Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview: K.J. Bishop

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

K.J. Bishop is the author of the novel The Etched City and has won awards such as the Ditmar Award for Best Novel and Best New Talent.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what is it about speculative fiction that interests you?

I seem to be reading more real-world fiction these days. But when I write, my mind seems to want to be fantastical. It's hard to say why, because it isn't a conscious choice. I suspect a taste for the sensational is part of it. It might be that fantastical elements help me to organise my thoughts, by acting as archetypal or mythical magnets around which emotional and cognitive material can accrue. There's also the surreal factor. The mind is a strange place, and I like to express that strangeness directly, which produces oddness in my writing -- like taking my brain out of my head and making a sort of potato-print with it on the paper.

In several interviews, you mentioned that you started writing in your 20's. What initially made you decide to foray into fiction, and what motivated you to keep at it?

Gwynn, who became the main character in The Etched City, had been in my mind for a long time, in various guises, and I'd occasionally written fragments about him, just for the idle pleasure of it. When I started surfing the web I found this picture, which is Sidney Sime's illustration for Lord Dunsany's story How One Came As Foretold to the City of Never, and that was it. I think the picture somehow pulled together influences from books I'd been reading around that time -- Viriconium, A Rebours, various Decadent writings -- and I saw this strange city on top of a huge cliff, with Gwynn there in an opium den with two lesbian swordswomen, and I wrote "The Art of Dying" about the three of them. The Australian speculative fiction magazine Aurealis published the story, and the next one I wrote, which encouraged me to think that perhaps I could write something longer. I was curious about Gwynn's backstory, so I started exploring it, and that became The Etched City. (I've just read the Dunsany story for the first time now, and I think it's funny that it starts off describing a kid in the English countryside who ends up in a world of wonder, because I think of Gwynn as being, underneath his layers of gunslinger and dandy and warrior from Ultima Thule, a schoolboy who dreamed of wild adventures and got them.)

As for keeping at it, I almost didn't. I didn't have any other books bursting to come out. But it was either go back to university and upgrade my qualifications, or try to do something more with writing. But I discovered that I couldn't just sit down and make more novels come, and I also discovered that the solitude of attempted full-time writing drove me crazy, so now I teach English as a foreign language and write in my spare time. I keep writing because characters still come into my head and prompt me to blacken paper on their behalf, and every now and then I actually finish something to their satisfaction and mine. If they stop turning up, I'll stop writing.

What was the most difficult hurdle you had to overcome before getting published?

Finishing a book! Seriously. On the story side of things, I sold "The Art of Dying" on the first go -- which was an unusual piece of good luck for a first-time writer. With The Etched City, I was again lucky in how soon the book found a publisher, and in the kindness of people who helped get it there. I first tried to sell it back in, I think, 2000, but not very seriously -- I only tried a couple of publishers. Geoff Maloney critiqued the book thoroughly, stopped me taking it down a path that wouldn't have worked, and recommended Prime Books, who gave me a contract and the luxury of rewriting for about a year with Trent Jamieson as editor. After Prime published it, Jeff VanderMeer and Jeff Ford were kind enough to show it to their agent, who then sold it to Bantam and Tor UK. A funny thing is, while I was writing the book, a psychic told me that she was hearing the name "Geoff /Jeff" in my future. On my own, I think I would have given up far too soon. I didn't know how to go about looking for agents, for starters. But the Internet is much bigger now, and we're all better connected. Selling your work might not have gotten any easier, but at least it should be easier to do reconnaissance about who to try to sell it to.

You're a widely-traveled person. How has your travels affected your writing?

Travelling gives me ideas for locations, and sometimes for characters and situations. A less than fabulous holiday in Morocco provided a fair bit of material for The Etched City (cloud and silver lining, there you go), and the experience of wandering in Cairo inspired "We the Enclosed", my story in Leviathan 4.

Where is home for you? (And this doesn't have to be a geographical place.)

Morningtown, many miles away ;-)

Some of your fiction, including your novel The Etched City, revolves around cities. What is it about them that fascinate you?

I don't know that cities per se fascinate me, but I could hardly help being inspired by places like Rome and Cairo and Fez when I was a tourist in them. And Melbourne, where I grew up, is another inspiring city. Not so old, of course, but it has wonderfully extravagant Victorian bits and good little poky alleys. But lately my imagination has been more interested in small towns and rural settings. And seaside resorts. I'd love to write something in a seaside town.

Since you're also an artist, is there a creative overlap between writing and drawing for you?

A bit. When I'm interested in a character, I often want to draw them. And I think I think like a person who draws a lot. I've always drawn pictures; it's a lifelong hobby and a means of self-soothing. Unlike words, pictures lack the dimension of time; its all there at once. Of course, you can take time to look at it; but the viewer brings the element of time, it isn't in the work. And when I write, I'm happiest writing with the "time" channel turned off. I'm drawn to slowness, pages where nothing happens, and then I'll make a jump to the next scenic point (where I might force something to happen, even if I'd rather just write about the sky or people's clothing). I don't always write like that, but it's what I enjoy doing.

What kind of satisfaction do you get from fiction that you can't get from art? How about vice versa?

With fiction, you can create virtual people. You can conjure the semblance of personality. I find that very satisfying, once the thing's actually working. And I enjoy discovering a work as I write it (if I discover it; I make a lot of forays that go nowhere). But I find the process of art much more immediately satisfying. The body and the mind are involved together, which is pleasant, and can be meditative. And I don't judge my art the way I judge my writing. I tend to enjoy looking at pictures I've made whether they're any good or not, whereas I'm very critical of my own writing. I think my drawing mind is still well connected to the memory of childhood pleasure, whereas my writing mind grew out of the world of school and work and takes its attitudes from there.

What does it feel like to have your novel translated in many languages?

Awesome. It feels like a great privilege, and I've been fortunate to have some very dedicated translators. From things a couple of overseas readers have said, I suspect some of the translations are better than the original.

I hear you're working on a short story collection. Can you tell us more about it?

It's all spec fic, of assorted sorts, mainly fantasy, with a fair dollop of surreal, and there are a few poems that I'd also like to include. At the moment I'm revising the work and knocking it into shape. Most of the tidying of older material isn't giving me too much trouble, except for "The Art of Dying", which has about 7 versions, and I'm not completely pleased with any of them. I'll probably be fiddling with that one till the day I die! Since nearly all the material I want to include as been published before I also want to write a couple of new stories specifically for the collection.

How did you decide which stories will be included in your upcoming short story collection?

I haven't decided yet. It'll depend on how the new stories turn out, and I expect the publisher will have some input too.

Since you had to edit The Etched City and some of your short stories more than once, what's the process like, editing work that's previously been published? Are there any trepidations?

There's no trepidation. I actually quite like giving old work a new coat of paint. The re-editing of The Etched City didn't come all that long after the first edit -- I think it was only a year or eighteen months -- so it was still quite fresh in my mind, and I welcomed the opportunity to polish it up. But a lot more time has gone past since I wrote some of these stories, and my tastes have changed. I've gotten less gothic, so I have to balance the urge to turn down the dial of portentousness with realistic acceptance of how far a story can be bent before it turns into something else.

Which is more comfortable for you: novel-length fiction or short stories?

I'd have to say short stories, since I've only managed novel-length fiction once so far. But I'm working on another novel with another writer, Preston Grassmann, and the partnership has made the going easier -- not to mention that when there's two of you, you can't say, 'Hey, let's go back home.'

Have you ever considered doing a comic or a graphic novel?

I've written 60-something pages of a very daft doujinshi (autodoujinshi?) called Ecchi no City.
As anyone looking at the art and layout will note, I'm not remotely up to doing a proper piece of visual storytelling! But if I ever level up enough, sure, I'd definitely consider doing something with pictures.

How has the Internet affected your life creativity-wise?

Well, research is a lot easier now. So is procrastination. I like to think I've come out about even. I also like to think I'm a tall, rich, gorgeous rock star with a pet leopard.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Look after your physical, mental and financial health, because the writing life can be bad for all three. Or just accept that you're going to be mad, poor and sick -- whichever works for you!

Advice for aspiring artists?

I was a web designer for a while and I've done the odd book cover, but I wouldn't call myself an artist and I'm not really in a position to give advice. Better ask Leonardo da Vinci.

Anything else you want to plug?

Last Drink Bird Head, a fabulous anthology of flash fiction for literacy charities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I'm a dim light in the galaxy of contributors. I'd also like to mention Halo Evolutions, an anthology of tales from the Halo Universe, which features a collaboration between VanderMeer and Australian writer Tessa Kum, whose short fiction I've been enjoying for years. And slated to be published early next year is Baggage, an Australian speculative fiction anthology from Eneit Press, to which Tessa and I are both contributors. Quoting the editor, Gillian Polack, "It's all about the stuff we carry with us, inside us, especially that which we brought with us to Australia." I think it's a fascinating project, something well out of the ordinary. I also have a couple of stories coming out next year, one in Subterranean Magazine ("The Heart of a Mouse") and one in Fantasy Magazine ("Saving the Gleeful Horse").


Unknown said...

Hi :)
Thank you for the excellent interview with KJ Bishop. I am glad you introduced me to KJ here. I really enjoyed learning about KJ and KJ's writing. Thank you for sharing KJ.
All the best,

Emera said...

Very enjoyable interview! I always love seeing more from the mind of K. J. Bishop.