April 15th, 2005


Jay Caselberg, author of Metal Sky.

Jay Caselberg's latest novel is Metal Sky. He also has a piece appearing in Nigel Read's anthology Superluminal 1.

1) I was actually a bit surprised to learn, when Wyrmhole was nominated for an Aurealis Award, that you were Australian. Since then I've seen your work appear at TiconderogaOnline and you'll be in Nigel Read's anthology Superluminal. It appears to look like you want to establish a stronger profile here, even as you live in London. Is that something you're actively trying to do, and if so, what's the attraction?

My first Australian publication was "Stone Feather" in Altair #1 in 1998. I've never not sent to Australian publications, just the "bigs" tend to pay more. I'm an Aussie, and once an Aussie always etc. Yeah, there's something nice about appearing in Australian venues and I keep sending stories down that way. And even though I live in London, I'm not there much. I spend more time in Germany and other places for work.

2) You began publishing in 1996 with the name James A. Hartley (people might remember two stories in Robert Stephenson's magazine Altair in the late 90's), but from 2000, you've also began work under the name Jay Caselberg. What was the reasoning behind the change?

Actually I appeared three times in Altair, #1, #2 and #4. Heh. The name thing. A long story, but both names are legitimately mine. Anyway, about nine months or so before I sold the first two books to Roc, Ace signed a fantasy author by the name of James A. Hetley. jhetley (Hi Jim.) Roc and Ace being both subs of Penguin share the same sales force, and you know, the names are a bit similar. Part of it is also down to John Clute who told me that James A. Hartley was a terrible byline and I ought to change it. When I told him about my other name, both John and Judith thought it was great and said I had to use it.

3) With such a gap between you and the physical presence of the local scene in Australia, do you pay much attention to it? Or is the local scene in London of more revelence?

I keep an eye on what's going on, but I also see folk over at most of the major conventions. I spend quite a bit of time over in the US when I can and dip in and out of the Brit scene when I can. Relevance? It's all a part of the same multi-tentacled beast that is genre and I'm not that sure we're really distinguished by national boundaries.

4) You're dead. Margaret Thatcher's head got itself a mechanical spider body and, well, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, you go to Heaven (assuming you believe) and you see God. You say?

Dammit. There is a Hell.

5) Favourite swear word?

Bollocks. It bursts roundly from the mouth (metaphorically speaking, of course) but still has that essential 'k' sound to it.
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David Carroll, author of short fiction (website host for interviews once done)

David Carroll has fiction in Daikaiju!, edited by Robert Hood and Robin Pen. David is also the owner of Tabula Rasa, where the interview series will be kept once it's done.

1) As a member of the Australian speculative fiction scene, you've been around since the 90s, with your zine Burnt Toast. In that time, you've published short fiction in respectable anthologies like Southern Blood, written RPG material for universes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and done a whole heap more. What keeps you around, David, and why in such diverse fields?

I'm not sure I really am a member of the scene in any meaningful way -- so maybe I've managed to stick around by virtue of not becoming pissed off with anyone.

Well, not too pissed off, anyway.

I have done a variety of different things, but they all really descend from two distinct modes of writing, seemingly contradictory. One is my love of structure and definition, and my eternal bent for research (it seems I can never write about something which I actually know, but maybe I just don't know enough to start with). The most obvious manifestation of that is the History of Horror, which blossomed from humble beginning in Burnt Toast #13 into a rather large amount of work. It also feeds all sorts of other stuff, from a gallery of local comics (270 titles and counting), and a career as a computer programmer.

The other strand is an attempt to capture all sorts of slippery emotions and sensations with mere words, trying to bypass all visual and even rational tools to strike a deeper vein. That may sound wanky, and possibly it is, but it's also pretty accurate. After various discussions and readings on the subject, it seems one of the most profound influences on my writing is simply my own inability to form internal visual representations. Words and feelings is all I've got.

Likewise, while I strive for clarity in my non-fiction, the same could not always be said of my stories. It's not that I am trying to keep facts back from the audience, it's just that I usually don't know what those facts are, nor much care about them if they don't add to the effect I want. I do know that can alienate readers, and the rhythms I imbue a story with aren't always obvious from the other side of the page. But you work with what you have, and I am tottering slowly towards a larger piece of fiction, which on past evidence may provide enough context to carry the whole thing off.

So add an attention to detail to the power of emotional storytelling and you get, well, a lot of odd little stories published here and there (and more that haven't been published anywhere), and a sprawling website on a vast array of horror-related topics.

That's about it, thus far -- plus the gaming of course

2) RPG writing (and gaming in general) doesn't get a whole lot of respect as a medium for writing, but it's as valid as any form, really. What are some of the concerns you have when you sit down to write?

Diplomacy becomes you, my lad.

I'm actually moving out of RPG writing fairly rapidly, but I never quite get round to saying so (for them wot cares). There's a fabulous project I'm trying to get up and running, which requires about three highly unlikely things to coalesce, and I figure I would look rather stupid if it did happen and I had already announced my retirement. Still, I have no concrete plans at this stage, and have let some previous opportunities slip away unmourned, such as the pursuit of work on White Wolf's rebooted World of Darkness.

I can well imagine RPG writing not getting respect, but I've been really happy with the projects I've worked on. It has stretched me in lots of different ways. For example, I wrote a 12,000 word story for a Demon book which I was really pleased with. It had character and action and plot (two of which haven't been exactly omnipresent in my work), and also happened to illustrate various concepts in the game. Likewise, I've written a 2,200 word story for a book not yet released, that I would consider as good as many of my non-gaming works.

Of course, it's a lot more than story telling, and perhaps the real reason I have done so much work on RPGs is that the discipline most successfully combines the two approaches I have to writing. Game rules aren't really my strong point, but I do tend to attack them in a structured and mostly successful fashion, I think (my computer programming has come in helpful there, every now and again). Likewise there's what amounts to essay writing and information gathering, from a discussion of politics in a campaign world, to the mapping of Sunnydale.

(The most research I have ever done in my life was for a RPG book co-written with Kyla around 1999, which will likely never be published, alas.)

To answer your question though, my concerns in RPGs have always been trying to capture a certain sense of coolness and possibility. I don't really think about people sitting down and playing any of my games (it's not like I managed to organise many myself). I don't think about Angel or Buffy or whoever careening around my plotlines (not even naked). I just try to convey the mood of my assigned world with lots of nice little details for people to grab onto if they wish, and, as always, build a feeling of horror and awe with casual atrocity and misunderstood intentions. RPG writing allows me to set all that up, without having to wrap the results under a neat little bow -- that's left as an exercise for the reader.

3) Your honest opinion of the quality of the local scene, it's positives and negatives.

Honestly? Buggered if I know. I don't read many short stories, and that remains the bulk of local writing. Likewise, I read almost no SF or conventional fantasy, so there are many Australian novelists I haven't caught up with either. I don't think this is a very good situation for me to be in, but at the same time I don't regret my focus.

Having said that, what I can see of the local scene is really good. Cat, Bill and Rob have put together some great anthologies, and there are all these nice things dancing on the edge of my perception, like Orb and Borderlands and Dark Animus. Quite a lot is going on, and people are moving on up to collections and novel contracts and even film options. Yet we haven't reached a size where we can support a proper infrastructure of editors and critics and groupies, and so a lot of what does happen is just the furious spinning of wheels to no great effect. Maybe we will hit that critical mass, but I can't see it happening soon. It seems far more likely that it won't ever, and out best hope is the shrinking of the world into a global community, with a wide-spread tolerance for local styles and concerns.

I have spent some time thinking about local sensibilities when it comes to "genre" fiction, most of it in relation to films and comics (as can be seen from the appropriate sections of the website). I could argue there is a uniquely Australian mood which descends from novels such as On the Beach and Wake in Fright, on through Peter Weir and Nick Cave (and not forgetting Mad Max or Peter Carey), and into the writing of Kirsten Bishop and Brendan Duffy as well. I'm not saying we should become a slave to that quality, nor that it can be captured and bottled (particularly with such ill definition as I've provided here -- it's to do with a sense of alienation and loss). I do think it's nice to know that there is not only a lot of talented Australians, but that you can point to something bigger than any of them.

4) You're dead. Your oddly comical death in a 7/11 freezer explosion can be bought in one of those underground snuff videos. Still, you go to Heaven and God is there, waiting. What do you say?

"I think you've got the wrong guy."

5) Favourite swear word?

"Bouncing baby bandicoots" has long been under-rated as an expression of visceral disgust at the horrors of the world -- but no longer, if I have anything to do with it.
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Nigel Read, editor of Superluminal 1

Nigel Read is the editor of Superluminal 1. That beautiful cover has been created by none other than Nick Stathopoulos.

1) Superluminal 1 marks your entrance into the Australian field as a publisher and editor in an anthology that is billed as science fiction. There's been some discussion (and Bill Congreve noted it) that science fictions presence in Australia has diminished. Was the urge to do the anthology generated by this absence, or by other reasons?

There's a good reason why the Australian mass market publishers don't publish much science fiction -- virtually every other genre sells better. There's no point in denying it, the readership for science fiction in Australia is small. And yet a small readership isn't _no_ readership. Superluminal 1 is intended to satisfy that small readership. I don't have a fannish interest in science fiction. Of course I read it and enjoy it, but my primary interest is in _variety_. That should, in my opinion, be the main purpose of the small presses -- to provide the variety that the mass market publishers cannot (or will not).

2) What I find interesting about your anthology, actually, is the number of reprints you're carrying. Out of the 17 stories in your collection, 5 are reprints from names such as Greg Egan, Sean Williams, and Jack Dann. It's an unusual practice to see reprints in original anthologies these days, so what lead you to them?

I'm not sure I can answer that one properly, since I don't fully understand why original fiction should be considered inherently superior to reprint fiction. Why _not_ publish reprints? It brings quality stories to readers who may not have read them before. I'm still reading heaps of old novels and short fiction -- Robert E Howard stories, Philip K Dick novels, Roger Zelazny novels, Wild Cards anthologies, any retrospective anthologies I can lay my hands on...

3) What is your impression of the quality of the fiction being written in the Australian scene, both pro and con?

Ah, the million dollar question! ;)

I don't have a good opinion on the fantasy novels being published by the mass market publishers in Australia. I don't have a bad opinion either. I simply haven't read many of them. With only a few exceptions, they simply haven't appealed to me. Thus, my comments below refer primarily to the other sub-genres of speculative fiction and to short fiction. It seems to me that the best Australian speculative fiction writers still have some ground to make on the best in the US and the UK scenes. And there's an awful lot of absolute crud being written and published. But there's a lot of promising signs too: the emergence of K J Bishop and Margo Lanagan, Cat's Agog! anthologies, the resurgence of author collections... I think the next step is to bring down the fairly artificial barriers separating the Australian speculative fiction scene from the rest of the world. We are too insular, too parochial. This is, in my opinion, holding some very promising writers back. We should be competing with writers from the US and the UK and elsewhere. It's time to stop being content with being a big fish in a little pond. Evolve or die! :)

4) You're dead. The parachute didn't open. The ground didn't move. It was a black plastic trash bag they buried you in. Still, you go to Heaven and you see God. What do you say?

"Err, you know I'm not baptised or circumcised, right?"

5) Favourite swear word?

I tried swearing for a while, but everyone kept laughing at my futile attempts, so I stopped. My characters swear, for the sake of verisimilitude, but _I_ almost never do. Blame my parents.
  • Current Music
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Robert N. Stephenson, Altair Books

Robert N. Stephenson is the publisher of Altair Books.

1) Altair books is one of the few small presses in the Australian scene to use the POD (print on demand) technology. What's the attraction over a small print run, and what are the draw backs?

The idea is that Altair Australia can publish eclectic books by well known authors that would otherwise not be published by their Main Stream publisher. Small print runs mean an up front investment of a few thousand dollars per book and then you are faced with storage problem, no distribution and poor sales leaving you with an office full of books and an empty bank account. Using POD technology I can have lower operating costs (low hundreds of dollars per book), no storage problems (I keep about 20 books in stock) and still no distribution. Like small press that create small runs I am faced with direct marketing the book. I must say that of the books I've produced to date, only one Australian has purchased a copy. So, with the idea of a small print run, I would be left with quite a few books. The main draw back I have found is that the Australian SF/Fantasy/Horror readership in small press is generally restricted. I know Bill Congreve can sell 300 - 500 books, Agog likewise and maybe even CSFA but for some reason this small press publisher in Australia hasn't been able to sell to these people - I don't know why - maybe dislike of me runs deep. It won't stop me from producing books and supporting Australian authors, but it does make earning these guys money mighty tough.

2) You've been critical of the local Australian scene for being, from what I understand, closed off from writers outside the country. It is true that, for the most part, when a small press publisher in Australia produces a book or magazine, it is predominently filled with local authors--and that these magazines and books dominate the awards, rather that Australians published overseas. What do you think the long term effect of this will be?

My criticism is manly based on creating false senses of grandeur within the Australian scene. I have copies of most of the Australian publications (I do buy what is published here) but I want to see more. I would feel a sense of pride when reading an Agog for instance if it did have stories by James Van Pelt, Mary Soon Lee, Justin Stanschfield to name a few and then discover that works by Australians in those same books were on par or even better. We cannot grow as writers if all we compare ourselves to is ourselves. I have had works in magazines where the TOC has Elizabeth Moon and Orson Scott Card - it helps me assess how I am doing with my writing and how and where to improve if I want to keep on doing this. On awards I have my own opinion that is usually best kept to myself, but in the long term I feel the awards will simply become meaningless when foreign readers read the story that has won the award. Remember, they get to read the best in the world, I can't say what has received awards over the years could be put into that category. Yes, Australians write well, but how do they compare to US writers, UK or even Japanese writers? Agog has had some success in getting writers seen in the US and this should be openly applauded, I just wish Agog readers would try McDevitt's 'Ships in the Night' which I published, it is fantastic and rare. I was pleased his US agent gave me permission no do this, given it was POD with no advance. He's not Australian, but hell, he one fine writer we can all learn from. I've raved enough, onward I say!

3) You've been reviewing the local scene for a while now. What's your opinion of the work being produced, and are there any styles in favour?

Generally work being produced by Australians is good, not blindingly brilliant, but good. Australian writing can tend to aim for humour or even the unusual based purely on uniquely Australian knowledge. Which is okay, but not all the time. Australian settings are good but when you are only aiming for an Australian audience I feel many good stories are under
explored and developed for perhaps a wider readership. Fantasy seems to becoming too dominant and I would like to see SF (good SF) grow again. We have some bloody good writers in this country who show a deft hand at story telling, I just wish ... I just wish!

4) You're dead. That story about mobile phones at petrol pumps wasn't just an urban myth. Anyhow, dead is dead. You go to Heaven (assuming you believe, blah blah) and you see God. You say?

Thanks for the memories

5) Favourite swear word?

  • Current Music
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Chris McMahon, author of short fiction.

Chris McMahon has fiction appearing in upcoming anthologies Superluminal 1, edited by Nigel Read and The Devil in Brisbane, edited by Zoran Zivkovic. He is also in the latest Aurealis. Due to its size and pricing, it's rather like an anthology. It was edited by Keith Stevenson.

1) You're a reasonably new writer on the scene, but you've got a batch of things out and coming out now. What would you say you goal is with your fiction and why does that mean people should bother hunting out Chris McMahon's work?

I've never really had a concrete goal as such, just a bunch of compelling ideas, characters and events that urged me to create the worlds they live in. Of course as the novels start to pile up, it would be great to actually see them in print!

Why should people read Chris McMahon's work? I'd say for no other reason than because they enjoy it. People forget that writing is this intense form of telepathy, a very personal communication. I'm sure my work will simply not resonate with some people, and I am damn sure some of them are editors! Apart from that, I get no greater thrill than to hear someone say they enjoyed one of my stories.

2) What's your long term plan? Do you even have one?

I started with novels, and that's really where I still become most involved with my fiction. Ultimately I would love to become a novelist, because that's the medium in which I have the most freedom. My stories often need room. I only have a very vague idea about cracking a novel contract (finally!) and trying to get my work to as many readers as I can. Nothing would thrill me more than to have people reading and loving my work - enjoying the worlds that I have created and the journeys therein. I guess I would like to think people would take something away from that experience.

In terms of approaching stories, I have a very strong ethic of letting the story be what it wants to be - of always returning to the core. I resist crafting that has its only end in creating a sale, and am highly suspicious of the ethics of others that do so; but that's just crazy old me.

3) Your honest opinion of the quality of the local scene, it's positives and negatives.

I think some of the fiction being produced locally is of an exceptionally high quality, and we are so lucky to have so many local magazines and anthologies to place this work in - I don't know about anyone else, but I could have financed a great holiday off the money I have wasted on postage to the US & England and IRC's. I am just extremely grateful that those dearly beloved editors who have bought my work over the last few years did so (can ya' feel the love?).

We have some very dynamic people who had made tremendous strides in getting the work of local authors out there and recognised and raising the profile of the whole genre in Australia. Yet, I guess sometimes, on a national level, things can feel a little bit fractured. Although as a bona-fide hermit, I don't feel qualified to give lectures on co-operation.

4) You're dead. Abducted, probed, chipped, and then hit by a truck after they dumped you on the Hume Highway. Stupid aliens. Still, you go to Heaven and God is there, waiting. What do you say?

Dear, God. If I went back in a time machine and killed the baby Adolph Hitler, would that be a good act or would that act always be ultimately evil, no matter how many innocent people he was fated to slaughter or - Oh, sorry God that was part of your plan, Hmmm next question

5) Favourite swear word?

Fuck. And I'm afraid the sanitised 'Frak' of Battlestar Galactica doesn't do it for me:)
  • Current Music
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Karen Miller, author of The Innocent Mage

Karen Miller's first fantasy novel, Kingmaker Kingbreaker Bk 1: The Innocent Mage, will be published by Voyager this August, with Bk 2: Innocence Lost, out next January.

1) If it's one thing that the speculative fiction likes to say, is that it doesn't get much respect. But within the spec fic community, what often doesn't get any respect is high fantasy, the genre within the genre that is, arguably, keeping spec fic alive on the bookshelves. What then is the attraction to you to write it?

First of all I have to say I don't write it to get respect from any particular tribe within the spec fic community. But I think you're right, there is a real sense of elitism and disparagement from some sections of the spec fic community. Not the reading public, mind you, but the other writers. The reading community loves high fantasy just fine. As for the grumblings within the spec fic community, you'd have to ask them what is so offensive.

As to why i write it ... well, I don't choose the story, the story chooses me. I'm also not sure that high fantasy is the only fantasy I'll write ... but certainly it's fair to say my first fantasy duology is high fantasy. But for whatever reason it's a coincidence ... this is the story that came to me, these are the characters, and this is how it wanted to be told. I'm attracted to emotionally lavish stories, with big stakes and big emotions and big consequences. I like fantasy because it can be so completely based in history, in humanity. The main thrust of sf is science, and given that I am beyond incompetent when it comes to science and science related matters, and absolutely adored Ancient History in high school, I figure follow my passion. Also, fantasy generally means you don't have to worry about stuff like maths and that makes me smile.

2) You ran your own fantasy/mystery bookshop called Phantasia, which must give you an insight into trends of bookshelf movement. What would they be, and do you think they have influenced what you write?

If my bookseller experience taught me anything it was that people will happily read most books if they're well written, and provide a satisfying emotional experience. The thing I liked best about bookselling was getting my hands on all the new releases each month, finding a book/writer I really loved, and then introducing that writer to all my regulars customers. Plus the oldies and goodies that newer readers hadn't read yet.

Consistently, whether it was horror or sf or fantasy, the stuff that sold well were the books that entertained and took the reader on a roller coaster emotional journey with great characters and exciting events. I read all 3 genres, and I regularly recommended books in all 3 genres. The key for me as a reader is in being able to lose myself in the author's world, and not get jerked out of it through the reading experience. Any writer who can do that will sell, regardless of the genre.

If you're kind of asking me why I think fantasy outsells sf, well, partly I think it's because a lot of the sense of wonder is missing in sf. We live such an sf life now, in our everyday society. Much of our technology is as sf-y as anything that was thought up twenty, thirty years ago. I also think that fantasy, generally speaking, tends to tell more emotional stories, and that really connects with the reading public. Now, perhaps that has something to do with the fact that more women write fantasy than men, and more men write sf than women. But there are enormously successful women sf writers -- Lois McMaster Bujold, Karen Traviss -- who coincidentally have a very strong human/emotional component to their work. Orson Scott Card also writes sf, but it's very emotional sf, very grounded in humanity as opposed to machine.

Fantasy tends towards the emotional and the exotic, and for whatever reason that seems to be important to people at the moment.

3) The small press scene in Australia is always trying to reach new readers. Hence, you know, this blog stunt. Still, with your store experience, what would be your suggestions and insight?

You're looking at two issues -- content and marketing.

A lot of people forget, I think, that publishing is a business, and the large publishers can't afford to do too much speculating on books that might be really well written but are destined to only appeal to a narrow segment of the reading public. This is why small press is so important -- there must be a place for the off beat, the unusual and the kind of stories that are still important but resonate less widely. Publishing is by its nature conservative, and is largely controlled by people whose daily imperative isn't artistic expression but the numbers at the bottom of the bank statement. And it's a bit of a vicious cycle -- if the publishers don't make money they can't produce books, so no writer gets published. So they err on the side of 'more of the same', because that means a guaranteed return, which then gives the impression that nothing new is ever published.

In come the small presses, who have a better chance of experimentation and boundary stretching because they have more freedom. But they also have to stay in the black, which means they often face the same dilemmas as the large corporate publishers. The small presses still have to produce books/stories that resonate with the public. They have to be a good read, they have to have a wide appeal, or they won't sell.

I think small press publishers need to talk to the reading public wherever and whenever they can, and they have to listen long and hard to what is said. You can't impose your own tastes and agendas on your audience -- well, you can, but chances are you won't get far. Find out what it is that people really enjoy reading, and then look to filling that need. That's the marketing/research part. You then have to accept the public's verdict. You can't make people buy stuff they don't want to read. Talk, talk, talk, ask questions, find out what readers enjoy -- and then look at what the big publishers are doing, see where there are gaps and leap swiftly in to fill them.

And then you have to forge relationships with your specialist and helpful local booksellers. But don't expect them to support your product just because it's small press, or trendy, or cutting edge or whatever. They work in a very tough economic environment and they have to think hard before spending their dollars on your product. If they don't think it can sell, they won't buy it. That's why small press publishers have to focus on producing quality stories that the booksellers can get behind and promote. And if it's good, they will.

Sadly, it really does often come down to money. But, at the end of the day, a good story is a good story. If you keep in mind that most people read fiction because they want to be entertained, not educated or lectured or harangued or indoctrinated, then you're on the right track.

4) You're dead. Tiles were hurled at your head by a monkey. He escaped an animal testing program and, after he finished with you, actually took over NASA. Still, you're dead. Why worry about the monkey. You go to Heaven (assuming you believe) and you see God. You say?

Have you got a minute? We need to talk ...

5) Favourite swear word?

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