I am stoked to be able to bring you another interview from our Australian speculative fiction series. This week I had the delightful opportunity to chat with the wonderful Donna Maree Hanson. Donna has worked in the field of publishing and writing for many years, and her works range across many different genres. We chatted about her Dragonwine books, and various other topics ranging from writing and editing through to her involvement with the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild.
Donna Maree Hanson, welcome to Smash Dragons!
Thank you for having me.
First up, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
I’ve been writing now since late 2000—I was a very, very beginner in so many ways back then. I knew nothing about writing, the industry or the scene. I’ve put some long years into changing that. I write across a range of genres with a focus on novels, but I have had around 20 short stories published over the years. My shorts have been science fiction, fantasy, horror and even paranormal romance. Often they are dark. My novel length works are science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, young adult and paranormal romance. Not all of these are published. I’ve had a number of years to accumulate manuscripts in various stages of completion. My day job is an auditor in the government sector.
Why did you become a writer? Was it something you imagined doing when you were younger?
Making stuff up is what got me through a tough childhood and I was captured by popular TV and B grade SF moves. I imagined I was Astro Girl and could fly. (Only jumping off the shed and realising I couldn’t made me realise the difference between fantasy and reality). I remember vivid dreams of being a robot like Astro Boy or being adopted like in the old Shirley Temple movies. As I grew older I was still prone to those lapses into fantasy. I believe when I was about 19-21 I dreamed up a plot for a Star Wars spin off novel. I actually sat down to write it long hand. But I looked around me: I had a baby and I felt I wasn’t smart enough so I put that idea away. Some 20 years later, I was back auditing and I thought : ‘is this what I want to do with my life?’ and in answering that question I found that I wanted to write. I loved reading, loved stories and I had so many of my own in my head. What made me start and not stop? A character in my mind, with eyes that glowed with fire and I needed to tell her story. Her name was Leila and the story was Relic, a SF story. (not published, yet).
Take me through your writing process. Are you someone who gets up early to tear in, or do you just write when you feel the urge?
I have a chequered history. When I first started I wrote diligently. Prying me from the computer was hard both morning and night. Relic, the first novel I wrote, came onto paper in six weeks. I wrote every afternoon/evening and on the weekends. I started polishing it. When I sent it off for an ms assessment, I started writing Argenterra, a fantasy which took longer. For the first three years I think I was a very diligent writer but I soon got caught up in other things, like editing, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, Conflux, my own small press. Then I realised that my family couldn’t really cope with my obsessiveness and I tried to tone it down. At the same time, I struggled with RSI and arthritis in the neck, which also limits my time at the computer. If I have a deadline of some kind I will get up early. I used to set deadlines for myself, but I find I have to be flexible if the neck in playing up etc. Nothing really prevents me from writing these days except work and family commitments. My partner, Matthew Farrer is a writer and we write together sometimes. He doesn’t complain about me writing at all. These days it’s writing dates and writing retreats where I get most of the drafting done. I can edit around these times. It just depends on everything stacking up, time, health and inspiration.
Are you an architect or gardener when writing?
I think you are asking me if I’m a planner or a panster, right? I used to be a panster. I’d just start with a scene, characters and then plumb the depths and see where it went. I have things happen that have surprised me and then had to wait months to see if that’s where the story should go. These days I tend to outline just so I know the bare bones of the story and that it has direction. I’m less willing to experiment now with my time and don’t want to rework unnecessarily. Having said that I have two novels I’m working on and for the first time in ages I thrown away work, chapters of work, but I thinking it will improve the work. While I prefer drafting, reworking often offers up gems, small ideas that strengthen the plot or give little twists of genius. That crafting of the novel is hard, but essential. You can overwork a bit of prose but generally a bit of revision and reworking never hurt anyone, particularly me.
Your very popular Dragon Wine books incorporate an incredibly fascinating world. Where did you draw your ideas from when building this universe?
Mmm this is an interesting question. I think this took a long time to grow in my mind. I used to have a small vineyard and it can be long, hard hours of work out there alone with your thoughts. So that’s where the vineyard comes in. I believe Nils came out of a writing exercise I did at one of Trudi Canavan’s workshops. I had him in my mind, but first put him to paper there. Garan was a separate idea about a world fighting off meteors. I had different ideas for Salinda and Brill originally but they were the first ones I wrote in the Dragon Wine series. Laidan and Thurdon were late comers who emerged in the drafting process. So really they could be seen a disparate elements combined into one story.
I have read that your Dragon Wine books were a long time in the making. Why was this, and how did you keep your motivation going over such a long period of time?
Yes. They did take a long time to get published. Part of the delay was improving the writing and the story and the other would be the difficulty in getting published or noticed. I’d submit the novel, wait a year and then get a rejection. I’d do it again. I did give up for a long time. I did a savage cut back after feedback from an editor friend and to get it into a submittable length as a few markets opened up for unrepresented novels under 130,000 words. Then the market changed, really changed. I’d published other things before I got the opportunity to submit Dragon Wine to Momentum.
Did you face any challenges when writing these books? What were they?
You mentioned motivation before. It’s hard to stay focussed when there’s no encouragement. All writers get this, I think, when they are starting out. It’s hard to get validation of what you are doing and stay true to the dream. Another change for me was in Dragon Wine it was the first story where I wasn’t coddling my characters. I let them suffer. Also Margra is an exploration of what is dark about humans and it can be overwhelming. The biggest challenge for me was to find the light amongst the dark. World events happened around me while I was writing it and some of the cruelty and torture and sexual exploitation out there ended up in Dragon Wine. I didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
Shatterwing and Skywatcher touch on some very confronting themes such as torture and rape. Were these particular scenes hard to write?
These are the scenes that had the most revisiting and revision. The first drafts would have surprised a lot of people. They were longer and much more…well…more. Yet as the story matured, I knew I had to be very careful. I didn’t want to glorify those scenes so the words were very carefully matter of fact and unembelished. I had some very good advice from writer friend, Maxine McArthur, where she said ‘less is more’. I cut away all but probably one sentence that was explicit. Another writer friend, Glenda Larke cautioned me that I had to balance the image of the hero with the events taking place. So I had keep something hero-like in characters so they could go on. They had to be able to redeem themselves from their suffering.
Both Dragon Wine books incorporate a rich cast of characters. Tell me, in your opinion, what is the secret to writing a good character?
A good character is one that makes you feel their pain, empathise with their experiences and who brings you along with their story. If I knew the secret of doing that I’d tell you. I think it happens, just happens if you try to be very three dimensional: thought, action, emotion. But don’t quote me.
Who are your literary influences? Can you remember the first time you were drawn to speculative fiction?
Besides from television? From the age of 19, Asimov for SF and then Stephen Donaldson for fantasy and Julian May (saga of the exiles) or and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Mists of Avalon and Firebrand), Alan Dean Foster (Flinx and other Commonwealth and Thranx novels) and more and more. The Thomas Covenant series haunted my dreams for nights and nights while I read it and I reread it many times over the years.
You also have published in other genres such as Romance and YA. Is your writing and creative process different for each one? Do you have a favourite genre?
You know I don’t really have a favourite. The stories come out as they are. YA or adult, fantasy or romance. I like the romance/paranormal romance because they are uplifting. They take me out of my dark space, where I’m normally centred. It’s like a trip to the park to see the positives of life. Yet, I love exploring ideas and worlds and human nature and, in these cases, I’m really trying to comprehend the world and there’s more of me in that type of book. Young adult genre is just exciting. I’d say the creative process is the same, just the story is different.
Favourite book? Why?
That’s quite a hard question. I have so many favourites. I’m sad that there are so many books I may never read. I’m currently listening to books on Audible and Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is amazing. I’m on the last one. I’ve cried and I’ve raged when I’ve listened to it. There is such detail in her work but it still has a pace, not fast paced, but measured pace drawing the reader along. Audio books can be a very intense experience. I really loved Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (also Audible) and I’m probably going to write a blog post about it and Ender’s Game. I love Georgette Heyer Regency Romances and I reread old favourites, like Outlander (Gabaldon) or Through the Mirror of her Dreams and A Man Rides Through (Donaldson) and I’m really looking forward to rereading Asimov’s books, all of them such 30 years after reading them first. I have hundreds of favourites.
Do you have a literary arch-nemesis?
I’m not sure what you mean. A writer I hate? A writer that writes so well I want to slash my wrists? A writer who makes me feel I should give up now because I can never reach their perfection? There are lots of writers who inspire awe in me and I think there will be many more as I continue to read. I hope something of their greatness leaches into me. Or do you mean literary bad guy?
What is your take on Australian speculative fiction? Are there any unknowns you have stumbled across we should check out?
There are semi-unknowns and some emerging. Too many to name. The scene remains vibrant and the digital publishing move is bringing out many who have long been denied a voice. Keith Stevenson, Amanda Pillar, Amanda Bridgman, Alan Baxter (print as well), LynC, and Nicole Murphy.
Thoraiya Dyer’s series has just been bought by Tor and she is an amazing writer and I’m so excited for her. I can’t wait.
If you could meet one fellow writer (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Charles Dickens…that man is dark…his worlds are dark…but he’s also a genius. By the way that’s also a hard question.
Complete the following sentences –
When I’m not writing my favourite hobby is…. Doing craft such as hat making, weaving or costumes or binge watching dvds.
The best panel I have ever been on at a convention was.... Horrors of a second draft with Keith Stevenson and Amanda Bridgeman at Swancon.
My Zombie Apocalypse Team would include… The Rock, The Rock and The Rock!
You have seen the publishing industry from both sides of the fence as an editor and writer. Has this helped you with the progression of your writing? What are the most common mistakes budding writers that infuriate editors?
Everything I’ve done has helped me as a writer. Putting together the ‘Australian Speculative Fiction: a genre overview ‘gave me insights into some of the bad side of publishing-not selling-being dumped by your publisher-no promotion-bad covers-editors leaving-etc etc. It was quite an eye opener some of the stories shared with me when I interviewed people.
As for the editing side, I think sending stuff too soon and then not taking feedback well. You know….this is a good idea, but it needs development. Usually that means you have a good idea but your writing isn’t there yet. It takes some people lots of practice to get their writing well-honed so that they are telling the story with the right pace and the right amount of detail.
You have been an active member and driving force behind the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild for many years. I applaud you for that. How can other people get involved with the guild in order to support it? (This particular blogger is very keen to get involved! Hehe)
The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild is very welcoming and is a vibrant organisation these days! I’m so amazed by how it’s grown. Join the list (it’s on yahoo) and then let them know you want in. There is always something going on.
What are you working on right now?
I’m revising Invoked, a paranormal romance and the next instalment in the Dragon Wine series and drafting a Regency romance.
Can we expect to see you at any more events or conventions this year?
Yes, I’ll be at Supanova in Sydney and Perth during June. So come along and check me out. I’ll be at RWA conference in Melbourne in August and Conflux in Canberra in early October.
Finally, where should readers run out (or online) to buy your books?
You can ask your favourite book store to order them in or buy print or ebooks on line. Book Depository is probably the best deal for online ordering of print version. Though I’ve seen them listed on major retailers like Booktopia, Readings, Amazon etc. The RRP is $20. Ebook versions are available everywhere and from the publisher’s website where Shatterwing is free. http://momentumbooks.com.au/books/shatterwing-dragon-wine-1/
Donna Maree Hanson, thank you so much for talking to Smash Dragons!
Like Donna mentioned, you can purchase her books both online and at various book outlets. I've recently purchased Skywatcher, and I cannot wait to dive into it after reading Shatterwing a few months ago. Truly top quality fantasy by an amazingly nice writer... so get behind her and support her efforts everyone!
Until next time, be nice to each other and keep on reading!