Interview with Susannah Mandel

Susannah MandelSusannah’s story “The Monkey and the Butterfly” was published in The Clockwork Jungle Book (Issue #11).  She can be reached at susannah.mandel@gmail.com.

Did you ever want to write “just like” someone else?  Who?  Or was there any book that made you say “I can do better than this!”?

When I was young, I tried to write “just like” Ray Bradbury, but it didn’t come out very well – I don’t think anyone should try to imitate him!  But certainly, still, there are writers who make me wish I could do what they do, just like that. Ursula Le Guin is one; Gene Wolfe is often another.  Sometimes James Tiptree, sometimes Connie Willis, sometimes Samuel R. Delany, or Diana Wynne Jones.  It happens a lot, actually.

As for “I can do better than that”: to be honest, there’s at least one piece in nearly every magazine or literary journal I read that gives me that reaction.  Of course, I can’t say that the instinct is accurate or necessarily true.  But I think it’s just as well that it occurs: it keeps us all writing, and trying to write better.

Do you have favorite characters?  Any characters, yours or others, are applicable.

Of course!  Doesn’t everyone?  I mean there are some characters I admire, and some I just love.  In no particular order, a few I love re:

Hamlet and Horatio, Prince Hal and Falstaff (in neither case is one so interesting without the other).  Rosalind, Touchstone, Jacques.  Sam Gamgee and Frodo; the Ents. Tove Jansson’s Moomins, Snufkin and Too-ticky.  The Wife of Bath; Chaucer’s own sardonic and self-puncturing narrator.  Scout.  Liza Bennett. Howard Cruse’s Wendel. Dante’s Virgil from The Inferno.  Anansi, Coyote, Hermes, Bugs Bunny (I think all writers love a trickster).  Athena, Artemis, Dionysus; the lovelorn Apollo.  Alice and the Cat.  Jane Eyre.  Maggie Chascarrillo, Hopey Glass and Ray Dominguez, from Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets. The entire cast of Edith Nesbit’s  The Treasure-Seekers. Most of Hayao Miyazaki’s tough, honest little girls.

Have you ever been disillusioned by a character or a book?

Oh, Lord!  Don’t get me started on my experience with Narnia.

Thinking about this, though: do you mean disillusioned, as in the book effectively stripped away illusions that I had; or disillusioned as in I had initially thought the book was wonderful and then realized I’d been wrong; or disillusioned as in disappointed – discovering a book was not as good as I’d hoped it would be?  Because the latter happens all the time.  The problem there is usually, I think, with something that’s been hyped as the latest next ultimate great thing, and often disappoints by being merely good.

I get disappointed by books on a regular basis.  I’m not sure it would be politic to go on record with specifics, though… ask me in person if you really want to know!

These matters are, of course, very subjective.  And I’m sure everyone has such feelings about some books.  If you don’t, I suspect you’re not reading carefully enough.

How do you explain what writing is like?  Is it something that you think about?  Do you ever find yourself debating it with strangers?

Heh.  Of course I think about it.  And I discuss it frequently with friends who are writers, and with the members of my writing group.  (I don’t think I’ve ever argued about it with a stranger, though – that seems like a strange idea to me.  It’s such a subjective enterprise that I can’t really see what purpose arguing would serve.)

I feel as if writing is like a lot of things.  Sometimes, it’s like swimming in a dark river full of great shiny things.  Sometimes it’s like thrusting your hands down into deep mud, to bring things back up.  (And then you have to filter what you have, and mold, shape and fire it.)  Sometimes it is like throwing paint at a wall, to see what sticks.  Sometimes it is like carving a statue from marble, except first you have to secrete all the marble yourself.

Sometimes it’s like dreaming.  Sometimes it’s like staring at a wall.  Sometimes it’s like being in a tree.

Sometimes it’s like getting through the day, or through the end of a workout, or a very long trudge, and it’s tiring, and it’s only work.  Thankfully within the hour or the day it will usually transform into something else again.

Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life (http://tinyurl.com/nq3uhc )is also full of metaphors for writing, which I admire a lot.  (It’s like a miner’s pick, it’s like a surgeon’s probe, it’s like building the ladder as you climb it…)

If you could choose any five literary people — real or imagined, living or not, friends or otherwise — for a tea party… who would they be?  A night on the town, karaoke, whatever suits.

Mmm. Dante.  Shakespeare, Chaucer.  Maybe John Donne, in his more cheerful years?  And maybe Emily Dickinson.

We’d have to have some enchantment, of course, so that everyone could wear appropriate modern clothing, and everyone could understand each other, and no one would go insane with the impossibilities of being in the modern world.  A night on the town might be nice, I think.  Some booze.

This might turn out to be a very bad combination but it would at least be interesting.

How did writing a theme story work out?   Is it more complicated than not having to adhere to a theme — or less?

I have hardly ever had to write a story for any reason other than being interested in it.  Which is to say that I don’t think I’ve ever “had” to adhere to a theme: if I answer a call for themed stories, it’s because I’m really interested in the theme and have some ideas I want to work through.

In the case of the Clockwork Jungle Book, I loved the theme – its concept, its aesthetic — but I couldn’t come up with a story idea, so, until shortly before the deadline, I thought I wouldn’t submit.  Then I realized there was something I wanted to explore after all, so I scrambled to do it!

I suspect that actually the word-count limit – 3500 words – was a greater constraint on me in writing the story.  I am one of those people whose first drafts are always much longer than the story really needs to be, so writing to a relatively short word-count limit is both very challenging, and very good discipline, for me.

— Hey!  Actually, can I take this opportunity to plug my sources for the story?  I leaned on them so heavily that it only seems fair.  Plus, intertextuality is fun!

  • Plot: Part of the story’s mechanics, as well as some of its symbolism, are derived from the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story “The Artist of the Beautiful” (http://www.online-literature.com/hawthorne/124/ ).  Hawthorne is a great, weird source for early, Gothic-influenced American fantastic.  I wish so many people didn’t perceive him as serious and boring, because he is really often as nutty as Poe.
  • Style, setting: I realize how pretentious this sounds, but: if you’re setting something in the nineteenth century and never have before (which describes me), you try to draw on what you know.  For me those sources are largely Jane Austen (any one of whose novels is an immersion course in early-nineteenth-century drawing-room negotiations), and Henry James (whose claustrophobic Washington Square (http://tinyurl.com/l5jha7 ) helped me think about a setting small and cloistered enough to contain an adventure that would fit inside 3500 words).
  • Research: The great thing about writing what interests you is that even the research is fun.  For details on what kind of dogs and other housepets were popular in nineteenth-century England, I took the opportunity to return to one of the most entertaining social-history books I know, Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Estate-English-Creatures-Victorian/dp/0674037073 ).  Also useful were Louise E. Robbins’ Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (http://tinyurl.com/ljq7w6 ), and Kathleen Kete’s The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping In Nineteenth-Century Paris (http://www.amazon.com/Beast-Boudoir-Petkeeping-Nineteenth-Century-Paris/dp/0520203399 ).
  • And, of course, for the form of the animal fable itself, there’s no better place to start than with Aesop (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesop ) and La Fontaine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Fontaine ).

What was the absolute worst piece of advice someone gave you about writing?

This will probably be different from writer to writer, since I’m pretty sure that what works for one writer doesn’t for another, and there’s no single piece of advice that works for everyone.

For me, however, I suspect it was something that fell into the category of urging the writer to make things easy for the reader — to explain, explain, so the reader never runs of the risk of getting confused.

This sort of advice is something I think we, as genre writers, get a lot of, particularly when we’re just starting out.  This one banged around in my head for over a year, making me very unhappy, before I gradually came to realize that the stuff I like best as a reader – whether within genre, or outside it –  is precisely work that doesn’t make everything easy, that doesn’t explain and explain and explain.   I had to read a lot of Gene Wolfe and John Crowley and Shirley Jackson before I got that, but eventually it came clear.

Of course you need to walk a line – we all have amazing worlds in our heads, but if you don’t work to make them accessible to the reader you’ll just wind up with solipsistic incoherence.  That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to make everything easy, to carefully illuminate all the corners, to make sure the reader doesn’t have to do any work.  Anyone who urges that sort of thing on beginning writers is giving them bad advice.

(The best advice I got – not that you asked! – was from the teacher who passed on the familiar but valuable formula, “We all have a million words of crap in us; you’d better start shoveling.”  Also, the writer who managed to explain to me how you know when to stop revising: “When you’re just moving the words around… then you’re done.”)

Have you ever wanted to let your character[s] run your interview?

I’m afraid I don’t really understand this kind of question.  I wonder if that might be because I’ve never worked on a novel, or worked repeatedly with a single character across many pieces, to the extent that it really takes on a life comparable to that of a human being, with persistence and independence.  (I do have a couple of characters taking shadowy form in my mind, but they are kind of scary.)

I will bear this question in mind going on, though, and someday I may find out what it means.

Is there something you do that no one ever asks you about?  This can be anything — something unusual you eat, playing poker as a day job, a hobby, whatever you like.

I don’t play poker as a day job, but I am eagerly looking forward to finding out who does!

People don’t ask me about myself very often, so I’m not sure what to say.  Let’s see: I love comic books.  I’m a fan of Shakespeare, and of the original Star Trek (only that one, please!  The fans will understand.)

I love Gothic architecture, and Flemish old masters.  I have written academic papers about superheroes, and about fan fiction. I have studied several Romance languages, and am trying to learn Japanese.  I would like to learn German and classical Greek, and also Mandarin, and Arabic and Hebrew, someday when I have time.  I do occasional French-to-English translation for a comic-book publisher.  I like wind and rain at night, and also my calico cat (who does not like any of those other things).

Particular favorites for books, movies, series, comics, blogs, etc.?

Just generally, you mean?  Okay!

Books I take with me every time I move: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, Ursula Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet.

The best books I read last year: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Geoff Ryman’s Air and Lust, Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount, Joan Aiken’s collection The Green Flash, Ted Hughes’ Wodwo, Tillie Olsen’s Silences, Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories.

The only three movies I’ve rated above an “8” on the Internet Movie Database: The Bicycle Thief, Lawrence of Arabia, Farewell My Concubine. (They got 9s.  No one gets a 10.)

The director I’m most consistently enraptured by: Hayao Miyazaki.

The musicians I seem to play most often according to iTunes: The Magnetic Fields, David Bowie, and… some people I’m embarrassed to name.

Comics series I read and reread: Love & Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Moonshadow by Dematteis and Muth, Astérix (only the Goscinny books).

Comics series I’m currently exploring or re-examining: Fables, Castle Waiting, Ex Machina, Transmetropolitan, Bayou. (This last is fantastic, and online, and I want to recommend it to everyone: http://www.zudacomics.com/bayou ).

Anime series I have watched all the way to the end, and would again: Revolutionary Girl Utena, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Paranoia Agent, Serial Experiments Lain, Cowboy Bebop.

Anime series I have watched all the way to the end because I did not know better and never, never, never will again: Ranma 1/2.

Did you ever want to write “just like” someone else? Who? Or was there any book that made you say “I can do better than this!”?

When I was young, I tried to write “just like” Ray Bradbury, but it didn’t come out very well – I don’t think anyone should try to imitate him! But certainly, still, there are writers who make me wish I could do what they do, just like that. Ursula Le Guin is one; Gene Wolfe is often another. Sometimes James Tiptree, sometimes Connie Willis, sometimes Samuel R. Delany, or Diana Wynne Jones. It happens a lot, actually.

As for “I can do better than that”: to be honest, there’s at least one piece in nearly every magazine or literary journal I read that gives me that reaction. Of course, I can’t say that the instinct is accurate or necessarily true. But I think it’s just as well that it occurs: it keeps us all writing, and trying to write better.

Do you have favorite characters? Any characters, yours or others, are applicable.

Of course! Doesn’t everyone? I mean there are some characters I admire, and some I just love. In no particular order, a few I love re:

Hamlet and Horatio, Prince Hal and Falstaff (in neither case is one so interesting without the other). Rosalind, Touchstone, Jacques. Sam Gamgee and Frodo; the Ents. Tove Jansson’s Moomins, Snufkin and Too-ticky. The Wife of Bath; Chaucer’s own sardonic and self-puncturing narrator. Scout. Liza Bennett. Howard Cruse’s Wendel. Dante’s Virgil from The Inferno. Anansi, Coyote, Hermes, Bugs Bunny (I think all writers love a trickster). Athena, Artemis, Dionysus; the lovelorn Apollo. Alice and the Cat. Jane Eyre. Maggie Chascarrillo, Hopey Glass and Ray Dominguez, from Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets. The entire cast of Edith Nesbit’s The Treasure-Seekers. Most of Hayao Miyazaki’s tough, honest little girls.

Have you ever been disillusioned by a character or a book?

Oh, Lord! Don’t get me started on my experience with Narnia.

Thinking about this, though: do you mean disillusioned, as in the book effectively stripped away illusions that I had; or disillusioned as in I had initially thought the book was wonderful and then realized I’d been wrong; or disillusioned as in disappointed – discovering a book was not as good as I’d hoped it would be? Because the latter happens all the time. The problem there is usually, I think, with something that’s been hyped as the latest next ultimate great thing, and often disappoints by being merely good.

I get disappointed by books on a regular basis. I’m not sure it would be politic to go on record with specifics, though… ask me in person if you really want to know!

These matters are, of course, very subjective. And I’m sure everyone has such feelings about some books. If you don’t, I suspect you’re not reading carefully enough.

How do you explain what writing is like? Is it something that you think about? Do you ever find yourself debating it with strangers?

Heh. Of course I think about it. And I discuss it frequently with friends who are writers, and with the members of my writing group. (I don’t think I’ve ever argued about it with a stranger, though – that seems like a strange idea to me. It’s such a subjective enterprise that I can’t really see what purpose arguing would serve.)

I feel as if writing is like a lot of things. Sometimes, it’s like swimming in a dark river full of great shiny things. Sometimes it’s like thrusting your hands down into deep mud, to bring things back up. (And then you have to filter what you have, and mold, shape and fire it.) Sometimes it is like throwing paint at a wall, to see what sticks. Sometimes it is like carving a statue from marble, except first you have to secrete all the marble yourself.

Sometimes it’s like dreaming. Sometimes it’s like staring at a wall. Sometimes it’s like being in a tree.

Sometimes it’s like getting through the day, or through the end of a workout, or a very long trudge, and it’s tiring, and it’s only work. Thankfully within the hour or the day it will usually transform into something else again.

Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life (http://tinyurl.com/nq3uhc )is also full of metaphors for writing, which I admire a lot. (It’s like a miner’s pick, it’s like a surgeon’s probe, it’s like building the ladder as you climb it…)

If you could choose any five literary people — real or imagined, living or not, friends or otherwise — for a tea party… who would they be? A night on the town, karaoke, whatever suits.

Mmm. Dante. Shakespeare, Chaucer. Maybe John Donne, in his more cheerful years? And maybe Emily Dickinson.

We’d have to have some enchantment, of course, so that everyone could wear appropriate modern clothing, and everyone could understand each other, and no one would go insane with the impossibilities of being in the modern world. A night on the town might be nice, I think. Some booze.

This might turn out to be a very bad combination but it would at least be interesting.

How did writing a theme story work out? Is it more complicated than not having to adhere to a theme — or less?

I have hardly ever had to write a story for any reason other than being interested in it. Which is to say that I don’t think I’ve ever “had” to adhere to a theme: if I answer a call for themed stories, it’s because I’m really interested in the theme and have some ideas I want to work through.

In the case of the Clockwork Jungle Book, I loved the theme – its concept, its aesthetic — but I couldn’t come up with a story idea, so, until shortly before the deadline, I thought I wouldn’t submit. Then I realized there was something I wanted to explore after all, so I scrambled to do it!

I suspect that actually the word-count limit – 3500 words – was a greater constraint on me in writing the story. I am one of those people whose first drafts are always much longer than the story really needs to be, so writing to a relatively short word-count limit is both very challenging, and very good discipline, for me.

— Hey! Actually, can I take this opportunity to plug my sources for the story? I leaned on them so heavily that it only seems fair. Plus, intertextuality is fun!

· Plot: Part of the story’s mechanics, as well as some of its symbolism, are derived from the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story “The Artist of the Beautiful” (http://www.online-literature.com/hawthorne/124/ ). Hawthorne is a great, weird source for early, Gothic-influenced American fantastic. I wish so many people didn’t perceive him as serious and boring, because he is really often as nutty as Poe.

· Style, setting: I realize how pretentious this sounds, but: if you’re setting something in the nineteenth century and never have before (which describes me), you try to draw on what you know. For me those sources are largely Jane Austen (any one of whose novels is an immersion course in early-nineteenth-century drawing-room negotiations), and Henry James (whose claustrophobic Washington Square (http://tinyurl.com/l5jha7 ) helped me think about a setting small and cloistered enough to contain an adventure that would fit inside 3500 words).

· Research: The great thing about writing what interests you is that even the research is fun. For details on what kind of dogs and other housepets were popular in nineteenth-century England, I took the opportunity to return to one of the most entertaining social-history books I know, Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Estate-English-Creatures-Victorian/dp/0674037073 ). Also useful were Louise E. Robbins’ Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (http://tinyurl.com/ljq7w6 ), and Kathleen Kete’s The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping In Nineteenth-Century Paris (http://www.amazon.com/Beast-Boudoir-Petkeeping-Nineteenth-Century-Paris/dp/0520203399 ).

· And, of course, for the form of the animal fable itself, there’s no better place to start than with Aesop (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesop ) and La Fontaine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Fontaine ).

What was the absolute worst piece of advice someone gave you about writing?

This will probably be different from writer to writer, since I’m pretty sure that what works for one writer doesn’t for another, and there’s no single piece of advice that works for everyone.

For me, however, I suspect it was something that fell into the category of urging the writer to make things easy for the reader — to explain, explain, so the reader never runs of the risk of getting confused.

This sort of advice is something I think we, as genre writers, get a lot of, particularly when we’re just starting out. This one banged around in my head for over a year, making me very unhappy, before I gradually came to realize that the stuff I like best as a reader – whether within genre, or outside it – is precisely work that doesn’t make everything easy, that doesn’t explain and explain and explain. I had to read a lot of Gene Wolfe and John Crowley and Shirley Jackson before I got that, but eventually it came clear.

Of course you need to walk a line – we all have amazing worlds in our heads, but if you don’t work to make them accessible to the reader you’ll just wind up with solipsistic incoherence. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to make everything easy, to carefully illuminate all the corners, to make sure the reader doesn’t have to do any work. Anyone who urges that sort of thing on beginning writers is giving them bad advice.

(The best advice I got – not that you asked! – was from the teacher who passed on the familiar but valuable formula, “We all have a million words of crap in us; you’d better start shoveling.” Also, the writer who managed to explain to me how you know when to stop revising: “When you’re just moving the words around… then you’re done.”)

Have you ever wanted to let your character[s] run your interview?

I’m afraid I don’t really understand this kind of question. I wonder if that might be because I’ve never worked on a novel, or worked repeatedly with a single character across many pieces, to the extent that it really takes on a life comparable to that of a human being, with persistence and independence. (I do have a couple of characters taking shadowy form in my mind, but they are kind of scary.)

I will bear this question in mind going on, though, and someday I may find out what it means.

Is there something you do that no one ever asks you about?  This can be anything — something unusual you eat, playing poker as a day job, a hobby, whatever you like.

I don’t play poker as a day job, but I am eagerly looking forward to finding out who does!

People don’t ask me about myself very often, so I’m not sure what to say. Let’s see: I love comic books. I’m a fan of Shakespeare, and of the original Star Trek (only that one, please! The fans will understand.)

I love Gothic architecture, and Flemish old masters. I have written academic papers about superheroes, and about fan fiction. I have studied several Romance languages, and am trying to learn Japanese. I would like to learn German and classical Greek, and also Mandarin, and Arabic and Hebrew, someday when I have time. I do occasional French-to-English translation for a comic-book publisher. I like wind and rain at night, and also my calico cat (who does not like any of those other things).

Particular favorites for books, movies, series, comics, blogs, etc.?

Just generally, you mean? Okay!

Books I take with me every time I move: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, Ursula Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet.

The best books I read last year: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Geoff Ryman’s Air and Lust, Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount, Joan Aiken’s collection The Green Flash, Ted Hughes’ Wodwo, Tillie Olsen’s Silences, Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories.

The only three movies I’ve rated above an “8” on the Internet Movie Database: The Bicycle Thief, Lawrence of Arabia, Farewell My Concubine. (They got 9s. No one gets a 10.)

The director I’m most consistently enraptured by: Hayao Miyazaki.

The musicians I seem to play most often according to iTunes: The Magnetic Fields, David Bowie, and… some people I’m embarrassed to name.

Comics series I read and reread: Love & Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Moonshadow by Dematteis and Muth, Astérix (only the Goscinny books).

Comics series I’m currently exploring or re-examining: Fables, Castle Waiting, Ex Machina, Transmetropolitan, Bayou. (This last is fantastic, and online, and I want to recommend it to everyone: http://www.zudacomics.com/bayou ).

Anime series I have watched all the way to the end, and would again: Revolutionary Girl Utena, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Paranoia Agent, Serial Experiments Lain, Cowboy Bebop.

Anime series I have watched all the way to the end because I did not know better and never, never, never will again: Ranma 1/2.

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