Interview Meme, part three

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.

Thursday Linkfest

Yesterday was busy and thus thesis-less, plus I got very little sleep thanks to some very unfomfortable shoulder pain, so odds are I’ll be saying little of interest today. Instead, I’ll entertain you with links to stuff that I’ve found interesting over the last week (or so):

  • My good friend Chris Slee reflects on the Edisonade (aka the pre-history of Science Fiction) and what was the best thing *before* sliced bread.
  • The ever-stylish Ben Francisco cherry-picks the SFnal highlights of the authors@google youtube series and gathers them together in a single handy post (although he’s missing Neil Gaiman in the line-up). If you’ve not seen these, particularly the John Scalzi, I recommend going and taking a look.
  • The Aurealis Awards are announced and the results posted on their website. Cat Sparks has posted photographs of the night, in which a bunch of writer-types have scrubbed up pretty well (and I show up looking marginally less shabby than usual in the vast flicker list of the night.).
  • Mick Foley (aka Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love) reviews Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
  • Steve Kenson on the lack of randomness in contemporary RPG character creation. (My first reaction to this post? To go roll up a Marvel Superheroe’s Character and convert it over to the point-by driven system of Kenson’s near-perfect supers RPG Mutants & Masterminds)
  • And, as if there’s not enough of me on the internets already, I sneak on over to Lee Battersby’s blog and guest-post my memories of the first week of Clarion South 2007.
  • John Klima bids farewell to the recently shut down Realms of Fantasy over at Tor.com, but also wonders where all those stories that used to go RoF’s way will end up (For my money, you can’t go past Fantasy magazine if you’re looking for fiction with an RoF-like feel)
  • Scientists discover that fiction can drive social evolution – which seems a little like overcomplicated the obvious, to me, but there you go.

Today

I’ve done a short guest-post over at Lee Battersby’s blog to kick off a short retrospective about Clarion South 2007. I talk a little bit about what makes clarion great and a lot about the influence one of my classmates had on the first draft of what would eventually become Horn (formerly known around these parts as the untitled Unicorn novella). Go check it out, if you’re so inclined.

The rest of the day was pretty busy, by my standards. A trip to the Gold Coast to discuss a subject I start co-teaching in a couple of weeks, a brief fight with the university library about fines for books I’ve already paid fines on, and a trip out to the movies to see The Wrestler. The latter really deserves a post all on its own, since it’s a solid and enjoyable movie (and I say that rarely), but suffice to say that I’d recommend it. Micky Rourke is as good as you’ve heard, the film itself is very engaging, and it’s probably the first film about wrestling ever that didn’t make me furious by condescending to either the sport/performance or the fans.

My inner reader is sad.

A few weeks ago we lost The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, a book with a twenty-year history and a mainstay of my to-read list every year. Today I discovered that Realms of Fantasy is closing its doors after a fifteen-year run. It’s looking like a dark time to be a writer of short fantasy fiction,  but I think the reader in me is far more bothered by the loss of these publications.

Not a meme-post.

With the Aurealis Awards announced and the big surreal weekend of Brisbane being full o’ writers over, the AA judges have released their reports over on the Aurealis Awards website.  Among the notes for the Fantasy Short Story I spotted the following:

Review of Honourable Mentions
Peter M. Ball, ‘The Last Great House Of Isla Tortuga’
‘The Last Great House Of Isla Tortuga’ is a thoroughly engaging story with crisp and enjoyable prose and vividly three dimensional characters. The reader becomes completely lost in the world described by the author.

Which is pretty cool, all up, ’cause I didn’t even know that the AA’s had honorable mentions.

More Interview Meme

Another five questions answered (see Yesterday’s post for the meme rules). Today’s interview comes courtesy of Lee Battersby.

1. 20 000 word unicorn novella, hey? What’s the follow up?

If everything goes to plan, a 20,000 word noir story about a PI and her magical-talking cat partner. I’m thinking there may well be more after that, depending on the kind of fantasy tropes I come accross and want to corrupt, but I figure the magic talking cat genre is the next one I want to pit the gritty realities of noir against.

2. Where is this writing journey taking you, ultimately?

I wish I knew. I’ve never really planned my writing career, just followed the chain of opportunities and challenges as they came along. For a long time that meant writing poetry, then writing and publishing RPG material, and now it’s the short story. Given that I finally seem to be getting a grip on the novella, which was the challenge I set myself back in 2007, the next step is to start figuring out how to write a good novel. After that, who’s to say? A large part of getting where I’ve gotten, even at this point, has been the result of some lucky breaks, dogged determination, and a willingness to make do with marginal employment in order to leave time to write. While I can’t see a day where I’m unhappy to continue that trade-off, it’s possible that one of these days I’ll be seduced away by the relative security of lecturing full-time or working another job to make ends meet.

3. Exactly what difference will being Dr Ball make to your day?

A few days ago Ben Francisco linked to the Aimee Bender authors@google reading on YouTube, and while talking about her process she mentioned the idea that every writer tends to walk around with “I haven’t written” stuck in their unconscious all day until they’ve sat down and written something. Certainly, I get that, and it’s usually joined by a big part of my unconscious that frets about the thesis. There’s a lot of tension between those two thoughts – not writing and not thesising – and the biggest change will probably be offloading one of them and being able to focus on the other.

There are smaller changes, obviously: get to tick a new box on the Mr/Mrs/Dr line when filling out forms; I get paid slightly more should I pick up casual teaching; I no longer have to tell potential employers that I study part-time. I’m not sure I can wrap my head around the larger implications beyond that – the horizon is far to full of impending deadline to look past it.

4. You teach writing, as well as write. What lessons do you give out that you never stick to, yourself?

The big ones are the most obvious – I don’t write every day (although I did when I started out, and I will when I feel myself slumping badly) and I frequently edit as I go instead of getting the whole first draft down. Really, though, I probably ignore at least two-thirds of the advice I give out in a class because I already know what works for me.

One of the reasons I’m interested in other people’s process comes from the awareness that my approach to writing is just that – my approach – and writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I tend to talk about my approach, and the approaches I see other people using, and the exercises I think are useful in figuring out what’ll work for you. When possible, I’ll even try and explain why I think an approach is useful, even if it doesn’t work for me (and, normally, I’ll try it out before recommending it).

There are only two piece of advice that I hand out in the belief that they’re vital and necessary – don’t hand in your assignments in a plastic sleeve, and the exclamation point is the work of the devil. I’m yet to see anything that convinces me that these two lessons are not sacred words to be inscribed on any writer’s heart.

5. Would you rather have sex with someone with a) no arms or b) no legs?

No legs, I think; I’m a tactile kind of guy, and I’m very fond of hugs.