Bill Congreve Interview

by Benoìt Domis

Appeared in Ténèbres 7, July/Sept 1999

Copyright 1999, 2003

1) You've been writing and editing since 1986, but 'Red Ambrosia' will be your first story translated into French. So how would you present yourself and your work to the French audience?

Firstly, as a writer. Most of my published work lies in the genre of horror, but some of it is SF, and some of it is that kind of urban fantasy that publishers don't like to classify. I'm more interested in the story, and the needs of both my characters and my plot, than in anal retentive definitions of genre. I find definitions restrictive. I also do a lot of work as a book reviewer, and regularly appear on a radio show to discuss new genre releases, so I'm also very aware of the reading public's interest in story values. Good stories come from characters, ideas, and plot. Too much modern writing gets bogged down in one of the above, and forgets the others.

2) Before getting to your fiction writing, can you tell us more about MirrorDanse Books and your editing work? MirrorDanse Books is a joint venture between myself and another Australian writer, Robert Hood, who also specialises in speculative fiction. Rob works as a Publications Officer for a university, here in NSW, and has access to all the kinds of expensive computer equipment small press publishers need. From memory, MirrorDanse began while Rob and I were working on the layout for Intimate Armageddons, and we both recognised the need for an Australian small press to back those writers who weren't, at the time, being supported by mainstream publishers in Australia. We've done books by Sean Williams, Terry Dowling, Greg Egan, Leanne Frahm, Robert Hood, Ben Peek & Chris Mowbray, as well as a couple of anthologies. Part of it also was an ambition to create something worthwhile, that readers would appreciate and support. For the most part, we've achieved that. I've leaned a lot along the way. Most of what I know about editing is self taught, or comes from watching other professionals at work, and that has helped my own writing.

3) What are your formative influences? Do you think that they are any different than those of an American/English writer?

Here, I can only quote my own background: an interest in science, a frustration with Australian politics (or any politics), growing up in the suburbs of a large Australian city, but with long periods spent in the Australian bush. In Australia, we have always prided ourselves on the influence of the Australian bush on our culture, but I'm not sure if that influence is instinctive, or calculated. Australian writers are different to the extent that Australian culture is different. Writers such as Greg Egan would deny that there is a difference, others such as Jack Dann admit that Australian culture is different. Other influences are the writers and music I grew up with. Bands such as Hawkwind, Yes, Blue Oyster Cult, Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil. Writers such as Joe R. Lansdale, Norman Spinrad, Robert Sheckley, Theodore Sturgeon, and any of the classic SF writers. While I enjoy SF and horror novels, I find myself more affected or influenced by short stories.

4) If they are, do you think that in this formative differences lies the 'Australianness' of your writing (if such a thing exists)?

Australianness? To the extent that Australian culture is different in these days of media domination by Hollywood then, yes, my writing is Australian. I know I'm often inspired (or frustrated) by local political or social issues, but so often those are universal... I think that there is a self-awareness of landscape in Australian literature. Australian writers will use the landscape with greater premeditation than others. I specifically did this in my novella, 'The Death of Heroes'. There is also a 'larrikin' element to some of my fiction, particularly 'The Mullet That Screwed John West'. This attitude permeates Australian popular culture, but is more prevalent in our comedy than in our literature, unfortunately.

5) There have been several Australian writers published in Ténèbres so far (Dowling, Dedman, Frahm, Williams in a future issue). Do you feel that they belong -- with you -- to an Australian 'school' of horror/SF writers?

We're all quite different writers, living in parts of the continent that are 5000 kilometres apart by road. (There you are -- a premeditated use of landscape!) Terry's horror is most inspired by intellectual concerns, and his SF by the landscape, Leanne and I both use social themes, Steve and Sean (and in fact all of us) are inspired by character. Sean's stories are the most plot driven. Perhaps this is an issue best decided by others, as any Australian commentator will be 'infected' with the same phenomenon, if there is one. There is one issue which does unite us all, and that is a common frustration with local publishers. Horror isn't on the agenda of local publishers unless it is young adult, or they can pretend it is something else. But if there is a 'school', I would add Kim Wilkins (who is the most international of us all) Gary Crew, Victor Kelleher, and Karron Warren to the class.

6) What is the genesis of 'Red Ambrosia'?

'Red Ambrosia' began as a crime story, with no supernatural elements. I was fascinated by the idea that the monsters who are part of the human race are much worse than the ones we create in our own imaginations, and here we have the honourable monster, who only believes he is a vampire, who holds some of the moral high ground. The story evolved into a vampire piece, because I wanted to allow the character some possibility of revenge, to see what that would do to his motivation, and for revenge, he must be able to survive. Yet, there is still doubt.

7) Vampirism seems to be one of your favourite themes (you had a collection dedicated to this subgenre). Any comment on that?

Vampires? I'm either bored or entertained. I began reading horror for the suspense, and for the ideas, not for the genre tropes. I grew up with SF, and there are still concepts in SF that the horror genre can't touch for sheer terror. So, I don't read vampire stories because I'm fascinated with vampires. I read them because I like good stories. I like Saberhagen's vampires, yet I haven't read Anne Rice's vampires given I found her witches stories so boring and clichéd. I think that I'm challenged by the concept of trying something new -- though that is a matter of being honest to my characters and their plight, rather than of any genre concern. Vampires are also so useful if you've got something to say. Is there any social subtext that can't be recast as a vampire story? All genre fiction is at its best when it has something to say, without being didactic, and vampire fiction always has something to say about its characters. The stories are so driven by seduction, lust, corruption -- and other emotions we are all prey to -- that there is no choice in this. The myth will always say something about the human condition, and it will say what it needs to without preaching. Perhaps that is why it is so enduring.

8) What's the current state of the horror/SF short story market in Australia?

Almost nonexistent. There are a couple of semi-pro magazines, Aurealis and Eidolon, that produce very irregular issues. Both, thankfully, publish a full range of speculative fiction -- SF, fantasy, horror, and occasionally weird/unclassifiable, though they're much less receptive to that. There is the occasional anthology from one of the larger publishers, but we only get one of those every couple of years. The actual literary community in Australia is very pretentious, and actively prejudiced against speculative fiction, particularly horror. Things are different in the children's and YA field where the most respected writers, eg Gary Crew, Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubenstein, Catherine Jinks, and others, are very active within the speculative genres, and the genre itself is respected for its potential for story. Some of these writers are breaking out into the adult field, and forcing the industry to take them seriously, which is good for all of us. And Sara Douglass is now the biggest selling fantasy author in the Australian market, outselling even Jordan and Feist within Australia, so the publishers have to take the potential of that very seriously. Sorry, got off the subject. For short stories, the genre small presses are the most active, and I can't see anything changing. Payment rates are poor, though, and most of our major authors are happier to submit to overseas markets first.

9) What are your projects for the future?

There's an anthology I'm editing, called The Last Australian Dangerous Visions... More seriously, it is an all-Australian original horror anthology which I want to call Southern Blood. Things are looking good for that with a new small press here in Sydney. I don't want to say too much unless I jinx the thing again. The novel of The Mullet that Screwed John West' is almost done. That's going to be called The Mullet That Screwed Satan. Then there's a novel based on epic fantasy, a serial killer, lust, blood and immortality -- but not vampires -- which I need to finish, and I want to write a few more 'larrikin' pieces. The next project for MirrorDanse will be a 'Best of Terry Dowling' (In collaboration with some other small presses.), and then a collection of Robert Hood's adult ghost fiction, Immaterial. (Author's note: this was written in 1999, these books exist!)

10) If you had to interview Bill Congreve, what would you ask him (and the answer)?

When are you going to get off your arse and finish that first novel? Soon.

11) On your deathbed (not that we wish you any harm), what would your 'famous last words' be?

Be happy. RIP.

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