The Wasteland begins with a chapter titled The Burial of the Dead. The very first line says that ‘April is the cruellest month’. What an attention-grabbing start!
The 434-line poem is Eliot’s extended lament for the lost lives and the destruction of the 1914-1918 war. He’s talking about the collapse of civilised behaviour, the wanton wreckage, the widespread despair. And he does it in style.
When I got home from my walk, I looked up the poem, recalling that it includes dozens of splendid lines. Then I discovered (re-discovered?) that the poem’s first publication was in 1922.
Lo and behold, 2022 would be the centenary!
The idea of an anthology of Wasteland stories burst into my head. Wow! so many good lines there that are almost irresistible as story titles – for something in literary speculative fiction genres. (Literary spec fic? Think Margaret Attwood and Octavia Butler.) Look at these phrases for a start:
a heap of broken images
they called me the hyacinth girl
looking into the heart of light
the barbarous king
are you alive, or not?
I’ve invited a select band of other active speculative fiction authors to write short stories springing from Eliot’s poem. I’m thrilled to say that we are a merry band of 19 writers. You can see more about them here.
‘From the Wasteland: speculative fiction inspired by Eliot’ will include ghost stories, fantasy, horror, steampunk, dystopia and queer romance. All will be intriguing and amazing tales.
I’m doing my best to ensure that this anthology will come out in the second half of 2022 to coincide with the poem’s centenary. I’m very busy querying publishers–no easy feat when we don’t actually have a completed manuscript on hand yet! And of course, I’m writing up a storm with my collaborators…
It’s going to be fabulous. Keep an eye peeled for more news about this wonderful project.
Darren Kasenkow is an Australian author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction to bring together thematic elements ranging from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense.
Darren’s also recently finished a collaboration with bestselling author V.E. Patton on a new adventure series ‘Beneath A Burning Heart’.
I’m excited to host Darren on my blog today. Welcome!
Tell us a bit about what inspires you.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! (You’re welcome and flattery will get you everywhere.)
Ever since I can remember, books have been important tools that have helped me to explore my place in this strange, mystifying universe. When I started writing, I instantly found it to be a magical way of feeling a greater connection with both my imagination and the world around me, and I haven’t looked back since!
I love exploring themes that are centred around the eternal battle between good and evil, whether that battle exists deep in our own heart or across the four corners of the Earth, and I really do believe that with every page I write (as dark as those pages might be!) I learn a little more about who I am.
Ah, the everlasting contest between good and evil – a never-ending inspiration for stories. That’s what makes your books so good!
We are very fortunate – Darren is sharing a sneak preview of
Godless–The Hallucigenia Project Book 2)
Let’s dive in!
The Hallucigenia Project
Book Two: Godless
The crystal walls of the cave beckoned with an electric blue promise of eternity just beyond the glistening frozen surface. A single floodlight was the only pitiful source of warmth beneath the machine carved dome, while beyond the shadows there came from the ice soft symphonies of gentle crazing and cracking.
It wasn’t a big cave. About the size of large bedroom, it held a small wooden desk with a rusted bar stool for a chair, a large chest locked tight with two padlocks, and a scattering of makeshift weightlifting equipment slapped together with wood, various discarded engine parts and buckets of frozen water. With an endless night and harrowing, heart breaking Antarctic winds howling back on the surface, it was a treasured place of retreat. At least, it was for Leon Bzovsky.
The Quantum Physicist wasn’t interested in working out for the moment though. No, for amid the dark and crushing events that had descended upon the remote South Pole it was time for the little ritual that kept his haunting urges at bay. They would rise eventually, but to do so now would be unwise.
“Come now friend,” he whispered softly with his rolling accent, “this is much fresher than the last.”
The Emperor penguin wobbled a little closer to the floodlight where Leon was perched on his knees with a small piece of meat resting in his open hand. It pecked at a corner of the offering and then stared up at the host through tiny black eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Leon asked with a hint of frustration. “It’s only a little ink. Nothing there that can hurt you, but beneath the colours there awaits life.”
The penguin pecked one last time but seemed decided on skipping this particular meal. To assure his friend no disrespect was intended it nestled against Leon’s thigh and gently closed its eyes, content for now in the knowledge there would come another offering in the near future. So, with a shrug of his solid shoulders and a soft tsk tsk tsk, Leon brought the flesh to his mouth and bit down hard. Certainly this was a little fresher than the last, but as the tissue and fat warmed against his tongue there was a distinct bitterness that bordered on being unpleasant.
“Yes,” he mumbled while stroking the penguin’s head, “I see what you mean.”
The silent, vacuum-like ambience of the cavern was suddenly violated by three loud thumps against the makeshift entrance door. Leon quickly swallowed the barely chewed lump and turned his head in frustration. His moment of treasured solitude, it seemed, had come to an end.
With a sharp scraping sound accompanied with falling chunks of ice, the door pushed open and in an instant the harrowing screams of the winds rushed the cave walls. A tall, hulking figure stepped through and then pulled back his hood with thick, snow covered gloves. Leon wasn’t surprised to see that it was Salvador, one half of the remaining security division and a seasoned survivalist from Finland. He was, however, suddenly curious at expression the towering man brought with him, for it was one he hadn’t seen before.
It was an expression of fear.
Leon patted his special friend one last time and rose tall. Already the winds were turning the conditions in his retreat dangerous, and yet the door remained open.
“It seems even at a time like this I cannot enjoy a little time alone,” he remarked while zipping up his jacket.
“We come to the remote edge of the world and still you want more?” Salvador asked with a hint of pity. “Walk one mile in any direction and you’ll have your peace soon enough.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not peace I seek.”
Salvador studied the physicist for a moment, then pushed back thick blonde hair when a wind gust threw it across his eyes.
“You’re wanted back inside,” he announced. “There’s something you need to see.”
Leon nodded his understanding then slipped the thermal hood over his head, lifted cold wool across his face until only his eyes were visible, and mounted a headlamp that was fastened tight around his ears. Behind him the penguin scurried to the nest that had been chipped into the far wall as if performing a ballet for the visitor, and then Leon pushed on thick gloves, reached down, and returned the cave to a state of darkness.
Together they stepped into the endless night. By the glow of the headlamps the relentless hurricane winds seemed truly alive, with glittering tendrils forming shapes like flecked serpent tails that whipped and thrashed in the pursuit of pure destruction. It felt like a barrage of hammers punching hard into their bodies and pressing tight against their bones, making each step in the thick snow a battle of physical tenacity and determination.
In the distance the lights of the station were barely visible, but it was all that was needed to guide them through the frozen nightmare and promise enough that their flesh would be warmed again soon. They would need to move quickly though. With conditions as bad as they could get, it wouldn’t take long for their eyes to become glass marbles ready to shatter at the slightest stumble.
A vague shape emerged from the darkness on the left, and with it the distinct sound of hard clanging metal that joined the symphony of screams and wails of the unseen and unknowable. Instinctively they both pierced through the night with headlamps to illuminate the rusted outline of two large shipping containers that had been welded together. Leon cursed beneath his thermal protection at the shadowed sight of one of the doors lashing to and fro as if it were a metal wing of a broken beast determined to fly, the groaning hinges shaking and rattling in preparation of defeat, and diverted a heavy step towards it.
“Leave it!” Salvador shouted against the wind. “The dead are immune to the cold and besides, there’s no time.”
Oh my goodness! Penguins, blizzard conditions and something (someone?) dead in a shipping container?! Please hurry with the rest of the story, Darren!
Tim Mendees is a horror writer from Macclesfield in the North-West of England. He specialises in cosmic horror and weird fiction. He has published over 80 stories in anthologies and magazines with publishers all over the world, as well as with three novellas.
When he is not arguing with the spellchecker, Tim is a goth DJ, crustacean and cephalopod enthusiast, and the presenter of a popular web series of live video readings of his material and interviews with fellow authors. He currently lives in Brighton & Hove with his pet crab, Gerald, and an army of stuffed octopods.
I’m excited to talk with Tim today … and a little bit wary LOL.
Here’s what he says!
TIM: So, where do you get your ridiculous ideas from?
This is probably the singularly most asked question I have ever received. I have thought long and hard on this over the years and I confess that I don’t have a clue. Some come to me when I see a specific call, but the simple fact is that there is no secret key to open the doors of inspiration. Most of my ideas come from the most mundane of places. I have often found a trip to the local supermarket or standing in the queue at the Post Office is often enough to get the juices flowing.
One of the things I like to do the most is turn the everyday murderous. It could be something to do with being a lifelong fan of Doctor Who where everything from plastic daffodils and shop window dummies to maggots and giant talking slugs can be a galactic threat, but I like to find the sinister in the commonplace.
I’m never happier than when I’m killing people with seaweed and oysters.
This also ties into my main influences. I’m something of an obsessive reader of H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror in general. The original Weird Tales alumni are literary gods to me. I’ve never found vampires and werewolves the least bit unnerving, but a tentacle-faced god infiltrating your dreams gets the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. The fact that evil can be lurking on the fringes of reality, influencing nature and turning a toilet roll into a psychotic killer, is far more terrifying to me than some bloke with a machete in a fright mask.
You have a chance against flesh and blood, what chance do you have against a carnivorous cosmos?
When I started writing, I had only one goal… to create the sort of stories that creeped the hell out of me as a kid. Raised on pulp paperbacks, I devoured everything from Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen to Ramsey Campbell and the weirder end of Stephen King. If I have made one person feel the way I felt when I first read The Willowsor The Shadow over Innsmouth, then I have succeeded.
It’s not all cosmic indifference and nihilism though.
I was also raised on a steady diet of P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Carry On… movies. I spent a great deal of time as a child with my grandparents so I ended up assimilating their taste and mingling it with the weird. I think the best description of my output that I have ever heard is someone called it the lovechild of Lovecraft and Wodehouse.
My new novella, Spiffing, is a great example of this. When I set out writing it, I wanted to get the feel of a Christie whodunnit or a Jeeves story and give it some cosmic horror goodness. It will be up to the reader to judge whether or not I’ve succeeded.
In short, my ideas come from my past and my present. The things that have inspired, shaped, and disturbed me. Everyone has these things in them… it’s just a question of bringing them to the surface.
Thank you so much Tim for this entertaining and enlightening discussion.
Sylvia Lexington-Brown now lay in an undignified heap on the top of the grand staircase at Chycoose Manor. Her elegantly sequinned cocktail dress had ridden up, showing her lacy stocking-tops. After screaming her lungs out, she had fallen into a dead-faint. The trio of drunken men had jumped up unsteadily from where they lounged and rushed to the woman’s aid.
Doctor Sullivan had placed a cushion from a chaise-lounge under Sylvia’s immaculately styled head of blonde hair and removed the choker from her neck, Potter had hold of one of her scarlet painted hands and patted it gently while Slater fanned her with a ragged newspaper.
While the three men fussed, the three women ran back to the library and hurriedly removed the masks and put their clothes back on. The sudden shock had jolted them back to reality and a deep feeling of shame. Meanwhile, the band were faffing with their instruments and looking bewildered. Each one of them was three sheets to the wind and oblivious to everything around them.
Professor Penrose was the first of the women to re-emerge from the library, she bounded up the stairs and questioned her fiancée. “What the devil is going on Frank?” Her strong yet attractive face was flushed from exertion.
“No idea darling,” Doctor Sullivan replied. “She started shrieking and saying something about Bertie being ghastly.”
“Well, that’s hardly news,” Penrose replied, rolling her blue eyes. She had never been a fan of Bertie. Quite rightly, she thought the man a fool and a bounder, she only tolerated him because her betrothed was one of his closest friends.
“That’s not what she said you deaf old bugger,” Potter mocked. “She said that something ghastly had happened to Bertie.”
“Well… has anyone checked on our host?” asked the professor.
The three inept men looked at each other then, almost in complete unison, answered… “No.”
“Don’t you think one of you ought to?” she asked pointedly as she fixed them with the kind of stare that headmistresses give to foolish six-year-olds.
Before one of the men could reply, their mouths gaping like beached trout, Sylvia began to stir. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright and wailed, “Oh God… Bertie!”
“What the hell is going on, Sylvia dear?” Penrose asked gently. While she had no time for Bertie, she was terribly fond of Sylvia.
“Oh, it’s terrible… simply terrible! I had been powdering my nose and when I finally returned to the study, he was dead!”
“Dead? … Surely not?” said Slater with a look of disbelief.
“He was lying on his back with a terrible look on his face, and he was smoking!”
“How could he be smoking if he was dead?” Slater stupidly replied.
“Not smoking a cigarette, you blithering imbecile,” Sylvia snapped. “He was smoking! There was smoke coming off of him… His body was smoking!”
An ensemble muttering of “Good Lord!” spread around the room and the guests exchanged horrified expressions.
The two other ladies, now fully clothed, joined the huddle on the stair landing and helped Sylvia to her feet. Nobody mentioned the dancing, but the sheepish expressions they wore announced that it was a rather large elephant in the room. Once Sylvia had regained her equilibrium somewhat, Professor Penrose took charge of the group and led the party towards Bertie’s study.
The east wing of Chycoose Manor had fallen into a state of disrepair of late. A cruel winter, coupled with the unwillingness of the owner to lift a finger when it came to maintenance, meant that it had seen much better days.
Reaching the end of the corridor and the double doors leading to Bertie’s inner sanctum, the scent of damp was joined by an even more pungent aroma. “Crikey! What’s that smell?” Stanley Slater inquired, placing a vomit-stained hankie over his mouth and nose. “It smells like someone forgot to pluck the turkey before putting it in to roast.”
“Oh, God! … Bertie!” Sylvia exclaimed and wobbled as though she was on the brink of another swoon. Potter and Sullivan deftly steadied the distraught woman.
“Tactless moron!” Penrose hissed at Stan.
“What? … Oh! … Awfully sorry, Sylvia dear. I’m sure Bertie will be alright. He’s probably mucking about, that’s all.” Slater turned beetroot red with embarrassment.
Susan Slater tutted at her husband’s idiocy then pushed her way to the front of the group. Together with Penrose, they pushed open the study door.
A blanket of smoke hung low over the cluttered room like a mist. A large desk stood at one end of the room, with a portrait of the first of the Lexington-Browns to make Chycoose Manor his home peering down imperiously from the wall above. The desk was buried beneath a vast collection of scribbled notes, maps and charts.
The antique mahogany shelved walls were adorned with relics and artefacts from the combined travels of generations of Lexington-Browns. Everything from nests of Russian dolls to Spanish bull statuettes jostled for space on the shelves. On the wall, a large collection of menacing wooden masks from darkest Africa leered down at the concerned guests.
As they filed into the room, Sylvia pointed beyond the desk. “He was over there, behind the chair.”
Penrose and Sullivan carefully picked their way over a pile of books and dislodged papers to the corner of the study.
“Well, he’s not here now,” Sullivan shrugged, running his hand through his short greying hair. On the floor where the corpse should have been, a viscous black liquid, similar in colour and consistency to tar, smoked and smouldered. Where the allegedly deceased host had gone was a complete mystery.
“Everybody, look for clues!” Sullivan boomed.
“Clues?” Slater asked, wobbling slightly. He looked like one good blow could knock him on his bony backside.
“Yeah,” Sullivan looked at him pointedly. “You know? … Clues.”
“Ah,” Slater gave him a knowing look. “Clues, got it.”
Sullivan wasn’t entirely sure that he had. Stan was far from the sharpest knife in the drawer. In fact, he had seen brighter eclipses.
Suddenly, another piercing scream assaulted the eardrums of the guests. This time it was Virginia Tailforth who had become startled. She had been edging away from the desk as the others had approached it and backed straight into a towering object. As she spun around to steady the teetering bulk, she came face to face with a particularly terrifying sarcophagus.
What larks! That sounds like delicious cosmic fun.
Thank you so much, Tim, and more power to your pen.
Josh is an author, poet, musician, music journalist, teacher, voice actor and event manager, and a very entertaining interviewee. His CV includes being almost devoured by a tiger in the jungles of Malaysia, nearly dying of a collapsed lung in the Nepalese Himalayas, and once fending off a pack of rabid dogs with a guitar in the mountains of India. He has an unnatural fondness for scrabble and an irrational dislike of frangipanis.
Naturally enough, Josh’s answers to my questions are particularly amazing, and this interview reflects his clever sense of the absurd and the precious. Josh is a wordsmith worth noting, because you will never look at the printed page in quite the same way.
You probably won’t be able to, because there’s every chance it will self-detonate before your very eyes. Either that or turn into a not-very-helpful imp.
Great to meet you, Josh, and congratulations on the publication of 19½ Spells. And thanks for reading some of them on your website here – that’s great! Can you tell me why is writing important to you?
Josh:Ani DiFranco once said “I was a terrible waitress, so I started to write songs.” I think I feel the same way, except I write stories instead of songs and instead of being bad at hospitality I was bad at (insert many different jobs here).
Ah, that means you really are a writer. Great. What was your favourite book as a child?
In a language that only you can speak, no doubt. That one had me reaching for Wikipedia: ‘an illustrated codex written in an unknown writing system’! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Yes, if you read everything I’ve ever written you’ll find I’ve encoded the secret to eternal life using a secret cypher that can only be understood once you’ve posted really nice reviews on goodreads and recommended my books to all your friends.
That sounds like a good plan! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
“This is the best book I’ve ever read, but it should have had Dr Who in it.”
That’s the way I feel about most books, truly. Why are you the perfect person to write your books?
Because everyone else who has tried has descended into madness and now spends their days rocking back and forth, murmuring about eldritch horrors and the heinous price of printer refill cartridges.
Or the scarcity of flour and toilet rolls, possibly. What would be a dream come true for you?
Welcome, Isobel. What an impressive list of publications, which I am reading my way through (as you know, I love Clarissa’s Warning). It looks like you write in more than one genre?
I write mysteries, psychological thrillers, historical fiction, contemporary fiction and biographical fiction.
So impressive. Do you write full time?
I do. Short answer! Writing full time involves all the associated admin and promo of course. There is an awful lot of that. It is a very solitary existence, very absorbing. I am happiest when I am immersed in composing fiction with characters I am fond of, characters who make me laugh.
Yes, I think the admin takes longer than the writing – well, almost! You’re writing as a professional, then. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
This is a difficult question. Initially, I was warned away. But then again, said gainsayer mentored me for six months and showed me numerous tricks of the trade. So I did receive ample training. Also, I am a natural self-learner. I enjoy distance education. After the mentoring, I taught myself to be the writer I am by studying the works of contemporary literary fiction giants, particularly the Europeans. I chose these works as I didn’t want to risk picking up bad habits and back then, I really had no idea who I could trust, other than my beloved Iain Banks, who I also learned a lot from. Also, I love literary fiction. It has become undervalued as elitist when really, the genre that is not a genre is simply different and requires a different attitude, a different state of mind.
In my quest to turn myself into the best writer I could possibly be I regarded my selection of fictional works as text books. I filled a notebook with turns of phrase, examples of syntax, that sort of thing. I studied the architecture of a novel. I studied opening paragraphs. I pored over descriptions of characters. I worked out how to write effective dialogue.
Years later I enrolled in a free, ten-week online writing course offered by the Open University, UK. I wanted to see how they approached the delivery in terms of content and style in preparation for a ten-week writing class I was giving. The OU course was great fun and well thought through and I got to see how things were done. I still think my self-learning method is best but only because it worked for me.
You’ve devoted yourself to your craft. Why is writing important to you?
Writing is my life, both fiction and non-fiction. I communicate. I suppose I also teach. My mind bursts with thoughts, runaway ideas. I get hot under the collar about a lot of issues and writing gives me a means of expression and a platform. For me, writing, including creative writing, serves a higher purpose, at least it does when we produce works of some depth and substance, works of moral value, and not simply writing for entertainment and wish-fulfilment alone. Writing encourages reading, we hope, and reading expands the mind, we hope. Writing is for me an occupation, a distraction, a partial escape, a way of steadying my mind and forging through hard times. We live in hard times, don’t we. Anyone with any sensitivity can see that.
The first book I wrote was a memoir. Back in 2007, I started writing the story of my sustainable lifestyle project involving the building of a house with B&B and the creation of a large garden on a fifteen-acre cattle paddock on the edge of Cobargo in one of the prettiest places on earth, a place safe from the ravages of climate change, or so I thought.
The memoir was almost published and then I shelved it when my marriage failed and I moved to Melbourne.
Then, last New Year’s Eve, the unthinkable happened and I was thrust back into my old home town through the devastating bushfire. My emotions were ragged. My family had lived in the community for over forty years. We knew all the people who died. I used to sort mail at the post office and so I knew everyone by name. It was trauma at a distance and I was ragged.
In the end, it occurred to me that the best thing I could do with how I felt was to resurrect that old memoir. It would be a tribute to a very special location. Finding the manuscript in pretty good shape, I polished it up and wrote an epilogue which gave the memoir the meaning I knew it needed. It is called Voltaire’s Garden, and is in many ways an homage to philosopher Voltaire, who established his own sustainable lifestyle in exile in the late 1700s.
That one’s a very personal story. How much research is involved in your writing?
Research forms a large component of any story. From fleshing out original ideas to embellishing the details and informing plots and characters, research is key. I research setting – environment, history, culture, society – key events and histories. I research geography, climate, weather, food, customs, all kinds of things. I am forever looking something up. Thank goodness for the Internet. I think in the past I would have needed to pitch a tent in a large reference library as I doubt I would ever have left the building.
Book 4 in my Canary Islands collection, A Prison in the Sun, had me researching newspaper reports, blog posts and a couple of doctoral theses all in Spanish. The novel concerns a little-known concentration camp for gay men that ran for twelve years in the 1950s and 60s under General Franco. I had known of the camp since the late 1980s when I lived on the islands. Back then, the story was repressed. An academic broke the story in the noughties, but only in Spanish.
Rather than set an entire novel in a labour camp, I embedded the story in a mystery featuring a millennial ghost writer grappling with his sexuality, setting up an important juxtaposition between then and now, and throwing in some mystery elements – a rucksack full of cash, a dead body – for intrigue.
I love the way you layer your stories. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I have Book 5 of my Canary Islands collection to write. I’m currently at the research stage, and actually on the islands! And I hope to finish my family history novel this year. The project stalled two-thirds in due to frustrations with the genealogy. I decided to press pause while I paid a tidy sum to a professional genealogist to see what else could be discovered. I’m still waiting for the results.
Can we get your books as audio books?
You most certainly can. The Cabin Sessions, A Matter of Latitude and Clarissa’s Warning are all available in audiobook format. A Prison in the Sun will be in audio soon too.
Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
Ideas come to me. They land in my mind like pebbles plopping in a pond. If I don’t have the inspiration, there is no book project. Sometimes I brainstorm ideas, and to do that I need a sounding board, someone to listen as I talk things through, pacing the floor. I came up with my latest book project this way. The ideas arose little by little, like lots of small pebbles rather than one big splash. I needed to brainstorm as I felt I needed a Book 5 for my Canary Islands collection.
Is it easy for readers to find your books?
Readers need to find my books online. I am published overseas by a terrific independent publisher with a strong online focus.
Do you send out newsletters to readers?
I do. I have a pop-up sign-up form on my website and most subscribers find me that way.
That’s great. Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Isobel. Keep those stories coming!
The apocalypse is here, in the form of more fires, floods, and storms. Meanwhile, belief that democratic processes can find a solution is fading.
In difficult times like these, an outpouring of stories occurs. Witness the millions (literally) of books inspired by, based on, and discussing the Great War. A terrible experience gave birth to a never-ending strand of stories.
Now there is an explosion of science fiction: dystopian, cli-fi, and post-apocalyptic. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies, among many other examples. Australian Mark Smith’s fabulous Wintertrilogy is right on topic.
Alongside the enthusiasm for such stories, there is a strain of dismissal. Dystopian science fiction is criticised for glorifying hardship, or for giving unrealistically happy endings, or for giving depressingly horrific unhappy endings, and especially for not providing answers. A recent article on the dystopian sub-genre called hopepunk (where continuing to fight for good is an affirmation of humanity) commented that such stories, validating the struggle rather than providing a solution, were simply telling the downtrodden that it’s their place to suffer.
Many of you know that my academic area of interest is Great War literature. War stories, too, have been criticised as glorifying war, revelling in misery, continuing the cultural expectation that life is harder for some than others, and worst – not preventing future war.
I have to ask whether that is the role of war fiction. Isn’t it rather like expecting murder mysteries to solve crimes? Romances to enable real-life happy endings? Fantasies to provide tangible proof of faeries?
I could go on about the role of literature (and I have elsewhere), and I could enter the discussion about the bourgeois nature of fiction (which, after all, is written by the literate for the literate). And I probably will go on a bit more soon. For now, though, let me say:
Don’t blame science fiction for the world’s ills. Science fiction can sound a warning, or point out current issues, or provide role models. Dystopian stories are like the traditional adventurer genre described by the poet Paul Zweig, too*. Such narratives imply action and purpose, and to my mind this is just as valid as feelings of hopelessness. Adventure stories show how to keep living in the face of peril.
This is not a new role for stories. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the original tasks of the storyteller, handed down from the first oral stories and continuing through the earliest written narratives of about 4000 years ago. Ancient stories such as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh reassuringly confirm ‘the possibility that mere [hu]man can survive the storms of the demonic world’ (Zweig 1974, vii); a powerful affirmation for readers in apocalyptic times.
I’ll no doubt write more about this. I see ample opportunities in the difficult future, sadly.
Claire Fitzpatrick is an award-winning author of speculative fiction. She writes tales of terror and dark possibilities, in both short story and novel form. Her latest collection of meticulously researched, nerve-rattling stories was recently reviewed in my favourite magazine, Aurealis (issue #124) where it is described as ‘a wicked joy to read’.
I’m thrilled – not to say a little spooked – to meet this other Claire of the incredible words.
Hi, Claire! Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Claire: I think the main thing readers ought to know is that my stories are semi-autobiographical. Every story reflects some aspect of myself, my emotions, my desires, fears, etc. A lot of them reflect my feelings regarding my Epilepsy, BPD, and being a mother. I’ve had Epilepsy since I was 12 (I’m 28) and was formally diagnosed with BPD when I was 26. I also have a wonderful 7-year-old daughter who inspires me to write more and become a better person. She can be quite a handful – she has ASD, and stresses the hell out of me sometimes, but we do so many creative things together; she’s my annoying best friend. I’m also an artist. I paint between writing, and I’m currently building a mansion out of paddle-pop sticks. I’m crafty when I procrastinate. My house is filled with books and paintings. I also have a cat named Cthulhu and don’t own a TV. Are those things readers really ought to know? They are now!
And fascinating things they are. Cthulhu, eh? I bet the cat can say that name better than I can, being an alien of sorts…
What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
Huh. No one has ever asked me that before. I rather like one of the final scenes in my novel Only The Dead. It’s a death scene; well, rather, one character finds another character’s body. I remember feeling rather proud of myself when I finished writing it. I also received a wonderful review with a nod towards that scene, so it made me feel quite thrilled I’d managed to evoke such a strong emotion from a reader.
Sounds gripping! Now, if I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
There’s a character named Cassie in Only The Dead who’s a badass motorcycle-riding artist and Vietnam War protestor. If I told her she was imaginary she’d probably tell me to get fucked and offer me a joint.
She sounds very real – which is exactly what you want from a character! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
Of course. I still have all the Sonya Hartnett books I stole from my high school library. I’m a hoarder and have a few hundred books, many of which I’ve owned since I was a teenager. Notable authors include Isobelle Carmody (of whom I named my daughter after), Anne Rice, Catherine Fisher, Clive Barker, Jostein Gaarder, Emily Rodda, etc.
I started writing at a very early age. The first ‘book’ I wrote was essentially fanfiction. I was fed up of waiting for the fifth Harry Potter book to come out, so I ended up writing my own book. It was called ‘Harry Potter and the Magic Broom’ and it was actually quite depressing. Harry felt all sad he couldn’t see Ron and Hermione over the holidays, and then he found a magic broom which gave him a sense of euphoria every time he rode it. Now that I’ve come to think of it, I believe it was a metaphor for antidepressants. I started self-harming when I was 12, so I’m pretty sure it was just another way to express myself. Weird. After I wrote the book, and a half-finished sequel, I developed my own characters, my own ideas. A lot of my early fiction were adventure stories, mostly about pirates. Incidentally, I still have those early books.
Returning to other authors…. Anne Rice, in particular, has a special place in my heart. I first read Anne Rice when I was 18. I had a pretty shitty home life, so I left home and moved in with the first man who paid attention to me. He was horribly cruel, a drug addict, would alienate me, and steal my money. During the period of three years all I wrote was scraps of things here and there. Yet the only nice thing he did for me is buy me Anne Rice books as a form of penance for my suffering. I was so lonely, I’d read her books from cover to cover and imagine I was in New Orleans with the vampires and the Mayfair witches, and that my life was as exciting as theirs. When I finally left the relationship, I felt so inspired by Rice’s world I immediately started writing again. And then I wrote ‘Madeline,’ my first published horror story, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What an amazing backstory! Lots of material – but very glad you’re through to the far side of it. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Fuck. Umm. Don’t worry your Epilepsy held you back from the Air Force. Don’t worry you didn’t get into university on your first go. Don’t worry you failed year 11 high school English class. Everything will make sense one day. It may be dark and horrible. You may think self-harm is something you need to do. But life – though it gets a hell of a lot harder – will get more manageable, I promise. Also, drink and party as much as you can. 21 is a really young age to become a mother. I won’t judge your breakfast rums. For now.
That’s precious advice, thank you! What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I’m currently working on two projects. The first is a novelette, of which I’ve almost completed a first draft. The story is about the grief and pain one feels regarding suicide, but I’ve disguised it as a supernatural horror. I think! Unfortunately, over the past four years, three of my friends have committed suicide, so it’s a subject that’s often on my mind. I’m enjoying writing this, as I’ve managed to throw in cantankerous off-beat character I’m hoping will get a few laughs.
The second project is a novella, something I’ve been working on slowly for the past two years. It’s a dark fantasy novella, tentatively titled ‘Therianthropy,’ and is about shapeshifters, the moral obligations of humans, what it means to have a soul, and the difference between being a human and a monster. ‘Therianthropy’ is my major work, and it’s something I’m taking my time with. I’m currently being mentored by the esteemed author Paul Mannering, who is helping me conclude the draft. I originally started the book as a mentorship with the fantastic author and illustrator Greg Chapman, so I suppose, in a way, it’s a collaborative project. Three heads are better than one!
Oooh, that sounds wonderful. I want it now! And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
Someone else’s. My characters are fragments of myself, and that’s horrifying enough.
Great answer. Thank you so much Claire for sharing with me on Last Word of the Week.
Phyllis M. Newman is my guest on today’s Last Word of the Week. Born in New Orleans, Phyllis spent her formative years in Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, and on a dairy farm in Ross Country, Ohio. After a long career in finance and human resources at The Ohio State University, she turned her attention to writing fiction. She published a noir mystery, “Kat’s Eye” in 2015, and “The Vanished Bride of Northfield House” in 2018. Today she lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and three perpetually unimpressed cats, ghostwatchers all.
LWOTW: Lovely to meet you, Phyllis. Tell me, when did you write your first story?
Phyllis: I was thirteen and attending junior high school. It was a murder mystery entitled M is for Murder. (At the time I was living in Dade County Florida, murder capital of the world.) I still have a copy of it somewhere (and since then I think someone stole my title.) Maybe I could brush it up and finish it? At the time, I didn’t have the maturity and discipline to complete it with a well thought out plot and exciting characters. I do remember that the main character was named after my best friend Rhudell.
Ahem, murder capital of the world…*shivers*…You totally should revisit that book! What do you think of dreams, imagination, and planning?
Only if you dream can you write. Only if you have an imagination can you create fiction. Planning, not so much. I prefer to start out with a strong character who has a set of problems and just write as if I am that person. I develop in my mind only a vague idea of where she will go and what she will do and about my major themes. Those details come to me as I flesh out the story.
Case in point, when I started The Vanished Bride of Northfield House, all I knew about Anne, my main character, was that she was orphaned, she secured training as a typewriter, she could see spirits, and it was set in England, 1922. You can see that any writer could develop volumes out of such a situation. It’s quite exciting to write in this way. It’s an adventure.
I love your method! What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
When a traditional publisher accepted my manuscript for publication. And I got a cash advance. And a very professional editor worked closely with me for months to polish and improve the writing. After a year, I was holding a book in my hand with my name on it. Talk about dreams!
That’s a completely magical feeling. What are you most busy with at the moment?
I am polishing a finished manuscript, a novel in the same genre as The Vanished Bride of Northfield House. It is another gothic mystery with elements of the supernatural and a suspenseful romance. And, of course, trying to market and publicize my two other publications.
If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Just write. Stop dreaming and put your fingers to the keyboard (or pen to paper. Whatever floats your boat!) The more you write, the better you are at it. And read. Learn what makes a good story. And don’t forget the craft of writing. Good story telling is an art, but good writing is a craft that anyone can learn. But you can only learn by doing. That’s more than one thing, but all of the above is important.
Excellent advice there, thank you. And the Last Word of The Week: What’s your favourite colour?
I wear yellow, the color of sunshine, at every opportunity
How lovely! Thank you so much, Phyllis, for being my guest on today’s last Word of the Week.
Michael Pryoris a Melbourne author who writes in many veins: from literary fiction to genre sci-fi to slapstick humour, depending on his mood, and very successfully too. Over fifty of Michael’s short stories have been published in Australia and overseas, and he has been shortlisted nine times for the Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction. His short stories have twice been featured in Gardner Dozois’ ‘Highly Recommended’ lists in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Fantasy. Eight of his books have been awarded CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Notable Books status, and he’s been longlisted for a Golden Inky (YA book award) and shortlisted for the WAYRBA Award (Western Australia’s Young Readers Book Award).
He has also twice won the Best and Fairest Award at West Brunswick Amateur Football Club (Australian Rules), so I know he’s a fully rounded person!
Hi, Michael, great to talk with you. What project are you talking about today?
Oh, that’s so cool! Is there one aspect of The Graveyard Shift that you relate to most – a favourite character, scene, effect? Can you tell us more about that?
The book is set in Melbourne, my home town, and it’s a bit of a love song to a city I love. After years of writing stories set in imaginary locations, it was fun to write in a setting that I knew well. Instead of trying to work out how far it was from Imaginary Castle A to Imaginary Desert B, I could just use my local knowledge.
What do you think drives you to pursue your creativity?
I’m driven by the fact that anything else I could be doing would be a whole lot less fun and wouldn’t suit me nearly as well. Besides, I want to be part of the ranks of storytellers that stretch back to the dawn of language, because storyteller is such a human activity, part of who we are.
So true! Many writers have described their processes using analogies – the famous Hemingway one, for example, in which he says that writing is simply a matter of sitting in front of the typewriter and staring at a blank page until you start to sweat blood. Others speak of stitching scenes together, following characters on a journey, immersing themselves in a storyline. What can you say about your process?
I liken it to using stepping stones to cross a swiftly flowing river. The stepping stones are well thought out ahead of time and are in place, nice and solid. Between, though, it’s fluid and changeable, able to take you anywhere.
That’s perfect. A plan with flexibility, I like that. Finally, what five words would you use to describe yourself as a writer?
Isobel Blackthorn writes great stories. She’s one of those accomplished authors who won’t be put in a box. Think thrilling mysteries, dark and dangerous romances, eerie occult tales and more. Every time I pick up one of Isobel’s books, I know I am about to be transported into an exotic location where I will meet intriguing characters who wrestle with particular circumstances…and I will have to read as quickly as I can to the end!
Hi Isobel, it’s wonderful to have you as today’s guest on the Last Word of the Week Q&A. Can you tell us about when you first realised that you are a writer?
Isobel: When I was eighteen, I developed a thirst for literature. I had uni friends studying English literature and I asked them for lists. That was how I feasted on Austen and Hardy, and then Zola and Flaubert and Kafka and Hesse. A little Sartre. I devoured those books and as I did, something in me stirred. I wrote little bits of poetry and song lyrics. I had not an iota of confidence, just a deep urge or impulse that would rise up in me every now and then. I heard the narrative voices of those books in my mind and I began to develop a narrative voice of my own, which proved to be a lot like Hesse at first. This was in the 1980s. It took decades before I had the time and space and self-belief to apply myself to learning the craft.
A great way to enter the world of writing, indeed. As a writer, do you rely more on dreams, imagination, and planning?
Ideas for new works emerge as if from nowhere. Little aha moments. It is rare that a whole novel will emerge at once. Sometimes many years go by before the initial impulse is developed into a book-length work. I do as little planning as possible. Too much planning can kill the creative spark. I prefer to let things flow as much as possible. Although writing mysteries and thrillers, there is always an element of plotting. And I usually know how a story will end so I have something to work towards. I am forever mindful of balancing the story elements and I am always fixated on the word count.
Story ideas are delicate creatures, I agree. I think you wrangle them very well. What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
Finding myself shortlisted for the Ada Cambridge Prose Prize. I have long coveted winning a prize or even just reaching the long or short list. A prize is a rubber stamp that tells the world you are really quite good at what you do. In a fiercely competitive and swamped marketplace, we need to stand out somehow.
Congratulations! Yes, wonderful to have that stamp! What are you most looking forward to at the moment?
That is a big secret.
Oh, how marvellous! Now you have me guessing. If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Don’t give up. Writing is an all-consuming activity that will stretch you in unexpected ways. Enjoy the creative process and do not be defeated by rejection. It can take ten years and many books before you feel you have climbed more than a rung of the ladder. Above all, support your fellow writers. We are a vast community, published and unpublished and we can help each other progress in many ways.
Lovely, thank you! And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character?
Here is that curly question at the end of the exam! Just when you feel you are ahead and passing is assured, along it comes and dashes your hopes. Who would I be? I used to think I would be Cathy in Wuthering Heights. No more. But I can think of no single character. I am that woman who sits by her upstairs window and gazes out at the world. An artist, probably, and very solitary. Who is she? I am a lot like, or want to be a lot like the protagonist in The Oblique Place by Caterina Pascual Soderbaum. I urge all literary fiction fans to read that book.
It sounds intriguing – very suitable! Thank you so much for talking with me today, Isobel.