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Lisa Tuttle Interview – The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross

Lisa TuttleSince selling her first story in 1972, Lisa Tuttle has written a wealth of material that spans genre. She has won awards for her incisive short fiction. Her first novel Windhaven (1981), written with George R. R. Martin, is space opera, but she has written truly chilling horror with Familiar Spirit (1983) and Gabriel (1987), and science fiction with her Tiptree-nominated 1992 novel Lost Futures. Her fantasy novels The Mysteries (2005) and The Silver Bough (2006) draw heavily on Celtic mythology. Her most recent novels The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief (2016) and The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross (2017), feature the detectives and solvers of mysteries both paranormal and mundane, Jesperson and Lane. Fantasy-Faction was able to catch up with Lisa Tuttle at the event to promote her new novel in Glasgow.

Your latest novel, The Witch at Wayside Cross, sees the return of your detective duo Jesperson and Lane from The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief. What new challenges and mysteries are they facing this time?

The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross (cover)Oh well this time they actually leave London for the wilds of Norfolk. And they encounter witchcraft and ancient British wisdom and just all sorts of things really. Mysteries of the Shrieking Pits. The original title was going to be The Curious Affair of the Shrieking Pits, but someone at the publisher didn’t really like that title. They said they thought the word pits to them meant armpits. They thought people would think it was funny.

There are these places in Norfolk which are known as the Shrieking Pits, and there’s not much left of them. I don’t really know if there’s anything left of them because the places where they are on the map, if you actually look on Google Earth, you can’t really see anything. And they’re quite mysterious because there are various theories as to what they were, whether they were underground dwellings, whether they were some sort of mine, whether it was the Romans who did them, or whether they’re a lot older than that. And then there’s various legends around them. So I was reading about that and I just became quite fascinated. I thought, right, Jesperson and Lane have got to go up to Norfolk and they have to encounter a Shrieking Pit!

And I think I’m right in saying this is the first time you’ve written a sequel…

Yes, that is absolutely true. Since my first novel was a collaboration with George R. R. Martin, Windhaven, for many years we talked about a sequel and there’s even been some interest in it again, but George has no time. He actually, with great reluctance I feel, but very great kindness, he said well if you want to do this, you can, but my feeling is kind of that, no. I said no to George all those years. Year after year, “Nah, I don’t know about a sequel.” Because for one thing, our main character died! It’s the type of sequel I’m more interested in. In this case, it’s not the kind of sequel where you have to read the next one or you have to read them in order. This is more in the older tradition of continuing characters in different adventures.

I never really expected to want to write sequels, but this started as a short story, called “Jesperson and Lane”, and as I was writing it I was thinking, I could do more stories about this. And then they sort of got longer. Until finally, yeah, may as well do a book!

The Jesperson and Lane books play with the idea of the great Victorian detective. Was this something you always wanted to write?

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief (cover)Well I love Sherlock Holmes. And I read a lot of mystery stories and detective stories. In fact I remember a few years ago, well quite a few years ago now, every summer, the American writer Jane Yolen, who writes fantasy and writes for children, she has a house in St Andrews, and when she comes, she has this gathering of fantasy writers. And I remember the first time I went to it, we were sitting round talking about what we read, and it turned out everybody there read more mysteries than they did fantasy. And it seemed to me partly a kind of professional thing, maybe, you know you’re writing a fantasy, and you’ve read loads of fantasy all your life, but it was kind of like, ah, I need an escape from all this, and the escape was into mysteries, detective stories.

I do read a kind of more modern and maybe more realistic mysteries, but I have a really soft spot for more classical kind of mysteries, which aren’t all about horrific crimes or great detail of violence or serial killers, but more about detection, you know and something really weird, cause I’ve always liked weird fiction. And in this case I thought, well I can have a real mystery, which has a kind of real world solution, but at the same time I can also play with supernatural elements. I liked the mix of it, rather than it being totally, they solve supernatural crimes, or the other, the older fashioned thing where, like with Sherlock Holmes, where you think it might be supernatural – it’s a gigantic hound! – but everything’s explained away. That’s also the Scooby Doo tradition, where, all along, that creepy janitor just wanted you to think the place was haunted.

Your earlier novel The Mysteries also involves a detective and plays with noir fiction tropes. Was this good practice for writing Jesperson and Lane?

The Mysteries (cover)Yeah I suppose that came before this, so obviously I’ve been for some years approaching this marriage of fantasy and detective stories. I didn’t think of it as practice but what I’m now thinking of is that was my first. And actually the way I wrote The Mysteries, I mean the way it became a detective story, it wasn’t going to be that at all. It was the ancient Celtic legend that appealed to me. And I wanted to put it into a contemporary setting and deal with it. What if you were told you were the reincarnation of this supernatural being’s wife? Well it’s one thing to say oh this happened a thousand years ago. It’s another to say, well how would you deal with it in like London today?

I kept starting that story, and I kept telling it from different points of view, and I had the mother’s point of view and the daughter’s point of view, and I don’t know how many bits of it I wrote. Till one day I thought, well of course the mother would go to a detective, and I had her go to the detective, and then I suddenly just had this thought, maybe I should just try think of this from the detective’s point of view, rather than from the mother’s. So that was the way I ended up writing it. I guess that was the first one where I really tried thinking of it as writing something that was both supernatural, fantastic and a detective story. And a mystery. And I guess that was when I really plunged into, let’s do a cross-genre book.

Both The Mysteries and The Silver Bough, draw heavily on Celtic mythology. Is that something you find inspiring?

Oh yes, yes. I love it. And once we moved, even more so. I mean I’ve always loved reading mythology and fairy tales. Just kind of myths and legends about all sorts of places. There’s always a greater interest, I think, when you’re living somewhere. And living in Texas, trying to find great myths was kind of more difficult. But friends of mine, when I was in my teens, we used to go ghost hunting. There are stories, you know, people always make up urban legends, and you’ve got stories about that creepy old graveyard or whatever. So, that’s always I think really intriguing. And then once we moved to Scotland, it was like, they’re right on our doorstep!

Dun a Choin Dubh by Dan

You know there’s a kind of, what is it, Iron Age? The Dùn a’ Choin Duibh, which means Fort of the Black Dog, and that’s behind our house. That’s ninth century. And there’s also an even earlier chambered cairn, and then a Bronze Age tomb. And all those three things are just right there, in the woods and on the hill behind our house. We can go there for a walk every day and come upon an ancient place. And it’s connected to old legends, to Diarmuid and Gráinne.

There’s a place across the loch, its name in Gaelic actually means The Boar’s Leap, and there is this legend about a gigantic boar, on our side of the loch, so that’s presumably where the boar landed. Leamnamuic I think it’s called. And we live in Torinturk, which is the Hill of the Boar. Tòrr an Tuirc. So it’s just kind of like, it’s right there. It’s not just in books or ancient history, the reminders are all around.

Both of those novels explore the encroachment of the fantastic on the mundane. Is the mundane necessary for the fantastic to exist?

The Silver Bough (cover)

Well, I don’t know, because I sort of feel like I’m in a minority! Especially now, when fantasy as a genre, I think it’s probably the most popular genre right now, it seems to me, for the past twenty years, thirty years. It seems, certainly for the first ten years of the domination of fantasy I think everybody expected, oh, this will just be a fad, it’ll soon die away and something else will take it, and instead it’s gone on being extremely popular. And a lot of those fantasies, they’re other world fantasies. They’re not of our world at all, it’s a total escape into a completely different world. You don’t know the rules until you start reading the book.

But what’s always attracted me more in fantasy is when the two worlds collide, or they brush up against each other. It’s that feeling in the ordinary world that there are these places that are kind of magical, or liminal – you’re on the threshold of something else. To me, that is what excites me. That is what intrigues me. I mean, it can be fun and interesting. I can get caught up in a story that’s set in a completely different world, but just what really sparks my imagination is that connection. And trying to make it feel real, as a writer, that’s what I want to try and do. And I know some people probably find it, oh we don’t need all this stuff about the boring real life, let’s just get on with the fantasy! But to me, that’s the interesting part of it, taking a real person in a world you can relate to and then they find something else.

Your early horror novels like Familiar Spirit and Gabriel again contrast moments of intense supernatural horror with realistic depictions of lived in life. Does horror also require the mundane to function?

Familiar Spirit (cover)

Yes, again. I get kind of annoyed with ghost stories where it seems like the ghost can do anything. You know? I want there to be these kind of rules, or else I want to offer the possibility that what is happening is happening in the mind of the main character. Is this madness or is this really happening to them? It’s scary. It ought to be scary either way.

Both Familiar Spirit and Gabriel feature incredibly disturbing scenes in which the supernatural entities use the female protagonists’ sexuality against them. Were those challenging scenes to write?

Yeah, they were. I have to admit those were written quite a long time ago! So it’s really hard to get back, but I do recall that they were. I was quite struggling with them. And it was also kind of, well, that’s what I wanted to do. It was difficult to write and, perhaps difficult to read. But that was what felt necessary, I had to go there. I wasn’t writing in the tradition of Lovecraft. It’s a different, I don’t know if I’d call it a tradition, but more the kind of writers that kind of inspire me, like Shirley Jackson, The Haunting Of Hill House (1959), that was a kind of a key text for me. I felt, yes, that’s the kind of thing I want to write, where you can believe in the people and their suffering, and it’s not something that you can just easily close the book and then it just vanishes.

And again they both feature these isolated women coming under attack…

Gabriel (cover)Well part of the isolation is that when you’re dealing with something, again it’s kind of my feeling of, I want it to be realistic and believable. If you’re having this supernatural attack, as soon as you’re in with a group of people, what are you going to do? You’re going to go and you’re gonna get help. If you can call Ghostbusters, that immediately puts you in a completely different world. Or if it’s something that you’re demonstrating. Then you immediately think, yeah, right, it would be in the newspapers, or these days the Internet, it would be on television, and then that becomes a completely different story.

For me, I wanted a story about that individual’s experience, which means the more people who know about it the less personal it is. The less ambiguity there is too. Because as long as it’s from kind of her point of view it’s, well, is she completely crazy, or is this really happening? And as soon as you get in the exorcist, or get in other people who can help you, you’re getting more into the area of, okay, we just have to accept it. The supernatural is real and now we have to find a way to fight it. And at that period, certainly in my writing, it was not the way I wanted to go. So I was still trying to keep it quite realistic, in my own perception of reality.

Your horror stories are frequently viscerally disturbing. How do you decide how far to go, and how far is too far?

Oh I don’t know. I have to admit, I did once, and I’m not even going to say what it was about or anything, but someone once said, “Did you ever write a story that scared you?” Well I do remember once I had an idea for a story and I started to write it and I realised where it was going and I thought, I don’t actually want to write this! It just for me personally was too horrible so I stopped. So, I don’t know how far is too far. It’s how comfortable are you, you know? And certainly I don’t watch many horror movies, because I find things particularly if they’re visual, and you see them, they almost stay with you as if you’ve experienced them. Like something you’ve seen and then you can’t unsee it. So, I guess I’m a little more nervous about things like that.

You are as well known for your short stories as your novels. How does writing the two differ?

Rogues (cover)

Well for one thing a short story’s much shorter, you can write them much more quickly. There’s something about the short story form that I’m quite happy with, not all my short stories, but I can sometimes feel I’ve written a short story, that’s really good. I’m always discontented with my novels. I never quite manage to achieve what I’m wanting to achieve. Whereas there’s any number of short stories I can go yep, I did just, or, wow, I did that even better than I could have hoped! So I find, in some ways, writing short stories feels more satisfying to me. But then a lot of people prefer to read novels too. I have to admit, I probably read more novels now than I read short stories, so. I do have sympathy for that!

And when you start with an idea, do you know if it’s going to be a novel or a short story?

Usually. Although sometimes I will have an idea, in fact I’ve got an idea, there was a novel I tried, I started, I didn’t get very far, I started it again, and now I’m thinking, well, maybe it’s really just a short story. A very long short story. I may go back and approach it from a different direction. Or sometimes I might think this is a good short story idea and then it starts expanding. But more often I know if it’s going to be one thing or the other.

Your writing has a strong feminist element. The short story “Wives” is incredibly intense and angry. What was your experience writing that?

Well, I have to say with “Wives”, it’s feminist, but I also felt as much as anything it was about colonialism. I mean in a way, it was probably more a sort of critique of masculinity. But I did think it was less about women’s experience, although it is partly, and more about power, and misused power and power can link to sexuality and can link to a particularly male vision of the world. And I think things like that probably work better in a short form. I also feel the other thing about short stories is, for me, horror works best in a short form. It doesn’t have to be a short story, it can be a novella. Although I have written full length horror novels! But I feel it’s something you can be so concentrated in a short story or a novella. I think it works particularly well.

The Bone Flute (cover)

Colonialism also crops up in your short story “The Bone Flute”…

And that’s also about male/female relationships as well!

Was that coming from a similar place?

It probably was. I think that did come out of more a kind of relationship thing, or thoughts about people wanting permanent love forever, and fantasies about true love and what it was going to be, and having these very definite ideas about it. It was kind of strange because it kind of ended up, it’s like a science fiction story but it’s not really…

…at the end it’s a ghost story!

At the end, yeah!

Your work frequently crosses and mixes genres. How do you approach writing genre? Do you know what genre a work will be in when you start writing it?

Well that’s it, I don’t usually set out. I mean I will sometimes set out, I’ll be invited to write for a horror anthology or something, so I will try to think of something that’s either horrific or scary or unsettling. And I have to admit with my latest book The Witch at Wayside Cross, I thought, I want to write a more kind of classical detective story. Start with the dead person, and then figure out whodunit. Do a classical whodunnit in the detecting way, going out and interviewing people and you’re trying to figure out oh, he had a motive, oh, she had a motive, oh, well did they have opportunity? And in fact I didn’t know whodunnit when I started. I was going to do this thing of, just let’s have a little group of characters, several of whom could have done it, and then let’s play with that. And of course before I got to the end I’d figured it out. But I honestly didn’t know at the beginning how it was going to work out.

So, there are exceptions as I’ve just made clear, but usually I don’t really think, oh well I’m writing a science fiction story so it has to do this, this and this. Particularly with short stories it’s more I have an idea, I have an image. Sometimes it’s a reaction against something else, possibly someone else’s story or a novel or a commonly held idea, or just an overheard snatch of conversation and wondering, what are those people like when they go home? What were they talking about? That was very weird! And then just following it through. And I feel that there’s this kind of logic that’s not logic in the normal sense but it’s like you pursue this idea and you just stick to it, and you just follow it through to the end. Then it takes you where it takes you. And then people go, oh that’s not really science fiction because it has the supernatural in it, or that’s not really a horror story because it’s not scary enough, or whatever. And well, I wasn’t really trying to tick the boxes and follow a set of rules like constructing a puzzle. In fact I remember once talking to another writer, it at a workshop, just about that. He had this attitude that you constructed a story according to, well, you want to write a genre story, it has to have this, this and this. But that’s just not the way I work. He might even have been right about how to do it successfully but it isn’t the way I work.

Your novel Lost Futures was nominated for the BSFA Award, the Clarke Award and the Tiptree Award. It explores the idea of the multiverse and the different ways in which one woman’s life could have gone. What was it like writing something that complex?

Lost Futures (cover)That was quite difficult actually! It was extremely difficult! It was also, because of again, sort of pursuing one idea or a person’s life, and the alternate reality is just I think perpetually fascinating to people who read science fiction and even people who don’t. And I just wanted to do it on a personal level, one person. And in fact other people have done it, there was that movie, Sliding Doors (1998), some years back, books like Paul Auster’s new novel, 4321 (2017) where he takes four different versions of a man’s life, someone rather like himself, but you make different decisions. Admittedly I did Lost Futures many many years ago before there had been quite so many of these. But I think it is something that people often think about, and people probably think about it more when they’re dissatisfied with their lives, or unhappy. Oh, if only I hadn’t taken that holiday and gone to Greece. If only I’d accepted that job offer. If only instead of feeling I had to finish college I just dropped everything and ran off with the circus. Whatever.

Someone asked me recently, why do you always write about ordinary people? Yeah I do kind of. I just think of them as someone I can identify with. So I did want to just take someone who probably wasn’t a million miles away from me, you know a young woman, at the time that I wrote it, and just pursue that. Have her have different lives. And then I was looking into well, how is this happening. It’s the same with time travel. I’ve got an idea for a time travel book I want to do, similar kind of thing, where you have to say, first of all, how does this happen? The way I wrote it was, I was keeping it ambiguous. This might be real. She might really be in touch with these other lives. And I did want that to be a genuine possibility. But then there’s also the possibility, is she just losing it completely, you know. Because of madness. And I’ve read a number of books about people having nervous breakdowns or being mad, and the famous things like Virginia Woolf knowing she was starting to go mad because she was hearing the birds and they were talking in Greek. And it’s that sort of thing, where what if something is happening and you know if can’t be happening so you’re sane, but it is happening to you. So how do you deal with that?

And at the same time I read quite a lot of books about, written for laypeople like John Gribbin’s book about Schrödinger’s cat. I just wanted to try and get my head around, which I probably couldn’t explain it now, but at one point I did feel I understood how the Many Worlds Theory operated. In fact I read something about it recently, it’s still a theory, but now they’ve completely changed the parameters so I’d have to read up on it again. I have to say I found that a tremendously difficult book to write and I kept stopping and thinking, this is hopeless, I can’t do it, I’ve gotta do something else! And it now probably seems incredibly old fashioned. It was recently translated and published in Spain, and it was funny because I realised it is old fashioned now because it’s pre-the internet, pre-mobile phones, all these things we take for granted, and it’s just a totally different world. These days if it was happening she’d be looking up stuff on the Internet, reading about it and probably meeting other people who have the same experience as her. So, very different.

Your first novel, Windhaven, was written in collaboration with George R. R. Martin. What are the differences between writing alone and writing with a collaborator?

Windhaven (cover)Well, I remember George saying, it’s so great, when I get to a point where I think, I don’t know how to write this next bit or this is too hard, you just send it to the other person and let them deal with it! But if it’s going well, then the negative side is sometimes one of us would rewrite the other, and George I think in particular would go, don’t cut that! I like that stuff! And I would go yes but it’s going on too long, and we’d both have very different approaches, even then.

We were quite young writers. George is an expansive writer. He sort of describes everything and puts more and more detail and although we both had kind of journalistic backgrounds, my way of writing is much more to try and refine it and get it kind of more compact and don’t have too much description. So on the one hand it was good, because I’d only written short stories at that point. Even when we started, Windhaven was just going to be a short story. So it was quite a good learning experience, to see how someone wrote differently than me, and to see how he would fill a page where I would have written one paragraph. But at the same time, there were times when I felt he was kind of losing track of what we were doing! But this was also before the Internet too so we actually had to type, retype or send it back and forth through the post. But it was fun.

The other good thing about writing with someone is you can talk things out. And there are just times when, you’re so stuck in your own head as a writer going ah, does this work? And I know a lot of writers have their beta readers or whatever, they have someone they can talk back to, and, this is where having a collaborator is great because you actually you just talk it out, you come up to a problem and you talk about possibilities and it’s great to have two minds rather than just one. So it was fun. And it was a real learning experience.

You also write non-fiction. Your Encyclopedia of Feminism (1986) was a key feminist text in the 80s. What were your experiences researching and writing that?

Encyclopedia of Feminism (cover)Oh, well that was a long time ago. Back in the 80s. And again these days with the Internet, it would probably be easier. It was, again, part of my journalistic background and also I love doing research. It was great. I think in a way I almost kind of wish I’d done some of those entries a bit longer. I felt I sort of imposed this format on myself really, and felt each one has to be, it was originally called Dictionary of Feminism, when I was commissioned to write it. I was approached, it wasn’t like my idea, someone said would you like to do this? Yeah that would be great! So I think because I was thinking it was a dictionary every entry has to be quite short. And I think if I was doing it now I’d be more expansive, I’d write longer essays.

I also felt it was a very useful book in its day, and I got a great review from Germaine Greer. And I had people saying they used it in their women’s history classes and things like that. And there wasn’t a book like it at the time. In later years I was hoping I could, it was probably about twenty years ago, there was some talk of updating it, but you would just need a completely new book now. Because I think so much of the stuff that in the 80s was right there, everything’s changed now. It’s just expanded so much. You’d probably have several people to write it, rather than one!

What’s next for Lisa Tuttle?

Lisa Tuttle (2017)Well, I’m actually working on two things. I’ve got this fantasy, which I had the idea for years ago, probably. Because I’ve written books for children. And I had this idea when I was still thinking I might write another book for children, so that must have been like fifteen years ago. And so I kind of wrote a little outline or whatever, but my editor had since retired and no one wanted to take it up. Also things changed, they weren’t commissioning books on the basis of an outline, which they had been when I started, it was all, well write the book and we’ll see if we’re interested. So I started it but I didn’t get too far, and I just sort of put it aside and my agent didn’t seem that enthusiastic. But the idea kept sticking with me. It’s a fantasy set on a small Scottish island. Well, just this year I ended up thinking about it again and I started seeing that it didn’t have to be a children’s book, and I started from sort of two angles, because the main character is a little boy. But then I’m thinking there’s also the story of the adults. So that’s what I’m working on, I’ve gone back to it and that’s what I’m writing.

But I have also written the first chapter of another Jesperson and Lane, which is called The Curious Affair of the Missing Mummies. Or at least that’s the working title, it might have to change, my editor might go, oh, but that sounds like you mean mothers! So. We’ll see. And also I have to find out if my editor actually wants a third Jesperson and Lane book. So those are the two things I’m doing.

Thank you Lisa Tuttle for talking with us!


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