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An Interview with Gemma Files

Thursday, Jun 07, 2012 at 9:04am

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It was a pleasure to interview ChiZine Publications author Gemma Files a year ago prior to the release of the second novel in her Hexslinger series and it's an even greater pleasure to speak to her again now that the series has concluded with A Tree of Bones.

CG: First off, how does it feel to be done? Any thoughts on closing out the Hexslinger series (And I for one am very sorry to see it end)?

GF: Given that I never thought I was writing a trilogy while inside it, I thought it went far better than it might have. Looking back on the pattern which evolved--start a book working from exactly the same outline I'd pitched it with, get about 80,000 words in, realize there was no damn way I would finish before 100,000 (or 125,000, possibly) and then ask for the equivalent of an extension--I see in retrospect that I was actually holding to a surprisingly strict, screenplay-ish three act structure. It's just that each act was A) a book long and B) something three separate parts' worth of book long.

Overall, however...I'm relieved yet a bit sad, obviously, given how long I've spent with these people and how intense the ride has been, lit and fig; scared about the future, scared about how people are going to react to the final instalment (thank you for saying you liked it!); hoping the Hexslinger series will now have a chance to reach all those readers who told me they were holding off until it was complete (I guess they thought there was an outside chance I might just pull a George R.R. Martin, or even keel over and die like Robert Jordan halfway through). All that. It's probably pretty normal, but I've never done this before, so I can't say it doesn't disturb me. So at the moment, I'm just plunging headfirst into PR and new projects, and hoping a fresh new routine comes together.

CG: Now that all three books are done, how would you compare the writing of each? Which was the most difficult to write?

GF: Oh, A Tree of Bones, hands down. With A Book of Tongues, I had the luxury of not really knowing what I was doing, and being borne along on the initial creative rush...it was totally id-driven, which probably shows, but a huge amount of fun. A Rope of Thorns snagged here and there, and probably underwent the most alchemical change in its journey from idea to prose; "middles are hard to figure", after all, just like the song says in John Paiszs' CanCon gonzo classic, [The Big] Crime Wave. But again, the fact that I was engaged in fighting myself clear was a great help--it spurred me on.

With A Tree of Bones, however, I had trilogy fatigue, a deadline I was already late for from the year before which I ended up stretching to its limits, and I'd committed the grievous strategic sin of creating a whole bunch of new characters along the way and not killing them. (Not yet, anyways.) So I was starting out with an absolutely massive cast and plunging straight into battle, seeing things get exponentially more complicated even as the timeline got exponentially tighter. Book takes place over maybe two years, folding back and forth through time; Rope takes place over maybe two months, but somehow ended up being a third larger than Book. And though Tree takes place over maybe four days, it somehow manages to be bigger than both of them! I also got sick for two solid months, right at the end of the book, to the extent that when I was editing the final draft I kept forgetting people's last names and who the damn President was (Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson). Yeah, it was a mess.

CG: What's your favourite moment in the series (I'm quite partial to the idea of spider-riding cavalry, even if it's likely to become a fixture in my nightmares)?

GF: The giant spider started as a throwaway joke and became a real, integral part of the process, so I'm very happy with that, too. But in the end, I think I'm happiest either with the way I managed to juggle the four-sided triangle of Chess, Reverend Rook, Ed Morrow and Yancey Kloves, or the way that various characters thrown in as human plot twists developed what I like to think were genuine personalities and individual relevance by the time things came to their climax--people like Chess's Ma "English" Oona, or Yiska, Songbird and Grandma; people like Hank Fennig and his three Missuses; people like Sheriff Love's widow Sophy; people like Kees Hosteen, Doc Asbury and Agent Geyer. World-building isn't my strong suit, but in order to get from here to there, I had to do a whole lot of figuring out how "ooh, wouldn't it be cool if...?" could be translated into something stable enough to stack together in a manner that hopefully doesn't seem too rickety. It was a massive learning experience, and one I'll be forever grateful for.

CG: I couldn't help but think of songs as I've read through the Hexslinger books (obviously, as I sent you a fan mix soundtrack for A Book of Tongues), What role, if any, does music play in your writing?

GF: Music is a huge thing for me, especially in terms of creating and sustaining a mood. I get some of my best ideas when I'm walking around listening to music, or working out with my iPod on shuffle, and I usually end up posting playlists after I'm done...In fact, a few of the tracks you put on your mix ended up in heavy rotation during A Tree of Bones, for fairly obvious reasons. But the track I ended up listening to the most times in a row was one I completely forgot about: How to Destroy Angels' cover of Bryan Ferry's "Is Your Love Strong Enough?", which I played on constant repeat throughout the final showdown between Chess, Ixchel and Rook. It just seemed to fit.;)

CG: Speaking of music, I absolutely loved the Ballad of Chess Pargeter. Did you have a voice in mind when you wrote it?

GF: Um...Gillian Welch would be my pick, personally. And I got to sing it myself at our Toronto book launch, accompanied by Kari Maaren and The Band With No Name, so that was--absolutely nerve-wracking. But a lot of fun.

CG: Your use of Chess as a trickster figure for the books, neither all good nor all bad, but instead a force of change was inspired. You've also written a fantastic poem about Norse trickster Loki, what about the trickster in myth appeals to you? What is your favourite trickster tale?

GF: Loki's my guy, that's for sure. I can't tell you how happy The Avengers' success has made me, not least because of this massive influx of generalized Loki/Tom Hiddleston love online. Check out Myths Retold's Loki tag for the full story on why our favourite semi-deformed Frost Giant is the Bugs Bunny of the Norse pantheon, except a thousand times more awesome, on account of arrogance, bitterness, perversity, fierceness, gender fluidity and crap-talking...and he's originally supposed to be red-headed, too. So yeah, that's Chess right there, isn't it?

I actually think one of my favourite Trickster tales, however, is either the story about The Young Man Who Married Coyote Twice (the first time by accident, the second because Coyote went out of his way to arrange it, because he found the way the dude reacted totally hilarious) or the story of How Coyote Traded His Eyes. By the end of that one, Coyote is walking around with one mouse's eye rolling around loose in the back of his socket and a buffalo's eye that's so big he has to hold it on with both hands, and I don't even remember what he traded his original eyes for, in the first place. Coyote, man.

CG: What's next for Gemma Files?

GF: Currently, I'm finishing up a bunch of short stories that various anthologies have asked me for, and working on a new novel in between. It's a contemporary, stand-alone horror tale told in documentary/epistolary form (somewhat like "each thing I show you is a piece of my death", the novelette I co-wrote with my husband, Stephen J. Barringer) that draws heavily on my knowledge of Canadian film history, and is hopefully as different from the Hexslinger series as possible. (But I also have another story set in the Hexslinger-'verse that I'm working on, intermittently...it takes place maybe ten years later, in New York. Sort of Gangs of New York, with hexes. Series? Possibly.)

Categories: Interview, SciFi & Fantasy, Horror

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A Tree of Bones

- by Gemma Files - Hexslinger (series)

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New Mexico, 1867: Months have passed since hexslinger Chess Pargeter sacrificed himself to restore the town of Bewelcome, once cursed to salt by his former lover, "Reverend" Asher Rook. Now a coalition led by Allan Pinkerton's Detective Agency lays siege to reborn Mayan goddess Ixchel's notorious "Hex City," the one place on earth where hexes can act in consort, and the desert just outside Bewelcome has become the front line in what threatens to become a new Civil War-one in which wild magic and black science clash headlong, producing carnage like nothing the world has ever seen. Though reinstated with the Agency, Pinkertonturnedoutlaw Ed Morrow finds himself caught between factions, as Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca roams the battlefield wearing Chess's face and body, promising aid while sowing dissent. Further into the wasteland, spiritualist Yancey Kloves and her allies struggle to stop an everwidening, monsterspewing crack from breaching the wall between worlds, while Ixchel ruthlessly exploits the hexes gathered around her in order to resurrect the rest of her dead pantheon, kicking off an Apocalypse fed by shed human blood. And in Hex City's darkness, "Reverend" Rook-Ixchel's consort, her key supporter up 'til now-plots a final, redemptive treachery of his own. As ever, these gory, perverse, and worldwrenching schemes all hinge on "dead" Chess Pargeter's participation, though the man himself is currently trapped in an underworld dimension based on London's notorious Seven Dials slum, with only his oldest enemy-his similarly deceased mother, "English" Oona-for company. But Chess has fought his way out of hell before . . . . This is the third and final installment in the Hexslinger Trilogy.

A Book of Tongues

- by Gemma Files - Hexslinger (series)

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Black Quill Award Winner, Best Small Press Chill (2011) Nominee for the 2011 Best Novel Spectrum Award Two years after the Civil War, Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow has gone undercover with one of the weird West's most dangerous outlaw gangsthe troop led by "Reverend" Asher Rook, exConfederate chaplain turned "hexslinger," and his notorious lieutenant (and lover) Chess Pargeter. Morrow's task: get close enough to map the extent of Rook's power, then bring that knowledge back to help Professor Joachim Asbury unlock the secrets of magic itself. Magicians, cursed by their gift to a solitary and painful existence, have never been more than a footnote in history. But Rook, driven by desperation, has a plan to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the worlda plan sealed by an unholy marriageoath with the goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men. To accomplish this, he must raise her bloodthirsty pantheon from its collective grave through sacrifice, destruction, and apotheosis. Caught between a passel of dead gods and monsters, hexes galore, Rook's witchery, and the ruthless calculations of his own masters, Morrow's only real hope of survival lies with the man without whom Rook cannot succeed: Chess Pargeter himself. But Morrow and Chess will have to literally ride through Hell before the truth of Chess's fate comes clearthe doom written for him, and the entire world.

A Rope of Thorns

- by Gemma Files - Hexslinger (series)

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You must let blood to get blood. New Mexico, 1867. As consort to resurrected Mayan goddess Ixchel, hexslinger "Reverend" Asher Rook has founded "Hex City," the first place in all of human history where magicians can live and work together safely. But this tenuous peace is threatened by the approach of Rook's former lover, Chess Pargeter, bent on revenge over Rook's betrayal, as he kills his way toward the very same spot, dragging Pinkerton agentturnedoutlaw Ed Morrow along with him. Because Chess, sacrificed in Ixchel's name, has become far more than just a hex: his very presence has torn a crack in the world, remaking everything around him. And as the cycle of Chess's power approaches its climax, Chess, Morrow, and a young spiritualist named Yancey Colder-caught up in Chess's vendetta-will all have to shed yet more blood as they face down his mysterious patron demon, known only as the Enemy, along with every other enemy Chess has already made along the way.