I'm delighted to bring you yet another instalment in our ongoing interview series here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the amazing opportunity to chat with award-winning author Angela Slatter. Angela kindly took time out of her very busy schedule to stop by, so for that we are incredibly grateful. I hope you all enjoy it!
Be sure to check out all of her work as well... it's amazing!
Angela Slatter, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a Brisbane-based writer of dark fantasy and horror, most of my tales have their roots in fairy tales. I’ve been publishing since 2006. I’ve done a lot of jobs over the years in order to avoid being a writer − university admin officer, articled clerk, check-out chick, research assistant, membership coordinator − but ultimately I have failed to not be a writer. I have no cat.
I always scribbled, I always told myself stories or rewrote the scripts of tv shows, or books, if I didn’t like the ending. I didn’t think I’d end up being a writer because I didn’t think I could put all those words in order! So many words! Also it’s hard to make a living as a writer and you can’t pay your bills with artistic credit (“In return for this bacon and eggs, I shall read you the excellent review I received from Publishers Weekly!”). In the end I threw in the high-paying job and went for it.
What challenges have you faced over the years as a writer?
• Attempting to pay for bacon and eggs with reviews from Publishers Weekly! It never goes well.
• Finding my own voice, and deciding what kinds of tales I wanted to tell.
• The usual writer angst about someone working out that I’m an impostor and tapping me on the shoulder (“Excuse me, madam, we’ve become aware that you’re actually a Slitheen and the compression field on your human suit is malfunctioning.”).
• Finding a balance between the need to pay bills and the need to tell stories.
What’s your take on the current state of speculative fiction across the world? What areas do we still need to work on to make our scene healthier and more vibrant?
Argh! That’s a bit like “How do we achieve world peace in five words or fewer.”
Diversity! Diversity across race, gender, culture, age, ability/disability. Openness to new writers and new kinds of writing from different kinds of writers. Challenge yourself in your reading: read a new female author, read a new PoC author, check out Afrofuturism anthologies, read the Apex Book of World SF anthology edited by Mahvesh Murad, read Twelfth Planet’s Defying Doomsday for a new take on characters with disabilities, read the Queers Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed. Seek out something new, learn something new, give your brain and your preconceptions a shake-up.
Be accepting. Don’t indulge in Auto-Outrage, a condition which occurs when someone reads a headline on social media or an entire article that’s a beat-up and gets up-in-arms without doing any further research for themselves. Don’t indulge in pile-ons when everyone else is picking on someone they perceive to be the Representative of Evil Du Jour. Don’t be spiteful. Don’t be insane. Recognise another’s right to have an opinion that differs to yours; do not assume that because they say “I don’t agree with that” that they are not attacking you, your family, and everyone you’ve ever cared about! Agree to disagree.
In short − and in five words or fewer − “Don’t be a douche.”
Tell me a random fact about yourself.
Someone once almost sold me for seven camels in a Bedouin village in Israel.
Your work covers an incredible breadth of scope and genres. Do you have a preference, or is it a case of loving them all?
Well, I kind of feel like I work primarily in dark fantasy/fairy tale with a good dash of horror ... all of those things can be put under the heading of ‘speculative fiction’. I do very little science fiction because I truly suck at it.
I suppose fairy tale-inflected horror is my bag. I like that so many of our fears are summed up by the fairy tales we’re told as children. I like unpacking that and re-working the themes and stories into other shapes, but still tapping into something that makes a reader shudder.
Best tips for people aspiring to work within the writing and publishing industry?
• Write, write, write.
• Learn how to write and remember that you never know it all, there’s always something new to learn or something old to remember.
• Learn to accept criticism, good or bad, because not every will like what you write: deal with it and grow a thick skin.
• Send your work internationally, because very few writers can make a living just by being published in Australia.
• Network − which means building mutually beneficial relationships with other writers, publishers, agents, editors, writers centres, etc.
• Be polite to everyone.
• Don’t answer reviews no matter how stupid said review might seem (or be in actuality: “This novel was too short”, “Actually it’s a novella. See, it says so on the cover.”).
• Don’t indulge in public spats. Remember: the internet is forever.
You’re extremely busy at the moment. Can you give us a run down on all the projects you’re working on right now?
*cue maniacal laughter* At the moment I am in the short breathing space between finishing a new novel, Corpselight (the sequel to my debut novel Vigil) and then starting the editing process. In that breathing space I am finishing up two new novellas to go into my Prime Books collection A Feast of Sorrows, which is out in October this year. I also have to write four commissioned stories for a variety of anthologies. I’ve got to start doing research for a monograph, The Karnstein Trilogy: Mere Kissing Cousins or Is Blood Thicker than Water?, I’m writing for Electric Dreamhouse Press’ film criticism series. I’m mentoring a Brisbane novelist. I’m the Established Writer-in-Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Perth (25 June-10 July), and I’m going to the UK in August for the Nine Worlds con in London and (hopefully) the Dublin Ghost Story Festival in Ireland. I also have to finish a short story collection for PS Publishing (Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales) as well as finish off final edits on the final Sourdough World collection for Tartarus Press, The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales.
And then I have to start a third novel, Restoration, which is the last book in the series along with Vigil and Corpselight. Then I’ll have a little lie down.
I adored your recent novella Of Sorrow and Such. I’m curious, what motivated you to write that particular story? Where did you draw your ideas from?
Well, I had the character of Patience from two of the stories in my first collection Sourdough and Other Stories − she appears there once as a young girl (“Gallowberries”) and later as a much older woman (“Sister, Sister”), and I’d always wondered what happened in between. So when I was asked to write a novella, she was the character my mind went to first ... and somehow she’d become inextricably linked with an old folk tale that I’d read in a book my father gave me thirty-odd years ago about witches turning into cats. I wanted to work with and subvert ideas about witches and sisterhood, weave them into a fairy and folk tale mix ... and have the women come out safely at the end.
I also had the character of Selke from Sourdough (“A Porcelain Soul”), and I’d always wanted to do something more with her − one day she might get her own novella too − and as I started writing the pair of them just came together on the page. They have similarities and important differences, and I just find them both really fascinating (although Patience is my favourite).
You are known for your intricate and fascinating characterisation. What do you think makes a good character? Why do many authors struggle with this?
For me personally I always come back to “desire”: knowing what your character wants most in the world. Knowing what they will do to get it, how far they will go to get it, what laws will they break in its pursuit, what and who will they sacrifice to get it ... and what will they do if they either find it wasn’t what they believed it to be or if it’s taken from them? If I’m finding myself lost in the story I always come back to that one common core: desire. If you’ve got desire, if you know what your character wants, then you’ve got your plot.
If you could meet any author who would it be? Why?
Angela Carter because she’s the mother of us all! Well, not really, but she did so much to rehabilitate the fairy tale and her steps are the ones most of us walk in nowadays (though she’s also another link in a long chain of fairy talers). Her writing is so beautiful and bawdy and bold and baroque, she was exceedingly smart and very funny; I think she would be an excellent conversationalist.
Random question… favourite colour?
Green. Specifically forest green.
Take me through a day of writing with Angela Slatter. Do you write in the morning or night? Plotter or pantser? Pots of tea or whiskey bottle?
I used to write in the evening, but now that I’m a freelancer I have to use my day more efficiently. So, I run the day as if I’m doing a day job in an office. I start work about 8.30am, run through emails, check my deadline schedule to see what I need to be finishing up. Then I start the actual writing part, which I tend to do in the morning when my brain’s fresh. I’ll write from about 9am - 1pm (times may vary), then I’ll have lunch and watch bad tv for an hour, just separate my thought processes from what I’ve been doing previously. Then about 2pm I’ll either write some more or, more often, I’ll do the business stuff, like organising marketing collateral or travel to cons, writing articles, going over galley proofs, interviewing other writers, researching, etc. Depending on deadlines, sometimes I’ll also write a bit in the evening after dinner, but that’s mostly a rare occurrence. I’m not teaching this year so I don’t need to factor in writing courses.
I am a mix of plotter and pantser: I like to have a broad outline so I know where I’m going, but nothing so restrictive that I can’t make detours or change things if I think of something better to do.
Pots of coffee, with the very occasional whiskey in the evening when I’ve finished something major (or am feeling very stressed and am making noises like a boiling teakettle ... or a farting Slitheen).
In the introduction of the wonderful Sourdough and Other Stories Robert Shearman wrote that we are shaped by the stories we are told. I’m curious. What are your favourite stories? How do you think they have helped shape you into the writer you are today?
I think we are shaped by the stories we read. I’ve talked about it a lot elsewhere, but fairy tales were a big part of my childhood and were the stories I was read. I learned to love them then, and they’ve been like food and drink to me ever since.
I also love picking up lines from other works, like from Susan Power’s The Grass Dancer: “Walk in the shadows and you walk forever" ... I’ve carried that one around in my head for years, along with an from Clive James that those who’ve left home behind always recognise it when they find it again.
I think I read so widely, so catholically, that it gave me a really good idea of what I like, what I could do, how I could experiment. It also made me bold enough to try; I read Eco and Borges with such joy and awe and the certainty that I could never do what they did ... but eventually I thought “You have to try.” It’s one of the reasons I love the phrase “terrible as an army with banners” ... it’s from The Song of Songs but I first came across it in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and I like to insert it into stories as my little homage to Eco, an acknowledgement of all the things that have fed into me as a writer. And in one of Angela Carter’s collections (I think it’s The Company of Wolves, or maybe the story “Peter and the Wolf” in Burning Your Boats) where she refers to ideas of sitting around fires and hearing stories, because fire meant safety from the things in the darkness and stories were warnings about those things too. When I’m writing a fairy tale I try to tap into those ideas about danger and safety, the known and the unknown, that her observation always rouses in me ... as if those ideas are guiding lights in the blackness that I can stumble towards.
Any plans to appear on the convention/event circuit in 2016?
I’ll be at Contact 2016 in Brisbane this Easter, doing about four panels. And I get to interview Ben Aaronovitch on 24 March at the State Library!
I’ll be at Nine Worlds in London in August and hopefully the Dublin Ghost Story Festival. I’ll be at KSP in Perth for two weeks over June/July this year. That’s pretty much it for 2016. In 2017 my plan is to head to Helsinki for WorldCon.
And finally, most cherished book in your library?
Oh ... that would be a toss-up between Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (which a very dear friend gave me many years ago) and my copy of Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master ... an a very old copy of Josephus’ The Jewish War from my uncle.
Angela Slatter, thank you so much for your time!
You can find out more about Angela and her work by visiting her website. I highly recommended that you check it out. Angela is an amazing writer, and even better person.
Until next time peeps, be nice to each other and keep on reading.