A quick interview with Kaaron Warren and Ellen Datlow: Unusual Objects Lead to a Unique Project

Welcome to my sixth IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign and excitingly, is my first interview for a collaboration project. Multi-award winning creators Ellen Datlow and Kaaron Warren teamed up on Facebook a few years ago when Ellen posted photos of antique tools and Kaaron wrote microfiction pieces to accompany them, without either of them knowing what the tools were for. The Tool Tales chapbook collects and preserves their playful interaction for readers to enjoy. Both Ellen and Kaaron kindly answered my questions about this unusual and fun project with their chapbook on sale now.

Photo Copyright Cat Sparks

Tool Tales is a unique chapbook project involving unsettling black and white images and tales of micro-fiction. How did this project begin? Who had the idea first?  

Ellen: Back in the spring 2016 I had a break between projects and decided to photograph some of the antique tools I’ve collected over the years. Kaaron volunteered to write teeny tales to go with each tool and we decided to post what we initially called “the tool project” on my Facebook page. Around #9 we both were becoming too busy with other work and decided to call it quits with the 10th tool.  

Kaaron: I think Ellen was showing me photos of her latest find. She’d bought one when she came to Australia last and knew we had a shared fascination for old tools. She wanted to post them on Facebook but didn’t think anyone else would be interested, so I said, how about if I write a little story to go with each one?  

Ellen, how did you find the tools to use in the chapbook? What was it about them that spoke to you? Were there certain qualities you were looking for?

Ellen: I’ve been collecting weird tools for decades. So I just picked a few of the more photogenic and mysterious ones that lived on my window sills and radiator covers (in my old apartment – I’ve just moved and haven’t quite figured out where they will live over here).

How did this collaboration work and how long did the project take from beginning to end? 

Ellen: I photographed a tool and sent the photo to Kaaron, who created a fictional piece about that tool. Then I posted the tool and story on my Facebook page and if we didn’t know what the tool was for, we asked for opinions from the crowd. We started work in mid-April 2016 and finished by end of July 2016. So only three and a half months. 

Were there any challenges in this project? What were they and how did you overcome them? 

Kaaron: One of the beautiful things about this project is that it flowed. It wasn’t a struggle for either of us, and for me at least it provided much needed inspiration and a chance to get my words working again. There was something freeing about not have rules and restrictions. I think Ellen had lots of fun finding the next challenging tool for me! 

Ellen: Yup-choosing a mysterious tool was a fun challenge.

Cover of chapbook Tool Tales

Why micro-fiction? What do you think is fun/ interesting/ positive/ unique about the medium?

Kaaron: I really love micro-fiction and have been writing it for years. My Year 12 writing assessment was a series of them. I love the challenge of fitting all that story into such a tiny place, and the freedom of not having to explain things! For this project, we knew that we were working with limited attention spans, via people scrolling on Facebook, so wanted the stories to be almost as quick to absorb as the photos.

Ellen: Also, I didn’t want Kaaron to spend too much time on something that was just meant to be fun while we both had some free time.

Kaaron, how did you find the process of responding to Ellen’s images? Did some micro-fictions come easier than others? What was it about the project and about Ellen’s images that inspired you? 

Kaaron: With each of them, I went off first impressions and wrote down what came to mind. Then I worked on the words and the stories, to make sure I wasn’t inflicting stream of consciousness on people! Ellen and I have been ‘thrift store buddies’ for a long time, sharing fun things we’ve found. She took me to a flea market when I was in New York City, and I took her to the tip when she was in Canberra! We’re both engaged with objects and the stories they tell. 

There’s an interesting quote at the start of the chapbook. What made you choose it? Do you feel like there’s an overarching theme running through the chapbook? 

Kaaron: It wasn’t something I’d known forever, waiting for an opportunity to use it, more that we wanted a quote at the start and so I looked around until I found one that seemed to fit! I think it does represent an underlying theme of the book, which is indeed that we are shaped by the tools we are given. The chapbook is this at a surface level, and I never intended my words to have a secondary meaning, but I think in the end they do. 

Would you do a similar project again i.e.. where one person selected images and the other responded with micro-fiction? If so, what kind of images do you think you’d go with this time? 

Ellen: I’d be up for it if I have time. I’d already curated one other project with an artist along these lines back in 2015: commissioning flash fiction to go with his art images. It was for an exhibition and it was used as a catalog for the show.  

Kaaron: I loved that project! Viktor Koen’s work is just amazing. I have a framed print of the picture I wrote a story for. I’d definitely be up for another project like this one. The past, present and future of objects is endlessly inspirational. 

Thanks so much for your time Kaaron and Ellen! Readers, you can purchase the Tool Tales chapbook direct from the publisher here or from all good eBook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).

More about the creators of Tool Tales:

Ellen Datlow has been editing sf/f/h short fiction for four decades. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and currently acquires short stories and novellas for Tor.com and Nightfire. She has edited many anthologies for adults, young adults, and children, including The Best Horror of the Year series and Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost StoriesFinal Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles, and the reprint anthologies Edited By and Body Shocks. She’s won multiple Locus, Hugo, Stoker, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson, and World Fantasy Awards plus the 2012 Il Posto Nero Black Spot Award for Excellence as Best Foreign Editor. Datlow was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre” and was honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career and honored with the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award at the 2014 World Fantasy Convention. She runs the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in the east village, NYC, with Matthew Kressel.

Shirley Jackson award-winner Kaaron Warren published her first short story in 1993 and has had fiction in print every year since. She was recently given the Peter McNamara Lifetime Achievement Award and was Guest of Honour at World Fantasy 2018, Stokercon 2019 and Geysercon 2019. Kaaron was a Fellow at the Museum for Australian Democracy, where she researched prime ministers, artists and serial killers.

She has published five multi-award winning novels (Slights, Walking the Tree, Mistification, The Grief Hole and Tide of Stone) and seven short story collections, including the multi-award winning Through Splintered Walls. She has won the ACT Writers and Publishers Award four times and twice been awarded the Canberra Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Her most recent novella, Into Bones Like Oil (Meerkat Press) is on the Final Ballot for the Stoker Award, the Recommended Reading List for Locus and the Aurealis Award Shortlist.