A dystopic vision: The Ark by Annabel Smith

theark-annabelsmith

When I first heard about Annabel Smith’s project, The Ark, I was intrigued. Here was an excellent literary author (I’m a big fan of her novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) tackling not only speculative fiction, but a whole different format. The Ark is about the inhabitants of a sealed seed vault, in a near future where resources are rapidly dwindling. It was released as an interactive ebook, and is also available as a print book. The story is told through a series of technological documents. As the blurb says:

The Ark delves into the fears and concerns raised by the environmental predicament facing the world today, exploring human nature in desperate times. At its heart it asks: can our moral compass ever return to true north after a period in which every decision might be a matter of life and death and the only imperative is survival?

The book is thought-provoking, well-paced, suspenseful, and a satisfying read. If you enjoy dystopias like Brave New World, or books with confined settings (which are great for building tension between characters) then this one is for you. I asked Annabel a few questions about The Ark:

Annabel Smith

Annabel Smith

The story is told via the communications of a variety of characters. There is a certain amount of unreliability, for the reader, particularly at the beginning. Was it a difficult process to decide just how much information to give? Or did it happen as you developed the voice of the characters?

The sense of unreliability, and uncertainty about whose version of events to trust was very important to me. I wanted the reader to feel continually wrong-footed by the shifts in narrative voice and by the gaps created by the narrative form. I wanted them to be always wondering what was going on outside the margins of the documents; what was being left unreported? To that end, I was very careful about both when certain pieces of information were revealed, who they were revealed by, and in what type of communique.

The character of Ava has stayed with me, in particular. She’s a classic ‘Winston’-style sci-fi character, seeing what others do not. Can you tell us a bit about developing her?

Of all the characters in the novel, Ava is the character who I consider most like me. That is not to say she is autobiographical, only that she was perhaps the easiest to write because her similarities in age, gender, education level etc. made it relatively easy to get inside her head and get a sense of her worldview. I see Ava as a highly emotional character, surrounded by a group of scientists who tend to rational explanations for all things. She is the odd one out, trusting her heart where they use their heads. Her high emotional intelligence, and her sensitivity, makes her prone to anxiety and depression, which adds another layer to the complexity of her situation. Is she paranoid? Or is she actually switched onto things that others are slower to perceive?

Do you think a speculative story is well suited to the medium you’ve chosen? (More suited, perhaps, than straight realism?)

The epistolary novel is a very old narrative form. Contemporary iterations of it, in which letters are replaced by blog posts and emails seem to fit well with speculative fiction, but I think the form would work equally well with any story set in the present and exploring contemporary themes. At the same time, there has to be a compelling reason to tell a story through documents—the form has to feel intrinsic to the story, otherwise it runs the risk of coming across as a gimmick.

Once you decided to make The Ark an interactive ebook/app, how did the writing and editing process change?

Strangely, not much at all. It was really important to me that I write a book that could stand alone and be appreciated without the app. So, I finished working on the book before I started working on the app. having said that, I did of course have ideas for the app as I was writing the novel but the development of the app didn’t change the book in any significant ways. There was one occasion where I was tempted. It was when the architect who designed the bunker for the app showed me the 3D model of the space inside the Ark called the GARDEN (Growth Apparatus for the Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment). The space looked so incredible, I thought about going back and rewriting some of the scenes to take place in there.

Are their other forms of storytelling you’re interested in, or other ways of presenting a novel (even if published ‘traditionally’)?

I’m interested in all forms of storytelling. Though I love reading traditional realist novels—in fact, they still comprise the bulk of my reading—I’m not particularly excited by the prospect of writing another book like that. I like to experiment with form and structure. My fourth novel, Monkey See, which I’ve almost finished a first draft of, is an epic quest with a speculative fiction twist. And the novel I’ve just started tells the story of a woman working her way through a self-help book, and includes extracts from the self-help book.

Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in SoutherlyWesterlyKill Your Darlings, and the Wheeler Centre blog. She holds a PhD in Writing, is an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellow, and is a member of the editorial board of Margaret River Press. Her digital interactive novel/app The Ark has just been released. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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).

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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.

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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.