“Given the Advantage of the Blade” is a delightfully cruel and bloody story with an underpinning of the awareness of the diversity of women in myth and legend, and how women are perceived today. What inspired this particular story?
Precisely that. The relationships between women in folklore seem sadly mapped over the myth of exceptionalism we see so often today — one woman’s the fairest or the kindest, and the others are wicked and cruel. You see so many news stories about how a woman is “the next X” (a replacement for that one elusive position) or a headline with a “vs.” in it, like just having two women existing at the same time means they’re in a standoff. So much of the post-Carter genre of fairy-tale retelling centers on those relationships: to complicate them, to show there’s more than just a jealous queen in iron shoes. But there are so many stories in which women are at the mercy of women that the knife fight seems inevitable.
Perception is everything in this story. The mercy killings of long-lashed cows. Queens cataloguing wounds. Cinderella’s mother’s balloon-thin cruelty. The rose on Beauty’s dagger. How the characters see their strengths and weaknesses may not reflect the reality of the moment. What are your thoughts on how a reader’s perceptions influence their interpretation of a story?
I think a reader’s perceptions inevitably influence a story, and fairy-tale history is something of a fossil record for it. Stories trace trade routes (recorded Cinderella stories start in China and move slowly west). Stories get bowdlerized until Sleeping Beauty’s woken by love’s first kiss instead of childbirth, they get softened until Red Riding Hood needs saving. It’s a process over which a story has no control, that’s often (and not coincidentally) about changing the point of control in the stories themselves. Some of the women in this knife-fight wouldn’t recognize versions of themselves that competed four hundred years ago.
Recent years have seen a deliberate shift in how women are portrayed in fiction, and how such portrayals speak to real world concerns and attitudes. This story opens itself wide to these changes, every nuance in plotting and staging leading the reader and the characters further along the path of self-awareness. If you could speak directly to young writers dipping their toes in the waters of genre fiction, what advice would you have for them about how to avoid the pitfalls common to female characters?
I’m not sure young writers are necessarily the ones who need the most advice here, but as a general rule I think a laundry list of what to do or not do is only useful once you’re sure of your destination and only need a map to avoid specific pitfalls. If you approach her as a subject, not an object, you’re halfway to doing the work.
You are a prolific writer with a diverse voice. What is the greatest difference between writing prose and writing for comic books?
They’re entirely different animals, partially because comics are so collaborative; in comics, you’re writing both to your audience and directly to your artist in order to make sure you can visually translate something that will do an amazing amount of the storytelling. (In comics, a fight scene can be three stage directions and a character note. In prose, a fight scene always takes me half an hour to block out just to make sure nobody has more arms than they’re supposed to.) It’s a more cinematic style of storytelling that still keeps some of the charms and tricks unique to the page; between two worlds.
When you’re hungry for a taste of genre, who sets your imagination on fire?
Honestly, I’m never doing as much reading as I should be doing, but the more widely I read, the better it goes. I also like alternating fiction (I deeply enjoyed The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn) with nonfiction (How to Be a Victorian), if for no other reason than nonfiction almost always ends up being research even if you don’t expect it at the time.
What can we expect from Genevieve Valentine? What do you have in store for readers in the second half of 2015?
It’s almost impossible to get me to shut up about TV and movies, so I’ll be publishing some essays and articles there. I just turned in the sequel to Persona, which will be out in 2016 (so it’s cheating slightly but it counts, sort of!). I’m writing Catwoman for DC Comics, and I hope to start putting together a short story collection before the year is out.
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