This Time Something Different or Thinking about Commas: Theodora Goss on Writing

Theodora Goss is a Hungarian-American poet and fiction writer.  Her writing, as she says in her official bio, “has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous.”  Goss spends much of her time questioning consensual reality and speculating on alternative realities.  Or, as she puts it, she writes fantasy.  Really good fantasy.

Goss is the author of the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting and the editor of Interfictions (with Delia Sherman) and Voices from Fairyland.  She’s won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.  I corresponded with her recently for December 2010 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, and took the opportunity to ask her a few extra questions to help introduce her and her work to Booklife readers.

To say the least, I greatly enjoyed our e-mail exchange.  Goss has the ear of a poet, the heart of a storyteller, and the critical eye of an academic.  The combination made for some great shoptalk.  Below we talk about writing, speculating, and spending hours thinking about commas.  When you’re done here you might want to swing by Clarkesworld and read the interview, “Crossing Borders & Exploring Possibilities.”  Also, her website has plenty of links to online poems and stories.


What do you enjoy about writing?  What do you not enjoy?


Theodora Goss:  I actually enjoy almost everything about writing.  I love writing the first draft, when the ideas are coming and the characters are speaking to, or through, me.  And things are happening, and I’m a sort of recorder, just putting them down, trying to do that fast enough so that I capture everything.  And then I love typing the manuscript (since I write first drafts by hand), when I get to look at everything and arrange it again, so that it all works and fits.  There’s a pleasure in that like putting a room together, putting everything in its right place.  And then there’s going over it again, which is a pleasure, seeing what I’ve put down, starting to see it as a reader might see it.  Workshopping – actually showing it to real readers – that’s not always such a pleasure, but I find that it’s always worthwhile, and always gives me new ways of looking at what I’ve written.  It almost always allows me to make the story better, to put it into the form it’s meant to be in, even if I only end up changing a line (which has happened). 

Perhaps the least fun part of writing is doing the final edits, when you’re down to the commas.  I can spend hours thinking about commas.  And going through the editor’s edits, and the copyedits, can be difficult because the editor’s or copyeditor’s vision of the story, or ear for the sounds of the story, can be different from mine.  On the other hand, when I have a good editor, who really gets the story and can see things in it that even I don’t see yet, that’s heavenly.


What is the value of speculative fiction?  At its best, what role does it play in the world? What can a writer who doesn’t usually read speculative fiction learn from reading within the genre?


Theodora Goss:  The value of speculative fiction is that it speculates. That is, it presents us with alternatives to consensual reality, and consensual reality is something that we always need to question because it’s such a mess of things that are genuinely important (the law of gravity, for example) and things that we’ve just basically made up, but that nevertheless govern our lives (like our entire economic system).  It’s probably not a great idea to question the law of gravity on a daily basis, but there’s an awful lot about consensual reality that should be questioned.  For example, think about how Ursula LeGuin brings into question constructions of gender, in The Left Hand of Darkness and elsewhere.  In countries with repressive or chaotic political systems, speculative fiction can bring into question the governing structures, can be a way to explore the violence, the disappearances. 

Critics sometimes accuse speculative fiction of being consolatory, and I think that at its heart it is profoundly consolatory, even in its simplest forms.  It says, “Things don’t have to be the way they seem to be.”  And that’s good, that’s a worthwhile purpose for a literary genre.  Granted, some of its forms are certainly simpler than others, and I’m not going to argue for the profound significance of someone’s Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) quest turned into a novel.  Although I have to say that I found profound consolation in playing D&D as a teenager.  It allowed me to imagine myself as someone other than who I was, a high school student.  Thank goodness I didn’t feel stuck in that particular consensual reality. 

But a writer who doesn’t usually read speculative fiction can learn from it how exciting it is to imagine, to create things that never were (as far as we know).  That’s a freedom visual artists have, and no one questions it.  Why shouldn’t writers have it as well?


Who are you reading these days?  Whose work excites you?


Theodora Goss:  My reading is always eclectic.  I just recently finished China Mieville’s The City & The City, which I loved, and Holly Black’s White Cat, which I also loved for entirely different reasons.  There are other writers within the genre whose work I love.  I’ll list them, but this is in no particular order, other than the order in which I thought of them: Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Christopher Barzak, Susanna Clarke, Kelly Link, Ursula Le Guin, Sarah Monette, Holly Phillips, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Catherynne M. Valente, Ted Chiang, Terri Windling, Lucius Shepard, John Crowley.  And I’m sure that I’ve left a whole bunch of writers out.  That’s a pretty eclectic list.  They tend to be writers I can learn something from.  Like for example, I think John Crowley has written the best short story ever: “Missolonghi 1824.”  His short story collection, Novelties and Souvenirs, is just so good.  I wish Terri Windling would write more. Her novel The Wood Wife shaped my ideas of what a novel could and should be.  Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell also expanded my idea of what a novel could be, how far I could push the novel form.  Writers like Catherynne M. Valente and M. Rickert keep pushing the boundaries, which is very exciting.  Catherynne’s story “A Dirge for Prester John” in Interfictions, which I edited with Delia Sherman, was just so brilliant.  Christopher Barzak also had a story in Interfictions, “What We Know About the Lost Families of — House,” which was terrific.  And I love his novels.  Waiting on my nightstand is Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey.  But what I’m really going to read next is a bunch of John Carter novels, for a project I’m working on.  I wrote a post-modern take on the Mars novels, “Child-Empress of Mars,” which was in Interfictions 2.  This time I want to do something different.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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