Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

Interview: Paul Haines

Paul Haines (paulhaines) is the author of a number of black humoured pieces of short fiction, a large portion of which have been collected in Slice of Life and Doorways for the Dispossessed. A new collection, the Last Days of Kali Yuga, will be released shortly. Since 2004, he has won five Ditmars Awards, three Aurealis Awards, two Julius Vogel Awards, and one Chronos Award, and has had more nominations.

Mostly, I just like him, and thought it would be alright to interview him on the blog, and claim that it was content while I made you buy his latest book, Slice of Life.

Slice of Life, Influences, and Wives.

Your latest book has been the collection, Slice of Life, which picked up a Ditmar at the local awards—have you been pleased with the reception that the collection has gotten so far?

I was worried it might be seen as a cancer-charity sort of thing (as The Mayne Press were giving all proceeds to me for my ongoing fun with the disease) and that that might tar the perception of the quality of the content somewhat. Two awards, two other nominations, and plenty of great reviews - I've been very happy how it went down. It's almost sold out its print run, and I'm hoping to find someone interested in overseas rights, but that seems a little like pushing shit uphill really.

Lets talk about the Haines' influences, just to place you for some people. What are they on the work?

Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks for showing me you can put the darkest, sickest, nastiest stuff into fiction and have it published. (Any of Welsh's novels/shorts and particularly Banks's "The Wasp Factory") Stephen King and Peter Straub for horror, and basing it in reality.

George RR Martin with fucking epic fantasy to death and breaking every rule that exists in writing such a thing. Robert Silverberg for a love of the short story and novella formats, particularly for SF.

Jeffrey Ford and Gene Wolfe for beautiful literate examples of SF in all its forms.

Me, if I had to define your work for people reading, I would have to say I consider a lot of it to fall under the category of black humour, myself. Is that how you view it?

80% of my work I would consider black humour. Humour makes you laugh, and coating it black also makes you shudder and hopefully think a little more about what it is you shouldn't be laughing at. And the beauty of prose is you can't hear the voice or see the face of the person telling the joke, so you just don't know if you should be laughing, you just don't know...

Nah, I got to disagree there. I reckon it's not hard to tell that the black humour is there for you work. It has an entirely different tone in it than, say, the work of authors doing hardcore splatterpunk rape the dead horror.

That is true, but you're a smart man. You also understand the genres. But maybe this is just a worry I have when I put stuff out there that it will be misunderstood.

Well, lets shift to the latest piece of yours that is picking up good press, the sometimes confronting novella, 'Wives'. It took some time to get written, if I remember rightly?

Oh, yeah, "Wives" has done me good. Originally supposed to by a 2,500 word horror story it took over and did what it did. Four years of doubting and loving and loathing it, and it popped out at just under 40,000 words. Could have been my novel, but wasn't. Four major sittings to write it, with me putting it away after each sitting and thinking "What the fuck am I doing? People will hate this." If Keith Stevenson hadn't offered up the X6 novella anthology as a home I doubt I would have ever finished this one.

Response to the work has been pretty strong, though, wouldn't you say, and it seems a lot of the readers have been on the same page as you for the piece, yeah?

I generally don't care what the reader thinks about me when they read my work. I want them to get a reaction to the work, sure, but how that impacts me, well, it doesn't bother me. There are only two stories where I worried how people would think of me, that they would think that the man writing the story was the man depicted in the story. "Wives" is a horrible and terrifying story. Misogyny and racism is rife. I was worried that I would attract a lot of hate for depicting the Australian male in such a light, particularly from feminists, but in fact the strongest supporters of the work are feminists. Shit, the story got a James Tiptree Jnr Award shortlisting! The other story I put out there that I was worried about was my infamous "Father Father" short, dealing with the normality of paedophilia. My wife hated that story and resented me writing it. She made me change it, remove the story two steps back from the intimacy I originally wrote it at. She was scared I might actually think that way. And that scared me. But, normally, if the reader shudders at the story, thinks it is disgusting and disturbing and that the author must be some sick motherfucker, then I've done my job.

The critical response, though, has to be a kind of validation for pushing those themes in the way you did? You could argue even that it was a signal that you should continue writing about such themes in the way you did there.

Definite validation. I guess I've been writing about those things for a lot of what I do, but you'd hate to be typecast, right? That's the one good string on my bow and all that. Christ, then I'd find myself on that dark slippery slope writing epic fantasy trilogies, with prequels and sequels and ... and… God forbid the writer/artist/musician who tried to do other things their expectant audience did not want.

Cancer, Family and the Artist

Without derailing our flow too much, how is the fun with cancer going?

Not much fun at all really. I'm in the wonderful land of clinical trials, which can potentially save my life, but is also a grim reminder I'm reaching for the stars to stop me from dying fairly soon. The last 8 months were great tumour-wise (they weren't growing or spreading) but the side-effects of the drug meant a distressing rash over my upper body (including face, scalp and neck). Sunlight was also bad bad bad for the skin. A bit like a vampire now. I have actual scientific knowledge I can use to make all that bullshit seem real in fiction. Hopefully about to start a new trial as my cancer appears to have developed resistance to the clinical trial drug.

Here's hoping that that new shit does the trick.

It sounds ridiculous when I move on to a question about fiction from that, but watch as I do it—and by that, I mean hitting the autobiographical strand of your work. It's always been there, lurking in corners, or to the point that you become your own character, such as with 'The Devil in Mr. Pussy'. I note that one of your upcoming stories 'High Tide at Hot Water Beach' has come out of your recent experiences, as well, and that you've refused to let your wife read it after initial reactions. Have you been conscious then how your current situation informs your work, and what affect has it had on that autobiographical strand?

I hadn't been, but the reaction I got from my parents and my siblings made me realise that what I was writing, particularly dealing with cancer, love, family and death, was perhaps too close to the bone for my loved ones to take without warning. They know what is real and what isn't in these pieces, whereas the crazy black humour stuff, even though the lines are blurred, the reader is probably going to laugh instead of cry. It's a different emotional cord, and one that cuts much deeper, and I don't want to alarm those who love me, or upset them even more than they are. As for the casual reader, well, no warnings for them, and hopefully these pieces have enough emotional truth in them to make them resonate.

How does this awareness of the family sit with the artist in you, then?

I think it's just opened up a lot of those emotional depths I had once been unaware of in myself, or perhaps unwilling or uninterested in examining. And now I can plumb them to my heart's content as it now lies open and bleeding.

Careers, How to be Taken Seriously, and the Interviewer Attempts to Make Short Fiction Look Like a Good Career Choice, Briefly

Okay, skipping back to work: the overseas response to Wives has been fairly positive—you think that will help you branch out there, or is it just not a market you think responds well to your work?

I think I have good exposure overseas now, particularly from "Wives".

Trouble is nobody much cares for short story collections from a relatively unknown author (to the UK/USA). Novels. Fucking novels. I'm not sure if the American market would get my black humour stuff as well as Down Under does.

Perhaps not in the speculative fiction market, but what about others?

Ha ha! You're in the same boat here. How easy is that literary/SF-genre cross-over market to break?

I'm conducting this interview from my yacht. Soon, I'll be pulling up to the unemployment window in the harbour, where I'll collect this fornight's dole allowance.

Okay, okay, ignoring that, then. How about a Paul Haines novel?

It's the plan. I hate plans. I love the form of the novella, both as reader and writer, but to become a 'serious' or 'proper' writer you have to playing in the novel pool, yeah? And, if you want to try to make some sort of living out of this game, it's what you need to sell. Pity really. Commerciality is the death knell of all forms of art, is it not? The Slice of Life sociopath has enough back story and intention to be a novel, and Wives, if I can work up the energy/fear/hate/headspace could have a novella sequel, with the intention of wedding them and offering it up as a novel package.

I don't necessarily think that you need to write a novel to be a proper writer, though. Locally, I can think of Terry Dowling, whose made his name out of short fiction, though I do believe he has a novel out soon from PS Publishing. But there's also folk like Harlan Ellison, ZZ Packer, and Nam Le, just to pick randomly from authors around me. Do any of these leave you with hope that you could go your own way?

They certainly do, but as far as making a living out of it? That wonderful era of short story writing as a lucrative, or even livable form has long since past methinks. Harlan would have been on the back end of that. I do live in hope. Always. And I look at the huge success Margo Lanagan as had with her collections and I know that it still happens. But from a pubishing/agent perspective? You're a big risk unless you're already a best seller.

Yeah, that's true, but the the flip side of that, of course, is just how many authors make a liveable income from their novels, and just how many have to either hold down jobs, or do the equivalent of author shit kicker jobs?

Yeah, too true. But, you know, they do make a couple of thousand more per year. That'd get me a couple of hookers and some crack, right? Live the big life for maybe half a weekend or something, a couple of days maybe mid-week if there's a discount for early-birds.

And Now, the News.

Okay, that brings us to the end of this, and we'll finish up with the question of what's next for Paul Haines, fiction wise? What would you like to try your hand at, or expand into?

Definitely the novel. The literary/SF genre crossover of course. That dark horror fantastical piece that is drenched in reality. No werewolves, no vampires, no spaceships. Shit. Hold on, Slice of Life has an alien side-kick. Well, you know what I'm aiming at anyway. I also dig screenwriting (particularly from the show-don't-tell perspective when adapting my work and realising how much telling I still did in said work) and will try to finish the already-started Wives-as-screenplay. I'm a little nervous about starting anything big because 1) I'm lazy, and 2) I'm concerned I might not be around much longer to finish anything big, let alone going through the yards trying to find a home for them. But that's just fear, right? And that's what I work in, so what the fuck am I procrastinating for? And I've got that blog-as-book I'm trying to sell (ie my cancer blog) but everyone wants a happy ending and at the moment it's looking a little too much like a Paul Haines story. Ha!
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