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An Interview with Gemma Files

Friday, Jun 03, 2011 at 8:16am

Gemma Files' outstanding debut, the Aztec myth tinged weird western A Book of Tongues has garnered her a Bram Stoker Award nomination for Superior Achievement in a first novel. A Rope of Thorns, Book 2 in Files' Hexslinger series will be on shelves soon. Gemma was kind enough to answer some questions in an email interview.

CG: I found A Book of Tongues to be a great read. What's the response been to your debut novel?

GF: Thank you, and surprisingly positive. I mean yeah, there's been the occasional bad review here and there, mainly people who think it's either pornographic or overly stylized to the point of unreadability (or both)--and while I'll willingly debate the first, there's probably at least a bit of truth in the second, so it all evens out. The best reactions thus far have definitely been from the sort of people I most wanted to reach, like Brit Mandelo's amazingly flattering Queering SFF column, or the fact that it ended up on the Over the Rainbow 2010 Reading List. I was also really pleased to get great reviews in both Fangoria and Rue Morgue, because that was pretty much my personal equivalent of a classic Playboy or Rolling Stone interview fantasy.

CG: Can you describe your writing process?

GF: Because I'm a stay-at-home Mom with a child with special needs (my son has Autism Spectrum Disorder), I have a certain amount of time each day to work, and I need to manage it very strictly. Do I always? If only. With that in mind, however--

I carry notebooks, and jot things down whenever I can (often dialogue, because that seems to come easiest to me). I then transcribe those notes into files, organize them, and start building tissue, grafting meat and skin onto bares bones. On a good day I can produce somewhere from 500 to 1,000 words. I try to follow Douglas Clegg's "puke draft" method and not edit until I'm actually done, but it's difficult to keep myself from tweaking a bit every time I open up a given file. However, something that helps is that I have a bunch of beta-readers I automatically send chapters to once they're finished--the slightly more private equivalent of posting a new piece of fanfiction. Knowing they're waiting for the next installment makes me turns things around (relatively) quickly, then move on to the next chunk.

On the whole, I find that having access to social media overall helps as well as hinders--I'm often forced to explain myself on a daily basis, I can Google whatever I need to whenever I need to Google it, and I can debate various plot and character threads with my friends throughout the process. It's also very useful that my husband, who's both a fellow writer (we shared a 2009 Shirley Jackson Best Novelette award nomination for our story "each thing I show you is a piece of my death") and an RPG geek, is far better than me at world-building mechanics; whenever I want to do something but can't figure out how, I run it past him.

Other than that, I guess it's all dreaming with your eyes open, really. It's haphazard and grinding sometimes, but it does seem to work.

CG: I loved the thread of Aztec myth woven though the novel. What attracted you to these stories?

GF: My initial impulse is to say: "Well, much like Yukio Mishima, my heart's long has always been for 'Night, and Blood, and Death', so it only makes sense I'd be attracted to a culture which saw the world as an entropic engine powered by constant, ecstatic human self-sacrifice"--but given what eventually happened to them, I don't want to be seen as enabling the ostensible "reason" the Spanish gave for wiping Mexica civilization off the map, ie that they obviously worshipped demons, were bad and should feel bad. And saying "Because they're so alien! It's amazing, frightening and gorgeous!", because that sounds like I'm fetishizing their difference in a gross colonialist way. Which I probably am anyhow, no matter what...

So let's put it another way, and say that when you're writing a story that presumes magic to be simply a fact, one of the cornerstones of the known universe--an alternate sort of physics, maybe, which runs on metaphor rather than natural forces like gravity--then the Aztecs/Mexica, like the Maya, appear to be a perfect encapsulation of magic's First Law, which is that you get back what you put in: Every magical act must be paid for in coin commensurate with the grade of power evoked. Or as Philip Ridley put it, in the screenplay for his film The Passion of Darkly Noon: "No faith without blood."

The Aztec idea that every sacrificial victim or ixiptla both becomes an avatar of and is translated back into the god they embody, simultaneously all-powerful/inhuman and powerless/human (like some sort of blood-drenched Schrodinger's cat), is therefore a direct mimicry of the Hexslinger 'verse idea that all hexes are both simple fragile meat-things and capable of unbelievable, impossible acts, "expressed" through puberty or bodily trauma, with precious blood always being the harbinger of their ascension. Like a lot of things I enjoy, they just fit together so perfectly, I couldn't help myself.

CG: With any work of historical fiction, research must be vital. What means did you use to bring life to your version of the West?

GF: Well, I did do research, though not as much as I maybe should have. An incomplete list of reference materials I stole from freely throughout would include: The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900, by Candy Moulton (Writer's Digest Books, 1999); Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno; The Lost History of Aztec and Maya, by Charles Phillips and Dr. David M. Jones (Select Editions, Anness Publishing, 2004); Children of the Night, by Tony Thorne (Indigo, Orion Books, 1999); The Barbary Coast, by Herbert Asbury (Basic Books, 2002); plus a whole host of various Google-searched Internet sources, including (King James edition), (yes, I know),,,,, and the Firefly cursing cheat-sheet page.

I was also inspired by T.A. Pratt's use of Aztec mythological tropes in Blood Engines, his first Marla Mason book, and Tess Gerritsen's wonderfully graphic description of ritual sacrifice in her book The Surgeon. Not to mention Alexander Irvine, whose A Scattering of Jades set the pattern, and Kenneth Mark Hoover, whose Haxan stories do Weird West ten thousand times better than I ever will.

But the most integral part of anything, as I've said, is dialogue and jargon--the rhythm of speech people employed, versus what they would and wouldn't have had words for, the limitations and differences of their vocabulary . And that came from slightly different sources.

CG: Whenever Chess Pargeter was on the page, I couldn't shake the image of Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Have cinematic Westerns had an influence on your writing?

GF: Gold star! Yeah, I've been pretty forthcoming with this: Because I was a film reviewer for nine years and taught film history for ten, my main jumping-off points often tend to be cinematically inspired, and I do mentally "cast" things while writing them. (Ash Rook's template, in case you're interested, quickly changed from Russell Crowe as Ben Wade to the younger version of Clancy Brown; Ed Morrow, OTOH, I see as basically Liev Schreiber with his Sabretooth sideburns, though without the total lack of moral centre.) I also started working on A Book of Tongues after having just spent the year after my son was first diagnosed being depressed and writing copious amounts of Yuma fanfiction, so there's that--but I'll fight anybody to the death over the idea that Chess is "just" Charlie with a dye-job. 'Cause you see, most things begin with their roots in something else (Shakespeare, etc.). The trick is to then spend the requisite amount of time screwing around with them until they get far enough away from the source that they begin growing their own personalities, and I truly do believe I've done that.

That being said, other Westerns which went into A Book of Tongues include things like Walter Hill's The Long Riders and some classic Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, High Plains Drifter), a few episodes of David Milch's Deadwood, J.T. Petty's The Burrowers, and the mythic landscapes of Jodorowsky's El Topo and John Hillcoat's The Proposition. Even my previous Great cinematic/fanfiction Love, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. I'm a pack-rat magpie, and once I see something, I seldom let it go. All grist for the Machine.

CG: As a straight-identified writer, were there any difficulties in writing gay male protagonists?

GF: Nope. Again, I've been fairly forthcoming (and will continue to be so) about the fact that I'm a slasher from way back, a straight-identified woman who's always been turned on by the idea of two guys together. And believe you me, if anyone had told me back when I was a twenty-year-old trying to explain this particular kink of mine to completely weirded out or uncomprehending peers that twenty years later there'd be so many women writing gay porn on the Internet it would become a bit of a mainstream trope/joke, I would've laughed right in their face.

The good part of that, however, is that whenever people say: "The way you dwell on Tab A vs. Slot B in Book, it's like you're deriving some sort of prurient enjoyment from it all!", I can just reply: "Well, duh", and leave it at that. The bad--or rather, more difficult--part is having to be constantly aware of the dicey difference between representation and representativeness. With Chess, the challenge was to try and create a totally bad-ass, openly queer character who would begin as an antihero at best but eventually drift into the protagonist position, while still keeping him a layered, contradictory, human character rather than a total wish-fulfilment fetish object, let alone yet another media object lesson in "those different from the default are BAD and SCARY". And I like to think I've done that, but there's always the possibility that I'll come off as appropriating someone else's cherished identity and exploiting it for my own enjoyment/profit. All I can do at that point is to own my inherent privilege issues, apologize in advance, and move on.

CG: Hexers can do almost anything, but their power comes with an equally great price. How did your system of magic come about?

GF: The problem with having magicians whose powers are only constrained by the limitations of their own imaginations is that if they could work together, they'd take over the world about five minutes later. So I had to come up with a reason they couldn't work together, and I think the reason I went with the whole "driven to parasite on each other's power vampirically" notion was because, frankly, I thought it was really erotic and cool. The idea of these demigods roaming the world like tigers, doomed to fight, fuck and pass each other by, was big-R Romantic to the nines. I also liked the idea of almost everybody having to come up with their own "system" by instinct, because Western culture has no tradition of magic being part of the natural world, and other magicians can't be trusted to teach you the basics. We see a different attitude on the part of characters like Songbird the Chinese sorceress and Grandma the Dine Hataalii, but in the main, it's every man/woman/whatever for themselves. Chaos and weirdness! I thrive on it.

Of course, doing things the "throw it all in the air see where stuff comes down! It's like poetry!" way can have its drawbacks; you'll do something at the last minute because it seems cool and organic, and then you'll spend a book or two having to learn to deal with the consequences. But at least it keeps things fresh--and as long as you keep in mind that old adage about how God says "take what you want, and PAY for it", you should be fine. That's the theory, anyhow.

CG: Does the Hexslinger series have an ending, or will you continue writing in the Weird West so long as you and readers are interested?

GF: The Hexslinger series does have an ending, as projected--A Tree of Bones. What I'll say is that by the time that ending rolls around, some elements are definitely left in a place where we could see more of certain characters, and that by the end, the world around them will have to change in order to incorporate certain events. Those changes will still be in place if and when I move on to a new Hexslinger-ish book (or potential series) set slightly later, in New York: My Gangs book, obviously. Though different in the same way that A Book of Tongues isn't Yuma, since it will be less about Daddy issues and more about the all-too-often overlooked charms of evil girls with feelings.

So what I'm not saying is "never", though what I am saying is that I need to write some other books in the interim--stand-alone books, "straight-up" horror books that I've had on the boil for a long time. Also, since I'm still working off the same outline I sold A Book of Tongues with, in a way I feel like I've been writing the same novel for three years in three different parts, which is cool, but can feel sort of wearing. I want to keep on loving this world and these people, so I'll need to have a bit of distance once I'm done.

CG: I've loved what I've read of ChiZine's titles. What benefits have you seen being published by a small press?

GF: Being involved in your own editing process and being involved in the packaging (especially when said packaging involves both being able to write your own back cover copy and incredible covers by the amazingly talented Mister Erik Mohr) are the two biggest benefits, from my POV. Interestingly, though, I've been published by at least one other small press, and was completely unimpressed by their handling of the exact same issues--so maybe it's a ChiZine thing. The care and commitment which go into every ChiZine project is really awe-inspiring; we're all professionals, but we really are in it for love, which I think can only turn out well.

CG: In addition to writing for ChiZine, you're also one of their slush pile readers. What are you looking for in a manuscript?

GF: Professional presentation gets you the first ten pages read. At that point, I need interesting characters doing interesting things, though efficient yet beautiful writing really helps, too. Hit the ground running and pull me along, so I forget to look up. All those things are key, I think, when approaching any reader.

That said, there's also a very particular tone that ChiZine likes to cultivate/is attracted to: Distinct yet difficult to quantify, a sort of Dark Literature/New Weird vibe. I am not always the best judge of said tone, which is where Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi come in--you may very well make it past me and then shipwreck with them, for reasons only they can explain. But if you keep the stuff I've said above in mind, your package will probably be good enough to approach anybody you want.

CG: Finally, can you give our readers a hint of what to expect before A Rope of Thorns hits the shelves?

GF: When last we left Chess Pargeter, he was a changed man on the outside, but not so changed within--a potentially explosive state of affairs, especially with the looming threat of yet another Aztec god on the scene (the well-named Enemy). Part of the journey he makes in A Rope of Thorns has to do with him growing up, at least a little. I also introduce new characters and bring back a few old ones, because you get to do that, in horror. I hope you enjoy the result.

Categories: Interview, SciFi & Fantasy, New Releases, Horror

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