Sarah Tolmie is the author of three books with Aqueduct Press: The Stone Boatmen (2014, a finalist for the William L. Crawford Award for first fantasy book), NoFood (2015), and Two Travelers (2016). "The Dancer on the Stairs", which first appeared in the latter, is reprinted in this week's issue. Tolmie has also published the poetry collection Trio with McGill-Queen's University Press and contributed poetry and flash to The New Quarterly and Grain. Her website is sarahtolmie.ca. This interview was conducted by email in November 2016.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: To get things rolling, I'd like to ask about how your academic work fits together with your—I won't call it creative work, as I think academic work is also creative—so let's say fiction and poetry. My sense is that they feed off one another in some way.
Sarah Tolmie: Obviously, there's nothing new in a literature professor who writes fiction. It's practically a standing joke among medievalists, anyway—my friend was hired for a Middle English job a decade ago, and the chair asked him, "So, what kind of fantasy do you write?" Like many people who do both things, I have thought about it a lot, and that I have to say boils down to two points. One: it is perfectly okay to do this. Occasionally academic colleagues will try to guilt you, or just be contemptuous. Writers who are not academics assume you are coddled, while they are out in the challenging wilds. Who cares? Practically all writers have another job. It doesn't matter what it is. Moreover, this has always been true, right back to the time of Chaucer. The number of writers who have been wholly self-supporting in some commercial way, across history, is negligible. Patrons have always been required, and whether that is a church, a state granting agency, a university, a corporation, or the corner store makes no difference. Not to me, at least.
The other point is more debatable. There is a lot of talk across the academy, and across industry, right now about how creative those domains are. In my experience, they aren't. The academy is the one I can speak to on the basis of long experience. I have (finally) got a narrative together about this that I use in my creative writing classes: it all revolves around the reliability of the narrator. If you are a professor in the humanities, or indeed in the sciences, it is your job to be right. Your worth and authority lie in the quality of your information and your explanatory powers; it is necessary that people believe in your ethos, i.e., that they believe you speak the truth. In writing fiction, you need to be able to be wrong, or unreliable. Authorial narrators, and characters, need to make visible mistakes. This is intrinsic to meaning-making in creative writing, and anathema to the rhetorical position of a professor. Readers of fiction need to have the interpretive space to decide, to choose, to feel their way through a complex textual reality: that is actually what reading fiction is. Often the reader is right at the expense of the author. That is the deal.
Error has an important role in both academic discourse and fiction. If you are doing research, especially primary research (manuscript or field research), of course you contend with error all the time: your own, and others'. It is your job to winnow it out to the furthest extent you can (which may not be far). If there is a moment at which fiction writing and academic writing converge, it is here, in the primary processes as you struggle to cope with the confusions of reality. The moment at which something is creative is the moment at which you don't know. The moment that you do know, you are doing something else: preaching, teaching, editorializing, persuading, whatever. This is the place academic writers aspire to get to and that creative writers should avoid. In my opinion, academic and creative writing are precisely inverse to one another. It is possible to be good at both, but they are different tasks entirely.
That having been said, it is perfectly obvious that my career as a scholar of medieval and early modern literature has profoundly influenced my fiction writing. Twenty-five years of reading very old poetry and history has provided a mass of information, but more importantly, an alternate way of looking at the world. And despite the enormous mass of published voices out there, it seems to me that alternate perspectives are actually very hard to achieve. There are many superficial attempts, but few deep ones that are epistemologically challenging. The fact is, premodern Europe was astonishingly different from our world—truly alien. We have not wrung it out, any more than we have explored our own oceans. The vast majority of stuff written about it is simply anachronistic bullshit, that's all.
I would not be a novelist were it not for the 14th-century visionary poem Piers Plowman. I should say that I hated this poem at first, for years; I found it messy and inchoate and a bizarre mixture of styles, with an uncertain narrative line and a bunch of idiotic Christian convictions that I do not share. But in a moment of self-overcoming I decided to offer a course on it. Teaching it to undergrads stripped away a lot of needless details and allowed me to see what its weird recursive structure was saying. The lesson that Piers Plowman taught me, in its ass-backward way, is that questions are far more interesting than answers. Will, the poem's protagonist, is a colossal screw-up; he is almost never right. But after you've gone on the journey with him many, many times, you see that he (the human will) is at his best and bravest and most insightful when he does not know. The poem sets up, and allows to shine out very occasionally, the state not of ignorance, but of inquiry. This is an extraordinarily rare and precious state, and all my subsequent fiction concerns it. I am sure I will be writing about it for the rest of my life. So thank you, William Langland, whoever you were.
MKS: I've only read Piers Plowman once but found it extraordinary. I can't think of another thing quite like that I've ever read. Though I have to admit I lost my heart to the Gawain-poet in my teens. A fatal combination of The Lord of the Rings and a medieval section in my A-level led me to Gawain and the Green Knight, and it's still my favourite, I think, forty years later. It also meshes with my interest in Alan Garner, given the Gawain-poet seems to underlie so much of his work.
I found myself thinking about Pearl and other dream-quests a lot when I was reading The Stone Boatmen. I have to say here that there was a level on which, when I started reading it, that I recognised the narrative. Not something visceral, more a "oh yes, I see" about the tone and pace of it, and a sense of being able to settle straight into some very intense reading.
I was also thinking about things like Brendan's Voyage (pdf link), which I've loved since I was a kid (easy versions). But what I also liked about Boatmen was the way in which it resisted that well-known science-fictional trope of recovering lost knowledge. It seems to me that you focus less on the recovery and far more on the consequences, and not in the usual (and to my mind rather tedious) way of instantly revolutionizing the world with new discoveries. As you say, the questions are more interesting.
ST: Let me say also that I am a huge fan of Alan Garner, and that he does indeed have a Gawain-poet quality—must be that whole Logres thing, I guess. He has that rare gift of sounding like a continuation of the tradition rather than a quotation of it. I am so fucking tired of quotation. And who could fail to be moved by Pearl? The story "Gringo" in NoFood is based on it, chiefly in the recurring dream the protagonist has of his daughter.
MKS: I'd love to delve more deeply into the problem of trying to find an alternative perspective. I don't write fiction but as a reader and critic, and someone who has read fantasy for as long as she's been a reader, much of my reading over the last twenty years has been shaped by looking for something different. Not novelty, necessarily, but different ways of seeing the world. Putting aside the commercial issues, I'm constantly struck by how difficult it is as a reader to find a new way of writing. When you describe premodern Europe as "truly alien," my question is, how do we comprehend the truly alien? Is it even possible?
ST: I don't actually think we can succeed in comprehending anything truly alien. It's too tall an order considering that most people don't comprehend—in the etymological sense of that word (com plus prehendere, to seize or grasp everything)—things that aren't alien at all: their everyday surroundings and interactions. I think this is why "something is happening here and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?" is the line that won Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize. It describes most people's reality.
I am a firm believer in science and reason, but at the same time it is perfectly clear that we do not comprehend everything. Almost all the systems in which we are embedded are too big. By the time they actually impinge on us, locally, in our lives, their effects feel random. This includes even our free will. But I think there are some real benefits to grappling with alterity, though they are not the ones I see play out in most fiction. Many writers look to the other, whatever kind of other, to provide a solution, assuming that the alternative perspective is a kind of ready-made. This is stupid: it has to have been, or be, just as hard for that perspective to obtain and to navigate the world as it is for your own. Possibly harder. The one serious thing you can learn from trying (and failing) to understand an alien way of being is how extraordinarily difficult it is to be alive at all: far from being the answer to our problems, the perspective of the other actually underlines them. The enterprise is selfish whichever way you cut it, and I think it is important to acknowledge this.
The other major benefit to trying seriously and thoroughly to write about, or otherwise deal with, alien perspectives is that you learn to work through your own dislike, or recognize your own error. In a world full of useless apology, this is also something I find truly rare. Almost all the people I truly admire have done it in a big way. Wittgenstein is an example I always come back to. He thought he had solved everything in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Many powerful people believed him. He got a chair at Cambridge. Then he looked at it all again and realized that he had been wrong, and spent most of the rest of his career breaking up that monument, and shifting the ground it stood on, to the total bewilderment and annoyance of his peers. I adore that man, and in many ways I think he is conflated in my mind with the stroppy protagonist of Piers Plowman, Will. That's why they share the frontispieces of The Stone Boatmen. Ursula Le Guin also did this, memorably, in her lifetime series of revisions to A Wizard of Earthsea. I think there's little point in downplaying our basically negative emotions towards anything alien; anything we experience as truly strange we almost always dislike, or even loathe, as I did the poem of Piers Plowman in the beginning. I really did. I found it repulsive. But I kept going back to it, perversely, for reasons I can't wholly account for. And very gradually, after I had taken exception to practically every part of it, and raged about it, I realized that I knew a whole lot of things I had not known before, and that hundreds of books I liked had never taught me. The poem just wore me down; it was tough and intractably alien, and remains so. But it changed me; I am genuinely a different person now because of it. It won. It won so much that I don't even think of it any more as a concession or a loss. In my experience, this is truly unusual.
It's probably worth saying that this process is easier to achieve with books than with people. Chiefly this is because of the speed of live interaction. It is horrendously chaotic and there is no time to reflect on anything. We are practically always put on the defensive and fall back on instinct or learned patterns of behaviour. A strange book, or any other species of art which is alien, at least allows you time to get over your inevitable anger and to actually transmute it into energy for learning. I have come to believe that that dark emotion, that fear and anger and annoyance, is a really necessary part of the whole process. It clears the decks so you can actually receive new information at a deep level. As a rule, we are astonishingly bad at this; we live in a world of confirmation bias.
It must be pretty clear to anyone who reads my fiction that I am a fan of the slow approach. It is, in fact, the slowness of writing—and of reading, which, while not so slow, is at least repeatable—that is its main strength, in my opinion. If you are writing, or reading, you can actually have time to think. Great things are accomplished by thinking, and we hardly ever get to do it any more. Our culture doesn't value it. It is quite separate from talking. Reading books can prompt much silent reflection, and writing one is an enormous, extended act of silent reflection, unlike anything else I can think of. It is, as far as I am concerned, the greatest pleasure there is.
My books are full of people who write books or poems, who paint pictures or weave tapestries, who perform complex rituals or dances. Increasingly, they are also populated by people who conduct scientific experiments—like Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, lens-maker and early microscopist, the protagonist of my current novel. All of them are people in love with inquiry, and who are prepared to conduct it slowly. They think a lot. They don't know in advance what they are doing, or what the results will be. What they do, they do for pleasure, or from personal compulsion. I insist that such people exist and that they are worth writing about, and moreover, that when we do write about them, we show them doing what they actually do, which is think. And muse. And wonder. And then make a small decision, or action, or adjustment. That's it. They have personal lives and live through interesting historical periods, but thinking is their claim to fame. Almost everything I value in human life came about as a result of this process. I am infinitely weary of hearing it dismissed and never need to read another book by or about activists or serial killers.
MKS: I wanted to ask some questions specific to each … I was going to say "novel," because actually I still tend to read NoFood as a novel rather than as collection of stories, and read Two Travelers as a kind of novel-cum-diptych before someone pointed out they were supposed to be two different stories. (My defence is I interpreted "The Burning Furrow" as moving in and out of the world of "The Dancer on the Stair", but that is perhaps a renegade reading.)
The thing that strikes me about all the stories is that your characters seem to be driven by love, curiosity, and creativity. That is, my sense of them all is that they are driven much more by the subjectivity of themselves and others than by events around them. Which perhaps sounds odd to say but I find it quite striking, and frankly refreshing, when so much contemporary fantasy and SF seems to involve characters being moved around by events beyond their control and by people they've never seen. You seem to be focusing much more on people pondering on how things affect them directly.
For example, I loved the part of The Stone Boatmen where Nerel finally understands the meaning and relevance of ceremony and ritual, those he is directly involved in, and the revelation in talking to Azul that he is not the only person with ceremonies. And the effect that this understanding has on him and his world. I like the constant negotiation you achieve between the personal and the … I'm going to say global, but that's not quite the word.
I also found it fascinating how, as the story unfolds, we've moved through a philosophical narrative about the different ways in which people use ceremony—ritual, the power of the word, etc.—to an exploration of the meaning of creativity, through the Rose-poet and Fjorel, and yet we're still engaged with these characters as people. They seem to me to be very real on the page as actual people I would want to meet and talk with, as well as being purveyors of ideas.
And I think this is even more evident in NoFood (and I just want to say this is genuinely one of the best pieces of SF I've ever read—I had to keep putting it down and drawing breath as I read it because I found it so overwhelming, in a good way). Here, I like the way in which while the stories/the novel are/is all about the consequences of Total Gastric Bypass, TGB sits in the background as the accomplished thing rather than as the big shiny novum right in the centre of the story. Instead, it's all about people, but the variety of people and their responses.
The love story between Hardy and Seychelles was profoundly moving as they attempted to accommodate one another's choices, but so to is Hardy's maitre d's assistance to the donut-maker, even though he is theoretically no longer interested in food. I suppose one could call it a fascination with the culture of eating/not eating as well as the actuality of eating/not eating, and the recognition of the fact that there is no one way of dealing with all this.
And in the two stories in Two Travelers, both seem to me to focus on the emotional toll exacted by the situations in which the characters find themselves, but not … conventionally; there's a deeper fathoming of what we perhaps very often take for granted in SFF, almost as though authors are reluctant to engage with honest emotions or to admit them into genre, or they reject interiority for surface.
ST: I actually did consider making an explicit connection between the world of Dinesen and the palace world of the Dancer but didn't in the end. It remains an imaginative possibility, though one that makes sense.
I find it weird how many SF magazines and presses call for fiction that is "character-driven," and yet, in fact, I read so little speculative fiction that is. I assume they are just trying to forestall the super-typey characters that a lot of genre fiction has traditionally relied on. This is a writing culture thing. It remains okay in genre fiction to write books with plots. On the whole, it is preferable. Readers find it a relief to have stuff actually happen. If you write plotty literary fiction, you just end up sounding like Robert Louis Stevenson and are widely frowned upon. Massive novels set on the subcontinent might be the exception. People (mostly genre writers, in my experience) joke that there are basically two Canadian novels, at least contemporary ones: one in which a white woman in her forties walks anxiously around a lake contemplating the dissolution of her marriage, and one in which a brown person contemplates the horrors of Wonder Bread while reflecting that things on the whole are probably slightly better than in Uzbekistan. These books are definitely character driven, but options for the subject position are limited. We may just have arrived, very lately, at including a native subject position in our list.
I am interested in historical subject positions, mostly those from about 1600 to 1750, but not those involved in plots for which we have to use the word "torrid." Or "convoluted." As I have said before, I am not interested in plot at all. A subject needs a predicate, that is all, as far as I'm concerned. I am drawn to this period (notably not the one in which I was trained as a medievalist) because, in Europe at least, it was a period of massive change and uncertainty, and I am interested in the mental state that accompanies it. People talk about paradigm shift so casually, as though it were inevitable and not a problem: of course, everyone was ready for the Renaissance! the Scientific Revolution! the Reformation! Bullshit. They weren't at all. Most people were not even aware that they were happening. The experience I find fascinating, and which this period provides amply, is one in which a person confronts the dissolution of an old idea and kind of skates on warily into the tenuous condition in which a new one has not yet formed, or is barely forming, to which his or her actions may, consciously or unconsciously, contribute. That is actually what happens: history is a product of consciousness. For me, everything important happens inside people's heads, and a great deal of that remains mysterious.
The upshot is that my books are written inside-out to a large extent. Most books I read are adventures, in the medieval sense of "adventure", typical of romances: protagonists are placed in situations, often overwhelming ones, and they have to twist and turn to cope with them. Things just come upon them: ad-ventus. This is a familiar feeling to most of us, so I do get the idea and the appeal. But for my characters it doesn't work like that. They often find themselves in predicaments—particular jobs or roles or ways of being—that they suddenly, or gradually, find that they can't explain and that they come to experience as confining. They do this themselves. The world does not force them. They become uncomfortable being themselves, and wish to change. They cast about for ways of changing, by invention and reinvention and general ad hockery, and usually succeed. The effects may not be very dramatic, but for me they are everything. This is how the world changes: inside people's minds. The rest is just a bunch of rocks and trees; they have their own unnarratable existence, but it's pretty clear that they are entirely at the mercy of the human consciousness. There's no doubt I am a phenomenologist at heart.
MKS: It makes for some extraordinary fiction. Thank you for that, and for this interview.
ST: Thank you!