Better late than never? Here’s my interview with Heidi Wyss, author of Gormglaith, the ebook novel that was our featured reading selection in June. Enjoy!
Skepchick: What is your inspiration for Gormglaith?
Wyss: My mum and I spent swaths of my early youth flitting between Geneva, London and LA, where she had her showbusiness friends. She was wonderful and I had a fun childhood. Maybe too much fun cuz when I was 14, my grandmother dropped me off at a girls’ boarding school near Lausanne, called my mum and said, “This is the way it shall be.” I wailed and wept for weeks but after a month or two, that greenhouse was growing a thoroughly spoiled, more or less happy brat.
At college in London I remade myself as a West End geek grrl. After graduating I was a lab technician in a private clinic then ran off to Paris where I did technical writing during the dot com boom, translating wordy, clueless French software manuals and reports into grammarful English corporate paradigmspeak (ew). Meanwhile I wrote a few grrlish short stories only for myself and one day a friend stumbled across them on a laptop I’d lent her. “I found your stories, Heidi,” she told me later, smirking as if she was about to let me have it. “I liked them more than those boring software manuals.”
So the trigger happened not long after, when I spent a few weeks with a cousin in Chicago. On a muggy, hazy summer afternoon I was shopping alone on Michigan Avenue near the Hancock building when these two girls came along and one flashed me. Now, I’m shy and was only able to muster this too loopy grin as they strolled by, giggling. I kicked myself for being such a lame brain, meanwhile trying to put down a big goofy smirk and as I wandered the treesome Streeterville neighbourhood by the lake, I kind of drifted into my mind’s eye and soon ran smack into the girl I’d later call Gormglaith, spot on in her world with her friends and I wanted to share it, so too snared by the notion for a book. As evening came I found a bite to eat and got all stirred up, thinking in my slacker way how I’d get a jump start from one of my short stories and easily grow it from there. Ha! Clueless bitch!
Skepchick: Was there any special reason that you decided not to include the type of magick that is so prevalent in the sci-fi/fantasy genres (I actually think they should be two completely separate genres, but I guess the fanbase overlaps quite a bit)?
Wyss: I thought they were wholly separate genres until only about a year ago! Anyway, to my way of thinking, fantasy shows up rather too often in books and movies as this lazy cheat for dodgy outlooks and cheap gasps pulled with CGI or prose tricks but, I know I’m hard core.
Only today I read about a poll the outcome of which claims that something like two fifths of all Americans think people have been on earth since the beginning of time. Scientific literacy is a chavel. The Guardian lately asked a panel of UK scientists, writers and broadcasters (three of each), “Roughly how old is the earth?” Out of all nine, only two of the scientists answered helpfully (4.5 billion years is likely close enough, given the evidence so far). Even the other scientist on the panel made a frightfully wild guess at 60 billion and get this, she was a brain expert. I shudder. I feel shame. Meanwhile my head drops when I’m talking with someone who seems otherwise cool, then lets slip how she believes “alien UFOs” or whatever are dropping by the earth (I have an open mind but this is so unlikely) or how she’s got “ESP.” Ok. I mean, maybe more like a mix of keen, girlish empathy and foresight along with the born talent most of us have for taming life’s daily blizzards at any cost, even if it means muddling stuff and claiming insight but try telling her that. I lost friends over this kind of thing (argh), before I learned how to answer with a cheery smile and quickly bring up something else.
One of the sadder tales I can remember is the time I hooked up with someone I’d known at school at Lausanne. I’d always thought so highly of her, it felt like finding a long lost sister. We were gleefully driving up into the mountains for the weekend when she put on a tape of this bonkers lady, fricking “channeling.” The very sound of it drove me skittish and after hearing my dear friend go on about this, I knew I couldn’t say the one helpful word (“codswallop”). I smiled steadfastly and my heart broke. Writing about it now, I still want to fold up into a ball and weep.
Like when I was growing up, my mum wontedly slept late on Sundays herself but sent me off to church school saying (more or less), “don’t believe anything they might tell you about folks being zapped into pillars of salt, turning loaves to fishes or whatever, those are only metaphors about moral character and I’m sending you there to get some!” Meanwhile I remember one summer in Brentwood when I was ten or eleven, one of my mum’s friends there had a daughter a few years older than me and she and her two mates kind of took me under the wing (looking back, I think maybe she was “asked” to mind me at first but who knows). Anyway straight off, they beckoned me to watch a video of “Splash” with Darryl Hannah, popcorn, fizzy drinks and all, then it was out to the pool where they taught me how to play “mermaids.” How bash! This went on rather endlessly the whole wonderful summer through and I saw that video so many times, it’s still seared into my mind.
So I guess I’ll throw this bit in too then, since Gormglaith does have something to say about the fleeting fanatasies of fame. Back then, when my mum brought me with to LA, she sometimes fed me dinner at a restaurant in Century City called the Avenue. Now, she had her “celebrity” friends, most of whom I otherwise knew aught about at the time, so I saw lots of what’s called “Hollywood schmoozing” when I was little and tended to think she knew “everyone” and could table hop as she pleased.
“Don’t stare, Heidi,” she said one evening at the Avenue during my “mermaid” summer, nodding at the table next to ours, “but that’s Jackson Browne.”
“Who’s Jackson Browne?” I asked, nicking a glance at whomever this was and the blond girl with him who, as I recall, looked kinda bored maybe.
“Oh, he’s had some hit records. Don’t you see who he’s with? That’s Darryl Hannah.”
“…Can we say hi?!”
“Hardly, dear. I don’t know them.”
How she got me not to mind (much) I don’t remember, but she did. My mum was like that. Fame. That same summer we went to a 4th of July (American independence day) thing at a beach house in Malibu. Sunset came and I was larking about on the sand near the waves when next door, I saw a tall and handsome blond woman sitting at a beachside table with a short, grey haired man… who was staring hard and spot on at me. So I stopped and stared straight back at him. He waved with a kindly grin and I waved back.
“So Heidi,” my mum said a bit later, “now you can tell everyone you’ve been noticed by Johnny Carson! He’s very shy, you know.”
“Who’s Johnny Carson?”
Ok, so how was I to know he was like, one of the most famous people in North America at the time? Some time after, someone switched on his talk show for me to see. I remember thinking he looked much taller on the telly. If I haven’t gotten things muddled, I think that show’s also the first time I ever saw the American skeptic James Randi, who’s done much for clear headed thinking in the popular media (though the way he puts stuff now and then might be taken as a bit harsher than needed and I’m no fan of beards).
Mr Carson seems to have been an unending skeptic himself. Cool. Meanwhile such is the magick of fame, if I tell my “Who’s Johnny Carson?” tale to Americans my age or older, it always gets a laugh but tell it to anyone else (like a Swiss or a Brit) and there’ll be blank stares, even if I fill them in as to who he was (and hey, I’ve tried, every which way!).
Anyway, the mermaids, later in my teens back in Switzerland I read Homer at school and was rather tickled by the notion of sirens beckoning wayward and nettlesome sailorboyz to their so too metaphorical and watery fates. I don’t remember if any of those teenaged American birds I spent that summer with truly “believed” in mermaids as such (I’ve heard one’s a lawyer and another’s a studio executive now so… erm, maybe they did!) but the pith is, Hannah in “Splash” was like, their teen cult thing, as Buffy would later be for so many, over ten years later. Thus in Gormglaith, she and her friends have long swooned over Gillian Goblyn, the wicked brat in “Tales of the Knotty Kindel” whose magick is her appeal.
Think of the wonderous things we stumple upon throughout the earth, or see and learn from all that mazey, fossilized starlight beaming down upon us. Even if at first we grok some of it rather clumsily and have a talent for making stuff up as we go along to fill in the gaps, with a bit of heed we can find a far weirder and more breathlessly magickal world than any codswallop someone could ever dream up on her own. I mean, self-awareness alone is a trip. What’s that about? It scared the withies out of me one night when I was… eight? I think my mum was listening in loops to Tainted Love by Soft Cell at the time.
So in Gormglaith we glimpse cartoon characters for both kids and grownups, along with a dreamy cult brat who, as it happens, also turns out to be way shy. Gormglaith and Raoghnailt talk about when they were moppets, both having played “blossom faeries on the faiyr.” We hear snatches of old tales like “Tamsyn and the Swans,” or “Cragen’s Skeeal” and “Elizabeth Sparks-Banning’s nose ring.” Girls covered in white ash and bearing magnesium flares carry a beryllium litter holding a mummy. Blodwen sweeps a spotless floor “thrice, clockwise and outward” with a besom and, when Gormglaith stands on the runestone in Grasp to peals of thunder, we’ve already gotten the hint Rathyen spun them with some gadget or other. It’s all meant to be nothing more or less than the canny magick of girls thinking and feeling, wending their wonted and sundry ways through life within the sparkle of over a hundred trillion synapses.
Skepchick: Do you consider Gormglaith to be feminist literature?
Wyss: The word “feminist” has lost meaning through the years but the answer would still be yes, throughout. Speaking only for myself, I think of Gormglaith as a sternly grrlish tale wrapped snug in hard science fiction with a witchy bent.
Skepchick: Do you have any idea about the demographics of your readers? Did you have a specific audience in mind before you started writing?
Wyss: I was kinda hoping boyz would like it (or “get it”) more than they seem to. I can dream can’t I? Maybe someday, more will.
Put most broadly, Gormglaith may appeal to UK and Canadian readers more than to Americans. I’ve been startled by the number of Australian, New Zealander, Indian and (who would’ve guessed?) Pakistani readers! I think this has to do with culture, language, notions about what makes for entertainment or whatever, perhaps even marketing. Some older, second wave feminists have gushed over it but two have written back to me simmering with what I could only take as fits of anger. Truth be told, if someone calls Gormglaith “third wave” I don’t have a cow (“…Oh! Is that what I was writing then?!”). Going by fleeting snatches of talk I’ve seen on social networking sites and emails I’ve gotten, I’d say girls in their later teens, twenties and maybe thirties tend to take to it the most. As it happens, I guess I wrote the book thinking of them, which is to say, of my life so far, so I’m happy with that.
Skepchick: Did the process of writing an ebook differ than the process of writing for print? If so, how did that process contribute to the shape of the final product?
Wyss: One way or another, both have to do with crafting an empty text file into words which might thrill a reader. Aside from that, any worries are wee but the Internet and ebook wrappings (like ASCII text, HTML and PDF) have already brought Gormglaith to thousands, witch is more than ok by me.
Skepchick: A few skepchick readers have said that they had trouble getting started with the book because there was a lot of slang used. The language in the book is quite unusual. How did you come up with the voice that you use? How do you want readers to experience the voice?
Wyss: I wanted the culture shock to be rather jarring. Language so sways and shapes our thoughts.
In some ways Gormglaith’s world is so much like our own, but in other ways quite unlike it and I carried that notion deeply into the language too. There’s not much narrative or exposition in the tale because Gormglaith’s world is thoroughly built by the very words she speaks, never mind how all this throws off clues as to how she and the others think about stuff. I wrote in root English, lightly mixed here and there with words from its closest kin tongues, Gaelic, Welsh, Norse, Dutch and Frisian. The words aren’t new, but I knew they’d never been spun together quite like this before. So yeah, the way they talk is startling, which is what I wanted and it’s a big thread in the yarn.
I’ve not heeded calls to ease readers into the tale by writing a forward. That would chavel what I meant to be the canny kick of getting plopped into Elmthorpe without a shred of warning. Some readers seem to get a thrill out of it. Meanwhile there’s a glossary, with the meanings of these words and where they all came from.
Some non-UK readers may not glark that the characters in Gormglaith speak in sundry, mostly southern UK or Scottish accents (Gormglaith and her close kin may also throw in the wee hint of southeastern US). The shifting rhythms and music of everyone’s speech are yet another slice of the tale.
I wrote the book to be read slowly, almost aloud and maybe thrice. Gormglaith does hint at this with a sharp look when Rhiamon lets slip she’s been speed reading.
I’ve been taken aback (and snickered) when some reviewers have compared my writing to Tolkien and Joyce. Although I’ve read these two writers a lot, I never set out to write like either of them. Unlike Joyce, Gormglaith carries no internal monologues, not even one and unlike Tolkien, I don’t wrap up any plots with fantasy (metaphorical or otherwise). Where Tolkien invented his own elven language Quenya, the linguistic echoes ringing in Gormglaith are often Manx. I did throw in snatches of verse as echoes of the bygone, but it wasn’t until lately someone reminded me Tolkien did likewise.
Joyce blew off etymologies (which is to say, thoroughly blended them) even whilst rundling in delightfully woven, straight Irish gab. Meanwhile Tolkien was ever the etymologist and LOTR is deeply crafted upon the very roots of words. Gormlgaith’s English is not the English of LOTR and their linguistic corpora aren’t much alike but in hindsight, I can say both happen to be spun here and there upon an Anglo-Saxon meant for modern readers. Given this, JRRT went much more for a Norse spin and even crafted his own tongues. I went for Gaelic along with UK slang and bits of Welsh, Norse, Dutch, Frisian and even Afrikaans (all so akin) and made up nary a word.
Speaking of which, my writing with slang has been likened to Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) but he invented his idiom rather much from whole cloth and besides, there’s not so much slang in Gormglaith. What there is, I mostly spoke growing up myself, hearing it from my mum, going to high school with Brits and Americans and later laiking about in London and Brighton. I’d say though, my familiarity with all these writers could’ve made me more open to writing the tale in an English thoroughly spun for Gormglaith’s world.
On a thread, I’d guess there are words in Gormglaith which may sound like slang to some readers, but aren’t. Linked with this, Gormglaith has hardly a shred of Latin, more or less none, whilst everyday English is (say) a quarter Latin. Written academic/corporate English can be a third Latin or (big yawn) even nudge towards half when fog is the true pith. So, could slices of my writing in Gormglaith be echoes of my Calvinist and Anabaptist forebears’ thorough dislike of hocus pocus, Papist and otherwise? I guess, but I didn’t even think of that until late in the game, never mind if I did grow up speaking French half the time and French is what, wholly half Latin/Roman? Either way this lass owes her English tongue to ‘er mum and I’m indeed hashed and hemmed, as Raoghnailt says about herself in the tale.
Maybe I’ve been most swayed and thoroughly stirred as a writer by Donna Tartt. There’ve been others I can think of, like Pearl Buck, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Wolff. I’d be amiss not to say I wrote the first two chapters of Gormglaith whilst fondly recalling my childhood readings of Laura Ingalls Wilder (never forgetting her daughter Rose Wilder Lane), which I happened to run across in the little library of the English-language church school I went to as a kid. Every now and then I wrote stuff spoken by Morigan, Blodwen, Rhiamon and later, Gormglaith (as in chapter twenty) whilst thinking of how, say, Ann Coulter might write, but with thoughts rather more akin to those of Isabel Paterson, or a stern clanniner.
Skepchick: Who created the gorgeous drawings that accompany the text? Where the pictures inspired by the text or vice versa?
Wyss: Ta! I did them, starting with photographs taken mostly of some friends and erm, me, then drawing over everything, wontedly with the Gimp. Early on, what I saw in my mind for the tale was rather unlike anything else in popular culture and without those ready cues, I got worried hasty readers wouldn’t understand. We all know what wooden shoes (klompen) and Rebecca jackets (cutty sarks) look like and I mean, who hasn’t hiked her heavy winter tights up way high under a skirt or dress, but how many’ve seen all three put together?
The first drawing I did was Grainne and when I showed it to someone for the first time, I had to get a grip (from trembling) cuz I was hoping she’d let me take a few snaps of her. So, she stared at it for a few seconds with her mouth open and like, frozen, then said… “How fucking cool!” Haha! It took a lot of time to do all twenty but I must say, the feedback has been wonderful!
I asked professional models to stand in for a few shots and I was lucky when, after looking through the agency’s book, I learned both the most and least dear among them happened to be those with no silicone, yay (don’t even get me started), along with having friendlier, appealing faces. It’s so funny. One of them heard me out and said, “Ok. I’ll wear the tights but I don’t do topless!” A week later, after the shoot, she told me over coffee she had lots of fun with it.
Anyway yeah, the drawings were pulled from the text. Now and then there’d be some little thing about a finished drawing that didn’t quite match the tale, or could further deepen it a bit so I’d write the odd shred in, but by far and away the drawings followed what I’d already written.
Skepchick: What one thing would you like readers to come away with after finishing the book?
Wyss: Witchy girls have more fun :)
Skepchick: Are you working on any other novels or books that we should look for in the future?
Wyss: I’ve some notions but so far, not a clue as to what may come of them.