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Terri Windling : I’ve loved fairy tales, folklore, and myth since I was a child, and then studied myth and folklore at university — so when I discovered fantasy (an entire genre full of fiction and art rooted in ancient, magical stories !) I knew I’d found my aesthetic home : the field I wanted to work in, and the professional community I wanted to be a part of.
As with myths and folk tales, a good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own modern world with magic. To me, the particular pleasure of good fantasy comes from it’s unbroken link to the world’s oldest stories, expressed through an author’s skillful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols. And those are powerful things.
ActuSF : Your biographies on the web talk about your contribution in the development of the fantasy literature, with more elaborated and mature texts than the usual fantasy novels. Do you agree with these assertions ? What kind of fantasy pleases you ?
Terri Windling : When I first began working as an editor in the New York publishing industry, back in the 1980s, ’fantasy’ was much more narrowly defined than it is today. The vast majority of books being published as fantasy then fell into two basic types : ’imaginary world’ novels of the J.R.R. Tolkien sort, or ’swords-and-sorcery’ of the Robert E. Howard kind – and a writer or book editor (if she wanted to make a living) was expected to conform to these narrow conventions and expectations.
There were, of course, rule-breakers even then : writers like M. John Harrison or John Crowley whose sly, subversive books took readers well beyond the “fields they knew” (to borrow Lord Dunsany’s famous phrase) into strange and fertile new realms — but on the whole, ’fantasy’ to most people meant sprawling epics set in pseudo-medieval worlds full of warring wizards, dragons, and swordsmen.
Today, by contrast, fantasy is a wide and multi-faceted genre of literature, supporting authors as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Robert Holdstock, Ellen Kushner, Kelly Link, Lev Grossman, China Mieville, and Susanna Clarke. Looking back, it is clear that these writers were wise to develop their own unique writing styles rather than restricting themselves to creating books in the Tolkien or Howard mold – but we must remember that these writers (and many others like them) had to push very hard to gain acceptance for their work, and to dismantle the stereotypes of what publishers and critics alike believed fantasy should be.
Duringt the 30 years I’ve worked as a fantasy editor (first at Ace and Tor Books in New York, later as an anthologist and co-editor of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror volumes), I’ve done my best to champion boundary-breaking writers, and those exploring the genre’s lesser known paths. In this small way, I hope that I’ve helped the field to grow and diversify... but of course, the true credit belongs to the writers themselves, and the tales they created.
ActuSF : We sometimes say that fantasy is a little bit declining today. How do you see the situation and the evolution of this literature ?
Terri Windling : Despite living in England now, I still do all my editorial work for American publishers — and in America, at least, I don’t see a decline in the number of people writing or reading good fantasy, particularly if you include the explosion of fantasy books aimed at Young Adult readers.
Publishing as a whole is suffering at the moment, like the rest of the American economy ; and the book industry is still finding its way through the impact of e-books and other web-based techology. But there’s still a passionate audience for fantasy out there. There are still great books being written, and illustrated, and published. I’m enormously excited by what some of the new generation of writers and artists are doing ... and also delighted to watch older, more established writers and artists simply getting better and better as they age. So, no, I don’t see a genre in decline ; quite the contrary, I think we’re living in a period that historians may one day recognize as a Golden Age of the form.
My main worry for the future of fantasy is a purely economic one : it’s harder and harder for writers and artists in all fields to make a living, and that means some people who really ought to be writing or painting won’t be able to manage to do so. And that’s very sad. I hate to think of the Little, Bigs or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrels of the future that we might lose as a result.
ActuSF : You discovered numerous young writers during years. According to you, who are the most promising young fantasy writers today ?
Terri Windling : Oh, there are so many ! Some of the younger writers I particularly love reading at the moment are Catherynne A. Valente, Genevieve Valentine, Christopher Barzak,Theodora Goss, Jedediah Berry, and Amal El-Mohtar. Valente and Barzak have novels out, the others have published stories on the web and in various anthologies.
ActuSF : You are at the origin of the Fairy Tale Series, with a different author for every book. Can you tell us about the motives and birth of this project ?
Terri Windling : I first dreamed up this series in New York in the late 1980s, in collaboration with the Boston-based artist Thomas Canty. We shared a deep love of fairy tales (in their older, more complex forms), and of the splendid ’adult fairy tale’ fiction of Angela Carter (published in The Bloody Chamber) – but at that time, very few writers outside the children’s book field were exploring fairy tale themes. So we decided to create two projects in order to encourage the writing of more fairy tales for adults : The first project was the Fairy Tale Series, consisting of novel-length re-tellings of fairy tales by writers like Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee, and Pamela Dean, among others. The second project was Snow White, Blood Red, a 6-volume series of fairy-tale-inspired short stories for adults. I edited the Fairy Tales Series myself, co-edited the Snow White, Blood Red series with my friend Ellen Datlow, and Thomas created the cover art and interior design for all of the books in both projects.
ActuSF : Now come to your book, The Wood Wife… How did you have the idea of this story ?
Terri Windling : From 1990 until 2008, I divided my time between a winter home in the Arizona desert, and a summer home in a small village in Devon, England. (I now live in Devon full-time.) Although these landscapes are very different, they are both beautiful, filled with history and mythology.
In the 1990s, I worked on several books with the “fairy artists” Brian and Wendy Froud – who are friends and neighbors of mine here in Devon. I love their beautiful fairy art, rooted as it is in the oak and ivy and folklore of the English countryside. And yet fairy lore is not confined (as some people think) to Great Britain and Europe ; virtually every culture around the globe has some sort of native fairy or nature spirit. This made me wonder what kind of fairies or nature spirits one would find in the Arizona desert.
During my winters in the desert, I began filling up sketchbooks with “desert fairy” images, and painting “desert spirits” of various kinds. But I’m a writer first, and a painter only second, so I wanted also to write about these creatures. And then their story turned into The Wood Wife.
ActuSF : The novel is connected with the desert, and you live in the Arizona desert. What kind of special relation do you feel with it ?
Terri Windling : In writing The Wood Wife, my aim was to use the language of myth to explore the emotional experience of being seduced and claimed by a powerful landscape like the desert—which had been my own experience. I didn’t grow up in Arizona (I grew up on the east coast of America, near New York), and the first time I saw the desert, I have to admit that I didn’t much like it. I remember thinking : "Who on earth would want to live here ???" A few years after that first visit, however, I ended up in Arizona again, staying with friends while recuperating from an operation. At first, the desert still seemed as alien and uninviting as the moon, but over the weeks of slow recovery my vision of the land began to change. The hills that had seemed so barren and harsh now revealed themselves as rich and vividly colored, beautiful, teeming with life. It was as if I’d acquired a second sight (like the “fairy sight” of Celtic lore), allowing me to finally see the land in its true form.
When I first sat down to write The Wood Wife, I wanted to take that feeling of “seduction by landscape” and use it as a kind of frame-work on which to build a novel about desert fairies and spirits. The heroine of the novel, Maggie Black, ends up in the desert by sheer happenstance (as I did), and doesn’t initially relate to the landscape at all...but over time she falls in love with the land, and is claimed by it, and powerfully changed by it.
This basic plot allowed me to explore an additional theme that is very dear to my heart : how landscape shapes our myths, our psyches, our stories ... and how we, in turn, as storytellers, give shape to the world around us.
ActuSF : Tell us more about this fantasy desert theme. We are very far from the Tolkien fantasy for example… Is it your way to open the eyes of your readers about the desert life and its inhabitants ?
Terri Windling : I hoped to do two things with this story : First, yes, I wanted to open readers’ eyes to the magic of Tucson’s Sonoran desert, with its gorgeous mountains, unique ecosystem, and rich, diverse mix of cultures and folklore. But I also hoped to remind readers that that myth and enchantment can be found in all landscapes, including their own. We don’t need to live in the green hills of Tolkien’s Oxfordshire in order to write fantasy, or to experience the numinous aspects of the natural world. All places have magic ; all places are rich in folklore, history, and spirit.
ActuSF : How do you represent yourself your heroine ? Up to what point are your life and that of Maggie Black bound ?
Terri Windling : Although I often draw upon aspects of myself when creating characters, The Wood Wife is not an autobiographical novel. There are small bits and pieces of me in Maggie (as there are in all of the Wood Wife characters), but they’re mixed up with bits of other people, and bits that come purely from the imagination. Maggie was partially inspired by an conversation I had with a publishing colleague who claimed that it was nigh on impossible to write a convincing romantic narrative in which the female protagonist was of “higher status” (his words) than the male character : older, wealthier, more successful, etc.. I was so annoyed by this assumption that I took it as a personal challenge to write just such a tale, and out of that conversation Maggie Black and Johnny Foxxe were born.
As I mentioned above, Maggie, like me, comes to the desert as an Outsider and then gradually comes to understand it and to love it. She is also like me in that she works in the arts, and has lived internationally. But I was never married to a husband like Nigel (I never married at all until just a few years ago), and my strengths and weaknesses are very different from Maggie’s. I’ve known people like the people she knows, but no one character is based on a single real person... with the possible exception of Mexican painter Anna Naverra, who was inpired in many ways by the Spanish painter Remedios Varo.
ActuSF : Your novel is a real ode in the nature. Where do you draw this inspiration, this belief in fairy beings linked to the nature ?
Terri Windling : This idea comes partially from my studies as a folklorist, for the connection between fairies (or fairy-like beings) and nature is one that can be found in myth and folklore traditions all around the world. But it’s also born out of my personal relationship to nature, and my belief in the importance of that relationship. In some ways, my writing has been more infliuenced by American naturalists more than by Tolkien or other fantasists – by writers like David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal), Gary Snyder (The Practice of the Wild), Terry Tempest Williams (An Unspoken Hunger), Linda Hogan (Dwellings), and Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire).
ActuSF : The Wood Wife is your only one novel published in French yet. What other one of your books would you like to make discover to the French readers ?
Terri Windling : I would like to see the “Old Oak Wood” series come out in French editions some day. These are three children’s books I created in collaboration with artist Wendy Froud, based on Devon fairy lore. Also, I wrote a story loosely connected to The Wood Wife, about Maggie’s best friend Tat, which might interest some readers. The English-language version can be found online at : http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm...
ActuSF : What are your current projects ? On what do you work at this time ?
Terri Windling : I have two new novels in the works : The Moon Wife, which is an adult fairy tale, and Little Owl, for teenagers, which is set, once again, in the Arizona desert. I’m also continuing to edit anthologies in partnership with Ellen Datlow. Our next one to be published, After, is a collection of dystopian tales for teen readers. Right now we’re working on a collection of fantasy stories set in Victorian England, called Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, and a collection of “urban fairy” stories for teens, called Glimmer. Plus I’m painting again, after too much time away from the studio due to health and family concerns. People will be able to find my paintings in prints in my Etsy shop from the end of this month onward : http://www.etsy.com/shop/Windling
photo : copyright Alan Lee