1. Your blog ‘Undead Backbrain’, is a tribute to your love of monster, zombie and horror movies. How long have you been a fan, and do you think they have influenced your writing career? What do you think makes a good zombie movie?
My love of monsters goes back a long way, so far that I don’t think I could actually identify the point of origin. I don’t know what it is that attracts me to monsters (platonically, of course). With rationalized hindsight, I feel it has something to do with the fact that my mind and artistic “soul” thrives on metaphor -- and monsters are pure metaphor. In fantasy-horror in particular the metaphor exudes its power whether or not there is intent on the part of the creator. It’s a type of metaphor that exists in the varied nature of the beast (as it were) -- like a subset of Jungian archetypes. When the writer gives his/her monsters a deliberate metaphorical resonance -- as in Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde -- you can end up with Greatness. But I’ve always found good supernatural horror (and more recently, giant monster films or daikaiju eiga) to exhibit an aura of meaning that’s there even when it’s hard to define or articulate. That’s why I write about such things so much. There’s heaps of fun to be found in the speculation.
I loved watching monster movies on telly as a kid, though half the time I wasn’t allowed to stay up -- and early on I realized that even harmless films such as The Creature From the Black Lagoon had been cut -- in that case all the close-ups of the monster had been excised because they were considered too scary. At the movies it was films such as Jason and the Argonauts that obsessed me. After I saw that film, I spent days drawing the monsters from memory!
I’ve enjoyed zombie films since I first got to see them with the advent of home video -- or at least the good ones, such as the cannibal apocalypse-kind invented by George A. Romero and also early movies such as Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie and Victor Halperin’s White Zombie. Before the home video revolution I’d read about many of them but hadn’t been able to see them as they weren’t generally shown on TV, and I took great delight in seeking out such once-banned examples as Lucio Fulci’s gruesome Zombi and City of the Living Dead -- in unexpurgated form naturally. It wasn’t easy back then; now there are beautiful widescreen, uncut versions available on DVD.
Beyond that, however, my interest in the walking dead goes back to horror fiction and comics such as Vault of Horror and Where Monsters Dwell, which frequently featured ambulant corpses. In most of these instances, the “zombies” are dead people who have returned to gain revenge or for some such motive. As such they are more like restless spirits, only they are corporeal -- the way ghosts mostly were in medieval ballads and the like. Why the fascination with the dead? As I often say, you don’t have to believe in ghosts to write ghost stories. Again it’s the metaphorical power of them that counts. That is certainly where such movies have affected my writing.
As for what makes a good zombie movie: well, for me there has to be a sense of the uncanny, of something profoundly unnatural. I’m much less interested in mere rampant killers, and feel that some modern incarnations have diluted the impact of the metaphor. They can make for an exciting and suspenseful (even horrifying) film experience, but they lack the profundity that comes from the central metaphor underlying the zombie as a fictional creation: that they are an image of the destructive power of the past when it lingers negatively through into the present -- and also of mortality itself. Actually, as Romero has demonstrated time and again, many of the best carry other more particular meanings, as when he used them to explore contemporary social attitudes.
2. In 2008, you interviewed acclaimed zombie director George A Romero for ‘Black: Australian Dark Culture’ magazine. How was the experience? Unfortunately Black is no longer in print – do you think there is a niche in Australia where a horror magazine might thrive?
Being asked by Black editor-in-chief Angela Challis to go to Melbourne to interview Romero was like a dream come true. Fortune smiled, too, as other journos could only get to speak to him in a press conference setting, and circumstances dictated that I got to have him to myself. Only ten minutes -- but in the event we got on so well that ten minutes ended up about half an hour, as we lingered on, chatting. I think he appreciated the fact that I wasn’t just a fan or a barely knowledgeable hack journo, but someone who knew the background and could talk about it intelligently. Also it turned out my favourite of his "living dead" films is his, too: Day of the Dead. He gave me his email address and invited me to contact him afterwards. Which I did.
I think Black was an excellent magazine and intelligently conceived by Angela. Despite its subsequent demise it showed that there is definitely a niche where a horror magazine could survive and flourish, even though horror-dedicated magazines are rare in Australia’s publishing history. Angela approached Black in the right way, I think -- widening it from just fiction and taking a “life-style” approach. This helped maximize the audience. Funding was a problem, though, especially in terms of the logistics of magazine economics, and the need to cover its huge costs unfortunately coincided with the economic downturn. But Black was a high quality glossy magazine and garnered good responses -- and achieving that comes at a high cost.
Like Black, any future horror fiction magazine project -- if it wants to be more than simply an in-house reflection of the genre writing community -- will need to do more than appeal to the niche hard-core horror crowd, which is too small to be economically viable. And the editor will have to be ruthless in getting the best work, as well as cunning in getting the right mix of stories published. The current boom in Australian horror fiction of varied kinds -- call it what you will -- indicates that there is a demand out there. However, such a magazine will be trying to survive in a context where genre fiction magazines worldwide are struggling with rapidly declining sales. That’s a hard battle to undertake and why Black’s “life-style” approach still seems like the way to go. Mind you, I suspect that overall the future of genre magazines is digital and online. The trick will be getting the best stories, as always.
3. Your YA novel, Robot War Expresso, is forthcoming from Twelfth Planet Press this year, and it’s accompanied by its very own blog! (http://robotwarespresso.wordpress.com/). Are you hoping the blog augments the book in a particular way, or is it mostly a vehicle for publicity? You’ve written a number of children’s books and YA novels before, however your short fiction seems to be focussed more towards adults. Do you feel this to be the case and, if so, is it deliberate? What else have you got planned for 2010?
Coming from me, Robot War Espresso may surprise people, as it could be considered almost mainstream -- or at least slipstream -- rather than straight SF. It certainly isn’t horror -- though it has elements that occur in my horror fiction, such as a sense of reality in crisis. Yes, it has robots, but mostly they are the kind of robot that already exists today -- with, however, a certain rather extreme extrapolation into an imaginary future. To a degree the book is about our attitudes toward artificial life and the theme that underlies it is how our emotional past and inner life affects our relationship with the future -- and in fact the artificial world humanity creates for itself. But it’s also an adventure in virtual reality. The central character is a 16-17 year-old girl who has suffered a crippling accident in her early years and has been in a wheelchair ever since. She dreams of different lives, of different selves, and suddenly finds the world adjusting to accommodate them. At heart the book is about overcoming emotional limitations.
I set up the blog in a moment of madness, simply because robots fascinate me and Undead Backbrain tends to concentrate on ghosts, zombies and giant monsters. There is a relationship between the creatures of supernatural horror and robots -- they are creations of our mind and imagination as much as those other more obviously monstrous forms. And of course Frankenstein’s monster was in effect a “flesh machine”.
My aim for the blog was basically as a way of promoting and providing information on the book. But it is also a forum and repository of thoughts, information, reviews, discussion, entertainment, whatever, relating to robots and artificial lifeforms. At the moment -- while I’m still finishing the book -- I only add to it sporadically, when something comes up. But I intend that its development will become more deliberate and more comprehensive. So it does augment the book as it offers material relevant to many of the ideas and themes contained in it. It will also augment the book in the sense that it will provide additional information and involvement with RAM’s Impractical Technologies and the Playground of Heavy Metal Madness (the Robot Circus) -- which is where the idea for the novel began. I’ve even done some preliminary work on a Flash-animated cartoon featuring robots. God knows if that will come to anything!
Though I’ve written several adult novels, the only ones that have achieved publication to date are the YA books. There are no doubt lots of reasons for that, but on the surface at least it has related to random opportunities that have arisen. In the end it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me. Backstreets, for example, was published as YA -- and I guess it is. But in my mind it was always just a novel, a novel that happened to feature a 17-year-old protagonist. I felt that its themes of grief and emotional resolution could be best explored in that context, but I’m not sure it would have been any different if I had written it deliberately for an adult audience. The Shades books were more directly YA, though again, as I wrote them I forgot that and just developed the story as I felt it needed to develop as a novel (I think of the four books in the series as a single, large novel -- though I originally wanted to write a fifth, which unfortunately wasn’t to be). On the other hand Robot War Espresso didn’t start life as a YA story. It was Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press who saw it as YA in its early stages, again largely (I think) because it is written from the perspective of a 16-year-old protagonist -- and a bit of market research suggested that school libraries were keen on the idea of another YA novel from Robert Hood. So who am I to argue? I find the defining edges of the YA market very blurred anyway. Where it ends and the “adult” market begins is rather arbitrary. Does it matter? So many novels that are classified as YA are adult favourites -- and not simply for nostalgic reasons. Perhaps YA suits SF/fantasy so well because young adults still have minds and imaginations that aren’t overly constrained by the day-to-day mundanities of adult life. There certainly seems to be little by way of thematic profundity or complex plot structure that you have to forego in order to “write for YAs”. (Note that I'm really thinking older YA here -- the definitions offered by different people are rather arbitrary.) One of the highlights of Backstreets was when a group of intelligent and articulate Year 11 students came up to me to talk about how much they enjoyed the book and thanked me for not talking down to them and "not assuming we’re stupid”.
Children’s writing is very different. You can't ever write “down” to children either, because they will know and will resent it -- but you do have to be more conscious of the particular audience, not least in terms of language usage and the use of less cerebral forms of narration. Keep 'em moving! One of the big pleasures of writing for children is the flexibility of their imaginations. As a writer you don’t have to be as hung up on rational justification for what’s going on as you do in the adult sphere. The logic of the stories works differently for children than for adults. Writing children’s stories can be very liberating and a lot of fun -- but they are a lot more simplistic as well.
As for my short stories being “adult” rather than YA: yes, but again the lines blur. As so many of my stories are rather viscerally horrific they’re not going to sell as YA and they sometimes function at a conceptual level that has a less obvious appeal to YAs. Yet I'm sure YAs (14+) that are into the horror scene would still read them. I used to read “adult-oriented” genre fiction when I was that age. It’s only the labels that are affected by the content, rarely the actual audience. In short, no, my career division between books for children and YAs and short stories for adults hasn’t been a deliberate one. Just accidental really. Besides, I’ve written rather a lot of children’s “short stories”. It’s just that they often get published as separate books. A children’s novel tends to be, in terms of word length, much shorter than most of my adult short stories!
What’s planned for 2010? Well, completing and promoting Robot War Espresso. Various stories (including a long zombie tale in an international concept anthology). Write some more short stories. Sell one fantasy novel (a long-running aim) and finish writing another. Finish writing a horror thriller called "Dead Matter" and sell it. Sell a noirish crime novel called "Scavengers". Work on developing a cryptozoological adventure yarn. Maybe a non-fiction book on giant monster films (I'm still arm-wrestling with a publisher on that one).
4. Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year? What have you enjoyed reading?
Without thinking about it too much: Paul Haines. Kaaron Warren's Slights. Jonathan Strahan for his superlative editorial work. Deb Biancotti. Cat Sparks. Terry Dowling. X6. Margo Lanagan (as always). Kirstyn McDermott. Greg Egan's Oceanic. Peter Ball. There would be others -- some I just haven't managed to get to; my reading has been limited, I admit. There seems to be a lot of quality writing coming from Australia, especially in short fiction. Who can keep up? I just finished reading Stephen M. Irwin's The Dead Path. That was pretty good. But there's no way I've read widely enough to be able to judge on the best of 2009 in an authoritative manner.
It's not Australian, but I really enjoyed reading the anthology The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books) last year. I can't get enough Holmes. In terms of zombies, I've read few of the current crop of reputedly excellent novels, but I very much enjoyed and even admired Max Brooks' work in World War Z.
5. Will you be at Aussiecon 4 in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to about it?
Yes, I'll be at Aussiecon 4. Apart from anything else, Robot War Espresso is being launched there and I'm looking forward to that. Worldcons in Australia are always exciting and stimulating for the local writing scene, and it will be great to see who turns up from OS. Generally though, what I look forward to most is what one looks forward to with cons generally: catching up with friends from parts far and wide and meeting others you've only known on the Web or by reputation. The thing about an Aussiecon is that they're bigger so the excitement is that much greater. Occasionally, too, you meet someone who's a reader and NOT a writer at all -- or even an aspiring writer. That's always exciting!
This interview was conducted as part of the 2010 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We'll be blogging interviews from Monday 15 February to Sunday 22 February and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus. You can read interviews at:
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