From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Camille Alexa, Author of “Shades of White and Road”

Camille Alexa likes “her humor dark and her horror funny.” A short fiction writer and poet, she writes for The Green Man Review, serves as Flash Fiction Editor for Abyss & Apex, and Poetry Editor for Diet Soap. Her short story “Shades of White and Road” appears this week in Fantasy Magazine. A collection of her short works, Push of the Sky, is forthcoming from Hadley Rille Books. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon when not in Austin, Texas.

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Tell us about yourself.

Growing up, my literary and aesthetic tastes were influenced by my father, the professor (a folklorist from Grenada), my mother, the painter (figural expressionism, or thereabouts), and my Norwegian SF-loving grandmother, who lived with us only briefly but at just the right time for me to practically inhale her entire impressive Science Fiction and Fantasy collection (as Peter Graham said: “The golden age of Science Fiction is twelve.”).

I’m also a recovering junkshop owner — furniture, books, clothing, linens, jewelry, bassinets and marionettes, wooden candlesticks and wrought-iron fence posts . . . Victorian, mid-century, or last year’s Ikea rejects — with a special weakness for antique frames, lamps, and tarnished silver. If it was cool (I have pretty broad but rigorous standards for coolness in used junk), I dragged it to my Austin shop and resold it. My adore/loathe relationship with wayward objects is an ongoing affair. It is, perhaps, incurable.

How would you describe your fiction?

Spontaneously generated and often inducing a somewhat morbid self-consciousness, much like other embarrassing, more physical emissions.

As a writer, which came first, poetry or fiction? Do you have a preference?

Novels first, a couple years ago then short fiction and poetry the next year. I didn’t write fiction before 2007 — I pumped all my creative energy into my vintage store until I sold it. My preferences reflect what I’m working on: I always most love the thing of the moment, though my fondness for short fiction surprises me. The intensity of short fic produces a satisfaction, almost a euphoria, like a sprinter’s high.

Poems are a little like shooting stars: brief incendiary bursts of thought, though I still want them to tell — or at least imply — a story. Say something with those words, dammit! Clever wordplay without substance can be initially impressive, but wears thin quickly in any form, like watching a teenaged dude riff on his electric guitar in his mom’s garage.

Are you a slow methodical writer or a quick facile one?

Facile? Need one be facile if one isn’t methodical? I’m not a slow writer; stories don’t treat me so gently. Outlines for short stories? Unthinkable. Just not part of my process. I can start with a first sentence or opening scene or cool concept, or I can begin with an endpoint and figure out how to get there as I go. Not counting curing and polishing (which I do multiple times), I finish a short story in one or two days or it becomes useless to me. I’m talking about some potentially grueling writing days here — I won’t sleep or eat or leave the house for days if necessary. But then my brain’s broken, and I can’t write for even more days, so my output’s probably similar to writers with more sedate or even (handed) processes.

Artists have to find their own methods, and forgive themselves when their ways stray from current (I refrain from saying faddish) or conventional wisdom. Don’t get too bogged down by how your process differs from those of other writers: not everybody’s suited to crit-groups; not everybody’s compelled to attend professional workshops; not everybody writes detailed outlines or personal back history for all their secondary characters. Yet some (fabulous!) writers find it unimaginable to send stories out for publication without doing one or all of these things. There’s no universal wrong way, just many different ways, though for some reason writers of speculative fiction find this more difficult to admit than those working in other genres. Writers are for the most part a highly opinionated bunch.

In “Shades of White and Road,” the protagonist, Sethily, answers the question:

“Why are you outward bound?’ . . . Why leave the city to walk the spirals of whorl?” [Sethily responds:] “I left, taking nothing but myself. I’ve had my fill of things.”

Does any part of Sethily’s journey, her desire to leave “things” behind reflect your own?

I’ve already confessed my incurable wayward object fascination. It’s in remission now, and I usually manage to turn my obsession with found objects to dried branches and unusual rocks and bits of bark. Some days my house takes on the look of a genteel Victorian nature enthusiast’s drawer collection, an amateur botanist’s or geologist’s private Cabinet of Curiosities.

Mainly, I like to write about the moment when expectations radically change. An attorney friend of mine once distilled the essence of mediation: expectations change over the course of negotiation. My stories are about negotiation, even if just within one character’s expectations or understanding or worldview.

Out of all the stories in Push of the Sky, do you have a favorite and wh
y?

I have had a different favorite every time I consider that question. I’ve been utterly self-indulgent as a writer, in that I’ve nearly always written to my mood and my personal interest of the moment. Short fiction lends itself to this kind of freedom in a way novels don’t. I experience a sort of identity crisis over this, actually. Do I write Pulp SF? High Fantasy? Mundane SF? Magical Realism? Poetry??? Yes and yes and so forth.

I’d say my favorite stories to write feature some only slightly altered real-worldish setting, like “The Taste of Snow” (in the Global Warming: Aftermaths anthology), or “Flaming Marshmallow and Other Deaths” (on Escape Pod), “Three Days Dead,” or “The Pull of the World and the Push of the Sky” (both in Push of the Sky). But then a story like “Shades of White and Road” blows all those other considerations right out the proverbial window. I can’t categorize that story, nor explain why I enjoy it so much other than to say I embraced an unbridled but very deliberate experimentalism with some aspects of prose and thought that I found incredibly liberating.

As quoted from your website, you like “humor dark and . . . horror funny.” Could you tell us about that?

I’ve had to give up asking people what Horror fiction is, as opposed to Dark fiction or Adventure fiction or certain kinds of Weird fiction (no one has gratified me in this yet). I’m a terrible anti-genre-ist: rigid genre classification is useful mainly for marketing purposes. It’s certainly in many ways not useful for writers, and readers do themselves a disservice when they allow their reading choices to be dictated solely by marketing.

I grew up pretty much without television, and the popular horror movies of my childhood were utterly uninteresting to me: that thing with the hockey mask guy, or the dude with the hat and stripedy shirt and the crazy finger-talon-thingies. Horror novels read by my childhood contemporaries could never compete with the Fantasy and Science Fiction I gleaned from my grandmother’s shelves. My favorite books when I was twelve were probably Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Adams’ Watership Down, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Piserchia’s Earthchild, Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place and Heinlein’s Friday. A couple years later I would’ve included Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Erica Jong’s swashbuckling Fanny, anything by Bradbury, and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Then came several years of raucous, ill-advised teenage behavior, involving blue Mohawks and lots of vodka, black eyeliner, ripped fishnets, and mosh pits sweaty as only Texas can make them. Other than a brief morose love affair with James Joyce’s Ulysses (and a morbid loathing for anything I was forced to read for school), I remember very little reading until college.

Humor has to be tempered with wistful, painful, or melancholy elements. That’s true of nearly all humor, whether it’s slapstick or standup or farce. Can genuine humor even exist that isn’t embarrassing or humiliating or painful in some small way?

What is it that excites you most about speculative fiction?

The same thing that excites me about Robinson Crusoe, or Patrick O’Brian’s high seas stuff, Louis L’Amour’s Westerns, or the Regencies of Georgette Heyer: the opportunity for immersion in a universe not bound by the world-reality I already experience. Reading for me is world-immersion, and writing is like reading to the tenth power, except when you’re in its throes, you’re always reading the best story ever!

Who are your main literary influences?

I’m not self-analytical enough to answer this with any real conviction, but I like to think much in my work echoes works of genre-fluid writers like Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver. One never ceases being influenced by other writers, new writers all the time. Whether I’m reading M.T. Anderson (Octavian Nothing, Feed), Shel Silverstein, or Edward Gorey, my writing subtly absorbs and echoes, is affected by, that experience. I’ll come across a fantastic short story like “Mayfly” by Heather Linsley or “Domovoi” by M.K. Hobson, and think about it for months.

Do you have any hobbies or interest outside of writing?

If eating cheese doesn’t count (does it?), then I’d have to say freecycling — community recycling of books, clothes, furniture, etc. I ran a vintage store for too long; few material goods keep my attention. I’m not fickle in less tangible ways, I promise! But my closet may as well have a revolving door.

I just hosted a fabulous Bookswap & Cocktail hour at my place last weekend. Twenty-five or thirty people showed up (almost all writers!) with boxes and boxes of used books. We dumped everything on tables in the middle of the room and took home whatever we fancied, while eating cheese and boozing it up! It was fan-freaking-tastic!

What’s in the future for you? Goals? Aspirations?

I’ve had an excellent year or so for short fiction culminating in Push of the Sky with this gorgeous cover by French artist Aurélien Police and a foreword by literary powerhouse, Jay Lake — an all-round lovely job from editor/publisher Eric Reynolds.

Perhaps I should concentrate on novels for awhile? Selling and writing? Finding an agent? Those all sound like very grownup, responsible sorts of things for a writer to do.

Oh — and eat more cheese. Definitely.

Read Camille Alexa’s short story, “Shades of White and Road,” at Fantasy Magazine.

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Interviewer, Marshall Payne, has written over 90 short stories and his fiction has or will appear in Aeon Speculative Fiction, Brutarian, Talebones, Fictitious Force to name a few. His numerous interviews with various luminaries of the field, as well as with up-and-coming SF/F writers, have appeared at The Fix. He has a homepage at marshallpayne.com.

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