Gemma Files was born in London, England and raised in Toronto. Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Fiction. She has published two collections of short work (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, from Sinnersphere Productions, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press). A Book of Tongues, her first Hexslinger novel, won the 2010 DarkScribe Magazine Black Quill Award for Small Press Chill, in both the Editors’ and Readers’ Choice categories. The two final Hexslinger novels, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones were published by ChiZine Publications in 2011 and 2012.
Gemma answered a few of my questions about her new book, Experimental Film.
Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us about your new book, EXPERIMENTAL FILM?
Gemma Files: Experimental Film is about Lois Cairns, former film critic turned film history teacher, who finds herself suddenly unemployed right after her son is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Depressed, angry and at loose ends in the wake of her career’s sudden collpase, Lois becomes obsessed with identifying the filmmaker behind a vintage silver nitrate silent film clip she spots hidden inside an experimental film project she’s been sent to review: Mrs A. Macalla Whitcomb, possibly Canada’s first female horror filmmaker, who disappeared from a moving train almost ten years after her own “special needs” son also vanished under similarly mysterious circumstances. All Lois wants is to make herself feel like she’s really discovered something relevant to her field of study, but what she discovers is something older, weirder and considerably more threatening, a pattern of obscure fairytale imagery that haunted and guided Mrs Whitcomb’s creative passions, which may in turn trace all the way back to a long-forgotten goddess once notorious for demanding human sacrifice.
KC: What inspired you to write the book?
GF: Since I come from the same background as Lois—she basically is me, or at least the version of me I’d be if I hadn’t had fifteen years’ worth of fiction sales to fall back on after losing my job while dealing with my son’s diagnosis—I’ve always wanted to write about a “haunted” film, something imbued with a malign, potentially fatal attraction, an image which poisons everyone who’s unfortunate enough to view it. I first rehearsed the idea with “each thing I show you is a piece of my death,” co-written with my husband, Stephen J. Barringer; published in Clockwork Phoenix 2, it went on to be reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Vol. 2 and was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, which explains why some of its characters show up as cameo parts in the novel. But the rest is me taking a lot of what I’ve learned and come to believe about the Canadian filmmaking system over the years I covered it and running with it, hopefully putting together a mock-memoir/pseudo-historical puzzle in which fact and fiction become increasingly hard to distinguish from each other.
KC: For you, what makes a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
GF: Above all, when I read, I want to be swept up and borne along, consumed, enthralled; the concepts and characters involved don’t have to be totally original, but they need to at least be different enough to intrigue, realistic enough to provoke sympathy. In terms of the writing itself, I prefer my prose evocative rather than simply effective, with a bit of poetry to it. Overall, I live for books that produce a mood of gathering creepy fascination, a true descent in the Weird. As to what turns me off, meanwhile, I find I’ve really taken against the idea of the unreliable narrator, at least when the explanation to “what’s happening here?” turns out to be “oh, none of that even happened, because the person telling the story is totally nuts.” It just feels like a massive waste of my time, no matter how well-executed that particular might be.
KC: Have you read any good books lately?
GF: Always! I tend to go back and forth between old favourites and “new” stuff, some of which could easily be by authors I’ve hitherto heard about but haven’t had the chance to catch up with. Right at this moment I’m working my way through the Expanse series by James A. Corey, starting with Leviathan Wakes—it’s fast-paced and pulpy yet psychologically apt, a highly political modern space opera whose vision of the future stays firmly rooted in a dirty, palpable mess of details extrapolated from current science, both factual and theoretical. Not my genre, usually, but I’m enjoying the hell out of it anyhow. Before that, I finally read Nathan Ballingrud’s utterly brilliant novella “The Visible Filth,” and man, that’s the real stuff, right there.
KC: What’s next for you?
GF: I’ve got a short story on the boil (slowly but surely, I tell myself) and a novella I owe immediately after that. I’m also planning out what may be my next book, about which I can only say that it involves female friendship and the secret history of poisoning.