Thursday, 28 May 2015

Interview - Donna Maree Hanson

Hello Everyone

I am stoked to be able to bring you another interview from our Australian speculative fiction series. This week I had the delightful opportunity to chat with the wonderful Donna Maree Hanson. Donna has worked in the field of publishing and writing for many years, and her works range across many different genres. We chatted about her Dragonwine books, and various other topics ranging from writing and editing through to her involvement with the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. 

Donna Maree Hanson, welcome to Smash Dragons! 

Thank you for having me.

First up, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work. 

I’ve been writing now since late 2000—I was a very, very beginner in so many ways back then. I knew nothing about writing, the industry or the scene. I’ve put some long years into changing that. I write across a range of genres with a focus on novels, but I have had around 20 short stories published over the years. My shorts have been science fiction, fantasy, horror and even paranormal romance. Often they are dark. My novel length works are science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, young adult and paranormal romance. Not all of these are published. I’ve had a number of years to accumulate manuscripts in various stages of completion. My day job is an auditor in the government sector.

Why did you become a writer? Was it something you imagined doing when you were younger? 

Making stuff up is what got me through a tough childhood and I was captured by popular TV and B grade SF moves. I imagined I was Astro Girl and could fly. (Only jumping off the shed and realising I couldn’t made me realise the difference between fantasy and reality). I remember vivid dreams of being a robot like Astro Boy or being adopted like in the old Shirley Temple movies. As I grew older I was still prone to those lapses into fantasy. I believe when I was about 19-21 I dreamed up a plot for a Star Wars spin off novel. I actually sat down to write it long hand. But I looked around me: I had a baby and I felt I wasn’t smart enough so I put that idea away. Some 20 years later, I was back auditing and I thought : ‘is this what I want to do with my life?’ and in answering that question I found that I wanted to write. I loved reading, loved stories and I had so many of my own in my head. What made me start and not stop? A character in my mind, with eyes that glowed with fire and I needed to tell her story. Her name was Leila and the story was Relic, a SF story. (not published, yet).

Take me through your writing process. Are you someone who gets up early to tear in, or do you just write when you feel the urge? 

I have a chequered history. When I first started I wrote diligently. Prying me from the computer was hard both morning and night. Relic, the first novel I wrote, came onto paper in six weeks. I wrote every afternoon/evening and on the weekends. I started polishing it. When I sent it off for an ms assessment, I started writing Argenterra, a fantasy which took longer. For the first three years I think I was a very diligent writer but I soon got caught up in other things, like editing, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, Conflux, my own small press. Then I realised that my family couldn’t really cope with my obsessiveness and I tried to tone it down. At the same time, I struggled with RSI and arthritis in the neck, which also limits my time at the computer. If I have a deadline of some kind I will get up early. I used to set deadlines for myself, but I find I have to be flexible if the neck in playing up etc. Nothing really prevents me from writing these days except work and family commitments. My partner, Matthew Farrer is a writer and we write together sometimes. He doesn’t complain about me writing at all. These days it’s writing dates and writing retreats where I get most of the drafting done. I can edit around these times. It just depends on everything stacking up, time, health and inspiration.

Are you an architect or gardener when writing? 

I think you are asking me if I’m a planner or a panster, right? I used to be a panster. I’d just start with a scene, characters and then plumb the depths and see where it went. I have things happen that have surprised me and then had to wait months to see if that’s where the story should go.  These days I tend to outline just so I know the bare bones of the story and that it has direction. I’m less willing to experiment now with my time and don’t want to rework unnecessarily. Having said that I have two novels I’m working on and for the first time in ages I thrown away work, chapters of work, but I thinking it will improve the work. While I prefer drafting, reworking often offers up gems, small ideas that strengthen the plot or give little twists of genius.  That crafting of the novel is hard, but essential. You can overwork a bit of prose but generally a bit of revision and reworking never hurt anyone, particularly me.

Your very popular Dragon Wine books incorporate an incredibly fascinating world. Where did you draw your ideas from when building this universe? 

Mmm this is an interesting question. I think this took a long time to grow in my mind. I used to have a small vineyard and it can be long, hard hours of work out there alone with your thoughts. So that’s where the vineyard comes in. I believe Nils came out of a writing exercise I did at one of Trudi Canavan’s workshops.  I had him in my mind, but first put him to paper there. Garan was a separate idea about a world fighting off meteors. I had different ideas for Salinda and Brill originally but they were the first ones I wrote in the Dragon Wine series. Laidan and Thurdon were late comers who emerged in the drafting process. So really they could be seen a disparate elements combined into one story.

I have read that your Dragon Wine books were a long time in the making. Why was this, and how did you keep your motivation going over such a long period of time? 

Yes. They did take a long time to get published. Part of the delay was improving the writing and the story and the other would be the difficulty in getting published or noticed. I’d submit the novel, wait a year and then get a rejection. I’d do it again. I did give up for a long time. I did a savage cut back after feedback from an editor friend and to get it into a submittable length as a few markets opened up for unrepresented novels under 130,000 words. Then the market changed, really changed. I’d published other things before I got the opportunity to submit Dragon Wine to Momentum.

Did you face any challenges when writing these books?  What were they?

You mentioned motivation before. It’s hard to stay focussed when there’s no encouragement. All writers get this, I think, when they are starting out. It’s hard to get validation of what you are doing and stay true to the dream. Another change for me was in Dragon Wine it was the first story where I wasn’t coddling my characters. I let them suffer. Also Margra is an exploration of what is dark about humans and it can be overwhelming.  The biggest challenge for me was to find the light amongst the dark. World events happened around me while I was writing it and some of the cruelty and torture and sexual exploitation out there ended up in Dragon Wine. I didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

Shatterwing and Skywatcher touch on some very confronting themes such as torture and rape. Were these particular scenes hard to write? 

These are the scenes that had the most revisiting and revision. The first drafts would have surprised a lot of people. They were longer and much more…well…more. Yet as the story matured, I knew I had to be very careful. I didn’t want to glorify those scenes so the words were very carefully matter of fact and unembelished. I had some very good advice from writer friend, Maxine McArthur, where she said ‘less is more’. I cut away all but probably one sentence that was explicit. Another writer friend, Glenda Larke cautioned me that I had to balance the image of the hero with the events taking place. So I had keep something hero-like in characters so they could go on. They had to be able to redeem themselves from their suffering.

Both Dragon Wine books incorporate a rich cast of characters. Tell me, in your opinion, what is the secret to writing a good character?

A good character is one that makes you feel their pain, empathise with their experiences and who brings you along with their story. If I knew the secret of doing that I’d tell you. I think it happens, just happens if you try to be very three dimensional: thought, action, emotion. But don’t quote me.

Who are your literary influences? Can you remember the first time you were drawn to speculative fiction? 

Besides from television? From the age of 19, Asimov for SF and then Stephen Donaldson for fantasy and Julian May (saga of the exiles) or and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Mists of Avalon and Firebrand), Alan Dean Foster (Flinx and other Commonwealth and Thranx novels) and more and more. The Thomas Covenant series haunted my dreams for nights and nights while I read it and I reread it many times over the years.

You also have published in other genres such as Romance and YA. Is your writing and creative process different for each one? Do you have a favourite genre? 

You know I don’t really have a favourite. The stories come out as they are. YA or adult, fantasy or romance. I like the romance/paranormal romance because they are uplifting. They take me out of my dark space, where I’m normally centred. It’s like a trip to the park to see the positives of life. Yet, I love exploring ideas and worlds and human nature and, in these cases, I’m really trying to comprehend the world and there’s more of me in that type of book. Young adult genre is just exciting. I’d say the creative process is the same, just the story is different.

Favourite book? Why?

That’s quite a hard question. I have so many favourites. I’m sad that there are so many books I may never read. I’m currently listening to books on Audible and Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is amazing. I’m on the last one. I’ve cried and I’ve raged when I’ve listened to it. There is such detail in her work but it still has a pace, not fast paced, but measured pace drawing the reader along. Audio books can be a very intense experience. I really loved Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (also Audible) and I’m probably going to write a blog post about it and Ender’s Game. I love Georgette Heyer Regency Romances and I reread old favourites, like Outlander (Gabaldon) or Through the Mirror of her Dreams and A Man Rides Through (Donaldson) and I’m really looking forward to rereading Asimov’s books, all of them such 30 years after reading them first. I have hundreds of favourites.

Do you have a literary arch-nemesis?

I’m not sure what you mean. A writer I hate? A writer that writes so well I want to slash my wrists? A writer who makes me feel I should give up now because I can never reach their perfection? There are lots of writers who inspire awe in me and I think there will be many more as I continue to read. I hope something of their greatness leaches into me. Or do you mean literary bad guy?

What is your take on Australian speculative fiction? Are there any unknowns you have stumbled across we should check out? 

There are semi-unknowns and some emerging. Too many to name.  The scene remains vibrant and the digital publishing move is bringing out many who have long been denied a voice. Keith Stevenson, Amanda Pillar, Amanda Bridgman, Alan Baxter (print as well), LynC, and Nicole Murphy. 

Thoraiya Dyer’s series has just been bought by Tor and she is an amazing writer and I’m so excited for her. I can’t wait.

If you could meet one fellow writer (dead or alive) who would it be and why? 

Charles Dickens…that man is dark…his worlds are dark…but he’s also a genius. By the way that’s also a hard question.

Complete the following sentences – 

When I’m not writing my favourite hobby is…. Doing craft such as hat making, weaving  or costumes or binge watching dvds.

The best panel I have ever been on at a convention was.... Horrors of a second draft with Keith Stevenson and Amanda Bridgeman at Swancon.

My Zombie Apocalypse Team would include… The Rock, The Rock and The Rock!

You have seen the publishing industry from both sides of the fence as an editor and writer. Has this helped you with the progression of your writing? What are the most common mistakes budding writers that infuriate editors? 

Everything I’ve done has helped me as a writer. Putting together the ‘Australian Speculative Fiction: a genre overview ‘gave me insights into some of the bad side of publishing-not selling-being dumped by your publisher-no promotion-bad covers-editors leaving-etc etc. It was quite an eye opener some of the stories shared with me when I interviewed people. 

As for the editing side, I think sending stuff too soon and then not taking feedback well. You know….this is a good idea, but it needs development. Usually that means you have a good idea but your writing isn’t there yet. It takes some people lots of practice to get their writing well-honed so that they are telling the story with the right pace and the right amount of detail.

You have been an active member and driving force behind the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild for many years. I applaud you for that. How can other people get involved with the guild in order to support it? (This particular blogger is very keen to get involved! Hehe) 

The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild is very welcoming and is a vibrant organisation these days! I’m so amazed by how it’s grown. Join the list (it’s on yahoo) and then let them know you want in. There is always something going on.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m revising Invoked, a paranormal romance and the next instalment in the Dragon Wine series and drafting a Regency romance.

Can we expect to see you at any more events or conventions this year? 

Yes, I’ll be at Supanova in Sydney and Perth during June. So come along and check me out. I’ll be at RWA conference in Melbourne in August and Conflux in Canberra in early October.

Finally, where should readers run out (or online) to buy your books? 

You can ask your favourite book store to order them in or buy print or ebooks on line. Book Depository is probably the best deal for online ordering of print version. Though I’ve seen them listed on major retailers like Booktopia, Readings, Amazon etc. The RRP is $20. Ebook versions are available everywhere and from the publisher’s website where Shatterwing is free.

Donna Maree Hanson, thank you so much for talking to Smash Dragons! 

Like Donna mentioned, you can purchase her books both online and at various book outlets. I've recently purchased Skywatcher, and I cannot wait to dive into it after reading Shatterwing a few months ago. Truly top quality fantasy by an amazingly nice writer... so get behind her and support her efforts everyone! 

Until next time, be nice to each other and keep on reading! 


Saturday, 23 May 2015

Interview - David M. Henley

Hey Everyone!

What a busy week here at Smash Dragons! I am delighted to be able to bring you our latest instalment in interviews with Australian speculative fiction writers. David M. Henley is arguably one of the most exciting prospects in Australian science fiction at the moment. He is the author of the much loved The Hunt for Pierre Jnr and Manifestations, and in a few days will be releasing the final book in the trilogy, entitled Convergence. David was kind enough to sit down with Smash Dragons to discuss this, along with various other topics such as writing and climate change. 

David, welcome to Smash Dragons!

First up, tell us a bit about yourself. 

I'm a thirty-something guy who was born in a small town in New Zealand, was raised mostly in Canberra and now live and work in Sydney. After one year of uni I quit to begin working and found my way into publishing.

Why did you start writing? Was it something you envisaged yourself doing when you were younger? 

I've always written for fun, even in primary school, and I haven't stopped. It's more a compulsion than a drive if that makes any sense. I get fidgety if I don't sit down and crank out some words. Getting published was something I never really imagined. I read lots but never thought about the author side of things.

What is it about science fiction that appeals to you the most? 

Exploring ideas. If you write stories in the present day real world then you are bound by reality. I like science fiction because I can walk the line between the possible and the impossible and hopefully come up with ideas that people find interesting. It's hard to discuss the nature of civilisation without taking a step back, science fiction gives me the distance to depict the future of robots, alternative government and what might happen next to humanity.

Tell me about the origins of The Hunt for Pierre Jnr? Was it the story you always wanted to write? Or did it evolve and change over time? 

Pierre Jnr was actually born as a picture in an art show I was a part of. I drew eight images in a series called Aberrations in 2006 and later I fleshed out Pierre's background in a book called The Museum of Unnatural History. People kept telling me for years to write a narrative set in that world and I knew Pierre Jnr's story had to be the first.

After I accepted the contract from Harper Voyager at the end of 2012. It pushed me to expand what I had very quickly, ie I had eight months to turn in the first book. It was when I was mired in the world and trying to tell a geo-syncronous story that it really started to evolve. People often say their characters run away with them, for me it was the world of Pierre Jnr that took on a life of its own. I had all these concepts that fitted together nicely and then combined that with human nature until all hell broke loose. 

The world you describe in your books is incredibly fascinating. Tell me about how the idea of the Weave and Benders and Tappers came about? Did you do much research when imagining a society post climate change?

Actually research is a funny thing when you're making things up. I do read a lot of science magazines and blogs to keep me up to date on what is happening in the known and what things scientists are trying to find out in the unknown; and ideas or solutions often come out of that. In reverse, sometimes I have an idea and I look around to see if anyone is studying it or anything like it. 

Benders and tappers are the slang terms I came up with for telepaths and telekinetics. I took a lot of inspiration from More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, and The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. Their psionics were still very human and human against human, people had different levels of ability etc. I guess my version and definition of what they were came when writing book one; when the hunt team are trying to figure out the nature of Pierre Jnr, it comes out that they didn't really understand the nature of psionics at all, even those who hav such powers.

The Weave came about from watching the coming of the internet age and what has happened since. I was there before mobile phones and modems came into our homes. Taking the trajectory of human communications, even going further back in time, to now and extending it into the future, it seems obvious that we are just going to become more connected and more fragmented as time goes on. 

Both books touch on a variety of powerful themes such as privacy and the nature of the individual. What parallels did you draw from society today when exploring these themes? Do you think it’s possible we may eventually see a society similar to the one imagined in your books? 

Maybe some of it, who knows. I've seen others writers who have been asked a similar question say that it isn't the job of the author to predict the future, to which I agree; it isn't a job, but it is something to have fun with.

I never work from the present forwards, the parallels I've seen only in retrospect when I realise that in some ways this elaborate future world I had created wasn't as different from ours as I first thought. But like you say, privacy has largely been done away with in my future world and that is an issue that keeps coming up IRL and won't go away any time soon. It's a conundrum for our century. Sacrificing certain privacies may lead to better healthcare and a more even distribution of resources. One aspect I don't see changing is that in my world that transparency goes both ways, it isn't just individuals sacrificing their information to the group, they also get to see how the group uses that information. It's hard to look at current modes of government and envisage mutual transparency, there just isn't that much trust.

The nature of the individual: that'll never be settled. The value of the individual will keep changing as populations go up, resources go down and more jobs get automated... Which will lead to a questioning of rights and the point of our whole society and what we are doing with our, no change there.

Take me through a normal day of writing for you. Are you an architect or gardener when writing? Do you have a particular place you like to write?

The process changes at each stage. To go with your analogy, I'm either a Gehry style architect bringing order to chaotic ideas; or, as a gardener I like to use different gardening philosophies for different scenes, the rigid French pruning and design, the meandering faux-wilderness of the English and the occasional Japanese garden, a beautiful moment of tranquility.

Essentially, at the development stage I just play. I test characters. I try different styles of writing and by the time I'm done mucking around I have a pretty solid framework that I can follow to the end.

I try to write in lots of different places. I actively force myself to not have one place I can write and I try to mix up my schedule as much as possible. If I need a perfect setting to be creative then I probably wouldn't get much done, so I push myself to be flexible. Sometimes I like going to loud places with lots of distractions, it forces me to concentrate.

What challenges did you face in writing both The Hunt for Pierre Jnr and Manifestations? 

Besides time and money? That was the main thing, boring as it may sound. I managed to finish PJ1 without problems, but for the second and third book I had to pull back to part time because it wasn't fair on my clients or my colleagues.

The other challenge is a common one for trilogies: what happens in the middle book? In that you don't have the origin story nor the conclusion to frame it, it is just the middle book and you have to do something interesting. I really hope I achieved that by pulling back the lens of the world and increasingly the complexity (which then set up the challenge of threading all that together in Convergence)

Your antagonist, Pierre Jnr, is one of the most mesmerising (yet terrifying) characters I have ever read. Why did you pick a child to be the greatest ‘threat’ humanity has ever faced? 

Thanks very much. Two motivations sort of pushed Pierre along, one was because I was tired of 'villains' – not that Pierre is one – that started off seeming really powerful and were then easily defeated. I wanted my antagonist to be unstoppable and then smash it against something immoveable, ie society. That he is eight years old was a rough pinpointing from my own memory of when I started to have conscious thoughts. It's a rough turning point in mental development for a lot of children. I wanted to walk that line with him about whether what he was a bad kid or just going through a phase.

Peter, Tamsin, Colonel Pinter and Ozenbach are all fascinating and enthralling characters in their own unique ways. What do you think is the key to writing a good character? 

I appreciate you saying so as some readers and reviewers don't love the way I present characters. I enjoy a light sketching that the reader can superimpose their own images onto. But even though I like to keep light on the details, each character has come from somewhere and is going somewhere. I plot out a whole life story for every character that appears, even the cameos, so they each have motivations that can conflict with the world and each other.

One thing I loved about Manifestations was its exploration of the Will. I especially adored the replacement of town clocks with sculptured heads depicting the town’s mood! Do you think this is the future in terms of our societal and political evolution? 

I'd love to say yes. I think there is room to create a social currency like the Will, but to get there would require widespread public engagement in bettering our world. Can you imagine that? The only way I could conceive of us getting to it was after a huge social collapse. 

But then again, there are many good people out there and some progress  has been made. Check out this New Scientist article, ‘Better than a ballot box: Could digital democracy win your vote?

This sounds a lot like what I’ve imagined, but they call it ‘liquid democracy’.

There is so much disillusionment, distrust and disparity in the world that something has to change before it all collapses, IMHO.

The town faces could happen now. A simple bit of software taking mood measurements from social media trends, an animatronic head ... Imagine if Ron Meuck made a data-affected sculpture, it would be scary and entrancing.

The introduction of Kronos was a fascinating development in your series. I immediately saw tones of Akira and other great science fiction films in it. How much influence have past films and books had on your development as a writer? 

I read and watch everything I can, I don't want to pretend to write in a vacuum –I think the great game of writing in a genre is continuing and advancing what has come before. The development I wanted to make was to create a holistic world where everything could be explored at once, as opposed to a lot of science fiction which explores one or two concepts at a time. I think isolating any concept, be it cybernetics or the eco crisis, from other factors like politics, the internet, global trade etc is an artificial examination because the interaction of all the elements is the real story.

And you have called it correctly. I do love anime – though I always thought of that first Pierre manifestation as my Akira moment. I find the story structure and world view in foreign material refreshing. The closest world for me, that has created that real-world complexity I aspire to, would be the Ghost in the Shell animated series. It combines the personal stories of the team with the macro story of the larger world and all the factions within, and it never stops brining in new factions and factors because that's what the real world is like.

Who would be your greatest literary influence? 

Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest... I guess I have to credit Stanislaw Lem. He isn't everyone's cup of tea but his ideas brought me back to writing and even re-imbued me with fascination for the human race that got lost in early working life.

What can readers expect from Convergence?

Well, by the time book three opens, the world is in it up to its neck. It is facing huge problems that seem insurmountable. I don't want to spoil anything for people who haven't finished Manifestations but everything is coming to a head. It’s hard to say without giving spoilers, but there is a power struggle between the psis, Pierre Jnr, the World Union and yet even that conflict seems overshadowed by the expansion of Kronos.

The Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. You must select three fellow authors to join your team in order to survive the wasteland that is now Earth. Who do you pick, and why? 

I've got a few friends in the literary field I'd trust to keep the zombies off my back, literary tough guys Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Luke Carman – and they both keep in shape unlike myself. Then maybe David Hunt because I'm sure he could find the humour in the situation.

If you were a character in your own books what would you be? A Bender, Tapper, Weaver, or Hakka?

I think I'd be a weaver. To me they are the white blood cells of the internet/Weave. Going around fixing things, doing good. I'm a bit of a techie guy anyway. I like fixing things.

What is your worst writing habit? 

I like to write at night. Sometimes, if I’m on a streak, I’ll write until two or three am and then I’m ruined for the next couple days. Tis bad for the working life but when you're on a roll, you're on a roll and have to keep going,

You have championed for the creation of better pathways for potential writers here in Australia. Can you elaborate on what needs to happen in order to make writing a more feasible and attractive career path? 

Actually I think you’ve struck on the difference between how I see writing and the generation that is coming up behind me. I don’t see writing as a career like that. It can turn into money-making for a precious few, but it is really unhealthy, for yourself and your writing, to treat it like ‘a job’. A job is where you get paid to do something you wouldn’t otherwise want to do; that’s not what writing is for me and I don’t do it for the dollars. 

I treat writing as more like farming. Each book I write is like a fruit tree that year on year will give me a a little bit to eat. The more trees I plant, the more fruit I get each year. This is my intellectual property, get it? :) 

As such it can take years and years for your intellectual property to be earning enough for you to live off. To make things better for writers we need to provide them with the tools to start and manage their own intellectual property – ie teach them about the actual business – and setup ways of helping them stay afloat during what could be multiple decades of fallow fields.

To do this would involve some cross generational support networks and backing from people and companies who also believe there could be a better future if we work towards it.

Best tip for aspiring writers? 

Don’t be just a writer. Do other things in life. Work lots of jobs. Meet lots of different people. Let the world influence you before you try to influence it. Also, most likely it will take you a very long time to get established so you need to build a lifestyle and work situation that enables you to be flexible.

What is your take on the state of science fiction here in Australia? Are there any authors who perhaps have gone unnoticed that we should check out? 

Tough question. In some ways it is very very healthy if you consider YA. If you are more purist then you may be less enthusiastic. I know there are some emerging writers that excite me, whose work I have been reading for fun, but I won’t put any names down yet. They can emerge when they are ready.

What’s next for David M. Henley?

I am currently expanding the world of Pierre in multiple directions. There is a novel on the moon I’m tinkering with, that takes place the year after Convergence. Here I get to play with a sort of parallel society which is extremely regimented due to the scarcity of resources; and I’ve got my whole moon colony history plotted out.

And I’m also working on thhe period before the Second Dark Age with a bunch of short stories which are more near-future, less action oriented. My plan is to flesh out the 2050–2080 period and then do a prequel that follows young Abercrombie Pinter, the Orjians and the founding of the World Union.

Finally, will you be appearing at any events or conventions for the remainder of this year? 

I am out and about a lot this year but some things haven’t been announced yet. Next up I will be in Sydney and Perth for Supanova, and on 8th July, Mudgee Underground are going to do an ‘Alien Invasion’ thing I’ve written, which is an interactive performance piece where the audience can play a part in the telling of the story.

David, thank you for chatting to Smash Dragons. 

It was my pleasure.

Convergence is out this coming week everyone, and the early signs are that it's David's best yet (which is saying something, considering how great his first two books were). Smash Dragons will also be reviewing Convergence later this week, so stay tuned for that! 

Please see the links below for more information in regards to David and Convergence. And be sure to check out The Hunt for Pierre Jnr and Manifestations. Trust me, they are awesome. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

Interview - Michael R. Fletcher

Hello Everyone!

I am delighted to bring you another instalment of our ongoing interview series with writers from around the globe! This week Smash Dragons had the awesome opportunity to speak to Michael R. Fletcher, author of the upcoming dark fantasy Beyond Redemption, and the previously published cyberpunk novel 88. Michael was wonderful to chat to, and incredibly friendly and open with his responses. We chatted about different things, including writing, tattoos, and drinking! Read on.. and enjoy!

Michael, welcome to Smash Dragons!

Hi Matthew, thanks for having me. If there’s something missing when I leave, it wasn’t me.

First up, tell me about yourself and your upcoming novel Beyond Redemption.

I work in the black market brain trade. We raise kids in crèches and harvest them for their brains which are later used as biological computers. Wait. No, that was something else. I think I might be a door-to-door peanut butter sandwich salesman. Or maybe I’m a self-unemployed writer.  

The underlying premise for Beyond Redemption is that reality is responsive to the beliefs of humanity. The sane masses are capable of altering reality if enough of them believe the same thing, but the insane are capable of believing something so utterly they can twist reality on their own. The fun part is then trying to figure out how various psychoses will manifest. What happens to the kleptomaniac, the pyromaniac, the poor bastard suffering Cotard’s Syndrome?

Why did you start writing? What spurred you to write this particular story?

Since the mid 1990s I have made several attempts at writing novels but never finished them. I couldn’t convince myself anyone would want to read them and I let doubt and insecurity stop me from chasing my dreams.

In 2008 I told my wife I was going to write a novel just so I’d have a hobby, but I was totally lying. Don’t tell her, okay? Even then I was dreaming of making a living as a writer. I had this strange delusion that writing SF/F was my escape from being an audio engineer, which I had been for seventeen years. You can only mix so many shitty bands before painting the walls with your brain seems like a pretty good idea.

This particular story was born of a few themes I wanted to explore, an idea about a responsive reality, and a desire twist them all together into something dark. The title, Beyond Redemption, came first. I had read a lot of fantasy where at the end of the book the main characters have learned something and come out of the entire experience either better people, or at least changed. I had to call bullshit on that. I wanted to write something where I introduced a cast of absolutely shitty human beings, and at the end of the novel they were still every bit as shitty. Funny thing is it didn’t quite work out that way; probably due to my inability to plan a novel.

Tell me more about the world in Beyond Redemption. How did you design it and where did you draw your inspiration from? 

I wanted the world of Manifest Delusions to be small and claustrophobic and I wanted to stay away from the typical warring kingdoms trope. The idea of a mess of squabbling city-states really appealed. To me it better fit the underlying reality. If you assume that basically every political/religious/economic power is helmed by a single sociopath, Beyond Redemption makes a lot of sense. Actually, our world makes a lot of sense under that assumption too.

What challenges did you face whilst writing Beyond Redemption? 

All the usual challenges faced by any new writer. I was working a full time job and my daughter had just been born. It took the best part of two years to finish the first draft. Sometimes I went months without looking at it. Throw onto that the usual insecurities and doubts and you probably have a pretty accurate picture.

Tell me about the Geisteskranken and their role within this world. Who are they, and what power do they wield? 

Geisteskranken are the insane, those capable of manifesting their delusions as reality. What they’re capable of depends on their delusions. Pyromaniacs manifest differently than someone suffering from a depersonalization disorder. Yeah, a fair amount of psychiatric research went into this novel. 

Where this gets interesting is when you realize that embracing one’s delusions is not healthy. As Geisteskranken become increasingly unstable, they also become increasingly powerful. The more powerful they become, the less capable they are of making sane choices. Eventually all fall to their delusions.

What are some of the examples of Geisteskranken that exist in Beyond Redemption? Did you have a particular favourite that you loved to write about? 

If there is a clinical definition for any kind of madness, there is a related Geisteskranken. Beyond Redemption includes Hassebrands (Pyromaniacs), Gefahrgeist (sociopaths), Dysmorphics (Dysmorphic Syndrome), and many more. 

My favourite character to write was a Gefahrgeist. He was charming and glib and utterly self-centred. In all cases it was extremely important that however mad each character was, they had to remain consistent to their delusions. Insane doesn’t mean stupid and it was a lot of fun writing intelligent but unstable characters.

Can we expect to see some weird and wonderful delusions come to life? 

Oh fuck yes. I also saved a bunch for future books. Fingers crossed on there being future books. Let’s see if I have the power to manifest my own delusions.

Would I be correct in saying that Beyond Redemption is gritty and dark in nature and narrative? 

It’s more of a fluffy Rom-Com. Actually, before agreeing to represent me my agent said it was one of the most viscerally disgusting books she’d ever read. While that definitely wasn’t my goal, I’ll take it.

Who are the main protagonists and antagonists of Beyond Redemption? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

I don’t really do good-guys and bad-guys. There’s just a bunch of crazy people trying to do their best in an insane world and doing it badly.

Without going into a lot of detail and spoiling things, on one side there’s a Gefahrgeist who thinks he’s the Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and an old man who clings to his iron sanity with manic desperation. On the other side we have a powerful comorbidic who is both Gefahrgeist and Doppelgangist, and plagued by individual aspects of his personality manifesting as distinct people.

You previously have worked as an audio engineer. How did this experience help mould you as a writer? 

Musicians are all kinds of crazy.

Who are your literary influences? Why?

Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer books were my first introduction to the antihero. His writing was such an influence I tattooed a symbol of chaos on my right arm. 

David Gemmell’s Legend books were another huge influence though it’s probably not terribly evident in Beyond Redemption. Someday I will write something with an actual hero in it.

You've written a number of short stories that are available to read on your website. Can you tell me about the different challenges when writing a short story as opposed to a novel? 

I think I approached short stories wrong and that this contributed to how difficult I found them. The only reason I wrote short stories was because I thought if I got a few sales, it would earn me some cred and help sell 88. I was totally wrong. Even after I sold half a dozen stories to reputable markets no one cared. 

I haven’t written a short story since 88 sold to Five Rivers and have no real desire to write another. The novel is my playground, my preferred format.

Zombie apocalypse team, who would you pick and why?

I’ll take the cast from The Expendables movies. I think with them at my side I’d have a fighting chance.

You mentioned earlier that you were a fan of Moorcock and Gemmell. The inner nerd in me is curious, is there anyone in Beyond Redemption capable of taking on say, Elric? 

Hmm. Damn tough question. I’d have to say it depended on where the battle took place. If they’re doing battle in the World on Manifest Delusions, both Gehirn (Hassebrand/pyromaniac) and Stehlen (Kleptic) are worthy of some fear. And if it’s a straight up sword fight, it’s difficult to get any better than Wichtig, the self-proclaimed Greatest Swordsman in the World.

Tell me a random fact about yourself. 

As soon as the BR publishing deal was signed I decided I was going to try and make a go of this writing thing. I spent the last year writing two more Manifest Delusion novels, both of which I’m currently editing. To write two epic fantasy novels in a year you have to put in a lot of Ass-At-Desk time. It’s really unhealthy. In the last week I’ve begun experimenting with a standing desk. I’m standing now, as I write this. It’s a little weird; I spend a lot of time thinking about my ankles.

What is your best writing habit? Worst?

Best: I am capable of sitting still and writing for long periods of time. The first draft of my most recent book (120,000 words) was written in ten weeks.

Worst: I over-focus. The rest of the world goes away. I’ve learned to strive for balance. I’ve realized that as much as I love writing, I love my wife and daughter more.

Take me through a day of writing with Michael R. Fletcher. Where do you write? Are you an architect (planner) or a gardener (plant a seed and go with the flow) when writing? Do you seek solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle day in and day out when writing? 

An important part of writing is reading. I’m up an hour before my daughter every day so I can read whatever SF/F novel I’m into. I just scored an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of Anthony Ryan’s Queen of Fire. Great book.

Once I’ve dropped the Centre of the Universe off at school I either go for a run or plant my ass at my desk. On writing days (which are Monday through Friday) my goal is 2,500 words and I rarely fall short. When I’m editing I’m a little less structured and will just stay at my desk until my brain caves in.

We have a three bedroom house and I’ve converted one into my office. Back when 88 sold I bought myself a monstrous hand-made oak desk and I do all my work there. There are a pair of Tannoy studio speakers on top and a sub-woofer under the desk. I write to skull-crushing death metal but edit in total silence. I dropped a quick and shitty quality picture in so you can see what it looks like at this very moment. The stack of boxes with the laptop is my makeshift standing desk.

Planning novels is anathema to me. I like to start with the background built, the characters defined, a simple story idea, and a theme or two I want to explore. I pretty much throw my characters into the plot and then try and stay out of the way. 

Ooh, getting personal. Okay. I’m actually a pretty happy, positive person.
So…solace in a bottle? No. 

Do I drink alcohol every day? Yes. 

My wife and I will have a beer every day when she gets home from work and talk about our day. Later, after our daughter had gone to bed, we’ll usually have two or three more drinks.

I will say I have a dangerous love affair with Jameson’s Irish whiskey.

The cover art (see above) for Beyond Redemption is stunning. Can you tell me about the artist and what they are depicting in it? 

Richard Anderson did the cover and he did an amazing job of capturing the essence of the novel. You can find more of his work over at flaptrapsart. The list of projects he’s been involved with is insane.

The cover depicts the very first scene in the novel:

“The consequences of their last job chased them west. One ever-shrinking step ahead of justice, they arrived at yet another decaying city-state.”

Complete the following sentences – 

My arch nemesis is… MYSELF! I am my own worst enemy and we are in constant battle. Though we shall war until the end of the world, I shall never surrender.

My weapon of choice for gladiatorial combat would be…a geosynchronous orbital death laser. I’m taking out my opponent, whoever put me in the pit, and anybody who opens their eyes at me.

My favourite book is…different today than it was yesterday.

If I were a Geisteskranken I would be…a writer. Or maybe a Getrennt. Or both.

Beyond Redemption is not your first novel. Can you tell us a little bit about your first? 

My first book was 88, a little bit of violent cyberpunk. It’s about an autistic girl who is raised in a crèche and harvested so her brain might be used as a biological computer. 88 was published by Five Rivers, a Canadian micropress, and really ought to be made into a movie.

It took several years to write and even longer to find a publisher for it. Then, when I did, they had me rewrite almost the entire novel. It was a fantastic learning experience.

What is your take on the state of speculative fiction at the moment? Do you think we are in a golden period in terms of accessibility and diverseness? 

Seeing as I am now part of it, it must be awesome. In all (or at least slightly more) seriousness, there are a lot of great new writers. Mark Lawrence, Anthony Ryan, and Daniel Polansky stand out.

It will be interesting to see what comes of this self-publishing phenomena. Right now I find there’s an awful lot of shit out there—I can’t even get past the plot synopsis of most self-pubbed novels as they’re so badly written—but it’s early days.

What are you working on right now?

In the last year I wrote two more Manifest Delusion novels. The All Consuming I just sent off to my agent. She’ll give it a read and get back to me with her comments and suggestions and I’ll make whatever changes are needed. TAC involves a whole new cast of characters and delusions. The other novel, When Far-Gone Dead Return (a working title which might get dropped for something less clunky) I’m currently editing. WFGDR is a sequel to Beyond Redemption and takes place a few days after that novel ends.

I also have ideas for an SF series and some more stories in the Manifest Delusions world.

Standard cliché question… best tip for aspiring writers? 

To be a novelist, the one thing you must do is write novels. Until you’ve finished your first novel everything else (blogging, tweeting, talking about your novel) is just a waste of time.

Stop fucking around. 


And finally, will you be attending any events or conventions this year? (I desperately want to chase down a signed copy of this book! Hehe) 

Right now there’s nothing planned, but if Beyond Redemption does well I suspect HARPER Voyager might want me to make some appearances. I’m definitely willing. Tell you what, if HARPER Voyager buy my next book, I’ll mail you signed copies of both. Until then I gotta save my pennies for Irish whiskey.

And finally, this Chaos tattoo. Can we see it? (I've got a fair few tats myself by the way!) 

Sure, let me go find some pants. Wait, never mind. I’ll just get close enough to the mirror.

On the other arm I’ve got the logo from my old band, Sex Without Souls. That’s it for tats, though if this writing thing takes off I thought I might get a big BEYOND REDEMPTION tattooed on my forehead. 

Uh…my wife says no. 

Michael R. Fletcher, thank you for chatting to Smash Dragons! 

Thanks for having me! It’s been fun!

Beyond Redemption will be available on June 16th (July for the United Kingdom) from all good bookshops and online retailers (see below)... and a heads up, it is one of the most interesting and exciting dark fantasies I've read in ages. 

You can find Michael lurking on social media via his website and other platforms (links at his main site).

Links - 

Pre-order now... trust me... you won't be disappointed!


Monday, 18 May 2015

My Favourite Characters

A good character.. there is nothing more enthralling when reading a book. You know what I'm talking about. A brilliantly cast and executed protagonist or antagonist. Someone (or something) who sets your pulse racing. Who incites a multiple range of emotions, such as fear, hope, anger, and love. Examples abound... I could literally go on for hours and hours. However I decided against this, and instead have listed my top five favourite characters from speculative fiction. Feel free to add your own! 

Tyrion Lannister - 

Good ole Tyrion... the epitome of a privelged outcast. The misshapen dwarf from the Lannister family in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, Tyrion is arguably one of the most interesting and enthralling characters in speculative fiction today. Capable of great acts of compassion, he is also comfortable with cruelty towards those he feels have wronged him. His witty narrative and sharp tongue combine to make him one of the most loved characters around the globe. 


If you haven't Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea than you are mad. Ged is, in my opinion, the epitome of the Wizard archetype (Sorry Gandalf, but your shit don't cut it anymore). A powerful character whose early arrogance and selfishness disappears as he grows in knowledge, Ged retains a very human quality (for example his constant inner battle between good and evil) that endears readers to him from the start. 

Death from Gaiman's Sandman -

I can still remember the moment I first stumbled upon the Sandman series. I fell head over heels in love, and Death was the major reason for my infatuation. She is the exact opposite to the popular Grim Reaper depiction of Death. Attractive, down to earth, perky and nurturing, Death floats through the Sandman series with a refreshing awesomeness that writers have tried to copy ever since. 

Mab, Winter's Queen - 

The immortal leader of all of the Winter Fae, and Queen of the Winter Court in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Mab is one of the gripping yet terrifying characters I've come across. Utterly merciless, Mab also incorporates an incredibly complex and deeply hidden human side. This alone makes her one of my favourites! I still love the quote she says to Harry Dresden, Butcher's main protagonist: "You may serve wizard, or you may be served. As a meal." 

Pinhead - 

I am relatively new to Clive Barker's work... but god... Pinhead scares the bejesus out of me! Incredibly powerful, Pinhead exhumes a creepiness that I just can't shake. When a character makes your skin crawl whenever you encounter them you know the writer has done a bloody good job! 

Others that just missed out include:

Conan - Everybody's favourite barbarian... by Crom!

The Lady - Glen Cook's Black Company is still popular, and the Lady is a major reason why.

Pug - Let's be honest... we all love Pug... Feist hit a home run with the Magician! 

Bilbo Baggins - I've always had a soft spot for Tolkien's loveable thief.. despite the shit he caused. 

Elric of Melnibone - Moorcock's antihero and wielder of Stormbringer.. I mean fuck... it's Elric!

Lord Anomander Rake - God like power, and another cool sword (Dragnipur).. an absolute beast!

Vin - Sanderson's protagonist from his Mistborn books... Vin captured me from the start. 

Faraday - Sara Douglass always wrote incredibly complex characters.. Faraday was the best. 

Sabriel - What more can I say... I grew up with Sabriel and her adventures. 

I could keep going.. and I am sure I have forgotten some, but I will end it there. Who are your favourites? Would love to hear them. 

Much love, 

Note - All images are the property of their respective artists. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Book Review - An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding read. Set in a rich, high-fantasy world with echoes of ancient Rome, it tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom.

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Ok let me get one thing out of the way from the start... I don't usually read much YA fiction. It's not that I have anything against YA books, because I don't, I just have so much to read from other genres that I usually don't have much time to delve into the YA market. But after reading An Ember in the Ashes I now realise that I need to make more time. I absolutely loved this book, for so many reasons that are too numerous to address properly within the confines of this review. I will however try and give you some idea about why you should immediately run out and buy it!

An Ember in the Ashes is set in one of the most intricate, layered, and brutal worlds I have read this year. The Empire is very reminiscent of Ancient Rome, with an Emperor at the top wielding absolute power over all those below them. Violence and oppression are commonplace, and torture and rape are considered socially acceptable. The Empire is very brutal, and the oppressed (for example the Scholars) face the very real threat of death every day. The reader is propelled into this dark and very gritty world from the start, and Tahir doesn't shy away from it at all throughout the entire book. Blackcliff Academy is depicted wonderfully, and I found myself drawn to, yet horrified, by the atmosphere there. Whippings, beatings, and other forms of horrendous torture and violence are employed to highlight the lengths the Empire goes to to forge their Masks, the brutal and sadistic killers of the Empire. I adored this world building and the darkness it encapsulated, and it made those moments of hope and love throughout the text stand out more when they did happen. 

The two main protagonists of An Ember in the Ashes are also wonderfully depicted and executed. Laia is a Scholar who has lost everything. The Empire have killed her grandparents and taken her brother, and she is burdened by survivors guilt from this throughout the book. After seeking out the Resistance, who may be her brothers only hope, she finds herself with going undercover as a slave at the Blackcliff Military Academy. The other protagonist is Elias, a trainee Mask whose conscious and empathy have not been eradicated by the horrendous training regime at Blackcliff. Elias find himself struggling with becoming a Mask, and he dreams for people to see beyond his role as a killer to view his true self. Each protagonist has demons that have been forced upon them by the Empire, and they struggle to deal with these every day. Their relationship and its evolution is also what drives this story to an incredible level. It is subtle, hopeful, and paced brilliantly. After meeting they find themselves attracted to each other, but their romance develops slowly and naturally as they each attempt to deal with the events that take over their lives. Mistakes happen, and each learns from the other, as they grow closer amidst the brutality and darkness that surrounds them at Blackcliff. Their inner turmoil over what they must do is also structured and executed well. Elias has to kill in order to win freedom, and Laia must make truly bad decisions in order to save her brother, no matter what the cost. 

The action and fight scenes were also well executed but not all that common, with Tahir relying instead on excellent character development and conflict to draw you in and lock onto your heart. The language Tahir writes with also contributes to this. You are swept up in the amidst the brutal landscape into the beautiful and soulful way this book is written, and it is incredibly hard to put down. A satisfying, yet open finale, complete this wonderful tale that had me moved emotionally for days after I had finished. That is the sign of a truly great story! 

All in all An Ember in the Ashes is a one of the most poetic yet brutal reads I've had in years. Laced with tender compassion and hope amidst a world of dark and vicious brutality, Tahir has masterfully weaved a magnificent tale of love, humanity, and destiny. Whilst An Ember in the Ashes is apparently a standalone, it would not surprise me if we saw more soon from this universe. A must read that will make you a fan of YA forever. 

4 out of 5 stars.

A review copy was provided.

For more information please see the following links below:


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Interview - Margo Lanagan

Hello Everyone!

I am stoked to be able to bring you the next instalment in our interview series featuring local speculative fiction writers. Margo Lanagan is a household name here in Australia. As the critically acclaimed author of award winning titles such as Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts, she has had a significant impact on speculative fiction around the world. Recently she sat down with Smash Dragons to discuss, amongst other things, the art of writing, and her upcoming and highly anticipated release Zeroes.

Margo, welcome to Smash Dragons!

Tell us a little about yourself, and your upcoming Zeroes trilogy (alongside Scott Westerfeld and Deborah Biancotti).

I’m a writer of novels (Tender Morsels, Sea Hearts) and short stories (collected in White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes, Yellowcake and Cracklescape). I live in Sydney. I have a partner, two grown sons, no pets, no day job since last November (whee!), too many books and not quite enough bicycles.

Zeroes is a terrific collaborative project by three powerhouse authors, starring six teens who must each come to terms with their socially based superpowers while saving lives, fending off baddies and getting the group back together after a big falling-out the previous summer. 

How did the idea of Zeroes come about?

It was a combination of Scott’s idea for a couple of the superpowers and Deb’s falling in love with the idea of the TV writers’ room. And all of us being fed up enough with working on solo projects to jump at the chance to collaborate. I don’t quite know why they asked me—they said they wanted pretty sentences, but all my pretty sentences got edited out. “Get this thing moving!” Scott said. “Die, extraneous verbiage, die!"

Working in a group can be hard. What were the most challenging aspects of working alongside two other writers?

Oh, putting up with the others being, like, total prima donnas, you know? (Joke.) With the first book, where we were working out what this thing was, and Scott was trying to teach us what was commercial, probably the most confronting thing was the vast quantity of darlings that had to be killed. There were gigantic heaps of those poor dead babies. Turning on a dime and re-re-re-re-writing a chapter to fit with our latest ideas-blitz was sometimes a stretch. But compared to the solitary, doubt-sodden toil of extruding an entire novel by myself, this was a snap.

What was it about writing a book about superpowers that appealed to you most? 

Any kind of magic is an interesting challenge to write about. Being the writer, you’re the first spectator when the character exercises their power, and making that impossible event believable, while ensuring that it’s still exciting and wondrous, is a lot of fun.

And then, Zeroes powers have really interesting constraints. They increase and change as the Zeroes grow older, and require them to learn how to pull them back or push them further than they’ve done before. The powers make their lives easier in some (usually limited) way, but they also present serious disadvantages, especially when poorly controlled. The potential for the Zeroes to get into frightening or hilarious or super-awkward situations with one unwise choice is huge. Possibly the prospect of being sadistic to characters in such a variety of ways was what attracted me to this story!

What were the wackiest superpowers you came up with when you were all brainstorming Zeroes? 

Kind-of-useless superpowers were the funniest (we had a lot of laughs in the plotting room). For example, early on, Deb suggested: "Here’s a crappy power for some poor Zero we don't like: the power of deja vu. You can say or do what someone else is saying or doing, but only as they're saying/doing it.” One of mine was "The power to eliminate people's moral qualms. Or just a particular type of thwarting-to-Zeroes moral qualm.” We were always throwing out possibilities for other powers as we worked—ranging from the silly ones like literally being able to pull rabbits out of hats, to enormously complex unworkable ones that we couldn’t decide the limits of.

If you could have had a superpower as a teen what would it have been, and why?

I think I would definitely have gone for a power similar to Scam’s, which is a voice inside him that supplies words that will get him anything he wants. Except I’d just have wanted my voice to say things that amused and intrigued the person I was talking to, or made me sound intelligent or knowledgable in areas I had no experience in.

Why? Because I had woeful social skills as a teen. I read books rather than watching TV—I tended to talk like a book, which could be puzzling for the listeners. These days I can do a better impression of a normal person than I could back then.

Why did you become a writer? Was it always something you envisaged yourself doing long term?

No, being a writer was like being a rock star—it was something another species of human did. But then I got to nearly thirty and it was obvious that no other ambition was going to come and sweep me off my feet, so I decided I’d try and make the best of the skills I’d managed to develop writing and publishing poetry since my teens. Also, I had a stint as an editor, and seeing the state in which manuscripts were submitted convinced me that in many cases it would be easier for me to write my own book than to bring other people’s work to a publishable state.

Your writing has often been described as incredibly vivid, original and descriptive (Tender Morsels springs to mind in this regard). Is this something you have worked hard at to hone and develop over the years?

I think I’m still working at positioning stories at a point where they have the energy to intrigue people, while not falling across the line into the lurid or the ridiculous. You can go overboard with the vivid, you know, and with meaningless originality; it can all turn into superficial fantasia if you fall in love with pretty words and odd similes. There has to be some core sincere impulse that’s driving any story, otherwise readers will spot the self-indulgence and turn off.

Tender Morsels deals with controversial issues such as incest and rape. How, as a writer, do you handle getting your head around issues such as these? 

It’s much easier to take on this kind of subject matter as a writer than it is to helplessly watch it unfold in a news story. Unlike in real life, incest and rape will always mean something in a story; they will always be there for a purpose. In Tender Morsels, they were the particular hell that Liga had to go through in order to “deserve” the personal heaven she lived in for 25 years. And I can organise to have the perpetrators punished just as I please, so I have the illusion that I can do something about the issue, at least in this one case that I’m depicting.

If you mean “Was it distressing to write such scenes?”, no, it wasn’t. I think it was a healthy way to vent some rage about the relentless violence that’s done to women in patriarchal societies. And as those scenes were so important in explaining Liga’s later actions, the main feeling was satisfaction that I was comprehensively laying the groundwork for the rest of the novel.

Tell me about your writing process, and the famous writing room. What motivated you to rent a room away from your house?

I needed to get away from distractions — I had teenaged children, and my partner works at home too, and back then I had no smartphone and could run away from the Internet. I needed to stake out some territory that was purely for writing—and an Australia Council Fellowship allowed me to start doing it, and provided justification for the attempt to get professional in this way.

As for my writing process, for a short story, I grab an idea (e.g. “snipers picking off clowns”), a suitable character and a rough idea of a good way to end, jump in as late as possible in the plot and start charging towards that end. For a solo novel, I generally bite off more than I can chew, write huge amounts before deciding what the story’s Really About, draft and redraft, rewrite it almost completely with each editorial pass, and either toast marshmallows over the burning manuscript or finally wrestle it into some kind of novel-like shape that convinces agents and editors.

Your work covers an incredible range of genres and themes. Where do you get your inspiration?

Movies and TV documentaries, it hardly matters what kind. Excellent stories by other people that I can’t hope to emulate, or atrocious stories by other people that I feel compelled to fix. Occasionally, a song. Very occasionally, a dream. Quite often, a painting or drawing. Travel. Scrappy old museums. People saying unintentionally eloquent things. Animal behaviour.

Who are your literary influences?

OMG, where to start? The Bible, probably, because I heard so much of it during my childhood, absorbed its stories and rhythms. Also those other great works of fantasy, the Moomin books and the Narnia Chronicles. Later on, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, William Mayne, Mervyn Peake, Russell Hoban. More recently, Greer Gilman, George Saunders, Kelly Link. I’ll stop there, but only because otherwise I’ll go on forever. Everything I read turns out to be an influence. I’m very susceptible to influences.

You have attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop both as a student and teacher. How did each experience help mould you as a writer?

As a student, it made it clearer how I could lead readers towards the response I wanted them to have, how to leave them guessing to a fruitful degree, rather than completely mystifying them. It taught me how wide the range of reactions to any story could be, and it exposed me to instructors with enormous amounts of experience and widely varying writing preferences and practices. It broadened my mind. It also accelerated my development as a critical reader of others’ and my own work; it helped make me a useful story editor.

This year I’ll be teaching my sixth Clarion, at UCSD (I’ve taught 3 Clarion Souths, 2 Clarion Wests). I always find that while I can be useful to the participants in relation to the close work of prose writing, often they’re much better read in genre, and better versed in popular culture, than I am, so I always learn a lot. And it’s always a privilege to be part of writers’ working out what their writing agenda might be, story by story—that helps me be clearer about my own purposes.

Sea Hearts is one of the most original and haunting tales I’ve ever read. How did it all come about? Am I correct in saying that you drew from Scottish folklore in relation to the Selkies?

Thanks, Matthew! I’m really glad you liked it. Yes, it’s Scottish inspired, although it takes place in an imaginary location.

How did it all come about? Well, I was always going to do something with selkie legends—they just have that combo of beauty and misery I find irresistible. See above for my description of how my novels get written; that’s pretty much how it went with Sea Hearts. But there was a pre-writing stage, because the story began as a novella I wrote for Keith Stevenson’s anthology of novellas X6 (Coeur de Lion, 2009).

It was the first time I’d set out to write a novella, and something about the length of it—it had to encompass more than a short story, but had to be reined in before it turned into a novel—meant that when I’d finished the novella (which was, substantially, the Daniel Mallett story) there were a lot of unanswered questions that the format hadn’t allowed me to pursue.

The main question was how the witch Messkeletha (Misskaella in the novel) had become so horrible and embittered, so that was the first thread I followed back into the Rollrock Island past. And then I threw a dozen other points of view at the basic storyline, trying to explain the cyclical nature of the selkie addiction that periodically swept the island. And when my editors *hugs editors* asked for something to unify all these disparate stories, I pulled it back to just cover this one cycle that Misskaella was responsible for. Her story became the string on which the beads of everyone else’s stories were threaded.

Misskaella is an absolutely enthralling and enchanting protagonist. What, in your opinion, makes a good character?

The conviction with which the author has written them, so that they don’t feel so much created as captured and pinned momentarily to the page—you can imagine them having a life of their own before and after the events in the story. The characters I’m most satisfied with have come about when I’ve sat with the story idea for a while, poking around among the possible viewpoints, until I heard somebody muttering to themselves in an interesting way about the matter at hand. When I’ve worked out a convincing way for a character to speak, I can trace the reasons for their choosing those kinds of words and phrases back to their history, class and nature, and see how they’re likely to act in a given situation.

You have won quite a number of awards along the way for both your novels and short stories. How did it feel to get recognition for something you have obviously worked very hard at?

There’s a kind of relief that I wasn't fooling myself. There’s a suspicion that not only was I fooling myself, but I’ve managed to fool a bunch of other people too. There’s a more mature kind of satisfaction that I've achieved a certain level of expertise and impact with my work. I've got something more to shake in the face of my fears when they ambush me. And the prospect of imminent champagne is always pleasant.

Question from left field… zombie apocalypse team… who is in yours and why?

Kelly Link and Maureen McHugh—a couple of women who’ve really thought through the ramifications of this zombie-apocalypse thing. My colleague and former Clarion South student Brendan D Carson, for medical emergencies. Our current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, because he would take no crap from the undead.

What do you think about the state of Australian speculative fiction at the moment? Where do you think publishing in general is heading here in Australia?

Australian spec fic is super-healthy right now. Presses large and small are publishing us, and we’re well represented overseas in terms of both publication and awards.

Publishing in general? *quickly consults sheeps’ innards* I think that after the post-GFC contraction, publishing has grown a few extra tentacles and is beginning to make exploratory movements with them. I’m optimistic—because, as the Dalai Lama says, it feels better.

Craziest thing a fan of your work has ever said to you?

When fans meet me for the first time, they sometimes say, “Oh, I thought you’d be more…” and they trail off. So I say, “Gothic? Stevie Nicks ‘Rhiannon’? Visibly neurotic?” I’ve had nods to all of these. :D

What are you working on right now?

Two short stories for anthologies, one solo novel. They’re all at a very ordinary, unimpressive stage at the moment, so the less said about them the better.

Best advice you can give to aspiring writers?

Just keep going. And try to get so thoroughly absorbed in the story that you don’t have mental space for doubt.

And finally, will we be seeing you at any writing events or conventions later this year?

  • I’ll be at Sydney Writers’ Festival in late May, doing a panel on “The Rise and Rise of YA: A Look at the Fastest-Growing Category in Fiction” with Garth Nix, Laurie Halse Anderson and Sally Gardner.

  • I’m going to Reading Matters (YA conference) at the end of May just as a spectator, but I’ll be on panels at Continuum in Melbourne in early June.

  • I’ll be doing a bunch of events at the American Library Association conference in San Francisco in late June, and possibly appearing at San Diego Comic-Con in July.

  • I’ll probably be doing a reading, with my co-teacher Maureen McHugh, in association with the Clarion workshop.

  • With Scott Westerfeld and Deborah Biancotti, I’ll be launching book 1 of Zeroes at Kinokuniya bookshop in Sydney on Tuesday 22 September.

  • And there’ll be a 12-city US tour for Zeroes in early October.

Then I will collapse.

Margo Lanagan, thank you for your time.

Please take the time to check out Margo's blog. She often posts snippets and news in regards to her upcoming work, and her thoughts are always very witty and valuable. Purchase details and information for Zeroes can also be found at the following links. I implore you all to check it out as it looks to be one of the most exciting titles to be released this year!


And remember everyone, be nice to each other and keep on reading!