Awesome words: orogeny

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I am a sucker for a good geological term. I don’t know what it is about rocks, but I find them fascinating. I love that they are the relics of the vast history of this planet. And that you can read that history on a continental scale, or at the most minute, microscopic level. Fossils fascinate me; caves entrance me; I marvel at the way you can tell where a glacier has been by the shapes it leaves carved in mountains; and I love the weird silhouettes left by the bones of volcanoes after the original mountain has been worn away.

Orogeny is the making of mountains through continental upheaval. As if that wasn’t awesome enough, the collective word for the array of geological processes that go into all this continental crumpling is orogenesis. (That gives me word shivers.)

I know orogeny is something purely mechanical, but in my mind the word conjures images of some fiery and arcane art practiced by ancient gods over eons. The kind of gods that created the land to the sound of grinding stone and the slow shattering of layers of rock; and when they care to turn the Earth over and make it up anew, they’ll do it without a care for the creeping cataclysm they’ll cause for the mayfly humans eking out a life on its shifting skin.

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Dark Mofo

I have just come back from Hobart (again – love that city) and immersing myself in the craziness and unearthly beauty that is the Dark Mofo festival. Technically I was there for work – and for those who are raising an eyebrow, I did spend Thursday and Friday in almost back-to-back meetings. Then I had another one on Saturday morning. But… That did leave me with my evenings free to sample the delights of this deliciously wintery festival of art and food that literally paints this city red for two weeks leading up to the winter solstice.

A few highlights…

Siren Song

This is a musical artwork produced by Byron J Scullin, Hannah Fox and Tom Supple that is played out across the city of Hobart every day at sunrise and sunset. It’s almost impossible to describe this ethereal piece, but the ABC as put a sample of it up on their Soundcloud. The only problem is that this recording is tiny and incredibly intimate compared with how it sounds when it is played out across an entire city at dawn and dusk. I especially loved listening to it in the morning, still half asleep, curled up in my hotel bed. It’s a slow wash of music that seeps irrevocably into your brain so that you keep hearing the ghosts of the harmonics for hours afterwards – in the drone of the bathroom fan, the hum of traffic.

The IY_Project

This gigantic, cat’s cradle of laser light based on sacred geometry, is the brainchild of Chris Levine, and is accompanied by an immersive soundscape by Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack and Marco Perry.  They waft smoke through it, and the sheets of light carve out slices of coloured smoke that look like some kind of psychadelic, time-lapse cloud photography. I kid you not, I stood outside in the freezing effing cold watching this for over an hour on Friday night, I was so entranced. Then I went back and did it again on Saturday. Here’s a little sample from Friday.

So this is really fucking transcendental and no pic is gonna do it justice. #ChrisLevine #IY_Project #DarkPark #DarkMOFO

A post shared by Leife Shallcross (@leife.shallcross) on Jun 9, 2017 at 4:22am PDT

And another inadequate snippet from Saturday…

Mogwai

So this was a total lucky dip exercise for me and totally blew my tiny mind. I had no idea what to expect. Anyone who knows about Mogwai will probably read this and go “Duh!”, but it was totally transporting. I can certainly see that to some, this kind of music is the worst kind of white noise, and to tell the truth, I probably couldn’t sit down and listen to a recording. But live in concert? Oh man.

There is something intensely exciting about watching master musicians play live. Their sheer skill is thrilling, and the paradox of they way they are so tightly focussed on what they are doing as to be almost oblivious to the audience, yet at the same time inextricably linked to the way the audience is experiencing the product of their skill is fascinating. On several occasions one or more of the band members turned their backs on the audience entirely. As far as I can remember, only one of the band actually spoke to the audience and that was simply to thank the audience for their applause after each song. He seriously said about 20 words all evening. But the music itself… Wow. It was like being caught in a waterfall of sound. And Mogwai controlled the flow with absolute precision. Each song was carefully crafted around a build up to a blindside of sound that was euphoric. There was one song towards the end where people were standing around me with their heads thrown back and their eyes closed.

Seriously amazing stuff.

Sleeping Beauty

I wanted to see this so badly. This was a production of Sleeping Beauty that combined the talents of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the Victorian Opera and the Terrapin Puppet Theatre. Each character in the opera was represented by both a larger-than-life puppet and an opera singer. It was stunning.

Sleeping beauty tree

As is usual with my (limited) experience of opera, I found the story a bit thin in parts. However the visuals and the music were divine. The Tree dude, pictured above, embodied this perfectly. I mean, what is not to love about that image? I can’t tell you what part he played in the story though. Still. It was thoroughly enjoyable I loved the creepy, glow-in-the-dark fairy host. The Good Fairy, too, with her reptilian tail and ghostly vestments was deliciously creepy. It really made you question the King’s wisdom in involving the fay in any capacity (and look what happened, hey.)

I found Sleeping Beauty’s mother, the Queen, incredibly moving.

The Queen Sleeping Beauty

She literally fell apart with grief when the Green Witch cursed her baby daughter. I’ve got a real soft spot for fairy tale queens. They often seem to get a very rough deal. Valued only for their beauty and their baby-producing capacity, so many fairy tales revolve around the queen’s difficulties and mounting desperation to fulfill the second part of this bargain. This queen started off looking extremely young – probably not much older than her daughter was when she succumbed to the curse – but aged visibly during the story. Even the way her skirt hoops are visible under the ragged silk of her dress speaks to her fragility.

The Winter Feast

And to offset all that art, there was the food. Just for context, Hobart is a city where it is supremely easy to find delicious things to eat. But Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast is a smorgasbord of delicious food and drink and smells and music all soaked in crimson light.

I ate oysters and fondue with truffle shavings and canoli and shitake mushroom skewers and dark chocolate salted caramel tarts. I drank hot ginger toddies and hot spiced gin and hot mulled cider and…

So, so delicious.

Luc Besson meets Labyrinth, but BETTER

This is so exciting. I have been waiting for this. Robin Shortt’s Wellside came out yesterday from publishers Candlemark & Gleam! I am gonna be heading down to my local bookstore TODAY to badger them into getting it in for me so I can dive into this exquisite, crazy world again. Think: if Luc Besson made Labyrinth….

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I say “again” because I read an early draft of Wellside, which went through the CSFG’s novel critiquing circle in the same year as my own The Beast’s Heart. And that draft of Wellside blew me away. Robin’s writing is nothing short of magic. He creates these complex, mind-blowingly inventive worlds for his characters to explore that you can just smell as you turn the pages. I have only read a handful of books in my life that are as utterly immersive as Robin’s. I am all about immersive fiction, so if you are too, you have got to read this.

And then there’s the characters. Oh. My. God. He’s got that knack of coming up with characters that are at once familiar and utterly strange. That kind of awesome that floors you with inventive brilliance while simultaneously somehow feeling just right. I don’t know. Think… Calcifer out of Diana Wynn-Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Or Augra from The Dark Crystal. Or Harmony, out of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

I don’t make these comparisons lightly: Robin’s stuff is just that good.

Oh, I can’t wait.

Touchstones: Robin Shortt

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited my good friend Robin Shortt, author of the soon-to-be-released YA novel Wellside, to share a key source of his storytelling inspiration. I gave him a bunch of questions, but I’m just going to throw them away at this point, because Robin’s story is fasincating…

(And because he’s too modest to boast, I’m going to say that you should watch out for Wellside, because it is A. May. Zing. I beta-read an early draft and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.)

Back in the mid-Eighties, what got me through a lot of boring days in sweltering classrooms was the knowledge that once they let me out I could go home, turn the fan on, turn the TV on and hear this:

In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order…but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of Heaven, the moisture of Earth, the powers of the sun and the moon all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation; and it became magically fertile. That first egg was named “Thought”. Tathāgata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said: “With our thoughts, we make the world.” Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!

(Cue Seventies J-Rock).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2huJqFsFDE&t=19s

Monkey was (deep breath) a BBC dub of a Japanese adaptation of the Ming Dynasty Chinese novel Journey to the West, which was in turn based on Song Dynasty legends surrounding Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang (or Sanzang, or Tripitaka) and his pilgrimage to India.

In both the novel and the show, Tripitaka is only a supporting character. The protagonist is the stone monkey we just saw in the intro—Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, an even older figure in Chinese folklore, who becomes Tripitaka’s chief disciple. Together they journey from China to India so they can bring back original Buddhist scriptures. And, every episode, Monkey has to fend off assorted brigands, goblins and demons who try to waylay our heroes, in some kickass tokusatsu-style fight scenes.

It would almost be easier to talk about what isn’t a touchstone for me here. I like my heroes to question authority, and you won’t find a better anti-authoritarian fantasy than Monkey, who gatecrashes Heaven, mocks the Jade Emperor, steals the Peaches of Immortality from under his nose, and proceeds to beat up pretty much every major figure in Chinese mythology, with only the direct intervention of Buddha slowing him down. He’s a great character who still makes his presence felt in pop culture today, notably as the direct inspiration for Dragonball’s Goku. It was also my first exposure to East Asian martial arts and fight choreography, which I immediately fell in love with—I don’t think I’ve written a fight scene yet without some Monkey in its DNA.

Also—and this is what I want to talk about here—it was full of mythology and theology, starting with the dense Creation-story in the intro, that I knew literally nothing about. In Australian schools of the Eighties, when Religious Education consisted of a visit from a Protestant with an acoustic guitar and a felt board, Buddhism (let alone Taoism) was not exactly on the cultural radar. All this stuff was completely new to me, a vast and complex cosmology that was often only dropped as tantalizing hints, since the show always had to keep moving to the next scene of Monkey beating the shit out of a luckless demon with his magical staff. The culture, the society, even the landscape and architecture in the show, all of it was new.

This is probably a good time to mention the cultural appropriation angle. Monkey is an absolute minefield of appropriation issues—even before we get to the English dub, Japan’s borrowing of Chinese culture is an entire field of study in its own right. Then there’s China’s historical appropriation of Buddhism, which you can see in the syncretism of the novel’s vision of Heaven, where Buddha rubs shoulders with Laozi and the Jade Emperor.

There’s a lot in the dub that (rightly) wouldn’t fly these days—the Chinese-takeaway typeface of the title, the Asian accents put on by the mostly white cast. Back then, though, when Doctor Who was literally casting white dudes in yellowface as Asian characters, it didn’t stand out. Most importantly, their hearts were in the right place. While the dub, written by David Weir, could get silly (and the Japanese series was very silly at times), the underlying Buddhist and Taoist ideas were serious—Monkey itself is an extended Buddhist parable—and they were treated seriously. And while the show’s original Japanese audience would have been a lot more familiar with this world and its characters, the dub had to introduce them to kids for whom they were entirely new, without getting in the way of the story. They succeeded brilliantly.

(Digression: it helped that the source material, and the literary tradition it belonged to, was massively entertaining in its own right. Of Chinese literature’s Four Great Classical Novels, three of them (Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin) are pretty much straight-up adventure stories and compulsively readable. They even have cliffhangers:

The Jade Emperor accordingly told the demon-king Mahabali and a contingent of heavenly troops to hoist Monkey up and bring him to the executioner’s block, where he was to be cut into small pieces.

If you do not know what now became of this Monkey King, listen to what is told in the next chapter.

It’s the literary tradition that ended up giving us wuxia and Jin Yong, probably the best writer of adventure fiction in the history of the world, and who deserves a blog post or several in his own right. End digression.)

This trick—to introduce an unfamiliar world while also telling a readable story—is hard to pull off. We’ve all read stories that get bogged down in world-building, spending pages and pages on lovingly-detailed backstory while nothing  at all happens; or stories that move along pleasantly enough but where the background is threadbare at best, or at worst just copy-pastes elves and dwarves from Tolkein at second- or third-hand.

All the fiction I’ve loved since I was a kid has managed this trick—H.P. Lovecraft, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock, Zack Parsons. Now, probably foolishly, I’m trying it myself. My upcoming novel Wellside is set in the Well, an endless pit lined with doors that each open onto a different world—a hub of realities, owing something to King’s Dark Tower and Blyton’s Faraway Tree. Various worlds have attempted to colonize the Well, sometimes cooperating with each other, sometimes butting heads.

The setting itself isn’t influenced by Chinese mythology (although watching the intro again after so many years, I can see the mountains of mud from which Monkey’s egg hatches in the skyline of Wellside’s Red Sand City) but it’s a complex background that I’ve tried to sketch out without bogging down the story. I hope I’ve at least partially succeeded.

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Robin was born in Canberra and lives in Vancouver. His stories have previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild anthology Winds of Change. Wellside, his debut novel, out from Candlemark and Gleam in June 2017, is a tour de force of subgenre fusion that just cries out to become an immersive movie directed by someone with the visual flair of Peter Jackson or Guillermo del Toro.

Touchstones: David Versace

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited my good friend and 2016 Aurealis Awards co-nominee, the extremely talented and all-round-lovely-guy, David Versace to share his thoughts on something that fuels his passion for storytelling.

Hey Dave, thanks for agreeing to bare your soul on my blog. What’s your touchstone?

I suppose most people answering this question would talk about their religion, a key childhood memory or a beloved family friend who visited great wisdom upon them at an impressionable age.

Me too. My touchstone is an obscure educational program from the 1960s, which purported to teach science and history to children, called Doctor Who.

(*Fighting to be heard over the chorus of YESSSS!!!*) When did this emerge as a source of inspiration for you?

One of my earliest childhood memories was of watching a robot molest Sarah-Jane Smith, with whipping cables, at far too young an age. But the clincher came on my eighth birthday, when my parents gave me two Target novelisations: The Ark in Space and The Cybermen. Those much-read treasures not only inspired an obsession with collecting the entire range of books, but also triggered a desire to write. I eventually gave up on the collection (I’m an indifferent completist and I didn’t have that much money) but the desire to tell stories never went away.

Why (apart from all the obvious reasons to do with awesomeness) do you think it resonated so strongly with you?

Like nearly every Australian kid growing up in the seventies, I was obsessed with Tom Baker’s shouty swagger and ridiculous scarf, as he stomped his way through the Phillip Hinchcliffe era of highly unsuitable Gothic horror stories. I became fascinated with the show’s weird and frequently irreconcilable mythology, its revolving-door lead actors and its mad inventiveness.

Eventually I figured out what really held my interest – that Doctor Who is a magic formula for telling almost any kind of story (even if what they mostly told was the same “monsters besiege an outpost” story again and again, for budgetary purposes). It can do a detective mystery one week, a screwball comedy the next and cosmic horror the week after that, and nobody questions it. Nobody but boring people, anyway.

How has it inspired your writing?

Well, the first story I can ever remember writing for purposes other than showing off to teachers was a Dalek story – that one was illustrated! – and, of course, I wrote some regrettable fan fiction in online forums in the 90’s. (I’m lying. I regret nothing).

But the truth is, the greater part of my moral and ethical framework comes more from Doctor Who than from my casually-abandoned Anglican faith. Much of my sense of social justice, of sticking up for the unprotected and opposing authoritarianism, started with the Doctor. Those themes show up in my work often, in quiet resistance, weary defiance and hot rebellion.

How does Dr Who embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?

I think Doctor Who inspired my love for science, though I’ll cheerfully disavow the absurd pseudoscientific nonsense the show throws around. The idea of science was sufficiently inspiring to overcome any gaps in the methodological rigour of BBC staff writers on a deadline. If maths hadn’t suddenly become unintelligible when I turned fifteen, I’m sure I’d have followed a career in the sciences.

But the other thing I’ve taken from the go-anywhere, do-anything formula of the Who concept is a blithe disdain for staying inside the boundaries of genre. I love taking pieces from different genres and smashing them together. I just can’t seem to stay inside the lines: a space opera will inevitably end up stuffed with time travel, dragons and hard-bitten PI’s; my romantic mysteries get infected with vampires, and my magical robots fight werewolves. (That last one is a real story, by the way). Hell, my latest story is a Western full of argumentative ghosts.

Basically, Doctor Who has ruined me for ever sticking with a single genre. There’s just too much fun stuff out there to settle in one place.

How has your relationship with your Whovian touchstone changed over time?

I doubt I’ll ever stop loving its versatility and sense of invention – if the sad and grim missteps of the Colin Baker era couldn’t kill my devotion, I doubt anything will. I’ll probably get some stupid quip engraved on my tombstone. (How about “My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he looks!”? Hmm, maybe I’ll keep thinking about that one.)

I have come to the sad conclusion that perhaps I won’t, after all, ever be asked to produce the show, write an episode or play the Doctor. I still harbour the until-now-secret hope to one day be famous enough to be invited to the show as an extra who gets eaten or exterminated by something. That’d be something to go back in time and tell to my eight-year-old self while he has nightmares about Zygons.

For me, Doctor Who is a foundational text. I don’t reference it directly (well, not often) but when I write, it’s always resting in the spaces between the words. I get a great sense of satisfaction, of assurance from it. Who will always be there, quietly evolving and shifting with the tides, until it once again bursts forth with a new wave of popularity or unexpected moment of relevance.

That’s not a career I’d be unhappy with.

DavidVersace_Portrait.jpgDavid Versace (www.davidversace.com and @_Lexifab) lives with his family in Canberra, Australia. He is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild and an occasional public servant. His work appears in the anthologies “Next” (CSFG Publishing) and “At the Edge” (Paper Road Press) and his short story “The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat” (Aurealis #89) is a Best Fantasy Short Story finalist in the 2016 Aurealis Awards.

Touchstones: the Forest

the_enchanted_woodI’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately. Following on from my post on Sapsorrow’s Dress, here’s some thoughts on another one of my personal story touchstones… 

Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood was the first ever chapter book my mother read to me. I remember her sitting down on my bed with this book with a completely intriguing cover, with twisty trees hiding fairy houses, hedgehogs scurrying around between spotty toadstools, and a hovering golden-haired, silver-winged pixie. I remember the anticipation I shared with the three Faraway Tree children as they leaned out their bedroom windows in their new house, and listened to the trees with the mysterious dark green leaves talking together (wisha-wisha) in the wood they so desperately wanted to explore

loved that book.

I’m not sure if The Enchanted Wood is what started my fascination with forests, but it certainly helped shape them in my imagination as places where adventure and magic happens.

Forests are, of course, generally held to be a symbol of the unknown. People entering forests in stories are almost always entering a period of uncertainty and danger. You just have to look at a bunch of fairy tale staples – Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Stepping between the trees is usually an act of desperation or coercion – or foolishness.

And then there’s all the mythic stuff, such as Arthurian adventures like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the legendary Forest of Broceliande. The Forest is such a powerful storytelling symbol its use has carried right through from ancient times to the present day – take the great forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi or, of course, the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter, just to name the three most iconic fictional worlds of modern times.

What I love about story forests is that often even the standard rules of danger and malevolence are suspended. They are genuinely ambivalent places. Forests are almost definitely full of hungry wolves and wicked witches and ogres who want to crack open your bones and suck out the marrow. But a forest could equally turn out to be a place of strange sanctuary, or hold an unexpected treasure in its green heart.

Obviously forests represent the wild and the untamed; they stand in stark contrast to other habitats like farms and cities, where the landscape has been subdued and converted to serve a specific (human) purpose. It’s not just the adventure and possibility of danger they represent, though, that makes my heart sing. It’s also the pervading sense of peace that you feel on entering a real-life forest. The different suite of sounds. The smells, the quality of the light, the sense of coming back to a simpler, more fundamental existence that entirely lacks the trappings of civilisation.

mcubbin_lostIf my story brain’s touchstone is a European, fairy tale forest, Australian forests are an IRL touchstone just as potent. My mother took my sister and I on plenty of camping holidays out in the bush as a kid, and I have particularly fond memories of camps without parents in my teenage years, through school, Girl Guides and the Duke of Edinburgh Award. In fact, I think the first time I ever spent a night away from home in the absence of anyone more than a year older than me was on a Duke of Ed camping trip in the Namadgi National Park when I was about 16.

There is nothing quite so magical as waking up to the peace of the early morning Australian bush, when the air is still a bit misty and the sunshine is so new it’s more silver than gold. At this time of day the sun is just beginning to warm up the eucalyptus leaves on the trees and scattered on the ground, and the evaporating dew carries the sharp, clean scent into the air. This feeling, of what it is to be in a eucalypt forest, is the one of the things I tried to capture in my story Adventure Socks in CSFG’s anthology The Never Never Land. The main character is 91-year-old George, who is stuck in a dreary old-age nursing home. His only remaining pleasure is his memories of his wife, and the time they spent living in the Snowy Mountains. (Then George meets Maisie, a new resident who shakes things up a bit.)

He lay in his bed with his mind lost in memories. Hiking through lonely, lovely stands of ghost gums with Rose. Listening to the pure, chiming voices of bellbirds filling the air. Surprising a flock of brilliant rosellas from a tree; or getting a shock themselves when they discovered they were walking amidst a mob of kangaroos resting out the midday heat, stock-still in the shade. The roos had been indistinguishable from the weathered stumps of trees until he and Rose got too close and the nearest ones startled and bounded away.

– “Adventure Socks”, The Never Never Land

(If you’ve never been to the Snowy Mountains in Australia, you should go. It really is some of the loveliest country in the world.) I haven’t written many stories based in Australian forests, though. I’m very conscious that my experience of them (and most of the stories I’ve grown up with about the Australian bush) are predicated on the dispossession of Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. For me, forests are ancient, primal places and the ancient stories of Australia’s forests are not mine to tell.

Just quickly scanning over my files of stories – published and unpublished – there are plenty that are set in or feature a forest. Forests play significant roles in two of my novel projects (so far), and plenty of my short stories. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, for example, in Strange Little Girls. It’s got a forest and, like all good story forests, this forest isn’t a nice place. It has a nasty secret. I’m trying not to give too much away here, but looking at the metaphorical meaning of the forest that I’ve outlined above, it’s interesting that in order for my protagonist (a 10 year old girl) to resolve the particularly horrifying problem I confront her with, I send her into this forest.

Malevolent secrets. Strange sanctuary. Treasure of a sort. Hmm.

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Touchstones: Zena Shapter

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited award-winning author Zena Shapter to share her thoughts on a touchstone that lies at the heart of many of her stories. And I’m really glad I did, because – Wow! Like many writers and consumers of fiction, I’m a big fan of living vicariously through other people’s experiences, and Zena has provided some amazing pictures below to keep me going for quite a while.

Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with me, Zena! What is your touchstone?

Thanks for inviting me to your blog series, Leife! My touchstone is actually an intangible thing – travel. Whenever I visit somewhere new, my senses come alive – aromas become more vibrant, sounds are stronger and I hear more of them, I absorb atmospheres, caress textures, breath more slowly and find myself analysing and recording every detail about the people and place until my notebooks are crammed full. I search for what’s different to ‘back home’, and celebrate the commonality of humankind across the world. These experiences never fade (and if they do I have my notebooks!) and they constantly inspire my writing, especially my longer fiction. They help me build worlds that are out-of-this-world! …yet grounded in reality.

Zena Shapter backpacking – Komodo Island – Iceland – Galapagos – Californa – Tanzania
Top: Komodo Island; Iceland. Bottom: Galapagos Islands; California Redwoods; Tanzania.

 

When did travel first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

The first time travel inspired me was when I was twenty-one, working in a Birmingham publishing company after reading English at University. I hadn’t travelled much at that point, and a friend asked me to go away with her for the weekend. It was January, miserably cold, we were both newly single and needed to get away. We went to a travel agency and asked about last minute deals. In England you can make rock-bottom bargain travel plans if you wait until the day before you want to go and aren’t fussed about where. We ended up with tickets to Tenerife, in the Canaries Islands off the west coast of Africa, and a few days later landed in a completely different climate and culture. It was a transformative experience, changing my mindset, career choices, and life view – it felt like magic!

Zena Shapter Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island, Chile

Why do you think this experience affected you so strongly?

I couldn’t believe how much the act of stepping away from what was familiar enabled me to assess that familiarity objectively. It gave me the space and opportunity to really think, assess and see where I needed to make changes in my life. I also loved the experience of discovering and exploring, walking down streets and over landscapes new to me. I wanted to travel more. After that trip I went back to Birmingham, applied for sponsorship that would enable me to return to University and re-train as a solicitor so I could afford to travel more often. In hindsight that decision may itself have been a mistake, because I’m an artist at heart, though it did enable me to travel more. The first of my working-class family to go to university, my parents were also chuffed I went twice!

Zena Shapter Mount Bromo
Standing on the edge of Mount Bromo, Java

How have your travels inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about these experiences, or do they lurk in the background of your stories?

Travel for me is a transformative experience. There are countless challenges, especially when you’re backpacking, and each one enables you to grow as a person. The characters in my stories do the same. Challenges touch their lives and they have to adapt to survive. In this way my stories, like travel, are about transformation, and sometimes this is reflected in a physical journey my characters undertake from one place to another. I also love giving readers the thrill of discovering a new place!

Zena Shapter – Iceland – Towards White
A trip to Iceland inspired my upcoming novel, Towards White.

How does your travel touchstone embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?

I was talking about this with my agent just the other day! Looking at some of my recent works I realised that ‘control’ was a common theme. What is control and when do we have it? I enjoy questioning our ability and inability to be in control, pitting my characters against both mind control techniques and self-control issues. When I travel I look at cultural approaches to these questions too, examining how people in other countries use mass media, advertising and political spin to gain control, as well as how individuals strive to take control of their own lives. The history of a place, the events that made it what it is today, also interests me as a writer, and I gain a fuller sense of that when I physically travel there.

Zena Shapter – petra_siq – Jordan
Three months pregnant here in the Siq, Petra, Jordan.

How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?

Travel takes time and costs money. So yes, the responsibilities of raising a family have over time meant a decline in my ability to travel. Every few years or so I try to fly from Sydney back to England to visit family, and stopover along the way – never in the same place of course. Those stopovers are all too brief, yet enough to assure me that travel is still my inspirational touchstone. I always come home with another notebook and countless photos of the people I’ve met along the way – they’re bound to turn up in a story soon enough.

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Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. She is the winner of twelve national writing competitions, including a Ditmar Award, the Glen Miles Short Story Prize and the Australian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in numerous online and print venues including the Hugo-nominated Sci Phi Journal, Midnight Echo, Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice), and Antipodean SF. Reviewer for Tangent Online Lillian Csernica has referred to her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. In 2016 her co-authored science fiction middle grade novel Into Tordon was published by MidnightSun under the pseudonym Z.F. Kingbolt. Her solo novel Towards White will be published in 2017 by the International Fantasy Writers’ Guild (inspired by a trip to Iceland, see photo above!). She is the founder and leader of Sydney’s award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, a book creator and mentor, creative writing tutor, editor, social media consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with her online via ZenaShapter.com

Touchstones: Mirren Hogan

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited Mirren Hogan, author of Crimson Fire and upcoming releases Night Witches and Nightmares Rise, to guest blog about one of her touchstones. I asked her a few questions, and here’s what she had to say. 

Thanks for coming along, Mirren! What is your touchstone?

I was raised to be a strong, independent (but flawed) woman, so I’ve always enjoyed writing about strong, independent, yet flawed women. The world is full of books and movies about damsels, or ‘perfect’ women. The real world, however, is a different reality altogether. A great many women are capable of saving themselves, or being resilient if they can’t. It’s also full of women who struggle with daily life, but even if it’s buried deep, they have strength, and voices which deserve to be heard.

I’d like to think I write characters (male and female), that people can relate to, that speaks to them and lets them know they’re not alone.

When did this first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

When I was in school, a teacher once said to my mother that I’d make a great boy, because I was so assertive. Needless to say, my mother was not impressed. Imagine, if you will, the kind of society in which a teacher thinks that, and then goes so far as to articulate it. This was the early 80s and things have changed since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this kind of thinking repeated now.

So I’d say I got it from my mother. She kicks butt on a daily basis.

Why do you think it resonated with you so strongly?

I was never one to pay much attention to binary gender stereotypes, even as a kid. I liked cars and trains, I played with dolls, I wore shorts and skirts (mostly the former). My earliest screen crush was Princess Leia (with Han Solo not far behind). I’ve never been all that interested in the damsel (King Kong was more interesting than Fay Wray). I think being immersed in a culture of Star Wars and Star Trek, and Pern, in which the women were ‘ahead of their time’, I’ve just grown up thinking women are badasses.

The older I get, the more I realise this isn’t everyone’s perception of the world, I guess I want it known – this is mine, take it or leave it, be empowered, be your own hero.

How has this idea of the strong-but-flawed woman inspired your writing?

In two ways: firstly, my women are usually tough, independent, sassy, smart, the works. Secondly, my male characters tend to hold back more than I think they would if I thought women didn’t kick ass. They know the women can save themselves, but they’re they’re to help, in case they can’t. And often the woman does the saving.

How is this touchstone reflected in your other work as a writer and editor?

It embodies the anthologies I’ve put together or am working on. Like a Girl and Like a Woman are both reflections of the belief that woman and girls can be anything and do anything they put their minds to.

How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?

I’d say that my female characters are stronger now than how I used to write them, but I’m not sure how accurate that is. Even my earlier woman, like Tabia from Crimson Fire is a tough young woman, even in her most vulnerable moments. Is she as tough as Nadia from Night Witches? Well Nadia dropped bombs on Nazis, that’s hard to top!

Night Witches

Nadia Valinsky is a young female pilot and university education student from Moscow. When the Germans invade the Soviet Union in 1941, she wants to fight to defend her country. In October of 1941 Marina Raskova, a famous female aviator, asks for volunteers, Nadia signs up. She is accepted for an interview and offered a place in the training regiment as a navigator.

Following rigorous training at Engles Air Force base, Nadia is assigned to the Night Bomber regiment. She and her crew fly multiple missions on the front lines and are regularly under fire from anti-aircraft guns. The Germans give them the nickname Night Witches, because of the sound their aircraft make as they sweep overhead.

The Night Witches flew in planes made from canvas and balsawood. For the majority of the war, they had no radios, or parachutes. The latter was considered to take up too much space needed to carry bombs. Of three women’s regiments, theirs was the only one who consisted entirely of women through the duration of the war.

They lived together, fought together and died together.

You can buy Night Witches at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Mirren Hogan lives in NSW Australia with her husband, two daughters, dog, cat, rabbits and countless birds. She has a Bachelor of Arts (English/ history), a Graduate Diploma of Arts (writing) and a couple of degrees in education. She writes fantasy, urban fantasy and science fiction. Her debut novel —Crimson Fire— was released in October 2016, with more to come. These include a trilogy co-authored by Erin Yoshikawa. She’s also had several short stories published and has co-edited two charity anthologies; for breast cancer research and Plan Australia.

You can find Mirren on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MirrenHogan or catch up with her at her official website: mirrenhogan.com.