12 February 2005

Holly Phillips at Infinity Plus

An interview I did with Holly Phillips has been posted at Infinity Plus, along with Holly's story "A Woman's Bones".

Last month, Prime Books published Holly's first collection, In the Palace of Repose, which is one of the stronger and more coherent single-author collections I've read in a while.

Here's a taste of the interview:
I've always read widely, not just in fantasy, but there is something about the joy fantasists take in purely imaginative work, and something about the way that imagery and metaphor are made literal, concrete, in fantasy and all the speculative genres, that has always fired my own imagination. I think Sean [Stewart] once called it "opening a window on the numinous," which I think is a beautiful phrase.

MC: What about the literalization of metaphor appeals to you? Is it just that that's what seems to most easily ignite your imagination, or is there more to it?

HP: Definitely more to it. What I see happening in my best stories -- because this part of the process is always unconscious -- is that the speculative element, the idea, comes to serve as a metaphor that runs the course of the whole story. "A Woman's Bones" is an example, with the tomb acting as a metaphor for the character's self. To me, the very best SF isn't just about playing around with cool ideas -- although that's part of the delight I take in the genre, as a reader and a writer -- but it's also about making those ideas meaningful. Writing fantasy lets me give a story's theme, its meaning, a central role. I especially love the duality in this: it's meaningful, and it's fun.

MC: What's the difference, do you think, between ideas that are just cool ideas, and ideas that end up being meaningful in a story?

HP: Well, this is one of those things I'm still figuring out, but I suspect that the best ideas are multifaceted in the same way that the best characters are. A complex idea or speculative element plays out in different ways in different situations, affects different characters' lives in different ways, and especially affects the protagonist's life in different ways. There is an enormous potential for conflict and drama if the speculative element has a different effect on her private and public lives, internal and external experiences, friendships, enmities, love affairs....

Mind you, I don't necessarily mean "complex" in the sense that the idea itself has a lot of moving parts. In LeGuin's classic novel The Dispossessed, one of the main speculative elements is that her societies are on two different worlds (actually a world and its moon). A very simple speculative element that works on a literal, practical level by complicating and shaping characters' lives -- LeGuin's protagonist is the first person to travel between the worlds in several generations, and everyone in the novel has a very strong reason for wanting or not wanting him to go, and all the reasons are in conflict, even when the desires are not. But the novel is also about alienation, and who has alienated whom; and not only that, her protagonist is a physicist who has invented a mathematical construct that will allow for instantaneous communication between any two points in the universe, however widely separated in space. Get it? Communication, separation... So the speculative setting also works on a metaphorical or thematic level.

I have issues with SF that uses the speculative element as window dressing, cool F/X like you see on TV. Magical powers can be fun to play around with, in the same way that superpowers are fun in the comics, but to me, magic isn't a substitute for the telephone, or the ray gun. Magic is a force that animates and sometimes rips apart the ordinary world, a force that opens a window on the numinous.
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