Melanie Tem Interview

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Interview Conducted by Stefan Dziemianowicz

In a very short span of time, Melanie Tem has managed to make a very big name for herself. Although visibly active in dark fantasy only since 1989 she has already produced three critically-acclaimed novels, including Prodigal, winner of the Bram Stoker Award in 1992 for outstanding achievement for a first novel. Alone, and in collaboration with her husband Steve Rasnic Tem, she has contributed short fiction to anthologies that include both Women of Darkness compilations, Women of the West, Skin of the Soul, Post Mortem, Cold Shocks, Chilled to the Bone, and most recently Snow White, Blood Red.

More impressive than her growing resume is the orientation of her fiction. Whether writing about a social worker who feeds on the suffering of his clients in Prodigal (Dell/Abyss, 1991), a young boy convinced he can cause events to happen simply by imaging them in Blood Moon (Women's Press, 1992), or a matriarchal extended family in which the women express emotions through shape-shifting in Wilding (Dell/Abyss, 1992), Tem reveals the psyches of her human characters to be more substantial grist for the macabre than horror's usual monsters. Her powerful character-driven stories have already garnered comparisons to the fiction of Shirley Jackson, and frustrated the attempts of critics to define her work within the horror genre.

Although the winning of the Stoker award might be cause for some writers to pause and reflect, Melanie Tem is already embarked on a series of future projects. Among them is a series of genre-subverting erotic horror novels written in collaboration with Nancy Holder, the first of which, Making Love, is due to appear in August 1993; a three-novel contract with Dell/Abyss that includes the Spring 1994 release Revenant, a vampire-variant tale currently entitled Desmodis, and possibly a prequel to Wilding. Her long-gestating project There Be Dragons, which will meld three different novels into a single mosaic relating the experience of grieving as a mythic hero's journey through the underworld, and the revision of three mainstream novels written several years ago. Such ambitious plans notwithstanding, Tem still holds down her day job as a professional social worker and lifetime career as a wife and mother of four.

CD: Although your mainstream publishing resume extends back about twenty years, the story that introduced most readers in the field to your work was "Aspen Graffiti," published in the first Women of Darkness anthology in 1988. When did you begin writing horror fiction?

Tem: I don't think I write horror--with the possible exception of Wilding--which I don't think I can claim is not horror when it's about werewolves. Other than that, though, I don't think for the most part that I write horror fiction. I prefer the term dark fantasy. I know that there's a lot of discussion about what that term means, and that some people think it's affected, sort of precious, but I like it better.

I think that most people who write horror would say that the primary emotion they go for in their readers is fear. I'm not trying to frighten people. If anything, I guess I would say I try to disturb people, to shake up how people look at the world. Mostly, though, I write out of an impulse in myself to understand something I don't understand in human nature. That may be something dark, or it may not be. It may be just something mysterious that I don't understand. My mainstream stories, the first stories that I published, were not fantasy. They were much more realistic and straightforward, but I think they were written out of that same impulse.

I came to be publishing fantasy, or dark fantasy, or horror, or whatever, because I married Steve. We met in a writer's workshop and when we began reading each other's work I realized that I had the same prejudice a lot people have about genre fiction in general: that you can't do anything serious with it, that it's all gimmicky. Steve taught me otherwise, and I began to see how much can be done by exploring important human themes through the genre.

CD: In a recently published interview, Steve said that one reason why he was attracted to the horror/dark fantasy mode was because it is a fiction that deals with transformation. Is this the same sort of interest it holds for you?

Tem: Yes, I'm very interested in transformation and transcendence. One of the things that interests me is how dark, disturbing experiences in our lives can transform us for the better, how we can come through those things. That's why I'm not really interested in horror stories where you go through everything with the character, only to reach a twist ending where the monster is still alive and going to come back. I always feel cheated reading that, I always feel "What was the point?" I like the idea of how we confront things, how we look at things. I think that the psychological truth of a lot of horror themes is that they're powerful when we don't confront them. They're powerful when they're hidden, or when they're secret. So I like the idea of the transformation and transcendence that happens when we face and deal with dark things.

CD: Does it bother you that at the same time you're resisting being labeled, which I would think any writer would want to do, you've had to take on the horror/dark fantasy label in order to get your work into print?

Tem: I don't so much mind the labeling itself, because I don't mind being called a dark fantasy writer. My difficulty is that at least outside the field, to the general reading public, if I say that I write horror fiction, most of them won't read it because they have preconceived Ideas. When they hear "horror," they think "Freddy Kruger." That's why I think the horror label is misleading.

I suppose that at some point I will dislike the idea of any labels at all. I find myself kind of chuckling over a phenomenon such as Toni Morrison's book Beloved, which is a ghost story. It's a wonderful story, and it's never categorized as a ghost story. Also Joyce Carol Oates' family saga Bellefleur, a gothic novel with only a couple of touches of what you might call magical realism. One of the ancestors in the story is a vampire, and Oates just talks about this character in the same tone of voice as she would talk about any of the other ancestors. But no one calls Bellefleur Joyce Carol Oates' vampire novel. It would be nice to be a writer whose work is looked at as outside of categories, so that like Beloved your work is not marketed as a ghost story when it absolutely is one.

CD: Is the difference between what you call your mainstream fiction and your dark fantasy just a matter of lighter shading? I ask because the use of the supernatural in your work is generally so subtle, so ambiguous, it's hard to say clearly that something fantastic is going on.

Tem: Except in Wilding. That steps further into the unarguable horror vein. In the stories that I consider my mainstream work I think anyone would be hard pressed to find a supernatural fantasy element at all. They're pretty much straightforward, character-driven stories. But when I've gone back in the last few years to my old stories to see whether any of them can be resurrected and reworked, in some cases it has seemed very natural, and not at all opportunistic, to turn them into dark fantasy stories, without any stretching, as though that element had been there in the first place. So I wonder if I might have been thinking that way all along, without acknowledging it or knowing it, because of prejudice or ignorance of what could be done in the field.

CD: That's not surprising to hear. It's clear in all of your dark fantasy that human emotion is the central concern, and that the supernatural motifs are simply a vehicle for expressing those emotions, rather than the object of the stories.

Tem: I'm delighted to hear you say that, because that's the whole point. I'm very interested in how traditional horror motifs can express psychological truths; for example, how the werewolf expresses anger in Wilding.

Nancy Holder and I are collaborating on what we hope will be a series of erotic horror novels which very deliberately use standard horror motifs to talk about romantic love relationships. We've just finished a retelling of the Frankenstein story, which is about a woman who has never been able to find a man good enough for her, so she creates her own. We have a story that we'll write some time, we hope, using the werewolf theme to talk about a woman in a physically abusive relationship. It just seems to me that the supernatural/fantasy/horror/whatever images and motifs have all kinds of things to say to us about human experience.

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