Theodora Goss: LibraryThing Author Interview
Theodora Goss writes short stories, poems, and essays, and teaches at Boston University. Her latest book is The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story, published this month by Quirk Books. You may want to watch the book trailer to get a sense of the book's interesting design.
How did you come up with the idea to have the book designed this way, as a "two-sided love story"? Can you describe the design process bit for us?
I actually didn't come up with the idea of the two-sided design myself. My wonderful editor, Stephen Segal, came up with it and called me to ask if I could write a story that would fit the format. It was quite a challenge! We didn't want a story that would simply have two sides to it—that wouldn't really be using the format. We wanted a story that could only be told in this way, that would use the format as part of the reading experience. And I think when you read the book, you'll find that it does. You can only understand the story, particularly the conclusion, by reading both sides.
But I was the one who decided that it should be a love story (after all, what other kind of story is so particularly two-sided?), and who came up with the story of Brendan and Evelyn. And after I had come up with it, the basic plot and the characters, then the characters started talking to me, as they do anytime you write a story. They started telling me what they wanted to say and do.
I should also mention the wonderful artist, Scott McKowen, who captured the feel of the story so perfectly. I can't think of a better way to present this book than the way Scott has presented it, with the gorgeous slipcase and the illustrations inside. I think in the end, the book was a collaborative effort between the three of us. And once it's read, the readers will become a part of the collaboration as well, because this story isn't just on the pages. In a sense, it exists between the two sides, and that's the story the readers will have to put together themselves.
Did one of the characters come to you first, or both at the same time?
Both of the characters came to me at the same time, but I wrote Evelyn's story first. Perhaps it was easier for me to write in a female voice first? Or perhaps that's simply our default as writers: when we write love stories, it's almost always from a female perspective. It was very interesting, actually, to write Brendan's story and realize that usually in a love story the male character doesn't get his own narrative. We follow Elizabeth Bennett, not Mr. Darcy. So it was fascinating to give him his own life, to realize that he did have a life of his own, struggles of his own. It made me reevaluate the romance novels I read as a teenager, where the male character is simply a dashing lord or pirate rather than a real person. In some ways, I think readers will actually find Brendan a more satisfying character than Evelyn. He's more active, less troubled. But I loved writing them both.
For your readers who finish this book and want to read more of the mythologies outlined in the story, what books do you recommend?
I suggest reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is a medieval poem that is in some ways related to those mythologies, and Arthurian legends and Celtic mythology in general. But I have to tell you—all that stuff about The Tale of the Green Knight and the Green Man legend in Europe? It's based on actual mythology, but The Tale of the Green Knight exists only in my head, and the legend of the Green Man and the magical woman who loves him is my own extrapolation from a variety of sources. I love writing about imaginary books and stories that don't exist. So all the translations of The Tale of the Green Knight come from my imagination. I do think it would be fascinating to actually write a Tale of the Green Knight, maybe as a small booklet.
Describe your writing process for us. When, how, and where do you tend to write?
I write whenever I can! I teach full-time at the university level, so whenever I can find the time, I sit down at my desk and start working. I usually write first drafts out longhand in notebooks from Bob Slate, the stationery store in Harvard Square. And then I type them up, so the first typed draft is usually my second draft. And then I revise. At the moment, I'm trying to write poetry, short stories, and a novel, to make sure I'm focusing on different types of writing. I like writing in a variety of genres, and I think each genre helps me with the others. So, for example, writing poetry makes me a better short story writer. Some people really are novelists or poets, but I find that I like writing everything.
Do you have a favorite part of the writing process? A least favorite?
I love the first draft! Sitting there, just writing, with the ideas flowing, not having to worry about the details because you know that you're going to fix them in the second draft. That's when the characters talk to you, when the words just come. It's a lovely feeling. I do like revising as well, when you get to focus on the details, on getting everything right. I guess my least favorite part is making final revisions, when you start second-guessing yourself. That's when I can spend half an hour taking a comma out and putting it back in. At that point, I know it's time to let the story go. But honestly, I like the whole process—if I didn't, I wouldn't do it, because who wants to spend that sort of time and effort on something that isn't fun?
What were your favorite books as a child?
My favorite book of all time is still The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan will always be one of the great loves of my life. But I liked all sorts of books with magic in them: The Hobbit, the E. Nesbit books, Edward Eager, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. There are so many more of those nowadays that I envy children growing up now. When I was a child, we had fewer of them. Nowadays, magic seems to be the default in children's books, whereas when I was a child it was still seen as subversive. And it was, because it gave you an alternative to the world you lived in. It allowed you to imagine possibilities.
I also loved The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, any books about animals and the natural world. I think that at the time, I very much wanted to experience something other than boring suburban life, and those books allowed me to. When I was a teenager, I discovered fantasy books like Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and romance novels, and literary novels—I loved Willa Cather. I think my writing as an adult still incorporates those things. It's funny to see that The Thorn and the Blossom has been categorized as fantasy, romance, and literature!
And what sorts of books would we find on your bookshelves today?
Let me look over at my bookshelf and tell you what I see. Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which I love even when I disagree with it. A bunch of dictionaries. Victorian Women Poets, which is a wonderful anthology of 19th century women poets, now mostly forgotten. John Crowley's Little, Big; the short stories of Saki; Isak Dineson's Out of Africa and Winter's Tales; T.H. White's The Goshawk and The Once and Future King; Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist; J.RR. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo; the selected poems of H.D. That's just the bookshelf next to my desk. There are many more bookshelves I could look at, but that gives you a good sense of what sorts of things I like to read. Basically, everything. On my night stand, in the to-read pile, you'll find Lev Grossman's The Magicians; China Miéville's Looking for Jake; Maria Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist; a couple of Philip Pullman Sally Lockhart mysteries; and Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which I've been meaning to read forever.
What books have you read and enjoyed recently?
Three books I enjoyed very much recently were Joan Aiken's The Serial Garden; Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia; and Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Aiken's book is just fun, about an English family in which strange (usually magical) things always happen on Mondays. What makes it work is that the magic is accepted matter-of-factly, the way murder is accepted in the old black and white Thin Man films, and the family members are as fond of each other as Nick and Nora. Also, the stories are funny. Miller's book is the best exploration of the magic of Narnia that I've ever read. She goes into why the books are so appealing, and also what we might find problematic about them. I loved the Narnia books, as I mentioned above, but I was always bothered by the way the Calormenes were described, and also by the fact that Susan was essentially banished from Narnia. Miller goes into those issues. It's the best book I've read about reading. I got American Gods for free at the World Fantasy Convention, and I didn't know if I would like it. How well could an English writer like Gaiman describe America? And yet he really, really gets it. He creates a convincing picture of America and an American mythology that fits the immigrant experience, while also providing a fun, satisfying read.
Can you tell us a little something about your next project?
I'm working on two major projects at the moment. The first is a poetry collection for a small press that will pull together most of my published poems, as well as many unpublished poems I've written over the years. The second is a novel based on a novella I wrote called "The Mad Scientist's Daughter." The novella was published in Strange Horizons and can still be found online, here.
It's about how the daughters of the mad scientists (including Justine Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau, Beatrice Rappaccini, Mary Jekyll, and Diana Hyde) get together in London and form a club. The novel will be about their adventures together. I'll be working on that over the next six months or so, and I think it will be a lot of fun. It will give me an excuse to do some research in London! And it's fun to write about girl monsters. Of course, there will also be poems, stories, and essays to write. The problems is that, as I said, I like to write everything. But I think that's the only way you get to write a book as different and interesting as The Thorn and the Blossom! You have to be adventurous, to let the writing life take you in strange, but productive, directions.
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell