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    The Gilda Stories

    BT 4.7.16 1-32_Page_01_Image_0001Interview with Jewelle Gomez, Author of The Gilda Stories

    Our thanks go to Jewelle Gomez, for taking time out of her busy coast-to-coast schedule for this recent interview.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What led you to write a vampire novel?

    Jewelle Gomez: The first Gilda story was written as an angry response to being harassed on the street by a couple of guys. Instead of scurrying away, I screamed at them so hard they ran. They thought I was a mad woman, and I was. That led me to think about a character that people think is powerless and how she could turn the tables on them. Kind of a revenge story at first, but it developed into being more than that.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What makes Gilda different from other vampires?

    Jewelle Gomez: I developed Gilda over time thinking about how a woman with power might act differently from those who’d abused the power they had over her. I wanted a kind of lesbian feminist hero rather than a serial killer. So the book is focused on how Gilda learns to restrain herself and use her power. She’s not wracked with guilt like some literary vampires because she finds her place among mortals without exploiting them. How we create families is always a central ingredient in vampire stories, and that’s something Gilda has in common with others. She has to learn what’s the safe way to create family around you.

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    San Francisco Bay Times: How did you find a publisher for such a non-traditional character as Gilda?

    Jewelle Gomez: I was fortunate to be writing during the height of the women’s press movement. Unlike today there were so many women’s bookstores across the country, and lesbian feminist magazines, like Conditions, and presses, like Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, were going strong. None of the mainstream publishers were interested in Gilda, but Nancy Bereano was enthusiastic about the book from the beginning. She founded Firebrand Books, one of the premiere lesbian feminist presses—it published Dorothy Allison, Cheryl Clarke, Audre Lorde, and Leslie Feinberg, so I felt lucky to land there. She guided me through the yearlong editing process, which is so important for a first novel. We only took a break during the Clarence Thomas hearings because it was so upsetting listening to his inept ignorance and hearing how the white men on the committee tried to discredit Anita Hill. We couldn’t concentrate! We just needed to vent! If I could have worked that into the Gilda narrative I would have. Maybe they’ll show up in the sequel!

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    San Francisco Bay Times: Were you always interested in science fiction or horror?

    Jewelle Gomez: As a kid I always watched things like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits on TV, then Star Trek, and in college I was a fanatic about the novel Dune. I loved the idea of new worlds and how they might develop differently from our world. Then in the 1970s I read the feminist speculative fiction writers who were blossoming; Joanna Russ was especially a writing role model for me. Her language and humor were fabulist and fabulous.

    San Francisco Bay Times: How does it fit in with your other writing, such as essays, fiction or poetry?

    Jewelle Gomez: In my fiction I get to put into practice the lesbian/feminism that I write about in my essays. I can create a character who acts from the principles I think are vital to human survival and try to make it fun. That’s why genre fiction is so great: people read along easily and the ‘lesson’ or ‘moral’ isn’t heavy handed…if one does it well.  Same with writing poetry: I’m looking at topics and ideas that touch me as a feminist again—family, power, cultural change, etc. In poetry I’m trying to evoke an emotional response from the reader through word images rather than reasoned arguments or characters.

    San Francisco Bay Times: How does your social consciousness inform or inhibit your writing?

    Jewelle Gomez: When I started writing Gilda, she was more like the traditional vampire; that is, taking blood and leaving a trail of dead bodies. Then I realized I didn’t want to write about a serial killer. I was more interested in the philosophical meaning of living forever. Having made that decision for her not to kill every time she took blood, I then had to stretch myself to find a way to make her vampirism interesting. That led me to the idea of exchange that is part of a larger philosophical core I have that comes out of feminism and Native American beliefs. It feels good to me as a writer to be challenged not to fall into the traditional ways of viewing a character or a mythology. I think that challenge makes for better writing. When I teach I try to get students to insert twists and turns in their characters and plots so they are forced to think differently.

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    San Francisco Bay Times: What has made The Gila Stories stay in print for 25 years?

    Jewelle Gomez: When I started writing the book I had no idea who would read it. I had some fans in New York City from readings I’d done, but I had no idea that vampire fans can be so devoted. If someone is into vampire lore they look for new and different interpretations all the time. So, while it took a while for the book to have an audience outside the lesbian community, when it broke through it might show up anywhere. The Internet definitely helped because online discussions about vampires are ubiquitous. The other benefit was that colleges started teaching classes in reading and writing speculative fiction. And, at the time, Gilda was the only Black, lesbian vampire. And it had the historical aspect to it, so it fit into other lit classes as well, like slave narratives and African American lit.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What kinds of lectures and classes do you give when you travel with The Gilda Stories?

    Jewelle Gomez: The most popular lecture has been how to reshape mythology and rid it of its exploitational aspects.  I guess the discussion goes into the philosophy of Gilda and what we can learn from her about power and building community. I do some classes on writing speculative fiction from the different perspectives students have and how it can help us think about social change. I love doing sessions on the images of African American women and how they’ve been demeaned and what images we can develop in response to that.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are some of the changes Gilda has seen since she first emerged?

    Jewelle Gomez: When Gilda first emerged I think there was still a sense of hope; that there were still possibilities of turning the culture around so that exploitation of marginalized people could be seen as the negative thing it is. Instead, times seem to have regressed to the Stone Age so that whoever has the biggest stick or largest bank roll gets the respect.  People are more easily swayed to vote against their own interested for the easy satisfaction of supporting someone’s swagger. When a segment of the population decides it’s great to kill off health care that’s benefiting them specifically or that they cheer on retro racism from a millionaire like Trump, we have what I call the ‘John Wayne affect.’ No one really cares about his substance; it’s just about the image of the big daddy who comes in to solve all your problems with a rude quip that makes you laugh. Nobody pays attention to the results. Or maybe life was always like this and we just didn’t notice.

    San Francisco Bay Times: For those of us who have loved Gilda for years, what is new/added in the expanded 25th anniversary edition?

    Jewelle Gomez: More than anything it’s the context that my essay and that of Alexis Pauline Gumbs provides that expands this edition. Gilda was the product of a very specific time and, as Alexis writes about the current affect the book has on contemporary readers, they get a stronger historical context.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What was the biggest challenge you faced when transforming the novel into a staged musical How did that affect your writing the James Baldwin or the Alberta Hunter plays?

    Jewelle Gomez: Once I realized we couldn’t do the full novel on stage, I started to relax. At first I imagined something like Nicholas Nickleby, which lasted seven hours; that was a daunting prospect! But deciding to rewrite just two chapters made things work. The language of the novel presented other challenges. It’s somewhat based in the periods of each chapter, so using older language idioms from the 1800s without making the actors sound too stiff was a real challenge. I have to say that the Urban Bush Women Company made my work easy! The performers each embraced the characters and language and made them their own.

    Working on the play version of Gilda, Bones and Ash, helped me understand how much I enjoy the collaborative aspect of doing theatre. Since then I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by people whose work I admire and respect who can help me with my process. And I learned where music and dance could speak for the characters and I could be quiet!

    Of course the James Baldwin play, Waiting for Giovanni, was a delight because he was such a lover of words so I could revel in his language and feel like I was writing poetry. And my collaborator, Harry Waters Jr, encouraged me to make Baldwin live through the style of language.

    With the Alberta Hunter piece, Leaving the Blues, it’s much more a case of what she doesn’t say. She’s older, living in a time when being black, lesbian, and a singer is near to impossible for her. So it is, again, like poetry: what’s not there is as significant as what’s said.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What other types of speculative fiction do you write?

    Jewelle Gomez: I’m not into the science part of the fiction as much as the social aspects. I write some ghost stories. I have a novella that’s about a woman getting a full body tattoo of her lover, which is meant to bind them together and it has unexpected consequences. I’m working on another story called “The Automat,” where people can go there and download memories, like we used to be able to put in a quarter and pull a sandwich out of a dispenser. But there, again, are unexpected consequences to revisiting one’s past.

    San Francisco Bay Times: How does your writing connect with the Queer community?

    Jewelle Gomez: I had the good fortune of coming into my writing life when queer movements were exploding. ACT UP was emerging, and I was on the founding board of GLAAD, so I got to participate in a lot of local activism. I also got to write for lesbian feminist publications, and to work with lesbian writers who were formative to the movement and to literature, like Audre and Cherrie Moraga, so I was shaped by that which added on to my cultural experiences as a woman of color raised poor in this society. I bring all those things to my work, and I think readers feel connected to what I have to say. I’m not preaching or lecturing; I’m just telling a story.

    I also think my lesbian feminist consciousness leads me to be inclusive in my writing. In my ‘Automat’ story, I’m struggling with pronouns, trying to imagine what they might be a hundred years from now and that reflects what Transpeople are going through right now. My secondary characters in Gilda are Native American and South American and more. Being Queer means we interact with more different kinds of people than we would if we stayed in a straight world. I love seeing that reflected in my writing and I think people love seeing themselves.

    San Francisco Bay Times: So many of us look forward to catching up with you at the upcoming Gilda anniversary events. If not previously mentioned, what other projects do you have in the works now?

    Jewelle Gomez: I am trying to write more short stories like “The Automat” and get them out into the world. I haven’t done much of that lately. And I am working on a second Gilda novel; its chapters will take place alternating with the chapters in the original novel. The new book will be a bit denser and maybe somewhat less upbeat. It keeps its humanist perspective, but it will show more of the down side of being a vampire. Responding to popular demand, it will also delve more into the life of Anthony and Sorel, two favorite characters. We’ll see them more in action. The new novel will also show more of how Gilda develops her sense of power and her sense of humor!