Angela Slatter has recently been singled out by Jeff VanderMeer as an emerging writer of note in his Mammals Underfoot! group interview at Clarkesworld. She has sold fiction to Fantasy Magazine, Shimmer, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among others, and recently garnered four Honorable Mentions in Ellen Datlow's The Year's Best Horror (2008). She lives in Brisbane, Australia and is currently working on her degree in Creative Writing. You can follow Angela's exploits and keen wit on her blog The Bones Remember Everything. I am pleased to have her answer a few questions for my Clubhouse interview series.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What's life in Brisbane like?
I work in a writers centre in Brisbane, giving advice to writers—wannabes, emerging and occasionally established ones (the latter generally takes the form of “Those shoes don’t go with those trousers”). I’ve got a Masters in Creative Writing, which examined the idea of reloaded fairytales and produced a collection of nine rewritten fairytales, Black-Winged Angels. I’m now working my way through a PhD in Creative Writing because apparently I am a glutton for punishment. I’m finishing the last few stories in a short story collection that I hope to start shopping around soon. Life in Brisneyland is very sweet, although it’s still impossible to go out after 9 pm for a meal that doesn’t involve a drive-thru! It’s a pretty city on the river and it’s very relaxed. The thing I wait around for is the summer blooming of the jacaranda trees—they spread out everywhere and there are these big splashes of purple across the landscape.
Each writer has her own perspective on the field, of course, but could you tell us how being an Australian spec. fiction writer is different? Are there any perspective differences from the rest of the world that you can see?
I think part of the difference is the size of the pond Australian spec fic writers are working in. Not everyone's thinking globally and so a lot of writers keep their horizons really small and tight, or they think “First I’ll conquer the Australian market” and they don’t even think to send subs to US or UK mags. And that is a HUGE mistake. The more exposure your work gets, the more you learn about global competition the better prepared you are for a writing career—well, I think so anyway. I’d published about ten stories overseas before I sold anything in Australia. My experience is that I find the US market much more open than the UK one. Maybe it’s all about scale?
Another difference I think is how much our changing environment seems to influence the writing of Aussie spec fic writers. I recently did a round table interview with several writers about this very thing, called The Coming Dark, over at October’s IROSF.
When crafting a story how do you approach it from initial idea to final draft ready to send out?
Aargh! It depends on how much of the idea has come to me—sometimes I have the beginning, sometimes I have the end, sometimes I just have a scene that I can see so clearly and I start to write around that. I will type up my ideas or any scenes floating in my head then start making notes and drawing scene maps to try to work out what I need to connect the story’s component parts together. Whenever I get lost, I ground myself by coming back to the one question that leads your plot along: what does the character you’re writing about want? It’s all about the driving desire—sometimes you lose sight of that when you’re getting caught up in writing back story, descriptions, etc. Your guiding light has to be desire. I recently wrote a story called "A Porcelain Heart"—I knew who my main character was and what she wanted, but for the life of me I could not get the story to sing. Then I looked at one of my secondary characters, one whose actions are the catalyst for the climax, and when I was talking to Aussie author Alison Goodman about something else I had a light bulb moment when I thought: “What does Selke want?” Everything fell into place at that moment.
Out of all your short stories do you have a favorite? If so, why?
Oh that’s not fair, asking a mother which is her favourite child! I love them all for different reasons: "The Little Match Girl" was the first story I ever published (Shimmer); "The Juniper Tree" was my first sale (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet); "The Jacaranda Wife" is the first story I’d written set in Australia (Dreaming Again anthology); "I Love You Like Water" was my first science fiction piece (2012 anthology); "Sourdough" and "Sister, Sister" are both sales to Tartarus Press's very beautiful hard cover Strange Tales anthologies … and "Dresses Three" was the first story I wrote for a commission (Shimmer). I always love my main characters—that’s what makes me go on with the stories, just feeling so wrapped up in who they are. If I keep going I’ll just tell you why I love each one!
When crafting a story, what is typically the most difficult part for you? The easiest?
I think maybe the second draft is the worst for me. I’ve got ideas and skeletons on the page and then I need to flesh things out. It’s also the draft when you realize what doesn’t work and that this is where you need to let some much-loved images or plot points go. That can be hard, but if the story is obviously not working, you’ve just got to do it. It’s about finding the right doors in your story, the right corridors; the right place to enter and leave the story.
The easiest is that I generally know when a story is finished. I think I have an instinct for that. Some readers will say “But I wanted to know more about such and such.” That doesn’t mean you’ve done a bad job—it means you’ve engaged someone so much that they want more story! But I believe stories have a natural length, a natural place to finish, and it’s important to be able to feel where that is.
You've written many flash pieces for The Daily Cabal. How do you go about writing a piece of fiction with a limit of 400 words? Do you have any that don't make the cut or perhaps turn into longer works by accident?
When I joined the Cabal I was a bit worried about the 400. I’ve had several pieces published at Antipodean SF, but their limit for micro/flash is 500 words, so I really felt that was the lower limit for flash that worked. When I was writing Cabal pieces I found my natural length was about 700-900 words, so the discipline of editing back between 300 and 500 words was a hard one to learn. But it was a great discipline to learn and I think it has improved my editing and revision process a lot in general.
When I start to write a piece of micro-fiction sometimes I just begin with the end in mind and write backwards from there. For instance, with "Lantern," I had a picture in my head of a woman pushing a man off a cliff—don’t ask me why! I started thinking about smugglers and smugglers’ coves and ships being led astray. So, it ended up a smuggler’s tale.
I have some pieces that are going to end up with longer lives, such as "The Problem of Thorns," which has become part of a 6000 word story called "The Bones Remember Everything." "Sunday Drivers," which was my first Daily Cabal story, is being made into a short film in Sydney, preproduction is starting this week! My friend Mark Kassab loved the story, wrote it into a short script, then sent it to a friend of ours James Findlay (who’s a talented young filmmaker—his short Vend won Best Short Film in 2006 at the St Kilda Film Festival). That’s pretty exciting to see it having a life beyond the Cabal.
Tell us about your experience at Clarion South. Was there one thing you took away from it that was more valuable than anything else?
It was unique. How often do you get to spend six full weeks doing nothing but writing and eating and sitting around with other writers? I was so grateful to the tutors, who were all so generous and helpful and very collegial. I think the most valuable thing I learned was what kinds of advice to listen to and what kinds to ignore—because let’s face it, if you listen to everyone and try to please all sixteen voices in your head, you will kill your story. Yes, you will, it will cease to breathe or sing or even hiccup. It will stink up the room like a week-old corpse. I did a post about it closer to the time, which might be interesting to read – in fact, it might be interesting for me to re-read and re-visit sometime http://angelaslatter.com/2009/02/26/the-c
Who are a few of your literary influences? Who do you like to read for guilty pleasure?
Influences are definitely Angela Carter, Sheri S Tepper, Jane Gaskell, Aimee Bender and Kelly Link (she is the Queen). I’m also a big fan of China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer and Irish writer John Connelly. Guilty pleasure? Mmmmm, I don’t feel guilty about these at all: Robert Shearman (Tiny Deaths), Neil Gaiman (I must admit it’s only been a year since I started reading Neil), and Umberto Eco (yes, I am a nerd).
You're working on two novels at the moment. Could you tell us about those?
Well of Souls started as an historical fantasy set in the Crusades, but is morphing into a full fantasy story—mainly because I need to be freed of the tyranny of historical accuracy! A novel is a challenge for me as I’m an accomplished short story writer, so the new form is difficult… I get 10,000 words in and by my usual standards it should be finished!
The other one is a literary novel, Narrow Daylight, that’s for my PhD in Creative Writing. It’s about how suicide affects families, and is based on four Greek myths.
What's ahead for you? Where would you like to see your career in, say, five years?
In the immediate future, finishing the short story collection (Sourdough and Other Stories); finishing Well of Souls and Narrow Daylight.
In five years? I do hope to be a self-supporting writer with the ability to stay at home and write and to have a couple of novels under my belt. It’s not too much to ask, is it?