Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Interview: Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter is a Brisbane-based writer of speculative fiction. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies such as Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again, Tartarus Press’ Strange Tales II, Twelfth Planet Press’ 2012, Dirk Flinthart’s Canterbury 2100, and in journals such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer, ONSPEC and Doorways Magazine. Her work has had several Honourable Mentions in the Datlow, Link, Grant Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies #20 and #21; and two of her stories have been shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards in the Best Fantasy Short Story category.

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

I've always had a lot of fantasy/science fiction in my reading lists. I blame my mother for starting me on fairytales as a child and the traumatising effects of 'The Little Match Girl' . A few years ago when I was looking for a topic to do my Masters (Research) on, I thought about the idea of reloading fairytales as Angela Carter did in the seventies ('The Bloody Chamber' in particular) and Emma Donoghue ('Kissing the Witch') did recently - and as a lot of women have done over time. Those two were simply the ones I decided to study for the exegetical component. The creative work was a collection of 9 reloaded fairytales, called 'Black-Winged Angels'. I guess you just find your natural genre and this seems to be mine. I love the interplay of reality and confounded expectations, of imagination and flights of fancy that make up the spec-fic field. It's exciting to take a holiday in someone else's head!

What made you decide to transition from reader to writer?

I've scribbled all my life. I moved to Sydney at one point for 4 years and didn't write at all - but I guess it was just a long period of percolation! I moved back to Brisbane to "be a writer" and started a graduate diploma in creative writing - so I officially made the shift in 2004. Why did I do it? I was just in love with writing (still am) and making stories and I don't think I ever thought I'd be published, I just wanted to write and get the stories out. I wanted to learn how to mould the story into the right shape; I supposed getting published was just jam! :-) And maybe, I just had to get the stories out to stop my head from exploding :-)

How has living in Sydney and Brisbane influenced your writing?

I don't know that it has, honestly. Mostly when I write I use a kind of a European setting. I don't think I took much in from my Sydney period. Although, Brisbane has produced/influenced two stories, I guess: 'The Jacaranda Wife', in Jack Dann's Dreaming Again anthology (the jacaranda tree in my backyard was the inspiration); and 'I Love You Like Water', in the Twelfth Planet Press 2012 anthology (which was inspired by the awful drought we were experiencing - and looks like we'll experience again soon - in Southeast Queensland).

What made you decide to apply for Clarion?

Ah, the first time around it was my Masters supervisor encouraging me. I got in for the 2007 round of Clarion South, but couldn't go due to work and financial pressures. The second time because Kate and Rob the convenors yelled at me until I did it :-). So I did CS in 2009. It was a unique learning experience and the chance to be a writer fulltime for 6 weeks were, I guess, huge motivating factors in applying.

What was the most important lesson you learned at Clarion?

What advice to listen to and what advice to ignore. That sometimes even if you really don't agree with something, if 3 people or more have made the comment then you should probably look at it and consider making some changes. When to recognise that a comment is about making the story better technically or whether it's simply another person's preference for how they would have either written or liked to have had the story end.

What would you say is the biggest difference between you as a writer pre-Clarion and post-Clarion?

Oh, awful question. It's not been a year since I got out of Clarion South. When I first came out (which sounds like getting out of therapy, I guess), I'd say I was a less confident writer - the 16 extra voices in your head make things a bit difficult. I'd say now that I'm a more confident writer and that I have a great ability to write a story from a much slimmer idea or inspiration than I used to have. Maybe it's like a 'write on command' thing?

Heh. Does that mean it's easier for you to write nowadays? Or did you stop believing in "Writer's Block"?

Honestly, I don't think I ever really believed in "writer's block" - I think it's a blanket term for "lazy and/or scared". As a writer, you're always worried you'll get it wrong ... but that's what drafts and the editing process are for, to craft and re-work your prose. I think it's Kevin J Anderson who says "You can edit shit, you can't edit nothing", so even if the inner critic is saying "OMG, that is the worst sentence in the history of writing", just keep writing. You can always go back and edit it on the next pass. And when it's actually on paper or screen it's much easier to see what's wrong with it. And the bottom drawer technique also helps to give some perspective - put your story in the bottom drawer for a couple of weeks, work on other stuff, don't think about the story because things will be percolating in the back-brain. Then when you come back to it, you'll often find things are a lot clearer "Oh, of course, that's what I need! A pony with fangs!"

How about the Internet, how has it affected your writing career, or keeping in touch with your fellow Clarion students?

Mmmmm, it's certainly put a lot of carrier pigeons out of work and now you can get rejected faster! Internet has meant that there are extra markets in some ways - but with the recent closing of a lot of print mags, I'm starting to wonder if all we'll be left with are the Internet magazines. In terms of keeping in contact with fellow Clarionites, it's very handy. Also for keeping in contact with friends who are scattered across the world, again, very handy. And there is of course the weird sensation of making friends with people you've never physically met - like t'inter-friends. Sometimes I do make a point of actually picking up the phone to talk to friends so my social skills don't atrophy entirely. I think it's important to do that so when you do actually see someone face-to-face you remember how to talk to them with your mouth and not just by typing something witty.

Uh oh. I guess that means I should brush up on my social skills! Anyway, a lot of your published work is short fiction. What's the appeal of the format for you?

Ah, I suppose it's what I cut my teeth on. Also, when I get an idea, it's generally one I can see the end of - that is, I know how the story finishes. I enjoy the challenge of honing fiction down to being able to do the most with the least number of words. That's kind of why I enjoy doing The Daily Cabal stories - it's always a challenge to get a 900 word story down to a 400 word story and still keep a workable narrative intact. Why did I start on short stories? They just seemed manageable! But now in order to go on to the novel, I've realised I need to forget most of what I know about writing and start learning again - except for the spelling and the grammar parts.

Since you brought up the novel, what made you decide to finally start writing one?

Ah, the idea I came up with was too big for a short story or a novella. It keep pushing out the boundaries every time I thought I'd stuffed it into the shape I wanted. And the characters kept talking and meeting other characters ... it's become like an out of control New Year's Party you have when your parents are away. Maybe it was that the picture I had in my head for the beginning was so different from what was in my head as the ending ... on a chessboard you start out in one place, end up in another ... the novel is like a really big chess game with extra squares.

What are some examples of the adjustments you had to make when transitioning from writing short stories to novels?

Digging down into characters' emotions. I had a chat with the awesome Karen Miller who read over the first draft of part of the novel and she showed me the spots where I'd missed those emotional depths. In a short story - it's like an impressionist painting - you sketch details and let the reader's imagination work on the hints you've given (or maybe that means my work is actually best viewed from a distance, squinting!). With a novel, it's a Renaissance masterpiece, everything is carefully detailed (in a "showing-not-telling" manner, of course :-)) - you dig down and excavate the layers of the tale and of the emotions of your characters much more deeply. At least, that's the adjustment for me. And I'm still adjusting and learning as I go. I think writing a fantasy novel is a very steep learning curve for me - some days I think I'm trudging up Mt Doom carrying both Sam and Froddo - and they've both been eating a lot.

You seem to be connected with various Australian publishers. What's the publishing industry there like?

Oh that's a big question. I will try to give a small controlled answer! We have arms of the big publishers here (like HaperCollins, Hachette, Random House, etc), we also have some awesome smaller presses like Sleepers and Scribe. The issue for Australia is our smaller population - we just don't have the same size market as the US, so that contributes to books being a bit more expensive here. That said, we are one of the highest book buying per capita countries in the world - which is nice.

We have a few good little spec-fic presses, like Twelfth Planet, which regualrly punches above its weight. There is also Pulp Fiction Press, which is awesome - I do some work for them at the end stage of a book's journey. I am variously known as The Polisher or The Eviscerator. Why do I work for them? Because I admire their commitment to producing the best book they can and making sure a story is the best it can be in and of itself.

It's a healthy industry, I think is what I'm saying! And no, I'm not saying anything about the recent parallel imports debacle as it's been widely and openly discussed for months. Okay, I will say "In your face, Productivity Commission!"

Any projects that you're currently involved with?

Yes, but if I told you I'd have to kill you.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Learn your craft. Take advice. Learn that a worthwhile, well-considered crit isn't about you, it's about making your story the best it can be. Read a lot because it's part of the learning process, but make sure you work out how to write your own thing, using your own voice instead of re-writing The Lord of the Rings.

Anything else you want to plug?

Did I plug something before? Nope :-) But thanks so much for the chance to do an interview! And thanks for questions that made me think - although I know it's hard to tell! :-)

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