Gemma Files Interviewed by Maura McHugh
Gemma Files was born in the UK, but moved to Toronto, Canada when she was a year old. She graduated university with a degree in journalism, and began her career with an eight-year tenure at Eye Weekly in Toronto, where she established her reputation as a genre-friendly film critic. Five of her short stories were adapted for the US/Canadian horror television series, The Hunger (1997-2000), and she wrote the screenplays for the series 2 episodes 'Bottle of Smoke' and 'The Diarist'. She also taught screenwriting for eleven years. Her short story 'The Emperor's Old Bones', won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Story of 1999. Two collections of her short stories are available: Kissing Carrion (2003) and The Worm in Every Heart (2004). In 2009 she was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award for her novelette 'each thing i show you is a piece of my death' (co-written with her husband Stephen J. Barringer), as well as for her short story 'The Jacaranda Smile'. Gemma's first novel, A Book Of Tongues (ChiZine Publications, 2010), the first book in her Hexslinger series, won the 2010 Black Quill award for "Best Small Press Chill" (both Editors' and Readers' Choice) from Dark Scribe Magazine. The sequel, A Rope of Thorns, is due from CZP in May 2011.
Q: Your two collections of short stories, Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, and your Weird West novel A Book of Tongues are firmly horror, have you always been attracted to the horror genre as a fan and as a writer?
A: When I was very young, I briefly wanted to write science fiction--space opera, more like, because even then, I think I'd figured out that my total lack of scientific knowledge or interest might be a bit of a drawback. Blame Star Wars. Then I flirted with fantasy, but found it a bit repetitious, upbeat and world-building-heavy for my purposes. Coinciding with my tweens/early teens, however, came that brief upsurge of mainstream horror kicked off by the twin juggernauts of Stephen King and Peter Straub. Like that poor little boy in one of The Stand's interstitials, I fell down the hidden well-shaft, broke my (mental) leg beyond mending, and never really looked back.
Q: Were there any pivotal films and/or books you remember cementing your interest in the genre?
A: Interestingly, I actually think it was a combination of films, a particular book imprint, and the Vertigo line of graphic novels. All of them confirmed to me that darkness was a valid theme which could be approached from multiple directions, and all of them introduced me to the idea of quick-cut parallel storytelling in which several different POVs constantly bounced back and forth, commenting on each other as they did, each illuminating the unfilled lacunae in the others.
The films were Tony Scott's The Hunger, John Carpenter's The Thing, Alan Parker's Angel Heart and Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, all gloriously excessive and unrepentant and grim-to-the-last, plus Bigelow's example showed me that women were perfectly able to tell these kinds of stories as well--to drive the narrative as creators, rather than just being victims, protagonists or monsters. The books, on the other hand, mainly came from Dell's Abyss line: Everything by Kathe Koja (though especially Skin), Melanie Tem's Wilding, Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls. But there was also the crazy pulp-punk rush of Nancy A. Collins' Sunglasses at Night, Robert R. McCammon's Bethany's Sin and Skipp and Spector's The Light at the End, plus the weird elegance of Todd Grimson's Stainless, K.W. Jeter's Dark Seeker, and the novels of Michael McDowell (especially The Elementals).
Vertigo comics, on the other hand--particularly the stuff done by Neil Gaiman--demonstrated how you could have several different types of input plugging into the exact same scene, each revealing something different and equally important: visual action, framing/perspective, dialogue, thought, narration, background dialogue, even song-lyrics from supposedly ambient music that were really there to comment on/tie the rest of the above together. Check out his Black Orchid miniseries and you'll see what I mean, or any given Sandman run (though the Serial killers' convention episode of 'The Doll's House' really punched me between the eyes).
These were continuing narratives in which your main characters could be flawed, freakish, fairly dreadful people, pariahs deforming the world around them with the weight of their various weirds. Think Tim Hunter from Books of Magic, or John Constantine: Hellblazer, whose main "superpowers" are doomed charm, Liverpudlian snark, a wide base of magical knowledge and total self-serving bastardry. The fact that this imprint eventually gave rise to things like The Unwritten and Fables surprises me not at all, though it does make me happy.
Q: After you graduated college you began your journalism career reviewing films, do you think your constant analysis and preoccupation with cinema influenced your approach to prose when you began writing?
A: Oh yes. I think I look at films the way other people look at paintings--they're inspiration, moving Rorschach blots. Sometimes it's very helpful to have a template in mind when you're casting around for inspiration, and my screenwriting/film analysis training helps me to boil things down into pitches which wrap character, plot, mis en scene and a full spectrum of influence together really easily. And then, of course, everything hopefully starts to shift until it becomes something strikingly different from its sources...but yes, film is sort of my library. I love the process and the product, both--it may not often leave me with a great aftertaste, but the prospect of being shown some new, something different, *always* excites me going in. As Lo Pan says in Big Trouble in Little China: "Still, we all go on hoping like fools!"
Q: You've also written for television, and taught screenwriting. What do you recommend as the core features of a good horror script? And how often do you see them put into practice?
A: There's a lot to be said for structure. Not necessarily three-act structure, the Hollywood stand-by, but a general commitment to storytelling principles--the courage to say: Here's the narrative, and here's how we're going to show it unfolding. Two of the biggest mistakes I see people making are breaking narrative perspective just because it allows you to show something "cool" and hedging your bets about what's really going on, i.e. trying to say: "Well, it MIGHT be this, but...it might be something else! What do *you* think, audience?" Commitment is imperative, because if you're not committed to the story you're telling, why the hell are you telling it? The flip-side of commitment, however, is predictability; we're all pretty trope-savvy, at this point. So the challenge becomes telling a story that seems classically structured in retrospect, yet surprising and inventive while you're inside of it. Since the mechanics of fear, dread, shock, terror and awe stay pretty static, I think the best way to do this is to move away from the expected patterns, especially in terms of characterization, relationships, motivations and cultural cues.
And how often do I see these principles put into practice? Not as often as I'd like, by far. That's probably why I mainly watch foreign horror, these days--at least I'm less likely to see stuff I've seen a thousand times previously. Shift the context, and content often follows. (This goes the other way, too--think about the fresh perspectives brought to "mainstream" horror by outsiders like Paul Verhoeven (at the start of his career, at least), Guillermo del Toro, or even my fellow Canadians David Cronenberg and Vincenzo Natali. Hybrid vigour, for the win.)
Q: As a woman what aspect of horror cinema exasperates you most, and what do you think is its most untapped potential?
A: Well, the female victim is a primary annoyance, followed closely by the female monster (particularly if hypersexualized), and--oddly enough--the "final girl" trope, which began by turning things on their ear simply by shifting the boundaries of who could be a protagonist/survivor, only to become its own sort of trap. I also dislike the genre's innate heterocentrism a lot, and not just because dudes kissing turns me on--I just think that by limiting the field of who can be a "suitable" narrative-driver, you do yourself no favours. At base, horror is (or should be) the genre of the lost and the lonely, the weak and the wounded, the *non*-default...so how, exactly, does it make any sense to keep returning to or reinforcing these hoary old standards of normalcy?
So yes, I want queer protagonists, disabled protagonists, old protagonists, protagonists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, "ugly" protagonists, protagonists who start in one camp and end up in another--protagonists who don't come pre-packaged, who grow and suffer and *change* along with the story itself in ways that don't necessarily just involve getting naked, dirty or covered in blood. The voyeurism inherent in watching bad things happen to good (or at least pretty) people is dicey enough already, without adding in all this other stupid baggage on top.
Oh yeah, and finally? The stomach-punch "twist ending" has become such a cliche that I think it should be dropped for a while, simply taken off the table--particularly when it leads to you scuppering your entire story's internal logic and emotional sense, just because you think it'll make people go: "Whoah!" Haute Tension, I'm lookin' at you.
Q: You've said that you want to see more diversity in films. Both in your short fiction and your novel you present the reader with characters with a wide spectrum of sexual identities, is this something that you consciously select, or do your characters tend to "present themselves" to you when you're developing your ideas?
A: When I'm approaching something for the first time, my brain often seems to cycle through a bunch of possibilities, flipping things back and forth until I find the perspective that's most interesting to me. And since the default setting in general is white/male/cis/straight, it's pretty unlikely that whoever/whatever I settle on is going to fit all those descriptors, because that'd be very much the inverse of "interesting". Maybe it comes from having always been far more attracted to villains, anti-heroes and/or sidekicks than I am to outright heroes, except in those cases where the heroes themselves are outsiders, or can be seen as such (Batman's Mister Default, except inside his head; Wonder Woman comes from a same-sex splinter society of partially mythological warriors for whom gods and monsters are the norm; hell, even Superman is an alien orphan doing the world's most over-compensating impression of a "normal" guy). The first group of heroes I ever identified with were the X-Men, which I think leaves a particular set of scars.
But then there's the slightly dicier fact that I am, plain and simple, what the kids call a "slasher"--an otherwise heterosexual cis female who happens to be very turned on by the idea of two guys together. If you'd ever told me that the fetish I struggled to explain to people all through my teens and young adulthood would eventually become so millions-of-chicks-writing-porn-on-the-'Net "mainstream" that it'd become a bit of a trope-y joke, I'd've laughed right in your face, but there you go. So yes, in that particular way, it's very deliberate: I enjoy writing gay male relationships, and I refuse to apologize for it.
I do, however, also struggle to make these characters actual *people*, capable of the widest range and fullest spectrum of motivation and emotion possible...just like my heterosexual characters, my lesbian characters, my bisexual or generally "queer" characters. A lot of the time, people's sexualities aren't considered a valid part of the narrative at all, especially when they're not of the boy-meets-girl-gets-married-has-kids type, and that can be problematic; on the other hand, it can be equally problematic when people's sexualities *are* their narrative, and they only exist to be "the gay guy" (see also "the black guy", "the chick", "the Aspie", "that person in a wheelchair", etc.).
Q: I liked your description of some horror characters as "flawed, freakish, fairly dreadful people, pariahs deforming the world around them with the weight of their various weirds," which could easily summarise many of the characters in your fiction. What is the attraction to writing people like this, and what do you think it offers the reader?
A: I can't speak for everybody, obviously, but...personally, I've never felt "normal". I've always felt like there was something a bit off with me, and either everyone around me could spot it a mile away, or I was left constantly feeling like an impostor, waiting for them to figure it out and drop me like a hot rock. So characters whose wounds have become super-powers make me happy--they're comforting, an archetype to aspire to.
This is why "mainstream", normative horror populated by un-self-aware characters whose victory is posited on the old order re-enforcing itself can be so frustrating and/or boring--I mean, who really gives a damn if the Prom Queen makes it home alive or not, unless the reason she's able to save herself comes from the fact that she's not as perfect as she seems? Or that she, in fact, has more in common with the monster hunting her than anyone around her wants to think? There's a reason the Scream franchise went as long as it did (and is just now re-booting itself): on a basic level, we *like* it when the "good" die and the bad/ugly/weird survive. We're rooting for the virgin nerd who obsesses over horror, the dweeby Deputy who hooks up with the tabloid TV reporter, the girl who gave it up but still managed to kick her bad boyfriend's ass (and his little co-dependent fellow psycho, too).
Q: If you tackle a taboo subject in your fiction - an example would be necrophilia in your story 'Kissing Carrion' - you do so in a no-flinching manner: you shine the flashlight in the dark and tell the reader exactly what you see. This direct confrontation of edgy subjects no doubt unsettles readers, and might even be too much for some. Do you think this is what horror can do at its best? Look the monster in its eyes rather than run away?
A: Absolutely. OTOH, I'm always somewhat surprised by the places people apparently won't go without being dragged kicking and screaming, especially in this "triggers"-sensitive world of ours. As Caitlin R. Kiernan's often pointed out, when readers expect/demand that the author routinely warn for stuff (be it animal harm, rape, sexual content, blood and guts, bad language, scariness, unreliable narration, or whatever-else-have-you), it sort of defeats the purpose of "dark" literature as a genre. And it also makes people develop that weird flinch reflex that tars the entire horror spectrum with, say, the Eli Roth goreno brush--they just assume that whatever you're selling, it's bound to be more of the same. And they deprive themselves of some really amazing writing as a result, running the gamut from Clive Barker to Jack Ketchum.
Q: Have you ever been surprised at what you've written to the point where you're unsure if you'll ever see it published or are concerned that it will offend people?
A: Considering some of the stuff I've seen published, I think most stories will eventually find their market, if you shop them around long/energetically enough. But yeah, I've had moments where I've thought I maybe went too far. And almost always, I've then found someone who either responded best to that particular thing, or thought I didn't go far enough. These are the situations for which the phrase "your mileage may vary" was developed.;)
Q: How do you select which ideas to develop as stories? Before you delve into the hard work of fleshing it out do you ever consider those issues of marketability and the audience's response? Is it mostly about writing to express your interests and what fascinates you?
A: It's true that I find it really hard to work on stuff which doesn't excite me enough to make me get all obsessive about it, on some level. I used to have a pattern where I'd develop the kernel of an idea and then wait almost ten years between idea and execution, twiddling around with it intermittently until it suddenly caught fire ('Kissing Carrion', from the collection of the same name, is a good example of this type of evolution). But that was back before people started asking me for stuff directly, by name and all. Now I try my level best to make things happen a lot faster, though sometimes it's difficult; in other words, I like to think my response-time for non-contract work's gone down to five years at the most.;)
As for audience response...now that I've finished the second Hexslinger book, I'm entering that weird stage in which I'm beginning to realize that there are people out there who seem genuinely invested in *this* story, *this* bunch of characters, and want to see what's going to happen next. So I feel a responsibility to them--to make sure I don't fall off in terms of storytelling, that I don't dumb things down or nice them up, that I stay true to the narrative's natural logic. Which is cool, and very different, since I don't really remember feeling anything like that before. Before, it was pretty much: "Don't like this? Okay. Like this? Great. Want more of the same? Uh...maybe, maybe not. Just have to see."
Stephen King quoted Alfred Bester as saying: "The book is boss." And yeah, I think it really has to be that way--that you shouldn't second-guess yourself by wondering who the audience is for a certain story, or trying to tailor it towards the standards of some nebulous bunch of folks who haven't read it yet. Just let the story find its own shape, go with it, trim it 'til it's the best version of itself it can be, then let it loose. It will find a home eventually, somewhere.
Q: While of course writing can be difficult sometimes, what is the most liberating aspect of it for you as a horror writer?
A: Bernard Rose, director of Candyman, said once that the primary pleasure of horror is that you can feel free to go ahead and kill your entire cast, if it seems appropriate. And I have to say, I've always felt the same--that transformational black hole roller-coaster ride sense of downward momentum which lends the genre its kick is a high beyond compare. But then again, horror also has such a beautiful range of darknesses to play with, and the tension between creep and crash, hope and despair, change and decay is what keeps me coming back. I can do whatever I want, even more so than in fantasy or science fiction, because the rules I'm playing with are purely metaphorical--I can choose exactly how much of "reality" I'm going to preserve, and how much I'm just going to screw right into the ground. Hell, even if I *do* kill my entire cast, I can always bring them back again!
Q: Did you find the transition from writing primarily short fiction to novel-length difficult? And now, do you find it easy or a strain to move between the two forms?
A: It took me...ten years plus to move from everybody going: "You know, Gemma, you really should write a novel..." and me agreeing: "Oh yeah, I know, that's where all the money is [ha ha]..." to where I am today, and it was a real grind. Like trying to re-train yourself to run marathons after twenty years of sprinting--the rhythm is completely different.
Looking back, the two things that really helped were learning how to outline, which came from writing screenplays and teaching TV series development (particularly the latter, which is designed at making you think in open-ended narratives composed of linked episodes), and writing a lot of fan fiction, which taught me to write in quick, bite-sized chunks without censoring myself or getting too hung up on re-writing, then say: "It's done!", post it, and walk the hell away. Very freeing. Without the benefit of both those experiences, I think A Book of Tongues would probably have stalled in its first few chapters (just like every other novel I'd previously tried to write had, up to that point).
And is it hard to go back to short work after that transition? Frankly, yes. I mean, my stories were always longer than the norm, but these days the word-count bar is set extraordinarily low--3,000 words, 4,000, 5,000--and I often find it very challenging to figure out the exact right angle/POV to approach a story at which will make it fit through that hole. That said, I've been writing a lot of novellas and novelettes, which hit the sweet spot between just long enough to get interesting and yet finite enough to require real viciousness. They provide opportunities to destroy everything you touch, with enough space left over to describe it in detail.
Q: You are already working on your next novel, A Tree of Bones, which will be the third novel in your marvellous Hexslinger series. How is that going, and do you plan to continue to work in your Weird West world? Have you any dream projects that you'd like to work on?
A: I think Tree of Bones really will bring things to a conclusion, in terms of the Hexslinger series (fingers crossed)--the same point at which I thought A Book of Tongues would end, in other words, back when I first pitched it to CZP. That said, I do have at least one other novel I want to write set in the same universe, about twenty years later, which would be like a hex versus hex riff on Gangs of New York; I actually have a few characters in A Rope of Thorns who provide a bit of a rehearsal for that, and the hexological studies/mantic sciences of Doctor Asbury would also definitely factor into the plot, along with the fallout from Allan Pinkerton's war against Rook, Chess and Ixchel.
Other than that, I have two far more contemporary horror novels I need to write, and there's been talk about putting together a couple of new collections. But the ultimate dream project would be to be able to either develop a new script from the ground up and see it turned into a film or to finally sell the script I've been using as my spec for the last few years, then see *that* produced. It's been a very long time since The Hunger TV series, and I think I've really improved as a screenwriter--I don't ever want to lose that part of my skill set entirely.
Maura McHugh lives in Ireland, and has loved the horror genre since she was frightened by Tod Browning's The Devil-Doll at the age of five. She writes fiction in a variety of media, and has been published in venues like Black Static, Shroud Magazine, and the Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. Her first graphic novel, Róisín Dubh, is due this summer from Atomic Diner in Ireland.
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