Wednesday, June 24, 2009

6 + 1: Interview with Erzebet YellowBoy

Erzebet YellowBoy is an artist, author, editor and bookbinder who works primarily in the fantasy genre. She oversees two small presses, edits two magazines (one in print and one online) and her second novel is scheduled for release in 2010. Her work is concerned with memory and transformation, and she loves fairy tales.

Question 1: Wrapped around the well of the knowledge at the end of the world (where one can see the moon and the stars half-shining in daytime) is a dragon of ancient reputation, armed with endless scepticism about human aims and desires. How do we overcome his scepticism and earn a drink from that well?

Erzebet: Simply appearing at the dragon's side should overcome his scepticism. After all, according to him we should never have got that far in the first place. If that doesn't work, counter his attack with some scepticism of your own - tell him you don't believe in dragons and see what happens. Maybe he'll vanish! Actually, I'm a big fan of scepticism. I don't believe it dulls wonder, I believe it can add to it. How can this be? Why is this so? Very often, the answers to these questions are more marvelous than the object of the questions themselves. Perhaps if the dragon can be made to see how fabulous he is, he'll drink from the well with us.

Question 2: You are a polymath, in the tradition of Blake or Morris. How does your work as a visual artist influence your writing, and vice versa?

Erzebet: At the most basic level, I wouldn't bind books if I didn't write stories, nor would I write stories if I couldn't bind them into books. I'm not sure how this happened or which came first, they both sort of developed together and are now inseparable. On another level, my work as a visual artist gives me insight into the creative process in general, which is a theme I think one can find in most of my writing. I like to think that my characters are engaged in the process of creating themselves. It's all the same really. We start with a foundation and add to it, building it up until we have a finished piece. It is often in the process of gathering physical material to work with - leaves, bones, etc. - that I come up with things like plot and characters, and sometimes my characters reveal new ideas concerning the making of books. It is almost impossible for me to think about writing and visual art as two distinct things at this point. It's a symbiotic relationship between the visual work and the writing and sometimes I'm sure I am only a tool of my art.

Question 3: In your debut novel, The Bone Whistle (written as "Eva Swan"), you used Native American imagery and ideas. Tell us about the connections between various tale traditions and the differences, and your experience writing these into a fantasy novel.

Erzebet: First I must make it clear that I used Lakota imagery and ideas, as opposed to the more general "Native American". That novel was inspired by my years on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where if you listen closely to the stories being told, you will notice that the line between what we think of as fantasy and reality is very thin, if it exists at all. We often think of "fairy lands" as existing sort of beyond the fields we know, in another place and time, separate from our own. That idea is in opposition to a worldview in which otherworlds aren't "other" at all, they are simply an extension of this one. In The Bone Whistle, I tried to combine the two, revealing an otherworld that lies beside this world. Most Lakota stories that I know are cautionary tales, old stories designed almost solely to aid in the survival of a family or group of families. I can't say The Bone Whistle falls into this category; it is more a story about accepting yourself and your culture, issues close to the heart of what it is to be a young Lakota today. I believe stories exist for two purposes: to instruct and/or to entertain. All stories have one or both of these at their core, so in that we can find similarities between Native American and European tales. What are sources of wonder in one set are often commonplace things in the other, but both sets hold to these purposes.

I have to say that any more of a comparative study is impossible for me. My experience with European tales comes primarily from written works that have a more global appeal. My experience with Lakota tales is almost entirely oral, in that I spent hours listening to family members tell me stories about (usually) other family members. In the true oral tradition, these tales were embellished with all sorts of fantasies, but only occasionally did the storyteller bring the tale out of the realm of the personal by adding in some of the more "tribal" elements. The one thing I tried very hard to do as I was writing The Bone Whistle was to treat the characters and their cultures with respect - some of those characters were modeled on my own family and the events that befell certain of the more adventurous of them. Other ideas, like the "ghosts", were removed from their cultural context and given a more European flavor, but even in that I tried to remain true to Lakota tradition.

Question 4: Prime Books is bringing out three of your novels: Sleeping Helena, Land of Dreams, and Grandmother's House. We'd love a preview!

Erzebet: Sleeping Helena is based on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, set in the Bavaria of King Ludwig II. It opens:

"Kitty was a tall woman, wide at the shoulder and heavy of thigh, who kept her white braids curled on top of her head, held in place by an army of pins. Her skin was a deep shade of sepia and she wore lipstick the color of those halfling cherries found lurking at the bottom of canned fruit-cup. She was sometimes forgiving and sometimes not. On the day of her grandniece’s christening she was not, and she knew just whom to blame for the grave insult.

The eldest of eight sisters, Kitty had been born blind. At the age of five she fell from a horse and into a coma that spanned seven long days. When she woke, Kitty could See. The spells that revealed the future to her were dreadful episodes, but none were as awful as she became as the years passed by. Kitty’s sisters often wished she’d never woken from her coma at all. Even so, none ever slighted her as they had done now. Kitty did not need an invitation to the christening, of course, but it still would have been nice to get one. It would have been right to get one. She was one of child’s grandaunts, was she not?"

Sorry, that's all you can have!

Question 5: What is your absolute dream project for Papaveria Press?

Erzebet: This is not an easy question to answer - there are so many! It would be a very selfish project in that I'd like to gather a collection of original stories from each of my favorite authors who deal in fairy tales, as well as illustrations from my favorite artists who do the same, and make a big book of fairy tales with an outrageous binding. Leather and brass and feathers and gems, medieval style, or perhaps I'd create my own style. I would like to make a book that acts as a source of wonder both outside and in. I do have a project underway, slow as snails, that is also very dear to my heart. I am working on a very limited edition of Thomas the Rhymer, with text from both the original ballads and from Ellen Kushner's book of the same name. The covers will be made of bark, the pages of leaves, and I've been gathering up the materials for this book for ages. As there is no real time in Fairyland, I can't say when this book will be done, but it certainly does qualify as a dream project - one dream that will eventually come true.

Question 6: At the end of your story "Moonstone" (in Mythic, ed. by Mike Allen), the wizard is the only one at court not shocked by the rebirth of the willow grove, since he "knew true magic when he saw it." From your vantage point as editrix of Cabinet des Fees and Jabberwocky, and a guiding light at the Interstitial Arts Foundation, what do you see as some of the "true magic" current and upcoming in fantasy and spec fic?

Erzebet: Magic can and will always be found in the stories being published. The true magic I am seeing is in the way authors today are embracing new media and using it to create methods of storytelling unheard of before the internet changed our lives. One of the reasons I fully support the work the Interstitial Art Foundation does is because it supports and encourages marginalized artists and authors and provides them with a forum which breaks the confines of genre and type. The arts, and by that I mean visual, performance, literary - all of it, are too often hindered by the more traditional methods of exposure and promotion, avenues which often remain closed to those of us whose work doesn't meet the expected criteria. Look to the Interfictions anthologies, I and II, for some of today's magic in the speculative fiction field.

Beyond all of that, another place I am seeing some real magic happen is in our authors' use of language. Writing has always, obviously, been a craft of language, but as far as I can tell most of the modern experimental writing (until recently) was happening outside of our field. I don't always agree that experimental writing equals good writing, but when it does we have something special on our hands. More speculative authors, I think, are playing with language, seeing where it can take them and their tales, and the results are some of the most interesting stories available. I'm going to show my bias now and admit that when it comes to "true magic", I see most of that happening in the realm of speculative poetry. It is there that I find the most heartening and mind-blowing works being published today.

Erzebet's Question to Lobster & Canary:

When left to my own devices, my mind will always turn to my first literary love. In this jaded day and age, one might think that fairy tales are too quaint to be much of a force in the literary world, and yet they flourish around us. What is it about fairy tales that give them their eternal allure?

Lobster & Canary is still pondering...and will answer Erzebet in tomorrow's post.

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