[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]
Gregory Frost is a writer of best-selling fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers, and has been a finalist for every major award in the sf and fantasy field. His latest work is the duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, voted one of the best fantasy novels of the year by the American Library Association. It was a finalist for the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2009, and received starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. His previous novel was the historical thriller, Fitcher’s Brides, a finalist for both the World Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards for Best Novel. He has published over fifty short stories as well. Publishers Weekly called his Golden Gryphon short story collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, “one of the best of the year.” His most current short fiction also appears in the anthologies Poe (edited by TBB’s Ellen Datlow); Full Moon City; and Chtulhu Reigns. He is one of the directors of the fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. [Photo Credit: Kyle Cassidy]
Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I really liked the tone and voice of your story. How did you develop it?
Gregory Frost: I thought about it a lot. That probably sounds disingenuous, but that’s really about all that happened. I spent some time reading folkloric stuff on poukahs that I’d read originally probably twenty years ago. Meanwhile I was writing down impressions as they came along. The first typed notes I have on the story comprise two pages that begin:
Bunch of townfolk go to a farm auction. The owner has up and disappeared. Doc shows up there, too. When some of the boys are talking about the old man, who was mean, Doc, who’s a beloved local figure, sits in with them and listens.
He tells them he knows what happened to the man.
As he speaks more people come to hear one of his tales….
And it goes on from there. So that told me this was a narrated tale, and as I started writing it, I developed up the voice of the framing narrator, and then the voice of Doc MacPhellimey (which, in my head anyway, was the voice of the late Patrick McGoohan) telling his own story within that frame.
CT: What’s the appeal of poukahs for you?
GF: They’re a flavor of trickster, as so many Irish characters are, so I was predisposed to him already. Probably most Americans of my generation think of Jimmy Stewart and “Harvey” when the word’s mentioned; but Harvey the invisible rabbit is not the poukah of legend at all. They’re much more wicked than that.
CT: You mentioned in your afterword that you had no idea where this story came from. Did inspiration strike before you were commissioned to do the anthology, or after? What are the challenges (or lack of them) in writing for a themed anthology?
GF: No, I had no intention of writing a poukah story before Terri and Ellen approached me, asking for one specifically. I’d written another tale years ago for Terri called “Crowley & the Leprechaun” (for her Faery! anthology), and two novels that are retellings of the Irish Tain Bo Cuailnge for which she was the editor–so she knew I’d worked with Irish tales before, which is presumably why I got the poukah call. I had no thoughts of writing one until asked.
The challenge to me of writing for a themed anthology is coming up with an idea that feels like it’s worth writing. I’ve only contributed to a handful of Ellen and Terri’s anthologies precisely because at the time I was invited, nothing shook loose; and I’m not somebody who likes writing stories just to plug mechanically into whatever theme is the flavor of the week: Vampires (more like flavor of the decade), zombies, Shakespeare’s dead cat detective… I have a story out right at the moment in the anthology Cthulhu’s Reign, an H.P. Lovecraft-themed anthology. And the only reason I contributed to it was that it allowed me to write a pastiche of a Donald Westlake “Dortmunder” story. If I’d been limited to writing some “serious” Lovecraftian tale of cosmic dread, I’d have turned down the offer. That held no appeal.
GF: The latter. It’s always about trying to shape a good story. Way back when Holly Black wrote Tithe she sort of remapped the landscape of the YA novel; and my own two Shadowbridge novels have been adopted as both adult and YA, depending on what bookstore you go into–there are some very intense scenes in those books, and I knew in writing them that they would tread the borderline of YA because the protagonists are teenagers. I would never water things down to “protect” the readers. That’s not why we come to fantasy fiction. We want to be challenged by it. Also, I think the audiences for good YA are probably more sophisticated readers than forty-year-olds who adore Dan Brown novels. At least I hope so.
CT: What’s the appeal of the Beastly Bride concept for you?
GF: Oh, there’s more than one appeal. “Tales of the Animal People”–that suggests shapeshifters, were-creatures, but also power exchanges. The category of “Lycanthropy” in psychotherapy is an example: that is, people who absolutely believe they transform into animals. If you read the literature on this, you see patterns. The category includes all animal transformation, and the majority of people under this diagnosis think they’re powerful animals: wolves and huge cats are, I believe, the most common. So you can start to imagine people who are otherwise powerless slipping into shape-shifting psychosis as a way of finding power. I start thinking about that, and I can feel the presence of stories in it. It’s so rich with possibility.