Another round of questions, this time from the ever-stylin’ Ben Francisco. He starts with a big genre question that’s very close to the thesis that’s rattling around my head, then asks a bunch of tricky questions to follow up, so I’m going to be long-winded for this one. Consider yourself warned:
1. You were once somewhat active with the Goth community, and your stories are still often influenced by Gothic tropes (and noir tropes) just as much as they are by spec fic tropes. What is it about these other, darker genres that attracts you? Is it just the make-up and sexy black outfits, or is it something deeper?
I think the phrase you’re looking for is “just barely active within the goth community” -I was a goth lurker, for the most part. At the time I was living on the Gold Coast, which is one of those places that’s fairly isolating if you’re young and you don’t have a car. The Gold Coast goth community as I knew it basically consisted of the dozen or so other folks on the University campus who wore black, listened to Bauhaus, read Sandman comics, and recited “I’m not a goth” like a litany every time the local surfer-types wondered what we had against board-shorts and thongs as day-wear. The only time I got a real sense for Goths as a community was when I trekked to Brisbane for the occasional club night or trip to a comic store, and there wasn’t much interaction there. 🙂
I’m primarily attracted to the gothic because its a genre that basically idealizes transgression, and I tend to think that transgressing against traditional ways of understanding the world is an increasingly important thing. A lot of my early attraction to the goth as a movement, both subconsciously and consciously, had a lot to do with its positioning of masculinity as something defined by things other than the holy trinity (in Australia, at least) of aggression, sport and beer. The make-up and sexy outfits are nice, but they’re really just an adjunct to that – getting around in nail-polish and a feather boa for a solid chunk of my early twenties was essentially a way of freeing myself from cultural and familial expectations of masculinity in order to work it out for myself (these days I use self-depreciation and sarcastic humor to much the same effect – overall I think the boa was les damaging to my psyche).
Everything that attracts me to the gothic is basically a variation of that example – at core I’m a post-modernist, and the the defining traits of my life have always been a sense of confusion and uncertainty due to my skepticism towards a lot of cultural mores (see Lyotards collapse of metanarrative). The gothic proves to be a great way to examine the questions I think need examing – the transgressive drive means those cultural mores are suspended in even the oldest gothic stories, and I find myself increasingly pleased by the way that transgression has ceased being the trait of the villain and started becoming the trait associated with the hero.
2. Could you share an anecdote (drawn from Real Life) that has all the essential elements of a story, in no more than one paragraph?
Okay, keeping in mind that this is both rough and stretching the definition of a paragraph:
“So there’s this stretch of rail line between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, this little curve that leads into a tunnel, that I can’t go through without blushing. In my head its the flashback corner, because it always reminds me of the first time I got it together enough to tell a girl I really liked her – I’d just spent the day in Brisbane with a bunch of folks and I was catching the train home to go to a party with this girl, and I remember going around this corner and thinking about what was happening and wondering exactly what the fuck was going on. I was, maybe, twenty or twenty-one at the time, awkward as hell around people and twice as bad around a girl I actually liked. And, because it’s all in theme, I was all confused and uncertain. I got back to the Gold Coast and I went to this party, a family kind of get-together, hers – not mine, and the entire time I’m trying to work out what it meant that I was there and all the other people we hung out with weren’t. Eventually we pack up and go back to her mum’s place – I’m sleeping on their couch rather than catching a bus home, cuase its late – and we’re talking for a while after her mum’s gone to bed, and I eventually get around to this horrible admission that I actually like her, and then…nothing happens. Not a nothing kind of nothing, the really embarrassing kind you’d expect at that moment, just an “I have no idea what to do next” kind of nothing. A nothing that’s full of potential that I have no idea how to use, and as the night goes on that potential slips away without me really noticing it. The next day I head on home, all confused and strangely excited, and in the twelve hours that follow I manage to fuck things up rather spectacularly as I muddle about trying to work out what happened. I do stupid things, I cause a small fight between this girl and her best friend, and my own inability to really grasp what’s going on kind of lurks in the background until it finally clicks that things have not gone well and the moment is gone, if indeed it was ever there. Later – weeks later, maybe, or months, I can’t remember – she starts going out with one of my friends and I spot them making out at a party and just kind of lose it a little bit. Not in a bad way, but it sets off a long stretch of bad decisions and generally morose behaviour that eventually culminates in agreeing to share a house with the two of them. Which, in the end, wasn’t all bad – in the end we all get on, and I eventually end up going out with someone, although that was kinda by accident – but the entire sequence of events remains this huge reminder that I’m the kind of guy who will forever be awkward with women and there’s something about that stretch of rail line that triggers the memory of that night and everything that follows in a big huge rush of humiliation and stupidity. And all this happened, what, ten years ago? A little more? It’s old news, ancient, but I still have trouble riding the Brisbane to Gold Coast train. It just kind of reminds me of who I was and who I am, but who I desperately never wanted to be. ”
3. Drawing on your academic studies in literary criticism, could you please now share a brief analysis of the above story, also in no more than one paragraph?
Well, it’s not a terribly good story, is it 🙂
And because it’s not a terribly good story, my inclination to engage with it critically comes second to my desire to critique it and fix the problems. It’s also a fair distance from the kind of critical discourse I’m capable of delivering in detail off-the-cuff – there’s little gothic or supernatural elements to work with, so I’m kind of left looking at the metaphorical content of the train and the tunnel within the context of the coming of age story (and now that I’ve realised that, I’m going to have to go have a long chat with my subconscious for falling prey to such a cliched metaphor in real life). Also, it remains unsatisfying because the story is essentially slight (boy asks girl out, stuffs it up, feels embarrassed) and because it’s hiding the slightness of the story behind the narrative voice (the writer in me would point out it hides behind the voice because the writer is still circling around what’s essentially a painful story to write on a personal level – I’m retreating from the things that could the story interesting even as I write it; thus we slide from critical engagement to exegetical engagement). It fulfils the requirements of the short story – it’s got characters, conflicts, a structure that leads towards a conclusion – but it’s not doing anything with them that’d really separate it out from the many better examples of the genre in short and long form.
The short version, then, of where I’d start if I was doing a critical reading: I’d probably read it against the Bildunsroman genre that’s often exemplified by the Catcher in the Rye and similar works, except that the brevity means we’re never seeing the process of maturation that makes such novels satisfying. The Bildunsroman is essentially looking at the formation of adult, but this largely builds towards a kind of thwarting of adulthood – or an adulthood built around the moment of rejection – or an adulthood based on the moment of shame. Any of them could be an interesting reading, but they’d probably take some research to pull off in any particular way.
4. Spec fic often features big ideas on the grandest of scales – galactic federations, epic quests and the like. Many of your stories seem to draw on these same big-idea tropes, but focusing on their smaller dimensions: mythological women and break-up blues, or a dragon story from the perspective of a bystander who was baking cookies when the dragon invaded the city. Do you think this is a pattern in your work, and what do you think might be behind it?
Yep, definitely a pattern. That sense of a little story happening against the backdrop of a bigger story is something I’m actively looking to achieve, so it tends to come up quite a bit.
I think, again, the reason I do this tends to drift back towards Lyotard’s collapse of grand narratives – when I look at the way people are dealing with this, it largely involves a combination of pretending western culture isn’t falling apart and losing themselves in tiny things so they don’t have to deal with the big stuff. There’s something very powerful about the interpersonal in this kind of environment – the pain of breaking up with someone you may or may-not have loved is so much easier to understand and comprehend than the enormity of the impending economic melt-down – and again we get back to the struggle to find a way out of the sense of confusion and uncertainty that always seems to be lurking in the background of contemporary culture.
It largely started back when I first read a description of Magic Realism as a genre in which the magical is made normal, and the normal is made magical. I can’t remember where I saw that – I think it was in Lance Olsen’s Rebel Yell – but the description struck me as so perfect an approach that I set about trying to achieve that even though I had little idea about what Magic Realism actually was. What I do is kind of an imperfect translation of the MR genre, because I hadn’t actually read much magic realism at the time, but it’s an approach that works for me.
5. You’re known for reading non-noir stories out loud in a husky, noir-style voice. What are the top three non-noir stories or novels that seem ripe for being subjected to this somewhat humiliating process?
Well, I don’t do it for the purposes of humiliating folks (nor do I do it with novels – my throat would die by the end of the first chapter). It’s mostly a critique tool – it’s a way of breaking out of a particular mindset when I find myself getting frustrated with a story and I’m about to trip over the line between ‘useful critique’ and ‘outright mean.’ Often that frustration has nothing to do with the story itself – it often manifests just because I’ve been reading a small stack of stories and I need a break. Very occasionally I’ll do it for fun, because everything sounds better when it sounds like it’s being read by Marv from Sin City 🙂
So, for me – the collected poems of Pablo Neruda (oh, to hear a noir Mickey Rourke recite “tonight I can write the saddest lines” with a straight face), any Harry Potter book (or Twilight, although I haven’t read that to be sure), and Nick Hornbys About a Boy.