Frontier of Fear: An Interview with Gemma Files, author of A Rope of Thorns

Spells and curses crackle across the arid landscapes of the Old West once again, with the release of Gemma Files’ A Rope of Thorns, the sequel to last year’s Black Quill Award–winning novel and Stoker nominee A Book of Tongues. But it hasn’t been an especially easy journey for the author of the acclaimed Hexslinger series.

“I was telling one of my friends the other day that in a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been working on the same novel for three years, in three different instalments,” says Files. One of the issues that she ran into with the first book was that she was rapidly approaching her publisher’s cut-off point in terms of word limit, with no end in sight. Fortunately, the folk at ChiZine press, decided to publish Files’ occult western tale as two books. Files was hard at work on the second book when she discovered history repeating itself. “Exactly the same thing happened that happened last time,” admits Files. “I got to 80,000 words, realized there was no way it’d be finished by 100,000, and began to rethink my plans. This isn’t going to happen again if I can help it, which is why I’m working extra-hard on plotting things out in advance, this time ’round.”

Working on a series, rather than a standalone novel, presents particular challenges to an author. “Just like the primary challenge of a third book is how to wrap things up effectively and entertainingly, the challenge of a second book is how to make it past the general saggy middle problem,” says Files. “I concentrated a lot on keeping it fast-paced, with a fair deal of crap-talking/hex-slinging action, but also a sub-set of character development under fire and laying in details which will (hopefully) pay off in Book Three. What’s been consistently exciting and frustrating throughout the journey thus far is that whenever I lay in something that just seems like an alchemically-generated New Fun Thing, I realize it usually brings along a bunch of attendant game-changing elements that I now have to develop and integrate further into the narrative’s inherent logic along with it.” She cites in particular the established rule in the first book that “hexes”—beings with immense magical powers—cannot work together, at risk of their very existence, a rule which, in the second book, shifts with devastating results. “That sounded  neat and utterly organic when I first did it—and I really do think it is, in an epic/operatic way,” says Files, “but I’m still dealing with the consequences.”

Another shift in the second novel is that the power of magic is very much more connected to the earth, as opposed to the first book, where it is very much connected to the power of language. Files attributes the change to a shift in focus from the cerebral Reverend Asher Rook, protagonist of the first book, to the visceral, emotional, and highly sexual Chess Pargeter, the main hex in the second. “The Rev likes words because he’s educated and erudite yet almost completely hypocritical, which means he can use them to lie and seduce and confuse equally,” says Files. “Chess is an uneducated whore-get turned outlaw, a man of reflexive, perverse action who’s always relied on his gut to show him which way to jump, powering his way through life on his guns, his fists and his dick.”

One thing that remains the same, however, if the focus on the characters’ sexuality—which, in all its terrifying glory, has been significant in the horror genre since the early gothic novels and Dracula. The sexual relationship between Chess and the Reverend was central to the first novel, and continues to inform—heavily—the second. “It’s always sort of amused me that some people seem to be just as afraid of having their sexuality realigned as they are of, say, far more palpable and universal fears like bodily harm, death and the loss of those you love,” says Files. “Again, this is one of the inherent problems with terms like Gay Horror, which I’m proud yet still slightly discomfited—as a straight-identified person—to have applied to my work. Ultimately, it’s just a simple human truth that we fear the Other, the creature who resembles us in some way but differs greatly in others, as much as we rightly fear to be Othered, to be told that because we differ in some way from “the norm”, we’re no longer going to be accorded the same rights and privileges… Horror needs monsters, and it’s hard to accept that we truly are all we know and need of both Heaven and Hell.”

“One way I’ve tried to get around this is obviously by creating sexually transgressive characters whom far more readers than I would have ever expected seem to have grown to identify with and care about. But another way is that when you boil all my ‘monsters’ in the Hexslinger universe down—even the incredibly powerful and alien ones—they all contain a distant seed of humanity, which is both their strength and their weakness.”

One of those ‘monsters’ of course, is Chess himself, a phenomenally compelling character: flamboyant, passionate, and destructive. How would Files describe her own relationship with Chess Pargeter? “Well, I certainly can’t say he’s not a bit of a wish-fulfillment character for me, in a couple of different ways,” admits Files. “I’ve mentioned before that I’m a slasher [writer of slash fiction], so I’ll completely cop to the fact that I’m getting a personal charge out of his sexual escapades: It’s my kink, and I don’t see any shame in it. But at the same time, I’m also an angry person, a perverse person, a person who’s loved unwisely and paid the price; Chess gets to take his revenge on the world, do stuff I never could, and I get to come along on the ride. He gets to be the villain, the anti-hero, maybe even the hero, but definitely the fate-chosen protagonist of his own story. After which, best of all, I get to give him and the people around him the sort of satisfying character arcs that real life so seldom provides!”

And we get to know Chess much better in the second novel: he’s still violent and impetuous, but as his powers as a hex—and an avatar—continue to grow, he’s forced into some tough realizations about who he is and the responsibilities that his identity brings. “Chess as an avatar of Xipe Totec, the Red Tezcatlipoca—the primal Year-King sacrifice, whose blood makes all things grow—is connected to the earth in a way he can barely comprehend,” explains Files. “And he doesn’t want to control these things, because in order to do so, he’d have to become more Xipe Totec than he is Chess, a prospect which pisses him off to the extreme…but the thing is, he’s changing too, even though he doesn’t want to. A year ago, he wouldn’t’ve cared how many “innocent” people became collateral damage, as long as he got what he wanted. But the thing about being a god is, you sort of have to care, because other people—normal, common people—and their devotion is what keeps you alive.”

Chess is also forced to reimagine his relationship with women in the second book, which contains significantly more female characters than the first—a development that Files describes as “absolutely deliberate.” She also notes that the increased presence of women in the second novel compels Chess to grow up and develop as a character. “We’ve already heard him say that he thinks most women are tougher than most men, but the very fact of his own sexuality means he tends to think of them as aliens—they “ain’t his meat,” and he ain’t theirs. And thus far, he’s been able to avoid women by confining himself to a male-slanted world of soldiering, outlawry, criminality, on the fringes of society… but part of the Western narrative is that that state of affairs can’t last forever. Things change, and much as he hates the very thought of it, Chess has to change with them.”

“When I was writing A Book of Tongues, part of what I set out to do was to intentionally put a gay male relationship front and centre, and I’m proud that came off as well as it did,” she continues. “But by privileging that point of view, I unintentionally cut women almost entirely out of the picture—I mean, there are female characters, but they’re pretty much an assortment of whores and/or monsters, which needed to change. Because this is where you run into the difficult distinction between representation and representativeness: I don’t want to be seen as making statements about how ‘all women are like…’ any more than I want to be seen making statements about how all gay guys are like Chess, all bi guys are like the Rev, or all straight guys are like Morrow. It’s inaccurate, dicey—and worst of all, it’s boring.”

The universe will continue to expand in the third book, A Tree of Bones, on which Files is already working hard, and she promises that we’ll see more of her complex and intriguing characters. What else can we look forward to?

“Bloodshed! Monsters! Experimental arcanistry! Hexation aplenty!” says Files. “Plus, maybe a giant spider.”

Sounds hextastic.

 

 

 

 

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Cover Story: An Interview with Designer and Artist Erik Mohr

It’s a truism that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but at ChiZine Publications, the tomes—from trade paperbacks to limited edition hardcovers and ebooks—are graced by evocative, haunting jackets that fully do justice to both the content and the press’s mandate of putting out high-quality, thought-provoking genre fiction. Those covers are all the work of artist Erik Mohr.

Mohr studied fine arts and showed regularly in his early twenties; he later moved toward a more lucrative career in illustration and design, working on consumer and custom magazines. It was then he became involved with ChiZine. “As an outlet, I would often do quick digital ‘drawings’ of stories that I was inspired by,” he says. “I sent one of these ‘drawings’ to a friend whose story had been published on Chizine.com. He liked it so much that he forwarded it to the publisher, Brett Savory. When it came time to consider the cover art for my friend’s first novel—and first book published at CZP—I offered to illustrate and design the cover. I’ve been doing the covers ever since!”

Mohr has designed book covers for many other publishing houses as well, including McClelland and Stewart, Groundwood Books, and Fitzhenry and Whiteside. I’m interested to know what are the challenges specific to designing a book cover.

“Capturing the mood of an entire book,” he says. “I am often drawn to a single scene or moment of the story. This sometimes works if it is a significant turning point in the story or a compelling image that drives the storyline, etc… But more often than not, it is more important to capture overall “feel.” Collections of short stories are tricky for that same reason. Also, you don’t want to give it all away. You need to have a cover that piques the readers interest, gets them asking questions and ultimately opening the book. It’s advertising and my job is selling the story. If I can get a reader excited enough to open the book, then I have done my job.”

Capturing the feel of the book, of course, requires a level of familiarity with the manuscript. “I prefer it when I have a chance to read the whole manuscript,” says Mohr. “I have gotten really good at speed reading, skimming, reading long synopses, reading short synopses, emails from the authors, condensed emails from the editors and even direct suggestions from the authors and publishers—but, as I said, I prefer to curl up with the whole MS and leisurely read it over three to four days.”

The level of involvement of the authors in the cover design process can vary from press to press, but Mohr says that, as a rule, he prefers to work with publishers before the authors. “I think it is good to have an outside view of the book,” he says. “The authors tent to have very literal ideas for covers and once I have heard their ideas, I have a hard time shaking them from the back of my mind. I much prefer to start on my own and so far the authors have been really pleased with what I come up with.”

This isn’t surprising. Mohr’s covers are both stunning and original, bucking the current trends in dark fiction book jackets. One thing that has struck me lately, when I’ve visited the horror and YA sections of large bookstores, is the monumental influence of the Twilight series on book jacket design. What does Mohr think of the current trend? “There are always fads in design,” he says. “What I find interesting is how the fad plays out as other people are influenced by it or copy it. The Twilight covers where very striking, and were a real departure for vampire lit. The hands holding the apple was exquisite. Simple, striking and conceptual. It didn’t fall for so many of the genre clichés.”

Cover of Kelley Armstrong's novel Broken (2006)

“The Kelly Armstrong Otherworld series is trying to capture that same simplicity but still using some of the clichés,” he continues. “The original [trade paperback of Broken] 2006 cover’s red rose is a bit clichéd and carries more symbolism than is necessary for the cover, while the TPB 2010 reprint with the figure under fabric is mysterious and poses more questions than it answers.”

Cover of the 2010 edition of Broken

“I think that the reprint is more successful as a cover. Don’t get me started on the Haunted 2010 TPB cover. I love the melted candle. I think that shit is smart, sexy and, while it fits snugly into the genre, it is cliché-free!”

What other covers have especially inspired him? “I loved airbrush art as a kid and I remember this cover of Robot Dreams by Asimov,” he says. “It’s creepy, serene, and beautifully executed. I love it! It still gives me chills when I look at it.”

 

Another inspiration for Mohr was Night Cry magazine.

 

“I read that magazine cover to cover until the pages fell out,” he confesses. “It was creepy and scary and vicious and sexy… I was 12. I still don’t read much. When I do read, I like to start and finish a book in a couple of days.”

I ask him which of his own covers is his favourite.

“You want me to pick a favourite child?” he says. “You evil woman!”

He cites the cover of Simon Logan’s 2010 book, Katja from the Punk Band, published by ChiZine.

“I love communist propaganda posters and I did tonnes of research to put this cover together,” he says. “The girl is made up of a number of different women…  If I had to, though, I would say that my favourite cover is a bit of a collaboration. Napier’s Bones was lot of fun to work on.”

“The story was intense and I loved the marrying of math and magic and how numbers were everywhere in the book,” he says. “I roughed the concept right away after reading a few chapters and it worked. We refined it from there, but what really made it sing was the raised UV when it was printed. Corey (Beep) Lewis is the book designer and his addition of the UV along with fleshing out the interior really made it pop. Running your hands along the cover is really creepy!”

Which, really, is as it should be.

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Insano-fortnight

Things I have done in the last three weeks (in no particular order):

1. Saw Rammstein at the Air Canada Centre

Best. Live. Rock. Show. EVAH. The music was awesome, and lots of things blew up (including the guy playing keyboards). Hopefully they will not wait another twelve years before coming back (although I believe the show was sold out, so fingers crossed.) Although next time,  I will bring earplugs, since the following day was a bit like being underwater.

2. Rented Deadgirl

File under “flawed, but interesting”: two teenage boys bunk off school to break things and drink beer in an abandoned mental hospital, where they find a naked, dead woman tied to a table in the basement—and still moving.  So, given that there’s no one around and she’s tied to a table, one of them decides to have sex with her. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s interesting to see teenage male sexuality under the spotlight (pass the popcorn, Carrie and Regan… oh, and Jennifer; see below)—and the ending is devastating, to say the least. Definitely worth checking out, but you might want to take a shower afterwards.

3. Rented Jennifer’s Body

Saw Juno. Liked Juno. Was well stoked to hear Diablo Cody was writing a horror movie. The plot’s fairly interesting (viz. indie band needs to sacrifice a virgin to Satan in order to secure global fame and success, but they show up in a small town and pick Jennifer, who tells them she is even though she isn’t, and consequently becomes a flesh-eating demon after the ritual. Oops.), and obviously the dialogue is pretty snappy, but there are times when you want the characters to just shut up and respond to the, I dunno, emotionally devastating situation they find themselves in, instead of snarking about it.

4. Saw Scream 4

This was really just like hanging out with friends you haven’t seen in a while and making the happy discovery that they haven’t changed a whole lot.

5. Voted in my first Canadian election

Which turned out to be a whole other kind of horror show, but I’ll save the analysis and just sit in a corner and rock back and forth for a bit.

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A Worrying Discovery: A Review of A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Diana Bishop, heroine of A Discovery of Witches, is a witch—but she really, really doesn’t want to be. A tenured Yale professor, she has long rejected her family history of witchcraft and the powers it has bestowed upon her so that she can consider her academic achievements her own. But while studying the history of alchemy on a research fellowship at Oxford, she discovers a mysterious manuscript that opens only at her magic touch—and that instantly draws her into the darkly fantastic world that she has tried hard to leave behind: a world of witches, daemons, and (this is the twenty-first century, after all) brooding, sexy, and sensitive vampires.

The book is definitely dark fantasy rather than horror, but for all that, the portrayal of Diana Bishop and her bloodsucking boyfriend is disturbing to the point of chilling: despite the fact that Diana is an established and accomplished academic, and comes from a long line of powerful witches, she becomes a water-willed loon under the influence of Matthew Clairmont, a fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire with a French accent and a domineering nature that makes Heathcliff look like Mr. Bingley. Many column inches—in print and online—have been spent over the past decade decrying the passivity of Stephenie Meyer’s non-heroine, high-schooler Bella Swan, but it seems somehow more egregious for Harkness to have created a supposedly “strong” and mature female character and then never allow her to actually use any of her powers, or indeed, assert herself to the full extent.

Like Bella, Diana spends most of her time being romanced, rescued and repaired—in Diana’s case, by a man who terrifies her, kills one of her colleagues, has killed at least two of his past partners, threatens to kill her at least once (because he loves her so much, silly! Check out page 281!), and marries her without asking her first (in a ceremony so secret, she doesn’t even know it’s happened; see page 354). Call me a ball-busting feminist if you will, but this behaviour scores quite highly on the Rubbish Boyfriend Index as far as I’m concerned, even if he’s, like, totally dreamy and European and knows a ton about wine and has run into more famous people throughout history than Forrest Gump. But, you know, she’s a historian, and he hung out with Macchiavelli and Kit Marlowe (presumably not at the same time), so why should a few dead girlfriends stand between a Yale professor and her One True Lurve? N.B.: you can tell it’s true love, because, unlike that man-whore Edward Cullen, Matthew refuses to have sex with Diana even after they’re married. If I may paraphrase renowned sex columnist Dan Savage, you gotta love it when sex is such a sacred, special thing between two people passionately in love and bonded for life that it really isn’t important at all.

Bottom line: if you like Twilight, The Da Vinci Code and the works of Silver Ravenwolf, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you miss Buffy and kind of wish Hermione Grainger was your best friend, you probably won’t.

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Literature in Light and Shadow: An Interview with Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi, founders of ChiZine Publishing

In Canada’s genre publishing scene, one press is lighting up the shadows like no other. ChiZine Publishing built its reputation publishing high-quality “dark genre” fiction—a label that acknowledges that the boundaries between genres are somewhat fluid. As the press’s website points out, “We say “dark genre fiction” because too much time is spent fighting over SF vs. horror vs. fantasy. If there’re dragons, it’s fantasy . . .Unless they’re bio-engineered dragons, then it’s SF . . .But a dragon apocalypse might be horror . . .” Ultimately, ChiZine’s dual focus on quality and originality — and their willingness to take risks — make them a force to be reckoned with.

ChiZine Publishing grew out of ChiZine.com—the online magazine, relaunched on April 1 this year—started by Savory in 1997; he was joined by Kasturi in 1999, and by 2001, they were in a position to be paying writers professional rates. By 2008, they wanted to produce an original ChiZine anthology, but the cost of production turned out to be prohibitive. “Original anthologies that pay a pro word rate are really expensive to produce, so the antho ended up being a no-go, which was really sad,” says Kasturi. “I guess we always regretted that, so when Brett said, ‘What do you think about doing ChiZine as a publishing house?’ I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’ And as I always like to add: ‘And that’s how great business decisions get made!’”

The first titles off the press were the novel Filaria, by Brent Hayward, and Robert Boyczuk’s short-story collection Horror Story and Other Horror Stories. “We were only going to do four titles a year,” says Kasturi. “Really small time. But then Brett got laid off, so we decided to just make CZP his full-time job. I kept my day job, but I work on CZP sort of part-time/full-time, so I have no other life, really!” In 2009, the press put out another five books, and then went “really hardcore” (Kasturi’s words) in 2010, with twelve titles in one year. “This year,” she says, “it’s twelve books, plus a ‘best of’ anthology of Canadian writers. Whew. It makes me tired just thinking about it!”

Both Savory and Kasturi are established authors, and their experiences of that side of the publishing industry has definitely influenced the way that they operate ChiZine. “I think as writers, we had some trepidation,” Kasturi admits, “because being a publisher, an actual maker of books, is a very different prospect from writing a book. Once you’ve written it, your job is basically done, except for edits … and marketing and promo later, but the creative stuff is largely over. As a publisher, of course, it just really gets into gear at that stage. I think we just wanted to publish the kinds of books we liked to read. That’s the C.S. Lewis answer, if you will.”

“I think the fact that we’re both writers influences us a lot,” she continues. “I mean, we want to make money, but we don’t want to gouge anybody either. We want to make sure our writers get a good deal, that their books get out there, that they’re well treated, that they feel that they have a voice in what happens with their books. I’m not sure we would have paid as much attention to that if we weren’t writers ourselves. Mind you, it’s still a business, so we can’t do absolutely everything in favour of the writers! We get to get something out of it too. A lot of late nights and hand-wringing, mostly.” But in the light of genre stalwart Brian Keene’s call to boycott Dorchester Press because of its treatment of its authors, the appeal of an opportunity for writers to publish with experienced writers seems obvious.

At a time when a lot of publishers are scaling back on hardcovers, ChiZine are also going against the prevailing trends by publishing beautifully designed limited edition hardcovers—but conversely, they’re also making their books available in electronic formats. There has, of course, been a lot of conflicting press about the growth of digital formats, shifts in the publishing industry, the death of print, the premature announcement of the death of print, and so forth—but what’s the press’s philosophy as far as digital media are concerned?

“We’re all for embracing new technologies. I don’t think print is dead,” says Kasturi. “That’d be like saying radio was dead once TV rolled around. Print will still exist. It just might be accessed differently or distributed differently. I think the competition will keep getting fiercer.” She also underscores the importance of design and aesthetics in the industry, something that ChiZine has been commended for again and again. “It’s more important than ever that the product you put out is beautiful—that people want to pick it up and touch it,” she says. “Especially if they can get it electronically; there has to be an incentive for people to get the physical copy of the book. Our hardcovers are like artefacts, little pieces of artwork you can have in your home. Or at least, that’s how I like to think of it. We don’t think it’s an either/or situation, really. As a publisher, why can’t we do all of it?” Good question.

“We’re always trying to think of ways to enhance the reading experience,” she continues, “whether it’s through a link from the ebook to a video of the author reading the very chapter you’re on, to just having gorgeous endpapers or illustrations in the physical text. We’re always excited to see what will be next, what is possible—or even what’s impossible for now, but at least imaginable!”

But it’s the trend towards good writing in genre fiction that most excites Kasturi at the moment. “I often feel that genre fiction in general—including SF, fantasy and horror—really got a push in that Golden Era of the pulps. So there was a lot of cheap, lurid writing going on. Now, don’t get me wrong,” she adds, “I am a big fan of the cheap and lurid! But I think the quality of writing really suffered. Even when books had amazing ideas, the execution was often not so hot. And then there was the horror boom of the 80s, with all those terrible skull covers…yeesh. That didn’t help. But I feel like we’re in a kind of renaissance now; economic slump notwithstanding, people are writing interesting things and doing it well. People are pushing boundaries. Maybe it’s because things are tough economically, and terrible things continue to happen all over the world, and we’re kind of living in scary times—well, when are we not?—but sometimes that kind of pressure produces diamonds, you know?”

There’s certainly an argument to be made that a great deal of good writing has its roots in the writer’s response to times of great political or social upheaval—sea changes in the fabric of society. But where does Kasturi feel the genre is likely to go next? “I think there’s going to be an upswing in the witch genre,” she says. “We already had some of that with Anne Rice’s work, and Kim Harrison, and others have been playing in that field for a while. But I think Deborah Harkness’s book A Discovery of Witches seems poised to really set it off in an unprecedented way. Which is too bad; it’s a really badly written book, but, like Twilight, it will no doubt be a massive bestseller. Hopefully someone else will come along who’ll do it better, so I hope for that. Then again, witchcraft, even in fiction, makes some people very nervous, as if it’s deeply anti-religion—or anti-establishment—in a way that even vampires are not.” Perhaps in a world where elites, both real and imagined, are mistrusted across the political spectrum, the idea of humans who have access to almost limitless power and esoteric knowledge about how the world really works is the most unnerving idea of our generation. Vampires, at least, are comfortably unlikely.

Since the vast majority of genre fans can point to an image or scene that got them hooked, what did it for Kasturi? “Probably the illustration of the Wolf and the Devil in my copy of The Moon Painters [a collection of Estonian folk tales],” she says. “In it, the Wolf is chasing the Devil, after the Devil has brought the Wolf to life, using the words giving him by Vanaisa [Grandfather/God]. That picture scared the shit out of me as a child. I had to put the book under something when I went to bed at night, so it wouldn’t Get Me” The capital letters speak volumes. “All those old fairy tales and folk tales and myths got me hooked,” she says. “Children understand horror better than anyone.” For Savory, it was Poe’s classic “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “My grade 10 English teacher taught that story, and it really opened my eyes,” he says. “If we’re talking film, though, then definitely Michael Myers from Halloween. Still love that original film so much. As for more recently, I think the slow-mo woman-walking-down-the-hall-in-a-way-no-human-should-ever-walk scene in the Japanese horror film Kairo would top my list. It’s not an overstatement to say that scene is indelibly seared into my mind.” Kasturi cites John Langan’s House of Windows as a more recent source of genuine terror. “Not even any specific moment in that book,” she says. “Just the atmosphere of the whole thing. I was trying very hard not to read the book at night, because it has the kind of creepiness that just sifts into your dreams. But of course, I couldn’t resist it either.”

When you’re an avid reader, of course, it’s always interesting to ask other avid readers what gems they’ve found recently. What would Kasturi and Savory recommend from their non-ChiZine reading?

“Luckily, I actually keep track of everything I read,” says Kasturi. “I know, super-anal, right?” She begins by citing Justin Cronin‘s The Passage. “ It’s just gorgeously written,” she says. “You can’t put it down. It’s got quite a vast sea of characters, but it’s almost impossible not to invest in all of them. It’s a monster-sized book, but I whizzed through it, because I got so invested. And it’s a vampire novel, of all things. And an apocalypse novel! Two genres I’m really tired of—but he did them both well. Which just goes to show you that you can indeed retell the same story, just as long as you do it better than everyone else. Plus Cronin’s vampires are monsters, which is a refreshing change from all the emo-vampires of late. I also adore Tana French. Her latest book is Faithful Place, which is ostensibly a detective novel, but is really much more than that. I actually begged to review this one for the Globe & Mail, since I’m such a fan of her work. Jim Butcher’s Changes, his latest Harry Dresden novel. I’ve always liked this series, but at first it started out as a kind of fun, magic in the world of detective fiction sort of thing, and now it’s evolved into this very dark, very interesting character study. Changes, in particular, went a lot of very unexpected places and was riveting from start to finish. Not sure how Butcher’s going to be able to top it, but oh boy, am I waiting to see what he’s going to do!”
“I read through all of Deon Meyer‘s work,” she continues. He’s a South African crime/noir writer. Really interesting, terrific stuff. The one that came out in 2010 was Thirteen Hours. Nail-biting. Oh! And I loved Joe Hill’s Horns, which was simultaneously loopy and hilarious, but still heartbreaking and creepy and strange. I’m dying to read Laird Barron’s Occultation, which everyone is raving about, but I unfortunately haven’t managed to snag a copy of it yet.” What books have caught Savory’s eye over the past year? “Probably … Keith Hollihan’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, which, while not a genre book, has some seriously disturbing shit happening near the end that actually dropped my jaw when I read it. Great writer, very good book,” he says. “I also really dug the non-genre three-day-novel contest winner from last year, Mark Sedore’s Snowmen. Great little book, and astonishing that it was written in a mere three days.”

And ChiZine has a lot of exciting writers returning for the 2011 season. “We’ve got several writers who are doing their second books with us this spring,” says Kasturi. “Namely David Nickle‘s creepy Eutopia; Brent Hayward, with the strange and beautiful The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter; Claude Lalumière’s The Door to Lost Pages; and of course Gemma Files’ balls-to-the-walls, violent, weird western, A Rope of Thorns [which is Book Two in her Hexslinger Series]. Not to mention that we got lucky enough to publish a novella by Tom Piccirilli, the noirish, stylishly bleak Every Shallow Cut, and Derryl Murphy‘s super-cool, math-as-magic, destructo-universe dark SF novel, Napier’s Bones. Oh, and we’re doing a best-of antho with Tightrope Books, Imaginarium 2011: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, which reprints the best fiction and poetry out last year. And of course we’re pursuing translation and film rights for our authors, and hoping some of that pans out. Lot of irons in the fire!” she says. “Aaaaand…now I’m spent.”

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Spirit in the Night: An Interview with author Douglas Smith


Although author Douglas Smith is adamant that his own stories aren’t written with political motives, the tales in his first collection, Chimerascope, frequently envision a future of corporate totalitarianism, in which everyday people are at the mercy of forces they can’t control and are faced with the prospect of sacrifice and compromise in order to survive. It’s a theme that also runs through the work of one of Smith’s inspirations, Bruce Springsteen—and Smith has written a number of stories with titles inspired by Springsteen’s work.

“Springsteen is an astounding storyteller,” says Smith. “His strongest songs are ballads, stories told through real characters, everyday people struggling with whatever life has thrown at them. And there is generally such an attitude of defiance and hope despite the odds against them.  So many of his songs just speak to me of the bigger stories behind the ones that he just gets to hint at in just a few lines.”

The Boss’s music is an ongoing source of inspiration for Smith. “I have more stories that I want to write based on or inspired by his songs, and someday I’d love to put out a collection of all my Springsteen-inspired stories,” he says. “My dream would be to get his endorsement, include some lyrics of the songs to intro each story, and have all the proceeds go to his favourite charity. It’ll probably never happen, but I’ll keep writing the stories—because I’d do that anyway.”

Chimerascope was published last year by ChiZine Publications and was not only both widely and well reviewed, but was also nominated for the brand new CBC Book Club awards, voted on by readers . “I had quite a few interviews over the year about the book, and it was fun and gratifying to see such a positive response to the collection,” he says. “But having it show up last month on the final ballot for the inaugural ‘Bookies’ took me by surprise.  I didn’t even know it was on the ballot until a friend pointed it out.  Chimerascope didn’t win, but it was very cool to be on a ballot with names like Stieg Larsson and William Gibson.” The collection is also eligible for nomination for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Awards; nominations are open until midnight on April 30.

Last year also saw the premiere of By Her Hand, She Draws You Down, an independent short film based on Smith’s story of the same name (which appears in Chimerascope). The film has screened at festivals worldwide, and the plan is ultimately to include it on a DVD anthology of horror shorts. “I’m a huge movie fan,” says Smith, “so this whole experience was a lot of fun, even viewed from a distance, to see one of my tales transformed into another medium. Anthony Sumner of TinyCore Pictures did a great job on the script and directing, and Zoe Daelman Chlanda and Jerry Murdoch were amazing in the two lead roles.”

And Smith is still working hard: his stories have been translated into French for another collection to be published in France later this year (with an introduction by one of his own favourite fantasy writers, Charles de Lint); he’s putting out all his short stories and novelettes in e-reader format; his first novel is with publishers in New York; and not only is he working on his second, he’s planning a graphic novel based on one of his earlier pieces. Quite the schedule.

Smith is also appearing at this weekend’s Ad Astra science fiction conference, in Toronto, on two panels, the first  intriguingly title “It’s the Best/Worst Time to Be a Writer.” “Ad Astra is probably my favourite annual convention,” he says. “ It’s fairly small, but it has a strong literature focus compared to many of the genre cons, which tend to have more of a media bent … I imagine that [the panel] will focus on the impact of ebooks on the publishing industry and the options that this presents to writers, being able to self-publish and increase their earnings in a way that has never been available to this degree as it is now. That’s on the ‘best’ side of the coin. On the ‘worst’ side, NYC publishers are proceeding at an even more glacial pace than usual in making buying decisions, and the deals that I’m hearing about involve much lower advances and more aggressive demands regarding rights.” In the light of the current controversy over Dorchester–Leisure’s treatment of their authors, it’s good to be reminded that authors still have options.

The second panel on which Smith will speak covers the small press scene in Canada. “I’ve had two collections now, both with small presses: PS Publishing in the UK (Impossibilia) and ChiZine Publications in Toronto (Chimerascope),” he says.  “In both cases, I have nothing but good things to say. PS did a beautiful job with Impossibilia, and I would have gone with them for the second collection, except that I wanted to find a publisher with retail distribution in place. PS wasn’t into retail bookstores, so to get Impossibilia, you had to order from PS (or Amazon) and have it shipped. They also only do limited print runs.”

This was about the time that critically acclaimed press ChiZine was getting into gear, run by husband and wife team Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi. “I knew and respected both the publishers,” says Smith.  “They had distribution deals in Canada, the US, and the UK, and their model was a limited edition signed hardcover with a print run based solely on pre-orders, followed by a trade paperback edition for the retail stores. They have since added ebook editions. Everything with both PS and CZP has been great: lots of input into the cover design, the manuscript TOC, the editing, the quality of the book, the promotion, etc. etc.”

Smith also points to ChiZine as one of the most exciting outfits in the country on the genre scene. “I was absolutely amazed at the visibility that Chimerascope received coming from a small press,” he says. “It was reviewed everywhere. I think Publishers Weekly stated in the Chimerascope review that if they could get a subscription to a publisher the way you could to a magazine, they’d subscribe to CZP to make sure that they never missed a title. Check out any of the other CZP authors: David Nickle, Gemma Files, Bob Boyczuk, Claude Lalumiere, Brent Hayward, to name just a few.” He cites ChiZine’s Napier’s Bones, by Derryl Murphy as one title to look out for.  “I had the opportunity to read an early draft of this one, and it’s just so great to see it out in print,” he says. And what other upcoming books is he excited about? “I’m looking forward to a new YA urban fantasy series from Charles de Lint,” he says. “One of my all time favourite authors.”

 

 

I’m looking forward to a new YA urban fantasy series from Charles de Lint, one of my all time favourite authors.
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Ghost Stories: Blood and Vegetables Goes to the Theatre

Much as we like to spend most of our evenings in with a good book, Blood and Vegetables has to admit that it is now getting warmer in the Great White North, and thus it behoves us occasionally to get off our butt, shake the cobwebs off our head, and venture outside, blinking in the last morsels of daylight. And what better reason to leave the ol’ crypt than to catch the opening night of Ghost Stories at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre?

Ghost Stories opened in London in June 2010, the creation of writing/directing team Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen) and Andy Nyman (star of Dead Set and Severance). The show begins with a lecture on the paranormal and the human imagination, given by Professor Philip Goodman (played by Jason Blicker), a sceptic who maintains that paranormal phenomena can be explained by the willingness of humans to believe in the supernatural, and the power of imagination—with examples taken from a deserted warehouse, a remote woodland, and a nursery where all is not as it seems.

Although the stories contain a number of familiar tropes from horror movies, the theatre setting ramps up the tension from the outset, simply because the creative team has had to be more resourceful with lighting, sound, and blocking to control the audience’s perceptions of the on-stage action. The writers have also, thankfully, used a lot of humour throughout, which has the dual effect of occasionally diffusing the tension (since it’s difficult to keep your audience chewing their fingernails in suspense for eighty-odd minutes) and relaxing them nicely in time for the next scare. It’s imaginative, inventive and a lot more original than most of the West End fare adapted from movies you’ve already seen or rehashed from the back catalogues of musicians who were big in the 80s.

A disembodied voice at the end of the show exhorts the audience not to give away the secrets of Ghost Stories, and everyone knows that you shouldn’t disregard disembodied voices. The one caveat to bear in mind is this: If you’re a horror fan, you’ll be familiar with the sinking feeling that you get in the thoracic cavity when a well-funded marketing campaign tells you how thoroughly terrifying what you’re about to experience is (it’s up there with “based on a true story,” or “100 per cent medically accurate”). The publicity for Ghost Stories is rife with warnings about the hair-raising qualities of the show, and exhortations to the nervously disposed to think twice before picking up tickets. If Ghost Stories ultimately feels slightly disappointing, the problem doesn’t lie with the show, but in the hype that surrounds it. It’s a fun evening out, and it’s an ingenious piece of theatre, but it probably won’t keep you awake at night.

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