1. 'Mosquito Story' is refreshingly different from the archetypal 'horror story', yet the horror is most definitely there. What motivates you to write, and what themes and topics most interest you? How important is it to incorporate a speculative or fantastical element into your work?
I'd love to be able to write a pure fantasy. Someday, I'll write my horror-fantasy vampire/werewolf feudal Sino-Japanese romance set in the middle of winter, with *ninjas*. My friends would mock me for all eternity, but by then, I'd be senile.
I don't always know if my stories will turn out speculative, definitely not as I'm writing them. I like to think I write dark fantasy, but I'm sure a lot of people who've read me have wondered where the 'dark' and the 'fantasy' ran off to.
Many of my stories come from observing the things around me. Very often, I start with my feelings for the places I know. I'm not good at plots, but I like to tell stories from the aspect of the places they're based in. It's like being stuck in the middle of a monsoon, and wanting to tell people about the dirt you can smell in the rain -- the story of the dirt, the smoke it came from, the cars that gave it out and the people in every part of that process.
Change, the way people react to change, fascinates me, so many of my stories try to look at how change affects culture. I've always been fascinated by where cultures intersect, but also in how they differ. Learning where a culture gets its POV is a lesson in how a culture thinks, and that's a huge tool for me in writing horror the way I would like it.
For example, one of the themes in "Mosquito Story" was a younger sister who disrespects her elder sibling. Within the story's Malaysian context, respect for one's elders is the starting point of a whole social system. Any well-raised Malaysian would find it rude for a younger sibling to treat an elder sibling as someone of equal rank. But that's exactly what's happening in Malaysia at the moment, as kids start absorbing far more individualistic values than their parents had. Many older people there think it's the dissolution of society -- because it is, as they know it.
Looking at the culture from their POV, we have a horror story. Not something really scary, but a disturbing story nonetheless, based on something we see every day. Speculative mosquitoes are a prop, but the idea of change terrifies even the best of us. I want people to be able to read my stories and be mildly bothered by it, nudged to look at some ordinary thing, even for a moment, in a slightly different light.
2. You spent two weeks as 'Young Writer In Residence' at the Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre last year, and ran a workshop while you were there. What was your motivation to apply for the Writer in Residence program and how did you find the experience?
I found out about the Residency from my lecturers at Curtin University. It was the first time I'd ever applied for anything like this. There aren't many similar programmes where I come from for beginning writers, particularly for writers in the English language.
I found the experience very calming, in spite of the fact meeting so many other people in such a short time was actually quite nerve-wracking. The KSP itself is such a peaceful place. They have this lovely feral garden out back. I loved to sit there, just to clear my head. It helped me a great deal just to be able to think about my writing and nothing else. Interacting with writers from such a wide range of genres gave me a lot to think about. One of these thoughts was how I could make my own genre writing accessible to people who'd otherwise avoid the subject.
It was something I noticed when I ran my workshop. Although I'd advertised my workshop for speculative fiction writers interested in religious genre fiction, I ended up with a class of everyone but genre writers. This was the first time many of them read Frank Herbert's Dune -- extracts from which I was using for the class. The feedback I got was that the text was "different", and people struggled with the style of writing because reading genre fiction was just that new to them. Now, I came in hoping that somehow the literary aspect of Mr. Herbert's writing, and the religious influences he'd interspersed into it, would pull through -- that these things would be the focus of our study, rather than science fiction is weird. But, to my class, science fiction was mostly weird.
This echoed throughout the mixed writing groups I participated in -- SF/F/H writing was a different level from other genres. Horror had to have blood. Fantasy had to have elves. These genres were thought of as tacky, but elitist because of it, both for the people who wrote genre fiction and the people who didn't read it. I thought a lot about how to write fiction that would still be relevant to people on both sides, how to render a story so that people would look at it as a story first -- before they thought about how aliens and angels wasn't their usual cup of tea.
I'm still thinking on that.
3. You're currently working on your first novella, Finches, which follows the story of a religious Muslim man haunted by evolution. As an atheist (agnostic?), what interests you most about religion? Why a novella and not a novel?
Speaking from a perspective I'm sure will only get me in trouble, religious books to me are the ultimate genre fiction. It's genre fiction that's managed to get right down to the source of our disbelief and just bypass it. Imagine what we could learn about writing from books that many people will believe right on the spot, however strange or surreal the things they say, to the point where they'd build the largest fan clubs in the world to talk about them.
Imagine that even for hardcore Trekkies, for example, there has to be a point where one realizes, there's a real world out there and one has to interact with it. Religions can bypass even that last bastion of unbelief. They can fuse together our world and their imagined realities, and people are happy to run with it.
I guess I'm the sort of fan who writes these really dissenting fanfics about killing off the most loveable characters, and slash-ing the heroes at every turn.
As for why a novella - Finches began as a short story, a single piece about a Muslim man haunted by evolution. Eventually, I realized I wanted to explore his family members, how they were previously affected by his influence, and how the changes he initiated shook them.
I'd already introduced all of them in the first story, so it was a matter of expanding what they had to say in their own chapters. However, I didn't want to write a dynasty, and since each person's story was written as a self-contained short, it made sense to keep everything as a novella.
4. Enough about the writing, what's the best thing you've read this year?
Fujiwara Kaoru's Omae ga Sekai wo Kowashitai Nara (If You Want to Break This World). It has vampires, petty gods and the whole cycle of Buddhist suffering. More than that, it's a brilliant study of loneliness as the one unifying trait across all existence. I read it two months ago, but I'm still pacing around at night trying to unravel everyone's intentions.
5. Finally, and certainly most inappropriately, you're given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who's it gonna be and why?
My version of "getting it on" being relative, I'd probably just strip the fancied naked and go try the clothes on myself.
If it was a guy, it'd probably be Liu Fei Loong from the Viewfinder manga. He has the most awesome hairdresser and tailor in the whole Hong Kong mafia.
If it was a girl, it'd be Naoto from Miwa Shirow's Dogs. I like a good pair of legs, and she always gets dressed in these *sensible* short skirts and awesome boots. She has a great sword too...
This interview was conducted as part of the 2007 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We'll be blogging interviews from Monday 13 August to Sunday 19 August and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus. You can read interviews at:
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