Time's Fool

By Alys Earl

A novel for M R James fans who sometimes want something a little more modern and edgy from their weird fiction

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

24% forfeit, an interview with Rachel Plummer

I promised another forfeit at 24%, chosen by the supporter who got me over the mark. That turned out to be Rachel Plummer - who asked for a no-holes barred interview, and a reading of B.J Novak's The Book with No Pictures (which unfortunately I can't share here.)

Want your chance to call a forfeit? I'll be doing another at 26% and 28% - get pledging!

Rachel Plummer is a poet whose publishing credits include Mslexia, The Stinging Fly, Agenda, Dactyl, RAUM and Poets Republic. They are co-author (with Pen Reid) of Char, a pamphlet of poems on the subject of working women’s history in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, and recently received a cultural commission from LGBT Youth Scotland, funded by Creative Scotland, to write a collection of children’s poems based around LGBT retellings of traditional Scottish myths and stories.

Their website is here and below they can be found interrogating me on shipping, folklore and the writing process.


Rachel Plummer: When did you start writing? What first drew you to it?

Alys Earl: Honestly, I can’t really remember. I think it was mostly in year 3 - so at about 7 - when I was read the Faraway Tree for the first time and thought about writing a book myself.  I mean, I was obsessed with story and imagery and I am, and always have been, a complete bookworm - but before that I don't think writing my own story had ever occurred to me. Books were things other people wrote.

RP: Oh I loved the Faraway Tree too! I've been reading it with my kids.

AE: It was absolutely enchanting! I was a massive Blyton fan for years - until I saw a documentary about what an awful person she was, and boycotted her. I felt so betrayed.

RP: Yeah, it's always so hard when authors we love turn out to be jerks. What’s your favourite book?

AE: Toss up between American Gods and The Bloody Chamber. Honourable mention to John Crowley's Little, Big. Those books are everything that fiction should do.

RP: Tell me more about your book.

AE: I wanted to read a messed up, modern day vampire romance that looked at how problematic vampire romance is - think Poppy Z Brite - but set in sort of the MR James environment. But it didn't exist, so I wrote it.

RP: Oh that sounds interesting! Love Poppy Z Brite.

AE: Thank you! And, yeah, it's quieter than Brite, if you see what I mean - with a sense of claustrophobic provinciality.

RP: Claustrophobic provinciality sounds fascinating though. Tell me about your characters?

AE: Okay, so the main characters are Sophia and Steven, they're third year students who live for their academic studies and see adulthood approaching with absolute terror. Sophia - after watching her mother's relationships fall apart - takes to a kind of desperate, self-sacrificing pragmatism which involves getting engaged to her long term partner and going for "normal" life.

Steven, kicked out by his parents as a teenager and living with their oldest mutual friend (Lucy) since then, hides from the whole business - mostly by reading Gothic fiction, watching '70s horror films, and avoiding anything resembling a romantic relationship.

Into this mix comes the creature, a 600 year old vampire prone to luxuriating in self-reproach and isolating himself in a kind of penance in which his bloodlust abates. Pretending to be human, he befriends them, and the three grow very close - but the creature's emotional hungers are too closely linked to his other appetites...

And, as the tag line goes, "murder, madness and betrayal.”

RP: It sounds gripping. Like it will keep up a lot of tension, make you scared to stop reading. I'm excited to read it :)

AE: I hope you enjoy it! And that it won't be too long.

RP: I have this feeling that there's a lot of you in Steven.

AE: More than a little... I'm in all three of the MCs, to a certain extent. But Steven is impossible in all the ways that I am. He’s clever, but he knows it too much. Plus, he tends to provoke the people around him - either deliberately or just by being himself unapologetically.

I tend to see too much of myself in smart, slightly effete troublemakers - whether that’s in the verbally irritating way, or in a more Marauders-type fashion. I mean I (over)identify with Sirius [Black - from Harry Potter]

RP: If we can veer on to head cannon for a minute, I keep thinking how cool it would be to have a story with trans man Sirius Black. Like if that was maybe part of the conflict with his family.

AE: I... I have no appropriate response to this.

Yes. Yes. I would like this thing.

RP: Me too. I think the Marauders would be really accepting, like they just wouldn't treat him any differently, and that's a big push to Sirius when it comes to distancing himself from his family in favour of his "found" family.

He'd need an AU where he doesn't die though.

AE: I want an AU where he and Remus are Harry’s gay dads.  

RP: I have SO MANY Remus/Sirius feels.They're such a lovely couple. These highschool sweethearts. Best friends. All fondly indulgent of each other.

AE: But also constant mockery and muchly kissing. Although I maintain Lily and James' wedding was their first date, as I'm Jirius all the way.

RP: Oooh interesting! I can totally see poly marauders tbh. I think the Remus/Sirius relationship had so much potential to do incredible things in the canon. How powerful to have two gay men of that generation navigating a long term relationship where one of them has a blood-borne medical condition.

AE: It would have been the.. oh, gods. I don't understand why she didn't. Even in the backstory. Full disclosure, I always saw James as Sirius' adolescent crush, but also his soulmate - and they kind of navigate this as a queer platonic relationship. When Wolfstar happens, Remus always has a sense that Sirius loved James more - that he would chose James over him - which, canon, Sirius did.

But give me an AU where they didn’t and it’d be my everything, basically.

RP: Yeah. Poor Remus. He always seems so lonely.

[So, at this point we just wondered off topic entirely. There was an awful lot of shipping and far too many feels. I’ll spare you.]

RP: Oh hey, new controversial question, but how do you feel about Snape?

AE: Okay, short answer, I despise him. Longer answer, he's Sirius' dark reflection. He's everything Sirius COULD have been, if he'd been a little less brave, a little more vindictive, a little less willing to sacrifice himself. Sirius hates him so much because of how alike they are, how it's a "there but for the grace of god.” And, over identifying as I do, I feel the same. How about you?

RP: I feel really sorry for him. I like redemption stories, when they're in character. But I can totally see the despising thing. And absolutely for Sirius.

AE: I think the way Sirius acts at Grimald Place (douchebag Sirius) basically confirms my view on this. Also, I just can't deal with the way Snape bullies Neville. Because Neville's parents were just tortured - not killed like 'his' Lily.

RP: Yeah, he's a terrible person and should not have been allowed around kids He has really severe PTSD, to my mind, which doesn't excuse anything but yeah. I'd like to see him getting out of his job (Dumbledore WTF) and getting some help and some distance and becoming as close to He's so troubled. Abused and abusive, vulnerable and toxic. Definitely not teacher material??!!

AE: I pity him, but... no. No, I can't forgive him. I mean, NOT joining a facist organisation then only dropping out because, "oh, yeah, they'd kill my manic pixie girl" might be a teeny little start. (Not that Lily is manic pixie, but Snape treated her like that.)

RP: Yeah, that was ugh.I got into HP fandom before that part of Snape's backstory had come out and still tend to like AUs where that bit doesn't happen.

AE: I mean, I understand the love story aspect of that, but the way it was romanticised is just gross. Also, he bloody well killed her. And he NEVER owns it.

RP: Yeah it is proper creepy. And not in the good way.

AE: Yep. I'm all for the weirdest, most messed dynamics - provided we recognise their weird messed-ness.

RP: Agreed! I've been into Kingsman, Avengers and SPN fandoms lately, and all because they indulge my weirdness.

AE: Ah, I'm a Raffles person. Messed public school dynamics. With crime.


AE: I'll just be walking along the road and I'll remember that AJ exists and I'll start grinning like a loon. I fell HARD for Raffles.

RP: This is the best! Normally nobody I talk to has even heard of it. Dear little Bunny -

The best.

AE: I know. It's a hella lonely fate.

[ the problem with finding another member of an obscure fandom is that your conversation quickly becomes incomprehensible to outsiders. Please fill this cut with as many fic recommendations and feels as you believe appropriate. There were probably more than you guessed.]

RP: So, obviously, fan fic is a very collaborative creative process. How do you feel about that sort of things? Have you ever collaborated with another writer/artist?

AE: I've worked with my an illustrator on Scars on Sound - and would absolutely do so again. I love that sense of joint ownership of a project. I'm also writing an Arthurian sit com in collaboration with my partner. ... when we get time.

RP: An Arthurian sitcom! That sounds interesting

AE: Yeah, it's a bit of a nerd fest - its premise is the way the Knights of the French stories supplanted the older, Celtic heroes - and how that might have played out if it had actually happened. With much anachronism.

RP: So… where do you get your ideas?

AE: I sacrifice a goat.

RP: Nice.

AE: But, you know. Synchronicity. Serendipity. Other stories. Folk music - lots of folk music.

RP: That sounds very performative. How did you find performing? Do you enjoy it?

AE: I love it! Because I was a poet first, I write to read aloud - lot of involved third person and lyrical turns of phrase. I do storytelling too - so it's a case of doing all the characters, and a fair bit of jumping about. Performance is one of my favourite bits of books. Not just mine - ALL THE BOOKS.

RP: Oh I love storytelling.

AE: You do storytelling?

RP: Yeah! It's where I got the idea for the LGBT collection. I tell a lot of traditional Scottish stories. What kind do you do?

AE: I tend to be quite theatrical, even dynamic - not traditional bardic style at all. As to subject matter - mostly traditional stories, as well as a few modern ones, plus some things that are more shaggy dog tales, if I'm honest.

RP: Did you have a favourite fairytale as a child?

AE: Oh, so many. There was a book in the library that had a story of the selkie than enchanted me, and when I was older I discovered Alan Garner's telling of the Salmon Cariad. I loved the idea of faerie brides -  beings who would come in to mortal's lives, but couldn't stay.

As a teeny beast, tho, I really liked Rapunzel - the traditional version, where the Prince is blinded by thorns - and Thumbelina, which is a heartbreaking story about belonging and homecoming. Looking back, I think it was stories about sacrifice and difference, loneliness and homecoming that stayed with me.

But then there was also Mally Whoopie - tough, vicious girls willing to fight their own corner.

RP: Ha, that's one of my favourite stories to tell. Nice choices.

AE: I was an addict.

RP: Have you written any children's stories?

AE: No. I've tried a few times, but I don't think I have the skill set. I really admire people who can though. Good children's fiction is one of my favourite things, and balancing the light and the dark, the fun and the menace/meaning is a real art. But not art I can do.

RP: Do you write every day? Do you have a schedule?

AE: When I'm not crowdfunding, I try to write/edit about 2k words a day. I don't always manage it, though. And I try to stick to one project at a time. As to schedule, it's basically between the housework and the school run, which means about 11:30 -2pm - but that includes dull stuff like emails and blog posts and things.

RP: Yeah, sigh. Admin.

AE: I need people to do that for me. Why can't writers do the whole absinthe and Romantic disorganisation any more?

RP: Right?? I would be all over that. My life/house is chaos when I'm in the zone, writing-wise. It's something I feel would be more acceptable in a (cis) man.

AE: I know! And when you've got other commitments and you NEED to be writing, but can't get to your computer, and everything is just awful.

RP: That's the worst feeling.

AE: There's a scene in the novel I'm working on now that was horrible to write, really upsetting, and because of life getting in the way, i had to work on it piecemeal, so I spent three weeks in the most awful, claustrophobic headspace, just wanting to get it done so I could move away from it.

RP: That sounds hellish.

AE: Not fun.

RP: Do you find you respond differently to different characters, when it comes to that kind of emotional response.

AE: Yes. There are some people who it's like watching a friend do something very painful and you can't help them - but with others it's much more like going through it myself. I'm not sure why it's that way, thought. Because it isn't as simple as who I identify with more - I'm very distant from Steven (for instance) who's a lot like me, whereas I feel the creature's pain a lot more.

RP: I think that can maybe be if something that they're going through resonates with you.

AE: I think you're right.

RP: I always sympathise with monsters because I was seen as so freakish and monstrous for ages.

AE: Yes! I know what you mean. It makes sympathy for otherwise quite problematic characters a lot easier.

RP: Absolutely. My favourite characters tend to be the ones that even the author/creator seems to want you to dislike.

AE: Well, it's difficult because you don't want to go soft on the monsters just because they're kinda likeable. They're still monsters.

RP: Yeah for sure. Like Rimmer [Red Dwarf] is my favourite BECAUSE he's such an awful snivelling bastard.

AE: Yesssss!  That’s why I like Lister - he's so utterly gross. Like, well intentioned but hopeless and gross and stupid and deluded.

RP: They were my original slash ship.

AE: Well, they do have a semi-canon snog.

RP: E x a c t l y

AE: Hahahah!

RP: Rimmer is textbook closeted gay with internalised homophobia.

AE: Yeah, I can see that. And Lister's a player with romantic tendencies.

RP: And I can really see Lister as pansexual.

AE: Yes!

RP: I could even be convinced by Rimmer as closeted trans woman. Remember demons and angels, when they're split by the triplicator. He's in drag on the low ship.

AE: Yes - and in Holovirus, he drags up. Like, whenever things fall apart, he's in femme clothes.

RP: Yeah. Or in situations where he stops caring what other people think.

AE: Yes! And his masculinity is so meticulous and self-hating.

RP: Yeah it's so obviously exaggerated and false. When he describes hot women it's often mostly their outfit he's describing.

AE: Yes! And he's terrified of heterosexuality and it's outcomes. Think Better than Life, where he has this nightmare of fatherhood and failed masculinity - when all he wants is to look good. And when he describes the car he lost his virginity in!

RP: And his past life as Alexander the Great's chief eunuch. Who actually was Alexander's lover, irl.

AE: Oh, it's adorable, in a sort of twisted, nasty way. And his self-fantasy of OTT Het-boy "Ace Rimmer.” Who he hates.

RP: Yes, and then constant insults about being gay or female."I went into the gents and he went the other way."

AE: Oh, gods yes. I'd forgotten that. Because for all his "strictly butter side up" Ace is so blatantly not really straight. He's a closeted gay boy's idea of what het masculinity looks like. Okay - you've convinced me.

RP: We’ve skirted around this with head canons and ships, which tend to be very LGBT-centric. Do you have any thoughts about LGBT representation in literature?

AE: Yes! We need MOAR. At every level, and both metaphorically, sub-textually and, godammit, just there in the text without all the shilly-shallying.

RP: Hell yeah!

AE: I think the community is done with getting scraps - although I do see the need to go under the radar sometimes.

RP: I think there's a need for more representation in the mainstream. LGBT themes/characters tend to get books sidelined.

AE: That's a real problem for me - my books are apparently very queer but I don't really see it myself. I don't write "queer fiction" - I just write scary stories that have the same proportion of LGBT+ characters as my life at the time. Because, you know, we're real people, not just tragic coming-out stories or bittersweet coming of ages. So, we want to see ourselves in books about vampires and faeries and world-saving and epic betrayals, too.

RP: Absolutely

AE: And I think people are just going to have to accept now that some heroes are queer.

RP: I think the publishing industry is lagging behind the readers in this instance.

AE: Yes, I’d agree with that. This is why I read a lot of webcomics and things, where the creators are a lot closer to their audience - they handle call-outs better, and there is so much more diversity. I think that’s one of the nice things about Unbound, too - the way it reaches out to audiences that haven’t traditionally been catered to.

RP: So, you’re pretty out about being queer and non-binary - do you go by Alys? Or Fred? Something else?

AE: Professionally, it's Alys. In person, it's... in transition, as it were. Pun intended. Never sure how to introduce it though. Do I say, “Hey, I'm Alys, but you can call me Fred. In fact, please do.

RP: Okay. That makes sense to me.

AE: It's all a bit weird, right now, if I'm honest. But I'm building the courage to sign emails and texts “AW”.

RP: It's really cool that you're reaching a place where you can start to make changes.

AE: *panics* Well, it’s taken long enough.

RP: Yeah. Even the idea of it seems exhausting.

AE: So. Much. Paperwork.

RP: What are you reading right now?

AE: I'm reading Seibo There Below- which is astonishingly beautiful, and I think I may love endlessly when I've finished it - but it's a small doses kind of book. I'm also beta-ing a friend's YA novel and that is VERY enjoyable.

RP: Can you name a writer you really rate who you think should be getting more attention?

AE: How long have you got? Actually, I need to read more contemporary writers. I sort of read by serendipity, which means what I do come across is a bit eclectic.

However, I’m really getting in to Becky Chambers - who wrote A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which is getting a fair bit of hype but deserves endlessly more. Then there’s Gary Spencer Millidge, who creates the Strangehaven comics. They’re currently being serialised in Meanwhile from the Soaring Penguin Press and there’s sort of this longstanding, unspoken benchmark of excellence - and more people should seek it out. Paul Cornell is another one - his Shadow Police novels are some of the best horror/supernatural I’ve read in a long time. Really scary stuff.

Then, on the indie front, Die [Booth] is amazing, of course. But you know that.

RP: Die is everything.

Tell me about your poetry?

AE: At the moment, my poetry is very much a way of dealing with feelings and ideas that are troubling me. I don't (shamefully) read enough poetry at the moment to be confident in my craft of it, so I tend to write it for private consumption- plus the subject matter is often personal. I used to do a lot more performance poetry, which was more cerebral and almost contrived - it centred on a reaction from an audience and the artistry of it, rather than emotions.

Good gods, that was a formal answer- this is what my excuses look like.

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