This interview originally appeared in the now defunct Fantastica Daily on February 5, 2001. It is posted here by kind permission of Eva Wojcik-Obert.
Interview by Eva Wocjik-Obert
Eva: In what ways does Enemy Glory‘s Llewelyn reflect you and/or your life experiences?
Karen Michalson: Other people constantly identify me with Llewelyn, to the point where I’ve had to re-consider whether there aren’t more similarities between us than I’ve ever really noticed. People that know me well have said that I’m so much like Llewelyn that they can’t help but picture me in the novel in his place, that they don’t even “see” the fact that he’s male and I’m not, and so on. My bandmates tell me that there’s no difference worth discussing except that there’s no evidence that he can play bass. And when they want to tease me they’ll say that there’s no evidence that I can either. But seriously, I never intended to write autobiography, and many of those comparisons have come from people who have gone to Point Of Ares shows where I’ve deliberately adopted a stage persona for the purpose of performing Enemy Glory songs that is nothing like my real personality, and I think to an extent that has colored some people’s reactions. But even strangers make the comparison. Just the other day at a book signing someone else made the same comparison after we had chatted for awhile. So even though my first response is to say we have nothing in common, based on other people’s reactions, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Llewelyn’s experiences in the monastery as he trains to become an evil cleric are similar to my own experiences in graduate school, and I deliberately drew heavily from my own experiences and observations of life in academia for many of the monastic scenes. Llewelyn’s youthful awkwardness and painful self-reflection is drawn from mine, that much I’ll admit, but I’m not sure how that’s different from other writers who draw on their own inner experiences to create characters, except that possibly my choice of writing in first person invites more comparisons. I don’t care or get hung up about people who want to identify me with my characters. I know some actors and writers are really uncomfortable with being confused with a character, and make an effort to deliberately distance themselves, but for some reason it really doesn’t bother me.
Eva: Where do you envision Fantasy heading in the future as a genre?
K.M.: I have no idea. I’m not good at predictions, and in terms of where the genre is heading I don’t think anybody else is either. My impression is that genre as a concept might continue to get more flexible and permeable, and that there will be more hybrid fantasy novels on the market: fantasy novels blended with historical fiction or blended with detective mystery elements, and so on. Incorporating these other elements helps to keep things fresh, but the essential nature of the genre hasn’t really changed since George MacDonald wrote Phantastes in 1857 and I don’t see it changing any time soon. Compared to the sea changes that the literary novel has undergone from the mid-nineteenth century golden age to the late twentieth-century experimental post-modernists, fantasy has been a relatively stable genre. And I suspect it will remain so.
Eva: Would you agree that Fantasy is paving the way for more strong female characters in all literary genres? Why?
K.M.: No. I don’t get the sense that readers and writers of other genres, except possibly science fiction, pay much attention to Fantasy, let alone are influenced by it, despite what I said above about the genre getting more permeable. I think it’s only permeable in one direction right now. Fantasy readers are far more likely to accept a fantasy novel that is also a mystery novel, or that is also a romance novel, than readers of other genres will accept fantasy elements in their reading experience. There are strong female characters in all literary genres as well as in mainstream fiction, but I suspect that’s more a result of the profound changes that feminism has wrought in the late twentieth century effecting reader expectations and market demand across the board than from writers in other genres reading a fantasy novel about a strong female dragon slayer and then getting inspired to write a mainstream novel about a strong female business executive. I just don’t see Fantasy qua Fantasy paving the way for anything outside of itself.
Eva: Which life experiences influenced your decision to traipse down the independent musical path?
K.M.: I wrote a novel (currently unpublished) about a bass player. It’s what you might call magical realism, maybe modern fantasy in that the novel takes place in the real world we know, but there is all kinds of magic and fantasy-stuff happening in this real world. It’s also a rock n’ roll novel. I felt absolutely possessed, driven, to teach myself bass in order to understand this particular character, and from that I formed Point Of Ares. And here’s something strange — even though very few people have read that novel, several people have said to me (unprompted) that when they see me play bass they “see” or “get a sense” of a young man playing, and then they go on to literally describe this character!! Last weekend someone hesitantly told me this and hoped I wouldn’t be offended when he told me that he had seen me play bass several times and that when I played I “was a young man” and that I was radically different on and off stage. Well, no, I’m not offended if that’s what he sees, but I do find it strange that a few people have spontaneously told me the same thing. So, back to your first question, I even get compared to characters that aren’t available to the public, and sometimes, to my surprise, people accurately describe these characters.
Eva: How do you energize your creative batteries?
Eva: Based upon your experiences, what’s your view of the academic world’s opinion of Fantasy?
K.M.: A dim one. I was essentially invited to leave the Department of English at the University of Connecticut at Storrs for writing Enemy Glory, because my esteemed colleagues considered fantasy writing an embarrassment to their department. Yes, one colleague used the word “embarrassment”. This was back in 1993, so now you know how long it took to find a reputable agent who was willing to show this novel to publishers, but that’s a different story.
Well, actually it’s a semi-related story, because one of my problems was that literary agents didn’t think they could sell a novel that has one foot in literary fiction and the other in commercial fantasy. I was told by many many agents that my work was excellent but that literary presses wouldn’t touch anything that made use of magic and wizards, no matter how well written, and that fantasy presses were looking for stuff that was less sophisticated and more “watered down for the masses” than Enemy Glory is and so it was a long hard sell to get Enemy Glory published at all in part due this mutual antagonism between the literati and the fantasy field.
But to my main story. When UCONN hired me in 1991 I was a fresh young PhD who’s first book, Victorian Fantasy Literature: Literary Battles with Church and Empire had just been published by a small academic press. This book had been my PhD dissertation, and it was one of the first (although not by any means the first) serious investigations into the political and historical reasons that fantasy literature has been systematically excluded from the literary canon by mainstream scholars. So I started my first tenure-track position as something of an expert on academic prejudice against fantasy, and was immediately granted real world experience in same in the form of real life prejudice by my colleagues at UCONN. When I applied for the job I was in the process of writing Enemy Glory and falling in love with fiction writing, which at that point in my life I had never done before. So I told the hiring committee flat out that I was writing fiction now and not interested in writing literary criticism. I expected this would have thrown the interview, but it turned out that nobody believed me when I said this and they hired me over hundreds of other applicants for what was considered a plum tenure-track position at a major research university. They were impressed with all the proper academic essays and papers I had published in graduate school. When I continued to write fiction they weren’t thrilled, and I must say the creative writers who taught in that department were downright hostile, but when I mentioned that my novel was a fantasy, well . . . all hell broke loose. It was ugly. I was pressured into giving it up, told by my department chair that I would be asked to leave, and so on. A few colleagues made extremely disparaging remarks to me at department social events, wanting confirmation that they had actually (gulp!) hired someone who aspired to publish a fantasy novel. The culmination was being called on the carpet before a meeting of my tenure and promotions committee and being asked in so many words why I thought I should be writing novels when I didn’t a) have a creative writing degree and b) so many great novels had been written already who did I think I was to even attempt to write fiction? One member rudely told me that he had waited seven years to get tenured before he even attempted writing anything creative, and didn’t I think it was presumptuous to dare to write fiction at all at my early stage? I offered to show them my ms. and they were all offended that I would presume to ask them to take their time to actually read my work-in-progress before passing judgment on it. No one was willing to read it. I asked the committee how many more years could I count on until they eventually threw me out for my fiction writing? Well, they were so taken aback by my “arrogance” and “attitude” in asking that question that the entire department shunned me for the rest of the year. One colleague sneaked into my office when no one was looking and apologized for the committee’s treatment of me. He didn’t want to be seen talking to me though.
I now find the whole thing funny. In my mind the only question I had was whether I was going to continue writing fiction on my off days from UCONN until they fired me or whether I was going to continue writing fiction full time at home without the hassle. Bill encouraged me to quit and write at home, income loss be damned. So I did. But you know, that was not a light decision to make. I had literally spent my life, since the first moment I could read, working toward achieving the highest level of formal education our society offers in this stunningly beautiful language called English, and tenure-track jobs in my field, let alone my local area, let alone at major universities, were beyond scarce. I knew that leaving UCONN meant leaving any hope of a serious teaching career, and leaving academia was very much like leaving the only world I had ever really known. But I made the right decision. Many of those people are still there, teaching the same books from the same notes year after year and feuding with each other, and I’ve had the leisure time to read and write about anything that pleases me without worrying about tenure and I’ve had much more varied and interesting life experiences than any of those people could ever begin to guess how to imagine. No regrets.
Eva: What are the connections between Enemy Glory, the novel, and Enemy Glory, the music? Does Tor have plans to market the music with the book?
K.M.: Point Of Ares released an album in 1996 called Enemy Glory that was a rock concept album based on the novel. The album was Bill’s idea. I wasn’t getting any closer to finding a reputable agent or publisher for this literary fantasy (see above), so Bill thought it would be a worthy enterprise if I could bring my world and characters to life through a different medium.
Until then Point Of Ares had been a cover band, but we dropped the covers and started writing our own stuff, which was based on my book. At the time, independent music had exploded into all sorts of innovative, creative, clever ways to promote your work, and we thought if we could develop a built-in audience through music, we could then self-publish Enemy Glory and have a ready-made readership. It was literally the day we budgeted and saved enough money and felt we had gained enough momentum with our musical audience to make self-publishing the novel worthwhile, that my agent called and said Tor had made an offer. Two and a half years later (January 2001) they released the book. We are planning to release a re-written, re-arranged version of that first album very soon, probably in March 2001, called Enemy Glory Darkly Blessed. This album also has new Enemy Glory songs. As to Tor marketing the music, at the moment they have no plans to do so. My label, Arula Records (http://www.arularecords.com), will release and market that album.
Eva: In your opinion, wherein lies the appeal of Fantasy for its readers and authors?
K.M.: Now I suppose that would be real arrogance, pretending I know how Fantasy appeals to everyone else. I suspect in some cases it provides emotional, maybe even spiritual fulfillment, for people who don’t feel that the real world provides that for them. I see a lot of intelligent people that are bored with the real world and as a result prefer to live in their own. And from what I’ve observed, a lot of people do a better job living in their own.
Eva: What are the major literary, and other, influences upon your writing?
K.M.: Primarily, the British authors of the 19th century. That’s who I grew up reading, that’s who I focused on in graduate school, and that’s who I always come back to. Walter Pater. John Ruskin. Oscar Wilde. Charles Dickens. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Rudyard Kipling. I greatly enjoy reading history and hard science, too, but I wouldn’t call it an influence on my writing.
Eva: Do you have plans for a road tour to promote your music and book?
K.M.: Yes, that is in the works for this spring and summer but I have no definite dates yet. My appearances are always posted on my website at http://www.karenmichalson.com.
Eva: Which movie gets your vote for Best Picture? Why?
K.M.: Abstain. I don’t watch a lot of movies. I literally don’t see more than one or two a year, if that. I couldn’t even tell you what was released last year, or the year before, or the year before that. When I do have time to rent a film I tend to prefer to watch a well-done historical drama. Even if the historical aspect of the film isn’t totally accurate, I don’t mind that if it’s a good story.