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Throwback Q&A with Gemma Files 09/03/2016

Q: What is your most recently published work?

GF: Experimental Film is the book I have out right now, from ChiZine Publications. It's a historical mystery about the early days of cinema involving a haunted film that may have been made to deflect the interest of a dead Slavic goddess who both inspires and preys on artists; the protagonist is essentially a version of me, so it also draws a lot on various emotional elements from my own life, including the various challenges and rewards of being the mother of a child with special needs. It recently won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, which was a very creatively fulfilling career high.

Q: When did you first begin writing fiction?

GF: I've always written, but you could argue that my professional career began in 1993, when I sold a short story to Don Hutchison for Northern Frights 2. Of course, I'd graduated from Ryerson University with a BAA in Magazine Journalism by that point, and was already working as a film critic for eye Weekly, a Toronto independent arts and culture journal—but it was that sale which eventually led to me writing “The Emperor's Old Bones” for Northern Frights 4, only to see it go on to win a 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Fiction. That award led to my first two story collections (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, from Prime Books), which really jump-started my overall recognizability as a known quantity and name in the horror world.

Born in England and raised in Toronto, Canada, Gemma Files has been a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher. She's probably best known for her Weird Western Hexslinger series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thornsand, A Tree of Bones, all from ChiZine Publications). She has also published two collections, two chapbooks of speculative poetry, a story-cycle and over eighty short stories. Five of her stories were adapted as episodes of Tony and Ridley Scott's erotic horror anthology series The Hunger, two by Files herself. Her most recent book, Experimental Film, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel.



Q: How much does Canada play into your fiction?

GF: All through my career, I've gone out of my way to either physically situate my fiction within Canada or at least write from what I consider a Canadian perspective more often than not. I've said before that when I think about someone walking down a street, it's most often someone like me walking down a street in Toronto—it allows me to root my fiction in an emotional reality that's organic, easily accessible. Given that both my parents are actors and I grew up around what we call the “runaway film industry,” which runs on American projects shot in Canada to save money that constantly pretend Toronto is somewhere else (from New York to Chicago to New Orleans, depending), I think it's a decision that grew out of a basic human hunger to see myself and the world I knew reflected in the stories I wanted to well as the need to prove that supposedly quiet, polite, “safe” Canada can occasionally be just as weird, threatening and exotic as anywhere else. This culminated in my fourth book, We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven, a story-cycle about literally monstrous families that runs downtown Toronto and rural Ontario through a full-bore creep filter.

Q: What is your favorite story that you’ve written?

GF: Very difficult choice! It'd probably be down between “The Emperor's Old Bones” and “each thing I show you is a piece of my death” (which I co-wrote with my husband, Stephen J. Barringer, and which was also nominated for a SJA), versus whatever my most recently published story is at any given time. Right now, I'm very proud of “Hairwork,” which first appeared in She Walks In Shadows (Innsmouth Free Press), an anthology of Lovecraftian stories by women edited by Silvia Garcia-Moreno and Paula R. Stiles, and was recently selected by Stephen Jones to be reprinted in Best New Horror 27.

Q: Do you have any specials places you go for inspiration?

GF: Not really. I like to go write at a local coffee shop called Balzac's, but that's more to get out of the place I live and into a slightly more “official” spot—somewhere where I can't just eff around on the 'Net forever, but have to buckle down, because I'm paying for my time there. I really, really enjoy being around water, though—the sea, a lake, a river, Ripley's Aquarium. I visited my Dad in Hobart, Tasmania this January, and I would've loved to have been able to stay long enough to write something there.

Q: Do you have a favorite Margaret Atwood story, if so, what is it?

GF: I actually take more inspiration from Atwood as a poet. My favorite Atwood poem would probably be “Half-Hanged Mary,” which she wrote about her ancestor Mary Webster, who was hanged as a witch one evening, spent the night suspende from a tree by her throat, then ended up being cut down after being discovered alive in the morning and went on to live for another fourteen years. The poem is an internal monologue that follows Mary hour by hour through the night, and it is both harrowing and oddly ecstatic. A glorious piece.

Q: What is your favorite scary book and why?

GF: So hard! Sustaining a consistent feeling of dread and terror for the entire length of a novel is one of the most difficult things an author can do, as I should know. I will say that I have great respect for Stephen King's Salem's Lot, Peter Straub's Ghost Story, Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images, Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse and Helen Oyeyemi's White Is for Witching, amongst many others.

Q: Who is more your style, Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion or Corey Hart?

GF: I'm definitely a Tragically Hip girl.

Q: What is your favorite horror novel 30+ years old?

GF: Kathe Koja's Skin or Todd Grimson's Stainless, though I loved the hell out of Skipp and Spector's The Light at the End when it first came out.

Q: What are you reading now and is it any good?

GF: I'm currently reading A Brief History of Cults by Peter Haining, as research. Before that I was re-reading my way through the Charlie Parker series by John Connolly, which is the blackest, bleakest horror noir imaginable, like Thomas Harris if he wrote about fallen angels taking over people's bodies and turning them into serial killers. (Which, going by Hannibal the TV series' aesthetic, some might argue he actually did.)

Q: Do you listen to music while you write, if so, what genre(s)?

GF: Yes, and all sorts. At the moment I'm listening to "The World Spins" by Julee Cruise; a minute ago, it was "X Gon' Give it to Ya" by DMX. Movie soundtracks are particularly effective, especially ones by Clint Mansell—The Fountain and Noah are propulsive and evocative in equal measure.

Q: What was the first scary movie that you saw and what about it scared you?

GF: When I was a kid, I was capable of being scared sleepless by reading the backs of paperback novels while standing in the supermarket check-out line; my parents showed me a lot of the classic Universal monster movies (like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man) on a Canadian show called Magic Shadows that chopped them into half-hour sections and then broadcast them in instalments, serial-style. But weirdly enough, one of the earliest films I remember being horrified by was Brian De Palma's The Phantom of the Paradise, with its Paul Williams soundtrack and proto-splatterpunk band The Undeads. When they started thrusting their spiked guitars into the crowd, bringing out (ridiculously fake) severed limbs which their backup singers then sewed together "into" the band's lead singer Beef (Gerrit Graham), my 12-year-old heart was in my throat.

Q: What is the worst scary movie you’ve seen and why does it suck?

GF: Stuff I think is genuinely useless at what it's supposedly set out to do tends not to stick around inside my mind—I flush it, move on. That said, there are a bunch of films I come back to again and again even though they're culturally acknowledged to be shitty, just because there's something inside of them that tweaks something inside of me, stimulating me creatively. Th13rteen Ghosts, for example, has a line in it that I built an entire story around: "This house is a machine designed by the Devil and powered by the dead." OTOH, it also has Rah Digga playing a nanny, a death-obsessed tween kid who skateboards everywhere and Shannon Elizabeth playing a teen who spends almost the entirety of her screen-time attempting to take an apparently orgasmically enjoyable bath in a house that's literally made of glass.

Q: Do you watch television much, if so, which programs?

GF: Waaay too many. It goes by time of year. Right now, I'm watching American Gothic, Zoo (the most ridiculous show ever), So You Think You Can Dance?: Junior Edition, Killjoys, Dark Matter, Queen of the South and Fear The Walking Dead. On Netflix, I just finished Scream the TV series' second season, The Get Down, and Stranger Things, and my husband and I also recently re-watched the entire run of Twin Peaks on DVD.

Q: What is your favorite scene from the movie Little Shop of Horrors?

GF: Original or musical remake? It'd be the latter, for me, and the scene would be the sequence in which evil dentist Steve Martin explains his raison d'etre: "You have a talent for causing great PAIN/Son, be a dentist/People will pay you to be inhumane..."

Q: If you never had to sleep, what would you do with your spare time?

GF: Clear split between watching movies/TV and writing, so long as I could keep my attention on the task at hand. You didn't specify that I wouldn't get tired, after all, just that I wouldn't need to sleep.

Q: If a zombie virus began spreading, what would be your first course of action?

GF: Buy a second pair of glasses, ASAP. Then buy a ladder, find a house, get upstairs, knock out the staircase. Getting hold of a tire iron, crowbar and/or a big industrial-sized hammer would also be smart, something that could give me reach while moving through crowds. But the plain fact is, I'd probably be dead within days; I'm almost fifty and prone to chronic pain, not to mention the fact that all my skills are keyboard-dependent. My entire goal would be to get my son to safety somewhere and making sure the people I left him with believed he was worth keeping alive even though he's autistic, before sacrificing myself in some suitably grandiose way.

Q: Do you have any reoccurring dreams, if so, what are they?

GF: The most interesting ones involve landscapes I seem to recognize, places that seem utterly familiar to me, then dissolve on waking. The last time that happened I was someplace which looked a lot like a combination of Scotland and Tasmania, windswept and high, looking down on a ruined city next to the sea. Then there are the normal frustration dreams, where you're trying to do a set task and failing miserably. In my case, the task is almost alway murder, and I end up stabbing someone ineffectively while they laugh at me.

Q: If you could pick the brain of any author, living or dead, who would that be?

GF: Tanith Lee or Angela Carter, or both. I'm fascinated by people who seem able to write on command, as well as people who don't seem to plan out what they write at all, because I am not like that at all. I wish I was.

Q: Who’s your 70s rocker spirit animal?

GF: Bowie, I guess? If it was the 1980s, Pat Benatar or Kate Bush.

Q: If you were to retell a classic British work into a horror or sci-fi story, which is it?

GF: So...a classic British work that wasn't originally in either of those genres, right? Because there's a lot of great British horror: M.R. James, Vernon Lee, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Stephen Volk, Adam Nevill, etc. Um...maybe something by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine or P.D. James, like The Bridesmaid or Innocent Blood; murder needs more supernatural aspects, just like SF needs more functional sociopaths.

Q: If you could write a story with any author, living or dead, who and why?

GF:I've got great admiration for Michael Wehunt and Sunny Moraine, so either of them would be interesting.

Q: What are you working on now?

GF:I have to finish up a novella for Dim Shores that's been kicking my ass all year, then plunge straight into two different novels that need to be in by early 2017. I'm very happy with the basic outlines, but the trick is always figuring out a narrative delivery system, a pattern, a voice. But both are located in Canada, emotionally resonant and female protagonist-driven, so I feel like already, they're somewhat recognizable as “Gemma Files books (tm).”

Born in England and raised in Toronto, Canada, Gemma Files has been a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher. She's probably best known for her Weird Western Hexslinger series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thornsand, A Tree of Bones, all from ChiZine Publications). She has also published two collections, two chapbooks of speculative poetry, a story-cycle and over eighty short stories. Five of her stories were adapted as episodes of Tony and Ridley Scott's erotic horror anthology series The Hunger, two by Files herself. Her most recent book, Experimental Film, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. Website.

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