Former film critic and teacher turned award-winning horror author Gemma Files is probably best known for her Hexslinger series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones, all from ChiZine Publications). She has also published two collections of short fiction (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart), two chapbooks of poetry and a story cycle (We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven). Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the International Horror Guild’s 1999 Best Short Fiction award. She’s since been nominated twice for the Shirley Jackson award, and won the Black Quill Award for her first novel.
I am insanely excited about Gemma’s next book Experimental Film, because like her horrifying, creepy, delightful, gut-wrenching Apex story “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” (co-written with Stephen J. Barringer) it’s about a haunted film.
I started with the question I’ve been asking my other interviewees. Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
You know, I wish this was an easy question to answer, because it’s not, and that’s pretty sad. I mean…I started out with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the first books I can remember re-reading for pleasure, and while there are some sort of contextually wonderful female characters in that, they often undergo a transition which leaves them in a far less great place by the end of their overall narratives.
Lucy Pevensie grows up in Narnia, for example, becomes a queen, then gets busted back down into a child “in real life,” and remains one every time she returns; Aravis Tarkheena from The Horse and His Boy learns a lesson about why her original culture sucks, then marries into and adopts another, “better” one; Jill Pole and Polly Plummer have interesting adventures in their respective youths, then literally end up dead and in Heaven post-apocalypse, along with Lucy—and the less said about Susan, as many have noted, the better.
So weirdly, the female character I imprinted on most strongly was Jadis of Charn, introduced in The Magician’s Nephew, who becomes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s White Witch, and in hindsight that may be because while her personal journey takes her straight to hell, she at least drives it every step of the way herself. Just as the city-state of Charn itself crossbreeds Ancient Egypt, Rome, Byzantium, Babylon and Ur, Jadis is both a relic and the end-product of a far older, darker, more barbaric/decadent civilization, literally enormous (half jinn and half giant), highly-coloured and full of destructive energy, especially when juxtaposed with dull, rainy, “realistic” turn-of-the-20th-century England. She’s framed as a hybrid of Eve and Lucifer, scarfing down a magic apple and sacrificing what remains of her soul for knowledge and power—but then again, that decision makes total sense, considering that even in her imperious yet rudely innocent earlier form, she’s still the kind of person who boasts about using the atomic bomb-like Deplorable Word to exterminate every other person in her pocket dimension just to make sure her sister can never take the throne from her. When we first meet her Jadis is an evil Sleeping Beauty, undisputed empress of a dead planet, but she gets worse, and that’s her choice; she’s truly awesome, in the oldest sense of the word.
Looking back, however, I realize that what I’m skipping over in my brain is the fact that even then I was fascinated with archaeology and history, which means that my real first book of “female characters” might actually have been a coloring book called Notorious Women, the women in question running the gamut from Semiramis, Hatshepsut, Artemisia and Agrippina the Younger to Irene Basileus, Wu Zetian, Roxelana (also known as Hurrem Sultane), Lucrezia Borgia and Queen Mary Tudor. These were women who seized power by any means they deemed necessary and did whatever they felt they had to in order to keep it as long as possible, employing everything from poison, murder, sex and religious persecution to outright witchcraft in their struggle for dominance, while also dressing extremely well. Jadis had a lot in common with these ladies, so in a strange way, I think she felt more innately “realistic” to me than any of Lewis’s nicer, more Aslan-approved girls.
This attraction towards evil queens, witches, worshippers of dark forces and villains who didn’t think of themselves as such extended into the subsidiary influences of Arha/Tenar from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan, Achren from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and Linda from Ruth Nichols’ The Marrow of the World, all of whom are singular, ill-fated and doubtful of their own capacity for goodness. Tenar is, I suppose, the most overtly heroic of the bunch, especially in the later books I wouldn’t read until I was in my forties, written when LeGuin started to intentionally dismantle the sexist undercurrents of Earthsea’s patriarchal motto “weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic”—but there’s a fight I remember in Marrow which has always stayed with me, especially so when Trina Schart Hyman’s illustration is added in on top: Linda squaring off against a demon that’s made itself look like a little girl, putting herself deliberately between it and two defenceless humans—one her long-forgotten half-brother, the other her “cousin” from our world, where her witch-mother sent her into exile—who both cheer her on, all the while wondering inside who’s the bigger threat in the fight.
So Jadis, obviously, had qualities that captured your affections and your imagination?
Well, I guess I’ve basically always seen myself as a monster: too loud, too angry, too physically overdeveloped and full of useless information, never comfortable, never liked. I looked at books like Harriet The Spy and thought: “Oh hey, she has glasses too, she makes up stories…” But then by the story’s climax I both despised Harriet and envied her, despised her because she got caught and punished and accepted the judgement of her peers, envied her because she was rewarded with genuine friendship and support at the end of her shaming. I felt a similar ambivalence towards April, the protagonist of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game, who had a glamourous but absent actress mother, who dressed up and told eccentric, gigantic lies about herself that never quite came off, yet managed to attract a set of likeminded co-conspirators after her out-of-control imagination intersected with that of Melanie, the girl downstairs.
I didn’t fantasize about either of them, though, because doing so felt ridiculous; I already knew what it was like to be larger-than-life in a tiny world, trapped by standards for social normalcy I knew I’d never be able to conform to, constantly policed by other people whose opinions I didn’t care about. No, it was much more interesting to think about blood and gold and human sacrifice, giant evil gods, shapeshifters, dynastic intermarriage, spasms of war and rape and murder—archaeology crossed with mythology, fairytales from one end of the globe to the other, the D’Aullaires’ books of Greek and Norse gods, Barbara Nynde Byfield’s Book of Weird and Georgess MacHarque’s The Impossible People. I wanted beauty and strangeness and danger, always danger. And I had no recourse to anything but my own badly-organized dreams along those lines, until I finally tripped across Tanith Lee.
I remember starting to go into second-hand bookstores when I was twelve and thirteen and buying up huge wads of DAW Fantasy, with that emblematic yellow spine. Lee’s stuff was always the best of the bunch, and though sometimes—often, actually—it didn’t end up going exactly where I wanted it to, I was always fascinated by where it did, especially in her Tales from the Flat Earth series. Again, the debatably evil goddess-witch queens (Oaive from The Winter Players, Zorayas daughter of Zorashad, Narasen of Merh, Azhriaz) were right at the forefront of my interests, but Lee soon added in a layer of sexually-ambiguous/borderline inhuman dudes on top: Cyrion, Deketon from East of Midnight, Azhrarn, Zhirem/Zhirek and Shell/Simmu. C.J. Cherryh was pretty good here and there, along with Elizabeth A. Lynn, but with Lee it was like she was channelling her stuff straight from id to the page.
How does these influences compare to the female characters in your work? Are they their literary ancestors? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your heroines owe her?
Definitely, the trend of terrible people coming to grips with their own terribleness is a backbone of my work, as is the general theme of monstrosity, particularly of the feminine variety; if I had to guess, that’s probably most visible thus far throughout my story cycle We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven, which is even structured like one of Lee’s Flat Earth books. But even in the otherwise dick-heavy Hexslinger series, I’ve still tried to consistently make room for characters like Yancey, Songbird, Yiska, Grandma, Oona Pargeter and Ixchel, who hopefully provide a spectrum of female-oriented weirdness. Power, with its rewards and its discontents, remains what I’m most attracted to, and seeing it channelled through a vaguely feminine form? That’s my crack, always was. Always will be.
In a lot of ways, my upcoming novel Experimental Film (out by November, from CZP) combines these formative fantasies and impulses in a story driven by three different female characters. First off, there’s Lois Cairns, the protagonist and narrator who often thinks she’s a monster of the sadly metaphorical RL kind; she’s literally my attempt to write myself-but-not-really and explore various problems from my adult life through fiction, such as the difficulties of balancing personal creativity with being the mother of a child with special needs. Mrs A. Macalla Whitcomb, on the other hand—the long-lost early Ontario filmmaker whose work Lois accidentally discovers—is more of a cautionary tale or a tragic figure, an artist possessed and destroyed by her own vision who comes off like either a witch or a martyr, depending on who you talk to. As for Lady Midday, meanwhile, the creature whose supernatural influence may lurk behind everything Lois experiences during her journey into Mrs Whitcomb’s world—she’s a legend, a myth, a not-so-dead goddess, able to exult, inspire and destroy at a whim. The main difference between her and the all-powerful witch-queens of my youth is that I’m now old enough to know that good and evil aren’t exactly concepts that apply, when you’re talking about something that was never really human.
About this post: The Heroine Question is an interview series where female authors answer questions about their artistic influences and fictional heroines. I’m planning to arrange for you all to see answers to these three questions, and variations on them, popping up throughout the summer from a number of terrific authors. Enjoy! (Or, better yet, comment, tweet, and repost!)
I’m just getting to know Jane Lindskold, because we both have stories in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse anthology The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth. And so I’m finding out (because she tells me so, and I believe everything I’m told, and also because it’s true) that she is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of something like twenty-five novels and about seventy short stories. Honestly, she keeps losing count.
Jane lives in New Mexico, not with wolves, but with cats and guinea pigs. And a lovely husband.
Since these mini-interviews are all about heroine… heroineism? I asked:
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess?
This is a really tough question for me, because the answer is “No. There isn’t.”
Certainly female characters existed and I read about them, but I never imprinted on Nancy Drew or wanted to be Trixie Belden or Jo March. I liked Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, but, again, I didn’t want to be Laura or Mary.
If you narrow the fields to SF/F, there were far fewer major female characters when I was a girl and none of those I encountered became role models for me.
Do goddesses count? I always thought Artemis was very cool… Athene had appeal, too, except when she got stupid over that golden apple.
If I “imprinted” on any fictional character, it was Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
What was it about Mowgli?
I think I liked Mowgli because he functioned outside of the social matrix. Early in The Jungle Book, Mowgli leaves the wolf pack to live by his own code. His “brothers” remain close to him and he certainly has friends, but he’s not interested in letting anyone else run his life.
The Artemis I liked was very much in the same mold. My attraction to her had less to do with any particular story/myth than the sense of freedom I got from her. When I was a girl, the three things I wanted most were a canoe, a non-kitchen knife, and a large dog. I never got any of them, though I did have a canoe on loan for a few years.
Of course, both Mowgli and Artemis associated with animals on a more or less equal basis. I have no idea why, but this has always appealed to me.
Would you say, then, that Mowgli and/or Artemis inspired any of the female characters in your work?
There are two who definitely belong to this lineage.
The most obvious would be Firekeeper, the central character in what – despite the formal series title, “The Firekeeper Saga” – everyone just calls “The Wolf Books.” Firekeeper is not Mowgli. For one, she never becomes the Lord of the Jungle, or the ruler of much of anything except her own life.
She cares passionately for those she takes as her own, human or otherwise.
My new “Artemis Awakening” series also owes an obvious debt to this lifelong interest. Adara the Huntress, the main female character, is definitely an “Artemesian” figure. Not a virgin, though, but then neither was Artemis originally…
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Last week’s installment, with Martha Wells, was all about Erma Bombeck. Now that we’ve delved into Kipling and the Greek Pantheon, I think we can safely expect this series to cover a wide range of subjects, both real and imaginary!
Jane Lindskold has a web site here and can also be found online on Twitter and Facebook.
A (barely) belated Happy Book Birthday to Martha Wells, whose Stories of the Raksura: Volume Two came out yesterday! Martha has written over a dozen fantasy novels, and this particular series, Books of the Raksura, includes The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths, and Stories of the Raksura Vo.l I as well as this new volume.
I asked Martha a few questions about her literary heroines. Here’s what she had to say:
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
Okay, this is going to sound weird, but it was Erma Bombeck.
What qualities of hers captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
My mother had her books, Just Wait Until You Have Children of Your Own, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, and The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. I remember the first one attracted my attention (I was probably around ten, maybe younger) because it had cartoons in it by Bill Keane. I know I liked it at first because it was funny stories about a family, and I was an extremely lonely kid. But it was also probably my first realization that authors of books were a) real people, and b) could be women. Here was this woman who lived a normal life in the suburbs and was a wife and a mother, but she also had a career as a writer. I think this was my first inkling that me becoming a writer was possible, that it wasn’t an impossible thing to want.
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? What might your own heroines owe her?
I think her sense of humor made a huge impression on me, and probably helped form how I do characterization and humor in my own books, probably more than I realize. I haven’t re-read those books since I was in college, and I still remember lines and scenes from them. And she was the hero of her own stories, the one who had to deal with everything and who made mistakes but got things done. So Erma Bombeck probably is the literary ancestor of my female heroes.
About this post: it has been awhile since I did an interview series, and I’ve been wanting to ask some of my colleagues and friends about their artistic influences and their heroines. I’m planning to arrange for you all to see answers to these three questions, and variations on them, popping up throughout the summer from a number of terrific authors. Enjoy! (Or, better yet, comment, tweet, and repost!)
More about Martha Wells: She is the author of The Wizard Hunters, and the nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer, as well as the YA fantasies, short stories, and non-fiction. She has had stories in Black Gate, Realms of Fantasy, Stargate Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and in the anthologies Elemental, Tales of the Emerald Serpent, and The Other Half of the Sky. She has also written the media-tie-ins, Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary, Stargate Atlantis: Entanglement, and Star Wars: Razor’s Edge. Her web site is www.marthawells.com.
Guesting today on the site is D.B. Jackson, also known as David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
I come from a family of readers, and so, perhaps not too surprisingly, I also come from a family of writers. But the thing is, neither my father nor my mother was a writer; on the other hand all four of us kids have written professionally in some capacity, which is pretty remarkable. The common denominator for all of us was books. My parents’ house was filled with them; every shelf overflowed with paperbacks and hardcovers, novels and biographies. When I reached a certain age — maybe I was eight — my father set up my own set of bookshelves in my room, fixing brackets to the wall so that I could adjust the shelves as I needed. He had done the same thing for my three older siblings before me. It was a rite of passage in our house.
My parents instilled in all of us a reverence for the written word. They didn’t spoil us; they limited gifts of candy or toys to our birthdays and Christmas. But they were always willing to buy us books. Always. And the truth is, I’m much the same way with my kids.
I didn’t read a lot of fantasy or science fiction early on, though eventually, with the help of a camp counsellor, I stumbled upon my first novel in the genre that would dominate my adult life. And I’ll get to that in a moment. But the first reading influences I remember were pretty standard kid fare. There were a series of books that I absolutely loved titled _____ Do the Strangest Things. Birds Do the Strangest Things, Fish Do the Strangest Things, Insects Do the Strangest Things, etc. They were essentially the written, kid-friendly equivalent of a David Attenborough nature special. I couldn’t get enough of them. I read every one of them, and then read them again. And again.
Though I remain a dedicated nature enthusiast, I don’t write natural history, and so it would be easy to assume that these books had little influence on my writing career. But I believe they had a much greater impact on me than one might imagine. They fed a deeply rooted intellectual curiosity and taught me — as my parents hoped they would — that books held answers, not only to all the questions swirling around in my young brain, but also to those questions I hadn’t yet thought to ask. I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to say that these books, and others like them, started me down the path to academia, which, in turn, steered me toward my writing career.
The other books that I remember gobbling up in my youth were the Hardy Boys mysteries written under the name Franklin W. Dixon. These were the Grosset and Dunlap re-imaginings of the series published initially in 1959 and popular through the 1960s and 1970s (which is when I was reading them). They weren’t great literature, they weren’t terribly challenging as kids’ reading went. But they were enormously fun. If Birds Do the Strangest Things, satisfied my burgeoning curiosity, these books fed my craving for adventure, danger, thrills — all the things my comfortable suburban childhood lacked.
And so, by the time I went off to sleep away camp for the summer as an eleven year-old, I was primed for a new kind of book that would be both engaging and exciting enough to allow me to move on from the Hardy Boys, which I was already starting to outgrow. Enter The Hobbit.
I didn’t actually encounter the book that summer. Instead, I tried out for a dramatized version of Tolkien’s novel. I had already discovered early in the summer that I had a flair for drama (no one who knows me now will be at all surprised) and when the opportunity came to audition for this newest production, I took full advantage. Yes, I was cast as Bilbo Baggins. It helped that I was short for my age . . .
I fell in love with the story, and more I was fascinated by the world revealed to me by the script. Elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons — what was not to love. It had never occurred to me that there were books like this waiting to be read; I certainly never dreamed that there were similar books written for adults that would allow me to pursue my new-found fascination with magical stories well past my childhood. But when the summer was over, I found the novel version of The Hobbit and devoured it. Then I read The Lord of the Rings, and after that Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea Trilogy. By then, I was hooked on fantasy, and I have been ever since.
But I think it bears repeating that I’m not an author because of Tolkien. I wrote my first “book” when I was six; writing stories was always my favorite school activity. My early experiences with fantasy didn’t set me on the road to a career as a fantasy author; the sheer act of reading had taken care of that long before. The environment created by my parents and their exuberant love of all things book were the most formative forces in my childhood.
It would be pretty easy to imagine my own kids rebelling against my love of reading, which my wife shares. “Dad’s an author? Great. Hand me the remote.” But early on they discovered the same thing I did: Books are treasure boxes; they just beg to be opened. Their favorites have been the Magic Tree House and the Magic School Bus, Harry Potter and most recently the Hunger Games books. To be honest, I don’t care what titles they’re drawn to — as long as they’re reading, I’m happy. Sounds like something my Mom and Dad would have said.
David blogs, is active on Facebook and Goodreads, and Tweets. Give him some love here in comments or go forth and beard him in his lairs.
Corey Redekop, whose site describes him as a “maker up of wordy thinglets,” does conscious and unconscious interviews with writers as well as reviewing for Quill and Quire, and my conscious interview is here. This would be the more serious one… he asks about portal fantasy, and the magic in Child of a Hidden Sea, and the legal thriller angle.