Elizabeth Hand is a novelist, short story writer and reviewer who has written across genres in a career that fans of speculative fiction will be very familiar with but others might have missed. I have been reading and enjoying her work for years but really was stunned when I picked up her novel GENERATION LOSS. Hand managed to do the near impossible - make readers care deeply about an unsympathetic protagonist. Her Cass Neary is a photographer on hard times who encounters a mystery while on assignment in Maine that very nearly finds her dead. Cast aside any ideas you might have of this novel being a typical thriller and instead plan to immerse yourself in atmosphere so steeped in history and location that you will very nearly feel as if you are right there, in the wet and the cold and the seedy danger, with Cass as she pulls at the strings of the secrets which surround her. You will feel like you know her - like you've always known her - and maybe as if a bit of Cass's ragged emotions belong as much to you as they do to her or to Hand herself.
Yes, Liz Hand is that good.
What really got much of the broader lit blgosphere talking about Hand this year though was the publication of her novella ILLRYIA as a YA title from Penguin. This gorgeous look at at a former theatrical family descending into pedestrian dramas, teenage cousins enthralled by the stage and a confrontation that leads to gut wrenching changes is not just a beautiful read but also a perfect writer's book. Hand's use of language is a lesson in itself; a tutorial on the craft that will inform as well as inspire. ILLYRIA was one of my favorite reads of the year and and I was delighted when Liz agreed to answer some of my questions.
CM: I wrote about "The Erl-King" in my October column and was struck while reading it by how well you write about teenagers. From Haley and Linette in that story to Justin in "Winter's WIfe" to Madeline and Rogan in ILLYRIA, your teens are always on the edge of self-discovery - always seeking something more even when nervous about what they might find (especially true in Justin's case). What is it about teens that you think makes these intuitive leaps so great? Are they more open to magic and mystery than adults or just more willing to take a chance that older characters are too world weary to try?
LH: It never really hit me that I was writing about teens until a New York Times reviewer commented on my 1998 collection Last Summer at Mars Hill, saying that many of the stories featured children or young people in peril. I'd always just written about characters who interested me, most of whom were inspired to some degree by people I knew. And it turned out a lot of those people were teenagers. But I never deliberately wrote anything aiming for a quote/unquote YA readership, until "Winter's Wife" in 2007.
Still, I knew from my first novel onward that a lot of my readers were teens, a fact that unnerved me somewhat as I was definitely writing to an adult audience, stories with an R or NR rating - sexually explicit, references to drug use, neo-pagan beliefs, a definite pro-gay/bi/transgendered bias, etc.. I was always a little worried that some poor kid out there was going to get busted by her parents or high
school librarian for reading Winterlong or Waking the Moon. As far as I know, that never happened. And librarians have always been wonderfully supportive of my work, which I love.
I do think young people are more open to exploring an alternative reality, whether it's the intrusion of a fantastical world upon this one, or the creation of an artistic or social or political subculture. Their brains are wired differently than adults', and I think that can be a real gift as well as a danger. It's their job to explore the world and take risks - as Sonic Youth put it, "you're never gonna stop all the teenage leather and booze."
Of course, as the parent of an 18 and a 20-year-old, I worry constantly about exactly these things. I pushed the envelope at that age, and I learned from my own experience and that of friends how the
consequences can be catastrophic and even fatal. Yet if I hadn't lived that life and made those choices, I don't think I'd possess a certain kind of insight as to what it's like to make those intuitive leaps. And there was always, always, part of me that was functioning with a certain detachment, observing everything and taking notes so I'd later be able to write about that time and those experiences. I vividly recall being 16 or 17, sitting with my friends and talking about how it did seem possible that one might, under the right circumstances, find that door into Narnia or Oz or wherever. We all so desperately wanted to believe in magic, not as some psychological avoidance technique for adulthood, but because the world seemed to hold a mystery that was just beyond our perception, what we'd later learn to call transcendence. In fiction, I've always tried to ground the supernatural elements in the everyday, so that they seem believable. I still want that mysterious world to be real, so I've tried
to create a fictional world in which it might exist.
But the real-world means for achieving transcendence often involve the very things that teenagers explore - sex, intoxicants, religious ritual, the arts, a deep immersion in the natural world, things I've always wanted to write about. A lot of people as they get older close themselves to these things. Sometimes that's a matter of self-preservation, as with drugs and alcohol, but sometimes it means you're closing yourself off from experiencing something new and strange. I think the making of art is a very risky endeavor, which is why I'm repeatedly drawn to writing about artists.
And the whole process of self-discovery for a young artist is particularly thrilling and often perilous. You're exposing yourself to the possibility of ridicule, rejection, or simply being misunderstood. You're opting for a vocation that doesn't carry the financial stability that our culture values. The upside is that the creative act is a greater rush than just about anything, including drugs and sex.
CM: When I told some friends I was going to interview you the immediate response was about ILLYRIA. The first question is about the theater and what you intended it to represent in the story. Second, we wondered if you were concerned about "going there" with the intimate relationship between the cousins. Although it was originally published for adults, did you have concerns about going the YA route with it? And why did you think the two had to be so deeply (and physically) in love for the story to work? Further, one thing that really stood out for me with ILLYRIA was how far the story went chronologically. Generally YA stories end shortly after the plot explosion but you kept the story going, sharing what became of Maddy & Rogan, aging them in a very unusual (for YA) way. You give readers their futures. Why did you take the story as far as you did? How do you feel about how things turned out for Rogan & Maddy?
LH: It's funny how people focused on those two things - the toy theater and Maddy & Rogan's relationship. Almost everything in that story is to some extent based on real characters and real events, though I shuffled it all together, as writers do, to make something completely new. I was
stagestruck as a teenager, and there was a real production of Twelfth Night with a real-life Rogan, though I wasn't in it. Much of my own childhood took place in Yonkers, in a place very much like Arden Terrace, with a million cousins and neighborhood kids running around all these huge old houses. My childhood was rather idyllic, and my own family was incredibly supportive of my work (and I came from a line of lawyers, not actors!). But from the time I was seventeen, I observed first-hand a family that was in some ways a dark mirror of my own, in which artistic talent was crushed to devastating effect.
I started writing this story back then - you can see flickers of it throughout my work, in the Dionysian figure of the boy in the tree, in the way twins crop up in books and in some references to Twelfth Night. ILLYRIA was written as an adult novel, so I wasn't concerned about the nature of Maddy & Rogan's relationship.
And, to be honest, I never gave any thought whatsoever to the fact that they were cousins. All the US reviews mentioned that; in the UK, where Illyria was originally published, I don't think anyone did. In Great Britain there's a fairly long history of cousins intermarrying, especially among the upper classes. I wanted Maddy and Rogan's bond to be supernaturally powerful, to go beyond physical desire into something stranger and wilder and more dangerous - there was a reason that I mentioned Heathcliff and Cathy on the first page. I didn't want them to be twins (something I briefly considered), but I wanted their relationship to echo that of the twins in Twelfth Night. The key to the title, and to their entwined fates, comes from the shipwrecked Viola's first lines:
Viola: What country, friends, is this?
Captain: This is Illyria, lady.
Viola: And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium.
I wanted their love for each other to reflect their love for acting, and to show the terrible cost of of both denying love and denying one's calling. Maddy's betrayal of Rogan is at heart a betrayal of herself, and her art; just as Rogan betrays both her and his own gift by squandering his talent through drugs. The fact that the two of them are conjoined spiritually as well as romantically makes that betrayal all the more devastating. I wanted the cost to be so terribly painful because, in my experience, it is.
The toy theater is magic, and can't and shouldn't be explained. If such things exist and appear to us, I don't think they come with operating instructions, any more than creative talent does. I've always been drawn to stories where the mystery isn't explained - Alan Garner's Elidor, Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. The supernatural elements in those tales are so powerful because they're realistically depicted, and terrifying. I wanted the toy theater to be at once magical and fragile, because love, desire, talent and youth are magical and fragile.
But those things, and the little theater, are also surprisingly resilient. I wanted Illyria to continue past the terrible moment of Rogan and Maddy's break because life goes on, even when terrible things happen. In the case of Maddy and Rogan, I actually thought their story did have a happy ending - they're adults, they're both alive, Rogan is sober, Maddy has had a successful career as an actor. And, most important, they're together. I wanted to show how, even if your life doesn't come out the way you imagined it would, at seventeen or twenty or twenty-five, you can still have a pretty good life. That â€˜s the way most of our lives turn out.
That's an adult take on the outcome, of course. When you're young, any kind of artistic or romantic compromise can seem like failure, and sometimes that's the case. When I was nineteen, I wanted to be Noel Coward or Jack Kerouac - I wanted to be rich and famous and have my name in lights, or at least on the bestseller list. None of those things have happened to me, but I till consider my life and career to have been successful.
I was fortunate because (after moving from Yonkers) I grew up in a small town where there were a lot of actors. Broadway people, theater people, some of them famous and others lesser-known. But they all had careers in theater - they were working actors or tech people. Fred Gwynne lived not far away. He remains best-known for playing Herman Munster on The Munsters, but he was also a marvelous Shakespearean and â€˜serious' actor. I used to see him every summer in repertory at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Connecticut, where he played Toby Belch and Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," among many others. He was a terrific artist, too, and published several lovely children's books, years before celebrity "authors" did anything like that. To me, he was the model of what a working artist should be. Lou Reed puts this beautifully in "Magic & Loss" -
They say no one person can do it all
but you want to in your head
But you can't be Shakespeare
And you can't be Joyce
so what is left instead
You're stuck with yourself
and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment
This wonderful fire started up again.
That fire is the act of creation. If you're lucky, I don't think it ever burns out.
CM: A lot of the emotions your teen characters experience are incredibly raw - from wild love to terror in "Cleopatra's Brimstone" then the stark terror of "Wonderwall" (both found in the collection SAFFRON AND BRIMSTONE to the near madness of Linette's headlong ruse in "The Erl-King". At the same time they are deeply creative, something YA authors love. You resist the lure of creativity being the panacea for young adulthood's drama (and trauma) however. What do you think the arts hold for teens and how does it factor into the stories you write?
LH: Well, I'm kind of a raw person - a lot of exposed nerve endings - so I guess that bleeds through onto the page. But I think most artists are like that, and most young people as well; one of the many places where the two intersect. Given that, I think it's odd that more kids don't grow up to become artists.
Though maybe that's a good thing. There's no doubt that art can save your life, as well as destroy it. The myth of the manically or maniacally inspired artist remains popular. Basquiat painted fast, died young, and left a lot of happy, wealthy collectors in his wake. But he's dead, and we'll never know what he might have done next. Same with Kurt Cobain and a thousand other people.
The truth is that most successful artists are incredibly disciplined. Creative passion and obsession aren't myths, but it's hard to sustain the level of energy and industry you have when you're twenty into a long-term commitment to your art, especially if you factor drugs and alcohol into the mix.
I really do believe the creative act is the closest you can come to having a mystical experience. That rush you get when you're totally immersed in whatever you're doing - painting, writing, performing, dancing, whatever - it's like time stands still. Brain scientists call it flow. Young people have so much energy and drive and passion that their brains must light up like Christmas trees when they're in the heat of creativity.
I've always been drawn to artists, and a lot of my friends from high school and college were and are creative types, actors or musicians or poets. Artists fascinate me, because a lot of what happens when you're creating something remains mysterious. And young artists just seem to burn so intensely - it's like anything is possible for them. But there's always the danger of burning out, and that gives an edge to what they do, certainly in fictional terms.
I like to explore that psychic place - "the edge is what I have," as Theodore Roethke put it - and people in their teens and twenties are often more willing to go there. I've known kids in the real world who were incredibly, heart breakingly talented, but who were never encouraged by the adults around them. And I've known kids who've had amazing teachers and mentors who've helped them do amazing things. I think it's important for books (and films and plays and music) to model how it's possible for young people to create things that are beautiful and important and lasting. That's one reason I was drawn to Rimbaud, who wrote nearly all his work before he was nineteen, and much of it when he was only sixteen.
CM: I assume that that the upcoming YA novel RADIANT DAYS is based on "Wonderwall". In that story you write about Rimbaud, in "The Erl-King" there is Goethe and of course Shakespeare permeates ILLYRIA. How do old stories inspire your work - are they there from the very beginning or do they appear after the characters and setting have already settled in your mind? Also, what research do you do for a book like ILLYRIA or RADIANT DAYS? How much do you immerse yourself in the old stories while writing the new?
LH: That's a great, chicken-or-the-egg question. And to be honest, I don't really know the answer, because I often just can't remember how the process plays out. But I think that usually I have characters and a setting in mind, and then a particular mythic text will emerge from my unconscious as a sort of template for the particular story I want to write. I don't recall being impelled by reading Goethe's "Erl-King," though obviously it's the inspiration for my story. The characters and setting were people and places I knew well, and at some point they overlapped with Goethe. I've always read voraciously, so all these other texts are there in my head, and sometimes I'll consciously shuffle the deck to see what legend or classic tale might serve my own fell purposes. "Twelfth Night" and Illyria always seem to have been there, though in fact when I started thinking of the story in its present incarnation, I was going to use "The Tempest," and have Rogan and Maddy avatars of Caliban and Ariel. But I decided to save that for another book.
RADIANT DAYS doesn't really share anything with WONDERWALL except for Rimbaud, and one or two sentences. I muddied the waters by using the same title for both the story and the novel, which is one reason I changed it to RADIANT DAYS. I research books obsessively - it's one of my favorite parts of writing. I love the way correspondences pop up: between fictional characters and real ones, between various myths and legends across cultures; between variants of the same legend over time. It's like a treasure hunt, finding these correspondences and then playing with them.
I first got into this fictional game with WAKING THE MOON, where I introduced my version of the Benandanti. I'd learned about the Benandanti in the work of the Italian historian Carlo Ginsberg; I later discovered that John Crowley had referenced them as well, in Love and Sleep, and Paul Park in his brilliant 2010 novella "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance." MORTAL LOVE riffs on the Tristan & Iseult legends, as well as "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and historical figures such as the Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd.
And RADIANT DAYS features the sixteen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud and a contemporary eighteen-year-old girl who's a grafitti artist, with some elements inspired by the life of the American painter Basquiat. So I got to drown in Basquiat's paintings as well as Rimbaud's poetry. I'm definitely a total-immersion writer: I work best when I can just tune out everything for days or weeks at a time and do nothing but work. Obviously that's impossible when you have small children, but as my kids got older I was able to carve out time to hol up and doing nothing but research and write.
With RADIANT DAYS it's been a four-year process with several total revisions, which is what I get for having the hubris to tackle Rimbaud. It's like taking on Picasso or Shakespeare. Rimbaud was a genius. His work didn't just change modern poetry, it practically invented it. Rimbaud biographer Graham Robb refers to his famous "Letter of the seer" as "one of the sacred texts of modernism." So I read everything I could find on Rimbaud, as well as texts about the Siege of Paris, his relationship with Verlaine, his time in London - on and on and on. I studied French for a number of years but haven't kept up with it, so I had to painstakingly translate French texts.
And I translated (transliterated, really) some of Rimbaud's work as well. I couldn't afford the rights to existing translations - I liked one translator's rendition of "The Drunken Boat," another's version of "Vowels," and so on. Tragically, I am neither a genius nor French. But I did the best I could to reproduce the sound and meaning of a poem, and it was a joy to read and reread them in the original French, even though I banged my head against the wall because I wasn't up to the task. (Julian Barnes has a great essay on this subject in the current London Review of Books, comparing various English translations of Madame Bovary.)
CM: I can't help but wonder - how big a fan are you of Rimbaud, Goethe, Shakespeare, butterflies, photography and...well, everything else that your characters are so thoroughly steeped in? Were you interested in these people/things before or after the stories?
LH: I'm a fan of all those things. As a girl I wanted to be a zoologist and go to Oxford University. Later I was torn between entomology and paleontology. But I always wanted to be a writer as well, and I loved Tolkien and the Icelandic Eddas, medieval history, Shakespeare, anything having to do with Greek or European mythology. I was the archetypal Geeky Smart Girl With Glasses until I turned fourteen, when I ditched the glasses and got into the Beats and rock and roll. I loved what was then known as primitive or folk art , now collected under the portmanteau term outsider art. In college I started reading science fiction as well as classic fantasy, but it wasn't until I started getting published that I realized one wasn't supposed to combine all of these things in one's fiction. Publishers want you to choose one thing (cyberpunk, epic fantasy, horror, whatever) and stick to it.
But I went from science fiction to urban fantasy to horror to thrillers to historical fiction, then back again. It's easier now to do that now (it's why terms like magic realism, slipstream, the new weird, the old weird, etc. are constantly invented) , but it's still problematical as a career move. But I'm interested in a lot of different things, and I get bored easily. I like the challenge of trying something I've never done before. For AVAILABLE DARK (the Generation Loss sequel, set in Reykjavik), I immersed myself in the Norwegian Black Metal scene, from the 1980s up to the present day, along with everything I could absorb from two visits to Iceland and reading everything I could about that country. Right now I'm obsessed with the 18th and 19th century whaling industry. This is what comes of reading Moby Dick at a vulnerable moment.
CM: Care to tell us a bit about RADIANT DAYS?
LH: Radiant Days is kind of a time-travel version of the great film Before Sunrise. Over the course of a single night on the streets of Georgetown, Merle, an 18-year-old gay art school dropout and graffiti artist (a girl inspired by Basquiat) meets a brilliant, homeless musician (inspired by the legendary Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson) and a sixteen-year-old runaway poet named Arthur. Their lives and fates become intertwined as the story weaves back and forth between 1890s Paris, 1978 post-punk D.C., and the present day. I wanted to show Arthur in the months just before he became the Rimbaud of legend, when he was very recognizably a troublemaking teenager, albeit a brilliant one.
CM: My friend Gwenda Bond always asks writers a question or two about process in her interviews. Would you share what your writing schedule is like and how many projects you have going at one time and where you actually do your writing? And is there anything you're listening to, watching or reading that you'd recommend to others?
LH: I'm very fortunate that I have a hideaway where I can work alone. I come down here every morning and pretty much treat it like a job - I try to write 1,000 words a day, or else I set myself a time limit, e.g. I'll knock off work at 4. Sometimes I'll listen to music; sometimes I forget to put anything on and work in silence. I don't write at night, although I'm often still working, reading review books or doing research or editing what I've written that day. I'm also an instructor for the Stonecoast MFA creative writing program, so I have student manuscripts to ead and critique, and I set aside one (long) weekend a month to work solely on those. Usually I work on only one fiction project at a time - a novel or novella or short story - though I'll set that aside for a day or two when I have a review deadline. I had to be disciplined when my kids were at home, otherwise we'd starve, so I learned to make the most of every minute. I push myself pretty hard, but I don't like it when I'm not working on something. I have a low boredom threshold.
See "Book Notes for GENERATION LOSS at Largehearted Boy.
[Post pics of the house where Hand's grandparents lived - the basis for the house in ILLYRIA. (more on it at at Liz's site). Also, Lou Reed cover; Theodore Roethke, photo by Imogene Cunningham, 1959; Arthur Rimbaud, image from the documentary; Oxford University; The dazzling artist, Basquiat.]
And Check out the full Winter Blog Blast Tour Master Schedule, updated daily with quotes from each interview and direct urls!