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Tabula Rasa

Kim Noir

An interview with Kim Wilkins

by Kyla Ward, 2002

Kim Wilkins photoKim Wilkins appears on the back of her first novel The Infernal wearing a garland of roses. The book won the 1997 Aurealis Awards for both Horror and Fantasy. The praise continued for Grimoire, her second novel in 1999. Copies of her third novel, The Resurrectionists, appeared in Dymocks book stores as a guaranteed good read, "Better than Anne Rice or your money back!" Her fourth novel, Angel of Ruin won the 2001 Aurealis Award for horror. And that's just in Australia; all her novels have also been released in the United Kingdom and Europe. This year she has also released the first two volumes in a projected young adult trilogy concerning Gina Champion, teenage psychic.

She is a woman writing large novels with a horrific, gothic bent. She does dress well and often in black. But Kim Wilkins comes from Brisbane and she is neither clichè nor clone. She is a writer, as was amply demonstrated when we asked her about the magic of words.

Tabula Rasa: Not that I'm really expecting to be cursed by reading an Aurealis Award winner, but do you feel that words have power?

Kim Wilkins: Anyone who has ever cried reading Tennyson's "Tithonus," or had nightmares after reading Salem's Lot, or been unable to put down Matt Reilly's Ice Station has to believe in the power of words. They're just black marks on a white page, you know, and yet they have the power to affect us so profoundly, to create visions and invoke smells and sounds, to move us in unexpected ways. Beyond fiction, dictatorships rise and fall on the power of language; it's one of the greatest forces in human experience. To write about people using words to perform magic is simply to make a metaphor out of the truth.

TR: So, how long have you been writing? (the inevitable question)

KW: No, it's a good question. I get asked it so often that I've been forced to think very seriously about the answer. The truth is, I don't remember a time when I didn't. I always made up stories, and to be able to write them down was a skill I developed early. My mother still has a copy of a little book (10 pages) I wrote when I was 5. But I know it wasn't the first story I told. Actually, Mum recently revealed to me that she read to me in the womb, so perhaps I was just born into storytelling, like a default setting.

Kim Wilkins photoTR: Are any of those high school incidents in the Gina Champion books true? They ring true.

KW: God, I can't remember high school. I've repressed most of it. It was hell.

TR: Your first published novel, and first Aurealis Award, was The Infernal in 1997. An out and out horror novel, at a time when Australian publishers had released practically nothing in the field for years. How did that happen? What do you think it was?

KW: I think it had a lot to do with my agent, Selwa Anthony. She saw the potential in the book and the gap in the market and she pushed it and pushed it. I know that she kept highlighting the Anne Rice angle, even though I've never (and will never, as God as my witness) written about vampires. She knew that there was room for a dark, erotic story out there. I think also there was room for a woman to try the field; it had been very male-dominated until then. Women (fortunately or unfortunately, I don't know which) are more promotable as personalities than men. Trouble was, I ended up with the "madam of horror" tag which I'm still trying to shake.

TR: I've described The Infernal as a horror novel because of the elements of reincarnated serial killers and black magic. But how do you feel about the genre label?

KW: Yeah, okay, that's what it is. It's horror, of course it is. But I really hate the word because it doesn't describe to the average reader what my books are about. They think it's blood and guts and skeletons with eyeballs and so on. I call my books "supernatural thrillers" most often, but terms I also use include "gothic fantasy," "dark fantasy," and (my favourite) "gothic bodicerippers." I'm still waiting for someone to describe my work as Stephen King collaborating with the Brontė sisters. There's such a strong feminine element, and often a strong historical element, and horror as a term isn't elastic enough to cope with those extra elements.

Grimoire coverTR: And how would an 'erotic' label sit? Following on from The Infernal, Grimoire, The Resurrectionists and Angel of Ruin all have a very sensual element. Is this difficult to sustain amidst the horror?

KW: I like the romance element of any book, so sex always becomes part of my stories. Also, sex is such a pressure point for characters and, if you've noticed, nobody ever really has happy, mutually satisfying, straightforward, healthy sex in my books. It's always an opportunity to reflect on power, or on the problems of desire, or on the limits of fantasy. I think because erotica and horror are both designed to produce a physical response they go very well together. And always have. Mrs Radcliffe knew that back in the 18th century when she sent Schedoni in to finish off Ellena with a dagger, and he had to part her nightgown over her sleeping bosom to press the point in.

TR: Each of these books also has a strong historical element. What does it take to feel comfortable working in a historical setting, as you clearly are?

KW: I love history and can imagine myself into it very easily. I love reading old journals and letters, which provide such a fabulous insight into everyday life. I also love old maps, and find they help me orient myself in a historical city. I had a London map from directly before and directly after the Fire for my research in Angel of Ruin, for example. I'm constantly fascinated by how people just like you or me coped with the various aspects of their own lifetimes. For me, access to a historical period is always via the characters. History isn't just an abstract assortment of anonymous facts, it was experienced in a very material way on the minds and bodies of real people.

TR: I have heard it said that your books thus far have a formula; that is, they share a basic structure that is observable even in the Gina Champion series. Care to comment? Do you set out to write a certain kind of novel?

KW: First, I know who said that.

The Gina Champion books most definitely have a formula. I need to keep them short and write them quickly, so I set out to write 12 chapters, and develop the story to very specific limits which are attached to the chapters. It's just self-preservation, and it's not "uncreative" because it's my own formula. It's fun, it's a challenge, like doing a cryptic crossword: "can I get character A to do action B by the end of chapter 5?"

As for my adult books, which is where my heart and soul are invested, there's no way that they are written to a formula, not even for the purposes of intellectual challenge. They brew very deeply within me, and they come out the way they do because that's the way the story wants to tell itself. Obviously I'm very interested in how the past and the present interact, so they often have a historical subplot; which I guess is the reason they might be called formulaic. But then, most genres can be called formulaic if you want to be picky about it. They work with conventions and tropes which are recognisable and familiar. My work is very clearly positioned within a sub-genre, which is the supernatural thriller with the historical element. There are dozens of other writers doing that, not just me: Anne Rice, Barbara Erskine, Diana Gabaldon, Tom Holland, Phil Rickman and so on. Also, structure is very important for a good story. I pay a lot of attention to structure as a way of achieving the kind of pace I want my stories to have. But it's not a formulaic structure unless you want to say "beginning, middle, end" is a formula. They're the elements of any story.

Most importantly on this point, I never write for cynical reasons: for the money, or for the market, or because my publishers or my readers expect a certain product from me. I write from a profound and undeniable passion for the act of writing, for the story I'm telling, for the characters who people it. If I set out to write a "certain kind of novel," it is "the novel that I absolutely must write or I may die." That's the only valid reason to write any story.

TR: Do your adult novels, as distinct from Gina Champion, share a continuum of any kind? Certainly, all are set in a universe of magical potential.

KW: No, they're all over the place. Satan's real, Satan's not real, Satan's a bad guy with horns, Satan's a pretty boy with scars. The magical coherence of the universe isn't that important to me. Perhaps if I had a strong conviction about how the universe worked I'd be more committed to consistency on this point. But the joy of being a writer of stand-alone books as opposed to endless series is that you don't have to set them in a consistent universe. Again, all that's really important is that your characters are believably human.

TR: Have there ever been repercussions from your depiction of the occult, from either the pro or no camps?

KW: No, not really. One Satanist got a bit upset with me for making his dark master appear a bit more amoral than immoral. One student in a university course that set The Infernal refused to sit the exam unless she didn't have to answer questions about it. That's about it. I think at first, with all the media stuff around The Infernal, people thought I might really be a witch or a goth or both. I'm neither, I'm just an ordinary girl who does her research as thoroughly as she can. My readers are realising that now, and don't expect me to have definitive answers one way or the other about the occult.

TR: Do you have any favourites amongst your characters, any main or supporting cast members that you particularly enjoyed?

KW: My favourite character is Maisie from The Resurrectionists. She's really such a miserable middle-class white girl, isn't she? But I love that I got her to carry the book. Men have been allowed to be miserable and middle-class and white since Byron. I also love her because she embodies a whole side of myself which I've since shed (partly through the process of writing the book). I suffered for many years from melancholia and depression, and dissatisfaction and desire. It was very stimulating and challenging for me to try to get that all down in words. The Resurrectionists is my favourite book, btw. I know I've written better books, but it's still my favourite.

Other characters I enjoyed writing? Prudence, of course, from Grimoire. Gina is enormous fun to write. And writing about John Milton as "dad" in Angel of Ruin was fabulous. He just wouldn't stay a minor character; he was so compellingly arrogant and horrid and yet pitiable.

Fireheart coverTR: As I've been referring to the Gina Champion series all along, I think it's time to ask you how you made the jump to writing specifically for young adults. What is different?

KW: I loved teenage sleuths as a child. Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Donna Parker, Meg, all the girls in Misty comics. I'd always had this idea in the back of my head for a clever, new millennium version of the teen sleuth, with psychic powers. My agent often asks me what ideas I have in the back of my head and she liked this one and sold it very quickly. The difference is that I don't get as emotionally invested in the Gina Champion books. They're very fun and light, whereas my adult books get a bit dark and serious. I made a vow that I would never "write down" to a young audience, and really they're just good stories that happen to have a fifteen-year-old narrator. Children and teenagers aren't a different species of people, they're just people with less experience of the world. And obviously the books are a lot shorter. I can knock them out in six weeks of concentrated effort. I really have a lot of trouble keeping the word count under control, so it's very challenging for me.

TR: I understand that there is one more Gina Champion novel to come, and that you are currently working on an adult trilogy. Can you give us a hint of what is in store?

KW: There are two Ginas out there Bloodlace and Fireheart (just released) and a third coming out in October Moonstorm. As yet, there are no firm plans about Gina's future, but I have plenty of ideas. The trilogy (The Europa Suite) is not a traditional trilogy: the books all stand alone. They are linked only by the fact that they are all based around myths and folktales of Northern Europe (specifically, Germany, Scandinavia and Russia). I'm half finished the first The Autumn Castle, which I think is to be published in June next year. Then Giants of the Frost and The Snow Witch will come out about a year apart after that in a perfect world. I don't know how adequately I'm going to manage that, as I'm expecting a baby in September and I'm told that babies are not at all like cats and require quite a lot of attention. Is that right?

TR: You have actually received a literary grant to complete this trilogy. If you don't mind me asking, how did this happen? Do you think it means anything in terms of recognition of speculative fiction in Australia?

KW: Anyone can apply for a grant from the Australia Council, so I did. I laid out the project in clear and simple terms, expressed my passion for it, and emphasised its originality, its freshness, and its potential for both completion and publication. The Australia Council liked it and agreed to help fund it. This is marvellous, as it means that I can be a full-time writer for a while and really shift gears in my craft, which has suffered in the past from lack of time and energy. I think the fact that genre writers are getting funding and are being asked to assist with assessment of funding applications is a very positive development, both in terms of lifting the profile of SF, and encouraging excellent and unique projects.

TR: Have you/would you ever consider writing non-fiction?

KW: Yes, in fact. The book I want to write after the Europa Suite is non-fiction, but I have to go live in the Orkney Islands for a year to do it! Apart from that, I have written a lot of critical stuff in my other incarnation as a post-grad student and lecturer, and that's all a bit dull. It's much more fun to make it up.

TR: And finally, what about the power of music? I've seen the photo of you and your old band, the Vampigs, and I know music is something that's hard to get out of the blood

KW: Ah, the power of music. Even greater than the power of words. J. S. Bach noted that music moves the affections, and he was absolutely right. My partner is a musician of many talents and diverse successes, and our house is immersed in it constantly. We've been playing Richard Strauss's 'Four Last Songs' to our unborn son since his tiny ears have formed. I think music's the greatest gift you can give another human being, and I am highly suspicious of anybody who doesn't love music. Writing keeps me alive, and music reminds me I'm alive.

TR: Kim Wilkins, thank you for your time.


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