Print this page

Interview With an Author: Jennifer Giesbrecht

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Jennifer Giesbrecht and her first book, The Monster of Elendhaven

Jennifer Giesbrecht is a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia where she earned an undergraduate degree in history, spent her formative years as a professional street performer, and developed a deep and reverent respect for the ocean. She currently works as a game writer for What Pumpkin Studios. In 2013 she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, XIII: Stories of Resurrection, Apex, and Imaginarium: The Best of Canadian Speculative Fiction. She lives in a quaint, historic neighbourhood with two of her best friends and five cats. The Monster of Elendhaven is her first book and she recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Monster of Elendhaven?

I had this sort of half-formed idea of doing Faust in reverse, where the Devil is roped into a bad deal with some sort of dreadfully pathetic, earthly figure. What I didn’t count on is the fact that I’m extremely uninterested in the deeply Christian/Humanist themes that underpin in the most popular versions of Faust; see—I’m really fascinated by the period where the 19th and 20th centuries are stitched together: irrationalism, psychoanalysis, fin de siecle, nationalism, the World Wars, etc. etc. I’m most well read in that era when all of Europe was straight up rejecting the values that Faust was built on...I just can’t connect to those Early Modern Period moral concerns, so instead of being a modern re-imagining of an old mythical monster, it became a love story about two monsters of Modernity itself.

Are Johann, Florian, Eleanor or any of the characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Johann and Florian grew out of characters that I’d been kicking around for awhile (with input from a couple of my brilliant friends, without whom I would get nothing done), but for the most part the cast is built to serve the story. Beneath their witty exteriors, Johann and Florian are largely walking metaphors for different forms of existential destruction on a societal level. Johann is being literal when he tells Eleanor that he is Elendhaven: he’s a howling void, the laughing chorus, representing a culture that voyeuristically longs for destruction because it has no vision for the future. The romantic vision of a serial killer, conjured up by the collective unconscious of people who are desperate to read about vile, perverted acts in the newspaper. Florian is the ghost of the pre-modern order clinging to the last of his privilege by the fingernails. Frail and petty, determined to drag society into the sea if it won’t restore his family to its throne. He forges the aimless nihilism of Johann into a weapon.

Eleanor is exactly the character I’d have written if this story were told from the hero’s point of view, rather than from the POV of the villain’s sidekick. Florian’s business and political contacts were probably inspired by the fact that I was reading Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace while polishing off my first draft. My head was very full of unscrupulous, dubiously competent mutton-chops and moustaches that winter.

What was your inspiration for Elendhaven (and especially the harbor formed by a volcanic crater)?

It was entirely subconscious in the first draft, but Elendhaven is pretty obviously inspired by my Hometown. Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a grimy little historic city built on rock, isolated (a peninsula city on a peninsula province), beset on all sides by awful weather and cradled by a truly foul harbour—one of the deepest in the world, with seven metres of silt covering all the cool shipwrecks that would be otherwise easy to excavate in cleaner water. Our local character is best illustrated by the fact that this rather grim Stan Rogers shanty about a group a privateers being brutally blown apart by cannonballs just off our shore is often sung triumphantly at bars and hockey games. We’re the city where the victims of the Titanic are buried.

The big thing that differentiates Halifax from other dreary ex-British ports, however, is that in 1917 two cargo ships collided in our harbour and caused the largest non-nuclear, accidental, man-made explosion history. It blew a literal hole in the city during a critical time of growth, and living here you get the sense that it never really recovered. I mean, the actual reasons behind Atlantic Canada’s relative poverty and stagnation are complex and have roots that pre-date Confederation, but the Explosion’s role in that stagnation is crucial local mythology, and it definitely wormed its way into my world-building: the mysterious, silt-laden harbour, the feeling like the city is a wound that’s still bleeding, the sense that the borders get smaller every year and anything that promises to revitalize the land is actually a surefire way to destroy what makes it special...

Well hey—don’t they say you’re supposed to write what you know?

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The basic architecture of the book is intact from the very first draft, so I didn’t actually cut anything—rather, I added a bunch of scenes at the request of my brilliant editor who felt the story really need more scenes of stuffy men passive aggressively sniping about railroad speculation. I probably could have written more about the many potential problems caused by territorial differences between rail gauge widths in this world I created. My one great regret...

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Terror by Dan Simmons, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and a very unorganized pile of costume jewelry.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Oh man, that’s a hard question. I read more fiction in elementary school than at any other time in my life. I was pretty obsessed with Tolkien, but pulpy fantasy made a deeper impression on me in some ways. I devoured Dragonlance, the Valdemar books, everything adjacent to the old Sword & the Sorceress anthologies…I also loved Wind in the Willows, and Great Expectations, and Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and Delany’s novellas like Empire Star and Ballad of Beta-2.

Actually, the more I think about it, The Lord of the Rings really was my favourite book for a long time. I feel kind of like I’ve outgrown it in a lot of ways, but there was something special about cracking it open that first time in the 90’s before the movie solidified all the imagery in the popular consciousness. The movies are great, but I miss that hazy mystique it had when the Mines of Moria were something between me, Tolkien, and this one extremely rad Alan Lee illustration I saw in a calendar back in 1997.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My mom didn’t put any restrictions on what books I could read, but I definitely remember ripping the covers off a couple of my X-Men comics out of fear she’d trash them for being too “gory”. She is very supportive of my writing, but quite aghast that I turned into a salacious horror writer despite her best efforts.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Samuel R. Delany, Vladimir Nabokov, James Tiptree Jr., Victor Hugo, Hilary Mantel.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Literally every single Canadian book we were assigned in high school. I’m sorry, Alistair MacLeod, your short stories are breath-taking, actually.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The one and only book I bought for the cover is called Gold and Iron: Bismark, Bleichroder, and the Building of the German Empire. It turned out to be one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Not a book, but Tiptree’s novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read? made me question the modern construction of historical/technological “progress” before I ever had the educational backing in historiography to understand why it was bunk. That story heavily re-oriented my political worldview.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I think everyone should read one piece of highly accredited history about a country, culture or event they know nothing about.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Lolita. I have never felt so wretched as I did reading the last page of that book. It was exquisite.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I am a simple girl and I like cons, where I can socialize and learn from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. and hang out with all the cool people I usually only get to talk to online. That’s a perfect day for me.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Everyone is always asking about literary inspirations! I want someone to ask me my top five most influential video games!

The answer: Xenogears, Silent Hill 3, Final Fantasy VII, Lunar: The Silver Star Story Complete, and the entire Metal Gear series.

What are you working on now?

Turning a messy 675 fantasy manuscript into what I hope will be an eminently readable door-stopper.