1. You're a recent graduate of Clarion South. What were the most important things you took away with you from the experience? How have you incorporated what you learned into your work since?
It's been just over a year since I got back from Clarion South, and even so I'm convinced that I'm still learning from the experience. Almost every time I go to set a scene, for example, I hear Jack Dann's distinctive voice telling me to 'Use the camera, kiddo,' to lay things out as if I was leading the reader through the setting with a video camera (and if that style of writing suits the story I'm working on, I now find I'm inclined to listen to this voice in my head...)
But mostly what I took away from those six weeks in Brisbane had little to do with writing technique, and everything to do with how I relate to the writing process. I learned that I will not always write a polished, perfect story in one week—but there's no reason why I can't come up with a decent draft in that time, and no reason why that draft can't be manipulated into something worthwhile with a bit more (often a lot more) editing and effort. Discovering that I could, under duress, write a version I wasn't completely ashamed to circulate for critique was also a great confidence-booster. Now I feel like I can take my stories much further—to fifth or sixth drafts—before asking for outside input; at the same time, Clarion has also reminded me how important it is to have other people read early versions of my work. Listening to eighteen opinions at once is probably fifteen too many to sustain for more than six weeks, but the small circle of trusted readers I now turn to for critiques has proven to be invaluable for my development as a writer.
The most enduring 'lesson' I've taken home from Clarion is that every author, writer, editor and publisher is a person with his or her own tastes, agendas, ideas and quirks—which means, of course, that sometimes my work will be a hit and sometimes a miss, or it'll be a hit with one person and a huge miss with someone else. Either way there is nothing I can do to influence my readers' opinions except try to make each story I write my best one, and try to send it to an appropriate venue for publication. Beyond that point, it's up to the Fates to decide and up to me to keep writing new pieces to occupy their time.
2. How do you juggle writing fiction with writing your PhD? What tips and tricks can you offer those of us struggling with life-work balance?
This is a tough question because I don't want to come across sounding like a motivational speaker, or like some self-help guru shouting, 'You can do it all, people!' from the rooftops. Instead, I'll run through what works for me, in the hope that at least some of you won't have Tony Robbins nightmares after reading this. Basically, what it all boils down to is: having a fair idea of what I want to achieve (and being realistic in my goals); being anal retentive about scheduling my time, which (believe it or not) helps me be more flexible; and being surrounded by supportive friends.
Like many writers, my ultimate goal is to write full time. At the moment, I do write full time—it just so happens that much of that writing is academic, and will probably only ever get read by two or three people in the whole world. Five, tops. Even so, I'm determined to finish my PhD not least because it will be enable me to apply for university positions when I graduate. In other words, it will hopefully continue to fund my fiction-writing, as it has for the past *ahem* four and a half years. (It should be pointed out that I actually do enjoy working in a university atmosphere – it's not all about the cash that goes hand-in-hand with scoring an academic job. Honest.) I also want to finish the thesis (aka The Albatross) because it is preventing me from working on longer works of fiction. I've got two novels in the works, but I simply cannot devote much time to them until I've ploughed my way through 100,000 words about medieval Iceland. So even though I really want to write the novels instead, I won't let myself dig into them completely until the thesis is done – otherwise I will never finish it. Recently, my incredible desire to rid myself of this project once and for all has been hugely motivating.
But a life without fiction is no life at all, as far as I'm concerned, so I've made a compromise with myself and it seems to be a productive one: I treat the PhD like a 9-5 job and keep the evenings and weekends free for writing short stories. After working on a huge project like my thesis for so long, it has been really satisfying writing short pieces that actually end. Also, by designating my free time to writing fiction, I find that I resent my thesis less than I used to – I know that if I put in a good day's work at the PhD office I'll be rewarded with an evening of 'fun writing' at home.
Actually, my juggling act has a lot to do with such rewards. I've got an internal nag, who sounds remarkably like me (except her Canadian accent is stronger and she tends to look like Catherine the Great), and she sits in my head and dangles various carrots just out of reach while I'm working on my thesis: 'Finish reading this super-boring book about theories of nationalism,' she says, 'and you can have the tomorrow off to work on a story,' and/or 'Squeeze 20,000 thesis words out this January, and you can take a week off to go to Brisbane for the Aurealis Awards,' and especially 'You can't check your email/Facebook/LJ until you've explained why it's significant that medieval Icelanders burn each other to death in their houses...' For me, this system of work=reward is sometimes the only reason why thesis words get written.
And sometimes the only reason why fiction gets written is because I jealously guard my free time. That's not to say that I'm always a hermit with no friends and no life outside of work. I've been very lucky that many of my friends are so supportive. They humour me when I don't want to go out on 'school nights' because that's when I write short stories. They turn a blind eye to the fact that I schedule my writing time in my diary—in pen!—and they are generous when I ask them to accommodate my agenda. I book 'dates' with my partner, sometimes weeks in advance, and 'dates' with my friends, and then I do my utmost to keep those dates. I write it all out in my diary, so that I can see when I'm supposed to be where, how long I've got to work on which project, which days can act as 'buffer zones' if things go awry, and at which points I'm meant to put all writing aside and focus on my loved ones. I realise that this sounds very mercenary of me, but I find deadlines—like rewards—to be great motivators. If I know in advance that I only have one evening in a given week to write fiction, then I'm less likely to waste it.
3. What are you currently working on? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
At the moment, I'm working on two collections of short stories. They're both untitled at this stage, but the first is based around the world and ideas I explore in 'The Good Window' (published in Fantasy Magazine in September 2009) and will consist of thirteen or fourteen interconnected pieces. This world is reminiscent of ours, except the people are at war with a group of entities they call the fée—or, at least, they think they are at war with them. Nobody has seen the fée for years, and yet battles rage unabated and the humans (civilian and soldier) have been left physically and emotionally transformed as a result.
I think of the second collection I'm working on as my 'bluegrass opera' – these stories are not interconnected, but they are all similar in tone, setting, and style so they'll hopefully sit nicely together. These pieces are where fairy tales and fantasy go a little bit country: snow-covered prairies, big-house plantations, housing trust settlements, and abandoned barns are prominent settings in these tales; the characters' hearts are sometimes bigger than their vocabularies, sometimes smaller than their moth-filled purses. Magic and superstition rule their lives, but they don't always make living life easier.
I've also got the two novels I mentioned earlier which, if all goes well with The Albatross, should be made a reality within a year. The first novel will most likely be one of a trilogy, and is tentatively called The Familiar. It centres on a young woman and her lunatic brother, a renegade witch, and the need to separate witch and woman without drawing undue attention—because the Puritan/steampunk society in which they live has zero tolerance for magic. The working title of the second novel is Steam—so of course it's going to be about dinosaurs. Or not. ;-)
4. Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year? What have you enjoyed reading?
I'd just like to see some Aussies on the list, full stop. I absolutely loved Peter M. Ball's 'On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk' (published in Strange Horizons last July) – actually, I'm a fan of most of Peter's short stories so it would be great to see him recognised. Angela Slatter's work is superb and also deserves recognition, and I've enjoyed reading Trent Jamieson's stories, and Jason Fischer's work, and Kirstyn McDermott's short pieces... and, and, and... so many others.
5. Will you be at Aussiecon 4 in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to about it?
Yes, I'll definitely be there in September. I'm really excited about it because (dare I admit this?) I have never been to a *real* con before. I can't wait to catch up with friends, but also to meet new people; to celebrate the wonderful Australian book launches that are scheduled for the con; oh yeah, and to go to the sessions. Of course. I wouldn't possibly go to a con just to schmooze and go to the bar, would I? (Don't answer that.)
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