If you haven’t read Triptych by J.M. Frey you are doing yourself a disservice. The novel, Frey’s first, was released in April of 2011 and has been amassing positive reviews like a Katamari ever since, one of the shiniest being a starred Publisher’s Weekly review calling it a “deeply satisfying debut.” It is a science fiction novel in the most unambiguous sense, with spaceships and aliens and time travel, but the thing that makes it truly stand out is a love story that is deeply affecting and thoroughly human, for all that one of the paramours is not human at all.
I had the opportunity to sit down with J.M. recently at Dora Keogh on the Danforth. Over Guinness and red wine, mine and hers respectively, we talked about Triptych, fandom, and her upcoming projects.
An established academic with a Masters degree from the joint Ryerson and York University Communications and Culture program, Frey has presented academic papers on fandom and fan culture at international conferences and works as a researcher. On her website she describes herself as a “fanthropologist” — someone who engages in anthropological study of fans and fandom culture.
“I wish I could say I made that up myself,” she says. “It came from a LiveJournal community that earlier in the decade was very active; it called itself the fanthropology community so when it came time to describe myself in one word, I was just ‘ooh, fanthropologist,’ that’s a great word.”
Fandom is such a fundamental part of science fiction, it is easy to imagine that it is something unique to genre, not existing in the wider world of the arts, but Frey cautions against that kind of thinking. “It does exist. That’s the thing. ‘Gleeks’ are the perfect example of it. ‘Gleeks,’ by the way, are musical theatre fans and we’ve been around forever we just didn’t have a name for ourselves until the show Glee became so popular. So there’s fan culture for musical theatre, there’s cosplayers. I was one of the cats from Cats for Hallowe’en one year. It exists. And I would say sports fans are another example. Think about it: They paint their faces and they wear costumes. They’re not Gretzky, why are they wearing Gretzky’s jersey? It’s the same as me wearing an SG-1 jacket when I’m not a member of SG-1. It’s a uniform for aligning themselves with the subculture.
“Fantasy Football, tell me that’s not fan fiction. And you have train enthusiasts who wear engineer’s hats and have albums and albums of train pictures. It’s no different. Every pursuit you have the casual fans who might collect comics — on a Wednesday go into their local and buy some books — and then there’s the hardcore people who go to Comicon. It's like people who watch the ball game on TV and people who buy season's tickets. I think there’s fandom everywhere. The thing with genre is that it’s imaginative. It requires you to have an active imagination to enjoy it and therefore attracts imaginative people. And imaginative people are generally creative people and they express their interest through creative endeavours. They get more involved. It’s more than just purchasing the proof of their love, they create the proof of their love. And I think it’s fabulous.”
She is a hard woman to disagree with, her arguments coming out fully formed and dense with examples and citations in a way that few people can manage without a Web browser open. But still, I had to bring up literary fiction. Surely there is no equivalent of SF fandom in the realm of mainstream non-genre literature. “Of course there is," Frey responded instantly. "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, what is that but fan fiction. Jane Austen’s work is always being remixed and recontextualized and retold, taken apart and put back together. I read this — not amazing, but very well written — book called Pride/Prejudice and the woman admitted to getting the title from slash fan fiction. And have you seen the movie The Jane Austen Book Club? It’s about these five women and one man who form a book club and they study the six books of Jane Austen. And there really are book clubs devoted solely to Jane Austen. And there’s Bridget Jones’ Diary which is clearly a recontextualization. And there’s the Jane Austen Tour and there’s the Jane Austen House and her home in Chawton. These are pilgrimage sites, just like conventions are pilgrimage sites. There are even Jane Austen tea parties where people dress up in Regency gowns and Regency suits and other era-appropriate outfits and that’s purely cosplay. Actually, I was Lizzie Bennett for Hallowe’en one year and my friend was Mr. Darcy. So there is certainly fandom.”
Frey herself has benefited from fandom culture, its combination of openness and creativity. “If you want to be an electrician, do you spend years studying Edison, or do apprentice yourself to an electrician? If you want to write genre, you apprentice yourself to the community. I apprenticed myself to the fan fiction community. I started writing fan fiction for Dracula: The Series and Sailor Moon when I was eleven years old. I wrote thousands upon thousands of pages of fan fiction and through it I honed my craft and my style. And now I write novels.”
Triptych, then, is at least partially the result of one of the great things about genre — that it doesn’t create an artificial boundary between creators and consumers. “Most creators were fans first – they move from one side of the convention table to the other. There’s that whole hegemonic theory that says ‘art is something that happens over there.’ There’s the Mona Lisa on the wall, there’s the velvet rope and you stand over here. The greater the distance between me and that art, socially, historically, financially, the better the ‘art.’ So television is less of an art because it’s in our homes and it panders to us. And then you get literary fiction which is Art-with-a-capital-A because it’s something that’s done by those artists over there while science fiction is written by fans. That guy who’s in line beside me to get Stan Lee’s autograph could totally be Scott Westerfield.”
At the same time, Triptych is not strictly genre in its pedigree. “It was frustrating trying to sell Triptych because it has a very literary voice. By the way, when I talk about literary fiction, I’m talking about it as a genre. It’s got its own tropes and its own stereotypes and its own biases. And, unintentionally Triptych became very literary while I was writing it. It plays out like a literary book. And it would be literary fiction if not for the time travel and aliens. It’s a book about two guys and a girl and if, instead of Kalp being an alien, he was named Karl and was African-American ... I had a huge problem trying to sell it because the science fiction people were like ‘Where’s the big space battle? It’s not very science fiction, is it?’ and then literary fiction people were like ‘But there’s time travel and an alien. This is genre fiction.’ Then, luckily, Gabrielle Harbowy at Dragon Moon Press saw what I was doing and encouraged it and loved it and went running like a gleeful child apparently to the publishers and said ‘We have to have this.’”
Triptych was published by Dragon Moon Press both electronically and in print. Though Frey did not have exact numbers on the breakdown of sales between the two versions, it is clear that electronic sales make up a large fraction. “People ask me if I’m worried that in the future, my books might be published only as eBooks. And the truth is that for sentimental reasons I would personally like to have a paper copy but other than that the prospect doesn’t scare me. They’re still buying my book. I don’t care how they read it, how they consume it, I still get to tell the story. In fact the novella I’m working on now, The Dark Side of the Glass (and for Forever Knight fans, that title means exactly what you think it does) is coming out in eBook only, with the possibility of a print edition later. But there is something warm and fuzzy about being in brick and mortar stores. It's actually a bit disappointing that I'm not in many. When I’m out with my author friends — Adrienne Kress, Lesley Livingston, and Laurie Channer — and we walk into a bookstore there’s an unspoken rule that we head around to everyone’s section, flip their books face out and then walk away. Oh look, there’s Adrienne’s book, we’ll just put that one cover up and recommend it to that kid and his mom and now Lesley’s book and then we go over to science fiction and sometimes my book isn’t there and you do feel less legitimate. But that’s ridiculous.”
Setting nostalgia for books as artifacts aside, one of the other fears raised by the spectre of digital publishing is that of lower standards and less editorial involvement. “Well, there is [a concern]. I hate the term ‘gatekeeper’ because there’s a sort of Gandalf-like ‘You shall not pass’ adversarial element to it. But I firmly believe that no artist can work to their complete ability without the input of others. Steven Spielberg is a genius, but he still has an assistant director and an editor. J.K. Rowling writes amazing stuff, but she still has an editor. And that person’s job is to find what you as the artist, because you are too close to the work, can’t see.”
Every couple of years, when some new technology or service becomes available, or when another self-published writer makes a splash, people begin proclaiming self-publishing and print-on-demand to be the future of publishing. Of course, this has not yet come to pass and one reason is almost certainly that self-published so often means published without the involvement of an editor. But Frey is quick to point out that traditional publishers don’t always keep the bar as high as they might either. “You still see stuff from the major houses where you go ‘Oh my god, how did this get past editorial?’ For example — and I’m going to align myself with Stephen King here — the Twilight books are bad. They are poorly written. And I don’t blame Stephanie Meyer, I blame her editor. Because it is the editor's job to find comma splices and misued semi-colons, and massive gaping plot holes and unbelievable characterization. In her case though, it doesn’t matter. She has tapped into the most powerful thing as a writer — whether accidental or not — she has crafted the perfect Mary Sue. The kind of Mary Sue that the readers love as well as the writer, and that's so very rare. And that is why she’s popular, because thousands of housewives, thousands of soccer moms, millions of teenaged girls want that ‘He loves me because I’m special’ even though they’re not special at all. And that is genius.”
While she hasn’t yet reached King or Meyer heights, J.M. Frey is a rising star in science fiction. In addition to Triptych, she has a story in the anthology When the Hero Comes Home, also from Dragon Moon Press, and another novel in progress.