Angela Slatter has been producing award-winning short fiction for ten years, ever since she graduated with an MA and PhD in Creative Writing. Slatter, who counts Angela Carter as a major influence, writes stories that often play on traditional fairy tales, and are set in a timeless past. Her work often centers on female protagonists and antagonists, and has been gathered into such acclaimed collections as Sourdough and Other Stories (2010) and Black-Winged Angels (2014). In 2015, Tor published her novella Of Sorrows and Such, and in July 2016 Jo Fletcher Books will publish her first novel, Vigil. Slatter, who blogs frequently about writing, lives in Brisbane, Australia.
Did you have a favorite fairy tale as a child?
I loved Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, because caves filled with treasure and genies and three wishes.
I loved Catskin/Bearskin/All Fur.
And I really loved Tatterhood because there was a bold, unconventional girl as the hero (but I love what Mike Mignola did with it even more in The Troll Witch).
As for modern versions, Carter’s The Company of Wolves and Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch.
Was there a fairy tale that especially frightened you?
“The Little Match Girl” because, even though there are no monsters in it, the injustice just used to freak me out! She’d done nothing wrong and yet was left to die in the snow—how the hell was that fair? There’s no happily-ever-after there! So as a child I had a terrible fear of losing my family and home, and an intense hatred of injustice. No deep psychological scars there, no siree.
Over the last few years, hip retellings of fairy tales—like the big-budget feature film Maleficent or the television series Once Upon a Time, or even the Broadway musical Wicked (based on Gregory Maguire’s book)—have become popular. Do these refresh the old stories for new generations . . . or dilute them?
On the one hand it’s great to see the old tales getting a new run (not that they ever died out or weren’t being told at bedtimes, etc.), but a lot do feel glamourised and Disneyfied . . . and diluted. A lot of them send rotten messages to young girls about the dangers of non-conforming (and saying that if you don’t conform then you deserve what you get because YOU WERE WARNED). I really enjoyed the premise of Once Upon a Time when it first came out but it’s been very quickly and quite literally Disneyfied, and feels a lot like a soap opera with fairy tale characters —The Bold, The Bold, But the Not Too Bold.
I’d prefer to watch Grimm, which has some grit and darkness left to it. In terms of reading re-worked fairy tales, give me Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch or the tales in Don’t Bet on The Prince . . . That’s my personal preference, to hark back to the original darkness of the stories when they were warnings and oral tales (“If you leave the path, you will be eaten by wolves, just saying.”)
Much of your work takes place in a time period that feels as if it should have existed although it never did. Do you ever worry about readers thinking, Wait—when is this again?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No, because I’m writing in a fantasy setting and as such it’s not bound to any particular time period. I’ve actually written about this over at Tor.com (bit.ly/1SK9MhR) in a post on my own peculiar version of worldbuilding, which is basically a chance to mash up all the things I love from history and my own imagination. Having the recognizable elements is important in tethering a reader in the world, but a time period isn’t essential to that—and the feeling of uncertainty that comes with almost recognizing the era but not quite is essential to the type of disturbing fantasy I write. It looks and feels like something you know, but it’s very different.
You’ve spoken before about the perceived divide between literature and speculative fiction. Certainly writers like Angela Carter have bridged that gap somewhat . . . is that also a goal for you?
Not especially. I write what I write and if people like it then that’s wonderful. My work’s been recognized across the genre divide, but it’s never been a goal. It strikes me as the kind of goal that will send you mad and is very, very difficult to achieve. It’s like wandering around begging “Like me, like me, oh, won’t you please like me!?” A bit too undignified for my tastes.
Do you get response from your academic peers when your work is published by a popular publisher like Tor?
Well, I’m not actually in an academic setting anymore, having fled it as soon as humanly possible after getting the PhD. There’s an Angela-shaped hole in a wall of the creative writing department somewhere in Brisbane.
Years ago at a conference I was talking about having published some of my stories that would form part of my MA, and a . . . let’s say douche in the audience very snootily asked if I didn’t feel I’d compromised the integrity of my art and study by publishing. My answer was that as one of the criteria for passing your MA was having produced publishable work, I thought I’d done precisely what I needed to in order to prove myself a writer. One of the problems with academic writing programs is that they aren’t necessarily producing writers who are prepared for publication or who are producing work that is likely to find a market. There’s a big different between an academic exercise to show how clever you are to markers and one that will catch the imagination of a publisher. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but I’ve marked a lot of that stuff and know how many undergrads (and even postgrads) don’t make it.
Nature is a big element of your work. Is nature an underutilized element in horror fiction?
I suspect it might be a bit overlooked in traditional horror fiction (for those who choose chainsaws over malicious woodland sprites). Nature is definitely something used in fantasy fiction to great effect, and often as a horror element, such as in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. You do run up against different definitions of horror and that can confuse things.
And there was a long line of horror films and books about nature gone nasty (or just natural), such as Jaws, Razorback, The Fly, Mansquito, Black Sheep, Cujo, Night of the Lepus (giant rabbits!!!) . . . I could go on but I probably shouldn’t.
I like to use it, especially in terms of herbs and magic and medicine, because I feel like we spend so much time working against nature, trying to bend it to our will instead of trying to be in tune with it. And I think that ultimately hurts everyone; it’s a battle no one’s going to win, so that’s pretty horrific to me.
How much research do you conduct for your work? What about, for example, a story like “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” which not only references a particular skill (coffin-making) and its tools, but also an odd bit of ghost folklore (that mirrors must be covered near a recently-deceased corpse)?
I guess I’m always researching, just not necessarily in a directed fashion. Sure, there’s some research done when I’m mid-story and need to know what kinds of tools are needed for coffins, and which herbs might be used to lay the dead, which metals and gems have particular properties, but I’m always reading stuff that just goes into the vault. For instance, I read Necropolis: London and Her Dead by Catherine Arnold a while ago just for fun, and the opening chapter talks about how people used to wear black at funerals so they all looked alike and the ghost of the deceased couldn’t pick out a particular person to haunt (apparently the dead aren’t very good with faces). I thought “What about a woman who wore red to her husband’s funeral on purpose in a world where this was real?” So, I’ve got a novella called The Briar Book of the Dead out of that bit of random reading.
I’ve read books about witchcraft and magic, historical witch trials, Montague Summers’ books on werewolves and vampires, Sabine Baring-Gould’s books on ghosts and werewolves, fairy tales and folk legends from around the world ever since I could read. It’s all been piled up in my messy brain, I pluck stuff out as I need it.
In “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” I didn’t do much research at all because all those ideas about ghosts and mirrors were already in my head from a lifetime of reading. The idea about the coffin-maker as a kind of magician who keeps the dead beneath was new, that was mine—undertakers are generally reviled as handlers of the dead, but I wondered what their lives might be like if they could hold something over the living who employed them: “Treat us with some respect, pay us well, or you might find dear old Uncle Horace in your dressing table mirror for all eternity, watching as you change your undies!”
Your work often features women together (and women opposed as well). Would you consider your work feminist in nature?
Magic usually enters your stories in an off-handed, casual fashion. Do you use this technique to cue a reader into the fact that they’re entering a world where magic is commonplace?
Oftentimes yes. As I said before, the start of a story is to make the reader comfortable, make them think they recognize the world. Then adding those little elements of magical strangeness throws them off (“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!”). And I think we read for that sensation of being taken elsewhere, of being suddenly transported. I had a friend tell me that his book club had read The Bitterwood Bible and the only complaint was that one reader kept missing her tram stop because she was so engrossed, so embedded in the story world. I love that sensation—I remember getting it quite distinctly from China Miéville’s The Scar, and Cat Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales.
Of Sorrow and Such seems to cleverly refer to contemporary issues like abortion and even health care. How consciously do you seek to incorporate those sorts of socially relevant commentaries?
One answer is probably: not very. But the other part of that answer is that women’s issues haven’t really changed a whole lot across history . . . so when I write in a faux medieval-ish kind of world where a male-dominated church is in charge of everyone’s lives, women’s issues are likely to still be control of their own bodies and lives. Some things have changed for us, sure, but we’re still paid less for doing the same job, in some parts of the world a woman can’t travel without the permission of her father/husband/brother/son, a woman of colour is even worse off than a Caucasian woman, we can’t always get easy access to contraception or abortion even when we’ve been raped and abused . . . just saying.
Can you see yourself exploring fairy tale themes and styles into the future?
I think so. I think it’s a really rich cauldron to draw from, and one of the things I love about fairy and folk tales is that they’re adaptable, constantly morphing—so even as annoying as I might find Once Upon A Time, it’s another iteration of a really old, but still very renewable form. Fairy tales are the writer’s cauldron of plenty. Fairy tales were the first stories I heard; they’re always the voice of my mother and I love that.
You maintain an active blog, posting several times every week, often about the work of other writers. Is community important to you? I would imagine that the world of academia must be very different from the realm of horror authors.
Community is hugely important to me as writing in a vacuum is incredibly lonely and sterile. I think it’s really important for writers, especially new writers, to be able to find not just information about markets, but also writing groups and like-minded folk, places where they can get their work critiqued and can critique the work of others as that’s an equally important part of learning your craft. It’s important to learn that even the folk at the top of their game still struggle, still have stories that don’t work, still have White Whales of stories that they pursue relentlessly (sometimes stupidly). It’s important to know that no one’s journey is the same but that you can sometimes follow someone else’s steps to your dream; or some steps from one author, some from another.
Perhaps the most important things to learn are: you can’t please everyone, and you never know everything. So, grow a thick skin, and keep learning!
What can you tell us about the illustrated storybooks (with Kathleen Jennings) mentioned at your website?
At the moment Flight is in the hands of Tiny Owl Workshop, and we’re hoping to have copies available by about June (all going well). It’s an illustrated version of the story I wrote a few years ago for Paula Guran for Once Upon A Time: New Fairy Tales. I love it (though it was a very difficult birth!) and Kathleen and I were talking one day and the suggestion was made that perhaps we could do it as an illustrated book. I love working with Kathleen, her art always comes out looking as if she’s taken a peek inside my head.
It’s gorgeous. She’s done such beautiful work and Tiny Owl have done a wonderful job of bringing everything together. Now, we’re just waiting for the finished product.
In the meantime, we’re working on an illustrated version of another one of my stories, “Skin,” which is about selkies and temper tantrums. No publisher yet, but when we’ve got some art and layout together I’ll be approaching people.
What can you tell us about your novel Vigil (coming in July 2016 from Jo Fletcher Books)?
Vigil came from a short story “Brisneyland by Night.” Several people said “That would make a great novel”, so I eventually bit the bullet and made it into one. It’s a mix of noir and fantasy and horror in modern day Brisbane, where my heroine Verity Fassbinder tries to keep the Weyrd underbelly of the city and the Normal population from coming to blows. It’s made difficult when someone is making wine from the tears of children, someone else is murdering sirens, and another someone entirely is going after the members of the Council of Five who rule the Weyrd.
Is writing like committing an act of magic?
I hope so! It’s a creation of worlds different to the one we live in. It’s playing god. But, as with all magic, you need to get the ingredients and measures right or things can go horribly, horribly wrong.
Spread the word!