Gilman Crafts Own World in Moonwise, Cloud and Ashes
May 1, 2008 – HCL's Greer Gilman has labored 25 years creating her own mythology, a dreamlike world called Cloud. Complete with its own pantheon of quarrelsome gods and goddesses, Gilman's realm featured in her 1991 first novel Moonwise and she has again set her newest book—Cloud and Ashes, due out in fall 2009 from Small Beer Press—here in this myth.
Gilman, who also works as a preservation cataloger in Widener Library, fills her tales with dense, poetic language that is woven through with layers of symbolism. She names Shakespeare as an influence and studied Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge after earning her bachelor's at Wellesley College, so perhaps her complex language and fondness for wordplay is not surprising.
"Remember that Renaissance drama was really intended for the stage," she says. "People have found my work daunting to read, but it's really meant to be heard. It works aloud. It works well as a performance piece."
Intricate stories, and arguably those set in a created world, take time and Gilman in particular sees herself as a slow, careful writer. She initially began Moonwise in the early 1980s, long before it saw publication, and she started out not knowing the story she intended to tell. Instead, she began with story fragments, glimpses of the myth. "I started by handcrafting jigsaw pieces that didn't go together," she says. "I had to figure out what the pieces were and how they fit to tell the story."
Bit by bit, she developed these pieces into her full-fledged world of Cloud which, she says, is based in a setting not unlike 17th century rural England. But even now she has long, dry spells when she cannot write or when the words come to her slowly. "It's like watching a Polaroid," she says of her stories, "like watching Atlantis coming up out of the water."
Despite publishing infrequently, Gilman has been widely recognized in the fantasy genre for her stories. Moonwise won the Crawford Award and was shortlisted for the Tiptree and Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards. Her novella "Jack Daw's Pack," published in 2000, was a Nebula Award finalist and 2003's "A Crowd of Bone" received the World Fantasy Award.
Gilman was also an invited guest of honor at March's 29th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), an invitation afforded in past years to such well-known authors as Doris Lessing and Italo Calvino. Not only did Gilman speak on a panel about "The Language of the Sublime in the Fantastic" but she herself served as the topic of discussion for another panel titled "Shakespeare and More: The Works of Greer Gilman."
As further testament to her Shakespearean roots, in 2006 she gave a paper, "'...but shadows...': Shakespearean Voices in the Literature of the Fantastic," to the Shakespeare Association of America.
Gilman's forthcoming book, Cloud and Ashes, offers readers three linked novellas set in the Cloud realm. These novellas include her latest effort, "Unleaving," as well as the previously published "Jack Daw's Pack" and "A Crowd of Bone."
"It's a triptych of variations on a winter's tale," says Gilman, a story of mothers and daughters, of tragedy and romance. The stories are tied together by a young woman named Ashes who plays a classical Persephone figure. Not stolen but born into the mythological underworld, she runs away from home with a fiddler, with disastrous consequences. The tragedy of the first two novellas, however, is ultimately put right, with redemption found in the third, newest novella.
Gilman is currently revising Cloud and Ashes for its upcoming debut and preparing a chapter about fantasy literature for a publication by Cambridge University Press.