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Phantasm Japan Q/A with Joseph Tomaras

Phantasm Japan runs the gamut of the genre of fantasy, from retellings of classic tales to pop culture subversions to terrifying visions of a future so extreme that humanity is unrecognizable (and much slimier). One of the most interesting stories, structurally, is “Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self” from new writer Joseph Tomaras. He’s published several stories online, but Phantasm Japan is his dead tree-debut. He talks, a lot, with editor Nick Mamatas here:

How did you first come across the Japanese concepts you used in your story?

It was in some listicle about “untranslatable words”. It may even have been in Cracked, of all places. Being a former philosophy major, I am drawn to metaphysical concepts, like a magpie to shiny objects. I deposit them in my brain, and pick them out occasionally to gawk at them. Occasionally, they resonate with something that I have observed in social reality. My encounter with tatemae and honne was particularly timely, as I’ll explain when I get to your question about Maine. To map that resonance between concept and reality you need an instrument that is more sensitive than, say, an essay, which is better at mapping correspondences than resonances, showing how the concept describes reality. Resonances are more about situations where the concept provides us with a way of understanding reality that transforms the reality by intensifying already latent phenomena. The instrument for mapping the resonance is fiction, the writing of a story.

Most newer writers tend to stick to tried and true structural formulae and traditional themes. You went for an innovative list-structure “Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self” and dove right into a theme that most genre fiction magazines warn people against submitting. What the heck, Joseph?

I am only a new writer with reference to short fiction as a form. My job in the grants office of a small college requires great volumes of writing, not just of grant proposals or portions thereof, but policy documents, institutional correspondence, etc., and that has been the case with all my jobs for the last fourteen years. Bureaucratic spoor is the prose that we all speak without knowing it. Against that background noise, people whose job it is to write persuasively–not just grant writers, but marketers, advertising copywriters, and the like—are the unacknowledged poets of our age, evoking intimations of the sublime through descriptions of measurable objectives and project outputs.

Nor is my experience with persuasive writing limited to the “day job;” for a comparable span of time, anonymously or pseudonymously, I have written geomtery dash game online reams of prose published through various blogs, internal bulletins, small-circulation magazines, and episodically photocopied leaflets, on the margins of the already marginal radical left. Since the type of radicalism to which I had formerly wed myself, Trotskyism, is a kind of alternate history in the field of political action, the transition to speculative modes of fiction was almost a given.

I never set out to make a career for myself in the writing of fiction. I enjoy the work I do, for which I am paid much better than most working writers, and I suspect at times that my off-hours would be better spent campaigning for candidates of the Maine Green Independent Party than trying to submit my work for publication. It’s just that in the last three years, I have written more than twenty stories. I re-read them periodically to try and convince myself that they suck. Too often, I fail at that, and find myself still enjoying the piece and wishing that more people could read it. So I am trying, for now, not to let all that work go to waste, acting as a kind of Yenta the Matchmaker for my brood. I may never write another story, or I may live another fifty years and write a few hundred more. I write what I want, or what I feel compelled to write, and if it gets published, wonderful!

As for the theme: Many, though not all, of my stories draw upon past traumas, though usually they undergo more than a bit of sublimation and transfiguration along the way. I certainly understand why a magazine editor, weary of lazy depictions of traumatizing events, might impose a blanket ban on such themes. (I prefer it when such taboos are clearly stated in the guidelines, rather than left for the reader to infer.) But the net effect of such bans is to silence much of human experience.

You moved to Maine a few years ago and it is the setting for a couple of your stories. Was it difficult to place a Japanese cultural concept within such an archetypically American setting?

I made it easy on myself by setting it in Maine. For one thing, it seems like I have an easier time selling my stories set in Maine than those in other settings. I have multiple guesses as to why that might be the case, each of which is probably at least partly true. It is, as the Althusserians say, overdetermined.

But there are also some similarities between Japan and Maine. They have in common a relatively high degree of xenophobia. The statistics on both are well-known. Japan has the smallest immigrant population of any wealthy nation, proportionally, and is second only to the U.S. in the proportion of its citizens who speak no second language well. Maine, in turn, is the whitest state in the U.S., and has the smallest proportion of immigrants of any state. There is, further, the Maine concept of “from away.” It is a status that is easy to assume and near impossible to shed. The husband of a former dean of mine once told me that, though his family had lived in Maine since colonial times and he had lived here nearly all his life, he would always be “from away” since he had had the misfortune of being born in Massachusetts. Even my infant son, born in a freak April snowstorm, will always be under suspicion of being “from away,” what with his foreign-sounding surname and New Yorker parents. (The story of my origins is more complicated than it is interesting, but for all practical purposes, I am a New Yorker.)

I encountered the conceptual dyad at the core of the story, honne/tatemae, just as we were getting ready to move into our house, in a small town that is not named “North Glamis” (for there is no such town). I was anxious as to whether we would get along well with our neighbors, in a place where getting along well with one’s neighbors was both possible and necessary in ways it had never been in the City. There was more cause for such anxiety than simply being “from away”. For example, the town in which I live is, by some measures, the wealthiest in the state, and yet I am a communist. The place practically defines heteronormativity, yet I identify as queer (even though my life is, to all appearances, as heteronormative as any). To the extent that I try and get my writing published, I put this stuff out there. The anxiety was, in part, an anxiety about being found out and the impact that could have on my family.

It would be impossible to write a story about the honne (the true self) set in New York City. New Yorkers don’t give a fuck about anyone’s true self. If it ever shows, they’ll just assume it’s another constructed front (tatemae), put on for some sort of performative advantage. Mainers, though they would rather not be exposed to the true self, if it shows, they’ll talk.

The first version of the story was terrible, too many correspondences and not enough resonances, too much like an essay. I knew I would have to radically rewrite it for it to ever be worth publishing. Around the time I started rewriting it for Phantasm Japan, my parents were going through an ugly and overdue divorce, in the course of which things came to light about my father that showed him to be an even greater asshole than I had hitherto believed him to be. There is nothing in the story that is crudely camouflaged autobiography or family tell-all, but the situation enabled me to be more creative in thinking about the manifold ways in which relations between fathers and sons, or between spouses, or between a person and his community, can fall apart when someone loses track of their own desires.

The Phantasm Japan Q/A with Lauren Naturale

Phantasm Japan is a first for us, just as it is a first for contributor Lauren Naturale. It’s our first time publishing a fiction debut, and her story of turn-of-the-century Japan, “Her Last Appearance” is her first published piece of fiction. (It pays to be courageous and when you see an opportunity, for go for it!) It’s a great and contemplative piece of urban fantasy that you definitely need to read.

“Her Last Appearance” is your short fiction debut. How long have you been writing and submitting?

I’ve been writing forever, but this was only the third story I’ve ever submitted. Mostly, I’ve been working on novels; I went to Clarion in 2008, so I wrote short stories for the workshop – and again when I took fiction workshops in grad school – but short fiction doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m ABD in a Victorian Lit Ph.D. at Berkeley: I like long, messy novels with tangents and subplots and 200 characters.

One cool thing about publishing “Her Last Appearance” is that I feel like I might have finally learned how to write a story less than 20,000 words long. So that’s exciting.

One thing that stood out about your story was its historical milieu. When people hear fantasy, they often think of a feudal past or an ultracontemporary setting. How did you settle on 1900?

I wanted to write about a fictionalized Kairakutei Black towards the end of his career. He’s most famous as Japan’s first foreign-born rakugoka, but he also published cultural “translations” of English sensation novels which abridged and retold the stories for a Japanese audience. So people would read these novels to learn more about English culture, but the specific details which were the most foreign had been ironed over and edited out in the name of accessibility.

I knew I couldn’t write a story About Japan without feeling like an impostor, so I built the story around that question of authenticity. Black is in a tough position, because he grew up in Japan, but he can never belong there; he’s a perpetual foreigner. His family tried to send him “home” to the UK, where he wasn’t born and had never lived, but it didn’t stick. Instead, he tries very hard to Become Japanese at the same time that Japanese culture is becoming more Western, which means he’s really just trying to live in his own fantasy of what he thinks Japan is supposed to be like. It turns out that Japanese people aren’t interested in running a queer orientalist theme park? The kuroko has his own version of this problem, because he’s a country boy with romantic ideas about city life, and together they raise Shizuko to fit their ideas of how a sophisticated woman ought to behave. Meanwhile, Shizuko latches on to the English stories Black tells her. Everyone in the story is a giant fake in one way or another, but for most of them, it’s a survival mechanism. How the hell are you supposed to be “authentic” when everyone’s telling you you don’t exist?

Do you have a performance background at all? What sort of research did you do for the story?

I do, though I hadn’t made that connection – I was a theater student for most of college (as a writer, not a performer), and I’ve done a lot of academic work on melodrama. The real research I did was to read a lot of books. I read Ian McArthur’s book on Kairakutei Black, plus everything else about him that I could find, and I read about women’s lives and women’s fiction during the Meiji period. I also spent a lot of time looking through photo archives like Harvard College Library’s Early Photography of Japan archive.

Something that hurts my head: My girlfriend’s mother wrote one of the books I read for research, Women Writers of Meiji and Taisho Japan: Their Lives, Works and Critical Reception, 1868-1926. We started dating after I submitted the story, and I didn’t actually figure it out until a month or so ago. Life is weird.

Have you seen a rakugo?

I haven’t! I haven’t seen a Victorian spiritualist act either. I thought I saw a kuroko in Brooklyn the other night, but it was so dark, it was hard to tell.

The Phantasm Japan Q/A with Gary A. Braunbeck

Phantasm Japan’s “Shikata Ga Nai: The Bag Lady’s Tale”, by Gary A. Braunbeck, is a classic ghost story in a way. As fantasist Robert Aickman once noted, a ghost story doesn’t need a ghost. The ghosts here are the ghosts of the past, as Braunbeck tells the story of an old woman telling the story of a most peculiar set of events inside one of the US internment camps for Japanese and Japanese-Americans set up during the Second World War. Nick Mamatas talks to Gary about it, and a few other things:

If I recall correctly, your father fought in the Second World War? Was he in the Pacific at all? What inspired this story?

My father fought in both Africa and Germany during the war. It was near the Germany/Austria border where he was severely injured when most of his unit was wiped out by a crash in the mountains of Eberstadt. After an 18-month recovery period (which he spent in a full body cast) he served out the rest of his time (about four months, as I recall) at a desk job, filing paperwork in Minidoka, Idaho at the Japanese internment camp located there. This story was inspired, in part, by conversations he had with various “detainees” at the camp, particularly a tailor.

Unusually for horror writers, your work often engages in sentiment/senitmentality. How did that become one of your major themes?

Before answering that, I have to tell you I have a problem with the word “sentimental,” and here’s why: for me, it trivializes what I try to achieve with my work, which — though it will never be seen as important literature — I work very hard to imbue with emotional authenticity, and in the eyes of a lot of speculative fiction readers (and more than a few writers) this means I’m pretentious and depressing. Douglas Winter’s oft-quoted line about horror being “…an emotion” has been brandished too many times as a shield by lazy writers and lazier, impatient readers who want their dark fiction to deal only with that single emotion: horror can encompass fear and revulsion, yes, of course, that’s fine and dandy, but if your work wants to explore any emotions beyond that, you’re labeled pretentious.

A writer I know once paid me a backhanded compliment by saying that I “… do maudlin well.” Maudlin? Seriously? Nicholas-fucking-Sparks and Robert James Waller do maudlin; Danielle Steele is sentimental; a distressing amount of Spielberg’s work succumbs to both (witness the badly thought-out final reel of Saving Private Ryan). It’s work that sometimes flirts with an honest emotion but backs off before things get too complicated, before grey areas are entered and people may have to actually God forbid think about something deeper than wether or not the heroine will still love the hero when the deep dark secret from his past is revealed, or vice-versa. It’s paint by numbers storytelling, dealing with nothing more than instantly-recognizable emotional situations and complications, and the result is shallow phoniness that relies solely on heavy-handed manipulation to trick readers into thinking that they’re reading something with depth. Oscar Wilde said, “A sentimentalist is one who wishes the luxury of exploiting an emotion without having to go through the bother of experiencing it first-hand.” This drives me clown-shit crazy most of the time. I will not apologize for attempting to dive head-first into the core of a messy and unpleasant emotion in order to take it apart piece by ugly piece and reassemble it in a manner that, if I’ve done my job as a storyteller right, will present it in a new — if sometimes dim — light.

I don’t find, for instance, Kurosawa’s Ikiru to be at all sentimental; there is, for me, a palpable, almost overpowering sense of deep regret that runs throughout that film, underscored with a bitter sadness that makes the final minutes of the story utterly and unapologetically heartbreaking. The emotion is raw and honest and often unpleasant, even ugly, and that’s why that film achieves and maintains the resonance it still has after over half a century. The emotions it deals with are universal (pardon that word), and if a viewer is willing to let him- or herself experience these feelings along with the character, and in the end perhaps carry their resonance into their own lives in some small way, then how can such an experience be trivialized or dismissed as a “sentimental” one?

Rant finished. Here is your answer: Exploring and grappling with human emotions became one of my major themes because if a piece of fiction doesn’t have an honest, authentic emotional core, then any impact the storyteller hopes the work will have is lost and the work will be forgotten within minutes of the last line being read.

What research did you do for this story about internment camps, Japanese folklore, etc?

I’ve been a reader of Japanese folklore for several years — I have volumes of fables and fairy tales — and have read about the internment camps since I was a teenager. The idea that the United States imprisoned its own citizens simply because of those citizens’ genetic background was, is, and will always be reprehensible. That so many great Japanese composers, artists, writers, and scholars survived is arguably miraculous.

Why short stories at all, or publishing at all, when novels are where the money is and you can public on Kindle so easily?

I like the challenge of short stories, of creating a microcosm of character, place, time, and situation that can encompass all aspects of human experience in a tight, focused experience. I’ve never made much money with any of my writing — especially the novels — and I don’t expect that I ever will. I long ago gave up on the idea that my work was going to be widely embraced by a large readership, and the older I get, the more okay I try to be with that knowledge. I simply love writing stories. It’s arguably the only thing I’m truly good at.

The Phantasm Japan Q/A with James A. Moore

Welcome to the first of our brief Q/As with select contributors to our new anthology Phantasm Japan. First up is James A. Moore, who wrote a great, and chilling, story of the feudal era and snow people, “He Dreads the Cold.” (Phantasm Japan co-editor Nick Mamatas is asking the questions this time out.)

I was thrilled to receive a story involving samurai and the like. What made you choose this particular myth to explore?

I was absolutely delighted to get a chance to work on PHANTASM JAPAN because I have been fascinated by feudal Japan and by the amazing layers of the society since I was a kid. As to the story itself, the cold and the silence that is often prevalent in a deeply showed in area lends itself perfectly, to my way of thinking, to a horror story. Having been in a blizzard and its aftermath, I remember walking around and being stunned by the silence, when the only sound was the snow dropping from branches and the trees creaking softly in the wind. And I remember looking at the shoes and wondering what was waiting underneath.

You’re known for your novels, including some very long ones. Does it require a shift in your work or mentality to create a piece of short fiction?

I’ve always loved complex stories, and, ironically enough, I’ve also always loved short stories. “He Dreads the Cold” was very much a challenge, because, as a few editors have pointed out in the past, even my short stories are normally novel length. They might be joking, but only a little. I wanted to test myself, to see if I could provide a good scare or even solid chill (no pun intended) in a shorter format, without sacrificing any of the character development. I hope I succeeded, but I’m not the person to judge that.

“He Dreads the Cold” obviously required a lot of research. Was there anything especially interesting that just didn’t fit in the story, and had to be left out?

I wanted to incorporate as much of the “snow people” mythology of Japan as I could, but it wasn’t possible to add it all in. There are a great number of different legends and some of them are rather uniquely localized. I was fascinated by the myth of Yukinbo—apparently a one legged snow boy—but couldn’t quite find a way to incorporate him and not expand the story in ways that would have expanded it substantially and hurt the story’s flow.

What’s the coldest you’ve ever been?

When I was six years old my family moved from Georgia to Colorado (near Breckenridge before it became a ski resort town) and my brothers decided it would be fun to stuff me in their clothes, fill the clothes with range and then toss me in a snow bank. I was six. they were fourteen and fifteen respectively. In order to get inside I had to climb out of their clothes and run over to the door in nothing but my underwear. They took the liberty of locking the door. I’m gonna have to say that was a pretty cold day.

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