A quick interview with Kathryn Hore: Thriller and Speculative Fiction Writer

This is my tenth and final author interview with IFWG Publishing. It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. Today’s interview is with Kathryn Hore, whose debut novel, The Wildcard, came out mid-April. Welcome, Kathryn!

The Wildcard is your debut novel. Tell us a bit about how the novel came to be and the journey you went on to publication.

I wrote the first draft of The Wildcard when I was studying professional writing and editing at RMIT University, with a 15 month-old-baby and a day job. I’d write on the train, as a passenger in the car, in my lunch break, or when the baby slept. Except my baby never slept. So I’d push him around the streets in a pram going over plot problems in my head.

For six weeks I obsessed over this story, until the first draft was written. Then almost five years, many more drafts, two job changes, a million re-writes and another baby (who also didn’t sleep) later, I had the final version that ended up published by IFWG.

I’m the sort of writer who writes every day and have been doing so since I was about ten years old. But I didn’t start taking it seriously until I was in my mid-30s. That’s when I enrolled in the writing course, started submitting short stories to magazines, and committed to writing novels with an aim to be published. It took almost ten years to the day of making that decision before I had my first book contract, with IFWG, for The Wildcard.

I guess if there’s a moral of the story it’s that writing and publishing doesn’t necessarily move fast, and hanging in there for the long haul is more important than just about anything. Except writing. You’ve always got to write.

On your website you mention working with libraries/in archives and records/with information management and even as a business corporate writer. Does any of that experience influence your writing? How does it manifest in your debut, The Wildcard (if at all)?

I often find my ‘other’ non-writing career bleeds into my fiction in unexpected ways. During the day, I work with information in a myriad of formats and forms, developing ways to capture and classify it, to manage and store it, to protect it, and most of all, to ensure those who need to access it can find it and use it.

Information is also at the heart of the underground subculture of card players in The Wildcard. This is a world which relies on information to operate—who is playing and in what games, who wins those games, what the bets are, what the bets mean, because they’re never straight-forward monetary amounts. Who owes what to whom and who gets to collect on those debts.

It all comes down to who controls the information, who determines its veracity, and who derives power from doing so. Though I never deliberately drew parallels with my career in information management and governance, it was undoubtedly an influence. The world of The Wildcard is one dealing with the shift from analogue to digital, where the old guard are clinging on against change. Libraries, records and archives have been successfully managing that same shift for some three decades now, so I was on familiar territory when writing such themes in the novel.

You also say you write about dark stuff and the political. Could you elaborate on that a bit? How does it show up in The Wildcard?

I wrote The Wildcard as a fun, exciting, thriller adventure with a twist. I certainly didn’t aim to write anything dark and political.

And yet, the world of these card players is one in which businesses gain advantage by using what is effectively slave labour, politicians trade secrets over the cards, and political movers and shakers bet information and favours between themselves.

Money, power and influence corrupt what was intended to be “only just games.” When Anna, one of the card players in the novel, cries out that nobody should die for a game, she is genuinely shocked it’s reached that point. Yet as Jem, the protagonist, understands, when you get those kind of stakes involved, of course it’s going to end up like that.

So I guess I got a bit dark and political with this story anyway, despite my best intentions.

It seems like you love to read and write across a broad spectrum of genres. Have you mashed them up in The Wildcard? In your published short fiction?

I love a good story, no matter what the genre. And I do tend to mash up genres as suits me. The Wildcard certainly does this, slipping between the cracks of several genres. It is a thriller that is part heist-fiction, except they’re not stealing anything. Part murder mystery, except everyone knows who the killer is. Part dark underworld crime story, except they’re not criminals or gangsters, they’re just card players who want to play games.

It’s a con artist story without the con artists, and owes a great deal to my growing up obsessively watching The Sting and similar movies as a kid. It also draws a lot on my love for speculative fiction, which is where I feel most at home when it comes to genre.

The Wildcard isn’t speculative—it’s set in the real world and everything in it obeys our real world laws of physics and nature. Yet, the subculture the story is set within is entirely fictional and couldn’t realistically operate. It’s a community with its own intricate rules for operation and organisation, which required just as much worldbuilding as anything speculative I’ve ever written. It’s kind of like the world of secret assassins in John Wick, or the underground of Fight Club—both stories ostensibly set in the real world, but which couldn’t actually operate for real. At least, we hope not.

In The Wildcard, Jem (the protagonist) is thrust into a world where people bet on everything through card games. What made you choose to write about card games and gambling? Was it a particular experience or situation that spoke to you?

Honestly, the very first, earliest spark of an idea for this story came from a game of strip poker when I was about 19 and an undergraduate at university. Which sounds more exciting than it really was—the actual strip poker game fizzled into nothing pretty fast as we all chickened out in the first few rounds.

However, that game did leave me thinking about card games with bets other than money and I subsequently wrote a short story about a gathering of card players on a city rooftop making strange, non-monetary, slightly sinister bets on the cards.

Fast forward twenty-odd years and I stumbled over that short story in my archives. Something about the world described and the strange bets still grabbed me. So I decided to rewrite it and see where it took me … which was to this book, The Wildcard.

The book is very different from the early short story, but the Rooftop Games are still in there, as are the characters of Jem and Anna, whose friendship remains the beating heart of the tale.

Speaking of Jem, tell us about him and why the reader will love him (or not). 

Jem is a young man, a uni student, who is smart and kind and resourceful and loyal, and who finds himself trapped in something he has no way of understanding. His girlfriend—ex-girlfriend, as he quickly points out—tricks him into signing for her debt, only it’s not money he ends up owing, it’s his loyalty. Eleven years of it.

Which he has no way of understanding. So in steps his best friend from uni, Anna, who does understand, because these card games are her life … only she lives her life like she plays a game of poker, and has her own issues with her on-again/off-again relationship with a powerful player in this world, and isn’t entirely reliable. Then there’s Crispin, another player Jem meets, a young man who Jem’s increasingly drawn to, but who he isn’t sure he can trust…or if Crispin should trust him, either.

I love Jem, he’s fiercely intelligent in some ways and utterly naïve in others, and he is thrown into this world of twisting rules nobody ever explains, except that the stakes are really high. Which is kind of like real life: you’re left to flounder around trying to figure it out, while everybody else seems to have it together and know what they’re doing.

And I think we’ve all been there at times.

If you were to elevator pitch this book to a reader, how would you sell it to them? Are there other books you’d compare The Wildcard to?

Others have described this book as: “John Wick for card players.” Which I love. It’s not that there are gun-toting assassins shooting each other in this book, but it does have a twisting underworld society with its own strict rules and complicated hierarchy and power games and organisation. And a community which adheres to all these complex rules and policies them without mercy. All mostly hidden from the everyday world of everyone else going about their lives.

What research, if any, did you do for The Wildcard? Do you enjoy this part of the process?

One of the challenges of writing The Wildcard was the fact I was writing a character who is, in many ways, so much smarter than I am. Jem is a mathematician with an interest in applied mathematical computing, doing his PhD at uni. While I failed maths in high school.

As subplots revolve broadly around Jem’s research interests, I really had to figure out what I was talking about. Fortunately, my brother has a background in robotics and is a software/hardware guru, and he put up with my incessant questions, talking me through the current and future directions in the field, and giving me lots of feedback. I also researched various aspects of mathematics and probability online, looking for layman’s explanations I could understand, which was fascinating.

When it came to the card games, I haven’t actually played cards for twenty years. But I do know how the standard games work and I researched online to get the terminology right. I also spent a lot of time watching card-trick buskers in the city and asking them questions, such as how long they’d practiced to develop their skills, and why they first got into playing with cards. They had no idea who I was, but they were always very generous with their time and answers.

In other words, the research for this book was definitely great fun.

What do you love about crime and speculative fiction as genres? Do you have any favourite novels you’d like to share? Why do you love them?

Speculative fiction is my first love. It’s what I grew up reading and where I feel most comfortable. Even when I’m writing “real world” stories, such as The Wildcard, there’s usually some speculative element of them, such as in this case the card playing subculture with its twisting rules and underground organisation and elaborate player hierarchy of ranked power.

But I do love all genres and I love playing with genre when I write. That is, understanding what the genre expectations are, and something of what the audience will bring to the text when they’re reading, and then either supporting or subverting that in order to tell the best story.

As for favourite novels … that’s a massive question to ask a lifelong reader and writer! My all-time favourites are classics, actually—The Count of Monte Cristo and Jane Eyre have long been tied for my favourite ever novels. They both touch on the gothic and the dark, they’re both very subversive novels in their own ways, with complicated, flawed characters and twisting plots, and most of all, they’re rollicking good tales.

As for more modern favourites … that depends on what I’m reading on any given week, but I’ll tell you what I’m currently reading and loving: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel.

What’s next for you on the writing horizon?

I have a book coming out next year, a Western with a feminist twist—a stranger rides into a highly authoritarian town and she shakes things right up.

I’m also mid-draft on a couple of other works-in-progress: a speculative fiction novel set amid the urban decay of a near-future city verging on post-literacy, about the ways we use stories to understand ourselves and each other. And a quirky murder mystery set in an academic library overnight, with poisoned books and obsessive librarians, with an unconventional love story at its centre.

Thanks so much for your interview, Kathryn!

You can read more about Kathryn’s novel here with The Wildcard available for purchase in all good eBook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).

Kathryn is a Melbourne writer of speculative and thriller fiction with a taste for blending dark genres in twisting ways. Her short fiction has been published in several anthologies and magazines, including Aurealis and Midnight Echo. When not writing, she works in archives, libraries and records management, and has a couple of small children to keep her busy. The Wildcard is her debut novel.