Friday, February 4, 2011

Interview with Lisa Tuttle

Lisa Tuttle is the author of novels Windhaven, Familiar Spirit, Catwitch, Angela's Rainbow, Gabriel, Lost Futures, Panther in Argyll, The Pillow Friend, Love On-Line, Mad House, My Death, The Mysteries and The Silver Bough; short story collections A Nest of Nightmares, A Spaceship Built of Stone: and Other Stories, Memories of the Body: Tales of Desire and Transformation, Ghosts and Other Lovers and My Pathology; non-fiction books Encyclopedia of Feminism, Heroines: Women Inspired by Women and Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction; and was the editor of the anthology Skin of the Soul.

What drew you to the horror genre?

Ever since childhood I've loved scary stories. I know many children do, but I never grew out of it. When I started to write -- still in childhood -- ghost stories and fantasies were my first attempts; I also used to enjoy scaring friends and siblings with spooky tales, although mostly those were re-tellings of things I'd read or seen on TV. Back then, and when I first began to write and sell professionally (the early '70s) there was very little market for horror stories; I'd have to say that the "horror genre" did not exist until after the explosive impact of Stephen King in the mid-70s. And in my mind, horror is not really a genre at all -- or at any rate, the closer it comes to being a clearly defined genre, with well-known tropes, traditions and boundaries, the less interesting I find it, both as a reader and as a writer. I have as little interest in reading another zombie novel as I have in reading some formulaic pulp western. As others have pointed out, horror is an emotion, and as such it can be found in all literature.

What scares you?

Probably the same things that scare most people.

Why do you think there are fewer women writing horror than men?

Is that the case? There could be a number of explanations, but I suspect that this is at least partly a matter of perception and definition. I think it is also very possible -- so far as genre horror is concerned -- that the way "Horror" has been packaged and defined and sold might make it more appealing to male tastes and interests, like war stories. Is horror,  as a genre, primarily consumed by men? If so, there's your answer. If not, then I am puzzled as to why there are not more women also writing it. Or are they writing books but having them rejected, or published as something not identified as "horror"?

You were the editor of Skin of the Soul, a horror anthology comprised of stories by women writers. How did that come about?

I've told the story before -- including in the introduction to that anthology -- but it is probably worth telling again. In 1988, an anthology called Prime Evil was published, edited by Douglas Winter, who made the claim that he had invited "the masters of modern horror" who were all writing at the top of their form, to contribute stories. In his introduction, he made the same argument for horror that I did above -- that is, that horror is not a genre but an emotion, and that it is to be found in the greatest literature as well as the most popular. Not only was every single author included in the book male -- a fact he did not comment upon, so I don't know if he actually invited one or two female authors who didn't manage to meet his deadline, or if he just couldn't think of a single female "master" he felt worthy of inclusion -- but in his many and diverse examples of all the different forms horror in fiction might take, the one and only woman writer he named was.... can you guess? NOT Shirley Jackson, not Joyce Carol Oates, not Edith Wharton, nor Patricia Highsmith, nor Anne Rice nor Mary Shelley but.... "the best-selling novels of V.C. Andrews." 

Oh, dear! Well, the wholesale omission of women from this revisionist history of horror in literature annoyed me tremendously, and I felt the best response was to counter-attack on the same ground. What I really wanted to do was to get a big advance from a major publisher so that the book would be on equal footing with Winter's, and the joke would be that nowhere would it say anything about "horror by women" -- after all, Prime Evil is not subtitled "New Horror Stories by Men" -- but I'd invite only women writers, and write a straight-faced introduction about how important and widespread horror was in literature, never bothering to suggest that one or two men might, just occasionally, have written something worth reading, as well as all the women I was praising. However.... I couldn't quite manage to carry it off at that level. The Women's Press was very interested in my idea, but they were a shoestring operation and could only pay a very small advance, so I was never going to attract a lot of best-selling writers!  Mostly, I asked for stories from writers I knew, and sent out a few begging letters to writers I could only admire from afar (probably not so different from the way that Douglas Winter went about his selection) -- Yet I did get some excellent stories, from wonderful writers, very few (if any) known as "masters of horror", but all of them more than capable of writing a memorable and blood-curdling tale. And the book sold for a much higher advance to Pocket Books in the US, so the writers who were willing to write for me for peanuts were rewarded in the end.

Who are some women horror authors that you admire?

One of the greatest horror stories ever written (in my opinion) is "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and as a full-length novel you'd look hard to find anything to surpass Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill HouseI love the ghost stories of Edith Wharton, and the few that A.S. Byatt has written are absolute chillers.  I'm sure some of Lydia Davis's stories could be called horror stories; ditto Patricia Duncker. Patricia Highsmith.  Joyce Carol Oates is a modern genius who has written many great works, in and outside nearly all the genre boundaries.  Sarah Waters is brilliant. Caitlin R. Kiernan. Helen Oyeyemi. Recently read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott -- I know nothing about the author, hadn't heard anything about this book, which I think was published a few years ago; it is wonderful, atmospheric, beautiful and terrifying, and thank goodness for real bookshops, because if I hadn't seen it and picked it up and read the first page, I'd have missed it! Among newer writers, Sarah Pinborough, Alexandra Sokoloff, Natasha Mostert -- all fine novelists --  and I've been very impressed by short stories by Allyson Bird, Nina Allan, Barbara Roden, Catherynne M. Valente and others whose names are now escaping my fumbling brain.  

What is your advice to aspiring women horror writers?

Don't expect to make a living out of it! In general, my advice to any aspiring writers would be the same, regardless of genre or gender, and that is that the most important thing is to write, rewrite, and read widely.

What are your favourite horror novels?

Hmm, that's hard to answer, because while I have many favourite novels, they are not neatly catalogued by genre in my mind!  But, in no particular order,  here are a few:  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; The Victorian Chaise Lounge by Marghanita Laski;  The Nameless by Ramsey Campbell -- and/or one or two more by him;  several novels by Jonathan Carroll, including The Bones of the Moon; one or more by Peter Straub, certainly Lost Boy, Lost GirlDracula by Bram Stoker; The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand; Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist; Misery by Stephen King.

What is your favourite novel you’ve written and your favourite character you’ve created? Why?

That's a bit like asking the mother of many "Which one is your favourite child?" don't you think?  I am deeply involved with the novel I'm currently writing, and hope it will turn out to be my best so far.  Similar problem with asking about characters, but I am especially fond of Helen Ralston, the writer/artist/model/muse who features in My Death

In addition to horror, you’ve also written science fiction and fantasy novels. Do you have a favourite genre?

No. I write the stories and books I feel compelled the write, and they often fall into a borderline area between two genres -- sf/horror (Lost Futures) or dark fantasy (The Pillow Friend, The Silver Bough, The Mysteries). As a reader, too, I'm drawn to work that either crosses genre boundaries or falls outside them altogether.  

Who are your favourite authors? Who influenced you the most?

I'm sure I've named a lot of them above, but to draw in some others, as a child -- and I did start writing in childhood, remember -- I loved the works of E. Nesbit and James Thurber, among others, and was also influenced by the stories in a couple of massive anthologies of ghost, supernatural and horror stories that I found on my father's bookshelves; particularly stories by Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Edith Wharton, and Saki. Later, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Zenna Henderson, Philip K. Dick, Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway. I've always been especially drawn to short stories; as a young teenager, I saved up my money to buy the most amazing anthology I'd ever seen -- Dangerous Visions -- and wrote a fan letter to Harlan Ellison to tell him what I thought of it.  He responded by sending me a collection of his own stories; some years later I went to a Clarion workshop, where he was teaching -- he was surprised to learn I wanted to be a writer, and, luckily for me, he was impressed by the first story of mine he read, and was extremely encouraging and helpful -- so Harlan had an enormous influence on me, not just through his own stories, but through advice and criticism and practical help at the very beginning of my career.

Do you own an e-reader? How do you think e-readers are changing the publishing industry? Do you plan on making your older novels available as e-books?

No, I don't own one yet. Yes, they are changing the publishing industry, although I think no one has figured out exactly how much and in what ways. But the change has already started, and is gathering speed. I think -- hope -- there will still be a place for the old-fashioned, printed book, the book as desirable physical object, alongside the digital versions. Of course, I always want to read far more books than I could possibly find space for in my house; but I don't think I will ever stop appreciating, and wanting to own, some real books, too.  Two short story collections of mine are available as e-books, and I am sure my novels will be -- eventually. I am still grappling with the complexities of this major technological change. 

What do you hope readers get out of your work?

That depends on the work. Mainly, a thought-provoking entertainment, and something they won't quickly forget.

What are you currently working on?

My current novel in progress -- still at a fairly early stage in terms of what's been written, but I have been thinking about it for a couple of years -- is another cross between horror and fantasy, same sort of territory as my last three. The working title is Blood of the HostI've also got an unfinished YA fantasy simmering away on a mental back-burner, and ideas for more short stories, including a linked series of novellas, supernatural mysteries set in the 1890s.


Will Errickson said...

I missed that SKIN OF THE SOUL anthology when it came out, but I do remember WOMEN OF DARKNESS I and II. There were so many in back then! Added to my to-read list. Also, in the first BOOK OF THE DEAD, the zombie anthology from Skipp & Spector, there were no women! In the second volume, STILL DEAD, there are at least half a dozen female writers and their stories were great.

-Lou said...

I haven't read any of these, but reading the interviews definitely captured my interest. It's cool to see how different bloggers are tackling WIH month. I linked back to your site in my last post. Carry on!

Hannah Neurotica said...

I totally have Skin of the Soul!

RAD INTERVIEW!!!!!!!!!!!!

Midnyte Reader said...

I have to say Silver Bough is one of my favorite books to date. I was wondering if it was the same author. Now I'm totally intrigued!