I met J.S. Breukelaar at a World Fantasy Convention a couple of years ago, and when we were introduced, I realised someone whose work I had been following for a while just happened to live in Australia, and just happened to be a woman. I had committed the cardinal sin of assuming anyone whose pen name included initials was a man. Since then, we’ve had a few more adventures together, and I’m very pleased to refer to Breukelaar as my ‘weird sister’. She’s the kind of person who gets an affectionate Macbeth reference.
Breukelaar had an exceptional short story collection come out in 2019 – Collision: stories, with Meerkat Press. What with my TBR pile being what it is, I only had the chance to get to it now, in preparation for my Hugo nominations. It’s a great collection of weird fiction, and I recommend it for those fans of the sinister and the strange. My favourite stories deal with people on the fringes of society, and the liminal, and sometimes supernatural, spaces they occupy. Her sharp, punk rock sensibility is reminiscent of one of my other favourite weird fiction authors, Elizabeth Hand.
Interview with J.S. Breukelaar
Kat: In the afterword to Collision, you write that your stories are populated by the kind of life-changing, random encounters between people, or as you describe “something between chance and destiny.” It struck a chord with me as I use a lot of the transient nature of random encounters and experiences in my own work. My particular favourite story in your collection – Fixed – came out of an encounter on a train with an Iroquois man, and was adapted from your novel American Monster. I have to ask though, what’s the weirdest encounter you’ve had in your travels? And did that end up in your stories?
J.S. For me, for you and many other writers, artists, photographers, musicians—chance often seems to shimmer with a kind of fatalistic opportunity, to seem so fortuitous that you can’t help wondering if it wasn’t chance that brought you into collision with this person, or animal or experience, but something more sentient. Something that saw you coming. So I can’t really think which one of these many encounters was the weirdest.
One which some of students are familiar with was when a van carrying two psychiatric patients stopped outside the facilities at the park where I was walking my late dog Eric. One of the male patients, on emerging from the restroom at the same time as we were heading to the car, took a shine to Eric—a big brindle Stafforshire Bull Terrior—stared at him, getting more and more agitated. I kept going across the parking lot to the car, let the dog into the hatch, slammed it shut and got behind the wheel. I hit reverse and turned around just in time to see the young man spread eagled across the hatch, like a starfish. Trying to get in, by osmosis I guess, or draw Eric out, wasn’t sure which, or where he thought they were going to go together but he seemed to have a pretty clear idea.
I just had to kind of wait there for his carer to peel him off the car, and I was quite shaken afterwards. But also kind of elated. The experience made its way into some stories, into my teaching of how to be receptive to the weird. To accept that maybe because it’s only weird to you, those encounters are a kind of window not into the other, but into ourselves.
Kat: You often take classic tales from mythology – Orpheus and Eurydice for example – and put a very modern twist on them, so much so they’re transformed into something else. What is it about mythology that appeals to you? What can writers take from mythology and make their own?
Oddly enough, I rarely do this deliberately in short stories, and I admire those who do, like Angela Slatter, and Amelia Gray, whose stories, “New Wine” and “Labyrinth” respectively, remain a kind of benchmark for me, for that approach. But for me, with the stories so far, it’s been more accidental. In fact, it was Angela who saw the Orpheus and Eurydice element in “Raining Street” when she beta-read it.
I had my characters and my situation, and I think what happens is that because myths are the story of us, not the other way around, we often find ourselves in the territory of myth—getting lost and going around in circles not being able to find ourselves unless we overcome some great unnatural force at huge cost.
Grief is a kind of Underworld because mourning keeps us connected to those we’ve lost, except they’re no longer the same person, so what’s really hell about grief is that it’s a double whammy, neither death or life.
With “Ava Rune,” also in Collision, it evolved from the characters, who were Scandinavian immigrants living in rural NSW, and I had the set up first, the step-uncle and the townies and the smokin’ wolf-mother—and the whole Völva, Níðhöggr thing grew out of who they were and where they came from.
For me until now, myth and folktale might populate my stories, and does, but only because it populates the hearts and minds of my characters. I am currently collaborating on a sekrit project with the great French author, Seb Doubinsky which is a different experiment along those lines, and I’m having a lot of time learning on the job.
My forthcoming novel, The Bridge, is a kind of reworking of the Erinyes myth, the Greek mythology around the three Furies, in a cross-hemisphere setting. I worked in Frankenstein themes and an AI element because it all seemed to fit—but the characters, and the set-up came first. In fact the novel is expanded from a short story I wrote, which had none of these mythological elements.
Writers can take mythology and not so much make it their own but find room to move within and across it, and tie it to other elements. I don’t think you need to get too het up about modernising it, because that’s the thing with myth – it’s timeless. And when you get stuck on something that doesn’t travel well across the millennia, as I did with Aletheia, which has echoes of that point in the Iliad where Achilles and Agamemnon are using stolen women as objects of exchange in a much bigger war—I try and not so much modernise it, as take it apart. Not so much fixating on what is in the legend, but thinking about what was left out.
But I never start off thinking about the myth. I never think I’m going to write a modern version of this or that myth. I know there are authors who do that magnificently, but that’s not my approach. The characters come first, and the setting, and if they are both haunted by their myths, then I find that out in the writing process. It’s messy and exhausting, but that’s my process.
Kat: The very title of the book and one of the stories is Collision, but most of the stories deal with the convergence of conflicting spaces. What drew you to these themes in your work?
J.S. Collision is the story of my life, Kat. It probably is for most of us. But in recent years, probably since the 2016 US elections, the collision of worlds—ideological, temporal, ontological, economic, personal and formal—has dominated my thinking.
As a genre writer with a background in American literature, as a horror writer with a PhD in crime fiction, as a dual citizen, as a working mother, as all those things we are that never seem to align perfectly with each other, I’m interested in writing from that uncomfortable space, whether it’s between horror and science fiction, or between hope and fear, the past and the present, life and death—the dread New World Order and my local brewery—being uncomfortable is the only way to change—and I think the only place from which to write.
Kat: Looking more widely at weird fiction generally, I feel that your work sits squarely in the weird fiction territory – you can’t always define it, but you know it when you see it. I’ve always thought that liminality and wonder were two key aspects of weird fiction. What do you see as the key markers of weird fiction? Is it definable? Or is it in its very nature indefinite?
J.S. You would have to ask that, wouldn’t you! I’ve given up on trying to keep up with all the whirling definitions of weird fiction. But I totally agree. Liminality and wonder. I also really like Sofia Samatar’s definition which I think you can find quoted by Anya Martin in Gordon B. White’s wonderful interview with her at Hellnotes: “Speculative fiction with a complicated relationship to genre. It might blend genres or overturn conventions, while still remaining clearly anti-realist.”
I think I might add fear or dread to the ideas of liminality and anti-realism. In my view, weird fiction has to be deeply unsettling. It has to taint, or stain, and it’s this aspect, this stickiness as Stephen Graham Jones put it, I think, that gives it its power. If you think about the story, “Stone Animals,” by Kelly Link, that’s a perfect example. Funny, fierce, liminal, anti-realist, but deeply unsettling to the point where you have to pat yourself down after reading it to make sure you’re all there, despite knowing you’re not. And you don’t want it to be, is the thing.
The element of fear that drives weird fiction comes back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of destiny v. chance. So the flipside to that fear is a kind of rapture—the woods are waiting for me, and they know my name. They’ve always known my name because a long long time ago, in a dream maybe, or in my sleep or my prayers, I told them. It was me. It was always me. And now I’m coming home.
Kat: You also talk about pushing harder into stories that didn’t sell. As an author with stories doing the rounds, I’m fascinated by that idea of digging deeper to make stories better. What are some of the processes you go through in order to sharpen a story?
J.S. Time. That’s a big part of the process. Time often gives me the distance to see what needs tweaking and tightening. Reading anything and everything, also movies. That opens doors to inspiration. And sending the story out to trusted beta readers (better writers than you if possible, and not family or partners) whose feedback you trust.
Another part of the process for me is experimentation. I might have a story that doesn’t work, so I’ll rewrite it in another tense, or from another narrative viewpoint, and boom! Always start a story as close to the end as possible, so top-and-tailing is a good idea.
I think a story sharpens through the rewriting process, so for me, rewriting it from start to finish—blank page—has the potential to take it through a different door to the place where it was always meant to go.
Kat: Finally, Raining Street is at times comparable to a Cortazar story. But what’s with the snake beans?
J.S. Aw, thanks Kat. Again, I have no idea. What is with the snake beans? Where did they come from? I don’t know. Cross my heart. They were just there at the street market and they reminded Rebel of Jules, which I had no idea about until she told me—the usual drill.
You can buy a copy of J.S. Breukelaar’s collection Collision: Stories at Meerkat Press. I highly recommend checking it out!