This is the twelfth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from Booktopia, Readings, Avid Reader, Fishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.
PM Newton is the Sydney-based author of The Old School and Beams Falling (which I am currently enjoying). Today, she tells us about the nightmarish north coast of NSW and the scariest activity of all: writing short fiction…
PM Newton (credit Peter Rae – Fairfax)
What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular brief or theme?
I find short stories a challenge no matter the brief! They are a very exposing form that can leave a thin idea with no place to hide. The theme of the collection was very tempting, so I decided to face my short story fear and have a crack. Numerous blown deadlines, unproductive fretting and massive insecurities later, a short story appeared. Thank you, Angela.
Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.
It sprang from landscape and my memories of living for a short time in the hinterland of northern New South Wales. The valleys that follow the rivers back up into the Great Dividing Range are stunning but it’s an intense landscape, the climate can be extreme and the place does affect people in different ways. Lots of people are attracted to the north coast; they come following dreams that sometimes turn into nightmares, and like most small rural communities there’s a strong sense of who is a local and who is not. The story took those ideas and then stirred in a big bucket of what if?
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?
As a little kid just hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone was enough to scare me, and as for the eyeball… I was under ten when it was playing on TV and my older siblings must have watched it because I remember it as being really creepy and quite possibly true! Then again, I was also terrified of Daleks.
I didn’t watch or read horror although I was a big fan of The Omega Factor, a BBC Scotland series from the late ’70s, which dealt with the uncanny and was incredibly atmospheric, very much a progenitor of The X-Files, which I also loved. I’ve always been a fan of SciFi: Dr Who, Blakes 7, the Star Treks and Wars, and Philip K Dick is a writer I return to again and again. I am still a big fan of the genre. The potential to explore contemporary questions and push the limits of What if? is incredibly exciting and can be found in the unlikeliest of places, such as the brilliant reboot of BSG. Dick’s recurring question What does it mean to be human? turns up again and again, reworked different ways such as in the Danish TV series Real Humans and the British TV series Being Human. Margaret Atwood writes work that tests the limits of social and technological development. Her trilogy feels like it comes from the same universe as JG Ballard’s The Drowned World.
What thoughts do you have on the current status of genre fiction?
The genre is blooming, in print and on TV although movies seem to be locked into a death roll of rebooting superheroes every couple of years. In writing there is active engagement with ideas and also with acknowledging the lack of diversity in the genre, both in writers and the characters written about. Again, this is changing, with voices such as Nalo Hopkinson, NK Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed gaining better recognition.
It’s interesting that TV series like BSG and Game of Thrones have cut through and gained plaudits and viewers who are quick to say they ‘don’t read/watch SFF but [insert name of exception] is really good‘. Meanwhile in literary SFF, the SFF v Spec Fic debates rumbles on, and the genre as a whole still bubbles beneath the radar of the big book awards, with all the cachet and cash that entails. At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012, China Miéville spoke in defence of pigeonholes, arguing that it need not be reductive but merely taxonomic, although he did acknowledge the seizing of the term ‘literary fiction’ with a wry ‘Well played, sir, well played’. Miéville’s advice to the genre was to embrace what made it different—its ‘swagger’. So here’s to embracing the genre and swaggering the hell out of it.
You might also enjoy reading about stories by Deborah Biancotti, Chris Flynn, Helen Richardson, A.S. Patric, Marion Halligan, Guy Salvidge, Kathy Charles, Ali Alizadeh, Ryan O’Neill, Carmel Bird, Rhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.