Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer Interview (with Charles Tan)

Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer

First off, “Each Thing I Show You Is a Piece of My Death,” is a collage of information. What made both of you decide to use this technique?

GEMMA: The funny part is that I was going through the Afterword in one of my short story collections the other day (THE WORM IN EVERY HEART, Prime Books), and found a large chunk in which I was talking about the appeal of an epistolary novel like DRACULA…this boring/voyeuristic mishmash of documentation which challenges you to read between the lines in order to figure out what’s “really” going on. M.R. James does that too, though far more subtly, and he’s one of my baseline inspirations.

And then, when I thought about how to best update that idea, it cross-bred somehow with my experience reviewing mock-doc horror films, as best embodied by low-res ‘Net-hype sensations like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and (most recently) PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. After I added in stuff that I’d learned about experimental film when covering that community here in Toronto to root it in a reality I was familiar with, and made up a suitable “urban legend” to base it around, I felt like I was ready to go.

But the thing which really dictated the story’s form was the concept of the Exquisite Corpse, which I stumbled upon quite late in the game…on the Internet, as I recall. So there you go.

STEVE: Another influence which deserves to be mentioned is Eric Heisserer’s ‘Net-only horror story “The Dionaea House” (, which really brought home to me the serious potential for creep and dread in the Internet medium--like Gemma says, the wonderful subtlety of implying the horror between the lines in what the narrative *doesn’t* say, through the utterly familiar format of text messages and e-mails. Combined with that was the opportunity to use what I think of as my “business voice”--that deliberately impersonal and bland style of professional writing and documentation any office-worker knows, with which I made much of my living for many years--to talk about utterly horrible things in the way I imagine police and medical clerks must have to; I wanted to see if the juxtaposition of an incredibly mundane style with an incredibly appalling subject would be as effective as I hoped it would be. (Check out Ramsey Campbell’s story “A Street Was Chosen” for an inspiring example of this principle in action.)

How did both of you end up collaborating for this story? What were the challenges--and rewards--working together?

GEMMA: I had had the basic idea for “each thing” some time before, but when the CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 2 deadline approached, I found it really difficult to both jump-start and carry through, probably because of the slightly non-linear nature of the narrative itself. I started discussing it heavily with Steve, who had some great character and structural ideas. Pretty quickly, it became obvious that the story would got faster and work better if we were both involved, trading back and forth on the actual writing. Steve has an amazing mind for organization, research and realistic detail, and by the end, I felt he had more than earned co-authorial credit.

The challenge is that you’re writing with your husband, but the reward is that you get to write with your husband. Though Steve hasn’t been published as many times as I have, he’s very much a capable, professional writer with years of experience; personally, I see this story as his introduction into the community, something he’ll hopefully build on when he starts sending more things out on his own. And the fact that we now also get to share a Shirley Jackson nomination? Crazy!

STEVE: What Gemma calls a knack for organization, research and detail I tend to think of as obsessive nitpickiness, but hey, it worked for Tolkien--who is, unsurprisingly, one of my favourites and inspirations; I love the detail and scope of classic worldbuilding, and the conviction and verisimilitude involved in getting everything right is as useful in horror as it is in fantasy.

Writing with Gemma is on one level remarkably easy, because unlike so many people, when she asks you what you think, she actually wants to hear your answer and is willing to work with it. On another level, it’s tremendously challenging; not only in that her standard of quality demands an equally high standard of contribution, but because she’s so open to ideas that it can be hard *not* to throw in my two cents’ worth more than absolutely necessary. (The hardest thing for any writer to learn is the distinction between “what will make this better” and “what will make this more like something *I* would write”, which is why writing and editing *are* distinct skill-sets.) But the sheer potential, and room for play, in this particular idea and format was just too much to resist; with impending deadlines as an excuse, we both went all-out at whatever occurred to us and just fit the result together afterwards. It seemed to work. ;)

In your opinion, what is it about the "horror in film" motif that resonates with readers (and writers)?

GEMMA: Well, I was a professional film reviewer long before I became a professional writer, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and I do think it’s something inherent in the medium itself. Film, the literal “moving image”, is like a ghost; flat yet vivid, charged with an unnatural sense of life. The reaction many people had to the Lumiere Brothers’ seminal film of a train arriving at a station, when it was first shown in public, was almost universally one of stark terror.

Add sound, color, F/X, and the universal tropes of horror-thriller-suspense, and film also becomes not only capable of capturing the image of a human being which can endure, apparently unscathed, long after the person who originated it is dead, but also of allowing an actor to play out an infinite variety of fake deaths that often look more “real” than the real thing.

At its heart, though, we somehow know that ALL film is an illusion: Shadows on a wall, mostly blank space. It lies sixty times a second, and it routinely tricks your mind into filling that empty space with whatever your subconscious wants to see. That’s very frightening as a concept, no matter the genre involved.

STEVE: Film also, and somewhat ironically given our awareness of its illusory nature (as Gemma notes), has a unique claim to *authority*; the belief that “if someone photographed or filmed it, it ‘really’ happened” is more seminal to Western culture than most people realize even now. For a comparatively brief but utterly transformative time--basically, from the newsreel footage for WW2 to just before the theatrical release of STAR WARS--photography and film were the ultimate “proofs” of reality, the things that changed a narrative from a mere story into the Telling Of Truth, and could even change the course of nations, as certain iconic images from the Vietnam War still demonstrate.

This power’s been weakened considerably by the ease of modern CGI and Photoshopping, but it’s not yet lost, which is why films like CLOVERFIELD or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY pack such a punch, and why “real-time” footage of UFOs, ghosts and demons gets such high view-counts on YouTube. We want to *see* something, to have proof of Something Out There; and yet if a ghost or an alien or a werewolf or some other impossible supernatural phenomenon was caught on camera in full focused detail, we would all write it off as “special effects” in an instant--the alternative being too horrifying to contemplate. “each thing” is, in a way, simply a story about someone faced with exactly that situation who doesn’t have the option of explaining it away, and what happens when he tries to deal with it.

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