Please welcome Gemma Files to The Qwillery. “Twilight State” will be published in GENIUS LOCI: Tales of the Spirit of Place from Ragnarok Publications.
This is the twenty-seventh in a series of interviews with many of the authors and the artists involved in GENIUS LOCI. I hope you enjoy meeting them here at The Qwillery as much as I am!
While you may have missed the Genius Loci Kickstarter (I'm a backer), you will be able to get the anthology via BackerKit and if you miss the BackerKit, from Ragnarok Publications later this year.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What are the challenges in writing in the short form as opposed to the novel length? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Gemma: Whenever I teach, I tell people that the main challenge of writing short stories is always that in order to keep things beneath a certain length, you basically have to sacrifice either plot for character/mood or character/mood for plot. For me, this is always where “Character’s Name” becomes “So There’s This [Guy, Girl, Person of Some Sort, Whatever].” And with horror this can be difficult, because much like action comes from character, fear also often comes from character...but then again, the sheer mechanics of fear, the existential certainties that fear arises from, are truly universal, so it balances out more often than not.
Though I do like having a whole novel to develop people in, that process comes with its own inherent annoyances as well, including the fact that when you have enough room to, you feel like you have to use it—explore every thought, every motivation, every relationship dynamic and emotional beat, in sometimes excruciating detail. Near the end of every book, I have a few moments where I’m like: “Jesus, this would move so much quicker if there weren’t so many people in this scene! Maybe I should kill half of them.” (And the good part about horror is, you can!)
Re plotter vs. pantser, meanwhile—plotter, overall; I write detailed notes at every point on the curve, and have a very specific idea where things are going, to the extent that you could say I enter each new project knowing exactly how the story ends, as well as how it begins. But it’s always in the middle passage, the getting from here to there—the discovery of not what happens, so much, but why, and how—where things inevitably change alchemically.
TQ: Which question about your writing do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Gemma: I’m always interested by what people come up with, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure there’s anything I’ve been waiting with bated breath to be asked. Sorry.
TQ: Describe “Twilight State”, which will be published in Genius Loci.
Gemma: “Twilight State” is definitely a character/mood over plot kind of tale. In the wake of a bad divorce, Briony has retreated to a family cabin near Gravenhurst, Ontario, where she’s receiving lightbox therapy for insomnia and seasonal affective disorder which involves being put into “twilight sleep,” a hypnotic, highly-suggestible state of almost-unconsciousness. This, in turn, brings up increasingly frightening childhood memories, causing her to loose hold of her sense of self.
TQ: Tell us something about “Twilight State” that will not give away the story.
Gemma: I first came across mention of the mrak—the Serbian fairytale creature Briony’s obsessive first love tells her about—in one particular British reference book, and have had an amazingly difficult time discovering information about it anywhere else. So while my interpretation of it may not be strictly accurate, I’m still pretty happy with the result.
TQ: What was your inspiration for “Twilight State”? Have you ever encountered a Genius loci?
Gemma: “Twilight State” directly references my own memories of visiting my grandparents’ cabin up Gravenhurst way, and the physicality of that very particular atmosphere: overcast skies, lapping lake-water, silt and muck and wood-loam, the lichen-covered rocks, the rotting pine-needle carpeting. That peculiar green darkness under deep tree-cover, full of tiny swarming, biting flies. So yeah, if there was any place that seemed haunted to me, as well as essentially Canadian, that was it. I also referenced a lot of this same detail in my most recent book, We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven (ChiZine Publications), which is partially set in a made-up area of Northern Ontario called the Lake of the North District.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite non-spoilery lines from “Twilight State”.
To arrive here, always, is to step back into a dream I was born dreaming.
TQ: In which genre or genres does “Twilight State” fit? In your opinion, are genre classifications still useful?
Gemma: I always thought of “Twilight State” as a bit of a Canadian noir, because it not only revolves around a rich woman and the femmes fatales she feels like she’s doomed to do stupid shit over, but also because Briony is a bit of a femme fatale herself, one of those depressed yet charismatic people who sucks others into her orbit like a decaying star. But everything I write is horror, to one degree or another; I’ve had people tell me that something I’ve produced “finally” feels more lit than dark lit, and thought: “But what’s that supposed to get me, exactly?” I mean, I can certainly forsee a world where all books end up in the general fiction section, but I don’t see that as a victory, necessarily—for one thing, it’ll make finding exactly what you want a good deal harder than it needs to be. Genre labels can be very useful things, if done right.
TQ: What's next?
Gemma: I literally just finished and filed the manuscript for my next novel, Experimental Film, which should be coming out from CZP by this November. It’s essentially a ghost story about a lost Ontario silent filmmaker from the silver nitrate era and how one of their movies, in particular, is really not meant to be watched, but the main character is very explicitly based on myself, so it’s also about frustrated creativity, Canadian film culture and the challenges of having a child with special needs. One way or the other, I was aiming for something halfway between Alice Munro and David Cronenberg, so I guess I’ll have to wait ‘til the reviews start coming in to find out if I hit the mark.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Gemma: Thank you for having me.
About Gemma Files
Former film critic and teacher turned horror author Gemma Files is best-known for her Weird Western Hexslinger series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones, all from CZP). In 1999, her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the International Horror Guild’s Best Short Fiction award, and five of her tales have been adapted into episodes for the erotic horror TV show The Hunger, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. She has also published two chapbooks of speculative poetry, two collections (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart) and a story cycle (We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven). She lives in Toronto, Canada.