I treated this interview with Gwyneth Jones with restrictions, for my bones were still hot and I had some scorched parts on my body as a result of the interview with Hal Duncan. There was a time when the risks were shared between the interviewer and the interviewee. But I have recently noticed that the interviewer has been running increasingly greater risks.
And that is not reasonable.
So I consulted the watchmaker who gave me the quantic watch. I’ve had a hard time finding him. When I finally had him in front of me, I asked him if there was no better way to control the sceneries, so that we wouldn’t take run that many risks. I asked him if it would be possible to make all the interviews at the serenity and comfort of a bar. No fights, no shooting, no monsters, no aliens, no demons or distorted angels.
He answered with a “Banzai!” and threw a shuriken at me. Having no other option, I pressed the button on the watch and got away from his rage.
I ended up in a forest. It was magnificent, leafy and verdant. The sunbeams, filtered by the tree canopies, broke through as swords of light, forming bright columns where tiny bugs flew, as if they were little prisms, their wings reflecting a wonderful color jugglery.
I stood still. My feet were covered by the underbrush. Lots of bushes rustled, moved by the fresh breeze, or by the presence of little inhabitants of the forest: caterpillars, agile rodents, flying or jumping insects.
The trees were tall, and had erect trunks which seemed exclamation marks. Smooth skin, stained in shades of green and brown. Some spots with lots of trees, others with wide clearings, opened, where dry leaves piled, whirling at the slightest wind.
I took a few steps, approaching one of the trees. I felt the trunk and looked up, until my sight got lost in the intertwined canopies that formed a large veil.
Then I heard a distant and indistinguishable buzz. It became louder and louder. I noticed something moving far away, outlining trunks, dodging bushes, climbing up and down, swerving fast and vertiginously, almost at right angles. I was stunned and amazed.
It was only when the object was close enough that I identified it as a helix, spinning wildly on its own axis.
I realized the danger only too late.
The helix would have chopped my head off. It came straight towards me, in an unerring flight. I stayed there, goggling as death approached, not having enough time to react.
But a delicate, feminine hand came out of nowhere and held the artifact before it reached my throat. It had three blades, twisted as a weird boomerang. Those were dramatic moments. I started trembling and, trying to avoid an imminent faint, breathed the air in deep gushes, in order to keep my balance.
“Don’t embarass me. Only the weak faint while facing danger,”said the character behind me, retreating her arm and the killer helix.
I turned around cautiously, trying to disguise my trembling. It was Gwyneth Jones, I assumed.
“Gwyneth…” I stuttered.
She frowned, looked at me from head to toe, twisted her lips in disapproval and shrugged. She turned around, giving her back to me. She was wearing a long white dress that ran over her body, covering it down to her feet. Long hair. Diaphanous look, as in a dream. She moved forward a little and then turned to me again.
“From Bar to Bar, isn’t it?”
“Yes!” I answered excitedly. “The interview, remember?”
“Better in the woods than in hell,” I said, smiling and remembering the angels and demons, and the streams of sulphurous water.
But the smile died on my lips instantly. My remark seemed to infuriate her. She intensified the look, motioned one of the hands quickly and then I was lifted in the air and thrown back with violence. Inches before crashing against a trunk, I felt “held”. I was suspended in the air as if invisible ropes were sustaining me. Gwineth Jones overcame the dozens of meters separating us in a second sliding swiftly over the ground. With another move, I was released and fell violently, hitting my back against some roots. I moaned in pain.
“Woods? You said Woods?” She screamed as I tried to get back on my feet. “What you call woods is what I call home. Enchanted forest. Magical forest. Stronghold of the good, the pure, the paladin and the righteous at service of the truth. Look at what is around you, free yourself from this mean and limited vision you brought with you, and you will see that these “woods” are much more than you’ll be able to understand in your whole lifetime.
I finally stood up and tried to get myself together while I was rationalizing. That interview was crossing the line. The bloody Japanese guy who’d given me the quantic watch was pushing too hard. Gwyneth Jones opened up her arms, showing me the same forest I saw when I had arrived. Nothing new.
Then, as if a veil had been removed from my eyes, I saw for the first time what was there to be seen. I was amazed.
Those tiny flying insects were actually fairies. Tiny little women with tiny little wings on their backs. Wendies that tickled my nose and buzzed on my ears. The caterpillars I thought I had seen were actually gnomes or weird leprechauns. They ran in the woods, laughing at my ignorance. The colors of the forest got a new shape, becoming more vibrant, the sunbeams became more consistent, almost like shiny crystals. The wind became alive and seemed to blow in many directions at the same time, toying with the dry leaves and shaping them as a butterfly.
Needless to say I was numb.
Gwyneth pointed a finger at me. I felt the floor disappear from under my feet and was lifted up in the air. I floated higher and higher while she followed me with a bored look. We flew through some intermediate branches and stopped at a good distance from the ground. Next to us, also floating, there were a table and two chairs. There was a bottle with a golden liquid on the table. The glasses were shiny, almost transparent, as if they were made of steam and with a filigreed of gold.
Sit at a floating table? I thought fearfully. But there was nothing I would fear more than to annoy the gentle and powerful lady that had brought me up there.
“Ask your questions and leave,” she told me, not very politely, as we sat on the chairs. It was easy for her, but my butt kept sliding one way or the other. Any distraction would lead me to a terrible fall.
“How is it for you to develop stories for already established universes, like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Saving Tiamaat) and Conan (Red Sonja and Lessinghan in Dreamland)?”
Gwyneth Jones frowned puzzled. She gestured and then a window opened out of thin air, and in it Wikipedia sparkled. I was shocked, of course. She looked it up quickly and then closed it with another gesture.
“Ah, I see what you’re getting at. No, no, dear interviewer. I got the name Tiamaat straight from Ancient Sumerian mythology, where she features as the Primordial Goddess of the Ocean, the Abyss, Chaos; I presume the Dungeons and Dragons people drew on the same source, by some means or other, when naming their monster. Interestingly (if you’ve read my story), you’ll find that Tiamaat’s codename should have been a warning to Deborah the assassin, that gender-role assumptions can be deceptive. You might like to know that the “Ki” and the “An” also feature in Ancient Sumerian myth. I don’t know if they also have counterparts in D&D. The Established Universe in the case of my story Saving Tiamaat was the noble and immemorial Universe of Space Opera, one of the global commons of the SF genre; a welcoming and compendious Imagination Space, which at the time of writing (2006) was being re-branded as “The New Space Opera”. The case of Red Sonja and Lessingham is different, but similar. I didn’t come to the naming of a magnificent woman-warrior called “Red Sonja” through a “Conan Universe” but purely through admiration for the wonderfully trashy movie of that name (Richard Fleischer, 1985), a great favourite of mine. Lessingham, of course, is a character in E.R.Eddison’s fantasy novels, notably The Worm Ouroboros (1922). Scenes and descriptions from this venerable text are clearly recognizable in my story, but they’re put to other uses besides straightforward High Fantasy. Which all goes to show, riffing and reffing is a genre technique that’s much older than the 21st Century, and independent of established franchises.”
I waited for her to finish the answer, took a sip of that mysterious drink and liked it. It was sweet and slightly alcoholic. She noticed I had liked it and smiled, scratching the table with her index fingernail, long and sharp, red as blood.
“Do you know what this nectar is made of?” she asked me.
“I have no idea.”
“Camel spit, triton tears, boar urine and one drop per litre of unicorn blood. And also, fermented Komodo dragon feces, where you take the alcohol from. Sequoia sap and pure spring water from this forest. Everything is mixed in a ritual of fertility and kept for a hundred years in jars of clay that were sealed with stingless bee wax. They are buried thirty meters deep in peat soil. That is some fine ethylic treat.”
I moved the glass away from my mouth, feeling deep in my throat the taste of boar urine and the bitterness of Komodo dragon feces. My stomach was upset and I thought I’d better stop drinking. I tried to look as casual as possible, of course.
“What is your involvement with the RPG universe? Do you play it? Do you write or collaborate with RPG publishing houses?”
“Aren’t you drinking?” I felt a clear and present danger in her voice.
“Of course I am,” I answered without much enthusiasm. I brought the glass to my mouth and took a small sip. This time, it was the drop of unicorn blood that didn’t go well. A slight numbness at the tip of my tongue started to bother me.
“I wish I was involved with the writing, I think it would be great fun, but no. The nearest I ever came to the happy situation of writing for a Gaming publishing house was a story for a Warhammer anthology, called The Manchdor Affair which sadly never got published at the time. (It has recently reached print at last, in Danish, in a chapbook, further details on request). When it comes to playing, I’m anti-social. I play RPG games (Zelda, Final Fantasy), all by myself. Preferably alone in the room, so I can slog it out with my abysmal gameplay skills, without embarrassment. My professional interest in games and gaming is twofold: I’m fascinated by the technology, which seems to me a brilliant hot spot, one of the few true growing points in our current global culture/technology interface, and ridiculously neglected by cultural commentators. And I’m fascinated by the neurology of gaming, naturally: because it’s what I do all the time, always have done, as a creative artist. But the plots, characters, challenges etc happen between my two ears, rather than between a screen and the latest platfom.”
I simpered and got myself together. I shivered just to imagine how she would interpret my sudden happiness. I didn’t get it myself. I took a third sip, voluntarily this time. Triton tears and sequoia sap. My right foot swung from one side to the other. My left ear blushed. I felt my chin trembling. My teeth jumped in my mouth as if they were alive. My pupils are brown, but I’m sure they turned purple. I don’t know how, but they did. Gwyneth Jones looked at me with a scientific curiosity.
“Glllow… Blurb…. Which are the similarities…. Proftr… of your prose with other socially engaged writers, like … Brumbr…. Ursula Le Guin?” After I asked the question, I leaned my forehead on the table and felt it careen from one side and the other. I started laughing not knowing why. I opened my eyes and saw through the wood. The ground down below waved like a huge and green ocean. My teeth were still moving. One of them bit my palate tickling. Another was under my tongue, asleep. I could hear it snoring insolently.
“Ursula Le Guin’s writing had a huge influence on me when I was starting out, especially the fusion of lyricism and sophisticated politics in The Left Hand Of Darkness. Her influence remains strong, and that’s something I have in common with very many others, whether or not they would like to be identified as literary, or socially engaged. The other thing I have in common with Ursula Le Guin is that I’ve attempted to be socially engaged, while swimming in the mainstream. I’ve tried to write for the general audience, not to preach to the converted.”
She finished and waited for me to raise my head from the table, ungluing the forehead from the translucent wood (don’t ask me what crazy thing that is). I managed to do so with a huge effort, as if all the muscles in my body were lethargic. I looked at her with some difficulty and saw a white blur. At the center of the blur, I saw a face. At the center of the face, a smile. I smiled then, trying to use my tongue to hold the teeth that were trying to jump out of my mouth.
“This … hmmm… drink is good…” I mentioned in a cramp. “Wonderful place,” I continued opening up my arms as if I was wanted to embrace the forest. The chair leaned back dangerously and I felt as if a long and sticky tongue had grabbed me by the neck and pulled me back in place. “The language used with adult readers is, obviously, different than that used with the younger ones. With which of these two do you identify the most and why do you use a pseudonym?”
I opened my eyes wide. Hadn’t I been able to ask without stammering, slobbering or grabbing my teeth so they wouldn’t flee? In celebration, I took a generous sip of the Komodo piss, drank the sequoia blood and absorbed the stingless bee shit. I clicked my tongue, pleased, slapped my forehead and felt my left ear fall off, rolling over my shoulder until it rested quietly on my lap.
“I enjoy writing for adults, and I enjoy writing for teenagers. The voices are both mine, I see no identity problem. The difference is hard to pin down, although simplicity and getting straight to the point are obviously vital for a younger audience. I think when I write an “Ann Halam” story I expect the story to flow, without halts, extensive revision, careful research. When I write a “Gwyneth Jones” story I expect to have to think and work hard, before I can transform my ideas into fiction. It doesn’t always work out that way, sometimes “Gwyneth” stories are easy, and “Ann” stories are hard. But I don’t mind. I like thinking, I like interesting work, and of course everybody loves the “flow state”. The pseudonym wasn’t my idea. I was asked to provide a pseudonym for the teenage books by a former publisher, long ago. I didn’t see why not, so I complied, and became comfortable with the situation. It’s not a guarded secret, but I’m unlikely to drop either of the names now.”
Some fairies landed on the table, others flew around the bottle and the glasses. Gwyneth shook her hand, trying to scare them and one of them, in a dangerous flight, hit my nose.
“This is crazy,” I said, trying to force the little fairy out of my nostril, “a flying table way above the ground, almost touching the highest branches. Jumping teeth, sexy fairies, a white queen looking like The Chronicles of Narnia witch – and I said that looking straight at her eyes – and a drink that is probably one of the most hallucinogenic I’ve ever tried.”
I stared at her while I tried at all costs to attach my fallen ear. The intruder fairy had already left, covered in my snot.
“Are you through with the question?” Gwyneth asked me.
“There’s one more,” I answered quite pleased with my ear. It wasn’t at the right spot, but I could hear much better on that side.
Gwyneth approached me over the table. I swear I thought she was going to kiss me, but instead, she blew slowly on my face. A lot of my altered state vanished. With a good portion of my lucidity restored, I feared when I realized the table was way above where I thought it was. I saw the trees below us. Down there. I saw the outlines of the planet, I saw hilly valleys whipped by intense lightning, I saw waterfalls, rivers and bright lakes. I also saw flying horses, harpies, gargoyles, spectra, and I’m pretty sure I saw Dumbo.
“The last question,” Gwineth whispered, spinning the table in mid-air, as if it was a dancing cup just like in Alice’s story. I felt sick and was about to throw up when it stopped. But I didn’t stop. Dizzy as I was, I swung and almost fell. Once again, I felt a thick and sticky tongue grab me. This time, it was no dream or reverie. The tongue came from Gwyneth’s mouth and she retracted it as soon as I was secure.
“I’ve held you too many times already. I’m getting tired of this interview.”
“Tell us a bit about your critic studies and their importance in your literary life,” I asked at once, trembling and scared.
“I’m an intellectual. I can’t help it, I was born that way. This doesn’t mean, alas, that I’m highly qualified or highly intelligent, it just means when I see something made of words (or images, or ideas) I just have to take it apart, to see how it works, to see how it evolved; how the different parts are joined up. Exactly the same as some geeky kid who has to take the back off his or her toys; ruins watches, tinkers with the software and hardware of any hapless useful appliance. Ever since I’ve been a writer, I’ve been a critic, which is not the same as being a reviewer, because usually I’m not really interested in whether the book should sell or not. I just find the activity of dissecting all kinds of narratives (trashy or literary, I don’t care), completely fascinating. I keep trying to give it up, because it’s trouble. You take somebody’s treasured novel, some revered best-seller, apart, you put it back together not exactly the way it was before, naturally readers and writers are going to get annoyed. . . But somehow criticism keeps sneaking back into my life. I really must quit. The impact on my literary life (apart from the periods where I have to go into hiding, get into a witness protection scheme, etc) has been that I can’t help thinking about where my own narratives come from. I never believe I’m doing something original, only that it’s an original version. I always know I’m telling a story that’s been told before, but hopefully telling it in a new and intriguing way.”
She was done and that was clear. We both took a deep breath. I held firmly to the rim of the table, feeling it flutter. My feet were hanging in space, with no firm ground for at least three or four hundred meters. Now what? I thought. Is she going to wave her hand and we will land safely or what?
I found out at last. She snapped her fingers and the table, chairs, glasses and bottle disappeared. We were both suspended in thin air. She was gorgeous, with her long dress waving in the wind. She wore a triumphant smile, that of the “I can fly” type. And also of the “I know the interviewer can’t” type. Pale, I gulped and fell.
I saw the Sky spinning wildly. I saw Dumbo shaking its huge ears. I spun and saw the trees approaching quickly. I saw Komodo dragons marching far, I saw unicorns neighing and galloping on the prairies. And it all became a huge and green blur as I tried desperately to find the button on my quantic watch.
Gwyneth Jones emailed me threatening in case I revealed any of her secrets. Therefore, I’m taking extreme risks. I won’t allow the White Queen intimidate me. Nor Dumbo, or anyone. I’m publishing the interview, no matter what. Oh, Lord! Where are my teeth?
Delfin collaborated with this interview.