New Author Spotlight: Maya Surya Pillay
What drew you to writing stories that move across genres? Is this a new direction for your writing?
Broadly speaking, I guess I’ve always been one of those people who tend to mentally split Speculative Fiction into SF and F; although they’re both important genres in their own rights, I’ve always felt that mixing the two can over-complicate a narrative, or take away from the impact of one element or the other. Still, I could be completely wrong: a lot of recent Speculative Fiction involves straddling the line between the two, and a lot of it is fantastic.
As for horror…to me, it just belongs everywhere. Horror, whether it’s subtle and psychological or full-on demonic, is the melted cheese of entertainment – it makes everything better. There’s no story that can’t be brightened up by, say, a cult or two…a few ghosts, or a strategically-placed cannibal. I guess I’ve always been trying to introduce a horrific element into my writing, in one way or another!
This is our Flash Fiction issue. Please talk a little about how you approach writing extra-short stories. Does having fewer words to work with influence your stylistic choices?
This is the first time I’ve ever attempted flash fiction, and I have to say it wasn’t easy. I ramble a lot when I write – I like long descriptions and fancy asides a little too much. Editing is traumatic; word counts are generally a death bell. I wrote “Cecille and Her Sister” trying to be as concise as possible, but I still had to cut around 500 words from the first draft to bring it down to within the word count!
Despite that, I think the word limit was a good thing. I often feel that my writing ends up being bogged-down and weak because it’s not focused enough. Having to say things as briefly as possible, instead of having the luxury of rambling, made everything more potent and clear than usual. It’s definitely a style I’d like to explore more, both in prose and poetry.
“Cecille and her Sister” is a deeply creepy fantasy. For you, what does including the horrific element add to the telling of a story that you can’t get with just fantasy?
As I’ve said before, horror – at least for me – makes every story better. Bad horror, of course, can be even unbelievably boring and predictable, but good horror provides the visceral, leering element that everyone loves, at least a little. Horror, whether overt or just hinted at, is the hook; the twist that drops your stomach, the nasty little picture you remember when you’re about to switch the lights off at night…that’s what I like in a story. Perhaps it’s ghoulish and unpleasant, but for me, a dark aspect – no matter how minor – makes a story catch. It makes it memorable.
As for fantasy, I feel it’s a genre that gets misused too often. A lot of fantasy writing focuses more on paraphernalia – overly-complex magic systems, pages and pages of lore, and so on – than what I think the real strength of fantasy is: the aspect of having a world to write in that’s 100% your own (which is why it’s such a shame that 90% of fantasy novels are set in pseudo-mediaeval Europe and populated by pseudo-mediaeval Europeans. Ahem.) So, I tried to take that “freeing” element of fantasy – and smash some horror onto it because why not.
Without revealing too much, “Cecille and her Sister” is frightening both because of the supernatural elements, and the extremely realistic horrors Cecille faces at home. What were the challenges of balancing a real-world horror with a fantastic one, while keeping the reader invested in the characters?
There is nothing scarier than the real world. I could read a hundred hundred horror stories, but I’d still probably be more frightened by everyday news: we live in a world labouring under age-old systems of oppression, where racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and a thousand other forms of discrimination taint and endanger the lives of literal billions of people every day. I’m sure I don’t need to cite too many cases. A vast segment of the world’s population struggles every day with poverty, starvation and the effects of war, while a tiny minority burns through resources with a very inhuman speed. Domestic abuse – in all its forms – is one of those horrors that no ghost story could ever match.
In the story, Cecille makes a choice between the two horrors – the real-life one and the supernatural one. I suppose it shows which one is worse. The challenge of writing the story was really getting the supernatural element of the plot across without treating the real-world horror in an insensitive way.
Since this is a flash fiction story, we only witnessed a small snapshot of these characters and their world. Do you know more of their story than you showed your readers? Or are you as curious as the rest of us about what comes next for them?
The world the story is set in is one that I’ve had fleshed out for a while, although I’ve never written anything in it before. As for the characters, I’ve had Cecille (and her sister) as concepts for a while now…I’ve gotten pretty fond of them and their relationship, which accounts for the 500 words I had to purge from the first draft. This is only the very first part of their story. I have a pretty clear idea of what happens next (and of what’s happened before) – but I don’t want to go into detail, since I’ll definitely be returning to them pretty soon.
Tell us something about your future writing projects. Are you developing more short stories? Do you have a novel in the works?
I write more poetry than anything else. I find writing prose a lot more difficult, but I’m getting to enjoy writing short stories more every day. At the moment, it’s my final year of high school and I’m trapped in exam hell…but I have a laptop-full of concepts and badly-written first pages, some of which will definitely come to light soon. I plan on focusing on short stories a lot more in the future.
As for a novel…at least one, in various, increasingly convoluted incarnations, has been in the works since I was around seven years old. Right now, I don’t think I have the stamina, dedication or skill to really follow through and finish one. For now, I’m putting any novel plans on the back-burner to focus on shorter pieces.
Where is your favorite writing place? Can you draw us a visual picture of the kind of space you create for yourself when you write?
There’s really no way to make this sound glamorous, because it just isn’t. At around ten o’ clock every night, once I’m done with food, homework, procrastination and so on, I push clothes and books off my bed until there’s enough space to sit down and then assume the well-known “Writer’s Position”, also known as the “Velociraptor With Laptop” pose. I can’t write anywhere but in my room…not because there’s anything special about my room, which is currently covered in a thick residue of textbooks, scrap paper, bits of uniform, etc., but because I need the privacy. For optimum writing conditions, there should be a mug of tea and some form of refined carbohydrate within arm’s length.
If I need inspiration, I have two shelves of books by people who write better than me; a photograph of an extremely cool skeleton, whom I aspire to become; a print of The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is where I want to live…and an exam timetable to remind me that life is fleeting, futile, and full of pain.
What’s the question that you wish someone would ask, but no one ever has?
“Hey, Maya…how about an exciting and fulfilling yet steady job after university?”
What’s the answer to the question in number 8?
[sounds of angelic choir, distant saxophone, upbeat 1980’s rock music]
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important or that readers might want to know?
The readers should definitely know that I’m a nice girl with all kinds of things going for me, like a nervous system and a 100% corporeal form. If any of them are interested in, say, making a blood pact or trading photos of cool skeletons, they can find me on Tumblr at www.echolalalalia.tumblr.com.