BWS 08.01.14: J.M. Frey

Happy new year! BWS is kicking off 2014 with a real treat, a guest interview by SpecFic Academic, Dr. Mike Perschon with J.M. Frey, the fourth and final feature with next week’s guests. (Author’s warning: things are about to get a bit nerdy.) Enjoy! 

Mike: Hero is a Four Letter Word is a collection of short stories challenging the traditional dichotomy of hero and villain. Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in Thor, said recently that Marvel is currently trying to complicate their heroes and villains by showing the nuances of morality in each. Is that what you were doing in these short stories? And why do you think we’re so interested in having sympathy for the devil (or Loki), but are suspicious of the unabashed Boy Scout hero?

J.M.: I think we are distrustful of the Boy Scout because (s)he’s always too good to be true. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has a facet of themselves that is selfish, petty, distrustful, cruel, bitter, etc. Boy Scout protagonists are disliked because they feel disingenuous. We are fully realized human beings with complicated webs of morality, learned taboos and cultural norms, and hegemonic beliefs; we want the characters we connect with in books to be likewise complicated, varied, and deep.

I personally love it when I read a story and the protagonist does something I hate, something really awful. It’s fantastic because it means that the author isn’t afraid to write a complicated character, but it also means that this character isn’t cardboard perfect. (S)he has done something I disapprove of, has made me think, and feel, and if it is perfectly within that character’s realistic personality, so much the better. We all have people in our lives that we love, but who say or do things that drive us bonkers or are just plain wrong.

I think we also love the complicated pseudo-villain because, as mature and complex readers, we know that the world isn’t innocent and there’s no such thing as perfect goodness. To be frank, the world is kind of shit, isn’t it?  Who wouldn’t leap at the chance to do something proactive about all the rapes, and crimes, and wars, and hate out there?

I think villains are beloved because they’re usually very complexly written, as well. It’s easy to create a hero – slap some morals onto enough smarts and/or muscle, and there you are. But to create a villain, the writer has to justify why the black hat is the black hat. What is it that they want, or do, to desire so much that they’re willing to kill, create havoc, and break laws for it?

Villains are passionate; villains are dedicated; villains are determined and clever. How is that not attractive in a character?

To paraphrase Greg Wilson: While a hero’s journey is a circle in which he leaves home, saves the world, and then returns to his/her home changed, the villain’s journey is an ever-tightening, ever-descending spiral of actions that begin noble and end up selfish and petty. It is this narcissistic selfishness which ultimately causes their undoing. The villain starts on the path of the Hero, but somewhere along the way, (s)he ends up on a by-road.

So, yes, the point of the anthology wasn’t to show two sides of the same coin, but rather whether there is a coin at all instead of a, well, I don’t know… a single puddle of metal? Sorry, weak analogy, but I think it gets my point across. Villains are the heroes of their own stories – I keep reading and seeing variations of that quote all over the place, and I wanted to explore what it meant to be a villain knowingly.

In my collection, we have three types of villain. The villain who knows what he does is wrong, is disgusted by himself, and does it anyway because he is scared and selfish; the villain who is calculated and precise, who wears his villainy like a costume in the pursuit of secretly being a hero, and the hero who is the villain in another person’s tale, depending on which side of the pitch you’re standing on. And I always try to pick the unexpected narrator; I almost never write from the POV of the main character of the story or novel, because in choosing an alternative POV, I can get at different interpretations and truths.

Mike: On the Boy Scout end of things – obviously, you aren’t worried about messing with adapting beloved characters, given what you did in The Dark Side of the Glass. Do you think this awareness of nobody being perfect is what motivates an ending like that of Man of Steel? Is Superman simply changing to reflect our awareness of the lack of black and white in a real and complex world?

And speaking of complications and telling narratives in new ways, I wanted to ask about The Dark Side of the Glass, which seems to be really smart Twilight fan fiction, where a Twihard discovers how bland Edward Cullen would be if you were around him all the time. I thought this was the best sort of satire – the kind that honors its source but also points out its flaws. I know this is a bunch of questions all at once, but I’m curious about your thoughts on the fan scene that refuses to deviate from the “authoritative original” and the process of rewriting other worlds as just as original as the original.

J.M.:  To be a totally aca-fan nerd for a second here, Henry Jenkins once said, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations, instead of owned by the folk” (Textual Poachers: Media Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge 1992). For every child, every first-time story teller, one of the biggest pathways into imagination and one of the most important lessons in learning to tell your own stories has always been through someone else’s tales.

How many times have you played Ninja Turtles on the playground? Or pretended to be a Disney Princess or a Power Ranger? How many times were you the Little Mermaid in a kiddie pool or Scheherazade at bed time, or journeying to the centre of the earth under the covers, or a hobbit in the garden, or Spider or Coyote in a forest, or Mulan with a stick in your hand?

And what is Revisionist Literature but the very same sort of elastic play, but in grown up, novel form?

There’s been a surge in revisionist retellings of classic novels, legends, myths and fairy tales, and I think this goes back to what I was saying about the world wanting complex heroes and villains. It’s not enough anymore to simply accept that Cinderella’s step-mother is evil; now we want to know why, what was her motivation, what back story led her to wed this man and malign his daughter?

One of the reasons fan fiction and the study of fan fiction are so important to me is that fan fiction allows for voices that are otherwise silenced or not included in mainstream media texts. In the chapter “Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Space (for Mary Sue) at Hogwarts,” (Fan fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, McFarland, 2006), Ika Willis talks about how fan fiction can supplement the canonical media text, how it can find and force gaps into the media text for absent points of views and identities.

I maintain in my own research that fan fiction is the place where writers first learn to be writers, where storytellers learn to weave narratives, take critiques, engage with readers, and find new and alternative ways to tell the same stories. I see fan fiction as the ultimate example of revisionist literature, and I grew up as a writer in the fan fiction tradition.

For example, look at the popular SF series Stargate. The non-Caucasian, non-male POV is virtually silent, and the queer voice non-existent. Introducing Mary Sue characters, or focusing on/elevating a marginalized or smaller character can open up spaces for conversations that the program doesn’t otherwise support or entertain.

On top of that, “domesti-fic” or “curtain-fic”, where two characters, usually canonically straight men, develop a romantic and/or sexual relationship and enter into a domestic arrangement (sometimes with kids), reorients the focus of the program of the stereotypically “male” sphere of guns and action and violence and onto the “female” sphere of homemaking, emotions, and love.

It’s an excellent example of how the silenced voice can speak through fan fiction. What percentage of that franchise’s fan base is married, female, non-Caucasian, a parent, and in possession of disposable income, I don’t know… but I know it’s more than the producers thought. And while watching predominantly Caucasian men run around and be action heroes makes for a fun program, the world that those characters inhabit does not match its audience’s lived life. By bringing the action characters into the domestic sphere — or into other jobs like baristas, university professors and students or office workers — fan fiction writers have the ability to speak about their own lived lives.

(I talk more about that in my thesis on Mary Sues, here.)

Fan fiction is, essentially, a short-hand. The media text is disassembled into building blocks and re-built in a different shape. Characters, relationships between the characters, and elements of the world often remain identical; this means that the writer can skip the rigours of world and character building in order to focus on telling a story. Sometimes they are light and frivolous, funny and irreverent, or mixtures of different media texts, but I’ve read fan fiction that has dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder, the frustration of a dead-end job, surviving or losing to cancer, the aftermath of rape, the terror and danger of coming out of the closet, the death of a child or a partner, and all manner of other issues, all told with the same poignancy, deftness, and skill of any award-winning novel you could pluck off the shelf at Chapters.

Fan fiction, and the reorienting of a story, as with revisionist literature and dismantled fairy tales, gives people the ability to tell a powerful, personal story, (or a funny, silly, or sexy one), by manipulating characters and narratives that the audience already knows and loves.

When the context is already familiar, it makes the additions, subtractions, or new focus jump out all the better, like a sort of literary Uncanny Valley.

So, having said all that…

Yes, The Dark Side of the Glass is, in a small way, Twilght fan fiction. But it also stems from Dracula: The Series, and the Vicki Nelson books and TV series, and Forever Knight, and Moonlight, and New Amsterdam (even though he’s not technically a vampire), and Nightwalker, and the Vampire Files series, and the Vampire Chronicles series, and every other attempt in television, on film, and in books to find the humanity behind what was once just a 2D Hammer Horror monster. Again, it’s this push to find complex and layered reasons why villains are villains.

Somehow the trope has become that in order to try to regain their soul and make up for past crimes, the vampire becomes and vigilante or a cop and hunts down baddies. I love that trope, I love the way that Vampires have gone from being monsters to being heroes. Michael Morbius, The Living Vampire, is straight-up my favourite Marvel villain because he tries so damn hard to not be a bad guy.

When I decided to write The Dark Side of the Glass, I wanted to talk about all of that, to talk about the great deal of good that fan fiction can do for the fan community – especially excellently written Mary Sue fanfic – but I also wanted it to be my love letter to fandom. I wanted to take a character who was as hopeless and small and introverted as so many of us in fandom feel we are – the outsider, the nobody, the loser — and give her agency. I wanted to give her the power over the stories she loves so much, and yes, show that nothing in television and fantasy is perfect, and that what we love or what turns our cranks in fantasy is actually quite lame or terrifying in reality, but that also it’s okay to dream big, and play, and write, and cosplay, and fantasize, and let that become and inform the kind of strong, intelligent individual that you can be.

As you say, so much of fandom is about a passionate dedication to the original source text. People engage with media texts in many different ways, and there are those who dedicate their energy to minutia, facts, the memorizing of back-story and the critiquing of reboots and adaptations. That’s their choice, everyone gets to engage with their own fandoms in whatever way makes them comfortable, but unfortunately, this crowd also happens to be very hard to please when it comes to those adaptations and reboots.

On the other hand, a lot of fandom is also about the play and creativity that can be found within it – the flowers, if you’ll forgive the poetic visual, that grow between the paving stones.

I try to infuse my original fiction with that same sense of elastic play, of wonder; I try to fill my novels with new ways of looking at old stories, with heretofore silenced voices, with retellings and revisions and the Uncanny Valley.

And my biggest dream come true would be to see fanfic circulating that’s based on my own work.

Mike: I love Jenkins’ Textual Poachers – I used it in an early iteration of ”Steam Wars” (the article I did on Steampunk Star Wars).

Not only do we play with Ninja Turtles and Disney Princesses, but I’ve watched my children mix the worlds: Lego Ninjago storm a Playmobil Castle filled with Pokemon, or Iron Man stands beside Supergirl. There aren’t any boundaries for that sort of early elastic storytelling.

I also think that these rewritings are part of our culture admitting that none of our supposedly original texts are that. I think the cult of creative originality is bound up in copyright law in our litigious North America – you linked to a great Tumblr post about literature as fanfic and vice-versa. That’s what we study in my World Literature course: here’s Homer doing Trojan War-fic, and Virgil doing Homerfic, and Dante will do Virgilfic and mash it up with Biblefic, which is itself an anthology of Canaanite, Babylonian, and Egyptian myth-fic, and on and on we go, on the shoulders of giants on the shoulders of elephants on the back of a giant turtle. Each culture seems to have the need to tell these oft-told-tales in its own way. I think the examples you have of inserting other characters or exploring other POVs is akin to the way John Gardner gave us Grendel’s perspective, providing sympathy for the devil of Beowulf.

You as the writer paying tribute to the fan in Dark Side of the Glass also reminds me specifically of Dante’s Inferno, where Dante placed himself in the text. We think of that as being terribly gauche in our world today, and yet Dante is engaging in unabashed fanboy behavior – placing himself in the clubhouse of the Great Dead Poet’s Society in an early level of hell for virtuous pagans. It would be like me writing a story about an English prof who gets to meet the shades of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan and having them foretell that the story I’m writing will be one of the great works of literature in the future.

Playing off that last idea: Do you think that the public’s idea of what makes a good story (originality, so-called literary qualities, conventional plot) are standing in the way of many writers being recognized for their outstanding fan fiction? I mean, aren’t there a number of recent hits (50 Shades of Grey) that were fan fiction retooled to avoid copyright infringement? (This is nothing new, of course – Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara is retooled Tolkien fanfic that had huge market success.)

J.M.: I’m not sure they’re “standing in the way” so much as just acting as yet another barrier that separates what the reading public calls a good book and what the critical set does.  I think there’s sometimes such a scramble to find something new and original, and yet, at the same time, so much revisionist work popping up in every genre because familiar stories are a comfort. And there again, there’s so much faithfulness in a readership to a series and established worlds, yet also a press for something new and fantastic. And there again, there is so much fear of someone trying something new with format or concept, a worry that it won’t work and will break storytelling forever.

There’s no one “publishing industry”; it can’t be summed up in one gelatinous blob any more than the readership can. I think it might even be disingenuous to try to say that “the public” fears this or that. There’s a trend in taste and what people buy, buzz, award and review, but I think that the only trend, really, is the appreciation of a good book. I mean, ask any agent or acquisitions editor what they’re looking for, and it’s not “originality” they strive for so much as a good, well written, entertaining, engaging book.

Having said that, though, I do believe there is, as you say, a push in the critical and academic world toward exemplifying only “original” work. It is, yes, partially about copyright legalities, but it’s also because for some reason “genius” has come to be freighted with the absolute necessity of complete originality. It cannot be genius if we’ve seen it before.

(Never mind Andy Warhol, or Dante, or Terry Brooks, or T.H. White, or Shakespeare, or … or… etc.)

There’s this 20th-21st century mindset that says it can’t be a staggering work of genius if it isn’t new! And original! And never before seen! And clever in ways that we’ve never even fathomed before!

This leaves out, I think, the works that are not new, original, different, but are still beautifully told narratives, compelling and engaging, all the same.

And yeah, okay, copyright is what pays my rent. I want to be able to claim my own work as my own, so I can get paid for it. But I also understand that a creator cannot and will not ever mature in a narrative vacuum. There are things in other people’s novels, stories, fairy tales, films, songs, clothes, tv shows, manga, etc. that have influenced what I have created. And there will be (hopefully) creators who come after me who can point to Triptych or The Dark Side of the Glass or Hero is a Four Letter Word and say, “Yes, this was one of the influences of my early writing career.”

Am I advocating for direct copying or plagiarism? No. Am I advocating for revisionist literature, mashups, and anything else under Fair Use? Of course! It goes back to those building blocks, to having that short-hand for a world and characters to the story, and the differences, the juxtapositions and the exposed gaps are the focus of the tale. That’s just as important in professional fiction as it is in fan fiction.

And I guess, personally, I find it a bit frustrating. We are all taught and told that there are seven basic narratives in the world, we’re taught about the Hero’s Journey, and the rising action pyramid, and all of these tricks and tropes, but then if we, as creators, use them, we get called unoriginal and predictable. And then if creators try to break the mold, try something new and different and perhaps harder to consume but more powerful as a story, it is called difficult, weird, an unsustainable medium.

I don’t know what the answer is here. I don’t know if you’re even looking for an answer to the question.

I think, in the end, all a creator can do is be aware of the traditions and tropes and craftsmanship from which they arose, and use that to tell really good stories – however they choose to present them, however they choose to separate themselves from their narrative traditions, or however deeply they dig to force space for themselves between the paving stones.

Creators grow flowers. Where they choose to plant the seed is up to them, and in the end I don’t much think it matters, so long as they do their best to encourage an enthralling, engaging blossom to emerge. If the book is good, the reader will come to you, no matter where you’ve planted.

J.M. Frey visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Katie Boland, Michael Mirolla and Sherwin Tjia. Come early (6:30) for a talk by author Cory Silverberg about crowd-funding and how writers can put it to use.

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