Saturday, 14 May 2016

Interview - Andrew J. McKiernan

Andrew J. McKiernan, welcome to Smash Dragons!

First up, tell us a little about yourself and your collection Last Year, When We Were Young

I’m an author and illustrator, living on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Australia, with my wife, two teenage boys, and two cats. I’ve been a bank teller and a warehouse storeman, a purchasing and logistics officer, a production manager, a graphic designer, a web developer, a typesetter and an Art Director. I’ve played in bands, was a member of a secret occult organisation, and my wife and I were ordained priest and priestess of a Gnostic Church for almost ten years. I currently work part time at one of those weird/creepy self-storage facilities.

Last Year, When We Were Young is a collection of every story I'd ever written up to 2014, which is incidentally, every story I've ever had published! I've been lucky that way, but all those stories were scattered far and wide across magazines and anthologies, many of which are already out of print. It was a great opportunity for me to collect everything together and make them more available. I know lots of readers had maybe only read a story or two of mine before, which might lead them to believe I was a certain type of writer. I wanted the collection to be a kind of showcase, to try and show that I couldn't really be pigeon-holed as just a Horror author, and maybe not even just a genre author. I wanted to challenge the expectations of those readers. Surprise them with each new story. Hopefully, the collection succeeds at that.

Why did you start writing? Was it something you always envisaged yourself doing? 

Wrote my first short story (Calliope: A Steam Romance) back in late 2006 and it was published in 2007 in the Shadow Plays anthology. I've always loved books and reading. I thought for a while that illustration was what I was meant to do be doing, but it wasn't until my wife told me that I should be writing some of my ideas down and trying to get published that I actually sat down to write. It took me a while to realise how right she was… but then, she's always right.

Your collection, which we love here at Smash Dragons, covers a wide breadth of styles and topics. Do you have any particular niche or do you like to cover a wide ranging area with your writing?

Like my love of music, my love of the written word is far reaching. I'll listen to near anything, and I'll read near anything. Genre has no real meaning for me. Basically, I'll have an idea for a story and I'll write it. I'd never dismiss an idea because it wasn't Horror or SF or Fantasy. Same with voice and style; I let the story dictate that. Whatever is best to get the get the story across.

One of the most interesting pleasures I had whilst reading Last Year, When We Were Young was that each and every story was a unique experience. No two were the same, yet they all shared a common exploration of themes such as love, death, and loss. What is it about those themes in particular that fascinate you and help shape your writing? 

To be honest, I don't know. I don't think about it too much. I guess I'm just a morbid romantic. All the reviews that point out those unifying themes – love, death, loss – come as sort of a surprise to me. I rarely, if ever, consider any of those things when I'm writing. I just have an idea and try to do that idea justice. Any themes that emerge are normally subconscious to me. I guess that says a lot about my own state of mind, I guess.

Do you have a favourite story within the collection? Why?

All the Clowns in Clowntown is probably my favourite story, because it was so much fun to write. I had a great time researching that one. Immersed myself in circus and clown lore, taught myself to juggle, listened to circus marches, and almost drove my family mad with all that stuff. They even bought me a clown wig and nose which I occasionally wore while I was writing… yeah, I'm a bit eccentric like that.

The title story for your collection is a fascinating tale about survival amidst a strange and very disturbing apocalypse. I’m curious, how did this particular story come about? Where did you draw your inspiration from? 

Like pretty much every story I write, it starts with a title. That's where I thought Last Year, When We Were Young came from. Just a title that popped into my head that I ran with and a story emerged from it. It is always my wife who points out the real life inspirations for my stories, when here I am thinking they're just stories, fictions. In this case, my father-in-law had just been diagnosed with a brain tumour and the operation to remove it didn't go too spectacularly for him. At the same time, my own father had a heart attack and I'd just entered my 40s and my eldest son had turned 18. So, the title story is me trying to deal with the fact that we all age, and that it happens so goddamn quickly. We get older, and yet a lot of the time we still feel like we're kids and teenagers. The first 20 years of our life seem so long and so important and our mind dwells on those times. I'm 45 now, and yet a part of me still feels like I'm 18 and should be out there playing in a band and getting drunk and enjoying myself. Age creeps up on us so quickly. We're adults before we know it. Mid-life crisis, I guess, the realisation that I had aged and that I really would die one day, and this story was my subconscious way of examining that.

You wrote in the afterword to your collection that you are more of an explorer rather than a planner when it comes to writing. I’m curious, how does a day of writing unfold for you without any plotting or planning? 

Using All the Clowns in Clowntown as an example… My youngest son gave me a home-made birthday card that said "All the clowns in clown town wish you barrels of fun on your Birthday." Like most my stories, I liked the sound of that first bit and I wanted it as a title. I knew it would be about clowns, and probably circuses, so I just researched those things. Immersed myself in research. So much more than I'd ever need for a story. But then, I never know exactly what I'll need. Next, came the opening line. It just popped into my head and I wrote it and kept writing. Each day, I re-read and edit what I wrote the day before, and just take it from there. Eventually, day after day, the story emerges. Most times, I'm just as surprised as the reader as to where things lead. For me, that's probably the most exciting part. That I'm discovering the story and these character as I go. I never know what's going to happen next or how things are heading. If I plotted or planned, if I knew how things were going to end, I'd probably never write the story at all. It just wouldn't be fun for me. The joy is in giving the initial idea and the characters free reign to go where they need to go.

Your story Love Death deals with loss and death in an intriguing way, and has haunted me weeks after I read it. I’m curious, do any of your stories have a particular hold over your thoughts after you have finished writing them? 

No, I don't think so. They obsess my thoughts while I'm researching or writing, but getting to the end is a sort of catharsis. Writing a story gets it out of my system, and leaves my mind free to move on to the next obsessive idea.

The cover for Last Year, When We Were Young is wonderful. Who designed it? Did you have much say in the overall conception and execution of it?

The cover photograph is by the wonderful Australian author and amateur photographer, Anna Tambour. Really, more people should read her stuff, it is amazing, and she has a great eye for nature photography. I saw the photo when she posted it on Facebook and knew I just had to have it. It matched the themes of the title story so well, and it was such a warm and beautiful and intriguing image. I was so happy when she gave me permission to use it.

I was also very lucky in that Satalyte Publishing gave me full say in the conception and execution of the cover. Probably helped that I'd been an illustrator and graphic designer much longer than I've been a writer. I did all the cover layout and typography myself. Everything about that cover is mine and Anna's. Having been Art Director for Aurealis and also having illustrated so many covers for other authors, I still think this cover is the best thing I've ever produced as a designer. I'm so proud of it.

Last Year, When We Were Young also won (deservedly) an Australian Shadows Award for best collection in 2014. How did it feel to get recognition from your peers in the industry? 

Ah, that was an awesome moment. I'd received a number of nominations over the years for individual short stories (5 nominations, I think), but I'd always just missed out on a win. Winning that Australian Shadows Award was probably the personal pinnacle of my writing career so far.

Tell me one random fact about yourself.

The very day the band I played in broke up was also the day Triple J first played one of our singles on the radio. I almost turned around right there and then to 'get the band back together', but I didn't. For the rest of the week, two of the songs were on fairly high rotation, and it was both surreal and painful to hear it every time. But, I think we made the right move. None of us really had the chops to be professional musos. Strange to think, though, what might have been. Maybe somewhere in an alternate universe we're still gigging around and making a fortune? If so, well done other-me :)

Do you have any particular literary influences?  

My influences have changed a lot over the years. Initially, it was authors like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. These days, I'm more likely to be influenced by the works of more literary or mainstream authors such as Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and Tim Winton. I like to bring their styles and sensibilities into genre fiction.

If you could sit down for one day and get tips from another author who would it be? Why? 

I've never been a big fan of writing tips. I'm an arrogant and stubborn bastard and I like to go my own way as best I can. I think the best writing advice comes purely through osmosis; reading as widely and in as many different genres as I can. Soak it all up, and hope some of it trickles back into my own writing. But, if I could sit down with another writer and just chat with them – more about life, and less about writing – it would be Cormac McCarthy.

Cormac McCarthy is a favourite of mine too I must admit. Do you have a favourite work of his? What is it about McCarthy that you find fascinating?

I guess my favourite McCarthy novel depends on my state of mind. There is such an evolution from his earliest novels ('The Orchard Keeper', 'Outer Dark') in which his prose is almost Biblical and Faulknerian, to his later novels ('No Country for Old Men', 'The Road') in which all of that verbosity has been stripped back to only the barest essentials. Personally, I think both 'Suttree' and 'Blood Meridian' are a sweet spot between these two extremes. On most days though, I'd say 'Blood Meridian' is possibly the greatest novel ever written in the English language.

What most fascinates me, regardless of the period in his writing, is his focus on cadence; the way that, if you find the right rhythm of his words, everything becomes this hypnotic fever dream of poetry. If you can't find that rhythm, some sentences can seem near impenetrable, even nonsensical. The one thing McCarthy has taught me is that sentences and paragraphs can to be more than just a collection of words that show a scene or an action or a thought. They should also have a 'beat' and, like with all good music, that beat can impart so much more meaning than words alone.

Best writing habit? Worst? 

Ha! I don't think I have any good writing habits. I'm habitually lazy when it comes to the discipline of writing. I only write when I feel like writing. I can't see the point in writing for the sake of it, or the thought that it doesn't matter how bad the first draft is because you can fix it later. It works for me, but many consider this a horrible writing habit… I obsess about every word and sentence. I can't move on to the next paragraph until I have everything as perfect as I think I can get it. I edit as I go. It means I do first, second and third draft all in the process of writing. It takes longer, but by the time I reach THE END, I know I can put a story aside because it is already as good as it can be.

What is the most valued book (apart from your own of course!) in your library? Why?

This is probably the toughest question of the entire interview! I have a library of over 3,500 books. When we bought our house, we had to make sure it had space for a separate library just for all the books. Every one of those books means something to me. They've all had an influence in some way. Really, it is impossible for me to choose.

People always say that you should never judge a book by its cover. How do you feel about that particular saying?

As an illustrator, I guess I'm fairly biased on this one. I suppose it matters less in this day and age of digital downloads and thumbnail sized cover images, but in the days of print when we didn't have as much social media to tell us what was up-and-coming, the only way we'd find out about new books was to browse the shelves. Unless it was an author we already knew and were looking out for, the cover meant everything... or at least I know it did for me. I discovered so many new authors merely because I liked the cover illustration or the way the fonts were laid out. I suppose I missed a few great authors because they had shitty covers too, which certainly speaks to me of the importance of a great cover.

What’s your take on the current condition of speculative fiction here in Australia? Do you think we can avoid the sorts of drama that seem to have enveloped the scene in America in recent years? 

Okay, I take that last comment about 'toughest question' back. THIS is the toughest question, because honest answers can get me in trouble. I do think the Australian scene has its own unique problems. I think the community is either a) largely blind to these problems, or b) in denial. There are factions and fractions and I've seen people (myself included) abused and brought low by trying to point them out. Problem is, we're such a small pond over here, and everybody knows everybody else. The Australian Spec-fic scene is not perfect by any means. We might be able to avoid the problems the US (and also the UK) are going through, if we're all prepared to open up a little more. I hope that can happen. But, due to social media, I think the scene has opened up a lot too. We don't have to be that small pond any more. Australian authors are making big inroads into the international scene. I think that will help to break down those barriers a little.

There seems to be a lot of instability with small presses at the moment. Just recently, for example, Satalyte (the publisher of your collection) announced they were going on an extended hiatus. From an authors perspective what do you think publishers need to do better in this day and age in order to survive and thrive?

I don't know if I have a good answer for that. I'm a writer and an illustrator, and I really don't know the problems and frustrations that publishers face behind the scenes. I know that now is almost certainly the toughest era in centuries for publisher of fiction. The Digital Age has brought such a shake-up to every aspect of publishing. The old models don't seem to be working the way they did, and I don't think anyone really knows what the new models will be. It's a time of experimentation, and unfortunately that means some experiments (and some publishers) will fail. But for every small press that falls by the wayside, there will be another (like Cohesion Press) who finds their perfect niche and runs with it.

Best convention experience?

Probably my first ever convention, Conflux 2006. It was my introduction to the 'writer' side of Speculative Fiction, a scene I'd only ever been part of as a reader. I met so many wonderful people there, people who have become friends and mentors and helped shape me into the writer I am 

What was the motivation behind establishing (alongside Alan Baxter and Felicity Dowker) the website Thirteen O’Clock? How is it all going for the site? 

Way back, I was one of founders of the website HorrorScope, with Shane Jiraiya Cummings and Angela Challis. It was really the first site of its kind in Australia, focussing on the Australian Horror and Spec-fic scene. After that shut down, there was quite a hole in the industry. It was very hard to get work by Australian genre authors – especially dark fiction and horror authors – to get their work reviewed. As authors, Alan, Felicity and I, really felt that with our own work. It was Alan Baxter's idea to start something up, and he broached the idea to Felicity and I. Basically, we just wanted to fill that hole. Give Australian genre authors somewhere that their work could be reviewed and showcased. I think that's been quite successful.

I've stepped back from that over the past year or so to focus on my own writing. Alan is, rather admirably, taking most of that on himself at the moment. I'm sure he could do with some help! I'd love to see Thirteen O'Clock continue. I hope it does.

What are you working on right now? 

I have been mainly focussing on my Australian crime novel, A Quiet Place. Writing a novel length work is much harder for me than I thought, but I'm getting there, and I'm still very happy with the way it is heading.

Can you tell us some more about it? What's it about?

'A Quiet Place' is an Australian crime novel. Big City crims meet the desperation of a dying rural town. It starts in the city with a shooting, and a drug deal gone wrong, and a young man who takes a bag of stolen cash and flees. He hopes to find anonymity and safety in a small town -- the 'Quiet Place' of the title -- but finds the town is just as harsh and unforgiving as the city. When the city criminals track him down, that's when things start getting really nasty for everyone involved. The one idea I've always kept in my mind (a tag-line for the novel, I guess) is "No Country for Old Men meets Wake In Fright". Fingers crossed, I can do that idea justice.

What was the last line in a book that you read that floored you?

“He wanted her the rest of his life, and failing that, he wanted permission to walk beside her while she lived it.” ― William Gay, Provinces of Night

Can we expect to see you on the convention circuit this year? 

Fingers crossed! I can't say for sure, but I haven't been to Conflux (my favourite Writer Con) in a couple of years now and I really miss it, and I'd love to get back there this year. It all depends on funds, and getting time off work, and also me overcoming my own introversion problems. My wife, reading just now over my shoulder, has told me I will be going (apparently) even if she has to drag me there. So, I guess I'll be at Conflux at the very least.

Best tip for people looking to get into writing? 

Read. Read as much as you can, and as widely as you can. Soak it all up. Don't confine yourself to a genre. Learn from those who have gone before. Also, write the sort of stories that you want to read. Don't try and write to any particular market or style because you think it will sell. By the time you finish, the market for that type of story might be dead or oversaturated. You can never anticipate what will be popular in the future. But, if you just write the best story you can, you might just find you have something unique. You might be the one to start that next trend, but you'll never know if you're always trying to imitate someone of something else.

And finally, for readers out there what are the best ways to support you and your work?

Buy two copies of every book you purchase. One for each eye. Read in stereo and double your favourite author's income! Use social media to tell your friends, or better yet, make your posts PUBLIC and tell the world. But most of all, leave a 4 or 5 star review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Even if it's as simple as "I really liked this", reviews and word of mouth mean everything in this day and age.

Andrew, thanks for stopping by! 

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