Author Interview: Cornelia Grey

On June 19, 2013 by admin

Cornelia Grey stepped into the Queer for Books’ hot seat to chat about magical-realism, the international writing scene, and her curiously surreal fiction.

Grey is based in London and was raised in Northern Italy. She is pursuing a Creative Writing PhD while she works in the publishing industry as both a writer and a translator.  Published by Storm Moon Press, Dreamspinner Press, Samhain Press, Circlet Press, and Riptide Press, Cornelia Grey writes about beautiful and headstrong young men who find themselves wrapped up in adventure and love. She has had two novellas published and her short fiction has been featured in the following anthologies: Weight of a Gun I & II, Wild Passions, Cross Bones, Elementary Erotica, Making Contact, and Brush of Wings.

You can find her at Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, Goodreads, Tumblr, and her personal website. 

1. What was your writing ‘root’ moment when you decided to take up the pen?

When I was little, I must have been around 5, I used to watch quite a lot of TV. My favourites at the time were the Power Rangers series, some Japanese anime about people stranded on a desert island with giant robots, and Disney’s ‘The Rescuers Down Under’. Now, the only problem was that the stories were not going the way I wanted them to! I was very unhappy. So my dad provided me a small blue spiral notebook and I set out to write my own adventures, in wobbly capital letters. Looking at it now, it was a giant crossover fanfiction where the Power Rangers ended up on the island with the Rescuers and the robots. I think the spiral block might still be somewhere in my attic.

And that’s just how it continued. The world isn’t giving me the stories I want to read, so I write them myself.

However, I’d never seriously considered becoming a professional author until four years ago or so. Mostly because of how authors and the publishing world in general are considered in Italy; it’s not taken seriously, there isn’t a good system in place… it’s simply not considered a serious job option. It was only after I moved to England and became familiar with the international writing scene that it dawned on me that yes, I could indeed be an author, and that would be taken seriously. I published my first story in 2010, and I haven’t looked back since..!

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2. You have described your as “curious, surreal poems and short stories involving handsome young men seducing each other.” How surreal and curious does your work get? What is it about young gay men that inspires you?

I really like magical realism – tweaking reality, adding stuff to it, bending its rules. I always find it especially intriguing: there’s a base of reality, so you come into it with all sorts of logical expectations, and yet at every turn there might just be something unusual, absurd, magical popping up and turning all your certainties upside down. I find it exciting, that added layer of possibilities to a world that already offers so many; I love the added degree of freedom it allows. A good example of what I like is the work of Stefano Benni, an Italian writer; his stories are political satire mixed with fantastical tales and just plain weird worlds and characters, set in a world that resembles the real one but with the atmosphere of fables and a healthy dose of ridiculous and irony.
I also love whimsical fantasy stories, with all sorts of unpredictable elements – I’m currently working on a children’s story that involves a pumpkin moon that changes the weather according to its expression, aerostatic balloons that are in fact giant jellifish, and herds of floating cloud-sheep!

As for my m/m stories, the one that’s closer to this preference of mine for the weird and whimsical is “The Tea Demon,” a short story I published with Dreamspinner Press. There’s the Tea Demon, the pirate captain of a flying ship on the Sea of Clouds, who sets things on fire with his eyes eyes and can only be placated by a cup of the finest tea, and the fortress of the Turtle Merchants perched on the shell of a giant floating turtle, and an army of guards riding giant goose…

At the moment, I’m working on a fight scene between my two main characters, and I’m realizing just how fascinating I find alpha males, and even more so when two alpha males collide and their very instinct brings them to clash, to fight for dominance. That kind of electric, primal conflict is spellbinding. I love watching my guy butt heads and get all growly and angry. They don’t dislike each other; but it is a challenge to learn to work together, to make their rough, sharp corners fit together in some sort of stabile combination. I love conflict, and as much as I like putting my characters in impossible situations, it’s even more fun if that’s complicated by an explosive inter-personal conflict. The poor guys just can’t catch a break. So they argue and fight, they are stubborn and hostile and yet at the same time they’re fiercely loyal and protective of each other almost to a fault. It’s a kind of incendiary interaction that keeps me hooked!

 

3. What have you had published by Storm Moon Press? 

- Apples and Regret and Wasted Time – dark, contemporary

- Bounty Hunter – historical, Western

- City of Foxes – urban fantasy

- The Ronin and the Fox – fantasy (illustrated!)

- Benjamin Pepperwhistle and the Fantabulous Circus of Wonders – steampunk(ish?) in the Weight of a Gun II anthology

 

4. What drew you to SMP?

I came across, even though I can’t for the sake of me remember how, their call for submissions for Wild Passions, an anthology featuring humanoid main characters with animal traits. I thought the idea was brilliant; I was also intrigued by how comparatively new Storm Moon Press was, and I really liked the unusual themes and anthologies they were offering. Since I’m not really into classic contemporary romance and tend to have stranger tastes, I stuck around and found this publisher is a very good fit for me and my stories :) .

I also very much like how attentive the editors are towards the authors, and how approachable they are; despite how busy they are, they are always willing to help if I need advice – either on a big plot issue, or on a small detail that has me stumped.

 

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5. Where else do you publish besides SMP?

I started out with the intention of sampling every publisher in order to decide which ones were the best fit for me; I have published with Dreamspinner Press, Samhain Publishing and Circlet Press, and I have a short story coming out from Riptide Press in September. I think it’s important not to stop at the first publisher that accepts your writing but to actually explore a bit what’s out there and what’s best for you personally, since everyone is different; for example, I’ve discovered that I prefer working with smaller presses, with a smaller group of authors.
6. What do you hope to add to queer literature?

Just the other day I read a review for a m/m book where the reader gave a one star rating because there was no warning on the book that it would be gay romance and she wasn’t expecting it. I would really like to help get to the point where books won’t need to come with a ‘gay book’ warning label, or be confined to the ‘gay literature’ shelf. If I picture a fantasy or sci-fi book whose main charater just happens to be gay, without coming with any neon signs or big warning labels, I can all too easily imagine some readers reacting negatively; and what I would like most of all is to help get to the point where something like that would instead be accepted as completely normal.

7. What kind of reader should librarians recommend your work too?

Well, I suppose my books aren’t exactly for ‘classic romance’ fans. There are some tropes of the romance genre which I’ll never be quite able to abide, I suspect. One of them is the centrality of the love story in the characters’ life. Of course, the love story is intense and heart-wrenching… but it might not necessarily be the main focus of the characters’ lives at the moment. I am a little bit of a conflict junkie, I’m afraid, so I always tend to put my characters in quite the pickles. Having to save whole chunks of populations from evil militiamen, for example, putting a stop to a war that threatens to crush half of a country, saving children from being sold by mercenaries… they tend to have a lot of stuff going on. That’s the heart of the story. And they will end up tangled in a love story, that will never make their life easier and that will never be at the top of their priorities list.
So, the leading force of the story is the adventure, fantasy or steampunk or post-apocalyptic or whatever it may be. And often, the stories end when the adventure ends, but the romance side of it, the characters’ relationship, is little more than just begun. So I think it’s important to take that into consideration, as I know that many romance fans would prefer a book focused 100% on the love story.

weightofagun2_3d_5008. What are your future writing ambitions?

This is my first year out of university, so I am still very much at the beginning of my career; my goal is to keep publishing regularly, building a solid backlist.

I have recently started my creative writing PhD, and its core component is of course a novel. That will be my first major work outside the m/m genre – it’s a steampunk novel with just the barest hint of romance – so I’m pretty excited and looking forward to it! I also have a children’s book in the making, which is going to be another thrilling challenge. I would like to try and explore more genres – the hardest part is picking which one to work on first!

 

9. You were raised in Northern Italy and now live in London. How does your international background influence you as a writer?

I’m glad you asked, because I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a lot recently. For quite a long time, I thought it would hold me back. The first and major issue is that I had to learn to write in a second language that’s very different from my mother tongue, and it’s really not easy; it’s a constant challenge. I’ve only been writing in English for about four years and, while I think I’ve made significant progress – looking at my early attempts is quite embarrassing! – I still have a lot of work to do.

I also thought the cultural aspect of things would be an issue. After all, working in the American market, the vast majority of contemporary, mystery, noir, etc. novels are set in the US; and not knowing ‘American life’ well enough felt, for a long time, like an insurmountable obstacle. I think it’s part of what pushed me towards genre fiction and made-up worlds: it just always felt like stories set in my country, talking about the society and customs I experience everyday, would not have the same popularity as ‘American stories’. After all, even the most famous TV series or movies are always American; Italian literature and cinema tend to remain local, to remain a curiosity. I didn’t think an American audience would be interested.

But lately I’ve started to change perspective, thanks in no small part to some very enlightening conversations with fellow non-American authors. I realized that there aren’t many authors with my cultural background as well as a good knowledge of the English language and experience in the American publishing industry; therefore there aren’t many authors that can take the unique and largely unknown features of my culture and present them directly to an international audience. Now I believe this is a unique opportunity; there are unique stories in my culture that deserve to be told, and that I hope international readers will find interesting. I have decided that it’s not fair to push them aside and try to adapt to the ‘mainstream’ market. I want to go back to my cultural origins, and make them the heart of my writing. The process won’t be easy and won’t be quick, but this is the direction I want to take.
10. Your work spans many genres such as steampunk, science fiction, and historicals. Which do you enjoy the most?

At the moment, I’m especially fond of steampunk. I’ve always loved the steampunk feel and aesthetic, even before I knew there was a name for it – brass, brown, cream, odd machinery, the dusty, untidy, mysterious feel of it, clockwork and airships, elaborate technology that’s not modern… and then I discovered steampunk existed, and I’m very happily playing in that sandbox now. It’s a still largely uncharted territory, flexible – the possibilities are endless! For example, I prefer to insert it not in a Victorian city setting, but rather in imaginary worlds, usually mixed with post-apocalyptic elements – say, people living in drought in dusty towns while a powerful minority can afford shiny steam-powered technology.

Post-apocalyptic is another of my favourites. It’s got that dusty, gritty feel – the urban society that’s collapsed in on itself, the people that have to scrap together new lives in the remains. And since my one true love is mixed genre fiction, in the style of China Miéville’s Weird Fiction and Jonathan Barnes’ ‘The Somnambulist’, I often have post-apocalyptic settings where technology has never progressed past steampunk level, with a sprinkling of fantasy elements, say supernatural creatures or some form of magic. I don’t believe it’s necessary for authors to pick a genre label and stick to the blueprint, nor am I as a reader interested in pinpointing a genre in order to enjoy a story. But then, I always like to be surprised, and I’m always fond of unusual and unpredictable stories!
tea15011. What is your favorite of your own work so far?

I think I’d pick ‘The Tea Demon’. I am, so to speak, specialized in short stories, and this is a perfect example of all my favourite narrative features. Such as… a fantastical setting, a bit absurd, full of creative elements; characters that are a bit weird and messed up, not at all epic or perfect, very down-to-earth; a pinch of irony and a good sprinkling of ridicule, trying to follow the teachings of the wonderful Terry Pratchett. If there is a story where I 100% revealed myself and my taste, it’s definitely this one.

I’m also very fond of another short story of mine, which will be released sometime in September. The title is ‘Devil at the Crossroads’, and it’s a re-working of the well-known theme of a bluesman making a deal with the devil in exchange for fame and glory. I’ve always been fond of the blues, and of the character of an old-fashioned, shabby bluesman, and I’m happy to have finally been able to use it in a story. Similarly to the ‘Tea Demon’, this is another story that draws on something that’s deeply part of me.

 

12. What advice would you give librarians trying to improve outreach and representation for their LGBT patrons?

This is a difficult one for me, because I’m only familiar with the Italian library system (and a little bit with the English academic one), and I assume every country has its own very different system. For example, in Italy the figure of the librarian doesn’t really have much impact on what a library stocks, or library outreaches and whatnot. I live in a very small area, and here libraries are woefully outdated and are only open one day a week, for two hours. So, ehm, I suppose my first advice would be to actually get a library system worth its salt…

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