Hello Ghouls and Boils,
Today I am pleased to present a phantastic interview with the lovely author Angela Slatter. As our regular readers know, I am a huge fan of Ms. Slatter’s work. She won a Nightmare Award (2010) for Sourdough and Other Stories. I believe in the future her name will be revered and she will be placed in the annals of time alongside other fabulists like the Brothers Grimm.
Her latest book, The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, is in the running for our 2011 Nightmare Awards. I can’t say enough about Ms. Slatter’s work, she is a brilliant storyteller and I highly recommend you check out her work.
This interview, conducted by Minion Marc Nocerino, is an interesting peek into the window of her life. I am sure you will enjoy it as much as I did. Without further ado, I will leave things in Marc’s capable icy grip. Enjoy, my fiends!
Sarah L. Covert
SNS Minion – Marc Nocerino: Welcome to She Never Slept, Angela, and thank you for taking some time to spend with our readers. My love for the weird and darker side of storytelling started when I stumbled across Lovecraft, Poe, and Stoker in elementary school. Many of your stories are horror-slanted interpretations of childhood fairy tales and folklore. Was it these that initially sparked your interest in the strange and terrifying, or does that come from elsewhere?
Angela Slatter: (I have to say I’ve been mulling over this question – I went and answered all the other first to give myself more time and I’m not sure I’ve got a good answer. :^) ) Fairy tales were definitely the spark of it, but I don’t know when I first realized these were the original horror stories – getting eaten by wolves, being abandoned by your parents, having witches curse you in your cradle. I’d say that as I outgrew fairy tales in my teens, I shifted to horror from writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, Henry James, Le Fanu then again to Clive Barker, Graham Masteron, Kim Newman, Stephen King, and the like. I came back to fairy tales in my late thirties and then I worked out what they’d been saying all along: the world is dangerous place so keep your wits about you.
SNS: I completely agree. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I noticed how grim (no pun intended) those stories really were. So, when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer; wait, let me rephrase – when did you first know that these stories inside you needed an audience?
Angela: I’ve always written, but for a long time resisted the idea that it was something that could be done as a ‘job’ – I was being sensible! A lot of writers seemed to starve and I’m not overly fond of starving so I took jobs that paid me enough to earn a living and I scribbled in my spare time. About 6 years ago I was miserable in my job and living in Sydney and trying to work out what to do to change all that and one of my cousins rang to say ‘We’ve just bought a place at Maleny and wondered if you’d like to come and live with us a for a while and, y’know, write?’ So, I bit the bullet and decided I had five years to make it as a writer. I moved back from Sydney, wrote for 6 months and then decided I needed some formal training. I did the graduate diploma in creative writing at QUT – which led to a research masters and the stories I wrote for that collection (Black-Winged Angels) were published. I was lucky I had a supervisor who encouraged me to publish. I sold the first story I sent out, so that helped me keep doing it! I guess that was the moment when I thought ‘Oh, hey, I can do this!’ I had two collections published in 2010 and am working on novels that agents and publishers want to see, so I guess I’m on the right track.
Angela: I guess it could be called ‘collected works’ – but that makes it sound like I’m either a very old experienced writer, or dead. So! There are three new previously unpublished stories in that collection and thirteen reprints and they cover the gamut of reloaded fairy tales (in which Rumplestiltzskin is a pedophile); to zombie boyfriends for women who find jailbirds too unreliable; from seamstresses with terrible power to a woman who is a living book. There’s horror, there’s dark fantasy, there are things that might be fables or fairy tales. But no science fiction, coz I suck at science fiction.
SNS: Well, I can’t speak to your sci-fi skill, but these twisted fairy tales of yours are terrific. What was the first fairy tale or piece of folklore that you re-envisioned, and how did that idea come to you?
Angela: I rewrote “The Little Match Girl” – it was the first story I did for Black-Winged Angels, and I wrote it on the bus going home from uni(versity). It pretty much came to me fully formed. It’s the story from my childhood that I remember so vividly because the first time I heard it I bawled my eyes out. I’d insisted my poor mother read me just one more story and that was the one I chose. And tears ensued. When I was looking for a story to start the collection that one just sprang to mind and I wanted to do something like Angela Carter had done with her stories in The Bloody Chamber – make her heroines fearless. The first line came immediately, that first image in my head and the rest flowed from there.
SNS: How do you decide which fairy tales to put your own spin on? Do you have a moment of inspiration and see one from a different angle spontaneously, or do you pick one out of a hat, as it were, and consciously force yourself to re-imagine it in a darker way?
Angela: I can’t force myself to spin just any old tale – probably connected to why I’m fairly crap at writing for themed anthologies. I need a spark – I read hundreds of fairy tales for my masters, but only choose nine to rewrite; that’s because those are the ones that appealed to me, the ones I could see an alternative path for. With “The Little Match Girl”, I could see my main character and her prison and all these ideas about matches and burnings and witches and injustice just coalesced in my brain. With “Lighter than Mist, Heavier than Hope”, I was wondering why Rumplestiltzskin was so damned creepy and then I realized it was because he was a pedophile. “The Bone Mother” is a reworking of Baba Yaga and it came out of me thinking about the position of older women in society, how they seem to lose their value once their looks and child-bearing years have passed. So, the originals need to spark a chain of thought in me – they need to power the ‘what if’ question and make me wonder.
SNS: Unlike most historical fairy tales, which were meant as warnings against curiosity or disobedience in children, many of the stories in The Girl With No Hands seem to portray the message of “you mess with women (or girls) and bad things will happen to you”. Do you consider yourself a Feminist writer?
Angela: The “F” word is so loaded – what kind of feminist? Are you just a little bit feminist or a lot feminist? Are you a militant feminist? Hey, you shave your legs – you can’t possibly be a feminist!! There are many feminisms – as many variations as there as women and men on the planet – so that’s a hard question to answer!
I guess I do have a feminist bent in that I’m interested in highlighting the abuse of female characters in fairy tales because they are the earliest stories we are told and they teach us lessons – and sometimes they teach us really bad lessons. I wrote a piece for my blog called “The Chosen Girl” about these ideas. I want people to read my reworked fairy tales and think about the old ones and question them. I’m just trying to show a different angle on things that we kind of take for granted. Ideas like ‘be a good girl and the prince will choose you’ came from tales like Cinderella and are still being touted by shows like Sex and the City– and I think that’s really unhealthy!
Also, I don’t know if the central message of the collection is “you mess with women (or girls) and bad things will happen to you” – although I am interested in addressing an imbalance in justice for a lot of these women. Or maybe it’s not justice so much as revenge :). I’d like people to think a bit differently after reading my stories. And if they don’t, then I hope they just had an enjoyable read. Not everyone will like my work – and that’s fine! Each to her/his own.
SNS: Piggybacking off that, some of them also have a very sexual element to them, oftentimes bordering on the pedophilic. What is your inspiration for using this theme, and how does it fit into your reinterpretation of the “morality play” that these stories echo?
Angela: I think it is just something I see that’s already in the original fairy tales: in “Donkeyskin”, the king wants to marry his teenage daughter; Rumplestiltzskin wants to steal away a kid; the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is a symbol of unchecked urges (and if you read Charles Perrault’s version of the story, he ends the tale with a sentence that basically says ‘She was asking for it, Your Honour.’ Sex is about power and in traditional fairy tales, children are so often in someone else’s power. Also, I think that there’s a real element about the danger of sex and abuse that runs through fairy tales that’s meant to be a warning element – I’m just riffing off that.
SNS: You do a lot of work in the short story genre. Is this because most traditional fairy tales and folklore stories are also in that format? If not, what is it about the short story that appeals to you as a writer?
Angela: I love the short story because it’s such an art form – a slice of life. I like the challenge of getting the economy of words right, just using the words needed to tell the story and no more. Maybe I’m just an impatient writer?
SNS: I doubt the “impatient” theory, from what I’ve read. Let’s talk about Frozen for a moment. This is a wonderfully imaginative ghost story, with a very strong statement on the punishment due neglectful parents. To me though, the most memorable aspect is the transformation of the boy from living, to ghost, back to living again. Transformation is a recurring theme throughout this book. What is it about that concept that is so important to your writing?
Angela: As a writer, you’re telling a story and a story needs to have a point to be interesting – that’s why we read, right? For entertainment, for interest, for enjoyment, to learn, to think. I think transformation is really important in stories – often it’s the ‘thing that happens’ that the reader is waiting for.
For me, also, transformation is interesting in my fiction because a transformation can make a character into more than they were or less; a transformation can make you even more yourself and that can be frightening for the people around you. “Red Skein” is very much about that, about fulfilling your potential and becoming something that your family doesn’t recognize – and being an object of fear for them because you’ve embraced the unknown and the darkness within yourself. It’s also about being fearless and I think a lot of my heroines are fearless – and in some cases it makes them quite pitiless.
I love the idea that change is inherent to us and I always have in the back of my mind that line from The Chronicles of Riddick: ‘We all began as something else.” I’m really interested in tracking that process of change and showing the moment of transformation.
SNS: You mention in your Afterword that you intentionally left the narrator’s gender ambiguous in Frozen. I thought it read as a man, personally, based on clues in the text. Have you gotten any feedback from your readers as to how they interpret the voice? Have you found that readers gravitate toward assuming their own gender, or is there a clear leaning one direction or the other?
Angela: It’s quite strange – there were some complaints when I first wrote it from beta readers and editors that they didn’t like the ambiguity, but now I think people just assume it’s their own gender. I wrote the story and I still don’t know whether I want it to be a man or a woman!
SNS: In the Grimm brothers’ version of The Girl Without Hands, it is not only the girl’s purity that keeps her safe from the Devil, but her piety as well. Their version is quite clearly a warning against straying from faith. Can you tell our readers where or why you got the idea to replace God and the Angels in the story with dryads, undines, and other creatures more common to Greek myth and European folklore, and do you think they make an effective foil against the Devil?
Angela: I’m not a huge fan of co-opting fairy tales – which began as tribal tales – for religious purposes and I didn’t simply want to rewrite the story with all the same characters and details – what would be the point?
I think I chose the undine because I wanted a water creature to help get the girl across the moat and I had a story in mind that I wanted to pay tribute to, “With Four Lean Hounds” by Pat Murphy, which appeared in the very first Marion Zimmer Bradley Sword and Sorceress anthology. It was one of those stories that made a huge impression on me as a teenager and there’s a scene where Tarsia breaks a captive undine’s chains by weeping – so, that was my little shout-out to that tale.
As for the dryad, I guess I could have used ‘Waldgeist’, but I just liked the image that the word ‘dryad’ brought up in my head J. ‘Dryad’ sounds lithe and lovely, whereas ‘Waldgeist’, not so much – more lumpen and clumsy. Sorry, waldgeist.
SNS: Setting Grimm and Aesop aside for the moment, who are some of your favorite modern writers? What is on your bookshelf, or what book(s) are you in the middle of right now?
Angela: Well, for the old school: that very same Marion Zimmer Bradley Sword and Sorceress anthology was very influential when I was in my teens, as was Jane Gaskell’s Atlan saga. Also Nancy Kress’ The White Pipes; (obviously) Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, The Magic Toyshop and Wayward Girls and Wicked Women: An Anthology of Subversive Stories; Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth series and The Blood of Roses.
New school: Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen); Karen Russell’s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves; John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels; Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire; Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen; Catherynne M. Valente’s work is amazing; Robert Shearman’s Tiny Deaths and Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical; Mieville’s Looking for Jake collection.
On the bedside table at the moment are: N K Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; Tansy Rayner Roberts’ The Shattered City; George R. R. Martin’s Dream Songs; Lukianenko’s World of Watches series; and an old travel book about women adventurers called The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt! I jump around a lot in my reading.
SNS: Do you have any upcoming projects, news, or sarcastic comments to share with our readers?
Angela: Upcoming projects: I’m working on a novel that sprang from my short story “Brisneyland by Night” that appeared in Twelfth Planet Press’s Sprawl Anthology. The first book will be called Brisneyland by Night (funnily enough) and the second, Vigil. I’m also working on a collection/mosaic novel with my buddy and writing-partner-in-crime, Lisa Hannett (her collection, Bluegrass Symphony, is launched next week), called Midnight and Moonshine.
News: My other collection, Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press) has been shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection and The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales won the Aurealis Award for Best Collection.
Marc Nocerino (Reviewer/Columnist)