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Both women and queer people are constantly aware of how we are perceived. We see ourselves as we are, but we also see ourselves through the lens of a heterosexist patriarchy that pigeonholes, stereotypes, and oppresses us. That doubled understanding of ourselves is a burden, and it is enraging! In the face of that enormous pressure, I think a drop of queer feminist rage is highly necessary. – Elliott Gish

 

Today I’m proud to present an interview with Canadian author (and librarian!), Elliott Gish. Gish’s short fiction runs the gamut from the dreamlike and eerie, to the grounded and contemporary. No matter the genre, she writes hard-hitting stories with weighty emotional hooks that probe both joyous and uncomfortable queer realities. Her short story, “The Other Anna,” was nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Prize, and just this Spring she published her debut novel, Grey Dog, with ECW Press. On a personal level, Gish’s stories have meant a lot to me, and she’s one of my favourite authors. Check out her work–you won’t be disappointed!

 

Introduce yourself to our readers!  (I tried to make this question sound exciting, but . . . it just is what it says on the tin).

 

I am a writer and librarian from Halifax. My fiction leans to the speculative, though I have been dipping my toes in non-speculative short fiction recently (with varying degrees of success–sometimes I just need a ghost or magic wand to keep me interested). My first novel, Grey Dog, was published this year, and some folks seem to like it, which is tremendously exciting!

 

As you know (or, at least, I hope you know!), I’m a huge fan of your work. Your short fiction has blown me away every time, and Grey Dog is a carefully constructed masterpiece. One recurring element across your career so far has been how unafraid you are to tackle challenging but important subject matter such as abuse. I was wondering if you could speak to the importance of these kinds of stories, particularly in a queer context?

 

Fiction has always been how I process trauma–not only writing it, but reading it, too. After experiencing an abusive relationship with a woman when I was in my twenties, I searched for books that reflected that experience, only to discover that there really wasn’t much out there. It was a very lonely feeling, not being able to see yourself. I clung to the few works I found that dealt with abuse in queer relationships; they made me feel seen in a way that books about abuse in straight relationships simply didn’t. (Specific shoutout to Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, which everyone should read!)

The cover for Elliott Gish's Grey Dog. The novel features a simple poppy red background with a block-print ink drawing of a wolf and a deer's upper bodies joined together (like a Push-me Pull-you if you've read or seen Dr. Dolittle). "Grey Dog" is written in a beautiful cursive font, while "elliott gish" is written in lower case above the image of the deer-dog.

I started writing fiction that dealt with abuse and trauma in the context of relationships between women in part because there is very little cultural space for discussing it. It’s hard enough to talk about abuse in any context, but talking about abuse in queer relationships is doubly taboo, both inside the community and outside of it. I knew that I had to talk about my experiences, even if I veiled the reality of those experiences somewhat through fictionalizing them. Those stories were ones I needed to write. And if there is something you really need to write, chances are there is someone out there who really needs to read it!

 

 

Your novel, Grey Dog, has been described as a story centered on queer feminist rage. I’m curious about your thoughts on this.

 

I think it is a very accurate description! Ada’s growing understanding of her own desires and her simmering anger at her lot in life as a Victorian woman are both destabilizing forces. Although she has a very controlled, mannered way of expressing herself in her diary, there is a huge part of her that is little more than a howl of need and rage. That howling becomes louder as the novel goes on and she begins to lose control–you can see that loss of control in how she writes, the way sentences and formatting get away from her, until she is no longer able to pretend that she is not angry. That prim and proper spinster schoolmarm facade cracks, and something new emerges from it. It is loss of control, exuberance, and excess of emotion and desire that ultimately frees Ada.

 

Both women and queer people are constantly aware of how we are perceived. We see ourselves as we are, but we also see ourselves through the lens of a heterosexist patriarchy that pigeonholes, stereotypes, and oppresses us. That doubled understanding of ourselves is a burden, and it is enraging! In the face of that enormous pressure, I think a drop of queer feminist rage is highly necessary.


I clung to the few works I found that dealt with abuse in queer relationships; they made me feel seen in a way that books about abuse in straight relationships simply didn’t.

 

Your short fiction tends to be very contemporary, whereas Grey Dog has a historical setting. Could you speak to how setting informs the narrative and why you went this route?

 

Setting and character were completely entwined in the creation of this story. As soon as I started to write about Ada, I knew exactly when and where she was. That doesn’t happen often for me!

 

The time period and physical setting of Grey Dog are hugely influential on how Ada’s story unfolds. Because it is 1901, she is a teacher even though she has no passion for the work, because it is one of very few occupations open to women in the time period, and that brings her to Lowry Bridge. Because the town is so physically isolated, she is unable to leave the town when she begins to experience strange things; because the town is small, she is unable to escape the judgment of its inhabitants. The realities of womanhood at the dawn of the twentieth century traps her in a place she doesn’t want to be, mired in confusing and frightening experiences. I could not have written Ada without this setting. She was very firm about being from this particular era from the get-go.

 

Also, when you write a period piece, you don’t have to find a way to work emails and text messages into the story, which is something that I find very difficult. It wasn’t the driving force behind the setting, but it was definitely a perk!

 

Aside from what’s already been mentioned, what do you hope readers take away from Grey Dog?

 

If Grey Dog has a thesis, it goes something like this: “Fury in the face of being denied dignity, freedom, and choice is not only understandable, but inevitable. Rage is a natural response to oppression.”

 

I hope people come away from the book feeling that their own rage has been heard and understood, even if only by a little gay weirdo like Ada.

 

One thing that’s always stuck out to me about your prose is that it combines a kind of understatedness with a beautiful poetry. The result is that your stories brim with raw emotion. I’d love to hear more about how you approach writing at the line level and what you look for from your own writing.

 

Well, thank you! That is an incredibly kind thing to say.

 

Unfortunately, my approach to writing at the line level is something like this:

 

  • Write the line.
  • Look at the line and think, “Gosh, that isn’t a very good line.”
  • Rewrite the line at least eight times, dissatisfaction increasing all the way.
  • Give up on the line, throw a mini-pity party because clearly I am the worst writer who ever lived and should just give it all up and become a florist or something.
  • Eventually return to the line post-pity party and discover that it is better than I thought it was.
  • Do the exact same thing with the next line.

 

It is a bit time-consuming, as you can imagine! I am trying to get better at leaving pieces in a draft form as I write, rather than revising simultaneously, but it does nag at me if I don’t get it just right on the first pass. It is so easy to succumb to the temptation of making each line perfect, rather than finishing a piece and polishing it up later.

 

That’s the power of horror fiction. It takes our most painful, frightening, or horrifying experiences and externalizes them in a way that takes the power out of them. It’s a way of whistling in the dark.

 

Horror is a somewhat maligned genre that’s nonetheless extremely popular (and is only rising in popularity as mainstream imprints start to solicit horror adjacent works). I’m curious what the value of horror is for you and how you understand your relationship to it?

 

Funnily enough, I never considered myself a horror writer until recently. Fantasy was my first speculative love, with science fiction not far behind, and I always thought that I would end up a fantasy writer. As a kid, I wrote a few sword-and-sorcery epics; they were really just bad Tamora Pierce knockoffs, but I loved writing them, and thought that would be the kind of fiction that would always call to me.

 

We talked a little bit about abuse and trauma earlier, and my own experiences with it. When I revisited some of those experiences and tried to transform them into fiction, I found myself unable to do so for a long time. A straightforward transcription of the events that occurred simply did not help me process my experiences. It wasn’t until I started transforming those experiences into horror that something clicked, and I found myself able to write stories that actually helped exorcize the trauma of those memories. Horror gave me the ability to express that fear, anger, pain, and dread in a way that felt real.

 

That’s the power of horror fiction. It takes our most painful, frightening, or horrifying experiences and externalizes them in a way that takes the power out of them. It’s a way of whistling in the dark.

 

If there is something you really need to write, chances are there is someone out there who really needs to read it!

 

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have anything in the pipes that you’re able to tease?

 

I am working on a few full-length follow ups to Grey Dog, which is a real problem–I need to pick just one and stick with it until it’s done. The first is another horror story with a grounding in the natural world, this time the ocean. The second is a queer magic realist novel set in 1961. The third is a novel inspired equally by the Parker-Hulme murder and Enid Blyton’s boarding school novels. I’m not sure how I would categorize that one–maybe dark psychological demi-fantasy, if that is a genre that exists. They’re all playing tug-of-war with my brain right now, and I am not sure which book will win out.

 

I am also working on putting together a short story collection. It will be a combination of published and unpublished work, largely speculative. Its working title is Girls and Dead Things, but I am not married to that. Coming up with titles is, I think, the hardest part of being a writer. Anyone who can come up with a compelling title has the job half-done already!

 

Photo of author Elliott Gish. Elliott is a white woman in her thirties with short, slightly wavy brown hair and a lip piercing on the right side of her lower lip. She's wearing a big round red earring on her left ear and has penetrating blue eyes. She's resting her chin on her hand, showing part of a floral tattoo on her wrist. Her unbottoned dress shirt (with a white t-shirt underneath) gives Hawaiian meets jazzy William Morris energy.

Elliott Gish is a Canadian writer of literary speculative fiction. Her stories can be found in The New QuarterlyGrain MagazineVastarienThe Baltimore ReviewDark Matter MagazineWigleaf,  and many others.

Purchase Grey Dog at IndieBound.
Find Gish’s short fiction here.
Website.

Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve is a trans author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (basically, if it’s weird he writes it). He grew up on the eldritch shores of Newfoundland, Canada, and currently lives and works in (the slightly less eldritch) Montreal. He holds advanced degrees in Russian Literature, Medieval Studies, and Religious Studies. As a reader, Steve’s tastes are eclectic. He enjoys anything that could be called speculative, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but has been known to enjoy a good mystery as well as literary fiction. He’s always excited to try something new or that pushes boundaries, particularly from marginalized authors. Steve is passionate about queer representation, Late Antiquity, and spiders.

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