Interview with Author E. Catherine Tobler8 min read
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already familiar with the works of E. Catherine Tobler. Fans of Apex Publications will know her latest unreal circus novella “The Kraken Sea,” and if you’ve searched out your favorite Apex Magazine authors, you’ve probably enjoyed more of their work at Shimmer, where Tobler is the senior editor. The two magazines publish many of the same authors and artists, and have similar goals — to bring readers excellent fiction that is beautifully crafted, shockingly surreal, and sometimes even shimmery. It’s something that continually brings me joy in the short fiction community: that editors and interviewers and slush readers and everyone else involved with the magazines consider the authors, poets, and artists we work with as a treasure to be shared as much as possible, instead of hoarded.
Apex fans take note, if you enjoyed “The Kraken Sea,” Tobler has plenty more unreal circus stories to entertain you, and when you’re done with those, check out her Folley and Mallory mystery series. And when you’re done with those, you can chase Tobler all across the internet, as she’s been published in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Static, Giganotosaurus, Interzone, Innsmouth Free Press, and in the anthologies Sword and Mythos, Upgraded, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures, Fractures: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalyse, and Dead North, among many other magazines and anthologies.
What does art in utopia look like? I asked that question on an online forum over 15 years ago (when I was young and thought I knew everything). The conversation I was looking for was that art created in a utopia would be boring, because art is a response to something, and those people wouldn’t have anything to respond to, because they’d be happy with everything. Art is a response to something, something you can’t quite put into words. And if you feel the need to create art, but don’t have something to respond to, don’t have an impetus? I guess you better find one, or your canvas may remain empty.
“Every Winter” isn’t quite fantasy, isn’t quite horror, isn’t quite science fiction, yet it dances a waltz with each of those labels before leaving them behind. Like Halla, you’ll be pulled in many directions, pulled into different rooms of the house, and curious about the rooms your feet won’t take you to. With an artist in the center of the story, the story itself is a sort of performance piece, and as you read it you become part of the artwork, a part of the performance. “Every Winter” is also the perfect story for readers new to Tobler’s work, as it touches on some of her favorite story themes of isolation and how you can be alone and not alone at the same time. This interview contains spoilers for the story, so I recommend reading the story first. Don’t worry, the interview will be waiting for you when you get back.
Tobler was kind enough to let me pick her brain about “Every Winter” and how the story came to be. We also chatted about Shimmer Magazine, the Unreal Circus, and so much more.
Apex Magazine: It’s so easy for someone to come up with reasons for their bruises. I tripped on the stairs, I dropped something heavy and tried to catch it, I’m clumsy. Why does Halla convince herself of more acceptable reasons for her bruises?
E. Catherine Tobler: There is something strange and peculiar happening in the villa, something Not Right, and while I think Halla knows this, she also knows the villa — as much as it may feed off of her — feeds her in return. I see it as a symbiotic relationship — is it mutalism? Both sides are helped, though Halla also experiences some hurt; the villa studies and consumes her, but it also helps her channel her artwork, even though this is artwork that will never see the light of day. I don’t think she excuses it so much as she uses it to create what she is creating — and there’s probably a story in that, what Halla takes back into the world with her when she leaves, how she channels this pain into art. Art often stems from something personal the artist has experienced; something they wish to experience. We are hurt and eventually we put it on the page, on the canvas, in the sculpture.
AM: She’s isolated, and she keeps herself isolated, without even talking to the neighbor lady. In her isolation, she creates an entire world on the walls within the villa, a world no one but her will ever see. Can you tell us more about this theme of isolation, and how it can effect characters (and authors!) during the writing process?
ECT: Halla probably has a unique relationship with people outside her normal social circle. (Does she have a social circle — probably not much of one.) But then the world takes a peculiar view of Halla too — being a woman, being an artist, the neighbor sees Halla as being something Otherworldly. Artists are so strange to these people, but no one else will rent the villa, so they do what they must.
I have friends who can work in coffee shop environments, where people hustle and bustle by; these friends feed off the energy of others. I have friends who go away to work, who rent little houses and live away from the world for a time; these friends feed off the silence. I would definitely be in this latter group, because I don’t create well when someone randomly walks up to me and begins talking about something unrelated to what I’m working on. Sometimes isolation is what a project needs; sometimes it doesn’t need to be shared immediately — if at all.
AM: Halla’s story is told in a rather dreamy and ethereal fashion. Where did the idea for this story and the best way to present it come from?
ECT: The initial idea came after I read a piece about Goya and his Black Paintings. These paintings are a series of 14-15 works that he painted on the very walls of a villa in Spain, Quinta del Sordo. The paintings were later cut from the walls and carried off to museums. The paintings are all darkly themed and as with most art, I wondered what might have happened inside that villa to inspire the works.
For me, every story begins with voice. If I can’t find the voice, finding my way into the story is harder. I could picture this villa very clearly, however, and knew that Halla went every winter. I knew there was a rotting windmill; I could picture the landscapes outside the windows. I started out by telling that bit: “Every winter she takes the villa on the banks of the River X” are my first notes on the project. And then, I rambled on about the road leading somewhere she will never go — but indeed she does go, she simply doesn’t remember going.
AM: Will Halla bring canvas next year? Or is that just something she tells herself? I guess what I’m asking is how does her time in the villa affect the rest of her days? When she’s not at the villa does she miss her time there? As the days get shorter and winter slowly creeps closer does she hope for some excuse not to go, or contemplate going somewhere else for quiet and solitude?
ECT: I don’t believe Halla will bring canvas next year; she tells herself every year she will, and as we see, she does not. I don’t think she misses her time at the villa, no; the story is very cyclical, for everything there is a season, if you will. She knows winter is when she goes to the villa. This is in part because of the entity there; its life is probably also cyclical. It only feeds in the winter, perhaps, like a bear storing energy for hibernation. We join Halla very much in media res — Halla has been to the villa before and will come again and she never remembers her canvas. I am not sure if that cycle will ever be broken.
AM: I would be remiss in my duties as speculative fiction magazine interviewer if we didn’t discuss Shimmer Magazine, where you are the Senior Editor. What’s something about Shimmer Magazine you wish more people knew?
ECT: Not many people know that we are now releasing print anthologies of our stories; one whole year of stories, bundled into a beautiful anthology. Also available digitally, yes, but I know lots of people who missed the print version of Shimmer when we went digital back in 2014. Now, you have the best of both worlds. Read Shimmer online, in your e-reader, and also at the end of every year, in a beautiful trade paperback!
AM: How has working at Shimmer affected your own writing, be it your writing style or your process?
ECT: I started at Shimmer as a slush reader, and reading incoming submissions absolutely shaped the way I approached my craft. I learned what worked in story openings, what good pacing read like, what a satisfying ending felt like. It also taught me that every story isn’t for every market, even if it’s a perfectly good story, so Shimmer showed me how sending the right story to the right market really makes all the difference.
AM: Your most recent Circus stories include The Kraken Sea, “Cloud Dweller,” and “Blow the Moon Out,” but you’ve been writing in this universe since 2004. What can you tell us about this universe, and what stories do you recommend as entry points for readers new to this world?
ECT: My first circus story, “Vanishing Act,” started as an exercise in voice. Voice, voice, voice, I like to play with it. “Vanishing Act” was inspired in part by an old friend, who had a very distinct way of speaking and writing. I wanted to see if I could create a voice like that, unique and unusual, and I think I did. I have always loved carnivals and circuses, and Ray Bradbury is to blame for that.
“Vanishing Act” is a pretty good entry point if readers haven’t explored the series yet. It details a journey by the circus train across Colorado and New Mexico, and the arrival of a strange passenger who may or may not be an alien lifeform. “Lady Marmalade” would also be a good entry, as it shows some of the circus’s inner workings; how the time travel works. Though “Ebb Stung by the Flow,” my newest circus short, might be more of a challenge for new readers, it’s told from the point of view of the train, so that might be a fun escape!
AM: Your fiction runs the gamut from steampunk and alternate history to fantasy to hard scifi to horror. I find that a lot of fiction (short stories especially) is under the surface about asking an unspoken question, or answering an unspoken question. What questions do you enjoy asking in your fiction, and what types of questions do you enjoy answering?
ECT: Much as with Halla, I like exploring isolation and how that affects people; I like exploring the shadows, because we push a lot of things into them. What happens to all those avoided/unanswered feelings, thoughts, words? No matter how we connect with people, we still seem to be entirely isolated universes — can anyone completely know someone else, or is there a point when this is just as good as it gets? I like to explore distances, and how they aren’t always distances at all. How someone who isn’t there can be within you all the same.