April 2012

Geoffrey H. Goodwin


An Interview with Genevieve Valentine

When Genevieve Valentine, the kind of blogger who can make everyone want to see a bad movie by celebrating its badness, began publishing short stories, plenty of people noticed. Mostly because dozens came out in a few years and then were reprinted and nominated for major awards. Valentine blows the curve because that doesn't often happen to emerging authors. Plenty of writers are highly regarded for short stories alone (Veronica Schanoes, Kelly Link, Becca De La Rosa, and Ted Chiang come to mind quickly), but a dichotomy between short stories and novels gets inflicted by publishing and the marketplace.

That dichotomy ends up creating situations where writers "play it safe" in novels and are more daring and stylized in short stories. Valentine blows that curve too. Her debut novel Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is driven by character and voice and doesn't play it safe at all. With short chapters, short paragraphs, and long sentences, the story cuts like brass wings. Angela Carter's mentioned a lot when people try to describe Genevieve Valentine, but another author who comes to mind is Carol Emshwiller. Like Carter and Emshwiller, Valentine's gifted at short and long fiction and doesn't tone anything down in the larger works.

In Mechanique, a character adds mechanical parts to the circus performers. What changes would you hope that character would do to you? Since the characters don't choose their augmentations, what changes would actually end up being done to you?

As someone who had a rather forlorn flirtation with Argentine tango (which I guess is the only sort of flirtation you can have with tango; it's many lovely things, but cheerful is not one), I would appreciate any augmentation that would provide balance and stability, since apparently my inner ear always thinks I am standing on the deck of a ship on stormy seas. I can't even imagine having the level of dexterity of the performers in the Circus Tresaulti, but I'd be plenty happy to be able to stand on one foot long enough to pull on a shoe.

However, since everyone has to audition and be found worthy of the Circus Tresaulti, I think I would be in no danger of actual augmentation, and would probably end up walking home from the audition in an awkward silence with everything bodily just as it was.

Have you ever been a part of any sort of performing troupe? Did you want to run away and join the circus at any point in your life?

When I was in second grade, in an attempt to break my paralyzing stage fright, I participated in a jazz class that existed as a troupe for one recital only, which involved a leotard with hot pink trim, Tiffany's cover of "I Think We're Alone Now," and a dance move in which you turn around dramatically and hug yourself. The urge to run far away and join a circus where no one from home could identify me was, not coincidentally, very strong for many years after that.

If you weren't a writer, would you still watch so many horrible movies? Why do you do this to yourself?

I could pretend I have some sort of altruistic motivation, but it's a non-starter; I find bad movies fascinating, and I actually think that having writing obligations is the only thing that keeps me from watching more bad movies than I already do.

Why they're so fascinating is a bigger question. I love good movies (I love some good movies much more than is probably healthy), but a good film, well-executed, gives you something to admire, and then your part is over. But somehow, the right sort of bad movie can be as engaging in its failure as good movies are in their successes. (Adam Sandler movies, for example, fail on completely obvious levels; Jonah Hex is a much deeper quagmire of questionable creative decisions.) There are so many things that can go wrong in a movie that, though they seem small, can knock the whole mechanism off its axis: out-of-place acting, execrable dialogue, jarring edits, appalling subtext, bizarre scoring, palpable lack of effect. Some combinations of flaws can make a movie perfect to laugh at unabashedly; some flaws can, often inexplicably, make a movie more interesting than it would have been if it had been more successful in the technicalities (especially if it seems to have figured out that it's a little bit awful and just commits, in which case it turns into a semi-documentary catching actors having a ham-off in their natural habitat). 

There are plenty of good movies I cannot praise enough (though, from time to time, I attempt it). There are plenty of bad movies whose failures actually make me angry, usually if they're failures of subtext or content that are blissfully racist or misogynist (or a movie that thinks it's far cleverer than it is), and those I tend to scowl through, write up as a warning to others, and try to forget. There are movies that present a decent premise, and then completely fail to deliver, that make me feel like a disappointed parent. (I believed in you, awful movie!) But there are also plenty of terrible movies in which continuity means nothing, actors seem to have been given sides from two completely different films but are too polite to ask for a cut, and the soundtrack offers a series of befuddled bleats. Those are often surprisingly fun, and if I didn't write, I'd be on a mission to find every last one.

It was announced that you won the Crawford Award. What is it? Why does it matter? If you're giving a speech, what are you going to say and wear?

The Crawford Award is given by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts in recognition of what it considers to be the best first fantasy novel by an author. While I'm not quite in a position to judge its far-reaching consequences, it definitely matters to me in terms of being an incredible honor, given by academics and writers, in a year with an incredibly strong ballot. I will be giving a brief speech, probably at speed (I have eternal stage fright), and will be wearing something I feel I can make it across the room in without tripping. (It might well be sequined, since I have rarely seen an impractical sequined garment I didn't immediately covet.)

And, oh my goodness, now a Nebula nomination! What was it like to write Mechanique? Doubt and trepidation? Wine and roses? Bread and circuses?

It was something of a fugue state, actually, where I didn't remember much but late nights and long playlists until I was looking at a full draft. I had written novels prior to Mechanique, and there was always a point at which you break out a piece of paper and make sure who knows what when and how much time is passing so that no one walks into dinner on a Thursday and walks out next April. But Mechanique started with the image of a circus seen from an outsider's point of view, and it built from there, and after that it was just a matter of keeping up with the story. Partially, this technique worked because it's the sort of book in which characters routinely do walk into dinner on a Thursday and walk out next April, but also, I think, because I had loved the circus for so long that I knew parts of the story I wanted to tell, and had been daunted by the circus for just long enough that it made sense to go to some dark places.

Is it true that you sold the book on spec? That's rather rare for a first novel.

It is true, though it wasn't my first. The inimitable Ekaterina Sedia was looking over a novel of mine (said first), and brought it to Sean Wallace's attention. The concept of that one wasn't quite for him, but when he contacted me and asked if I had any weird fantasy novels hanging around, I had ten thousand words of notes and some sample pages of a circus novel I thought was maybe too weird. I turned in some slightly more polished sample chapters to Sean shortly thereafter, and he made an offer. It's a slightly roundabout way to go about it, but there's something to be said for finishing a book already knowing where it will go.

Is it wrong to think of you as a fashion plate as well as a connoisseur of bad films?

It would not be wrong, for any value of "fashion plate" that means "person who has a suspicious pajamas-to-clothing ratio." I do like to think I can pull myself together for the odd convention, but in general my fashion rule is "Could I enter the running-and-hiding portion of an action film in this outfit?", so that precludes a lot of the more daring fashion choices I appreciate in others. I do have an avid interest in historical clothing both in real life and on film, but largely, my interest in fashion is that of watching a spectator sport, and I am happy to sit on the bleachers and let it play out in front of me while I compare orthopedic shoes with other bystanders.

Do you collect vintage furniture too?

Well, unfortunately, vintage furniture tends to be expensive and I have a lack of budget (pajamas don't buy themselves). However, I recently decided to try and put together something resembling an adult apartment, and have begun to frequent flea markets and thrift stores in the hopes that marvelous furniture will fling itself into my path. So far I've managed to acquire a lovely vintage suitcase, which I filled with the hundreds of vintage photographs that are the only things I actually do buy at flea markets and thrift stores. In the meantime, I did find a lovely and inspiring picture of a gorgeously-put-together apartment; I plan to frame it in my apartment and direct visitors to appreciate the photo. So easy!

What were some of the books you most enjoyed reading in 2011?

I'm always trying to catch up on a perpetual backlist that has become large piles around my living room, but some of this year's pulls I really loved. As a movie and TV nerd, I'm gnawing contentedly on Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema by Mark Miller, and am preemptively including the copy of The World of Downton Abbey that I got for Christmas in hopes the production design information is extensive. N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms did a great job of shaking the jewel box of epic fantasy, and Ekaterina Sedia's Heart of Iron was a savvy Russian alternate history. I reread Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and confirmed how much I love his prose. And for the last month or so I've been boning up on Victorian etiquette manuals, which draw from the reader both laughter and a certain quiet horror that there is a contingency for what happens to fruit at a dinner party (you peel your own piece with silver knife and fork, unless it's a large pear, in which case a gentleman may offer to split it with the lady beside him).

Can we expect a short story collection any time soon?

It's definitely on the slate!

Is a sequel in the offing for Mechanique?

I imagine so, in some form or another; I know I'm not finished telling stories about these characters, and even as I ended Mechanique, I knew that several of the conflicts in the first book would, by their nature, carry through and affect the Circus Tresaulti going forward. It's definitely something I want to explore.