Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Elizabeth Hand
by Darrell Schweitzer
Elizabeth Hand is the author of the novels Winterlong, Aestival Tide, Icarus Descending,
Waking the Moon, Glimmering, Black Light, Generation Loss, and Mortal Love. Her short story
collections are Last Summer At Mars Hill, Bibliomancy, Saffron and Brimstone, Errantry, Chip
Crockett's Christmas Carol, Available Dark, and Radiant Days. She has won the World Fantasy
Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild
Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. She has also written movie tie-ins and for comics. She
lives in Maine.
SCHWEITZER: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
HAND: I had the usual writer's origin story: I wanted to write from a very early age, even
before I could read. My mother gave me a toy typewriter when I was small -- I was always
using her old Underwood -- but it broke because I was actually trying to write on it. She then
got me a proper Royal Upright.
SCHWEITZER: Was this your first plan for a career? I note that you did not publish your first
story (if the dates on Wikipedia are to be trusted) until you were about 31. So how long had you
been trying before you succeeded?
HAND: I never had any kind of plan for any kind of career. As a kid I loved zoology,
paleontology, science stuff like that, but I always assumed I'd be a writer. This would happen by
magic, as I had no clue as to how the business worked, other than sending manuscripts out then
having them returned to me. I never went to a convention or knew any writers or editors. And I
didn't study creative writing at university -- when I finally got a degree (after ten years) it was a
BS in anthropology. I fell into my job at the National Air & Space Museum by chance and
stayed there for a number of years because I loved the people and I loved working at the
Smithsonian and having behind-the-scenes access to all the museums, something you'd never see
But I knew I'd never have a career at the Smithsonian without an advanced degree, and I grew
increasingly panicky in my late 20s because I'd never been published, or even written much that
I'd actually completed. The thought of not being a writer -- literally the only thing I ever
wanted to be -- terrified me. I had no backup plan, no career track, no money. I was very, very
fortunate to get my first sale when I was thirty, and see the story in print a year later. I honestly
don't know what would have become of me if I hadn't. I'd either be a miserable burnout like
Cass Neary, or a miserable low-level government employee. Not sure which would be worse.
SCHWEITZER: Making a first sale is one thing, but we all know how you could sell five
stories a year (5,000 words x 6 cents a word = $300 x 5 = $1500) and maybe sell a novel for a
$4,000 advance, at which point you have an annual income that will qualify you for living in a
cardboard box. Wasn't it a scary leap to become a full-time writer, or have you still had some
kind of safety net?
HAND: No, no safety net, really, except for that offered by the state. And I was extremely
fortunate to have a fabulous and supportive literary agent. I moved to Maine with Richard Grant
in October 1988; we both had modest book advances (mine for Winterlong was $10,000, minus
commission) and lived on that. I got occasional part-time work as a proofreader for National
Fisherman Magazine down in Rockland, and also worked a few hours a week at a local organic
farmstand, which paid $5 an hour and gave us some food to eat. I was also reviewing for the
Washington Post, selling the occasional short story, and wrote some lucrative articles for Hot
Talk, a spinoff from Penthouse Magazine. So we got by, but barely. Eighteen months later I
bought Tooley Cottage with the down payment for the UK edition of Winterlong, which was
about $6,000. I was eight months pregnant; the cottage was actually what Mainers call a camp, a
tiny lakefront structure for fishing and hunting. It was 300 square feet, with no indoor plumbing
or running water, just an outhouse tucked beneath some evergreens. The only source of heat was
a tiny woodstove called a parlor stove, which leaked smoke and would only burn wood for a few
My parents gave me a few thousand dollars to hire someone to build a tiny addition, another
hundred square feet, so there'd be a room for the baby, a future bathroom, and a tiny sleeping
loft. There was enough money to build it and frame it in, but not to insulate it all, so the only
room that was insulated in the whole place was the baby's room. In those days, there weren't as
many people from away in that part of rural Maine, so people knew who we were: the crazy
writers who'd moved into a fishing camp with a newborn baby. A California photographer
studying at the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport somehow heard about us, and came
and did a feature when Callie was a few weeks old, with some nice photos of me painting the
baby's room and sitting with her out by the lake. I have no idea if or where it was published, but
I still have the pictures. I was writing a review for the Post two days after Callie was born,
holding her as I typed.
It sounds romantic and exciting now, but it was a very difficult time. We were both writers, and
we were very poor. There were holes in the floor, no insulation, and of course no internet to
connect us to the rest of the world. We'd take showers at a friend's house in Camden and haul in
gallon jugs of water. In the summer and fall, I'd haul water from the lake for washing up. You
had to heat it on the stove for hot water, so I learned how little water you need to keep dishes
clean (not as much as you think). When winter came, Callie's room was warm but it would be
27 degrees in the rest of the cottage. I'd climb down from the loft to feed the woodstove and
check on her obsessively in her crib -- she was bundled up like a little Eskimo. For a while
there was a porcupine living under the cottage, and in the middle of the night I'd hear him
gnawing at the floorboards. They can be very destructive, and all I could think was, "I'm living
in this falling-down place and a freaking porcupine is going to bring it all down unless I kill it
now." So I'd throw on my LL Bean boots and a parka and grab a baseball bat (I don't remember
where that came from) and tromp outside in the snow and bang on the side of the cottage until I
scared him off. I did that for about a week and he finally gave up and left for good.
I'd go to work at Fresh Off the Farm, the organic food store, with Callie in a basket behind the
register, and people would exclaim "There's a baby back there!" In the fall I bagged apples for
them and weighed out granola, things like that. The owners were very kind, and sometimes the
owner paid me in food. I applied to the Maine heating assistance program to get some firewood,
and two very nice men came out to deliver it. They must have gone back and reported how cold
the place was, and how we had a baby, because a few days later a brand-new, very efficient
woodstove was delivered and installed. We were very fortunate that the state's assistance
programs were better-funded then -- it infuriates me now when social programs are cut. I was
working poor, but I was working my ass off. By the time my son was born in 1992 things were a
bit easier, but definitely more crowded. We'd made a lot of friends, and were learning how to
live in Maine, prepare for the winter and get by. I learned how to stack firewood, light a fire, can
food (not well), haunt the corners of the grocery store where they sold reduced produce and
dinged-up cans. I went to tag sales and the local dump, which has a swap shop where I found
furniture, clothes, toys, even a cookstove. Most of Tooley Cottage is furnished from tag sales or
the dump. As an artist friend told me back then, "Maine is a good state to be poor." Because a
lot of people struggled to get by, but they did. There was a great newsletter called The Tightwad
Gazette written by a woman in Maine, which taught you how to do things like make your own
baby wipes and granola and clothing. When Y-2K came down the pike, I was ready.
SCHWEITZER: So, tell me about your transition from short-story writer to novelist. Do you
find the long form more attractive?
HAND: I was never really conscious of any transition -- I'd start out writing a story, and it
would either be a short story, or a novella, or in the case of Winterlong, a novel. The latter
started as a novella, "The Boy in the Tree." I knew that if I wanted to have a career as a writer,
I'd have to write novels, so at some point I decided to create a second storyline and attempt to
write a novel. Winterlong doesn't actually function very well as a novel -- it's more of a
picaresque, or a long fever dream. But it was my first book, so I was learning as I went along.
My real preference is for the novella. I love writing them, and I tend to be able to immerse
myself in the process and create a novella in about three weeks. I think the novella's the best
form for supernatural fiction: long enough to create intricate characters and background, but
short enough so that you can create and sustain an atmosphere of unease. Ideally one should
read a novella all at once, so that the mood isn't broken.
That's one reason why I think that long supernatural novels are less successful than shorter
works -- at some point you have to book the book down.
SCHWEITZER: You've certainly written books which more or less approximate supernatural
horror novels. So, how do you deal with the problem of maintaining the mood over length? Of
course we get back to the question of what a supernatural horror novel is, anyway, other than a
book that can be marketed as one.
HAND: Well, I do it -- or did it -- but it's more difficult than with something that's novella
length. I haven't actually written a book-length supernatural novel since Black Light.
Generation Loss and Available Dark have flickers of the supernatural, and they share some of
the elements of a horror story, but they're both much shorter (I think Available Dark is about
80,000 words). My favorite supernatural novel is Richard Adams' The Girl in a Swing. It builds
the mood very slowly -- I think the first 100 pages are devoted to back story, and then it
progresses into a love story, and while the first section establishes the supernatural element,
genuine horror isn't introduced until pretty far along. That novel was a bestseller when it came
out, but I suspect it would have trouble finding an audience today -- it's a long novel, and from
the outset the narrator tells us he's some kind of clairvoyant, but it's not obviously a horror
novel. On the other hand, the rise of various e-reading devices seem to have created a market for
shorter fiction, so maybe this will result in a boom for novellas.
SCHWEITZER: When you write science fiction, do you decide that this one will be science
fiction, or does it just come out that way? I mean in the sense of, "okay, the fantastic element in
this one will be rationalized."
HAND: I never really think about it beforehand. I generally don't like rationalizing the fantastic
elements in my stories. I look at it more as reportage: I try to write down a particular experience
in as much concrete and emotional detail as possible, then let the reader decide what's going on.
What exactly happens in "Near Zennor" or "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's 'Bellerophon'"?
You tell me.
SCHWEITZER: Indeed, what does happen in "McCauley's 'Bellerophon'"? Before asking
that, I stopped and reread the story. A lovely piece of work, but is this fantasy? The only
unexplained fantastic thing is the green light that zaps the flying model. Is it a kind of alternate
history or secret history, because your characters discover (but destroy the evidence for) a pre-Wright Brothers flight? It's as if you turned the "fantasy" dial down as far as it can go without
turning it off, to a low whisper. But it feels like fantasy, and it won the World Fantasy Award. So
is the fantastic more a matter of feeling, an emotional resonance of a specific sort, or is it a
matter of content?
HAND: Well, as I said, I really don't like to over-explain (or even explain) the events in my
stories. I wanted "Bellerophon" to balance on a knife-edge between fantasy and science fiction,
and there are elements of both in there. I don't see it as an alternate history, but I'm happy it can
be read that way. And you're absolutely right -- I do like to turn the fantasy dial all the way
down. I want to create a world that's recognizably our own, but with that one tiny element of
strangeness that throws everything off balance. A single inexplicable thing like the emerald
foliot in "Hungerford Bridge" -- it completely recalibrates the known world, as much as a larger
discovery would. I think I'm just more interested in the small picture than the bigger one.
Uccello's "The Hunt in the Forest," the painting used for the cover of Errantry -- it's not a
particularly large painting, but it holds an entire world that expands the longer you look at it. I
saw the original at the Ashmolean Museum, and you can just fall into it, without ever quite
understanding why it's so mesmerizing. That's a sensation I'd love to capture in writing.
SCHWEITZER: I can see how this sort of writing could have trouble in commercial terms. Do
you experience any sort of generic pressure (in the sense of expectation from the publishers) in
the sense of "If this is going to be published as fantasy it had better have fantasy elements in it!"
or are you safely into the realm of the Brand Name (Stephen King's term) where anything you
do is just published as an Elizabeth Hand book?
HAND: I've pretty much ignored any good advice I've been given insofar as conforming to
market expectations. So yes, I think I've become a brand, though definitely an acquired taste. I
have a low boredom threshold, and I write what I want to write. I've made no bones about it
when I've done hack work like novelizations. I really enjoyed writing the Boba Fett juveniles,
but I paid back a substantial advance for an adult Star Wars novel -- the most money I've ever
been offered -- when I realized I wouldn't enjoy writing it, and wouldn't do a good job.
It's not that I disdain commercial success -- I don't know a single writer who does, and I know a
lot of writers. But you can go crazy trying to write a "commercial novel." The hard truth is that
no one can predict what the reading public wants. I've reviewed hundreds of novels over the last
twenty-five years, and I've probably seen thousands of publicity packages for new books.
Sometimes the muscle that publishers put behind a title pays off, but often it doesn't. Sometimes
a well written, plot-driven novel takes off, but usually it doesn't. If you get a great review on the
front page of the NYTBR, you've probably got a bestseller on your hands, but who's cracked the
code as to how that happens? Not me, that's for sure.
At the end of the day, you have to enjoy the process more than the final result. It's that old
cliche about the journey not the destination -- that really is what matters. That and not being a
finalist for the Bad Sex Writing Award.
SCHWEITZER: I wonder if "Bellerophon" might be a rare instance where the term "American
Magic Realism" actually means something (other than a marketing strategy which translates as
"the fantastic which is trying to distance itself from genre fantasy). A story like this isn't so
much built out of a "What if?" premise, but a way of looking at the world slightly askew, and
using small unreal details which the characters see as part of their daily lives. So, Liz Hand,
American Magic Realist? What do you think?
HAND: I think the American Magic Realist label works as well as any, though it doesn't really
encompass the Cass Neary books (although those have a subtle underlying supernatural
element). I guess if I had to choose a term to describe the work, it would be 'fabulist,' which
covers more literary territory. Winterlong is really a supernatural novel set in the future.
Graham Sleight made a persuasive argument to me for Glimmering being read as alternate
history, though it was written as a near-future SF novel with supernatural elements. Radiant
Days is a mostly mainstream historical novel but with timeslip. "Near Zennor" is a
straightforward homage to Robert Aickman.
So really, the stories are all over the map. Though the truth is, I'm working without a map.
Because if you just let yourself go with the experience, there's nothing wrong with being lost.
SCHWEITZER: What are you working on now?
HAND: I'm working on the third Cass Neary novel, Flash Burn, and after that will wrap up
Wylding Hall, a neo-gothic YA novel. When those are in the can, I hope to get back to some
short fiction. I haven't had the chance to write any shorter work for sometime, and I'm craving
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Liz.