The Great Unknown authors: Guy Salvidge

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the sixth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown this month, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Guy Salvidge’s speculative neo-noir story ‘A Void’ was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award. Salvidge’s latest novel is Yellowcake Summer and he has a great blog: Wrapped up in Books.

What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular theme?

guysalvidge (2)As soon as I saw the guidelines for this competition, I was determined to enter. I often struggle to write stories for specific themes, but this one appealed to me for a number of reasons. Short fiction competitions often have very stringent word limits of 3000 words or less, which is a stricture I often struggle with, but I (just) managed to cram what I wanted to cram into 4000 words here. While no aficionado of The Twilight Zone (see below), I am a longtime reader and writer of speculative and slipstream fiction and thus I was well within my comfort zone in writing for this theme. I also enjoy writing about Melbourne, a city I’ve visited many times but never lived in, and so I enjoyed deploying some of my favourite places in Melbourne in ‘A Void’.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

‘A Void’ is the third in an ongoing series of stories featuring Tyler Bramble, an alcoholic and sometimes suicidal detective (or Seeker) living in a near future Melbourne. The first of these stories, ‘The Dying Rain’, was written at the request of Andrez Bergen, who was putting together a spin-off anthology set in the universe of his debut novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. I ended up co-editing that anthology with Andrez, and the book, The Tobacco-Stained Sky, has recently been released by US publisher Another Sky Press. I enjoying writing ‘The Dying Rain’ so much that I wrote a second Tyler Bramble mystery, ‘Blue Swirls’, which appeared earlier this year in the first issue of Tincture Journal. Here, in Tyler’s third adventure, he must contend with the unintended side effects of the drug ‘Void’ and a frigid Melbourne day that starts poorly and goes downhill from there.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?

Confession time: I’ve never watched an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits! I didn’t let that dissuade me, however. As a (somewhat disturbed) child I used to watch The X-Files and the ‘true story’ show The Extraordinary that followed directly after. At that age (twelve or thirteen) I was obsessed with cheerful topics like nuclear fallout and the prophecies of Nostradamus. From the age of eighteen, I fell in love with the work of American SF writer Philip K. Dick, who charted territory in novels like Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch similar to that that I’ve explored in ‘A Void’. J. G. Ballard is another major influence. His stories, such as ‘The Voices of Time’, as well as novels like The Atrocity Exhibition and The Unlimited Dream Company, helped to expand my own mental horizons as both a reader and writer.

What thoughts do you have on the current status of genre fiction?

I do think that certain genres are considered more prestigious and highbrow than others. For most of my life I have been writing some mutant variant of science fiction that is a recognisable descendant of the works of writers like Dick and Ballard. I have realised lately, however, that science fiction novels are very much a niche market in today’s publishing landscape. In response to this, I have quite consciously decided to change genres (in my case to crime fiction) to potentially reach a larger audience. This is a pity, because while I do enjoy reading and writing crime (such as the novels of Raymond Chandler, Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell)  my first love is for fantastical fiction by writers like William S. Burroughs, John Crowley and Ursula Le Guin.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Kathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Kathy Charles

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the fifth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown this month, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Kathy Charles captures the voice of a hard-done-by bloke perfectly in her eerie (and funny) story ‘Baby’s First Words’. Charles is the author of John Belushi is Dead (first published as Hollywood Ending). Today she shares with us the effect that one spooky show had on her imagination as a child…

Kathy_Charles (2)One early summer evening when I was around six years old, I was sitting on the seagrass matting of my bedroom floor, playing with my Barbie dolls and occasionally glancing up at the small black and white TV with the coat hanger antenna, when I became enraptured by the story playing out on the screen. Even at that young age I remember being chilled by it, as if even though the concepts were not entirely clear to me, the tone of what I was witnessing meant for me to be frightened, and boy, was I frightened. The story I saw on that small black and white TV screen was about a lady who was driving in a car across the American countryside, and every time she stopped for gas or turned an abrupt corner, she would see the same man hitchhiking at the side of the road, as if he were unconstrained by time and space. At the end of the episode the woman discovers (SPOILER ALERT) that she has in fact died in a car accident, and the man in an angel charged with taking her to heaven. It was, of course, a particularly harrowing episode of The Twilight Zone, and it still haunts me to this day. No matter how many times I see it, ‘The Hitch-hiker’ still has the ability to make my blood run cold. It was, I believe, one of my first introductions to the great unknown that is death, especially the inherent mystery of it. It was both devastating and exhilarating to watch, and I am certain that my first experience with The Twilight Zone, glimpsed as a child growing up in suburban Victoria, has influenced my writing ever since.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Ali AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Ali Alizadeh

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerThis is the fourth in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Today, Ali Alizadeh tells us about the process behind his story ‘Truth and Reconciliation’. Alizadeh’s most recent book is Transactions (UQP).

Alizadeh pic (2)

What did you enjoy about writing to this particular brief or theme?

I loved using this brief as the excuse for indulging in far too many hours of The Twilight Zone. Very cathartic. It was also great to use and experiment with the format of a short, weird story. It’s quite interesting and challenging to quickly create a setting and then subvert it via a bizarre, unexplainable narrative twist. I quite enjoyed doing that.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

The bizarre, unexplainable narrative twist in ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ is our love and worship of sport. Why are we so enamoured of frankly banal, manipulative, egomaniacal mediocrities who can apparently run really fast or swim really fast or cycle really fast or somesuch? It’s an infuriating kind of fetishism, in Marx’s sense of the word, a kind of value which has nothing to do with the use-value of things. What precisely is the use of any sport? And why are we so willing to put up with the deceptions and annoyances of athletes? I think my story is about that sort of thing.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? 

I’m not your classic The Twilight Zone fan. I’ve always been appreciative of the phenomenon, but had never really engaged with it, until Angela invited me to write a story for this book. Now that I’ve watched so many episodes as research for this project, I can confidently claim to have become a fan. I’d never really been a fan of a TV show, but I used to be quite an avid fan of certain alternative bands in the 90s—Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, that sort of thing—and the comic book Sandman.

Despite her success as a writer of quality macabre and psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith was, to her great disappointment, never published in The New Yorker. Has anything changed? What thoughts do you have on the current status of writing genre fiction?

I really don’t think getting published in something like The New Yorker is such a big deal. I can understand why popular genre fiction writers may crave being recognised by the literati—people often want what they can’t have—but I honestly don’t think anyone, including proper literary writers, really care all that much about self-important literary cliques and their trivial little publications. Best to ignore such markers of ‘critical success’ and just write, read, live, etc.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Ryan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Ryan O’Neill

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerThis is the third in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Ryan O'Neill (2)Today we hear from Ryan O’Neill (The Weight of a Human Heart) regarding his story ‘Sticks and Stones':

What did you enjoy about writing to this particular brief or theme?

Though I’ve written stories in many different styles and forms, I had never written a story that departed from realism, or at least, realist themes. It was liberating to imagine how a character might react in a wholly fantastic situation, but also a challenge to ensure their reactions were plausible.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

‘Sticks and Stones’ is a ghost story about a haunted book and the effects it has on those who read it.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories as a kid? 

I have very vivid childhood memories of watching The Twilight Zone, especially of the episodes where a woman on an isolated form battles a malicious little alien, who is later revealed to be an astronaut from Earth. I also vaguely remember an episode of The Twilight Zone, or perhaps The Outer Limits, where a group of characters are revealed, at the end of the episode to be puppets. It scared the living daylights out of me. It was a short step from The Twilight Zone to The Dead Zone, the first Stephen King book I read, and from there to the weird tales of HP Lovecraft, Clarke Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood and Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve always admired the skill necessary in constructing a ghost story, or weird tale, and was excited to have a try myself with ‘Sticks and Stones’.

What thoughts do you have on the reception of genre fiction, or of writing in a genre?

I haven’t read much modern supernatural fiction, as I think the emphasis has come to be on blood and gore rather than chills. Any genre, whether horror, SF or Fantasy, can become a ghetto if the writers working in it look inward, or are happy to keep repeating the same old formulas. For instance, at the moment it seems impossible to imagine anything original left to be done with zombies or vampires.

The last modern writer of weird fiction whose work I enjoyed was Thomas Ligotti, whose stories, despite (or perhaps because of) being almost entirely free of bloodshed or violence, are frequently terrifying. Ligotti is aware of writers who have gone before him, but is wholly original, and like the best of genre writers, he is, first and foremost, a great writer.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Carmel Bird, Rhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Rhys Tate

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerThis is the second in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Rhys Tate 500 (2)Rhys Tate on writing his Carmel Bird Award shortlisted story ‘The Koala Motel':

What did you enjoy about writing to this particular theme?

I don’t scare that easily—the last time I really had the heebie-jeebies was when we broke into the boarded-up shell of an asylum out here in the country—but I found that during the editing of the piece, midnightish, empty house, I was starting to skeeze out a little. That was fun.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

The Koala Motel was a very real place out to the west of Colac. As I drove past when it was operating, I used to wonder who the hell would stay there, and after the place went bust and was progressively vandalised to the foundations, I wondered who the hell would even stop. It was a strange and strangely isolated little corner of Australia.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? 

Oh lordy. Doctor Who and the Terrified Toddler Crouched Behind the Couch. That scene in The Twilight Zone where the girl’s mouth is missing, replaced by a blank piece of skin. The Faces of Bélmez in Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Someone let me watch Poltergeist when I was nine. I read The Amityville Horror at twelve and slept with the light on for weeks. Of course this had a huge effect on me, as did the fact that I’ve always been a poor sleeper and vivid dreamer. (Luckily, most of my nightmares are written from the third person point of view.) I tend to find the indie stuff has the best level of chills and thrills these days: creepypasta like ‘Ted’s Caving Page’, and Salad Fingers on YouTube.

Despite her success as a writer of quality macabre and psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith was never published in The New Yorker. Has anything changed? What thoughts do you have on the current status of writing in a genre?

Mmm, at a particular time some genres fit more closely to what is considered literature than others: Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood with their dystopian fiction, for example. Perhaps we’re not impressed any more unless the entire world is dying. Anyway, didn’t postmodernism invalidate this line of thinking? People should enjoy what they enjoy and damn the critics. Life’s too short to worry.

You might also enjoy reading about Carmel Bird’s story ‘Hare’.

The Great Unknown authors: Carmel Bird

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

This is the first in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from Booktopia, Readings, Fishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

carmel(enter)

Carmel Bird on writing ‘Hare’

I live in Castlemaine which is a small country town in the centre of Victoria. The earth in this part of the world is scarred by the workings and remains of old goldmines, and the streets of the town lead, not to more streets, but to the edge of the forlorn and haunted bushland. Silent, mournful, mysterious forest is never far away. In the town, in all the little towns around here, and sometimes alone in the forest itself, nineteenth century churches, firm and handsome, survive in warm redbrick confidence.

When Angela asked for a story for The Great Unknown, it was these churches, with their promise of the ancient supernatural contained, that first presented themselves to me as inspiration. But—as I was beginning—a friend told me that twice on her daily walk in the local bush she had encountered a strange rabbit at dusk. It stood still and looked at her, and she thought it was going to speak. Saving the churches for another day, I was up and running.

Dusk, when the light is unstable, when shadows shift and things are not what they seem. Or are what they seem, and what they seem is eerie and threatening. When the corner of the eye offers the clue to mysteries as yet unthought. The rabbit was from a twilight zone, that nowhere place into which a boy could roll through the bedroom wall, never to return.

At the time when I was writing the story, the case of Jill Meagher was often in the news. Jill Meagher who disappeared in the city and whose body was later found buried in the bush on the outskirts of the country town of Gisborne. Whenever I drove through Gisborne, in fact whenever I drive through Gisborne, whenever I hear the name Gisborne, I think of the horrible story of Jill Meagher. The woman in ‘Hare’ owes something to that story. Of course, burying a body in the bush is nothing new, but I am examining here, insofar as I can, the workings of my imagination as I wrote ‘Hare’.

The rabbit suggested to me the hare—the rabbit in my friend’s story shifted easily into a hare. The hare as pyschopomp, the hare as trickster, has always fascinated me. I paused in my writing and wallowed for a while in my books on the subject, and in the story you will find some of the details of this dallying.

Once I have these ingredients—the hare, the old goldmines, the disappearance of the woman—the characters and their problems seem to appear of their own will. I more or less have the idea of the story, and now I need the angle. What is the hare up to, and how does the goldmine figure?

Let’s go back to reality for a minute. Something you can rely on in this part of the world is the art exhibition. And two other things are cars up on blocks, and guns.

Put all these elements together, and the only thing remaining to do is to tell the story. For there are two parts to any story—there’s the story, and there’s the telling. How stories are written is a bit of another great unknown.

You might also enjoy reading about Alex Cothren’s Carmel Bird Award-winning story, which appears in the anthology.

Love & logic: Graeme Simsion on The Rosie Project

The Rosie ProjectText Publishing (buy paperback / ebook)

This feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 425

The main character in the novel, The Rosie Project, has difficulty understanding social cues. ‘Wherever Don goes, chaos will follow’, says the author, Graeme Simsion. Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at the University of Melbourne, undertaking a self-assigned ‘Wife Project’, a 16-page questionnaire designed to help him find a life partner. Don is fit, successful, and possesses a variety of impressive skills. Social interaction, however, is not so straightforward for Don and although he never acknowledges it, the reader firmly suspects that he exhibits characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome.

‘It started off inspired by a friend of mine’, Simsion explains. ‘I’ve known this guy for over 30 years—we go jogging together—and he can be hard work at times. He’s got an opinion on everything.’ Simsion’s friend also has a particular way of speaking, which the author channelled when he began writing Don: ‘He uses computer words, like “this meal has a fault”, or “I’ll initialise my eating procedure”‘. Simsion’s friend, too, has had a tough time socially in his life. He eventually found a partner, but Simsion says, ‘for a guy who was fit, intelligent, wealthy’, it was a struggle.

Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion

Simsion did research into Asperger’s syndrome for The Rosie Project, mainly through first-person accounts of people with Asperger’s, or those living with them. ‘I made a very conscious decision that this [book] would be in first person,’ Simsion says, ‘Don is highly functioning enough that we can relate to him.’

Simsion was clear that he did not want Don to be the kind of character who ‘helped [other characters] grow because they [had] met him, which you see in a film like Rain Man.’ Being inside Don’s head (essentially an unreliable narrator) makes for good humour, as the reader can interpret certain social cues, or subtleties of language, that Don misses. Don’s first date with Rosie is thwarted, for example, by his showing up to a fancy restaurant in a Gore-Tex jacket and then, under stress, proceeding to ‘disarm’ the bouncers with his aikido moves.

The contrast between Don’s competency in some areas and his ineptitude in others makes for classic comedy. But it also makes for depth of character, since Simsion makes Don work for his skills. In one of the best scenes in the book, Don appears almost heroic when he manages to remember, and mix, a massive number of cocktails at a function. (It’s part of a surreptitious scheme to collect genetic material for a side project with Rosie, who is trying to identify her real father.) But Don’s cocktail knowledge, while extremely impressive, is not ‘magic’. Don has spent hours and hours with a cocktail book, testing and memorising recipes. Simsion says he didn’t want the knowledge and skills to come to Don easily. ‘There’s this cliché that if you have Asperger’s or autism you’ve got a gift.’ From his reading, and from talking to people—mainly people who have autistic children—Simsion found that this idea of giftedness is one stereotype many struggle against. ‘Don’s very focused, but he’s not magic,’ Simsion says, ‘I tried to make him human.’

Though the author has had incredible pre-release success with The Rosie Project, selling the rights into more than 30 countries, he, too, has had to work hard for it. After a mid-life career change (Simsion is from a science and business background), the project began life as a screenplay, which Simsion wrote during many years studying screenwriting. The project has changed significantly since its inception. One influence on the story’s eventual tone and shape was the romantic comedy genre, particularly classic screwball comedies. These films also helped with the development of the female character, Rosie. Simsion watched many of the classics, including His Girl Friday (1940), Bringing up Baby (1938), Philadelphia Story (1940), Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). He particularly noted the strong female characters featured in many of the films, and thinks of Rosie as being more in line with a Katherine Hepburn style character, than female characters in contemporary romantic comedies.

But there is a somewhat traditional binary in the book, in that Rosie is the more impulsive and emotional character, while Don is the rational one. Simsion admits that some female readers have likened Don’s logic to that of ‘all blokes’, not just those with Asperger’s. Although the point is that Don is often ‘kidding himself’, says Simsion, when he believes he’s acting rationally. For example, when Don says, ‘I made a rational decision to go and see Rosie at the pub and help her find her father because that was good use of my time’, the reader thinks: yeah, right

But it could also be said that there’s a Don and Rosie inside all of us: the side that tries to make the best and most profitable use of time, and the side which encourages us to ‘stop worrying about it’, and is open to new experiences. One of the reasons the book is so successful, and humorous, is due the reader’s recognition of these warring aspects.