Interview: Gemma Files and the Weird

Gemma Files is a Canadian citizen, and has lived in Toronto, Ontario for her entire life (thus far). She is the daughter of two actors, Gary Files and Elva Mai Hoover. Files graduated from Ryerson University with a B.A.A. in Magazine Journalism, then spent roughly eight years as a film critic, primarily writing for local alt-culture journal eye Weekly. By 1998, she was also teaching screenwriting, short screenplay writing, television series development, film history and Canadian film history, first at the Trebas Institute, then the Toronto Film School. After leaving eye, she taught full-time, while also publishing two collections of short stories (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both from Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, a Sinnersphere Production, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press).  A Book of Tongues: Volume One in the Hexslinger Series (ChiZine Publications) was released in April, 2010, followed by A Rope of Thorns (2011) and, soon, A Tree of Bones (2012).  I interviewed her via email about weird fiction and her story “Blood Makes Noise,” also posted here as part of our 12 Days of Monsters celebration. – Jeff VanderMeer Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? And what childhood books do you remember reading that were definitely more of the weird variety?

Gemma Files: Because my parents are both actors, they exposed me to Shakespeare, Greek and Norse mythology, fairy tales and poetry pretty early on. One of my first memories of being read to is my mother reading me Twelfth Night, specifically Viola’s speech to Olivia that begins: “Make me a willow cabin at thy gate/And cry upon my soul within the house/Write loyal cantons of contemned love/And sing them loud even in the dead of night…” One of my first memories of reading anything for myself, on the other hand—something “adult”, something I had to read “in my head”—is of reading C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, which definitely left a very particular set of scars. My Mom is anything but a horror fan, though I do remember sneaking her copy of Interview with the Vampire from her bedside table and scanning it for “sexy bits”. My Dad, on the other hand, is a definite science fiction fan (I stole a copy of Robert Silverberg’s Thorns from him, which heavily influenced my earliest stuff), and left a book of horror and science fiction movie stills behind when he went back to Australia which both fascinated and terrified me…so much so, in fact, that I was unable to look directly at certain images for years, until I eventually just sat down and studied them every day in an attempt to burn my fears out of me. It didn’t completely work, but I did manage to get myself to a place where watching the end of Wuthering Heights on TV wouldn’t give me the screaming meemies for a week afterwards.

WFR: Do you personally see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and “the gothic”, and does it matter to you as either a writer or reader?

Files: At its worst, “horror” is a collection of tropes—it definitely has very particular rhythms and rules, established patterns and parameters, which is what lends it its odd “comfort food” aspect. I remember interviewing Wes Craven once—for New Nightmare, his Nightmare on Elm Street meta movie—and being struck by his assertion that what horror provides as a genre is a safe space within which to play out unsafe scenarios, to rehearse our reactions to things we know (or hope) will never happen. It has rules, and if you find out what they are and stick to them, you’ll be okay. The bad part is that these very parameters make it predictable, especially within narratives that privilege plot above character. The threat often comes from the outside, and that always seems to render things A) more inherently male-dominated and B) more reductionist in nature; it’s also a genre that lends itself well to either overwhelming despair or a re-set solution, especially when it chooses to create a new rule by reflexively negating its own rules. (Brian de Palma has much to answer for.)

“The gothic”, meanwhile, though similarly very stringently structured, tends to flip this paradigm—to privilege character above plot, psychology over mechanics. The threat most often comes from the inside, thus leading to unreliable narrative voices and misinformation, which in turn can calcify into a series of increasingly insular twists. Though we tend to think of it in terms of its most reductionist trappings (creaking floors, old houses, women in long nightgowns, evil retainers, etc.), it actually travels surprisingly well, and can be taken from several different angles at once. I also see it as a slightly more inherently female genre, more mystery/secret-solving oriented, more passive than active—its protagonists sometimes don’t even get names, and often don’t even understand their own motivations. But maybe I repeat myself, in terms of “slightly more inherently female”.

“The weird”, meanwhile…man. Like art and pornography, I know it when I see it. “The weird” has a particular tone, declarative and surreal. It’s not so much inexplicable as something which refuses to explain itself, and that’s the point of the exercise; it references and then breaks the rules, approaching the numinous. It makes the reader complicit in their own derangement. And above all, it’s really freaking hard to do.

WFR: What do you think is the appeal of weird fiction generally? The scare? Catharsis? Something else?

Files: For me, the appeal is the idea of creating something that will make the person reading it look over their own shoulder uneasily, but also feel as though they recognize it on some inmost level…to create an unnatural concept which nevertheless seems part of of the natural order. You never saw it before, but the minute you do, you realize it’s always underlain everything. So emotional catharsis, yes, but better than that, a sense of completion which dissolves upon closer examination. The closest we can come to a primitive religious experience, maybe—a true Mystery, in the ancient Greek sense.

WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?

Files: When people say it about my own stuff, it usually means A) they don’t get what I was aiming for (which is valid, and probably my fault) or B) they disengaged at some point, possibly as a coping mechanism, which I feel is more their “fault”—something I have no control over, at any rate. For me, “too weird” usually means that the narrative’s contortions take it so far away from where we began that I feel I have no investment in it anymore. It’s lost the push-pull we all crave, that thing where you have a shadow or id-tastic version of the story playing out in your head, always a few beats ahead of where you are at any given time, and you’re just as happy to be proven wrong as to be proven right. If the story deviates so far from that back-and-forth that you have nothing and no one to care about, though, no matter how cleverly…that’s “too weird”, to me.

WFR: Is the “reveal” of the other-worldly element in a supernatural story the toughest part for the writer to get right? How do you know how much to reveal and how much to hold back?

Files: I think it was Paul Auster who said that the mystery itself was always more interesting than any solution could ever be. And I think that’s true—solutions are inherently reductionist. What I’m attracted to is the lacuna, the shadow on the wall, the Lovecraftian/M.R. Jamesian thing in which you get only a bare glimpse, a handful of details that don’t add up to anything concrete. That sense of “what the hell am I LOOKING at?” So yes, that’s the tension, and it’s very, very hard, both to produce and to maintain. People who usually manage it well include: Peter Straub, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kathe Koja, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi. People who usually do it badly include: Me.

WFR: What was the spark for “Blood Makes Noise”?

I’ve always been equally afraid of outer space and the deep ocean. I remember going on a trip to the Barrier Reef with my Dad when I was fourteen and swimming until I was right over the downslope, that cliff which falls away through blue into black. It was paralyzing for me; it didn’t matter that I “knew” I couldn’t actually fall, because the urge to do so—to let it happen, go down into the dark until my lungs exploded—was like a hammer to the chest. The boat hung just over the lip, inaccessibly far-seeming, since I’d have to force myself to brave the gap to get there. And then I looked up further and realized I was right in the middle of a bloom of tiny jellies, possibly poisonous, which also didn’t help.

So that was part of it. The other part was that I already had Regis Book in my head, a character looking for a narrative, cobbled together from various George Bush Senior-era Black Ops fairytales and Jello Biafra rants, with a heaping teaspoonful of charmingly practical cowardice/duplicity from people like The X-Files‘ triple agent Alex Krycek. It came out really quickly, that story—pretty much over a weekend. Sometimes you get lucky that way.

WFR: How do you perceive the monstrous in that story? There’s a kind of strange beauty to parts of it.

Files: That was what I was going for: Alien, rather than monstrous. The fact is, there’s so much of our planet we know very little about, both because it’s hidden and because its environment is antithetical to our survival; people used to dredge the sea-bottom and bring stuff up and be appalled by it, in much the same way that the first bathysphere explorers looked at those bioluminescent hagfish, anglers, viperfish and vampire octopi and thought: “Jesus, what the HELL.” But even things so ugly you’re moved to call them “common black devils” and such are simply part of the same landlocked, sunlit, above-ground waking world we all occupy. They’re as much part of the natural order as our own dreams, our own fears, those unspoken impulses.

To me, therefore, the shell is the least monstrous part of “Blood Makes Noise”; it wants what it wants, it has its particular hungers, and it goes about satisfying them any way it can. Book, who could act otherwise and chooses not to, is far more monstrous…and so are his “masters”, on either side of the divide. The shell is part of the natural order, and they’ve set themselves against nature. But then again, humans are perverse like that, in general.

WFR: Where does the personal enter your fiction generally, and how do you find the personal in a story like “Blood Makes Noise”?

Files: In the case of “Blood Makes Noise”, I asked myself what I’d be willing to do in order to stay alive, and just how bad things would have to get before I could admit that the risk wasn’t worth the return. On some level, at the end of that story, Book still believes he can cheat the devil—that he WILL get out of this horrifying limbo he’s made for himself—and as long as he still feels that, he’ll keep on keepin’ on. The idea of having to rely on your own fear as a source of nourishment to something else and thus your ticket to survival is an interesting one; most of us admit that eventually, we’d go numb. Is it better or worse to be convinced that your wounds will never heal, even if they’re self-inflicted? A moment of doubt and pain, prolonged infinitely, like the glass mountain worn away by a bird’s beak which supposedly constitutes the first second of the first minute of your time in Hell?

WFR: How often does the real world give you something seemingly inexplicable, something weird, that becomes a spark for a story or novel?

Files: More often than you’d think. Sometimes it’s a dead bird in a fountain, like the beginning image in “The Jacaranda Smile”; sometimes it’s a newspaper article, like the one which inspired “The Shrines”, which I found the other day while cleaning out my desk. Sometimes it’s a dream, a line in a song, a mondegreen, a snatch of poetry, a frame of film. And sometimes it’s a slow accumulation of details and themes which become abruptly linked together by plot or character, or both. I love that sort of alchemical transformation, albedo out of nigredo.

WFR: Finally, what’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read?

Files: If I had to choose, I’d say that the weirdest story I’ve ever read is probably “Mrs. Gertrude”, a fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, which I found in a collection illustrated by Maurice Sendak. It’s fragmentary and inexplicable to an intense degree; like “Little Red Riding-Hood”, it’s ostensibly a warning to children against disobedience, and Mrs. Gertrude certainly has aspects of Baba Yaga or Frau Holle, but…the more I looked at it, growing up, the more it reminded me of actual witchcraft trial “confessions”, full of contradictory detail and skipped explanation, as underlyingly odd as Arthur Machen’s “The White People” or anything by Thomas Ligotti. It also contains the line “And now you have seen the witch in her true ornament”, which I keep on coming back to, so there’s that. 😉

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