This week we are starting an exciting new series on the ‘blog: interviews with speculative fiction authors and illustrators about things that matter to them and to us here in the Wayfarers. If you’re new to the site, please take a moment to check out our front page and read what the Quest for the Cure is all about – raising $100,000 for cancer research and support worldwide, by doing a 500-mile trip from Belfast to Edinburgh this October using only medieval gear.
Toronto-based J.M. Frey (pronounced “fry”) is a sci-fi and fantasy author, receiving a number of awards for her short-form work in novellas and short stories; she has also been a guest panelist on Space!channel and is an avid cosplayer – so she understands about our costumes! Her debut novel, TRIPTYCH, is available at Chapters and Amazon, and you can check her out on the web at her website (jmfrey.net) and on Twitter (@scifrey). She is also one of those awesome authors who frequents literary social media site Goodreads.
We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Ms Frey for responding to our email with such enthusiasm. Our Quest would not be possible without the support of outstanding people like you!
Let’s jump right in:
1. How does your work involve people, events, or actions that change the world?
I don’t think I’ve ever actively attempted to change the world with my work. Triptych has been hailed for being very social justice aware and of course, it’s very queer positive, but it wasn’t my intention to write a social-justice-queer-positive book. I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write an issue book”. I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a book.”
The book just happened to be very queer and poly positive, and social justice-y. This is because, as a writer, my own biases, the problematic I’ve had to face or I’ve watched my friends and family face, are of course going to influence my work, because they influence my world.
If we want mainstream-alternative identities to be accepted, I feel that we can’t always point a flashing arrow at it and scream, “Look! We included this! We are progressive and accepting!” That turns the performed identity into a sort of freakshow attraction. I much rather prefer it when the identity is just casually accepted in the narrative, and considered just as normal and worth the same amount of mention as the mainstream. To me that’s the greater success: the normalization of the Othered identity.
I love it when an othered identity is just included, unremarked upon. I like how a show/book/film doesn’t have an episode/chapter/scene about how Character A is, for example, gay. The episode/chapter/scene is about something plotty, and Character A just happens to be gay.
This is something that, for example, Davies and Moffat’s Doctor Who do very well. Yes, Omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness is highlighted and celebrated, and so is gay Ianto Jones, but so are straight Amy and Rory, and so is pan-romantic functionally asexual The Doctor. Even more so, the other forms of families and romantic/sexual liaisons are included by rarely pointed out – interspecies Victorian lesbian superheronies, anyone? And nobody at any point stopped and said, “Wait, are you interspecies Victorian lesbian superheriones? Can we talk about that?” They just said, “Great, happy to have you two here, let’s kick some butt together.”
And I think that can sometimes be just as, or more effective, than the screaming and pointing. Think of the target demographic for Doctor Who – preteen boys. Imagine that boy audience member watching an episode of Doctor Who where, say a gay couple have a kid and it remains totally unremarked upon in the show. It just is. The next Monday, if when that boy goes back to school and in the playground, a classmate tells our boy that she has two daddies.
“Well,” the boy might think, “What’s strange about that? I saw that on Doctor Who last Saturday.” There’s no grounds for bullying there, because two daddies have been normalized for our boy.
So in that way, yes, I guess my work is a bit activist. Because that’s what I try to do.
Of course, as a creator, I do have to be very aware of every word I set down. Since the reviews of Triptych I have become more aware of the things I can promote in my work, and how things can be read or misread. I’ve been a bit more careful with my choices in the latest novels, made a bit more of a conscious effort to realize how some of my moments/characters/lines might be read by the audience, and try to make sure that things are interpreted the way I mean them to be.
For example, I made a conscious choice to create a pan-romantic, pan-sexual character in a society that celebrates sexuality and sensuality in my next book. And I’ve made her pan-ness a non-issue; that is, it’s normalized. Nobody points at her in the book and says, “Oh my gods! You kiss girls! But that’s okay if you want to kiss girls because girls kissing girls is just fine!” They just go, “Oh, she kissed that other person.”
I guess what I mean to say is, I don’t want to write books about issues. I want to write books about people, and people’s lives are filled with issues. People are varied and problematic and wonderful, and if I do manage to change the world at all with my books, it will probably be in a subtle, insidious, stone-under-the-surface-of-
2. In your opinion, is fantasy inherently about morality – good versus evil, and such – or about something else?
Oh, tough question.
I think fantasy is often conceived of as and put down as a narrative that means to discuss a moral binary. The roots of fantasy are certainly entrenched in Good vs. Evil allegories (Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, heck, even the Bible to an extent), and we are all the products of our culture. Writers are always the products of those whose work they have read before them.
But can it be only about the dichotomy? I don’t think so. I prefer to try to write something that’s more slippery, something that makes us explore the gray areas a little bit more. I like work that’s a bit more deconstructivist, and I think that’s one of the great strengths of the 21st century more global-oriented culture. That we’re able to learn about other cultures, to break down the “us” vs “them” a bit more, and try to create something out of the resulting graywash.
Of course you’re always going to want someone to root for and someone to hate in a story, it’s human nature, but I think having the ability to also feel for the ones we’re supposed to hate, to sympathise with them, is a strength too. And likewise the ability to disagree with or dislike the hero’s choices.
The new Thor movie is a prime example. I disliked Loki, as I was meant to, but I also felt terribly sympathetic to his plight, his loneliness and his desire to prove himself worthy of everything his brother has. And at the same time, I cheered for Thor, but I thought he was an arrogant ass who made very poor choices at times. Excellent, excellent character-building there, which also asked the audience to analyse the narrative beyond the simple “good” vs “bad”.
3. Who inspired you to write? Not your writing style specifically, or characters, setting, etc.; who inspired you to put pen to paper in the first place?
I’m sure most people would cite a teacher or a parent here. I wasn’t not encouraged to write by either, but I have to answer honestly that the first real urge I felt to write came from reading fanfiction and thinking, “My gosh, that looks like fun! I want to play in that sandbox too!”
To that end, all the blame for my writing genesis has to go to the old Yahoo mailing list groups I belonged to as a tween, and then from there the folks of Fanfiction.net. That was the most fun I’ve ever had with a hobby in my life, and I don’t regret a millisecond of the time I spent writing fanfic.
If we’re talking about who inspired me to first try to be a writer of original fiction, then my first year drama TA Casey has to take the blame. She was the one who said, as I was spinning out an idea for a massive, multipart AU fanfiction for her over beers, “You know, all of the side story you’re making up is much more interesting to me than the fanfic stuff. I bet this could be a really epic novel on its own. Why don’t you try writing something original?”
And I thought, “Well, I write fanfic for fun. Bet I can write original fiction for fun, too!”
I never intended to be a writer - that is, a seller of the stories I make up. I never meant for it to be a profession. But once I had a pile of original stories, someone else said to me “Have you tried to sell these? They’re good. You should try.”
And I thought, “Oh, that’s right! People pay writers for this stuff. Sure, can’t hurt to try, can it?” I wasn’t too invested in the goal of Becoming An Author, so the rejections and the slog was, I think, easier to take. I just kept writing and kept sending things out. I was passionate about my stories, and passionate about sharing them, so I hope I don’t give the impression that I was disaffected, because I wasn’t, not at all. I wanted them to make their way into the world badly. I still do. I just think knowing that I had fanfiction out there that people were genuinely enjoying made it easier – I wasn’t a terrible writer, my fanfiction fanmail assured me, I was just having to work harder at getting people to decide to invest monetarily in my work. And then, eventually someone – Silverthought Press – said yes.
And well, here we are.
My motto for getting work done is: “Sit down, shut up, fingers on keys.”
My motto for rejections is: “It’s not that they don’t like you, it’s that they didn’t want that story just now.”
Between those two things, (the ability to separate my self esteem from the way my books are taken, and my ability to treat writing as work), I think that’s a lot of what keeps me going.
I also come from a very highly motivated family of very supportive people. My cousins and I have always been told that it “doesn’t matter if you’re a ditchdigger, as long as you’re the best damn ditchdigger you can be.” Hard work and aiming at a good goal have always been prized.
Also, the harder I work at writing, the more I put out, the more well known my name and brand becomes, the sooner I might be successful enough to quit my day job and write and act full time! That’s the carrot at the end of my stick!
5. You are a very “multi-media,” and even “multi-genre” artist, spanning sci-fi books to steampunk cosplay and beyond. Is there a single element that ties it all together for you? One thing that really catches your fancy that all of these facets have in common? Or just a lot of little things that are shared here and there?
I think I’m so multi media a creator because I started in fandom. My first creative hobbies – outside of the singing, dancing, and acting classes I took as a child – were fandom ones. My first sewing project was for a cosplay, my first real story was a fanfic, and I bought and filled sketch books in order to make fanart. To me I wasn’t being multimedia, I was just exploring a beloved narrative through as many avenues of expression as possible.
That method of engaging with narratives hasn’t left me. I write my novels, but I often make a little piece of jewellery or an element of the character’s preferred clothing to help me sink further into the worlds I’m creating. I doodle fanart of my characters all over my notes (they’re horrendous, you can’t see them, don’t ask.)
And of course, I am a storyteller and performer at heart. The stage has always been my first love, so of course I still enjoy pageantry and make believe of dressing up and putting on an identity.
The thing that ties this all together for me, the spider at the centre of the web, if you will, will always be the narrative, the characters, the world, the idea. Whether it’s mine, or it’s someone else’s, I cannot help but want to spin out the webs and see what sorts of intricate lace I can make out of the strands. I want to explore, and skitter along the spokes, I want to make the story vibrate and come together in new ways. I want to touch and taste, to engage with the story in as many ways, from as many directions as I possibly can.
I think being able to do that, to analyse a narrative from many different angles and with lots of different kinds of creativity in mind can only be a benefit to my own novels.