I first encountered the short stories of Silvia Moreno Garcia in the Canadian superhero anthology Masked Mosaic and the post-colonial SF collection We See a Different Frontier. I went on to enjoy her luminous short story collection Love and Other Poisons. She works the horror end of the fantasy spectrum as editor and writes the unstable boundary where the magical and the mundane mix in unpredictable ways.
Her first novel, Signal to Noise (magic, mixtapes, and Mexico City) is released in ebook today (2/10/2015). Print edition is available March 2015 and can be pre-ordered now. An excerpt is available here. I’ve just pre-ordered this book (available as both e-book and print edition), so look for a review pretty much as soon as it comes out!
And now, the interview.
E. P. Beaumont: I think a lot of us have the sense that art is magic, particularly music. How have music, storytelling, memory interacted for you as an artist? How does it express itself in this novel?
Silvia Moreno Garcia: That’s a big question. Maybe I’ll answer a chunk of it. I’m very interested in the idea of memory and the fallibility of memory. Like when you remember a moment ‘wrong.’ Music in Signal to Noise is magical but in real life it is magical in a certain way too. It can be a time machine. You hear a song from the 60s and in your mind you see hippies, flowers in their hair, etc. Even if you never saw a hippie in real life. Music can serve as a mnemonic device, reminding you of a particular moment.
With Signal to Noise I was hoping people would look up some of the songs because they would help ‘transport’ the reader in a sense. I was happy to discover some people have done that. One reader made a playlist of almost all the songs that are mentioned in the book.
EPB: Tell me a little about the magic in this story.
SMG: It’s not a ‘magic system’ which I think is what Westerns readers gravitate to because of a knowledge of RPGs.
So like Harry Potter is a perfect example of this, where you could do a dice roll and cast or not cast X. But in a folk magic system ‘magic’ is more flexible and organic. There are certain parameters you may follow, but it is not as static because things like oral tradition intervene and shape it. So it’s more “loose” I’d say.
EPB: Like the facts of life, weather for example?
SMG: Well, like the fact that in some folk systems you don’t write it down for example.
So the fact that you pass knowledge orally transforms that knowledge in a way.
EPB: oh yes. A different sense of the ‘word’ or ‘laws’
SMG: Yeah. It’s like cooking. Like if your mom taught you a recipe she taught you maybe by doing and watching. And that’s different ‘learning’ than with a cookbook.
EPB: I’m a cookbook person, but my partner is a real cook. Never measures.
SMG: Many times she’d say the ‘secret ingrident is X.’ But a cookbook doesn’t say secret ingredient is X.
EPB: Because then it’s not secret anymore! 🙂
You mentioned learning by watching someone older. Do the young people in your story have any kind of apprenticeship like that, or do they discover magic on their own?
SMG: They discover it on their own, but there is the idea that it might be a tradition.
There is ‘magic’ in Meche’s family.But that might just mean her family is in this respect a family of good cooks.Not that no one else can cook.
EPB: Ah yes. A distinction that I find doesn’t show up, as you say, in a lot of Western RPG-style fantasy; there, you’re either magical or you’re not.
SMG: Yeah. And I don’t in this case it’s “magic is genetic” it’s more like “magic is cultural knowledge often shared in this family.”
EPB: Family lore. A much better picture, or more interesting. I like stories where people are matter-of-fact about magic and supernatural things, that they’re just a part of life.
SMG: Well, most supernatural things are part of life. The horoscopes are at the back of the newspaper. And you don’t have a 13th floor. Or if you live in Vancouver where I live some other numbers are missing because of our high Chinese population.
EPB: Yes, those things are alive and well among people who would call themselves “not superstitious.”
SMG: Aha. So I like poking at that because of this.
EPB: The interesting question is the line where something will suddenly become an “extraordinary occurrence.” 🙂
That’s one of the things I love in your short stories: the matter-of-factness.And the many real things that come up: music and memory, for example. That evocation of times past — where you didn’t even remember it before you heard that song again.
SMG: Music is a basic mnemonic device. Singing your ABCs, for example.
EPB: Music was hugely helpful for me learning all kinds of things — foreign language acquisition. Math – I made up a rap song to remember trigonometric identities.
Memory is magic too: something that isn’t really there any more shows up, like a ghost.
SMG: Yeah, memory is funny. It’s fallible for one.
EPB: That’s been very well studied, eyewitness accounts and such. Which is spooky–what we think we remember may not be real.
SMG: It works weirdly. Sometimes you remember something you hadn’t thought about in years and it is all so vivid.
Or you can’t remember something you know used to be there.
EPB: Recreating the actual workings of memory in a novel is quite a challenge. Most narratives try to make sense of things, make them simple.
SMG: I don’t think my novel’s structure is quite that complex. 😉
EPB: There’s also the magic of place – particularly Mexico City. How do personal histories in this novel interact with the deep history of the city? with political and social events in the so called “larger world” of the city?
SMG: It takes place in a very small section of the city and Mexico City is huge so you don’t get to see *all* of it but I hope it gives you a sense of the time period. It’s an intimate story.
EPB: Curation as an art form shows up in making a mixtape or playlist, and you practice this as a very prolific editor. How does your practice as an editor shape your practice as a writer?
SMG: They don’t overlap too much. My work editing did help when I put together my first and second short story collections because you are trying to build a mosaic of sorts, but that’s about it.
EPB: You also write short stories, a very demanding art form. Compare the constraints and freedoms do you find in exploring characters and worlds in this novel vs your short stories.
SMG: I find it hard to maintain my attention on a novel. I write fantasy, science fiction, horror and now I’m starting to write crime fic with no speculative elements so I switch around a lot with short stories. It’s like speed dating and with a novel it’s like getting married and I got to be faithful to the book and by approximately page 70 I want to cheat on this book so badly and make out with a completely different novel.
EPB: I really enjoyed your story collections, and when I saw you were releasing a novel… 🙂
As a writer, I’m traveling in the opposite direction: from novels to short stories. I really admire your short story work for its compression and vividness. I have to say, you made me laugh out loud at “short stories as speed-dating.” Not to mention, “cheating on the project with other novels.” Where do you think you used your short-story skills to best effect in writing this novel?
SMG: Time management, probably. Structurally a short story and a novel are very different so I don’t know if learning how to do one teaches you much about the other.
EPB: Definitely. I’m looking at short stories now (just finished my first attempt at an anthology review). A short story is a short vivid taste — and a novel is a journey. But time management, that’s the universal skill. 🙂
What was the seed of this novel? At what point did you know it was going to be a novel and not a short story? Is it related to any of your stories?
SMG: It’s not related to anything else. At a macro level my parents worked in radio, my grandfather was a radio announcer at the XEW. His name pops up in some books. We always had records laying around and I wanted to write a story about sound, about music, because it’s something that was present since I was a child.
SMG: It’s just for patrons. It’s a very short little thing because I wrote mostly flash fic and a couple of longer pieces.
EPB: You had me at “oddities” of course. 🙂
I want to thank you again for your time.
SMG: Thank you! Hope it was useful.
EPB: Very useful and interesting! And you’ve further piqued my interest in the book.
SMG: Yep. To sales! Anyway, have a good night & take care.
Disclosure: Your humble author bought the book as soon as it became available for pre-order, and will be reading it tonight as Release Night Treat! Review will follow in coming days/weeks.
Editing note: Interview created from responses to questions sent by e-mail, with follow-up dialogue on Google Chat, Tuesday 27 January 2015.