The ‘realistic’ core of fantasy and horror, the secret to successful collaboration and what it means to be an ‘Australian’ author (or rather, not). Award-winning author Angela Slatter chats to Schlock about all of this and more, in the wake of her latest ‘mosaic novel’ co-written with Lisa L. Hannett, Midnight and Moonshine.
You’ve recently become a full-time writer. Tell us about this transition – what did it entail? What are some of its main challenges?
I reached the end of my first year as a full-time writer in January. Initially it was kind of weird, being at home most of the time, but I knew I had to treat that as a real job if I was going to make it work. I gave myself four days off after I finished my outside job (working in the Marketing and Communications area of a government department): during that period I slept in, read, watched a lot of movies, had afternoon naps, etc. Then on the next Monday I woke up and went to my new job, which was in our combined lounge room/study.
Making it work is about developing and respecting a routine: I wake up, have breakfast with my husband, then when he leaves to go to work I go and have a walk for half an hour (generally talking into a voice-recorder and plotting the story of the day), then I come home, shower, answer email, type up my recorded notes, then hopefully start writing by 9.30 or 10am. I write through until about 1, then have half an hour for lunch, then either keep writing new words or do some editing if my creative brain is empty. Because I also work as a freelance editor and occasional creative writing teacher I have to schedule these activities in too. Essentially I run my work at home the same way I used to run my work day when I was working outside the house. An essential thing for me is the mindset that I am ‘at work’.
I couldn’t do this if I didn’t have the support of my husband, David – if he hadn’t said ‘It’s time for you to give this writing thing a go full-time’, then I wouldn’t have been able to do it. The best thing he’s ever given me is the time to do this gig every day of the week rather than just writing in the cracks of life as I’ve been doing for the past eight or nine years.
The biggest challenges? On the days when I just don’t feel like writing, resisting the urge to turn on the TV, turn off the brain, and just veg in front of a really bad midday movie is HARD. Equally, some days that is precisely what you need when you’ve been extruding words to finish something to a deadline and you’re exhausted. The other thing is being alone all day with no colleagues close by that you can turn around and talk to from time to time. I talk to myself a lot now! It’s important to go outside occasionally and meet people for coffee, see things, so you don’t start living in a sensory deprivation tank – and also behaving like an excited puppy every afternoon when your partner comes home.
As a writer you’ve mainly explored the vast terrain of fantasy, horror, and other uncategorisable areas in between. What attracts you to the supernatural, the speculative … the numinous? Do you set out to write a story in a ‘non-realistic’ vein, or does it come naturally?
Err, I guess I just get a lot of weird ideas! When I was a kid I read everything, but the stories I preferred were ghost stories and fairy tales. In fact, a lot of the tales that are now being republished under the heading of ‘the weird’ were the kinds of strange/unexpected/unexplained tales I used to read as a kid – and they were old tales then, from the likes of MR James, Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft, et al.
I love writing that explores what might be possible – stories based in the supernatural or fairy tales are fascinating to me because they are so embedded in our culture and upbringing. Everyone’s got a ghost story, everyone’s heard fairy tales. We’re haunted in some way by the idea that we might leave an echo behind. We retell fairy tales over and again. When I use motifs from these categories, I like the sense that I’m dipping into the flow of the past and making something anew with its bones.
I find writing about what is possible and awful, about what happens when reality slips its chains, far more interesting than writing realist tales. Speculative fiction, as much as realist fiction, examines the human condition and how we react and behave in difficult situations – whether that situation involves a ghost or a difficult relationship with a parent, you’re still examining how people jump and react.
I just find it more interesting if there’s a ghost/ghoul/thing-that-goes-bump-in-the-night involved.
Would you categorise yourself as an ‘Australian’ writer at all? Does your nationality have an impact on your work, and if so in what way?
What’s an ‘Australian’ writer? I’d say my subject matter is probably less Australian than writers like Martin Livings or Cat Sparks or Deborah Biancotti. I dip a lot more into the Eurpoean heritage and tropes when I write than using things like the Australian landscape, etc. I don’t use indigenous Australian stories because they are not mine to tell. My family have been here since 1887, but for me the fairy tales and folk tales that are my heritage are British and European.
That being said, the three stories I have written that can best be classed as ‘Australian’ are ‘The Jacaranda Wife’, ‘Sun Falls’, and ‘Brisneyland by Night’. What I tap into in those tales is the landscape, the fact that the country is pretty much trying to wipe you out, and that sort of laconic refusal to panic in the face of strange things.
I don’t think about ‘writing an Australian story’ – I just think about writing a tale that’s of interest to me and, hopefully, readers. Where it’s set, what its tropes and influences are, doesn’t really feature for me as a writer. I’m just aiming to tell a compelling tale.
On (what may perhaps be) a related note, how does the internet impact on your work?
(a) I spend too much time on it! I need to spend less time looking at Facebook and Twitter.
(b) This is probably the answer you were looking for: in many ways it’s made it easier for things like research because you can Google locations and myths and legends, check what trees grow in particular places and know what other plants and animals are attracted to them – in short, you can pull up all the little details you need to make your stories seem real. Once upon a time it was a day trip to the library with a large amorphous list of strange queries. Now, it’s at the fingertips. You just need to remember not to believe everything you read and that Wikipedia is NOT the Encyclopaedia Britannica. For the first wave of research when you’re looking for small general details it’s great – I try to go to real books when I’m looking for serious, confirmed details.
Your latest collection, ‘Midnight and Moonshine’, takes its cue from Norse mythology. Could you guide us through the way you’ve worked to weave in the myths with a contemporary twist? What was the reason you chose to tackle Norse mythology in particular? Is it because, unlike Greek and Roman mythology, for example, it remains under-represented as far as ‘literary re-imaginigns’ go?
The way this collection started was with a story called ‘Prohibition Blues’, which we wrote together for an anthology of magical tales set in the era of flappers, prohibition, the Charleston, etc. – which ended up not going ahead. So, Lisa and I had this story we loved, which was homeless, and we’d said at the time when we were writing it that we wanted to write the back story of our heroines, Maeve and Tallulah and their families. These girls had just the tiniest spark of magic left to them after generations of their Fae blood being watered down by breeding with mortals, and Lisa and I talked about the beginnings of the Fae. Far, far back and we imagined a time when the Fae blood was strong and how the world might have been at that time.
When we were looking for a starting point we had the conversation ‘What if Ragnarok was an apocalypse for the Gods alone and the humans just carried on?’ And then we started to think about who might flee the apocalypse and we reimagined one of Odin’s ravens, made her white and called her ‘Mymnir’. Then we started plotting from there: she flees in a Viking trading ship, is set ashore in Vinland, makes her home there and then over the centuries she and her Fae entwine themselves through the lives of mortals. We picked periods in history we were interest in – we’re both history and mythology nerds and Lisa’s PhD is in Norse literature, while mine is in Creative Writing, so we were able to meld so much together – and then thought up characters to set in those periods and tales to go with them. The stories all stand alone but have items and icons and themes and characters that travel across time and tales. Essentially it’s a mosaic novel, more complex than a short story collection.
So, there was no particular politically correct choice to go with underrepresented gods, but rather a conjunction of interest and convenience and expertise!
You’ve co-written the book with Lisa L. Hannett. How did you ‘divide the labour’? Were there specific aspects of the book either of you undertook, or was it more of a ‘conversational’ process?
It was a conversational back and forth process – we wrote about it for Booklifenow.com.
We did the whole outline together so we knew what we wanted each story to do and how it was to fit into the overall arc. One of us might have ideas for a particular story and go off and write 2-3k on that and then it would be sent to the other one to do the same thing. When it was finished as a first draft, then the editing process was a back and forth table tennis match, with lots of comments about why we’d changed something, how it linked up with another tale, stuff we needed to remove or check later on, or even just something like ‘OMG this is the most awesome sentence/image ever!’
There were maybe two stories each that we wrote the first drafts in their entirety before we sent it to the other, and then the process was one of having another brain go over it in a cold-blooded very precise manner to pick up problems the person who’d written it couldn’t see because of an understandable case of word-blindness. And of course adding stuff in that rounded out the stories, added new themes and threads, and made the tales richer and complex.
I think every story in the collection went to an average of ten drafts each. That’s how we achieved that seamless ‘third voice’ so there’s no point in the book where you read it and say ‘Oh that’s an Angela line or that’s a Lisa phrase’ – it reads like one voice.
The process depends hugely on trust and respect for the other person’s work and the belief that, as Lisa has said in the past, ‘The other person is not going to make your story shit!’
Angela Slatter’s collections also include The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, as well as the WFA-shortlisted Sourdough and Other Stories. Her work has appeared in such writerly venues as the Mammoth Book of New Horror #22, Australian and US Best Of anthologies, Fantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Dreaming Again, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. She has a British Fantasy Award for ‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’ (from A Book of Horrors, Stephen Jones, ed.), a PhD in Creative Writing and blogs at www.angelaslatter.com.
Her story, Bluebeard, will be featured in this month’s edition of Schlock.