Charles Tan interviews Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are the editors of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated anthology Teeth.

For Teeth, what was your collaboration process like? Has it remained the same, with each of you being able to pick one story that the other didn’t necessarily like?

Ellen:  Yes, our collaborative process remained the same, although I don’t recall us disagreeing about any of the stories in Teeth….

Terri: It’s true that we’ll sometimes publish a story that one of us is lukewarm about if the other really loves it (though not a story that one or the other of us actively dislikes). This doesn’t happen often, however…and with Teeth is didn’t happen at all. We both loved every single tale we chose — and even a few that we had to turn down because we ran out of room!

For your YA anthologies, when it comes to themes, you’ve done fairy tales and mythic fiction. Lately, you’ve been wading into “darker” territory, whether it’s villains, or in Teeth’s case, vampires. What’s the appeal of this darkness for you, and why do you think it appeals to readers of YA?

Ellen: There have always been at least a few dark stories in the books that we’ve co-edited…but yes, you’re right, we do seem to have moved into somewhat darker territory with Teeth, Troll’s Eye View, and also with our forthcoming dystopian anthology, After. I’ve always been attracted to dark fiction, and have edited many horror anthologies, so for me this darker content is nothing new. Teeth, in particular, was a natural for me as I’ve previously edited three anthologies of vampire stories for adult readers.

Obviously the success of Twilight influenced us in thinking that an anthology of vampire stories would be of interest to young adult readers. But Teeth is meant to be the”anti-Twilight”…not just in terms of emphasizing the quality of the writing over romantic intensity, but also because most of the stories are very effective in demonstrating the down-side of being a vampire, and why it may not be a dream come true. We hope that young readers who are tired of the sparkly vampire will be attracted by our book.

Terri: It seems to me that our strength as an editorial team has always been that we come at the literature of the fantastic from two different directions: Ellen with her background in dark fantasy and horror, me with my background in high fantasy and mythic fiction. Thus we cover a broad spectrum of tales, with our taste overlapping in the middle.

I’m a folklorist, so our various myth and fairy tale anthologies were built upon themes that I had a strong personal interest in, whereas Ellen was the driving force behind Teeth, and After, and I followed her lead on these two books. As the writer in our editorial partnership, it fell to me to write the introduction to Teeth (with input from Ellen, which is why her name is on it too), which required a good deal of reading and research to make sure I was up to speed on the topic…as opposed to the intros in the myth and fairy tale anthologies, where I was covering familiar territory. Teeth pushed me out of my editorial comfort zone, but sometimes that can be a very good thing. Our goal from the beginning was to take a familiar (almost too familiar) topic — YA vampire fiction — and do something fresh and original with it. A daunting task! I feel that we achieved it, however — although the credit, of course, really belongs the wonderful group of writers we worked with.

What was your criteria in selecting the contributors/stories for Teeth?

Ellen: We wanted to combine stories by authors known for YA fiction with stories by those better known for adult work — including writers you wouldn’t immediately think of when you hear the words “YA vampire fiction,” but who we knew were up for the job! With all our anthologies, we begin by drawing up a “submission invitation list” of writers whose work we admire, and who we think can write a smashing story on the theme. These lists always include a mix of well-established writers and talented newcomers.

Terri: As the stories began to come in, our criteria for selection was based on the quality of the writing, of course, but also how each story fit the anthology as a whole.

Ellen: When an anthology is built on a single theme, it’s important to acquire different types of stories with different voices. That was our aim, and I think we succeeded.

Charles Tan interviews Michael Cisco

Michael Cisco is the author Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel The Great Lover.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what was the genesis of your character the Great Lover?

Most of my characters simply present themselves to me, and there are many who return again and again in more or less altered form.  So the Great Lover is a variant of other, similar demonic characters I’ve done.  That these characters keep coming back can be a sign that originality is flagging, but I think it’s often a sign that the writer keeps finding new things to say or do with such a character.  The character itself doesn’t “grow” in the conventional sense of character development, which is almost always a scheme that really cripples and domesticates change, but the character keeps becoming new aspects of itself.  The Great Lover is a character that begins before the novel does and who will go on doing things in other novels under other names, provided I keep writing them.  At one point in The Great Lover (the book) he encounters the other versions of himself from my other novels.

The idea behind the character this time was I guess that here was someone who is entirely trapped in a wild and exalted state of hyperbolic, reverential yet carnal desire for love, but who won’t approach them directly and flees whenever someone turns their desire on him.  He flees either by running away or by turning into a cartoon character, not a superhero but somewhere between a more or less stable persona like Popeye and a crazy protean thing like Bugs Bunny.  There’s a murky impasse there emotionally that I wanted to get in front of people.

The Great Lover is very different from the traditional narrative. How would you describe your writing?

The Great Lover is not as radically different from traditional narrative as all that;  Finnegans Wake is much more untraditional and it’s nearly a hundred years old.  Redundancy is necessary for understanding;  you need some level of redundancy – characters, a plot, chapter breaks and so on – to make what you’re doing a novel and not some other kind of written thing.  I am a phantasmagoric maximalist.  I like things to be overwhelmingly strange and capacitous.  I want what I write to live;  it isn’t about something, it is something.  Something new, if I’ve done what I set out to do.  The mad scientist makes his monster thinking that he’s going to prove himself to the scientific community or something like that, but he’s being too modest and even too self-deprecating.  His motive is much more honorable than a desire to applause;  whether he is consciously aware of it or not, he wants the monster to explode out of control and go out marauding into the world, because the desire to create, at its highest level, is the desire to create something bigger than you are and so out-create yourself.

What were some of the challenges in writing the book?

The novel won’t live if it’s just a heap of weird.  It has to contact the reader to seem real, so that the reader isn’t just passively watching all this unaccountable stuff going on without any feeling of attachment or participation.  This is the problem that abstract art often has;  it’s so obliquely angled or so flat that you just can’t care about it unless, for some reason, you happen to be one of the few people who loves obliquity or flatness.  I struggled horribly to get love into the novel, but love is the most enslaved, falsified element in art.  It’s all Hallmark cards, and I can barely manage to get any of it in.  I struggled with the density of my own style;  I can only stare in hapless admiration at the minimal writers, like Beckett, who can do everything in the world with nothing, or the light writers, like Vian, who never fail to keep flying speed.  I struggled with the politics of the novel too, because it can’t be a political novel in the conventional sense nor can it be apolitical, since it has to be alive in the world it conjures, which is a political world.  There’s so much I want to get into the novel, but the more I put in the slower things go, and a novel has to sustain a slightly sub-conversational velocity if it’s going to work.

Charles Tan interviews Sheri Holman

Sheri Holman is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel Witches on the Road Tonight.

Hi Sheri! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In Witches on the Road Tonight, what was the genesis of Eddie’s character to the point that made you want to write a book about him?

When I was a kid growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the mid-1970s, I was obsessed with my local horror host, The Bowman Body.  His show, Shock Theater came on Saturdays at midnight, right after Soul Train, and I rarely made it til the end — the movies were always so bad I fell asleep. Bowman, however, made it all worthwhile.   A dead ringer for Bob Newhart, he was balding and nebbishy, wore a black unitard and white sneakers and told really painfully corny jokes.  But staying up that late watching horror movies felt like an initiation of sorts.  I was being invited to witness something terrifying (I still have nightmares of Tallulah Bankhead in Die, Die My Darling!) in the safety of my own living room.  I was nine or ten, too young for boys and sex, but ripe for mystery and transgression.  I instinctively knew this was where I was heading, the world beyond childhood.  And of course the horror host is a modern day Virgil leading you into the dark wood and out again.  As a grown-up, I thought a lot about the death of regionalism and the onslaught of global media.  How all those wonderful characters from my childhood — Sailor Bob and Bozo the Clown and Bowman Body — were gone for good.  It seemed to me the torch of late night horror had been passed to the news.  First to Ted Koppel’s Nightline, the news that came after the news (with its ticking clock on the Iran hostage crisis) and then to CNN and FoxNews and the rest — info-tainment models that took fear to a whole new level, and have probably done more to boost the sales of sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications than anything else in the history of our country.

What was the most challenging aspect when it came to this novel? 

I originally conceived of this book as a more straightforward historical novel based around a Depression-era family of ginseng hunters.  When I started the book, I had three children under two, and one of my twin sons was undergoing a major health crisis.  I was about as strung out and terrified as I’d ever been in my life and didn’t feel I could afford to take any risks with my work.  But then I realized if I played it safe right then, I’d consign myself to being a fearful little writer for the rest of my life.  It was probably a choice made as much out of sleep-deprivation psychosis as anything else, but I threw out the safe book and incorporated two other characters I hadn’t been able to shake as much as I tried — Eddie, aka Captain Casket, and Wallis, a career driven 24 hour news anchor destabilized by motherhood.  At first I couldn’t see how these three storylines fit together, but then I realized I was writing about a family and the arc of fear in the 20th century.  It begins with Cora telling ghost stories in the mountains, moves to Eddie who defangs scary movies during the golden age of regional, independent television, and ends with Wallis, who peddles anxiety and terror on a global scale.  Dealing with the constant time shifts was extremely challenging,  but I wanted the reader to make the thematic connections that would arise from the juxtaposition of these three stories.  I’d been reading a lot about neurobiology and learned that the chemical loops of memory are always on and running, like a million movies playing silently in the background, ready to be retrieved in an instant.  There is really no biological distinction between past and present.  Moreover, we carve our neural pathways by walking and re-walking certain memories more than others, which is why trauma can become so deeply entrenched. This suggested  gorges and mountain paths to me and so landscape along with the folklore it generated, became an organizing principle.  We are leaping around in time and chemical impulses are leaping synapses and characters are leaping chasms in this book.   I took a lot of risks with the writing of it and it came from a very raw and honest place in my life.  It was maybe a little bit of a personal exorcism for me.  But there were times, especially writing Cora’s midnight rides,  where I almost felt like I was casting a spell — I got so caught up in it.

Some might consider the book to be horror, gothic, or weird, but how would you describe your fiction?

For me there is nothing more horrific than betrayal and loss of trust — whether it’s in a family or a society, it shakes your faith in what you’ve always understood to be reality. You’re left alone, without guideposts, filled with doubt.   So all the horror in this book lies less in the supernatural shedding of skins, and more  in the ease with which we do it.  Lovers betray each other, parents betray children, children betray parents, and all of this is played out against the existentially terrifying reality of war with its own asymmetric power dynamic.    I think good fiction pulls from lots of different genres, so I never try to label what I do. (Though I’d probably make more money if I stuck with just one thing!)  The Dress Lodger, my novel about a doctor and prostitute stealing bodies during the cholera epidemics could have earned a horror label, too.  I’m always happy when anyone considers my writing gothic.  Again, I never set out to do it, but I think growing up in the rural south where the dead are constantly with us, it can’t be helped.  Everyone told ghost stories where I grew up, and no one thought twice about terrifying the kids then sending them off to bed.  I grew up understanding that the ability to wield fear equaled power, which might not have been the healthiest lesson, but is something I continue to be fascinated by.  Of course Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson were enormous inspirations for me growing up.  Their writing, in its day, was considered “weird,” but I’m not sure what to do with that word.  When I first moved to New York, iced coffee was weird to me. Maybe I’ll write a gothic horror novel about that!

Charles Tan interviews Deborah Biancotti

Deborah Biancotti is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novella “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living.”

Hi Deborah! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. The three novellas in Ishtar are different and unique. What kind of planning/communication did you do when planning to write “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living”? Why choose the contemporary setting?

Mark Deniz was the genius behind the settings. It was his idea to do 3 stories: one historic, one contemporary & one futuristic. I was ecstatic to get the contemporary story because I’d realised by then that I had a very particular love for that setting, as opposed to fantastic or wholly imagined worlds. We brainstormed & planned at the beginning of the process and then Kaaron Warren – whose research into the Ishtar mythology was excellent, and far better than mine – was kind enough to share an early draft of her story with some of her research intact. From there we all settled in to write our own stories. As I started writing I realised the thrill of present tense story-telling, with its immediacy & energy and that special way it has of implying nothing-at-all about the future. As if the future maybe doesn’t exist, maybe nothing exists beyond this point. It was a blast, one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever worked on.

What is it about the Ishtar myth/concept that fascinated/interested you?

A few things really stood out for me about Ishtar, though there’s a wealth of mythology surrounding her. Firstly, that she was the goddess of both love and war – a complex dichotomy that should be disabling, surely, but somehow she’s managed to make it work. That she descended into hell and was hung on hooks for centuries, only to return to the world to find someone to take her place (she sends an ex-lover, which perfectly suits her whole love-and-war approach). And the way she was re-interpreted by several cultures and had several names but is still recognisable as the same deity – or at least, as a goddess fulfilling the same role: Ishtar, Inanna, Isis, Astarte – even Aphrodite and Venus have been linked to Ishtar & might be her, in other clothes.

What’s the appeal of the novella format for you?

I’m working on a couple other novellas this year and I have to say I love the format because I can play with my characters’ backgrounds and journeys more than I can with short stories. But at the same time novellas require a certain energy level, a certain consistency that is sometimes missing from novels (especially those novels that we, as readers, describe as ‘sagging in the middle). Novellas don’t allow for extraneous detail. Novellas stick to their stories, they can’t sag or fall apart – there isn’t room for it. As a reader and not just a writer, it seems to me to be a new era of novellas, particularly since eReading is so popular. No more worrying about the economies-of-scale that printing requires, where a book has to contain a certain number of pages to be cost-effective. Now we can write at any length! Even though novella-writing has a long history, it feels cutting-edge again.

Charles Tan interview M. Rickert

M. Rickert is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated short story “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece.”

Hi, Mary. Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I believe there’s power in words, and the profession of “corpse painter” has this gripping potency. How did you decide on the term and writing a story revolving around this compelling protagonist?

This story idea came to me in the form of the title. I was just writing down combinations of disparate elements and came up with the title and the story evolved from there.

What were the challenges in writing “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece”?

I wasn’t sure about the paint sticking to the body, so I called up an artist friend and he told me how to make that work.

In some of your fiction, the tension revolves around your characters and their personal relationships. What is it about this human condition that fascinates you and makes it ripe for exploration, whether in the sense of suspense, horror, or wonder? 

I have always been fascinated by the human condition, which is never a solitary one. We are made by each other and unmade too. We are creatures of damage and redemption. The possiblities of our equations are infinite, and within that mathematics are the stories we live and die to create. I try to honor that in the fiction I write.