What is The Summer Sessions?
The Summer Sessions is a project organised by Magen Toole with the help of Melissa Dominic, bringing authors, poets, photographers and artists together under a common theme: A desire to create. This year’s project consists of ten people, in different stages of their careers and creative development, from different cultural and educational backgrounds, who agreed to be interviewed and interview one another, with the goal of cross-posting each others’ interviews in our respective blogs. It’s a project about knowing who’s in our community, and giving back to that community by helping one another promote our own work.
SESSION TEN: MAGEN TOOLE, INTERVIEWED BY BERIT ELLENGSEN
Drawing on a familiarity with the anxious and the alienated, weird and dark fiction Magen Toole takes some time to discuss her work, her favorite movies, and her love of bad television. Find more of her writing at her website eonism.net
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your stories.
I come from the Texas plains with an arts background, a love for Star Trek and a need to tell stories about people in otherworldly circumstances. I’m all about character dynamics and interactions, drawing on the supernatural to explore the duality of human nature and concepts of fear in the modern world. My stories are kind of a grab-bag of genres, from the weird to the romantic, the creepy to the surreal. I like to think that makes me entertaining, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see if there’s any truth to that.
2. Do you have a specific style or genre? If so, what would you call it or define it as?
If I had to call it a style, I’d say it was minimalism within reason. I like to be as brief and concise as possible without selling my ideas short. Give my characters just enough time and space to tell their stories, and cut out all the fat so the reader is left with the purest impression of my idea. It may be layered with other metaphors, other imagery to flesh the world out, but I hate to waste time on excess detail or diversions. I’ll never stop to talk about the drapes or that summer spent backpacking across Europe. The reader can take what he or she will from the story, just so long as I feel they got the best of what I could give them.
On the other hand, I really don’t know what genres I write, most days. I’m often published in weird tale, horror and dark fiction magazines and anthologies, so I guess that’s the clean answer. I just like to tell stories about people faced with the horror of the world around them, the low-volume dread of loneliness, of alienation from others, of separation from safety and detachment from reality. I usually represent that unknown threat with a monster, whether real or imagined, because giving a fear a face makes it palpable, even if you don’t understand why.
3. Is there a message or theme in your work you want to convey to others?
The message varies from story to story, but the theme in my work usually revolves around people struggling against their surroundings. They usually feel out of synch with the world, estranged from others, just outsiders looking in on their particular circumstances. There’s almost always a sense of separation for my characters, taking the form in a person or a singular goal, manifesting as a longing or obsession that fuels their actions. My characters are incomplete, unfinished, and afraid of what they might find if they go looking for what they need to fill that void. The worlds I build for my characters are scary places, populated by monsters and the subtle horror of the mundane modern existence. I can’t really blame them for being afraid.
Having dealt with social anxiety most of my life, I’m well-acquainted with that sense of fear and alienation. It’s easy to write, because I think the modern world makes us feel alienated in a lot of ways. Most things in our lives seem colder, detached, powered by the instant gratification of technology. My generation is still adapting to the world we’ve come up in, with iPhones and Twitter and the fifteen-minute cable news cycle. We’re still sorting out our place in history, and the jury seems out on whether or not we’re going to succeed at all. So I think I like to tell stories about outsiders, because as a reader it’s easier for me to relate to characters like that.
4. What have been your biggest influences?
Good movies, super hero comic books and bad television. Good movies from guys like David Cronenberg and Tarsem Singh, and genre movies from guys like Rob Zombie and Robert Rodriguez, that taught me there’s more than one way to tell horror stories. Super hero comics taught me about adapting mythology and hero folklore traditions to modern audiences, and how to use simple symbols to talk about grand ideas. Bad television, well, that’s just fun. Some of my favorite actors do bad television, and do these amazing things with these terrible scripts they’re given. Like making gold out of oxygen, they make me believe in these characters they’re playing even when the writers have slacked off in the staff room, make me care about these tiny lives they lead. They taught me about sleight of hand, and how a little humanization can hook an audience into a story, no matter how silly.
5. What are your current projects?
At the moment, I’m kicking around ideas for an apocalyptic alternate history series based around the first half of the 20th century, revolving around World War II. I’m working up the lives of the Four Horsemen, four people called to service at the beginning World War I to end the world, and their travels across the planet leading them toward the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m also workshopping and preparing for my next novel White Bull, the second in the Casey Way Trilogy.
6. I know you have written a novel that you just completed, Flesh Trap. Can you tell us what it’s about and what plans you have for it?
Flesh Trap is a psychological horror and dark fiction novel, looking at how the things we do to ourselves and each other leave holes in the world so profound that others can be pulled in. It centers on the life of Casey Way, a sarcastic, caffeine-junkie insomniac library cataloger who is being haunted by violent visions of his dead rapist father, suffering under the weight of his father’s sins for twenty years. One part mystery story, one part psychedelic trip, it follows Casey, his boyfriend Joel and step-sister Mariska as the anniversary of the death of Casey’s father approaches, increasing the frequency and brutality of Casey’s visions. They come to find that Casey has become the center of a series of deaths, disappearances and attacks, all stemming from a mysterious box that begins following him. With each character working the story from their own angle, their own perspective and motivations, the mystery leads Casey back to his childhood home and the scene of the crime, as he’s forced further and further into his own fractured psyche to confront his father and also himself.
I’m planning to release the novel as a free-to-read serial beginning in September. I have an awesome team of volunteers that are helping me put together the website, illustrate the characters and key scenes, and assemble the soundtrack. It’s going to be a mixed-media project, art and music backing up the novel chapters. I’m really excited about putting this together.
7. You have said in your blog that you find it difficult to write when you’re happy. Is there anything else you find particularly challenging about writing?
I usually find myself scratching my head over how to portray horror in my stories. The horror I enjoy as a reader or viewer is largely psychological, examining fear from a more clinical, cerebral level rather than through gore and scares. Not that I don’t enjoy my schlock-and-awe movies, because I have my favorites like everybody else, but I like to explore fear as much as possible without automatically going to blood. This is why death and the fear of dying is rarely ever a source of dread in my stories. Most often my characters are afraid of living with something, be it a choice they’ve made, or a loss, or a larger truth they’ve discovered along the way. Which is scarier? That’s what I have to ask myself every time I sit down to write.
8. Can you tell us about your future projects?
I’m working on the second and third books of the Casey Way Trilogy, expanding on the concepts and themes of the first book, respectively titled White Bull and Nightmare Child. Those are a ways off at the moment, as I’m still getting the first book launched. In the meantime I have plans for a collaborative vampire novella. I’m keen on exploring the idea of the vampire from a more traditional folklore standpoint, making them more of a predatory species than the aristocratic or tragic romantic figures they’ve become. The novella focuses on a race of vampires that came out of a nomadic gypsy society in Eastern Europe, spreading across Europe and to the Americas in the chaos following World War II, living by the strict mythic traditions of their ancestors in a lifestyle akin to that of Hasidic Judaism. Living like a cloistered religious community, with well-organized means of procuring and distributing blood through human trafficking, vampires are able to live among the people they feed on with little scrutiny from law enforcement.
I’m also working on a bizarro novel about a man who loses his tongue to an aquatic parasite that lives in his mouth, communicating with him telepathically and leading him on a hallucinatory, vaguely criminal joy-ride toward self-improvement.