Friday, 23 July 2010

Gemma Files - Author Interview

Novel: A Book of Tongues

Short Story Collections: Kissing Carrion, The Worm in Every Heart

Poetry Chapbooks: Bent Under Night, Dust Radio


> What's A Book of Tongues about?

A Book of Tongues takes place in an alternate universe version of the Wild West (the Weird West, more like), just after the Civil War, where it’s established knowledge that some people occasionally and randomly develop magical powers so strong they can pretty much just think a thing and see it done. Commonly called “hexes”, these magic-workers―who otherwise would’ve undoubtedly taken over the world long before now―are thankfully prevented from working together by an instinctive drive to parasite off each other, draining each other’s power until injury or death; “Mages don’t meddle”, the received wisdom goes, and all normal people are damn thankful for it.

As our story begins, the Pinkerton Detective Agency has sent Ed Morrow undercover with an outlaw gang headed by one such “hexslinger”, “Reverend” Asher Rook―who uses his knowledge of the Bible to create curses which allow him to rob trains, bring down buildings and turn whole villages to salt―and his lieutenant (and lover), Chess Pargeter. Morrow’s supposed to use a newly-invented gadget to measure the scope of Rook’s magic, so that Pinkerton and his pet mad scientist Dr Herbert Asbury will be able to create a scale which will allow them to identify potential hexes, recruiting them before they erupt painfully into their full power.

What Morrow doesn’t know, however, is that Rook is being haunted/courted by something even more dreadful than he is―Rainbow Lady Ixchel, the Mother of all Hanged Men. She wants the Rev to help her resurrect the dead Mayan-Aztec pantheon, and will stop at nothing to gain his cooperation…

> Why did you choose to set your horror novel in the Wild West?

I’ve always enjoyed setting stories in different eras―literal period pieces. What happened here, however, is that I’d already spent a year or so slightly obsessed with the James Mangold remake of 3:10 to Yuma―particularly the performance of Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, which provided the initial inspiration and physical template for Chess Pargeter―and, before that, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which meant I’d done more than enough research to feel secure writing about the 1860s.

Then it occurred to me: Why not combine my horror/dark fantasy impulses with my historical ones, like Naomi Novik inserting dragons into the Napoleonic Wars in her Temeraire series? And I’ve always loved the Aztecs and Maya, whose demented Blood Engine view of the universe really goes very well with the “you get what you pay for” rules of magic, black or otherwise…

> In the book, who is you favourite character and why?

Oh, I love everybody, but Chess is definitely the most fun to write. His best and worst quality is that he makes absolutely no apology for anything―he’s both a total bad-ass and unabashedly gay, and his attitude is: Well, if you’re gonna try and kill me for something as stupid as likin’ who I like, then bring it! Of course, he’s more an antihero than a hero; he’s done genuinely terrible things, and deserves to suffer for them. But he’s got great potential, too―that’s what draws people to him, me included.

> What role does music play in the writing of your novels?

I love music, so it only makes sense that it would be a guiding, inspiring force in my creative life; a lot of my short stories are even named after specific songs (“Ring of Fire” and “Blood Makes Noise”, for example, from my collections of short work, Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart), or even lyrics (“When I’m Armouring my Belly”, from EDGE’s Evolve anthology, or “each thing I show you is a piece of my death”, which was reprinted in Night Shade Books’ The Best Horror of the Year 2, and nominated for a 2010 Shirley Jackson award).

But when it came to writing A Book of Tongues, I found that this link was even more pronounced than usual. You can actually find a sort of playlist for the novel up at my professional site,, so check it out―try listening to it while you read.

> What are some advantages of getting published by a small press?

Being consulted on the cover art―there’s usually a complete separation of church and state when it comes to packaging, and the writer’s hardly ever involved. I, on the other hand, got to write my own back cover text, pick out the pull-quotes…and edit my own manuscript down from roughly 120,000 words to roughly 100,000, too. I cut a hundred pages out of my own book, and I enjoyed it!

> What are your favourite three books?

In terms of influence, I’d say probably Night’s Master by Tanith Lee, Skin by Kathe Koja, and Stainless by Todd Grimson. All three are hellbent-propulsive, poetically immersive and polymorphously perverse, three qualities I definitely aspire to. Unfortunately, I think the latter two are also currently out of print, though a newly restored version of Night’s Master was just released by Norliana Books.

> What made you want to be a writer?

I don’t think there was ever a “want” about it. I’ve always told myself stories―it seemed only natural to eventually want to get paid for telling them to other people. Better living through lying, I always say.

> What was the first novel that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?

You’re looking at it. I mean, I’ve certainly started a lot of other novels over the years―but no, this is my first official book, and my first official book sale. I began it on January 2, 2009, sold it in April on the strength of seven chapters and an outline, and finished it on October 28 of the same year. But I will point out that it took roughly twenty years of professional writing―short stories, journalism, film reviews, screenplays―for me to be able to write this book as efficiently as I did, and I’m told that’s about normal.

> What was the hardest scene for you to write?

Chapter Twelve, hands down―the confrontation in the desert between the Rev and “Grandma”, a Dine Hataalii who isn’t sure if she should take him on as her apprentice, or kill him and pick his bones. It took me two months to get through.

> If you still have one, what’s your day job?

I’ve pretty much been a contract worker for the last fifteen years―I reviewed films for eye Weekly, then taught film history and screenwriting, first at the Trebas Institute, then the Toronto Film School. Due to economic upheaval, the TFS shut down around the same time my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and I effectively became a stay-at-home Mom. So being his support system and writing are my “day jobs” now, though I sure don’t support myself doing either; luckily, I have an amazing husband with an equally amazing office job (and during his spare time, he’s a writer, too―the co-writer of “each thing”, to be exact).

> What is your university degree in and does it help with your writing?

I graduated with a B.A.A. in Magazine Journalism from Ryerson University. It taught me the importance of research and gave me the confidence to interview sources, but it also taught me a lot about editing, time management, and the absolute myth of “writer’s block”. When you’re on deadline, there’s no such thing as not being “able” to write―you write as badly as you have to, but you get the damn thing done, and then fix it up later.

> When and where do you write?/How do you discipline yourself to write?/Any tips against writers block?

At home, when my son’s at school. It gives me about five hours to play with, and I use those to write about 500 to 1,000 words a day. If I’m having trouble with production, I use the same time to transcribe notes, organize, outline, or do research. The timeline itself provides its own discipline. And like I said, there’s really no such thing as “writer’s block”―you can always be scribbling down something: Dialogue, description, plot-points, whatever. You lay these in like bare bones, put them in order, then watch them develop flesh and skin.

> What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published and do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

No one is actually looking to steal your ideas, so stop worrying about that. Besides which, everything seems derivative of something else even if it isn’t, so don’t worry about that, either. What you bring to the table is execution, not inspiration, so just keep writing―finished product trumps everything. Write enough, for long enough, and you’ll become a competent professional. The rest is all about getting stuff done, packaging it up and sending it off, over and over again.

> If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?

In the immortal words of Kiefer Sutherland (when asked by a Rolling Stone reporter if he was going to drive his own car while out on an all-night drinking excursion): “Uh, no…that’d be bad.”

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