Maureen interviews New Zealand author about her latest novel, Dispossessed
Maureen talks to Jack Dann to discuss mixing historical and speculative fiction and his new novel, Shadows in the Stone
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.
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.
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 Stories, Final 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.
Welcome to my third IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. I’ve known Kaaron for awhile now and it’s super exciting to be able to talk with her about her work, in particular the re-release of her novel, Slights.
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’s judged the World Fantasy Awards and the Shirley Jackson Awards.
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), was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and the Bram Stoker Award, winning the Aurealis Award.
In the ‘about’ section of your website, you say you wrote a novel at 14 called ‘skin deep’ which you need to type up. What sort of story was it and have the ideas in it shown up elsewhere in your writing? How?
I have typed it up now! This story was hugely inspired by The Outsiders, and followed a very similar story line. Two groups in suburban Melbourne battle it out. I moved beyond this kind of realist fiction into horror and science fiction, for a number of reasons, but I’m still looking at the way we treat each other and the way we judge each other at face value.
What appeals to you about speculative fiction, particularly horror, as a genre? What do you think makes you keep coming back to that horror space?
I love that anything is possible in spec fic. In horror, this means I can explore the afterlife and ghosts, think about what happens to us when we die, and look at crime and punishment in a new way. I keep coming back to horror partly out of habit now! But it’s also because that’s where a story tends to lead me. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been fascinated with the darker side of life, and I’m not a fan of contrived happy endings, so I think that’s a part of it.
In November 2020, Screen Canberra announced development funding to adapt your excellent novel, The Grief Hole, into a film. Are you able to say anything about that project and where it’s at? What’s your role in the collaboration and how are you finding the experience?
This is such an exciting adventure! Josh Koske approached me a couple of years ago, having read The Grief Hole. He saw the filmic possibilities in it and wanted to have a go at making that happen. He’s the main scriptwriter, with me helping as far as elements of character and plot. I’m really loving the experience. It makes me look at my work from a different angle and really forces me to re-examine why I did the things I did on the page. Once you start to collaborate, the work changes, as does the story. We’re having lots of cool discussions about motivations and that sort of thing. I’ll keep you posted on developments!
You’ve lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and even Fiji for three years (aside: what were you doing there and please tell me more). How does place come into your story-telling (whether through theme, setting or something else)?
Place is absolutely vital. You absorb the atmosphere of a place you’re in, even if it’s only a visit. The sounds, the smells, the sights. All of that imbues my work. In Fiji, the air is different, and the colours. We were there as part of the diplomatic corps, an amazing experience in itself. I got the chance to make friends with people from all over the world, and to connect with Fijians as well. I explored the streets and shops of Suva, ate food I’d never eaten before, had amazing conversations with fascinating people. It was an unforgettable experience.
And now let’s talk about Slights. Here’s the blurb for those unfamiliar with this novel:
When Stevie Searle almost dies in the accident that kills her mother, she doesn’t see a shining path or a golden light. Instead, she sees everyone she’s ever slighted, waiting to take a piece of her in a cold, dark room. The person whose place she took in the queue, the schoolmate she cheated off, the bus driver she didn’t pay? All waiting. All wanting to take their revenge when she finally crosses over.
Stevie is fascinated by the dark room so she sends herself there again.
Slights is a re-print of one of your novels (first published 2009) and features a pretty disturbing protagonist. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea for that novel started and how you created Stevie (and coped with being inside her head haha).
It was a really intense six months or so, living in Stevie’s head. The first draft was written with a grant for the ACT Government, so I was at home writing solidly for that time. I’d never done that before (apart from a couple of weeks here and there) and I think that total focus helped the intensity of the character.
Stevie was really created out of the concept that hell is a place where everyone you’ve ever slighted is waiting to take a piece of you. I can’t remember how I came up with that idea! But I wrote it as a short story first, then realised I wanted to tell the story of all of those slighted people, so it needed to be a longer work. Once I started to tell their stories, Stevie began to emerge. Each slight helped build her as a person.
I wrote the book three or four times. The final version I completed in Fiji, when my kids were little. So I had that weird situation where I was in Stevie’s head during school hours, then slipping back into my own real life when the kids were home!
Is there a favourite/interesting passage from Slights you could share to tease readers?
I do have lots of favourite bits! There are scary bits and funny bits and sad bits. Part of what I wanted to create around Stevie was a sense of loneliness, even though she has people who care about her.
SO here’s a funny little bit. It’s an essay Stevie writes at school!
The Sacking of Troy
by S. Searle
There are great things afoot in the workings of mankind. Only one man can save the day and it is always a strong man, a good man, a man who shows up on time to work and does not take sickies. A man who has only one girlfriend at a time and does not keep three women waiting while he performs nebulous duties. This man is always honest. This man does not steal food from his employer.
This man is not Troy.
Troy got his job at Woolworths because his big brother worked there for years and was now head manager of the cigarette booth.
Brad had an attendance record which was being noticed in high circles, and he never blew his nose on his sleeve. He was popular because he was going places and there was always a chance he would give out free cigarettes when the floor manager took her tea break.
Brad looked good in his short red coat. He had a smile which was quite believable and a laugh which didn’t shock anybody.
There was no reason to think his little brother Troy would be any different.
Brad knew, but he was under the control of his mother, who insisted Troy be given a chance. She could not see Troy in the light everyone else saw him in, because he was charming and he gave her kisses still, although he was fifteen.
The Starting of Troy caused a stir of anticipation. The customers were no cause for gossip – only the ones who liked to catch the cashiers out in errors. They received slow, painstaking service. The best gossip to be had was about each other.
Troy arrived with sunglasses on, greasy hair, sandshoes. Brad received a word of warning; had he not drilled the dress-code into his brother?
Troy wore scuffed school shoes the next day and declared that his ignorance of the difference between a Naval orange and a Valencia would remain just that.
He began to feel besieged the next day when he did not properly pack a customer’s bags, and he lashed out. Brad was called to speak with him.
“Troy, you must be careful. The people here are very unforgiving. They don’t like temper or any other emotion. Perhaps if you were in Paris things would be different, because the French are a passionate race. But you are here, where we are dispassionate, and you must abide by the laws, however unfair or invasive you find them.”
On his next shift, Troy was discovered having sex with Diana, who had gone out the back for a cigarette and been surprised.
“What can I say? He’s built like a horse. I could hardly resist.”
With that, Troy was sacked.
What’s next on the writing horizon?
I’ve had some good story sales this year so far, but not sure they are all announced yet! I’ve written stories set in a failed world, stories set 5000 metres in the sky, stories set in mythical pubs about cursed brooches. All out this year, I hope!
I’ve got the next two re-releases coming from IFWG. Walking the Tree and Mistification. Really looking forward to having those out in the world again!
Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Kaaron! You can read more about the book at the publisher’s website with Slights available for purchase in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).
Welcome to my second IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. IFWG Publishing moved most of its intended 2020 new release titles into 2021, to offset the impact of COVID-19, in effect caching treasures. They are excited to…
You’ll be seeing a lot more author interviews on this site in the next few months, mainly as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. IFWG Publishing moved most of its intended 2020 new release titles into 2021, to offset the impact of COVID-19, in…
A new month and a new year! I’ve decided to kick off my author interviews with a foray into the horror genre. Matthew R. Davis is an author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia, with around sixty short stories published around the world thus far. He won two categories in the 2019 Australian Shadows Awards (Best Short Story and the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction) and has been shortlisted for both the Shadows and the Aurealis Awards on numerous occasions. When not writing, he plays bass and sings in progressive heavy bands like Blood Red Renaissance and icecocoon, performs spoken word shows with punk poets Paroxysm Press, dabbles in video editing, graphic design, and short film, and explores nooks and crannies with Red Wallflower Photography. His first collection of horror stories, If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, was published by Things in the Well in 2020; his first novel, Midnight in the Chapel of Love, is published by JournalStone in January 2021.
From the blurb of Midnight in the Chapel of Love:
Jonny Trotter has spent the last fifteen years running from tragic memories of the country town where he grew up but now that his father has died, he can run no more. Returning to Waterwich for the funeral with his partner Sloane, Jonny must confront old resentments, his estranged best friends, a strange, veiled woman the locals call the White Widow and the mystery surrounding the fate of his first love.
A morbid and reckless city girl, Jessica Grzelak lived to push the limits and explore the shadows and no-one has seen her since the night she and Jonny went looking for the Chapel. Rumoured to be found in the woods outside Waterwich, mentioned in playground rhymes about local lovebirds Billy and Poppy and their killing spree in 1964, the Chapel is said to be an ancient, sacred place that can only be entered by lovers, a test that can only be passed if their bond is pure and true. Before he can move on to a future with Sloane, Jonny must first face the terrible truth of his past and if he can’t bring it out into the light at last, it might just pull him and everything he loves down into the dark, forever.
So now you’ve had a small intro to Matthew’s writing and life, let the interview begin …
In your bio, you mention a lot of different creative pursuits in your life, including filmography, photography, and musicianship. How do these interests influence your writing?
The more you see and do, the more experience you can pull from for your writing. I’m not a photographer, but spending so much time with a shutterbug (Meg Wright aka Red Wallflower Photography) has increased my interest in the craft and our exploration of abandoned locations has given me enough ideas for a novel on the subject; my love of song, and especially my time in bands, has proved a rich seam of inspiration for stories about music and musicians. I’m into many different artistic disciplines and they all feed into each other to give me a deep pool of experiences, and experience combined with imagination is all you really need to get those ideas flowing.
What’s your favourite short story that you’ve written and why?
That perfect tale I’m yet to write and probably never will. An artist spends their life striving to reach an ideal they can never truly articulate, but through that struggle, great work may be produced.
What speaks to you about the horror genre? Any other horror writers you’d recommend to readers?
I could write an essay or two answering that first question! In a nutshell: I love the freedom, the transgression, the imagination, the universality – not everyone’s been a spy or a detective or a selfish college lecturer who’s unnaturally appealing to beautiful young students, but everyone’s been afraid. And I guess I’ve always just been a bit morbid, because dark subject matter has always appealed to me.
My answer to the second question could just go on and on (and on), but in an effort to be succinct, I’ll limit myself to one old favourite, one modern master, and one new voice. Ramsey Campbell has been a big influence on me since my teenage years, and he’s essential reading for anyone with an interest in sophisticated chills; Laird Barron is an author I follow closely, and his blend of cosmic horror, hardboiled crime, and mind-bending weirdness is unparalleled; and Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are terrifically enjoyable novels packed with necromancy, mordant humour, and unfettered imagination.
How important is the writing community to you? What kinds of support have you found on your writing journey?
I’m fairly solitary and insular as far as my craft goes – I don’t have a writing group or beta readers or anything like that. I sit in a room and I write and rewrite, and usually the editor of an anthology I’ve submitted to is the first person to set eyes on a story after myself. But I have made a lot of friends in the writing community, both locally and globally, and they’ve proven to be very supportive and helpful – decent, dependable, authentic people. And why wouldn’t they be? Our whole thing is making people up and seeing through their eyes, which requires a certain amount of sensitivity and empathy. Some writers do turn out to be raging arseholes, but the ones I know personally are thoughtful and caring individuals – especially the horror authors.
On the day I’m writing this, I went out for lunch with fellow Adelaide scribe Chris Mason and talked writing and writers for over four hours; Steve Dillon, who published my collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, has been a notably helpful figure in my nascent career and through him I’ve met a lot of delightful fellow authors; Scarlett R. Algee, the JournalStone editor who picked up Midnight in the Chapel of Love for publication, has proved an enthusiastic and understanding collaborator. I’m lucky to know these folk and all the rest, and I’m looking forward to meeting many more.
You’ve written and published a lot of short stories, including publishing a short story collection. Midnight in the Chapel of Love is your first novel. Was it hard getting into that novel writing space and do you have any tips for people trying to make the jump from short stories to novel writing?
It wasn’t hard at all, as I’ve been writing novels since I was in high school! This is merely the most recent I’ve written and the first one to actually be published. So as far as tips go, I’d say: if you plan on being a novelist, read widely and start writing novels as soon as you feel up to the challenge… and understand that your first few attempts will be terrible but highly educational. Then, just write and write until you finally crack it. I’ve written eight novels so far and half of them are unpublishable by my current standards. But I learned so much from writing them, and I’ll always love them for that.
Tell us more about Midnight in the Chapel of Love. What inspired the novel?
The initial inspiration came from listening to Something for Kate’s “The Fireball at the End of Everything” as I drove between Port Pirie and Adelaide one afternoon. There’s a line about a passenger putting their feet up on the dashboard and that got me thinking about a couple driving between the city and the country in the summer sun. I asked myself why they were doing this and decided they were heading back for a funeral, that the guy had grown up there and had a past he’d been fleeing for many years. Everything else fell into place after that over the course of the next six months or so, and then the writing began.
How do you think Midnight in the Chapel of Love is different to other books out there? (Give us your elevator pitch.)
“Midnight in the Chapel of Love takes the Australian Gothic by the nape of the neck and drives it deep into the dark, fathomless depths of cosmic awe!”
I don’t really know how this book is different, other than that it was written by me and other books are not, but I do feel it has something substantial to offer. There’s a lot going on under the surface of what appears to be a fairly straightforward mystery, and while the implications are chilling to contemplate, there’s more here than a simple horror story. I’m not trying to distance myself from genre at all – this is just one tale I wanted to tell a certain way, and while it’s intended to keep you guessing and make you shudder, it also turned out to be an examination of the small town/big city divide, variations of Australian masculinity, the intricacies of romantic love, and so much more.
Some friends recently asked me to describe the book and I said, “It’s like Picnic at Hanging Rock with more sex and drugs.” That’s a crassly simplistic and reductive answer, but they laughed and wanted to know more, so I guess that works, too!
What was the hardest part of writing your novel? What was the easiest? Did you have to do any research?
I suppose the hardest part was getting the plot elements to click seamlessly together. There are certain questions that plagued me throughout the writing and only found solid answers as I neared the end. The easiest part would have to be the actual writing – once I knew what I was doing and where I was headed, I could just kick into gear and let the words flow.
Research has become a very important part of my process, because I can’t bear the thought of someone more knowledgeable on a subject than me reading my work and thinking, “Pfft, that’s not how it is.” In this case, I had to look into a great many things – chart hits of the year 2000, post-WWII Polish history, what kind of radio a car in 1964 Australia would have, and so on. I read books on the Narungga people and Australian cave systems. I used to be a lazy researcher, but the advent of the internet means there is no excuse for that. Don’t be a Donny Didn’t-Look – Google that shit or check out a book, and make sure you’re getting it right.
What’s next on the writing horizon for you?
I’m trying to decide which of the short stories clamouring for my attention need to be written next and I’m plotting out two future novels, both of which are proving more complicated than I’d expected! I’m always looking for new opportunities to get my work out there in front of people, new ways to raise my profile.
Thanks for a fascinating interview, Matthew!
More about Midnight in the Chapel of Love …
Matthew R. Davis, winner of two 2019 Australian Shadows Awards, follows the well-received release of his first horror collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep with the publication of his first novel, Midnight in the Chapel of Love, by JournalStone on January 29, 2021. The book is available for preorders through the publisher’s website with more options available soon. You can find Matthew at his own website here.
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