Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Interview with Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, author of Strange Monsters: a music and words collaboration

The Speculative Fiction Showcase welcomes Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam to discuss her new album, Strange Monsters, produced in collaboration with her partner, Peter Brewer.

Your album is called Strange Monsters: a music and words collaboration. What inspired you to take up this project?

My partner Peter and I collaborated on the first track, “The Stink of Horses” first, as part of a submission to a contest. Everyone involved had so much fun that we decided to do a whole album of audio fiction and poetry set to Peter’s original jazz compositions. 

I wanted to center the album around a theme, and I’ve always been inspired by several lines from a May Sarton poem, “My Sisters, Oh My Sisters.” The poem is about creative women whose domestic lives suffered as a result of their devotion to their art, and how that made them “strange monsters” in the eyes of other people. All of the stories and poems address, in some way, women struggling to make their own path, to eschew what’s expected of them domestically, romantically, creatively, or sexually.

The album is a collaboration with Peter Brewer. How did you work together over the writing and composition?

Peter’s my partner, so all the collaborating was done in-house, very close-knit. I wrote the stories and poems—most of them are reprints, so they’d been published already—and then we hired actors to read them. Once we had the recorded stories, Peter wrote the music on our old cranky piano. Every now and then he’d run something by me, but for the most part we each worked on our own.

This is an unusual and exciting format for a work of speculative fiction. Do you think there will be an increase in mixed media projects?

I think people have always been interested in experimenting with forms and mixing things up, and now, with crowd-funding and other alternative funding methods, it’s easier to do them. So yes, I think there has been and will continue to be an increase in mixed media projects. 

Which came first – the music or the words?

The words came first. Peter wrote the music to accompany the stories. 

Many authors and poets have their own personal soundtrack for writing. What would yours be?

I always listen to music when I write. Mostly instrumental. I gravitate toward a lot of movie soundtracks. The Fountain soundtrack by Clint Mansell has been a go-to for years now. Joby Talbot’s The Dying Swan soundtrack. Recently I’ve been writing about rock stars, so I’ve been listening to rock instrumentals. When I’m writing creepy scenes, Brian Eno is always a good choice. If I want something prettier, Maria Schneider. For something fast-paced, Lindsey Stirling or Elliot Goldenthal’s Frida soundtrack. 

Are there any contemporary composers and writers you particularly admire?

I’m a big fan of writers in the literary fantastic vein: Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem, Sofia Samatar, Etgar Keret. I greatly admire Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials project, where he offers up older stories and song lyrics and invites others to use them as inspiration. Poets who delve into popular and magical spaces, like Tim Seibles, W.S. Merwin, Matthea Harvey, Amal El-Mohtar.

As for music, I gravitate toward the dramatic. Operatic vocals, like My Brightest Diamond and Wild Beasts. I’ve always been greatly moved by Pink Floyd’s music and their story. Folk singers who aren’t afraid to be raw: Tracy Chapman, Ani Difranco. AURORA is a new Norwegian singer I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Daughter, for the ethereal trance their music puts me in. Prince and David Bowie come to mind as talented artists who paved their own paths.

Which areas of Speculative Fiction interest you most?

The ones that straddle borders, that place as much emphasis on beautiful writing as on plot. The areas that aren’t easily classifiable but sometimes go by slipstream, magic realism, the fantastic, interstitial. 

Poetry is sometimes a neglected medium in genre fiction. What made you choose it?

I’ve always been part-poet, part-fiction writer, so it only made sense that the album be part-poetry, part-fiction.

Many of the first fantasy stories and sagas appeared in metric verse, or verse forms. Song lyrics have huge popularity. Is there scope for longer works?

Sure, but I think it’s been obscured in modern society. It’s likely a question of our needing to push through until it finds its place again. 

What have been your influences?

I’m constantly influenced not only by the work from writers I love but also by musicians, visual artists, dancers, filmmakers. I’m always seeking out new and interesting work. Recently, I’ve been influenced a great deal by My Brightest Diamond’s music. Her lyrics create these other worlds that always inspire something in me. Contemporary artists I’ve stumbled upon over the years influence me greatly: Kathleen Lolley, Katy Horan. Films that cross boundaries effortlessly or utilize the fantastic as metaphor: TiMER, Melancholia, Miranda Julie’s The Future, Monsters, Velvet Goldmine, everything Darren Aronofsky’s made.

As for literature, as a kid I was greatly affected by fairy tales and weird stories. I was ravenous for Louis Sachar’s Wayside School books. They were so bizarre and fun and clever. In middle school my mom bought me the graphic novel Black Hole and my sister bought me Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and both of those books showed me how dark and intriguing fantasy could be. In high school we were assigned Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, and that was one of the first experiences I had with seeing feminist issues explored in a book that could be considered science fiction. I’m influenced by books, too, that don’t entirely distinguish between poetry and story, like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red or José Saramago’s Blindness. I strive to always house a bit of the poetic in my fiction.

About Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam and Peter Brewer:



Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction and poetry has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies both literary and speculative including The Toast, Clarkesworld, PRISM International, Lightspeed, Hobart, and Everyman's Library's Monster Verse. She's had stories reprinted in French and Polish, for numerous podcasts, and on the popular science blog io9. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast Program and created and curates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas. She is active on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle and on her website

Peter Brewer is the owner and operator of Easy Brew Studio. He holds a BM in Jazz Studies: Trumpet Performance from the University of North Texas and an MM in Jazz Studies: Composition/Arranging from the University of Oregon. He has performed with many groups, including the UNT 2 o'clock lab band, Cas Hailey, Amanda Palmer, and Donny McCaslin. His arrangements and original pieces have been performed for the Oregon Jazz Ensemble featuring musicians such as Dan Balmer and Steve Wilson. Peter grew up in Kansas City, MO, with a family of musicians who taught him to appreciate sound. 

Bonnie and Peter live in north Texas with their literarily-named cats Gimli and Don Quixote.

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