Fairy tales are stock-in-trade for Theodora Goss, the award-winning and oft-anthologised Hungarian-American writer who has carved a prominent niche for herself in fantasy fiction, thanks in large part to her immersion in and reinvention of some of the most familiar and timeless stories of world literature. In this edition of Schlock Talks, she lets us in on some of the inner workings of the writer’s life… including its occupational hazards, and how she responds to the occasional bad review.
What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
The earliest one I actually remember writing must have been in middle school (when I was fourteen), and it was a sort of novel rather than a story. It was about me, or a fantastical character who was me, although she was also half-fairy! So it was about my adventures as a half-fairy. I remember writing a chapter a day. It was a combination of domestic realism and fairy tale, sort of what a fairy tale would sound like if it involved a day-by-day account of the characters and events. It may still exist somewhere? But I’m not sure where.
When you hear from your readers, what do they say?
That depends on the readers and what they’re responding to. Often when I hear directly from readers, they’re responding to something I wrote on my blog, or on Facebook, or Twitter. So the response is to whatever I wrote. When I meet them at conventions, they usually tell me that they like my stories. It would be rather uncomfortable if they said they didn’t! But I like talking to my readers about all sorts of things that interest us both, so the conversation usually goes on from there, to something more relevant…
What technology do you use for writing?
I write on my laptop using WordPerfect, which is my favorite word processing program. I like to keep things simple!
How do you react to a bad review of one of your books?
I’ve developed a strategy for dealing with bad reviews. They used to bother me, until I started looking at the bad reviews of some of the greatest writers in our language: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, contemporary writers that I admire and respect. James Joyce has more one-star reviews than I will probably ever have! I realized, when reading his bad reviews, that people were often responding to important, vital work in negative ways. The message to me was, you really can’t tell anything from reviews – negative or positive. Good reviews are as dangerous as bad reviews, because they can make you complacent. You think, as long as people like my work, I’m doing well, right? I do pay attention to reviews, because I can learn from them – I can see where I failed to communicate something, where I could do something better. But in the end, you just have to keep doing the best work you can.
Are the names of the characters in your novels important?
Names are always important, whether names of characters or place names. There’s always a reason why I named a character or place as I did, although sometimes I don’t realize the reason until later. But names imply histories: women named Mary or Bianca or Snow White are going to be three different types of women. Just as Isfahan is different from London. Names can create completely different atmospheres for a story. I always tell my students to choose names carefully, thoughtfully.
How do you use social media to promote your writing?
Yes and no. I use social media to communicate, both with friends and readers. As part of that communication, I do end up promoting my writing. But that’s not my main goal in using social media. I want to be social, to talk to people all over the world. I’m not sure using social media only for promotion actually works. What I want to do is reach out to people, whether in my stories, on my blog, wherever. Social media is part of that.
Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?
Well, you get problems with your shoulder and arm muscles! I think a more important occupational hazard is that you spend a lot of time living in another world, and this world can sometimes seem like the less real one, the one that is more tenuous and temporary. After I’ve been writing for a while, I sometimes stop and realize that I’ve forgotten what day it is. And I can find myself treating life as a story – which it sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t. Writers are always only half here. That’s something those around them have to understand and deal with. But on the other hand, I get to live in hundreds of wonderful imaginary worlds – it’s nice when all you need to do, to have a magical life, is go inside your own head.
Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous.
Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; and The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Locus, and Mythopoeic Awards, and on the Tiptree Award Honor List. She has won the World Fantasy Award.