Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview: Danel Olson

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Danel Olson is the editor of the Exotic Gothic anthology series.

Hi Danel! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What is your definition of Gothic?

As Light may be both a particle and wave, the Gothic seems both a literary phenomenon from around 1764-1818 (from The Castle of Otranto to Frankenstein), as well as a recurrent impulse that surfaces at any time in both literature and genre writing. The Gothic—as either a past, sensationally popular movement or as an ever adaptive verbal virus—is all about extremes, disease, sex, violence, imprisonments, following darkest wishes, and our love of the perverse. The Gothic intrudes on our houses, and inhabits our ghosts, memories, lovers present and gone, missing or dead parents, villains and waifs imagined, bodies, and our very identities. I discovered recently while preparing for a World Fantasy panel that four popular Gothic novels each ended repeatedly with the word Despair. So, losing both one’s breath and one’s hope is the classic symptom of a Gothic curse.

Are there any other genres/themes/topics you'd like to work on in the future aside from Gothic fiction?

So many great genres, so little time, Charles! I would like to do a collection or two of newly written Survivor Horror tales, with an emphasis on true adventure and high adrenalin, set in the most forbidding corners of our planet. With the success of TV programs like Lost, I know it would prove popular.

I would also like to compile a new anthology with contributors from around the world that celebrates the sinister designs of Japan. It would be a tribute volume called 36 Monsters, named for a volume from and with thanks to a Japanese artist of the floating world whose monsters haunt me, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). The Exotic Gothic series has had great fortune with stories set in Japan—some of Lucy Taylor’s extraordinary new work and Steve Duffy’s shocking tales, along with the journalist Edward Crandall’s remarkable stories. Though not born in Japan, all of these writers are highly sensitive to Japanese folklore. More than ever, North America has a fascination with the land of the rising sun, especially younger Americans who came under the spell of Japanese computer games and Manga, so again I think this a concept that would sell with YA and adult readers. This book would show one of Yoshitoshi’s otherworldly depictions of a monster (often a ghost of our own victims) in the page before each new story of horror/terror set in modern or medieval Japan.

Have you ever considered trying your hand at writing Gothic fiction?

I love to visit old European and Middle Eastern libraries, especially those that hold religious documents. (In college, I double majored in literature and in world religions, and the power of a story to become fully-held faith still holds me in awe.) There is a novel I am writing. I guess you’d call it Dan-Brown-for-grown-ups.

The book, which won’t be long, concerns a hugely successful prophet who also was a magician. You would have heard of him. His miracles were successful, but actually they were well-executed tricks. With his formulas or special steps, anyone could do them. His grimoire, or a later copy of it, resides in the Vatican. Too dangerous to show, too useful to destroy. Have I given away too much?

Let's talk about your Exotic Gothic series. How did the anthology come about? Did you have to pitch it to Ash-Tree Press?

Penguin decided to discontinue four fine anthologies of supernatural and horror fiction that I assigned for my college course on Gothic fiction. Getting permissions from all the heirs/presses/authors to use their stories from the Penguin anthologies would create a book that would cost students $99. As I needed a subject for my sabbatical, I proposed compiling a book of the best weird, supranormal, bizarre, and terrifying stories myself. Ignorance and confidence were by my side all the way, and I went ahead. I actually asked 74 small presses, and 5 large ones. Anthologies are hard sells, sadly, and I was very proud that one of the presses I respected the most, The Ash-Tree Press, had interest. There were also some presses that were eager, but I had my doubts about them. One did handsome work, was very encouraging, but one thing was a tad off. This British press had a select clientele that preferred stories with a bit of spanking; that is, every story would have to have someone’s bum get chapped. I respectfully declined. Was I wrong, Charles? I don’t think so: can you imagine having to slip this detail into all the letters and story comments to the writers: “Something’s missing here … add a bit of hanky-panky-spanky in the next draft, would you?”

What were some of the challenges editing such an anthology?

I hate having to say no to a writer. I dislike when there are disagreements with the press team over whether a story should go in—artistic differences. To those writers who have poured themselves and untold hours into that story or novella, we have to give respect and a little faith. Also, sometimes a story is so experimental, we’re simply not ready. But I believe we should take jumps. We should get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Otherwise, we are just giving readers what they have always had.

What, in your opinion, are the qualities that make a good editor?

To trust the writer’s ability to channel characters, structure conflict, & deliver suspense, but to also tell them honestly what doesn’t work. Often the introductions and conclusions can use a second opinion. But be specific. Key to avoid are useless generalities. If something could be better, take the author to that exact line or word. Suggest some alternatives through Word’s track changes application. I am always impressed that great writers can be so open to helpful criticism. This is stunning considering a couple creators in the EG books have been nominated before for Nobel Prizes in Literature.

There's a lot of international authors in each book. How did you go about finding these authors and soliciting fiction from them?

A few authors are seemingly impossible to find, off somewhere sharing a cave & candles with Osama bin-Laden. But most are not. They have websites or a Facebook presence. They can be found.

I read a lot of “little” magazines to discover the emerging voices in the first place. The All Hallows journal from the Ash-Tree Press has certainly been a gold mine of good writing. I also enjoy e-sites of fiction (some of which also have a paper form). One of the best was launched by Francis Ford Coppola-- Zoetrope: All-Story @ http://www.all-story.com/issues.cgi. I visit there all the time, and assign it to students.

To love literature and genre-writing, and that magic space where they overlap, is to enjoy world fiction. Latin America had a boom from the 1960s on: we became conscious of the strange power of their stories, and of where the rationalism of the West encountered the spirituality of their Pre-Columbian beliefs. Now our awareness is being raised by writers in Asia (see Dean Francis Alfar and Tunku Halim) and Australia (especially the work of Deborah Biancotti, Stephen Dedman, Kaaron Warren, Robert Hood, Isobelle Carmody, and Terry Dowling).

How did you and Ash-Tree Press promote the book?

There have been promotions at the festivals/conventions in the field. At the WFC in Calgary were sported splashy t-shirts with the covers of EG1 on the front, and EG2 on the back. Also there have been book launches at my college for the volumes, and at another Texas college. Many more people learned of EG2 when it was named a Shirley Jackson Awards finalist.

What's in store for the future of Exotic Gothic?

Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations is the farewell tour. (I think.)

This last shadowy book in the trilogy from this celebrated specialty press may now be ordered at http://www.ash-tree.bc.ca/atp143exoticgothic3.htm. Some copies may also be found at Ash-Tree Press's booth this year at the 20th annual World Horror Convention in Brighton, England.

But there is another Gothic development. Forthcoming in early 2011 from Scarecrow Press is one of the largest studies ever of its kind: 21st Century Gothic: New Essays on Great Gothic Novels Since 2000. Featuring all-original articles from notable artists, critics, academics, publishers, editors, and psychologists on over fifty contemporary and irresistible dark novels and novellas, the two-volumes I've compiled and edited will form a helpful and illuminating reference guide of 300,000 words for the Gothically curious and perplexed. (Actually, this study happens to include an engrossing entry by yourself, Charles, on Jeffrey Ford's mysterious The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque.) The insights within the essays astonish, and knowing how little of substance or length has yet appeared about any of these new fictions, the value of the criticism seems immense.

Please consider pre-ordering 21st Century Gothic for your local library, college, or university through Scarecrow Press (calling 1-800-462-6420 or clicking www.scarecrowpress.com) .

How have your travels informed (or not informed) your views on literature? How about being an English professor?

To travel is to encounter what baffles and what awes: what better preparation for appreciating and compiling literature of dark psychology & the strange?

In your opinion, how is Gothic fiction evolving or where is it headed?

I imagine the protective, abstinent & shiny Vampire and the funny & parodic Zombie Gothic strains are bubbles about to burst, thank Heaven or Hell. Much money’s been made from them in the last five years, but it’s time for horrible threat and rich storytelling again. How much more of brooding Edward Cullen and inarticulate Bella Swan can we take?

Now as Stephen King and so many other practitioners have noted, scary fiction is very sensitive to cultural and contemporary history (just as the original Gothic bad-boys were inspired by the most powerful and corrupt people of the 18th century, or the aristocracy and the clergy in France, strangling the middle class, becoming a law unto themselves, and paying for it during the revolution with their lives). I predict we will have Gothic fiction that in setting, theme, or conflict meditates more upon terrorism, collisions of culture and faith (the explosive rage within religious fundamentalism at elites and Western values), war, artificial intelligence and those robots who programmers say take us to “the Uncanny Valley”, violence against women and sexual slavery, climate disaster, and the mad calf-scramble for our remaining resources. All of these realities and problems that people now care about can’t help but mirror themselves in our fiction, escapist though it is called. Those in the grim stories and fantastic novels of tomorrow who have some power over these threats and crises, along with facts to hide, will be the new Gothic dark heroes. In the fiction to come we may see that secrets and dangers are hidden in new places: A business tower can be a kind of modern castle, the Pentagon a fortress, a gleaming white university lab a workshop of filthy creation, and our plazas and malls the sites of battle.

In practical terms what does this mean? Well, it means the creation of Gothic fiends and enemies you can’t kill with bullets & bombs alone, and that you can’t reason with either. These are the Taliban fighters of our darkest imaginations: ideological foes who are also zombies, werewolves, vampires, shapechangers.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Consider the small presses if you want the boutique treatment for your work and to get to those readers who are devoted to the grace and depth of your words, though this would also probably mean less money.

If you want money from this, consider how to pitch your novel as the beginning of a series. But then ask yourself if you want to do that to your art.

Be open to criticism, but don’t change the underlying vision.

Make an absolute deadline of, say, one more year, to get the !*@*n thing done—and keep it.

Advice for aspiring editors?

There’s a beautiful sense that you are getting stories out from writers that may otherwise have lain dormant for years, out to those readers who will change from reading them. Your journey to these writers’ doors, and the discovery of their prose, so naked and unseen by the world in the form it arrives to you, is the reward. Compiling these three books is the peak of my career with words.

Now, frankly there really is no money in this for the average editor.

Considering all the hours spent and expertise given, there is probably surprisingly too little cash in it for even the most famous editors, from reading what Ellen Datlow has said at her site, and she’s the most celebrated, dependably select, and awarded editor in our field—an astonishing mind. But I did it for love, to try in a humble way to pay my dues, to pay back all of those who helped make books I shuddered at when I was a little younger.

Thanks very much, Charles, for a moment to talk about what I love.


deborahb said...

*woohoo* & thanks for interviewing the charming & erudite Danel Olson!

Anonymous said...

Charming, witty, and thought-provoking interview. We have much to learn from Danel Olson.