The space in-between – Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss interviewed

How would you describe interstitial art? Indeed, how do you define interstitial? What made it interesting to you both?

Delia: I can’t define it. Trying to define it has gotten me into a lot of trouble with the people to whom clear definitions are important and useful. My story (and I’m sticking to it) is that Interstitial art defies precise definition. It is art that drives a critic, a reviewer, a theorist to hedging (it’s a little of this and a little of that), negative definition (it’s not this, but it’s certainly not that either), and frustration (I couldn’t figure out what it was). It’s art that forces the beholder to suspend his expectations and accept the fact that he’s not going to know where the rhetoric of the work is taking him until he gets there.

And that’s what makes it interesting to me.

Dora: One criticism I’ve heard is that by using the term “interstitial,” we’re not just describing what crosses genre borders, we’re creating a new genre. But that’s not at all how we’re using the term. “Interstitial” is just an adjective. We started using it to describe a kind of art that we kept noticing around us, art that was interesting but that didn’t seem to be finding its audience because it didn’t quite fit into the categories that were used to think about, publish or display, and ultimately sell, art. To me, interstitial art is art that doesn’t quite fit. I find it interesting for many different reasons, but one is that it tends to challenge me. When I first read Catherynne M. Valente’s story “A Dirge for Prester John,” I kept asking myself, “What’s going on here?” And once I figured it out, there was a sense of delight at the newness, the strangeness, of the story. I had that response to many of the stories in Interfictions.

How and why did you set up the Interstitial Arts Foundation?

Dora: I’ll let Delia answer this question, since she was more involved in the creation of the Interstitial Arts Foundation than I was!

Delia: In brief, a few of old friends and colleagues (Terri Windling, Ellen Kushner, Heinz Insu Fenkl, Midori Snyder, Charles Vess, and me) began to notice that a great deal of the art we liked best visual, performing, literary tended to be art that reviewers had difficulty discussing and marketing departments had difficulty selling. We’d heard artists producing this kind of art complaining that they felt isolated, marginalized, and misunderstood. So we decided to set up an organization that would address these issues, bring together artists who would appreciate each other’s work, and give the arts world at large a way of looking at and talking about work for which there is no possible elevator pitch.

Do you have any other projects, particularly in other media, planned?

Delia: Artist and IAF board member Wendy Ellertson is proposing a group show of intersitital visual artists to a Boston gallery. INTERFICTIONS author Catherynne M. Valente is putting together a multi media three city tour, covering New York, Cleveland, and Boston, in which pieces of art from textiles to oil painting to letter press broadsides and food inspired by her new novel, The Orphan’s Tales II, will be displayed at galleries. There’s going to be singing and reading, too.

Dora: And we should mention that we will probably begin reading for Interfictions II next summer, so this particular project isn’t over. We hope that it will go on for some time to come.

Many things which cross or transcend boundaries are often “retro fitted” to fit into the boundaries, or new “genres” put together like Outsider Art to fit it into a pattern and be defined. How do these changing boundaries present a problem with interstitial art?

Delia: Greg Frost actually wrote a whole essay on this, which we’ve posted on the IAF website, called “Coloring Between the Lines.” It’s a whole lot more elegant and coherent than anything I’d come up with, but briefly, his argument is that the habit genre crossing work often displays of becoming a genre in its own right is how art grows and changes and develops over time. In the House of Fiction, (his image) when enough writers start hanging out in a corridor between Genre Rooms, the corridor becomes a room in its own right. This (I say) is why the definition of Interstitial Art has to remain vague and fuzzy: what it defines changes with the culture and the art that culture produces.

Dora: So I think the answer is, it doesn’t present a problem. There’s nothing particularly precious about interstitial art, such that we would want art to remain interstitial, to fit this particular term. Artists create genres, in a sense, by identifying their own ancestors. I think that’s part of what China Mieville was doing when he began writing about the New Weird, identifying a literary tradition to which his writing (much of which I think can also be identified as interstitial) belongs. Although I think his writing also escapes from that tradition . . . But the tension between creating and breaking genre boundaries, that’s something all artists deal with, I think. It’s how art B not progresses, but changes over time.

China Mieville posited that the New Weird came after a “post Seattle” freeing up of boundaries. Do you feel that there was such a moment? Does this feed into your ideas at all?

Delia:

I’m not a theoretician. I don’t really care why or at what moment movements begin. Neither do I think that Interstitial Art is a movement. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy could be described as Interstitial. So could Diderot’s Jacques and his master and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. As soon as any individual artist at any time confounds, confronts, overturns, or ignores a tradition or a convention of an artistic form, for any reason whatsoever, that artist has gone into interstitial territory. The IAF is just pointing out and trying to find ways of talking about a phenomenon that’s been around for a long, long time.

Dora: I think there has been a cultural change, but it’s not necessarily in the art that’s being produced. It’s in the attention that’s being paid to art that crosses genre borders. For some reason, that sort of art has been getting more attention lately. I think it’s because we feel, cuturally, as though we’re living in a liminal time. Interstitial art seems to describe where we are, without the certainties that I think people felt even at the end of the twentieth century. It’s as though we’ve crossed over into — where? We don’t actually know, so interstitial art, which is an art that poses the same question, “where are we?”, feels culturally appropriate. Is that a “freeing up”? If it is, then it’s also a scary freeing-up. There are days when I’d much rather read a mystery set in an English village, with a detective coming to save the day, than a story that makes me ask, “where am I, again?” So in a way you could say that interstitial art has become more important to certain people, to reviewers and scholars. There’s more permission for the artist to create interstitial art. But interstitial art has always existed B I don’t think that’s changed.

Tvetzan Todorov talked about transcending genre boundaries serving to describe the barriers of genre. Is this something that you are ever aware of as artists or editors, that in existing in spaces between genre you are serving to define those very boundaries?

Delia: Well, when we were reading for INTERFICTIONS, we had to reject a lot of stories that were very good SF, Fantasy, and Horror. These stories were ambitious, literary, beautifully written in many cases. But they clearly weren’t interstitial. So, for me, anyway, having my eye on the space between genres did define the genres. As a writer, however, I don’t think about it very much.

Dora: I think that’s true to the extent that interstitial stories make a reader aware of the conventions that the story is written against, or around, or otherwise in relation to. For example, Christopher Barzak’s “What We Know About the Lost Families of —House” — I’m looking for the right term here, and I think it’s “messes with”– the boundaries of the haunted house story. So, it makes us think of other haunted house stories we might have read, of how those stories work and of how Chris’s story works differently. It makes us ask, what is a haunted house story — what is at the core of the genre? How much can we change the haunted house story and still recognize it as such? Similarly, K. Tempest Bradford and Veronica Schanoes “mess with” fairytales. In doing so, they make us more aware of fairytale conventions. They make us ask the same sorts of questions: what is at the core of a fairytale? How much can it change before the fairytale is no longer recognizable? In a sense, interstitial fiction allows us to (here comes the litcrit term) interrogate genre conventions. I think that’s a good thing.

Does an artist makes a conscious or sub conscious choice when creating art, for instance, is a book a mystery or a fantasy? How does this affect the process of creation and how do you feel as artists and editors?

Dora: I think it really depends on the particular work of art. There are stories that come to me as a series of images. There are stories that start when I decide that I want to use a particular technique. (One story I wrote began when I said to myself, “I want this to move like Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, circling around and around the main character.”) And then there are stories that start when I say, I want to write a fairytale that no one will recognize as a fairytale. So sometimes I’m engaged with genre, and sometimes I’m not. I think it’s the same for most writers. But in the end, we all have to make decisons about markets. (It always comes as a relief when I realize that there is, in a fact, a magazine or anthology where I can send a story!)

Delia: The entire process of creating a work of art is a series of decisions, some conscious, some unconscious, some made deliberately, and some occurring as a byproduct of other decisions. I would go out on a limb, however, and say that writers of genre fiction are usually pretty clear on what genre they’re setting out to write. They might be taken by surprise, however, by the direction their story takes.

Those who intend from the beginning to write outside of genre (any genre), I think, have found that staying within the conventions of a single genre does not serve their artistic purpose. Angela Carter’s Nights At the Circus borrows from the themes and conventions of (at the very least) the circus novel, literary fantasy, the travel/adventure tale, and romance. China Mieville regularly plays with the conventions of Victorian SF, horror, fantasy, the realistic political novel, and Dickensian surrealism. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, marketed as mystery, is far closer to mainstream domestic fiction in its pacing and structure, and even in its themes and concerns. The Fall of the Kings, which I wrote with Ellen Kushner, draws upon the novel of manners, historical fiction, The Golden Bough, the academic novel, and Shakespearean tragedy.

As a reader and an editor, I don’t think you can necessarily tell from a story whether it became interstitial by accident or by design. I’m guessing that many submissions to INTERFICTIONS were written to be genre blending and convention busting. But I suspect that we also got stories that had been written and put it into a drawer because the writer didn’t know what to do with it until we came along.

Dora: I heard that from several of the writers in Interfictions: “I had no idea where to send this story.” I’m glad we could be there for them.

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