I am stoked to be able to bring you the next interview in our series on Australian speculative fiction writers. Rjurik Davidson, author of Unwrapped Sky (one of my favourite books of 2014), took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Smash Dragons about himself, his work (past, present, and future), and the craft of writing.
Rjurik Davidson, welcome to Smash Dragons! Tell us about yourself, and your novel Unwrapped Sky.
I’m a writer, editor and speaker. Unwrapped Sky is a novel of love and revolution, loyalty and betrayal, myth and technology. Caeli-Amur is an ancient city perched on white cliffs overlooking the sea. It is a city in crisis. When minotaurs arrive for a festival, three people’s lives fall apart as the city erupts into revolts. Some people think it’s a bit like China Miéville, others like Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe. I’d be happy if I lived up to any of those.
Why did you become a writer? Who are your literary influences?
I started writing as a child, stopped for a while, returned to it in my early twenties. At sixteen I wanted to be in a rock band. Not unusual for a teenage boy, but later on I played with some really good musicians and as Dirty Harry says, “A mans got to know his limitations.” There was a period there in my late teens, early twenties when I sort-of drifted around directionless. But slowly I settled on writing. It was a calling from the beginning, even if I ignored it for a while. From then on it’s been fairly steady as a writer, I suppose, though I haven’t been wildly prolific. A lot of my writing has been non-fiction: people can read some of that on my website. I’ve probably got a book’s worth of essays, not counting online pieces. Maybe someday someone will want to publish a book of those. Anyway, I’m someone who crosses genres and modes. I’m not just a fantasy writer, but also write SF, surrealism, magic-realism. I’m not just a fiction writer, but write essays, screenplays, and am planning a non-fiction book. I don’t think of any of these as separate in any way. In my head, they’re all part of the same project.
I’ve been thinking a lot about influences lately. Sometimes the people who influence you the most aren’t necessarily those you think are your influences. I’d like to be influenced by Le Guin, Ballard, Philip K. Dick, but I’m not sure how much I am. You can find a bit of Ballard in the ruined landscapes of Caeli-Amur, a bit of Le Guin in the questions of politics, a bit of Dick in the way certain characters lose it. I think you can find traces of Peter Carey, Samuel Delany, the realist writers (Tolstoy, Zola) and others in my work too. It’s all a kind of mish-mash in the end, though. My favourite writers include Hilary Mantel, Anton Chekov, Jorge Luis Borges, Peter Carey, Jean Paul Sartre, Virginia Woolf, James Ellroy. Inside SF, I tend to like the New Wave writers: Thomas Disch, J. G Ballard, M. John Harrison (who’s really a post-New Waver writer nowadays and whose recent work is brilliant), Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ.
You’re an interesting case in that you have worked both as a writer and an editor. How has this helped shaped your craft?
I have a lot more respect for editors than I ever did before! Poor things. It does demystify the process though. I’ve worked as an editor in a ‘literary’ publication and some film magazines, and so that also gives me a perspective from outside the speculative fiction world. That’s good to have, though sometimes I feel like a bit of an outsider in both worlds. It’s also taught me that though we’re all ‘experts’, it’s pretty hard to predict which pieces will resonate with readers. Yes, we generally know the good pieces from the bad, but every now and then we’re really surprised by the things readers love and unnerved by the things they hate. It’s hard to predict.
Tell me about the genesis of Unwrapped Sky. Was it one of those light bulb moments or a long process of creation and evolution?
The idea for Unwrapped Sky came many years ago. Initially I wanted to write a story where the magicians of a city were oppressed. It would be a story of their liberation. At the time I didn’t know quite how to write it, so it sat in my notebooks for ages. The initial impulse for the world of Caeli-Amur came from reading a New Wave writer, Samuel R. Delany. There’s a scene in The Einstein Intersection, one of his ‘science fantasy’ books, with an underground ruined bunker of some sort. The opening of the novel read like fantasy, then suddenly there was this ancient ruined technology and I thought, “Whoah, what’s this?” I then went to Clarion South writers’ workshop and wrote a broken story set in Caeli-Amur, which emerged in a white-hot week. Michael Swanwick was the tutor that week and gave it a ‘Swanwicking’, which I was all the better for. When I returned to Caeli-Amur, it was waiting for me. Suddenly I knew how to write that novel about the oppressed magicians, though it turned our quite different from how I imagined as a twenty-year-old.
I’ve always been curious (as a historian and teacher) as to how much research goes into writing a novel. Brian Staveley talks about being caught up researching interesting little tidbits, such as how far a man on a horse can travel in a day. Was this the case when you were writing Unwrapped Sky?
That’s about it. I try to get all those technical things right. The other one is to call things by their right names. It basically involves a lot of looking things up: “What do you call the back raised deck on a boat?”
Unwrapped Sky is a novel that spans across many different genres, with elements of fantasy, new weird, and steampunk evident throughout. Was it challenging writing a novel that crossed over so many different literary foundations?
Part of the challenge was to create a sense of cohesion to work with the surprise that comes with genre merging. How do all these elements work together? How do you make sure it doesn’t feel like it’s just all thrown in non-sensibly? I didn’t want to fall into the mistake of over-explaining. The real world isn’t like that. We wander through without much idea about the history of the things around us – without much about them at all. I wanted a sense of that in the novel. I wanted the readers mind to go on wild flights trying to fill in the gaps. If anything, Unwrapped Sky probably leaves a few too many things a mystery, but the next novel The Stars Askew clarifies some of them, and introduces other mysteries.
There are some fascinating and thought provoking concepts in Unwrapped Sky, ranging from an examination of revolution and power through to class warfare and the notion of love and identity. I remember being stunned by its breadth and scale. Was it your intention to try and write your novel this way?
I want my novels to be rich, complex, thoughtful. I want them to be about something. If you’re going to spend a year or more on a novel, they should be about something. I took some of my attitude from the realists, I suppose, who try to use their novels to capture a sense of history itself and the forces that drive it. So you try to have characters crossing the different strata of your world. Take a factory worker like Boris Autec and shove him up into the world of the elites. That way you get to see both sides of the world. See how the elites live, but show how the poor do too. When I was about 13 years old I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is an absurd and brilliant book. I remember there being pages and pages of authorial comment and historical theorization. It seemed to be about almost everything! You couldn’t get away with it now, but it seemed an amazing way to write a book. I hope you get a bit of that sense in Unwrapped Sky.
I adored the characters in Unwrapped Sky. I thought your ability to make me experience a range of emotions (for example anger, yet understanding and sadness at the words and actions of Boris) on every single page was one of the highlights of the book. Who was your favourite character to write, and why?
Kata is really the hero of the story, and I’ve a pretty big soft spot for her. Max thinks he’s the hero, but comes to realize he’s not. He has an arrogance that I don’t care too much for. But Boris was probably my favourite, and in a sense I think the most original. He rises, but his rise is a moral fall. I think he’s more complex than Max, probably. My challenge was to make us empathize with Boris, even though we know he’s turning bad.
Whilst reading Unwrapped Sky I was struck at how horrifying and yet fasciating the Elo-Talern were. Will we learn more about them and their origins in the next novel?
Indeed we will. The Stars Askew will unveil more of their history, and complete their story. Elo-Drusa is waiting for readers with her flickering, horse-like head.
As a magic system nerd I found the system of thaumaturgy in Unwrapped Sky utterly fascinating. I especially loved how you incorporated a big element of risk and cost in using it. How did you come up with it?
As I was writing, I was reading about quantum theory, and multiple universes, and these made their way – in very mediated configurations – into the form of thaumaturgy. Perhaps the most obvious gesture is that at the beginning of Unwrapped Sky thaumaturgy is fragmented into discrete disciplines. Each discipline has its own set of formulae and equations. So thaumaturgy is fragmented and the character Max is searching for a unified theory, a “theory of everything.” When you use it, it poisons you, a little like magical radiation. So there’s a real sense of thaumaturgy as a met
aphor for science. But they’re metaphorical gestures. Thaumaturgy is scientific in the world of the novel. It’s not our science though.
Caeli-Amur is described with such life and depth that I actually felt like I was there wandering the city as events in the novel unfolded. What historical influences inspired your creation of it?
I’d say it’s a series of combinations merged into its own entity. It’s a bit of Ancient Rome, a bit of Paris in the 8th and 19th Century, a bit of Russia at the turn of the 20th Century. But of course it’s none of those either. Caeli-Amur is its own city with its own original things too.
You’ve been selected, along with 199 others, to colonise Mars. Due to weight restrictions you can only take 3 hardcover books. What titles are they, and why?
1. War and Peace, because it’s massive and very, very complex. I could reread it several times, I think.
2. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. To my mind, the greatest of SF novels.
3. My own little collection, The Library of Forgotten Books. There’s nothing like rereading one of your old stories and being surprised: “Did I write that?!”
What are you currently working on? What can readers expect in the future?
The Stars Askew is off to the editors. I’ve pretty much finished up with The Rusted Earth, which is gaslight fantasy. The main character is a suffragette librarian – Eugenie Healy – who works at the National Museum in Melbourne. In this alternate Australia, there is still an inland sea and much of the megafauna – giant lizards and diprotodons (giant wombat-like mammals) – still survives. Readers of my story ‘Int. Morgue. Night.’ (from my collection The Library of Forgotten Books) might recognize this setting, though the action in the novel takes place in the 1890s, not the 1950s. As a result of the sea, there has been a massive influx of migrants. Readers can expect to encounter opium dealers and spiritualists, Chinese junks sitting in the harbour, industrialists in the halls of a powerful men’s club, a rural utopian community who have rejected the modern technologies, the hideout of one of the last bushrangers, a ruined ancient city in the desert – and automatons, of course. I’m also working on a bunch of new short stories. I really want to get back into story writing.
What do you think about the current state of speculative fiction in Australia? Are there any local writers you would recommend to fans of Smash Dragons who are on the rise?
Australian Speculative Fiction is powering on. It’s still a small community, but a vibrant one. Sometimes I wish it were better known in the mainstream, and better known overseas. There are writers breaking out onto the international stage. Some include: Angela Slatter, Lisa Hannett, Ben Peek, Mark Barnes. I’m very keen to read James Bradley’s Clade, which I predict will be a phenomenon. Twelfth Planet Press and Coer de Lion press are both bringing out great stuff.
Finally, will you be attending any book signings/events in 2015?
I’ll be around Australia more, but I’m not sure at the moment.
Rjurik Davidson, thank you for taking the time to chat with Smash Dragons!
Thanks for having me.
You can purchase Unwrapped Sky online or at at all good book retailers. It is one of the most fascinating reads I've had in years, and I implore you all to go out and get yourself a copy.
Stay tuned for next week, when Smash Dragons interviews Ben Peek. And remember peeps... reading is cool!