New Author Spotlight: Mary Thaler
What drew you to writing stories that move across genres? Is this a new direction for your writing?
I’ve always enjoyed reading stories that break down walls and surprise me, and that’s certainly an ideal I strive for. I also think that science fiction and fantasy can enrich other genres, because they reflect something genuine about the human experience. Because much of the world is beyond our understanding and control, supernatural wonder and terror are feelings that we experience in our everyday life. It’s almost unrealistic for “realistic” fiction not to include them.
The theme for this issue is Destruction. Did you write it for the theme, or was it something that you’d already completed that seemed to fit?
It was more a case that the theme fit an idea that had been quietly developing at the back of my mind, and motivated me to finally sit down and write it. I like writing stories for a specific magazine, because it gives me constraints, whether in terms of theme or length. Constraints are what force us to be truly imaginative.
The main characters in “The Wolf and the Dragon” are Thuy and Frances, two women in their 70’s. While they have age and gender in common, they have very different attitudes and ideas between them. How did you avoid writing two more clones of every other elder woman in SFF?
I love setting up contrasts between characters, and in this case I did it in the most obvious and explicit way possible: about half-way through the first draft, I took a blank page of my notebook, drew a line down the middle, wrote “Thuy” and “Frances” across the top, and started listing the women’s different attributes.
At this point, of course, quite a bit had been determined by the demands of the plot. I’d decided not to encumber Frances with a family—keeping track of Thuy’s kids was challenging enough—and I also needed a back-story that could explain her dubiously-legal survival skills (the idea of making her a former gangster moll was regretfully discarded). However, making a chart clarified some important themes for me.
First there were cultural differences. I wanted both characters to have experiences that made them uniquely equipped to handle an End-of-the-World scenario. Thuy’s story, as a refugee and hard-working immigrant, is very typically Vietnamese. It tickled my imagination to give Frances a story that corresponded to a sort of caricature of Canadian identity by having her work in remote logging and mining camps. Of course, while stereotypes can be fun to play with, they need to be a springboard to more meaningful character development
The second important contrast that emerged was the relationships of the two women with family. Thuy, who is closely bound in a web of kinship and responsibilities, is capable of great courage and sacrifice for the sake of her family, while Frances, cut off from her family since adolescence, has developed a different kind of toughness, the kind that can withstand great loneliness.
Identifying the contrasts I wanted to create led to conscious plot choices that could highlight these aspects of the characters. For example, the women’s interactions with Brooklyn, an orphaned child, reflect both their cultures and their different concepts of family.
What inspired you to write older protagonists in the first place? And what gave you the idea to make them the leads in a story set at the end of the world?
A couple of years ago I watched a zombie film, 28 Days Later, followed by its sequel, and I noticed that both movies featured a young man and a young woman who rescue some orphaned children. Huh, I thought. Apparently zombie films are secretly all about nuclear families.
And the thing is, I don’t think the nuclear family is a concept that has served us well: parents who can’t conform are made to feel ashamed for “depriving” their children, and parents who can are isolated and cut off from the extended family and community that should be supporting them. I found it absurd to see these values aggressively promoted in a zombie film. It’s probably indicative of my feelings, although I wasn’t conscious of it while I was writing, that the only nuclear family in “The Wolf and the Dragon” meets a particularly grisly end.
As I was thinking about how to subvert this trope and portray alternative family structures, I remembered hearing about countries that have been devastated by the AIDS epidemic, in which the middle generation of parents has been decimated, and thousands of orphans are being raised by their grandmothers. I decided that was the story I wanted to tell.
When I talked to friends about the idea, a lot of them assumed I would play it for laughs. We make fun of old age, because it scares us. But right from the start I felt that I’d got hold of something that was also a serious and objective truth. Elderly men and women are, by definition, survivors—that’s how they get to be so old!—and when I think of the many older women who have mentored me over the years, they are, without exception, very tough. These are people who started out as trouble-makers and community leaders in their youth, and never stopped; who raised families under extremely difficult circumstances; who nursed parents, spouses and sometimes even children through terminal illness; and who are confronting head-on what most of us are too terrified to acknowledge, the reality of our unreliable and failing bodies.
The more I thought about it, the more I decided that, after the lives that Thuy and Frances have led, the End of the World would be practically a walk in the park.
Tell us something about your future writing projects. Are you developing more short stories? Do you have a novel in the works?
I’m always writing short stories, because I love how the limitations of a short form really force you to cram each line with detail and action. But I do have a novel-length project in the works, and it’s all because of emotional blackmail!
A few years ago, I was hiking in the mountains with a close friend, and she said to me, “You know, I miss all the great novels about unicorns that were being written when I was a teenager. You should write one for me.”
And I said, “Sure, but without the creepy patriarchal obsession with virginity.”
Luckily, I had a notebook in my pack, and by the time I got home from that trip (which was about ten days long) I had the first draft of a nice little novella about a girl who was raised by unicorns. Instead of a virginity-fetish, it explored the concept of childhood, and how it is defined and valued by comparison with adulthood. But when I showed it to my friend, she said, “It’s not finished, right? It’s going to be longer?”
Well, I realized she was right; the ideas were complex, and rather than work them out fully, I’d bundled it up into an easy ending. I promised her I’d do better, and then I just… shoved it in a drawer. But this year, when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said, “You know what, just finish the unicorn story already.” And this time I really promised, and I’m going to do it. Friendship and honour are at stake.
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?
I love writing, but it can be hard, mentally—because it’s lonely work—and physically—my back and wrists start to hurt. So, I think it’s healthy to change my writing location every few hours. For me, a day of writing typically starts at the breakfast table with a big pot of tea and my laptop and notebooks spread out everywhere. When the walls start to close in, I pack it up and walk a couple of blocks to the public library, which has good lighting, clean bathrooms and free internet. Sometime in the afternoon, the local school-kids come in en masse, and start not-whispering and playing Minecraft while they wait for their parents to pick them up, and that’s my cue to head home. If I’m still writing in the evening, I might curl up on the couch. But I can write almost anywhere; I don’t set foot out the door without my notebook, just in case I get a spare five minutes here or there.
What’s the question that you wish someone would ask, but no one ever has?
When I was anticipating this interview there were several questions that I thought, “I hope they doesn’t ask me, because I’ve got no idea what to say!” Writing can be like that; even the author doesn’t understand everything that’s going on in her own story. But since I spent time worrying about them, I suppose I might as well answer them preemptively. The first was, What’s going on with that ending? They don’t save the world, they aren’t reunited with the kids’ parents… and then Thuy lies down for a nap. It seems a bit arbitrary. And the second was, What were those monsters all about anyway?
What’s the answer to that question?
Thuy and Frances’s lives contain lots of moments that would have made natural end-points: when Thuy came to Canada to make a new life, for example, or when Frances finally retired from her career as a bull-cook. But for both women, life kept going, and good and bad things kept happening. Ending the story at a somewhat arbitrary place reminds us that for these two survivors, there will never be a true ending, as each day brings new tasks and challenges.
And the monsters… I have a few ideas about them, but, to be honest, nothing that adequately covers all the facts. It was important that they be too big and strange for any explanation, because they aren’t just a real, physical danger: they threaten the mental integrity of the characters. They tap into one of our deepest fears about aging, that we will lose our minds and our identities before we die, and that’s what makes them scary.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important or that readers might want to know?
Readers might be interested to know that Frances’s last name is a reference to Susanna Moodie, a Canadian pioneer woman who wrote about the isolation and depression of life in the bush. I’m not sure if she had descendents, but we can imagine that Frances inherited a fair dose of pessimism from her.