Monday 27 August 2018

Making Monsters: round-robin interview

The end of this week sees the release of our new publication Making Monsters: A Speculative and Classical Anthology, co-edited by Emma Bridges and containing a mix of fiction along with a few poems and essays. For the next few weeks we’ll be featuring posts from some of the authors, as well as appearing in interviews or guest appearances on other sites; we’ll share as many of these links here as we can. There will also be micro-interviews with almost all authors and editors on FB, games and giveaways on Twitter, and other fun to be had.

In the meantime, about half of the contributors have conducted a round-robin interview: each person asks a question of the next in the list, who replies and asks the next question. You’ll get the idea. If you want to hear more from any of these people, stay tuned!

Djibril asks Emma Bridges:
In your introduction to Making Monsters you talk about how myths, and monster stories in particular, are and always have been mutable, flexible, ripe for retelling. Is there any limit to how far a story might have been recast, and still fit the mythic model?

Emma replies:
I’ve read and seen countless ‘receptions’ of ancient stories, and I’m always amazed by the ways in which writers and artists can bring something fresh to each new retelling. These myths never get tired, and I think that’s precisely because the possibilities for reinvention are almost limitless. I think a new story usually starts with a recognisable core at its heart, but after that the only limits are those imposed by the storyteller’s own imagination. Not every classical scholar or author of fiction would agree with me, I’m sure, but I’m of the opinion too that ultimately the reader or viewer doesn’t necessarily have to be familiar with the ancient tales, or to recognise what that core is, to take something meaningful from a new version of a story.

Emma asks George Lockett:
The Siren who tells her own story in ‘The Last Siren Sings’ says, “ours is not a song of pleasure. It is a song of power.” Do you think that, as a writer of fiction, you have a role to play in empowering those who have been marginalised or misunderstood?

George replies:
A key goal of fiction, particularly speculative fiction, is to ask interesting questions. Fiction that does not include or consider marginalised voices at this point in time is going to fail at asking those sorts of questions. I am a straight white man; if my writing does not make space for those who are ‘not like me,’ then it’s not fit for purpose, and only serves to centre a narrative perspective that’s been unjustly dominant for far too long. Marginalised and misunderstood voices need to be present in fiction, because to routinely omit them shows a huge lack of understanding of the world. More than that, omitting them harms the world.

’Empowering’ can be a tricksy term, though. It can imply an ‘uplifting,’ which still hinges on a certain power dynamic as being the ‘default,’ and puts undue burdens or limits on those characters that are part of marginalised groups or their fictional analogues. This is not the same as claiming their stories as my own, though. Not all stories are mine to tell.

I think writers of fiction have more than a role to play in amplifying these kinds of voices; they have a responsibility to do so.

George asks L. Chan:
I absolutely loved your story in the Making Monsters anthology, “Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement.” It pulled me in quickly and then proceeded to tighten inexorably around me. You managed to skilfully incorporate details of the mythological background of the monsters from south-east Asian folklore without compromising on the pace of the story. Are there any other monsters you thought about including, or that were flitting around your brain while you were working on this story?

L. Chan replies:
The monsters for me had to reflect the different peoples in Singapore. And also had to be critically vulnerable in one way or another. Monsters living in fear of the vulnerabilities people give them was one of the themes I was playing with in the story. I had hoped to put in a monster from South Asia, perhaps a Naga or a Garuda, but they were more mythic than monstrous and didn’t really have Rosa’s fear of dying when she ventures out to feed. Five characters was plenty to write though!

L. Chan asks Hester J. Rook:
In “Aeaea By The Sea,” you chose to feature two classic Greek monsters—the witch Circe and the Gorgon Medusa, both famous for transforming men. How does the theme of transformation play into the story?

Hester replies:
I’ve always been fascinated by the theme of transformation, and find it plays out frequently in the stories and poems that I write. Greek mythology is full of examples of transformation used as punishment, or disguise, or protection—Actaeon’s transformation into a stag as punishment from Artemis, Zeus’s many transformations to seduce mortal women, and Daphne’s transformation into a laurel to escape a pursuer, for example. I find Circe and Medusa notable in that in certain ways they fall outside these categories. I find the Circe of book 10 of the Odyssey to be capricious and amoral, acting out the part of the evil witch with no real motive. Medusa’s transformative gaze is indiscriminate, and she does not choose who she transforms. In “Aeaea on the Seas” I wanted to show both characters’ motives and the way their transformative powers, and their own personal transformations, aid or disrupt their lives.

Hester asks Danie Ware:
For a myth that is often interpreted (rightly or wrongly) in a way that casts Persephone as a victim of circumstance and higher powers (Zeus, Demeter, Hades, etc), what was your intent in transforming the story so that Persephone is one of few characters with agency (albeit an agency that can only be displayed through subterfuge and trickery)?

Danie replies:
Persephone chooses to display her agency through trickery, a choice that reflects her intelligence and resourcefulness, and her complete understanding of her situation. I’ve always liked to think that the passion between Hades and Persephone was sincere—and that Demeter was the possessive and destructive influence, refusing to allow her daughter to associate with ‘the wrong type of man,’ no matter how much they may love each other. And if you’ve ever dealt with an overbearing parent, or someone who believes that they have the right/authority to direct you, confrontation is rarely the answer! In order to circumvent a bullying and didactic mother, she used her wits.

Danie asks Neil James Hudson:
Odysseus was said to be a very proud man. Was his desire to listen to the sirens made from pure vanity? Or was he a classical hero who loved daring and risk?

Neil replies:
It seems that the Homeric ideal of masculinity didn’t involve suppressing emotions. Odysseus is allowed to feel the excesses of fear, grief and love, and isn’t afraid to let the tears fall. In fact, as a hero, he seems to experience extremes of emotion not open to ordinary men; he’s an emotional, as well as physical, hero. And he seems capable of enduring extreme beauty as much as extreme hardship. I think Odysseus wants to experience beauty for its own sake; it’s as much a heroic goal as justice or duty.

My instinct is to analyse the Sirens in terms of gender, but I have to wonder if Odysseus (who seems to be as heterosexual as a Greek mythological figure ever gets) would have acted the same way if the Sirens had been male. I’m sure he would; beauty is beauty wherever it comes from.

I can’t imagine a modern-day action hero risking his life to experience the emotional extremes of perfect beauty; he’d be more likely to ignore or even destroy it to get on with the action. I think it makes our own myths seem a little thin in comparison.

So I don’t think Odysseus listens to the Sirens through either vanity or love of danger. I think his motives are pure, the same yearning for art and beauty we all have. And I think this is the point where I find him at his most heroic.

Neil asks Hûw Steer:
What monsters do you think we need protecting from today, and what have we got to protect us?

Hûw replies:
I think the most dangerous monsters we’ve got to deal with now are the ones in our own heads. Depression and anxiety are getting more and more common, and with all the awful stuff going on in the world it’s all too easy to let them sink their claws in. The best way to fight them is to not do it alone.

There’s also the Old Gods clawing at the edges of reality, but they’re always doing that. Best to just ignore them.

Hûw asks Valeria Vitale:
What’s the most disturbing thing you’ve created in Meshmixer?

Valeria replies:
This is an easy choice! In all my experience with 3D workshops, nothing compares to how creepy and unsettling was the creature that was born, in Meshmixer, during the “Why do we need Monsters?” event at the Institute of Classical Studies last October. I had prepared three menu-like lists of animal and human parts to mix and match, and the idea was to enable the audience to create their own digital 3D monster, in real time. I would manipulate the software, but the public would direct me, choosing the parts to be combined, but also dimensions, proportions and so on. I was expecting a funny hybrid at the end of the process, but what they made me do was absolutely disturbing. The creature had the body of a crocodile, a bald human head, and, on its forehead, a protruding cobra. Maybe it was the short crocodile legs that made it look like it was about to crawl on you, maybe it was the unnatural vacuum in the mannequin-like eyes. Or maybe it was just how darkly absurd was the snake on top of everything… but it was by far the most disturbing thing that ever came out of my computer. By the way, things got only worse when I 3D-printed it…

Valeria asks Tom Johnstone:
Your story reminds us that Medusa is, in the first place, a victim of an unjust punishment and, like Maddie—the protagonist of “Heart of Stone”—and many other women, she is blamed and shunned because of a man’s crime. How did you decide to focus on this aspect of Medusa’s myth?

Tom replies:
Funny you should ask this question, Valeria, because I think it was a conversation between us about this that sparked the idea for the story! We were discussing this anthology at the British Fantasy Society social, and I remembered I had a story that touched upon the Medusa myth, but was far too long for the guidelines. I also thought this version lacked clarity and focus. At some point during the conversation, Poseidon’s rape of Medusa in Athena’s temple and her subsequent transformation by the goddess as punishment came up. I think it was you who mentioned it in fact, so you can claim credit for the genesis of this story! It enabled me to sharpen up the story and get it down to the required length.

Tom asks Alexandra Grunberg:
The cup of tea in your piece gives a very personal, domestic feel to ‘The Banshee’. What drew you to that central image?

Alexandra replies:
To me, a cup of tea is a solitary image. It is a symbol of being alone, without necessarily the accompanying feelings of loneliness. In this manner, I felt like that image contrasted with the nature of the banshee, even if she can only see it as a reflection of her own loneliness. It also adds to the horror of the banshee, not just as a harbinger of doom, but as an invader of privacy. No one expects that they are being watched, about to be warned, when they are enjoying a late-night cup of tea.

Alexandra asks Barbara Davies:
Sirens have persisted as well-known monsters in the present day, with the “siren’s song” as a familiar warning. What do you think has caused the popularity of this musical monster, and what is it about the siren song that keeps it relevant to modern readers?

Barbara replies:
Lack of specifics about their appearance and the nature of their song, plus the way the epics never show us their point of view, mean the Sirens remain an irresistible mystery. And unlike some ‘monsters’, the beauty of their voices plus their female faces make them approachable. So there’s still plenty of scope for new stories, whether its redressing the lack of Sisterhood in the old tales or using siren song as a superpower.

Barbara asks Liz Gloyn:
Is there a ‘monster’ you feel has been overlooked/neglected and would like to see featured in a film or TV series?

Liz replies:
I’m always surprised that Echidna, Hesiod’s Mother of All Monsters, doesn’t get more airtime—Hercules: The Legendary Journeys makes her a recurring character, but other than that she’s pretty neglected. Maybe she’s just too monstrous a mother.

Liz asks Misha Penton:
How does “Eclipse,” your story in the anthology, fit into your larger interest in the monstrous feminine?

Misha replies:
I think of the monstrous feminine as superpowers or supernatural abilities—a woman physically hybrid or altered—from trauma? an innate difference? a cybernetic intervention?—something that is (at-first) perceived as weakness but is the source of her brilliant ferocity and wisdom. Relatedly, I’ve been reading a lot about Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending pottery with lacquer and gold: through the breakage something more magnificent than the original is revealed.

Misha asks Valentine Wheeler:
I love your image of wings hidden and pinned under a corset—what’s your favorite historical period to set your work within?

Valentine replies:
Most of what I’ve written has been near-contemporary or far-future, but I love the 1890s and would love to set something around then. There was so much change around the last few decades of the nineteenth century, especially in Boston, where I’ve lived for the last twelve years. I’m a big fan of subways and transit, and the construction of the Boston and New York subways systems was an incredibly ambitious undertaking that people ten years earlier had no inkling was coming.

A story needs infrastructure to feel real—transit, food, justice, politics, communication systems, et cetera—and without understanding how those things work, even if they don’t appear in the text, I don’t feel like the story has the meat it needs to land solidly with a reader. Subways changed so much of those basic processes in Boston so quickly, and I’m looking forward to exploring the changes in future works.

Valentine asks Djibril al-Ayad:
What defines a monster and what is the line separating monstrous from odd or unpleasant?

Djibril replies:
I’m not a big fan of definitions, preferring to be quite inclusive about genres and media and so forth… “I know it when I see it.” That said, when we talk about monsters I think we’re talking about things that transgress the boundaries—between human and animal, natural and unnatural, rational and inscrutable. Mythological monsters, unlike wild animals, have agency, have human or human-like or divine intelligence, but also have implacable violence and appetite. They’re terrifying because we recognize ourselves in them as well as seeing the alien elements that we can’t hope to reason with. The ineffably weird or mindless or hideous beast may be just as dangerous, just as unpleasant, but it isn’t as monstrous.

Of course, I’m sure there’s at least one exception to this definition in the anthology…

All these authors and many more can be found in the pages of the Making Monsters anthology, available Sept 1 in print and e-book from most online booksellers.

Purchase links and reviews will be listed on the press page.

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