Mayflies are fascinating and have long inspired stories in various genres, but “Kiss of the Mouthless Girl” uses the motif in a unique, evocative way. Can you tell us what sparked this tale and how it developed?
The mayflies belonged to an old project of mine that unfortunately never saw light, though I researched extensively on the topic at the time. When I was rewriting the nightmare this story comes from—more on that later—somehow my subconscious conjured the whole mayfly scenario. As I rewrote the story, the sexual habits of the mayflies became intertwined with the main theme and the female protagonist. As for the role they have in the ending (no spoilers), I have to thank my Clarion tutor Victor LaValle. As we were discussing the story after the workshop, he insisted—in his kind, yet determined way—that the end somehow felt flat. Then, while we were still discussing possible endings, the final scene dropped in my mind of its own accord, mayflies and all. (Victor smiled and said, “Yes! That’s it!”)
Story ideas often come to me as scenes that play out like a movie, and I have to convey those images through words on the page. And well-written, visual stories like “Kiss of the Mouthless Girl” also have a cinematic quality to them. You happen to be a screenwriter as well as an author. What is your writing process like? Do you approach writing a short story differently from writing a screenplay? Does one inform the other?
Well, this story is an almost literal transcription from a nightmare I had while I was at Clarion, in San Diego. I was coping with a recent breakup, and probably that’s where the whole nightmarish female figure stems from. I find the habit of writing down dreams fascinating, as it forces me to create a narrative where there isn’t one. That’s where my screenwriting training probably kicked in, creating narrative threads and linking the different scenes.
I’m not aware of any “cinematic quality” of my writing, but I’ve been told this before, so it must be true. What I do is simply try to see the scene in the most minute detail. It is especially important for me that the characters move in space in a believable way, and that need might come from my years of studying film. Scripts are different because they must have a very strong structure first, and everything else second. (I always picture good film stories as tales you can tell at a bar and hold your drinking buddy’s attention.) Short stories are different in that they can structure themselves out of a mood, a character, or a situation. Scripts may start from the same, but even before writing the first line of dialogue, you must know where the story is going. Or at least, this is the way I’ve worked with scripts so far.
I find stories (and films) in translation often feel fundamentally different from American fiction—the way they’re structured, the word choices, the nuances of different cultures and customs, the expectations on the reader. The resulting aesthetic seems particularly suited to speculative fiction, which often places readers in unfamiliar territory. You’re an international author who has lived in the Netherlands, the UK, and now Italy. Although you write your stories in English, is there a translation going on in this process? Do you see a difference in, say, Italian fantasy, and does it influence your own work?
I have a friend, Anne Woodall, who helps me with the results of my interlinguistic scribbling, though I do write directly in English. Indeed, it would be nice to think that no, there is no “translation” going on, not even at an unconscious level, but that would be delusional. I’m reading Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter, a book about how language structures not just how we think about the world, but also how we imagine it. There is no possible way we can overstate the importance of language in creating what we call “the mind.” What language does is create an almost infinite palette of analogies, one we are not even remotely conscious of. So, even if I’m consciously creating my own English analogies, underneath there are other Italian analogies. Sometimes the latter create and interfere with the former, a result that is usually both funny and depressing, sometimes even interesting!
“Italian fantasy” is an oxymoron, at least nowadays. It is interesting to notice though that the best Italian authors who dealt with the fantastique are also the ones who used language most sparingly. I’m thinking of Dino Buzzati and Italo Calvino most of all, and a few others. Another European writer, Michael Ende, the author of the Neverending Story, wrote that Italian is a language unsurpassable in expressing the sensual, but somehow more clumsy in expressing high-concept ideas. I agree. Compared with the English writer, the Italian writer has to fight the urge to whet his or her pen in the sensory details that make up his or her world. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both Buzzati and Calvino were very strong in German and English literature. To write fantasy in Italian is, to some extent, to resist the language itself.
What are you watching or reading these days? Any recommendations for our readers, particularly for foreign films and stories American audiences should seek out?
Beside Surfaces and Essences, I’m rereading The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan. There is no way I can express what a deep, intense, crazy trip that book is.
The novel is simply a basket of miracles: It creates a reality where the menace of the fantastic is felt in every page, and yet is never where you expected it to be. The story should hold all clichés, in theory, as it’s about a group of teenagers growing up in a “magic school.” And yet the teenagers are all disabled, and unabashedly so, and the “magic” doesn’t come from the adults but from them, and it’s never, ever obvious, not in one page out of 800. In short, though the book is about teenagers, it is not a YA. Okay, I can rave about it for days . . . just go, find it and read it! (I hear Amazon will publish it in April 2017, so there is no excuse.)
What other work of yours do you have out now or forthcoming?
I think 2017 will see my first “sort of” science fiction story appear in Lightspeed, though no official date has been released yet.
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