Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Danel Olson Interview (with Charles Tan)

Danel Olson

Since EXOTIC GOTHIC 3 is the third in the series, what are the challenges in sustaining the book's theme while still covering new ground?

The book’s mission is to give a literary venue for new Gothic fiction set outside of its traditional homelands (Ireland, the UK, France, and Germany). Expanding Gothdom means inviting the Gothic’s insane passions, accursed lands, frothy plots, and violent femmes to China and Tibet, Morocco and Ethiopia, or Brazil and Chile. Take it everywhere. Naturally, each land through its art, culture, technology, and history either disinters or births a Gothic creature substantially its own. Compounding that, ambiguity and hybridization seem to be the Gothic's killing strength and foggy nature, so again something different from what’s expected comes.

Now the primary challenge is translation. As an international writer, you’re more aware of how labor-intensive, time-devouring, and expensive translation of prose can be. While I am finding entrancing artists in ever more remote places, getting them into English remains a problem. This Series has had a windfall--a good number of stellar Asian and Oceanic artists who happen to write in English are contributing-- the Iranian dissident writer (now living in America) Farnoosh Moshiri, the Filipino novelist Dean Francis Alfar in Manila, the Fiji-born Kenneth McKenney and Fiji resident Kaaron Warren, and the Malaysian-born author Tunku Halim, who has lived in Australia almost twenty years. But I desire to bring many more writers in, especially from South America and Africa. So far, EXOTIC GOTHIC 4 (appearing in 2011) has all-new stories incoming from writers who hail from England, Wales, Scotland, Italy, Russia, India, The Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, and America.

How would you describe the current state of the Gothic novel and short story? How different is it from previous preconceptions?

There is good and bad news in the post-2000 period of Gothicism. At least in America and Canada, the good word is that a super-abundance of both Gothic short stories and novels, with or without Fantastika, is appearing. Publishers are willing to publish them, Hollywood to film them, and untold millions to read and view them. At this moment tables at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Chapters, and other bookshops groan under the weight of vampire novels and story collections alone, for instance. What’s more, in tracking each week of the last two months from when I write, I am staggered that Gothic-themed novels have consistently appeared in four to seven of the fifteen to sixteen slots on THE NEW YORK TIMES Best Sellers list (with those most favored Gothic situations appearing in the TIMES' capsule descriptions: “a letter from his dead wife,” “a family secret,” “girl goes missing,” “a ruthless foe,” “fallen prey to an ancestral curse,” “woman’s body found in London cemetery,” and “slave flees with her master to New Orleans”). I can’t remember a time in my life when the Gothic was as snugly embraced by the mainstream. Perhaps its appeal is that more of us seems now inside the neo-Gothic “villain” than before. Isn’t there plenty of proof for Fred Botting’s belief (a professor from England’s Keele University) that vampires are now “mirrors of contemporary identity and sympathetic identifications”? With their lives of luxurious consumption and wasted desires, the Undead do indeed seem, as Botting puts it, like “latter-day consumer[s].” Another change is in the nature of the central creature within the Gothic narrative itself—seeming to be less predatory and more protective of the human characters that entangle it. Rather than a vampire that ravishes, a novel presently might show the creature to have a purer love than our own. Moreover, another trend is the playful Gothic, with monster tales crashing into, say, Regency-era romances, producing all those literary mash-ups and manglings on the heels of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestseller PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES—from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS to EMMA AND THE WEREWOLVES, to MANSFIELD PARK AND MUMMIES and many, many more. My own preference is for more bite and inventiveness, but millions of readers like these rollicking Gothic collisions with Jane Austen (and other canonical writers).

Despite some interesting contemporary changes in the old preconceptions of the Gothic, though, the disappointing news is that the Gothic novels batting before us each month don’t live up to our expectations. They don’t seem novels that most people would read again. They pass the time, but shouldn’t a novel or novella do more? I worry that the Gothic lives in an eternal return, and just as it was denounced as trash in the 18th and early 19th Centuries (and not just by those still loving Neo-Classical forms, but by Romantics themselves), in a very few years that the overexposure will make the Gothic again an outsider. This gypsy orphan of a literary form may have won the lottery just now, receiving everyone’s attention and emulation, but before long it will be merely an orphan again without a shilling, living at the fringes and considered unworthy of reading. Part of that reaction is deserved if the writing is routinely slipshod. It could be recently that many writers have leaped on to the vampire bandwagon (or zombie cart or shapeshifter wheels) to tell the story they wanted to tell in the first place--a romance, say, or an end of times battle, or a quest story, or a tale of adolescent anxiety--without knowing the mystery and despair inside the Gothic well.

On the positive side, there are a small number of artists who truly redefine the Gothic now. They are stylistically artistic, experimentally successful, apt at genre-bending and blending, original, emotive, authentically scary and transgressive, and metaphysically or culturally significant, all with that strange alchemy of words that make scenes come back to us in dreams. If “myth is truth” and literature simply “words that provoke response,” as the Cheshire novelist Alan Garner once said in FACES OF FANTASY, then these works are both true and provocative. They also rejuvenate the Gothic with more mystery and dark secrets than we could reasonably hope for:

THE ANGEL MAKER (2005) by Stefan Brijs
THE BANQUET FOR THE DAMNED (2004) by Adam L. G. Nevill
BEASTS (2002) by Joyce Carol Oates
THE BLIND ASSASSIN (2000) by Margaret Atwood
THE BOOK THIEF (2006) by Markus Zusak
CANDLES BURNING (2006) by Tabitha King and Michael McDowell
COLD SKIN (2002) by Albert Sánchez Piñol
A DARK MATTER (2010) by Peter Straub
The DARK TOWER series (seven novels, 1982-2004) by Stephen King
THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS (2002) by Ramsey Campbell
THE DRACULA DOSSIER (2008) by James Reese
THE EDEN MOORE TRILOGY (2003-2007) by Cherie Priest
EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE (2001) by Margot Livesey
FATAL WOMEN (including novellas, “Rherlotte,” “Virgile,” and “Green Iris,” 2004) by Tanith Lee
FINGERSMITH (2002) by Sarah Waters
THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN (2008) by Kate Morton
FOUR SOULS (2004) by Louise Erdrich
THE GARGOYLE (2008) by Andrew Davidson
THE GHOST WRITER (2004) by John Harwood
GOULD’S BOOK OF FISH: A NOVEL IN 12 FISH (2001) by Richard Flanagan
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (2008) by Neil Gaiman
HEART- SHAPED BOX (2007) by Joe Hill
THE HISTORIAN (2005) by Elizabeth Kostova
THE HORNED MAN (2002) by James Lasdun
HOUSE OF LEAVES (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski
THE KEEP (2006) by Jennifer Egan
THE LITTLE FRIEND (2002) by Donna
LOST (2001) by Gregory Maguire
THE LOVELY BONES (2002) by Alice Sebold
LULLABY (2002) by Chuck Palahniuk
MARTHA PEAKE (2000) by Patrick McGrath
MEMOIRS OF A MASTER FORGER (2008) by William Heaney (AKA Graham Joyce)
A MERCY (2008) by Toni Morrison
THE MERRILY WATKINS SERIES (ten novels, 1998-2008) by Phil Rickman
THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON (2008) by Lauren Groff
NEVER LET ME GO (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2005) by Cormac McCarthy
THE PUMPKIN CHILD (2002, a novella in the collection KNUCKLES & TALES) by Nancy A. Collins
REAL WORLD (2006) by Natsuo Kirino
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (thirteen novels, 1999-2006) by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler)
THE SHADOW OF THE WIND (2001) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
THE TERROR (2007) by Dan Simmons
THE THIRTEENTH TALE (2006) by Dianne Setterfield
THURSBITCH (2003) by Alan Garner
WHITE APPLES (2002) by Jonathan Carroll

Actually, I’ve compiled a 700 page reference guide describing, analyzing, and evaluating these Gothic works above, to be published in 2011 from Scarecrow Press. The book, 21ST CENTURY GOTHIC: GREAT GOTHIC NOVELS SINCE 2000, is composed of 53 essays from illuminating commentators all over the world, and S. T. Joshi provides a splendid foreword.

How did you come up with the series title "Exotic Gothic", and why did you settle on "Strange Visitations" for this volume?

When the four texts from Penguin I assigned in my college Gothic course suddenly went out of print, I was adrift. I decided somewhat rashly to create my own. Somewhat like a child, I like the music that floats inside titles that rhyme (or almost rhyme). The word “Gothic” had to appear, and “Exotic” was the only rhyming word that came to mind, and it did fit with the concept of inviting international authors. I noticed that no other book on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com had the title, nor was their any online domain with it, so that’s what I created, taking it to 74 publishers in 2006, and lucking out with the marvellous, award-winning Ash-Tree Press from Christopher and Barbara Roden. The other thing nibbling at me was this: I remember clearly from Grad School learning of all those writers of the American Literary Renaissance who disrespected Edgar Allan Poe, calling him lowbrow, dubbing him “The Jingle Man,” for what they heard as excessive rhyme. He was a fellow who they saw as rather hopeless and pointless, in his messy life, cousined wife, lost chances, addictions, and, of course, relentless rhyming. But to call him names went too far. So this is my rather humble tribute to Poe. I’m not so sure ghosts don’t exist, and with this rhyming title I salute him. And I give those other shades little payback, especially to Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson the man who supposedly gave Poe this tinselly moniker. So, Rev. Emerson, may your shade now enjoy a little EXOTIC GOTHIC 2: NEW TALES OF TABOO or prefer ye EG3?

“Strange Visitations” was chosen after I re-read all the stories and noticed the trend of a strange visitor appearing in most of them, often an inviting, but slightly-off woman. These figures turn out to be, as stated in the new preface, gory ladies all—they’re “cult fanatics, venomous were-snakes (the Asian and the African species), fantomes, forest djinns, sacrificial victims, devil girls, vampires, witches, tarted-up zombies, old ghosts, new-fangled fembots, and (not joking here) most favoured guests on The O’Reilly Factor, meaner than Ann Coulter with a chain whip.” They do such terrible things.

Along with the creating the concept, title, and author list, I have enjoyed finding images for the covers. The latest is a stunning drawing of Jason Zerrillo’s, influenced by Czech photographer František Drtikol’s “L’Étude.” EXOTIC GOTHIC 2’s cover was from a moody snapshot by English novelist Nicholas Royle of his friend walking in the Paddington Goods Depot of West London. And the first photograph, for EXOTIC GOTHIC, was from American bohemian Anne Brigman. The constant is to show a woman frozen in shadow, which I think is the most alluring and yet ambiguous thing in the world. What I concluded with in a 2007 interview with an Austin journalist on the first EXOTIC GOTHIC stands for the others: “The photograph was taken when it was dark—probably twilight. There’s a woman, alone, in the middle of the California mountains. She’s twirling and you see her from the back. She’s draped, dramatically, in a gauzy scarf . . . When she turns around, will you walk towards her or will you run away? Who is the vulnerable one?” To this day, that captures the most sublime and stilling Gothic moment for me: are we predator or are we prey?

No comments: