Casey Wolf is the author of numerous speculative short stories, several of which were recently collected as Finding Creatures & Other Stories by C. June Wolf.
Wolf’s stories represent a uniquely Canadian approach to fantasy: where others write about the astronaut hero, she writes about the father who is left behind; where others write about planetary conquest, she writes about multiculturalism and the respect for alien life; where others write about revenge, she writes about reconciliation; where others write stories filled with sound and fury signifying nothing, her stories quietly engage the reader in the real lives of ordinary people—who become extraordinary because they have imagination, perspective, courage—and above all—integrity.
Yet, unlike a lot of CanLit, her stories are never depressing or dry. The speculative element makes her stories both more interesting and, in some strange sense, more real than other Canadian literature exploring the same themes. Consequently, I really wanted to ask Casey about her writing, and how her settings, themes, and characters reflected her Canadian upbringing. She graciously agreed to this interview.
Runté: One of the things that struck me about your writing, and that especially resonated with me as a reader, was how Canadian your stories were. The settings, the style, and the themes of many of these stories exemplify Canadian fiction. How conscious or deliberate are you about writing Canadian fiction?
Wolf: In the way that you are asking, I haven’t been consciously Canadian. Recently, though, I was asked who my influences were and below the top layer of SF writers (particularly Ursula K. Le Guin, who I read voraciously as a young adult), I uncovered Margaret Laurence, W. O. Mitchell—Canadian authors whose works moved and inspired me when I was young. In addition, and I know this is cliché but it’s completely true, the landscape and wildlife, as well as the people I was exposed to as a growing lass who were tied to those elements, had a huge influence on how I see and report my seeing of the world.
Consciously, when I write I’m guided by a desire to honestly portray the world I’m envisioning. When I look into those worlds and the beings that people them, I see the details of who they are, where they are, and what they are experiencing, and that is the story I want to tell. I’m not so interested in stories that always run along the same lines: a threat comes, a hero emerges, a fight ensues, and all is (or isn’t) well. I want to know more about the characters involved. I’m told this is a fairly Canadian approach.
On the other hand, I consciously resist the pressure to write “American” stories—I know that I’d sell more stories if I did follow the above formula. I also resist the pressure to set stories in American cities, give them American protagonists, simply to make them more appealing to audiences down south, though I wouldn’t hesitate to use American settings and characters if that made sense to the story I was trying to tell. I’m faintly disappointed when I pick up a book by a Canadian writer and it’s set in the States. Like most people, I like to see my world reflected back to me in my reading; I want to see different Canadian settings and circumstances portrayed. (On the other hand, Canadian writers often put CanContent into their “American” books. Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia, for example.) This isn’t a criticism of those who do otherwise, simply a preference in my own reading.
Runté: You're talking about Canadian here primarily in terms of setting, and I agree that an emphasis on setting is one characteristic common to Canadian fiction: Candas Dorsey often talks about setting becoming one of the central characters in Canadian SF, and I can certainly see that in several of your stories.
But what struck me most strongly about your anthology is the repeated theme that "nice makes right." The characters in your stories always choose to do the right thing, often putting the needs of others ahead of their own, even when we might have expected that their past experiences would have predisposed them to vengeance, bitterness, or at least indifference. "The MagniCharisma Machine," for example, strikes me as a story that could only have been written by a Canadian, not just in its celebration of cultural diversity and compromise and reconciliation, but in its recognition that it takes more courage not to kill your enemies. Is “niceness” something you consciously champion, or am I way off base here?
Wolf: Not all of my characters do the right thing. But when they don’t, there are repercussions—not in terms of divine (or authorial) retribution, but in the same terms as life. I don’t see this as being about niceness, or characters putting others ahead of themselves. It’s more about integrity, something some of my characters summon up with ease where others struggle with it. When we live without integrity, we suffer the consequences: greater isolation, with all the lack of resource—emotional and psychological, at least—that that implies; lower self-regard (on whatever level we are honest with ourselves); an extinguishment of a sense of belonging and all-for-oneness that gets human communities through long periods of difficulty and want. In other words, supposedly selfish behaviour actually drags the individual down. We don’t like ourselves as much, and no one else holds us in such high regard, either. And we don’t heal from our wounds, but carry them around sequestered behind our defenses.
We do know this. We wince when we act like a shit. We mourn in some shouted-down part of ourselves when we do the same old ego-protective/self-destructive dance. So what I see are people on various points of the path between self-deception and honesty, between being able to do what it is right because they know it’s right, for themselves as well as others, and running because the idea of doing it scares them to death. I sense that the easiest way for a human to be, deep down in the bones and soul, could appear altruistic. We have to cut off parts of ourselves not to be compassionate, integrated, welcoming, and brave. Unfortunately life provides many opportunities to do just that, and once in that cut-off, shutdown mode, finding the courage to change course (again and again) is not an apparently easy thing to do. But when we do it, and really get it on a gut level, it allows us to live in a more integrated and at ease way.
Now, is that a Canadian perspective? I imagine it’s in part a result of being Canadian. Certainly I’ve seen ample hogwash in Canada, seen chintzy behaviours defended and rewarded. But there’s always been a background of valuing integrity and community that I could refer to. I was also exposed to such ideals as a young Catholic, and later through the teachings of Americans like Ursula Le Guin and Harvey Jackins (founder of Re-Evaluation Counseling), and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. These ideas were instrumental in helping me get from knowing things weren’t as they should be to acting with the integrity I saw lacking in so many others and in myself. So it certainly is a deliberate choice and interest of mine. But is it a Canadian thing? Only partly.
Runté: Well yeah, I wasn’t suggesting that Canadians actually have more integrity or never behave badly, but more that “niceness” is part of our mythology, part of our national self-image. That we value niceness and strive for it. Or, I don’t know, that it’s part of our collective unconscious somehow.
Wolf: I guess what you’re calling “niceness” is what I identify as civil behaviour. Being considerate and respectful, rather than rude, overbearing, and grabby. Yes, that is a basic Canadian value, and one that I embrace.
Now, here’s a thought. It springs to mind that, in a way, I may, for all that I stopped living in Manitoba when I was ten, be more a Canadian prairie writer than simply a Canadian writer, at least at base. A lot of my characters’ “niceness” or “doing the right thing” I could put in the context of the values and sensibilities I learned from many of the working class and farming people I knew growing up. Like knowing that however we felt or however we regarded each other as individuals, we depended on each other to survive. There’s a kind of quietness and lack of arrogance that probably stem not only from the quietness of the land we lived on, but from just this understanding — that there’s no way you could do it on your own, so don’t get too puffed up about yourself. Not to mention having to get up and do the chores, do the work to keep everyone alive no matter whether you feel like it or expect to get praise for it or not. Whatever our flaws, and they are legion, we learned how to keep going against the hardest winds. (When I discovered Robert Stead’s book Grain a couple of years ago, I saw that old life, those people I had known, and the land they knew so well. It was a sorrowful, joyful thing to find again.)
Runté: Yeah, that’s more what I was getting at. So if your writing comes out of the Canadian experience, whatever that is, does that limit you to Canadian venues? Have you tried writing for the American market or have you just always submitted to Canadian magazines and anthologies?
Wolf: I occasionally submit to American markets but that’s different from writing for them, as you can see by my success rate!
Runté: Have you noticed a difference generally in the reception your stories receive from readers/reviewers/editors from outside Canada?
Wolf: The Australians who’ve responded to my writing have been very positive; colonials seeing eye to eye, perhaps? With American readers I’ve noticed a difference on occasion. Canadians sometimes get my writing more — they’re more okay with the pacing, introspection, and attention to detail. I had one well known American writer tell me I don’t know how to write, simply because I don’t write in the style she’s used to. This was quite a surprise, as some of her stuff is pretty sleepy and uneventful ([i.e.], “literary”). Ah, well.
Runté: I think a lot of Canadian authors could relate to that. I know I attended a workshop given by a famous American editor at a Canadian writers’ convention in which he described the essential elements of every good story, and that any story that didn't follow that formula was not a story, just an incomplete “fragment.” And I remember thinking that that formula did not apply to any of my 20 favorite Canadian stories. When I and others in the room tried objecting that that formula applied primarily to American fiction, and may not apply universally, his response was that it did, and if we didn't get it, it just meant Canadians hadn't learned to write yet. It was pretty hard to take!
So, do you read a lot of American SF? Did the great American fantasy writers like Ray Bradbury feature in your background at all?
Wolf: I wouldn’t say I read a lot of American SF, but I read some. Because I read almost exclusively American SF for many years, I’m now making up for lost time by focusing on Canadian writers. One American writer I enjoy is Daryl Gregory, particularly his short fiction (which he posts on his website post-publication).
Ray Bradbury blew my wee mind and signaled that it was okay for me to have the insane imagination I had then. (I am much tamer now.) Not only okay but good. His butterfly story, “A Sound of Thunder,” had a profound effect on me, and still resonates nearly forty years after I read it. For that matter, that story, too, is all about responsible action.
Runté: Who, then, are the big influences on your writing?
Wolf: I’ve been influenced most notably by: Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Eileen Kernaghan, Margaret Laurence, Barbara Pym, Farley Mowat, Victor Hugo, Dr. Seuss, Hinterland's Who's Who, the Catholic liturgy, Frank Zappa, and National Geographic. I am also a great admirer of Dav Pilkey, especially his Captain Underpants series, but I can’t honestly say he has influenced my writing.
Runté: That's a terrific list! I have to admit that while I certainly see Victor Hugo and Hinterland's Who's Who in your writing, Dav Pilkey took me by surprise! A kind of fantasy, I guess!
Do you still read a lot of SF, or do you read a range of genres?
Wolf: I read fairly broadly, though not quickly, and always have several books on the go. I like to have short story collections nearby for that perfect mood, some poetry, serious novels, escapist fiction (sometimes the line between the two is unclear—thank heaven), and a variety of nonfiction.
Runté: If I were to ask you what you read in an average month, what would I find on your bookshelf?
Wolf: The books I’m currently reading: Seamus Heaney: Station Island; Liam O’Flaherty: Selected Stories; T. K. V. Desikachar: The Heart of Yoga; Holly Phillips: In the Palace of Repose; Jean Markale: The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween; Hiromi Goto: Half World; Ivan E. Coyote: One Man’s Trash; Sister Nivedita: Kali The Mother; and Iain MacDonald: Saint Bride.
Runté: Any genre you don’t like/read?
Wolf: I don’t read horror. I don’t look at horror. I don’t even look at the covers of horror comics. Never. However. I do seem to have written a couple of horror stories, and I am bravely venturing into reading some dark fantasy because the writers are people who I admire and want more of (e.g., John R. Little and Daryl Gregory.) I don’t read thrillers, porn, or military fiction.
Runté: So far, you’re mostly known for your short story collection. Are short stories your preferred format, or is there a novel in the works?
Wolf: No either/or there. There is indeed a novel in the works, which I’ve vowed to complete in the next few months, but there’s something extremely satisfying in writing short stories. Each has its appeal. If I prove capable of handling the larger format I can’t imagine giving up short fiction.
Runté: Some of your fantasy stories have religious characters or themes. What draws you to tackle religious subjects?
Wolf: I suppose there are two reasons that I return to religious themes. First I must point out that the religions in my stories can vary from Animism to Zoroastrianism.
Reason one: I was raised in a religion and found much that inspired me and made me think deeply. I continue to find religions of many kinds capable of impelling me to greater understanding, despite the painful quarrels I’ve had with Christianity, in particular, over the years. Reason two: Religion is both a powerful integrator and a vicious divider, depending on the way in which it’s viewed and used. I like to remind myself of both potentialities, to see where we can go with the positive contributions while avoiding some of the pitfalls. But this sounds more grand than what I’m actually doing when I write. I just find a person and follow a theme; how religion plays into that is up to the story, not to an overarching agenda on my part.
Runté: Given the increasing diversity and secularization of the population, do you ever worry that a significant portion of your audience won’t always have access to the necessary background to get the religious references? Or do you always try to write the story so that it’s self-contained?
Wolf: I try to give enough information, whether about culture, science, religion, or character, that the unfolding story makes sense to the reader, whatever their background. There will be references that have more sparkle for someone familiar with the genre of a particular story—for instance “Saint Francis and the Green Man” tends to delight Christians and Pagans in particular—but the intention, whether I succeed or not, is to make the story accessible to anyone.
Runté: A number of your protagonists are male. I’m always curious why female authors choose male characters for their stories, even in those cases where the story doesn’t seem to necessarily require a male character in the lead.
Wolf: I think the reason is that I live in a world peopled by both women and men, and it’s natural for me to choose from both when I write. I don’t generally go looking for stories, or characters. Stories tend to arrive in my head, or some detail of them, rather, and often that is the character.
For instance, Mr. Cowmeadow is based on a man I knew, and his son is as well. I made them the same gender because they were the same person; I tried to give him an opportunity in art that he never had in life. The Haitian street kid in “The Coin,” Likner, was necessarily a boy. Not simply because the street kids I knew there were all boys, but because the particular life I was describing was not one that I saw girls living. They had their own milieu.
But also, Likner simply arrived and had his story told. It never occurred to me to change his sex simply because I’m a woman. And that’s usually the case. An alien is about to crash land (she turns out to be female). A man steps out of his house in the northern woods. I don’t ask myself whether the person coming out of the house should be a woman or a man. I see a man, so I find his name, his personality, and go from there. About half of my characters are female and half are male. But I do ask myself this question sometimes, so possibly I will become more conscious about it in the future.
Runté: I wasn't suggesting that you change the gender of your characters, of course, but it’s interesting to learn that they arrive already gendered. From what you’re saying, it sounds like you don’t so much create your characters as channel them. So are you one of those writers for whom the characters take on a life of their own, sometimes refusing to do what you want, insisting on their own dialog and action?
Wolf: Not quite. They aren’t that pushy and I’m not that opinionated. Since I don’t plan out ahead where the story has to go, I haven’t decided what I think they should do. It’s more a matter of listening to hear what is happening now, and writing it down. It sometimes pains me, the directions things take, but I know that’s the way they need to go, and I just want to hear well enough to understand and to portray that properly.
Runté: There are a couple of stories in which your protagonist is from another culture: Haitian, or First Nations, etc. Although these characters are portrayed very positively, do you ever worry that you might be accused of cultural appropriation? What’s your stance on the whole cultural appropriation issue in Canadian literature?
Wolf: I don’t worry that I might be accused of cultural appropriation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was. Racism and cultural appropriation are subjects I’ve given a fair bit of thought to, though I don’t claim to be an expert in my understanding of them. My story “Dreamcatcher” in the current issue of Room Magazine (32.2) is about these very topics.
Do you remember the bad old days when every character in speculative fiction was white by default? This was racist even though there was nothing rotten being said about people of colour, they weren’t being demeaned in any way. They simply didn’t exist. We couldn’t imagine them in our universe, let alone at its centre.
Going further, aliens were often thinly disguised Africans, Asians, or First Nations folk—Others who intrigued and frightened at the same time; dangerous, needing to be killed or conquered. This tipped SF in the direction of blatant racism.
Two things were needed: fair representations of people of colour in writing by whites, and the publication of SF written by people of colour.
Slowly in society things revolved around. No longer were matters African, African-American, First Nations, and so on automatically disreputable and scary. They became, in limited circumstances, of interest to whites, to be discussed, emulated, even claimed. Some of this was a healthy exchange of ideas and a lessening of prejudice. Some was what we now call cultural appropriation. Though it looks like things of colour are currently approved and cool, racism is still at play when it is the objects, the dance moves, the bowdlerized religions and cultures, the stories and images and certain acceptable representatives, but not the people as a whole, themselves, with their real struggles and real voices, who are being heard, welcomed, vindicated, compensated, and embraced.
In my stories I attempt two things in this regard.
I try to go against my learned tendency as a white, fourth generation North American to forget that people of other races and identities exist and lead lives as interesting and meaningful as my own. To this end I plunk them in as characters whether there is a reason for their being there or not. (In a connected situation, in response to a recent story someone complained because the characters were all Polish immigrants and she couldn’t see the need for that. I know what she was getting at but it is strange to me that no one ever says, “But why are they all white? Is that central to the plot?” Or “Why do they all have English surnames? What are you getting at here?”)
In addition I depict people of colour, as well as non-Christian religions, in ways that (I hope) contradict common racist misconceptions. (Another reason for my returning to religious themes, then, is my irritation with unthinking and racist assumptions about what is normal and good.)
What I’m trying to say is that there’s a need for literature to represent groups who don’t fit the presumption of normalcy in our society: white, male, middle class, adult, Christian (or rather, Christian-heritage), and there is equally a need for members of those dominant groups to not lay claim to images and traditions that are not their own, to wrest them from the cultures that they belong to and make trinkets of them.
Many of my stories are imperfect attempts to address and in small ways heal that legacy of colonialism, the fracturing of communities, and the division of races. If you find racism in my stories, or other examples of poor thinking and limited vision, I’ll be distressed but not shocked. If I ever get it all clear, well, I expect I’ll be pretty old indeed.
Runté: That’s a very Canadian approach! Which brings me to the story “Equals”. That’s another one of your stories that I’m sure could only have been written by a Canadian. It takes multiculturalism to a whole new level. . . . It’s a great example of how speculative fiction provides a better mirror for examining the central mythos of our culture than a realistic story ever could. Is that why you write speculative fiction? Or is it that you just tap into some other aspect of reality to connect to your muse?
Wolf: I think I may answer this question differently in a few years, but for now I’d say that most of the time if I do not include a speculative element, the story seems less real to me. There’s a certain wholeness and excitement to reality that’s difficult to capture in a few plain words, in simple factual reportage. What is sacrificed is less, for me, when I’m able to stretch the boundaries of my story to include aspects of the world that are not proveable or true, that represent, in a way, that greater interior that we all contain and do not always express. So the speculation for me doesn’t really extend us as human beings so much as encompass more of what we already are.
Runté: What drew you to Wattle and Daub Books?
Wolf: I had tried the usual round of publishing houses. Some of the literary ones were interested but decided the fit wasn’t quite right. A speculative fiction publisher picked up Finding Creatures and I was thrilled. But as time went on the deal looked less and less attractive. For instance, the publisher wanted to offer my book online only, unlike their other titles, which get into bookstores. The other fall titles went up on the web but mine wasn’t among them. And although we had gotten to the point of getting permission for the cover art and setting up a book launch, the publisher was still not forthcoming with an actual contract, and was taking longer and longer to answer my emails. It all began to feel very yukky. So we parted ways.
Susan was starting up her new venture and I approached her, and somehow we managed to honour the original launch date I had set up with the other publisher. It was a real relief to me, not only to have the book, but to not screw up on the commitment with the bookstore.
Runté: That’s the publisher, Susan Pinkus? What was it like working with her?
Wolf: Good. She’s learning as she goes, and has a very busy life on top of Wattle and Daub Books, but she is principled and open-minded, and encouraging of an author’s vision. There isn’t a huge budget or broad distribution and so on, but this is a publisher who will carry your books for the duration, so there is time to build an audience.
Runté: What are the advantages of dealing with a micropublisher as compared to going with one of the legacy publishers?
Wolf: Obviously there are disadvantages along with the advantages. Because Wattle and Daub is so small, at this stage their books aren’t eligible for things like the Governor General’s Award, they can’t get Canada Council grants (as far as I know)—it’s definitely a harder road than if you are published by well established houses. Your books don’t get the attention that is given even to the larger small presses.
But having so much input into the process, from the editing decisions to the cover art, having an excellent and very accessible editor like Clélie Rich, who has done all of W&D’s books, and a kind and supportive publisher like Susan. . . .
Runté: Clélie Rich has a pretty good reputation as an editor! She’s the managing editor of Room, isn’t she?
Wolf: She was, up until last month. She’s still a part of the collective and takes her turn editing issues and so on, but she’s given up that particular role.
She was wonderful to work with. Insightful, approachable, funny. I’m happy that I’ve had the experience of working with her and Susan, and am deeply grateful for the doors that are opening to me now that I have a book I can wave around and say, “I did this!”
In addition, because they’re using POD technology they can do smaller print runs and repeat the orders as needed. Susan can do this out of her house because storage needs are less. All of which means that even with a small budget, because the overhead is so low, it’s still possible to put out quality titles and keep them in print as long as desired.
Runté: Yes, I have to say I am impressed by the quality of the authors they are attracting. And the cover art for Finding Creatures is much better than the usual run of the mill SF or Canlit cover. How much input did you have into the selection of the artist, or into her cover design? Was that a pre-existing image that the publisher thought would fit your book (which it really does!), or did she do the cover specifically for the book?
Wolf: Oh, I’m glad you like it. I’m still delighted every time I look at the cover.
The painting was an existing piece. Rather than waiting to see what the publisher would come up with, I got proactive and did an enormous image search. I have pretty particular tastes and I was hoping I could scoop something I would really like that would wow the publisher, rather than risk having to respond to a cover I didn’t like. It worked out the way I’d hoped. This is something you can try with a micro-publisher that you might never dream of with a big house.
Runté: It’s worked out very well all round. And on that topic—how did you get Charles de Lint to write the introduction? Did you know him, or did the publisher approach him?
Wolf: We brainstormed a list of people to approach for cover blurbs, and Charles—who I don’t know personally—was suggested as a good fit. I wrote and asked if he’d be willing to consider doing a blurb; he said sure, so I sent him the manuscript. When he’d read it he decided he liked it enough to write an introduction instead of just a blurb. With how incredibly busy he is, I was and am surprised and grateful. It’s a real encouragement for a relative unknown like me.
Runté: Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. And good luck with the novel. I’m really looking forward to what you could do with a book length story!