Your story “Halfway People” is a powerful reworking of the “Wild Swans/Swan Brothers” fairy tale. What drew you to this tradition in particular, and what aspects were you eager to subvert, or at least to riff off of?
I wrote the story for Kate Bernheimer’s My Mother She Killed Me, so the fairytale tradition was baked into the assignment. When she emailed to ask for a story, I said I’d try, but I had no ideas, no free time, and, in my heart, believed I wouldn’t manage to produce anything. The next day, I sat down with “The Wild Swans” and wrote the story. I can count on one hand the stories that have come easily to me and still have fingers left over. I didn’t have this one in my head in any conscious way when I started, and yet there it all was, just waiting to be written down. This is the way I once imagined writing stories would be, but sadly isn’t.
“The Wild Swans” was one of my favorite fairy tales as a child. I think now that I chose it for two reasons. The first was its model of heroism. Instead of swordplay and dragon-slaying, it celebrated silent, unselfish endurance. I had an easy, happy childhood and was capable of no such thing, but I liked to pretend that I would be. I’m still more interested in this model of the hero than in the other.
The second was the messiness of the finish, the one brother left with a wing. When I picked the story up again after not having read it for many years, this was the thing I remembered most and the image of the single wing had already shown up in many of the things that I’ve written, wound all through my first novel Sarah Canary.
What I hadn’t remembered was the profound intimacy of the relationship between sister and brother in Andersen’s story.
Your story is populated with characters who are trapped at the threshold: They are stuck partway between human and swan form, or are “unhappy to stay, unhappy to go,” or are “half-joyful, half undone with grief.” Liminality is important to character-driven fiction in general, but it seems to be a particularly strong theme in this work. How do you feel about this theme, in this story and in others you’ve written?
The divided self as a permanent state (as opposed to the self-in-transformation) is something I think about a lot. Obsessively. It’s the central theme in the novel I’m currently writing and I expect it can be found in most of what I’ve written. As well as most of what I’ve read. As well as my life.
The fairy tale is particularly good at literalizing this in illuminating ways (as are science fiction and fantasy. Why I love them!) though it’s rare in a fairytale for the literal, physical transformation not to complete. This is one of the things that makes “The Wild Swans” so unusual and memorable.
My own story has less messiness in the ending, and I say that sadly, because I love a messy ending. What I’ve tried to do instead is create an ending that implies a new Once Upon a Time, but I know it may look like a They Lived Happily Ever After instead. I’ll let the reader choose.
Much of the power of both “Halfway People” and your Nebula Award winning story from the same collection “What I Didn’t See” seem to come from your choice of women who are some distance away from off-stage events that drive significant aspects of these stories. Do you feel that this is the case? How did you select your viewpoint characters for these two stories?
I’m drawn to characters with imperfect knowledge of events, because they seem real to me. This is the human condition. We all have to operate daily without the data needed and all of our lives are severely impacted by events we don’t witness and are powerless to affect. By the ends of my stories, the reader knows at least as much as my narrator knows and sometimes more; if I know more than the narrator, then I mean for the reader to know that, too. Whatever questions remain in the story are questions for which I don’t have the answers.
I’m also drawn to peripheral characters, always have been. I’m an unruly reader, stubbornly determined to look in the closet and out the window and rummage through the cupboards, when I’m supposed to be following the main action. It often seems to me that the barely glimpsed lives of the peripheral characters are more interesting than the story being told, probably because they’re barely glimpsed.
Finally, I have an aversion to the dramatic. This is just me acknowledging my own limitations as a writer. So hard to write certain kinds of scenes without becoming preposterous. When I feel I’m becoming preposterous, I tend to move the events in question off-stage. But I’m also more interested in the ripples of events than in the events themselves. More interested in Edwin Booth, for example, than his brother John Wilkes.
In your career, you’ve done a marvelous job of navigating what many see as the treacherous waters between genre and mainstream fiction. How do you feel about the distinction between the two? Do you have any advice on how we as readers and writers can approach this division?
As a reader, I’m omnivorous. Other writers tell me that the libraries they haunted as children had decals on the spines of books—rocket ships and cowboy hats, etc.—so that the young reader could identify the science fiction instantly, and the dog books, and the westerns. I’ve always counted myself lucky that my library did no such thing. The fact that there were genres is something I learned very, very late.
When I’m reading, I still pay no attention. When I’m writing, I pay no attention either. I try to use what’s needed in each story as I write it and worry later about what kind of a story it is and who might be willing to publish it. The career that’s resulted from this is a divided-self career. In general, my novels are mainstream and published as such. My short fiction appears in the genre magazines. I’ve never been able publish short fiction in the mainstream and my first novel, which I believed to be a first contact novel, was rejected by the genre presses. I’ve both suffered and prospered as a result of this division and some days it seems like more of the first and some days like more of the second. But the joy of being able to write whatever I wish to write is something that, even on my worst days, I never forget to be grateful for.
And the life of reading whatever I wish to read? Priceless.
This may be a bit of a tangent, but the Tiptree Award turned twenty years old last year. It is one of the highlights of the SF literary world, and you were involved in its creation and administration. Could you tell us a little bit about the genesis of this award?
When I first began to go to Wiscon, the feminist SF convention held annually in Madison, I was struck by how little overlap the books being read by the attendees overlapped with the books being hailed and discussed at other conventions. It was as if there were two entirely different fields. The year Pat Murphy, my co-conspirator, and I launched the Tiptree, Carol Emshwiller’s Carmen Dog, which everyone at Wiscon had read and loved, was inexplicably not going to make the Nebula ballot and we were incensed about that.
And about other things, too. We were kvetching one evening, fetchingly kvetching. This was the year I decided I would never again sit on the panel entitled Women in Science Fiction at any convention that didn’t also have a Men in Science Fiction panel scheduled as well. Some of our ire fell on the Dick award and the way that jury always seemed to be made up of four men and one woman. There should be an award named for a woman, we agreed, and the jury should always be four women and one man. If Carmen Dog wasn’t going to win the Nebula, then we should make up an award it would win. We should name it after the late, great James Tiptree and it should go to work that did interesting things with gender.
I thought we were just letting off steam here. I went home refreshed from an evening of complaining. But Pat is a woman of action. The next thing I knew, she had contacted the Tiptree estate for permission to use the name, and announced the new award in her Guest of Honor speech at Wiscon. Twenty years later, here Pat and I are, recently returned from Poland where the award itself was given the Clareson award for service to the field. And chocolates!
More info about the award can be found at tiptree.org.
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