EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Theodora Goss on ‘The Thorn and The Blossom’
Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology co-edited with Delia Sherman; and Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.
Charles Tan: Hi Theodora! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. For readers unfamiliar with your work, could you tell us about your latest book, The Thorn and The Blossom?
Theodora Goss: Thank you, Charles! The book is a love story about two people, Brendan and Evelyn, who meet in a small town in Cornwall where Evelyn has gone on vacation and Brendan is working in his father’s bookstore. The story is told from both perspectives, Brendan’s and Evelyn’s. The book itself is bound accordion-style: it has no spine, so it can open in either direction, and it’s in a slipcase. It can be read from either side — you can choose whether to read it from Brendan’s or Evelyn’s perspective first, and each one will give you a different sense of what happens in the story. Words can’t quite describe how gorgeous and unusual the construction is, but there’s a YouTube video that shows you how the book works.
CT: The book has a unique presentation – something that can’t quite captured by an eBook for example. Could you tell us the genesis of collaboration on such a book with Quirk Books?
TG: The format of the book was the idea of my wonderful editor, Stephen Segal. Stephen and I had worked together before, on projects for the Interstitial Arts Foundation, and when he got the idea for an accordion-style book, he called and asked if I could write the story for it. I told him that I would love to try! And I knew it had to be a love story, because that’s the sort of story you really want to hear from both perspectives. I mean, imagine if Pride and Prejudice were told from Darcy’s perspective as well as Elizabeth’s. It would be quite a different story!
CT: When it comes to narrative, how did you come up with the story?
TG: It happened the way I come up with any story, which is that I took elements of my own life and put them into the story, but in a very mixed-up way. So for example, Evelyn’s family wants her to go to law school. Well, my family wanted me to go to law school, and I went. (And then I decided that I really wanted to study English literature, which is a decision Evelyn also makes.) And somewhere in the back of my mind were memories of having studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in college — that also made its way into the story. And Brendan’s and Evelyn’s walk in the woods — that was based on an actual incident, although of course it didn’t end the same way. I think that’s what always happens — Walt Whitman has a poem in which he talks about the patient spider drawing silk out of itself, creating its web. That’s what writers do — everything comes from inside, from experiences of the world that we have digested. And then we turn it into silk, or stories.
CT: What’s the appeal of romance for you?
TG: Honestly, the appeal of writing a romance was that I’d never written one before. I know you’ve read my short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting. Do you remember any romances? All the relationships in those stories are dark and twisted — people fall in love, but they really shouldn’t have. There’s even a story about a marriage, but it focuses on a woman who marries a bear! I’m used to writing fairy tales that can be somewhat dark, and the truth is that in fairy tales, romances are always problematic. They may end happily ever after, but someone’s getting pushed into an oven or has blood in her shoe. I loved writing something I’d never written before, and I wanted to write not just about “true love” but also a human relationship. About two people who are trying to have their happily ever after but are having the sorts of problems people usually have — miscommunication, for example. Now that I’ve written a romance, I’m sure I’ll write more: it’s fascinating to put people together and see what happens, how they fall in love and what that means in their lives.
TG: The biggest challenge was probably length. I actually pushed the boundaries on how long a book like this can be. The original plan called for two 7,500 word stories, and I turned in two 10,000 word stories. I’ve heard some readers saying they wished the story was longer, and I completely understand that desire — we all like to sink into a nice, long novel. But if it had been any longer, it could not have been an accordion book — a different format would have been required. The second biggest challenge was writing two stories about the same set of events that were complete stories in themselves, but also added up to a larger story. As I was writing them, I kept going back and forth, because something would happen in one story that would have to be reflected in the other story. And yet the same event would also have to be perceived in different ways by Brendan and Evelyn, because they are different people with their own interpretations.
CT: Could you elaborate on the statement that love and romance is a kind of magic?
TG: I wrote about this on my blog, didn’t I? That it’s appropriate to have magic in a love story, because magic is a sort of metaphor for what love feels like? When we fall in love, the world feels magical to us. It becomes an enchanted place. I’m sure scientists would point to specific brain chemicals, but I think love is actually a kind of magic. It’s what allows things to happen, people to be creative, the world to change. Great things come out of love — for other people, for art, for beauty.
CT: In The Thorn and The Blossom, which perspective came natural to you? Were there any challenges in writing a different perspective?
TG: I think Evelyn’s perspective came more naturally to me. She’s had all sorts of experiences that I’ve had in my own life — being discouraged from following her artistic impulses, for example. Being called too imaginative. The Thorn and the Blossom isn’t just a love story. It’s about two people who decide what they actually want to do artistically, despite discouragement. In some ways, that’s just as important as the romance. Finding your true vocation is a story too . . . I wondered if I would find it challenging writing from Brendan’s perspective, because he’s a man and I’ve obviously never been a man in a romantic relationship. But underneath it all, we’re all human — so I wrote him as a human being. He’s a more stable, more responsible person than Evelyn, and some readers have liked him better. One challenge Evelyn posed was that in some ways she’s less sympathetic. But I think that’s all right — Evelyn is who she is for specific reasons. Characters don’t necessarily have to be sympathetic. They just have to be real, to live.
CT: Right now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
TG: Well, I had a short story collection come out in 2006, and then I couldn’t work on large projects for a long time because I was finishing my doctoral degree. I co-edited an anthology called Interfictions with Delia Sherman and wrote a short scholarly book on three women poets called Voices from Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. So I’ve been busy, but I haven’t had time to write a novel. Now that The Thorn and the Blossom has come out and I’m done with my doctoral degree (yes, I’m finally Dr. Goss), I’m turning to longer projects. I see this as the beginning of my writing career. But then, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a poem when he was in his 80s about one day writing the book that would justify him. This was long after he had become one of the great masters, a writer everyone looks up to and reveres. As artists, I don’t think we ever see ourselves as done. We always think we’re at the beginning . . .
CT: What inspires you?
TG: Art inspires me. Looking at art in a museum, listening to music, reading the works of other writers. Nature inspires me continually. Today, I can look out my window and see the entire world covered with snow. It’s like Narnia under the White Witch. If you look at the natural world, really look at it, it’s always magical. Understanding what is going on in the world today inspires me in a negative sense because there’s so much about it that I don’t like — political stupidity, environmental degradation, etc. And that makes me want to change it, to make a difference in the world. The way I can do that is by telling stories. Not in order to make a particular point — I don’t think stories like that work at all, and to change the world, stories need to work *as stories*. But the stories we tell matter. When we tell stories about things that are important — love, fear, beauty — we change the way people think about the world. Writers are, or should be, truth-tellers even when the stories themselves are fantasy.
CT: What projects are you currently working on?
TG: Right now I’m working on a poetry collection for Papaveria Press that will probably come out next summer. It fills me with trepidation — poetry is something I’m much more self-conscious about than prose. I worry very much that people won’t like it, or will think it’s simply silly. But I have a post-it note above my desk that says “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” And if I weren’t afraid, I would do a poetry collection. And of course, with Papaveria Press, you know the book itself is going to be beautiful. I’m also writing my first full-length novel, which is based on a novella I wrote called “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter.” I’m having a wonderful time with it, but of course it’s presenting challenges as well. Stories always do, no matter what they are. Delia Sherman once told me that you never learn to write a story. You only learn to write the story you are currently writing. You have to learn how to write the next story all over again. And she’s absolutely right.
TG: Believe in the importance of your art. I see so many talented writers who have difficulties with that. And if you don’t believe it’s important, you won’t put in the work you need to. Writing is an art like other arts. Dancers don’t dance every once in a while. Musicians don’t stop practicing. They are dedicated to what they do. But it’s very difficult to put in the work unless you believe that what you’re doing is significant in some way. If you believe you have a voice and something to say, chances are you do, and the world needs you to do whatever you’re drawn to do. So you should do it. I talked on my blog recently about “uncommon sense.” Common sense is called “common” because it reflects cultural consensus. It’s common sense to get a good job and save for retirement. But I think we all also have an “uncommon sense,” an individual voice that tells us what we’re meant to do. And sometimes you have to follow your uncommon sense. (Yes, my uncommon sense told me to write this book, even though I was in the middle of making final revisions to my dissertation! Common sense would have said, finish the dissertation and get a good, solid academic position. But instead, I got to do something that no one else has done, because I don’t think anyone has written a book quite like this one. And look at how beautiful it is!) So, writers: believe! And go do the work . . .
CT: Anything else you want to plug?
TG: If anyone reads The Thorn and the Blossom and wonders what else I’ve done or wants to read more of my work, my short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting contains stories that are also on the borders of the real and the magical. The poetry collection should be out this summer, and of course I’m working on the novel. So there’s lots more to come…
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