“Hungerford Bridge” is an intimate look at a tiny slice of London, as if you had closed your eyes to recapture every detail from memory. How much of Elizabeth went into the writing of this story? Tell us about the inspiration behind the story.
John Clute, my partner of twenty-plus years, lives in Camden Town in North London, so I’ve spent a lot of time there over the last two decades—it’s a big change from where I live the rest of the year, in rural Maine. I’ve always had a very good sense memory, so for this story as with others, I do actually kind of close my eyes and try to recall everything I can.
The story had its genesis in two seemingly unconnected events. The first was a rainy day when I came out of the Embankment tube station, and was in the upstairs passage that leads to Hungerford Bridge. There was a small, triangular window in the passage, and from there I had this view of a tiny, incredibly verdant wedge of land on the other side of the street. “What’s that place?” I asked John, and he told me it was Victoria Embankment Park. I wanted to see it, so we walked down and wandered around it in the rain. Something about the rain and the fact there were few other people there made it seem like a very strange, magical, distinctly English sort of place. We then retraced our steps and crossed Hungerford Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that has some of the most spectacular views of the city. It always makes me think of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”
Not long after, Amanda Palmer was staying with us in Camden Town, and one night she invited the most extraordinary young man to join us for dinner. He was pretty much exactly as I describe Miles in the story, and after he left I transcribed what I could recall of his conversation. I’d promised Brad Morrow a story for an upcoming issue of Conjunctions, and somehow these things—that young man and the park—conspired to create the story. I wrote it very quickly, one of those times when the story seems to come out of nowhere, a gift from the Muse.
A character in E.R. Eddison’s great novel The Worm Ouroboros is called the Red Foliot. There’s no explanation for his name, or what it means, and when I was a kid and first read the book I was utterly entranced by that name. So I stole it for the emerald foliot. The OED identifies it as a word meaning “foolish,” but also “a kind of goblin.” I envision my foliot as a cross between a hedgehog and a frilled lizard.
Here we have the intersection of magic and reality, a touch of the unknown, the impossible, on an otherwise mundane life. If you could choose to receive such a gift, a touch of the ephemeral and unreal passed down from a time before clocks and schedules, what would it be? A creature? A plant? A book?
The notion of a magical book is enticing—the novel I’m working on now, The Book of Lamps and Banners, is about that very thing!
But I think I’d really want a magical creature—I always liked the idea of having a little dragon the size of my hand. But an emerald foliot would be very nice, too.
Much like the emerald foliot, Miles’ parting kiss is a magical moment that lingers in memory. It’s this tiny, personal touch that makes “Hungerford Bridge” so accessible to the reader. Many writers and critics adhere to the philosophy that readers have an equal hand in creating the story, relying on the author’s words to stir the reader’s imagination. How aware are you of your audience when you sit down to explore a new idea?
To be honest, I’m mostly telling the story to myself. Obviously I’m always delighted (and relieved) when a story finds readers, but if I think of any audience at all, it’s a circle of shadowy faces on the other side of the campfire, where we’re all telling stories to keep the dark away.
What would you consider the greatest stumbling block to women writers entering the SF/F genre today? Why?
I’d say, if you come across any stumbling blocks, burn ’em down. This is a golden age for writers of fantastika of any stripe—women, men, LGBT, people of color or any ethnicity or cultural background, old, young—whoever you are, we need your voices! I’ve encountered more amazing and original stuff by emerging writers in the last few years than I’ve probably read in the last half-century. The whole point of fantastic literature is to blow your reader’s mind and expand her consciousness outside the boundaries of the mundane world. If anyone tells you otherwise, ignore them. Or even better, give them a book.
As a young reader, were there any particular writers who stirred your own imagination, opened the door to let the wonder of the world slip inside?
Too many to mention! Tolkien was the gateway drug for my generation—I read The Hobbit when I was eight, and then The Lord of the Rings, and those books changed everything. I asked for and received Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings for my twelfth birthday, so that was a big one, too. Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, Angela Carter’s The War of Dreams (and then everything else she ever wrote), Evangeline Walton’s The Island of the Mighty and The Children of Lyr, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, The Worm Ouroboros, Alan Garner’s Elidor—those were the books that I read and reread obsessively as a kid. Even then, I liked dark stories, and some of those books (especially Elidor and The Children of Lyr, and the final two books of The Once and Future King) were quite bleak. Elidor remains one of the most frightening children’s books ever written.
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