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Tabula Rasa

Things With Great, Black Wings

An Interview with Kyla Ward

by Charles Lovecraft and J. T. Ross

originally printed in Eye of Fire #2, August 2010

Kyla Ward portraitKyla Ward is a full-time freelance writer and actor. She is a member of the Theatre of Blood repertory company and an associate of James Adam's Historic Enterprises. Her formal studies are a B.A. Communications, Hons. Prismatic (Lothian Books, 2006), a novel that she co-authored as "Edwina Grey" with David Carroll and Evangelos Paliatseas, won Best Horror Novel at the 2007 Aurealis Awards and was shortlisted for the 2007 Ditmar Award for Best Novel. Since 1999 several of her short stories have been short listed or received honourable mentions for Australian horror and fantasy awards. Ward's "hobby" interests give a clue to the amazing diversity of her creative portfolio; they include art, film, history, herbalism, medieval re-enactment/combat sport, occultism, and role-playing games. Ward lives in Sydney with her partner and sometime co-author, David Carroll, and with "Mickey and Mallory the natural-born killers (of catnip mice)." Her website is http://www.tabula-rasa.info

How would you describe your field of literary/artistic interest?

Why, as all the dark arts!

What first inspired your interest in this field?

As near as anyone can tell, I was born with an obsessive interest in the supernatural and macabre. My mother, delightful lady that she is, kept all my workbooks and projects from kindergarten on. Amongst these is a writing exercise where our class of six year olds were given the start of a story, about a kangaroo who jumped so high he passed out of sight through the clouds. We had to finish it by saying where he landed. Well, in my case it was a cemeterry (sic) containing a lurid green ghost who caught him and put him in a dungeon from which he escaped by climbing through a hole, in the company of an attractive lady kangaroo. I wrote a poem describing a witches sabbat when I was eight; not witches in a gingerbread house, an actual sabbat. And there weren't books on mythology and the occult lying around our (mildly intellectual, presbyterian) household. I sought them out.

How did you get into this field and how did you learn your art?

As you may have gathered from the above, I have been writing short stories and poetry, and attempting novels since forever. Like anyone else, I learned initially through intuition and imitation. That collection of workbooks and projects? The Lord of the Rings hit like a bomb. At the same time, I seldom reproduced a straight storyline; at least, not without strange, personal twists.

I won awards for writing in high school (the Fellowship of Australian Writers Short Story Competition among others), which were added to the tally of my crimes by the majority. My friends grew sick of being asked to read the new story or the next bit of novel, and even sicker of appearing in thin disguise. My parents and teachers stopped considering my obsessions cute and began to worry. Once I get my YA novel published, you'll be able to read all about it.

I undertook two units of formal writing tuition during my degree, being Writing I and Scriptwriting. Neither impressed me, due to the fact that the tutor for one seemed to me perpetually stoned and no one else in the other was attempting traditional narrative, let alone dark fantasy (I treasure a friend's description of the "lit-fic" of the time as Glebe-cappuchino-fuck). But it was nonetheless at university that I began submitting pieces for publication, in the company of my sometime co-author and the wonderfully supportive denizens of the Gargoyle Club. I had absolutely no modesty and the first submission I recall making was to an Ellen Datlow anthology. So followed my first rejection, then rewriting, writing something else, appearances in fanzines, co-editing the fanzine Tabula Rasa, many, many more rejections; then Bloodsongs takes a poem, Australian Realms runs an article, Aurealis buys that first complete story... it's like climbing a winding staircase, step by step, up a very tall stone tower.

What are your aspirations in the practice of your art?

When I reach the top, I believe there will be things with great, black wings to bear me away.

Would you tell us about some of your publications, including the novel for which you won an Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel in 2006?

Prismatic coverPrismatic is the Thing That Should Not Have Been. It had three authors and was written within the space of two months because that was the window for submissions to the Lothian Books dark suspense line. How that could have resulted in a manuscript, let alone an Aurealis Award, is still beyond my comprehension. I do like Prismatic; it has an awesome concept and I'm delighted with how it turned out, especially the way the three timelines coil round each other, tighter and tighter as the book goes on. There still isn't much about that kicks up Australia's past like we did; maybe James Bradley's The Resurrectionist or Christos Tsiolakis's Dead Europe. The darker side of Sydney in particular is vast, fascinating and surprisingly under-utilised in fiction. I'm trying to correct that with Necromance.

Of the others, I'm especially proud of "Australian Gargoyles" and fond of "Mary." "Australian Gargoyles" was a research project I commenced completely on spec in 2004, while I was off work with bilateral tendonitis (at that time, a legal secretary). I couldn't type, so I tramped all over Sydney (and later Melbourne and Brisbane) looking for gargoyles, took their photos and then attempted to piece together their histories. I interviewed stone masons, corresponded with clerics, and became a fixture in the reading room of the Mitchell Library. That the result ended up in the 200th issue of Art Monthly Australia is extremely pleasing.

"Mary" is just an odd little poem that I wrote a long, long time ago. I clearly recall the dream in which I wandered through an ancient library, opened a dusty old tome and read the poem, remembering it well enough to transcribe when I awoke. I've never found anything resembling it, so I'm comfortable claiming authorship. As well as being my most obvious vampire piece, it's actually been printed three times, although the first was in David's original fanzine, Burnt Toast.

I'm also chuffed I helped destroy the original World of Darkness in Time of Judgment.

So, about those fanzines...

Burnt Toast was a Doctor Who/Horror crossover. Season 26 had just aired and people were doing that kind of thing. A few years later in 1994, David came up with the idea of a pure horror fanzine, based around an expanded version of the "Horror Timeline" that ran in BT's last issue. There would be no fiction; we would cover the contemporary scene with reviews, articles and interviews, but our focus would be the historical development of the genre as we saw it. Because, as co-author of the original timeline, I was to be co-editor. What a concept! If you want to see what this thing became, what kind of a task we'd set for ourselves, go directly to http://www.tabula-rasa.info/DarkAges/. There you will find, not just the timeline, but links to articles we wrote based on the individual entries. Starting with the Inquisition and the Danse Macabre, in eight issues of Tabula Rasa, we managed to reach Penny Bloods and the Villa Diodati. What can I say? It was what we wanted to do. For about two years, and then we rediscovered weekends.

Interviewing Peter Weir was a personal highlight; he seemed so pleased to find that Australia did have horror fans after all. Another highlight of editing Tabula Rasa was working with Dr Hoz and the other really, first-rate artists that gave of their time and talent for nothing more than a credit. "Tabby" was well received by the local scene; a review in Skintomb #666 calls us "Well-researched and inciteful, and not above popping out a joke or two..." No, so long as the joke was a really bad pun.

When we placed all the original work on the web in 2000, the result was quite astonishing. Our hit rate in that first year was incredible and people started emailing us to ask if they could reprint items for this or that purpose. "Slayin' Em in the Aisles" went into the program of a Grand-Guignol play festival somewhere in the USA. David's article on the Marquis de Sade appeared on several disparate sites. And my essay on Shirley Jackson was featured on http://www.readersroom.com in 2006. But what of all this ouvre is being reprinted and actually paid for later this year? Two essays on Doctor Who, that's what!

What are you currently working on?

Necropolitan, the next book in the Necromantic sequence. Tramping round Rookwood Cemetery is involved. I am also reworking Secret Paths, a young adult dark fantasy novel that's been hanging around for a very long time.

Are there present challenges in achieving your aspirations and how do these affect your art?

If we presently define my aspirations as commercial publication, there's no point pretending that working in a dark register doesn't affect my saleability. Not everyone likes horror; or, what I suspect is closer to the truth, not everybody likes the symbol of horror, even if they think vampires are cute, so help us ... And I've no patience with anyone's claim that they write principally for themselves: if you didn't want to get the story out there, why would you write it down? And it's always a story: even articles are stories being told in a different mode.

Furthermore, this edge of the culture industry suffers from terrible instability. David and I are down a couple of thousand from rpg (Role-playing Games) work that's never come out; whole books for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sengoku that fell into the cracks of licensing disputes and cash flow problems. I've had stories and poetry accepted into anthologies that imploded, articles commissioned but never paid for when the magazine changed editors. But nothing is wasted; this I firmly believe. You never know when a detailed knowledge of ocean-going vessels in the sixteenth century will come in handy.

How does this affect my art? There's no point pretending that it doesn't. I'll try different forms, emphasise different things, rework the material completely if I think that will help. But I have a strong suspicion that the stories I'm trying to get out there, the stories themselves, would remain the same no matter when or where I was.

What do you see as the challenges for your field in general? (For example are there issues with technological change, markets for work, or societal, artistic/aesthetic and philosophical issues of our time that create challenges?)

The primary challenge faced by dark writers and artists in today's milieu seems to me to be reaching markets as the gap between mainstream and niche/genre fiction becomes the gap between the blockbuster and the fanzine.

The blockbuster is the hardback, possibly with several variant covers, that is available everywhere and advertised till even people who can't read have heard of it. The fanzine, on the other hand, is that place we've all spent so much time, fussing lovingly over a collection of photocopied pages, or now more likely web-pages, promoted via word of mouth and in other fanzines.

The blockbuster may be a halfway decent read. It may even be mildly shadowy. It is doubtless an economically sensible response to a shrinking readership (which seems to me to be a bizarre consequence of expanding literacy, but those are the stats). What it is not is six to eight books a year from a recognisable line (such as the long-defunct Raven with its gorgeous covers, or indeed, the Lothian dark suspense line that never came to be), which would all have been promoted and distributed, and some of which might have been by you or I.

The prozines are vanishing, along with the rest of the middle ground. Although the various small presses do sterling work, I've yet to hear of them generating income. And no one seems to be able to come up with a viable model for making web publications pay. At present, people buy things off the net only when it is cheaper than obtaining a hard copy and easier than downloading a pirate copy; I mean, mea culpa. Is the genre doomed to the perhaps appropriate borderland of the gifted amateur? Or can we develop an alternative model of marketing and distribution which will see a return to the romantic nights when the genteel authors and illustrators of the macabre could eke out a living through their art? Hopefully without a return to dying of poor nutrition and romantic, untreated diseases. I don't know.

What I do know is that nothing will be helped by someone like Senator Conroy idiotically pushing a model of internet censorship like Clean Feed. Now, I have trouble believing that anything at www.tabula-rasa.info could offend anyone (except that guy who threatened to curse us unless we removed all material related to Demon: the Fallen, on the grounds it was disrespectful to demons). But there is no way we would pass through the Clean Feed filter. This is not supposed to matter compared to the overriding need to protect children from unspecific dangers. Specific dangers, such as the possibility of predation in internet chat rooms, can be addressed by specific measures, such as cyber-safety programs which actually engage children in their own defence. It is the attempt to catch the unspecific dangers by drift netting that is causing the problems here.

What kind of future do you see for your field in general over the next decade?

As an artist and filmmaker as well as a writer, I welcome the increasing fluidity offered by the new technologies. Personally, I believe that nothing can replace the physical book. This is because I physically can't read much over 1,000 words off a screen. I know some readers actually do seem to use their Kindles and clones, but frankly, I view them as a dead end. What's exciting is the potential for combining word and sound, image and motion. Already, interactive fiction in the form of console games and MMORGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games) is tremendously popular; indeed, it's what a lot of people spend their time doing instead of reading. However, such productions are blockbusters in their own right and my experience with tabletop rpgs cautions me against the mode. Nothing disrupts a story quite like an interminable combat, unless it's an argument over rules.

Sigh. People should read more poetry.

If there is a message for the world in the practice of your art what would be the essence or heart of that message?

We come from darkness and to darkness return. Embrace the shadows and the fear shall pass. In its place you shall know wonder, and joy at the beauty incomparable.

Kyla Ward List of Publications and Awards/Recognition of Work

Novels

Prismatic. Co-authored with David Carroll, and Evangelos Paliatseas, as "Edwina Grey." Sth Melb, Vic.: Lothian Books, 2006. Won Best Horror Novel at the 2007 Aurealis Awards. Shortlisted for the 2007 Ditmar Award for Best Novel.

Short Fiction

"The Feast." In Aurealis #24 (1999). Honourable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection (1999), edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling.

"The Boneyard." Online at Gothic.net (Sept 2001).

"Poison." In Passing Strange: A New Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction. Edited by Bill Congreve. Parramatta, N.S.W.: MirrorDanse Books, 2002.

"Sakoku." In Agog! Fantastic Fiction: 29 Tales of Fantasy, Imagination and Wonder. Edited by Cat Sparks. Wollongong, N.S.W.: Agog! Press, 2002.

"Kijin Tea." In Agog! Terrific Tales: New Australian Speculative Fiction. Edited by Cat Sparks. Wollongong, N.S.W.: Agog! Press, 2003. Shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for best short horror and the Ditmar Award for best short story. Honourable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Sixteenth Annual Collection (2003), edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling.

"The Oracle of Brick and Bone." In Borderlands #5 (2005). Honourable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighteenth Annual Collection (2005), edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling.

"The Bat's Boudoir." In Shadowed Realms #9 (2006). Shortlisted for the 2007 Ditmar Award for best short story. Reprinted in Australian Dark Fantasy & Horror (2007). Edited by Angela Challis. Woodvale, W.A.: Brimstone Press.

"A Tour of the City of Assassins." In Ticon #4 (Jan 2009). Online at: http://ticon4.com/?s=kyla+ward

"Cursebreaker: The Welsh Widow and the Wandering Wooer." In Scary Kisses. Edited by Liz Gryb. [Bentley], W.A.: Ticonderoga Publications, 2010.

Articles

"Gaming Freeform." In Australian Realms #17 (1994).

"Australia." In The BFI Companion to Horror. Edited by Kim Newman, London: Cassell, 1996.

"Scaring the Children." In Viewpoint: On Books For Young Adults, vol. 5, no. 1 (1997). Full version printed in Bloodsongs #8 (1997).

"Playing the Classics." In Black Gate #4 (2002).

"Castle, Sweet Castle." Online at d20weekly.com (9 Oct 2002).

"Get Lost." In Dragon #326 (Dec 2004).

"Tomb Raider." In Dragon #327 (Jan 2005).

"The Petit Tarrasque and Other Monsters." In Dragon #329 (Mar 2005).

"Australian Gargoyles." In Art Monthly Australia #200 (Jun 2007).

"Coffin Culture." In Black: Australian Dark Culture #3 (Nov 2008). Woodvale, W.A.: Brimstone Press.

"Dark Humour in Revelation of the Daleks," and "Symbolism," with David Carroll, and Kate Orman. Originally from Burnt Toast. Reprinted in Time, Unincorporated 2: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives (Vol. 2: Writings on the Classic Series). Edited by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith. Mad Norwegian Press, 2010.

RPGs

Mystical Places. Eden Games Studio. Web resource for the Unisystem. First installment (Aug 2001). Third installment, "The Scalper." In Eden Studio Presents #3 (2009).

Co-authored The Demon Storyteller's Guide (2002). White Wolf Games Studio.

"Suffer the Children." In Fear to Tread (2003). White Wolf Games Studio.

Contributor to The Demon Players' Guide (2003). White Wolf Games Studio.

Contributor to Damned and Deceived: the Book of Thralls (2003). White Wolf Games Studio.

Contributor to Demon: The Earthbound (2003). White Wolf Games Studio.

Contributor to Time of Judgment (2004). White Wolf Games Studio.

"The Court of Chimera." In Eden Studio Presents #3 (2009).

"Dominion." In Pyramid Magazine #3/10 (Aug 2009).

Poetry

"Mary." In Bloodsongs #3 (1994). Honourable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: 8 (1995), edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling. Reprinted online at Gothic.net (Feb 2002).

"Herbal Tea." In Bloodsongs #6 (1995). Reprinted online at Gothic.net (Mar 2002).

"Night Cars." In Abaddon #2 (1999).

Scripts

Bad Reception. Directed by Andrew Orman. 4TOD Productions (2008). Screened at A Night Of Horror 2009, and the Vampire Film Festival 2009. 6 min 54 sec.

Chocolate Curses, "a comedy in dubious taste." Directed by Steve Hopley. Played as part of the Season II program of the Theatre of Blood, April - July 2010. 20 minutes.

 

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