Category Archives: Gender Issues

Fall of Fair Isle

I can now talk about what is happening with my original trilogy, Fall of Fair Isle. (Back when it first came out the trilogy didn’t have a name but readers may remember it as The Last T’En).

Solaris Books, will be releasing the trilogy as an omnibus print edition, due for publication mid 2015, and it will also appear in e-book editions. This trilogy was not released in the UK and the third book was very hard to get so it will be lovely to have a new edition with (I hope) a wonderful cover by the talented Clint Langley, who did such a good job on The Outcast Chronicles.

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The Fall of Fair Isle tells a more intimate tale than The Outcast Chronicles. It begins where most fantasy books finish – after the great battle.

After the Ghebites invade Fair Isle, Imoshen (named for her ancestor, Imoshen the First) is the last surviving member of the royal family. She has to work with General Tulkhan, the Ghebite invader,  to save herself, her people and her way of life. Hers is a matriarchal society, his is a patriarchal society where the men can take three or four wives. The Ghebites fear the T’En, who they regard as closer to animals than True-men.

As for the T’En, when Imoshen the First led her people to this land, she told them to take partners from the locals, so that they would blend in and be accepted. The T’En inter-bred with the original inhabitants of Fair Isle, who were descended from the Ancients (a race of mystical beings) and their blood was diluted until there are very few pure T’En throwbacks. Six hundred years of this has changed the way the T’En gifts are expressed in full-bloods and half-bloods and much knowledge of old T’En lore has been lost. (They call the mystic plane, death’s shadow).

At the core of the trilogy is an exploration of gender politics, as Imoshen and Tulkhan try to find common ground. Despite their differences, they fall in love. To add to the complications, before the invasion Imoshen was betrothed to Reothe, the last of the T’En males. She broke her vows to him, to bond with General Tulkhan. Furious, Reothe leads the rebels in a bid to retake Fair Isle and claim Imoshen. She has to choose between Reothe, who wants to restore the T’En and create a new Golden Age and Tulkhan who is the best of True-men.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Australian Writers, Fantasy books, Female Fantasy Authors, Gender Issues

Hemming Award Shortlist Announced

The shortlist for the Norma K Hemming Award has been announced. ‘The Norma K. Hemming Award marks excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability’ and I feel very honoured to see my books in such esteemed company.

In no particular order with the judges’ comments:

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The novel Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (Random House Australia)

“Forsyth weaves together the stories of three vitally different women amongst the flavours and fortunes of 16th and 17th century France, exploring the themes of sex, sexuality, love, ageing, beauty, vengeance, jealousy and fear.”

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The novel Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)

“Sea Hearts takes us on a journey through what it means to be male and female, lover and loved, thing and person, and Lanagan’s rich prose goes beyond the fantastical towards new sensibilities and understandings.”

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The trilogy The Outcast Chronicles (comprising the novels BesiegedExile and Sanctuary) by Rowena Cory Daniells (Solaris)

“The Outcast Chronicles trilogyis a tour de force of extraordinarily detailed world building. Rowena has created political intrigue, attempts at genocide, a dangerous world of magic that many believe to be gods, with flawed, noble and ignoble characters on all sides. There is poetry and wit in the writing, and characters that stay with you long after you have finished this gripping trilogy.”

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The novel Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier (HarperVoyager)

“Winter Be My Shield is a suspenseful, grim, and gritty heroic fantasy novel – the first of a trilogy – set in a cold, wintry land. Jo Spurrier focuses the events around a dangerously powerful young woman, a horribly wounded war veteran, and a cruel, yet strangely sympathetic villain, all of them coming to terms with their tormented pasts. The author is a remarkably accomplished storyteller who must surely have a huge career ahead.”

 

The winner and runner-up of the Hemming Award will be announced at the national SF Convention, Conflux, next weekend. Best of luck to everyone and you are already winners.

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Filed under Australian Writers, Awards, Characterisation, Fantasy books, Female Fantasy Authors, Gender Issues

Meet Kirstyn McDermott…

I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the talented Kirstyn McDermott to drop by because her new book, Perfections, has just come out. Congratulations!

 

Q: Okay, first the really important question, your twitter handle is @fearofemeralds. Why?

That question has a simple answer, but I’m afraid that I’m going to skirt around it anyway. Essentially, the phrase is part of a larger sentence that I took with me from a dream a long, long time ago. I seldom remember my dreams upon waking, but this one was vivid and had a lot of impact on me at a time when I was agonising about whether or not I had any talent as a writer at all, and whether or not I should even bother attempting a career in that field. The whole sentence now has such talismanic properties for me that I had it tattooed in mirror writing across my ribs a couple of years ago, as a permanent reminder to keep going no matter what. My earlier use of “fearofemeralds” first as an LJ name and then as a twitter handle had a similar motive, making sure it was front and centre on a regular basis. I probably don’t need that anymore, now I have the tattoo, but it’s a little late to go changing things. And no, sorry, I’m not going to reveal any more particulars of the dream or even tell you the whole sentence – which I know is a dreadful tease, but the superstitious part of me believes that the talisman will be robbed of any power if shown to the world. :-)

Q: In an interview with Lisa Hannet when talking about the horror genre you say: ‘I find myself fascinated by the monstrous– which really boils down to being anything we’re told “normal” people shouldn’t look at or think about or discuss in polite company. Taboo topics. Fringe dwellers. The black in black-and-white. I don’t believe in Evil as a manifest force. I do believe that humans are capable of doing evil things, and that a great number of humans acting in concert are capable of great evil indeed, but what interests me are the underlying reasons, motivations and causes. What makes a human being – someone similar to myself, perhaps – able to commit certain acts that I would find abhorrent, or allow others to commit them? I deeply, deeply want to understand this.’  Do you see horror as a way of making sense of the world? Do you think people who write and read horror are more troubled by the darkness both around and inside us?

I think one of the driving forces behind humans creating and partaking in art generally is an attempt to make sense of the world, and to connect with others in this endeavour, and horror fiction is certainly no different. That’s not to say that it’s the only motivator, but it is an important one, at least to me. It influences what I write and it certainly influences the types of books I like to read. I want books that make me think, that invite me to view the world differently and reconsider my preconceptions – and that are very well crafted to boot. I’ve become a highly critical reader over the past decade or so and find myself having less and less patience for fiction – horror or otherwise – that feels like it’s playing by the numbers, or is taking too many shortcuts with well-worn tropes or lazy writing.

As to the second part of your question, I don’t that “more troubled by the darkness” is necessarily true. I think we’re genuinely more fascinated by it and more inclined to dig down into the guts of it to see what makes it work, and we might even become a touch inured to some of the horrible stuff we see on the page and the screen – though not, I strongly believe, to real life horrors. But this doesn’t mean that people who don’t read/write horror are any less troubled by the bad stuff; they simply don’t wish to dwell on it when it comes to their culture or entertainment. Which is a fair enough call. Hell, I don’t partake in the romance genre to any sort of measurable extent; it simply fails to ring my bell and always has. But I don’t think that means I am in less capable of experiencing and enjoying love and romance in real life than a hardcore romance reader (or writer). Or that readers/writers of romance are somehow “lesser” than those who like horror. It pays to remember that dark doesn’t automatically translate to deep.

In my more belligerent early twenties, I did share what was relatively common attitude within the horror community, that people who refused to read horror were little more than ostriches with their heads in the sand when it came to The Truth About Life. But isn’t that kind of extremist philosophy what your early twenties are all about? Really, life and people are a lot more complicated than that. My tolerance for those who look down their nose at the genre per sae, or decide that horror readers/writers must be somehow sick or dangerous, however, remains at a critically low threshold. Because dark doesn’t automatically translate to damaged, either.

 

 Q: Since 2010, you and Ian Mond have been hosting a monthly podcast ‘devoted mostly to speculative fiction books, reviews and the odd bit of idle gossip’. The Writer and Critic won the Ditmar and Chronos Award this year. Did you have a ‘mission statement’ when you were first putting together the podcasts? What did you want to achieve with them?

Ian’s initial mission statement was something like, “Hey, podcasts are cool. Let’s do a podcast.” He came up with the idea and beat me over the head with it for a few months until I relented and we nutted out the format. We still don’t have a real mission statement, and have tweaked the structure a number of times with varying results. What we have decided is that we will only feature two books per episode from now on, as having a third title every so often when we had a guest on was really stretching our collective stamina – not to mention the recording time!

Our initial idea was to create a podcast where we could review books at length. We both really enjoy discussing interesting books that we’ve read, and sometimes pulling apart more problematic works, but finding the time to put thoughts down on the page is difficult. There’s no way I would ever be able to write the sort of in-depth critiques of books that I can have in conversation with Ian over the course of a couple of hours. Because we were coming at it from a book review standpoint, we avoided spoilers in the first couple of episodes. But this constrained discussion to a significant extent and, at the urging of a couple of our listeners, we abandoned that strategy and switched to more of a “book group” type discussion, assuming that people had already read the books, or did not care to have major plot points and even endings spoiled. It makes for a more natural conversation, I have to say, when you’re not busy worrying about whether or not the point you’d like to make will result in a spoiler.

I don’t know that we set out to achieve any more than that, to be honest. Two friends, both avid readers, recommending books to each other and then putting aside one evening a month sit around and chat about them. So I’m genuinely flattered, and quite honoured, to think that people enjoy listening in on these discussions enough to consider the podcast award-worthy!

Q: Do you and Ian get together and brain-storm goals for The Writer and Critic? If so, where would you like to take this podcast in future?

We don’t really brainstorm as such. More like, one of us will get an idea for something and email the other one, and they might say, “cool” or “meh” or “don’t be an idiot”, as the suggestion warrants. We’re still proceeding in more of a fluid/organic manner, rather than having any grand plans for the future. (Apart from reaching 100 episodes – I know Ian is very keen to get that far!)

What I am interested in doing is working out a way to bounce more ideas off listeners, and incorporate their suggestions – whether these are actual book recommendations, or structural ideas. It’s been great having Ian, and our guests, influence my reading in such a direct way over the past couple of years. I’ve read and enjoyed books I probably would never have thought to even pick up on my own. On the flipside, I’ve occasionally had to finish a book I might otherwise have flung against the wall, but this is a valuable experience in itself. Not only having to finish it, but to analyse precisely what it was I didn’t like in order to be able to talk about it for half an hour – this hones the critical skills immeasurably.

I’d also like to hit the road with a travelling podcast at some point, if Ian and I can work out the logistics. We always like to record in person, rather than resort to Skype or similar remote technology, so that does limit the guests we can have on to those in close geographical proximity. I’m pushing for a Grand Tasmanian W&C Tour, but still need to convince Ian. Mind you, I’m sure his wonderful wife would love a Tassie holiday …

 

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Q: Your first short story was published in 1993. In 2003 your short story The Truth About Pug Roberts was nominated for a Ditmar and your story, Painless, won an Aurealis Award in 2008. (For a full list of Kirstyn’s fiction see here). This helped to establish your reputation as a writer. Did you find the publications and award wins helped you sell your first book? And do you recommend aspiring writers polish their writing craft with short fiction before jumping into novels?
I’m not sure how much the awards mattered – although they mattered a hell of a lot to me! – but having short fiction published definitely helped sell my first novel. My soon-to-be publisher actually tracked me down and sent an email asking to see my manuscript after having read a couple of my stories in literary journals. The novel, of course, then had to sell itself but the short fiction is how I was noticed in the first place. I’m not sure how common this type of story is anymore, but in my case it wasn’t apocryphal and, being a short story writer at heart, it pleases me immensely to think there is still a valuable place for this form.

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That said, I don’t think that all aspiring writers should necessarily start with short fiction, or use it as a testing ground. Writing an accomplished short story is quite different to writing an accomplished novel and, although there is obviously some overlap, the skill sets required are significantly different. Just because you get good at one form, it doesn’t mean you will be able to transfer your skills to the other. I know a number of authors who have only written novels (or only series/trilogies even), or else did not try their hand at short fiction until well into their career. So it’s not an automatic stepping stone, and short does not always mean easier, or easier to publish.

If you like the short form, enjoy writing within the confines of modest word counts, and have story ideas that suit, then go for it. But for some writers, the ideas are always going to be big and sprawling, and will never be able to pared down to 5,000 words, or even 20,000 words. And that’s fine as well.  Marathonrunners aren’t likely to need to hone their sprinting skills, after all! Just write the stories that are inside you, in whatever form and length that they need to take, and write them as well as you can. Then rinse and repeat. Over and over again. That’s really the best advice I have for any aspiring writer.

Q: Your first novel, Madigan Mine, was published by Picador in 2010. (Gorgeous cover, by the way). Without giving too much away, the story is told from a male perspective about the love of his life who is also his nemesis. Was there ever any question in your mind that the narrative Point of View had to be male? And did you find it easy to slip into his view point?

Even though Madigan was the character I found first, I always knew that her story needed to be told from the point of view of her lover. And, in this particular story, certain plot points required that lover to be male, so the gender choice was very easy and not one I ever veered away from. The hardest about writing Alex wasn’t the fact that he was male; it was that he was so damn passive. Trying to maintain pacing, suspense and interest in a character who, for greater part of the story, remained almost completely reactive proved to be the most challenging aspect of writing Madigan Mine.

To be honest, I don’t find writing from the male point of view all that arduous. I have been an avid reader my entire life, often in traditionally male-heavy genres such as Horror and Science Fiction, as well as Literary Fiction (a genre unto itself). Which means that I have spent the majority of my intellectual life immersed in the male voice and point of the view, the intricacies of the male subconscious, the particularities of male physicality, and so on, all presented with an innate assumption of male authorial authority. Which of course extends to the perception and representation of the female and the feminine.

So, personally, I find it easier to write from a male point of view because I have encountered so many diverse and nuanced cultural representations of men – or, at least, white western men. Such exposure gives me a better “feel” for a male character, where he might fit in the vast (male) cultural spectrum, where he falls short. Sadly, by contrast, I am often daunted and doubtful when writing the female point of view, because I feel I have less of a cultural sample set, to speak. The feminine is not as well charted, the ground less sure. Which is probably why I am far more interested in writing, and writing about, women these days. I like the challenge, and I like helping to build a more complex, richer and multi-faceted social construct of what “woman” and “girl” and “female” actually mean and how those concepts map to reality.

 

Q: In your 2012 Snapshot interview you said: ‘I did finally manage to finish what I have come to think of as My Difficult Second Novel, and am right about to start the edits on that. Its real name is Perfections and I don’t think I have ever hated writing anything so much as I hated writing that book for the longest, longest time.’ Having won an Aurealis Award and critical acclaim for your first book, Madigan Mine, you must have felt the pressure to top this success with your second novel. How did you come to terms with this and what can we expect from Perfections? (Is that title a Freudian slip, are you a perfectionist?)

perfections_coverWhy, yes, I am somewhat of a perfectionist, although the title refers to a different type of perfection that that. But you’ll have to read the novel to find out exactly what :-)

It wasn’t so much pressure to top Madigan Mine – for a long time, I just thought of that as my little first novel, which I’d gotten nicely out of the way before moving onto other things; it took a while for the fact that other people liked it, really liked it, to properly sink in. Also, like many perfectionist writers, I excel at dismissing the merit of my own work. Especially once it’s published.

The problem with Perfections was that it consistently refused to be the book I thought I was writing, and kept insisting on being this other book that I kept fighting against. That’s never going to end well, is it? Still, it took me a long, stubborn time to come to terms with the story as it needed to be told, as it deserved to be told, and trust that I was the writer to tell it. Perhaps, as it’s a narrative about two sisters, told equally from their points of view, my inherent doubts about successfully writing diverse female points of view became part of the problem. As was the notion, which I only unpacked and banished towards the very end of the writing, that the story was “too girlie” and “unimportant”. But it’s neither. It’s complex and layered and it happens to feature two women as the co-protagonists, with love and relationships as the central theme. All of which says something disturbing about the types of narratives that we choose to privilege and deem significant in our culture, and how these choices seep into our psyches no matter what.

That said, Perfections did turn out to be a lot darker and nastier than I originally thought it might, so it seems I was worried for no reason on that score. I still don’t know where the novel fits, genre wise, but I’m keen to see what people think of it. To me, it’s absolutely a Modern Urban Gothic, a descriptor with which a friend tagged my work some years ago, and one I’m happy to wear. I love the high stakes, high emotion, haunted and fraught narratives of Gothic fiction, as well as its capacity for subtext and symbolism. It’s a palette I don’t think I’ll ever tire of playing with.

 

Q: I understand you have a collection of short stories coming our through Twelfth Planet Press soon. Are these reprints or new stories? Have you written to the theme?

My collection is part of the Twelves Planets series, so the four stories will be all new and original works. They’re not explicitly interconnected as some of the collections, like Sue Isle’s, Tansy Rayner Roberts’ and Deb Biancotti’s, have been, but I consider them to be linked – or perhaps “harmonised” is a better word – by tone. I started out with the idea that I would write a collection of ghost stories, because I was on a bit of ghost story kick when I pitched the book to Alisa, but that didn’t quite come to pass. They’re all stories of haunted people, though, even it’s not a traditional “ghost” doing the haunting. It’s my Gothic side coming out again, I guess, but the symbolism inherent in haunted stories is something to which I find myself being constantly drawn, as both a writer and a reader.

 

Q: I read your commentary on Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods and really enjoyed it. (I’ve seen all of Firefly, Serenity, Buffy and Dollhouse. Firefly, several times). Firefly was the most sophisticated of Joss’s series and the most ambitious, but the least commercially successful (yet it has a very strong following amongst the fans). While there is a growing sophistication in the audience, the mainstream TV and Movie makes seem to be going for Blander and Dumber. Do you find it hard to discover TV series and movies that are compelling and challenging? Have you seen The Fades, the UK version of Being Human? Can you recommend some interesting and challenging movie/TV series?

I started to watch The Fades after a couple of people recommended it to me, but I really couldn’t get into it at all. It seemed simplistic and overly reliant on convenient (but nonsensical) plotting and conventional character types. I much preferred the original UK version of Being Human (haven’t seen the US remake) and the UK series Misfits to The Fades – although I’m yet to watch the final seasons of either. I have slightly more patience for television shows than I do for books, mostly because I am usually multi-tasking something else while watching them. Movies, on the other hand, especially ones I’ve gone to the theatre to see, have a tremendous capacity to irritate me – Prometheus, Dark Knight Rises, I’m looking at you – again because of the time I’ve devoted to them. Time is my most precious commodity. I don’t have enough of it, and can never get any more of it, so if I feel it’s been wasted … grrrrr. If you’re wanting recommendations, two exceptional films I’ve seen this year have been Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy and the Fincher remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Unfortunately, a lot of the TV shows I begin watching, often with great enthusiasm, tend to go off the boil. Or else I just get tired of them. Long seasons and open-ended narrative arcs that go on forever require tremendous stamina on the part of both the producers and the audience, and rarely does that seem to pay off for me. I really liked Dexter to begin with, for example, as well as True Blood, Battlestar Galactica and Fringe (once I got through the problematic first season), but pretty much abandoned them all. I get bored easily I guess, and simply amping up the (often artificial) mystery and melodrama isn’t going to keep my attention. Personal taste plays a strong part in this, of course, as I don’t tend to read a lot of series or trilogies either. Whether they’re on the page or on the screen, I tend to prefer my stories discrete and self-contained; stories I can read/watch fairly quickly and then continue on to something new and often different. Hence my favourite TV shows are usually those with fewer episodes and/or seasons, or self-contained episodic or seasonal stories. Some I would recommend would be Black Mirror, Dead Set, Afterlife, Luther, American Horror Story, The Wire, and Treme. Oh, and Black Books for comic relief, of course. I manage to re-watch that at least once a year.

 

Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy? The same could probably be said for horror. What is your take on this?

I do think there’s a difference in the way men and women write all sorts of things, fantasy and horror definitely included. This most likely comes down to gender socialisation and cultural issues, rather than biology, although it’s all interwoven to some extent. That’s not to say that it’s always, or even often, possible to pick the gender of an author from the works they have written, but generally speaking there are distinct differences. Of course, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways: in the types of writing publishers and readers expect from different genders; in the allowances and authority that will be granted to one gender over another depending on genre, theme, character, subject matter, etc; and in the ways that writers of different genders shape their own work, consciously or otherwise, to suit (or counter) such expectations.

It’s complicated, and problematic, and not an issue that’s likely to be resolved any time soon. And the fact that it needs to be resolved is salient in itself. If we were dealing with a simple observation or acknowledgement that men and women (let alone more fluid gender identities) write differently, then okay, fine, whatever. The greater problem is with the values and judgements that then become associated with the perception (valid or otherwise) of this difference. And the number of surveys, and studies, and statistical analyses that have been published recently do appear to support the argument that women writers, and genres in which women writers comprise the majority voice, are still considered lesser than their male counterparts. (And it’s much worse when it comes to matters of race and culture, let’s not forget that.)

The Horror genre undoubtedly has an image problem. Part of that is the large amount of bad – and badly written/produced – books and movies that focus on, shall we say, the more gratuitous and misanthropic, if not downright misogynistic, end of the genre. That’s not for everyone, granted, although there is some very fine work being done in these areas that tends to be overlooked among the chaff. But perhaps the real problem is a definitional one, and the narrowing effect that the genre is suffering right now. After all, if you decide that all the interesting, challenging, intelligent and well-written books are “too good” to be called Horror, and that Horror is merely a genre made of stories where women are raped, tortured or killed, then of course Horror is going to be maligned, derided and snubbed. And a lot of female writers are probably going to decide that such a genre is not for them, or at least that what they write isn’t Horror. QED.

Horror is a broad and slippery genre that gets its, ahem, tentacles into everything. It isn’t just tortureporn or splatterpunk, and never was; these are just two or many subgenres that Horror has the capacity to contain if it is allowed to. It’s written by men and it’s written by women, and it’s a stronger, more nuanced genre for it. After all, a significant portion of what human beings find horrific, terrifying or dread-inspiring, is gender specific. We need all these stories, and we need to acknowledge them as Horror – no matter which subgenre they inhabit along the way. A little more racial/cultural diversity wouldn’t hurt either, not-so-quietly speaking.

 

Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?

It almost certainly does, and probably in ways of which I’m not entirely conscious, especially when it’s an author I’m unfamiliar with. Specifically, I know I generally feel like I’ll have a better time with female characters in a book if it’s been written by a woman. Of course, this isn’t always the case and women are more than capable of writing awful, stereotypical, angry-making representations of their own gender. But the expectation is there, to be fulfilled or otherwise depending on the quality of the book.

I’m sure there are many more unacknowledged expectations I have in regards to the author’s gender, but other preconceptions are often more prominent in my mind. What genre it falls into, what I’ve been told about it in advance – it’s very rare for me to pick up a book completely on spec these days – and even why I’ve decided to read it in the first place, which might actually include the author’s gender as a motivating factor.

Actually, there’s one more very specific thing of which I’ve become keenly aware – with a first person narrative, especially if it’s a short story in an anthology, these days I will tend to automatically gender the narrator in line with the author. It’s an improvement of sorts from when I was in my teens and twenties and would find myself automatically defaulting male in any first person narrative – a by product of my heavily male-oriented literary diet back then, no doubt. But it’s interesting, if a little depressing, to find that assigning gender to a character straight out of the gate is still something that my mind obviously demands. Then again, English is a highly gendered language, as is our culture, and gender often is the first marker we  seek in our interactions with each other. We really, really need a good quality set of gender neutral pronouns, don’t we?

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

I’m going to sound a little boring here, but I honestly wouldn’t book any kind of trip in a time machine. It’s far too dangerous to go into the past and accidentally mess things up, and I don’t think I really want to know exactly what the future holds. It’s more fun to find out the old fashioned way, by living through it.

Unless, wait … how about I keep my free ticket on hand for those awful times when you say or do something you immediately wish you could undo. Like having a “restore saved game” function for real life. That’d be neat. But, again, I’d have to use it as soon as I wanted to reset something or else, you know, that whole messing with the past thing. I’ve read the books, and seen the movies. That never ends well!

Look out for Kirstyn’s new book Perfections .

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Catch up with Kirstyn and Ian’s Podcasts here

Catch up with Kirstyn on GoodReads

Catch up at Kirstyn’s blog

Catch up with Kirstyn on Twitter @fearofemeralds

 

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Filed under Australian Artists, Awards, Book Giveaway, creativity, Dark Urban Fantasy, Female Fantasy Authors, Gender Issues, Genre, Horror, Podcasts, The Writing Fraternity, Writing craft

Meet Kathleen Jennings….

I’m expanding my series featuring fantastic authors to include fantastically creative people across the different mediums, which is why I’ve invited the World Fantasy nominee Kathleen Jennings who is both a writer and an artist to drop by. 

Watch out for the give-away question at the end of the interview.

Q: In 2009 you won the Inaugural Kris Hembury Encouragement Emerging Writers and Artists Award. Kris attended one of the EnVisions (a mentoring workshop for writers) and worked on the Fantastic Qld committee as well as serving as president for the Vision Writers group. He had such a dry sense of humour. As an emerging writer and artist how did winning this award impact on you?

Kris was a friend, and so it was quite emotional and a huge honour – that’s the personal impact. As a writer and artist, the impact was in realising that what I did was in some way seen by other people. Both writing and art can be (to varying extents) highly subjective pursuits, and realising that it isn’t all happening only in my own head is like opening a window and getting fresh air. I think that sort of combined shout of “we see you!” and “come on in, the water’s fine!” from people further out is a big gift more experienced people can give to those just starting. And one of the best compliments I can give the SF writing scene in Australia is that I have always found them very warm, tolerant and encouraging to awkward and easily startled beginners.

Q: Kathleen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award in the Art section. When you were a child did you ever think you’d be nominated for the World fantasy Art Award and do your parents finally believe you’re a ‘real’ artist now?

I never even dreamed about it! I recall planning to be an author, or a champion poultry-breeder, or something like that.

As for my parents, they always thought of me as a real writer, so I think the art just required a slight readjustment. I suspect they are slightly disappointed that now they just get to show their friends copies of my pictures, instead of holding them down and reading high-school essays to them. They are recovering gracefully, and fantasy art is sometimes more generally socially acceptable than fantasy writing, but I suspect they’d really like to see my art on a book with my name on it.

Q: Your short stories have appeared in ‘Antipodean SF, the Shadow Box anthology, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #41 and #52,  After the RainLight Touch Paper Stand Clear and a comic in Candlewick Press’ Steampunk!.’ You were the president of the Vision writers group  in 2009, 2010 and 2011. How useful is belonging to a group for the development of a writer?

I found it very useful – it’s another of those things which teaches a distinction between subjective and objective assessment of my work. It took me out of my own head (and writhing self-referential angst) and taught me how to write better, how to be dispassionate about editing (this lesson hasn’t entirely taken yet), how to put my work out there and receive comment on it, and also how to tell the difference between genuine constructive criticism and the personal taste of the reader. But more importantly, it was the beginning of a great many friendships and personal and professional connections, as all the people grew up and out and graduated into new stages of their careers, new pursuits and interests, sharing dreams and ideas and projects. I remember Catherynne Valente wrote a beautiful review of Midnight in Paris, and said of the dream it shows of the literary/artistic scene in 1920s Paris, that as writers “this is what we are meant to get instead of health insurance!”. And it is, but we also get to build it fresh each time for ourselves.

Jason Nahrung

Q: You have done covers and illustrations for Small Beer Press, Subterranean Press, Fablecroft Press, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Ticonderoga Publications, Odyssey Press and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild as well as individual commissions. Can you walk us through how someone would approach you to commission work?

It starts with an email or a twitter message, although sometimes there have been oblique advance hints given at a convention or over coffee. I panic (either from surprise or scheduling) then say yes, give a quote (once there’s enough information) and get the brief. This includes dimensions, details of style, particular limitations, directions the publisher/client would like to go in and the date. The date is very important! “As soon as possible” is not a date, it is a shifting target on the far side of other dates (this is a public service announcement, in case I forget to ask for one: everyone is happier with dates!). There is a varying degree of freedom – anything from “whatever you want” to “precisely these scenes”. For covers, I do like some idea of preference or at least direction. It helps to narrow my focus and the restrictions give more scope for creativity. Also, the cover is for marketing as well as decoration, and it’s good to know what the publisher’s thoughts are in that direction. Good art direction is invaluable. Then I read the manuscript (although once or twice this hasn’t been an option), weep, angst, do several thumbnail sketches, send them for approval and – sometimes after some back-and-forth (usually by email, rarely and delightfully over coffee) – get started on the final sketch which will develop into the final artwork.

 

Q: I used to work as a graphic artist illustrating children’s books and write. I eventually found the answer to the question: Was I an artist who wrote, or a writer who drew? (See Kathleen’s sketch books). Which do you see yourself as? And do you think it matters?

I see myself as a storyteller (or at least, a lover of stories) who works in words and pictures. My favourite works in all media (art, writing, music, architecture, landscape gardening…) either tell, suggest or provide scope for a story. When I write, I sometimes plot in pictures. When I draw, I try to get a story in there (at least in my mind) – something beyond the purely ornamental. Oddly, although I enjoy comics, I prefer heavily illustrated prose at present – possibly due to circumstances surrounding the last comic work I did (mild heat stroke at one end and floods at the other)! Perhaps the illustrated novel gives more scope for imagination in the space between words and text? I have not analysed this yet.

I do find it difficult to do both, but this is purely because of time constraints (I have a day job, and there are more art deadlines). The writing gets done but I am learning that I have to be much more structured to make the editing happen. But it is happening!

Art and writing complement each other well. It’s nice to be able to switch when I get plunged into creative despair in one area. But I also harbour the hope that the rise of ebooks will somehow elevate the importance of beautifully produced hard-copy books, with elegant design, typography, illustrations, initial capitals and endpapers.

Also, it’s beautiful to be able to interact with my favourite writers as an artist, and my favourite artists as a writer, because that’s pretty much the only way I’m able to string two words together in their presence.

 

 

Q: You have said your influences are Brett, Leyendecker and Sender. I love Leyendecker’s work. (He did the Arrow Shirt adverts and many covers for American Weekly). Eg. Having struggled to make ends meet as an illustrator, this picture is one of my Leyendecker favourites:

Of course, Leyendecker was highly successful and made a good living from his art. But that was back in the day when the American Weekly needed painted covers. (It was also back in the day when a short story writer could make a living as a writer). What is it about Leyendecker’s art that appeals to you?

Truthfully, it’s the hard edge he gives to paintings of soft curls. I had a book of fairytales when I was little, and the illustrations had a similar amazing richness – the “Cinderella” was the three-ball version, each dress was more beautiful and gold-embroidered than the last, but mostly I remember the angular painting of the hair, and the square toes of the stepsisters’ satin shoes. When I discovered Leyendecker, I fell in love with him for that. I also love the visible brush-strokes in sleek pictures, the combination of intense drama with dignity, and the sense that if he took himself seriously it wasn’t in a dull way – there’s this edge either of humour or superciliousness in the most elegant pictures which (for all the formal poses and decorative arrangements) adds tension and therefore an element of story to his pictures.

 

Q: You have done a series of cartoons with Daleks as the central theme (these were shortlisted for a Ditmar). Why Daleks?

They are simple and implacable, which makes them wonderful recurring villains: predictable, consistent, unstoppable. But – well, I never thought I’d draw a connection between Leyendecker and the Daleks! – there is a note in their voices that isn’t robotic. It isn’t “you will be assimilated”, it isn’t unvarying. There’s a rising note of anxiety to it, panic, real hatred. Inside those shells are these neurotic balls of intense, obsessive emotion. It creates that same Leyendecker tension between the presentation and underlying feeling. So – I’m a fan of Daleks.

As for the use of Daleks in the game (it was nearly, and may one day be, ducks) – I like parlour games, word games, lying-around-and-being-silly games, so tossing the Daleks (who didn’t do anything to deserve it) into a series of unlikely scenarios amused me vastly.

The rest of the game is an excuse to muse about books I love, or tropes in genre, or memories of reading around the table when I was growing up.

 

Q: Your art has been shortlisted for a Ditmar and won the Ditmar Award for: ‘Finishing School” in Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories’. Do you have a favourite amongst your covers or illustrations and if so, why?

Generally, the second-last one. The last one is a victim of temporary trauma-induced amnesia, the current one is just traumatic and I’ve learned so much in doing each cover that I get a little eye-twitch looking at some of the earlier ones! My favourite parts of covers are usually anything new I was allowed to get away with, and the back.

Among the covers, my current favourite is probably the cover for Subterranean Press’ 10th anniversary edition of Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen. I was very excited to be asked to draw it because I’m a big fan of Kelly’s writing (although I tend to write very fragmented stories after I’ve been reading hers – the structure of “Kindling” in Light Touch Paper Stand Clearwas a victim of speed-reading Stranger Things Happen for this cover), and then to be allowed to get away with a two-tone, wallpaper/toile effect that I’d been wanting to try! Also, there’s a lightness to the linework which I’m always working to achieve in finished work instead of just in sketches, and I’m still fond of the peacocks on the back cover. And I love the typography (which isn’t my doing!). It’s very gratifying to have good typography put with your art – I have a theory that good typography can save bad art, but good art can’t necessarily lift bad typography.

I’m still recovering from the trauma of Midnight and Moonshine, but I am very happy with how (under duress!) it developed the style which Small Beer Press and Sofia Samatar made me discover for A Stranger in Olondria. I learned a lot doing the cover for Olondria, and still view it through a filter of “if I were to do it again I’d…”, but there are parts of it of which I am excessively fond – certain squiggles of colour, the light through a window, the subject matter.

 

Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy (in books) is a bit of a boy’s club. I’ve come across quite a bit of talk on the blogs recently about female comic artists and writers, and their lack of representation in large companies like DC (where the money is). Have you come across this in your professional life?

I haven’t directly. However, professionally I’ve been raised by writers, which in terms of my illustrations is basically like being raised by wolves. Also, although I’m very aware of the tensions in the comics worlds, I came into comics through short story anthologies so haven’t strayed into that scene. A lot of the women whose work I like are in the illustrative/graphic scene and there appears to be a lot of support and collaboration without regard to gender, so perhaps it is less gendered there? Also, with the fantasy side of illustration the delicate, elegant, beautiful and decorative is highly prized. You’d think something described with those words could easily be segregated into “women’s work” but isn’t at all (think Charles Vess!) and that’s wonderful. And even the sentimental end of that spectrum has a lot of men working in it so there doesn’t seem to be that danger of being “women’s art”. But again, I’m working mostly from printed evidence. I’ll be able to report further once I know more about that community.

 

Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer/artist change your expectations when you approach their work?

I’m aware that I have held some of the prejudices I referred to in the answer above! I suspect these are hold-overs from some experiences in the writing scene. So I’m usually trying to hold these at bay, not get exasperated by sentimentality or chain mail bikinis as a knee-jerk reaction, or be thrilled at discovering a harder edge in a picture drawn by a woman, or sensible clothing in pictures drawn by a man. I draw sentimental pictures! I have drawn chain mail bikinis! And my favourite things – beauty anchored by fleshy reality or a low rumble of tension, ugliness liberated by common sense or incredible observation – appear in my favourite pictures by my favourite artists, and are usually fairly evenly gender-distributed.

 

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

 I don’t think about this much! My father discouraged my sister and I from saying “I wish”, because it meant we weren’t happy with the way things were. And if we said we weren’t happy, well then obviously something should be done about that. Which led to some interesting home alterations. However! although I’m fascinated by much of the past, it’s usually the inconvenient parts, and I’m a big fan of modern medicine, amenities and so forth (I get this from my mother, who refused to go camping as it was primitive enough at the house).

So where would I go? I think I already mentioned Midnight in Paris? But oh! I don’t know. Probably not the future (which is odd, because I always like to be very well prepared for upcoming adventures). So – yes – probably that threshold age of the 1920s, when the world was just becoming recognisably ours, and was damaged and new and leggy, hopeless, hopeful, decadent, rebuilding, pragmatic but still with an eye for beauty, taking to the skies. As for where – England for Sayers, or Melbourne for Lindsays, or anywhere with an active literary/artistic community.

Or else just an evening (last weekend, or the last convention, or home, or some recent café) full of conversation and pen-and-paper games, songs, plotting, coffee, cupcakes, genre snark, story-telling, cider, word origins and drawing on serviettes.

 

Give-away Question: How should words and pictures work together?

 

Give-away: A little ink drawing of a famous quote with a word replaced by “duck” (artist retains right of veto/negotiation on quote, because I don’t have time to draw 14 ducks again – you don’t realise how many ducks that is until you have to draw them, but it is a lot of ducks).

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Follow Kathleen on Twitter: @tanaudel

See Kathleen’s Blog

See Kathleen’s sketchbooks

 

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Filed under Australian Artists, Australian Writers, Comics/Graphic Novels, creativity, Fandom, Fun Stuff, Gender Issues, Inspiring Art

Meet Gillian Polack…

I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the ferociously well-read and talented Gillian Polack to drop by.

Watch out for the give-away question at the end of the interview.

Q: Your new book, Ms Cellophane has come out through Momentum. ‘Part gentle love story, part bizarre horror tale, but never, ever boring, Ms Cellophane is a revealing look at one woman’s nightmare transforming her reality in unexpectedly amusing ways.’ What prompted you to write this book?

I went through my own cellophane phase when I turned forty. I was doing a great deal of work with women’s groups at the time and I saw just how many women had to learn how not to be cellophane. I also saw how little the wider world cared. Sorting this out in my mind wasn’t immediate – it took a few years. During that time a large number of people (including myself and several friends) took redundancy packages from the public service and discovered the wonder of new lifestyles on too little money (Canberra’s new ‘genteel’). Then I turned my mind to the sad neglect of Canberra as a location for fantasy novels and I realised that I owned a mirror that had a ghost story attached. At that moment, I suffered a plague of ants. I had no option left but to write the book I wrote!

Q: You have a Doctorate in History and an MA in Medieval Studies. You teach at the Australian National University You are known as a medieval food expert. You organised authentic historical banquets for the Canberra convention, Conflux, for a number of years. I remember going to a talk at a conference where you handed out samples for us to try! What led you into history, specifically the middle ages and food?

History has been one of my passions since I was quite young. When I was eight I knew that my adult life had to include both history and the writing of fiction and that it wasn’t going to be an easy road.

My fascination with history is with people and with their lives. Not the biographies, but the daily lives. How do people think? What do they think about? What hero-tales do they know? What food do they eat? What books do they read and what songs do they sing? Do they dance in halls or in graveyards? I always have ten thousand questions I want to ask, even as I learn more and more.

I didn’t actually specialise in the Middle Ages until my fourth year at university. I learned Old French language and literature, but my major included Roman history and French history and pre-Classical antiquity and in Church history and in the history of magic. When I had to come up with a topic for my honours thesis, though, I realised that I had a terribly important question I needed to answer, and that the Middle Ages might have the answer.

This was 1982. Computers were changing our everyday. These days our culture has modified to encompass the process of change, but back then it was all wonderful and terrifying. I wanted to understand how societies adapted to such deep and fundamental change. I wanted to see where we were going and find mechanisms for interpreting my own changing reality.

The High Middle Ages had more books and growing literacy and, in fact, experienced this same style of change. The changes themselves were different, of course, and somewhat slower, but the effects were no less deep. Since that decision – which was made while Geoffrey Blainey and I were sitting on the floor in his office, for all his chairs were covered with paper – I’ve been in the Middle Ages.

This isn’t food, is it? These days everyone knows me for the food history. I can teach people to understand culture and society far more easily using food than using almost anything else. It’s one of the areas I’ve researched and published (obviously) but it’s never been my main preoccupation. This amuses me, because I’ve taught more about food history than about most other kinds, and I had a paid food history blog for three years. And I quite obviously love my food history! But get me started on changes in perception of historical time in the twelfth century or on the development of epic heroes in the thirteenth, or on almost anything Arthurian, or on how we interpret different kinds of evidence, and you’ll discover that the food is just one of many, many loves.

Q: I see you are running a History for Fiction Writers workshop at the ACT Writers Centre in September. Does it drive you crazy when you see fiction books with really obvious errors? What’ s the most common error that fiction writers make, when creating secondary worlds based on Europe in the middle ages?

It drives me crazy when the errors are easy to avoid and when they break the feel that the universe of the book might be real. I don’t mind errors that are entirely in keeping with the story.

The most annoying error that many writers make is to assume that people who are from certain periods (especially the Middle Ages) are particularly stupid. My assumption when a writer does that is that they’re talking about their own ancestors, for my ancestors gave rise to a highly intelligent bunch of people and so must have been pretty bright.

The most common error is in high fantasy where a Medievalish background is set up without some basics. Inns need customers and can’t be too isolated and lonely. Towns need water, otherwise they’re dead towns. If all the local peasants are murdered by the evil lord, then there’s no-one to bring in the harvest. That sort of thing.

Q: You have dedicated a lot of time to supporting feminist/social awareness initiatives, serving on the committees of: the Australian NGO Working Group, UN World Conference Against Racism; the Ministerial Advisory Council on Women, ACT; National Committee, Women’s History Month, Australia 2000-2004 and Status of Women Chair, National Council of Jewish Women of Australia (1991-1999). From this I’m guessing you feel you have to ‘give back’. You are Jewish. I had a friend who lost all of her family except for her mother and father, and I think an uncle, in the Second World War. Her father searched Europe after the war and eventually found her mother. Do your family have harrowing tales to tell? Scientists now know that the experiences of parents and grandparents can be passed down to their descendants through epi-genetics. Do you feel an echo of the events of mid-last century?

All my family was in Australia by around 1917. Some of it came out much earlier. We weren’t missed (alas) by the pogroms and, in fact, have a family story about the Kishinev pogroms. My great-great grandfather was attacked and, with his broken leg, told his children to flee. And they did. The only child who died in a concentration camp was the one who didn’t flee far enough. We were the lucky ones. On all sides of my family, we were the lucky ones. We only went through the normal Jewish suffering, not the Shoah. In fact, one of my great-uncles died fighting over France. I still think that epigenetics have affected us, because persecution didn’t start and end with Hitler, but that’s another story.

In terms of the ‘giving back’ – it’s more than that. I come from a profoundly Australian Jewish family. I was taught that it’s my obligation to make sure that the world is a better place for me being in it. How I do it is up to me, but the way I was taught to improve the world (‘tikkun olam’) was through committees and with food. If there’s a Jewish family CWA member type, it’s from our mob.

I feel really bad when I’m not doing something positive, but it doesn’t have to be activist work or charity work. It can be helping new writers or mentoring. It can be feeding the tired or cheering the miserable or creating things of beauty. I just ended up on committees (and helped found Women’s History Month in the process) because I am, unfortunately for me, good on committees.

Q: You 2002 novel, Illuminations, combines Authurian legend with modern times. I suppose as a historian you are fascinated by the glimpses we have of ‘Arthur’.

Absolutely. The type of historian I am (and Arthuriana is one of my playgrounds) adores tracing ideas and characters and seeing just who has done what with them. This is not an uncommon trait for Medievalists and I’ve noticed that, while I watch out for daft Robin Hood paraphernalia for a US scholar, a Sydney academic found me a copy of A Connecticut Fashionista in King Arthur’s Court. I’m capable of being impossibly technical and also of being impossibly silly on the subject. It’s one of my secret joys.

Q: When talking about your book, Life through Cellophane in a guest post on Mary Victoria’s blog you say: ‘ .the deeds of men are interesting and the lives of women are mundane. Women are allowed to change the world, but we’re expected to do it one cup of tea at a time . I write those cups of tea. Because I’m another of those women who find everyone’s lives fascinating and their own rather dull, and I want to show myself and the world that we’re all wrong. In finding the strangeness of mirrors and the joys of dressing up, in searching out the magic lying underneath the ordinary, I can find the glamour in lives like mine.’ Fascinating, but I still can’t tell what the book is about. (By the way, it appears to have sold out. Will there be a reprint?)

The reprint came out on 1 July!

The book was killed immediately after the first print run sold out. Borders took Eneit Press down with them. Momentum (the new PanMacmillan imprint) have taken it on and renamed it Ms Cellophane. I don’t know if they know what it’s about, either, however.

For me, it’s the story of Liz, who faces the miserable truth of cellophane, encounters magic, finds romance and has a very, very strange year.

Q: I believe you have a new book due out, The Art of Effective Dreaming. Is this a work of fiction or non-fiction? Can you tell us a little about it?

It’s my cursed novel! It’s been coming out for several years now. It has killed several computers and nearly killed my poor publisher several times. It has been hit by three hurricanes and an unknown number of earthquakes. (This description is literal – it really has experienced some interesting events.) I hope that one day the curse is overcome, for it’s a quest fantasy, with someone stepping into an alternate world and encountering a sad lady, a mysterious stranger, dead morris dancers and bizarre magic powers. It contains many folksongs.

Q: You are also an editor. You’ve edited for the Canberra SF Guild anthologies and for Eneit Press, and you work as a freelance editor. Do you find it hard to switch off the internal editor, when you write fiction?

I don’t quite edit in the way most editors do, so I don’t have that problem. Each story or novel is different and each of them needs a different approach. The question is not what I can correct or what changes I can suggest, but what tools each writer needs to bring their writing to take it where it can go. One poor writer gets a three hour phonecall, another gets coffee and cake and I whip out my whiteboard, while still another gets a chatroom and another gets lengthy discussion about white space and punctuation. One writer discovers Evil Editor, where I push harder and harder until they confront the dark stuff they need to make the story what it can be (and the writer reading this will know I’m talking about her – I was so tough on her!!). One writer in fifteen gets old-fashioned markup.

Writers tend to want to work with me again, so my system may sound a bit strange and unpredictable, but it’s effective. The range of my approaches means that it doesn’t affect my writing at all. This is a shame for there are definitely times when I could do with the Evil Editor and we all need the Great Punctuation Lecture at times.

Q: When talking about your historical research you say: A filter of our personal experience and how we interpret it applies to everything we do, and everything we select. The trouble with this cultural approach is that it opens the door to an avalanche of information. The minute you try to sort out what the filters are, you open those doors. And that is what my research is about – and what a lot of my teaching is concerned with. Sorting out that avalanche of information and making sense of it. Trying to work out how it affects our lives, and where we fit with our pasts. This sounds fascinating. Can you give us an example of what you mean?

My favourite example is when you set the table for dinner. Why the table? Why not the floor? Why those chairs? Why cutlery? Why crockery? Every single element of that set table has filters applied, and those filters are shared by most of the people likely to eat that dinner with you. If you know where those filters come from (England in the sixteenth century might have laid a similar table, for instance, but not Japan in the fourth) then you can find out more about who you are and where you come from and begin to understand things more deeply. Not the physical-you, but the cultural-you. It’s what helps shape our decisions and gives us the capacity to interpret the world.

Q: In a guest post on Sue Bursztybski’s blog talking about a short story you say: I also wanted to learn about Jewish magic. Jewish magic is considered special, historically. In the Renaissance, Jewish magicians were thought to be somehow stronger, more connected with the esoteric. I know something about Medieval*** and even Renaissance magic and I thought “What if I extrapolate? What if I bring the Jewish magic systems forward from the fifteenth century and maybe earlier and turn them into an almost-lost family tradition?” Sounds like a great premise for a book. Are you tempted to take this idea further?

I’ve taken it further. I’ve written the book. Finding it a home has not, however, quite happened. When I find a publisher for my Sydney feminist Jewish magic wielder, I’ll let you know!

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

I’d want a time machine where I could see but not be seen. I have this deep distrust of the things! I can say this, but I don’t actually have a single particular place and time in mind. I have so many places and times I want to see and to compare and to find out about. I think I’d better make up an itinerary. A very, very long itinerary.

 

Gillian has some bookplates to give away, so here’s the Give-away Question:

What should Gillian put on her time travel itinerary, and why?

 

Follow Gillian on Twitter: @GillianPolack

See Gillian’s LJBlog

Catch up with Gillian on GoodReads

Catch up with Gillian on Linked-in

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Filed under Australian Writers, creativity, Fantasy books, Female Fantasy Authors, Gender Issues, Historical Books, Writers and Redearch

Meet Jason Nahrung…

I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the talented Jason Nahrung to drop by.

Jason will be in South East Queensland for the launch of his book, Salvage, soon. In the meantime, look out for the give-away at the end of the post.

Q: Your novella Salvage, is coming out through Twelfth Planet Press. This is set in remote Queensland and has dark undertones. How do you bring darkness to sunny QLD and why did this story come to you in novella length?

Indeed, Salvage is available now, and I’m running some celebratory events in Queensland in August to support it (Brisbane launch. The novella was a gradually developed story – I’ve explored the slightly unusual process at my blog that came from both time and place: three writing retreats across three years, all at the same location on Bribie Island. That might’ve helped determine the length, in that I wrote about a third of the story in each retreat, and then polished it. I did wonder about expanding it into a novel-length piece – novellas aren’t the most popular format, although that does seem to be changing in line with the e-revolution – but the story is complete at this length, just under 40,000 words: why add to it unnecessarily in the pursuit of some perception of making it more marketable?

One of the reasons I began to write with a view to publication was a yearning to see the kinds of stories I loved – speculative fiction of all stripes – set in my own backyard. Why did all the aliens land in the US? Why do the English and the Americans get to go off-world? It’s been most gratifying to see the likes of Trent Jamieson and Stephen M Irwin selling their Australian-set – Brisbane-set, no less – novels overseas, with no questions asked.

Queensland, for all its beach stereotypes, has plenty of darkness, as Trent and Stephen have shown: urban back streets, rural isolation, baking plains, choking forests. The beach has its own dangers, too: sunburn, rips, sharks and stingers. True, the Gothic mode that I love so much is an awkward fit: no misty moors nor crumbling castles, for instance, but I think mirage-haunted clay pans and abandoned homesteads work just as well, especially given our own colonial unease within the landscape. The Gothic is about mood, about the uneasy past and fragile emotions, and those kinds of influences can work in most settings. At the end of the day, horror is about people: they fall short in all climates.

In Salvage, the beach is an unlikely setting for a vampire story, but I think it works thanks to that very contrast. The landscape is a limiting, isolating factor; it mirrors the threat facing the characters. And the sea is a wonderful metaphor for immortality and hunger. The vampire ecology is always demanding; in Salvage, I’ve made my own changes and taken a subtle approach: the word vampire is never used, for instance.

Q: I met Jason through the Vision Writers Group and we both did our Masters through QUT. At that time Jason was writing a book about Kev, the Vampire, transplanting the vampire mythology to an Australian setting. When I told my kids the title and the concept, they wanted to read the book. Did you eventually finish the book, Jason? Or have you moved on and put it aside until you work out how you want to tackle the concept?

Ah, dear Kev. His story’s been with me for more than 10 years – a chapter, long since discarded, was the first thing I took to the Vision writers group – and has been through four distinct iterations as I’ve tried to find the right format, the right narrative, the right characters to tell the story … and finally, I’ve done it! Called Blood and Dust, the novel will be out later this year in digital format through Sydney publisher Xoum.

Q: As I recall part of your Masters was an examination of the vampire in Australian fiction. (See here for pre 2007 OZ vampire stories, and here for Oz vampire stories post 2006). I notice there are a lot more stories, post 2006. Can you give us a glimpse of what conclusions you came to with your research?

I confess I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with Aussie vampire fiction since I finished the Masters, and there is certainly a lot of it out there. The pleasing thing, for me, is that there seems to be less disinclination to set it in Australia. I suspect cultural cringe was as much an issue as narrative concerns: a lot of the early fiction was set overseas or in geographically neutral settings. Sure, we’re a sunburnt land, but we’re also highly urbanised and geographically isolated both as an island and internally as a large land mass. Writers have increasingly seized on those characteristics, looked at how our colonial past and our successive waves of migration have opened the doors to the Gothic, and how to fit those tropes into the sprawl of modern-day Australian society. A very good example of the diversity is Dead Red Heart, an anthology of Australian vampire stories published last year by Ticonderoga Publications that covers the gamut: colonial, indigenous, outback, urban, rainforest and more.

Kirstyn and Jason (courtesy Cat Sparks)

Q: Your partner, Kirstyn McDermott, is a fellow writer of dark fiction. Do you find this is a plus having a partner who is a fellow writer? Have you collaborated? Or do you find you can’t show each other work-in-progress because you feel too naked?

It’s a lot of fun having another writer in the house. We have conversations about semi-colons and exclamation marks, for instance; we discuss the structure of our stories, plot sticking points, character headaches, moral issues. We read each other’s work, usually once the first draft is finished, and offer feedback, and then will proofread as well. Plus, it’s nice to not feel guilty about spending time with the people in my head rather than my wife, knowing that she’s doing the same thing!

We haven’t collaborated yet, but it’s something we’d like to do in the future. We have different writing processes that should dovetail quite well. I tend not to show anyone my work in progress because it’s all fairly malleable; I have to write the story to know what the story is about, then go back and do a lot of rewriting to get it into shape Kirstyn lands her words on the page pretty much in final form, having spent a lot of time internalising and then shaping on the page during that first draft.

Q: The road to publication is rocky. Back in 2007 your book, The Darkness Within, was chosen by Hachette to launch a new line. Not long after this the line closed down and you were ‘orphaned’. What advice can you offer to fellow writers who find themselves in this position?

The Darkness Within did have a rocky start: it was picked up by Lothian as part of a new series of adult horror novels, but Lothian was bought by another company, and that company was bought by Hachette, all in short order. Hachette broke The Darkness Within out of the series and upscaled it to a trade paperback, which to be honest I never think is helpful for an unknown debut trying to compete against established authors in cheaper paperback. We did get good inclusion in catalogues and wide distribution – and a gorgeous cover!

I guess how you react to changes at that industry level is in part determined by how much control of your product you’ve got. I know some authors have been able to buy their books back to avoid having them dumped on the market, devoid of love or promotion, by an unsympathetic publisher looking to change direction and cut losses. Otherwise, you just have to do your damndest to promote the title, and make sure you get those rights back as soon as your contract allows so you can leverage that title in the future.

Q: I notice that The Darkness Within was sold as both horror and crime. Where do you think the divide exists, or have we reached a point where there is no divide in the genres?

I’m not sure where the crime angle came into it – it was quite weird to see it pop up on crime websites, and I imagine anyone reading it based on that presence would’ve been bitterly disappointed. Certainly, the boundaries between genres is increasingly porous – crime and horror do go together very well, and we’ve got crime blending with fantasy and science fiction; period pieces and romance adapting horror monster tropes for their own purpose; alt history using science fiction and fantasy.

The boundaries are imposed by purists and traditionalists, and to some extent by marketers trying to work out which shelf – or which meta tags – to use. The biggest divide appears to be between capital L literature, where the prose is still king, and the more narratively driven genres; between attempts to distinguish between good and bad writing, between art and commercial fiction. The fact that you find few genre authors – YA is a possible exception, its umbrella term enclosing such a wonderful diversity of genres from contemporary lit through to the wonderfully fantastic – at mainstream literary festivals illustrates that divide, I think; it’ll be interesting to see the support for GenreCon in Sydney in November, which seeks to embrace all branches of genre. Now that could be a fascinating melting pot of approaches and ideas!

I consider Salvage to be a cross-genre story: part horror/thriller, part romance, part contemporary lit. It’s made promotion a little awkward, because I don’t think it quite fits neatly into any of those categories, but draws on tropes from all of them to tell its story. There are no genre holds barred when it comes to servicing Story. If only there was a shelf for that.

Q: In 2005 you won the William Atheling JR Award for a piece you had published in the Courier-Mail, Why are Publishers Afraid of Horror? Is it possible to read this article? What did you have to say in it?

It is: the Australian Horror Writers Association has archived it at here.

The piece surveyed a number of writers about the genre’s standing in the Australian publishing landscape, and found little support for it in the mainstream, apparently still haunted by the pulp that came out in the 1980s. The trend, which is still continuing, was for stories that might’ve been categorised as horror, particularly of the non-creature variety, to be brought out as general literature. The horror title was eschewed because of its slasher and pulp overtones; dark fantasy was on the rise as a more palatable alternative, but even that had its limitations.

It’s worth pointing out that print on demand and digital publishing, both in e-book and online format, have helped change the landscape since the article was published; there are a bunch of small press concerns happy to fly the horror flag.

Q: You are currently editing the QWC newsletter. What fiction are you working on?

Last year was a bumper year for me in terms of short fiction, but that has dried up this year. I think that’s a function of managing paid employment, lifestyle and creative thinking space. I’m concentrating on a sequel to Blood and Dust: I’ve spent the past three months trying to imagine the story, and actually do some plotting, and now it’s time to start writing my way into the story. Exciting, frustrating times!

Q: I hear you’re flying up from Melbourne for a tour of South east Queensland. If librarians and writing groups would like to contact you for a talk, what do they do?

I’m looking forward to returning to my home state with Salvage — the story was written on Bribie Island, after all! I’m launching the book at Avid Reader on August 10 with the wonderful Kim Wilkins doing the honours. The next day, I’m joining my fellow writers from the dark side Kirstyn McDermott and Angela Slatter to discuss horror and dark fiction at the Logan North library as part of their excellent SF Month line-up. And then on Monday August 13 I’m presenting a talk about Salvage, vampires and writing — all that good stuff! — at Caloundra library, then backing up at the Noosa library on the 14th. The support from the libraries has been awesome. Full details on when, where and how to RSVP are at my website, and my contact details are there, too.

Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy?

I don’t think that perception holds much currency in Australia, which is what has made your series so interesting to follow. And fantasy is such a massive label, isn’t it? I don’t think I can say I’ve noticed a peculiar gender approach in what I’ve been reading; admittedly, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction by women, due in part to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. One thing that irritates me in any story is the presentation of women as some kind of cookie cutout: the trophy, the sack of raw emotions, the sex object, etc; I think that’s mostly a boy thing because the trope is easier than providing a well-rounded character.

Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?

It doesn’t; the combination of cover art and back cover blurb set my expectations. The only gender expectation I’ve noticed is that, in a first person account, the narrator has the same sex as the author until proven otherwise. I don’t know why that bias occurs, but it’s caught me out a few times.

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

Manchester, 1979. To see Joy Division in full flight.

 

Jason has a copy of his new novella Salvage to give-away.

Giveaway Question:  What is your favourite vampire character in a movie or book?

 

 

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Filed under Australian Writers, Dark Urban Fantasy, Fantasy books, Gender Issues, Publishing Industry

Meet Lee Battersby…

I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the talented Lee Battersby to drop by.

Look out for the give-away at the end of the post.

Q: You’ve had over 70 short stories published, won the Aurealis Award, Australian Shadows Award (twice) and won an International Writers of the Future competition. Prime books published a collection of your short stories called Through Soft Air. Do you think the discipline of writing short fiction, helped hone your skill for novel writing?

I think my short story writing experience helped when it came to building scenes and establishing coherent lines of narrative, but I found the shift from writing the short to long form a bit dislocating in many ways. I’d probably become too entrenched in the short form way of thinking, and had to leave a lot of shorthand habits behind. It’s still a bit of a wrench to write long establishing scenes, for example, and I still absolutely hate writing long descriptions of landscape or setting—short story thinking demands I get to the bloody point now, dammit! One thing I do enjoy when writing novels is the opportunity to write increasingly complex streams of dialogue: I like the narrative cut and thrust of spoken wordplay, and the way you can reveal and hide information simultaneously. In short stories you use dialogue to reveal the narrative a little more quickly. In novels, you can be a bit richer.

I’ve written in a myriad of forms over the years: stage plays, TV scripts, stand-up comedy, poetry… each form comes with its own rules and ways to break them, and I think the more forms you work in, the better you’re able to adapt to new disciplines. The important thing is not to become hide-bound by one form. I’ve produced the best short stories of my career over the last couple of years, without a great deal of market impact, so I’m making the transition to novels at the right time. I could have done so a couple of years ago and been a bit further along in my career plans, perhaps, but the Angry Robot Open Door success came along at exactly the necessary moment.

Q: You wrote a post for the ROR blog where you described the rollercoaster of submitting to the Angry Robot Open Submission Month. (994 manuscripts). And now your book The Corpse Rat King has been published. (Mega congratulations!)  If you could go back and give yourself some advice when you submitted that manuscript, what would it be?

Not a single thing: the novel got through the process, it was picked up, I gots me an agent. I think it pretty much ticked all the boxes!

I was fortunate in that I submitted as a reasonably experienced author, so I knew not to hang about waiting for something to happen. I was already writing another novel—I had 52k of it under my belt before the contract was signed—and was working on a bunch of other stuff while I waited. So I was quite happy with the way the whole submission process panned out: I’d been a bit moribund beforehand but it revitalised me, and got me thinking of my career in different terms, which has been refreshing.

Q: The sequel to The Corpse Rat King, Marching Dead, is due out in 2013. Has it been a very different process writing a sequel, while editing the first book? And do you have an idea for a third book in the series?

It has been different, in that I’m working to a deadline, as well as not being in the position where I can make up characters and locations from scratch. In a sense I’m much less free than I was in writing the first volume. Characters are established, distances are established, locations and levels of technology are all established. I can’t just make stuff up as I go along, so if I’ve cocked something up in creating the first book then I have to work with it and make it acceptable. That said, of course, I’m able to allow my characters to grow to a much greater extent, so it’s a lot of fun answering questions that may have arisen in volume one. And there are a few revelations along the way, too: the advantage of not working to a plan is that I can be surprised by something that pops up unbidden in the first draft and then, by the time the final draft is finished, make it look like I intended that to happen all along .

I do have a story arc worked out for the 3rd book, just in case the first two do well and Angry Robot decide to commission a third. I know the beginning, and the end point, and the Great Big Decision ™ Marius will have to make in order to reach it. Any more than that will generally work itself out in the writing. But it would be fair to say that any shit my heroes managed to pour all over themselves in the first two books would be nothing when compared to volume three!

Q: You have tutored at Clarion South and you have an article on the Australian Horror Writers Association web site Industry Advice. The industry is changing so fast. Once it was the kiss of death to self-publish, now many authors are self-publishing their back lists. Do you find yourself scrambling to keep up?

I’m not a big fan of self-publishing new pieces: to my old-fashioned way of thinking it still carries the whiff of work not good enough to attract a more traditional publisher. However, I can understand why an author who has the time and energy to do so would want to release older pieces directly to the public without any intermediary: the work has already undergone a process of third-party quality control, the dialogue between author and reader can be made more immediate, and the cash flows more directly to the writer.

I readily acknowledge that I’m a little bit behind the times in my thinking: I still adhere to a traditional publishing model for my work, and I’m comfortable with that. I see a number of authors putting their own work out via electronic self-publishing, and it seems to me a very labour intensive way to go about your business. But when it comes to the marketplace, authors have to understand that they are small business owners, and as a small business owner, you have to decide the best way to market your product and how much time you’re willing to spend in developing the means of production. My instinct has always been that I’m too time-poor to be an effective electronic self-pubber, so I’ve steered away from it: I’m not passionate about that process, I’m not an adherent of the delivery system (I don’t own an e-reader, I don’t plan to own one, etc.), and for me, what time I do have is better utilised in other ways. That’s no comment on those who do choose to go down that track, just a fairly honest assessment of where my own strengths and weaknesses lie.

Ultimately, the best delivery medium, and the way you promote and market yourself as an author, is decided by the overall goals you have for your career. Self-publishing doesn’t attract me because it doesn’t fit in with my strengths and it doesn’t align with the direction I want my career to take. I keep in touch with the discussions, because I think every writer should be at least passingly familiar with the trends and evolutions of their business environment. But my limited experience shows me two levels of work being pushed—electronic reprints of paper books, which any sensible author should be pursuing as a negotiable clause in their contracts anyway, and original e-only works: the literary equivalent of a straight-to-video release, with the accompanying wild variations in quality. And I’m not sure I’ve discovered an efficient-enough means of separating the wheat from the chaff to make jumping into that second category a time-effective way to spend my writing career.

There may come a time when I look at self-publishing my story backlist, but truth be told I’d be just as comfortable with a small press publisher swooping in and offering to do all the hard business stuff for me in return for a cut of the proceeds, or paying me a flat fee as per the traditional business model. That might mean a cut in my potential in-hand profit, but I make a good living so money’s not that much of an issue, and at the end of the day I like real, hold-‘em-in-your-hand dead tree books, so it’s a compromise I’m happy to make.

Q: Your wife is talented writer, Lyn Battersby. With two creative people, who happen to be creative in the same medium in the same house, do you find this is a blessing or a curse? Do you read each other’s work and give feedback? Or do you find you can’t bear to do this? Have you considered collaborating? (eg. Written by L & L Battersby).

Lyn and Lee (courtesy Cat Sparks)

Lyn and I have collaborated on one story: a post-alien invasion tale called ‘C’ that, for a number of reasons, never really satisfied either of us so never saw the light of day. We’re both gearing up to work more as full-time novelists now, so the chances of collaboration on a fiction project aren’t high. Lyn writes much more elegant and subtle prose than I do, and her subject matter tends to be far more intimate, so I think there’s probably a clash in approach that doesn’t benefit our respective strengths. Once she gets the recognition her work deserves she’s going to become far too rich and famous to suffer having me riding her coat-tails, anyway…

But it’s definitely more a blessing than a curse to be married to someone with the same career goals and aspirations, simply because of the level of understanding. One of us can call ‘writing night’ at any time and there’s no argument, and when we talk it’s in the same language. We did read each other’s work a lot more when we were less experienced, mainly, I think, as a form of reinforcement that what we were doing made sense to someone else. Now we’re fairly confident in our own abilities we tend to read each other for pleasure, and Lyn doesn’t read my long work—she wants to wait for it to come out in proper novel format. But we’re always on hand to offer instant advice or an opinion, and as we generally can’t stop talking about current projects we usually have a pretty good idea what each other is working on, where we’re at with it, where it’s going, how rich it’s going to make us… just normal, everyday, married person conversations .

Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy?

It’s a gross generalization to split a literary genre along gender lines, but I think you could argue that there are differences in the way males and females perceive fantasy, inasmuch as we seem to fantasize for different reasons. We’re a fairly small outpost in Australia, and I think it’s probably a bit easier to do a head-count than in the larger markets, so we’ve got a pretty good idea of our gender mix, which is increasingly healthy if not yet equitable. It helps to have good, strong publishers who understand the need for variation in theme and approach: in particular, Twelfth Planet Press and Fablecroft Publishing are two houses that are helmed by smart, high-quality editor/publishers who strive to promote a more literate, intelligent type of fantasy, which is the sort of environment where subtler forms of writing can thrive.

I think the male/female style argument is a somewhat simplistic one, and I’d like to think that as an industry we might have become a little more sophisticated than that, at least here in Australia, because I can see the Australian SF small press working hard to provide opportunities based on idea and theme rather than gender alignment, but as I said, it’s easier to look at the demographic in its entirety here, and also easy to view things from the perspective of a white middle-class male with few barriers to his career. My wife, who writes beautifully subtle and elegant works that often don’t pass through the quick-read filter, might gently intimate that I’m talking shit.

Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?

Not a bit. I’m utterly disinterested in the gender of the author when I pick up a book. Gender is just a description of where your dangly bits dangle from. It’s not an expression of sexual orientation, political affiliation, socio-economic outlook, or any of the umpty million psychological, societal and environmental factors that an author brings to their work. It may inform some of those factors, but what’s more interesting, from a creative point of view, is your overall worldview: the set of experiences that you, as a writer, translate into fiction. Gender is by no means the deciding, or even major, element in the translation of that mindset.

As a reader, and as simplistic as it sounds, all I want is to read a good book. That’s it. I don’t care if the author is an ancient Sumerian rabbit god with a lisp, as long as the story they tell moves me, involves me, and just maybe, leaves me looking at the world through a different lens. I’m old enough to have grown up whilst it was still relatively easy to find Leigh Brackett, CL Moore, Julian May and the likes on a shelf. And whilst it was—and remains—a blight on the industry that a significant percentage of writers feel they have to conceal their gender in order to find an audience, from the perspective of my young reader-self it meant that, as I grew up, I paid attention to the name on the cover rather than the identity of the author behind them. I’ve no doubt that gender plays a part in the publishing business, which would lead me down a very different rant indeed, but once a book actually reaches the bookshelf, the gender of the author becomes a non-issue for me.

Ultimately, if the gender of the author is the sole reason you pick up a book—or worse, the reason you don’t—then you may be missing the fucking point a wee bit. Is my experience of, say, a George Eliot novel lessened because I might learn that Oor George was a woman? Could I be that simplistic a creature? And if I am, what the fuck do I do if someone hands me a Caitlin Kiernan book, or a Poppy Brite?

A book is a doorway to a shared experience, and if you’re lucky, an experience that you not only haven’t had before but could not conceive of having. If reading that book leads you to seek out information about the author, and if learning about their lives enriches your reading experience, then fantastic. But the book itself is the gift. The story within is the sole point of contact through which we, as readers, have the right to critique and analyse the author’s motive. Anything else, unless directly communicated by the author, is conjecture. To take the immortal Trillian entirely out of context: anything you still can’t cope with is, therefore, your own problem.

As an author, though, as an author: that’s a different bucket of cows. The truth is, at least within our beloved little genre, that SF remains the province of a largely masculine way of thinking, and what’s worse; it’s a masculine way of thinking that even Tony Abbott might occasionally find old-fashioned and bigoted. It is undeniably a struggle to pass a truly feminine, or transgendered, worldview through the gatekeepers of most magazines and publishers. From an editing point of view—particularly in the magazine field—we’re set up for the quick fix. It’s easier to filter for a muscular, action-driven narrative that responds well to a first reading than it is to reward a subtle, emotionally-shaded, character-driven narrative that needs two or three readings to fully unfold. To split such stories directly down that divide as typically male or female is, of course, a gross simplification in itself, but as Westerners we create a societal culture that demands women define themselves as emotional beings, and then create a genre infrastructure that makes it difficult to sell emotionally subtle stories. Is it any wonder that female authors who have the greatest success writing Spec-style novels have a tendency to either do it outside the genre or loudly disassociate themselves from it?

Of course, all comments can be filtered through my happy life as a fat, middle-class white man, and disregarded as necessary.

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

I’m having a hard time not hearing Kryten right now: “If I could go anywhere, absolutely anywhere at all in time, I think I’d probably choose to go back to a week last Tuesday… I did all the laundry, and then we watched TV. Wow, we won’t see the like of THOSE sorts of days again.”  :)

Dinosaurs. It’s got to be dinosaurs. Because, well… dinosaurs!

 

Giveaway Question:  “If you could go anywhere after you die, where would it be?”

 

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Filed under Australian Writers, Book Giveaway, creativity, Dark Urban Fantasy, Fantasy books, Gender Issues, Publishing Industry, Tips for Developing Artists

Meet Helen Lowe Winner of the Morningstar Award…

I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the talented Helen Lowe to drop by.

Watch out for the give-away question at the end of the interview.

Q: First of all congratulations on The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night series) winning the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. (For a full list of Helen’s awards see here). But you’re not new to winning awards. Your work has twice won the prestigious Sir Julius Vogel Award and your first win was in 2003 with a poem. Rain Wild Magic won the “previously unpublished” category of the Robbie Burns National Poetry Competition. Do you think winning awards helps writers reach readers?

Helen: Rowena, thank you regarding the Morningstar Award. Getting the news that The Heir of Night had won was quite a buzz, especially since I was “pretty sure” that it was the first Southern Hemisphere-authored book, and I was the first female writer to have won in either of the two Gemmell Award book categories. (I have since confirmed that this is in fact the case.) So it was nice to feel that The Heir of Night had managed to carry the flag through on both those fronts.

In terms of what difference winning awards makes, I don’t really know, to be honest. The Booker and Orange Prizes seem to get a fair bit of attention, both from the media and book shops, but my impression is that most other awards don’t. So I’m really “not sure” in terms of reaching out to a wider readership beyond those who are already savvy to the awards.

Q: The second book in The Wall of Night series, is The Gathering of the Lost. I see you use the word series, rather than trilogy. Does this mean that each book is self contained and you plan to write one a year (or more?).

Helen: The Wall of Night series is actually a quartet, but pretty much I am using the terms ‘quartet’ and ‘series’ interchangeably… In fact The Wall of Night (series or quartet) is one story told in four parts, rather than four self-contained stories – in much the same way, I think, that The Lord of the Rings is one story told in three parts. Having said that, each of the four parts of The Wall of Night story has a slightly different focus, as well as being part of a continuing arc, so I believe that may give each book a distinct character.

Q: You’ve been awarded the Ursula Bethell/Creative New Zealand Residency in Creative Writing 2012, University of Canterbury. This lasts from January to June. What exactly does it entail? Do you write madly for six months? Do you teach as well?

Helen: The main idea is that I write madly for six months, which is what I have been doing – and get paid to do so, which as other writers out there will know is a pretty amazing feeling! There is no specific teaching requirement, but I have run three sessions for creative writing students focusing on my practical experience of “being a writer.” I will also do a seminar for the College of Arts’ scholarship students before I complete my term.

Q: Thornspell is your retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the prince’s point of view. What intrigued you about the prince’s side of the story?

Helen: The idea for the story first came to me when I was at a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ ballet. I recall the moment when the prince first leapt onto the stage and I sat up in my seat and thought: “What about the prince? What’s his story?” The main character of Sigismund (the prince), the world, and the central thrust of the story all flashed into my head in that instant. But I think the main ‘hook’ was that first moment of realising that no one had ever told the prince’s story before, that he is mostly a deus ex machina to the traditional tale.

I subsequently learned that Orson Scott Card had written a novel, Enchantment, that is partly based on Sleeping Beauty and told from a male perspective – but it is tied in with several Russian folk stories and much less recognisably Sleeping Beauty, I feel.

Q: In an interview on the Pulse, you say the world of Thornspell ‘is loosely based on the Holy Roman Empire during the Renaissance / early Reformation period – not in terms of events, but in terms of cultural geography and technology, such as how people lived, clothes, weapons, tools, and learning. I think that helps to “ground” the story for the reader’. Are you a big fan of history? Do you travel to real places to get the feel of them and walk through restored castles?

Helen: Rowena,I love history and read non-fiction history as well as historical novels. And yes, I do love visiting cultural and historic heritage sites when I travel, and to date have visited castles and similar in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and Japan. But while visiting sites can give you historical ‘flavour’, which is important, I also draw on primary and secondary accounts and research as required, which I feel can be just as important for authenticity. Another important element for me is the literature of the times, which helps give a feeling for what contemporary people thought and felt was important – for example works like the Anglo Saxon Beowulf, or the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or going further back, the Greek tragedies, or The Iliad.

Q: Thornspell is a Young Adult book. Did you set out to write a YA story, it did it just develop this way?

Helen: You know, I really didn’t. I tend to just write the stories “as they come” – but having said that, the ‘shape’ of the story did come clear fairly quickly. I would say that by the end of the first chapter I knew that it was “Kid’s/YA.”

Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy?

Helen: If that is so, regarding the boys’ club perception, then I have to say I believe it is a completely false premise. In my experience, just as many women read Fantasy (and Science Fiction) as men, and what most men and women I know are reading overlaps to at least 80% – maybe even 90%.

In terms of my judgement as to whether there is a difference between the way women and men write Fantasy… I have never really analysed this so I have to go off ‘what I personally read and like’ and my feeling is that I can’t point to any substantive differences… For example, I love richly written, High Romantic Fantasy and both Patricia McKillip and Guy Gavriel Kay equally tick that box. I also like intricately plotted works that twist and turn, but can I pick between CJ Cherryh and Patrick Rothfuss? For character-driven storytelling: Daniel Abraham or Ursula K Le Guin? For adventurous storytelling: Barbara Hambly or Tim Powers? Even with gritty realism, sure there’s George RR Martin, but there is also Robin Hobb with her “Assassin” series. And although one may point to China Miéville for sheer imagination, the same applies to Elizabeth Knox with her “Dreamhunter / Dreamquake” duology.

Thinking as I go along here, if there is one difference that I might possibly point to – and without doing an exhaustive survey I can’t be sure – I suspect female authors “might” be found to use the first person point of view more. But it’s by no means an exclusive preserve!

Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?

Helen: No, absolutely not. I make my ad hoc reading choices (as opposed to books sent to me for review/interview) on the basis of three criteria: i) does the cover speak to me ‘across a crowded bookshop’ and draw me in? ii) Does the back cover blurb appeal? iii) When I read the first few paragraphs to pages, am I hooked enough to either buy the book or check it out of the library (depending on my locale at the time)? And that’s it. I pay very little regard to who the author is (except of course for when I’m looking for the ‘next’ book by an author I already follow) or to “quotes” by other writers or reviewers.

In terms of prejudging a book by the sex of the author, I really do think that’s a fairly foolish approach given the number of authors who write under pseudonyms. And even if I had been inclined that way, I think discovering that one of my favourite authors of “women’s historical romantic fiction” when I was a teen, Madeleine Brent, was in fact a man, would have cured me of it!

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

Helen: That’s an interesting question… You know, I think I might try for something like five hundred years in the future, just to see how we’ve evolved – whether we’ve managed to turn around what appears to be our current desire as a species to ‘trash’ our own planet, which in universe terms does appear to be something of an ark. And if so, how we’ve done it. As well as whether we have managed to get off-planet in any significant way. In other words, that good old spec-fic fall back: I want to check out the space travel!

Give-away Question: Helen: OK, given we’ve talked about The Heir of Night winning the Gemmell Morningstar Award, I have a copy of the book to give away, to be drawn from commenters who respond to this question:

On your voyage to Mars, what three Fantasy novels would you absolutely not be without – and why?

 

 

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Filed under Australian Writers, Awards, Book Giveaway, creativity, Fantasy books, Female Fantasy Authors, Gender Issues, Nourish the Writer, Writers and Redearch, Young Adult Books

Meet Queenie Chan…

I’m expanding my series featuring fantastic authors to include fantastically creative people across the different mediums, which is why I’ve invited the talented Queenie Chan to drop by.

There are links to give-aways sprinkled throughout the interview.  

Q: In the Eighties I lived in Melbourne and knew a bunch of comic artists. One of the things I noticed was that they would be obsessed with art work, the look, the over-all layout of the page, but story would fall by the wayside. On your website you say: ‘After all, the essence of manga is not so much the art, but the story-telling, themes and pacing. These three are what you should concentrate on when trying to tell a story — any story, not just manga.’ Have you always been fascinated by story? Did your parents read to you? When you saw a movie, did you imagine what happened to the characters afterwards?

Oh, that sounds real interesting! You sound like you met a lot of interesting people when you lived in Melbourne (I must say, I did too when I lived there for a year). Anyway, you’re right about the many different camps of people who read graphic novels – some are all about the art, others are all about the story, while yet more believe in a combination of both. Personally, I’ve always felt that story is more important than art – a story can’t be expressed properly if the art is inadequate, but I also have seen a lot of well-drawn manga/comics that are dull and boring despite beautiful, realistic renderings. I still feel that to work in any storytelling medium (which comics is), your first duty is to engage the reader’s attention in whatever the purpose of the medium is for, so if it’s comics, it should be story.

So yes, I’ve always been more fascinated by story, and as you said, I like to imagine the continuation of stories after they’ve “officially” finished. My parents encouraged me to read as a child, but they never read to me much (neither read fiction, to be honest), and so I got my fix from a variety of different sources – books, movies, TV series, cartoons, manga and video games. Even as a child, I was always writing fan-fiction in my head based on my favourite TV shows.

Q: You say you plot the story, concentrating on the beginning and end and often let the middle take care of itself. And that: ‘In longer stories … there is time to set the characters free in the world you’ve created, and watching them interact with each other and with the environment. If your characters are well-constructed, then they would behave accordingly, and sometimes in ways completely unexpected to you.’ At this stage are you still brainstorming the story flow in a sentence or two, or do you actually start to draw and find the characters doing unexpected things?

Since I’m a comic book writer/artist, the way I work is quite different to prose authors. I’m not saying I’m representative of comic book writers or artists in general, but most people who work in the comic medium are often constrained by the number of pages available. So in my case, the first thing I do when brainstorming is to figure out how many pages a story can be, because if a story becomes too long, it may be impossible to draw (since it will be impossible to finish).

With prose, you can always add paragraphs or sentences and rewrite things if you want, but unfortunately with comics, once you’ve set something down on paper, it can be very hard to change. You can’t add an extra two panels to page 26 of your page 170 book (so far) if you want to – it will mess up the panel flows for the rest of the book. Because of this, my brainstorming usually involves writing down what happens on page 1, then what happens on page 2, and continuing by making a page-by-page summary of what happens on each page.

This part isn’t hard, but sticking to it isn’t always easy. Things always change when you go from prose to images, so you have to accommodate having to insert extra pages in when you start drawing the comic. Other times you’ll have to shorten scenes or extend them, so these days, I always make sure I have a good “feel” of the story in my head before I draw anything. As I said, the longer your story, the more freedom you have in letting your characters have their character moments. You may find a scene play out different as you draw it than you originally imagined, but the overall arc of the story shouldn’t deviate from the plan too much.

Q: You say you consider yourself:  ‘… a Citizen of The World.’ You were born in Hong Kong and came to Australia when you were six. Did you live in a multicultural suburb where you mixed with people from a lot of different backgrounds or was this interest in other societies just something that you uncovered as you came across books and movies from other cultures?

I grew up in a very multi-cultural suburb alright – I went to school with all sorts of interesting people and it was always lovely to learn about other cultures! I was always very interested in travelling, and not necessarily to other Anglophone cultures. As a child, I wanted to go to Africa, to the Middle East and to India, because I thought of these places as exotic, and with a long history.

I think being a history buff helps a lot too. I read a fair amount about Ancient History, and it’s always been a kind of dream for me to visit those historic places that I’ve read so much about.

Q: You say: ‘The reason why I’m so interested in interlocking story threads has a lot to do with my interest in human nature, sociology and anthropology. One of the things I find infinitely fascinating about genre-based story-telling in general is the environment the story is set in, and how that influences the character’s morals, values and actions.’ This is where I come from when writing my own books. I like to put my characters in situations that make them confront what they believe. You’ve made me want to run out and buy some of your books now. Was there a particular writer/movie director/artist whose mastery of character and setting made you think, Wow, that is what I’d like to do, but in my own way?

Ah, nice to know we share that point-of-view in common! I think fantasy can get a bad rep amongst some circles, because people tend to think they know what fantasy is without having read any of it (D&D, girls in metal bikinis swinging swords at orcs). The truth is, fantasy is just anything that isn’t set in this world, but set in a different world; a world which has social conventions similar to our own. What better way is there to explore human nature, without all the political, racial, cultural and historical baggage that each one of us accumulates in this world, just by virtue of living in it? As you said, putting your characters in situations that make them confront their beliefs is what people in this world do every day, just as they do in the worlds you create in your novels.

As for people who have inspired me… there’s been far too many to list. I can point out one man in particular who set me on my path – Tezuka Osamu, the creator of Astro Boy. He was a thoroughly-entertaining manga artist, but also a great humanist, and I encountered his series Black Jack at a particular time in my life (I was 15) which left a deep impression on me. Black Jack is about a rogue doctor who charges exorbitant fees for his services, but he’s also a very good doctor who understands that some people have illnesses that have nothing to do with the physical. The ethical questions that crop up in that manga is quite interesting.

Q: From reading the blurb about The Dreaming it seems to have the feel of the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, which had a lyrical dreamlike quality about it, and to also be a modern take on the Gothic Romance Literature. Are these two sources which might have influenced you subconsciously as you were creating this story?

Picnic at Hanging Rock was definitely the biggest inspiration for The Dreaming, and you’re right about the gothic literature influences. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier was the other big influence, as were movies like Rosemary’s Baby. The visual aspect was quite important for me (namely the way the school looked), but I think I wanted to create a more modern, “haunted-school” take on the whole Picnic at Hanging Rock mythos, so the story ended up bearing hardly any resemblance to any of these three books/movies. Which is a good thing. Even if you can name all your influences, it’s a pleasure to know that what you created is unique in its own way.

By the way, I have the first 2 volumes (of 3) of The Dreaming online as a free webcomic.

Q: Your chapter dividers in The Dreaming remind me a little of the black & white work of Arthur Rackham and perhaps Art Nouveau (Mucha). Do you have heaps of books on art?

Actually, I don’t have many artbooks, especially compared to other comic book artists. I’m not really big on art at all. As I mentioned before, I’m more interested in story-telling than I am in art, so people are often aghast when it turns out that I haven’t heard of [insert name of famous illustrator here]. It’s assumed that all people who draw must be big fans of the art world, but unfortunately… I’m not.

I really do like Mucha’s art style, though it wasn’t something I’ve discovered until recently. And while I love what I’ve seen of Arthur Rackham’s artwork (google images, yay!), I actually think that the chapter divider art for “The Dreaming” looks more like some of Gustav Klimt’s line artwork (that I randomly saw in a book somewhere). I must say that I wasn’t influenced by any particular artist when I drew those chapter dividers – Klimt’s work was something I encountered afterwards.

Q: With the Odd Thomas Series (stories originally by Dean Koontz), did Koontz see your work and ask you to illustrate his stories, or were the pair of you matched up by his/your publisher? (Reading your blog post about it, I see it was a little bit of both). So I’ll come up with another question. How is the movie project going?

I believe we were matched up by our publisher Del Rey, though ofcourse, Dean has to like my work to begin with. I’m not sure what work he has seen of mine before we started working together, but we’ve had a good working relationship thus far, and it would be an honour if we did more books together. As of now, there’s three Odd Thomas books (In Odd We Trust, Odd Is On Our Side, and House of Odd), and I’m happy with how things are.

I believe the movie for Odd Thomas has been completed, and is looking for distribution. I don’t really know much about it, I’m afraid, since this is a project that is driven mostly by Dean. When it comes out, I’m sure all the Odd Thomas fans will run out to see it!

Q: A while ago at Supanova Kylie Chan pulled out some of your artwork and showed me. She’s so proud of the work you’re doing on Small Shen. Were you already one of Kylie’s readers? How did the two of you connect?

(Update Small Shen isi finished!)

Kylie approached me at GenCon a few years ago, and introduced herself and her novels. I didn’t really know of her or her work beforehand, but it was rare to see Chinese Fantasy be so successful, so I took an interest in her work. When I contacted Kylie, it turns out that she had a prequel to her series called Small Shen, and wanted to do something “graphic-novelly” with it. Since I relish the chance to draw some Chinese-style fantasy artwork, I decided to take on the project. That was how it all got off the ground!

It’s been fun working on this project, and I’m nearing the end. This has been a special book, because this is a book that mixes prose with comics, and is not a straight-forward graphic novel. It’s experimental, but so far it’s working out quite well, so I look forward to it coming out in Xmas 2012 from Harper Collins.

Here’s an interview Oz Comic Con did with Queenie about her Small Shen project with fantasy author, Kylie Chan (no relation), among other things.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=x7qNQ2ryrds]

Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy (in books) is a bit of a boy’s club. I’ve come across quite a bit of talk on the blogs recently about female comic artists and writers, and their lack of representation in large companies like DC. Have you come across this in your professional life?

I think this perception exists throughout a lot of pop culture. Even when talking about books, there’s a perception that sci-fi, horror, crime, thriller, literary, etc are all male-dominated. The only thing that is seen as exclusively female is probably chic-lit or romance – but even then, these books are packaged in such a female-oriented way that any chance of them appealing to a male audience is pretty much dead due to the deluge of pink covers. Meanwhile, there are a large number of successful female authors working across the genres, and there always has been.

Things are pretty much the same in the comics industry. While it’s true that companies like DC and Marvel dominate (and they are largely male-oriented), there are many female comic book artists out there who don’t work in superheroes, and are just doing their own thing. I’m one of them.

It’s true that there are a lot of assumptions being made by people outside the industry, though, and even inside the industry. Many comics industry blogs tend to cover only superheroes, and hardly any other kind of comic. If you’re going to focus on one small part of the comics industry, then yes, you’re going to get a skewed perception of gender.

Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer/artist change your expectations when you approach their work?

No, it doesn’t. I think a good writer is a good writer, and I don’t think the gender of the writer has any effect on the final work. Male and female writers may be interested in different things, or approach things from other angles, but a good story told well is exactly that, and all that’s left is accounting for differing tastes.

I think things are a little different for artists though. If you’re talking about artists who are paired up with writers, then it rests on the skill of the artist to tell the writer’s story effectively, and sometimes they don’t do that. However, that’s got nothing to do with gender though – it’s more to do with what genre that artist is used to working in. If an artist is flexible, they ought to know how to adapt themselves to different genres. If they don’t, and they believe that one-art-style-fits-all… then it can get a little awkward.

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

Ah, that’s a hard question. My answer can change each time someone asks me that question, depending on what I’m into at that particular point in time. Previously I said just after the meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs hit, so I can see the terrible global destruction that it must have caused (but I would probably die very quickly from it). But as of now, I may just take the easy route and travel to Ancient Egypt to watch them build the Pyramids and raise the Obelisk. I have a theory as to how they raised the Obelisk, and am wondering whether it checks out with history.


Queenie’s Blog.

Catch up with Queenie on Facebook 

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Filed under Australian Artists, Australian Writers, Book Giveaway, Comics/Graphic Novels, Conferences and Conventions, Conventions, creativity, Gender Issues, Genre, Publishing Industry, Story Arc, Tips for Developing Artists, Writers Working Across Mediums

Meet Bruce Gillespie (SF Fan & Commentator of over Forty Years)…

Bruce with Apple Blossom (1977)

I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the hardworking and insightful Bruce Gillespie to drop by.

I first met Bruce in 1976, when I went to Melbourne with Paul Collins to start an Indie Press publishing house. Bruce was living in Carlton with his cat Flodnap (and his cat’s cat, Julius) and had been editing fanzines for 8 years. By 1976, Bruce had been nominated for a Hugo three times, so despite being only 29, he was already one of the Grand Old Men of Australian SF Fandom.

Q: Your work had received three Hugo Nominations before you were 30. You have received total of 45 Ditmar Nominations  and 19 wins, and The A Bertram Chandler Award in 2007, plus you were fan guest of honour at AussieCon 3, the World SF Convention in 1999, is there anything left that you would like to achieve?

A: Like any other fanzine editor or writer, I would actually like to win the Hugo Award for either Best Fanzine or Best Fan Writer! But that seems impossible these days, since even in 1999 and 2010, when the world convention was held in Australia, I could not gain enough votes to reach the nominations list.

Bruce receives his first Ditmar from John Bangsund (1972)

However, in 2009 I was awarded the Best Fan Writer in the annual FAAN Awards, given by my peers, the fanzine writers and editors who attend the Corflu convention in America. I count that as a great honour, along with having received Australia’s two awards for lifetime achievement, the A. Bertram Chandler Award (as you mention) and the Peter MacNamara Award. In practical

terms, the greatest honour I’ve received was the Bring Bruce Bayside fan fund, which enabled me to return to America (for the Corflu and Potlatch conventions) for a month in 2005.

The Gang (1967)
John Bangsund, Leigh Edmonds, Lee Harding, John Foyster, Tony Thomas, Merv Binns and Paul J Stevens
The Gang (1967)

Q: In your 2012 snapshot interview you say: A fanzine is a minor artform, based on putting together a wide range of material from my favourite writers, plus response from letter writers from all over the world. The use of a computer limits the artform in some ways, but also offers design, editing and font possibilities that were impossible to access in the Good Old Days (pre 1990s) of using stencils and duplicators.’  You have been producing zines now since 1968, that’s 44 years. In that time you must have worked out what makes a good fanzine. If you could go back now to Bruce circa 1968, what advice would you give him?

A: I could have warned him not to use the typewriter with which I produced the first SF Commentary in 1969. It was a little Olivetti with a beautiful typewriter face — but unfortunately it would not cut a stencil properly. For a fanzine that was almost illegible, SF Commentary No 1 gained an enormous response from people around the world, including a letter from Philip K. Dick, my favourite SF writer.

But apart from that, how can you give advice to a 22-year-old, especially someone with far more energy than I have now? ‘Follow your nose?’ ‘Never give up?’ I knew then that no matter how people responded to my fanzines, that was what I should be doing. Nothing’s changed.

Bruce with Brian Aldiss at Stone henge (1974)

Q: In the same interview you said: ‘Of course, I can publish electronically, using PDF files, on Bill Burns’ wonderful efanzines.com, but I know that many people download such magazines and don’t read them with the attention they would devote to a magazine they received through the mail.’  I do most of my reading on-line, following science blogs, political activists and researching. Personally, I don’t feel that I give less attention to my on-line reading. What leads you to believe that an on-line magazine is valued less than a print magazine?

A: For someone of my generation, a paper document has real existence, and online documents don’t. I don’t really believe that the current electronic publications will be available or readable in twenty years, let alone forty, but I still own almost all the paper fanzines I’ve received since 1969. If I value anything I find Out There, I copy it into a Word file and print it. More to the point, many of my correspondents say that they reply to paper fanzines, and don’t respond to fanzines posted on efanzines.com. That’s if they even take the trouble to download.

The current situation is that I can no longer afford to print and post my fanzines, so I will be asking almost all my readers to download them. This will sharply reduce the number of letters of comment I receive, but it gives me much more freedom to publish much more often.

Q: You once said about Fandom: ‘Before I joined fandom I had almost no friends or anybody with whom I could share my interests. In fandom I found people who were not just another part of the mundane world, which I find stifling. During a weekend I spent at Lee Harding’s place in late 1967, I met for the first time many of the people who have had the most influence on my life, such as John Bangsund, Lee Harding, George Turner, John Foyster and Rob Gerrand.’  (See Bruce’s post about science fiction and  fandom here). I must admit that it wasn’t until I came to Melbourne with Paul in 1976 that I met people I could talk to. I’d come from Brisbane where all people talked about was football and getting drunk (obviously I was moving in the wrong circles). In Melbourne fandom I met fascinating people who could hold stimulating conversations on all manner of topics.  I felt like I’d come ‘home’. Nowadays with the WWW people can make contact with other like-minded people, but forty years ago it was much harder. SF fans were considered extremely odd. Can you give readers a glimpse of what it was like to be a fan in those days?

Melbourne Fandom in 1954
Back row: Merv Binns, and Dick Jenssen
Front row: Bob McCubbin, Bert Chandler and Race Mathews

A: At school, I had only two friends who read science fiction at all. Nobody else I knew read SF, although the SF magazines were much more widely available (in newsagents) than now. At university, no other students seemed interested. However, I did read in the Bulletin in 1966 that Melbourne had just held an SF convention. Charles Higham wrote what remains the fairest report any Australian journalist has ever offered of an SF convention. He made it sound very exciting. I also knew that the Melbourne SF Club held its meetings every Wednesday night in Somerset Place, which was behind McGill’s Newsagency in Elizabeth Street. McGill’s had the only good stock of science fiction in Melbourne, and I realised that this had something to do with the tall thin man who loomed behind the counter (who was, of course, Mervyn Binns, who has just been given the Infinity Award for his services to fandom). Every science fiction book sold in McGill’s included a little leaflet advertising the club. Also, McGill’s sold a magazine called Australian Science Fiction Review (ASFR). The quality of the reviews and articles in this magazine were staggeringly far ahead of those in the pro SF magazines, for both intellectual content and sparkling style. However, I knew I would never finish my degree if I became involved in fandom from 1965 to 1967. At the end of 1967 I wrote several articles on the works of Philip K. Dick and sent them to John Bangsund, the editor of ASFR. He rang me in December 1967 and suggested I visit his home in Ferntree Gully to meet the people who produced the magazine. This was the beginning of my career in fandom, for I met people who read what I read, talked about what interested me, and who were interested in what I had already written.

Bruce with Allan Sandercock (1971)

Q:  You are a qualified school teacher and did teach for two years, but gave it up to produce fanzines and write about speculative fiction. You said:  ‘My mundane career has never gone anywhere much, and I’ve often been nearly broke. But my career in fandom (as an editor), which has never made me any money, has led to most of the good things in my life.’  What do you think are essential traits an editor needs?

A: That’s not quite right. I gave up teaching because I was hopeless at it. I was very close to suicide at the end of 1970, but a friend prompted me to do what I would have thought unthinkable — resign. When I did this, the Department wanted to keep teachers, so I was offered a series of bribes to stay officially a teacher. The last of these was a position in the Publications Branch of the Department. In 1971 and 1972 I received a full on-the-job training in professional editing and journalism. I left in mid 1973 to go overseas, visiting fans all over America for four months and a month in Britain. When I returned I decided to try freelance book editing. I knew there was no editing work in SF in Australia, but my friend John Bangsund was making an intermittent living from freelancing, and there was plenty of work, especially in textbooks, in 1974.

The essential quality of an editor is to love correcting other people’s writing. You trawl through a book and can see how you can improve it. Many editors (especially my wife Elaine) are much better at it (are much more meticulous) than I am, but I’ve kept on working over the years, sometimes successfully (as during the twelve years I received guaranteed freelance work from Macmillan in Melbourne) and sometimes disastrously (such as at the end of 1976, when I was actually forced to take a part-time office job for a year or so). Elaine and I have learned to skate along from cheque to cheque, and sometimes those cheques are very thin on the ground.

Bruce Gillespie and Elaine Cochrane on their Wedding Day (1979)

Q: In 1979 along with Carey Handfield and Rob Gerrand, you were one of the founding editors of Norstrilia Press, which published Greg Egan’s first novel, among others. Was there are particular philosophy that the three of you developed when you started Nostrilia Press?

Dick Jenssen and Rob Gerrand (2005)

Bruce Gillespie and Carey Handfield (1975)

A: Like the other small presses of the time, including Cory & Collins and Hyland House, our aim was to publish material that no major publisher would touch. You might remember that during 1973, for instance, there were 17 novels of any genre published by all Australian publishers. Even after the Australia Council began its publishing program under the Whitlam Labor Government, most of the spate of new titles sprang from the small press enterprises, such as Outback Press.

Carey said that the aim of Norstrilia Press (named in honour of American writer Cordwainer Smith, who had a great love of Australia, and whose only novel was Norstrilia) was to return enough money to SF Commentary, my magazine, to keep it going. This never happened, of course, but our first book (1975) was a set of essays called Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd. All the material, which included essays by Stanislaw Lem and George Turner, came from SF Commentary.

Carey devised a complicated system by which individual fans invested in particular books that we published. Since eventually we had to provide a return on investment, we diversified quickly. (Our only other critical book was The Stellar Gauge, essays by the finest critics in the field, edited by Michael Tolley and Kirpal Singh in 1981).

Our second book was The Altered I, with stories and essays based on the Ursula Le Guin Writers Workshop of 1975 (held in association with Australia’s first world convention, Aussiecon 1).

We tracked down a novel by Keith Antill called Moon in the Ground. It had won a prize several years before, but had never found a publisher.

Greg Egan sent us his An Unusual Angle, a brilliant novel he had written when he was seventeen.

I had met Gerald Murnane at Publications Branch, and had typed several of his novels before he learned to type. In 1977 I suggested that one section of a giant novel would make a great book on its own. That became The Plains in 1982, which was our greatest success (gaining a nomination for The Age Book of the Year Award), and still Gerald’s best regarded book. Text Publishing has just produced yet another edition, and it has had several overseas editions.

We were also very pleased to publish George Turner’s literary memoir In the Heart or in the Head, as well as The View from the Edge, his book about the 1977 Writers Workshop held at Monash University.

However, all of Carey’s and Rob’s labours were unpaid, and I was paid only for the typesetting work that I did for Norstrilia Press, Cory & Collins and Hyland House. At the end of ten years, we had made very little money, and Carey wanted to get married and establish his own career. So Norstrilia Press finished in 1985.

John Foyster, Carey Handfield, Damien Broderick and John Bangsund (1982)

George Turner (1979)

Q: You are the executor for George Turner’s literary estate. What exactly does being a Literary Executor entail?

A: Not a lot, because George has not exactly been popular since his death in 1997. His main audience was overseas, and all those editions have gone out of print. Most of the work in keeping his name alive has been done by his agent, now my agent, Cherry Weiner, an Australian who has lived near New York for many years. At various times she has had great success with various Australian authors, such as Keith Taylor, Wynne Whiteford, David Lake, and now Paul Collins. She sold George’s posthumous novel Down There in Darkness, in 1998, but little since. I’ve signed contracts for Gollancz in Britain to republish The Sea and Summer (Drowning Towers in USA) as an SF Masterwork. I’m hoping that when it appears, it will re-establish George Turner as one of the major SF talents of the last fifty years.

I did publish 100,000 words of George Turner’s non-fiction as SF Commentary 76. Copies are still available, both as download and as a paper magazine.

Aussice Con 3 Timebinders Panel (1999)

Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy and particularly SF is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write?

Bruce receives a Ditmar from George Turner (1980s)

A: Are we talking about science fiction or fantasy? To me they are quite different fields, with fantasy dealing with impossible events; and SF, at its best, being realistic novels that happen to be set in the future, rather than in the present or the past.

And are we talking about the writers or the readers? The balance in the composition of the readership changed very rapidly. When I became involved in SF fandom, the only women who turned up at conventions and club meetings were girlfriends or wives or members. That’s in 1968 and 1969. This began to change rapidly after 1971, mainly because of the influx of younger female media fans, but also a lot of women who were just beginning their careers as academics, teachers and librarians. By the 1973 Easter convention held in Melbourne, nearly half of the attendees were women, and that balance has remained even ever since.

But Australian writers, who were mainly male (Damien Broderick, Lee Harding, David Boutland, Jack Wodhams and Wynne Whiteford) tended to huddle in corners in the early 1970s because there were very few of them. There had been a very famous Australian female writer, Norma Hemming, but she had died in 1960 when she was very young. Cherry Wilder lived in Sydney for awhile, but she was a New Zealander with a German husband, so she went to live in Germany in the late 1970s.

The balance changed after fantasy became the dominant publishing genre in Australia in the 1990s. When HarperVoyager began consciously to recruit Australian writers, they found a treasure trove of young, enthusiastic women writers who have become very popular. Science fiction almost disappeared here, except from a few (male) writers such as Sean William, Sean McMullen and Terry Dowling. Marianne de Pierres and Lucy Sussex seem to be our only female writers who publish mainly science fiction.

All you have to do is look around at any fannish or professional gathering in Australia to see that 80 per cent or more of our writers are now female. They include many of my own favourite dark fantasy writers, such as Kaaron Warren, Cat Sparks and Deb Biancotti. I don’t read three-parter blockbuster medieval fantasy novels myself, but I acknowledge that Australia’s female writers (as well as a few males, such as Garth Nix) have conquered the field.

Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?

Bruce receives the Chandler award from Paul Collins and Kirstyn McDermott (2011)

A: I’m only interested in finding good writing. I can’t help sympathising with Gerald Murnane’s rather provocative statement that no book should be published with the name of the author visible. In other words, the prose should speak for itself. Aesthetics über alles. However, like most readers I’m curious the find out about the authors whose works I enjoyed most, and I can’t help being flattered if my favourite writers remember something I might have written about their work. But I admit that most of my favourite SF writers have been male, for example, Philip Dick, Brian Aldiss, Thomas M. Disch, Cordwainer Smith, George Turner, Wilson Tucker, Stanislaw Lem and Christopher Priest. I always buy every new book by Ursula Le Guin. I love Joanna Russ’s work, but her novels were not as interesting as her short stories. I’ve enjoyed some of Gwyneth Jones’ books, but not all. In literary fantasy, nothing beats Le Guin’s Earthsea series and Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, but I also love fantasy by Peter Beagle, Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser and a whole lot of others.

 

Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?

A: As the Strugatsky Brothers reminded us in their fun novel, Hard to Be a God, any of us would find any past era very smelly and very dangerous. Given the right inoculations (and nose filters), I would like to investigate the period that the Steampunkers have adopted as theirs, that very exciting era of huge change from 1880 to 1914. You would have to think that the First World War was staged to destroy that tremendous fizz of progressive thinking and scientific and artistic change that seemed likely to lead to a brave new world. How were they were to know in 1914 that millions would be killed, and that Stalin and Hitler would divide the world’s attention for the next thirty years?

For a list of Bruce’s publications and essays see here.

For Bruce’s listing on the e-fanzine site, with links to all his fanzines, see here.

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