Category Archives: writers

Signal boost – Snapshot 2014

Hi folks,

Tonight, rather than talk about myself and writing, I’d rather talk about other folks, who are in turn talking to other, different folks about writing.

Lemme back it up.

Back in 2005, Australian SF author Ben Peek decided to interview 40-odd Aussie spec-fic writers . It was a pretty interesting glimpse – one might even say a snapshot – of the local scene, its opportunities and how people were working towards them.

There have been several more snapshots since then, and this week is seeing the newest – nine years later, spread across a dozen-or-so blogs and talking to nearly 200 writers, published and emerging, novel and short fiction, print and ebook. Some questions are consistent across the board, some are unique to each writer; some folks are replying succinctly, some at length.

If you’re at all interested in local spec-fic – SF, fantasy, horror, whatever – then you should really click around the following blogs and check out some (or all) of the interviews as they progress over the next week:

(Full disclosure – I’m one of the interviewees, and you can find my bit on Jason Nahrung’s blog. But it’s pretty much the same stuff I always talk about here, so you can also skip it without guilt if so inclined.)

And that’s enough out of me this week.

A Q-and-A with Jason Nahrung

It’s been aaaaaaaages since I’ve had another writer on here to discuss their work and their process – blame me and a year of just wanting to talk about myself. But I’m shrugging that off, I hope, and so it’s a good time to start getting a few other perspectives on things.

And who better to start with than Jason Nahrung, whose profile has become bigger and brighter in the couple of years since I was introduced to him by one of several mutual friends. Jason and I both followed a similar arc of movement down the country, starting in rural Queensland, living in Brisbane (and hitting its goth clubs) and then drifting down to Melbourne to follow our writerly dreams – but then he kept going, moving recently to Ballarat along with his partner, award-winning author Kirstyn McDermott. There are other key differences between Jason and I, too – he works a lot harder than I do, his work focuses more on traditional Gothic themes, he’s really strongly engaged with the Australian genre writing and publishing scene, and he has much longer hair.

So I thought it would cool to talk to him about these things. Well, other than the hair.

red_couchI always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

Well, I DO have a regular job that pays better. That’s why I can afford to spend inordinate amounts of time transferring those stories reeling through my mind on to the page. The idea of making any kind of living from writing fiction seems unlikely; I don’t buy lottery tickets, either.

So, indeed, why writing?

Simply, I can’t help myself. The stories are there, they demand to be written. I think some of them are worth sharing. What’s more, I enjoy the art of seeing intangibles made real on the page, and the thought of them becoming intangible again – and something new – in the mind of a reader. It’s am amazing process!

I can’t play music, I can’t draw, I’m no good at woodwork or anything like that. But since I was a young tyke, the words and I have got along passingly well. I give thanks to having had parents and teachers who’ve encouraged my reading, and by extension, writing – the two have gone hand-in-hand for me as long as I can remember.

It took me a long time to consider my stories were worth the attempted selling, if not just the telling. It still feels a little precocious, to be honest. Every – any – sale comes as something of a surprise to me. A pleasant one. There’s a definite thrill in finding that someone likes your stories enough to pay to read them, or indeed, to publish them in the first place. That’s a kind of benchmark for me: is this yarn good enough that someone will pay me for it?

But yeah, we’re not talking sheep stations here. A bottle of wine will do.

When I think of your work, two recurring things leap out at me, and the first is the emphasis on the Gothic – both in the literary and the cultural sense. What draws you to that theme, and what keeps you coming back?

That’s a question I keep coming back to as well!

I love the Gothic mode – it’s probably a function of a love affair with Hammer Horror movies, the impact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had on me as an adolescent, a social awkwardness that found its comfort zone in the smoke machines and atmospheric beats of Brisbane goth clubs.

Dracula had a profound influence: its sexuality, its mystery, its isolation. I grew up on a farm, so isolation was something I was used to, and my grandfather told me of the wrongs done to Aborigines and Kanakas, so that Gothic trope of the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present might also have struck a chord. The sexuality and sensuality, well, what teenage boy wouldn’t react to that? Plus I’ve always had a thing for myths and legends – they were amongst my earliest readings – and the supernatural has always had appeal; perhaps it was the appeal of the exotic in the midst of ultra conservatism …

Discovering the gothic subculture and its music – especially the music, which is what I found first – as a country kid was eye opening. I think it was the romanticism, the otherworldliness … they appeal to me still. I feel I belong there, that it makes sense: outsiders, cynics, a certain fatalism. I love the variations within the subculture, the evolution of style as well as the more traditional fashions.

I keep tapping that vein in my writing because it fits, I guess: my themes, my atmosphere.

The other recurring element is this very strong sense of place, and local place at that. Salvage is a ghost story set on a Queensland island; Blood and Dust is a vampire story set in the Queensland outback. What is it about the Australian landscape (or even the Queensland landscape) that makes it so suitable for horror stories?

salvage cover webIt’s interesting you’ve pegged Salvage as a ghost story – to my mind, it’s more of an homage to Carmilla, although the heroine is definitely haunted by an event, rather than a spirit. It’s set on an island off the Queensland coast, an amalgamation of Bribie and Fraser islands customised to the needs of the story – primarily isolation.

Isolation is the one thing Australia has plenty of – the tyranny of distance was coined for this country, not just in its distance from other countries and particularly the European motherlands of many of its early colonisers, but also within it: those tracts of land sparsely inhabited and in places barely habitable.

For those not used to the bush, it’s a pretty alien place, and even for those who are used to it, it contains perils. It’s an unforgiving landscape made up of extremes: fire, flood, drought.

The other thing Australia has going for it is a massive range of landscapes –  beach, red heart, rainforest and alps; small towns, big cities –  that can not only make for interesting backdrops but work as a sympathetic mirror for the characters’ emotional state, or contrast it. It’s nice at times to have some utterly bizarre event occur in the brightest, hottest sunshine, rather than in the middle of darkest night or at the height of a storm. I particularly enjoyed doing that in Salvage, where my vampire is trapped on a subtropical island, and my heroine is fighting off depression in what for most people is an idyllic seaside location – where people go to get away from their troubles.

As well as your novels and novellas, you’ve written an awful lot of short stories. Last year you were part of the judging panel for the Aurealis Awards, specifically for the Best SF Short Fiction Award. What’s the SF/F/H short fiction landscape like in Australia at the moment, from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective?

I don’t think 20-odd is an awful lot compared to some, but thanks!

I’ve been fortunate to have had exposure in recent years to a lot of quality writing due to judging the awards, in both collections and anthologies and the science fiction short stories category, and the one thing that really comes through is the way our writers are fearless genre blenders. It’s not unusual to see stories entered in more than one category, for instance: SF, fantasy, horror.

And we’ve got some beautiful stylists, too, telling affecting stories: a starting point, but no means all, could be Joanne Anderton, Thoraiya Dyer, Angie Rega, Cat Sparks, Angela Slatter, Lisa L Hannett, Kaaron Warren, Kirstyn McDermott …

In writing terms, we appear to have a flourishing local market for spec fic, with the likes of FableCroft and Ticonderoga putting out regular anthologies; mags such as Midnight Echo, SQ, Dimension6 and veteran Aurealis exploring the digital realm; plus some hungry new small presses such as IFWG and Cohesion making their mark. Then you’ve got Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets (now 13!) collection series, one of the most exciting projects around, actively encouraging some of our best women writers to produce work that, certainly in some instances, otherwise might have struggled to find a market, due to awkward subject matter or sheer length.

At least digital, and to a lesser extent POD, publishing makes it easier to get longer shorts and novella-length work out there, at a time when 5,000 words, or fewer, seems to be becoming the most sought-after length.

And thanks to the interwebs, overseas markets are more accessible now, too.

You’ve worked with a number of independent Australian publishers, such as Twelfth Planet Press, Xoum and Clan Destine Press. What’s that experience been like for you? What are the positives, and are there any negatives?

My relationship with Clan Destine is just starting – they’re bringing out my vampire duology Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke – but so far, it has felt very similar to my experience with the other two: flexibility, dialogue, professionalism, passion. When a small press picks you up, you know they’ve made a decision to expend reasonably sparse resources on you, so they’re not just throwing your work at the wall to see if it sticks – they’re convinced, they’re committed.

The downside is, those limited resources, both financial and labour, usually present through difficulties in distribution to bricks-and-mortar shops, and in pursuing publicity, particularly in mainstream media where boutique, especially genre, publishers might have less traction.

You grew up in country Queensland, lived in Brisbane and then in Melbourne, and now you’re living in Ballarat. Is it just wanderlust that keeps you moving? How has it been to go from a big city to a much smaller one? Surely it gets cold out there. I’d be frightened.

Everyone who heard Kirstyn and I were moving to Ballarat told us how cold it was, but no one mentioned the wind! Luckily, Ballarat is a well-established town with suitable warm places for artists to gather –we’ve just got to get around to meeting some to gather with!

But to answer the question, I’ve moved originally as job opportunities presented themselves, moving to increasingly large population centres until I hit Brisbane. Then I met Kirstyn, who was in Melbourne, and so I moved to the chilly south. We headed west last year because house prices were way out of our reach in Melbourne, and Ballarat is close enough that I can still pop in for work, or an event, without it being too onerous a commute.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve got Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke with Clan Destine now heading toward publication, and an old outback occult yarn still waiting to be knocked into shape. I’ve also got a few short stories on the go, primarily what promises to be a suite of yarns set in Brisbane around the year 2100, when the risen sea has surged past the dykes and wreaked some watery havoc  –  the first, ‘Watermarks’, was recently published in Cosmos, and I’m exceedingly chuffed about that.


You can find out more about Jason’s work, stories and books at his website; you can also follow him on Twitter at @JNahrung.

The mission statement

If you read genre comics, you know who Mark Waid is – one of the industry’s most respected writers, a thirty-year veteran of commercial superhero comics (and more than a few in other genres). He’s written almost every major character for both Marvel and DC, from his run on The Flash (close to the high water mark of ’90s supers) to his current Eisner-gobbling run on Daredevil.

(Also, I met him once when he was in Australia in the 90s – really, really nice guy.)

Anyway, over at Comics Alliance (a website about comics, but you probably already figured that out) he talks with Chris Sims (another guy whose work I like) about his upcoming run on The Hulk, which is emerging from his work for the last year or so on Indestructible Hulk – and the very first question-and-answer in that interview is something worth discussing:

Comics Alliance: The thing I liked about Indestructible Hulk, and this is something that comes up in a lot of your work, is that you’re a guy who’s big on mission statements and explicitly laying out your direction in a comic. You had that very simple phrase you repeated throughout the book, which was that Hulk destroys and Banner builds.

Mark Waid: I think it’s really important to hit that note. You don’t want to hit readers over the head like they’re completely incapable of picking up on subtlety. At the same time, when you do a first issue, the art and craft of the first issue, something that’s gotten really badly lost in my time in comics, and I’m not saying I’m a master of it either, I’m just very cognizant of it when I sit down to write a first issue of anything, is that the requirement is that it lays out the mission statement. Like the pilot of a TV show, like the first book in a long trilogy, whatever, any sort of serialized entertainment, I want to know what I’m supposed to be getting out of this. It doesn’t mean that you have to know everything, it doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises or twists, but I should know what I’m buying at that point so I know if I should come back.

The rest of the interview is here, and you should read it if you have any interest in the craft of writing comics, or indeed any interest in the Hulk.

Anyway, this idea of a mission statement – the willingness to communicate to your audience just what your story is going to be about, and to do it at the start of your narrative – is a bloody fantastic idea and one that more writers need to embrace.

The most important thing your story has going for it is your personal and unique voice – no doubt about that. But unless your prose style is so distinctive that readers immediately get drawn in by it – unless you’re Nabokov, more or less – then you need to get and keep their attention long enough to get into your voice, rather than stop reading and pick up some other book. That’s particularly the case in genre fiction – no matter how good your fantasy novel, there are lots of other novels out there that seem to be covering the same ground. So you have to make it clear what you’re doing that’s different.

And a great way to do that is by communicating your mission statement – by frontloading your premise (or your theme, if that’s your approach) within the first discrete chunk of your work. For a book, that’s probably your first chapter, or maybe your prologue (and if your prologue doesn’t communicate the point of your book, DELETE DELETE DELETE). For a serial work like a comic or TV show, it’s your first instalment – there’s a reason the concept of the pilot is so strongly entrenched in the TV scriptwriting industry. For a movie, it’s, um, maybe the first ten minutes, or maybe the trailer; for a short story it’s perhaps the first page, maybe even the first paragraph for a flash piece. That’s the point where the rubber hits the road; where you make a case to the reader for sticking with it long enough to fall in love with it rather than changing channel.

(I practice what I preach here, or at least I try to. The first chapter of Raven’s Blood tells you that there’s magic and shenanigans and men in masks, and introduces the main character. The first chapter of The Obituarist tells you what Kendall Barber does for a living, shows you that he’s in trouble and makes some promises about his narrative voice. And the first chapter/instalment of Hotel Flamingo didn’t fuck about with displaying the weirdness. They’re not the greatest books ever written, sure, but you know what you’re getting into early on.)

I get wanting the slow burn, the appeal of carefully developing a world and its texture; I get wanting to take your time. Well, I get it as a writer. As a reader? GET TO THE FUCKING MONKEY. Start off with the mission statement in mind and give me at least the initial outline of it – tell me at least as much of what the story’s going to hold as the blurb does.

Because the slow burn just leaves smoke and ashes; you want to kick off with the fire.

This week I’m talking beginnings; next week I’m talking endings.

Talk to me somewhere in the middle. I’m so lonely.

Remembering Iain Banks, 1954-2013

I don’t remember my past all that well, so I can’t put my finger on exactly when I read The Wasp Factory. It was written in 1984, when I was 13, but there’s no chance that anything so transgressive and disrespectful would have been in any libraries in my old home town. So it must have been after I moved to Brisbane, when I was 18 or 19. That sounds right, that feels right; that’s the right age for having Iain Banks blast out the back of your head for the first time.

At age 19 I also lived and breathed science fiction, so I imagine I would have immediately read Consider Phlebas, although that memory is still vague. I do recall reading The Player of Games and The Bridge at around age 20, and not liking either of them as much as the other two but still thinking they were pretty damn cool.

Then I read The Crow Road and Use of Weapons as they were published, and that was it – I was an Iain Banks fan, whether he was writing mainstream or science fiction, whether he had an M in his name or not.

And now Iain Banks is dead, cut down by gall bladder cancer this last weekend, two too-short months after publicly announcing his illness.

Others have done fine duty eulogising Banks, such as Kieron Gillen and the UK Telegraphio9 has a good essay on the lessons writers (especially SF writers) can take from his work. But I don’t want to eulogise and I don’t want to think like a writer; I want to think like a reader. My memories can be like fog, but when I think about Banks’ work the fog clears; I may not recall when/where I read them, but I remember all that I got from his books as a young man.

I remember marvelling at the forward-backwards progression of Use of Weapons that spiralled into the horrific darkness at its heart.

I remember the final goodbye of The Crow Road and how I kept coming back to that book as my relationships came together and fell apart.

I remember reading the Eliot quotes in Consider Phlebas and thinking that I had to read more of this guy’s poetry at some point.

I remember cruising through three out of every four chapters in Feersum Endjinn and then grinding to a halt on the fourth, slowly working my way through the phonetic, accented prose – but being drawn in by that effort rather than thrown from the story.

I remember hitting that scene in The Wasp Factory and putting the book to one side, needing to walk it off for a while – and then coming back to see if he could top it. And he did.

I remember pressing his books on friends saying you’ve got to read this, and then them coming back saying holy crap, do you have any more of his stuff? And I did. I always did.

I remember my 20s in music, in beats, in dance floors – and in Banks novels, the prose soundtrack for my life.

And memories like that are all readers can ever hope to be granted by an author.

I didn’t like Banks’ later work as much as his earlier books; I started to drift away around the time of Look to Windward and Dead Air. But that was my fault, not his; I stopped resonating with the themes and ideas he wanted to talk about, and he was determined to write what he wanted rather than what I (or anyone else) wanted to read. To write honestly, and snarkily, and passionately about what he thought was important; about visions of the best and worst we could be.

He wrote as he would. He lived as he would. And we were fortunate for it.

But not any more.

He’s away the crow road now.

A Q-and-A with Tor Roxburgh

Earlier this year I was on a panel at the Continuum convention talking about small press and independent publishing. Another panelist was author Tor Roxburgh, who’d self-published her epic fantasy novel The Light Heart of Stone as a hardcopy book. And this news floored me, because I’d seen the book on display at other events and writing festivals and assumed it was from a well-established, well-funded independent press. But no, Curious Crow Books is one woman’s determined effort to publish her own work in the most polished, professional way possible and to manage the entire production process herself.

I was also impressed by how smart, likeable and canny Tor was, and by her willingness to not only discuss her own process but to ask questions and learn from others who are doing things differently, such as small presses and indie e-publishers. And on top of all that, I’ve read some of The Light Heart of Stone (although I haven’t had the time to do more than start it) and it’s a fine, thoughtful and (here’s this word again) polished work.

So with all that in mind, I decided to ask Tor a few questions about her writing, her aims and how she came to take on board all the weight of not just writing but publishing and managing her work.

I always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

I love this question. There are so many different answers I could give. I’ll try two: one about my mother and one about me.

My mother wanted to be a writer but was largely unpublished. Watching her as a child, I had the impression that being a writer was the ultimate achievement. Interestingly, my brother Rod Usher (Poor Man’s Wealth, Harper Collins, 2012) is also a writer, so he might have experienced the same vicarious longing.

On the other hand, I might have become a writer because I was – and am – a rather childish fantasist. As a teenager, my fantasies included becoming the first female Prime Minister, a genius medical researcher, a great sculptor, a renowned film director, the richest woman in the world, an Olympic gold medallist (show jumping) and discovering that I was the bastard daughter of the queen of England. At 52, my heroic fantasies include becoming a political activist, a brilliant scientist, a member of the first off-Earth colony, a successful publisher, a famous artist and, certainly, a best-selling writer.

What drove you to self-publish The Light Heart of Stone, rather than going through a publisher?

The Light Heart of Stone was rejected by Harper Collins (Voyager), Hachette (Orbit) and Penguin. It also drew a blank in Allan and Unwin’s ‘Friday Pitch’ process. I could have continued submitting, but the thought of months of waiting on publishing houses and never knowing whether my manuscript had been read was repellent. My partner suggested self-publishing. I was about to reject the notion, but found myself agreeing with him. I guess I had an instinct that the novel was worth publishing.

That was one thing. There were other factors that tipped me over the line: I’d already had 14 books published and I knew that traditional publishing is a hit and miss process; I’d been working in the visual arts where artist-run-initiatives are more likely to be seen as innovative than self-indulgent; and I liked the idea of doing something that didn’t require anyone’s approval.

Independent self-publishing is big right now, but it’s almost entirely ebook-focused, while you published your novel as a hardcopy, hardcover book. What kind of tasks and processes were involved in that? Was there any element that surprised you?

Making a book isn’t any different from manufacturing anything else. For those of us for whom books are special, almost sacred objects, comparing them to yogurt or T-shirts or houses or any other fabricated object seems preposterous. But the comparison is valid. A story might be an alchemical thing, but a book isn’t. It’s less complicated to produce than a house. Much like a T-shirt, it probably has to be manufactured overseas. Sadly, its shelf life is comparable to yogurt.

Publishing The Light Heart of Stone (a 640-page paperback) was a project management task that I really enjoyed. When I worked on publishing the book I wasn’t being a writer: I was being a publisher. I had to keep those roles separate in my mind. And as a publisher, I commissioned and briefed an editor; I visited bookstores doing cover research; I wrote a design brief and a marketing plan; I researched book titles, domain names and search terms; I created a budget and a schedule; I worked collaboratively with a graphic designer on the cover, commissioned a book designer to design the layout and found a typesetter; I pitched to distributors and got quotes from printers; I wrote media releases and organised three launch events; I checked proofs, shipped books and dealt with customs.

There were surprises and delights and scary moments. Seeing Michele Winsor’s cover emerge from my brief was astounding. I was shocked by the amount of physical space that one thousand, fat epic fantasy novels take up. I was scared by the amount of money I was investing in my career (happy to say, I’m getting close to breaking even). I was surprised by how nervous I was before the launches (I couldn’t sleep in the weeks before the local regional events and I couldn’t sit still in the car when my partner drove me to the Melbourne launch).

The best surprise of all was the unexpected contact with readers. Until I self-published, I’d only ever met a handful of my readers. I now know hundreds and their feedback has made me a much more confident – and less neurotic – writer.

Is there an aim for you in your writing – something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

I guess I want to share my thoughts. I feel I’m always saying, ‘What about this? Should we look at the world like this?’ I don’t think I’m a message-driven writer: it’s much more a matter of exploring questions. If I’m driven by anything, it’s a desire to try and illuminate complexity.

The Light Heart of Stone has been noted for its Australian themes. What exactly do you see as ‘Australian’ themes, and why did you decide to reflect those in your fantasy novel?

The Light Heart of Stone was written with Australia in mind. I focused on themes that I’m interested in. They include colonialism; Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations; the plight of refugees; ownership and control of land and other natural resource; cultural divisions between the city and the country; social duty; adoption; gender barriers; and truth in history. Clearly, these aren’t exclusively Australian themes, but in combination – for me – they do evoke contemporary and historic Australia.

Looking at your blog, you’ve done a number of speaking engagements – bookstores, libraries, local radio – and we met when we were both speaking on a panel at Continuum. Do you enjoy that speaking/teaching aspect to writing? Do you have any advice for readers who’d like to become more involved with that kind of activity?

Speaking, reading, talking and teaching are essential activities for contemporary writers who want to have readers. For self-publishers, these sorts of public activities are even more important. Not easy, though. Quite anxiety-inducing, really. But essential.

A few years ago, I thought that I couldn’t ‘perform’ as a writer. I’d taught non-fiction writing at the University of Melbourne and Victoria University and while I loved giving the classes, I experienced lots of anxiety in the lead up to each class. When I decided to self-publish, I knew I’d have to get over that anxiety. I figured a combination of preparation and practice might do the trick so I contacted lots of festivals and approached libraries and bookstores and organisations… and off I went.

My advice for anyone wanting to get involved in these kinds of activities is: be bold and give everything a try. Specifically:

a)      Share your opportunities by collaborating with writers and other professionals. This year, I’ve worked with writers, librarians, a kitchen garden specialist, teachers, an agricultural scientist, an Indigenous elder and a linguist.

b)      Ask and offer. Contact festivals. Offer to do author talks. Approach organisations. Invent events. This year, I’ve presented in bookstores, invented events at libraries, spoken to members of a book club, presented at Rotary and participated in panels at writers’ festivals.

c)       Always say thank you when someone gives you an opportunity.

Who would you say are your three biggest influences as a writer?

It’s hardly original, but two of my English teachers had a huge influence. And other writers? Thomas Hardy (The Mayor of Casterbridge), Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed) and Orson Scott-Card (Enchantment) are just a few.

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a young adult novel. It’s a science-fiction story that’s set in Ballarat, eight generations in the future. It’s about a boy who is planning to amputate his augmented hands. Events intercede and he ends up investigating a death, solving a murder, finding a profession, making a friend and accepting his genetic inheritance.

In relation to my self-published epic fantasy series, The Promise of Stone, I plan to start writing volume II in March of 2013.

You can find more about Tor at her blog and at the Central Highlands Arts Atlas. You can also follow her on Twitter as @TorRoxburgh.

As for The Light Heart of Stone, it has its own website (again, very organised approach) and you can find more details and reviews over at Goodreads.

Oh, and have a good Christmas, okay?

…yeah, I know that’s not very festive, but it’s 30 degrees at 10pm. Gimme a break.

Guys, I was working on a blog post today, but there is only room for one FUCKING AMAZING blog post on the internet today, and it is this one:

Foz Meadows utterly demolishing the argument that history was all about men doing awesome stuff, and in turn the pernicious concept that SF/F must be all about white dudes doing stuff and other people being invisible.

This is a must-read post, people. It’s smart, it’s passionate and it has incredible research links out the goddamn ying-yang.

Anything I could write just pales in comparison.

Go. Read. NOW.

RIP Joe Kubert, 1926-2012

As a comics reader, I have never considered myself a fan of Joe Kubert.

That would be like considering myself a fan of oxygen.

There are things in this world too vital and omnipresent to not need, and as a comics reader the towering, artform-shaping talent of Joe Kubert is one of them. It would be impossible to contemplate a world without him.

But now we have to, because Joe Kubert passed away this morning, age 85, and now we have to learn to live without breathing.

Kubert was an incredible artist whose skills and storytelling power helped define comics since the 1940s. He’ll always be best known for his men of action, soldiers and superheroes and warriors – Hawkman, Sgt Rock, Tarzan, Ragman, Tor. He breathed life into them and made them both mythic and very human. Kubert’s characters had grime, stubble, texture, solidity; the world left its traces on them as they marked it in turn. They could fly with impossible grace or face down vicious enemies to save the day, but they would still need a shower afterwards to wash the sweat off their bodies and the blood off their knuckles.

Kubert was more than just an artist, of course; he was a writer too, one who wrote powerful, tense and often sad stories of adventure and conflict.  War stories were his primary oeuvre, but not hollow, jingoistic tales; Kubert wrote about the costs of warfare, about soldiers sacrificing themselves to save others and how stupidity and bad luck could make that sacrifice a fool’s errand. Sgt Joe Rock of Easy Company, perhaps Kubert’s most  enduring creation, was a soldier’s soldier, a good man prepared to endure bad consequences for the sake of his men and for what was right. There was nothing easy in Rock or in his stories; they were thrilling but sobering, and no-one came away from them thinking war was anything but hell.

But Kubert was never bound by a single genre. He continued to develop his craft and skills into his 80s, and later realist and semi-autobiographical works like Jew GangsterYossel and Fax From Sarajevo were some of his greatest and most thoughtful.

And again, Kubert was more than an artist, more than a writer; he was a teacher too. In the 1970s he established the Kubert School, America’s best-known and best-respected school for comics artists. As a comics reader, I’ve always looked for word of the Kubert School in an artist’s bio. It wouldn’t tell me anything about their artistic style,  but it was a rock-solid guarantee that they understood the craft of storytelling, the nuts and bolts of letting images carry a narrative forward one panel at a time. In an era of splash pages, pin-ups and characters without feet, that grounding in craft and narrative meant everything for me – and all of that led back to Joe Kubert.

He never retired. He never stopped writing, drawing, learning, teaching.

…and finally, though I never met him, everyone says he was a hell of a nice guy too.

There are many creative talents in the comics field, writers and artists past and present with incredible skill and inventiveness who have published fantastic works. But there are few transformative talents, creators who utterly change the face of the artform with their work. Eisner was one, Kirby another, and so was Joe Kubert.

We live in the paper universes they defined. And those universes are left flatter, colder and duller than they were yesterday.

Rest in peace, Joe. Thank you for everything.

The other Obituarist

Hey guys! Let’s talk about The Obituarist! You know, that ebook about the obituary writer who teams up with a slightly-mad WWII veteran and goes around interviewing his old squadmates just before they all conveniently wind up dead!

…wait, what?

A few weeks after publishing The Obituarist, I got a heads-up from someone – sorry, I’ve forgotten who, but you know who you are – that someone else has just published a ebook with the exact same name via the same channels!

What are the odds? I mean, seriously, what are the odds? Does anyone have some data on that?

Of course I went and checked the book out, in case it was some strange Nigerian-scam copy of mine or something. But it wasn’t. Instead, in a bizarre case of parallel evolution, author Paul Waters and I had both picked the same slightly archaic old term to use as the title of our novellas. And frankly, he’d used it more properly, whereas I’d made up a whole new meaning to suit my idea.

So what to do? Just ignore it? Well, that seemed a bit rude, so I sent Paul an email to say hello. In it, I said:

This isn’t a ‘cease or desist’ or any nonsense like that; it’s a good title and there’s plenty of room for people to use it. And, to be honest, you use it more accurately than I do; I kept the term but changed the meaning to suit my own purposes.

I’m just writing because it’s a funny coincidence and I thought you might be amused too. If I get any customers who buy my book by mistake instead of yours, I’ll point them back at you; I hope you’ll do the same for me.

He came back with:

I admit that I was gutted to see your title after I published mine. Though as you say, and I hope you’re right, it’s a good title. And your story is definitely different.

I’m looking at it as a funny coincidence too.

And since then we’ve been having a bit of a chat about epublishing and writing and the cor-blimey-strike-a-light-it’s-a-funny-old-world of it all. Culminating in today, when he’s written a blog post about the whole thing, and I’m doing the same. Because recursion is awesome.

I like Paul; he’s charming and pleasant and he appears to be some kind of pirate DJ donkey from his blog avatar, which I cannot help but admire. So if you get a chance, go check out his Obituarist at Smashwords or Amazon; it’s a short tongue-in-cheek thriller packed with shaggy dog stories in the best British tradition. And honour obliges me to note that his book is 24 cents cheaper than mine (although mine is longer).

So we’ve gone from a world short of obituarists to one crammed with them, but that’s okay. It’s not like there are a shortage of books from different authors with the same titles, as this LibraryThing article can attest. (And a quick Amazon check shows plenty of other books called Raven’s Blood and Arcadia, but such is life.) I think we can live with the occasional moment of confusion.

And hey, at least I know what not to call the next book in order to stay on Paul’s good side, because in his email he also said:

Blackwatertown is the title of a longer book I’m still trying to get published via more traditional routes. Please don’t tell me you have one with the same name up your sleeve.

And I could only reply with the truth:

As it happens I lived for a time in a town called Blackwater – but I was about one year old at the time, so I have no plans to write about that!

100% true.

Of course, Townwaterblack is still unclaimed…

Launched from last weekend

Hi folks,

I promised new flash fiction and I will deliver, but not tonight – too busy this week with things like a day job, returning to the gym after a long absence and wishing I was dead because everything hurts after returning to the gym after a long absence.

Instead, tonight, I’d like to explode with links in a follow-up from last weekend’s Continuum convention. I had the chance to meet a lot of interesting writers, bloggers and podcasters over that weekend, whether as co-panelists or just from talking in the bar, and it’d be nice to tell all y’all about them and spread some of the love.

  • Deborah Biancotti chaired the ‘I Don’t Get It’ panel and was both charming and very skilled at getting people back on track when they’d gone off on tangents. She’s a Sydney-based writer; I haven’t read her anthology A Book of Endings but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and I’ve liked the excerpts of other work I’ve read. She’s jumped into my to-read list right away.
  • Peter Ball was on the aforementioned panel and another panel on creating RPG worlds. He’s also a Brisbanite, a friend of a friend, a gamer and a comics reader, so frankly I’m kind of shocked it took us this long to meet. He likes Power Man and Iron Fist, tweets about terrible movies, blogs about writing and has two novellas on Smashwords. He’s good fucking value.
  • Ian Mond is a writer and podcaster, one of those overactive podcasters who knows all the other podcasters and they have like special podcastparties that I never get invited to and I should probably stop this sentence now. Anyway, he puts out two podcasts, The Writer and the Critic with Kirstyn McDermott (which won both a Chronos and a Ditmar award on the weekend) and the irreverent Shooting the Poo with some other people. We talked about comics and the problems with the DC reboot. I liked him.
  • Grant Watson was also on that same panel and agreed with me that Suicide Squad is basically God’s punishment on this fallen world, so he gets props. I listened to his comics podcast Panel2Panel this week and dug it; he has another podcast called Bad Film Diaries which I haven’t heard but I can guess what it’s about. Anyway, cool stuff.
  • Louise Cusack has been a guest of mine on the blog in the past, but I got a chance to actually meet with her and have a chat over the weekend, and she’s just lovely. We only touched base officially in the session where we were doing readings, along with Jo Spurrier and Danny Fahey, where we all bonded over the fact that pretty much nobody came to hear us. Oh well!
  • Jack Dann doesn’t need an introduction; he’s one of the giants of Australian speculative fiction. He was kind enough to moderate the panel on independent publishing. And he was really pleasant too.
  • Steven O’Connor is a YA writer who had his first novel lauded and launched by a major publisher who pulled the plug on the series before the sequel came out. Now he’s trying to get the rights back  while learning the ins and outs of independent e-publishing. He was a really nice chap who’s been thrown in at the deep end and he’s blogging about his learning process, which is a valuable thing and worth reading about.
  • Russell Farr is the founding editor of Ticonderoga Publications, who have really gained market in the last few years to become one of Australia’s biggest independent spec-fic publishers. He was on the indie publishing panel to give insight into the non-ebook, non-going-it-alone approach, and he was gracious, open to discussion and a real class act. I want to be in his books now.
  • Tor Roxburgh is a really interesting lady who decided to publish her fantasy novels herself and managed the entire process like a professional publisher, from hiring designers to picking paper stock and booking an international printer. I saw her book, The Light Heart of Stone, at the EWF’s Pages Parlour and it is indistinguishable from a big publisher’s product. I hope to lure Tor onto here to talk about this in the next month or two.
  • Sean Wright is a book blogger and reviewer from South Australia who’s been saying some very positive things about The Obituarist online. We hung out in a hallway after the independent publishing panel to chat about that and the differences in structure, narrative and audience engagement between crime and speculative fiction. Hopefully that’s a conversation we can continue online later.

These are cool people. You should check them out.

A Q-and-A with Louise Cusack

In another lifetime, and another city, I used to be a shelf-monkey at Borders. (I think the technical term was ‘store associate’, but ‘shelf-monkey’ is more accurate.) Given different duties over time as more staff quit and the store’s resources were stretched thinner and thinner, I started off by being in charge (ie the cleaner and sorter) of both the fantasy and romance sections, which were right next to each other. That made me realise that there were a lot of books on one set of shelves that could just as comfortably sit on the other (and vice versa), and a lot of overlap between the readers of those two genres.

One of the writers working in that overlap is Louise Cusack, author of the ‘romantic fantasy’ trilogy The Shadow Through Time. Louise jumped into the Australian fantasy scene in the early 2000s, at a time when the genre was getting a lot more attention in this country than usual (a high we’ve fallen back from, unfortunately), with novels of intrigue, erotica and fantasy adventure that spanned generations and worlds.

Recently the Shadow Through Time trilogy has been rereleased by Macmillan, this time as ebooks on their Momentum imprint, giving Louise a chance to reach an entirely new market outside Australia. That seemed like a good opportunity to ask her some questions about ebooks, fantastic romance and John Carter of Mars.

I always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

I remember being in primary school and telling other kids that one day they’d see a book with my name on the cover. I was always good at English, but high school and dating distracted me. It was only after I was married and my first child was born that I remembered the writing. I took a couple of TAFE courses and entered short story competitions but I always knew I’d be a novelist. I don’t think I really considered the idea that I might never succeed. I was convinced that I just had to persist, and after eight years of full-time writing I finally got a three book publishing deal with Simon & Schuster Australia.

I never really wanted to do anything else. I’m not crafty or domestic. It’s all about story for me – books and movies. I can’t bear lifestyle shows because they don’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. I think I was just born with some storytelling gene, and I was lucky enough to have been in a situation where I could give it room to flourish. I don’t ever want another career. For better or for worse I’ve defined myself as a novelist. I think there are worse things to be!

What exactly is ‘romantic fantasy’? How is that different from, well, non-romantic fantasy?

‘Romantic fantasy’ is written mostly by women for women. It’s a fantasy that has a strong love story as one of its plot threads. There’s less focus on the ‘boy’s own adventure’ aspects of fantasy like interminable questing and battles for the sake of bloodshed. But the adventure aspects are still important. It’s a delicate balance, but there’s definitely more focus on characterisation than straight fantasy novels.

It’s almost like the difference between erotica and pornography. There’s a greater focus on the sensuality, the senses, and how the action makes the characters feel emotionally as well as physically.

What is it that attracts you to romantic fantasy? Is it the same thing that attracts you to regular fantasy?

I love a good love story, no matter the genre, and most of the great books do have some form of love story in them. But my career focus as a writer is the ‘stranger in a strange land’ theme. It most readily lends itself to fantasy – someone going from our world into a fantasy world, like John Carter to Barsoom or Jake Sully to Pandora in the movie Avatar. I grew up reading sci fi, mostly the classics (in fact my first big crush was Capt James T Kirk!), and they were all about man meeting the unknown. My favourite SF novels were Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter series. Add to which, my all-time favourite book is Alice in Wonderland which I must have read a hundred times, at least!

I’ve also had a lifelong fascinating with Leonardo da Vinci, whose perception of the world around him was unique. It was almost as if he was a stranger in our world observing things from a fresh perspective. I think there’s something to learn from that, and I try to bring that to my own work, seeing the world I’m writing about through completely fresh eyes, taking nothing for granted. It’s a personal belief of mine that the world’s problems can only be solved by people looking at the situation with fresh eyes, so anything I can do inspire that is time well spent.

You’ve blogged recently about the effect Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work, especially his John Carter of Mars novels, had upon you when younger. But my recollection of those books (and I read them like 20 years ago, so I could be completely wrong) is that they don’t have much of a romantic component. Am I wrong? In what ways did those books inspire you to write something like Shadow Through Time?

The John Carter novels were incredibly romantic! How could you have forgotten! I remember my rapture on first reading these books, how I thrilled to Carter’s inherent bravery, and the fact that he’d rather kill a warring opponent than a ‘brute beast’ (I think that was the vegetarian in me coming out). He had a pet Martian dog, and was a true action adventure hero, a man’s man, yet when he met the princess and fell in love with her he was endearingly hopeless.

Early in their romance he inadvertently insulted her, being unaware of their customs, and when she wouldn’t speak to him he was gutted. In his narrative he said:

…my foolish pride kept me from making any advances. I verily believe that a man’s way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men. The weakling and saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child.

He knew he was putty in her small, fragile hands, and for the first time (in the eighties) I was reading a male viewpoint in what was for all intents and purposes a romance novel, and finally getting to understand why men act like idiots when they’re in love! Mills and Boon novels at the time were all from a female viewpoint, and in any case I craved fantasy worlds and adventures. So these books gave me everything I loved, along with insights into the male psyche beyond battle and bloodshed. That male perspective on falling in love is something I’ve brought to my own Shadow Through Time trilogy, alongside the adventure that makes fantasy stories so thrilling.

What kind of process do you follow when you’re writing? What’s a typical day like when you’re at work on a book?

I find the first draft the most challenging part of the process, and I usually can’t do more than about 6 hours a day before I’m emotionally wrung out. I try to write my first draft in one uninterrupted run. When it’s flowing I can write 10 000 words a week, so theoretically I can finish the book in three months. Sometimes life intervenes, but I try to offset what I can until after the draft is done. Editing is more like creative bookkeeping to me so I can do longer hours and be interrupted more often.

My first draft is character driven and I write that ‘seat of the pants’, sometimes stopping to look at goal/motivation/conflict if I get stuck. When I’m finished I do detailed spreadsheets to pull apart my plot and subplots and restructure it to make it tight and interlocking. I have readers who help me with my structural and line edits before I send the manuscript to my agent for feedback and possibly more editing. Then it’s submitted to publishers.

Is there an aim for you in your writing – something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

My main aim is to entertain. Bringing people pleasure shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a worthy goal. Secondary to that is the hope that my character’s experiences will inspire readers to look at their own world with fresh eyes. It’s also a by-product of the writing that it empties my head of conflict and makes my life tranquil. When I can get all the story out, I’m in my calm centre. When I’m blocked because of circumstance, I’m not as happy. I want to be able to write every day so I’ll be happy.

Macmillan have republished the Shadow Through Time trilogy as ebooks, which is very exciting. How do you feel about ebooks and epublishing?

I love ebooks! I bought my first Kindle last year and I adore it. As a completely impatient person I find it miraculous that a whim or internet link allows me to find and download a book in seconds. No more going to the bookstore, maybe finding it out of stock, having to wait until it’s ordered in. Then there’s the price of ebooks. Most are under $10; my Shadow Through Time series sells for AUD $4.99 an ebook. I can now feed my voracious appetite for books without guilt.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been developing an untitled young adult series I’ve been calling the Medici books and I’m close to handing in the first one. It’s based on a lost world discovered by Florentines in the time of the Italian Renaissance. I did a research trip to Rome and Florence in 2010 to help me imagine what sort of culture they would have created in the five hundred years since then. I’m really excited about that story. I’ve also written an Arabian fantasy in first draft. That has to be edited. Then there’s a very, very scary fantasy that I wrote an opening for and need to get back to now that I’ve had time to work out what the characters want.

You can find more of Louise’s writing at her blog, which also has full details on her books and the Shadow Through Time trilogy. All three novels in the series are available as ebooks from the Kindle Store, Barnes and Noble and iTunes.

You can also follow her on Twitter as @Louise_Cusack.

In closing, Louise sent me a link to the trailer for the new John Carter movie, which I wanted to share but I can’t work out how to embed it in the blog. So much for ‘idiot-proof’ interfaces! In any case, most of the reviews from people whose opinions I value say it’s a lot of fun. Hopefully I can get off my butt in time to see it in cinemas!