Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

Interview: Kaaron Warren

Kaaron Warren (kaaronwarren) is the author of numerous short stories, the novel Slights and the collection, the Grinding House. Her second novel, Walking the Tree, has just been released, and later this year, her second collection will also be released.

I thought it would be fun to interview her for the blog, entirely under the idea that after spending a bit of time with Kaaron, you would go and buy her books.

Don't make a liar out of me.

Walking the Tree (It Comes With DVD Extras)

Walking the Tree is your the latest book to be released. How are you feeling about it?

Is there a word that means how terrified you are when your second book comes out after your first was a small success? That's how I'm feeling.


I'm also excited, really excited, to see it. I love that Angry Robot went with me on the novella idea. Writing the book twice was a good exercise, but it would have been a shame not to have the novella part of the deal. I'm hoping kids will read it and get something out of it.

You're talking about the extras for Walking the Tree? A kind of DVD extras: you buy it and at the end there's a key for the reader to go to a site and download a free novella, with the story narrated from a different point of view?

Yep, the extras. This one is actually a second version of the book, written through the eyes of the main child character. I wrote it because there were times when I wanted to know the story from the children's point of view, and also because I thought it would be cool for parents and kids to be able to read the same book. Morace's story is written to be read by kids.

That's pretty sweet. There's the link right here in our interview for Walking the Tree so people can buy it right now. Can you give us a quick pitch for it?

The Tree almost fills the island of Botanica, which is about the size of Turkey. Big. Isolated communities live around the Tree, some thriving, some dying. School consists of the children walking the Tree, a journey of around five years. Young female teachers accompany them, bonking their way around to find the most compatible males.

Lillah, a teacher, runs the story. She's charged with the extra care of Morace, who is not only her half-brother, but possibly sick with Spikes. It's not good to be sick on Botanica. One thing each Community has in common is that they punish illness severely.

Inside the Tree are ghosts, and up high, in the branches, hang bodies and memories.

Sounds pretty neat. How can readers expect it to differ from previous Kaaron Warren work?

It's still in my weird Warren Universe, but it's not as nasty as Slights. There are nasty bits, but not the relentless awfulness. There is some hope, which you don't usually find in my stuff.

How then, will the third Kaaron Warren novel differ from this one, you think?

Mistification is back to a world without much hope. This one has a male main character, and there's a bit of love. Lots of magic, a tonne of stories within stories, a mist and a large, secret room.

Walking the Tree has some realism to it; Mistification doesn't really. It's about a man who cuts a woman in half and makes her smell the shit on the soles of her own shoes.

In the Beginning, Telemarketers, and Attempting to Look Like that Show About Actors

The first story I came across of yours was 'The Blue Stream', which, if I have it right, was published in 1994 in an issue of Aurealis, when it was run by Dirk Strasser. What kind of things, writing wise,
were you looking for back then?

Blue Stream was only the second short story I sold. The first one was to a feminist press, an anthology full of ‘all men are bastards’ stories.

I'd sent three or four stories to Aurealis, having read it for years beforehand. I'd never really imagined I could sell to them. I thought they were the professional market, for real writers. I was just a person who loved writing, and who was happy to do seven or eight drafts of a story till it felt right.

When I got the call from Stephen Higgins telling me they'd take Blue Stream, I was blown away. All I really wanted from my writing at that stage was to finish stories and edit them to a point I was happy with. I wanted to write stories I wanted to read.

I dreamed of being published and of people liking my stories. With this sale, I started to think it might be possible.

He called you?

First guy to called me in relation to writing was Robbie Matthews. I had no idea how he'd gotten the number, but he told me he had a huge database of writers names and numbers from ASIM. It was just faintly creepy.

Yep, called me on the phone to tell me they were taking the story. He said, "This is one of your first published stories, isn't it?"

I said, "Yep second second story I've only published one before" and other gabbled words.

Stephen said very kindly, "I thought so. You seem very excited."

Of course he wasn't to know I'm an excitable type. I still get excited whenever I sell a story. You should ask Trudi Canavan how high I jumped and how loudly I squealed when I found out Ellen Datlow was taking my story for her "Best Horror 2".

As for being called from a database, at least it wasn't a random caller trying to not sell you something. I hate those guys. "I'm not trying to sell you something" then they laugh heartily. I laugh heartily and go off and write a paragraph or two and come back to find they've hung up on me.

Is this use of telemarketers the Kaaron Warren writing practice, then?

Mate, I can get a page done while they're talking! I can also write while cooking, write in my head while reading aloud to my kids, write on the bus and write during a boring meeting.

What's changed in what you want from your writing now?

You know, I don't think much has changed, when I think about it. I still want to produce the best possible story. I still want to write the stuff I want to read. I still want people to buy what I write and to like it. I don't feel much more confident than I did selling those first few stories, either. Like all things in life, you're only as good as your last book. Your last story.

Which brings us to an interesting point, I think. Looking early at your publications, you bounce a lot between high profile markets, and low profile ones. Things like Penguin anthologies such as Strange Fruit and then mags like Going Down Swinging and Fables and Reflections. It was a big difference in audience—was it something you ever gave much thought to, or a desire to keep in print, or just a little of fingers in pies?

I've always followed the opportunities when they come. That's how most of my early decisions were made. Strange Fruit happened because I saw a snippet in a photocopied newsletter from a small Queensland writing group, asking for 'outre' stories. The concept inspired me, I wrote a story, Paul Collins bought it. Mostly I haven't thought about the size of the audience, I've thought about the story and where it will fit best.

Has that changed any now? Do you look at collections and mags and think that they have to meet a certain standard, or deliver something new, for you?

These days I mostly write on commission. I make the decisions in the same way, though. If I like the editor and the publishing house and I think the anthology sounds interesting, I'll give it a go.

I've got a story in the Morrigan Press anthology "Scenes from the Second Storey", all stories based around the songs from that album by The God Machine. I loved the idea of this; it's something I used to do as a kid, looking for stuff to write. I'd sit down with a favourite album (quite often Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare) and write a short story for every song. So the concept resonated with me.

The Grinding House, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, and Old Crime Anthologies.

That makes a nice way to segue into the 2005 release of your first collection, The Grinding House. Published by the CSFG, it came with a really sweet cover by Robyn Evans, and it seemed to be a nice focal point for Kaaron Warren, pulling together roughly a decade's worth of work into one place.

Nice segue indeed!

It was a brilliant cover, wasn't it? I commissioned it from Robyn, whose work I'd admired for a long time. There is one method she uses, layer on layer on layer of different media which she then scrapes away. I loved that idea of scraping away to see what lies beneath.

Before that book came out, the biggest collection of my work was my dad's. He printed out all my stories and had them in a couple folders he keeps on his bookshelves.

You were the one who pushed me to write The Grinding House novella for the book and that was a massive challenge at the time. My kids were really young and I barely had an hour to myself a day. But I wanted new stuff in there if only to prove to myself there was still some ability there, that it hadn't all been drained away by the creative job that motherhood is.

Yeah, I remember that. I still reckon a collection is a good place for a novella—it's a place where you can stretch yourself and not worry about the awkward word count and selling it.

Sounds like you might have something cooking, Ben! Do tell! Apart from your novels, what's the longest piece you've written?

Nah, I don't have anything to tell. I just like collections with novellas in them. It gives a collection a strong, I dunno, backbone, if that makes sense? I remember reading a collection by an Israeli
writer, Etgar Keret. I think it was called THE BUS DRIVER WHO WANTED TO BE GOD. it was full of all these quirky little stories, but after a while it just felt like there was no meat.

As for me, I think, outside books, I'd be around 19, 20 thousand words. You?

I did one around 35,000 words which was a lot of fun. I like the way you can run with a thought and follow it through. Follow its tributaries and see where they go. Sometimes they end up in a cess pit and you go back again, but not always.

Quirky little stories can be good but I agree that there needs to be some kinda meat in there. At the moment I'm reading an old crime anthology. This is the stuff I read when I'm writing hard. It's easy read stuff. Usually well-written, good plots. This one is perfectly spaced with a few short bits, a couple of longer ones and two nice long meaty ones.

Who’s in it?

Christianna Brand, Gwendoline Butler, Winston Graham, lots of others. My favourite story was "Hand in Glove" by Jennie Melville. Don't know if I've read anything else by her. This one was nice and creepy about a man who always leaves his gloves on. For some reason that seriously creeps me out.

You know, I haven't heard of any of them. Isn't that cool? Bunch of new authors to check out.

I hadn't heard of Jennie before, but I've read a bit of the others. It's good to have a list of names, isn't it? I found lots of scribbled notes when I was unpacking after coming back from Fiji, book names and authors. Andrea Goldsmith, "The Prosperous Thief". Alan Nouse. "The Watch Below". "The Kings in Space". No recollection why I wrote these things. Must see if I can find them!

Telling the Interviewer He is Wrong (Also, Ripping on Brian Aldiss)

You talk about the creative job that motherhood is, but there's a sense that that itself has became a theme through your work. Would you agree with that?

Going through my stories, I've realised why you've asked me this. The two stories I've taken to our residential workshops were huge motherhood stories! "Down to the Silver Spirits" deliberately tackled the concepts of motherhood and what infertility means to some couples.

And there was "The Mother Archives", which may well become a novel, I think.

My other stories are less concerned with motherhood and more concerned with crime and punishment, sex and death, hauntings and revenge.

I do think that being a mother has helped me be more empathetic. When you spend most of your day helping other people be happy, you tend to become practised at figuring out what they need to make them happy.

In my stories, of course, I'm usually keen to make people unhappy!

Haha. Maybe! Though I have to admit, I really didn't like Down to the Silver Spirits. How's that for gushing interview praise?

No, you didn't like it! I think you had a couple of reasonable points to make. Yours that year was written in the mode of sleeve notes on a CD. Whatever happened to that story?

It was shit, so I trashed it. Part of it ended up morphing into another story, if I remember right--but that isn't so unusual, really.

The mood of your story reminded me a bit of the Brian Aldiss book "Brothers of the Head" Have you read that one?

Nah, I'm really not an Aldiss fan. His stuff just leaves me cold.

Brothers of the Head is different. Look, they made a movie out of it!

I love how it says that Aldiss had a cameo and then was cut out of it and replaced by an actor portraying him.

Pretty brave of the filmmakers! I reckon I'm gonna tell filmmakers that if they want to make a movie out of my stories or books, they have to let me be in one scene holding a kewpie doll. Just standing there, holding a doll. It might be at the supermarket, or maybe one of those bar scenes. Maybe on a plane. So long as it's me and the kewpie doll.

What about you? What will you do in the cameos in your movies?

Nah, that kind of stuff isn't for me. I can barely stand photographs of myself, much less the idea of subjecting others to me.

I had a job a few years back as an extra in a film, a local dodgy thing. I have to say it turned me off film making entirely—it was one of the least creative and most repetitive things I'd seen. Granted,
I'm sure not all sets are like that, and a lot will depend on the director, but it kind of killed my interest in film making. Should anyone want to make a film about my stuff, they can give me the cash and then I'll bugger off.

New Collections, The Interviewer Hasn't Learnt A Lesson, and Retyping Books You Wrote When You Were Fourteen

Anyhow, I see I have been put into my place about your concerns for fiction (though I think if I'd said 'family', I might have been more correct), but do you think that The Grinding House was a good representation of yourself as an author?

I think so. It covered my early career to stories I wrote for the book. I'm sure there are recurring themes, but reading the stories they seem broad and differing. I don't feel like I'm writing the same story over and over again.

How then do you think the new collection, which will be released by Ticonderoga Press later his year, will differ from it?

The stories are from a shorter period of time, 2005 to 2009, plus a coupla newies. Plus a couple reprints from The Grinding House. So a more intense writing period. Thematically, I think I'm still working from the same point of inspiration. There will be a couple of Fiji stories in there, so there's a strong influence that way. In some ways the Fiji stories are more reality based, because the world was strange to me and I didn't need to invent a stranger one. Of course I add my own weird and nasty twists to it all.

It does seem that living in Fiji has had a large impact on you, and in what seems to be a largely positive way--has it felt that way while you've been writing the stories?

It had an impact in a number of ways, most clearly geographically. I had the idea for Walking the Tree before we got the posting to Fiji, and could have written the book perfectly well in Canberra, but living on an island and writing about an island was perfect. There's something about living on a place you can drive around easily. About seeing three different coast lines in a day. Something about the flora and fauna, the air, something about the sense of enclosure, that I could try to capture in the novel.

Have you ever gone back and read your stuff?

I always read the short stories, as soon as I get the book they're in. I like to read them in context, alongside other stories, just to see how I feel about them in comparison. Slights I re-read once people started asking me hard questions, even though I knew every bloody word. I think I'll do the same with Walking the Tree.

How about you? Are you a re-reader?

Not really. I glance to make sure everything looks good, but, on the whole, I just see the errors and mistakes and ways I could have done something differently and better. Maybe it's not the best way to be, but I guess I'm just demanding on myself, and it's never reaching what I think it should be.

That's exactly how I feel. You'd change words, conversations, behaviours. I'm typing up the novel I wrote when I was 14 at the moment, and I really have to restrain myself from editing it as a 44 year old. I need to leave it as is! It's called Skin Deep and it's my searing attack on racism in the suburbs of Melbourne.

That sounds like all my work...

Why are you typing it up?

Because I only have one typed copy, and four of the pages have almost disappeared. I think I typed it on some weird paper. This was maybe 25 years ago, probably more. It's one of the things which keep me up at night, thinking that I'm going to lose this novel.

Heh. You know, I wrote a book when I was fourteen, or thirteen. Some awful fantasy novel. I lost it when my Mum sold the computer a few years later, and I always regretted that.

That really sucks. Sad news. It's different to losing a draft when you didn't back up or something. This is stuff we wrote when we were kids.

Tags: interview

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