Australian Speculative Fiction: writers, editors, publishers
Interview by Ben Peek
Lee Battersby's first collection The Divergence Tree will be released within the next couple of months. He'll also be appearing in upcoming issues of Borderlands and Aurealis shortly.
1) You're one of the new writers to emerge in the last five years, beginning in 2001 and a massing an impressive amount of sales within Australia. Now with your first collection, the Divergence Tree, has there emerged a set of concerns or themes that you have been focused with? And is one of the hopes with the collection to push to find an International audience, given that much of your work has not had the chance to find them so far?
I made a very deliberate decision, early on, to write something substantially different to my last effort each time I sat down at the keyboard. My career, such as it is, seems to have been a succession of 90 degree turns. It'll help me out in the long run, I hope, when I have to release a range of novels to survive. What comes out, when reading 25 or so of the tales in quick succession, is just how much of my work involves loss, and how few happy endings I tend to write. It probably reflects something deep within my own psyche: I am, by nature, cynical and pessimistic. Also, much of my work falls into a category I have trouble defining. It's certainly not science fiction, and it's not traditional fantasy. I think where I'm headed, generally is to a career of weird tales that, even if they bear the trappings of genre, can't escape the writer's need to subvert and twist. Even when I write a traditional fantasy, such as "Through the Window Merrilee Dances", the Princess is mentally retarded, the gardener who loves her is a cripple, the royal marriage is a cynical political manoeuvre... it just doesn't come out of the pen straight.
I do want to find an international audience. I want to make a career from writing, not be just one of those guys who published some stories and what happened to him anyway? To do that, it's important to walk upon a world stage. The collection might help, but over the long haul it'll be getting my mug in magazines, getting a US agent, getting novels on bookshelves, all the usual guff, that will be do the job. Certainly, having a collection out helps: I've got 3 agents in the States asking to see bits of my first novel, so who knows?
I look back at some of the sales I've made and feel like I've undersold certain stories, but that's the risk you take when you put something in an envelope. It took me a while to back myself to the point of hitting big markets first. Now that I'm doing it, I expect my appearances in Oz mags to slow a little, because it's going to take longer for stories to come back from overseas, and there's a bigger pool out there in which to submit. But Australia is where I live, where my love lies. I can't envisage a year without having a story in a local magazine. I like the way Sean Williams does things. No matter how big he gets, he is still just Sean, the guy who'll bid $120 for a piece of fan art at a con auction, and who'll give a story to Mitch? He's still in it for the love of it.
2) With such a prolific output (37 stories in 5 years) do you hold concerns that, given the size of the Australian scene, you could create an over saturation?
Well, there's about a gazillion magazines in Australia right now, not counting the well-paying, well-distributed ones (ie: the non-genre ones :) ) Quality is always going to get picked up, sooner or later. If I'm selling, I take it to mean that I'm writing good stories. If I'm writing goods stories, then the hope is that readers are enjoying them. It depends. I'm hardly Stephen Dedman when it comes to being prolific, but I'm no Ted Chiang either. At the moment I'm averaging something like 10 sales a year. There's, what, 6 issues of ASIM, 3 of Borderlands, 3 of Fables, 1 Orb, 1 Agog!, 2 of Aurealis (allegedly)... there's an awful lot of pages I'm not filling.
Without wanting to sound bigheaded, if people are sick of seeing my stories, they could always try to write better ones... Terry Dowling does, and Rob Hood, and Stephen Dedman, and Sean Williams... I'm hardly top shelf yet. The difference is that people above me in the food chain had their time saturating the Oz magazines and have moved upwards to selling predominantly overseas. I know one big name writer, for example, who turned down an invitation to be in Lyn's issue of ASIM because it simply wasn't worth his while appearing in an Australian magazine: it didn't pay enough, didn't get seen by enough of the right people, didn't have a big enough circulation. That's not a criticism of the writer. Far from it. It's a recognition on their part of where their career path lies.
Besides, I've always been fairly open in telling people that the reason I engage in the writing business (as opposed to just writing, which is a different thing) is fame. I love being recognised. I love receiving fan mail. I love to see people reading magazines with my stories in. That happens with Oz magazines. The buzz factor is fun. I bet there's not a dozen people in Australia who've read my story in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure stories, which paid 5 cents a word and came out form a US 'small' publisher, but I know that every story I have in ASIM gets seen by 500 or 600 people. Fame, baby :)
3) What is your critical opinion of the work currently being published?
I think a lot of it is crud. So many stale fantasies and crappy, semi-humorous fuzzy bunny stories. If I see one more story where a teenage girl discovers she is the source of wild magical powers and the true inheritor of a kingdom, with a badly-executed Freudian dragon ride dumped in the middle, I'm going to start climbing water towers.
There are very few writers in this country who push the envelope on a consistent basis. People seem afraid to chance their arm in case they get rejected, which is getting the chicken before the china shop, in my opinion. Writers should be daring editors NOT to publish the amazing piece of utter bugfuckery they've placed before them. We should be emulating the Waldrops and Besters, not the Jordans and bloody Weiss'. But hey, the path of least effort and all that.
I think the proliferation of magazines is partially to blame. It's relatively easy to get published right now, certainly much easier than it was in the early 90s, for example. I remember reading Aurealis and Eidolon when that was all there was. Now we have enough magazines that we started Ticonderoga Online to publish only one type of story, as does Shadowed Realms, Antipodean, Dark Animus... We're specialising. You can only support that level of specialisation when there are enough markets that writers can take a chance on writing a specialised story, because there are alternative markets if one magazine rejects it. The downside is that most writers try to hedge their bets, and write strictly down the middle of the road.
I do think there are a large number of writers doing the rounds who have developed enough skill to get published by the usual suspects, and have progressed no further. Why try to develop your craft when you can write a half-arsed quest fantasy with a dragon, teenage girl, and comic-relief hobbit, and pick up 25, 30 bucks? These are not writers who are in it for the craft, or the art, or the career. They're people who want to sit around the bar at their local freecon and jaw about what a tosser editor X was because they rejected "Floppy The Bunny God", but they sold it to editor Y so ha ha ha. The next "Bug Jack Barron" or "Repent Harlequin, Said The Ticktockman" isn't being written by these people. They're too busy writing the next Lord Of The Rings without realising it's already been fucking done.
If the markets suddenly halved, I think a lot of writers would be out on their arse. But the good writers will sell no matter how many markets are out there. Halve the number of magazines and Deb Biancotti will still place. So will Rob Hood, Stephen Dedman, Geoff Maloney, Trent Jamieson. Quality will out.
4) You're dead. You got one of those nice groupies that likes to follow you and murder your bunnies, and you indulged, and it went real bad. Still, dead is dead. You go to Heaven (assuming you believe, blah blah) and you see God. You say?
Heh. Boy, I've seen a lot of funny answers to this one. I'm going to pontificate instead.
I'm an atheist. God does not exist. Religion, as far as I'm concerned, is no more than a crutch, same as alcohol or cocaine. It's a way for people to absolve themselves of responsibility. Organised religion is downright evil. My wife Lyn is a believer, and she has her reasons, and I support her, but it's not enough to make me believe that religion is anything more than comforting fairy tales to keep the badness from the door.
I'll grant that some people need those fairy stories. If I'd suffered the lifetime of abuse that Lyn has, well, I might want something to believe in too. Sometimes the load is too great to bear. But I have respect for those that carry their religion close to themselves and take it out when they need something warm to wrap around them. Turn up at my doorstep on a Sunday morning with a briefcase full of pamphlets and I'll feed you to the squirrels, whether you bow down to the big Charlton Heston impersonator in the sky or Binky The Sun Gopher.
5) Favourite swear word?
I've been swearing a rather long time. I tend to use it like punctuation. As Billy Connolly says, it doesn't matter how large my vocabulary gets, I still prefer to use 'fuck'. These days I often run
Polysyllabic cursing, Ask for it by name :)
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