An Interview with Joanne Merriam and Octavia Cade – Bonus Round!

Women Up to No GoodBack in April, I interviewed Joanne Merriam and Octavia Cade, two of the editors of the Women Up to No Good anthology series from Upper Rubber Boot Books. The Kickstarter to support the anthology series, which focuses on dark, feminist, speculative fiction just relaunched earlier this month. There are tons of fabulous rewards up for grab as part of the campaign, including a critique from yours truly. What’s more, you’ll be helping Upper Rubber Boot continue publishing stories with a feminist bent, and bring even more wonderful fiction into the world.

As part of the Kickstarter relaunch, Joanne and Octavia were kind enough to come back and answer some bonus questions for me. Here they are, chatting about Canadian and Kiwi literature, odd jobs, and recent favorite reads…

A question I like to ask my fellow (transplanted) Canadians (hi, Joanne!), but can apply equally to other nationalities (hi, Octavia!) is about the national character of our/their literature. So, do you think there are particular tones, themes, or subjects that make a piece of literature quintessentially of Canada or of New Zealand? If so, do you ever consciously draw on those themes in your own work, or even consciously avoid them?

JM: Yes and yes! I’d be hard-pressed to define Canadian-ness in lit (people devote their whole lives to that, as you know) but there’s definitely a “feel” to it. When I read submissions, I try to read as blind as I can, and sometimes this doesn’t work because you recognize a well-known writer’s style, but in a similar way, I’ve noticed that frequently I’ll think, “huh, I’m pretty sure a Canadian wrote this” and I’m right more often than not, although the bulk of my submissions come from Americans. But there’s such a breadth to what falls under that umbrella of Canlit that it’s really something you notice more in aggregate than in particular works. For my own work, it’s not something I generally think about but I’m sure it exerts an unconscious influence. I’ve been living in the States for 14 years now, so less and less influence over time, I expect, though Americans do still comment on my speech patterns and certain habits of mind are set by the time you’re 25 or so and I didn’t emigrate until I was 30.

OC: There’s a Kiwi actor called Sam Neill that a lot of you will probably know of, and he made a study of New Zealand cinema some time back that coined a very specific phrase. He talked about how NZ films were a “cinema of unease” – often dark and uncomfortable, reflective of the struggle for identity. And that is I think often present in our literature as well, and it’s there on both an individual and community level. We’re a young country that’s geographically isolated and relatively unimportant, so much so that for a lot of the time we’re left to do our own thing, pretty much. There’s a tongue-in-cheek campaign going round at the moment to remedy the many, many maps around the world that don’t actually have us on them, but although we laugh at it there is I think an underlying sense of national… I wouldn’t call it insecurity, exactly, although that’s part of it for sure, but a very definite awareness of isolation and the power of connection and disconnection, of existing very slightly apart, and that’s discomforting, and something we explore a lot in literature as well as cinema. When writing myself I tend to be drawn to the slightly odd and quietly grim, so I expect it’s all percolated through unawares.

Speaking of national characteristics, let’s talk about your current home towns a bit. What are your favorite places in your respective areas to gain inspiration, or refresh yourselves when you’re feeling stuck on a creative project? What are the places you like to recommend to people visiting for the first time?

OC: I live in small town Cambridge, but one of the places that really inspires me is Hamilton Public Gardens (Hamilton being the city about 20 minutes away). They were International Garden of the Year back in 2014 I think? And was originally built on the town dump. They are unreservedly excellent, split up into dozens of small connected gardens. Some of these are themed geographically – the Maori garden, the Indian garden, the Italian garden, for example – and some are totally fantastically insane. The newest one to open is a concept garden with a sunken lemon tree pit, red painted trees and a zeppelin – and they’re planning over a dozen more. Next to open, I think, and what I’ve been hanging out for, is the surrealist garden, complete with 8 metre tall giant moving topiaries. There’s also a garden based on a famous NZ short story to come, a garden where they’re building a ruined and overgrown castle, a garden based on fantasy films, an ancient Egyptian garden, one based on the medieval French poem The Romance of the Rose… they only have a few of the plans up on their website, but there’s a big display of future projects at the gardens themselves. I love public gardens at the best of times, and Hamilton’s is without doubt the best I’ve ever seen. Every time I go there – and I go there regularly – I’m inspired with what imagination can make of (literal) trash.

(ACW: OMG! Those gardens sound amazing. Now I want to visit!)

BunnyJM: I still think of my hometown as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I miss being able to walk down to the boardwalk or drive out to Conrad’s Beach to commune with the Atlantic. Tennessee is short on ocean but long on wonderful state parks – I often go to places like Radnor Lake, Savage Gulf, and Old Stone Fort to hike to waterfalls and look at trees and turn my mind off for a bit. I find when I’m stuck, thinking harder about the issue doesn’t help me, and the best thing to do is something distracting that’s mostly physical and that gets my brain back to a sort of calm steady state, and then frequently the solution just presents itself. We also have an excellent zoo, and I like to go when they open on Saturdays, and walk straight to the elephant enclosure and watch them eat their hay while I sit and eat a protein bar. There’s one elephant who always comes over to the artificial lake by my bench to have a drink and look at me, and I feel like we’re visiting each other for breakfast, although for all I know she does that every day whether I’m there or not. The other place I’m constantly recommending to people is Cheekwood, an old mansion that was turned over to a conservancy group which has been very creative in how they use the property: the mansion is a museum with a permanent exhibit on the group floor and rotating art exhibits on the second floor, and the grounds have been turned into a series of themed gardens (similar to what Octavia describes above, but much less fantastical) plus a sculpture trail, and some additional buildings have been added for workshops and classes and quite a good restaurant. We were there last week to see an outdoor exhibit of enormous inflatable rabbits (pictured above).

Another of my favorite things to ask is about strange, non-writing jobs. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had? Did it inspire any of your creative work, teach you anything particular valuable, or inform your life in other ways?

JM: I haven’t had a ton of weird jobs, unlike many writers, but I do get inspiration from my work. For example, my story “Swan Song” arose from a job I had sorting Medicaid claim forms, and “Facial Deficits,” which was in [PANK], was inspired by a lecturer I met at my current job, who had been part of the team to perform the first facial allotransplantation in the US, and of course after talking to him I had to write a story about a face transplant patient because what’s more science fictional than that? Most of my work life has been as an administrative assistant, which is frequently tedious but sometimes very interesting. I worked for five years for the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, and spent some time in corporate jobs, but most of my work life has been in medicine or related positions, for the Nova Scotia Department of Health, for a Medicaid contractor, and now running a surgical fellowship and the lives of several surgeons for a local hospital. I’m currently involved in a medical surgical-educational camp in Kenya, which my boss-doctor has brought me to twice, and at some point the small coastal town we go to, Malindi, will feature in some stories. Working in medicine helps me to maintain perspective about my own life: maybe money is tight or a tree fell on our roof or I can’t figure out how to resolve a plot problem or whathaveyou, but nobody died.

OC: I worked at a match-making festival in Ireland for 3 months once. I was doing the backpacking thing, and got a temp job at a hotel on the West Coast in this tiny little town of Lisdoonvarna which has less than 1K people most of the time but explodes into non-stop music and party for the duration of the festival. Completely mad. It’s never turned up in any of my stories. I’m not sure I could do it justice. I’ve also done some science writing for kids that’s basically looking up strange and disgusting facts and turning them into mildly informative articles (did you know one of the first women to discover a comet impaled herself on her own telescope? Well, one of the massive hooks needed to move it, anyway. Lost a significant chunk of flesh). Kids love that gross shit, and so do I.

Since I never tire of talking about books and short stories, and since a TBR piles can never be too towering, what are a few of your recent favorite reads? Or, old favorites you think more people ought to know about?

JM: I’ve been recommending Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera to everybody: it’s a hilarious adventure about an aging rock star who has to save the world in the universe’s answer to Eurovision. I’m also excited to read Christina Dalcher’s Vox once it comes out this August; it’s based on a short story she originally wrote for Broad Knowledge and then expanded into a novel instead, and the short story was extremely good. And finally, I would say that anybody who hasn’t read The Hate U Give needs to drop everything and do so.

OC: Oh, well, let me take the chance to plug (again!) The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. Magical realism meets cli-fi and indigenous Australia. It came out several years ago, is astonishingly good, got pretty much zero notice from the SFF review scene which should have fallen all over it, and inexplicably did not even make the long list for the Booker (which it deserved to win) and I will never stop being salty about that. Never. The language in it is extraordinary and if you haven’t read it please consider taking a look.

On a related note, what other nerdy things are you excited about at the moment – comics, tv, games, movies, music, or anything else?

OC: Nerdy things, hmm. I continue to work my way through every werewolf film ever made, on the grounds that I Have A Theory and therefore sitting on my arse and stuffing my face with popcorn while I watch the latest gross transformation scene is Research and not just being bone idle. Oh, and there’s a kickstarter someone’s working on to make handbags in the shape of whale sharks and I am enthralled. Other than that, most of my nerdiness is reserved for real life things like national parks being snarky to power over social media, and the hoarding of enraging science stories so I can work out my bile by writing grim uneasy stories where Science Fights Back and so on.

JM: I’m pretty obsessed with the Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek, about a rich family who lose everything and have to move to a small town they once bought as a joke. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara are the big names in it, and of course they’re wonderful, but the real reason I’m watching is Daniel Levy and Emily Hampshire, whose characters are so layered in irony and unhappiness it’s a real pleasure to watch them find each other. I’ve also been watching Brooklyn 99 obsessively, but I’m late to the party there. For movies, I want everybody in the world to watch The Beauty Inside, a romantic drama about a man who wakes up every day as a different person and the woman who loves him but faces social consequences for apparently being with different men all the time. I found it lovely and haunting. I’ve also taken to watching Mr. Right, where hitman Sam Rockwell falls for Anna Kendrick (and who wouldn’t), about once a month, and I’m forever telling my loved ones that I’m a dinosaur because of it. (And speaking of dinosaurs, I’m also looking forward to the kickstarter for A. Merc Rustad’s Robot Dinosaurs virtual anthology!)

Thank you for coming back to answer some bonus questions, and best of luck with the Kickstarter!

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