Join Date: Nov 2004
Re: The Object of Desire -- Our interview with Tanith Lee
sffchronicles: It provided an extra pleasure when reading your new anthology Cold Grey Stones to learn how diverse are the inspirations for the stories you write: a chance combination of words, an emotion you feel in the middle of the night, even an inanimate object. Even your first two published adult novels, The Birthgrave and Don't Bite the Sun seem to have arisen from entirely different influences. Can you remember what those were?
Tanith Lee: The Birthgrave, as I mentioned, and have said in my intro to the new Norilana edition, came from the image of a pale female shape curled up inside an about-to-erupt volcano. The first paragraph was based on a strange awakening from sleep I myself experienced in my very earliest twenties. The image, particularly, stayed with me, a benign and enigmatic yet insistent haunt. Once I'd sat down to it, there she was, Birthgrave's heroine, white as ice, unknown to me as the back of the moon. But she told me, and let me ride in her cool, lovely, cruel, kind, longing and exiled brain. We rose from fire and from death, fell deep into the passions of love, raced the chariots, killed pitilessly in the black storm of war, worked miracles, bloomed, withered and regained our destiny. A breathlessly, astonishing journey for me, a 21-22 year old, usually totally at a loss in the ordinary world, but in her world, safely at large inside that colossal canvas, with a goddess as my guide. (Several dreams that came to me while I wrote this novel I put verbatim into the book the girl in the pool, the winged men and women in the sky. Yes, in the dream I had wings too. I still recall what that was like.) Don't Bite The Sun was written just a little earlier. I escaped from my limited and clerical-work-tormented life, to the Cities of the Fours. They started as a crazy letter to a friend, done as a mini-diary entry of a few pages that came to make up the first pages of the novel. And of course it was one heck of a first hook line. I let DBTS take over, and become. As with everything I write, it was just all there. It's original title was Jang. But once the quote came in I knew that was the title. I can see certain (prior reading) influences too, from Aldous Huxley's stupendous comedy of Horrors, Brave New World; and I think, Anthony Burgess's ditto masterwork, A Clockwork Orange, threw a few levers as well.
sffchronicles: I won't ask about any particular one of your short stories because they are so numerous, but I will ask if there are any recurring themes in your short fiction.
Tanith Lee: There must and will be. Many writers will have those. With me they are not truly conscious at the time of writing. (Here we go again.) And I do have the fairly universal obsessions with Love, Sex, and Death, common to writers of almost every ilk. I think the 'Loner', the exile or outcast set apart for different reasons, but therefore ending up a Nation-of-One, is something I began with and always return to. I am a social animal, who likes people, but also I like lots of space and privacy ie, Aloneness. And I do identify with the ones set by themselves or othersquite apart. And this, unmatched to the rest of my personal trend, I recognized from early on. I like justice too, and Villainy suitably rewarded. The sorts of worlds and climates I tend to write about facilitate the violent and brutal measures that my characters often vengefully mete out. I also, again, not uniquely, seem to have a strong perchant for la femme- and l'homme -fatal. No doubt there are other recurrent themes, but as I've said, I swim in these seas, and analysis, though a lot of the fun for me, only occurs as a side effect, and that often only when asked.
sffchronicles: While we are on the subject of early influences: You have written stories where characters switch gender unexpectedly or where gender is ambiguous. I am reminded of Virgina Woolf's Orlando. Have you read it? Did it provide inspiration for any of your own work?
Tanith Lee: Quite probably. I am a great admirer of Virginia Woolf. I read Orlando certainly, in the late 1980's, and loved all of it. One of the best Total Transformations, too, the pure and unexplained simplicity of the switch. Orlando's world seems to be a life that was so determined to experience both prime gender states, that reincarnationally easier modes (which would provide a childhood first, to relearn the modus operandi of an opposite sex) are cast aside. Now you are This; now That. Woolf was a major genius (still is, thank God, since her work still lives). I think she will have influenced, or helped to teach me various things as do all the greats I read, to the limit of my ability to learn.
But of course I was already instinctively into these games and challenges of being now-female, now-male etc: Shakespeare had a major part in this too. He was and is one of my eternal loves, and his girls who dress as young men Rosalind, Viola
et al plus the young male actors (or normally young!) who firstly acted all his women alerted me early on to the sensuous and intriguing dichotomy of me-as-thee and thou-as-I. Besides, anyway, I feel rather definitely that the animus male aspect guide of a woman, the anima female aspect guide of a man, are there apparent in any of us who are content to glance within ourselves. Also, if reincarnation is a fact we've all been both, and in all their permutations, many MANY times.
sffchronicles: Much of your work has a mythic quality, Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern in particular. I have read that at one point you were quite enthralled with India, but have you made a study of these other mythologies or was the influence more indirect?
Tanith Lee: My mother had a fascination with and knowledge of the Dionysian, and a host of mythologies, (and religions). Most notably the Ancient Egyptian. She began my life-long quest for them, and later, inevitably, I read magical Graves, and certain portions of mystic writings, (such as the Upanishads.) Mine is a vastly imperfect and unfinished awareness, unfortunately. But my brush with such beauty and profundity has been monumentally inspiring, both in my books and in my dreams.
I fell madly in love with India in the early 1980's (it really was like a sort of love-affair, the love object elusive yet kind.) I chose the best time, or it was luck there was some type of 'Indian Experience' Celebration, and both radio and TV were rich with wonderful documentaries and extravaganzas not to mention the extraordinary and exemplary films of Merchant-Ivory.
Myth in itself is altogether something that seems part of a real Real world. It is possible (encouraged?) to touch the edges of its cloak. Perhaps only the truly Wise-or silly, could dare much more.
sffchronicles: Most of your stories are dark, though sometimes there comes an unexpected moment of grace, a fortunate turn of events, or a bittersweet ending. Do the uplifting endings surprise you more than the tragic ones?
Tanith Lee: Well. Both can make me cry, (different genres of tears.) This less at the instant of delivery to the page, than on sitting back, or reading after. The 'surprise' is always an extra pleasure though. And if it's a deliverance, I love it. I rejoice.
sffchronicles: Do you have any science fiction or futuristic fantasy coming out in the near future? [This question courtesy of my daughter, Daisy, who loves Sabella and The Silver Metal Lover.]
Tanith Lee: Thank you, to Daisy. (When someone is nice enough to say they like my work, or that 'that particular story' that's pure gold for me.) So, I do have a Science Fiction Collection coming out soonish from Aqueduct Press: USA. This contains some new short stories, and some older ones. They're not, however, really of the same sort as either Sabella or Silver. I have, for some while, wanted to write a third book in The Silver Metal Lover sequence. The title: The Tin Man. But as none of the 'Big' houses are interested, I haven't yet taken time to do it. For me, SF has always had to be about flesh and blood, that is, humanity. Or at least what is the best and worst of the human psyche and intent, even if translated through the medium of the android and/or robot. So no doubt however and whenever, there will be more takes on the theme.
sffchronicles: The Secret Books of Paradys and The Secret Books of Venus are marvelous reading simply for the stories, but there is also an added pleasure in discovering your alternate Paris and Venice. There is already short fiction about Petragrava, which I understand is an alternate Moscow. Can we expect novels to follow?
Tanith Lee: Petragrava is a parallel Moscow-St.Petersburg. The one existing example is a novella: Stringberg's Ghost Sonata, published in the Ghost Quartet SF Book Club of America. I'd love to write more on these lines, but there has been no encouragement and little time. Maybe, whenever, I can ?
sffchronicles: Could you tell us something about At the Court of the Crow, which Ive seen listed as dark fantasy coming out in 2012? Are there any other new novels coming out in 2012 that you would like to tell us about?
Tanith Lee: ATCOTC isn't coming out in 2012 or should NOT be. It is an unfinished work which was offered here and there as an example of the finished novel I wanted to write. Responses were negative or strangely confused. No one bought the work. And so far I haven't completed it. It is, this one, an (to me) interesting and weird project. A rural place, feeling somewhat 1900, but where stars crash on the ground by night. Something apocalyptic happened, it seems, some years before, and civilization ground to a halt. There is the House, and the Town, and the Plain between, where you must Never venture after dark for fear of the peculiar and lethal creatures that teem there. And then the Old Man turns up, gorgeous of voice, unholy and persuasive of character. To the lonely, obscure young woman (oh, her again!) trapped in the house, with her cruel and ridiculous relatives, does he represent a way out, or the way
to Hell? Or both.
There are, though, other novels just out or due presently, from Immanion this year. They are part of what I've called my 'Colouring Books' series dark, sometimes uncanny contemporary novels that are, I'd say, far more bizarre than much of my fantasy. To date, they list as: Greyglass. To Indigo. L'Amber. Killing Violets. With, to come: Ivoria. Cruel Pink. Also there is more Garber fiction (Gay/Lesbian) due from Lethe USA, and the dark fantasy collection from NewCon Press: Cold Grey Stones.
sffchronicles: Books like Vivia or the Lionwolf trilogy can leave readers emotionally exhausted, feeling that the sex and violence (and the violent sex) were more graphic than they actually were. Where these things are concerned, do you believe that skillful suggestion can be far more powerful than even the most detailed descriptions?
Tanith Lee: If skilful suggestion is what I am being 'unconsciously' directed to convey, then I'd hope it might. But to repeat myself I'm afraid, I don't normally set out to use a design model or map for working. The Voice of the work will arrive, and I go with that.
Vivia is a book I, now, have a slight difficulty with. Intended as Horror, I was to a small extent working 'to order' as Horror was what I'd been asked for. Obviously, if I hadn't liked the genre/concept I'd have kept clear. (This has happened I can't do what I don't like.) A lot of Vivia works for me, but some of the horror does seem, in retrospect, overloaded. In such a novel one needs only so much ? Perhaps I was correct in skidding all the way down the slippery slopes I was being shown. But, my first line editor now, I would censor a little more than then I did. ( I don't regret this; I did my best at that time. So long as I did that, for me, mistakes or oversights, are tolerable. Though of course not for anyone else who reads them, and quite right too.)
Conversely, and oddly(?) my enormous Horror epic The Blood of Roses is far more appalling yet somehow, again for me, here the lavish and gory measures do work. I never got fully to check the proofs on this book, and a lot of printers' and editorial errors never therefore got eliminated. Also some persons have formed (seemingly) wrong opinions about its underlying motif and aim. This annoys me I have no quarrel with anyone's disliking my work. I only dislike their disliking something in it which they have completely misunderstood.
I think the most terrifying 'Horror Novel' of mine was, for me, my historical, The Gods Are Thirsty, which concerns the French Revolution, and can indeed be classified as Horror. Blood everywhere, Terror everywhere, despair, broken hearts and dreams. And, as it really did happen, you can't be surprised by a redemptive ending. The end was written on stone, and cut in place by the blade of a guillotine.
sffchronicles: It seems incredible that an author of your experience and standing is not able to sell books to major publishers simply on the basis of name recognition (not to mention a reputation for excellent work), but many publishers will only publish books that mimic the books that are putting up the biggest numbers right now. Considering your versatility, it is surely within your powers to write something that fits inside their current restrictive little box. Have you ever considered doing so?
Tanith Lee: No one, it seems, among the 'Big' houses, wants me to do anything at all for them, or remembers me, even when I remind them. (I have now and then tried to elicit a response. But, as in my early-mid-twenties, when I offered, for example The Birthgrave, if I get a reply it is No Thanks. A few are less polite. Plus a great deal of ungolden silence.) As for writing inside a box, there is one of my limitations. Unless the box entices me, I can't do it. Very occasionally I've been offered one that did. For example I was invited to write a zombie short story for a very interestingly presented anthology, and wrote one with passion and suitable disturbed dismay. It had for me the ease I normally encounter when I write. But that was a one-off. (Zombie Apocalypse 2011) Also I did a Romantic-Supernatural novella for Harlequin. I found this both alluring and an interesting discipline, and wrote the piece with dedication and enjoyment. I still like it, too. (Shadow Kissing When Darkness Falls 2003). Otherwise a couple of schemes I didn't dislike nevertheless fell through. So, Fate, or 'Big' business, decrees my banishment. I do worry a bit, not just for my own work, but for new young fine and non-ghetto-minded writers trying to make their own break. But things go in cycles. The Market will open up again, in time for them, I hope, if not for some of the rest of us.
continued in next post