Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak: The Interfictions 2 Interview
By Colleen Mondor
(Note: Colleen Mondor, author of the blog Chasing Ray, is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine, and The Voices of New Orleans. Her interview below with Delia and Chris, distilled from the afterword to Interfictions 2, gets concrete about the meaning and usefulness of interstitial fiction and gives us a peek inside the selection process for the anthology.)
Colleen Mondor: In discussions on the idea and definition of interstitial writing, writers and editors often describe it as a "crossing of literary borders" or "filling of gaps between literary conventions." I'm curious as to why we need to formally address this so-called "Interstitial DMZ" (to quote Heinz Fenkl) at all. Will these stories gain following without the title of interstitial to describe them? How does the interstitial label help a story gain readership?
Christopher Barzak: I was initially skeptical of creating a term to categorize the uncategorizable, to be honest. It was only after I began to think about the term and its openness that I started to understand how apt it is. By calling attention to the wilderness that exists between conventional genres (such as the focus on the observable, material world in realism), a reader can locate a kind of writing for which they are being asked to hold no expectations whatsoever. Interstitial is a term that informs readers of a book's content the same way that the "Romance" label signals sex, adventure, women who get their dream man, etc. As a term, Interstitial tells readers to expect the unexpected. This may seem simple, but I think telling a reader straight-up that what they're reading is a narrative based on a set of rules that they may never have encountered elsewhere is not only a selling point in some cases, but also an honest contract.
Delia Sherman: In a world of too much marketing and too many choices, labels give people something to latch onto, something to signal whether a work of art is worth their time and energy to pick up or not.
Interstitial art, by definition, is art that's hard to describe or pigeonhole, art that stretches definitions and asks it audience to leave its expectations at the door. Some people like that experience. Some don't. Some would enjoy it if they were warned ahead of time to expect it.
A lot of beautifully written, highly literary stories were submitted for this anthology. The question I always asked myself when I was reading something I really loved was, "who else might publish this story?" If the answer was The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, then I suggested the writer send it there. If it was Weird Tales, then I suggested that. If the answer is "beats me," then I put it in the "to be seriously considered" pile. Because the whole point of Interfictions is to publish stories I thought wouldn't find their audience otherwise.
Can a story (or novel's) structure mark it as interstitial regardless of content? Are there certain story elements (ghosts, hauntings, reliance upon myth or legend) that would move an otherwise literary tale into interstitial territory?
CB: I do think that a narrative's structure in and of itself may make a piece interstitial regardless of its content. For example, though there is a sort of mysticism in M. Ricket's, "The Beautiful Feast," the story's interstitiality resides not in the mysticism so much as in its structure, which weaves in and out of time and space in the most effortless manner, and is more a war story than it is a fantasy. Or consider Peter M. Ball's "Black Dog: A Biography." Here's another story that has a sort of strange legendary creature involved in a fairly domestic account of a man who has absolutely terrible luck in love, but it wasn't the inclusion of the black dog itself that interested me so much as the story's pull between fiction and autobiographical narrative.
Sure, I think that a blend of content ghost stories, alien invasion, slave narrative, historical romance, etc. can move a story into the realm of the interstitial. The problem I have with the term "literary" is that it connotes "realism," when in fact I think it's a much more usable term for any writing in which not only the tale but how the tale is told its structure and style is a particular feature. For example, Alan DeNiro's "The Warp and the Weft" is particularly easy to categorize in terms of its content: it's science fiction. But the structure of the story and the language he invents in the telling is completely unlike the plate glass prose of conventional science fiction. In this case, it's not the content of the story that makes it interstitial, it's the language and structure that takes it outside of its own genre's expectations.
DS: All serious fiction is literary fiction. Domestic realism, which is the genre that so-called mainstream literary fiction properly belongs to, is as circumscribed by genre convention and expectation as the hardest SF or the most formulaic bodice-buster romance.
That said, interstitial fiction isn't just domestic realism with ghosts or gods inserted like raisins in a pudding. Of the twenty-one stories in Interfictions 2, only three include ghosts, and in no case is the ghost the primary point of the story. In "The Score," Jake's ghost is almost incidental a by-product of the media controversy surrounding his death. In "The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria," the ghost of Sal's mother is a problem to solve according to scientific principles as understood by a ten-year-old boy whose father had been a Santero in Cuba. In "After Verona," the ghosts are mysteries without answers mysteries a lot less pressing than how and why Verona died.
Certainly, most of these stories have an unusual narrative structure. "The Long and Short of Long Term Memory" is structured around a series of medical diagrams illustrating the physiology of memory. "Valentines" is a series of recursive descriptions of three different men who might or might not be the same man. "L'Ile Close" cycles repetitively, like its characters, through all the variations of the Arthurian legend. But "Remembrance is Something Like a House" is a fairly straightforward narrative of a cross-country journey undertaken by a house that has something it really, really wants to communicate from the house's point of view.
So, I guess the real answer is: it depends.
The problem with trying to pin down interstitial fiction is that the examples are going to change from year to year. Stories that were interstitial when they were published are now the proud center of their own sub-genres: steam-punk, mythic fiction, fairy-tale retellings. I wouldn't say that any of the stories we published in Interfictions 1 looks sweetly old-fashioned after only two years. But I expect some of them will after ten years. As will the stories we have collected here.
Well, not sweet, maybe, or exactly old-fashioned. But no longer outposts on the edge of genre.
The bigger names in fiction seem to embrace the literature label over those of genre. Cormac McCarthy's The Road and David Brin's The Postman have almost everything in common in terms of setting and general plot, but one is strictly literature and the other solidly science fiction. McCarthy's fans seemed particularly resistant (along with most reviewers) to referring to his book as SF. How does the interstitial community build a bridge with publishers who seem unwilling to stray into any suggestion of genre territory?
DS: I suspect the internet is going to be our friend in this, because the internet is all about crossing genres and blending communities. Sure, there's always going to be a large part of the population that is entirely unwilling to step out of its narrowly-defined comfort zone. There are far more comfort food restaurants in any given country than out-there fusion experimental joints. It is also true that if you're a Big Name anything, the mainstream is more willing to embrace you.
The reason we started this foundation was that there's more power in community than in isolation. Writers like Michael Chabon and Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Hoffman don't have to make common cause with anybody unless they want to. The rest of us, less established, less lucky, maybe less accessible, need something behind us, a passport out of the genre ghetto into the wider literary world.
CB: I think in many ways this is where the term "literary" begins to raise its head. Very little difference exists in terms of content between The Road and The Postman, but their use of language and structure and tone does differ. McCarthy's prose is stark, whereas Brin's is full to the brim with detail, and though those seem like small differences, I do think that a typical reader of science fiction will read Brin's book and feel it meets their expectations (at least in terms of language and detail) more closely than McCarthy's.
How to build bridges? The best way, I think, is to have this sort of discussion, and to create the language necessary to talk about these differences that seem like huge gulfs when they aren't, really. Take, for instance, Amelia Beamer's "Morton Goes to the Hospital," a metafiction that places the reader in a position of active participation in the imagining of its characters after the last word. It's a sort of story that, while not having much fantastical content in the actual storyline, asks a question of its readers that creates a fantastical readerly experience in a story that is mostly about the ordinary lives of two elderly characters. Likewise, Elizabeth Ziemska's "Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken," feels more like a Margaret Atwood story, recounting personal and family history, a fiction about science (or ways of knowing) that was a delight to encounter in our submissions.
In his introduction to Interfictions 1, Heinz Fenkl describes the publication of his own interstitial title, Memories of My Ghost Brother, which was published as a novel, but is drawn from his life and is in fact the story of his childhood. This brought to mind the books of Tim O'Brien, whose highly successful Vietnam titles wind their way through all manner of nonfiction, memoir, and novel territory. Does interstitial writing dwell also between the lines of fiction and nonfiction? If so, how does it differ from creative nonfiction? If a story is truth but not factual, is that where it crosses the interstitial border?
CB: Yes, interstitial fiction does exist between the borders of fiction and nonfiction, as well as between poetry and prose. You'll see some of those divisions broken down in several of the pieces we chose for the new anthology. Like Camilla Bruce's "Berry Moon," which employs a kind of language that hovers between prose and poetry. And Nin Andrews' "The Marriage," which carries the arc of a full story in the small space of a prose poem, with the evocative language as well as the jumps in logic and time that poems do so well. I think when a story begins to work in a variety of modes and manners, though, as in O'Brien's books, the terms fiction and nonfiction no longer even apply.
DS: This is a part of the interstitial forest I haven't spent much time in like, any. For what it's worth, though, my gut is, sure. Writing is writing, and the line between fiction and non-fiction (and mythology and legend) has always been more permeable than most people realize. Colette's memoirs, for instance, partake enthusiastically of a number of genres, although she certainly meant for them to be read as sober non-fiction. Perhaps that's where the difference lies in the writer's intent (yes, I'm aware them's fighting words, and I already yield. I do not pretend to be a theorist). If a work of non-fiction artfully bestrides genres, making that uncertainty (Did that really happen? Is this event/character a metaphor or even a convenient lie?) part of the experience of reading the book well, that's what Stephanie Shaw's "Afterbirth" does, and we bought that for this anthology.
As for the "Truth but not factual" statement well, I don't know. It's what I usually say about fairy and folk-tales, and we all know what genre they belong to, right?
Chris, what surprised you the most working on this anthology? Is there a subject matter or style that dominated the submissions?
CB: I did notice that there were a lot of politically-oriented stories in the submissions, which doesn't actually surprise me considering the upheaval of the past decade and the presently occurring change of the political landscape. We selected several of the most interesting of those stories for the anthology, too, and they each come at their subject matter very differently. Brian F. Slattery's "Interview After the Revolution" and Alaya Dawn Johnson's "The Score" both arrange their politics through a polyphonic display of voices and media. Alan DeNiro's "Warp and the Woof" posits an extreme vision of today's politics played out on a futuristic backdrop. Lavie Tidhar's "Shoes" takes a magical realist perspective on current political strife in the Mid-East, and in "The 121" David Schwartz creates a voice-oriented piece about a political event that is unforgettable. Aside from that, there were also a lot of gender-oriented submissions, and stories that talked about race or ethnicity or cultural identity. One of the most remarkable of these was Theodora Goss's "Child Empress of Mars," an exploration of the tragic effects of cultural blindness and well-meaning prejudice, set in a lushly described and exotic Mars that owes as much to non-occidental fantasy as it does to science fiction. It was amazing to see all of these stories coming from so many different parts of the world, too, which is part of what the anthology does: it creates a space for writers of varying cultures and nations to come together and mingle their perspectives on the world. So it's interstitial in that way, too, avoiding the standard anthology feature that presents mainly writers working from within one nation, culture, etc. It's an anthology series very much focused on diversity, which is what interstitial writing draws its strength from most, I think. Cross-fertilization, difference, deviation, rather than homogeneity.
About the Authors
Christopher Barzak is the author of the novels One for Sorrow and The Love We Share Without Knowing. His stories have appeared in Nerve.com, Pindeldyboz, Strange Horizons, Descant, and the first volume of Interfictions. He teaches writing at Youngstown State University.
More about Christopher can be found at christopherbarzak.wordpress.com.
Delia Sherman was born in Tokyo, Japan, and brought up in New York City. She earned a PhD in Renaissance Studies at Brown University and taught at Boston University and Northeastern University. She is the author of the novels Through a Brazen Mirror, The Porcelain Dove, Changeling, and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. A co-founder of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, she lives in New York City.
More about Delia can be found on her profile page and at deliasherman.com. Her essay "An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border" can also be found on this website.
Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine, and The Voices of New Orleans. In addition, she writes fiction and has degrees in Aviation Management, History and Northern Studies, one from the Florida Institute of Technology and two from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. More about Colleen can be found on her blog, Chasing Ray.
How to Order Interfictions 2
Interfictions 2 is now available from Small Beer Press, Powell's and Amazon, and via IndieBound. The book was published on November 3rd, 2009 from Small Beer Press and was named one of Amazon.com's Top 10 Books of 2009: Science Fiction & Fantasy.