Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ra Page (Inteview with Charles Tan)

Ra Page – The New Uncanny

What made you decide to collaborate on this anthology together and what was it like working with each other?

As an editor, I've always been interested in crossovers been scientific thinking and literature; my own background is in physics, and my father is a psychologist. Sarah, on the other hand is an artist and photographer, whose work has often delved into uncanny subjects and processes: unnatural interventions, dislocated spaces, foreign bodies. When it comes to re-evaluating Freud and the uncanny, the visual arts have been ahead of the curve for a while now: so when Sarah first showed me Freud's original essay, it was like a discovering Constantinople, a meeting point between two different continents of thought, a bridge for science to enter art, and vice versa.

As such, the editorial collaboration was perfect - an artist and a scientifically minded editor working together - it reflected the interchange going on in the essay itself.

My job was to champion the essay and break it down (if necessary) for the less science-friendly writers. Sarah's was to use her instincts in culling, cutting and tweaking those responses that didn't pass muster, as soon as any they came in. She can tell instantly if a story isn't working, while I have to work out why it isn't, before I can even decide that it isn't. So she works a bit quicker than me!

What is it about the short story medium that appeals to you and to Comma Press?

Oh everything. How long have we got?

First and foremost I think the short story is playful as a form. It encourages the writer to experiment and make something new of the story-shape, and it kind of winks and nods at the reader, too, allowing us to enjoy the fact that we're being, or we're about to be, messed with. It's a teasing form, and it's capable of projecting patterns outwards that are revelatory and wondrous, patterns and epiphanies that are almost impossibly clear. With a novel, it's different ball game - novels are all about detail, context and the wider texture of the characters' histories and backstories, interlocking and moving ever-forwards. With short stories, the image you get is only there for a split-second, but like a flash it burns its shape on the retina in the darkness left after the last line.

Nadine Gordimer has this great argument about the short story. She says, in life truth doesn't come with a capital T, and it doesn't accumulate and build up and up towards a singular monumental viewpoint at the end. Instead it's fragmentary, it's discrete, it hits us in flashes and leaves us ignorant as quickly it arrives, ignorant until our next, contradictory moment of insight. The short story, she says, is better equipped for this fragmented reality (unlike the novel which builds and builds over time), the short story's insights are clear and singular, and only last as long as they do because they're incompatible with any other story, or any other wider 'Truth'. It's like the particle theory of truth vs. the wave theory. We, at Comma, think it's a particle; we're all about the particle.

What was your criteria in selecting the contributors and the stories for the anthology?

Firstly, we wanted to get a spread of authors from different backgrounds; there's filmwriters and TV comedy writers in there, as well as masters of dark fiction and 'literary' big hitters. We wanted to show Ramsey Campbell, for instance, can easily hold his own against some of the best literary writers on the block - as there's a lot of snobbery out there towards 'dark fiction'. A S Byatt was the first author to get on board and, to be honest, her support for Comma has kept us going, one way or another, over the last couple of years. She's been like a fairy godmother to us. Once she was on board with this book it was all systems go.

Our main criteria in selecting stories was to only go for those that freshened things up. The task was to update the examples of uncanny archetypes that Freud talks about, to come up with genuinely new manifestations of them, and thus extend the canon. So we were looking for stories that would both slot into place and push the envelop, stories that respected the greats of the horror tradition and, at the same time, cleared the decks for something new. As a result it's quite interesting to see AS Byatt's 'Dolls Eyes' (which is classic Freud sprinkled with Rilke), alongside Adam Marek's 'Tamagotchi' and Frank Cottrell Boyce's 'Continuous Manipulation' (about the computer game, The Sims). They're all about essentially the same thing: life-imitating playthings. It's Michael Redgrave and the ventriloquist's dummy from Dead of Night all over again... but as you'd least expect it.

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