The Future Fire has been turning out some of the most interesting and diverse work in genre fiction for a decade now. They’re running an IndieGoGo campaign to fund an anthology to celebrate this and it’s a project that deserves both your time and money. Full details are on the site, and I’ll have a look at the campaign up here tomorrow.
But before that, I talked to Valeria Vitale. Valeria is one of the editors of TFF, as well as co-editor, along with Djibril al-Ayad of the upcoming Fae Visions of the
Mediterranean horror anthology. I talked to her about TFF, Fae Visions, 3D models of ancient cities and more.
I think it was the first year I moved to London. I was studying really hard to get my masters degree and, not being a native speaker, everything felt quite difficult. For the first time since I was a kid, I thought it was sensible to put aside literature for a while and focus all my energies on learning. Then I met one of the editors of TFF and they lent me a copy of issue #24, made even more tempting by the cover by Cécile Matthey. I thought that a few short stories wouldn’t compromise my academic career, so I read it. And then it happened: sensual, mysterious dryads, unexpectedly tender harpies and charming female space soldiers entered into my life and convinced me that giving up fiction was such a ridiculous idea. It turned out they were right. In a couple weeks I was fully back to avidly reading literature. And that made me feel incredibly better. It nourished my imagination, gave me more ideas, more words. Now, you see? I kinda owe them.
That’s brilliant, and speaks very strongly to the, if not escapist then certainly nourishing element of literature. It’s one of those things you notice when it’s not been there for a while and appreciate all the more when it returns.
What was your Masters in? And is there a particular story from Issue 24 that stays with you?
My Masters has a slightly obscure denomination: “Digital Humanities”. Roughly, it is about applying digital technologies to study the humanities in new ways. It sounds very broad, and, indeed, it is. My specialty is the use of 3D modelling to investigate ancient cultural heritage.
My favourite story from issue 24? This is a tough one! I think that was one of the best, and richest issues ever. The first story I can think of, without looking at the index, is “Je me souvien” by Su J. Sokol [http://futurefire.net/2012.24/fiction/jemesouviens.html]. It is a beautifully written tale about justice, love, family, hope. And superheroes. It is strong but full of tenderness. I met Su once. I’m pretty sure she has super powers too: it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve read her story, you can’t read it again without feeling deeply moved.
But if you’d ask me tomorrow, I might give you another answer!
What sort of stories do you find yourself drawn to?
I grew up reading classics, and I think it left me a taste for solid plots. My love for the horror genre made me very demanding of the way authors use anticipation, misdirection and this kind of almost theatrical literary techniques. My encounter with Calvino, Perec and the other oulipian writers taught me that literature is like a machine you set up in your imagination. And if the author makes all the components work as a well-greased mechanism, then reading is a pleasure. My familiarity with fairytales showed me that a storyteller has to work really hard on their prose if they want it to look like it is just natural. That they shouldn’t use two words when one could do, if it is well chosen. That everything they say, has to be said for a reason, otherwise it makes the story weaker. But this is all accessory. The real question is what is the story about? Why does it matter to the author? Is it challenging a social stereotype? Is it voicing a point of view that is usually hidden or misrepresented? Is it inspiring us to fight, to change, to love? If not, then I’m afraid it is not enough.
I LOVE your analogy of literature as a machine especially as it speaks to personal experience. I was a stage magician when I was a teenager and, oddly, that coloured my appreciation of fiction in a similar way. I find myself very forgiving of familiar beats if they’re executed well, simply because I’ve been taught to see artistry in the execution as much as the conclusion.
And yes, horror is intensely theatrical. That can lead to some remarkable places too. Have you read any Ligotti? And is there somewhere you’d recommend I start with Calvino and Perec?
Ligotti? No! Never read anything by him (quickly taking notes). If you like the idea of literature as a (playful) machine, probably the most obvious suggestion is Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. It’s something between a story and a puzzle. An even more straight forward example is Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. It’s a collection of 10 sonnets, each line printed on a movable strip. The possible combinations are, literally, a hundred thousand billions. Bear in mind that oulipian writers belong to a pre-electronic era, which makes their experiments even more interesting, in my opinion. Calvino is another matter. He did write some incredible combinatory literature. But my favourite among his books is this tiny transcript of his Norton Lectures, in 1985. It’s the best book about writing I’ve ever read. Every writer should read it. No, actually, everyone should read it!
Also, I’m curious as to where your love for horror came from. Is there a particular story you remember from an early age?
Fairytales were definitely my gateway to horror as a child. There was this book in my house, I guess it was my mom’s, with fairy tales from all over the world. I read it so many times that I can still see the pages with the eyes of my memory. I wasn’t scared by old blind ladies keeping kids in cages and force feeding them, or by houses moving on giant chicken legs, I was utterly fascinated! Illustrations played a major role too. I remember this image of Vassilissa the beautiful using an empty skull as a torch, the light coming out the hollow eye orbits. Amazing… My favourite story was about this princess who, during a long trip to another kingdom, was attacked by her servant who also stole her identity. The only witness of the misdeed was the princess’ horse that, of course, was magic and able to speak. So the fake princess had it killed, its head nailed to the city door. The only happy moments left to the now poor and abandoned true princess were when she went to talk with the head of her dead horse. Everything turned out for the better in the end. Well, maybe not for the horse…
What’s the learning curve been for you as an editor? How is your process, and what you look for, different now?
I started proofreading for We See a Different Frontier [http://press.futurefire.net/p/we-see-different-frontier.html] , the postcolonial anthology edited by Djibril and Fabio Fernandes. I was just supposed to help spotting typos and other small things. Little did the editors know that I would also explain in detail what I liked and disliked of all the stories in the collection. I guess they decided to make the most of my narrative addiction and started involving me in the process of story selection for the magazine. Currently, I am co-editing two anthologies. I wouldn’t say that I look for different stories now, mostly because changes take time. But for sure I am learning a lot of things from this experience with a publishing house that has such a strong socio-political drive. I have learnt to be more empathic and recognise things that might be disrespectful and insensitive. I have learnt how not to propagate with literature ideas I wouldn’t like to be propagated in society. I have changed the way I speak because I’m more aware that our words do shape our reality. I think that publishing stories, even for a tiny publishing house, invests you with a little responsibility. And you suddenly realise that small things matter. Everything matters.
Absolutely. The idea of almost transparent communication, where you interact exactly how you intend rather than how it could be interpreted sometimes seems to be the Questing Beast in literature doesn’t it?
That level of feedback, speaking as someone who both employs editors and is engaged to one is as admirable and necessary as it can be time consuming. Have you find your approach changing with these two new anthologies?
You’re right, it is extremely time consuming. I guess I didn’t really have an idea about it when I started. But when you realise it, you’re too involved to leave. And, actually, you end up committing yourself even more, as I did with our upcoming two new anthologies. The truth is that it is also a lot of fun, if you are really into the project. But I’m sure you know that…
Those two anthologies would be Fae Visions and TFFX yes? Tell us a little about them?
The first one is TFFX, our 10th anniversary anthology, which is our biggest deal at the moment. Ten years are a lot for a small, non-commercial publishing house, so the anthology is a bit of a milestone. But if we’re happy that we have always received, and keep receiving, very good, brave and diverse stories and illustrations, we are also aware that we are not able to pay the authors and artists adequately for their efforts. So this anthology is both a celebration of the work done so far, and a way to raise money to give a fairer pay to our contributors in the future. You can pre-order a copy of our anthology with some of our very best stories, plus some new content. We also have several nice perks, including books, story crits and personalised knitted zombie dolls that look like you or a person of your choice. Never thought you could have one? Then you should definitely visit our campaign page! [igg.me/at/tffx]
You have all August to buy a copy of the anthology or book one of our perks and to tell your friends about it. Even if you’re not interested in supporting the fundraiser directly we would really appreciate if you could just spread the word on social media.
The second is Fae Visions of the Mediterranean. Last Christmas Djibril and I were doing some research on monsters and folk tales (as you would over Christmas!), and were rather disappointed realising how little information is available about horrific creatures and terrifying legends from the Mediterranean area. The fact that the places we were interested in were all kissed by the waves of the mare nostrum, quite naturally suggested to put together a horror and fantastic anthology with a salty flavour. The call is still open [http://press.futurefire.net/p/fae-visions.html] so, if you have a mermaid grandmother, if you know someone snatched by a seamonster, if your city has been founded by a man riding a dolphin, please send us your story! And even if your tale is completely dry, but it captures something of the language or the cultures of a Mediterranean country, we are more than happy to consider it.
We have received some excellent submissions so far, but we are a bit frustrated by the overrepresentation of Anglo-American authors who, often, just perpetuate touristy stereotypes. To reach more Mediterranean writers, we have decided to accept, along with the regular stories in English, micro stories (up to 500 words) in any of the local languages. I know that the idea of a polyglot anthology might sound hazardous, but we are very fond of it, as it’s consistent with the Mediterranean identity: we have always been a colourful mosaic of travelling stories and words, carried by the tides.
Oh not at all, a polyglot anthology sounds brilliant. Especially for a nautical themed book like this. How much success have you had if you don’t mind me asking? And what sort of writer communities in the region have you found?
We have received microstories in French, Spanish. Italian, Greek and Croatian so far. But we want more! We are especially keen on reaching the Arabic speaking countries. We would love to get in touch with local writers communities. If any of the people reading this could give us contacts or tips, we’d be truly grateful.
I was really hoping to receive a story about the fatamorgana. Is not a monster per se, it is a vision, it’s seeing something that doesn’t exist. Or does it? I have a soft spot for things that are illusional and ephemeral. Fatamorgana is a recorded phenomenon, and happens all over the world, but, apparently, it is especially common around the Stretto di Messina, that tiny piece of Mediterranean between Italy and Sicily. Also, I’m intrigued by the name. In English it is called with the Italian word, maybe because of its origin. But Morgana is a character of the Arthurian saga, who knows how she ended up in Sicily! Now we know all the scientific explanations for the fatamorgana, but it still sounds like an extraordinary prompt for a fantasy or horror story (do you think the hint is obvious enough? :-)).
One of the things that fascinates me is how the supernatural changes as you move across the planet. What sort of ghost stories really stay with you?
I like melancholic ghosts over terrifying ones. Creatures trapped in a world they don’t belong to anymore, where everything is familiar and, at the same time, has changed.
As you asked about regional variations, I’ll tell you something about the evil spirits in my father’s home town, a rural area in the South of Italy. People there have a quite different relationship with ghosts. Surely spirits are scary, but they are also undeniably part of the world. In the end, they are almost a familiar presence and behave very similarly to the living. So, for example, the better way to protect yourself against those spirits is to put a piece of printed paper in your room. Ghosts are curious, and, if they see something written, they are compelled to read it. But, like many of the inhabitants of the tiny villages around the fields, they didn’t spend much time in school, so they are very slow at reading. It will take them all night to do it, and when the sun rises their time is up, and they have to leave, boiling with frustration. The image of them reading a piece of newspaper following every single letter with their finger never fails to make me smile.
There’s a very established, almost calcified view of history you find imposing on genre fiction in the West. What would you recommend to readers looking to change their perspective?
There is definitely a dominant vision of the past in current western literature. What I find interesting (and almost amusing) is that each century had its own. The point is that the things we (think we) know about the past, especially the ancient past, are far fewer than the things we don’t know. And because of that, every new discovery can potentially change our previous understanding. The truth is that archaeology has very much in common with narrative processes: it is all about imagining how a number of clues can be, plausibly and logically, connected. But how many stories are actually allowed by the same evidence? I think it is what we ignore that makes ancient history endlessly fascinating to us, and, also, such a fertile field for speculative fiction. To shake the mainstream vision of the past a bit, we would need a massive injection of non-western authors in our book market, something that would allow us to discover different pasts or different visions of the Classical one. Also, as an experiment, I would recommend reading a few pages of some old school Victorian historical novels. Scott or Bulwer-Lytton would do. Although dangerously boring, there is no better way to gain first hand awareness that all accounts of the past are biased and culturally influenced.
Things are changing. There are new trends in historical research that draw attention on the role of women, slaves, children, and all the categories of people that never made it to the official documents, that were always written by rich, powerful males. There is even a postcolonial approach that studies how the different local tribes reacted to the Roman conquest. But I’m afraid I can only suggest (possibly very boring) essays, I’ve never been very much into historical fiction.
What’s the one ancient city you’d live in if you could?
I’m afraid I don’t really have a choice here. I have been working for the past years on a temple in Pompeii. I have measured it, photographed it, researched plans in dusty archives, stared at old watercolours and engravings looking for clues of how it might have looked like in Roman times. Then I have modelled it in 3D. Basically, I have built it again. I think I know it almost brick by brick. I tend to refer to it as “my temple” when talking with friends and colleagues. So, if I had the chance to go back in time, I would never resist the temptation to see how it actually was, to fully admire its delightful architectural asymmetry, to contemplate it under a starry sky, the deep red of the frescoes’ warmth by the light of quivering candles. I probably couldn’t help wandering around muttering things like “oh! I never thought it was like this”. I should learn the latin for that. You never know…
Excellent choice I’d cheat a little, go for Renaissance Venice. Such a vibrant place at that time, and the political climate, as well as the fervent need almost for change and expansion would be hectic but fascinating: )
You mentioned 3D models of ancient temples. Which ones?
Currently, the most adorably sinister place you can find in Pompeii: the Temple of Isis
More than a single monster, what fascinates me the most of sea stories are the descriptions of underwater palaces, all encrusted with coral and pearls, with fish floating in large ballrooms, crab crawling on exquisite mosaics, algae dangling from the chandeliers… Usually they are the residence of some King or Queen of the Underwater World. The servants, often drowned humans.
You talked earlier about how little we know about history compared to what we do know. What one site, lost to us now, would you choose to excavate if you could?
Following the maritime thread, I’d love to excavate a sunken ancient city. There are entire Egyptian cities that have been sitting underwater for something like two thousand years. Now we have the right technology to study them without moving anything. They say they’ve found Cleopatra’s palace, somewhere near Alexandria. Can you imagine it, after such a long time underwater? To see it, would feel like being in one of those sea stories…
Thank you so much to Djibril for setting the interview up and to Valeria for such a fun conversation.
Please go take a look, they do great work.