An Interview with Sonya Taaffe
With images of death, shadows, books, music and the occasional Tarot card, Taaffe’s poems and stories explore mythology through interpretations of seasonal rhythms, child-like wonder, womanhood and dreams. Her words can be deft, lyrical and cutting, evidenced by her “Matlacihuatl’s Gift” winning the 2003 Rhysling award for a long poem and her being the featured poet of the third issue of the Flytrap zine. Her blog is Myth Happens and she’s a contributing editor for the Not One Of Us zine’s website.
How does it feel to have your first two books come out at once? How’d it happen?
Mindblowing. And I’m not quite sure.
The epic version is, I attended Necon 24 in July 2004. I’d never been to a convention before. I had no idea what to expect, other than hazy ideas of panels, perhaps a surfeit of books, and possibly costumes at some point. I’d had surgery on my sinuses the prior month, because the inside of my head was a thing of weirdness to behold, and had only recently ceased bleeding from the nose. And so I arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, and the very first night of my very first convention I got food poisoning. (That was no good.) So I think I spent much of the following day asleep, or at least in my Salve Regina dormitory bed, and as a result I didn’t do very much on Friday except lurk in the dealer’s room and covet books. And not eat, I think. Saturday, I attended some panels, purchased for my brother a plush Cthulhu that sported a deeply terrifying Hawaiian shirt, and hung out on the Newport sea-wall with John Benson, watching the waves crash and the tide come in. Bought some buttons. Read books. Ran out of books. Bought more. And played cards, from ten-thirty at night until something like one in the morning when the equivalent of the bar closed and kicked us out, with Sean Wallace of Prime Books.
Because I am obsessive enough to carry my laptop everywhere with me, and because we’d been discussing fiction and poetry for multiple hours at that point, I asked if he wanted to read some of my work. (And thereby made his list of Ten Things That Others Might Not Have Done: “8. Followed dutifully an author back to her room during a convention, to ‘read’ short stories, supposedly -- and found myself reading short stories, after all!”) Everyone packed up and went home the next day, and although John and I made a brief and accidental tour through Providence on the way back to Boston, I made it home to receive an e-mail from Sean with the contact information of Jason Williams of Night Shade Books, whom he thought might be interested in a collection of my fiction. Unfortunately, Night Shade Books closed to unsolicited submissions later that year. Fortunately, Sean asked if he could have the proposed collection for Prime instead.
It’s luck only that the two collections are coming out at the same time: originally Postcards from the Province of Hyphens was scheduled for February and Singing Innocence and Experience for April. But this way, it’s sort of a double feature. I’m not complaining.
Let’s focus on water’s potency for you. You spent childhood summers on the beaches of Maine and have studied the sea as a metaphor through various cultures, but there must be more to it than that. How do you think the affinity functions in your short stories and poems?
Oh, just because I have an obsession, I have to explain it? If it’s a symbol, it’s not a conscious one; but the sea has always fascinated me. Water is transformation. The sea is the home of selkies, mermaids, these liminal creatures that slip back and forth between states as between elements. The film I imprinted on as a child was Splash, with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. I think all the romantic-comedic aspects completely bypassed me at the age of eight, but I remembered its sense of metamorphosis. The scene where Madison pours kitchen salt into the bath she’s running and slides down into its ripples: immersed in salt water, the skin of her thigh crinkles up into scales; a fin unfurls where her feet were. That stole my breath.
And like its mythical denizens, the sea is not one classifiable thing. We swim in its shallows and we sail on its waves and we trawl its waters for fish, and in its depths live things so alien that they might as well have come from another planet. Chemosynthetic archaea that cluster around geothermal vents, ghostly pale crabs, red-lipped tube worms; viperfish, bioluminescent anglerfish, basket stars, vampire squid. Compare those with neon tetras or Japanese koi. In Cuban santería, the three ladies of the sea are Oshun, Yemayá, and Olokun: the Sweetwater Queen, who is rivers; the Blue Sea Queen, who is the fertile confluence of salt and sweet water, the surface layers of the sea where fisherman haul up their catches; and the Owner of the Ocean, the uncertain abyss. There’s no one face for these waters. I think it’s no accident that Proteus in the Odyssey, the shape-changer, is the Old Man of the Sea. Look at the water cycle, even: sea to sky to sea, falling and rising endlessly. Rivers and lakes, too. Water isn’t static. It offers such possibilities. Wonders and nightmares. The sea is my otherworld.
Is it valid to say that, in your work, there’s no intentional gap between the real and the imaginary? In other words, is it accurate to presume that you endeavor to have both the mythic and the domestic occur simultaneously?
I’m not sure about those terms real and imaginary, but mythic and domestic? Absolutely. And neither should lessen the other. Ordinary life should not sacrifice its detail just because the man eating an avocado-and-sprouts sandwich in the kitchen happens to be a unicorn, nor should the strangeness of his presence be softened just because he likes vegetarian sandwiches and reads Rilke. (Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.) The otherworldly made totally mundane is just as bad as a fantasy where no one ever has dirt under their nails.
You’ve said that you “like to write stories that are both beautifully written and have something to say.” Which part is harder for you?
Regardless of which is actually more difficult, I worry far more about the something to say. I’ve never had a rejection that read, “Terrific ideas, but the prose needs work.” I have had a fair number that say something like, “Beautifully written, but the storyline never really engaged me.” I know that I don’t write primarily for plot. Most of my stories start with an image or a phrase and accrete outward from there, not always in chronological order. Generally I know the starting point and the direction, but rarely the end, or what will happen along the way: often it’s a matter of seeing which way the characters run with their particular obsessions and the ambient myths. If there’s a theme, I tend to notice it after the fact. So other than the customary terror that I will wake up one day and no words will be there, my fear is that I’ll start to write beautiful, empty things -- flawless automatons with nothing underneath the language, and where’s the value in that? (Though, really, I should be so talented as to write flawless automatons. Golems with a few gears loose is far more likely.)
Please describe your aversion to labels like The New Weird, interstitial fiction or New Wave Fabulism.
I break out in a rash and require calamine lotion...? I have an aversion to labels without meaning. I may find the classification of subspecies like space opera or urban fantasy only slightly less unnecessary, but at least those catchphrases describe something about the fiction in question. If I pick up a story labeled “urban fantasy,” there is a pretty decent chance that it will contain a city, some folkloric or mythological creatures, and be written by Charles de Lint. Likewise, space opera should have some vacuum and (not necessarily in a bad way) melodrama. Simon Logan’s industrial fiction has a distinct aesthetic of rust and viruses, cassette tapes and factories; the name indicates something of what animates the stories. But -- New Weird? To offset it from all the old and mundane? Or maybe this is an evolutionary process: was there an Old Weird? Did we somehow pass through Middle Weird on the way there and nobody noticed at the time? Any day now, we’ll move into the Post-Weird period and get boring again? I realize I am picking on a single label here, but I feel much the same way about New Wave Fabulism and Interstitial Fiction. What are the internal components and stylistics that require these designations? At a certain point, taxonomy becomes irrelevant. Let it all be stories. I care much more about whether a story achieves its desired effect -- or even an undesired, equally fascinating one -- than whether I can find the proper tag for its butterfly pin.
As an award-winning poet, what are your thoughts on traditional, linear narrative in fiction? Do you think a story needs a beginning, middle and end?
As a poet? I don’t know that it’s the poetry that makes all the difference, although I’m sure it plays a part: poems can form around a single moment, an impression or a mood, while most forms of fiction necessitate at least a nod in the direction of plot. Likewise, define “beginning,” “middle,” and “end.” These elements exist in fiction by default. Even circular narratives, like Finnegans Wake or Dhalgren, produce a linear experience in the reader: a starting point, a process of reading, an endpoint. Words must be set in order to generate meaning. Even if you drop a reader without warning in medias res, there has to be a place at which they set the book down. (I would love to create a totally nonlinear narrative: one simultaneous flash of story. Short of subliminal ads à la Babylon 5’s Psi Corps, however, I have no idea how this might be achieved.) I think you’re asking about something more deliberately structural -- the traditional schema of fiction, conflict, climax, catharsis, etc. And I do not think every story needs those.
This is not to say that tightly structured fiction has no point or place. Something like Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave, where you can study how the references to dream, illusion, and the breaking boundaries between reality and fantasy pile up to the finale, is so beautifully constructed it’s as much a pleasure to dissect as to read. Nabokov, on the other hand, is also responsible for Pale Fire: one of the most nonlinear and hall-of-mirrors novels (if that’s even the proper term for a book composed of a foreword, four cantos of rhymed iambic pentameter, a commentary full of nested narratives, and an index that suggests clues to itself) I’ve ever read in my life, and I love it. Look at the Ambergris fiction of Jeff VanderMeer for a similar approach. “The Transformation of Martin Lake” follows a traditional narrative arc, and it’s a marvelous novella. But take the footnotes and small line drawings out of “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek” -- which follows the format of an article rather than a fiction to begin with -- and I’m not sure the piece would work half as well. It all depends on what you want the story to do.
Matthew Cheney, in an interview for his The Mumpsimus, asked you a humdinger of a question with, “In a world where reality is itself often horrible, why does fantasy have any value?” You answered, “Well, let’s see. I suppose if I said its value was escapist, I’d have to go home and shoot myself in the head. But I don’t think that’s the point. So the world is horrible; why should that mean that nothing other than the horrible world has any value?” Do you still feel that way?
Or can I phrase it more coherently? I think the question is invalid. I brought up escapism because that’s often pointed out as the primary virtue of fantasy: the world sucks, get away from it for a little while. (It amazes me that this criticism is still made. If the only purpose of the genre were to entertain, reassure, and divert, how would we ever have writers like Caitlín R. Kiernan, Mary Gentle, or Greer Gilman -- to name a very few -- whose otherworlds are no more morally clear-cut or comfortable than our own?) But that is not its primary virtue; the two are unrelated. Why should the present condition of our world, horrible or otherwise, be what makes or breaks the value of an art form?
What do you want to tell someone who’s just discovering your work?
That question requires me to visualize someone whom I do not personally know picking up a collection of mine and reading it... I don’t know what you’re expecting. If you don’t like dense language, if myth and folklore doesn’t interest you, you probably won’t like my stories. Probably you won’t like my poetry either, for that matter. But since I’m already rather honored that you’ve picked up the book in the first place, I’d like it very much if you’d give a few of the pieces a try. Maybe there’ll be a line that catches your attention, that tugs your curiosity about the mythology behind a poem or the author who inspired me to write a story, and you’ll go and look that up: because that would be great. The whole point of a tradition is to hand something down. The stories should always be told a little differently every time. And if you like my work for its own sake, that’ll be all right too.
“When You Came To Troy” is a violent depiction of rape. While the topic has been present since the first stories, you give your piece a rhythmic persistence and bring it into the brutal light of present day. One could say it’s different from the rest of the work in your collections. What led you to write it?
Well, it is very different: my one-line synopsis is “probably the single angriest thing I’ve ever written” and then I tend to add "...and with profanity." Structurally, too, with the second-person, present-tense narration. I write a fair number of poems in second person; stories, not so often. It’s less a story than a rant, I think, but I am very glad it’s made an impression. If there’s not something under the violence and the language, then it’s a shocker: no more. I want that something more.
“...Troy” has a very simple origin. In February 2002, while at Brandeis, I saw an excellent student production of Charles Mee’s The Trojan Women: A Love Story, itself a fusion of Euripides’ Trojan Women and primarily Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid. (All of Mee’s plays can be found online at http://www.charlesmee.org/html/plays.html, although the version I saw had been substantially rearranged from the written text in several respects -- and this, as Mee points out, is the whole point.) I’m not knocking the play’s second half, especially the scene where Dido and Aeneas read the same configuration of Tarot cards for one another, but the Trojan Women section was a punch in the stomach. This is war from the perspective of the losers, bloodied and shellshocked in their ruined city, and the dead are the lucky ones.
Mee’s stage directions have Kassandra in “a very chic -- though torn -- outfit from Comme les Garcons.” This Kassandra was a smoke-stained punk in black denim and heavy boots, and you didn’t want to mess with her. There was a scene where she throws down the Greek herald Talthybios -- a man who can only excuse his participation in this dehumanizing aftermath of war with his favorite Princeton sweater and G&S patter songs, meaningless little tokens he offers as proof that he’s not as bad as all that, even as he announces which women will be awarded as war-prizes to which conquering men -- and she has him pinned to the earth, one knee in his back and her arm around his throat and her mouth close to his ear, whispering under cover of some sledgehammer piece of music his future to him. "One day, when I lie dead cold and naked / next to my husband’s tomb / piled in a ditch for animals to rip and feed on / beaten by the storms of winter, / you, too, you will be lying in some mud pit / or buried / somewhere no one will remember / or give a shit / what you’ve done long since forgotten / unless some bitch strings you up / before that / with hoods and gags and blindfolds... / and you feel some dizziness coming on / some chick’s getting her rocks off / cutting you up a little bit / plugging you into the wall / cranking you up on the rheostat..." Maybe it’s the truth; maybe she’s just showing him what powerlessness feels like, from the other side. But she was terrifying, viciously sexual and prophetic and as brutal as the war that has brought down her city, and that single image stayed with me through all the rest of the play. I came home that night and sat down at my computer and wrote “When You Came to Troy.”
I have never been raped. I have never raped anyone. No city I live in has ever fallen in war. I lost no one I loved in 9/11. We weren’t even in Iraq in the winter of 2002: how’s that for the modern sacking of cities? I know that I took my visual impression of Kassandra from The Trojan Women: A Love Story, and her rape from the Aeneid (Book I, 39-45) and a Greek lyric fragment (Alkaios 298), and I don’t know where all that anger came from. It’s a chthonic piece, and I like it for that, and it startled me when I read it over -- that was in me? I can only hope it was put to some use.