During his college years, Christopher Barzak’s dream of becoming an author was something others considered too fantastical for a boy from rural Ohio; turns out, being fantastical is something Mr. Barzak has an incredible knack for. His speculative fiction has been published in a broad variety of top–notch venues, such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Lightspeed Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons, as well as having appeared in a number of Year’s Best collections and our very own Apex Magazine. The Love We Share Without Knowing, his magical realism novel set in Japan and based in part on his experiences living there while teaching English, was a finalist for both the Nebula Award and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. When he’s not composing fantastical literature of his own, he teaches writing at Youngstown State University.
This issue of Apex Magazine is charmed with the inclusion of Mr. Barzak’s contribution to the upcoming anthology Glitter & Mayhem, “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster.” Glitter & Mayhem will be available Fall 2013 from Apex Book Company. To learn more about him and his upcoming projects, visit his website at christopherbarzak.com.
ABOUT “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster”:
APEX MAGAZINE: “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” is a retelling of the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Other than the fact that the original version actually includes dancing (which fits oh so well with the theme of Glitter and Mayhem), what drew you to write a retelling of this particular fairy tale?
CHRISTOPHER BARZAK: I’ve always loved The Twelve Dancing Princesses (sometimes called “The Worn–Out Dancing Shoes” or “The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces”), since I was a kid. For me, it was the idea of these girls who find a secret passageway to an underground castle beneath their castle. I loved the idea of a world beneath the above world, and I loved the strangeness of the environment underground: the forests of silver and gold and diamonds. It had a really mysterious and magical atmosphere to the tale, which not all fairy tales have, despite a cultural notion we have that fairy tales are very atmospheric. In fact, many of them are really sparely told, almost like anecdotes, and some not very magical at all. This one, though, just walloped me with its imagery. I wanted to dig around in that imagery and repurpose it to a modern tale.
AM: This story has a number of big–ticket themes — power, gender, and freedom being only three. If readers take away one essential thing from this story, what do you hope that would be? What did you personally take away from the story after writing it? Did any particular theme strike a note for you more than the others?
CB: I hope readers take away the notion of freedom being expressed in a physical way like dance, as well as the idea that the club scene has always been a place where people go to escape the constrictions of the roles they play out in the day–lit world. As someone who has spent a huge amount of time in dance clubs — where I grew up, in a way, into my adult self, learning to embrace my body and my sexuality and to cross–cultural divides between genders, sexualities, and races — I was thrilled to finally find a story I could write where I might pay homage to what that scene, or world, gave me. A place where I could explore myself and relationships that I don’t think I’d have ever stumbled upon outside of a dance club. So for me, the essence of freedom was crucial to the story. The power and gender dynamics weren’t necessarily subordinate to that, though. I just see them as being the manifestations of the freedom theme in the story.
AM: None of the characters in the story have any names specifically, other than their number (Sister One, Sister Twelve) or a general title (Father, the soldier). Fairy tales very often do not use proper names, either, leaving the identification of the characters somewhat open–ended. Why did you decide to keep your characters un–named?
CB: I predominantly chose to leave all of the characters nameless as a gesture of faithfulness to the fairy tale form, which, as you mentioned, most often does not name its characters anything but refers to them by their social roles, most often. So that was the main reason. I toyed with the idea of perhaps naming Sister Twelve by the end of the story, because she was the one character who broke out of her social role, but then I thought that might be too Highly Symbolic, especially in a story that has already distributed lots of other symbols, which is the main language of fairy tales.
AM: One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this story was the way you brought the fairy tale characters out into the modern (and historical) world through the castle portals. There’s something special about the way Sister Twelve describes her favorite clubbing hot–spots, and the way her behavior and vocabulary change as she becomes more exposed to other places besides her fairy tale setting. What made you decide to mix the “real” world and the “fairy tale” worlds together in such a way?
CB: I’m so glad you liked the language play between formal fairy tale and modern day slang! Partially I decided to mix those elements out of a sense of fidelity to the reality of Sister Twelve’s situation: she’s a young woman who has found a portal out of her formal fairy tale world into “our” world, historical and modern day. Since I knew that by the end of the story she would have spent a lot of time in our world, I thought it would be unrealistic to not have her pick up the slang of the times and places she’s spending the majority of her time in, just like anyone does when they put down roots into a different scene than the one they came from.
ABOUT WRITING IN GENERAL:
AM: When you begin to work on a short story, do you tend to know where you’re going from the start, or do you prefer to discover the story as you work forward?
CB: I tend to work in the discovery mode. I need a voice and characters, a situation, a predominant feel for the type of imagery in a story, but I like to move forward not knowing where I’m going exactly. Part of the way I write is in the way a reader reads. I need to surprise myself, keep the story alive in a suspenseful way. When I know everything about a story prior to having written it, when I plan, I kill a story dead before it gets anywhere.
AM: When you’re editing your own fiction, do you find that there are any particular traps you tend to fall into that almost always need to be changed in the rewrite? Is there any particular part of editing you find especially easy or challenging?
CB: I don’t know if I fall into the same traps over and over. I do know that I fall into traps all the time, and need to get out of them, but they’re not always the same ones. Each story, each novel, presents its own challenges. They’re almost always different from one another. The part of revision I find easy is line editing. The part that is harder is really re–imagining whole scenes or chapters or even the order of chapters in a book. That’s very big heavy lifting, and you have to have a certain kind of detachment from your original conception at that point to do something like that. I’ve done it a couple of times. It does get easier to do the more I do it, and it’s worthwhile, but it’s a more difficult level of revision.
AM: One for Sorrow grew out of the original story “Dead Boy Found” when you decided you wanted to follow the character Adam and see if he couldn’t find a better place for himself in his world. How did your second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, set in Japan and written during your time there, come about?
CB: I started by writing the first chapter ofThe Love We Share Without Knowing for a young adult anthology Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow were editing, The Coyote Road.I used the Japanese fox girl folklore for the story, and after I was done with it, I began writing another story, where I was using the social phenomenon of suicide clubs that occur in Japan as the main material for the story. What I was doing in general at that time was trying to incorporate aspects of Japanese culture into my writing as a way of coming to terms with it, to understand where I was better. So in the process of writing the second story I began in Japan, I realized one of the characters in my suicide club story had actually known the spirit of the fox girl (a ghost really, not a true kitsune) when they were young students together. This became a kind of link later in life that prompts the woman’s ideation of suicide (which is how her friend died as a young person) and suddenly I realized I was working in a very different type of form than just individual isolated short stories. I began to look at all of the characters in each story and to explore outward from each of them into the life of another character in what became the novel–in–stories of the book. Its structure is like a Japanese fan, or a wind wall, each panel separate but completing a panoramic portrait together when unfolded.
AM: Absence, and/or the importance of things left unsaid, is both a theme and a stylistic technique you seem drawn to in your works, in part due to your interest in the Japanese language which you’ve mentioned in other interviews as influential in terms of how so much can be said by what is not said directly. Are there other stylistic or aesthetic elements from your time studying Japanese or Japanese culture that you find you utilize on a regular basis in your fiction?
CB: I was never writing with more Japanese aesthetics in mind than I was while living in Japan, but my writing in general was shaped by my experience of Japanese writing, culture, and art. I try to pare my writing down to the essential, the less is more philosophy, and I believe in the happy accident, or the organic nature of the creation of any kind of art object, writing too. It’s a philosophy called wabi sabi, which also speaks to the transient nature of life, imperfection, intimacy, and irregularity. A lot of that was really inherent in how I wrote anyway: I think it’s all a part of the mode of the writer who writes to discover rather than planning and then executing a plan.
AM: Your short fiction collection Before and Afterlives is a collection of cross–genre work with a theme of the supernatural. Ghosts and the way the past haunts us are also two themes that pop up often in your work. What draws you to ghosts, whether supernaturally spectral or shadowy memory?
CB: I’ve always loved ghost stories since I was a child, and I grew up in what I think of as a haunted place, a forgotten little rural town, where there were probably more people in the cemeteries than there were in houses. And where there was a great sense of history, and people told stories about people who had lived in that town a hundred years before. Growing up, I felt haunted by those people, because they were still spoken of so presently.
When it comes to memory, too, even as a child I had what others referred to as the memory of an elephant. I didn’t forget anything, even minor conversations, and could remind people of all the little details that occurred in an incident they were mentioning in passing years later. It always frustrated me that other people couldn’t remember in detail the things I remembered, and so memory became this thing for me that was both a blessing (very good for learning!) and a curse (alienating in some ways when others couldn’t remember moments that I thought anyone who was there would remember). So memory became an obsession for me early in life, I suppose. The things you can remember that no one else can, well, it’s a little bit like a person seeing a ghost when no one else experiences seeing it.
AM: You attended the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in 1998, just before Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet picked up “A Mad Tea Party,” launching your short fiction career. What do you feel was the most important thing you personally took away from an intensive workshop such as Clarion?
CB: The most important thing I took away from Clarion was probably a work ethic to bring to my writing, to not let it be whenever I feel like it but to create a real work structure for myself so that I can not only get writing done, but can get better at doing it in general. I also learned that in a group of, say, 20 people, 5 will completely get and love your stories, and will have great feedback that can help you improve. The other 15 will be spread out on a spectrum that extends from someone with one foot in your story world and one out, to someone who might as well be an alien and you just don’t speak the same language. This is really the make–up of the wide world of readers who will encounter your stories and novels in the “real world” and you best get used to the idea that some will love your stuff, some will like it, some will be fairly neutral to it, and others will just hate it.
AM: A great writer is often also a prolific reader. What have you been reading lately, and/or do you have any suggestions for books our readers might enjoy?
CB: I’ve been reading a lot for the Andre Norton Award (best scifi or fantasy for young adults award) and also for the James Tiptree Jr. Award (for speculative fiction that examines or challenges notions of gender). I’m on both juries this year. So my reading has been streamlined a bit more than usual because of it. Right now I’d love to recommend two books in particular: Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & Gone, which is about a seventeen year old girl who begins to see the ghosts of various girls who have disappeared in her town over the years, and to sense that she’s next. And Bennett Madison’s September Girls, which is a young adult novel about a teenage boy whose family is on the rocks, and over the course of a summer where his father whisks him and his brother away to a beach, he encounters a group of girls who are more than they seem at first. I won’t go into any spoilers, but the lasting effect is really just magical.
AM: What, if you can say, are you currently working on? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming year?
CB: I’m just now finishing up a (hopefully final) revision of my next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, about a young man whose life turns out to be not anything that he thought it was, or could remember, and has to piece together the secret history of his family. I’m also working on a series of short stories that are adaptations of genre literature classics, like Wells’ The Invisible Man, or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’m adapting works by Poe (that story, “For the Applause of Shadows” will be out in July in an anthology called Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Poe, from Lethe Press), Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” (that story, “Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me” will be out this October in an anthology edited by Paula Guran called Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales), and of course “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” is an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I’d like to write a total of about ten or so of these adaptations and collect them as a book called Monstrous Alterations (or else titled Invisible Men).
And of course I’m really excited to see my first novel, One for Sorrow, releasing as a feature film called Jamie Marks is Dead in 2014!
AM: Thank you so much, Mr. Barzak, for sharing “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” with us here at Apex and for participating in this interview!