Lavie Tidhar and Silvia Moreno-Garcia discuss their journeys as readers and writers, their exploration of the science fiction/fantasy genre, and their work on The Jewish Mexican Literary Review.
Lavie Tidhar: I’m trying to think how we ended up doing The Jewish Mexican Literary Review. If I remember correctly we were joking about how we need some literary credentials — something that would look good on a piece of paper — and tried to come up with the most ridiculously prestigious name for a magazine. It had to have “Journal” or “Review” in it, and then we figured I was Jewish, and you were Mexican, and if you put all of these together you end up with something like, well, The Jewish Mexican Literary Review! So once we had the name, we had to go and actually do it.
It was sort of a trip. We didn’t take it very seriously, but I learned a lot about actual Mexican Jews, for example the group of Surrealist artists that included Pedro Friedeberg, Wolfgang Paalen, and Frida Kahlo. Naomi Alderman wrote a terrific story for the magazine that was a kind of travelogue that she made between Israel and Mexico that year. It was interesting to see one of the Jewish neighbourhoods in Mexico City pop up in your most recent novel, Velvet Was The Night, while the manuscript I just finished, Maror, actually ends in Mexico after tracing forty years of Israel’s darkest history. One of the things that fascinated me in the research was the strong connection not just between Israel and Latin America in general (not just literary, but in terms of arms supplies and the military) but the historical links between criminals in both countries! But since Maror will only be out next year, and Velvet Was The Night is still to come out this summer, maybe we should leave that conversation for another time.
What amazes me is that we actually did three really great issues of The Jewish Mexican Literary Review over three years. It’s still one of my favourite things. We had original work from Naomi Alderman, a story from Etgar Keret, an interview with Carmen Maria Machado, and some cool poetry from Ng Yi-Sheng and Shimon Adaf. The cover art was great too. We even created a fictional history of the magazine, beginning with two of its legendary first editors, and one of them turned up unexpectedly in your book Prime Meridian! Which I just loved. How did you come to write Prime Meridian?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I went to school on a scholarship and had much wealthier classmates. I remembered feeling like it was as if I had stepped onto another planet when I visited some of them. It is unreal the kind of wealth you can find in Mexico City and I wanted to show some of that. Also, I’ve always been attracted to more “mundane” science fiction stories. The default, I think, is to imagine science fiction as rockets and space heroes, but I’m more likely to wonder what a space plumber does. In that sense, I think your Central Station also plays in that arena of showcasing not the pulpier side of science fiction, but a more personal slice of science fiction/fantasy. It’s funny, because I think you and I have sometimes ended up tackling the same concepts from different angles without discussing it or intending it. I was surprised when I read The Hood and it had all the fungal bits because I’d just done Mexican Gothic.
If you think of science fiction narratives, in particular, they’re so defined by their pulp magazine origins — exciting plots, lone heroes saving the world!
LT: I think a part of it is definitely a shared response to American literature. If you think of science fiction narratives, in particular, they’re so defined by their pulp magazine origins — exciting plots, lone heroes saving the world! Which is part of the fun, of course, but I know when I set out to write Central Station I wanted to do the exact opposite of that. I wanted to write about these very ordinary people living ordinary lives, just set against a big science fictional background. No chases or escapes, but familial relationships. I wanted to write about the big extended family that you never see in Western science fiction. The sense that it’s not just you, it’s your second cousin’s ex-wife’s brother or your aunt who’s not really your aunt but is part of the family for reasons you don’t even know, and so on; that huge network of people and obligations, something that one of the characters in the book tries (maybe like me!) to get away from, but is pulled back into it. Of course then you had readers complaining there was no plot to the book, when what they meant was that it didn’t have an adventure plot. But real life doesn’t follow the beats of a pulp story.
I also do drift to writing about certain cities — Tel Aviv in Central Station, London in A Man Lies Dreaming—and one thing I wanted to ask you about was Mexico City being such a dominant nexus in your work. It’s there in your first book, Signal To Noise, it’s in Certain Dark Things of course, and in Velvet Was The Night—what is it about Mexico City that pulls you so strongly to write about it?
SMG: I have written about Vancouver in several short stories and I have a novel that is not set in Mexico, but I do tend to write a lot of stories inspired by Mexico. I worried about it more in the beginning, but I eventually concluded that it’s not as if the market is saturated with genre stories set in Mexico. I do want to write something set in New England and then eventually my Big Vancouver Novel. Vancouver is such a clean looking, goody-two shoes city but its past is not so clean cut and it has the whole “Hollywood North” aspect to it.
I also feel tempted to write more sword and sorcery novellas. I have one out this year, The Return of the Sorceress, and it reminded me how much I liked Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperboria stories. It’s not exactly a hot genre anymore and novellas are hard to place, but I suspect I could build a mosaic novel out of sword and sorcery novellas.
You once told me you were a short story writer that had been turned into a novelist almost against your will. Do you still feel that way or are you more fond of the novel as a literary vehicle now?
LT: No, I hate novels! I kind of get around it now by pretending each section I write is a short story. It’s surprisingly effective in writing long books, as it happens, because you get to map out the terrain slowly, and you can switch voices and styles and have a lot of fun with it. I actually have my own “guns and sorcery” series, the Gorel of Goliris stories — it is tremendous fun writing this stuff, so when I get a chance, or a sympathetic editor, I’ll do one and eventually there’ll be a book.
I’m writing this huge novel called Maror at the moment, which traces over forty years of Israeli history — all the bad parts. I keep finding that I simply can’t make anything up that wouldn’t be matched and then magnified a hundred times over by real history. So, like you, I’m kind of segueing sideways from genre. I do write books that aren’t clearly one thing or the other, though. When A Man Lies Dreaming came out it was published as literary fiction, and my editor at the time said that meant I could no longer write anything else. And I said, But my next book has a spaceship on the cover! And that was Central Station, which had a much wider reception than I’d ever anticipated. It would be nice to just write books without worrying about labels. A short book I did recently was The Big Blind, and it’s sort of a feel-good novella about a nun who enters a poker tournament to try to save her convent. And I love that! I don’t want to write the same book over and over again, which is what the publishing industry kind of demands of you. And I know you’ve resisted it as much as I did.
We do seem to share a lot of influences, like how we both discovered and love the work of Roger Zelazny, and we both love old noir. I would take trips to a lot of second hand bookshops as a kid. I was wondering, firstly, where did your reading come from, and secondly, if you’ve ever gone on a literary “pilgrimage” (other than the time you showed me around H. P. Lovecraft’s New England!).
My mother reads a lot. She taught herself how to read in English because she liked reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror; that is how we ended up with Stephen King in our house and many other of my gateway genre writers.
SMG: My mother reads a lot. She taught herself how to read in English because she liked reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror; that is how we ended up with Stephen King in our house and many other of my gateway genre writers (Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Zelazny). I was born near the American border, the frontera, so my mother had easy access to English language books because of that. You would pop over to the other side of the border for a little holiday and bring back imported stuff (records, books, etc). After we left the north of Mexico, it was harder to get English language material, but in Mexico City there was one English language bookstore in the colonia Anzures and we used to go there and I loved browsing. English-language imports were expensive compared to the Spanish language translations, and my parents were journalists, so our household budget was a feast and famine situation. But when there was a feast, my parents bought books.
My mother was also interested in novellas negras back then, that is, noir. And the good news is that unlike speculative fiction, there were many local and Spanish language writers working in that category. So it was more affordable. There were also used bookstores downtown and you could always count on bargains there.
Because we didn’t have a lot of money all the time, my mother roamed frequently among the remaindered piles of books at big bookstores like Gandhi in Mexico City. Expensive stores like Sanborns and Tower Records also had sales during the year (and yes, they had titles in English) and that was when we swooped in. When I couldn’t afford a book, such as the expensive Giger books for sale at Tower Records, I would simply sit down in a corner and read magazines or listen to music until an employee kicked me out. I was eleven or twelve and reading Fangoria for free like that. When I turned into a teenager, it became harder and easier to read in the store. On the one hand, being a teenage girl means a lot of unwanted male attention. On the other hand, the male employees were willing to let me read as long as I smiled at them a little and laughed at a joke or two.
I did have one scary night where a guy tried to follow me home. But that material is probably saved for a noir I might write one day. At any rate, this was all before the Internet changed the world and now you don’t need to squeeze into dusty old bookshops, and the Tower Records near Reforma is probably long gone. But there was a benefit to those days of analog media and it is that I acquired a very eclectic palate because I had to — you find very odd and unexpected things in remaindered bins and on dusty shelves — and I discovered some great books along the way.
I have gone on one literary quest, aside from my big Lovecraft search, and that was in San Francisco. At one point when I was a teenager I read Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness and a couple of years ago I tried to visit the locations he mentions in that book. If I ever make it to England, you can show me Joseph Grimaldi’s grave. As I think you know, from our Boston tour, I like cemeteries. And on that grim note, adieu.
LT: I’d just finished writing The Escapement (a novel that has more than a little to do with clowning) when I literally stumbled on Grimaldi’s grave. The Father of Clowns has been resting near a children’s playground by King’s Cross for almost two hundred years, though, so I’m sure he’ll wait for you a little longer!
Lavie Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming, Unholy Land) is an acclaimed author of literature, science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and middle grade fiction. Tidhar received the Campbell and Neukom Literary awards for his breakout novel Central Station, which has been translated into more than ten languages. He has also received the British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. Tidhar’s recent books include the Arthurian satire By Force Alone, and the series Adler. He is a book columnist for the Washington Post, and recently edited the Best of World SF anthology. Tidhar has lived all over the world, including Israel, Vanuatu, Laos, and South Africa, and he currently resides with his family in London.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed speculative novels Gods of Jade and Shadow, Signal to Noise, Certain Dark Things, and The Beautiful Ones; and the crime novel Untamed Shore. She has edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award – winning She Walks in Shadows (aka Cthulhu’s Daughters). She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.