Breaking In: Interview with Gemma Files

Welcome to the latest installment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers — how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting. Today, I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to interview an author I greatly admire, the wildly talented Gemma Files.

As her bio on the ChiZine Publications (CZP) website notes, Gemma Files was born in London, England and raised in Toronto. Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Fiction. She has published two collections of short work (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, from Sinnersphere Productions, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press). A Book of Tongues, the first novel in the three-volume Hexslinger series published by CZP, won the 2010 DarkScribe Magazine Black Quill Award for Small Press Chill, in both the Editors’ and Readers’ Choice categories. The two final Hexslinger novels, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones, were published in 2011 and 2012.

Her latest novel, We Will All Go Down Together, is being released by CZP today — August 19, 2014.

“In the woods outside Overdeere, Ontario, there are trees that speak, a village that doesn’t appear on any map and a hill that opens wide, entrapping unwary travellers. Music drifts up from deep underground, while dreams—and nightmares—take on solid shape, flitting through the darkness. It’s a place most people usually know better than to go, at least locally—until tonight, at least, when five bloodlines mired in ancient strife will finally converge once more.

Devize, Glouwer, Rusk, Druir, Roke—these are the clans who make up the notorious Five-Family Coven. Four hundred years ago, this alliance of witches, changelings, and sorcerers sought to ruin and recreate the Earth in their own image, thwarted at the last only by treachery that sent half of them to be burned alive. Driven apart by rage and hatred, their descendants have continued to feud, intermarry, and breed with each other throughout the centuries, their mutual dislike becoming ever more destructively intimate.

But now, from downtown Toronto to the wilds beyond, where reality’s walls grow thin, dark forces are drawing the Coven’s last heirs to a final confrontation. Psychics, ex-possessees, defrocked changeling priests, shamans for hire, body-stealing witches, and monster-slaying nuns—the bastard children of a thousand evil angels—all are haunted by a ghost beyond any one person’s power to exorcize unless they agree to stand together once more, at least long enough to wreak vengeance upon themselves.”

— From the ChiZine Publications website

We Will All Go Down Together is available directly from the publisher or from your preferred vendor of books or ebooks — see the CZP website for links and more information.

Cover: We Will All Go Down Together, by Gemma Files

Cover: We Will All Go Down Together, by Gemma Files

[SGM] Welcome, Gemma! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?

[GF] After I published my first novel, A Book of Tongues (ChiZine Publications), which would become the beginning of the Hexslinger series. That was the moment where everything changed, much as my peers had often told me might happen, if I ever managed to produce and sell something long-form—it was like I snapped into focus for people, like my name became a brand. I can’t underplay the importance of that one sale, because I’d already been writing for almost twenty years at that point, and while I occasionally got recognition for one or another of my short fiction pieces (especially after five of them were adapted as episodes on The Hunger, a short-lived erotic horror anthology TV show produced by Tony and Ridley Scott), it was comparatively intermittent; I felt as though I was more recognized by other writers than by readers, and while I know now that editors did indeed have me on their radar, that didn’t result in solicitations or sales as much as I might have liked it to.

Of course, it didn’t help that up until about a year before I started writing A Book of Tongues, I’d had a series of “real” jobs which paid more than fiction ever had, effectively reducing my writing to the status of a rather intense hobby. Then, shortly after I lost my position as a film critic at eye Weekly, the Toronto Film School also went under, meaning I no longer had anywhere to teach film history, Canadian film history, screenplay writing or TV series development. The second of these two career setbacks happened to coincide with my son’s Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, which means I spent about the next ten months trying to deal with that particular paradigm shift, writing very little except fanfiction for the James Mangold remake of 3:10 to Yuma.

In January of 2009, it occurred to me that I’d written enough words over 2008 for a first draft novel, so I made the conscious decision that I would start to write something original, and see where that took me. By April, I had seven chapters and an outline, so when my friend Sandra Kasturi started asking all her friends if they had a book they were currently working on, I was able to send her the result. Then she and CZP co-creator Brett Savory sent me a contract, and that was basically that.

“I’m very lucky,” I remember saying to my mother; “it’s like this all came out of nowhere.” To which she replied: “Or it’s like you’ve been working steadily for fifteen years, and now you’re good enough at what you do that when a chance like this presents itself, you’re more likely to get it than not to get it.” It also reminded me of when I spoke to a friend of mine, Nancy Kilpatrick, back when she had just published her first novel. “That must be amazing,” I said. “Yeah,” she agreed. “And it only took me twenty years to get here.”

What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?

I totally did not have a strategy. Writing was something I knew I’d always do, one way or another—a by-product of my life, essential and integral as carbon monoxide after breathing. But because I grew up watching my parents live freelance lives—both of them are career actors who’ve played every sort of role you can possibly imagine without ever getting “famous,” and also routinely done things outside their nominal field of interest in order to survive/support me—the challenge I faced when I entered university was to develop a parallel career doing something at least slightly more stable. What I ended up doing, however, was getting a BAA in Magazine Journalism and graduating straight into a recession, then choosing to stay in Toronto instead of relocating to a smaller market like a lot of my classmates. So I ended up working a bunch of odd jobs like floor attendant in a sex shop or security guard at the office where they kept the Ontario Lottery Group’s primary computers, which gave me much-needed life experience, but it wasn’t until I was 25 that I began making enough money to finally move out of my mother’s attic.

Still, it was while on night shift at the OLG that I wrote the short story (“Mouthful of Pins”) that became my first professional fiction sale, and it was while I was working at the sex shop that I made an appointment to come in and talk to the then-managing editor of eye Weekly, where I would become first a stringer, then a film critic. It all ended up braiding together eventually, though when I look back on it now—as I did fairly recently, while writing an article about going from “critic to creator” for Beverly Bambury’s Elsewords blog here—I realize that everything I learned to get my degree has since become completely obsolete.

I worked at eye for almost eight years, then taught for almost ten. Throughout this period, I continued to write and sell increasingly long “short” fiction. I won an International Horror Guild Best Short Fiction award in 1999, for “The Emperor’s Old Bones,” which led to two story collections being published (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart), which in turn coincided with five of those stories being adapted as episodes of The Hunger. So there was definitely a kind of slow build, but at no point during this process did I ever think of writing as being my primary job. I didn’t get to do that until I essentially lost everything else, and was thankfully able to depend on my husband (who has a nice-paying job in a completely different field) for financial support, while simultaneously sharing my time with the “job” of being my son’s caregiver and intervener.

Gemma Files

Gemma Files

And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?

 No idea. Maybe trust myself more, in terms of my talent and my work ethic, but that’s a bit of a slippery slope. I like to think I’ve been just un-confident enough to avoid turning into an entitled asshole, though I might be fooling myself. 😉

Now that you’ve broken in, is like or unlike what you expected? How?

My Mom and I have a saying: energy appears to create energy—it’s always when you’ve given up on what you were pursuing and moved on to something else that suddenly, you start to get bites where there was previous zero interest. So one thing I’ve noticed is that if I thought I could stop working as hard as I’ve been working, then I was wrong; I work twice as hard now, maybe because I now understand that if I do finish something then the market where I can place it has already been created. Apparently, it means something to people to be able to publish something by me, so whatever I invest my time and effort in becomes saleable by default. This means I’m always picking and choosing between current projects, but I’m also always developing things with an eye towards future viability—when I get an idea, however tenuous, I write it down before it disappears, because I have a spreadsheet of potential deadlines to apply it to. So nothing is ever wasted, or at least very little.

What are you working on now?

I have some short story deadlines for the end of the year, but most of my energy will be going into finally making first draft on my next novel, Experimental Film. It’s a stand-alone novel, straight horror, and it’s been kicking my ass for two years now, so I know all the effort will be worth it.

How can people keep up with you online?

I have a pro-blog here, but it’s not updated as often as it should be, so for far more information than you probably want to know about what’s going with me on a semi-daily basis, try here. I’m also on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.

Thanks to Gemma for generously sharing her thoughts and experiences breaking in. In a remarkably crop of books being released late this summer and early this fall (Mirror Empire! Company Town! The 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons!), I am without a doubt most looking forward to We Will All Go Down Together. I encourage all of you to check it out.

COMING UP NEXT: A “state of the me” post with an update on the progress of my novel — and a deadline!

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