In what time period does “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” take place? Are the superstitions and attitudes described typical of the time?
The time period is a kind of fugue—when I created this world (for the Sourdough and Other Stories collection) I had a mix of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Victorian era, all jammed together, bringing the ideas and superstitions of their own times into the one place. When I wrote “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” I was using the Sourdough world, but this story had a much more Victorian feel to it. As with all my writing, I’m a bower bird, picking over superstitions from a range of places and remaking them into something new.
What interests you about writing from the point of view of a disturbed, murderous protagonist? Is it important that such a protagonist have sympathetic aspects in order to engage the reader?
Hepsibah, the protagonist of this story, owes a lot to Shirley Jackson’s Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’m utterly fascinated by how Jackson got the reader in with sympathy for her narrator, and then deftly turns that on its head as the truth of Merricat’s personality and deeds start to seep through like dark ink through thin paper. I wanted to do something similar with Hepsibah, to have a sympathetic character that you gradually realized was quite dangerous—but for whom you still had a skerrick of sympathy.
Your bibliography is impressive—you’ve garnered awards and critical acclaim while also being quite prolific. What’s your secret?
A lot of hard work and determination, and very thick skin! I sometimes get referred to as a “newcomer,” but I’ve been writing and publishing since 2006! Awards are nice, but they’re just jam—no one should write in order to win awards, and if you expect to win awards and are disappointed when you don’t . . . well, you’re a bit of an idiot. You can’t control the competition, you can’t control the judges, you can’t control individual tastes—so while winning is nice, it should always be a surprise and not an expectation.
I’ve always maintained a submission schedule and I’ve always kept writing and researching appropriate markets. I’ve been lucky enough to get some stories published in very visible markets, and I’ve also been lucky enough to make contact and network with some great editors and other writers, which has helped a lot. Basically, I’ve tried to balance being an “artist” with being a “business,” and hopefully managing to be a professional somewhere along the way!
As a genre writer who has both a Masters and PhD in Creative Writing, do you have any thoughts on the literary versus genre divide? Did you write horror and dark fantasy while completing those degrees and, if so, how was this received?
I have a lot of things to say about the Great Genre Divide and the “ghettoization” of speculative fiction! Unfortunately a lot of the words I use for that are fairly profane. You talk to a lot of Literary writers and you can see their eyes glaze over at the mention of genre fiction, then when they focus again there’s the gleam of contempt as if you can’t possibly be a real writer because you might actually sell books! I once had a lecturer say, “So your work contains traces of the supernatural,” in the same tone as someone with a peanut allergy would say, “So, this meal contains traces of nuts?”
For my MA, I wrote ‘reloaded’ fairy tales and examined the idea of a reversal of agency in the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue—which was acceptable as the examination of fairy tales and feminism is an accepted field of study in academia. With the PhD, I wrote the Sourdough collection (which was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award), and the exegesis looked at ideas of fairy tales, involuntary memory, and mosaic novels. So again, enough academic stuff to get it through with minimal eyebrow lifting.
The main thing for me is: is the story good? Is it well-told and well-written? Is the reveal well-balanced, are the characters and the world believable? Is the storytelling seamless and does the writer keep the reader’s interest? Those are the only things that count, whether the genre in question is a navel-gazing examination of someone’s marriage breakdown/sexuality/life-changing experience OR a quest to find a magical artifact that will save the world from evil/darkness/destruction. Whether it is Literary or Genre should not matter.
Do you gain more satisfaction from writing or teaching?
I think there’re different kinds of satisfaction to be gained from each activity. I mostly teach short workshops or critiquing clinics, and there’s a great joy when you can see people just getting what you’re talking about—they’ve been stuck on things for a while and finally made the decision to take a class and you can see that moment when they’ve learned something and made a break-through.
But I love writing the most—it’s what I do. Being able to create worlds and characters, and have other people enjoy them and find them memorable, that is the best feeling.
Tell us about your current projects.
At the moment I’m three-quarters through editing an urban fantasy novel, Hallowmass, (the first of a trilogy, followed by Vigil and Corpselight), and I’m also halfway through writing a new collection, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, which is a prequel to the Sourdough collection. Along with some festival appearances, that is pretty much my year for 2013!
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