(Eds. note: as promised yesterday in our review of Amal El-Mohtar’s unique collection The Honey Month, here is C.S.E. Cooney’s equally unique interview with the author, who as of this writing is a nominee for this year’s Nebula Award for Best Short Story.)
In late 2008, Amal El-Mohtar received a gift of thirty-five vials of honey from gourmet Danielle Sucher. That following February, El-Mohtar tasted a new honey each day, writing tributes to each in fiction or poetry, then posting them to her blog. This 28-day act of synesthesia became known as The Honey Month. In 2010, Papaveria Press released the text in paperback, with illustrations by Oliver Hunter. Publisher Erzebet YellowBoy is currently working on the limited, hand-bound edition due out later this year.
Dear Amal des Étoiles, you Honeybeast, you. What do you think about this whole interstitiality thing? Where’d you first hear the term? What was your reaction to it? Have you followed the movement much? How do you think it relates to your Honey Month?
O Claire de la LUNE, I think it’s pretty cool, really.
I remember more about where I was at when I started thinking about the term, rather than where I first heard it. I was probably in the second year of my undergraduate degree in English; I was working at Perfect Books, an independent Ottawa bookstore; I had not yet conceived of Goblin Fruit, had not yet met [Goblin Fruit co-editor] Jessica Wick in person, though we spoke online all the time. I was an avid follower of Terri Windling and Midori Snyder’s Journal of Mythic Arts. I think it must have been there that I first read the word “interstitial,” and thought yes, this makes sense. I seem to remember an illustration of the inadequacy of genre: why is Alice Hoffman’s work considered magical realism when Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s is fantasy? That sort of thing. And I wondered about this.
I remember discussing it briefly with [author] Charles de Lint, and him wondering whether or not having a label defeated the purpose of resisting categories. I do feel, now, that interstitiality has a certain aesthetic, if only because of the Interfictions anthologies—and it’s only a hop and a skip away from aesthetic to genre or sub-genre. That said, I love the work the IAF is doing, the dialogues it’s opening up, and the fact that, while it may have an aesthetic, it’s a constantly expanding one that doesn’t police its boundaries.
I remember thinking The Honey Month partook of interstitiality when Patty Templeton asked me [in a recent interview] where I’d like to see it shelved in a bookstore. That brought me up short. Cookbooks? But there are no recipes. Non-fiction about food? But there’s fiction. Fantasy? But there are poems. Poetry? But there’s prose in it! I’m grateful to the IAF for having created an environment in which I don’t feel that unclassifiability is a shortcoming.
Did you set out to be a Creature of the Borderlands or did it just come naturally? What sort of events in your life — domestic, scholastic, fantastic — have led up to you being an In-Betweener? Or do you only visit your interstitial artistic self in February?
I think hearing the term “interstitial” made me more aware of the rigidity of other genre categories, at least where the publishing industry’s concerned. So I don’t think I set out to be a Creature of the Borderlands so much as I thought about the ways in which I already was one, without quite recognising the implications of so being. I’m a child of immigrants; I’m most fluent in a language that wasn’t my first, isn’t my parents’ first; I grew up on the border between Quebec and Ontario, speaking English in French schools and Arabic at home; I grew up thinking that because I wasn’t black I was white, until about seventh grade, when I learned otherwise. I discovered poetry by seeing it referenced in fiction, and learned history through songs and plays. Presently I’m a Canadian living in the UK, but only temporarily—this PhD about fairies is teaching me whole new ways of being liminal.
So, thou Dweller of the Liminal Lands, in what ways did the writing of The Honey Month surprise you? Have you had any trouble marketing The Honey Month, or other works of yours that might be “interstitial”? If not, why not, do you think?
The Honey Month surprised me day by day, as each piece moved from spontaneous synaesthetic spark to completion. It happened so often that I’d write a piece while drowsy or half asleep, read it again the next day, and just blink at it in confusion. The book continues to surprise me as I re-read it and see the ways in which even the pieces I felt were less successful on their own contribute something to the whole. I was so worried, throughout, that it would not rise above being an aggregate of tasting notes, but increasingly I think it is more than the sum of its small parts.
I think any difficulty in marketing The Honey Month has more to do with its containing poetry than anything else. Ah, poetry! That terrifying were-beast! Good, plain, work-a-day prose gets exposed to a bit of full moon light and BAM, ravening unrecognisable monstrosity, scourge of sensible readers everywhere, baring its metonymical fangs and dripping synechdocal saliva, eyes a-glint with dense extended metaphors, enjambing towards Bethlehem to be born! References to other poems! Crimes of RHYMES! WOE!
It is problematic.
Looking back now, would you change anything in The Honey Month? About the writing of it, or anything that ensued? What and why? If you had a chance to do a second edition, what might you say in a preface? What might appear in the appendices?
No. A year ago I was pondering all these questions as [Papaveria Press publisher] Erzebet YellowBoy required a final manuscript. I agonized over how much I could change, how much I should change from what had appeared on my blog. I wondered whether I should expand some of the shorter prose pieces into more elaborate stories. I wondered if I should write an introduction explaining what I was doing.
Ultimately I decided not to do more than line edits because I wanted the project to be preserved as much as the individual installments. I felt it would have worked against the spirit of spontaneity that made the whole thing happen to actually unpack the density of some of the stories, make them more conventional, build the worlds they only hinted at. I may yet do that, for some of them, or give some characters further stories outside the collection—but these pieces I wanted to wrap up in a February mantle and offer up, that any reader might experience what I did, short of the honey.
And Erzebet’s working on making that happen too, because she’s magical that way. When the limited edition comes out, each book will include a vial of one of Danielle Sucher’s honeys.
You’ve created a whole community on LiveJournal for honey-related news. In what other ways has The Honey Month changed your life? What do you find yourself noticing that you never saw before? What interesting facts have you learned about honey, honey bees, and all such things peripheral to the subject?
I actually knew a fair amount about honey and bees before starting the project; it’s part of what made it so appealing to me in the first place. I was a child the first time I saw a bee with its pollen sacks full, and marvelled to see something I’d read about in a Nature’s Children book actually appear before me.
One thing I didn’t know, though, was the tradition of “telling the bees.” I first heard the phrase from [artist] Rima Staines, who had illustrated an album for a band called Telling the Bees, but it was Terri Windling who explained the tradition to me: when you have a hive, you must be sure to tell the bees about any important event, be it a birth or a death or a marriage or local gossip, as a matter of courtesy; otherwise they’re not likely to stay, and certainly not to give you honey. The band is wonderful; I have their first album, and the title track gets stuck in my head on a regular basis.
The Honey Month seems to have inspired artists in the blogosphere to create honey-related art, from LJ icons to jewelry — even to other month-long writing challenges. What are some of the projects that really excite you? Are you involved in any way? Talk a bit about the communal nature of your work, and where you think it might lead.
I really look forward to Melimuses kicking off and getting people swapping honey with each other the way Danielle and I did, posting their experiences to the community in whatever manner of art they choose. The community is moderated by Deborah Brannon, who has also created over one hundred 100×100 icons using text from all 28 pieces of The Honey Month, dazzling me completely; her skill for matching found image to text and composing something beautiful from them is just astonishing. Another friend, Allison Armstrong, has talked about printing “Leatherwood Honey” on pretty paper and making it go viral in her local leatherdyke community, which makes me very happy; Allison has also been incorporating bits of text from The Honey Month into her jewellery.
I’ve also been very touched to see other people choose February as a writing month as a result of my work. I particularly enjoy what Jessica Melusine, a talented poet, has been writing in response to Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab perfume, one scent a day. It’s especially fun for me because I’ve tried so many of the scents she’s using, and given that so many of BPAL’s fragrances are inspired by literature, I feel Jessica’s closing a sort of interstitial circle there, producing literature in response to them.
You’ve been learning to make bread lately, all kinds, all ways. Do I smell bread-making in upcoming fiction and poetry? In what way would writing about bread differ from writing about honey?
Bread-making is an area where I feel that fiction is spilling over into my life—that, rather than inflecting my fiction with experience, I’ve set out to experience something I’ve used in my writing for a long time. Bread is quintessentially magic to me: I’ve used it in metaphor, in descriptions of idealised domesticity, in ritual, in poetry. I’ve admired the people I know who make it regularly. I’ve idolised the act. To actually be able to make it feels like a necessary next step—like I’ve been building an airy palace from the top down, rather than from the ground up. My first loaf was a cornerstone recalled after the fact.
Just yesterday I made my first braided loaf. I made the dough with a fruity tea instead of water, and substituted honey for sugar. Once it had risen, I punched it down and tore it into three balls, which I rolled into long snakes. Then I braided them together like hair. I was stunned, for a moment, seeing the finished braid—stunned to think I’d made that. When it came out of the oven, I had bread that looked like hair and tasted of apples and strawberries.
I wish the same for my writing. That it may look a certain way, smell a certain way, taste a certain way—all of them unexpected, yet welcome, and ultimately delicious.
Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, currently pursuing the elusive beast that is a PhD in the south-west of England. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in many print and online venues, including Apex, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Ideomancer, Shimmer, Stone Telling, and Mythic Delirium; her short story “The Green Book” has been nominated for a Nebula award, and she received the 2009 Rhysling award for her poem “Song for an Ancient City.” She co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, with Jessica P. Wick, and blogs at Voices on the Midnight Air.
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