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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Theodora Goss
    by Darrell Schweitzer

(Recorded at the World Fantasy Convention, San Diego, CA, Oct 30, 2011)

Theodora Goss is the author of The Thorn and the Blossom, which has just appeared from Quirk Books. Her first short story collection is The Forest of Forgetting (Prime, 2006). She has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award, and she has won the World Fantasy Award for "The Singing of Mount Abora" (best short story, 2008). She has also won the Rhysling Award for her poem "Octavia Lost in the Hall of Masks" in 2004. She lives in Boston.

SCHWEITZER: Let's just start out with your background, who you are, and how you came to writing.

GOSS: Do you want me to go through my life story a little bit? Okay.

SCHWEITZER: Well it is somewhat exotic. More than mine. I was born in New Jersey.

GOSS: It is somewhat exotic. I was definitely not born in New Jersey. This does actually have quite a lot to do with my writing. I was born in Hungary, back in the Communist era. I left the country when I was, I think, about five years old. There was really no legal way to leave the country back then. So we officially escaped from a Communist country. That was one of the first things that happened in my life. So it's an exciting background to have. But I moved around a lot. We lived in Italy for a while after that and then we lived in Brussels, and then we came to the United States. Even when we were in the United States, we ended up moving a lot. I think because we were moving so much, because I always had to make new friends and get used to new places, one of the things I held onto during my childhood was books. I would read books and I would find a home in places like Narnia or Middle Earth, and they were always there for me in a way that geographical locations were not always there for me. I think that's why I started reading fantasy, or at least partly the reason that I started reading fantasy, that they gave me this sense of home, and they didn't seem strange to me. They didn't seem particularly unusual. I could understand that people were talking to dragons and things like that, because to me the real world seemed fantastical anyway, partly because I'd had such a sense of dislocation in childhood.

SCHWEITZER: Was English your first reading language?

GOSS: No, actually my first reading language was French. So I started reading children's books in French, and it wasn't until I was about seven years old that I started learning English.

SCHWEITZER: So you must have grown up with French fairy tales. This might have been an improvement, because you didn't get the Disney versions.

GOSS: I definitely didn't get the Disney versions. I grew up with not just French fairy tales; I grew up with a lot of fairy tales. What I got when I was a child were European books. We had European books in my house, books of European fairy tales, things that my mother had grown up on. We had an entire book of fairy tales from the Baltic area, I remember. We had them in English and in the original Hungarian. I guess they were originally in Hungarian. So we had these stories from Eastern Europe, and they are much, much darker than the versions of fairy tales that are told to American children. I hadn't really thought about this before, but that must have influenced me deeply, because when I tell fairy tales - and my fairy tales are for adults - they are much more dark. When you marry a bear, for example, that has consequences of various sorts. It's a strange, very real thing and not at all a kind of Disney thing.

SCHWEITZER: When I was growing up in the U.S., they very much had the attitude that fantasy of any sort is only for small children and it is something they are to be encouraged to outgrow, which would explain the trivialized versions. Isn't it true that in Europe they treat the fantastic with a little more respect?

GOSS: I think that's true in a certain sense, though in an odd way, because my mother had grown up under the Communist system, the old folktales were given respect; but on the other hand there was this notion that literature for adults was supposed to be realistic. So I think that she always looked at my writing fantasy as a very odd thing. The kind of literature that she had grown up with was about workers and when you had American books that were coming to Hungary, they were John Steinbeck, about the plight of the American worker. There really was censorship of literature back in those days. There were books you could read and books you couldn't read, that were expurgated. But I think she had, without really thinking about it, grown up with the idea that literature was supposed to reflect real life. So she always looked at my writing fantasy and reading fantasy as a very American sort of thing. So it's interesting, the way that Communism had this impact on genre.

SCHWEITZER: Did they have any samizdat tradition? The Russians certainly did, which is where we get the word. I wonder if this didn't become a kind of forbidden fruit.

GOSS: I think it did, actually. What you find in Eastern Europe now is that since the fall of the Berlin Wall there are a lot more people who are interested in fantasy and science fiction. I think that part of it is that it is associated with American culture for them, and it is associated with liberation, the permission to write what you want. They're very small movements, still, but it's interesting that most of the stories of mine that have been translated have been translated into Russian or Rumanian or Hungarian or Polish. They have been translated into Eastern European languages. Maybe it is because I have a connection with the area, but also there has been an upsurge of interest in science fiction and fantasy in those areas.

SCHWEITZER: Isn't it also interesting that most American fantasy is not about America? Some of it does, but most of it is not about Native Americans and magic buffaloes or whatever. It has castles and elves in it. It looks back to Europe.

GOSS: I think that's partly because so many Americans came from Europe originally. Their ancestry comes from Europe. There is a way in which they brought their literature with them, brought their folktales with them, and their magical figures, and you haven't really had an incorporation of a Native American tradition into an American literary fantasy tradition. This is in some sense unfortunate, I guess. We had a panel on this at Wiscon. The more problematic aspect is that when you do have an incorporation of that tradition it is not necessarily by people who are brought up in that tradition. So they don't necessarily have the feel for it, and they can write it in ways that aren't very true to the original. At least these were some of the problems that we were discussing.

In some sense it is easier to write about Irish fairies, because they are more removed from us. But I think that we have a kind of immigrant fantasy tradition. We take liberally from the fantasy traditions of all different countries, and we mix stuff up. I heard complaints about how we mess up Irish fairies and do things to Irish fairies that people are looking at dubiously. But I think we have a very eclectic fantasy tradition.

SCHWEITZER: Maybe we even take fairies a little more seriously. I heard a great story from Michael Swanwick once. He and his wife were in Ireland, and they were looking at this stone circle that was in someone's back yard, and as they were doing so a ten-year-old boy came out and said, "What are you doing?" and he said, "We're looking at the fairy ring." With a look of absolute disgust the boy said, "Don't tell me you believe in fairies!" Is it possible that precisely because they don't have this sort of tradition in America, Americans look back to it more.

GOSS: I think that's part of it. There is also a sense in which our lives are so urban now and so focused on the technological that we are nostalgic for a fantasy tradition that seems to link us to something authentic and something of the land. There are certain countries that stand in for that kind of authenticity, and Ireland is one of them. We have these beautiful images in our minds of Ireland as green and somehow enchanted and magical. It's a way for us to mentally connect back to something that feels real and natural in the middle of our lives, which are lived online and in urban centers for the most part.

SCHWEITZER: There is an American tradition, but maybe for most writers it's as much of a stretch as writing about ancient Greece or something. In any case, it's only got a couple hundred years of depth. I am thinking of Stephen Vincent Benet or Manly Wade Wellman, or Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series. These are fantasies about white people in America. But you and I have never lived in a log cabin in the woods, now have we? So we are just as removed from that as we are from living in a castle.

GOSS: What about Lovecraft? I mean, Lovecraft was not looking back to Europe in the same way that Poe was. Poe really was looking back to Europe for his fantasy tradition, but Lovecraft seems to have created something that was, for me, deeply influenced by what was going on in Europe intellectually in the last part of the 19th century, but on the other hand it seems very different from what anyone else has done.

SCHWEITZER: I think Lovecraft was looking back to his New England roots, back to the 17th or 18th century, often very overtly; but he was also looking forward and outward. He wasn't looking at the past at all. He was looking at the Einsteinian universe. Remember that he came at precisely the time when they discovered that those swirly things you see in telescopes are actually other galaxies. There was a time when astronomers thought that the universe was shaped like a mill-wheel, and those pinwheel things were just swirling clouds of gas, and not very far away. Suddenly, in Lovecraft's time, the universe got vastly bigger and much more chaotic. So the answer is that Lovecraft is looking forward through the perspective of the cutting-edge science of his day.

GOSS: I think there is something very American about that. We're the ones who put men on the Moon, right? There's something that feels very American about the sense of uncertainty about the future, a kind of fear linked to the exploration of space. There is something to me that feels very much of this country. I say that because I grew up in Europe and there is a different feeling there. There is a different relationship to time, in a sense. You are so living in traces of the past. I remember going down in the metro in Budapest when I went to visit there, and parts of the metro are Roman ruins. There is such a tendency in Europe to look back at the past more than there is to look forward to the future. In a sense, the fact that we have such a short past as Europeans in this country - or as immigrants in this country, I should say, because obviously not all of us are European immigrants - we don't have that deep sense of the past; although Lovecraft also had a deep sense of a very weird past. I mean, he was looking back at an incredibly distant past which was a very non-human past.

SCHWEITZER: As someone put it, if the history of the Earth were written as a 150-volume encyclopedia, the history of mankind would fill the bottom half of the last page. Lovecraft had a keen sense of that kind of perspective. This also raises another point which may be relevant to the difference between European and American writing. I at least have the impression that there are no serious distances in England, and there is no empty land. But while flying to this convention, well, I seemed to pass over the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom, and I spent an hour and a half passing over the Grand Canyon. You can look to the horizon from that altitude and see no trace of human activity whatsoever. This isn't even just the case in the Southwest. There are placed in Pennsylvania where you can drive for hours and see nothing but forest. So I think this gives us a very different view of distance and land from the way Europeans see them.

GOSS: I think that's absolutely right. I even feel it after returning from Europe, when I get back to the United States and I leave the airport. Everything's larger. Our roads are larger. Things are farther away from each other. We have a sense that there is simply more space for us to live in. Our houses are larger. You can drive five hours from Boston to New York and you are still speaking the same language, and the culture is really not very different. Whereas, if you take the town my father lives in Hungary, which is Debrecan, and you drive five hours south, you have crossed a number of different countries and you've spoken a number of different languages. So, things feel smaller there and it feels like there are boundaries around you in a way that it feels like there aren't in the United States. In some sense that can create a feeling of anxiety, to feel that sense of boundlessness, but it can also create a sense of possibility.

SCHWEITZER: So, what does this change in perception do to your fiction?

GOSS: I think my fiction partakes of both. I think that there are parts of it that feel very European to people, and there are parts of it that are definitely American. I think I feel very free to cross boundaries of all sorts and to experiment. I think that's partly my rebellious Americanness. [Laughs.] I think there is something rebellious about us. And I also end up writing about the American South, which is where I actually grew up. I grew up in Virginia. I think that had an influence on me as well. There is something about the South and the fantastical, Gothic tradition of the South that I got growing up as a child. But there is something in the language I use. I have been told this, that I write in a way that is fairly precise, and I think it may be the way that you write when you learned a language as a second language rather than as a first language.

SCHWEITZER: So your first spoken language would have been Hungarian, then you learned to read French, and then you learned English.

GOSS: Yeah, absolutely. I still have some of the children's books I had when I lived in Brussels. Yeah, I have crossed three linguistic boundaries. I still speak French, not very well anymore, because I have not practiced for a long time, but I still read French. I know a very little bit of Hungarian. Unfortunately not very much, about the amount you'd know if you were a five-year-old. But I think that having those languages has done something to my style. I am not entirely sure what, but it's changed it.

SCHWEITZER: Americans may be the world's worst linguists, but it was my experience anyway, that about the time you get to high school in this country, and you study a foreign language for the first time - and don't really learn it - you start thinking for the first time about how languages work, the syntax and grammar, such as the fact that in the Latin-based languages the modifiers follow the nouns, or that in German the verb at the end of the sentence comes. That sort of thing. Do you find yourself suddenly more conscious of language and how you use it because you know more than one?

GOSS: I think that's true. I am not sure it's happened with me on a conscious level. Maybe on an unconscious level. I think I pay attention to the sound of language very carefully, and I am a writer who writes by ear. I think a lot about the way sentences sound. Another thing that has influenced my writing obviously is that I teach writing at the university level. I have been trained as a teacher of grammar and of style, so I am very conscious of the way I write, but I also write in a sense, by the sound. I think even of punctuation in terms of the way that it makes sentences sound. I don't know. Maybe even that comes a little bit from being a child and learning these different languages and being aware of the way they sound, because Hungarian, French, and English all sound very, very different.

SCHWEITZER: Speaking of other things you may get from childhood, what do you think you have brought from childhood into adulthood from fairy tales? Some people just read fairy tales as kids and then leave them. Obviously fantasy writers don't.

GOSS: I think one is the displacement of the human. Human beings aren't necessarily the most important things in fairy tales. If you read a realistic novel, every single character is a human being. Human beings are very, very important. In fairy tales human beings are not necessarily the most important things. The wolf is very important, or the bull is really important, or the polar bear is really important. So one thing is the sense that human beings are not the only actors in the world. I think that as fantasy writers - Ursula Le Guin said something like this at one point - we have a sense that we as human beings are not living alone in the world. We can imagine ourselves into the consciousness of other beings, whether they are imaginary beings like dragons or animals of various sorts. We have a tendency to tell stories from the point of view of non-human characters, and I think that is very, very important. Especially nowadays, when we have so much power over the natural world, it is very important to be able to look at that world from a different perspective.

I think another thing I bring into adulthood from fairy tales is a belief in the possibility of all sorts of transformations. Fairy tales are about transformations and magical shape-shifting. Things change in fairy tales. I think that appears in my writing. I think fairy tales have given me an enormous freedom in writing. I can write anything that I can imagine happening. I can make women marry bears. I can have someone who is a reincarnation of someone who lived a long time ago. It's a sense that the boundaries of the real don't bind me.

SCHWEITZER: I also notice from your story collection, that in some of your stories the fantasy element is extremely understated, like in the "Letters from Budapest" story. I'm reading this and it's very authentic, but it reads like a realistic story about being an artist under Communism, and then there is this fantastic flourish at the end, which changes the meaning of everything, but sometimes it seems as if you've put in the fantasy element as a seasoning.

GOSS: That's an interesting observation. I am not sure it is quite a seasoning. I think that what I see in the world around me is that there is a kind of fantastical element to life, and it underlies everything. Then all the realistic stuff happens on top of it. So I think I reflect that in my stories. There are stories of mine where somebody suddenly comes to the discovery that life is stranger than they think. I think that that's a discovery that we need to make, and that more of us could make. If we look at what science is discovering nowadays, bacteria living in conditions where we thought that no life was possible, for example. If we look at actual life, the actual real life around us, we will see that it is much, much stranger than we ever thought. We have this assumption that we understand life, and we don't. So I think that my stories, the stories that function like that, are stories that point out that you think you are living in one world, but it is not really the world you are living in, and there's often this moment of recognition that the characters go through, where they realize that the world is magical, and they didn't think it was.

SCHWEITZER: It's also a backward-looking moment, at least for the reader, because then the reader, because the reader understands that you're reading a slightly different story than you thought. All the events are still in the same order, but they have taken on a new meaning.

GOSS: Yes, and that's fun to do. I think that one way that I think about stories is in terms of their shapes. The book that I just wrote, which is coming in January [of 2012] is a book that does that consciously in that it's a book that consists of two stories, so you can read each story individually, and each story should make sense individually, but when you read both of them, you get a larger story. So when you read the first story, you get one story, but when you read the second you end up re-evaluating the first story. I think that you almost have to read the first story again in order to look back and understand how the whole functions.

SCHWEITZER: What is the title of this book?

GOSS: The title of this book is The Thorn and the Blossom, and it is coming out from Quirk Books. It's a project that one of the editors at Quirk asked me to do, and I was attracted to it because I thought of it as a sort of literary feat of engineering. I thought it would be fun to write two stories that interlock in that way. I told him I thought there were two sorts of stories that could do that. One is a mystery and one is a love story, and I chose to write the love story. So the love story is from the point of view of the two lovers, but they have different versions of events, and they tell you different things about the story. They give you different pieces information. So you can only tell the entire story once you have read both of them.

SCHWEITZER: Sort of like Rashomon, in which everybody tells the same story from a different point of view?

GOSS: The editor actually told me right from the beginning, "Don't make it like Rashomon." It shouldn't be the exact same story from two different points of view. There should be an element of mystery about it. There are parts of the story that are telling different events, so there are events you get in one story that are not in the other story. It's really about the lives of two people and how they live those lives, and how they interact with each other, and how each of them has their own life and their own story to tell. In a way, I thought of it as very much about how we do live our lives. Each one of us does have our own life and our own story to tell. They intersect in different ways, but you can never fully get another person's story. Each of us is living his or her own story.

[She shows an advance copy of the book.]

SCHWEITZER: This is a very strange looking book, physically. It opens up like an accordion. Would you explain the purpose of this?

GOSS: This was his idea in the beginning, to create a book that opened like an accordion. It opens from one side, and that's one story, and once you get to the back you can flip it over and open it from the other side and it's another story.

SCHWEITZER: Like reading two sides of a scroll.

GOSS: It is like reading two sides of a scroll. In fact someone has said to me that it looks like an ancient Japanese scroll, which is interesting, because what Quirk did was create a book which is in itself a work of art. And it's in a slipcase. There is going to be an eBook version, a Kindle version, but I am not sure it is going to be the same experience. This really is a book you want to hold in your hands.

SCHWEITZER: I imagine that at some point someone will want to do a mass-market paperback in a more conventional format, maybe back-to-back like an Ace Double. My first thought on seeing this is that if you put this in libraries, it's going to fall apart. It will tear down one of the folds, and then you will have two pieces. Would it work in a more conventional format?

GOSS: I don't know. You'd have to talk to Quirk Books and ask what their plans are. I think that they are not necessarily thinking of doing that. But we will have to see how the book does and what happens to it.

SCHWEITZER: What else are you working on these days?

GOSS: The next thing I am going to be working on is a novel. I wrote a short story a while back - you know another thing which has influenced my writing is my academic work. I just finished a Ph.D. in English Literature. The funny thing is that my academic work often leads to writing. So I was writing this doctoral dissertation, and one chapter of my doctoral dissertation is on The Island of Dr. Moreau and in The Island of Dr. Moreau, Dr. Moreau creates a woman out of a puma. This is the woman who ends up killing him. She is in turn shot by his assistant. Well, I decided to tell her story. So I wrote a story about the puma woman, who does not in fact get shot on Dr. Moreau's island; she makes her way to England, and becomes a sort of scientist herself. After that story I decided that she was such an interesting character, and I was studying mad scientists anyway, that I decided to write about all the daughters of the mad scientists. I wrote a story called "The Mad Scientists' Daughter." It includes, I think, six mad scientists' daughters, including Justine Frankenstein, which is the female monster that Frankenstein did not create in the novel but does create in my alternate universe. I have a sort of alternate literary universe. There was Mary Jekyll, for instance, and then Catherine Moreau, my puma woman, was in this story. It was published in Strange Horizons, and people responded to it very strongly. It was a finalist for a Locus Award. I decided that what I was going to do was write a novel with these characters in it. So this is a novel that is going to be about all the mad scientists' daughters, and what they do when they band together and form a club.

SCHWEITZER: Sort of the League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen.

GOSS: Exactly. They're going to have adventures. I don't know how it's going to go yet. I have written the first few chapters and I have a lot of revisions to do; but the first thing that happens is that Mary Jekyll and consults Sherlock Holmes.

SCHWEITZER: When you write this sort of book, how do you get beyond the level of being too obviously made up? How do you get the reader involved emotionally, beyond the sheer novelty value as a neat cartoon? To my mind the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen never succeeded. It was just too obviously made up, a big in-joke. How do you get past that?

GOSS: This is something I have been thinking about a lot as I have been writing it, because it would be very easy to write this as a neat cartoon, as a kind of adventure novel. I started out doing that and I realized that it was the wrong way to go. This is a book about a group of young women who know that they are monsters. Now, every teenaged girl in the world is convinced that she is a monster. I remember growing up as a teenaged girl and feeling out of place, feeling I didn't know what I was doing in the world, feeling a lack of self-confidence about all aspects of my life in the world. So I think the heart of this book is that it's about a group of young women who are, in fact, monsters, and yet they are also women like any other women out there, who are trying to find the same things. They are trying to figure out how they are going to live. They are trying to figure out how they are going to function in the world. Justine Frankenstein is seven feet tall. What are you going to do if you are a seven-foot-tall woman made of corpses in Victorian England? On the one hand, it can be very cartoony. On the other hand, you have to think about who this girl really is, on the inside, and you have to start getting into her head, and I think that's where the readers can start to connect with the characters. That is where I start to connect with the characters, when I start to think about who she really is and how she must feel being who she is.

SCHWEITZER: These are characters who are misfits rather than evil, aren't they?

GOSS: They're not evil, but they are outcasts from society, and therefore they are people who don't necessarily accept all the social norms and codes around them, particularly in Victorian England. And they have different personalities. So, for example Diana Hyde is not exactly evil, but she is a chaotic force, whereas Mary Jekyll is much more law-abiding.

SCHWEITZER: This may be a bit pedantic, but what did you do about the chronology? Frankenstein is set about a hundred years before any of the others, so Justine Frankenstein should be quite elderly before she meets Ms. Hyde.

GOSS: That's an excellent question, but what I decided in the end was that I didn't care. I was playing in an alternate universe, and in my alternate literary universe I was going to mix stuff up, because I wanted to create a different kind of story, one that didn't necessarily fit into the stories that had already been written, but one that played with them in kind of a post-modern way. In some sense, this is a Young Adult novel, although I am not consciously aiming in that direction, but it seems really odd to say that I am trying to write a popular novel which could potentially be a Young Adult novel in this post-modern vein, and yet that is exactly what I am doing. I am playing with this material. It took me a long time to get to that. I really worried about the chronology until I decided that, you know what, this is me playing with the material and that is what I am going to do.

SCHWEITZER: "Post-modern," such as this term means anything, seems to refer to writing which is consciously aware - and which reminds the reader - that it is writing, which gets back to the problem of how you avoid having it so obviously made-up that it doesn't seem like a story anymore.

GOSS: I think that by writing characters that feel real to people, that is the way that you always get to a story that doesn't just feel like a bunch of writing. You create characters that feel real to your readers because they are psychologically real. So, in a sense, it is much less important to me to be technically correct on the chronology than to be right about what my characters are thinking and how they are feeling.

SCHWEITZER: This is what any fantasy does, isn't it? Any fantasy contains elements readers know are impossible. Middle Earth doesn't exist, so Tolkien had to bowl them over with his characters.

GOSS: Yeah, although usually there is a kind of internal consistency. That's a good question - I guess there will be internal consistency in my novel if the chronology will work within the story itself. It's just the literary tradition that I am playing with. I think that is going to be a fun aspect of it. I have this elaborate training in Victorian literature, so I may as well use it for something, right? If I am going to be writing in that era, I don't want to write as an academic researcher. I don't want to have everything sound exactly right and get all the details right. That is not what I am going for. I am going for a fun, interesting story that readers can relate to.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Theodora.

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