I'm delighted to bring you yet another instalment in our ongoing interview series with up and coming new authors. This week I had the amazing opportunity to chat with the incredibly cool Lee Murray. We chatted about a variety of topics, from her upcoming novel Into the Mist right through to moles on her back! I hope you enjoy the interview!
Lee Murray, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell us a little bit about yourself and your upcoming novel Into the Mist?
Into the Mist, my monster thriller, is to be released by Cohesion Press this April. The book introduces Sergeant Taine McKenna, a veteran of the New Zealand Defence Force, whose team is sent on a babysitting mission escorting a mining expedition into New Zealand’s Te Urewera forest. Covering 2127km2 of unspoiled native bush, the mist-filled forest is the spiritual home of the proud Tūhoe tribe whose history is steeped in controversy. A local matakite (seer), and a solitary pig hunter warn the party off, but the team’s officious leader, Dr Christian de Haas, ignores them, insisting they push on into the forest. Naturally, that’s a bad idea.
Something about me…? Born and raised in New Zealand, I live in the capital where I write mostly dark speculative fiction in my office on the porch. I’m married to David, who only reads science articles and software manuals, and we have two almost-grown kids: one Hufflepuff, one Slytherin, both Browncoats. When I’m not injured, I like to run, and forest trails are a favourite.
What sparked this particular story? Did it ferment in your head for a long time or was it a ‘light bulb’ moment?
My first book was Battle of the Birds, a children’s time travel fantasy adventure set in the New Zealand bush. Published by Taramea, a small New Zealand press, the book was well received locally and went on to gain the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Youth novel. The success of Battle of the Birds proved to me that the New Zealand bush was the perfect setting for dark adventure novel, but how could I engage a wider readership, an adult readership, bringing a New Zealand that wasn’t just MiddleEarth to the rest of the world? So I set out to write a New Zealand thriller, set in deep in the bush and embedded in our culture. The taniwha thundered into my head as the perfect antagonist. I remember when it came to me; I was running through Tauranga’s McCardle’s Bush track with my best friend Ross Steele and our local MP, Simon Bridges (now Minister for Energy and Resources) and I mentioned the idea to them. Ross said the idea was ‘cool’ and Simon, who’d been reading Dame Judith Binney’s book, Encircled Lands agreed that the Ureweras, with its mists and mythology, was a great setting for a story. Plenty of political controversy, too. I went home and opened a file which I flippantly gave the name, Global Blockbuster, and the story grew from there.
What was it about writing a military horror story that appealed to you?
It wasn’t so much about writing military horror, but more about writing an authentic New Zealand thriller incorporating the dark aspects I love, and with all the atmosphere of the bush and people who live there.
What challenges did you face whilst writing Into the Mist?
Writing it. I’m a horribly slow writer, so it’s taken me ages to complete. Plus, I knew nothing about the military and even less about guns. However, I was lucky enough to be given a personal tour of the weapons store at Trentham Army Base by the then NZDF Senior Weapons Officer. Being a civilian I had to be signed in twice, and then the two of us were locked in the armoury, sans rounds, while my guide explained how the various weapons operated. I got to look down scopes and assemble and disassemble parts, even pull the trigger on a few. I was shown antiques and new additions, from handguns right up to long range missile launchers. It was a sensitive time to be carrying out this research because there had been a spate of college killings in the United States, so my visit was both sobering and fascinating.
Tell me more about the Taniwha (without, of course, spoiling your story). What are they?
The focus of many local legends, taniwha are supernatural creatures of New Zealand. They take on many forms such as sharks, lizards, or amphibians, and can be either friendly or threatening. The term taniwha was also used by Maori as a metaphor for a great chief. Readers interested in learning more will find a good starting point at The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.
You mentioned wanting to bring a New Zealand that wasn't Middle Earth to a wider readership with this book. Can you tell us about (apart from yourself) some other New Zealand authors working in the speculative fiction field we should maybe check out?
Oooh you ask the hard questions, Matthew! I recently read and enjoyed Phillip Mann’s Arthur C Clark-nominated book, The Disestablishment of Paradise, for a sci-fi ‘Lord of the Flies’ try Darusha Wehm’s Children of Arkadia (Bundoran Press). If you’re a fan of short reads, then check out Darian Smith’s Shifting Worlds, or Grant Stone’s collection Everything is Fine. Of course, Juliet Marillier is one of ours. And Marty Young. And Helen Lowe. Look for anything by Dan Rabarts, Octavia Cade, and Andi Buchanan…. and I haven’t even started on the YA writers yet. I recommend heading to SpecFicNZ where New Zealand speculative fiction writers hang out. Or SFFANZ for the latest Sir Julius Vogel Awards finalists.
How did it feel to get such a great blurb from best-selling author Greig Beck?
I might have stopped breathing. There was some wild flailing of arms. Disbelief. Delirium. Phone calls to family members. It was an amazing thing to think Greig, one of my all-time favourite writers of pacy intelligent thrillers, had read my book and loved it. For a writer, this is equivalent to winning a Golden Globe. Naturally, I sent Greig a message with my thanks, and he replied, saying he’ll be looking out for what I write next. Cue more hyperventilating. So now I’m scrambling to write that next thing, and it’ll have to be good. Because, I mean, Greig Beck!
Tell me about the cover. Did you have much input in its design and composition?
The cover is gorgeous, isn’t it? I had very little to do with it other than providing the scenario. Geoff and I had talked briefly about how I envisaged the cover, including an idea around a carved bullroarer, but there were copyright issues associated with using a carver’s unique artwork so we abandoned that idea and left the overall concept to Dean Samed, which was exactly the right decision because the man is a genius. I love the way Dean has paid attention to the detail of the story: the mist, the soldiers in their bush hats and carrying Steyrs. He did a great job with the physiology of my monster stalking the Te Urewera forest, too. I couldn’t imagine a better jacket for Into the Mist.
Did you always envisage yourself becoming a writer?
I’ve always written, journaled, blogged (before there was such a thing as blogging), scribbling ideas in notebooks as far back as I can remember. But in primary school, I joined the St John Ambulance cadets, which opened up biology for me and, not realising it was the blood that fascinated me, I went on to become a research scientist instead. It wasn’t until much later, when my children were in school, that I considered making writing my career.
You touched on some of the research you did (weapons inspection) whilst writing Into the Mist. I'm curious, what was your favourite tidbit of research that you stumbled across?
Te Urewera is the name of our national park and the spiritual homeland of the Tūhoe tribe. It is also the Māori term for “burned penis” after the war chief Murakareke, who rolled over in his sleep one night, rolling into the fire where he singed his family jewels!
Tell me a random fact about yourself.
I have a dark mole on my left shoulder. I’m not particularly superstitious, but my mother is Chinese so I’ve always been aware that these are a sign of great burden and responsibility, and the darker they are the heavier the burden, sometimes bringing bad luck to the entire family. Many Chinese recommend having these unfortunate moles removed, but it’s not on my agenda because it’s a great fall back: anything goes wrong, I can blame it on that little mole.
Hypothetical question… if you were selected to be among the first colonists of Mars what three hardback books would you take? (You can only take 3 due to payload restrictions). Why?
As it happens, I applied but didn’t pass the selection criteria for that trip: I’ve had my children, my science degrees are decades old, and tight spaces make me nervous. I can’t cook either, which further limited my chances. Nor do I like the cold and they informed me there would be a few years of uncomfortable cryo-sleep involved. But if, hypothetically, they were to change their minds and a space came up for an archivist or a chronicler or someone to read to the kids when they wake up, then the books I would take are:
Contest – by Matthew Reilly. A timely reminder of what makes us human as we set out for other worlds.
Beneath the Dark Ice – by Greig Beck. For a pure heart-pounding survival adventure.
New Zealand ‒ by Craig Potton. Photographs of home, because I’m told the landscape on Mars is lacking a little green.
How did you link up with Cohesion Press?
Polish those pitches, peeps, because my involvement with Cohesion was through the normal query process. I was already in a few Facebook groups with Geoff Brown, and had seen some of the great work Cohesion was putting out, including stories by some of my favourite writers. At that time, Cohesion was closed to submissions for anything other than military monster thrillers, and since the fit was good, I sent them a query for Into the Mist with Military Monster Thriller in the subject line. It worked. Geoff replied warning it would take at least 6 weeks to get back to me, so I was surprised when he replied within the week requesting the full manuscript. Three days later he offered me a contract. There’s no mucking around with Cohesion.
Best part of being a writer? Worst?
The best part of being a writer is the community. Writers are amazing people. They’re all aware of how hard it is to make it in this industry, how even the very best writers get nowhere without discoverability, and that to get ahead we need to forget we’re individuals and work together. Most genre writers, I’ve found, are willing to share a post, write a blog, provide a review, or beta a story. Some will go even further. The Baby Teeth project, for example, was a group of writers who banded together to produce great work to promote children’s literacy. Likewise, Steve Dillon’s The Refuge Collection is a current dark fiction charity project involving some gifted writers and artists, all willing to give up their time and skills in support of refugees.
Also, I like working from home, sometimes in my pyjamas.
The worst part about being a writer in New Zealand that our market is small which has meant all the big players have essentially pulled out, leaving only work by the literary old guard being published or funded. I’m absolutely thrilled that Cohesion has picked up Into the Mist, but at the same time I’m disappointed that I’ve had to cross the ditch to find a publisher for my story.
Favourite beverage whilst reading?
Standard cliché question… best tip for people starting out with their writing?
Grow a carapace.
Lee Murray, thank you so much for stopping by!
For more information about Lee and her work check out her website details below. And I implore you all to go now and pre-order Into the Mist here. It's going to be a cracking read by the sounds of it!
Lee Murray writes fiction for adults and children. She is a five-time winner of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction, fantasy and horror, and holds an Australian Shadows Award (with Dan Rabarts) for Best Edited Collection for Baby Teeth: Bite-sized Tales of Terror (Paper Road Press). She is proud to have co-edited six anthologies, including four by New Zealand intermediate and secondary students, as well as At the Edge, a collection of antipodean speculative fiction to be released in June 2016.