Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Interview: Elizabeth Hand

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Elizabeth Hand is the author of novels like Generation Loss, Winterlong, Waking the Moon, Glimmering, and Mortal Love, and three collections of stories, including Saffron and Brimstone.

Her fiction has received the
Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopeoic, Tiptree, International Horror Guild Awards, and Shirley Jackson Awards.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I love your writing. How did you develop your own style?

It was mostly hit-and-miss — my style has changed over the years from the flaming purple prose of Winterlong to the more stripped-down style of Generation Loss, but I learned by doing, and by making a lot of mistakes along the way. In recent years I’ve consciously honed the excessive prose — I still indulge in it, but now I tend to ration it, deploying lyrical descriptions/setpieces more sparingly, when they really serve the story, rather than having an entire novel be a prolonged exercise in over-the-top writing. To use a cinematic analogy, that particular style always feels like special effects — stuff blowing up, CGI metamorphoses, etc. — and these days I don’t rely on special effects as much as I used to. I’ve learned to let character drive the story.

You've had two decades worth of writing experience. In what ways, in your opinion, has your writing improved?

Yeah, for the reasons mentioned above. I never studied creative writing in college or in a workshop program, except for two workshops I took with Richard Grant at the Writers Center in the DC area during the mid-1980s. By that time, my style was fairly well-developed, for good or ill — the first story I workshopped there was also my first published story, “Prince of Flowers,” and the other stories from that era were published then as well. I also was part of an informal writers’ group known as The Vicious Circle, with Steve Brown, Ted White, Dave Bischoff, a few other guys (I was the only woman), and they read Winterlong as a work-in-progress and encouraged me in writing that. I was almost 30 at the time, so I was a late bloomer. Up until then I learned by trial and error — I had a boyfriend who was a good editor — and there were a lot of errors. I really had no idea what I was doing. One evening when the Vicious Circle was reading Winterlong, Ted White narrowed his eyes, stared at me and said in a steely, outraged voice, “You’re just MAKING THIS UP as you go along, aren’t you?” Which was absolutely true. It was strictly seat-of-the pants writing. I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits over the years, but fortunately I had good early readers and good editors.

For you, what's the biggest challenge when it comes to the craft of writing? Is it finding the time to do so and pay the bills? Is it digging up ghosts and buried emotions?

Probably all of the above. I have more time than many people, as I don’t have a job, but that means I have to do all kinds of things to make ends meet. So I end up putting aside one writing project for another, if there’s a chance of making some quick money. I have two kids, one now in high school and the other in college, so family life intersects with the writing life as well.

And it can be emotionally draining, some works more so than others. I tend to work best at the novella form, where I can sustain a certain level of emotional intensity over several weeks. Some of my best work is produced that way — “The Least Trumps,” “Illyria,” “Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol,” to name a few. But by the end of the story I’m pretty wrung out. Nick Gevers described my work as being “emotionally fraught,” and to an extent that’s true. But you can’t write, or read, at that level of intensity over a long period of theme — at least I can’t. Generation Loss maintained a very dark narrative voice at novel length, and that nearly undid me. It was a very difficult, often unpleasant book to write. Same with Winterlong — it was like playing Lady MacBeth night after night after night.

How has rape affected you and your fiction?

Well, those are two very different questions. In my life, it opened a kind of emotional abyss — for thirty years I’ve had various kinds of post-trauma episodes, from clinical depression to violent parasomnias to night terrors to chronic anxiety. My assailant attacked me then dumped me in a burned-out part of DC near the riot corridor; I hid and after a few minutes he returned, looking for me, and I suspect would have killed me if he’d found me. Sometimes I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night, convinced there’s an intruder in the room who’s trying to kill me. I once put my fist through a window trying to escape, and another time leaped across the bedroom and pulled a wooden curtain rod from the wall to defend myself with. All this with eyes wide open, thinking I was experiencing something real. And for many years I walked around with a frightening amount of rage. I was like Cass Neary — a powder keg of rage.

I’ve channeled some of that terror into my work in general; in particular, I’ve used it in “Cleopatra Brimstone” and Generation Loss. So from that perspective it affected my work. There’s no way it couldn’t have, because it changed me. But it happened before I was a published writer, so there wasn’t some kind of Before and After in the way I wrote — almost everything was After.

Several of your fiction are influenced by events in your life. What's the power of prose in which the authors draw from experience?

If it works, you have an immediacy which I think can be very powerful. But there’s a danger of being solipsistic, too self-referential and too limited in your worldview or point of view. I try to be on guard against stuff like this, but that’s no guarantee of success. I do try to mix it up in terms of narrative voice — my first-person narrators tend to sound like versions of myself (to me, anyway), so I make an effort to alternate between first-person works and third-person narratives. Of course certain stories insist upon being told in one voice or another, and often I end up having to rewrite something because I realize the voice isn’t the correct one for that particular tale.

But it was an important discovery for me, to learn that I could write effectively in the first-person. I did it from early on in my career in stories like “The Boy in the Tree” and “On the Town Route,” but it was only after Waking the Moon that I realized this could be a fairly powerful tool in my kit.

You've written both novels and short stories. Is it difficult for you continually switching back and forth or is it a seamless experience by now? Did a short story ever turn into a novel and vice versa or do you always know beforehand which it's going to be?

The form I’m most comfortable with is actually in between those two — the novella, and sometimes the novelette. “The Boy in the Tree” grew into Winterlong, but I’ve never had the reverse happen. Usually — almost always — I start work on a short story, and it grows into a novella. Sometimes the novellas turn into short novels, as with “Illyria” and “Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol.” It’s kind of a problem, because I think my best work is in the novella form, and that’s the most difficult format to publish — too long for most traditional print magazine formats, too short for book publisher.

But Viking is bringing out Illyria as a stand-alone novel next year, which is fabulous — that’s probably my favorite of everything of everything I’ve ever written, and it was a story I’d been trying to tell since I was 17. So that’s the happiest ending I can imagine for that particular work. I have a novelette ("The Far Shore”) in the current, 60th anniversary issue of FSF Magazine, and a novella called “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” that will be out in Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio’s Stories anthology next year. I love writing at that length. It’s long enough to develop and fall in love with your characters, but it’s not the sort of marathon writing experience that a novel is.

What were the challenges in writing the Winterlong series? Would you attempt another lengthy series in the future?

Those books were really planned as a series. I got locked into an option contract with my publisher, who wanted to see more of the same, but by the time I started the third book I was totally burned out on the idea. It shows, too. I don’t think I’d ever do something like that again, but who knows?

For you, is there a big division between genre and non-genre, or speculative and non-speculative fiction?

I don’t think about it much. I write Elizabeth Hand stories: sometimes they’re fantastic, sometimes mainstream, sometimes science fiction. I think there’s less reliance on generic categories than there used to be. About time.

In your Bookslut interview, you talk about transcendence. Could you elaborate more on your search for transcendence, especially when it comes to fiction?

I’m interested in how the marvelous intrudes upon the everyday, and how individuals react to that. Moments of transcendence are fleeting: what happens the day after? How is someone changed by that experience? A lot of fantasy novels detail only the experience of the marvelous — poof! you’re in Narnia! — and not how someone adjust to the workaday world afterward. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians takes that process a step further in a really intriguing way. M. John Harrison’s work explores it as well.

Art is one of the ways we experience transcendence, along with spiritual practices, sex, various forms of intoxication, etc. I’m not a religious believer, and over the last 24 years I’ve written about sex and drugs ad nauseum. But art and artists continue to fascinate me, so that’s where I go where I look for transcendence.

I loved your novel Generation Loss. There, your main character was heavily involved with the punk scene. How has the punk scene--or even the art scene in general--influenced you?

I always wanted to write, but I also loved the visual arts and theater when I was young. If I’d had talent at either of those, I might have become an actor or artist. And I always loved rock and roll, so it was easy to become part of the (small) crowd during the 1970s when the whole punk scene was starting in NYC and DC. I had and have friends who are or were performers, and I loved watching them onstage and off. Nowadays I mostly keep up with stuff when I’m in NYC or London, though I read about it constantly. I’m certainly not involved in the current art scene, except as an observer. But it continues to fascinate me, and there are several contemporary artists whose lives, and deaths, would be rich inspirations for fiction. Dash Snow, Jeremy Blake, Theresa Duncan, Matthew Barney. What makes those guys tick?

What are the challenges that come with writing as your main source of income? How does one live solely by their writing and not take up an unrelated "day job"?

One lives as frugally as one can, and with a constant level of anxiety. I never say No to anything, except that these days I don’t want to do any more media tie-in work. I’m more conscious now of having a finite number of years in which to write, and I don’t want to squander them on work-for-hire.

How did you get involved writing comics? What was the experience like?

My old friend Rob Simpson was an editor at DC Comcis at the time. We’d known each other back since my first story was published at Twilight Zone Magazine in 1987, and Rob then went to work at Bantam when my first novels were published, and then was at DC. He asked if I’d like to create a new series for them. I said I’d love to, if I could work with my best friend, Paul Witcover. Anima was the result, a great experience. We still talk about doing something together again...

Because I get a different answer depending on who I ask, how did you get involved with The Inferior 4+1? What's your unique contribution to the blog?

I’d been thinking about doing a blog (under duress), but didn’t want the commitment of time and energy (I still don’t). I mentioned it to Paul DiFillipo when he and his partner Deb were visiting, and one of us — it might have been Deb — said why not do a group blog, like Boing Boing? So we asked Paul Witcover and Lucius Shepard if they’d like to do it, too. They said yes, and the Inferior 4 was born.

I think my own contribution is to do as little work as possible and still get to be one of the cartoon characters on our masthead.

How did you get your start writing book reviews? What do you look for in your own book reviews? In other people's book reviews?

I met Mike Dirda and David Streitfeld at Disclave in 1988, when both were at the Washington Post Book World. Mike asked if I’d like to review for them, and I was THRILLED. My first review was of a Joan Aiken children’s book. I’d done some reviews for the great, late SF EYE, and I was dying to be a book reviewer. I was reading the Times book review when I was 12 years old, so it really was (and is) a dream come true.

When it comes to reviewing, I’ve always tried to follow Fred Exley’s advice (from his A Fan’s Notes): be fair and funny and kind.

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give yourself?

I'd say, do a better job of keeping a journal or notebook. I have dozens of notebooks I've acquired over the years. Most of them are empty, some are half-full, many have a few pages filled in. I've never been good at keeping a journal, and I wish now I had, both as an aide de memoire and as a source of material for my writing.

How has the industry changed compared to when you first broke into the industry?

If all you want is to get published or have your work read, somewhere, it's easier now -- there's a multitude of small presses, webzines, blogs, you name it. But it's even more difficult to make a living, even the sort of marginal living that most midlist writers have made for the last fifty or sixty years.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Be disciplined, try to write every day if you can. Don't quit your day job. Read.

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