Graduate’s Corner: What is “Interstitial,” and Is It Contagious? by Ellen Denham

EllenHeadshot2014Ellen Denham, a 2006 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, is a multidisciplinary performing artist and writer completing a doctorate in music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Her publications include stories in Daily Science Fiction, the Sky Warrior Books anthology Gears and Levers 3, and most recently the Lightspeed special Women Destroy Science Fiction issue.

A member of the board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, Ellen is at her most interstitial when she is combining her music and writing and collaborating with other artists, for instance, creating a comic soundscape from internet memes or an improvised score for dancing sentient mineral blobs, both of which occurred in projects she has directed at the  Indy Convergence. Read more at

(In our January post, Delia Sherman talked about her work with the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Some readers had questions about the nature of interstitial arts, so we asked Ellen to elucidate on the subject and tell us how it might intersect with writing.)

You may have come across the term “interstitial” used to describe writing or art.  In its most basic dictionary definition, interstitial means “relating to or situated in the interstices”–the small spaces in between things.  In an artistic sense, interstitial art is anything that is hard to define because it straddles or crosses boundaries of genre or artistic discipline, or falls outside of mainstream traditions.

Many books don’t fit neatly into one genre–for example, Susanna Clarke’s multiple award-winning Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  Is it historical fiction?  Alternate history?  Fantasy?  I heard Clarke talk about this book at Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005, and as I recall, somewhere in the publishing or marketing process, a question arose about whether the book was fantasy.  “Of course it’s fantasy!  It has magicians and fairies in it!”  she had replied.  But the consciously old-fashioned writing style and extensive footnotes borrowed from mainstream literary traditions gave this book broad appeal to readers both inside and outside the fantasy genre.

Other interstitial works may cross boundaries of artistic discipline–for instance, a poet and a choreographer collaborating on a reinterpretation of Swan Lake--or works may be presented in interstitial ways.  At Mythcon in Berkeley in 2007, I heard Ellen Kushner (coincidentally, one of the founders of the Interstitial Arts Foundation–more about that later) give a presentation in which she read from her fantasy novel Thomas the Rhymer and seamlessly incorporated the singing of several ballads from the story.  This unique performance wasn’t simply a reading, it wasn’t quite a play or a musical, but it was definitely interstitial and added a lot to my appreciation of the book.

Something may be interstitial because it lies outside the mainstream or because no one has a name for it yet; then later it becomes an established movement.  Opera is an example because of the many artistic disciplines involved–music, drama, dance, costumes, scenery, and lighting.   It was brand new back in the early 1600s when a group of folks in Italy got together to reinvent drama.  But now, it’s such a long-standing tradition that it would be a stretch to describe, say, a conventional production of Madama Butterfly as interstitial.  But as large opera companies have financial difficulty, smaller companies are attracting new audiences by doing more interstitial work–for instance, a Thompson Street Opera production of Emily, a new chamber opera by Eva Kendrick about the life of Emily Dickinson, incorporating Dickinson’s poetry.

What does this mean for writers?

Do you have a story you’re not sure how to categorize?  Have editors told you to make changes so that it fits more neatly in a genre or subgenre?  Writing things that defy categorization may seem like a downside–after all, we all want to sell our work.  However, trends change, and if you’ve got an idea you passionately believe in, why not give it a chance rather than censoring your material before you even sit down to write?  I’m currently re-reading Octavia Butler, once of my favorite authors, and I’m still astounded by how ground-breaking and genre-crossing much of her work seems, even 20 or more years after the publication date.  Before 1980, it might have seemed inconceivable that Wild Seed, a novel that begins in pre-colonial Africa and involves powers like shapeshifting and telekinesis (some might say more magic than science), would become a science fiction classic and would be later claimed as part of a new movement called Afrofuturism.  Even if your book isn’t interstitial, you may want to promote it in interstitial ways, such as book trailers or dramatic readings with music or video projections.  In the internet age, we have a variety of tools at our disposal to present our work beyond the page.

The benefits of interstitiality include the freedom to engage in ideas without constraints, collaboration and cross-pollination with creative people in other fields (Would your sci-fi story make a good opera?  Get to know a composer!), borrowing from diverse traditions, appealing to audiences’ thirst for novelty, and possibly, the chance to be on the cutting edge of something new.  Keep in mind that terms like “steampunk” or “Afrofuturism” arose to describe something already out there that no one had a name for yet.

How do I know if my work is interstitial?

Because the interstitial art movement is about defying categories rather than simply creating a new one, there’s no one hard and fast definition.  If you feel your story falls outside of usual genre conventions or tropes, if you borrow from a variety of writing styles or traditions, or if you struggle to find things to compare it with, it probably is interstitial.  If you want to see some examples of writing that the editors of Interfictions consider interstitial, check out the online issue 3, a collaboration between the Interstitial Arts Foundation and Small Beer Press, here:  Interfictions 3.   I would be remiss not to note that previous issues of Interfictions contain the work of Odyssey Writing Workshop graduates Michael J. DeLuca, Theodora Goss, and Kathrin Köhler.  Find out more about interstitial art in this essay by Ellen Kushner about the founding of the Interstitial Arts Foundation.

Is it contagious?

Absolutely!  This is one of the best parts of interstitiality.  Even if what you write does end up fitting pretty neatly into a genre, reading outside of genre, experiencing a variety of arts events, and collaborating with those outside of your genre and discipline, will inform and strengthen your work.  Consider it cross-training for your creative muscles.  Once you experience creating outside of the mold, you may never want to go back.



One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Ellen Denham and commented:
    I am guest blogging today at the Odyssey Writing Workshop blog. Find out what interstitial art is and what this means for writers!

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