Interview: Elizabeth Hand
By Cheryl Morgan
29 November 2004
Elizabeth Hand is no stranger to awards. Her first three novels were all finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award. In 1995 she won a Nebula and World Fantasy Award for her story "Last Summer at Mars Hill," and the following year her novel Waking the Moon won both the Tiptree and Mythopoeic Awards. More recently, in 2002 and 2003, she won International Horror Guild Awards for her stories "Cleopatra Brimstone" and "Pavane for a Prince of the Air." Her latest novel, Mortal Love, is widely tipped to feature on next year's nomination lists. Her collection Bibliomancy also won a World Fantasy Award in October. I caught up with her at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston to find out more about her and her work.
Cheryl Morgan: Was the novel Winterlong the start of your career, or did you have short fiction published before then?
Elizabeth Hand: My first published story was "Prince of Flowers," which came out, I think, in 1987, in Twilight magazine. They were doing a series of "Twilight Zones Firsts," which were first stories by unknown writers, and mine was the first "First." And then I published a longish story called "On the Town Route" in Pulphouse. Almost simultaneously I published a novella called "The Boy in the Tree," which later became the first part of Winterlong. That was in 1988 or '89.
CM: The Winterlong series has a post-apocalyptic, post-disaster setting, and it starts up in the Smithsonian Institution.
EH: Yeah. As a kid growing up I always loved museums. I can remember when I was about four going to the Natural History Museum in New York, and I was just entranced. I always wanted to live in a museum. There's an American children's book called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; it's about a girl and her younger brother who run away from home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a great book. The kids scoop the coins out of the fountains when they need money, and interesting people talk to them. I thought that was just the greatest thing.
So when I grew up, I worked at the Smithsonian for a number of years. I had a very low-level job. I didn't have much responsibility, but I did have a Smithsonian ID badge that gave me access to all of the museums on the mall, and also the National Gallery of Art. In those days, you could go anywhere, which you can't do now. You could get in behind the scenes and wander along these tunnels. There is a scene in "Prince of Flowers" where the characters are in the Paleontology Department of the Museum of Natural History where they really do have this Raiders of the Lost Ark-type vast space filled with all of these unopened cartons. It is mainly stuff from the famous expedition by Edward Cope to the American West in the late 1800s. They have all these bones. So I put that in the story.
I was really entranced with the idea of living in a museum. In Winterlong there are two parallel storylines and the one for Raphael takes place among this guild or tribe of curators who live in the ruins of the Smithsonian Institution.
CM: It is very fashionable at the moment to talk about books that blend fantasy and science fiction, but Winterlong did that.
EH: [laughter] I know, I did it years ago. This is what they call "the curse of innovation." But of course I wasn't really being that innovative. I was playing off Jack Vance, Angela Carter, people like that. But as they say, if you do something first you'll be forgotten; what you want to be is second because those are the people who make all the money. It was the same with punk rock. The first wave came and flowered and died, and it took a while before it became a cultural convention.
CM: The second novel, Aestival Tide, has one of these characters that has lived with me forever. Poor Ceryl Waxwing tries desperately, desperately hard to succeed and somehow manages to fail at everything she does.
EH: Yes, my great role model. . . .
I have always found flawed characters to be very attractive. And not just flawed characters, but serious fuck-ups; they are very appealing. Ceryl didn't make it out of there, did she?
CM: No, she died.
EH: Yeah, she got left behind. But Samuel Delany's Triton was a big influence on me in writing that. Brom Helstrom is a deeply unlikable protagonist—he's certainly not the hero of the novel—and he's completely clueless. He goes through the book and he sees things that happen around him and he doesn't understand them at all. Ceryl Waxwing is not that extreme, and she's not the main protagonist of the book. But I always felt kind of bad about her.
CM: The third book in the series, Icarus Descending: it took me forever to get a copy of that book. I think I actually wrote to you and asked you where I could find it. What happened?
EH: That just kind of tanked. Out of all my books it is probably the one I like least. For financial reasons I took a contract to write a series of three books, and by the time I got to the end I was really not that interested anymore. Like Elvis Costello said, they give you 19 years to do your first album and then 12 months to do the second. Aestival Tide I had a lot of fun with because it was playing off tropes I loved as a kid: monster movies and the like. But by the time I got around to Icarus Descending I was pretty burned out. I wanted to go and do something else.
CM: Of course you did do something else that was extremely successful. And I think I can trace that back to an article you wrote in SF Eye in which you said that you really wanted to write a book about a transsexual character.
EH: Yeah, it was something that I've always wanted very much to do, not because I felt that it was trendy or trangressive or anything, but because I'm bisexual and I have always felt that sexuality is very fluid. To me transgendered individuals are able to live that and take it to another level. I think in future we are going to see a lot more of that, with all sorts of body defining and redefining. People are now able to take their bodies and their genders and their sexualties and form them to what they would like them to be, either to a new state or to a mutable state. That's something that I toyed with a bit in Winterlong and in Aestival Tide with the character of Reive, the gynander. But in Waking the Moon I wanted to have characters who were from our present day. I ended up playing with that again in Mortal Love with Judah Trent, who is a character who is not medically transgendered, but is nevertheless ambiguous in gender.
CM: Of course Waking the Moon is about much more than just Oliver. There is this whole sex-war theme to it. You know, sacrificing men by moonlight and all that sort of stuff. And it won you a Tiptree Award.
EH: Well, actually, I shared the Tiptree Award. My co-winner was Theodore Roszak, for The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein. He's also written a book that I love called Flicker. It is a great book, a secret history of film.
CM: [tongue firmly in cheek] So do you think it would be a good thing to have a secret cult of feminists who go around sacrificing men by moonlight?
EH: [responding in kind] Well, it couldn't make things any worse. . . .
[pause while we both stop giggling and get back to being responsible adults]
EH: No, what I wanted to do with Waking the Moon was not to come out on one side or the other. That book was very polarized, and of course I got very polarized reactions to it. Some people were saying it was too feminist, too gynocratic. Other people were saying it didn't take things far enough. I'd wanted more of a balance.
CM: I think if you get attacked by both sides that proves you have done it right.
EH: That's what I felt. I wanted Sweeny Cassidy to be a character who was not taking sides. She was going to stand her ground, as she did at the end when she acted against Angelica and the Goddess. But she wasn't reacting against Angelica's politics; she was acting to save someone that she loved. There was a lot of empty-headed New Age goddess stuff going on at that time. We don't really know what went on in ancient goddess-worshipping cultures, but I'm pretty sure it was not this benign, kind of toothless female empowerment that we saw back then in the 1990s goddess movement.
CM: Was Waking the Moon the first time that the Benandanti appeared in your work?
EH: Yes. Ages ago when I was at college, in a place that was the model for St. John the Divine in Waking the Moon, I had started writing a book in which there was this immortal cabal of people. I called them the Amleth Union. They were sort of the secret masters of the universe. When I originally sat down and started writing the book that became Waking the Moon it was a story about a female anthropologist and the resurgence of a goddess cult. And then I thought about that other book I had been working on ages ago and the two elements sort of blended.
CM: Have you been in any trouble with the Benandanti for revealing their secrets to the world?
EH: It's all fake. They pay me off to put people on the wrong track.
I remember in one of Anne Rice's early books she had this secret group of psychic investigators called the Talamasca. And in that book they were a bit of a throwaway, she didn't make much of them, though I believe she's brought them back since. So I was thinking, "This is a kind of cool idea, if she doesn't want to use it, I'll use it." And then there is this historical body of work about a group called the Benandati that has been discussed by Carlo Ginzburg, the Italian historian. That's where I got the name.
CM: Moving on now to the works in your New England setting—"Last Summer at Mars Hill" and Glimmering—these are mainly about gay men.
EH: Glimmering was very much a response to the AIDS epidemic, which when I wrote the book there was no viable treatment for. Since I was a young teenager I have had many friends who were gay, mostly men but some women as well. I was very active in the gay warehouse disco club scene in the late '70s and early '80s. And the father of my children was gay. And suddenly this terrible thing started happening, and Glimmering was my response to it.
I saw Tony Kushner's Angels in America a few nights before the formal opening—I went to the previews—and it was such a moving, transcendent experience. Even thinking about it now makes my hair stand on end. AIDS was something that meant a lot to me too, and I wanted to write about it. Unfortunately I think the book was too ambitious in its scope, and it was very, very dark. As it happened, by the time the book was published, the protease inhibitors had started to be developed and were coming into common use. AIDS no longer seemed to be an urgent issue, which was a very good thing, but it rather knocked one of the legs out from under the book. People were able to say, "That's not a problem any more, we don't want to think about it."
The other issues that I had in the background to the book: the greenhouse effect, global terrorism, religious fundamentalists blowing up buildings in New York City, that was never going to happen. There was no possibility of that, and I got flak from readers about it. This was the go-go nineties. Nobody wanted to hear what I was saying; it was like being the bad fairy at the christening.
I was writing that book in the early days of the Internet. We didn't have the fast access to information that we have now. But everything that was in that book was going on. You just had to read the newspapers from around the world and extrapolate a little. Aside from the few supernatural elements, nothing in that book was made up.
CM: Black Light is, I guess, your rock music book. You seem to have a passion for music.
EH: I grew up not far from New York City and I spent a lot of time on the fringes of the music scene there. And when I lived in [Washington] D.C. I would migrate back and forth between there and New York a lot. To me the Warhol Factory was an intoxicating, really fascinating scene. And it was a genuine art scene; it spawned the whole downtown, lower east side art punk scene of the 1970s and early 1980s. From our perspective now in the 21st century it seems like the last efflorescence of an American Bohemian scene. Now everything has become so commercialized. You still have marginal art happening, but it gets absorbed into the machine much more quickly. So Black Light was sort of my love letter to all that has gone.
CM: It wasn't entirely in praise of it, though. There is a lot of unpleasant stuff going on in the background of Black Light.
EH: Oh, yeah, it was unsavory. Artists are not necessarily moral, ethical people. The creative force can be channeled into a moral, ethical forum, but in and of itself it is a neutral force. And in Black Light it implodes in some bad ways for some people.
CM: And that, I think, brings us on to Mortal Love, which is all about artistic inspiration and the good and bad sides of that. It is about muses, about what fires an artist to create something, and there is a very strong suggestion that art is a product of madness.
EH: Well, I don't think all artists are mad, but there is statistical medical evidence that a lot of creative people suffer from various mood disorders. They fall somewhere on the spectrum of being bipolar, of being borderline autistic and so on. These things are there. Now of course these days you can go to college and when you come out you are a professional artist and you can run a gallery as a business and have a career. That is a very valid way for an artist to make a living. But it doesn't make for a very interesting story. It doesn't have a lot of mythic subtext.
I've always loved the Pre-Raphaelites. They were flamboyant, they were mixed up, and they did all of these wild things. For their time they were not exactly rock stars, but they were certainly living the kind of life that looks very appealing from our perspective. We can read about things like Swinburne sliding naked down the banister at Cheney Walk. They are a very appealing group of people to want to write about. And some of them were kind of crazy.
CM: There does seem to be some suggestion that to write the sort of really strange, off-the-edge fantasy that we happen to like you have to see the world in a slightly different way.
EH: I think you do. For me a lot of the world really is like that. The scenes in my book that people describe as "such a hallucinatory sequence"—the scene where Trip Marlow in Glimmering is given the drug by Leonard Thrope and has this bizarre, psychotic sexual experience, or the moments where Daniel experiences Larkin Meade in Mortal Love, where he has this intense, deracinating sexual and visionary experience: I don't see the world like that all the time, but I see the world like that a lot.
So what am I going to do about that? Am I going to go crazy? Am I going to institutionalize myself? Am I going to go and work in a cubicle as a telemarketer so that I don't give vent to that? Or am I going to take that and channel it into my work? It is a gift.
I know my works are not plot-driven, although the one I'm working on now is much more plot-driven than things I have done before. But I try to maintain a balance between having a vision of the world that many readers do not experience for themselves, trying to give them enough grounding in the world we are all familiar with, so they don't feel that they are completely lost in Faerie.
CM: Mortal Love has been getting quite a bit of interest from the mainstream media. There is some indication that your publishers are marketing it as a "breakthrough book" that will get you noticed outside of the genre market.
EH: The book was released under William Morrow, which is a mainstream imprint of HarperCollins. My work has always been intended to fall between two camps. It is not traditional science fiction or fantasy or horror, because so much of it is set in our contemporary world or a close analogue. It is very difficult, when you start as I did being published as a science fiction writer, to transition to doing something different because it is a tag that sticks to you—from a marketing perspective, not from a critical perspective necessarily.
The book has fantastic elements; it deals with many of the same things that Susanna Clarke's book Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, deals with. But because it is set in our world, not in an analogue of Jane Austen's England, it is a little more difficult. With an historical novel, and there are historical sections of Mortal Love, you have that detachment. Faeries might have been wandering around in Victorian England. I can believe that. But it is a more difficult thing to think that they might be wandering around Camden Town now.
It is more of a jump, but I find that more interesting in many ways. The irruption of the supernatural into our world is a much more enticing notion to explore than the same thing happening in some past time, or in a wholly imaginary world. It is more interesting for the writer, though not necessarily for the reader.
CM: It seems to me that there are elements of Mortal Love that would be very attractive to the mainstream arts movement. In the same way as if a genre writer riffs off, say, Bach or Mozart, they suddenly perk up and take interest, a book about Swinburne and Richard Dadd is going to get noticed.
EH: Well, yes, because they can recognize these figures, they know them. They start off expecting something that they are familiar with. Now it is a bit like buying a ticket to a movie and when you sit down you may not see quite the sort of film you were expecting to see, but the ticket gives you entrance. And I think that is what is happening with the mainstream. They are saying to themselves, "This is about the Pre-Raphaelites, they are real, we know about them, I'll go in and see what is going to happen."
CM: Has there been any specific fallout from having been reviewed in People?
EH: I'm getting a lot of phone calls from people saying things like, "I was in my dentist's office and I picked up People and read about your book." I think a lot of people who would not have picked up the book otherwise saw that. It was placed alongside Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip, so it was presented as sort of a summer read. And I wanted to write a book that was sort of a smart beach read. I wanted to write something that was acceptable and fun to read but that would be intellectually challenging as well as entertaining. Something that would be the sort of book I would like to read when I was on vacation. I'm not going to go out and buy a Danielle Steele novel, but I might take Julian Barnes along with me to the beach.
CM: Alongside your career as an author you've also been doing a fair amount of book reviewing, particularly for the Washington Post. As a reviewer myself one of the things I'd be absolutely terrified of doing is trying to write a novel after all of the rude things I have said about other people's. How do you balance that?
EH: Well, I was lucky in that I started doing both at about the same time. When I was living in D.C. I got to know Steve Brown, the editor of SF Eye. I wrote a number of short reviews for him, and then a longer review of Samuel Delany's Neveryon sequence. But reviewing was always one of the things I wanted to do. When I was about nine years old I loved reading the New York Times Book Review. I loved literary criticism. I didn't study it in school, but when I was in college one way I supplemented my beer money is that I would write term papers for people. Other students would pay me to read a book and write a term paper for their class. I charged a buck a page, a carton of cigarettes, a six-pack of beer. And they would say, "OK, here's King Lear, I need it by Friday." There was a science fiction and fantasy course, and people were paying me to read and write about Dune. What kind of an idiot can't read Dune?
CM: Presumably someone who didn't want to wade through quite that many pages.
EH: The Lord of the Rings was good that way too.
So anyway I cut my teeth doing those sorts of things. And then in 1988 I met Mike Dirda, who is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic. He was with the Washington Post at the time—well, he's still with them but his affiliation has changed a bit—anyway, I met him as we had some friends in common. I told him I'd very much like to review for the Washington Post Book World, so he gave me my first gig and I've been reviewing for them ever since. I've now done hundreds of book reviews for magazines and newspapers, and I love doing it. It uses a part of my brain that writing fiction doesn't.
CM: Back with the fiction, another recent publication was Bibliomancy, a spectacular collection of novellas from PS Publishing, including your two International Horror Guild Award-winning stories. I think it is a big shame that it has gone into a collectors' market where few people will get to read it. But some of the stories are available elsewhere, aren't they?
EH: "Cleopatra Brimstone" is in several "year's best" type anthologies, and it was originally in RedShift, the Al Sarrantonio anthology. "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" was originally in a small-press book, but it too was picked up by some "year's best" anthologies. "The Least Trumps" was in Conjunctions #39 and again in some annual anthologies. "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" hasn't been anthologized, but that could be because it is actually a short novel. It is just too long for an anthology.
CM: Is there any chance of "Chip Crockett" appearing anywhere else?
EH: I'd love it to; it is one my favorite things that I have ever written. I have always wanted to write a Christmas story, and I love Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I would love to see "Chip Crockett" come out as a little Christmas book. It has everything, it has Johnny Ramone. . . . It seems to me to press all the right buttons.
CM: It pressed all mine. I hate Christmas, I hate sentimentality, and I read "Chip Crockett" and I just couldn't stop crying.
EH: A lot of people really love it, I've got a really wonderful response from people, so I hold on to the hope that it will find another audience. In the meantime it is in Bibliomancy, and it was originally published by Sci-Fiction and it is still online so you can read it for free. They actually ran it at Christmas time.
CM: So you've got this career of writing really artistic novels, experimental stuff and whatever, you've got a parallel career of doing the serious, intellectual stuff as a top-rated critic, and the one thing that everyone says will really kill your career, something that a serious writer should never do, is write tie-ins. Time to confess, Liz.
EH: Oh, yeah, it is hackwork, but I've done numerous tie-ins. The first I did, which was probably the best, was for Twelve Monkeys. It is a beautiful screenplay by David and Jan Peoples, who I worked with a bit on that. It is hard to make a living as a writer. I have bills to pay, I have children, and so I'll take side work because it is what I need to do. If I was getting a million dollar advance for a novel, or if I was to sell the film rights to one of my books, then would I continue to write novelizations? No, I wouldn't. But it is work.
Writers subsidize their careers in a lot of ways. Some people marry money, or they inherit money. If you are an heir to a fortune you can be a poet. I wasn't that lucky. I'm a single parent with two children and I do what I have to do to get by. A lot of writers teach English or teach writing, but I don't want to do that. I want to write. I like the lifestyle that I have; I love the freedom that I have to live where I want to live. I set my own hours, and when my kids were younger I was able to spend a lot of time with them. The novelizations buy me the time to write serious stuff.
Filmmakers do this. They will do a serious movie, and then they do commercial work. They'll do music videos or something. This is my equivalent of doing a commercial. It is my equivalent of making a Nike ad or something like that.
CM: I must admit that if someone gave me the opportunity to write The X-Men I would jump at it.
EH: Yeah, and the thing is I do it fast. I don't put a huge amount of myself into it. I try to put some into it, and on some occasions I have put more stylistic currency of my own into a project. But the studio people say, "We don't want that, we want you to take out all the adjectives." That literally happened. So I said, "OK." You do it, and it is an honest living. I think so many people do media work of one type or another. Fay Weldon did a product placement in one of her novels, and people got on her case, so I'm not doing that much different from what everyone else does.
CM: The latest tie-in project is for the Catwoman movie.
EH: It was a fun project. I think every movie I have ever done the novelization for has tanked at the box office. But I have no real control over that. I get the script and I have to work with it. Some of the historical ones were fun: The Affair of the Necklace, Anna and the King. Catwoman was fun to write because I interpolated three or four little cat fables, little supernatural stories that I put into the text to liven it up a bit.
CM: Do you ever get to see anything of the movie when you are doing a novelization?
EH: Once I did, with The X-Files. They flew me to California, took me out to the studio, and they had an armed guard at the entrance to this little theatre. They brought me into the room and showed me a rough cut of the movie, all by myself. I watched it, and then the armed guard let me out and I got the red-eye back to Boston. It was hilarious.
CM: So what's new in the pipeline on the serious art stuff?
EH: I have been doing some short stories that are quite different from what I have done in the past. One of them will be in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Another one I have sold to Conjunctions. That was only about 1500 words long. It will be out next spring.
What I'm doing now, I don't know what its natural home is. Places like Conjunctions, probably. I'd like to do something for The New Yorker. I've gotten good feedback from some of the mainstream magazines. I'm not trying to write to any particular market, but I do find that my style has changed over the past few years. I don't know if it is more self- revelatory, but it is more personal and less caught up in the bells and whistles that you find a lot in genre.
The novel I'm working on right now, which I don't have a title for yet, feels much more like a gritty mainstream novel than a genre novel. Currently it doesn't have any supernatural elements, but it used to, and it may do so again before I finish it. I love the idea that this world could contain that mystery, that sense of the numinous or of the transcendent. Whether or not it is actually there, I would like to think that the possibility is there for it. I would like to think that the possibility for it is there in art, in fiction, and I want it to be there in what I do. In a way I think having that moment come in a mainstream novel can be more transforming that having it happen in a setting where the numinous is more everyday.
CM: Elizabeth Hand, thank you for talking to Strange Horizons.