I have been running a series of interviews with female fantasy writers to redress a perception I came across – that fantasy was a bit of a boy’s club. It really isn’t like that here in Australia. We have many wonderful fantasy writers who just happen to be female.
Today I’m interviewing Paul Collins because, for one thing he’s been a power-house of indie publishing for over thirty-five years, and also I thought I’d ask him the same questions I’ve asked the female writers about fantasy writing and gender, to get his perspective as a male fantasy writer.
Look out for the give-away at the end of the interview.
Q: You have over 140 books, including 30 non-fiction hard covers for the education market, 11 anthologies and two collections of your own stories. You edited The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy and have also had over 140 short stories published. You write and edit all across genres and ages. You’ve been presented with both the Inaugural Peter McNamara and A Bertram Chandler awards for Lifetime Achievement in SF, won the Aurealis and William Atheling awards, and been short-listed for just about every other genre award. I guess that all this makes you a Renaissance man. Yet you left school at 15. What drove you to achieve so much?
I have a vivid memory of walking home one day when I was about twelve. I looked at all the ramshackle houses of our suburb and thought, “This is where I’m going to wind up. Living in one of these and working in a factory”. I knew I’d be leaving school at 15. It’s not that I hated school, but I just somehow knew that whatever I was going to do in life, having a university degree wasn’t going to in any way take a part – it was just going to stop me from earning money for four or five years. I also knew that to break from the future to which I was destined I’d need to pull something out of thin air. When I turned fifteen I had a variety of jobs: electroplater’s assistant, spot-welder, worked on a farm, apprentice clicker (making leather goods) sheet metal worker, to name just a few. At seventeen I was the despatch manager for Metro Goldwyn Meyer. At this point I knew I’d taken a wrong turn. Where to from the heady heights of a despatch manager? I was stuck. There was nowhere for me to go at MGM. Maybe a booker (of films), but that was hardly something to aspire to. I then opted for working three jobs at a time to build up sufficient funds to work for myself. I doubt I knew exactly what I could do at that point – but I think I was planning on opening a cinema. I certainly knew enough about the industry at that time.
Regardless, while I was at MGM I started working as an apprentice projectionist at two suburban cinemas (Delta in New Lynn and The Star in Glen Eden, NZ). I also worked weekends with my uncle in a metal polishing factory. When I had sufficient funds I quit MGM and came to Australia. It’s this background that drove me forward. I wanted to be something other than the guy living in the suburban neighbourhood working the 40-hour week.
Q: Your first book Hot Lead Cold Sweat came out in 1975, almost 40 years ago. In the late 70s and early 80s you ran an indie press, Cory and Collins, during which you published Australia’s first heroic fantasy novels, long before the majors got into the act. Later, with your current partner, Meredith Costain, you edited the Spinout and Thrillogy series in the 90s, which is also when ypu wrote the Jelindel Chronicles. And in 2007 you established Ford Street Publishing and released the new Quentaris Chronicles. You must have seen a lot of changes in the publishing industry. What do you think of the trend for authors like best seller Barry Eisler to turn down half million advance to self publish?
I read that article. And some of it doesn’t ring true to me. I doubt, for a start, that a writer would knock back a half million-dollar advance so they could self-publish. It’s all very well Amazon claiming they’re selling 110 digital books compared with 100 print books, but we need to remember that e-books are a relatively new technology. People are experimenting. When Beta came out people flocked to it, as they did VHS. Where is either of these technologies now? Beta, despite being better quality than VHS, fell by the wayside. Some say Mac is better than the PC, but there are far more PC users than Mac users. Why? Promotion. Whoever has the biggest slush fund to promote their wares wins. So right now, despite there being Kindle and e-pub, both are on the same wagon, especially now that Mac users can download Kindle software and read Kindle books (and vice versa). So all the promotion money, articles, etc, are looking at digital. As a publisher who has dabbled in e-books, I can tell you I am not getting anywhere near the sales that Barry Eisler discussed in his blog interview. Nor is any other Australian publisher that I know of. The problem I see is that there are millions of titles on sites such as Amazon. How will you find the title you’re looking for? All very well if you know the author’s name, but even then you’re battling to find the book. Try typing in Paul Collins for example. There are four writers in Australia alone with this name. And booksellers have yet to find a way to differentiate between us (some use our birthdates, but readers would have no idea how old “their” Paul Collins is).
I don’t see this as a digital versus paperback issue. I think digital complements the paperback. Others feel the same way. Don Grover (CEO of the Dymocks chain) sees the physical book as the dog and digital as the tail.
And I’d also question Barry’s $30,000 income this year for a self-published short story. Before calling me a cynic, let’s remember publishers made such outlandish claims of their book sales right up till BookScan was released. Then suddenly all their highly inflated sales figures dropped like rocks. I doubt there’s a BookScan for short stories, so the $30,000 claim isn’t verifiable. Why would he make such a claim? Obviously so people would download it on the assumption it must be terrific. Cory Doctorow claims to have had 700,000 downloads of his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – 30,000 of these came on the first day of release. But they were absolutely free. Even still, that’s a heck of a lot of downloads.
Not really. It’s sort of YA crossover, although patently marketed as YA. What does surprise though is that it’s had about fifteen great reviews, all of which by women. It’s not the sort of book that I’d expect women to enjoy reading. I mean, Maximus has no redeeming features; the body count is high (two people get killed in the first chapter); it’s young adult SF. I mention the latter because three adult reviewers told me they don’t like SF, but thoroughly enjoyed the book. I’m not complaining of course! Some comparisons have also surprised me. Bookseller and Publisher said it’s a cross between The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Total Recall and Dexter.
Some might think I wrote dystopian fiction because of the popularity this genre’s enjoying. But frankly, I wrote The Maximus Black Files years ago. Incidentally, The Hunger Games kicked off the recent dystopian wave – anyone who’s read my novel Cyberskin (published in 2000) will see striking similarity in the plot – deaths filmed in reality TV, a la snuff movies. I suspect I was ahead of my time!
Q: You say your favourite fictional character is Modesty Blaise. (First appeared as a comic strip in 1963. The author, Peter O’Donnell, went onto write 12 books. The first appeared in 1965. In a time when the James Bond was the ultimate spy and females were his reward, Modesty Blaise was a woman ahead of her time). Does this mean you’ve always admired strong women?
Very funny, Rowena LOL. But to answer your question, I do prefer athletic women. Modesty Blaise would be my dreamboat. Xena Warrior Woman, too, if we’re entering the realm of fantasy. I mentioned earlier the marketing failures and successes between products – I think had a smart producer taken on Modesty Blaise franchise, we’d have easily seen an equal James Bond dynasty. But I suspect all the heads of film companies were macho men afraid to lose their “image” of manhood, whatever, and didn’t think for a moment anyone would suspend disbelief that a woman could be a successful criminal. There was one movie made, and it was a shocker. I was so angry that the film was a spoof. Equal to the time I watched the much-anticipated Bonfire of the Vanities. Fantastic book by Tom Wolfe completely demolished by some idiot filmmaker. It makes you wonder how people get these things so wrong.
Q: Your new publishing endeavour Ford Street Publishing is doing well with Dianne Bates’s Crossing the Line, short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Award, Pool, by Justin D’Ath, short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award and a Notable Book in the CBCA awards, plus My Private Pectus by Shane Thamm was short-listed for the NT Read Award. There have been others, such as George Ivanoff winning the Chronos Award for Gamers’ Quest, Notable CBCA novels, etc. In an interview on SPUNC (Small Press Publishers’ site) you say: ‘Surprisingly, I grew up in a house without books. No one in my family was a reader. Marvel Comics were my sole literary diet. Perversely, I think this upbringing has helped me to choose good books. I’m still a somewhat reluctant reader – to grab my attention a manuscript really has to have that special X factor.’ That is an amazing leap from the boy who read comics to editor of award nominated books. Can you tell us what the X Factor is and do you still have your comic collection?
As close as I can come to explaining the X Factor is that books can just “feel” right. The writing has to be good; the subject matter spot on for the time; the plot has to “move” you; the book has to have the prospect of commercial success. There are many ingredients to this recipe. In a few words I’d sum it up as something intangible, like gut instinct. You won’t find it in the Macquarie. Alas, I sold the comic collections in the eighties. I should also mention that freelance editors also work on these titles – I can’t claim all the credit for editing. I usually do the first round of edits, authors respond, and then the books go to freelancers who work with the authors.
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?
Many would disagree and no doubt point to many examples to prove me wrong, but I think women write more character-driven novels while men write plot and action-driven novels. It seems to me that more women then men read fantasy, and this possibly explains why female writers head up the best-seller lists. Women write more emotively than men, and dare I say linger in scenes with description while men will move at a quicker pace. Compare, say, Isobelle Carmody’s writing with Garth Nix’s. Completely different styles. Both are best-sellers, so there’s no question as to who is the better writer. That’s very subjective.
Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?
I should have a diplomatic answer to this question, but you know me . . . I prefer plot-driven, fast forward fiction. If I were to give you a list of ten authors I’d read again, they would all be men. The top three would be Ioin Colfer, Philip Reeve and Peter O’Donnell. If we’re talking about fantasy novels, I’d possibly (and sometimes erroneously) expect a fair bit of romance within the pages of a book written by a female. I’m not remotely interested in romance whether it’s dressed up as fantasy or not. Give me George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones any time. There might be romance there, but it’s well hidden and certainly not an integral part of the plot. As an aside, this isn’t to say I don’t think women can’t write fantasy without romance, or that men can’t write with emotive depth. It just transpires that I seem to prefer male over female writers.
It would certainly be in the past – I don’t think we’re heading anywhere nice. I’m assuming I’d be um, protected, right? Like, “Okay, Scotty, I’ve had enough. Beam me outta here. NOW.” Under these conditions, Roman times circa Julius Caesar’s reign sound good to me, although only if I were a citizen of good standing and in favour with Julius. I’m obviously wiping from the equation poison, deceit, political ambitions and murderous intent. The wine, women and song aspect has obvious merits.
Give-away Question: Maximus Black is a true anti-hero. Do characters really need redeeming features? Yes or No? Give your reasons for your decision.
See here for a complete list of Paul’s books and short stories.
See here for a full list of the books from Ford Street Publishing.
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