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The Fantastic Spectrum of Elizabeth Hand

For twenty years, Elizabeth Hand has generated an accomplished and compelling body of work spread over short stories, novellas, novels, comic books, and media tie-in fiction. She often blends a literary flare for language, eclectic research, and realized worlds with occasionally sharp, dark, and painful human experiences that range from the punk to the mythic. And yet, more often than not, Hand's work contains themes of hope and renewal no matter how deep the despair.

Since the publication of "Prince of Flowers" in Twilight Zone Magazine in 1988, her work has marched on to acclaim. She's garnered the Nebula, International Horror Guild, World Fantasy, James Tiptree, and Mythopeic Society Awards. She's penned action-adventure tales in the Star Wars universe featuring the bounty hunter Bobba Fett. She co-created with Paul Whitcover the DC heroine Anima as part of an ambitious comic book line. Her most recent novel, Generation Loss, a literary thriller, took her love of outsider culture and explored the nature of genius through the life of a self-destructive punk-rock photographer. Truly, her career as a writer of the fantastic has a wide spectrum, or, as Lucius Shepard noted, when you read Hand's work, you cannot help but to see varied colors.

 

I'm always intrigued by the first sales by authors. Your first published story was "Prince of Flowers" in Twilight Zone Magazine, and it followed with a slew of other sales. What was the root of that story and did you have any inkling, then or now, that you had, as Harry Crews puts it, turned a corner from novice to new pro?

The story was inspired by an Indonesian puppet I bought at a DC shop called the Artifactory, probably around 1986. I used to visit the shop during my lunch hour (I worked nearby at the National Air & Space Museum) — a marvelous place, dimly-lit and smelling of spices and exotic wood, filled with all kinds of imports and antiques from all over the world. Nowadays you can easily find places like that, and you can buy cheap, mass-produced puppets like mine (I own several), but twenty-odd years ago that wasn't the case. The puppet cost $50, a lot of money in those days, and it was several weeks before I got up the courage to buy it. I brought it back to my cubicle at the Museum and announced to my friend and co-worker Greg, "This is going to bring me luck." 

And it did. I wrote "Prince of Flowers," about a malevolent Indonesian spirit puppet, and it eventually became my first sale, to Twlight Zone Magazine. The story was actually rejected by them — it returned nine months after I submitted it, with a form rejection letter, and I knew that no one had even glanced at it. By then my friend Paul Witcover was reading slush for TZ, so I gave it to him, he passed it on to editor Tappan King, and Tappan bought it. I think I made ninety bucks for the sale, and spent it all on Taittinger champagne. The story got picked up by several Year's Best Horror anthologies. Shortly thereafter I sold two more stories, one of which became the opening section of my first novel, Winterlong. That story ("The Boy in the Tree") was also rejected, by an extremely prestigious writer/editor who said he'd accept it for his anthology if I rewrote it completely: change the first-person narrative to a more traditional third-person, make the story less disturbing, etc. 

I was so angry I punched a hole in the drywall of my apartment. I knew the story was good as it was, but I wondered if I should compromise my artistic integrity (we believed in that back then), make the changes and get the sale. I decided to stick to my guns. Fortunately, I'd ignored the admonition to not make simultaneous submissions, and three days later the story was accepted by Shawna McCarthy for Full Spectrum 2.

That was when I began to realize that I'd finally made it — not in a commercial sense, but in the sense of staking out my own creative territory and occupying it. 

As of two years ago the Artifactory was still in its same spot, with the same owner. I dropped by and he remembered me, and I told him his puppet had changed my luck. The puppet is right here on my desk as I write this.

Looking at your most recent short stories, what do you find the great differences are with what you are writing now as opposed to when you were just starting out?

Well, obviously one gets better (mostly) the longer one practices one's craft. That's the theory, anyway. So I've learned to cut to the chase more in terms of plotting and pacing, though I'll never be a plot-driven writer. It just doesn't interest me much — it's primarily a means of getting the characters onstage, and I'm far more invested in creating believable characters than in generating an excuse for bombs to go off mid-story. Having said that, my most recent novel was a psychological thriller, so I had to develop my chops to have SOME kind of pacing (and bombs going off). 

But probably the main change in my prose is stylistic. I've made a conscious effort to tone down the purple prose and prune the long descriptive passages. Some readers really miss that, and to be honest sometimes I do too. So I'll try to make more deft use of atmospheric writing, kind of like rationing the special effects in a movie. 

And I take more time to polish a story — it's more important to me now to try to create "perfect" work. Impossible, of course, and you can't please everyone, as the internet constantly reminds us. But I do my best.

You are also credited with co-creating the character Anima for DC comics. How did that come about? Did you write any scripts for the series?  

My friend Rob Simpson was working at DC Comics at the time, and asked if I'd like to create a new character for him. I said yes, absolutely, but I wanted to work with my best friend and occasional collaborator, Paul Witcover. Rob gave us the thumbs-up and off we went. There was a debate as to whether the series would be published as a DC or a Vertigo imprint; ultimately, the powers that be opted for the former, which I think is why the series didn't last. The themes were real-world themes — homeless kids, drugs, rape, gay identity, gang violence, family dysfunction — at the time, issues that weren't being tackled by DC, certainly not all in the same series. I think we were the first comic to feature a character who was HIV+, also one of the first to have media tie-ins: Conan O'Brien was featured in one issue, and the Barenaked Ladies made an appearance in another. You see that stuff now in mainstream comics, but you didn't in the early 90s. 

Anima really was ahead of its time, and we had a very devoted and very articulate audience, many of whom didn't live in the U.S. — we got a lot of overseas fan mail.  I continue to be immensely proud of it.  Paul and I scripted the series together, and we worked with some fantastic artists, especially Steve Crespo, who's gone on to work for Nickelodeon.

Unfortunately, Anima only lasted for sixteen months, and the character was later killed off. Was it odd to have someone else "kill your darlings" for you?

Rob Simpson was the one who told me about Anima being one of the myriad superheroes who was offed in that dismal Teen Titans issue. When I saw how she was depicted, I laughed — skintight purple outfit, flowing blonde hair, huge boobs — the anti-Anima! One of the things we insisted on was that Anima look like a real person — a real teenager. The ludicrous boob-job DC killed was obviously not our Anima — she lives, somewhere, and maybe someday will be resurrected again by a simpatico writer.

We discussed tie-in media fiction in a previous article for Clarkesworld, where you mentioned you'd largely given up writing it in favour of your own work. Has this held true, or have you been tempted to write the next great Bobba Fett adventure story for a fistful of dollars? Is there a current movie/TV show/comic that you'd want to dip into as a writer for fun?

Nah, I remain untempted. No million-dollar offers have been forthcoming, which makes it easier, but I don't see much out there that even vaguely interests me. I haven't had a TV in 22 years — anything I watch, I watch online or on DVD. I was asked to do the novelizations for The Tudors, a show I like, but ultimately I decided to just focus on my own work. I figure there are other, often emerging writers out there who could benefit from the exposure and are more plugged into TV: more power to them.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of your stories and voice as a writer is a passion and interest for other forms of art such as photography, music, and visual art. Indeed, almost all of these elements are critical to Generation Loss. Could you tell us about the genesis of this novel and how you approach instilling your written work with these non-literary influences?

I have a longtime fascination with artistic and the creative process, but it's difficult to create fiction about the act of writing — for me, anyway. You're by yourself, it's all in your head: very, very boring. The other arts — visual, dramatic, musical — all lend themselves much more to being depicted in a story or film. So a lot of it is simply a matter of writing about something that can be described in (I hope) an interesting fashion. In Mortal Love, I used the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle, a group of artists just waiting for their closeup. It was fascinating to research 19th century painting techniques and materials — pigment, canvas, you name it — and then make use of that stuff in creating their world. E.g., when he was painting "Ophelia," Millais completed about one square inch of canvas per day, a rate I could really identify with.

And I know just enough about some of these worlds to have a peephole into them. I wanted to be an artist when I was young, but tragically had no talent. Same with acting, which I studied for three very intensive years at college. My job at the Smithsonian involved working in their Photo Division, and I became fascinated by black-and-white photography — again, something I had no talent for, but several of the guys who worked in the photo lab took me under their wing and taught me the basics, and I spent a good deal of time in the darkroom there. 

I've been very lucky in knowing a lot of people who are gifted artists — painters, photographers, actors, musicians, dancers — so I've been able to watch them at work, and ask a lot of questions about their process. I'm a good observer, a skill I think most writers possess. When I switched majors in college, I studied cultural anthropology; I loved doing ethnographic interviews, being a participant observer, all that stuff. 

Gary Wolfe once remarked in a review of something of mine that I'm continually drawn to wonky subcultures and communities. That's true — I love immersing myself in a situation where I'm an outsider. On a personal, social level it can be very uncomfortable and often not a lot of fun. But from the creative perspective, it's extremely useful. With Generation Loss, I was able to draw on several different groups I'd had some contact with — the first generation punk and proto-punk scene in 1970s NYC; photography; the present-day survivors of hippie communes in Maine, and the island communities of Maine itself. I'm attempting to do the same thing now with Available Dark, the sequel to Generation Loss, set mostly in Iceland and dealing with the fallout from the violent Norwegian Black Metal scene of the early 1990s. GL began as a more traditional dark fantasy, morphed briefly into a horror novel and eventually became a mostly mainstream thriller (with a few very vague flickers of the supernatural). It was a different way of writing than I was accustomed to, so I had a substantial learning curve (still do).

But I really enjoyed it. I get bored easily (one reason why I don't have a TV), and I like trying different styles of writing, different genres. As a naive young writer, I foolishly thought that versatility would be an asset. In fact it's fairly detrimental to having a long-term career — publishers, and readers, both want to see the same trick repeated over and over again. I'm guilty of this myself — I'd rather hear the familiar songs by a band I love, and read a writer in his or her accustomed mode. 

But as a writer, I like to stretch — I need to stretch, otherwise I lose interest. This happened with the novels that followed Winterlong — I got bored of writing science fiction — and again with Black Light — I got bored with writing that kind of fantasy. 

Of course, at this point I'm distant enough from those works that I could probably return to those genres and rediscover them. I wrote "Winter's Wife," a straightforward supernatural story, immediately after completing Generation Loss, and it was a genuine relief and pleasure to get back into creating a fantasy.

Much of your fiction blends your real life into the fantastic. At the Odyssey Writing Workshop, you provided some interesting advice regarding real life and fiction. First, you asked us to take the worst day of school/work and through it into a genre story to see how it flew (mine flew well enough to sell, thanks again!). You also demand that we push ourselves farther than we think we can write, to try things that might be out of our reach. "If you fail, fail gloriously," you said, "you'll likely learn a great deal and be better for it." Can you give us some examples of when these lessons proved valuable to you?

As I said above, these days I find I really enjoy going back and forth between the fantastic and the real world when I write — I've always liked doing that within a single work, but now I like alternating between the different genres. Part of it I think is the risk involved in doing something new and unfamiliar, and attempting to master the conventions of a different genre. Mimetic fiction is as much a genre as fantasy, or mystery, or romance, and some of my favorite writers — James Salter, Laurie Colwin, Robert Stone — are mainstream writers. I'm a huge admirer (like everyone else) of Kelly Link, her unusual narrative gambits; also of M. John Harrison, who I think is one of the best writers working today, in any genre. 

So I've followed their example and tried to stretch in some of my short fiction, stories that have mostly been published in places like Conjunctions. I wrote a very short experimental piece called "Kronia," something I've never attempted before or since. I was very happy with it, but I doubt I'll ever write something like that again. As Daffy Duck says, "It's a great trick, but I can only do it once."

Because obviously there's a risk in attempting something you've never done before. We all have particular gifts, and part of becoming a mature artist as well as (one hopes) a mature person is discovering where those gifts lie. You don't want to be Pat Boone posing in a leather jacket on your next album cover. But it's fun to pose alone in your room.

You've made the greatest name for yourself with short stories and novels, but you're also accomplished with novellas. Bibliomancy collected many of your recent novellas, including the dark-fantastique revenge story "Cleopatra Brimstone," and two heartbreaking tales of love in hard times, "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" and the short novel "Chip Crocket's Christmas Carol." How do you know when a story is best suited to a novella length, and is there a different kind of emotional weight that can be imbued with this form that makes it so well suited to tales of hardship, as demonstrated in this collection?

I think the novella is the ideal length for supernatural fiction. "Heart of Darkness," "The Turn of the Screw," "The Great God Pan," "A Christmas Carol" — many of the greatest stories of the fantastic are novellas or novelettes. Many of these depend heavily upon mood, and the mood is broken if you put the story down. A novella (if it's a good one) can be read in one sitting: the spell remains unbroken. I never consciously set out to write at novella length — I always start intending to write a short story, but the story grows and grows. I'm heavily invested in my characters, and it's extremely difficult (for me, anyway) to create in-depth characterization in a very short form.  I believe that story should derive from character, and it takes time to build that kind of narrative. 

But I do think my best work happens that way — again, not intentionally. It really is like casting a spell, upon myself and, ideally, the reader. I love to create endings that make people tear up — Ellen Datlow often reads my work in its early stages, and if she tells me I made her cry, I know I've done my job. At its best, there's a catharsis in writing, and I want to pass that on to the reader, the sense that you've become so deeply involved in these characters that they really seem like people you know and care about deeply. There are people who reread "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" every year, and that makes me happier than almost anything.

Given all you've accomplished, what goals do you now have and what are the current projects on the burner?

My main goal is just to keep working. Earlier this year I completed a novella that will be in Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio's Story anthology next year, and my novella Illyria will also be published next spring by Viking as a YA title. Wonderwall, my YA novel about Arthur Rimbaud, will be out in 2011; so will Available Dark, which I'm working on now. And I just got my first film option, on "Cleopatra Brimstone," which is cool. As to what's next, I have an idea for a big, ambitious fantasy novel about the theater that goes from Shakespeare's time to our own.  

But gotta finish this one first.

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ISSUE 38, November 2009

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason S. Ridler

Jason Ridler is the author of the Spar Battersea thrillers (Death Match and Con Job) and the short story collection Knockouts. He has also published over 50 stories in such magazines and anthologies as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Brain Harvest, Not One of Us, Chilling Tales, Tesseracts Thirteen, and more. His nonfiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Dark Scribe, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. His doctoral thesis on Dr. Solandt will be published under the title Maestro of Science: Omond McKillop Solandt and Government Science in War and Hostile Peace by the University of Toronto Press.

WEBSITE

www.jridler.com

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