V. H. Leslie has penned numerous tales of delicate beauty and chilling luminosity since her first story was published by Black Static in 2011. Her tales have also appeared in such respected venues and anthologies as Shadows and Tall Trees, Strange Tales, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and Weird Fiction Review. Her premier collection Skein and Bone collects many of these stories and acts as both the subject of our review from several weeks ago and this interview. Leslie took time from her residency to discuss the importance of arts and crafts to her creative process, her love of 19th century literature, and the prominence of “feyness” in her own fiction.
• How’s your day been so far?
It’s been rather pleasant. Just got back from a nice walk in the woods and have settled down with a cuppa and some biscuits.
• At what point did you determine that you were going to be a writer? What elements helped to shape your decision?
I read a lot of the classics growing up and was obsessed with supernatural tales and stories about family sagas. Wuthering Heights was a very important book for me and I used to spend a lot of time walking by the sea, imagining it to be the Yorkshire Moors and planning complex genealogies and plots. This interest in the gothic stayed with me and I specialized in nineteenth century literature at university. At that time I also became very interested in the short story form and how a lot of women writers were using it as a vehicle to talk about female suffrage. I worked as a teacher for a number of years and spent most of that time analyzing and interpreting texts which can make you nervous about stepping over into a creative field, especially considering the enormity of the literary canon and the fear of offering your voice when there are so many good works of fiction out there. A few of my teaching friends and I decided to start a writing club, taking it in turns to submit our work to the group. Knowing that your peers would be viewing your stories made you work really hard and it helped overcome this fear of writing.
• You have a background in academic studies, specifically in regards to folklore, art, and literature. What areas within these fields do you find the most interesting to discuss and study?
I suppose I’m most drawn to ideas concerning the unknown. Storytelling and art are ways to better understand the things around us and the things we can’t explain. In my Shetland research I particularly like the term ‘feyness’ which is used to describe something strange or uncanny, for instance if you were to see someone after they had died or experienced a vision or premonition. The idea is that we are all capable of experiencing a feyness, it’s just a matter of being tuned into the right frequency. And in the modern world with our heads full of ideas and technology it can be hard to make the psychological space to listen to our own intuitions. A lot of the folklore I’m interested in stem from isolated locations, often with severe weather conditions, meaning that life would have been harsh and tough. Stories and beliefs based on the natural world were ways to cope with this reality and I like that even in the ‘enlightened’ centuries that followed, the belief in folkloric creatures and practices still existed and were the subject of much art and literature. It’s these echoes I find most fascinating.
• A large portion of your short fiction was first published in TTA Press titles like Black Static and Interzone. How did you first come to them and in what ways would you say your work matches up with the overall thematic tone of these publications?
Well, an ex-boyfriend was a TTA subscriber so I started reading the magazines on his recommendation and was completely hooked. I felt like these were the kinds of stories I wanted to write. I’m very interested in stories with a psychological edge; that allow a reader to form different interpretations, and I also like stories that explore the horror of our everyday existence and our inability to understand or to belong to the world around us. I think TTA is a good purveyor of these kinds of stories, with a strong focus on internal struggles and conflicts. Likewise, Shadows and Tall Trees has been a very important venue for my work, championing a kind of quiet or ‘low-key’ horror, bridging the gap between horror and weird fiction.
• As we mentioned in our review, a good deal of the stories in your debut collection are preoccupied with the idea of abandoning one’s past, usually with unsuccessful results. Why do you think you keep coming back to this narrative?
I think the revenant, this idea of the past coming back to haunt the present, is such a staple of horror fiction, not just because it lends itself to supernatural possibilities but also because we are all, every day coming to terms with our past and the people and experiences that have shaped us. A lot of my stories are, as you say, about abandoning the past but it was my intention to reconcile my characters with their pasts in these stories via the journeys they make. I’m not really sure why I keep coming back to this narrative. Loss and grief are big themes in my work and I think I’m an advocate of accommodating the past in order to be able to move forward. I suppose I also like the idea of my characters wanting to construct a version of themselves and the world according to their own designs and desires, finding the reality they are faced with and their pasts lacking in some way. This idea of fashioning an idea of selfhood or an idea of reality is also a theme I’m very interested in, though ultimately it’s only ever going to be illusionary.
• You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you have a fascination for “wild spaces” and defined settings within fiction and without. In your stories you examine everything from nature’s grandeur (“The Cloud Cartographer”) to the horrors of “going native” (“Family Tree”). How have your own worldly excursions inspired you?
Yes, I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing in the Scottish highlands and in Shetland and I’m here now on a writing residency in Finland. Research prompted my first two trips, one to explore vestiges of ancient forest and the other to explore remote island life. Both trips were incredibly inspirational to me and I realized how invigorated I feel when immersed in the landscape. In the highlands I rented a little cabin surrounded by red squirrels and deer and in Shetland the weather was so inclement, some days the ferry wouldn’t run to bring supplies to the island shop, which brought home this dependency on the sea and on neighbours. Though I’m a city girl, the fiction I’m drawn to and the fiction I like to write is about isolated places, and I find that in these places the tradition of storytelling is very different to that which exists anywhere else. These places also allow the space for your ideas to breathe.
• In addition to writing, you also have experience with illustration and printmaking. Some of your drawings even crop up in the pages of Skein and Bone. How did you come to these vocations, and what other hobbies do you have?
I’ve always enjoyed illustration and was inspired by a screen-printing exhibition a few years ago to book myself up on a course. I’ve been printmaking a few years now but still regard myself as a novice – there’s so much I’ve still got to learn but I feel this is certainly the art form for me. I’m a bit of a nineteenth century enthusiast so using an original Victorian printing press is right up my alley. I grew up in a very creative household. My mother was a seamstress and was always engaged in one craft-based project or another. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with my mother and my aunty while they crocheted or embroidered as they told stories, usually about my grandmother who passed away when I was a baby. So stories for me have always been a way of accessing the past and forming a kind of legacy to be passed on. I’ve also always associated arts and crafts with storytelling and even now, if I am making something, drawing or printmaking, I tend to listen to an audio book while I work.
• In the collection there is also a recurring theme of women upsetting the lives of men, whether it’s from the standpoint of domestic co-harmony (“Preservation”, “Ulterior Design”) or simply from them just showing up and driving their partners mad (“Wordsmith”). Was this something you were conscious of in writing these stories?
I’m certainly interested in gender dynamics and especially with the historical idea of women being the cause of trouble. Even in stories with no male characters I try to respond to dominant ideas about feminine curiosity and weakness, such as with the titular story “Skein and Bone” which is my nod to Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”. These allusions were also intended in “Ulterior Design” and “Preservation” though I wanted to explore the complexities within relationships and with individual characters predominantly. Stories with historical settings also carry historical mentalities regarding gender ideology –which I explore in “Preservation”– though these echoes are still current in some of my stories with modern settings, such as “Ulterior Design”. With this story I was interested in the backlash regarding the change in gender roles, focusing on a masculine insecurity of being undermined or usurped as man of the house.
• Dreams and found objects have fueled the engine for some of your stories, such as the origami art that served as the focal image of “Senbazuru”. Were any of the other entries in Skein and Bone born in a similar fashion?
Yes, a lot of my stories were formed by one central image or motif in my head. In the case of “Senbazuru” I was given a paper crane by a student and pinned it to my notice board where it remained for months and months before the story emerged. I tend to work with one central idea, often very visual, and then I try and weave the story around it. But it can take ages sometimes for the story to come.
• Looking at the wide expanse of literature, what are the works and authors that pull you back time and again? What is it about their craft that makes you want to keep writing?
Writers like Michel Faber, A.S. Byatt, David Mitchell and Angela Carter possess a precision and lyrical quality with their prose that I enjoy very much and envy a great deal. I also like stories with academic or intertextual weight and with a strong feminist focus, which is why Carter and Byatt, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Marina Warner are important to me. I’m also incredibly drawn to fiction centered on landscape and writers I particularly admire are George Mackay Brown, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Charles Frazier, Robert Holdstock and Graham Joyce. Also I tend to revisit classic texts by the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Vernon Lee, Daphne du Maurier and Edith Wharton very frequently. I suppose what unites many of these quite diverse writers, is that many of them seek to explore the unknown, whether it centers on the supernatural or on our own complex natures. I like that many of them draw on the past, on fairy tale, folklore and legend and the process of how we tell stories. Also writers like Faber, Mitchell and Joyce are not pigeonholed or hemmed in by genre boundaries, demonstrating their breadth as storytellers. I find this very encouraging and inspiring.
• Britain’s ghost story tradition has been the guiding force and subject of several of your stories and nonfictional writings. What are the best qualities of this strain of storytelling, and how have you attempted to pay tribute to it?
Personally, I like ghost stories that build gradually, that are in no hurry to shock or scare. I like the pace of these stories and the focus on building a credible and detailed sense of setting and characterization. I like that these kinds of stories unnerve you by degrees and disarm you with their steady build up. I’ve tried to imitate this kind of approach in some of my stories, particularly “The Quiet Room” and “The Blue Room” and also through the use of more subtle incremental episodes of unease before the final denouement.
• A Nordic water fairy has just granted you the means of completing one of your ultimate dream projects. What is it?
I’d love to produce an illustrated novel in a similar vein to one of Audrey Niffenegger’s artist’s books.
• Seeing as how we love short stories around here, what recommendations do you have for individual fictions or collections that deserve more notice?
I highly recommend Helen Marshall’s Gifts For the One Who Comes After and James Everington’s Falling Over, along with Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles. Michel Faber is better known for his novels but The Fahrenheit Twins is one of my favourite collections of all time.
• You’ve returned home from hiking in a cold dark wood to find a favorite meal and movie waiting for you to tuck in. What are they?
A Chinese takeaway (dim sum, Peking duck, Singapore noodles) and a movie set in a cold place, like THE THING or LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.
• Do you have any stories that you’re working on now? What can we look forward to seeing from you?
I’m working on a few things right now, a short story inspired by my stay here in Finland and a novel that draws on Shetland folklore. I’ve got a short story, “Man of the House”, due out with Black Static in January and my novel, Bodies of Water, is coming out in the spring from Salt Publishing.
• Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
Not at all.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.