Emily B. Cataneo is a writer and journalist. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from magazines such as Nightmare, Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts, Black Static, Interzone, and The Dark. She was longlisted for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, and her debut short story collection Speaking to Skull Kings is currently out from JournalStone. She is a 2013 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a 2016 graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop. She is currently pursuing her MFA at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, as well as working at an online feminist historical archive. She likes crafts, history, hats, and dogs.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: You’ve traveled widely, and I’m curious if there were any early experiences that may have helped spark your love of travel?
Emily B. Cataneo: I didn’t travel too much when I was a kid. My family was more about taking local vacations on the East Coast. So other countries were a mystery to me. But I was always fascinated by other places, I suppose because I read a lot, as many writers do when they’re kids. A lot of the books I liked to read were set in the 19th or 20th centuries, and took place in other parts of the world. I loved the Betsy-Tacy series when I was a kid, for example, which is this series about girls growing up in Minnesota at the beginning of the 20th century, with one book devoted to each year of their lives. When Betsy is 20, in 1913, her parents let her go on a grand tour of Europe; she visits Munich, Venice, Madeira, and has quite the adventures. I found this notion captivating. So you could say that books sparked an interest in me in seeing these other places, these cool, mystical lands that felt almost as fictional to me as Narnia or Hogwarts.
When I was in high school I got my first opportunity to go abroad. My school had an exchange program with a high school in Russia. We didn't have too many study abroad programs at my high school, but one of the teachers had founded this program during the Cold War in the 1980s to try to facilitate dialogue between Russian and American teenagers. I don’t think it exists anymore, but it still existed in 2005 when I was a sophomore. I begged my parents to let me go and they finally gave in. I'm not sure I would have allowed my teenage daughter to go on that trip, as we were pretty unsupervised, but at any rate, I found myself captivated by the museums, historic sites, and streetscapes I saw (seriously, I was a nerdy teenager) and by the people I met in Russia. I sort of got hooked on travel from then on out.
AZA: We move now from your high school days to your dream to want to live in Berlin. What led to that very specific vision you had for yourself? And how did living in Berlin for two years help shape the course of your subsequent life?
EC: To be honest, I always dreamed as a teenager that I would move to Paris some day, which is totally clichéd. I mean, in my defense, Paris occupies a huge place in the cultural myth about writers and artists. But still. Anyway, I traveled a lot in Europe when I was studying abroad in London, and I visited Paris and loved it. But I also visited Berlin. I went there for the first time in the dead of winter. It was a hard weekend, in a way, because it was snowy and freezing and I didn’t know anything about the city; I didn’t have the same cultural knowledge that I had of places like Paris and London. But something about it fascinated me. After I left I just couldn’t stop thinking about this place whose history is written so evocatively and intensely in its architecture and in its cityscape. This city has continually forged new identities for itself over the decades, and has been the site of such great artistic creation and also the site of such horrors. I was thinking about all that and reading about what it was like to live in the city today, and I learned it was quite cheap. It may be one of the last affordable central or Western European capitals. And I thought, “What if I moved there?” I found out that Americans can get a freelancer visa in Germany pretty easily. I was twenty-five, and I thought, “This is the right time. There’s nothing really keeping me in Boston so I’m going to see if I can make this work.” At every step I expected something to come up that would prevent me from going. Most Americans don't move to other countries as easily or lackadaisically as people in Europe seem to do (of course, I should qualify that statement by pointing out that Europe's borders are often not so open when it comes to migrants and refugees from other lands). At any rate, I went there without speaking the language, without a job, without a visa yet, and I stayed for two years. It ended up being challenging in some ways, but ultimately an amazing experience.
I think that living in another country grants you a lot of perspective on your own country and your own life. Living in Germany made me appreciate some aspects of the United States, such as how, in my perspective, customer service is better here. But it also made me wish the United States would emulate Germany in some respects. I grew to respect how Germany grapples with its history; I wish we had Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which is one of those long German words that describes a concept, in this case the struggle to overcome the negatives of the past. I think that’s something we would do well to adopt here in the States. On a more personal level, moving to another country teaches you that you can make friends anywhere, that you can navigate most unusual or strange situations. I do think the hardest part about living overseas is being so far away from friends and family. That was the thing I struggled with the most.
Berlin was also instrumental to my identity as a writer. I got involved in the literary scene there, participating in a reading series at this English language bookstore called Another Country (look it up if you're ever there!) and eventually starting my own English language reading series at this other bookstore called Poor and Literate (also look that one up!). I learned so much about crafting and nurturing a literary community there.
Finally, I wrote my first novel, The Elephant Gang Girl, when I was in Berlin. I’m working on refining it right now. It's a YA/crossover novel with gothic and fairytale influences that takes place in Germany during World War I and deals with themes of female friendship and the civilian experience during war. Being there and seeing the places where my characters were living out the novel was really helpful and exciting. For example, one weekend, I was writing a scene where a character goes to the Hotel Esplanade, which was this fancy early twentieth century hotel in Potsdamer Platz. That same weekend, I found myself in Potsdamer Platz, and I passed the last remaining wall of that hotel, which is now preserved behind glass, since the hotel was mostly destroyed during World War 2. I just got this chill, knowing that I was walking the same streets that my fictional character had walked a century before.
Oh, and I also met my now-husband in Berlin!
AZA: Did Berlin influence the novel in other ways?
EC: I was inspired by all the art museums in Berlin, as well as museums all over Europe, for that matter. In Berlin, I loved visiting the Berlinische Galerie and the Brücke Museum, where I got to see German Expressionist works by artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. I was really steeped in the colors and emotions of that time period. I used to seek out art from that time, from the 1910s and 1920s, whenever I could. It's both a perfect distillation of that time period and a timeless reflection of intense emotion, of horror and joy and all that good stuff.
Now that I’m thinking about this, German Expressionist film may be an influence on my work too, either directly from seeing them or indirectly from that aesthetic filtering down through other works to me. All the stuff that came out of Studio Babelsberg in the 1920s, for example, particularly the silent films, which are so evocative and impressionistic. The aesthetic is really very haunting. It gets in your soul.
AZA: Part of your travel has been linked to your journalistic career, in which you’ve reported for publications like the Boston Globe and the Financial Times. I’m wondering how journalism has impacted your fiction-writing process, if it has?
EC: There’s definitely been an impact. Journalism teaches you empathy. You talk to people who have really different worldviews from you, who are coming from different places than you, who you might never talk to ordinarily. You have to try to understand things from their perspective. Otherwise you won’t be fair to them if you’re writing about them. I think empathy is a very important skill for a fiction writer. I also think that writers tend to focus inward a lot—at least I do when I’m writing fiction. Having another career that forces me to focus outward is really useful for my fiction (and also for my mental health!).
AZA: Your online bio says that your journalistic specialty is the eclectic profile. A number of your stories, such as “Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse,” have been praised for particularly rich characterization. If you had to write a journalistic profile about one of your own characters, who might that be, and why?
EC: What a great question! I think if I were doing a profile I would write about the main character from a very long novella that I wrote at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop last summer, which is about a flapper witch living in Weimar Republic Berlin who gets mixed up with a shady and nefarious occult film-maker. I would want to write about her because the novella is written in the first person and I wrote it purposefully with a really strong voice, so I think she would provide great quotes. Maybe that’s weird to say about someone that came out of my own head, but what can you do? She has an interesting life story, as evidenced by the flapper occultism, and also a large part of the novella is about female artists at that time having their stories subsumed by the male artists around them. So I would want to do a little journalistic justice by telling her story in a newspaper or magazine.
AZA: I look forward to that novella coming out. In terms of landscapes, is there a relationship for you between some of the real-life landscapes you’ve experienced and the mood or tone you strive to achieve in your stories?
EC: Definitely. I’m a visual person and a very visual writer. I always try to create a strong atmosphere in my stories. I love to travel and I love to see new landscapes, and I think I have an eye for the strange in a landscape, for the small details that both bring it to life and make you look at it a little bit askance. I really love reading stories that take place in strange worlds that are still in our world, worlds that are filtered through an unusual perspective. I think going to see other landscapes, whether they are a street-scape in the quiet side streets of Prague or a stone mountain in China, trains you to try to capture the strange and the unusual in your work. That being said, when you’ve seen a lot of different places and then you go back to where you’re from—which in my case is an 18th-century colonial farmhouse by the ocean in New Hampshire—you can start seeing your home with a strange eye as well.
AZA: In several of your science and history book reviews for the Christian Science Monitor you talk about narrative, and these days you work at a historical archive. What does narrative mean to you, broadly speaking, and do you find any overlap between narrative in the history you’re studying and the narrative you create in your fiction?
EC: Good question. I think I’ll answer by telling the story of how the archive where I work was founded, because it’s illustrative of what I think about narrative. It's a specifically feminist archive that gathers the stories of Jewish women and their contributions to American history, both in the past and today. The archive was founded by a woman who was an academic in the 1990s, who was attending a conference on the history of the Labor movement in the United States, and Jewish contributions to that. She noticed during the conference that the only people who were being talked about were men. As an academic, she knew about many women who had contributed to that movement, and so she went up to the presenters afterwards and asked them why they hadn’t talked about any women. They said, “Oh, we wouldn’t even know where to find those stories.” And she said, “Well, I’m going to make a place where you can find those stories.” I think that origin tale illustrates this narrative that we have about history—and about fiction—that tends to prioritize a certain kind of story about certain kinds of people. That story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the more stories you read with the same kind of narrative, and the same kinds of characters experiencing those narratives, the more you grow to expect and replicate those kinds of stories. So I think it’s really important to have disrupting narratives and disrupting characters, like the woman who founded the Jewish Women's Archive, to make our cultural narrative more rich.
AZA: I noticed that the illustrations for the short story links on your website are quite distinctive. Did you make those?
EC: I wish! That is actually artwork by one of my dear friends from high school, who is an interdisciplinary artist. She does photography and painting and she’s also a writer; she’s starting an MFA program this fall as well. I commissioned her to do those drawings for me. Her name is Ayden LeRoux. It’s always interesting to see what images people come up with for my stories, when I have a different set of images and colors and atmospheric landscapes in my mind when I’m writing them. With those pictures we aimed to create a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, about my fiction.