Senior contributing editor Darrell Schweitzer chats with author and World Fantasy Convention guest of honor Lisa Tuttle about writing the supernatural. Where does the suspension of disbelief end and actual belief begin?
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Lisa Tuttle was born in Texas in 1952 but has lived in Great Britain since 1980. She has been selling stories since 1971 and won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1974. Her first book, Windhaven ― written in collaboration with George R.R. Martin, and published in part in the pages of Analog ― was science fiction. Her later novels have have been mostly fantasy and horror, including Familiar Spirit, Gabriel, The Pillow Friend, The Mysteries, and, most recently, The Silver Bough. Among her collections are A Nest of Nightmares, A Spaceship Built of Stone, and Ghosts and Other Lovers; she has written for children (Catwitch), edited The Encyclopedia of Feminism, and compiled a celebrated horror anthology, Skin of the Soul.
Tuttle will be a guest of honor at the 2007 World Fantasy Convention in November.
WEIRD TALES: You’re a Texan, but have been transplanted to Britain for some time now. Your last two novels have been set in Scotland. Do you have any sense of being a “regional” writer? Has being a nonnative but longtime resident given you a special angle or insight?
LISA TUTTLE: I’ve never thought of myself as a “regional” writer, but I do prefer to write about places I’ve actually been, and the better I know them, the more comfortable I feel about setting a whole novel there. Which is why I may set short stories in China or Seville (both places I’ve visited), but my novels tend to be set in places where I’ve lived, with Texas, London, and Scotland predominating. This is the problem I always had with writing science fiction making up a whole new world has always seemed far, far more difficult than inventing characters or plot.
Another reason for using familiar (to me) settings is the autobiographical impulse. It’s not always obvious, but I’m as autobiographical a writer as a lot of more “realist” writers. I may be telling stories about the dead returning to life, weird relationships with ghosts, impossible pregnancies, and other intrusions from beyond reality, but I’ve always drawn heavily on my own life.
And ever since I first visited this country in 1976, I’ve found the landscape and history of Britain incredibly evocative and inspiring. Sometimes I get ideas from the scenery around me. That didn’t happen to me with Texas; but because Houston and the gulf plains and eastern woodlands of Texas were the earliest landscapes I knew, they’re a deep part of me and naturally affect my writing. I love Austin and the hill country, but I was an adult before I got to know that part of Texas, and only lived in Austin for about five years . . . so I’m really more an outsider there than I am on the west coast of Scotland where I’ve lived for the past 17 years.
I don’t know if it gives me any special insight, but I think the position of being an outsider, never entirely part of the place I call home, has been fertile for me as a writer.
WT: So, do you find yourself deliberately collecting bits of interesting lore about places you’ve visited?
LT: Actually, yes. I can never resist a locally published pamphlet about ghosts or folklore or mysteries of the area. I also own a lot of books on those subjects, from all over.
WT: I note that The Mysteries touches on disappearances everywhere, but of course it centers on Scotland. Do they still have an ongoing abduction mythos in Scotland?
LT: Not that I’m aware of, if you mean specifically abductions by the Gentry . . . if you’re talking the modern version of alien abductions, that mythos is alive and well, although possibly not as widespread as in America.
WT: And how do you adapt autobiography into fiction? Is this a matter of fantasizing about how your life might have gone differently, or using things that did happen?
LT: Both, I guess, although there’s more to it than that. My life goes into my work ― I don’t really see how it could not. It’s hard to explain exactly how it works; I don’t just write about something that really happened to me and then give it a little supernatural twist; the autobiographical element is something I play about with and change quite dramatically, but the beginning of a story is often something that’s really happened to me . . . or that I’ve been afraid might happen . . . or that I’ve fantasized about happening.
Some examples: I wrote a short story called “In Jealousy” which I deliberately wanted to make sound like a true ghost story ― even though it absolutely isn’t. I began with something factual ― I did go on a tour of China in 1985, when my first marriage was breaking up, and I did spend a certain amount of time (far too much!!) brooding over my unhappy marital situation while I was there. But it was a special women’s tour (organized by the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding) ― which it isn’t in the story; in the fiction, the narrator begins an affair with a man who’s in much the same situation as herself: lonely and unhapppily separated. I based the relationship on a very brief one I’d had with a man several years later ― and although I changed every physical fact about him, the psychological details of what drew us together and quickly split us apart were true.
Familiar Spirit, my first horror novel, is full of the real, physical details of my life at the time that I was writing it. I think I included the lamp shaped like a cowboy boot that I found in the first apartment I rented or maybe I put that in a later book. It’s set in Austin in the 1970s, and Sarah, the heroine, probably has some of my characteristics and personality traits (I’m not sure it’s been a long time since I read it) ― and, like me at the time I was writing, she’d just split up with her boyfriend. Although unlike me, and for reasons to do with the plot, she wasn’t at all happy to be on her own and wanted her boyfriend back. But probably the major autobiographical element there was the setting: at the beginning of the book, she moves into a rather decrepit old house on West 35th Street, the very real place where I’d lived for several years. Obviously that house was important to me, because I also used it (even though I had to move it out of Austin and deep into the piney woods of East Texas) as the setting for a section of The Pillow Friend. The real house is long gone, knocked down and replaced by a condo, so I’m glad to feel I preserved it in fiction.
Quite a bit of my real life fed into The Pillow Friend ― incidents, such as my having my appendix out when I was seven; the emotional turmoil of adolescence and unrequited love; my marriage to an English writer; my feelings about Texas, London and Scotland ― and the whole geographical arc of the book reflects the course of my life ― Houston, Austin, Harrow, Scotland. All the rest especially all the weird stuff ― is just totally and completely made up.
WT: There are a lot of unhappy people in your stories. There are a lot of unhappy people in most stories, because that’s the obvious way to generate conflict. Would it be possible to write a story about a completely happy and contented character, or is the whole point of fiction, particularly ghostly fiction, to probe the things that make us unhappy and uncomfortable?
LT: For a moment there I thought you were going to ask if this was autobiographical! (I am quite a cheerful person, in general, I think.)
Actually, this is something I’ve thought about ― I think it is possible to write about someone who is happy and contented, but if they remain that way from the beginning to the end of the story, well, I doubt it would be much of a story. So, they might be happy at the beginning ― and then something terrible happens! and/or they can win through to happiness or contentment at the end, but in the middle, that is to say for most of the story, there has to be something that at the very least tests them or unsettles them. Fiction, not just supernatural fiction, does usually involve change and conflict to some degree, which kind of rules out “completely happy”.
Having said that, I must admit that quite often in my fiction I write about people who are troubled and maybe even psychologically disturbed or borderline if not outright mad. There’s lots of genre fiction about people who are put into stressful situations, but the reader never thinks they’re going to crack up; the suspense is how this strong or normal person is going to manage to win through ― this is the traditional hero, whose sanity one does not doubt. Then there are the characters you might find in stories by Poe, or Ramsay Campbell or me, where ― possibly from the very beginning ― the reader is thinking, this person’s hold on reality is precarious. Is she really being haunted, or does she just think she is?
WT: Do you believe in ghosts?
LT: Basically, no, I don’t. Or at least, I don’t believe ghosts are the spirits of the dead, and I’m very very skeptical about the existence of any psychic or paranormal powers that a lot of people believe in. Yet although I think of myself as basically a rationalist, I’m not a hardliner, or a total materialist. If I were, I’d probably have no interest in ghosts, whereas in fact I am fascinated by the whole subject: by ghosts and hauntings and people who believe . . . and by inexplicable experiences. I do not doubt that people do see ghosts and have other strange experiences which can’t be satisfactorily explained away in scientific terms. (Although I think also that many of them could be explained, but sometimes people will resist that explanation, refuse to accept it because they know it was supernatural ― and that’s interesting, too.) My own fascination probably suggests a chink in my rational armour. Maybe I really, deep down, long to be convinced.
WT: How do you think this affects your ability write about ghosts, then? Lovecraft suggested that the non-believer had a certain advantage, since a true believer would take the supernatural for granted and not give it sufficient buildup.
LT: The fact that I’m not a believer maybe suggests why, to write a supernatural story that convinces me, it has to be ambiguous; on some level there’s usually at least a hint that maybe none of this is “really” happening or at least nowhere outside the brain of the main character. (For example, in short stories like “The Nest,” “Riding the Nightmare,” and “Bits and Pieces”; and the protagonists of both Lost Futures and The Pillow Friend are quite likely clinically insane . . . but then again maybe not.)
As for how belief or nonbelief in the supernatural affects a person’s ability to write about it . . . well, I can only speak from my own experience, which suggests to me that no one uninterested in the supernatural would bother to write about it ― and if forced into it would probably do a poor job. But obviously I don’t think that being interested in the socalled supernatural necessarily implies belief.
I think this question could be asked about religion without any stretch ― people’s beliefs obviously must influence how they write . . . but it also affects how they read. Do devout Catholics take a different message from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair than totally nonreligious me does? Presumably their understanding of/appreciation for that book would be closer to what the author actually intended. I recall having this feeling about Gene Wolfe’s writing ― particularly after talking to someone (a Catholic) who obviously had a much more powerful response to one of his books than I did; perceived it in a different way.
So ― I don’t know how to answer this question. It must have an impact, I suppose, but I don’t know exactly what it is, or how you’d begin to disentangle it from everything else that affects a written text.
WT: Okay, if you were convinced, if evidence of ghosts were presented to you in a compelling manner, would you find this frightening or reassuring? On one hand, it tells us that we don’t cease to exist at death. On the other, it suggests that some people could suffer an eternity of torment because of some tragedy.
LT: I would love to see some compelling evidence ― but it kind of depends on what ghosts were proved to be. A nonmaterial yet conscious survival of dead human beings? Or (what’s always seemed more likely) “recordings” of events that took place in the past; or some perhaps telepathically-triggered perception which exists in the mind of the person(s) experiencing the ghost rather than ‘out there.’ Maybe it’s some other form of “being” that has nothing to do with death. (After all, there have been apparitions of the living . . . and what about bilocation?) Whether I found it frightening or reassuring (or, more likely, a bit of both) would depend on what this evidence convinced me of.
WT: I notice that real, true religious believers (maybe more in the U.S. than in Britain ― you tell me) actually avoid ghostly and supernatural fiction, because they are afraid of it. On the crudest level, this is because they believe that if you talk about the Devil you may summon him. So I wonder if our fascination with the supernatural stems out of some delicate combination of skepticism and desire for the magical. We don’t believe the supernatural is true, but we find artistic reasons for pretending it is. Any thoughts?
LT: Is this actually the case? I don’t know enough about most writers’ religious beliefs to be sure. Of course you don’t have to “believe” in ghosts and spirits and evil curses and all that to write convincing stories about them. Also, it seems to me that it’s possible to be a devout Christian, with a belief in the afterlife, without believing that the dead return as ghosts on this earth. (What kind of a way is that to spend your eternal life?) However, as for writing about supernatural matters ― I think a strong belief in the reality and power of evil (as something which exists in and of itself, possibly as personified by the devil) could have two possible results: either you avoid writing about it because you don’t want to somehow encourage it by leading your readers to dwell on it and maybe even having them attracted to witchcraft, spell-casting, vampirism, etc (readers being the perverse creatures we all are, you can’t be sure they’ll decide to emulate the hero rather than the villain!) Or you might want to depict how awful it is and how necessary it is for good to triumph by writing about the supernatural out of a deep belief that it not only exists, but permeates the world. And maybe that is more British than American, because the two examples that I can think of are both English: G.P. Taylor (I haven’t actually read his books, but I’ve read an interview with him which set it out pretty clearly what he believes ― I think he is or was a vicar, and he writes supernatural fantasies about the battle between good and evil) and James Herbert (a practicising Catholic).
Your idea about a fascination with the supernatural among unbelievers being a balancing act of those two very different attitudes reminds me of Todorov’s definition of the fantastic, which he said required three conditions: first, the text must be sufficiently, convincingly realistic to make readers “hesitate” between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described; second, this same hesitation may be experienced by a character in the story; third, the reader must adopt a particular attitude towards the text, so that he rejects a purely allegorical interpretation. Critics who follow Todorov emphasize this “hesitation” or ambiguity as a basic part of the fantastic, and I think it defines the appeal supernatural fantasy holds for me. Of course, and especially these days, there is a lot of genre fantasy to which that definition emphatically does not apply: there’s no ambiguity about it; it’s pure fantasy, whether set in an imaginary realm, or in “our world” but with the existence of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, magical powers, etc. added on.
But for me, what’s most appealing about fantasy is exactly when it’s on that borderline between real and unreal; when the rational gives way; when I as reader (and even as writer) sense the presence of something “other” which can’t be explained . . . a mystery. That’s what I love about it. And as soon as a ghost is explained it becomes less interesting ― to me, anyway ― even if the “explanation” is a bit of fantasy itself (e.g. spirits of the dead are forced to walk the earth until they get revenge or are exorcised by some ritual). This is also why I don’t care for most genre fantasy; I’m not a big fan of “other world” fantasies (no, not even Tolkien), or the type of supernatural/paranormal fictions that establish loads of “rules” about how vampires came to be and how they exist and coexist with ordinary mortals, not to mention werewolves and witches ― I know a lot of people enjoy them, but it strikes me as being similar to roleplaying games, and that doesn’t interest me, either.
WT: Who are some of your favorite writers of ghostly fiction, particularly ones you think have influenced you?
LT: Writers I think have influenced me ― and longterm favorites in the field ― include M.R. James, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Henry James, Theodore Sturgeon, Kate Wilhelm (although she always comes immediately to mind when I’m asked about influences, I guess she’s mostly SF and thrillers . . . not sure if she’s written any ghost stories, but a lot of her work, and in particular her novel Margaret and I had a huge influence on me), Edith Wharton, E. Nesbit, Robert Aickman, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter de la Mare, Arthur Machen, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (just one story ― “The Yellow Wallpaper” ― but, wow, did that have an impact!), and more recently (that is, I didn’t read them until after my own career was established) Peter Straub, Angela Carter, W.G. Sebald, Jonathan Carroll.
WT: You don’t write much science fiction these days. You started out in science fiction. Why the shift?
LT: I think the shift was more in the market (or genre definition) than in me. In other words, I think I’m writing in the same genre or general area I’ve always written in.
If you look back at the very first stories I sold, they were mostly horror stories or ghost stories. But there wasn’t much of a market for that in the ’70s (mainly it was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) and because I wanted to sell, and because I was a fan of science fiction as well as supernatural fiction, I did keep trying to write SF. My SF usually tended to be on the “soft” side ― I’m interested in people involved in strange situations, and also in speculating about “if this goes on . . .” or “what if?” but I have no hard science background, am not especially interested in technology (except as it impacts on people ― for whom it might as well be magic), don’t really go for space opera, and just generally tend to feel more comfortable writing about locations and backgrounds I’ve actually experienced rather than trying to create an entire new world or farfuture scenario from my rather limited imagination (this goes back to our earlier discussion about the role of autobiography in my writing).
When it came to publishing my first short story collections, the first one, A Nest of Nightmares in 1986, was all horror stories (and includes the first two stories I ever sold: “Stranger in the House” and “Dollburger”); the second one followed the next year, A Spaceship Built of Stone in 1987, was supposedly my SF collection, and yet at least three of the stories in that (“No Regrets”, “Birds of the Moon”, “The Hollow Man”) are the sort of crossover, borderline genre stories I like best and are hard to really define: are they psychological horror? Contemporary fantasy? They have elements that appear in science fiction (alternate realities; astronauts; medical technology to revive the dead) but they are really about ordinary people trying to live in the face of some extraordinary circumstance.
My first novel was a collaboration with George R.R. Martin ― it began with the novella “The Storms of Windhaven” and grew into the novel Windhaven (first published in 1981). We thought of it as science fiction; I guess it still is, although when I look at it in the light of so many fantasy novels which have been published since I think that if the publishing scene had been then as it is now it would probably have been labelled as fantasy ― possibly George and I wouldn’t have felt it necessary to provide the SF rationale as the “deep background” to the story (i.e. having it set on a distant planet with a “lost colony” cut off from other worlds and cannibalizing the wrecked spaceship and remnants of their former technology). “The Storms of Windhaven” was originally published in Analog, and one of the reasons for the collaboration, on my part, was the desire to sell to a “hard SF” market that I was sure I’d never break into on my own.
My second novel ― the first one I wrote solo ― was Familiar Spirit, and that was a horror novel. Before writing it I was working on an SF novel, but finding it really hard going: I got bogged down in the hard work of building a futuristic setting and providing a rationale for it and imagining new technology. I think in general I would rather read SF than write it. Although I do have a halfbaked idea for an SF novel which I hope to be able to develop and write one of these days . . . I haven’t given up on that genre. I find it very difficult, but also rewarding. There are some ideas which can only be explored through SF.
Lost Futures, my fourth novel, was science fiction, but it was very “domestic” and contemporary and lowkey; most of the book doesn’t read like what most people would consider SF. Which probably explains why it was not very successful! A lot of what I write seems to fall into the cracks between genres. It’s certainly been a problem for me in the past . . . but I just write what I write and hope for the best when it comes to finding my audience. Over here in the U.K., Lost Futures was published as SF ― but with a very “girly” cover that wouldn’t appeal to many fans although it may have reflected the contents well enough but in America it came out packaged as horror, with a kind of horrific, mummifiedlooking head on a dark cover, and raised red lettering dripping blood. I think it was one of the last books published in Dell’s “Abyss” line (as the horror market was just about to collapse), and I can only imagine that a lot of hardcore horror fans would have found it hugely disappointing, as there are no mummies or dripping blood and gore within at all.
The novel I’m writing now has both magic and time travel in it. I suppose I would have to classify it as fantasy, like my last two novels, The Mysteries and The Silver Bough.
Darrell Schweitzer is senior contributing editor to both Weird Tales and H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror.