Lizzy Librarian Interviews Alexandra West
Hello again, dear reader. One thing I love about the horror genre is its academic value. When I discover a new resource, I’m thrilled. When I find it is developed by one of my favourite podcasters, I now I have to get my hands on it. Such a discovery happened when Alexandra West, cohost the Faculty of Horror podcast, announced the publication of her book, Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity. I had the distinct privilege of interviewing her for Women in Horror Month. I must admit to a bit of fangirling at this opportunity. Anyway, onto the interview!
AW: The Faculty of Horror is hosted by myself and my colleague and friend Andrea Subissati. We discuss horror films and themes through an academic lens. Our goal is always to make the conversation accessible and inclusive while having fun. It’s very focused in terms of content but we’ve covered a wide range of topics in four years of episodes.
I approached Andrea about starting a podcast when I was first starting listening to them on a regular basis in 2012. I approached Andrea because we were becoming friends and while we had similar political and taste leanings our interpretations were different from one another so it felt like we could add something to the podcasting landscape. Our first episode went live at the end of December 2012 and we’ve been putting out episodes monthly and refining what we do along the way.
LW: The Faculty of Horror focuses its lens of analysis on horror in such a way that gives the frequently maligned genre the intellectual attention it deserves. This is one of the many reasons it’s one of my favourite podcasts. What does the selection and research process look like for the podcast?
AW: Andrea and I have a Google Doc where we add in topics that either we come up with or our listeners suggest so it’s a pretty long list. Then we look at what we’ve covered in the past and what we want to talk about coming up so we can get in a good variety of films and topics. Initially we’d share our research but as we’ve gotten more comfortable and familiar with our process we research pretty independently from each other and run each other through what we plan to talk about right before we record so we can respond to each other in real time which keeps it fresh for us.
LW: I love the energy and passion for the topics you and Andrea bring to the podcast. How do you keep it up?
AW: For me it’s twofold, we get to curate content that we’re both passionate about and tackle subjects in ways that you don’t always see or hear in mainstream film journalism. And on top of that, I get to hang out with Andrea and we have a lot of fun, recording the Faculty of Horror is always a highlight of my month.
LW: Do you need a librarian for anything? I’ll gladly volunteer.
AW: When all that money comes rolling in we’ll break ground on the Subissati West Library. It will be full of bats, wine and chips. We’ll definitely need some help with the bats.
LW: What was the most interesting aspect that you discovered during your research and writing for Films of the New French Extremity? Was there something you found that particularly surprised or unnerved you, or made you pause for thought?
AW: What unnerved me the most was how tied all these films were to French history. In North America there’s a tendency to glamourize France and French culture, but it can be an incredibly dark and violent place. Film at its best is like an unspoken language or history and the further I got in to researching and writing the book, the darker I realized this particular history was.
AW: I had seen High Tension, Martyrs and Inside all of which I loved so anything I could read about them, I did. Through that reading I discovered films like Irreversible, Trouble Every Day and In My Skin among others. They all had so much in common but were being kept in separate schools of thinking. High Tension and the like were grouped as horror proper but films like Irreversible and Twentynine Palms were kept in the art-house group. They told the stories in different ways but were all dealing with the past. I did some more research around French history and came to Kristin Ross’ exceptional book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture which really opened up a new way of thinking about these films and Ross’ book became one of my main sources.
LW: I have to admit my own naivety of this subgenre, but my interest has been piqued. For those of us new to the New French Extremity, what is the one film you would recommend to start with and why?
AW: If you’re a horror fan, I’d recommend starting with a film like High Tension or Inside, they’re both great in their own ways and speak to different aspects of New French Extremity but play with North American horror expectations so they feel kind of familiar. If you’re not a horror fan per se I’d recommend Baise-Moi, one of the most important and vital films I’ve ever seen.
LW: What struggles did you need to overcome during the writing of your book?
AW: The content of France’s history and the films I discuss in the book were really brutal. Most of the films are just plain hard to watch, not because they’re not well made or worthwhile but because they deal with events that society doesn’t like to talk about and they’re very confrontational. I had to be able to separate myself from the feelings these films brought up within me in order to write about them but I couldn’t discount my feelings, so the hardest part was finding that balance.
LW: Was there anything you wished you could have included in your book that you weren’t able to?
AW: Not currently. I think I gave everything I had to that book and it’s only been out for about 6 months. I may have some more thoughts in a few years but currently, for me, it’s all in there.
LW: The analyses you do on the films you write about are incredibly insightful, and it is clear you put a lot of time and research into each chapter. What external reading materials would you recommend as follow up resources to your book?
AW: Definitely Fast Cars, Clean Bodies. I would also recommend Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression by Martine Beugnet and Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema by Tim Palmer. All of those books are well-written and exceedingly well-researched.
LW: Did you come into writing this book with ideas that were challenged through the process?
AW: Not really, I’d sat with the topic for a while, thinking about it and researching it, writing bits and pieces as I went. The writing process for me was getting everything that had been kicking around my brain on the page.
LW: You discuss the downfall of this particular subgenre. Do you think there is any way it can come back, or be resurrected?
AW: As horror fans know, it’s always possible for something to be resurrected. It very well could be. I haven’t seen Raw which was directed by Julia Ducournau but I’m hoping to fix that very soon. For me, New French Extremity came out of policies put forward by the right-wing politician Nicolas Sarkozy (both as an Interior Minister and President of France), after he left office he was replaced by François Hollande a left leaning politician from the Socialist party. But they’ve got an election coming up at the end of April, and if you think Trump is scary, read up on Marine Le Pen.
LW: Is there any information you want people to know about your book that I haven’t covered?
AW: I don’t think so. But seriously, everyone read up on Marine Le Pen and her father. It’s chilling.
LW: Where can people pick up your book?
AW: You can order it from McFarland Books directly, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target… anywhere that sells intense books with blood-covered women on the cover.
LW: Do you have other book projects in development?
AW: I’m currently working on another book about the teen horror cycle of the 1990s also to be published by McFarland. I also contributed a chapter to the new book from Spectacular Optical entitled Yuletide Terror which should be out in time for the 2017 Holiday season.
LW: In addition to the Faculty of Horror podcast, where can people keep up with you online?
AW: You can follow me on Twitter @ScareAlex.
After reading Films of the New French Extremity and interviewing Alex, I have more resources I’ll be adding to my list. Check out her book. You won’t be disappointed.
Until next time, see you in the stacks….