A Quick Interview with Piper Mejia: Sci-fi, Horror and Urban Fantasy Writer

Welcome to my eighth IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. Today’s interview is with Piper Mejia, a New Zealand writer whose new book, Dispossessed, comes out in April.

Here’s the blurb to kickstart the interview:

Nobody likes you when you’re the ugly new kid. A hoodie and a new foster home won’t hide the creeping dread that you are dangerous. So, when you’re offered the chance to meet a grandfather you never knew, you jump on a plane to the bush-covered mountains of New Zealand. 

Slate longs for a home when he finds himself living among an ancient race masquerading as travelling performers. Dispossessed and disillusioned, Slate fears being trapped in a life hiding from the world; one his own father had to run from.

However, the decision to stay or leave is taken from him when he is held captive by hunters on the trail of the ultimate game trophy. Tortured and alone Slate fears that the only way to escape is to become the monster he never wanted to be.

And welcome, Piper!

Tell us a bit about the impetus for Dispossessed.

In some ways, the novel is autobiographical. Not that I am exactly like one of the creatures in the story, but the main setting (the hill), characters (travellers) and even some plot points (being an outsider) parallel my own childhood. When I first decided to write the novel, I was also inspired by the picture books that I was reading to my own children, where monsters were the people and people were the monsters.

Are there any comparison titles you’d compare Dispossessed to?

I definitely drew inspiration from Frankenstein (a product of his environment) as well as Dracula (a hidden danger). But I was also inspired by general fiction aimed at teenagers, stories of regular kids dealing with loss and identity. As an English teacher, I try to keep up with popular titles, which continue to be stories of growing up and finding happiness in yourself.

You’re known as a writer of horror and science fiction, but Dispossessed doesn’t sound like it’s strictly in either genre (the publisher classifies it as young adult urban fantasy). Did you find ways to work elements of horror and/or sci fi into the story? Have you written in the urban fantasy sub-genre before or was this the first time? Did the story come easily too you or was it difficult at first? 

Ironically, Dispossessed was the first thing I ever wrote with an aim to have published, but after writing it I realised that I did not know how to write well enough and so spent the next 10 years learning my craft through short horror. Inspired by Isabel Allende, my short stories include elements of magical realism rather than science fiction, which is why it is considered speculative horror. My first collection The Better Sister, (published by Breach in 2020) contains 9 short stories that explore the trio sister relationship (I am one of three sisters), which is a motif we see repeated throughout literature.

I am used to people discussing my writing as not the horror they expect, but rather a disturbing feminist lens on the horror people inflict on themselves and the people they are supposed to care about. I guess that I feel that real horror is the terrible things that people do to each other so even though this novel is classed as an urban fantasy, it contains the same elements as my short stories, people being cruel to people just because they believe they can get away with it.

What did you find challenging about writing the novel? How did you overcome them?

The main challenge with writing Dispossessed was not ideas, I have hundreds of ideas, and it wasn’t even time as though I work full time, I make time to write. The real challenge was keeping faith in that what I was writing was worth the time and effort. It is not that I was crippled by doubt but rather that I am in love with good writing, and I wanted my novel to be engaging despite any faults. Fortunately, by joining Tauranga Writers in 2010 and Spec Fic NZ shortly after, I became a part of a wider community of writers who were, and continue to be, outstandingly supportive. They give crucial critic and a much need kick when I need it. Without them, especially Lee Murray, I would have never published a single word, let alone a novel that I am so proud of.

You’ve done a lot of work with YoungNZWriters. Tell us a bit about your advocacy work and why it’s important (as well as maybe how people can get involved). Do you think doing so much work with young people helped you write Dispossessed’s young protagonist, Slate? How?

In 2011, a good friend of mine (author Lee Murray) and I were discussing the lack of opportunities to be mentored when we were young. As with many authors we had started writing very young but had never been told that we could be writers. So, right then and there we decided to form Young NZ Writers with the aim of providing mentorship and opportunities to be published for Intermediate and Secondary School students.

10 years later we have had:

·       23 free-to-enter national writing competitions, including intermediate, secondary, and youth laureate novel events, ranging from 375 entries to almost 1000, and involving as many as 236 schools annually.

·       1 national book cover competition for junior artists and 1 regional primary school art and writing competition.

·       19 national youth publications, including one award-winning anthology and two novels.

·       a dedicated website for New Zealand youth writers, receiving around 400 unique hits daily.

·       6 national Youth Day Out workshop events (with up to 258 students in attendance)

·       1 virtual webinar event (2020), which received more than 1000 unique hits daily in its first month of release.

·       4 free teacher professional development workshops (including several teacher scholarships to lower barriers to attendance)

·       numerous school visits and book launch celebrations

·       ongoing mentorship of youth writers

·       more than a thousand book prizes delivered to students over the past decade.

·      numerous graduates of our programme have gone on to study creative writing at tertiary level, becoming writers and poets themselves.

Running YNZW has meant hundreds of hours of rewarding work, and though I have enjoyed every minute of it I cannot say it has helped my writing. In fact, the biggest influencers of my writing have been my children and my students, who continue to inspire me every day.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned a tendency to write about women to challenge narratives of society that are white male dominated. Slate is a male protagonist. What made you decide to go with a male lead? Are there ways you explore women and feminism and/or dominant narratives of power in the Western world in Dispossessed

When I wrote Dispossessed Siren had been my protagonist, but I quickly realised that she was not angry enough at the world nor did she have any specific adversary to overcome. Slate on the other hand, is an amalgamation of the many young men I have taught over the years and I couldn’t see how he could ever be female. So, it was definitely a conscious decision not to have a female protagonist. I was also conscious of falling into the trinity trope of one girl and two guys, but in this case, it is their cousinship that creates the bond between Siren and Slate. A deeper discussion around feminism would take too long, however, if we agree it is the advocacy for equity then this novel is that, the characters’ advocate for their own voices to be heard, to be accepted as who they are, to accept themselves and the lives they choose to live.

What kind of research did you do for the novel? The blurb mentions foster homes, remote bush covered mountains, hunters and travelling performers. Did you do any particular research on these topics? Did any real life experiences of your own come into and/or influence the novel?

I grew up with travellers, people who lived in house trucks and waggons pulled by Clydesdales. My parents’ friends were painters, potters (which included my mother), and  bone carvers; people who lived off the land, lived communally and bartered for goods and services. My dad gave lectures on sustainable living at festivals like Nambassa and Sweetwater and for a brief period of my life I rode my horse 3 kms out of the bush to catch the bus to school.

As for foster homes, both as a child and as a teacher I have known way too many young people who have been in and out of foster care, passed around like an unwanted parcel, a situation that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It is these young people who keep me grounded as a teacher, reminding me that my priorities are not theirs. To be honest, it is their stories, the ones they are willing to share which are at the core of everything I write, my short horror and the novel Dispossessed.

This is just a bit of fun, but in your bio you mentioned laughing as a kid at horror films and that you still enjoy them now despite the many plot holes. What are some of your fave bad horror films (and chuck in some good ones too if you have some)?

As a teenager, my sister, Toka, and I would stay up late to watch the Sunday Night Horrors and Tales from the Crypt. I loved Elvira so much that I gave my eldest daughter Elvira as her middle name. The ones that stick with me are some written by Ray Bradbury, like the hikers that are turned into soup in a hot tub or the woman who is killed by her creature brooch. As an adult my absolute favourite is Cabin in the Woods. To me these are fun to watch as they are so far from reality, whereas in my own writing, I try to keep it to stories which are possible but not probable.

If I can mention, there are three movies that are touchstones to my own writing. The first is Seven (a movie that my sister Becky is still angry at me for convincing her to watch), the second is Shallow Grave and the third is The Last Supper. Of the three only Seven is classified as (neo-noir psychological thriller) horror, whereas the last two are considered black comedy, but to me they are so scary because they are possible. The terrible things people do to each other can only be horror.

What’s next for you on the writing horizon? Is Dispossessed a standalone or will it have a sequel?

The world I built for Dispossessed has room for other stories, of which I have plotted at least two more. However, I dip in and out of that world and into a completely new genre – space opera – it is a lot of fun but I’m not sure if I’m skilled enough to pull it off yet. In addition to these novels, I have two more collections of short stories that I am slowly putting together, one aimed at teenagers and another one for adults. Unlike my first collection which was a standalone project, the stories for these collections are coming out of various short story competitions that I enter but never win. I figure I only need another year to have enough stories to publish.

Sounds great, Piper! Readers, you can learn more about Dispossessed at the publisher’s website here. The novel will be released in Australia/UK/Europe/NZ 5 April 2021, and North America 15 April 2021 and will be available in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).

Piper Mejia is an advocate for New Zealand writers and literature. ­Her short fiction ­has been ­published ­in ­a range of magazines and anthologies, including Room Enough for Two, which appeared in the Sir Julius Vogel Award winning anthology Te Korero Ahi Ka ­(2018).­ A ­collection of her original short stories,­ The Better Sister,­ was published ­by ­Breach ­in 2020. ­In addition to ­writing, ­Piper is a ­founding member of Young­NZ­Writers ­–­ a non profit organisation dedicated ­to providing writing and publishing opportunities for young writers.­ As ­a child,­ Piper ­stayed up ­late laughing at horror films.­ As an adult,­ she has never lost her love for science fiction and horror,­ two genres that continues to ask the question “What if…”