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Writing Excuses 6.28: Interstitial Art

Writing Excuses 6.28: Interstitial Art


Key Points: Interstitial art falls in the interstices between recognized genres. Beware beta readers and others pushing you towards the genre of their choice. Write what is important to you. Dialogue with your readers can help separate "this isn't what I expected" from "I don't understand." Don't put yourself in a box unless you want to. Consider a local salon.

[It is possible that I have confused Ellen and Delia segments below. My apologies if I mislabeled something.]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, recording live at World Fantasy. We're going to talk about interstitial art.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Delia] I'm Delia. [Delia Sherman]
[Ellen] I'm Ellen Kushner.
[Mary] Today we have Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner with us. They are the heads of the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Okay.
[Ellen] We're not really the heads.
[Dan] Heavily involved?
[Ellen] We're cofounders. We're cofounders.
[Mary] Cofounders. I was going to say, you are certainly the spirit that pushed it off. Interstitial arts is very interesting to me, personally, coming from puppetry, which kind of straddles a lot of different areas, because it is things that don't fit neatly into little boxes. Would you guys... First, let's ground our listeners by kind of defining what interstitial means.

[Ellen] Interstitial comes from the same word as interstices. In other words, it's art that fits in the interstices. I can't believe I just flubbed that word. [Laughter] You're going to edit this, right? It's art that falls in the interstices between recognized genres. Why are there recognized genres? Because, for one thing, humans are patterning animals, and we like to put things in little boxes. For another, the evil forces of marketing like to put things in boxes even more. Where does that leave those of us whose work does not actually fit in tidy little boxes? Well, it leaves us in the interstices, or the interstitial space between these recognized marketing categories and between these recognized genres. But you know you want to find us. Because some of your favorite fiction, some of your favorite music, some of your favorite performance art, indeed, some of your favorite ways of making art like puppetry are indescribable and indefinable in terms of hard-line categories. So we thought, you know what, let's form a union of people who don't really fit anywhere, people whose work doesn't really fit anywhere, so that we can support each other and support people who want access to work that they can't easily find. So that's why we created the Interstitial Arts Foundation and why we're so pleased that you guys wanted to do a segment on this. Because it isn't about defining what's interstitial, it's about saying to people, "Guess what? It's okay not to be a recognizable category. It's okay not to have the perfect elevator pitch for your thing." We just want the world to be conscious of the fact that this stuff is out there. I've certainly seen reviewers use this too. Don't spend your 250 words or your 500 words trying to explain what something isn't. Say it's interstitial and go on to what it is.
[Mary] How does this relate, do you think... The other term that I see a lot of people using these days is genre bending, where... Steampunk, I think, started as something that was bending genre. Then went on to become a genre of its own. But do you... How do you think interstitial relates to genre bending?
[Delia] Well, I think that interstitial is less self-conscious, in some ways. You're just culling. A writer who is writing inter... Who is really, by temperament, writing interstitial fiction is usually someone who has a very wide knowledge of nonfiction, of mainstream fiction, of historical fiction... I don't mean genre historical fiction, but stuff that was written a long time ago. That they are drawing on everything that they have ever read in order to write their fiction. They're not trying to fit it into anything, therefore it becomes this indescribable mishmash of not just two genres that are put together, like paranormal romance, which is basically two genres that have been bolted together and stick pretty much within the confines of both those genres. But something that defines itself as it is read, and defines itself as it is written. So you can't say, "This comes from this, and this comes from this, and this comes from that," but you experience it as something that you can't really bring genre expectations to, including mainstream genre.

[Mary] Right. I'm thinking of Under the Poppy. [Kathe Koje]
[Delia] Yes. Absolutely. Which has puppets.
[Mary] Which does have puppets. That's not why I know the book. But Swordspoint is also, I think, very much interstitial because it's... This is a book that Ellen wrote... Because it's secondary world fantasy, but there is absolutely no magic in it.
[Ellen] The other thing is that when I wrote this novel, this did not exist. I mean, since I wrote Swordspoint... Almost 25 years ago is when it came out... Happy anniversary to me.
[Mary] Wow. Congratulations.
[Ellen] Thank you. It was... Now there is something called historical fantasy or secondary worlds without magic. When I wrote it, there wasn't. The rejections that book got. From people saying, "This is literature so we... Almost, but not quite." "This kind of reminds me of a Western, but it's not really a Western, because it's got swords, but it's not really historical because it's not about a real place, but it's not really fantasy because there's no magic..." That to me is what defines interstitial, is when you go, "It's kind of this, but it's not this, but it's kind of that..." And you just start waving your hands about in the air. Which many editors and publishers did until I finally found someone to take it. So thank you for saying that. It really is just the way my mind worked. I mean I had... I was in publishing. I knew exactly what it wasn't and why no one would want it. Yet that was the book it wanted to be, that was the book I had to write. If you're lucky, you end up, as steampunk does, defining your own genre. If you're not, it just sort of wanders about there, looking for a friend.
[Delia] Because there are some things that will never ever be definable. Steampunk became a genre of its own. When I wrote Porcelain Dove, which was my second novel... It is a very accurate historical novel, and the level of its accuracy goes to the fact that many of the people in it believe in magic and practice magic.
[Ellen] Because it's set in the 18th century.
[Delia] Because it's set in the 18th century. I found that when it was reviewed... It was published by a mainstream publisher as a historical novel. But when it was reviewed, the genre publications reviewed it as basically a failed fantasy because it had too much realism in it, and the mainstream reviewers reviewed it as a failed historical novel because it had too much of that magic stuff in it. That was really the most interstitial work I have written. Almost everything else is pretty much... It's kind of on the edge of the fantasy genre, but it definitely is working off of that genre more than anything else. So I have sort of gone back to my roots. But... Now, there is a whole genre of historical fantasy which is both extremely accurate and has this one thing different, not historically, but socially usually. Having to do with magic or the supernatural.
[Mary] Yeah. I just read Madeleine Robins Sarah Tolerance mysteries.
[Delia] Yes. Those are wonderful.
[Mary] Oh, they're wonderful. But they're an alternate Regency, but again, there's absolutely no magic in. So it's very historically accurate up to a point, and then everything changes.
[Delia] Children's books actually were more... Had a lot more time for this kind of thing because Joan Aiken writing in the world of...
[Ellen] The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
[Delia] The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea... They are absolutely alternate history and they feel... They satisfy a lot of the desires that fantasy also satisfies, but there is no magic in them.
[Ellen] So definitely the reason that we decided the world needed interstitial arts was not just because of our own books, but we saw in the science fiction and fantasy publishing world... This was about 10 years ago now, tons and tons of people who would never... Who basically were writing interstitial work. You're lucky to get published in science fiction and fantasy, but Michael Swanwick and Alexander Yablokov... A lot of people by being in the protectorate of science fiction and fantasy would never be read by people who won't go to that corner of the bookstore because it has nerd cooties. Similarly, there are fantasies and science fiction novels being written and published as mainstream literature that nobody... I was astonished. I would go to science fiction conventions and talk about these books and nobody in the science fiction community had read them because they weren't published in the genre. So that was definitely a motivation for us. The world has changed in 10 years. I think both sides are a lot more open.
[Mary] I think also with the Internet, because it becomes easy to tag a book with all of the different aspects.
[Ellen] Yeah. Absolutely.

[Dan] We need to pause one moment for our book of the week. Okay. Our book of the week, Ellen is going to talk to us about her book. Tell us what it is?
[Ellen] I'm so pleased to have my book of the week be my book that I wrote, and which I also read for's wonderful new series, Neil Gaiman Presents. Neil has selected a ton of the books that he loved, which I happen to love too, including works by Jonathan Carroll -- very interstitial -- and some of the late greats that you may never even have read, like James Branch Cabell's The High Place. My novel, Swordspoint, is set... It's basically... People call it a historical novel about a place that doesn't really exist. That is fairly accurate. It's also a queer novel. It's a novel about power. It's sort of the Three Musketeers meets the New Yorker, is the way I used to describe it. It's such fun for me to get to read it and do all the voices, with help from... It's also a hybrid, because it's full cast audio that's only partly cast... We picked specific chapters and did them almost like a radio drama with actors in certain places. You'll just be listening to me along reading and suddenly blammo there are actors becoming the characters and a very dense soundscape by my producer, Sue Zizza. So hope it works for you.
[Dan] Cool. That sounds cool. Now to get that, you go to You get a 14 day free trial membership for free, and of course a free book. Which could be Swordspoint, if you so desire.
[Ellen] Of course you desire. Everybody desires.
[Mary] I do.
[Dan] Which, of course, you do desire that. I can't imagine you would not.
[Mary] I mean, I read the book, and I'm like, "I want that now."
[Ellen] Because don't you want to hear how the characters' voices really sound?
[Dan] Okay... [Garbled. Full cast is full?]
[Mary] [inaudible, garbled.] Especially...
[Mary] Well, and it comes and goes. Which is interstitial in and of itself.
[Dan] Yeah, that sounds great.

[Dan] Now, I have another question for you. For both of you here. Speaking specifically towards aspiring writers, writers who may be writing this kind of fiction, what problems are they likely to face as they look towards publication and sales, and what can they do to overcome them?
[Delia] Well, I think it begins a little even before publication and sales, which is that people who are reading... Your beta readers, for the most part, unless you have very kind and open-minded beta readers, are going to push you towards the genre of their choice. You have to resist that because that is not the book you are writing. It's not easy to be an outlier. It is not easy to be somebody who is doing something that is a little bit out there and is inventing itself as it goes along. But it is very worth doing because this is how genre grows. This is how literature grows. This is how things develop and the future becomes a reality, is for people to take chances and to write fiction that is not immediately recognizable as something. I think that is... Perhaps it's not a great way to do something that allows you to drop your day job, but it is extremely important to the history of fiction. To write things that are very important to you, even if somebody looks at them and goes, "Well, what is this?" Then you explain that you have... I don't know how to read this. Then you say, "Well, you really have to engage with the text. You really have to let me teach you how to read this text, and to read maybe a little bit more carefully than you usually do, because I'm... You can't take anything for granted. You're entering a new forest here." The... It's hard to do, because you can't follow rules either. You can't follow genre rules. But it is so much fun.
[Ellen] You follow your gut, you follow your heart. I do have to say that Delia here speaks from experience, because she has edited two anthologies of interstitial fiction called Interfictions and Interfictions 2.

[Mary] So, speaking of beta readers and trying to look at the feedback that they give you, how do you balance the difference between "I am confused by this because it does not meet my genre expectations" and "I am confused by this because it's confusing?"
[Delia] It's... It's... That is certainly a problem, but because... Well, what you do is listen to the kinds of questions. Not to have them say, "This is confusing," which is just fact. That is their experience of what they're looking at, it is confusing. They need to find a way and you need to find a way to ask questions which will allow you to figure out where they're coming from. Whether they are... They're expecting a werewolf here and they're not getting one, or whether this entire part of the plot just is still in your head and not on the page yet. But the only way that that can be done is through a dialogue between you and your beta reader. It's... This means that possibly you have to spend a lot of time on Skype, waving your hands around and asking each other questions. It is not the sort of thing that comes over very easily just if you do an e-mail. Because there is no give and take in an e-mail. It's got to be much more of a dialogue when you're doing that. But it can sometimes... But it's... That too can be a lot of fun. Because there is a real dialogue between you and your reader. Which every text is anyway.
[Ellen] Yeah. That's why I'm not the world's biggest fan of those "keep your mouth shut and listen" writers' groups. Because to me, it's collab... The best workshopping is collaborative, rather than a sort of "here, take your medicine and like it."

[Dan] Well, excellent. Now, one of the other questions I wanted to ask is, for example... One of the problems I have with my book all the time is that people never know what genre it is, which means they never know where to find it in a bookstore. You walk into Barnes & Noble... Is it going to be in the YA section, or the thriller section, or the horror section, or the mystery section? How can authors deal with that kind of problem? Helping people find...
[Ellen?] The Internet.
[Dan] Their interstitial pieces.
[Ellen] The Internet, because... I mean, to be honest, Bookstore? What's that? Do we even have bookstores anymore? It's a big issue, and it's a big concern. I think Mary is absolutely right, that the minute the Internet came in, all the rules changed. But you're right, it's a nightmare. That's one of the problems. I remember when we started with the interstitial arts thing, people said, "Oh, so there's going to be an interstitial section of the bookstore?" You know what I think the answer to that is? It's... Often, it's the staff picks.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] You know, that's actually true.
[Ellen] If you're lucky, you're staff pick. But... I mean, people just love what they love.
[Unknown] Exactly.
[Ellen] But now it's tough. There is no answer to that question.
[Delia] Can I also say that it's not the author's job to put a label around their necks. It is absolutely... It may be... It is because of financial reasons or whatever, it has become more and more an author's job to get their name out there and to talk about their books and to do publicity, because publicity departments have gotten small. I can understand the economics. But it is not my job to put myself into a box. It is the job of the person who has bought my book and paid me money for it to figure out how they are going to market it, to a certain extent. And...
[Ellen] The fact that they do it badly is just a crying shame.
[Delia] Well, sometimes they... It is a difficult situation, but I do not think that an author... I genuinely do not think that an author needs... Should self...
[Ellen] Flagellate?
[Mary] Censor?
[Delia] I do not think that authors should self censor and say this... Unless they really want to write an absolutely generic book, which is wonderful, and there are wonderful ones out there. But if that's not who they are, and what they're doing, they should go ahead and write what they want.
[Mary] Well, at the same time, I'm going to just toss in a counter argument to that, that if you are wanting to write a genre book and... Then knowing what your societal expectations are is important. Which does not mean that you have to follow them letter by letter, but that... There are two sides of this. That what we are... I just want to make sure that everyone is clear that we are talking about when you are writing outside of the box.
[Delia] Yeah. No, we're absolutely talking about writing outside of the box. But you don't... But you don't make the box. If that's not your box. If it's your box, fine.
[Ellen] But if it's your box, then you don't have Dan's problem, which is, "Uh, where are people going to find it, if it's all these different things at once?" I mean, to be honest, again, you know what? They're not. You just have to hope that the strongest... That its strongest lead, if it's for adults or teens, that they put it under teens. That that gets enough people to read it that the word gets out.

[Dan] All right. We only have just like a minute left, but I wanted to ask very quickly, specifically, the Interstitial Arts Foundation, what can that do for our listeners? What... Should they look it up? What can they do? What is important?
[Ellen] We have a website. That's
[Delia] Org.
[Ellen] We have a blog there. We are compiling lists of resources. We have published two anthologies and have an annex of anthology stuff online. We also have... I... To me... A certain amount of the support that we all need is local. You need to hang out with other people who do what you do, or do what you don't do, and encourage and support each other. So we find more and more that local salons, especially regular meetings of people, especially people frankly who do not live in really large artsy cities, can be fantastic. Ellen Denham in Indianapolis hosts a monthly Indy... Interstitial Indy, and more and more people are coming to just hang out, share their stories, share their work. I really encourage people in the arts who feel they don't quite fit in anywhere to start a regular public salon in a library, a coffee shop, whatever, and help each other out. Be in touch with the foundation. Keep in touch with the blog, and keep in touch with us. Let us know what you're doing. We'll do our best to support you as best we can.
[Dan] That's wonderful. All right. Well, that is all the time we have, so we're going to throw this very quickly at Mary, for a writing prompt.

[Mary] I thought you were going to do that. Oh! So, for your writing prompt today, try to write something that doesn't fit neatly into the boxes. Maybe pick a genre and look at it and go, "Okay. Well, these are the tropes," and defy them.
[Dan] All right. Well, excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: beta readers, boxes, dialogue, expectations, genre, genre rules, interstices, interstitial, salon

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