I’m so happy to have the lovely Gemma Files on the blog today! Gemma is the author of The Hexslinger Series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns, and the upcoming A Tree of Bones), and much more! She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her writing, horror, how she likes to spend her free time (when she can get it),and she totally has the same taste in movies as me, so please welcome Gemma to the blog!
Gemma, you’re the author of the Hexslinger series and numerous short stories. Have you always wanted to write? Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
I have, indeed, always wanted to write. More accurately, I guess, I’ve always dreamed, always told stories, always sung and made up poetry, and eventually started to write it all down. My first professional sale was at age nine, to Cricket magazine—a poem called “Earthquake!”, for which I received a copy of the book Bunnicula. Throughout high school, I continued to write and put on plays, as well as starting a bunch of extremely unsuccessful novels which all gave out about thirty pages in. My journey towards writing “for a living”, though, began with me going to see Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986 and, as I walked out, suddenly thinking: “Hey, I could be a journalist.” (Since the only reporter in Manhunter is a tabloid hack who gets his lips bitten off by the Red Dragon and is then tied to a wheelchair and lit on fire, you can see how this would be a somewhat odd connection to make, in context.) I think it probably came from having been raised around people who were all freelancers, and wanting some sort of “steady”, “real” job with security and an office to go to. Which totally isn’t what being a journalist is about, as I found out.
At any rate, I went to Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, got a BAA in Magazine Journalism and graduated straight into a recession, where I ended up working security, working in a high-end sex store, etc. Eventually, I was able to get in as a stringer on the bottom floor of a then-new arts and culture magazine called eye Weekly, where I spent two years as a stringer before drifting into full-time film criticism. I did that for roughly eight years, during which I also started to teach, first at the Trebas Institute, then the Toronto Film School. Throughout this period, I continued to write and sell short stories, then novelettes, then novellas. I also sold five stories to Showtime’s The Hunger, an erotic horror anthology TV series, and adapted two of them into teleplays myself, which got me a Writer’s Guild of Canada membership.
After turnover at eye forced me out, I taught full-time until the TFS went bankrupt, which happened to be around the same time my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I then spent a year being depressed and writing very little except fanfiction, before finally starting to write that novel everybody always told me I should be writing, which became A Tree of Bones (Volume One of the Hexslinger Series). I started it in January of 2009 and sold it in April, on the strength of seven chapters and an outline. Three years and two more books later, here we are.
Book 3 in the Hexslinger series, A Tree of Bones, comes out at the end of this month. Do you have plans for more books in the series?
I do have another story I want to tell in the same ‘verse, but it would take place about ten years after the end of A Tree…, and concentrate around New York city—sort of like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, except with magic. I don’t know if that too would turn out to be a trilogy, but given my track-record thus far, it’s always an option. Before I start work on putting that together, however, my editors at ChiZine think it would be a good idea for me to concentrate on writing something stand-alone, contemporary and straight-on horror, just so I can prove I’m not tied to the Hexslinger “brand”, so that’s what I’m in the process of developing right now.
Would you tell us a bit about A Tree of Bones?
Well, it’s the third instalment in what was always supposed to be one big book, so it’s probably not going to make a heck of a lot of sense if you haven’t read A Book… or its immediate sequel, A Rope of Thorns (Volume Two of the Hexslinger Series). Basically, at this point the feud between pistoleer-turned-avatar of an Aztec god Chess Pargeter with his former lover Reverend Rook, the hexslinger who threw him over in favour of a reborn Mayan goddess named Ixchel, has reached critical mass. The Rev and Ixchel have founded Hex City, the only place on earth where hexes can work together without constantly wanting to vampirize each other’s power, whose potential danger has attracted the attention of the U.S., Mexican and Texican governments; as we kick off, Hex City is being laid siege to by a battalion of U.S. Infantry, Allan Pinkerton’s Detective Agency and a network of normal humans and enslaved hexes using “arcantistric” anti-hex technology developed by Pinkerton’s pet expert Doctor Asbury. Another alliance is trying their best to pull Chess up out of Hell and re-insert him back into his body, which is currently being used by Ixchel’s rival, the Aztec Trickster God Tezcatlipoca. In other words, stuff’s about to hit the fan. Could it be a second Civil War, or the end of the entire world as we know it?
When it comes to horror, what draws you in the most and keeps you reading?
Characters come first, always. Horror is a genre which can be very easily derailed by an over-concentration on plot and/or mood, which is difficult, because mood and theme really lie at the heart of just what, exactly, makes something “horror”. You want people you can care about, but you also know going in that awful things are probably going to happen to them, so you fight that identification every step of the way—it’s a very interesting dichotomy to work with. But then there’s also the problem of despair: You don’t want people to just give up halfway through, simply because the outcome is probably going to be negative. In a way, good horror can turn nihilism into a sort of transcendence which comes out of story and character logic and builds operatically, to an inherently satisfying climax. Sure, there’s blood; sure, there’s dread; sure, bad things happen to good people. But as long as you give me a certain epicness to the proceeding, I’m happy. I’ve never been one of those people who thinks Madama Butterfly would be “better” with a happy ending.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
Mythology and fairytales were my meat when I was a kid; one of the first books I remember really loving was the D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants, as well as their Book of Greek Myths. I also read a lot of stuff about archaeology, like Robert Silverberg’s Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations. Amusingly, it then turned out that one of the first “adult” books I read was Silverberg’s Thorns, which started me off on a science fiction/fantasy kick. In my teenage years, however, I fell across Stephen King and Peter Straub, and realized where my true interests lay. I also love graphic novels, especially those produced by Vertigo in the 1990s and all of Dark Horse’s Mike Mignola titles. The clearest influences on my personal style today, however, would probably be Harlan Ellison, Michael McDowell, Clive Barker, Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite and Caitlin R. Kiernan.
If you could read one book again for the very first time, which one would it be, and why?
Man, that’s hard. Uh…Kathe Koja’s Skin gave me incredible pleasure the first time I read it, because I couldn’t possibly believe it was going where I hoped it would, and then it did. The same with Marjorie Bowen’s Black Magic, and Michael McDowell’s The Elementals. But then again, I tend to re-read various books I love at least once a year, so it may be a moot point.
I read that your parents were actors. Did that have a big influence on your creativity?
Yes, definitely. They used to read to me a lot when I was little, everything from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas and C.S. Lewis, and it really bred the idea in me that to the best sort of writing is the kind which lends itself to being read out loud. I remember writing most of my earliest stuff on the backs of scripts my Mom would bring home. Interestingly, she did a lot of radio work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and one of those projects was an anthology show called Nightfall (about half original scripts, half adapted), which taught me a lot about pacing and creating shock effects by keeping things strictly off-screen, rather than on-. And while my Dad moved back to Australia before I was nine, he and I still share a lot of the same interests—not horror, though. Neither of them are big fans of that particular genre.
I also read that you’re a screenwriter. What are a few of your favourite films?
Favourite films in general, or favourite horror films? When I think of movies I could watch over and over, the ones which top the list are things like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Near Dark, Candyman, Angel Heart, The Invisible Man, Alien, Aliens…but then again, I also really do love Gangs of New York and the James Mangold version of 3:10 to Yuma (a big influence on the Hexslinger trilogy), as well as noirs like L.A. Confidential, Gilda and To Live and Die in L.A., freakazoid action movies like Con Air and Big Trouble in Little China, Criterion arthouse cinema like Black Narcissus, the Canadian punk rock road movie Hard Core Logo, or anime like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. I love movies from all around the world, like Japan’s Cure, Finland’s Sauna, Belgium’s Left Bank and Hong Kong’s The East is Red: Swordsman III, as well as big Hollywood blockbusters like The Dark Knight and The Avengers. A friend of mine once called me a populist, and I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but it’s true that I can often find something to enjoy in (almost) anything. It’s all grist for the mill.
If you weren’t writing, what would be your 2nd choice dream job?
Much as teaching film history and screenwriting occasionally got under my skin, I really did enjoy it—particularly in terms of being a mentor and the relationships I formed with some of my students, which remain precious to me. It also forced me to explain myself more than I’m usually prepared to, and showed me my own opinions from an outsider’s perspective, both very useful experiences, if not always enjoyable. So if I ever got the opportunity to do that again, I’d be very happy.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
While I actually do enjoy spending time with my son, these days—especially since you can finally have a conversation of sorts with him, which took a while and a lot of hard work to cultivate—to be frank, he’s still kind of exhausting. So I guess the thing I miss most is having a large group of friends to hang out and discuss stuff with in real life, because the Internet really only goes so far, in that direction. In terms of self-care, the thing I do that’s probably literally healthiest is to work out at least three days a week, though I’d like to do it more. I practice yoga and do a martial arts blend class called BodyCombat at Goodlife Fitness, and I find it’s really useful in terms of getting both the blood and the ideas flowing.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events (or anything at all!)?
My official book launch will be on June 2, at Bakka-Phoenix, in Toronto. After that, I’ll be at Readercon in July, and I’ll be attending World Fantasy in Toronto in November. I’m also doing a film column for http://www.chizine.com every other week. Check out my professional blog at http://gfiles-musicatmidnight.blogspot.com, which also has a link to my TMI-inflected Livejournal (http://handful_ofdust.livejournal.com).