An Interview with Craig Laurance Gidney
- By John Stevens
- January 22, 2015
Skin Deep Magic is a unique short-story collection. In it, author Craig Laurance Gidney combines “new weird” and “magical realist” sensibilities to craft deep character explorations that probe the nature of identity. He discusses his work here.
Skin Deep Magic is a collection of stories that at first seems un-themed, but later feels as if they share a common thread, albeit a thin one. The idea of transformation, and resistance to it, comes up again and again. There are struggles against identity, against ideas of essential nature, and against processes of change that characters cannot seem to control. Is this something you are explicitly trying to write about?
I do consider this to be a themed anthology, if only loosely so. The pieces here are about race, gender, and sexuality, so the issues of what is an “essential nature” and transformation are bound to come out. In college, I studied the Negritude Movement of the 1920s, particularly the poetry and work of Aimé Césaire. He dealt with many of the same themes — of self-definition, belonging, and resistance. Césaire’s poetry is full of marvelous transformations [and] feverish, alchemical, surrealist imagery. In many ways, my work is a continuation of that earlier material.
The primary influence in many of these pieces isn’t literary at all. I love the work of artist Kara Walker, who transforms antiquated techniques (silhouettes, sugar sculpture) into pieces that explore issues of stereotype, history, and identity.
Many of the stories resolve at unusual points, and some come to a seemingly abrupt stop (such as "Conjuring Shadows”). What are your goals with these endings?
The first draft of “Conjuring Shadows” actually had a traditional climatic ending. But when I revised the piece, I realized that the esoteric mystery at the heart of the story needed to stay in the shadows, and not be expressly spelled out.
I like ambiguous endings because the characters live beyond the page, and fiction that ends on a dissonant note haunts me more. Bereft, my YA novel, also ends on an abrupt note. I like to invite the reader to fill in the rest of the story.
One of the interesting elements of these stories is that whatever force or power is at work never makes life easier. Some characters find positive transformation or resolution, but these magical happenings are chaotic, malevolent, or strangely natural. Is there some conundrum of life that you're trying to get at through these stories?
Many of these characters, such as the charwoman in “Death and Two Maidens,” Tasha in “Sugardaddy,” and the chorus of voices in “Coalrose,” are already in positions of liminality, in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Their various oppressions don’t disappear when the supernatural occurs. In some cases, like the living simulacra in “Lyes” or “Psychometry,” it puts those issues into sharper focus.
One of wonderful aspects of these stories is the way that detail is used. Paragraphs of description create not just sensory impressions, but deeply emotional ones. Even when characters think or say things, the details that surround them say more. What is it that attracts you to this approach?
I consider myself more a stylist than a straightforward storyteller. I love the textuality of fiction as much as I like it as a narrative medium. Some people are excellent at evoking much information and feeling through dialogue and finely polished prose. I have nothing but admiration for them. But I am a language junkie. I’ve been known to come up with a title first and then build the story around the welter of images. I’m not a “characters speak to me” kind of writer — though, in later drafts, the characters do speak to me. The initial inspiration comes from the words themselves.
"Sugardaddy" stands out because the narrator's voice and perspective in it are so organically part of the story. The writing seems different in word choice, cadence, and assembly of sentences. Was this story different for you to write?
The British weird-fiction author Robert Aickman had a story, “Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal,” that just blew me away with its ability to summon a slow, malingering dread, and I filed away the technique — of writing as a journal/memoir — when I finished that story. Then “Push,” by Sapphire, came out, and I loved the way the story “organically” built from such an intensely narrow, interior narrative. “Sugardaddy” is an homage to both works. In order to write the story, I had to listen to the way young people write, talk, and text. I ended up haunting a lot of online forums to get the right tone and cadence.
In the final story, "Coalrose," a narrator says toward the end, "What she was, I don’t know. There are words, but they are inadequate." Upon reading that, it struck me that this clarifies an undercurrent in these stories: Naming something is inadequate for understanding it; you have to uncover the story first. This also came up in "Lyes" with Auntie Clabber, whose name and image label her, but, as it turns out, do not define or encompass her.
I consider myself to be an “agnostic mystic.” I don’t subscribe to a religious or spiritual dogma, and I am mostly skeptical of “paranormal” phenomenon. But the ineffable — the confluence of perception and emotion — is something that fascinates me. Language is a blunt tool for expression; there are times when I wish I were a musician or a painter because there are experiences that just can’t be adequately encased in words. That’s why I’m drawn to the Fantastic, because it is a window into the chimerical nature of existence. In many of these stories, the “magic” exists beyond our puny ability to categorize.
John Stevens is a writer and bookseller living in Ithaca, NY. He is a columnist for the Hugo Award winning webzine SF Signal (http://www.sfsignal.com/) and is working on a novel and a book on reading.