The wonderful Cristina Jurado interviews today the no less wonderful (and talented!) Sofía Rhei, Spanish poet, author of novels and translator among many other fine things. I thank Cristina and Sofía for the chance of publishing the English translation of their talk. You can read the original version, in Spanish, at Cristina's excellent blog Más Ficción Que Ciencia.
Writing in colors: An interview with Sofía Rhei
Sofía Rhei (Madrid, 1978) is polyhedral; she is one and many at the same time. This is not an unjustified statement, it is a deduction based on her creative career, which is not one but also many, depending on the profile adopted by this graduate in Fine Arts. Sofía is a poet, an illustrator, a translator, a storyteller, an editorial reader and scout, and she has won the literary award “Zaidín de Poesía Javier Egea”. She is one; she is another. Her fictional personality, Cornelius Krippa, allows her to publish in Montena Krippys kid’s book series (Las gafas más raras del mundo, Problemones y Problemazos, Día de lunáticos, El refugio de los monstruitos, y Una misión explosiva). Maybe Cornelius is the real being, and Sofía the fictional one, who knows?
Her poems beat from the pages of Las flores de alcohol (Ed. La Bella Varsovia), Química (El Gaviero Ediciones), Otra explicación para el temblor de las hojas (Ayuntamiento de Granada), Alicia Volátil (El cangrejo pistolero), Bestiario microscópico (Sportula) or the poem anthologies Antolojaja (La flauta mágica), Todo es poesía menos la poesía (Editorial Eneida) and Aldea poética III (Ministerio de Cultura). Las Ciudades Reversibles (UCLM), Flores de la Sombra (Alfaguara Juvenil) and its sequel Savia Negra, El joven Moriarty y el misterio de dodo, El joven Moriarty y la planta carnívora (Fábulas de Albión), Cuentos y leyendas de objetos mágicos (Anaya), are her incursions in narrative, even though some of her short stories have appeared in collections such as Más allá de Némesis (Sportula) or Presencia Humana magazine (Aristas Martínez).
From all her works, I have read her young adult (YA) novel Flores de la Sombra, her poem collection Bestiario microscópico and her short story “Calipso”, included in Más allá de Némesis and coordinated by Juan Miguel Aguilera. I would like to clarify that I’m not a big fan of YA literature. Many of the stereotypes included in such novels –from juvenile love stories preceded by love at first sight, female main characters with hidden secrets, or Apollonian male characters- do not seem to work their magic on me. That is why I would try to speak about the first novel I just mentioned, leaving aside my prejudices.
Flowers and planets
In Flores de la Sombra the events share two clearly different scenarios: the real world, in which the main character –Hazel- faces a personal conflict when she moves with her mother into a village in the middle of nowhere; and Feeria, a kingdom in a parallel dimension in which its citizens are called heléboros, anthropomorphic magical beings closely related to the vegetal world. The author’s prose is fluid, capable of creating a world halfway between a circus and a botanical garden, with its own myths and legends. When both dimensions collide, terrible events will take place, and the heroine must take decisions that would greatly influence her future. In a way, Hazel’s story is the same as that of any teenager: a being out of context, who looks for the other’s acceptance as much as her own, who feels lost in “structural” changes taking place in her body, and who is starting to take decisions and acquire responsibilities.
The characters of the real world, created by Rhei, fit perfectly into the clichés usually included in young girls literature. With this statement, I don’t criticize Sofia’s work, even though I prefer Galmax or Eric –the hedgehog- and the rest of citizens of Feeria, more transgressed characters and full of shades. The author’s strength resides in her capacity to create a personal mythology, with a solid internal logic, a character cast that suits the audience expectations, detailed and synesthetic descriptions, and a plot full of action, despite a predictable end (that also fits the expected characteristics in this type of novels).
“Calipso” is the story of a vacation: chance approaches two solitary beings that keep company to each other some J-days, mixing sex with other ludic activities. Georg, an adapted and hermaphrodite human, choses a Saturn satellite to go for vacation and Nut, an “ajolote” or non-modified human, becomes his sex partner. The story is told in the first person. Georg reflects about the approach of the two species, explaining their differences and similarities from a physiological as well as an emotional point of view. Sex is the path of the encounter, beyond sporadic pleasure, awakening dormant feelings. Happiness is an instantaneous quality instead of a permanent place. The author’s prose is accurate, very meditated, and full of existentialist content that brings the reader to think and to feel at the same time. In my humble opinion, is one of the best short stories of Más allá de Némesis, both because of its deepness and its evoking ability.
I’ve been fortunate enough to contact Sofía through the social media, and she has been very generous and agreed to answer a handful of questions. I appreciate her infinite patience with me, as well as the help of my friend Elías Combarro, Master and Commander of the blog Sense of Wonder who, as always, lends me his home to publish this post in English.
Cristina Jurado: I must confess I started inquiring about your work after reading “Calipso”, a short story included in the Spanish anthology Más allá de Némesis, published by Sportula. It was the one I liked the most, and I decided to follow the tracks of a certain female author in whose name, the letter “h” has escaped to get confortable in her surname. Sofía Rhei. When people ask me why I like science fiction (SF), I tell them that quality SF deals with feelings in a way costumbrist or realistic literature can’t do. Why do you write genre books? What is so special about science fiction, fantasy or horror?
Sofía Rhei: On one hand, fantasy and science fiction exponentially increase the number of possible points of view from which one can tell a story. Nothing can talk better about social and personal relationships than to contemplate them from afar, with the strangeness of a being that doesn’t share the same determinant or routine mechanisms. On the other hand, I believe speculative fiction allows us to create a different type of social conventions, as a vehicle to question our own. Finally, and as a reader, those are the genres I’ve been attracted to since my infancy. I think one has to write things similar to those that is reading, and that he/she knows and enjoys the most.
CJ: Flores en la Sombra (Flowers in the Dark) is the first of a saga aimed to a young audience. Black Sap is the second and, if I’m not mistaken, there is a third being written. We have talked about the YA genre before, and you commented it’s a genre with its own rules. What are those rules? Juvenile romance must be present? Why?
SR: I’m a professional reader of YA literature, and after a couple of years of working in this field I decided to write one story. In my case, it’s a fantasy novel with ecological touches: there are beings called “heléboros”, humanoid vegetal descendants, who always give priority to plants before evolved animals, condemned to live in special ghettos. YA books have their own language and a storyline adapted to a younger reader. It seems almost indispensable to include a romantic plot, at least tangentially. I hope this reading level –not really a genre- continues offering a wide range of possibilities. Rules of YA imply that main characters normally are between 15 and 19 years old. The level of language and the plot complexity must be accessible to any reader. 80% of books in this genre have a romantic component, both in its realistic and fantasy aspects. Science fiction almost is non-existent, or it comes under the form of a simple dystopia.
CJ: In a previous interview you mentioned a soft spot for Japan. I would like to recommend you a book I’ve read not long ago: Self-Reference Engine by Toh EnJoe. It’s one of the novels nominated for this year’s Philip K. Dick Awards. Its fragmentary structure has caused controversy among the fans. You like experimentation and that’s why I allow myself to suggest this title, full of humor, a bit surrealist at times, very existentialist, and Hard other times. When will you write an adult science fiction novel?
SR: Regarding Japan, I have various editions of medieval courtesans books, a fairly complete collection of books by Kawabata, Mishima, Tanizaki and Ishiguro, as well as several poetry anthologies, many with the wonderful bilingual editions of Hiperión. Also, I’ve followed with interest a few manga. The already mentioned books, as well as Hayao Miyazaki’s films, bring emotions to me that I haven’t found anywhere else. Japanese mythology is full of fascinating animism and beauty concepts, sometimes very different to our own. It also pays attention to natural cycles, so it becomes a very rich source of stimuli both for thinking and imagining. I write down your recommendation because I believe it’s exactly the type of book that I could enjoy a lot.
In regards to my future projects, I’m about to finish a speculative fantasy novel for adults and my next adult project involves science fiction, both with a lot of humor.
CJ: I’ve read Bestiario Microscópico and I thought about Cortázar’s Cronopio, a marginal design, a poem without rhyme. I admit my respect for poetry, not because I believe it’s a difficult genre (only if one insists on it). It requires a far more active effort of interpretation than a novel (with exceptions, of course), but my respect lays on the fact that the poet strips almost fully, and reveals many of his/her obsessions, interests and fears, his/her affections and weaknesses. To peek into an author’s poems it seems to me like an intrusion into his/her private life. Do you feel your poetic side influences the rest of your work?
SR: This is my coldest poem collection, the least emotional, but it’s true many things -which can be objects of reticence- can get through it. On the other hand, I don’t know if there is a book that wouldn’t tell us what are the fears, fondness or affinities of the author. The microscopic bestiary starts with a finding of the most polysemic word in the Spanish language, the word “point”, and about all the thoughts connected to the relativity of sizes that this term provokes in me. It’s true that poetry has a superior level of encryption that the majority of narrative texts, and the poetry reader is asked a more creative participation in the reading process.
CJ: When I interview an author, I’m very interested in his or her creative process. I’ve read that you experience pseudo-synaesthesia and perceive numbers and letters in colors. Is literature for you a way to bring up the color of stories? How do you face any writing assignment, from the first idea to the final manuscript?
SR: Since I can remember, my mind has always assigned a color to each number and letter, so every of them holds a particular entity, which helps me remember sequences. The color of things, and the reason behind them, is a topic that has always interested me, and that I was able to study in Fine Arts. I can’t help it either, but I conscientiously try to include references to the five senses in my stories.
CJ: How does a character become credible?
SR: As a reader, I’m convinced that character creation is the most difficult part of the writing process. Masters of characterization, those capable of making us understand a character with just a few brush-strokes, are usually great “natural” psychologists. As a creator of characters, I have a weakness for British authors, always tending towards the exaggeration or the caricature, reflecting so rapidly any human flaws.
CJ: I’m convinced that an author’s favorite readings say a lot about him or her. I would like to know what genre works have influenced your own writings and why. I also would like to know what books out of the genre have stand out for you.
SR: My favorites novels of speculative fiction, without thinking too hard are: The infernal desire machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter; Galveston by Sean Stewart; Glory Season by David Brin; Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson; Gormenghast by Mervin Peake; all books by Terry Pratchett, Connie Willis, Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams or Diana Wynne Jones. Also –not translated into Spanish- Lost futures by Lisa Tuttle, Unquenchable fire by Rachel Pollack, and Never the bride by Paul Magrs.
Out of the genre, the books that have influenced me the most are scientific titles by Maurice Maeterlinck, Martin Gardner, Oliver Sacks, Penrose, or Asimov…
CJ: Do you feel that being a woman has influenced your ability to publish? ¿Have you encounter difficulties by being a woman?
SR: In the world of children and teenagers books, being a woman is an advantage. In the world of poetry, with juries composed usually by 5 men and a very masculinized criticism apparatus, there is a constant and tiresome debate about gender, and it’s extremely hard to pave the way in a so closed-minded and endogamous field. Nevertheless, I feel my experimental will separates me even further from the established canon. In the science fiction and fantasy world, there is a lot of interest in reading stories written by women, and the tendency is to embrace us.
CJ: You are an editorial reader, a translator, a writer and an illustrator. From your point of view, how do you see the current landscape of science fiction, fantasy and horror in our country?
SR: It’s a very fertile and rich landscape, and there is a lot to choose from. Apart from the reference authors like José Carlos Somoza, Elia Barceló, Juan José Millás, Pilar Pedraza, Rafael Marín, Joan Manuel Gisbert, Juan Miguel Aguilera, Eduardo Vaquerizo or José Antonio Cotrina (among many others), I believe a good health symptom is the appearance of writers in sub-genres: retro-futurism (Eduardo Vaquerizo), fantasy-horror (Santiago Eximeno), weird (Marian Womack), surreal fantasy for young adults (Laura López Alfranca), erotic space-opera (Amaya Felices), and many more.
CJ: The new publishing methods –crow funding, self-publishing and co-publishing-, are benefitting or damaging the literary world?
SR: It depends. In general, they improve accessibility, but damage the editing and the design finishing, sometimes in a dramatic way. I’m in favor of trying different formats and formulae, raising awareness among readers about the devastating effects of piracy in authors. We are the smaller fish in the pyramid of the publishing world, and the most affected by illegal downloads.
CJ: Social media allows authors to contact each other, to connect them with their readers and to link fans among themselves. How would you describe the role of fandom in genre literature?
SR: In my experience, fandom allows the survival of certain publishing companies, which, without a large and enthusiastic group of fans, will have a very short life cycle. Many fans are also beta readers, one of the most important tasks in editing a book. The world of genre conventions is fertile and accomplice in general, and I believe meeting people with similar taste is quite enriching.
CJ: To end this conversation, I would like you to talk a bit more about your future plans and, if it is possible, get an exclusive scoop.
SR: In addition to the novels I already mentioned, I’ve delivered few short stories for different anthologies that will be publish next year. As a scoop, I can tell you that I’m working on a board game.
About Cristina Jurado: Cristina Jurado Marcos writes the sci-fi blog Más ficción que ciencia. Having a degree in Advertising and Public Relations by Universidad de Seville and a Masters in Rhetoric by Northwestern University (USA), she currently studies Philosophy for fun. She considers herself a globetrotter after living in Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris or Dubai. Her short stories have appeared in several sci-fi online magazines and anthologies. Her first novel From Orange to Blue was published in 2012.