You explore the idea of poets and poetry as being something much larger in Elah Gal’s world than they are in ours. She actually orchestrates the events that she will eventually document. Where did this idea come from, and is it one that has greater meaning for you outside this story?
The idea really started with thinking about the “of Mars” books and what they would actually look like from a Martian perspective. After reading Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, it’s hard to take the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels seriously, although they’re still fun to read. But I thought about what would happen if those sorts of adventures, the human being on Mars adventures, were staged, were performance. I think there’s something Ursula Le Guinish about the idea: Le Guin, whom I read avidly as a teenager, taught me that the alien perspective may be nothing at all like our own. In this case, poetry is indeed more important for the aliens, although human societies have also had court poets. There was a time when if you went to war, you took your bard along to sing about it. Bards had magical powers, back then. And I do still believe that poetry is magic, that in a sense it makes the world: Stories create our perception of reality. So yes, I think there is a larger theme at work here, although I hope the story itself is simply fun as well.
You recently had a story published in Under the Moons of Mars, an anthology based on the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I started reading “Child-Empress of Mars” I was convinced I was reading a Barsoom story, it seemed to fit so well in that world, while being wholly original. Were you directly inspired by the work of Burroughs for this story, or do you think there’s a larger cultural or literary influence at play for both of you?
For this particular story, I was much more influenced by the IDEA of Burroughs’ Barsoom than the reality. I’m not really writing about his Mars here. I’m writing about the idea of the Mars adventure story, which he is certainly associated with—but there were many Mars adventure stories written. I think the larger influence for me would actually be Bradbury and Le Guin, whom I mentioned above. They were essential to my experience of science fiction as I was growing up, and they critiqued, in their different ways, the hero-meets-bug-eyed-alien ethos. They taught me to assume that the aliens have a valid perspective, and a perspective that is perhaps more interesting, and more important to explore, than our own. In my own Barsoom story in “Under the Moons of Mars,” I took the Burroughs characters and plot line much more seriously, although even there I showed that John Carter doesn’t know everything that’s going on—in the mind of his own calot, even. I tried to show that peripheral characters have their own stories, which may be very different from what we assume is the main narrative.
The world-building in this story was so detailed–you created the flora, the fauna, the architecture. What was that process like for you? Was this a world you’d conceived already, or were the details created as you went?
I created the details as I went, and then I went back and revised, of course. But really if you look closely you’ll see that what I’ve done is given you a bunch of words—Martian words—and you have to figure out what you think they mean. So you’re really creating the world inside your head. I half-created it, and you create the other half. I asked so much of the readers here, and yet, isn’t that the fun of it? Being asked to do something like read parts of a story in an imaginary language and yet understanding it, being able to visualize it? At least, I think that’s fun. I hope readers think so too . . .
I wanted to learn a little more about the history of your story, and what I discovered is that some gorgeous multi-media art had been created based on “Child-Empress of Mars” to benefit the Interstitial Arts Foundation, and that you had co-edited the first in the Interfictions series. Can you tell our readers a little about what interstitial art is, and what about it drew you to participate with the Foundation?
Yes, several works of art were created for an auction benefiting the Interstitial Arts Foundation. C. Jane Washburn created a sculpture of the Child-Empress. She was gorgeous! Laramie Sasseville created an amazing bookmark, and Connie Toebe created one of her wonderful boxes, called Dream of the Child-Empress of Mars. Later, several friends got together and bought me another Washburn sculpture, the poet Elah Gal, which is one of my most prized possessions. Interstitial art is art that exists between genre boundaries, and I think my story is exactly that. It’s science fiction—sort of? Or maybe it’s an interrogation of science fiction. Or maybe it’s an interrogation of fiction. But it definitely plays with generic conventions. Not that I was thinking of that when I wrote it. I just thought of what a pleasure it would be to write something so strange and complicated. It was a challenge I set myself. But I became involved with the Interstitial Arts Foundation, and co-edited the first Interfictions with Delia Sherman, because I wanted to work with this sort of art. I think it’s exciting stuff, and of course the pieces created for the auction are also excellent examples.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a novel based on a novella called “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” which is about all the daughters of the mad scientists: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. It’s about how they meet in late nineteenth-century London, and the adventures they have together. It’s a pleasure to write, and gave me an excuse to go to London last summer. That novella will shortly be reprinted in a book called The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. In a way, I’m doing what I did in “Child-Empress,” telling you that although you think you know the story, you don’t. There’s another story, another perspective, and if you listen, I’ll tell you what it is . . .