Crossing Borders & Exploring Possibilities: A Conversation with Theodora Goss
There is a crystalline quality to Theodora Goss' poetic lines — clear, sharp, prismatic. The cumulative effect of those lines is breathtaking. She writes gorgeous poems of fountains and ravens, pomegranates and isinglass. Take, for instance, the first stanza of "The Bear's Daughter":
She dreams of the south. Wandering through the silent castle,
Where snow has covered the parapets, and the windows
Are covered with frost, like panes of isinglass,
She dreams of pomegranates and olive trees.
Likewise, her prose dances between Nineteenth Century realism and Magic Realism, and is almost painfully human. Goss' technique is impeccable and her stories, therefore, seamless. The resulting fictions could easily be called, as she suggests below, "alternative realism."
Take, for instance, this early passage from "Her Mother's Ghosts," which was reprinted in Clarkesworld Magazine in August of 2008:
Since Ilona turned seven, she has been haunted by her mother's ghosts. Once, late at night, she saw a train conductor coming out of the bathroom.
"Do you have your visa?" he asked her.
She shook her head. She was in a pink nightgown, and her feet were bare. The floor was cold.
"Then you can't cross the border," he said, looking down at her sternly. "You'll have to get out here, and speak to the station master."
She nodded. She really needed to go to the bathroom, but she was afraid that if she tried to slip past him, he would grab her. Then she would scream, and her mother would wake up. She would have to explain that she had had a nightmare. She could never tell her mother that she had seen her ghosts.
Born in Hungary, Goss lived in various European countries as a child and was raised in the United States. She lives in Boston while completing a doctorate and teaching full-time. In effect, Goss has spent her life crossing borders. Likewise, she has moved across disciplines, pursuing degrees in law and English. Currently, her work reflects the frequent movement, the blurred margins, the porous borders between the real and fantastic, and it ultimately defies categorization.
Goss is the author of the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting and editor of Interfictions (with Delia Sherman) and Voices from Fairyland. She's been nominated for the Nebula, Mythopoeic, and World Fantasy Awards, among other awards, and has won the Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem. "Singing of Mount Abora" won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.
In her words, Goss writes about reality.
"It's just that my reality may look a little different from the consensual reality we're all used to," she said. "For example, I find it much easier to believe in fairies than in the stock market. But it seems to me that we all walk around this world believing that the pavement is solid under our feet, believing in what our eyes show us, in what we are told is real. At the same time, we're on a swiftly tilting planet (as Senlin said), hurtling through space. The things we touch are not solid but mostly emptiness. Their solidity, our stability, are illusions.
"So when I write fantasy, I think I write about reality. I think I write about the fact that we don't really know what reality is, that we create the reality we think we see. And there might be a real reality behind that consensual reality, something more magical and meaningful than we can usually imagine. With fairies. Or something that we might label fairies."
Below, Goss and I talk about technique, beauty, and making mythologies.
How has all this moving around in your life influenced your writing? Influenced your sense of movement and place in your fiction?
I'm not sure I really know, except that it's pretty effectively destroyed my sense that any one place or culture is realer than another, or the proper subject of fiction. If I write about a college professor in Boston, is that realer than writing about a tree-woman in the Eastern European kingdom of Sylvania?
Some writers have a particular place and time that they write about: the rural South, for example. I've never been like that. I've always felt as though the entire world, and all of history, belonged to me as a writer, that it was all material I could work with.
It's funny, people sometimes ask whether the mythologies in my stories are real — they've asked that about "Singing of Mount Abora," for instance. I tend to pick up things from different mythological systems, alter them, make them my own, exactly the way I would do with clothes. Exactly the way I would decorate a house, in which I might have Hungarian paintings, jars from Indonesia, English china (which, in fact, I do). Perhaps because I felt as though I belonged no place, I felt as though every place was mine. I do it respectfully, as far as I know. It's not so much an appropriation as a transformation — at least so I believe. The characters — whether they're empresses, shoe-makers, talking bears — all need to fit the story. I think because I felt as though I never had a single home, because I never entirely identified with one place, I made up places. And then, I worked to give them the feeling of reality.
Another thing someone has said of my stories — I saw this written in a blog somewhere — is that they don't read as either fantasy or magic realism. I thought that was a curious comment to make, because if you ask me what I write, I would say "fantasy" every time. But I think I understand what that person was saying. In a way, I learned to write by reading the nineteenth-century realistic novel, which is mostly what I studied in my literature classes. I tend to use the techniques of nineteenth-century realism to write about fantastical subject matter. So maybe what I'm writing is alternative realism. Each time I moved from place to place, I encountered an alternate reality: things looked different in Hungary than they did in Belgium, and then American. So maybe it makes sense that I'm constructing these alternate realities.
Your short stories are beautifully written — sentence by sentence, word by word. Judging from the recordings of you reading your fiction, I imagine that sound is very important to you in the process. Okay, so what should a sentence do?
Thank you! That's very nice to hear. What a sentence should do is multitask. It should do at least two things: convey character and move the plot, for instance. Once, at one of the Wiscon workshops, where I was the official professional writer, one of the other writers asked me how I achieved the density she had seen in a particular short story. I think that's the secret: each sentence has to do more than one thing.
Other than that, each sentence should be clear. If you take a close look at my sentences, I think you'll see that there are no actual beautiful sentences. I'm serious about this. There are no sentences that stand out as beautifully written, as the sorts of sentences you could quote as examples of "beautiful writing." I'll give you an example, from "Singing of Mount Abora" since I've already mentioned it. One of the main characters, Sabra, describes her mother:
My mother was beautiful. I should say rather that she was a beauty, for to her, beauty was not a quality but a state of being. Beauty was her art, her profession. I don't mean that she was anything as vulgar as a model, or even an actress. No, she was simply beautiful, and so life gave her what it gives the beautiful: apartments in Italy, France, and Spain, and an airplane to travel between them, and a diamond called the Robin's Egg, because it was a big as a robin's egg, and as blue.
That's a description of beauty, and yet the sentences themselves are rather matter-of-fact. The only actual beautiful image in them is the diamond called the Robin's Egg, and yet all I'm describing are its size and color. I think it sounds beautiful because of its name: we think of robin's eggs as beautiful, at least I do. Whatever beauty there is in the sentences comes from rhythm: "and a diamond called the Robin's Egg, because it was as big as a robin's egg, and as blue." If I wrote, "and a diamond that was as big and blue as the egg of a robin, so it was called the Robin's Egg," that would be completely different, wouldn't it? I like the second sentence too, but it creates a different effect. (That's why going through the editing process with an editor or copyeditor can be difficult for me. The editor or copyeditor may not hear what I hear, may try to arrange sentences in ways that don't sound right to me.)
So, I don't think there are sentences of mine that you can pull out as examples of "beautiful writing," pointing to a particularly beautiful image or metaphor. I tend not to do that. But I do think I have a particular sense of rhythm, which perhaps comes from writing poetry. By writing poetry, which is actually what I wrote and published first, long before prose fiction, I've learned to have a certain level of control over the rhythm of my sentences. This all sounds rather technical, but it's become instinctive, and I do it without thinking about it. When I write, it just flows, and I actually don't revise all that much, unless I workshop something and the other writers tell me that it doesn't work, and I agree with them. (I don't always agree with them.) Then, I'll revise quite a lot, but certainly not to make something more beautiful. I'll revise for clarity, character development, that sort of thing. In a way, I'm not particularly concerned with beauty. To the extent that happens, it's a byproduct of the fact that, you're right, sound really is quite important to me.
What comes first when writing a story?
What does come first for me? It really depends on the story. Sometimes it's an image. Sometimes it's an arc, a way the story could take shape. Sometimes it's a question like "What if our perceptions could shape reality, and academics realized that, and they created imaginary disciplines, like Imaginary Archaeology, which involved not just digging stuff up, but imagining what lay underground and then digging it up, and that worked? And then someone created a journal, the Journal of Imaginary Archaeology? What would be in that journal?" But it all depends. And sometimes I read something that someone else has written, and I think, what if I wrote that story? How would it come out? And then I end up writing something that's completely different, but still has the seeds of that original story in it.
Also on a craft level, your stories are unrestricted by publishing categories. They remind me of the limitless possibilities for the short story. What should a short story do? How should it work on the reader?
I think each short story does something different. There's nothing in particular that a short story should do, except whatever it is that particular story should do — its purpose is internal to the story. I'm not sure what you mean by working on the reader. The story should certainly interest the reader, but it should also leave the reader free. Sometimes in workshops people are told that a story should "grab" the reader or something like that. What would you do to someone who grabbed you? Probably punch them, right? Perhaps I can make one of those categorical statements that I'll end up contradicting later — a short story should interest the reader, whereas a novel should involve the reader. There isn't enough space in a short story to get the reader deeply emotionally involved. When a short story tries to get me emotionally involved, I almost always end up feeling manipulated. The best short stories, for me, are the ones that deal with ideas. But I learned to write short stories by reading Jorge Luis Borges, Isak Dinesen, and Angela Carter.
I don't think there's very much the short story can't do, and I've only begun exploring the possibilities. I feel as though I do something quite different with each short story, to be honest. As though I were exploring exactly what I can do with the form. To the extent that my understanding of the form has changed, it's because I've read short stories that show me what can be done. Reading Kelly Link and Ted Chiang, for example, always teaches me something.
Looking back at this response and the previous one, I'm realizing just how much I think of writing in terms of technique. What you see when you read the story isn't the technique, it's the story itself. But the foundation is technique. I took ballet classes for a long time, and when I watch Swan Lake, for example, one part of my mind pays attention to the story the ballet is telling, and another part is naming the steps, recognizing how they link together to form a particular movement. The same things happens when I read: I enjoy the story, but part of my mind is always thinking about how it's put together, and how I could do something similar, or make a particular move my own. What I'm doing now? Honestly, at this point I'm just trying to write the stories people have asked me to write. I barely have time to work on stories that haven't been, essentially, commissioned. But if a project excites me, I like the challenge of writing a story on a particular topic or to a particular theme.
Is there a landmark piece of fiction in your career?
Oh my. What do you mean by landmark? I think some of my stories are better than others. But I don't think of any as landmarks. Honestly, I think I'm at the beginning of my writing career. I've written just under thirty stories, and then various essays, introduction, and reviews. I've barely done anything yet. Just wait. But there was a poem I read by Borges, written in his seventies when he was already blind, had already taught at Harvard, was already worshiped all over the world. In the poem, he talks about writing the work that will justify him. I thought, we're never satisfied, are we? I'm going to be just like that. I'm going to be seventy, and someone will ask me whether I've written a landmark piece of fiction, and I'll say, just wait. I may yet write something that will justify me.
Speaking of the future, what do you think the literary landscape will look like in, say, ten years? And what will your place in it be?
The literary landscape will look like this: There will be something very popular that many people are writing to make money. It will be something different than what is popular now. Some people will be reading electronically, and many people will therefore be forecasting the end of the book. Meanwhile, some other people will still stubbornly be reading books. Especially on beaches and in bathtubs, where those electronic reading machines are not such a good idea. Otherwise, the literary landscape will look pretty much the way it does now.
I rather hope my place in it will be as a professional writer. There are so many things that excite me and that I want to write: novels, short stories, articles, poems. I enjoy writing in all of these various forms, and I hope I continue to be able to. I want to be a writer, but also a participant in the larger conversation about writing and particularly fantasy writing.
All that, of course, presupposes that nothing apocalyptic happens in the next ten years. If it does, I predict that a small band of human beings, among the last of our kind, will find a battered copy of Emma and adopt it as their religious text. Priests and priestesses will take on and act out the parts of Mr. Knightly, Mr. Elton, Harriet, and of course Emma herself in religious rituals. All the world will be Highbury. In that world, if I am one of the few survivors, I would like to at least occasionally take on the role of Emma and preside over the rites prescribed by the supreme diety, Jane Austen, author of our being and creator of the universe.
What's next for you?
All sorts of things, I hope. I'm in the process of finishing my doctoral dissertation, but once that's done I hope to start on a novel project I've been discussing with a number of people. I have a bunch of short story ideas I need to work on. A poetry collection just needs to be assembled. And I want to work on at least one academic anthology, collecting stories about female monsters, from Medusa to the early twentieth century. I'm also thrilled that I was asked to editing the Folkroots column for Realms of Fantasy, following in Terri Windling's footsteps. My first column, The Femme Fatale at the Fin-de-Siècle, comes out in the February issue.
The thing about being a writer is that you essentially make your own projects. People ask you to do things, of course, but so much of what you do, you propose yourself. And then you make it happen. I find that intensely exciting. There's nothing better than that sort of creative work — it's what gets me up in the morning, and keeps me awake far too late into the night!