Schlock Talks | Anna Tambour

'Anna Tambour, Self-portrait, 2014'
‘Anna Tambour, Self-portrait, 2014’

Shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, and recently regaled with a hardback edition courtesy of the inimitable – and Schlock-friendly – Chomu Press, Anna Tambour’s Crandolin was one of Schlock’s favourite novels of the past couple of years. So we just had to track down the author of this culinary-themed picaresque fable, even if it meant going all the way Down Under (That’s a lie, though a holiday would have been nice – Ed). The Australian author – who will be releasing a new short story collection next year – tells us about the concoction behind Crandolin’s unique brew, while also speaking about the challenges of being a full-time writer.

(BONUS: Can you guess the answer to the riddle below?)

Crandolin - Anna Tambour - Donkey on carpet

Crandolin is many things, but the one thing it certainly ISN’T is predictable – or indeed, typical in any way. It’s always interesting to hear about the process behind unique works of fiction such as this one. Could you tell us a bit about the early stages of Crandolin’s composition? And given that it has no clear precedents – as a ‘whole’ narrative – were you ever anxious about how it was going to come together, or how it would be received?

Unpredictability is the reality of existence. If fiction is spawned from that reality, then it is always fresh and wild – so different to some construct bowing in all the stiffness, predictability, and stale air of a Court Dance.

And typical? You and I, for example, are typical humans, tasting too much the same for any army of flesh-eating bacteria to stop and savour the difference, yet we each feel as unique as any supermarket-destined chook does in its short undocumented life.

Every single thing, every occurrence, every relationship is more unique the more deeply observed. And we act as if we know this. For though it’s a cliché that human history repeats itself, every society pumping up a new bubble, pumps till it pops. And who would have predicted the rebirth of apostasy, exorcism, false eyelashes, vomit green as a fashion colour, shoes you can stab with, mannerist dinner parties, dynastic power, and ‘love’ as an arranged marriage for public consumption?

Surprise is inherent in our collective psyche, even when we should know the ending as well as we do a ‘commercial’ novel we haven’t read, a Hollywood production we haven’t seen. In fact, it is our determination to view ourselves and our times as individual that keeps us from referring to ourselves and events we live in as tropes. ‘Trope’ could also be used to describe the inevitable next breath we expect our autonomic system to take for us; and declaring “Trope!” is a far more efficient way to analyse boom/bust cycles instead of paying our ruling class to meet in Switzerland and Aspen before and after the inevitable happens.

But the trope, like the mathematical equation for the Krebs cycle, is an artificial construct built by those with wishful thinking and a need to bring certainty and order to the anarchy of real-life plot.

Don’t even think of being a protagonist. You haven’t changed.

Don’t even think of being a protagonist. You haven’t changed.

‘No clear precedents’ is a trait of so many books that are hoary but nevertheless loved that a detective might declare: “This goes beyond coincidence.” Look to, for instance: the Everyman’s Library; Penguin’s retro reprints; books in translation 10 years after they were written in their original language – and compare those lists to historical Bestseller lists (which included, time and again, he who wrote The pen is mightier than the sword, Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton). Some highly original works such as those by Carroll, Colette, Wodehouse, Herriot, Tolkien, Swift, Norman Lindsay, and Winifred Watkins have gathered enough enthusiasts that they have turned (with the inevitability of thrown eggs) into rotten films. And we all know of the difficulties some famous authors had getting published back when their works were too original. And then they were genres.

Bookmarks from the public library

Bookmarks from the public library

The process behind Crandolin? Since it, like many other works of fiction through the ages, is much like the fruiting body of a fungus, there must needs have been years of mycelial growth going on in the dark. Once dug up and exposed to light, all those delicate spreading fibres die like vampires.

Anxious about how it would be received? Once one is dead, one can stop being reckless. Until that time, limiting oneself to doing the expected is a horror scenario too terrifying for me to watch, let alone live in. Seriously, I wrote the novel I most wanted to read, hold, and imagine people in Irkutsk, Istanbul, Ahmedabad, Berlin, and sundry Perths and Parises enjoying—not because they’d read it before under another title, but because it would fill a hole in their souls. The reception to the manuscript (pre-Chomu) fell into three categories: 1) Whah? 2) Brilliant, but can’t you turn it into something normal? and 3) I love it but I can’t imagine who else would.

I feel fortunate to be in the position to have kept to my vision thing with Crandolin. I know many writers not so lucky. They’ve been forced to dumb down and blandify their books as much as too many girls do, to get dates. This demeans and cheats readers the world over. I want to burn down the so-called Trade when I see this.

Speaking of artistic uncertainty and a lack of clear identifying ‘markers’, how do you feel about the magazines and genres you’re often associated with? Are you comfortable with being identified as a practitioner of a particular genre, or do you see yourself as being beyond genre?

In a quite informative column, Geoffrey Gudgion revealed what he had learned: “Publishers want material that is new and fresh and exciting, provided it is not significantly different to what’s already out there… My agent consoled me with the anecdote that Tolkien had a tough job selling Lord of the Rings because until LOTR there wasn’t a fantasy market. Tolkien created it, but he might well be rejected today.” (Geoffrey Gudgion, ‘Genre Matters. It really matters.’)

But I have been lucky to have dealt with a few editors and publishers who have not only been models of liberalism but very inspiring and stimulating. Since the most common response to a submission of mine is “I love it, but it doesn’t fit”, I’m grateful to those who made space: After Elsevier Science’s HMS Beagle: BioMedNet Magazine stopped publishing its fiction and poetry (after which the magazine folded tight as clover petals come night) I was lost till I found infinity plus, which was then more of a free online archive of reprints by a variety of top authors. It was a typical altruistic site which took enormous effort to keep up. Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee Keith Brooke still maintains the archive but hasn’t added to it. Instead, Brooke’s infinity plus has now become a publisher of some of my favourite slippery characters, such as Claude Lalumière, Lisa Tuttle, and Nir Yaniv.

There are editors known for genre who defy all that is typical, staid, dependably going nowhere. For being adventurous, Ellen Datlow should get the Mary Kingsley Prize. Datlow is as broadminded as she is discriminating. Her exacting yet unpredictable vision is what makes her anthologies (and her picks as consulting editor to as full of surprises as any modern chef’s 20-course tasting dinner.

Rudy Rucker, as both editor and author, should be feted. His Flurb online magazine is like no other, possessed with a serious playfulness. Rudy Rucker the author, stands alone in his ability to make the improbable and downright impossible, perfectly logical. His style is also so fluent that it’s a pleasure to read even though he packs so much into every story and novel. (His latest novel is The Big Aha.)

I also immensely enjoy his collaborations with other authors, such as Paul Di Filippo. Rucker the editor drove me nuts with his questions, nuts in all the best ways for me but a pain for him, since he made me see so much more of the story that I suffered a series of brainstorms. The story, ‘The Oyster and Alice O‘ would not have fit anywhere else.

Danger becomes Aqueduct Press. Their latest venture is The Cascadia Subduction Zone. I highly recommend this quarterly. “Seeing, recognizing, and understanding is what makes the world we live in. And the world we live in is, itself, a sort of subduction zone writ large… The relationship between readers and reviewers interests us,” they say — and it shows. Featured authors include Sonya Taaffe and Mark Rich. My story ‘The Old Testacles’ will appear in an upcoming issue this year, thanks to editor L. Timmel Duchamp.

There are also other editors/ publishers who have shamed and awed me with their liberalism. Mike Davis invited me to write a story for his classy, lively Lovecraft eZine. I wrote back telling him what I think of Lovecraft, and he said he already knew, having read my ‘Sincerely, Petrified’ in Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow. So, thanks to Mike, I met the dog who wished he’d never heard of Lovecraft.

As for Crandolin, I was attracted to Chomu Press, but didn’t have the confidence to submit to them, so the manuscript would still be an unfitting abomination — a book that isn’t easy to describe and isn’t ‘like’ any other — if it weren’t for Joseph S. Pulver, who is not only a damnably fine writer who cuts his own path, but frighteningly learned; a powerful anthologist, editor; and I am sure: master spell-caster.

But luckily, one can’t even trust what you call “clear identifying ‘markers’ ”. Take PS Publishing, which defines itself as ‘genre’. It proves itself as being so much more in its Postscripts anthologies, which must make purists spit.

What did you learn from writing your first novel, Spotted Lily, that you carried over to the experience of writing Crandolin? Similarly, do you approach short fiction in any substantially different way to novels?

Spotted Lily taught me not to take reviews to heart if one wants to have enough gall left to write another novel. But on another level, Spotted Lily was a simple stage-play of a novel. I wanted something more — for Crandolin to interact with readers, in many ways, including something my dog Rosie taught me: the thrill of anticipation. She loved waiting, especially when she was interrupted doing something else she liked; the mysteries of how long and what will happen? shined her eyes and tensed her whole body till her front paws hardly touched the ground. So it was great fun for me to set up readers’ anticipations; it’s an extreme sport though, since even the best reader has far less patience than a good dog.

What have been some of the greatest challenges of being a full-time writer?

I don’t know. The internet also says that I am the Professor of Self-defence Eating at Oestrea State University. There are many writers I admire who have managed to make the habit work for them. Although it’s supposed to be every writer’s goal, it takes an enormous amount of dedication, discipline, an actual craving for solitude; and unless one is turning out replicants or hiding behind ghosts, an intimidating amount of creativity. Pat Cadigan said, “I’ve tried to write a different book every time, and do something I’ve never done before.”

Some of today’s finest writers do it full-time. I was thrilled when Jeffrey Ford went f-t, for I always look forward to reading his latest story and novel. Lavie Tidhar, Laird Barron, and Hal Duncan each have such strong and original voices that they could be said to each be a genre. I hope that Thoraiya Dyer can break through to be a successful f-t w. She awes me with her intelligence, passion, and interest in the world at large. Her The Company Articles of Edward Teach (Twelfth Planet Press) is not only my favourite sea tale since Marryat, but a politically fearless story about modern religion. Not every story by Dyer works for me, but every one she’s had published at Clarkesworld Magazine is, imo, what fiction should be.

Being super-successful must be a terrible burden, but Garth Nix (whose books have sold in the millions, and have been translated into over 40 languages) still writes stories as if each one is his only work he’s concentrated on this year. He puts paid to any effete assertion that quantity necessarily ruins quality. His ‘Shay Corsham Worsted’ is the last story in the bloody-good newly released anthology Fearful Symmetries (ChiZine Publications) edited by Ellen Datlow. It not only gives the anthology a delightfully creepy finesse, but is a seriously disturbing story I’ll never forget. Its tone reminded me of another favourite of mine, ‘The Old Man’s Chair’ by R.H. Mottram, while being wholly original, with a great last line.

However, it doesn’t matter how much time a writer writes – only what is written. Amazing works have been produced in snatched hours away from screaming bosses, flipping hash, shovelling manure, teaching, having and delivering babies. And as for production, All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani is no less wonderful for being an only child.

Jennifer Rohn will never be a full-time writer. She runs a cell biology lab at University College London and is a part-time novelist and science communicator. She fostered the genre she dubbed Lab Lit and founded the excellent magazine of that name,dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of that culture – science, scientists and labs – in fiction, the media and across popular culture”. I consider her vital internationally as a thinker, social mover, and novelist–at least as much as Crichton ever was.

Her two first novels, Experimental Heart and The Honest Look, missed the wide readership they deserve because they were published by that very picky publisher of top-quality books (but not a place where fiction readers graze), The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. Rohn writes beautifully, too, so her novels you haven’t been able to read yet should be fought over by top publishers, to be sold where they belong: as General Fiction.

On one of his expeditions, Darwin wrote of his mind being a “chaos of delight”. What a goal, for every book to give this level of experience to a reader.

As for being a full-time writer, Nathan Ballingrud, a writer whose stories will be as powerful and true 100 years ago from now as today, bravely claims not to want to be a full-time writer (‘Here’s to the amateurs‘). He sums up the whole reason for fiction—indeed, any exploration and endeavour—beautifully: “The word amateur comes from the Latin amator, or lover; its root is amare: to love.”

What keeps you writing?

An inability to be a cartoonist, visual artist, or woodwind player.



What’s the word hidden by the ______

On a popular travel program currently running, the presenter says:

“I’ve come to meet a ______ who’s made a name for herself by adding an element of surprise.”

[a bit later, the presenter says] “Bon! Bon! It’s so weird.”

Leave your answer in the Comments section below.