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…
My ninth author interview with IFWG published authors. Rebecca Fraser writes dark fiction and has a new short story collection out now.
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…”
Maureen talks to Jack Dann to discuss mixing historical and speculative fiction and his new novel, Shadows in the Stone
Today I interview speculative fiction writer, Kaaron Warren, and editor, Ellen Datlow about their collaboration on the Tool Tales chapbook
Welcome to my fifth IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign.
Cary J. Lenehan is a former trades assistant, soldier, public servant, cab driver, truck driver, game designer, fishmonger, horticulturalist and university tutor—among other things. His hobbies include collecting and reading books (the non-fiction are Dewey decimalised), Tasmanian native plants (particularly the edible ones), medieval re-creation and gaming. Over the years he has taught people how to use everything from shortswords to rocket launchers. He met his wife at an SF Convention while cosplaying and they have not looked back. He was born in Sydney before marrying and moving to the Snowy Mountains where they started their family. They moved to Tasmania for the warmer winters and are not likely to ever leave it. Looking out of the window beside Cary’s computer is a sweeping view of Mount Wellington/Kunanyi and its range. Welcome, Cary, as we celebrate the publication of your latest Warriors of Vhast novel, Gathering the Strands!
Gathering the Strands is Book 5 of The Warriors of Vhast series. Just in case new readers are jumping in, tell us a bit about Vhast, what the series is about and why fantasy readers will love it.
It is an epic fantasy covering a broad sweep of story with parts revealed as the books progress. It is a classic good versus evil with a twist that becomes apparent over time. I have been a poet and a story-teller for forty years and this shows. A warning to those who are just starting out with Vhast, do not ignore the poems at the start of each book. They are, in some ways, clues, and in others, summaries. I like leaving clues and Easter eggs.
I have characters from diverse ethnic, social, and other backgrounds to reflect real life and I try and allow those characters to react as realistically as I can in reaction to the situations that they face. At the same time I try and avoid being too shackled to the tropes. I think that readers (at least from feedback) enjoy strong female characters with agency and my slightly different approach to the genre.
Are there comparable fantasy titles similar to your series for readers to know where you fit in the genre? What fantasy do you love to read?
In the way it moves from being (without giving too much away) straight fantasy to science fiction it shares elements with Darkover. In the broad sweep of history (and attention to culture) it shares elements with Tolkien. It shows roots running back to the authors that influenced my childhood reading: H. Rider Haggard (She, King Solomon’s Mines) and the Russians. More people survive than in Game of Thrones.
My time is occupied with writing and I rarely get a chance to read now, but I have a continued addiction to Pratchett.
From Gathering the Strands, I can tell you put a lot of thought into world-building. Why do you think world-building is so important in fantasy writing and what does it bring to a story? What new aspects of worldbuilding (if any) did you need to think about for Book Five?
I’ve actually just taught a world-building class to some YA writers this week for the local Writer’s Centre and this is how I got into writing, sharing a panel with George R R Martin many years ago and he told me to put my gaming to use and start writing. I did.
I do not believe that you can write a story without building a world first. You may decide to take the one we live in and just tweak it a bit. That is OK. We call that Urban Fantasy. You may do what I have done and build something with a history going back 15,000 years. That is OK as well. You may create a 100-acre wood and populate it with a child and group of curiously animate stuffed animals. That works.
The more detail you have in your world (although not necessarily put into the stories) the easier it is to get the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the world and reality you present them with. I have stories where people are being moved from a prison to a ship in the middle of the night. The readers do not need to know that they are being kept quiet to avoid disturbing the rich folk they pass, but I know that. All the readers need is that they are being kept quiet. I, however, have a map and know who owns the houses along the way. Making noise will cause major issues for you.
If you have done the world-building before you get to writing you do not need to break the flow of thought to stop and work something out. You open the right file and have these things.
Gathering the Strands, like your previous books, features many switching points of view to tell the story. Why was it important to have so many main characters and what were some of the advantages and challenges of doing so?
Remember what I said about Russian influences? Tolstoy, in particular, was fond of the big cast. I don’t hold with the ‘great man’ idea of history. Everything happens as a result of a dedicated group changing things and bringing them to fruition. Because no one character is Superman or Wonder Woman ot a ‘Mary Sue’ who gets the skills they need when they need them, each has their limitations, and needs to rely on others to fill the gaps. Besides, each person has a different view of what is happening and has their own thoughts on the matter.
Astrid has a certain directness to her. Theodora is a 120-year old teenager. Rani comes from a sheltered high-caste background. Thord is swept up in the achievement of his dreams. Hulagu is following a prophecy. Bianca is feeling secure in having a family after growing up as an orphan. Stefan, well he is an a bit of a state of shock with all of the things he keeps coming up to (two wives he loves, killing a dragon, becoming a general) when he just left home looking for a bit more than leather-working. Each brings different things to the story.
What was the hardest part of writing Gathering the Strands? What was the easiest?
It may get people hating me for saying this, but it has not been hard (apart from fussing over words in the re-writes and keeping the calendar straight). It’s been fun and a continued pleasure. I enjoyed it immensely. I knew my characters. I set them up with situations and then I let the pen do the talking and sat back and watched where they went.
You’ve had a very eclectic life, with a range of interests and jobs. How are these experiences reflected in your Warriors of Vhast series?
Everything comes into play. I can judge how hard a shot is with a bow, as I have used enough of them. From working for a Coroner, I know how bodies come apart. I never look at a scene myself without considering the plants and what belongs there. People react in predictably unpredictable ways (and I have the background in sociology, statistics, and maths for that).
Even with my magic I can think of spells as having the effect of rockets, of grenades etc. By the way, according to my gaming system I can tell you how each spell works and some I wanted to use I could not as the character lacked the strength to pull it off. I had to find another work-around (one of the big examples here is in the death of a dragon in an earlier book).
You have a Patreon where you share with Patrons content from behind the scenes of your writing and your world. Do you want to talk a bit about how Patreon has worked for you as an author, what having a community brings to your writing life and what people can expect if they join up to become your Patron?
My Patreon gives me a chance to express my skills even more than just the writing. For instance, if a food gets mentioned in the books or stories, I have cooked it. Some recipes and foods are made up by me from bush foods of my local area and from a sense of ‘this should work’ and I play with it until it does. I publish these at my Patreon. So you can eat the foods as approved by the author.
That is also where I put the maps to the settlements, the drawings and descriptions of the plants and the details of the animals so that a gamer can use them to play an RPG in my world (and the rules for that are starting to come out as well). We even have a Tarot deck (my wife makes the cards) to go with what I started making up for the books.
I made a conscious decision, when I started writing, to avoid including endless back stories and side stories. It is actually why I started doing Patreon to give an outlet to these. So far I have been putting stories (along with maps, recipes, drawings etc) this since April 2016. So far 39 stories have come out. Some have just been one part (an average is 6,000 words). Most have been 2-part and some three (and so a lot longer).
The stories go back 10,000 years into the history of Vhast and, while they are not essential to reading the books, provide a lot more context. Some of the more recent stories give background to the main characters, talking about their birth and things that happened in their childhood. Others tell what else is happening in Vhast. The Kingdom of Freehold is virtually ignored in the books, although it has one of the larger armies in The Land. Its story is told in Patreon.
The Land, where the books are largely set, is just one continent on a world that is larger than Terra and with far more ocean. Other stories are set on other continents and islands and say what is happening there, often concurrent with the books. Sometimes a reference in the books will mean more if you have read a story. Although none are essential reading, I like having Easter eggs for my Patreon subscribers to give them an extra ‘moment’ in their reading. They seem to like this.
Patreon works well for me and lets me do things (like go to Conventions) that I would not otherwise be able to do. You can read more about my Patron levels here.
You’ve developed games in the past. How did they prepare you for writing novels? Is there much crossover?
It does not matter if you are writing a game, a story, a poem, or a book. It is all story-telling. It is just the canvas that changes. I developed by first two games before crowd-funding. One was a set of miniatures rules (with examples from an early version of Vhast). It was designed to be a 1:10 scale (1 miniature is 10 people) and able to cover almost any situation from the earliest history with no magic to full-on fantasy. We play tested rules for da Vinci’s weapons, for a Dragon worth as much as a single army, for mages, for priests, for the different potential armies of Vhast. It worked with simple rules summarised on a laminated card. We made our price-point low because we knew our production costs and did not want to rip people off. People thought it could not be any good because we were charging so little.
The other was a Cyber-punk game set in the excellent near future of Marianne de Pierres Nylon Angel trilogy. Among others Steve Jackson loved it. Between them they also nearly sent us broke. I had fantastic critical reviews and received an offer to lecture in games design at a University, but financially we lacked the capital to exploit what we had. Nylon Angel has rules for grenades that get Special Forces soldiers excited for being just like the real thing, it has rules for drugs based on research from MIMS, it has animals and plants based on my years spent in the bush (and yes I have met most Australian snakes, and eaten a few, run into a crocodile when I dived in a river, seen a White Pointer close up without a cage, can crack a whip, can survive off the plants around me, and all of the other Australian tropes). I am still very happy with it.
Vhast is now a game as well as books and stories and one day it will come out as an RPG. Still not sure how, but we will probably start dribbling it out through Patreon before doing a crowd-funding release.
Do you have a favourite/fun/interesting teaser passage from Gathering the Strands you’d like to share with readers?
Looking ahead of me I can see clumps of spearmen, being joined now by some of the archers from among those annoying riders. It looks like they have spread out into small units to avoid being easily surrounded. They are showing more planning than I thought that they would. I had expected that my holding the chariots back would provoke a charge.
I wonder if those heretic heavy cavalry are anywhere around. I cannot see them yet, but they probably will not appear until I commit my forces. I need to wrap them up quickly, but there are probably no more that twenty or thirty of them and Brother Job has orders to hold his fire with the weapons of the Archangels and take them out of the battle first when they finally appear.
He looked around the battlefield. It is getting to be time for us to attack. There is no need to try for fancy tactics here. We will just sweep this rabble aside with the chariots and then head for the village quickly. It is probably being abandoned as my army moves up and this lot are trying to buy time for them.
Some, probably, will not even stand when I charge, but will ride back to their families and try and help them flee. I cannot have that as they will warn the next village and they will warn the one after that. I will give them no mercy. The men must die, and the women and children pay for their heresy by being made slaves for seven generations.
Our traders, always with one of the Flails of God in their numbers, have told me that this creek bed dips, but that chariots can just ride through it and then easily, but slowly ascend up the other side to the top of the ridge. This is what we will do. Once we are there we will continue straight on and encircle them.
Brother Joachim called out his orders and the chariots began to form up into their new positions as they moved. The light chariots shifted to the flanks and the four-horse chariots moved up into an extended line that ran far to the left and right two deep.
There are only two short paces between them. The second rank line up behind the gaps of the first. The books, written down from the words of the Archangels themselves, say that this is the way to sweep aside a rabble on foot. They halted. We are just out of range of the missiles of the infantry who stand there ahead of us.
He looked around and raised his hand with the loud-speaking token and pronounced a blessing on them all before calling his army to advance at the walk. He had scarce done so when he noticed that his crossbowman had fallen, and his loader was trying to untie him and take his place.
My chariot has already been hit by several of those tiny arrows that the Khitan like to use at long range as we move forward. Now one can be seen in the eye of the man. A pity, the man has been with me for several years and was a devout believer who has even helped at the higher ceremonies when he was called to.
The Khitan arrows have been harassing my people, and it seems my chariot in particular, for some time and my man has just been unlucky. Still, that luck is going to change. They moved closer and, using his magic, he called first for the chariots to go to a trot and then, once they were all moving at that speed, for the charge.
A roar erupts from my people as they rush forward into the ordained attack. It was a roar so loud that it prevented even his amplified voice from being heard when, looking ahead, he finally was able to see what was now unfolding there ahead of their advance.
When can we expect Book Six in the Vhast series and what do you think your next project might be after Vhast?
Following the Braid is with IFWG, my publisher and the release date is up to them. Book 7 is written, but I want to rewrite it again. I do this a lot. The last book is The Fall of the Adversaries and I am indecisive over the last 30 or so pages. In other words it is nearly done.
There is no ‘after Vhast’. I have 34 stories promised to Patreon so far. Of these only eight are not complete at present (although I will keep re-writing until stories are released). I look forward to finishing them and, when the books are finished hopefully there will be a demand for the stories to be collected and come out. They only last on Patreon for a year or so before I take them down; so many people have yet to read the early ones. Because I am writing fantasy, I can do sub-genre stories. I have written horror, romance, a western, crime, all set in the one world.
Vhast is a whole world and I am just scratching the surface. There are continents where I have yet to set stories (and I am trying to avoid giving a spoiler on stories that I know I will write soon). This needs to be remedied, but in many cases this needs more time for world-building (an addictive exercise). I can bring out a cook book, Atlases, and books on the plants and animals. There is so much that can continue on …
Thanks so much for your responses today, Cary! Readers, you can read more about Gathering the Strands at the publisher’s website with the book available for purchase in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America). You can also sign up to Cary’s Patreon here or visit his website here.
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 release them from February to June 2021 ( an ‘uncaching’). The Uncaching the Treasures campaign is extensive, including partnering with quality reviewers, bloggists, podcasters, and events, both virtual and physical. Near on 20 titles will be uncached.
Venero Armanno is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels, including his recent book Burning Down (2017). His other well-known books include Black Mountain (2012), The Dirty Beat (2007) and Candle Life (2006). Further back, Veny’s novel Firehead was shortlisted in the 1999 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; in 2002 The Volcano won the award with Best Fiction Book of the Year. His work has gone on to be published in the United States, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Israel and South Korea.
His latest novel, The Crying Forest, enters the realm of speculative fiction. Agata Rosso, a once-mighty yet now prematurely aged European witch, believes that the special gifts in a young girl named Lía Munro can restore youth and vitality both to herself and her bedridden husband. She sets a deadly plan in motion to capture and use Lía-but will the girl have enough power to protect herself, plus the father she loves so much?
Without further ado, welcome Venero!
On your Wikipedia page, it states you wrote 10 unpublished novels over 14 years before getting picked up. What made you keep going and do you have any advice for other writer hopefuls still struggling to get published? Have any of those unpublished novels been picked up since?
So yes, that’s true, I did write a lot of novels before having something published. I was young enough in those days to think I could do anything, so I launched in when I was 17/18 and started writing a horror vampire novel that I was sure would bring me instant fortune and fame. When that didn’t happen I realised I knew less than zero and that there was a long learning road ahead if I was to take this thing called writing seriously. However, still being young, I thought I could teach myself what I needed to know and do this by writing non-stop.
That part of the idea was good, but I set myself the formidable task of writing a novel a year until one got published. A novel a year doesn’t leave room for a lot of rewriting but that was part of my ignorance – I’d dash off 80 to 100,000 words, over the course of a calendar year, spend a week or two polishing what I had, then would start sending the ms off to every publisher I could find in the telephone book. This was in the late 70s into the end of the 80s, so there was no Internet, everything was hard copy on a typewriter with lots of time spent at photocopy machines and in post offices. Anyway, once I’d finish a ms I’d start on the next. I seemed to have no problem with new ideas, though maybe the ideas weren’t all that good. I wrote in any number of genres.
Once I got through my Stephen King phase, I had my Fitzgerald, Greene, Hemingway, Cheever… you understand what I mean. Rejections came thick and fast but to specifically answer your question here, what kept me going was a lot of fear – I dreaded being either stuck in an office job or spending the rest of my life working as a bricklayer’s labourer, which is what I had to do in my teens and twenties. Probably a more important point is that some rejections would have a nice note attached to it: “We can’t publish this ms but we like your writing so please send us your next book.” I recall I had lots of messages like that, so if an aspiring writer needs any greater encouragement, then they’re probably not all that serious about their craft and should think about something else.
So any advice I might have for aspiring writers is along the lines of what I wrote above – keep persisting, keep trying. Don’t worry about time. Don’t want it all straight away. You might take years to find your true voice, something that’s original and new and completely yours. That’s what publishers are after – a new voice. You’ve got a lot to learn so give yourself every opportunity to learn it. Early success only comes to a few, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong in taking a longer road – because you want a writing career that is a very long road anyway, with strong foundations. That takes time and effort and every shortcut short-changes you.
Most of my unpublished mss deserve every bit of their non-publication, though I have a soft spot for the first one. It’s about a Sicilian-migrant-vampire who has an underground lair at a university and who kills students by night. In the end he gets bored with his life (i.e. I got bored with the book) and so commits suicide. Now, I’ve never read a book about a Sicilian-migrant-vampire who commits suicide. Somebody should publish it! Of the other books two did get published but in new forms. These mss became Strange Rain and My Beautiful Friend, two books that did very well, but they changed a hell of a lot from the drafts I’d first written in the 80s.
In addition to writing, you’re also a teacher at the University of QLD. How does teaching affect and inform your writing work and vice versa, particularly with your latest, The Crying Forest?
I won’t complain because I love my job and I’m very happy to have it, but of course it certainly takes up most of my time – meaning I have less time to write. This could be a good thing actually; maybe it’s better to be forced to slow down, though I would have liked to have written more books over the last twenty years that I’ve been at UQ. Having said that, though, teaching creative writing forces me to engage more with the form – to really think about what I’m doing and how. It also gives me a direct look at readers i.e. students who love reading. Why do they read? What are they reading? Which books do they avoid like the plague? All of this is really interesting for a writer. It’s true that a teacher can learn more from their students than vice versa.
You’ve written novels for adults, young adults and children, as well as several short stories. How do you think trying out these different modes has shaped your writing, particularly your current novel?
I think writing short stories is one of the best ways possible to find your voice and to learn and improve your craft. The end of my little tale above about all my unpublished mss is that around 1988 someone said to me, “You spend a year or two writing entire novels that don’t get published… why don’t you try short stories instead?” It was a lightbulb moment. Yes indeed. Why not write short stories and send them out and get rejected (or maybe one day published) even faster? So then I embarked on a campaign of always having stories in the post to editors at whatever magazines or competitions I could find. That was my real start, when stories started being accepted and I started winning some prizes. My first published book was in fact a collection of these stories, Jumping at the Moon, not a novel.
This sort of writing experience does affect all my novels, including The Crying Forest. How? I think because it gives you the tools for shaping sub-plots into their own discreet arcs. The difference is that these sub-plots (which are stories in themselves really) have to feed into the main plot of course. However short story writing skills help you/me actually make those sub-plots so much stronger (I hope!).
You were born in Brisbane to Sicilian parents. Does that background influence your writing in any way, particularly with The Crying Forest? If so, how?
Yes, all my writing is informed by the migrant experience. Of my parents coming to this country when they were young (they met here and married) and me being a child of a father and mother who didn’t understand much about their new country at all. I’d be a completely different writer without these experiences, or, more likely, not a writer at all. It’s the outsider syndrome—growing up I never quite felt part of Australia even though I was born here. The family home was very Sicilian and the family and friend network was also almost purely Sicilian. So in a way it was as if I was new to this country as well: home was one world, outside of that was something completely different, and I really didn’t fit in. So as something of an outsider one becomes very observational: of everything around and also of the past, if I can put it that way.
Many of my books are based on Sicilian history and research, and The Crying Forest ultimately came together in the same way – I was researching something completely different and accidently came across myths and legends that weren’t Sicilian (but from the north, in Friuli) but that had resonances in Sicily. These legends had to do with witches and werewolves, and so my research deepened, leading me to think, well, Australia is a country of migrants, what if these legends had travelled across the seas with the migrant diaspora? That was really part of The Crying Forest’s germinal idea—and where I live, in an area that was once completely rural and has its own forest lands, felt like the perfect place to take up these mythologies.
Are there particular themes and ideas you return to again and again in your work? Why do you think that is? Do you revisit such ideas and themes in The Crying Forest?
As you might have gathered by now, recurring themes have to do with the migrant diaspora, leading to themes of loss and belonging—and, even, of the longing for the old world left behind. I’ve always felt sort of floating between two cultures – not quite part of one or the other, so that forces me back to writing inside these themes.
You’ve written in a diverse range of genres. What sort of books and authors inspire you and why? Are there stories you’d compare The Crying Forest to?
I think The Crying Forest is a sort of literary supernatural tale, in that characters’ emotions, their relationships and personal baggage really drive the plot—as well as a lot of “real” history. So I’d consider books in the same ballpark might be The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and even The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. But that’s setting myself a very high bar! A writer/reviewer I was just speaking to said the book reminded him very much of the writing my Peter Straub, and I can see that – If You Could See Me Now and Ghost Story in particular.
Writers who have had a huge impact on me I’ve already mentioned: from Stephen King to Graham Greene, F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I’d add Truman Capote, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Oscar Hijuelos, Ray Bradbury (who I had the immense pleasure of meeting once, in a Parisian bookstore) and Haruki Murakami. In fact at present I’ve just been rereading The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, plus The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and South of the Border, West of the Sun. I love going back to my literary heroes.
Tell us more about The Crying Forest. What inspired the novel?
In 2001, newly-married and with my wife Nic pregnant with our first (and only) child, we travelled from our rundown inner-city Queenslander-style home to see an even more rundown old house in an outer-west suburb I’d never even heard of. We went because we’d seen a picture of a house in the real estate pages of a newspaper, and I’d never seen anything like it. The place was like some Gothic old English country manor that a louche rock star would buy and fill with drugs, booze and groupies.
We discovered the place was located on land that once had been part of immense hectares of farming property. Built in 1932, it sits at the top of a small hill and was (and still is) nicely isolated. With all good sense thrown aside we bought the property and moved in.
Some people, tradespeople for instance, don’t like to be alone in our home; we however find it inviting and perfectly peaceful. It became the “red house”—Rosso House—of The Crying Forest. And that forest itself is nearby; overgrown trails are where I walk my dog almost every day. So, for that matter, is the wider fictional region the book calls “Grandview”.
So in terms of inspiring the novel, other than a very spooky home, an isolated property and endless state forest, another thing that informed this book were the wild packs of escaped dogs in our region, howling at night and raising hell, plus the proliferation of deer—an introduced species not native to the region. Dogs and deer wage their own battles. It all just seemed to cry out for a novel about the supernatural, and I’d wanted to write this book for years, even though it was well outside of my usual genres.
What was the hardest part of writing The Crying Forest? What was the easiest? Did you have to do any research?
All novels are hard, in their own way, even the ones that come pouring out. The Crying Forest did come pouring out… I wrote the first draft longhand in a series of notebooks, then revised and revised endlessly on my computer. The hardest part was finding the time to write. Work at the University can be very intense, and the more senior I become the less extra time I have. So there were a lot of 4am mornings, doing as much as I could before getting ready to head off by six or so.
There was plenty of research for this book, a process I always like very much. While reading texts about several things I wanted the book to touch on I came across information about Italian witches: this interested me because when I was growing up my parents would take me to our local Sicilian witch if I needed medical attention, not a traditional doctor. I remember this crazy old crone treating me for neck aches (which she made worse) and a broken finger (thanks to her, it’s still crooked). My parents used to talk about the way this woman’s potions could cure all manner of illnesses, and that she was more knowledgeable than any fool-doctor with medical training. Remembering her, I read more about witches (and werewolves) in Sicilian and Italian mythology, and in particular I discovered the Benandanti:
“The benandanti (Good Walkers) were members of an agrarian visionary tradition in the Friuli district of Northeastern Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries. The benandanti claimed to travel out of their bodies while asleep to struggle against malevolent witches (malandanti) in order to ensure good crops for the season to come. Between 1575 and 1675, in the midst of the Early Modern witch trials, a number of benandanti were accused of being heretics or witches under the Roman Inquisition.” (from Wikipedia)
It really didn’t take too much imagination to put all these disparate elements together: house, forest, Italian folklore.
What do you think’s different about The Crying Forest to your other books?
I’ve only published in the supernatural once before, with My Beautiful Friend in about 1995. So The Crying Forest is a real departure into witches and werewolves, and people with special powers.
What’s next on the writing horizon for you?
I’ve got two novels on the go which are more my own traditional sorts of works, but I’ve got more of The Crying Forest planned, if circumstances allow me to go that far. I’m not one for sequels but I feel like there are more stories to come from these characters, some really fascinating threads that I’d love to explore. The book is mainly set in Brisbane, Australia, however many of the characters are European—I’m excited to follow them into places like Rome, Sicily, Barcelona and Paris… you know what the writer’s imagination is like!
Thanks so much for your considered answers Venero! I’m pumped to read your novel now! For you readers out there keen too, you can read more about the novel here (and watch a cool book trailer). The Crying Forest is available for purchase in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).
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…