The OF Blog: An Interview with Theodora Goss

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An Interview with Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss' stories and poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Polyphony, Alchemy, Fantastic Metropolis, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. and The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, and have been collected in The Rose in Twelve Petals, a chapbook from Small Beer Press. (Her enchanting tale "Sleeping With Bears" can be read on-line here). She has also published poetry and reviews. She is also the editor of Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre, an on-line anthology of poetry from the middle ages to the modern era about supernatural creatures, imaginary places, and uncanny experiences.

After completing a J.D. at Harvard Law School, she worked for several years at law firms in New York and Boston, where she hid novels in her desk drawer and read them surruptitiously during lunch. She returned to school to complete an M.A. in English literature at Boston University, where she is currently working on her Ph.D. Since it focuses on the Victorian gothic, she spends most of her time writing about ghosts and vampires. She has also taught undergraduate courses on fantasy, and incorporated fantastic stories and poems into courses on more canonical literature.

Theodora was born in Hungary, and lived in Italy and Belgium before her family moved to the United States. She still remembers being frightened by Eastern European fairy tales and surprised to read them later in their expurgated Western versions. Her stories, which often take place on the border between fantasy and reality, reflect the influence of an Eastern European literary tradition that incorporates fantastic elements into otherwise realistic works. She believes that fantasy is a form, perhaps the most satisfying form, of psychological realism: the ghosts and vampires we create allow us to understand ourselves and the societies we have constructed.

Theodora lives in Boston with her husband Kendrick, a scientist and artist, and their daughter, Ophelia, in an apartment filled with books and cats. You can discover more about the whole Goss clan at Theodora's Web site.


What were your earliest literary influences? What are your favorite books as a reader today?

I think my earliest literary influence was the Hungarian language. It's taken me a long time to realize that there's something about my writing that is not quite right, that is slightly awkward. I think that's because English is actually my third language, after Hungarian and French. Unfortunately, I've forgotten both, but I think my writing still sounds, sometimes, as though it's being translated from a language with a different underlying rhythm, a different way of putting words together. So, my earliest literary influences, plural, were Hungarian children's stories. And then French children's stories. And then English and American fantasy, as much of it as I could take home from the library. I have so many favorite books that I don't think I can name them all, but I'll name some of my favorite writers: Jane Austen, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Colette, Isak Dinesen, H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf. It's a strange group, isn't it? I put it in alphabetical order because I love them all. These are the writers I read when things aren't going as well as I would like, and I need something to make me happy. The writers I can read over and over again. I'm not sure what it says about me, that Lovecraft makes me happy. But he does.

Did your childhood have an influence on your writing?

Yes, certainly, but I'm not sure how. Perhaps I create imaginary countries because I moved around so much, I don't know. When you don't have a home, you create one, even if only in your mind. And if you're going to create one, why not make it fantastical? And because I moved around so much, it was always difficult to make friends, so I read a lot. You have to read a lot, if you're going to become a writer. Was it Hemingway who said that the way to become a writer is to have an unhappy childhood? Mine wasn't exactly unhappy, but it was certainly unsettled, and when you're unsettled, you hold on to stories, to the things in your head, because they're easy to pack and take on to the next place.

What encouragement helped you along the way?

The first encouragement I received was at the Odyssey writing workshop, and it helped me tremendously. It was wonderful to have a writer like Dan Simmons tell me that I had talent. It's strange to think that I wasn't encouraged before, but in my family people are encouraged to become doctors and lawyers, not writers. And my college writing instructors were certainly not encouraging. I'm not sure why, but I think it was in part because they weren't professional writers. They were professional writing instructors, which is quite a different thing. They didn't have to, and didn't, make a living by writing. But having the encouragement of professionals like Dan, and later like James Patrick Kelly and Kelly Link at Clarion, was priceless. I don't think I have enough confidence in my own abilities to have gone on without encouragement. It really is the most precious thing, to a writer. And the second most precious thing is honest criticism.

What challenges did you face to finding success?

I don't think I've found success yet! My biggest challenge to finding it is time. I think all writers face this particular challenge. I teach, which pays rent and puts food on the table, so it's a first priority, and I have a daughter, who can't be raised entirely by cats. Although, to give them credit, the cats are doing a pretty good job. So writing is often the last priority, the thing I put off for grading or playing skybax. (The flying dinosaurs in Dinotopia. My daughter loves dinosaurs the way I loved dragons.) Professional writers will always tell you: to be a writer, you have to write. You only learn to write by writing. I don't write as often or consistently as I would like to.

If you could change anything about your past work, what would it be?

I wouldn't change anything. I can see all sorts of flaws in stories I've written, but I think that as a writer, you come to know when a story is done, when you can't do anything more to it. The stories I've written are done, and changing them at this point would make them different, not necessarily better. What I have to do, what any writer has to do, is move on, write new stories that are hopefully better than the old. I think it's important to accept that your stories are going to be flawed. Prose is flawed. Its flaws are part of its power, part of what makes prose live. Life is flawed, and prose only captures life when it's somehow imperfect, irregular. Poetry can be perfect, as some poems by Keats and Shelley are perfect, and still retain life, or rather something more than life. But that's one of the differences between poetry and prose.

How do you spend your free time?


What are you currently working on?

A story about the minor characters in Jane Austen and an anomaly in the space-time continuum that absolutely no one will publish.

How do you feel about being nominated for World Fantasy Awards?

Well, so far I've only been nominated for one, but it's lovely. It means someone, or rather several someones, read my story and saw something in it to which they responded, that made them say, yes, this is a story worthy of recognition. It's another kind of encouragement. It makes me want to write better stories.

If you were given the Aladdin's Lamp, what would you do with it?

I would wish for a house with a room of my own to write in, and enough money so I could write, and do nothing but write, for the rest of my life. And a skybax for my daughter. Anyone who has a skybax for sale is welcome to contact me directly.)

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Since midgets are people, and I'm not in favor of owning people on principle, I would certainly own monkeys. And I would set them free in a monkey sanctuary with lots of trees. And I would let them name themselves, in monkey language.

Thank you for your time and patience, Dora. We wish you the best of luck with your work.

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