The OF Blog: Interview with Sarah Monette, Part II

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Interview with Sarah Monette, Part II

Part I

One recurring motif that I noticed (especially in Mélusine) is that of the labyrinth. From seeing the social relations inside the city, to the recesses of Felix's mind, to a very real one later on, I kept getting this sense that labyrinths occupy some sort of significance to the overall story arc. Is there anything to this, or am I but guilty of reading too much into a text?

Well, my title for the series is The Doctrine of Labyrinths, so, yes. Labyrinths are a recurrent motif throughout the four books, significant for all kinds of reasons.

One of the more personal labyrinths that I noticed while reading the first two volumes is that of the emotional conflicts between Felix and Mildmay. There were many times while reading both novels that I wondered if there would some sort of a sexual relationship between the two, but then I also was left wondering if that might be too simplistic of a reading. Is it possibly just a subtle, society-wide sexualization of same-sex relationships that is altering how we view fictional interactions of characters of the same sex (I'm thinking Sam and Frodo here, among others)?

There are two different problems here. One is society's sexualization of same-sex friendship; the other is what Felix actually wants from Mildmay and vice versa.

Felix is sexually interested in Mildmay; that's not meant to be ambiguous. Mildmay is not sexually interested in Felix; that's not ambiguous, either. It does create a great deal of tension between them, and the question of how they resolve the problem is a very important one in the narrative of all four books.

The question of homoeroticism and the sexualization of non-sexual friendships is a very thorny one, and I don't have any good answers. There's a book by Eve Sedgwick, Between Men, which argues that the purpose of female characters in much Victorian fiction is to negotiate the homosocial and homoerotic tension between two men. What seems to be happening in more modern fiction (at least, this is one trend) is the excision of the mediating heterosexual female figure, whether because the two male characters move from a homosocial/erotic relationship to an openly (or covertly) homosexual one or because their friendship is privileged by the narrative to the extent that there's no perceived need for mediation. Partner-stories (as beloved of TV and movie cop dramas) are homosocial to the extent that a female romantic interest can only alienate the partners from each other, not resolve destructive tensions. (It's very tempting to cite the X-Files here, where Carter made the cataclysmic mistake of trying to make Scully be both a homosocial partner *and* a mediating heterosexual romantic interest. Scully and Mulder's relationship works as *partners*, but never gels again once the romantic element has been introduced. And it makes Scully much more overtly and cripplingly feminine and feminized.) And I think the line is honestly very blurry between intense homosocial love and homoerotic love, just as the line between homoerotic and homosexual can be blurry.

But the line between the social/erotic and the erotic/sexual is, I think, much clearer. Frodo and Sam (in Tolkien--Jackson's interpretation is a different ball of wax) have an intense homosocial friendship which does occasionally veer into the homoerotic (Frodo waking up in Rivendell, Sam finding Frodo naked in Cirith Ungol), but never into the homosexual. (There's so little sex in Tolkien to begin with that positing a sexual relationship where he doesn't explicitly admit one is reading against the text to the point of distorting it. Distorting the text isn't necessarily a bad idea (I love the homoerotic-bordering-on-homosexual tension between Aragorn and Legolas-- You look terrible. --in Jackson's movies), but it's important to recognize that's what you're doing.)

Where was I? Oh, right. Human relationships are complicated and messy, and I think it's okay to admit and recognize that--especially in fiction, where the characters are always carrying thematic and sometimes symbolic freight--sometimes the boundaries get blurred. An extremely intense emotional connection is about as controllable as a paint balloon.

Interesting analogy there about the controllability of intense emotional connections. One observation about Felix and Mildmay I heard recently is that their characters seem to be complementary halves of a complete person. One suffers from intense internal anguish, the other from a physical curse; one is very well-educated but yet has poor people skills, while the other is semi-literate but seems to be much more adept at understanding others’ emotions. Would it be fair to say that it’s the intertwining of Felix and Mildmay’s personalities that adds quite a bit of this thematic and symbolic freight to the novels to date?

I darn well hope so Some of the ways they mirror each other are deliberate choices on my part; others evolved from exploring their characters and the way they interact with each other. But one of the things that interests me about them, and about their relationship, is that at the core of themselves, they are very much alike, but their defenses and facades are radically different.

Besides the four novels of your The Doctrine of Labyrinths series, what other projects have you been working on and/or have been published?

I have a collection of ghost stories coming out from Prime this year:

The Bone Key.

And in October from Tor, a collaboration with Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves.

Near the beginning of this interview, I asked you about the types of stories you loved. Here, at the end, I'm going to ask a related question that's much broader and perhaps much more difficult to answer (it's taken me literally hours to think about how to phrase this ): Over the years, I have read countless articles and blog entries about the various groupings within speculative fiction. But I have yet to read any opinion that is anywhere near a consensus on the issue of what speculative fiction means, both for an individual reader and for our various cultures. If pressed (and I guess I'm doing that now) to answer, what would you say is the meaning (or meanings) of these various speculative fiction groupings for yourself personally and perhaps for certain socio-economic groups within certain societies?

No, it's not unfair. It's a really tough question, though, and I'm not promising I have a good answer.

I'm going to begin by observing that the oldest literature we have is fantastic in nature: The Iliad and especially The Odyssey, 5th century Greek tragedy, Beowulf (I'm going to confine myself to Western European culture, not because other cultures don't have equally good examples, but because I can't talk about them intelligently. But there's all kinds of other stuff out there.) This isn't because of naivete; the ancient Greeks knew perfectly well that they were telling *stories*, not history. It's because fantasy--stories that aren't bounded within realism --is *entertaining*. Grendel is much more compelling than whatsisface, the man who irritates Beowulf in the mead hall. I would suspect that this is the same reason so much children's literature is, if you look at it strictly, fantasy. Talking animals, anthropomorphized machines, toys coming to life. Children's literature, like mythology and folklore, is grabbing capital-S Story in great handfuls and grooving on it.

Realism, and realistic novels, are a much more delicate and sophisticated mechanism. It's harder to tell a satisfying story when you're bound by the rules of Life As We Know It. Because real life is not like fiction; it doesn't have meaning or structure or any of the things we expect our fiction to have. I don't think it's an accident that strict realism is a very late development in world literature; it demands, ironically, a readership that is either sophisticated enough to appreciate the author's negotiations with the limits of the form--or has bought into the belief that stories shouldn't be fun. Serious literature is very suspicious of fun, and that's been true as long as serious literature has been around. Shakespeare in his day was popular trash.

This looks like the high-brow/low-brow divide, but my point here is that it *isn't*. Shakespeare, if I may co-opt him for my argument, hasn't changed an iota in the 400 years between populuar trash and serious literature. He's still got the same breath-taking poetry, the same intense exploration of love and kingship (to pick two of his recurring themes), the same dazzling verbal wit. The bawdy jokes are still there. The fantastic elements are still there. Shakespeare, also, is grabbing Story in big messy handfuls and enjoying the heck out of it. Which does not decrease his literary merit.

The protocols of reading realistic fiction privilege authors who work inside a very small box. Faberge worked inside very small boxes; I'm not saying that realism's very small box is inherently inferior to the enormous sandbox of Story all around it. But it's also not inherently *superior*, which is the line the academic and critical mainstream has been trying to feed us since (I think) the advent of modernism. (I'm not sure where to draw the line on that one, actually--and of course if we don't oversimplify it, it was a gradual sort of thing through the 18th and 19th centuries. But the last three-quarters of the twentieth century saw the dogma solidify its position and start pounding the table.)

Science fiction and fantasy are all about the sandbox. I don't know if it's the same for every author and/or reader, but I know that for me, I find realism's very small box *boring*. (This is personal taste, not an aesthetic judgment. I don't deny the artistic merit of realistic fiction, but I cannot read it to save my life.) It's hard for a story to hold my attention if it doesn't have a spec fic element, and I've never in my life had an idea for a realistic story occur to me naturally. (I wrote a couple, just to prove I could do it, but that was deliberately setting out: Today I will write a realistic story. And anyway, one of them cheated by using metafictional techniques, which is just another way to get out of the box.)

So that's one thing science fiction and fantasy (which I'm going to abbreviate as sff) means: it means breaking open the box. It means getting down and dirty with Story. It means having *fun*. But sff, in breaking open the box, also permits extremely serious stories to be told. 1984, for example, which uses realism in its own way, is nevertheless outside the canons of realism. You can't tell that story inside realism's very small box, and it is a story that needs to be told. The Lord of the Flies likewise, and The Handmaid's Tale. Feminism, to give one example of sff's relationship with a subculture, has turned to sff to imagine worlds in which gender plays out differently (Tiptree, Russ, Le Guin), and we, both as individuals and as a society *and* as an intermeshed network of societies, need that ability to play and hypothesize and experiment.

Rejecting the canons of realism does not mean rejecting reality. It frequently means the opposite, as I am not the first sff author to observe. Sff lets us look at our world from new angles, under different lighting. It lets us take things to their logical conclusions and then assess them. As my friend Elizabeth Bear says, it lets us break things and explore the consequences.

Meaning is a slippery sort of thing to try to assign and tends in my experience to lead to reductive thinking. ( The meaning of Hamlet is ... ) But sff means the ability to dream, and the ability to play, and I think those are very valuable things indeed.

Would it be fair to say, speaking of the origins of Realist Literature, that it is an outgrowth of the Naturalist movement in France in the late 19th century that had among its members painters such as Monet and authors such as Zola? There is something about this style of literature which leads me to question whether or not the Author is asserting more of an active presence inside the Text, trying to manipulate it more overtly and to draw some of the focus away from the Story which has been the main draw for readers for ages. Would you agree or disagree with this statement?

Naturalism certainly has its part to play--although it's also worth noting that Monet's work, like that of his fellow Impressionists, warps right through realism and out the other side. But Zola and Balzac and Stendhal and Ibsen and and Eliot and of course the Russian novelists, Dostoievski and Tolstoi ... a lot of nineteenth century literature is increasingly realistic (Flaubert springs immediately and horrifically to mind) and increasingly disapproving of non-realistic narrative--while at the same time there's a counter-movement of novelists who are equally concerned with *social* realism but interested in other kinds of causality and connection. I'm thinking specifically of Villette, which is both realistic and powered by something closely kin to dream logic.

But, yes, realistic fiction is a highly artificial construct and often explicitly rejects the patterns of fictional narrative (Madame Bovary, in which Flaubert's *point* is that real life isn't like fiction, even if he has to invent a fictional life in order to prove it).

Would it be fair to argue then that what Realist literature aims to do is to concentrate more on examining our lives from way up close (e.g. the stereotypical middle-aged woman's mid-life crisis) while SFF literature looks at life issues from a distance (e.g. groups of people living elsewhere, doing that Star Trek "to boldly go where no one has gone before")?

That *can* be true, but I don't think it works as a generalization, because realism can work on the macro level--Michener, for example--and science fiction can work on the micro level--Ursula K. Le Guin's work.

Your comments here and on your blog leave me wondering if the delineation between Realist and Speculative-oriented literature is something vague, or if there is a truly fundamental divide. Could you please elaborate on how these two are divided?

Well, it depends, and what it depends on is the author's intent. Because kinds of stories like magical realism or slipstream depend on realism, depend on conjuring the real world with breadth and depth and shadows and dust bunnies, in order to make the slippage into contra-realism both seamless and startling. On the other hand, realistic fiction that *rejects* the fantastic is obviously insisting that a divide be defined and defended--although I think there may be rather less of that in contemporary literature than one might be inclined to think looking at the rhetoric on both sides. But I'm not widely read enough to comment.

Based on what little I've read, I tend to agree - it's almost like trying to determine what 50s music is "rockabilly" and which is "country" - it seems to come down to arbitrary preferences than to anything that can be defined.

One last question, a bit different from the rest: I was reading this old post of John Scalzi's Friday when I came across a bit about the group sing-along of "Down to the River to Pray." I have to ask: You're at a convention and it's karaoke night. Would you go up there and sing, and if so, what song would you pick for you and your fellow writers to sing?

As it happens, there's a karaoke party at Wiscon every year, and I avoid it like the plague. Karaoke is Not. My. Thing. But to answer your question in the spirit it was asked: Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited."

That would be great to witness, considering one of my SNs and all! Thanks so much for doing this interview with us, Sarah!

Thank you, Larry! I've enjoyed this interview very much.


No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites