is to invite them to become real. Better to rehearse joy than sorrow, right?
 
On the other hand, I also think that women are societally cued to try and deny their own darker urges, because A) we aren’t supposed to have them, in the first place, and B) we really aren’t supposed to let them show. It scares people--not just kids, but actual bystanders--when Mommy goes off half-cocked. It disturbs husbands and boyfriends and authority figures when the quiet girl doesn’t stay quiet, and when authority figures get disturbed, they strike back. It upsets the status quo, and since our function as women--our only power, really--is to maintain/in maintaining the status quo, that’s bad. So all these things conspire to make us censor ourselves proactively, especially in terms of telling what the mainstream things of as inherently negative stories.
 
But say you go ahead and do it anyways, because you’re broken and driven and weird, and there’s something very wrong with you. Then you’re going to slam up against the fact that horror is, by nature of mainly containing and being oriented towards dudes, not exactly a chick-friendly space. Some guys will be extremely welcoming, for the right reasons. Some will be extremely welcoming for less-right reasons, but possibly re-think that plan once you make it clear you’re here to work, not to party. And other guys will never be welcoming at all, because the simple truth of you packing vag is enough to make them upset; for this sub-set, women are coded as “those things that get killed, often after getting naked.”
 
If you can take all this, then you stay. If you can’t, you go elsewhere. Science fiction and fantasy are, supposedly, more welcoming--but not always. Sometimes I think the very polarizing nature of horror forces us to put all our cards on the table, and I appreciate that far more than being completely ignored. Which is maybe why I continue to identify myself as a horror writer, after all these years.
 
Who are some women horror authors that you admire?
 
Caitlin R. Kiernan, Poppy Z. Brite, Marjorie Bowen, Kathe Koja, Kaaron Warren, Melanie Tem, Sarah Langan, Barbara Roden, Suzy McKee Charnas, amongst others. One of the brightest new talents I can think of is Nadia Bulkin, whose “Pugelbone” won the 2010 ChiZine Short Story Contest. I also think there are always a fair lot of “dark” female authors hiding in other categories--Cherie Priest, usually found in fantasy, paranormal romance and steampunk, is dark as hell, for example. Or Gillian Flynn, Patricia Highsmith, Barbara Vine and Sarah Rayne, usually found in mystery. Or Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Waters, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jean Rhys, lost in the wilds of general fiction.;) Look around--if somebody’s ever scared or discomfited you, they’re probably worthy of being re-shelved.
 
What is your advice to aspiring women horror writers?
 
Just go ahead and do what you want. Don’t worry about it being too much, or not enough--do what makes you happy, then look for markets afterwards. And don’t ever feel bad for wanting to write about whatever the hell you want to write about. People literally told me to my face not to write a gay protagonist into a Weird Western, in much the same way that execs on The Hunger told me my sexy horror stories had too much sex in them (or too much horror). You will find your niche.
 
Also, don’t expect anything to happen immediately. When I was nineteen, I met horror novelist Nancy Kilpatrick, who would later introduce my second collection of short stories (The Worm in Every Heart). She was in her forties, and had just had her first novel published. “How long did that take?” I asked. “About twenty years,” she said. Twenty-five years later, I finally had my own first novel published; that novel took me roughly nine months to write, and roughly twenty years to be able to write. In no way am I saying it has to take that long, but assuming it will and being surprised is better than assuming it won’t and being disappointed.
 
What are your favourite horror novels?
 
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan; The Elementals, by Michael McDowell; Skin, by Kathe Koja; Apartment 16, by Adam Nevill; Floating Dragon, by Peter Straub; The Stand, by Stephen King; Black Magic, by Marjorie Bowen; The Nameless, by Ramsey Campbell; The Black Angel, by Michael Connolly; Virgins & Martyrs, by Simon Maginn; Children of the Black Sabbath, by Anne Hebert; The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters; White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi; Mysteries of Winterthurn, by Joyce Carol Oates.
 
Who is your favourite character you’ve created? Why?
 
Well, Chess Pargeter is definitely up there, but I’m also fond of Judy Kiss, from my Burning Effigy
Press novella “Words Written Backwards”, who survived possession but isn’t exactly Regan MacNeill-style all better--I’m in the process of drafting a whole novel around her. Other people I’m fond of include gay Chinese magician Jude Hark Chiu-wai and his vampire “big sister” Grandmother Yau Yan-er, both from Queer Fear II’s “The Narrow World”, and dysfunctional lovers Tim Darbersmere and Ellis Iseland, first introduced in “The Emperor’s Old Bones” (for which I won the International Horror Guild’s 1999 Best Short Fiction award), who actually got a return engagement in “The Speed of Pain”, published in Dark Arts Books’ Mighty Unclean anthology. Oh, and unrepentant holler witch/jailhouse Machiavel Allfair “A-Cat” Chatwin, from “Crossing the River”, in the same anthology. Like Chess—or Reverend Rook, for that matter--she’s a silver-tongued smooth-talker, polymorphously perverse, utterly amoral and just doesn’t give a goddamn, good or otherwise.
 
Five of your short stories were adapted for the television show, The Hunger. How did that come about? What did you think of the episodes?
 
How that came about, in a nutshell, was that because they were shooting in Canada, they wanted
to take advantage of our tax credit system and needed some filler episodes written by Canadians and/or based on Canadian short stories. Their research department got hold of the Northern Frights series of anthologies, edited by Don Hutchison, which contained stories by both me and David Nickle; David was contacted and told that they wanted his story “The Sloan Men”, after which he very kindly phoned me and told me who to get in touch with in order to make it known that I, too, would like in on that action, if possible. (He also hooked me up with his agent, but that’s another story.) The things I enjoyed most about my The Hunger experience were A) the money (I made more for one script than I had in a year, up to that point), B) the experience of seeing what it took to put an episode of TV together and C) the opportunity to adapt two scripts from my own stories, both for the challenge and the credits, which got me into the Writer’s Guild of Canada.
 
As for the episodes themselves...I actually think they look surprisingly good, considering they were shot on the first generation of high-res video cameras, but it’s hard for me to watch them without fixating on various behind-the-scenes issues. I also feel constrained to point out that the episode “Wrath of God”, which claims to be based on my story “The Guided Tour”, is actually an original piece written to satisfy the director’s request for a gay male protagonist; considering that the execs had previously turned down three stories of mine which actually had honest-to-god gay male protags in favour of “The Guided Tour”, a non-erotic piece which could be generously be called heterosexual-by-default, I still think that’s pretty funny.
 
You spent eight years as a film critic. How is writing a review different from writing fiction? Which do you prefer?
 
Reviews are easier and used to pay better, but the film review market has dried up almost completely at this point, probably as a result of the current tussle between print and ‘Net. So yeah...fiction, all the way!
 
Can you tell us anything about the second book in the Hexslinger trilogy, A Rope of Thorns?
 
The main plot of A Rope of Thorns follows Chess Pargeter’s quest for vengeance on his former lover/betrayer Reverend Rook, and how the fallout from that journey pushes him haphazardly towards maturity. Slowly and painfully, Chess is realizing there may be some point to becoming a fully-responsible human being--which is ironic, considering that he isn’t exactly what most people would consider human, anymore.
 
Still, this being the Hexslinger-‘verse, it’s not all hugging and learning. This book is leaner than its predecessor, a headlong rush which covers maybe a month’s worth of time and a fairly tight bit of distance. Towns are destroyed, we see the landscape changing as a result of Chess’s presence, old enemies aplenty re-appear, and we get an inside look at the socio-politics of New Aztectlan or “Hex City”, the place where all the hexes summoned by Ixchel and the Rev are congregating. It’s a blood- and magic-soaked hootenanny. Not as much sex as the first book, though, mainly for lack of time; sorry.
 
Do you own an e-reader? How do you think e-readers are changing the publishing industry?
 
I don’t own an e-reader, no. But I definitely think e-books are becoming a backbone part of the industry, though I also don’t believe that books themselves will ever completely disappear. The way that CZP conducts themselves seems smart, to me: There’s an initial collector’s version (hardback, signed, with extras), followed by a first trade paperback print-run that’s based on the hardback pre-order numbers. When that sells through, if it does, there’s a follow-up. So the press doesn’t ruin itself producing too many copies, or flood the market, and pricing/quality remains fairly stable...but at the same time, the e-book is available almost immediately, across most platforms, for a remarkably low price. I’ve heard from several fans that they picked up the e-book, then went out of their way to get a physical copy, which is what we hope for--so yeah, that seems to be working out.
 
What do you hope readers get out of your work?

 
If people can read A Book of Tongues and come out the other side caring for Chess, the Rev and Ed Morrow as much as I do, then I feel I’ve done my job. Part of what I’ve always wanted is simply to write good stories which hopefully creep people out, but gradually, a secondary ambition has crept in--I enjoy writing about non-default characters, the sort of people not generally coded as protagonist material.
 
At the time I started writing the book, I’d been reading some of Hal Duncan’s journal entries about queer characters in genre, and I agreed that I wanted to fashion a main character who would defeat people’s expectations--a villain-turned-antihero who would be small, pretty and absolutely bad-ass, to some degree because he’d been born queer in a macho, super-straight world. The biggest decision that I made about Chess was that while him being gay would be a driving force behind his outlawry, I wasn’t going to make him bad because he was gay or gay because he was bad. And as the book goes on, I think people start to get that in a lot of ways, Chess is still your typical Billy the Kid/Jesse James figure--he kills because it’s easier, more convenient, more practical then getting into fist-fights with guys twice his size; he robs and hooraws around because he enjoys the adrenaline rush, the liberty that the War gave him to do whatever he wanted and damn the consequences. So if the main difference in all that is who he’s drawn to dance with, then in the end, that’s not much difference at all.
 
From my point of view, therefore, it’s a win-win situation: People who are put off by a book whose three protagonists are outright queer, functionally bisexual (the Rev) and straight with an exception (Morrow) will drop it fairly quickly, but those who aren’t will stay--perhaps because they’re happy to see themselves represented, but perhaps because they simply want to see what happens next and how these guys will handle it. That idea makes me very happy.
 
What are you currently working on?
 
A Tree of Bones, Hexslinger Book Three, plus a bunch of other projects--shorter fiction, some other novels, a couple of prospective new collections. There’s always something, thank God.

1 comment:

Andrew Green said...

Great interview!
Interesting stuff here. I think I will check out some of Gemma's writings.