Friday, June 18, 2010

Gemma Files Interview (with Charles Tan)

Gemma Files

How did the Jacaranda tree become a central image in your mind and became part of your title in "The Jacaranda Smile"?

To me, there's little more annoying than being jolted out of a narrative by an author writing about writing as a process, but not creating anything which seems like a genuine story--you get a look at the "magnum opus" somebody's been working on all this time, and you're like: "That's IT?" With "The Jacaranda Smile", I was working from the germ of an idea I'd had during my last visit to Australia--a story I wanted to write, but wasn't sure if I could. And eventually, the way I realized I had to frame it was as that sort of story--to make myself the protagonist, but also the monster. My description of the story inside the story incorporates a lot of the notes I wrote while on that trip, from architectural details to plot twists and character observations.

Most of the imagery in the story, if not its events, is taken directly from life. The apartment is an apartment my father and his S.O. lived in; there really was a jacaranda tree that you could look straight out into if you stood in the solarium. And during the period of my childhood when I was going back and forth to Australia, my Dad sometimes left me with my grandparents, his Mom and Dad, who had a house in the suburbs of Melbourne with a maple tree in its tiny front yard. I'd climb up there and read through every Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars book, in order, while wavering high above the neighbourhood. It became a symbol to me for the mixture of yearning and loneliness which embodied my trips to Australia in specific, but my relationship with my Dad in particular.

Said relationship remains simultaneously deep, disconnected, and volatile, even today. Frankly, I have no idea how he'd react if he read this story; not well, probably, though at least I have the patented "but it's fiction!" out to fall back on. But I haven't told him about it, and luckily, I doubt he'll go searching. As he's told me roughly a million times, horror's not his thing.

There's a lot of juxtaposition in your story, whether it's the narrator's life compared to her father, or her reality vs. her fiction. What were the challenges in using this technique?

What goes where, when, and why? When you're bending back and forth through time, using memory to inform and comment on two types of action--"real" and otherwise--it's really important to be able to keep a strict tally of pegs vs. holes. I thought about books and stories I'd enjoyed previously which did this extremely well, and tried to pick and choose what elements I wanted to poach from each; Peter Ackroyd's HAWKSMOOR comes to mind, for example, and Muriel Spark's "The Portobello Road".

But equally useful were tricks of pacing and layering I'd picked up from graphic novels and theatrical scripts, or radio plays. Though I haven't read "The Jacarands Smile" out loud in public thus far, I can see it working really well that way--single narrator, different angles, a soupcon of unreliability. It *is* challenging, but it's also fun.

How long did it take you to write this story? To get it published?

Like I said, I got the idea ten years ago, at least. Sat on it until, probably...three years ago, then began to peck away at it. The writing itself went surprisingly quickly after I broke through with the image of the bird in the fountain (again taken from life, though I actually ran across it when I was out with my son, who immediately tried to pick it up!) But I did despair a bit of anyone picking it up, because it seemed almost creepily intimate--a lot like very early stories of mine which were all-too-obviously based on personal experience. I think I was almost embarrassed by it.

Still, those are the qualities Mike Kelly said he liked most about it when he took it, maybe a year later, so there you go. Nobody really does know anything.;)

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