Noted Festival imminent

Noted Writers Festival starts on Wednesday and I am operating on full warp to get all my stuff done in the lead up. (Example tasks include drafting writing prompts for kids about exploding koala bums and spiders with no pants on, and emailing writers to ask them to describe themselves as a bottle of wine.) But I have also had to wrestle with several Excel spreadsheets in the process, so it’s not all fun and games.

It never rains but it pours, so as well as all this I’ve had a major bit of work to do for this year’s Conflux, plus some other secret writers’ business that just happened to come up at the same time.

I think I’m almost on top of it. Who needs sleep anyway?

So if you’re in Canberra next week and you feel like doing some free writing workshops…

Or you want to hang out with some fascinating writerly types and hear what they have to say on stuff…

See some live art (and maybe even get involved in making it)…

I would love to see you at one of the events! The pics above link to the program, which is wildly diverse and amazing.

Alternatively, if you’d prefer to participate from the comfort of your own internet connection, we have a genuinely awesome program of digital events for you to check out, such as…

I’m so excited! It’s going to be fab and it’s nearly here!

Aurealis and Swancon revisited

Just in case anyone thought I wasn’t still wallowing in the pleasure of my first ever award…

Aurealis 2016 PJG

Here’s a few of my fave pics from that evening.

The OMG moment… And celebrating with my gorgeous family afterwards.

And here’s a few other snaps from the evening (courtesy of Cat Sparks, whose full album of Swancon & the Aurealis Awards is on Flickr).

Other fave moments from the evening included getting to see Sam Murray pick up her Aurealis for Best Science Fiction Short Story; watching Sam deliver Tim Napper’s speech for his win for Best Horror Short Story; and having the honour of accepting Kaaron Warren’s award on her behalf for Best Horror Novel. (If you’re interested, the #fauxcon hashtag chronicles my Canberra crowd’s celebration of the evening from back home. Made me wish I could be in two places at once.) All the winners are up on the Aurealis website.

And here’s a few pics from the day I spent at Swancon in Perth (again, thank you Cat Sparks!). I caught a GOH talk with Traci Harding, attended *two* book launches, a panel debating various thorny issues that arise in SFF fandom and I got a short excursion to a local bookstore to catch sight of Cat’s new novel Lotus Blue in the wild. Plus I spent some serious quality time with my tribe in the restaurant and the bar.

I rounded it all out with a delicious dinner with friends under a spectacular, purple, fairy-lit tree. As always, the very best thing about going to a con was the people. *sniff* I love youse all.

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.

Wellside_FC3-SM.jpg

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.

GASP!!!

Sooooo…

That Aurealis Award I was nominated for a little while ago…

Well, the Aurealis Awards ceremony was last night, and…

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I still can’t quite believe it.

I was happy just to be nominated. Seriously, to have my work rated as being on a par with the likes of Lisa L Hannet and Tansy Rayner Roberts, not to mention my very good friend, the extraordinarily talented Shauna O’Meara, counts as achieving one of my big writing goals, right there. My cheeks still hurt from smiling 24 hours later.

I’m not sure how coherent I was in accepting the award, so I’ll repeat all the eloquent thank-yous I wish I’d made here.

Firstly, thank you to Belladonna Publishing for picking up Pretty Jennie Greenteeth and bringing my strange little story out into the world.

Thank you to the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild for being the most amazing writing community ever and for offering generous and incisive feedback and critique on this story (and many others). It was especially exciting to share the shortlist with so many other CSFG members.

Thank you to my beautiful family for all the encouragement and giving me the space and time to write.

A big thank you to the tireless Aurealis judges for their commitment and energy in the face of a task of massive proportions.

And, finally, huge congratulations to all the 2016 Aurealis Awards nominees and winners, especially (again) CSFG members Tim Napper and Kaaron Warren, who won Best Horror Short Story (The Flame Trees) and Best Horror Novel (The Grief Hole) respectively. I have so many good friends among this list of excruciatingly talented authors, I’m still amazed to number myself among you, let alone have come home with an award.

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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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