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A Conversation With Greer Gilman
An interview with Sherwood Smith
February 2004
© Ellen Datlow
Greer Gilman
Greer Gilman
Greer Gilman's novel, Moonwise, won the Crawford Award and was shortlisted for the Tiptree and Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards. "A Crowd of Bone" is one of three linked stories, variations on a winter myth. The first, "Jack Daw's Pack," was a Nebula finalist for 2001, and the subject of a Foundation interview by Michael Swanwick. A sometime forensic librarian, Gilman lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and travels in stone circles.

ISFDB Bibliography
Greer Gilman Interview with Michael Swanwick
Greer Gilman Interview



Greer Gilman's novel, Moonwise (1991, Roc), is decidedly thorny. It won the Crawford Award and was shortlisted for the Tiptree and Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards.

Greer I. Gilman is working on a triptych of stories, variations on a winter myth. "Jack Daw's Pack," which appeared in Century (Winter 2000), was a Nebula finalist for 2001, and the subject of an interview by Michael Swanwick, published in Foundation (Autumn 2001). It was reprinted in the 14th Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. The second novella of the three, "A Crowd of Bone," has just come out in Trampoline (2003, Small Beer Press); it was on the Locus Recommendation list for 2003. Women of Other Worlds (1999, University of Western Australia Press), has reprinted her poem, "She Undoes" from The Faces of Fantasy (1996, Tor). Ms. Gilman was a John W. Campbell finalist for 1992, and a guest speaker at the Art/Sci'98 Symposium held at the Cooper Union in New York. Her career has been profiled in the Harvard University Gazette (Oct. 11, 2001).

A sometime forensic librarian, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and travels in stone circles.

Greer's interview with Trampoline is here:

Many writers claim to write the movie in their heads. You have said elsewhere that you are not one of these, which is surprising in a writer whose text is so rich in imagery. Is that true?

Sadly, I can't see pictures in my head. Which is strange, because I'm fiercely visual -- I minored in art history, I design things and I draw (too seldom) -- but the theatre of the mind is dark. And that changes everything: not only how I read and write, but memory, my sense of time.

I live in translation. What's past is history, a chronicle sub-vocalized: halfway to text. Though rarely, inexplicably, I do have vivid dreams, "that, when I waked, I cried to dream again." That power of imagination is an astonishing gift, a calling-forth of spirits from the deep. If I had three wishes, it would probably be one, before even flying or time travel. In a way, it is time travel. And maybe then I wouldn't write.

So I read for voice and imagery; and I write for the ear, as much for the inward eye. And for the tongue. Words are like bright stones that you have to put in your mouth, to taste the curve and edge of them, their cool. If I've done it right, people tell me, "I just had to read that aloud."

I need to get the tune of a story in my head before I can write. I do envy composers their polyphony: fugue and counterfugue and chords. I've got plainchant.

Let's talk about how you begin, then. Many writers talk about their stories coming with a central image, or a series of images. Do you hear a scrap of dialogue? Or are there compelling words? Just what is the seed for your stories, if not image, and how do they develop?
I wish I knew. It's a mystery.

What I have is a junk heap, a congeries of stuff. A rag tag, a rat's nest. A button box of words. I jackdaw anything: this bit of wordplay, that Vermeer. Ravellings of ballads, rags of folklore, postcards of old farm tools, shards of myth. All things that fascinate me, riddles that I worry at. I brood on this; I try to make something of it, turning it this way and that. I'm clueless.

I try to pick out storylines with one finger. I write bits and pieces.

My people lie there like a row of dolls.

Nothing works. I despair.

And then, just maybe -- you know the cartoon of the guy at the chalkboard? -- a miracle happens.

Entropy runs backward. It begins to crystallize. I don't quite hear voices, but I feel the rhythm of the prose, which is the heartbeat of the story. ("A Crowd of Bone" is mostly in dissolved pentameter, half water and half ice.) So there's a sort of spectral music in my head, a kind of synaesthetic composition: I know I need a sharp dark something here, a long green something there.

My characters quicken; they have passion and will.

It's like a Polaroid developing, faces coming clear and clearer from a green white fog. Or like Atlantis run backward: islands rising from a sea, from a Cloud of unknowing. Here's a peak, and there's a peak, and the contours and the road keep changing, until at last I see the land mass, and I know my journey.

How long have you been working on the world of Cloud? Was its inspiration through folk songs, through tramping alongside ancient hedgerows in England? Or did you see the elements of interconnected storylines?
Twenty-some years. A mere acorn. But the wood is older, and the mulch lies deep.

There are goddesses in Cloud because I read and loved George MacDonald and P.L. Travers as a child. There are witches from fairy tales; mowers from Marvell; lovers and their deaths from ballads on old vinyl, songs handed down from folks who learned them from their mothers' mothers, and were cut in wax. There are landscapes from the North of England, woods I've walked in. Stars and seasons. Circles of stones. (I like the turning year.) And almost everything I've drawn on, draws on sources older still.

Why ballads, witches, moorland? They're what I'm drawn to, what I am: no other.

So a truer answer is: all my life. I've spent half a century Cloudforming my imagination. That landscape is myself turned elsewhere; but it marches with the Wood beyond. And sometimes -- if I'm lucky -- even I get lost.

In the interview you did with Michael Swanwick you said:
Myth isn't about primal urges; it's about how the world works, about the relationship of things. Metaphysics. As above, so below. If blood, then bread. Up kills. Time was, time will be. This way in. No way out. It's patterning and metamorphosis. It's why.
So my question now is, can a writer consciously (and successfully) set out to write myth? Do you see mythopoesis as a cultural process, or the work of a single brilliant mind, willingly expanded on by those who heard the first Story, until it becomes a cultural shared-world work?
I don't know. I think a single mind can kindle myth; but it has got to wake echoes in a world of listeners. It must speak a common tongue, if only of a tribe. Some obsessively elaborated worlds, like Henry Darger's -- that recluse who envisioned war between dark powers of apocalypse and naked little girls with pricks -- turn inward, self reflecting self in a madhouse of mirrors, a Spiral Castle for one. Others make the leap from private fantasy to archetype, from Edith Bratt to Luthien. (Or perhaps the elvish archetype indwelt in Miss Bratt?) Tolkien made myth; he told us how the world works: They are going into the West and leaving us.

But consciously? Hmm... Maybe so. If not writers, demagogues have used the power of myth, cynically or fervidly, to rouse their worlds. Successfully? Ah, that's another matter. Who knows what stories will live? The earth is cumbered with the shards of long-forgotten deities.

"A Crowd of Bone" begs to be read aloud, by a skilled performer. I found I couldn't just read it and watch the images unfold in my head, I heard the whispering of a woman's voice. (Actually, I even identified the voice, it was Maggie Smith.) Is there any chance of that happening?
Could we get Maggie Smith?

Or at least another actress with a supple, rich, low voice. Someone who could do both sorts of voices in the story: high and low, dissolved pentameter and Cloudish dialect. I'd love that.

There is talk at Small Beer of recording all of the Trampoline authors reading their stories. I've been working on it. I'm not too bad a reader -- I know where the beats are and how the cadences should fall -- but alas, I'm no actress.

How was the movie?

"Kit hurried, huddled in his flapping coat. It would snow by dark. Black moor, white sky; but knit, the whiteness tangled in the ground as rime, the blackness branching up as trees. A scant wood, leafless now. Sloes, rowans, all gone by..."
The movie was directed by Akira Kurosawa, set design by Aubrey Beardsley. Peopled with faces from early twentieth century films, before Hollywood homogenized actors' faces and bodies into one white-toothed, smiling commercial look.
Oh my.

Black and white, then?

There is no simple black and white -- age has overlain those old films with a delicate palimpsest of colors: sepia, silver, a thousand distinct shades of gray, sometimes the peach of dawn over the sea. Enough color to be fascinating, but not enough to pirate the eye away from the rhythms of the words.
And when is it out on DVD? I'd dearly love to see it. With the actors' commentary. And the extra scenes.

So would I! Your imaginary world seems extremely fluid in its boundaries. Even writers who do not actually supply maps or chronologies for their readers generally give them a clear idea of their world's general geography, its history and what kinds of magic are or aren't possible. In "A Crowd of Bone," however, we are told that there are different "worlds," but how you cross from one to another, what their natures are ("worlds" here plainly doesn't mean planets), is never quite made explicit. Is this a deliberate departure from the practice of most genre fantasy?
I'm not being contrarian -- just Greerish. Maps are nifty in themselves, and essential if you're writing pseudo-history, with political intrigues and wars and kings. But what I'm writing is Romance, where Bohemia has a seacoast.

Cloud is a state of mind, a mode in music, like Dorian. A dreamscape. And the worlds -- well, they're infolded like a tesseract. Their bounds are not geography but metaphysics. So how do you cross from one world to another? Second to the right, and straight on till morning. See you not that bonny road? And yes, you can get there by candlelight. There and back again.

More than maps or chronologies, I guess what readers are missing is a compass, a narrative lodestone. There isn't a voice at the reader's shoulder; there isn't a wizard explaining things to Tooks. All islands in the mist. And my characters themselves are fog bound; or inured to strangeness. Immersed either way. Kit is a stranger to Cloud, and Thea is a double stranger, an off-world immortal. Either you drown with them, or find another sort of book, with roads.

Really, I don't mean to be prickly. This world we're in bewilders me, and my imagined worlds reflect that.

As for magic -- well, the rules aren't on the box. There are witches and goddesses (both in hedges); but no guys in pointy hats, no magecraft. Mostly the magic in Cloud is ritual and communal. Folk ceremony. If the women don't chose an Ashes surrogate each winter, then the year dies. No spring. Their guisers really do bring the sun.

"A Crowd of Bone" retells a traditional story, lovers fleeing the wrath of a powerful and disapproving parent. Were you thinking of various versions of this in Western literature -- Tristan und Iseult, or Romeo and Juliet -- or was your inspiration more the British ballads?
Oh, nothing so lush as opera. Ballads and fairy tales, implacable and stark.

But really, what an odd story for me to tell -- I always thought that I don't do tragedy, I don't do lovers. I'm scarcely a romantic. But Kit, poor fellow, is. And it's a romance that he feels he's in, that he wants me to tell. Not a tragedy though: I think in his heart he believes in winter's tales, in loss redeemed and lovers reunited, foundlings found. He'd be waiting for Cordelia to wake. It can't end that way.

And Thea's in another story, one that crosses his. She's myth. She is Ashes, their Cloudish Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of the underworld, whose rising from the earth is spring; and who must always return to darkness. Even her constellation never quite rises, wading to the knee in earth. Her mother is bent on consuming her utterly. And Thea is desperate to flee that fate.

At first she catches Kit up as a means to her end; then slowly feels compunction toward him -- she's tangled a soul in her mother's web -- then fellowship, affection, love. He's very dear to her -- a world she's barely found before it's lost -- but her passions are otherwise. Romance just isn't in her grammar.

I believe it was Terri Windling who once referred to "ballad-land," the realm where all these ballads are true. "A Crowd of Bone" feels more like ballad-land than Middle-Earth or the fairie realm of Shakespeare. Is this a deliberate effect?
No, what I do is just me, "as kingfishers catch fire." If you're supersaturated in folklore, you start growing ballad crystals.

You have mentioned formative and inspirational reading. Would you like to discuss who, especially on the contemporary scene, you enjoy reading?
Oh dear. I'm afraid I'm rather a Boston lady in my reading: "We have our hats." Though mine are not dowdy but fantastical. I do like my plumage.

C.S Lewis wrote of his passion for "the Northernness." And oh yes, I'm after that draught of otherwise -- the witchiness, the balladry, the ring of bridles in the nightwood -- but distilled through a voice and vision. I love the singularity of writers, their dragonfly selves. I love them for their voices, for the air and earth and elsewhere they inhabit; for what they see, what they connect, their cadences, their company. The stuff of their imagination.

I play them over like music.

Angela Carter. Earthy, fierce, funny, sacred and profane. A hierophant of blood mysteries, beautiful and bawdy all at once, like a sibyl in mules. Such wit and passion and extravagance of spirit -- how can she be gone?

John Crowley. Air and aether to her fire. Cool. Melancholy. Elegant. His cloud-capped towers are no haze: he is architectonic. Airy, but as angels are, arrayed in Dominations, Thrones and Powers. I like the way he facets and refracts his crystalline. How he tesseracts.

Sylvia Townsend Warner. She saw herself as "Frau Noah leaning out of a window with a coffee cup in her hand admiring last night's flood"; I can see her as a clear-eyed river goddess, or the numen of a spring. Wise-hearted and well-tempered, she began as a scholar of early music, and her prose is formally Baroque. "Her heart was with the hunted always," said her friend William Maxwell. Yet at eighty, when her mortal love had died and she was "tired of the human heart," she wrote on the unkindliness of faerie. Kingdoms of Elfin is a last book as ruthlessly exquisite as a silver frost.

Alan Garner. Earth. Vernacular. He sees the old ones indwelling in the fields we know, in smithy, stone, and scythe; finds a goddess caught in crazed china. He is a man possessed. His strengths are rootedness and rage.

Hope Mirrlees. Not elemental but autumnal, elegiac: leaves burning in a mist, the smoke of memory and desire. Her world is bright and bustling as a Dutch landscape; its people dispossessed of wonder, fearing what they crave: the fruit of ecstasy and death. The Silent Folk are at your threshold. You must let them in.

Anon, of course.

Oh, and many others: Jorge Luis Borges and A.S. Byatt; T.H. White (his children's books); Lucy Boston; Diana Wynne Jones and Joan Aiken (gloriously askew); Michael Swanwick (wicked clever); Kelly Link (like a written Magritte). Sadly, I've lost my early fondness for Ursula K. Le Guin. I still like her adamantine assurance, when she isn't hectoring. And beyond our archipelago, back on the bookish mainland, there are far too many pages to recount. Always Shakespeare and the OED; lots of memoirs of childhood; anthologies of oddments (just now it's The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings and The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse); Guy Davenport's Geography of the Imagination...

My closing question: at the end of the Swanwick interview, you made some predictions about "A Crowd of Bone", and where you saw the story leading. Now that we have "A Crowd of Bone", where do you see the story of Cloud leading next? Or is it too early to tell?
The last book belongs to Kit and Thea's daughter, in which she undoes the heavens.


It will be (I hope) a winter's tale, a redemption.

But I'll give Margaret the last word:

"Down and round she ran, still downward with the falling spindle of the stairs, that twirled the heavens to a clew of light. That other chain, the necklace that she wore, broke loose in running, whirled and scattered on the steps. She left it as it fell. As later, in the time to come, she would outrun the world of her begetting, scatter it behind like leaves: her glass would crack my lady's heavens, would unstring the stars.

"Margaret ran on."

Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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