Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 10 October 2011

Lisa Tuttle interviewed by Allyson Bird

Lisa Tuttle was born in the United States, but has been resident in Britain for almost thirty years. She began writing while still at school, sold her first stories at university, and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer of the year in 1974. She is the author of eight novels, most recently the contemporary fantasy The Silver Bough (2006) and many short stories, in addition to several books for children, and editor of Skin of the Soul: New Horror Stories by Women (1990), a work inspired by the feeling that women did write horror stories, but were overlooked as a few male authors tended to dominate and define the field.    

Ghost stories were her first love, and short fiction of the strange and supernatural variety continues to be her favourite form. Many of her stories have appeared in various “best of the year” collections, and ‘Closet Dreams’ won the 2007 International Horror Guild Award. Her first collection, A Nest of Nightmares, published in 1986, was included as one of Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books (1988). Others followed: A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories (1987); Memories of the Body (1992); Ghosts and Other Lovers (2001); and My Pathology (2001). In 2010 a small Canadian publisher, Ash-Tree Press, which specializes in fine limited editions, published Stranger in the House: The Collected Short Supernatural Fiction Volume One. Two or three more volumes are expected to follow.

AB: Whose work have you been most influenced by?
LT: That's always a hard question because I can't really know for certain in many cases... and there's a difference between the writers I would LIKE to be my influences and some possibly indelible works that were imprinted upon my burgeoning writerly consciousness at the age of seven or eight—authors now long forgotten.

But there are a few writers that I consciously imitated when I was younger and trying to teach myself how to write a story that worked. Ray Bradbury was possibly the major one—I even remember in my teens and early twenties on more than one occasion deliberately setting out to write "a Bradbury story". Theodore Sturgeon was also a huge influence. E. Nesbit, maybe not so obviously, but I would often hear her written "voice" in my head. Ditto a children's author called Edward Eager. The short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and Walter de la Mare. Harlan Ellison—although I never tried to copy his more pyrotechnic style, he taught me a lot. He was one of my instructors at the Clarion Writers Workshop, and went over at least two or three of my stories making pencilled editorial amendments, just showing me where improvements could be made, or where I'd fallen into obscurity or cliché. Although he's obviously had a deeper influence even than I thought; I wrote a children's book called Mad House which has a moment in it that's straight out of ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’—but suitable for younger children, I hasten to add. It's my own take on the idea, yet I must admit I probably never would have written it if I hadn't been profoundly affected by Harlan's story so many years ago. 

I read my first Robert Aickman story when I was 18, and he instantly became a model I aspired to, for a certain type of story. There was a thrilling moment when I was in my twenties when Ed Ferman, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who published Robert Aickman (it was in the pages of F&SF that I first read his stories) and who also published some of mine, told me he thought one of my stories was EVEN BETTER than Aickman. Wow. Success!!

AB: I think that authors return to many themes that haunt them throughout their lives. Are there any themes you explore time and time again?
LT: Oh, absolutely! Every time I have put together a collection of my short stories, meaning that I've sat down and reread a lot of my work in one go, it is made abundantly clear to me that I keep going back to the same ideas again and again. And I think my novel, The Pillow Friend, is like a compilation of all my big obsessions—so much so that when I finished it, I even felt: right—now I'm DONE with all that; now I never need write about any of those particular tropes/themes/incidents/ideas ever again! And yet I'm afraid I probably have revisited more than one or two of them. 

As to what they are....well, some are so major I probably never will get over exploring them, e.g. relationships between men and women, between parents and children. The fantasies women have about true love, about sex, about being a mother. Fear of abandonment. Fear of NOT being abandoned, but being held too close; of being lost in another person. Thoughts about death. Ideas about consciousness. Ideas about how gender is established, and about power struggles in intimate relationships as well as in society. Is that enough?

And wanting to be even more specific....breakdown and changes in the body—sexual transformation and sexual confusion. People who turn into animals. Sinister inanimate objects. Unhappy love affairs. Strange children.

AB: Which of your stories are you most proud of and why?
LT: I can't help feeling that none of my novels are entirely successful. None of them are entirely what I set out to write, they all fail or go wrong somewhere, and I don't feel completely happy with them. The Pillow Friend seems to me to be the nearest I've written to being satisfactory on its own terms—but those terms are pretty damn weird!! When I reread it (to proofread it for a paperback edition) a few years ago it struck me as being an utterly INSANE book, reflecting the persona of a madwoman. I don't think I have ever been insane, and I can't quite understand how I produced such a thing—yet it is undeniably mine, stamped throughout with my deepest fears and dreams. 
If I am to be remembered, I think it would be for my short stories—and probably just a handful of those. OK, time to put my cards on the table and say that, personally, I think my best stories (and novellas) are the following:

‘My Death’
‘My Pathology’
‘The Wound’

…and for the fifth (five is a handful of stories, right?) you can chose from among these: ‘Turning Thirty’, ‘Bug House’, ‘Riding the Nightmare’, ‘The Nest’ and ‘No Regrets’.

AB: Ramsey Campbell has put forward a question about narrative control—do you feel that the story is directed by the author or do you think that the subconscious takes over at any point?
LT: Very often I find I've written things I did not intend to write or didn't realize the implications of until afterwards... like a lot of writers when they comment that a character "took over"—it happens to me sometimes. I presume that is my subconscious (or whatever we call it nowadays) but maybe there is a great story-pool in the collective unconscious that works through writers, or there is some other force at work. I don't really know where some stories come from.

I do sometimes feel some authors are a bit disingenuous when they try to distance themselves from something readers find in their writing—I'm thinking about, for example, works in which there's a lot of violence, or women characters are victimized, and there might be more than a hint of misogyny, which the (male) author quite understandably might wish to deny having done with conscious intent. I remember—vaguely—an argument years ago with a fantasy writer, where I said rather mildly that I didn't care for the way the women were treated in his novel...he argued that in a society such as he was writing about, this was inevitable—women were downtrodden and subjugated—I could not argue against that, but would only make two points: 1) he CHOSE to write about such a society (and it was his own INVENTED society, even if based on real-world models) and 2) women's experiences, even when they are at the very bottom of the social scale, can be represented in different ways and they don't always have to be depicted as victims, or as existing only in relation to the men around them—as those men perceive them to be. But I did not mean, or feel, that the author was himself egregiously sexist or anything. 

I realize the above really has nothing whatever to do with what Ramsey is talking about, but possibly has something to do with the notion of "narrative control". We make choices, as writers—but even the conscious choices may be directed by subconscious or other forces, and reveal things we may not have intended...whether what is revealed is something like the writer's own unconscious (or simply unexamined!) sexism or racism, or some ambiguity which means a story can be read, and appreciated, in more than one way. I was enormously affected by a book I read when I was at school (or Uni? Can't even remember now), Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson—I loved the way he unpicked lines of poetry, showing all the subtle shades of meaning or suggestion hidden in a single phrase. I think that must have been the first time I realized that different people could take different meanings from the same piece of writing....and that writers could be saying more than they even knew themselves.

AB: Are there any stories that you find too painful to return to—that perhaps you poured your heart into at the time of writing and don’t want to go there again?
LT: I feel that way about my old diaries, but stories are different. Whatever the personal investment in them or painful incident that may have inspired a few, the act of writing them, turning my emotions into a piece of fiction,  becomes a distancing mechanism for me—and the story, if it works, has achieved its own separate existence. So I don't have a problem reading them again. (Unfinished fragments are somewhat different, as I discovered recently when I was going through some old files .... wince, wince, wince! More like reading old diary entries; not a pleasant experience.) 

AB: Is there a theme you'd never touch?
LT: I can't think of a "theme" that I feel compelled to avoid. There are things I am less interested in writing about, and some subjects I feel I'm too ignorant about to treat as they deserve. There are also some subjects (e.g. child abuse, torture) that I would only approach with great caution.

AB: Joel Lane asks…Why did you choose to use the medium of speculative fiction to explore issues of politics and identity? What kind of power or freedom did speculative fiction offer you that realistic fiction did not?
LT: I could answer this in several different ways—I think I have at some point in the past written about how SF offers imaginative possibilities for constructing plots and characters etc that simply aren't there in "realist" contemporary (or historical) fiction; basically, it's because the writer gets to make up the rules. I recall Joanna Russ writing somewhere—this was probably back in the '70s—about the appeal of science fiction/fantasy for anyone who wanted to write about a female hero, for example.  Strong, clever, ambitious, powerful women could be presented as the norm, and not (as almost any mainstream writer of the 1950s-1960s would have been obliged to do) depicted either as some sort of freak who comes to a bad end, or hedged around with all sorts of excuses and back story (she was raised by her father like the son he never had BUT she's really tender-hearted and definitely heterosexual and will stop having adventures as soon as she's a wife and mother) to make her both believable and sympathetic to readers of the day.

Of course, things have changed in the decades since, and female heroines and female villains are found in contemporary thrillers and novels without a speck of speculative-ness to them.

But there are other aspects to the appeal of SF—the thought-experiment aspect of it is one thing I've always liked. Also, I like the way you can take something like a figure of speech or a joke and just by pushing it as far as you can, turn it into a story. That was the origin of my story ‘Lizard Lust’—I always thought of it as a "fantasia on a remark by Freud"—although I can't now remember exactly what the line from Freud was, the story grew out of my speculating on the idea of the phallus as SYMBOL rather than bodily organ...and what if it was detachable? And people who had them were quite reasonably terrified of "penis envy"—because people who didn't have them WERE actually literally likely to try to steal them, for the power that was invested in the idea of having one... Anyway, that story was me making fun of both "penis envy" and the notion that there are enormous, innate differences between men and women that make certain types of relationship "natural."

Another example: the idea for ‘The Wound’ started simply with an image, or scene, of a man waking up in the morning to discover a smear of blood in his bed. He knows then that he is going to turn into a woman, and there's nothing he can do about it, and he is miserable and terrified by the prospect. So then I had to figure out how to write this story about a man who is turning into a woman. I thought it would be a horror story, but I knew that if I set it in the present day, in the real world, that I'd immediately have to deal with the question of whether or not what was happening to this man was real, or simply in his head. I wanted it to be unambiguously real. But if something like that happened in OUR world, it would be a freak show. It would have to involve doctors and the media...and I wasn't interested in all that. I knew I didn't want to go down that route; therefore, the story was going to take place in a world where people did regularly change sex, and the change was not under their conscious control. That meant it was science fiction....and of course I was well aware of other writers (especially Ursula Le Guin) who had written about such a society. 

Part of what I was doing when I wrote ‘The Wound’ was questioning my own beliefs that most (if not all) aspects of gender are imposed or learned rather than inborn; also the belief (popular with many of my generation of feminists) that if boys and girls were raised in the identical way and treated from birth as equals that we wouldn't have the problem of sexism. 

I could go on...but I think you probably get the general idea.

AB: Can you tell us a little about how you came to write one of the most fascinating stories I have ever read…‘The Nest’—from Nest of Nightmares?
LT: ‘The Nest’—or at least a draft of it—was the first story I wrote after leaving the US to settle in the UK. For reasons I don't now recall, a whole year passed before I rewrote it and then sold it. I was living in London with Christopher Priest in a rather tumultuous relationship, swinging between plans to marry, and thoughts of splitting up. We actually hardly knew each other, but we shared a fantasy about this life we wanted. We would drive off into the country to look at houses, which we would fantasize about buying and settling down to domestic bliss together. The story was inspired by this situation, and also by my first sight of rooks' nests—I think they're called colonies—enormous shaggy things hanging in the high branches of winter-bare trees. They looked eerie and sinister to me. By the time I rewrote the story, Chris and I were married and living in a little cottage on the edge of Dartmoor. I'd also had a visit from my sister (two years younger than me) and we'd gone to Paris together; the experience had made me think about how certain aspects of close relationships can get stuck in time—elements that are no longer appropriate, because you should have outgrown them, can still shape the way you respond to each other— I'm probably not expressing this very well; what I mean is, I'd find myself playing "big sister" and sort of bossing her around—or she'd defer to me—or we'd bicker about something— and this wasn't to do with our present situation, but rather the relationship we'd had as children. I realized that as we had grown up, our relationship needed to grow up, too. (Does that make sense? We lived in different cities and hadn't spent much time together since we were grown up). Anyway, that experience kind of opened my eyes to something and it fed into the story.

The story is dedicated to my sister, Megan.

AB: Have you been tempted to revise any of your stories for Ash-Tree Press? 
LT: Oh, the temptation!! It is hard to hold back sometimes, when I see an unnecessary (or just plain wrong!) word or phrase.... but I have been very strict with myself. NO REVISIONS. I love Henry James, but I think his project of rewriting all his novels for a new, uniform edition was just WRONG, and there's no way I was going down that route.

Although, having said that, I think there's more point in revising a novel—if you feel you got it wrong, were unreasonably obscure, maybe because you were too young, or overly influenced by others. (As for example John Fowles revising The Magus). But this many years later... if I've got something new or better to say in the short story form, I will just write a new short story on the same subject. I'm not going to second-guess my younger self and mess with stories that were found worthy of publication in their original form. 

AB: Are there any projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
LT: I currently have three unfinished novels in hand. One, I wrote the whole draft of but was not happy with it, so I've set it aside. I know I will go back to it, but possibly just to take the main idea and do something completely different with it. Two, a new novel, it was going well until summer holidays and various deadlines for shorter projects interrupted me... this has the working title of Blood of the Host and is a dark fantasy, set in contemporary Scotland and drawing on old Celtic legends— this puts it in a similar category to my last novel, The Silver Bough, except I think this one will be much darker...and at the moment I'm thinking it needs to be more erotic. Three, a YA novel, about 1/3 written but put aside because I can't seem to work on two books at the same time, alas.

Also, I seem to have more ideas for short stories than I have in years, and that includes an idea for a series of supernatural detective stories set in the 1890s... I'm writing the second one at the moment. I should have at least three new stories coming out later this year—or early next—as well.

This interview was originally published in the Fantasycon 2010 Programme.

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