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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak on Interfictions 2

Delia Sherman is an author, editor, and teacher whose personal genre bias is towards the mythic and the historical, but reads everything from Chaucer to Robertson Davies to Iain Pears. Her most recent short stories have appeared in the Young Adult anthology Coyote Road and in Ellen Datlow’s Poe. Her adult novels are Through a Brazen Mirror, The Porcelain Dove, and The Fall of the Kings (with Ellen Kushner). Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen are the first two volumes of the middle-grade New York Between fantasy trilogy. Besides Interfictions 1, (with Theodora Goss) and Interfictions 2, (with Christopher Barzak), she has edited anthologies in collaboration with Terri Windling and Ellen Kushner. She has been on the faculty of Clarion and Odyssey and The Cape Cod Writing Workshop, and has taught workshops all over the country and at the American Book Center in Amsterdam. She lives in New York City with many books, lots of pictures, no cats, and spouse Ellen Kushner.

Christopher Barzak grew up in rural Ohio, went to university in a decaying post-industrial city in Ohio, and has lived in a Southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan, where he taught English in rural junior high and elementary schools. His stories have appeared in a many venues, including, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Strange Horizons, Salon Fantastique, Interfictions, Asimov’s, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. His first novel, One for Sorrow, was published by Bantam Books in Fall of 2007, and won the Crawford Award that same year. He second book, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is a novel in stories set in Japan, and was chosen for the James Tiptree Jr. Award Honor List in 2008. He is the co-editor (with Delia Sherman) of Interfictions 2, and has done Japanese-English translation on Kant: For Eternal Peace, a peace theory book published in Japan for Japanese teens. Currently he lives in Youngstown, Ohio, where he teaches writing at Youngstown State University.

SF SIGNAL: How did both of you originally get involved with the Interstitial Arts Foundation? How did you end up as editors of the anthology?

Christopher Barzak: Originally I first heard about the concept of interstitial art, and fiction specifically, from discussions I held with Terri Windling and Midori Snyder at Wiscon back in 1999, I believe. As we discussed it through examples, I understood that it was innately the sort of fiction I enjoyed reading the most, the kind of art I liked stumbling upon, and a way of writing that made sense to me as a writer as well. Over the years, I got into discussions about interstitial arts in various blogs and convention panels, and then, a couple of years ago, after the release of the first Interfictions, in which a story of mine was published, Delia sent me an e-mail asking if I would like to work with her as a co-editor on the next volume. I was, of course, thrilled, and the rest is history.

Delia Sherman: I’m one of the founding members of the IAF. It began, in fact, in my living room, where Terri Windling and Ellen Kushner and I were sitting drinking tea and talking about Art, especially art that wasn’t easy to categorize (or describe to marketing departments). Over the next several years, we talked to a lot of people, organized, incorporated, made a website, gathered board members and volunteers. And decided that our first Official IAF Project should be an anthology of interstitial writing. Ellen had more experience editing, but she was too busy and I’d done anthologies with her and with Terri and enjoyed the process, so I said I’d take on the job–but I wanted a co-editor. Interstitiality is too subjective and too amorphous a measure to be left to the taste of one person. For Interfictions 1, that editor was Theodora Goss. For Interfictions 2, I chose Christopher Barzak, whose “What We Know About the Families of ____ House” was the lead story in IF1. For Interfictions 3, Chris will choose a new co-editor, who will, in their turn, choose a new co-editor for the next volume, and so on. I will continue as Managing Editor, with jurisdiction over contracts and correspondence.

SFS: That “passing of the torch” is a great idea. Delia, you mention about Art that’s not easily categorized. What would be your reactions if one day, bookstores and libraries suddenly had a category labeled “interstitial”?

DS: People will categorize, won’t they? Especially people whose business is to make finding things easy for a large cross-section of the public. That said, an “Interstitial” section would probably be more useful for getting work to the proper audience than confining something, say, mystery readers would like in the fantasy section or something SF readers might like to general fiction. Myself, I’ve got all my books arranged alphabetically by author, regardless of genre. Except for my children’s books. And my research library. Okay, and the mysteries. But the rest are all hugger-mugger, and I like them that way.

CB: I would be amused, but I do think it could possibly be useful in some ways. As Delia mentioned, to place books that might be suitable for multiple audiences beyond its predominant genre or category. It could be a burden for bookstore clerks, but it could also be fruitful, if it meant helping books find as many readers as possible.

SFS: Going back to the editorial process of the anthology, what’s the collaboration process like? And to Delia, if you don’t mind me asking, how is working with Chris different from working with Theodora?

CB: Delia and I both read through the abundant amount of submissions that came in from our Call for Stories. From that first round of reading, we both selected stories that surprised, amazed, confounded, and entertained us (hopefully all of these at once). The stories also had to at least resisted easy categorization in some way, which was frustrating in some cases when we came across wonderful stories that were clearly fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, slice of life realism, etc. Afterward, we swapped our lists and began to read what the other had discovered. From there, we began to discuss each story. Some we both agreed upon with a look, some with a few words and a nod, others demanded questioning back and forth, teasing out how we both felt about them. So, through conversation and debate, over a period of several months, we arrived at the list of stories that stayed with us the entire time, that kept drawing us back to them. It was difficult, but an extremely satisfying process for me. I learned a lot from Delia, and I’m excited to eventually begin the process in the future again, with another co-editor.

DS: Chris described the process very accurately, but was too discreet to add that we each got to include a story the other admired, but didn’t much like. What’s the use of having two editors, after all, if you can’t express the extreme points of your taste? That said, we were remarkably harmonious in most of our choices.

The “One story without argument” rule was one I developed working with Dora. Also the system of handing lists back and forth, with top choices marked. And several other systems which I didn’t have to work out with Chris, because Dora and I had already tried them and discovered they worked. Which is probably the main difference between the two experiences. With Interfictions, both Dora and I were learning how to edit an anthology together. With Interficitons 2, I had done it once, and had a notion of what worked and what didn’t. Both co-editors, I have to say, were a joy to work with, collegial, intelligent, and responsible. It’s what I’m going to miss most about passing the editorial midnight-oil lamp to Chris.

SFS: While we’re on the topic of editorial process, how did you decide which stories would make it to the IAF Annex? At what point did you realize hey, maybe we should be putting up these stories online?

CB: If I recall correctly, these were all stories we had already been looking at, and after the rounds of deliberation for the book were completed, there they were, still looking at us, even if we’d put the book together. This was a problem. I think it was Delia and Ellen Kushner (another founder of the IAF) who realized we could make use of the website as another space to display some of this work. It made sense in many cases, I think, for these particular stories, too, which are often language oriented pieces (poetically condensed or patterned) and many of which are very short. They make for perfect online reading experiences.

DS: That’s it exactly. We basically had chosen 29 stories, and only room (and money) for 21. I was complaining about this over dinner to Ellen (who is also my wife), and she said, “Well, why don’t we just create an online annex? It would be great publicity.” And then we wrote the board (because we keep to corporate rules, yes, we do) and floated the idea, and discussed it at the next monthly meeting, and figured out how much we could reasonably raise to pay the authors, and voted on it. And our distinguished Web Guru, Geoffrey Long, designed the pages and Stephen Segal, who works for Weird Tales, helped me draft an on-line contract, which is different from a print contract in small but significant ways.

And the reason that these stories were the ones left over from the book? Every story an editor chooses for an anthology shapes the anthology. After you’ve chosen a certain number of stories, those choices act to limit your next choices. Can’t have too many of one flavor: ghost stories or political stories or dog stories or sibling stories or fairy-tale riffs. And when you’re down to your last few decisions, you have to take unyielding, practical things (like word count) and amorphous, aesthetic things (like the shape of the book) under consideration as well. We were very lucky to have so many strong contenders to juggle.

SFS: In Jetse de Vries Shine Anthology blog, he mentions that there was a “concerted effort to include more international writers”. What made you decide to do so and could you elaborate on how you went about this?

DS: Outside of movies and television, I find American popular culture as a whole to be woefully insular. It is much harder for a non North American writer to get published in North America then for a North American writer to get published almost anywhere else in the world. And yet, some of the most interesting experiments in genre and form are being written in non-English-speaking countries.

I know there are reasons for this–the time and expense of generating a good translation, the market’s fear that an American audience will not get a foreign work’s cultural referents or subtext, the sheer volume of English-language work already in the marketplace. But I don’t have to like it. And I can read French and I have some contacts in the French spec-fic and publishing worlds and I know some people here who are willing to translate (at least a short story) for love. So I took advantage of all that, resulting in being able to publish Lea Sihol’s “Emblemata” in Interfictions and Lionel Davoust’s “L’Ile Close” in Interfictions 2. As for the non-francophone submissions, they just seemed to appear. We put in the guidelines that we were willing to take international submissions, as long as they came pre-translated. In a couple of cases, we worked with the authors to hone the translation so that the story would read as well in English as it did in its original language.

CB: I don’t want to repeat much of what Delia has already stated here, as I’m in agreement with her, but will add that the heart of interstitiality’s resistance to categorization and homogeneity in the art that we make extends to resisting making a book that only gathers together voices from people of similar backgrounds.

SFS: Well said. Have you thought of pursuing other formats/mediums in subsequent volumes?

CB: Delia and I actually wanted to include other formats and mediums in this volume, but you can only really gather from what people send in. We were hoping for a graphic story (graphic as in the graphic novel), for instance. We did receive the wonderful Cecil Castellucci story that made use of images, but not in the format of a graphically told story, of course. So we’re open to anything, really, but we need to reach the people who can send us those kinds of contributions. I’m already thinking about the next volume, and hope that we can continue to keep adding new and different kinds of storytelling forms and mediums as the series evolves. And most likely the invention of the online annex will allow us to explore interstitial artifacts like F. Bret Cox’s Nylon Seam, which is both narrative and song, together on the same “page”. The annex may come to serve in the future as not only a space where we can place stories that we couldn’t fit into the anthology because of length restrictions or money, but also because there will hopefully be submissions that literally can’t fit into the anthology because of the limitations of print media, that can only be presented in an online space. It’s an evolving project. I’m looking forward to the many possibilities that we’re just starting to edge our way into seeing (and seeing how to do them).

DS: Since I’m not going to be editing the next volume–what Chris said. And very well, too.

SFS: On the production side, how did Small Beer Press ended up as your publisher? And how is the book related to the IAF and the auctions?

DS: Like many publishing projects, it was a combination of business and friendship. Ellen and I have known Kelly Link and Gavin Grant since the days of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, when SBP was just a gleam in their founders’ eyes. We knew we all shared a love of unusual, genre-blending fiction and a desire to get more of it out to an audience that would appreciate it. Gavin and Kelly were actually at the first couple of meetings we held to organized the IAF (one in our livingroom, one at SUNY/New Paltz), and we knew from the beginning that we would need to publish a collection to show the kind of work we wanted to champion. So when the IAF was ready to put together the first Interfictions anthology, we naturally went to them.

We set up Interfictions as a joint publishing venture. The IAF handles all the editing and legal end of the process, and funds the project, while SBP prints and distributes–which is why the title page cites the Interstitial Arts Foundation as the publisher and general copyright holder. We cooperate on publicity and promotion; it is wonderful to have Gavin’s insights and contacts, and, quite frankly, the credibility of SPB, on our side.

Interfictions is the IAF’s first-line answer to the perennial questions “What is Interstitial Art?” and “What does the IAF do?” Because I’m an editor and most of the founding members were writers, an anthology of what at least some of us considered interstitial writing seemed like a good first project for the organization. Because interstitial art is constantly growing and changing as the world of the arts grows and changes, we decided that there would be a changing roster of editors for the series, and that no writer would appear in an Interfictions volume more than once.

The Interfictions Auction grew directly out of our desire to create a dialogue between visual artists and writers, to broaden the public’s awareness of the anthology, and (of course) to raise money to fund further volumes. What we didn’t realize was how many artists and craftspeople would take making pieces for the auction as an opportunity to stretch their own habitual boundaries, seeing it as a challenge to “go interstitial,” with some breathtaking results. So the 2009 auction itself turned into a public showcase for interstitial artists online, which is something the IAF had so far only dreamed of.

SFS: Do you think Interstitial writing is an old form of the arts, or a new one?

CB: Well, I think you may be able to find what you might call examples as you look backward through history, but I don’t think as a concept, or as a way of seeing or understanding something, that it’s old.

DS: In every group of writers happy exploring the infinite artistic possibilities of domestic realism or classic murder-mystery or sensawonder SF, there’s always some odd duck who can’t resist changing things up a little. There’s nothing new about the desire to experiment. The themes and conventions of the modern English novel were hardly established when Lawrence Sterne plowed right through them with Tristram Shandy, which remains one of the strangest novels in the English language. Not remarkably, Tristram Shandyhas few literary heirs (unless one could say that anybody writing a completely weird-ass, crazy, genre-blending novel is writing in his tradition). Nor does Ulysses or Jacques et Son Maitre. But other artistic experiments, considered radical when they were written, have established genres on their own. Shakespeare’s mixing of the tropes and conventions of tragedy and comedy revolutionized modern drama, for instance. And (on a less exalted plane) the humble fairy-tale remix, mined by writers as disparate as Sylvia Plath, Tanith Lee, and Angela Carter, fostered by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow’s Fairy Tale series, has grown into a lively and diverse genre, with camps on both the literary and popular fiction side of the art divide.

In short, blending genres is how art grows. We’re just pointing it out and talking about it in a slightly different way.

SFS: Do you think it’s more likely for speculative fiction to fall under interstitial fiction compared to say, domestic realism? (At least at this point in time.)

CB: I don’t think it has to or is likely to by any real necessity. I think it’s quite possible for domestic realism (or realism with a variety of preceding descriptors, like social, magical, hyper, etc) to be constructed in some way that would find itself located in the in between ecology of interstitial fiction. A story that is simply speculative, for example, is necessarily interstitial. Otherwise it’s the thing you’ve already called it: speculative fiction, in this case. And while some interstitial fiction has speculative qualities, it has to be more than that. I would venture to say that Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours, for example, is interstitial. And yet it’s incredibly domestic in its realism.

DS: Not really. There’s a lot of stuff out there, published as general or literary fiction, that skirts the edges of all kinds of genres. Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, for instance. Anything by Michael Chabon. Almost anything by Alice Hoffman. Ursula LeGuin’s short fiction, which is published in that bastion of kitchen-sink realism, The New Yorker. In mystery, James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, and Elizabeth Peters blend mystery, mythology, thriller, horror, and domestic drama with steady hands and clear eyes. Robertson Davies’s novels frequently skate into interstitial territory, as do the later novels of the late, great Angela Carter. Oh, and A.S. Byatt. Salman Rushdie. Chita Chatterjee Divakaruni. Laura Esquivel (who wrote Like Water For Chocolate). And a whole bunch of other non-SF authors I can’t call to mind or haven’t read.

SFS: In your opinion, do you think the Internet has had any impact when it comes to the production of interstitial texts?

CB: I have no real evidence with which to answer this question, but intuitively I’m sure that, in the advent of the internet, the production of interstitial texts has been impacted by it, as so much has been: business, education, ways in which we socialize, etc. The internet provides a kind of third or fourth dimension for certain kinds of art, and for the mingling of them. At the very least, we’re able to engage with interstitial texts and artifacts that we might not have easily been able to see prior to the internet. It brings immobile productions into our homes.

DS: I’m afraid I’m not enough of an internet person to be able to answer this with any authority, so I’ll go with what Chris said. I suspect the internet is interstitiality’s friend, if only because it’s a place where like minds can come together and communities can form, irrespective of geography or even (to a certain extent) language.

SFS: Do you think there’s something interstitial in the way we might read something, especially when we’re on the Internet and multi-task: read a story here, browse a webpage somewhere in between, answer an email, etc.?

DS: Now you’re really getting out of my realm of expertise, because that’s just not the way I do things. I’m very much a one-thing-at-a-time person in my daily life. And I don’t think of interstitiality is a kind of artistic multi-tasking, although I can see how that might be a useful metaphor for those who can actually multi-task without its devolving into mere purposeless frittering, which is inevitably what happens to me.

CB: I’m honestly not sure about this. I suppose arguments can be made for or against the concept. I’m hesitant to suggest anything. I do think interstitial is about being “between” a variety of modes of category or operation, and I think what you’re talking about could be described as interstitial activity, maybe, but I’m not sure to what purpose as of yet.

SFS: Fair enough. What are some of your favorite interstitial works? What interstitial work would you like to see if finances wasn’t a problem?

CB: Some of my favorite interstitial works include: Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, and the film, The Company of Wolves, based off of Carter’s revised fairy tales. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Ursula LeGuin’s multi-media fictional ethnography, Always Coming Home. A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower. Jonathan Lethem’s collection, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. Carol Emshwiller’s collection, The Start of the End of it All. Kelly Link’s stories. The Cremaster Cycle, by the artist Matthew Barney. The musical artists, Tori Amos and Bjork. Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, The Sandman. These are just some bits and pieces from a large nest lined with favorites, of course, a sampling. I could go on.

DS: My very favorite interstitial writer in the world is Angela Carter. In my opinion, the most interstitial of her works is Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, but The Magic Toyshop is right on up there. I like Gregory McGuire’s Lost, a thorny and difficult book about guilt and adoption with an extremely unreliable narrator. Jeffrey Ford’s The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. Also The Shadow Year. Going back a bit, both Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy and Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste (also Milan Kundera’s hommage to Diderot, Jacques et son maitre). Yes, I’ve read these books and genuinely like them. They’re all funny, even if you don’t get all the cultural nuances. Also Justine Larbalastier’s Liar and Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, which have more in common than you’d think at first blush.

If finances weren’t a problem? I’d like to see something like what LeGuin was trying to do with Always Coming Home done right, with interesting, technically rigorous music that adds a new, possibly narrative, dimension to some piece of writing. I’d like to see the heirs of Laurie Anderson get funding for combinations of high-tech and story-telling and stagecraft that build on what she’s done and take it to the next stage. I’d like to see Rinde Eckert get the fame and fortune he so richly deserves. I’d like to provide a viable and visible forum for young artists to exchange ideas, collaborate, network, brainstorm, and display their work. Which is what the IAF is going to try to do more of in the future.

SFS: If you could make a prediction, in what direction will interstitial art evolve to in the next ten years? Or is that too soon?

DS: Lordy, I don’t know. There are people who feel comfortable extrapolating data out into the future, but I am not one of them–which is one reason I can’t write SF for beans. For me, the whole charm of this kind of art is its unpredictability, its unexpectedness.

CB: Honestly, I think the question is too soon, and too assuming. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that science fiction–regardless of its abilities to help us see a variety of invisible structures that make up our lives–is not so good at predicting the future, really. And when it does predict, it seems a matter of luck more than foresight. Much of the evolution of interstitial art will depend upon the advances we make in technology and as societal groups, as well as within the status quo of particular genres. Often what is commercially successful rules the roost, and that is never a sign of what is good such much as it is a sign of what people are responding to in a culture at any given moment (things that are adored now were not in their own time, and things that are abhorred now were quite successful in the culture that produce them). I can’t predict what will happen with interstitial art, but it will continue to evolve (as I think it has for quite some time now, under the guise of other nomenclatures) and if “interstitial” is not the term that defines this particular kind of art-making in the future, that’s fine. As long as people are still pushing at the boundaries that make up their definition of normal, I’ll be satisfied to some extent.

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