From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Writer/scholar Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is the author of a chapbook of stories and poems, The Rose in Twelve Petals (Small Beer Press), and a collection of stories, In the Forest of Forgetting (Prime Books). Her work has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Alchemy, Strange Horizons, Polyphony, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere, and has been reprinted in various anthologies of the year’s best science fiction and fantasy. She is a recipient of the Rhysling Award for speculative poetry.
Born in Hungary, she currently lives in Boston with her husband, daughter, and cats, in an apartment that, she has said, “contains the history of English literature from Beowulf to Octavia Butler and not enough bookshelves.” She is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University, working on a dissertation about the links between such subjects as gothic literature, Victorian anthropology, and Darwinism.
This interview was conducted via email in January 2006. I had been lucky enough to talk with Dora a few times about writing and reading, and so I knew that she could passionately and intelligently articulate the value of fantasy literature. Recently, fantasy of various sorts has been attacked by quite different groups. The success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies and the growing popularity of fantasy books for both children and adults has caused a backlash from not only the predictable critics of anything “escapist”, but also from some science fiction writers who have claimed that fantasy is stealing science fiction’s readers and, essentially, making everyone stupid. Knowing how well Dora could express an alternative view, I sent her one question after another about the subject, and she graciously attacked them all.

How do you decide if something is to be a story or a poem? Is there a relationship between prose and poetry?
They’re both made up of words . . .

Seriously, I think of prose and poetry as existing on a continuum, the endpoints of which are conversation (informal, broken) and song (formal, rhythmic). They are distinguishable, certainly, but think of Greer Gilman, Kelly Link, Catherynne Valente, Sonya Taaffe, Holly Phillips . . . They all write prose that is poetic, that uses certain poetic techniques, although they all sound quite different. So, prose and poetry are qualities, rather than distinct kinds, of literature. Poetry can be found in a story, just as prose can be found in a poem. I realize, of course, that in part I’m dissecting your terminology, separating four terms: story and poem (which are literary forms), and prose and poetry (which are literary qualities). I’m sure that someone has said this much more clearly. The relationship between prose and poetry is the relationship between walking and dancing. Both involve moving your feet.
I’m not sure how I decide whether to write a story or a poem. Usually I have an idea of the content: an image comes to me, and I have to decide how to put it into words. Sometimes they’re words that walk, and sometimes they’re words that dance. But sometimes the words come first, and they’re either prose or poetry. They just come out that way. I know how unfashionable this sounds, describing writing as an intuitive process; we are supposed to be professionals now, turning out a certain number of words a day, always inspired at 9:00 a.m. But I think stories and poems tell you how they want to be written, what they want to be. At least, I know that when I try to write them differently, they fail. (Well, perhaps they fail anyway. But they have more chance of success when I somehow find their rhythm.)

What would be an example of prose being found in a poem?
Let me give you two examples, of . . . well, you’ll see. Here is the first one:

The nights now are full of wind and destruction;
The trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly
Helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie
Packed in gutters and choke rain-pipes and scatter damp paths.

Also the sea tosses and breaks itself,
And should any sleeper fancying that he might find
On the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude,
Throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand,

No image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude
Comes readily to hand
Bringing the night to order and making the world reflect
The compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand;

The voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear
That it is useless in such confusion to ask the night
Those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore,
Which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

And here is the second:

Tell you a story of what happened once: I was up here in Salem at a man’s named Sanders with a gang of four or five doing the haying. No one liked the boss. He was one of the kind sports call a spider, all wiry arms and legs that spread out wavy from the humped body nigh as big’s a biscuit. But work! that man could work, especially if by so doing he could get more work out of his hired help. I’m not denying he was hard on himself. I couldn’t find that he kept any hours—not for himself. Daylight and lantern-light were one to him: I’ve heard him pounding in the barn all night. But what he liked was someone to encourage. Them that he couldn’t lead he’d get behind and drive, the way you can, you know, in mowing—keep at their heels and threatened to mow their legs off. I’d seen about enough of his bulling tricks (we call that bulling). I’d been watching him. So when he paired off with me in the hayfield to load the loads, thinks I, look out for trouble.

Your average intelligent college student could tell you that the first one is poetry: the elevated diction; the rhythm, like the tides of the sea that “tosses and breaks itself” in the poem; the end and internal rhymes. And that college student could probably identify the second one as prose. After all, it’s written in the casual speech of the hired man, abrupt, slangy. Except that the first is from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and the second is from Robert Frost’s “The Code.” All I’ve done is change the length of the lines and the capitalization. If you read it carefully, the Frost paragraph will begin sounding strange, because it’s in iambic pentameter and we don’t speak in iambic pentameter. And he uses inversions (“by so doing” instead of “by doing so”) to get the rhythm he wants, and some internal rhymes (“wavy” . . . “body”). Also, he fills out a line with a not particularly necessary aside (“we call that bulling”). But there’s quite a bit of prose in his poetry, and deliberately so, because he wants to capture the sound of a man speaking. So, that’s an example of prose being found in a poem.

Does your academic work have an effect on your fiction and poetry, do you think?
Yes! It keeps me from writing.
Seriously, what I’ve really done over the years, academically, is read a lot of books. And that has an effect, of course. I said earlier that writing is an intuitive process, but it can only be intuitive if the writer already understands technique. A choreographer, for example, has to know dance steps, and the different ways in which those steps can be linked, and the different ways that they have been linked by other choreographers. The more he knows about dance and what other choreographers have done, the more he will have at his disposal when intuition comes. For a writer, that means words and how they have been used by other writers. So the only way to acquire technique is to read, and to read as much as possible. And consciously. When I was writing “Miss Emily Gray,” I knew that it was a Henry James story, and specifically a Wings of the Dove story. James said, about writing Milly Theale, that he wanted to write around and around her, without ever touching her directly. That’s what I wanted to do with Miss Emily. I borrowed his technique. (Or stole it, if that sounds more exciting.) Reading books closely, which is what academic work requires you to do, has given me ways of writing that I would not otherwise have. It has also shown me what the best writers can do, and how often I fall short.
But when people ask me this question, they usually want to know to what extent my writing has been influenced by literary theory. The answer to that is, I have no idea. I know “Rose in Twelve Petals” has been called a postmodern fairy tale. But I’m not sure that the most important thing about the story is its lack of center, the fragmentation of the story into competing narratives (which sounds like something Derrida might discuss, to the extent I understand Derrida). Perhaps the important thing is our longing for a particular narrative, the one that ends happily ever after, and the idea that whatever we long for, we are responsible for creating. At the risk of sounding highfalutin’, it sometimes seems to me that my stories are about the impossibility and necessity of acting in the world, which doesn’t sound particularly postmodern. It’s as old as Hamlet. Or maybe they’re just about fairies and witches!

Why are myths, legends, folktales, and fairy tales relevant to the contemporary world?
I’m not sure why relevance should be a criteria for literature. I say this not because you necessarily think it should be, Matt, but because so many critics seem to think so. What does relevance mean, exactly? Does it mean that a story should show us only the society we inhabit? Does it mean (it often does mean) that it should teach us something, rouse us to reform our society? That seems to me rather Victorian, as though every book should be Nicholas Nickleby. Of course there’s no reason that literature shouldn’t be relevant. But, and I don’t quite know how to say this, relevance is a secondary concern. The first concern is love. If we didn’t love Shakespeare, we wouldn’t care about his relevance, about whether his historical plays are critiques of the monarchy. If we didn’t love Jane Austen, it wouldn’t matter to us whether or not, in Mansfield Park, she is referring to the slave trade. Literature is not primarily important because it’s relevant but because we love it, because we read it again and again. To dismiss Austen because she does not engage with the politics of her time, or assert her importance by insisting that she does in coded terms, misses something, which is that literature appeals, before anything else, to whatever in us responds with aesthetic pleasure, with love for a work of art. I hope that makes some sense? Just so, even if fantasy were not relevant to our modern world, that would give us no reason to dismiss it.
But to answer your question. There are several ways in which fantasy is relevant to our modern world. The first is that our world is fantastical. Think of the political and economic beliefs that we live by. Was the inevitability of socialist revolution any more real than that mythological creature, the chimera? Haven’t our presidents attempted to turn themselves into legendary figures or folk heroes, especially on the campaign trail? I’ve said this before, so forgive me for repeating myself, but our stock market operates on the Tinkerbell principle: it exist only so long as we believe in it. Imagine a roomful of brokers clapping their hands and saying, “I believe in Microsoft!” Our world is permeated by the fantastic. That’s why fantasy has become so popular, I think. Not because it offers an escape from our world, but because it expresses something fundamental about it. It resonates with our experience of what we, optimistically, call reality. But, and this is a second answer, our modern myths and legends and fairytales are somehow poorer, I think, than the old ones. The poodle that exploded in the microwave? He isn’t exactly Cerberus, guarding the gates of Hell. There is something deeply authentic about the old stories, about Odysseus’ return to Ithaca or Red Riding Hood’s adventures with the wolf, that is older and more fundamental than the technologized, globalized world we live in. What I don’t want to do, here, is sound as though I’m sentimentalizing the old stories. I’ve heard, often enough, that myths express the “deepest parts of ourselves,” and it begins to sound like a Hallmark card. Perhaps I should say that they are fundamental expressions of human art, patterns from which other stories can be, and have been, made.

Do you think a writer has to choose between the reality of “the technologized, globalized world we live in” and the deep authenticity of the old stories? Are our modern myths mutually exclusive with the old myths? Why not just read the old stories, why bother with contemporary writers?
First, what do you mean by reality? The technologized, globalized world is part of my reality because I spend long hours on the computer. There are significant parts of the world for which it is not reality, for which whether the rains will come, or the children will be fed or die of malaria, are reality. The old stories are authentic because they represent the deepest, most constant human experiences and impulses: we still feel lost, we still need bread, we still want to return home. We still want to marry happily. We still fear death. The technologized, globalized world is a part of reality, but only a part. Of course we can adapt the old stories to it, if we want to, turn Odysseus into Oswald, a lawyer who can’t make his connection home to Ithaca, New York. That is part of their authenticity, that they can be rewritten. But why should we have to choose anything: between modernity and our history, between the new stories and the old? I see why you’re asking: there seems to be a sense out there, somewhere in the ether (or on the internet), that modernity requires us to write a certain way, to tell certain kinds of stories. There is exactly one use for that sort of attitude: it gives writers another expectation to confound.
The century cannot tell writers what to write. That’s what writers are for: to tell the century how it is to be written.
We should bother with contemporary writers because we are human beings, and we love the new as much as the old. We want both the new and old stories. Why should we choose? I don’t intend to.
But really and seriously, this is important: if you start a story by thinking about what you ought to write, of what ought to be written, you’re lost. You’re not listening. You have to listen to the story. That’s why workshops are useful, but only in a limited way. No one else can write your story; no one else can hear how it ought to go.

If literature is important because we love it, what is it we’re loving?
I think it depends on the piece of literature and the person. I love Austen because of her lack of sentimentality. It allows her to see that love is partly selfish, that when we fall in love with another person, we also fall in love with the self that person would allow us to become. Elizabeth doesn’t just fall in love with Darcy, or with Pemberley (as a more recent reading claims). She falls in love, partly, with the Elizabeth she could become with Darcy, at Pemberley. She sees that at Pemberley she could become a fuller self, a freer Elizabeth than she has ever been, under the cramping influence of her family. And Austen, unlike Dickens, never sentimentalizes poverty—or parents. She knows that parents are both a source of security and a sort of prison. (I write this as a parent myself.) I love Isaak Dinesen because I don’t think anyone writes more beautifully than she does. I can’t even describe how beautifully, as though her writing were the clearest, coolest water—which gives the most ordinary stones a translucence. (You know how you picked up stones from the stream when you were a child, and you took them home, where they dried, and they were no longer so beautiful, so shining.) She writes as though her stories were suffused with light. I love H.P. Lovecraft because, if you read carefully, you’ll find that he’s on the side of the monsters. His stories seem to be about the fear of a supernatural other, but they are really about the desire for that other, for something utterly foreign and fantastic. I think Pickman, of “Pickman’s Model,” is a figure for Lovecraft himself, for the sort of art he creates, an art that depends on consorting with ghouls. (I’ve heard his style called excessive. I don’t see it. Excessive for what? I might speak that way if I met a shuggoth.) I love Agatha Christie because, although she seems so conservatively English, she has a constant sympathy for the underdog. Her sleuths aren’t aristocrats; they haven’t gone to the right schools. They’re marginal figures: a comical foreigner, an old maid. And her criminals are never the undesirable sons or frightened parlormaids who are first accused. They are always, as Hercule Poirot says in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, “perfectly nice people.” Respectable, secure. But murderers.
So, that’s what I love. What do you love? I’m sure your authors would be different, and your reasons. The literature that lasts does so because many people have loved it, over a long period of time, each for his or her individual reasons.

Fantasy writing has sometimes been accused of being nostalgic, regressive, and even reactionary. Is it?
Sure, but not more so than any other sort of literature. Think about the ideas on which literary realism is predicated: that (1) we live in a knowable reality (2) with people whose actions would make sense if we knew their motives (or, in post-Freudian literature, psychology), and (3) that we, and the reality in which we live, are important. If only! And, how Enlightenment! Ironically, it is science, which you could call the close and careful study of reality, that calls realism into question. It shows that if we were insects, we would see the world around us differently—and which is the legitimate view? This world, seen through an insect’s eye, is as alien to us as the surface of another planet. Someday, a comet will crash into it, and then who will care whether Dorothea Brooke realizes that she’s in love with Will Ladislaw? And yet George Eliot congratulated herself on excluding anything improbable from her novels because she wanted them to be wholly “real.” Even in Eliot’s time, that insistence on a stable, predictable reality seems nostalgic. Reality, we are finding, is much stranger than realism.
Neither fantasy nor realism have a corner on conservatism or revolutionary ardor. And no book, either. C.S. Lewis could certainly be called conservative. And yet in Prince Caspian, when Aslan returns to Narnia, he returns as a sort of revolutionary, to overthrow the repressive Telmarine regime. What he awakens is a pagan landscape, in which the trees move again and the animals speak. When the river-god rises from the river and the Bridge of Beruna falls, it is a moment of liberation from political oppression. Perhaps this is where literary theory comes in: I’ve been taught, and I believe, that every good literary work contains ambiguities and contradictions. The Narnia books are ostensibly Christian, but in them you see the affection for a romanticized paganism that is evident in other English books of that era, such as Wind in the Willows. (I wonder, have the Narnia books ever converted anyone? I understood the Christian symbolism, of course, but all I wanted was Aslan.)
So, there are two things I want to say about literature. First, if a book is a good book, you will not be able to pin it down to one political meaning. It will be both conservative and revolutionary, although not perhaps in equal measures. And second, the wonderful thing about literature is that if we don’t like stories, we can rewrite them. Someone will eventually rewrite the Narnia books from Jadis’ point of view, as Neil Gaiman has written from Susan’s.

Readers, and by implication writers, of fantasy have been accused of running away from the problems of the contemporary world, of giving up on the future in favor of daydreams about a simpler past. Is most fantasy writing, then, in flight from the horrors wrought by modern realities?
OK, we need to go back, because we’re using the word “fantasy” in different ways. What you’re talking about, I think, is the three-volume fantasy series—J.R.R. Tolkien’s progeny. That’s certainly one kind of fantasy, but it’s not the only kind. I said that prose and poetry are on a continuum: the lyric might be an example of pure poetry, and conversational speech an example of pure prose. But there are any number of possibilities in between. The best prose writing will have poetry in it, and the best poem will contain elements of prose. Fantasy and realism are also on a continuum. They are not literary genres but ways of writing, and even of approaching the world. I believe that we, as writers, have two opposite impulses: to describe our world as accurately as possible, that is, to represent, and to create something that we have never seen before, to imagine. Every story contains fantasy and realism, in different proportions. Pure fantasy: perhaps that would look like one of Lord Dunsany’s dreamscapes, where nothing in particular happens but everything the narrator describes is fantastical. Pure realism: the best example I can think of is actually a parody, Mr. Bailey, Grocer in George Gissing’s New Grub Street. And Gissing himself seems, to me, a writer firmly on the realistic side of the continuum.
So, is the three-volume fantasy novel escapist? Probably. I don’t read many such novels. Are there novels that are wholly realistic but equally escapist? Absolutely. But we all have a right to escape, even from the horrors of the modern world, even when it would be wonderful if we could all, instead of escaping, do something about those horrors. I was born in a country that you couldn’t leave. You could only escape. Everyone has the right to escape. Only a tyrant will tell you otherwise. I read fantasy to escape from all sorts of things. I often read realistic fiction for the same reason. Or even history. There’s nothing like history to help you escape from your own time. It’s reassuring to see that every time has had its horrors, and that human civilization has managed, somehow or other, to survive. I can’t speak for any other human being in the world; I can only speak for myself. There are limits to my strength. I can’t spend my days watching the news. After too much horror, even horror becomes banal. It is reading Wind in the Willows, which for me is almost pure escape, that makes me care about pollution.
But there is a theoretical question I haven’t answered, which is whether fantasy, understood as the impulse to imagine what does not exist in our world, has a greater affinity with escape, allows us to escape more easily. You’d think it would, but actually I don’t think it does, no more easily than the detective story, which is necessarily realistic. Because fantasy is as much about our world as realism, although its relationship to our world is different, not directly but symbolically representational. We imagine vampires because human relationships can be vampiric. Even the parent-child relationship has its vampiric quality; the child takes life, takes resources, from the parent. We imagine mermaids and satyrs because we experience our own animal impulses; we know we are partly beasts. Even Tolkien’s elves: we know that there are people who are good and wise, that there is even a part of ourselves that is good and wise, that can create beautiful things. Fantasy is a different way, a symbolic way, of representing reality.

I’ve badgered you enough about justifications and theories of fantastical writing. Let’s move from theory to practice, and to your own work. Children quite often feature as characters in your stories. Is this is a conscious decision on your part, or does it just seem to be how the stories want to be told?
I like children. In many ways, they seem to me more sensible than adults. They’re more aware of when they’re pretending. Adults pretend all the time, without being aware of it.
And I want some happy endings. It’s difficult to write a story about adults that ends happily: our happiness is so alloyed, so mixed with other things. But I remember being thoroughly happy, and thoroughly unhappy, as a child.
And then, sometimes I want to write about adventures. Adult adventures tend to be internal. Children have better adventures. Their monsters aren’t necessarily a part of the self.
Those are three reasons, and three is a magical number, and in a children’s story, that would be reason to stop.

Miss Emily Gray is a recurring character for you. What is her origin, and can we expect to encounter her again in the future?
She’s never told me where she comes from, and I’m too intimidated to ask. Anyway, she never answers questions. But yes, you may see her again. She does seem to turn up.

Why did you choose to set “Lessons with Miss Gray” when and where you did?

It’s set in Ashton, North Carolina, because I knew that I wanted to tell a story about Rose, Emma, and Melody, and that’s where they were living at the time. And it’s set one year after the events of “Meister Wilhelm” (which is set one year after the death of Otto Lilienthal, who really died by crashing his glider) because I wanted a whole summer for the girls’ lessons in witchcraft, and the summer after that they were detectives.

One of my favorite stories of yours is “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” and I’ve wondered for a while now what inspired it, where it came from.
Have you noticed that when you ask me about theory, I can go on and on, but when you ask me about my writing, I don’t quite know what to say? I don’t really know how I write, or where my stories come from. “Sorrow” is about Budapest, of course—the most beautiful city in the world. When I was a child, I lost a country—a rather large thing to lose. And now I write about it, I think, as a way of finding it again. But of course I can’t, because my Hungary is an imaginary country, which may not be at all like the real one. It looks like the real one, I’ve been to the real one—I visited when there were still men with Russian machine guns at the airport, I’ve visited since. But it may not be at all like the real one internally. What I mean is, an inhabitant of the real Hungary might say, you’ve gotten it all wrong. That’s not Hungary at all. And he would probably be right.
And “Sorrow” is about my childhood, and how it felt. About reality receding and passing into myth, if that makes sense. About a perpetual sense of strangeness.
You see? I’m no good at explaining my stories.

How did you go about selecting work for your new collection and organizing it?
Selection was easy: I included all the stories I’ve published, except for one that has only been collected in my chapbook from Small Beer Press. And I tried to organize them the way a good hostess would organize a dinner party: I tried to make sure that stories seated next to each other would not be too similar, would have something to say to each other. I tried to make sure they could have a conversation.

What’s next for you?
First, I’m going to finish my PhD. Then, I’m going to write, not around the edges of whatever else I’m doing, but in a serious and sustained way. And I’ll see whether or not that drives me mad.
But, I have to say, I feel as though I’m at the beginning of the beginning, as a writer. I want to say, wait. You’ll see. I have more to show you. I promise.

Matthew Cheney has previously interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, Holly Phillips, M. Rickert, K.J. Bishop, Sonya Taaffe, and Alan DeNiro, among others, for such places as SF Site, Infinity Plus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. He has written reviews for Locus and Rain Taxi, and his fiction has been published in Rabid Transit: Menagerie, Abyss & Apex, Failbetter.com, and Pindeldyboz.

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