Friday, March 16, 2007

Request exam or review copies of Interfictions

Interfictions and the IAF may be of particular interest to scholars doing research in the areas of genre, popular literature, reception history, modernism and postmodernism, literature and technology, the history of authorship, reading and publishing, and the economics and marketing of literature -- as well as cultural studies, mass communications, film studies, and semiotics.

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

The editors on Interfictions

For Interfictions, editors Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss read through short-story submissions from four continents to select the 19 stories they felt expressed the best in contemporary interstitial fiction. In this interview — excerpted from the book's afterword — they discuss the idea of interstitial fiction, their editorial process, and the nature of literature that falls between the cracks...

Q: What is the Interstitial Arts Foundation?

DELIA: The Interstitial Arts Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to examining and promoting art that doesn’t fit neatly within recognized categories of genre or marketing — art that falls in the interstices, the spaces between. Most of the original founders of the IAF happened to be writers, but our executive board has grown to include visual artists and media professionals as well. As a foundation, the IAF seeks to create community among artists who feel alienated from their more mainstream peers and to encourage them to invent markets and venues for what they do. Interfictions is the first anthology of interstitial fiction. We intend that it be the first of many interstitial projects drawn from all branches of the arts.

Q: Did you have a particular definition of interstitiality in mind before you began reading the stories?

DORA: I did have a general definition. But interstitiality has been defined in so many ways, at various forums where Delia and I have discussed the concept, that I wanted to forget my own definition, to say to the writers, I've asked you for an interstitial story. Now show me what you think is interstitial. And when I read a story, I considered not whether it fit my definition, but whether I responded to it in a certain way. I'll give you an example. When I read Christopher Barzak's "What We Know About the Lost Families of — House," I thought, this is related to what I know. It is a haunted house story. But, like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, it challenges the conventions of the genre. The collective narrator, which seems to represent not only the current inhabitants of the town but also the dead ones, never tells us who is haunting the house, or why it is haunted. And what other fictional haunting involves buttons? Reading the story, I experienced both recognition and disorientation. I should have known how to read it, but I didn't really. So one response I associated with interstitiality was, "I've seen this before — but no, it looks quite different after all. I've never seen it done this way." The other response was the one elicited by Jon Singer's "Willow Pattern": "I've certainly never seen this before!" Can you think of another story that exists between two genres, one of which is science fiction, and the other of which is china patterns?

DELIA: What I began with was less a definition of interstitial fiction than a short list of things I felt I knew about it. An interstitial story does not hew closely to any one set of recognizable genre conventions. An interstitial story does interesting things with narrative and style. An interstitial story takes artistic chances. These things are true, as far as they go. But the other thing I know is that every interstitial story defines itself as unlike any other. Like Dora, I had to let go of all ideas and theories. Léa Silhol’s "Emblemata," for instance, looks, for the first few pages, like a realistic recreation of the journal of a nineteenth-century French traveler in the exotic Orient. But at every turn, the narrative frustrates the conventions of that form, abandoning adventure for philosophy, pausing in the external journey to pursue an internal one. Reading it, I had to suspend the expectations raised by its apparent rhetoric and just follow the story as it unfolded, trusting that it would lead me to a place that would be emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Which it did. The best interstitial work, like "Emblemata," demands that you read it on its own terms; but it also gives you the tools to do so.

Q: Of the stories submitted, which was the first you read that you felt was interstitial?

DELIA: I read several stories that were very good fantasies or mainstream stories or romances, and then I came to Mikal Trimm’s "Climbing Redemption Mountain." At first, it felt like historical fiction, but I couldn't really identify the place or the time. It was utterly realistic in its details, both physical and psychological. It was clearly about redemption, but not within the theology of any historical religion. If I tried to read it as realism, I ran up against the fact that the writer had made up this world out of whole cloth. If I tried to read it as a fantasy, I ran up against the story's lack of recognizable genre markers. As far as genre is concerned, "Climbing Redemption Mountain" felt like something that was inventing itself as it unfolded.

DORA: I had a similar response to Karen Jordan Allen's "Alternate Anxieties," I think because of the way the story is told. It's fragmented because the consciousness of the narrator is fragmented. But it's also a science fiction story about alternate universes, and the story's form reflects, not just the fragmentation of an individual consciousness, but also the fragmentation of our reality, in which alternate universes are continually splitting off around us. So, what is it? Postmodern science fiction? Maybe, but it's also a story in the tradition of literary realism, about a woman coming to terms with death. The story seemed fresh, interesting, interstitial — and emotionally affecting.

Q: Did the two of you always agree on the stories that you chose?

DORA: No! Definitely not. Delia had to convince me that "Climbing Redemption Mountain" was interstitial, for the reasons she mentioned. And I had to convince her that we should include both "When it Rains, You'd Better Get Out of Ulga" and "The Utter Proximity of God," that they weren't too similar in style and sensibility. I argued that they were influenced by different literary traditions. Adrián Ferrero's story belongs, I believe, to the tradition of Latin American magic realism, of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, and of Angélica Gorodischer, to whom the story is dedicated — all authors I admire. Although Michael De Luca says he was inspired in part by Márquez, I think his story belongs to the tradition of European surrealism, going back to Rabelais. (There I go, contradicting the author. What can you expect from someone who teaches literature for a living?) I think of it as a response to Waiting for Godot, in which Godot, or in this case God, has arrived. But it makes no difference that God is present: the characters have to find the meanings of their own lives, even in Fecondita. And I fell in love with the styles of both stories, with their poetry. I also remember that, while we didn't disagree about Vandana Singh's "Hunger," which we both loved, we had a long discussion about whether it was interstitial. I remember arguing, finally, that although it can be read as a realistic story, it does not completely make sense, it does not allow its full meaning to appear, except to someone who is familiar with the conventions of science fiction. It's a story about living among aliens; only, of course, the aliens happen to be entirely human. So, we certainly didn't always agree during the process of choosing the stories. But by the end, we had convinced each other that these stories all belonged in the first Interfictions. You could say that the anthology happened somewhere in the space between us, between Boston and New York, between our personal aesthetics and ideas about genre.

Q: These days, contemporary stories based on fairy tale are almost a genre of their own. What did you feel was interstitial about the stories you chose that have on fairy tale elements?

DELIA: Each of the stories we chose for the anthology plays with a multiplicity of conventions. Veronica Schanoes’ "Rats" announces up front that it's a fairy tale, yet it is also, transparently, a fictionalized biography of Sid Vicious's girlfriend Nancy Spungen, which certainly does not have a fairy tale happy ending. The narrator is also a lot angrier than the dispassionate narrators of even the most violent folk tales tend to be, and a lot more present in the story. Tempest Bradford’s "Black Feather" references a handful of fairy tales, but is equally a dream‑quest out of a mystic tradition and a psychologically realistic story about unrequited love.

DORA: We could also include Colin Greenland's "Timothy" in the list of stories with fairy tale elements. Remember all the fairy tales in which men turn into animals, and animals turn into men? The most familiar example is probably "Beauty and the Beast." You could read "Timothy" as a modern "Beauty and the Beast," in which Beauty is a suburban housewife and the Beast is her household cat. I give this example to show how a story that seems so different from a fairy tale can still carrying the memory of a fairy tale within it — at least for me. And I agree with Delia that neither "Rats" nor "Black Feather" reminds me of other fairy tale retellings that I have read. To the extent that fairy tale retellings have become a sort of sub-genre, these stories play with its conventions.

Q: Why did you think it was important to include stories from writers outside the United States?

DORA: If we were going to cross borders, I thought we should certainly cross the most obvious ones — geographical borders. In a way, writing interstitial fiction outside the United States may be easier — there are national traditions of fiction that could be considered interstitial, exemplified by writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Milan Kundera. If we have that sort of tradition in the United States, it seems to me underdeveloped and undervalued. But publishing interstitial fiction may be harder, particularly if you're writing in a language spoken by millions, not billions, of people. I was thrilled to receive submissions from Hungary, where I was born, and to include a story by a Hungarian writer, Csilla Kleinheincz. Even before I read "A Drop of Raspberry," I was intrigued by the description, in her letter, of a story "about love between a man and a lake, and the futility of keeping up long conversations with someone who freezes over in the winter." This description points to what I perceive as the story's interstitiality: the way in which it functions both as metaphor and as an absolutely realistic description of the problems you might encounter if you fell in love with a lake. I don't know if other readers will hear this, but for me, "A Drop of Raspberry," "When It Rains, You'd Better Get Out of Ulga," and "Emblemata" all have particular sounds, as though you can hear the languages they were written in through the translations. I think you can hear it in the way the sentences are structured. I've been going on about stories in translation, and I haven't mentioned stories in English but by writers from countries other than the United States. Holly Phillips is Canadian, Colin Greenland is English, Anna Tambour is Australian, and Vandana Singh is Indian, although she lives in the United States. I think that geographical diversity makes the anthology richer.

Q: Do the stories you chose have anything in common, other than being interstitial?

DELIA: Two things, really, which became clear to me only well after the fact. The first is that almost all of these stories deal in one way or another with process, journey, the space between life and death, certainty and uncertainty, the time‑bound and the eternal: what Heinz Insu Fenkl calls liminality. Joseph in Rachel Pollack's "Burning Beard" is an old man on the edge of death thinking about his past and the future he has seen in visions, trying to make sense of a life lived in the shadow of eternity. Anna Tambour's "The Shoe in SHOES' Window" focuses on a shop window, a space that brings what's inside to the attention of people outside, as a story can bring attention to the obsessions and concerns of its creator. The second is that the way these stories is told is as critical to their effect as their content. Catherynne M. Valente's "A Dirge for Prester John" and Matthew Cheney's "A Map of the Everywhere" are as much about their language as about their narrative. Even the ostensibly plain‑spoken stories, like Joy Marchand's "Pallas at Noon," Holly Phillips's "Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom," and Vandana Singh's "Hunger" build powerful metaphors, sentence by sentence, that end up defining the meaning of their narratives.

DORA: One connection I see is a sort of awareness. All of these stories seem aware of their interstitial status. They are not only stories in between, they are also stories about in-betweenness. For example, in Leslie What's "Post Hoc," the narrator ends up living in a post office. You could think of a post office as an ultimate liminal space — always between destinations, never the destination itself. We send mail through, not to, the post office. So, "Post Hoc" is an interstitial story about an interstitial life, about a woman who makes a home for herself and finds happiness betwixt and between. And "A Dirge for Prester John" is about a liminal country. All of its inhabitants are somehow betwixt and between, even the narrator, whose face is on her body (like certain Magritte paintings, conflating two categories that we certainly think of as separate). It is a place of hybridities and ambiguities, but to the narrator it is home, and even Prester John eventually accepts his life there. So, strange as it may seem, since What's and Valente's stories are so different, Prester John's country is like the post office — both are liminal spaces that are nevertheless where the characters manage to create homes for themselves. I think that's what interstitial fiction is about: finding yourself at home in ambiguity, hybridity, liminality. Inhabiting the space between.

Q: What drew you, personally, to the idea of interstitiality?

DORA: I should make clear that I love genre fiction. I read lots and lots of detective stories, and I teach a class on gothic literature, in which the conventions are so important that you see the same scenes repeated in story after story. But the space I'm most interested in, the space my own writing seems to inhabit, is the space where those conventions are — bent, broken, brought together with other literary forms. The way Angela Carter writes fairy tales, using gothic rather than fairy tale conventions. So, my interest in interstitiality is a selfish one. I wish someone else would publish an anthology of interstitial fiction, so I could submit a story!

DELIA: For me, the best genre fiction is work that pushes the edges of convention while adhering to it. I love watching a real artist claim the tropes and tame the conventions of a traditional genre. Look at Shakespeare. Many of his plays are written within the conventions of their genres: Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 are chronicle histories, The Comedy of Errors is a classical comedy, Othello is a tragedy. But I wrote my master's thesis on King Lear, about how Shakespeare used the tropes of prose romance and fairy tale to play with his audience’s expectations, see‑sawing our emotions back and forth between hope and despair until we are as vulnerable and disoriented as Lear himself. I think my love of genre has led me to recognize and appreciate what occurs when an artist contemplates breaking a given rule, or combining it with one drawn from somewhere else. It's certainly what I did when I started writing.

Q: What did you learn in the process of editing the anthology?

DELIA: I learned to read really fast. I learned to let a story teach me how to read it without trying to analyze it as I went along. I realized that the reason I don't enjoy a lot of short fiction is because it isn't interstitial: whether it's Anne Tyler's domestic realism or Isaac Asimov's hard SF, I have a low tolerance for straight-up genre short fiction. But I loved reading nearly every submission for this anthology. I guess I'm just most comfortable in the spaces between.

DORA: What I learned is that interstitial stories may work differently, but they still have to work. They still have to appeal to a reader. One criticism of interstitial stories is that they are more interested in formal experimentation, in breaking genre boundaries, than in telling a story — in appealing to a reader. Although some of the stories we have chosen experiment with form (look at the formal experimentation in "Pallas at Noon," for example, in which the end of the story is really its beginning), I think they all appeal to readers emotionally. I identify with the narrator of "Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom," who has to choose between the fantasy she has created and a reality over which she has no control — a reality that is itself fantastical. That's the ambiguous reality I live in. The choices made in stories like "Alternate Anxieties," "Pallas at Noon," and "Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom" are choices I have to make. Recognition and disorientation — for me, that's the experience both of reading these stories and of living in the twenty-first century.