Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Interview: Kaaron Warren

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Kaaron Warren is an Australian writer currently living in Fiji. She has sold about 70 short stories, two short story collections and three novels. Her latest book is Slights.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what got you interested in speculative fiction, whether reading or writing in the field?

Thanks for inviting me along, Charles.

My Dad had a large science fiction collection, including Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Harry Harrison and quite a few collections of Nebula-winning stories. I loved them from an early age. I always preferred these stories to others (although I loved crime as well, starting with Enid Blyton and moving on to Agatha Christie) because of the unpredictability of the story, in part. I don’t like a story which follows an ordinary path. I like one full of surprises and new information.

I read horror comics from an early age and have always been attracted to the unseemliness of horror.

The stories I clip from the newspaper and from magazines are about the darker side of life or about the possibilities of the future. Some of my recent clippings are: “Dead, buried and still at work”, about the resomation process in disposing of dead bodies, “Din prompts louder songs” about city birds singing louder than country birds (I’m fascinated by the behaviour of animals in response to human behaviour), and a selection of obituaries and interviews with people who may inspire characters in the future. Millvina Dean was the last survivor of the Titanic. Jack Ross was Australia’s last World War 1 soldier. Often it’s one line which inspires me and sparks a story.

What were the challenges breaking into the industry?

Knowing where to send stories is a big challenge. It’s easier now with the internet, of course, but you still need to target your story to the right editor at the right time.

The first sale was the toughest in many ways. I waited a while for it! You think it’s never going to happen, and then it does, then off you go. Each sale helps the next, I think. You feel more confident, for one thing, and you are building a reputation. I remember my fourth or fifth sale; the editor said to me that he recognized my name and greatly looked forward to reading the story. What a wonderful moment that was! I don’t believe I’ve ever sold a story solely because of my reputation, though. I think every sale was hard-won and that the editor would not buy a story they didn’t love, just because they have heard of me.

Since you have a novel out, do you see yourself more of a short story writer, a novelist, or both? What in your opinion are the strengths of each?

I’m definitely both. I’m working on my fourth novel right now, as well as three short stories with ideas for dozens more. Some ideas belong in a novel, others in a short story. Some ideas work really well as a short, sharp shock without being stretched. If it’s a surpise ending I’m after, I’d rather use that in a short story. I feel ripped off if I read a whole novel to find a surprise ending. I know I said I like surprising novels, and I do. But I like the surprises spread out! I don’t want to read a whole novel with a small twist at the end which requires lots of concealment by the author.

How did Angry Robot Books become your publisher?

This is a story I love to tell and if I ever get invited onto Oprah, she’ll love it too!

When Angry Robot opened up shop, they asked some of the authors they’d worked with in the past to recommend writers to approach. Matthew Farrer, whose Warhammer novels are well-known and loved, had worked with Marc Gascoigne at Black Library. Matthew is a Canberran writer like I am (although I’m living in Fiji right now) and we had met a number of times and we respect and admire each other’s writing. He mentioned my name to Marc, who looked me up online and saw that I had a bit of a track record. When I emailed him to say I had three novels written and ready to go, he asked me to send them.

Fortunately, he loved all three and bought them on the spot. I had to go and get my husband to read Marc’s email because I truly thought I must have misread it. Wonderful, incredible moment.

So it was a combination of having an established publishing record, having made contact with another writer, and having three books ready to go. Two had been close to publication, but all sorts of things got in the way, such as a publisher closing down or an editor leaving.

In Slights, a good chunk of the novel is focused on family. Was this a conscious theme you wanted to tackle, or did it come out naturally?

This was a combination of deliberation and natural appearance. As I built the character, family really became important. I wanted to explore the idea that a family can appear to be solid and supportive but have undercurrents outsiders can’t see.

I’m also fascinated by the idea that everyone’s life is normal to them. How we acclimatize to almost any existence, make it ordinary. I admire that in the human spirit.

What were the challenges in writing a character like Stevie, who's not exactly the most sympathetic of protagonists?

I have to admit that most of my characters are fairly unlikable! I’m not sure why. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m considered a horror writer, because I force empathy for sometimes unpleasant people. Not many novels work with unlikable people. It’s one of the things you’re supposed to avoid.

I recently read The Kite Runner. It begins with the protagonist behaving shamefully and for a while I thought I was reading something new. But he turns out to be a good guy after all. Is it sad that I was disappointed? I kinda wanted him to remain irredeemable!

It’s a challenge to create any character, isn’t it? To keep them interesting and realistic.

Aside from Slights, you have other books that will be published by Angry Robot Books. Were they trunk novels, or were they written specifically with Angry Robot Books in mind?

All three were written over last fifteen years, but I wouldn’t consider them trunk novels.

Mistification was always going to be the case of finding the right publisher. I needed Angry Robot and their WTF requirement. This novel made the ‘top 22’ in the Australian-Vogel awards, a respected literary award, so I always knew it had something.

Slights would have been published a couple of years ago but the imprint of the publisher concerned shut down.

Walking the Tree was written here in Fiji and I finished it once Angry Robot Books opened their doors.

Let's talk about horror or dark fiction. What are you looking for in such a story? How about in your writing process, is there a technique or approach (i.e. plot, characterization) that you particularly favor?

When reading, I’m looking for strong (and I don’t mean strong physically or morally. I mean strongly built) characters who I’m interested in following through to the end. I want a true setting, not one contrived for its ‘scary’ setting. I’m wary of haunted house novels for that reason. I don’t think the setting is enough; there needs to be much more.

In my own writing, I definitely want both those things; strong character and setting. I always want that ‘something different’, the cause or motivation which gives me a reason to write. A character who’s a furniture maker, perhaps, or a local legend which gives me goosebumps. Or many of the articles I read in The Guardian newspaper which make me feel ill.

One of the most important things is not to hold back. I don’t mean to be ultra-violent or extreme for the sake of it, but if the story calls for a description which will make the reader feel a little nauseous, then you have to go there.

As someone who's lived in both Australia and Fiji, where is "home" for you?

At the moment, I say both. Home is where my family is. I make a home even if I stay for only one night. We’ve come to know and love Fiji and will always barrack for them at the Olympics, along with Australia.

However, the sense of homecoming we all feel when landing at Sydney Airport, and even more so when entering our home city of Canberra, is overwhelming. This is really important to me and to my husband and kids. That sense of place. Not everyone wants it, and a lot of people will actively avoid it. I can understand that, also, understand the freedom that provides.

How has travel affected you as a writer? How about the recent movement to explore other cultures and people of culture in genre fiction?

Living here has opened me up to new ideas, new contrasts and new understanding of the way people live. It’s broadened my mind, so that I’m now more open to other ways of life. I thought I was before, but now I’m more so.

My research informs me that your first published story goes back to 1993. How has Kaaron the writer today changed compared to back then?

That’s really a hard question to answer! I don’t think I’m much more confident than I was, though I do say I’m a writer when people ask what I do. As a person I’ve changed a lot, becoming a mother and all that entails. That has affected my writing to a certain extent, but not vastly. I do think in the same way as I did then. I still have the same sparks of ideas in the same way. I think I always wrote in a professional way, taking it very seriously.

What advice would you give your earlier self?

The only thing I’d really do differently is to be involved with the writing community much earlier. It’s only in the last 6 years I’ve had writing friends and gone to conventions. I wish I’d started much earlier and opened myself up to opportunities that way, met with my peers and been inspired by them.

When it comes to the Australian speculative fiction scene, how would you describe it?

I think it’s very strong and full of talent. We have at least three conventions every year in Canberra, Perth and Melbourne. We have a very strong blogging and online community. I find it supportive and exciting.

This is a link to the latest Australian Speculative Fiction Carnival, which links to blogs, interviews and news in Australian publishing. http://ozhorrorscope.blogspot.com/2009/06/news-australian-sf-blog-carnival-june.html

These are some of the Australian writers with upcoming novels and short story collections, and others who we’ll be hearing a lot more of:

Deb Biancotti (collection upcoming), Terry Dowling (collection upcoming), Gillian Polack (two novels upcoming), Tansy Rayner Roberts (three novels upcoming), Kirstyn Mcdermott (two novels upcoming), Shane Jiraiya Cummings (flash fiction collection), Paul Haines (two collections upcoming), Margo Lanagan (“Tender Morsels” was a Prinz Honor book), Richard Harland (“Worldshaker” novel released worldwide), Rowena Cory Daniells (novel upcoming), Justine Larbalestier (novel upcoming), Karen Miller (novels upcoming), Trent Jamieson (three novels upcoming), Peter Ball (stand-alone novella published), Rob Hood (novel upcoming). Then there’s Lucy Sussex, Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Simon Brown, Cat Sparks, Angela Slatter, Steph Campisi, Ben Peek, Kim Westwood, Martin Livings, Stephen Dedman… And there are many more writing and publishing professionally.

I read that your fiction has been adapted into other mediums (short film, plays). What's it like to have your writing "converted" to such formats? How involved were you in the process?

I wrote the first two screenplays for the movie which BearCage productions have nearly finished. That was a really interesting process, very different to that of writing a story. To have to think externally was tricky! You can’t have people thinking unless the whole thing is voice over and I wanted to avoid that. Instead, I wrote it so that we could see a lot of what was thought. I think the final version will have a small amount of voice-over. The story the movie is based on is “A Positive”.

There were two plays made of my stories, “The Glass Woman” and “The Sameness of Birthdays”. These were really readings with actions and my god, it was amazing to see. Anita Whelan, of Shadowmuse, pulled it all together and I loved sitting in the audience, hearing my own words.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read, write, live, observe, question, analyze.

Anything else you want to plug?

You can read all about me at



You can snaffle my recipe for the fabulous alcoholic drink Tail of the Monkey at Gillian Polack’s Food History website: http://by140w.bay140.mail.live.com/mail/TodayLight.aspx?n=503907083&wa=wsignin1.0&n=984250029

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