Angela SLATTER: “Speculative fiction/horror deals with very visceral human concerns”

Angela Slatter is an Australian writer of dark fantasy and horror currently living in Brisbane. She has a Master and PhD in Creative Writing and is a graduate of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop 2006 and Clarion South 2009. In 2010 Angela Slatter published two collections of short stories, Sourdough and Other Stories and The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales, followed in 2012 by Midnight and Moonshine, the collaborative volume with Lisa L. Hannett. Her works have been selected for various year’s best anthologies and received numerous awards’ nominations. In 2010 Angela Slatter has won the Aurealis Awards for the Best Fantasy Short Story, “The February Dragon” co-authored with Lisa L. Hannett, and the Best Collection, The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales, and in 2012 her story “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.

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Mihai ADĂSCĂLIŢEI: Thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.

In the introduction of your short story collection Sourdough and Other Stories Robert Shearman says that: “We are shaped by stories we’re told. And the first stories we’re told are fairy tales.” Are the fairy tales of your childhood at the root of your desire to become a writer? Did the fairy tales shape your writing career?

Angela SLATTER: I don’t know if they’re at the root, but they’ve certainly played a part. I love storytelling – I always loved to listen to stories, and as I grew older I found myself re-telling tales in my imagination, changing them for my own ends and amusement. Fairy tales are such a huge part of the fabric of childhood for most people, but I guess some of us hang onto them a bit longer!

M.A.: Besides the fairy tales that are an obvious influence and inspiration for your writings what other stories, novels and writers did influence and inspire you? Is the written word the only influence on your writings so far?

A.S.: Writers whom I’ve loved over the years include Umberto Eco, Jane Gaskell, Bram Stoker, MR James, Barbara Hambly, Charlotte Bronte, Wilbur Smith, John Connolly, Joan Aiken, Angela Carter … the list would go on forever! I also love art and music (even though I totally lack talent in either area, I’m an enthusiastic viewer and listener!), and I find a lot of inspiration in the works of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Goya, Bosch, Rubens. I also love the sort of music to come out of the Middle Ages, Loreena McKennitt, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Dark Sanctuary, Of Monsters and Men … again a really eclectic collection. I think art can influence other art, no matter what its form.

M.A.: If I am not mistaken you said that some of the familiar fairy tales were colonized and influenced by the storytellers. Is this one of the reasons for your desire to reshape and retell fairy tales?

A.S.: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be part of that process of reclaiming the storyteller’s voice and telling tales the way we (women) want to, instead of feeling we have to conform to a particular shape of story. It’s also about giving our female characters agency to make decisions and act, and live with the consequences of whatever they choose to, rather than simply being passive and waiting to be rescued by random princes.

M.A.: Since the appearance of your collections “Sourdough and Other Stories” and “The Girl with No Hands” there seems to be a new market for such fiction, with several novels and anthologies of reinterpreted fairy tales. Does modern literature and readership need such new stories? New perspectives for the old fairy tales?

A.S.: Again, absolutely – fairy tales are a connection between our past and our future stories. Adapting them, allowing all of their tellers to shape the stories to their own needs is part of their intrinsic value. They can be for both amusement and education, and I think fairy tales should always make us think because they speak very directly to who we have been and who we can be. One of the utter delights for me in the writing I do is the sense that I’m a link in a very long chain of storytellers! Marina Warner says that old taletellers used to finish with “This is my story, I’ve told it, and in your hands I leave it”, and I love the idea that the tale is being passed on to the next generation of tellers, who will put their own spin on the stories.

M.A.: Speaking of perspectives, your stories benefit from the presence of strong female characters, characters for which the readers feel sympathy although some of them are not on their best behavior. How important is for a story to have strong female characters? How important is the balance between various characters of a story?

A.S.: As I said earlier, the idea of giving agency back to female heroines is really important to me. Post-Perrault and Post-Grimm, the fairy tale heroines were reduced to helpless twits who stumbled into trouble and had to wait for a prince to rescue her (Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, etc) – but the earliest versions of those tales had independent heroines who saved themselves – I’ve written about Little Red Riding Hood here and about the idea of the “Chosen Girl” here.

I think it’s also really important for telling these stories to kids, that the little girls have good, strong, independent role models in front of them, and that little boys see that there are little girls who are tough and strong as well, girls they might later regard as equals and partners instead of just the people who do the ironing and put dinner on the table!!

As for balancing characters – I think I generally have one main character and everyone else moves around them in a kind of complex dance pattern, giving and taking information and advantages, or giving handicaps to that main character. It’s important that that main character be strong so the rest of the tale can hang off them, and their desires and their actions.

M.A.: For quite a while there is a debate that despite the presence of plenty of very powerful horror female writers they seem neglected in comparison with the male writers. Do you believe that horror fails to acknowledge the women writers within the genre? What makes female writers of the genre such strong storytellers?

A.S.: I don’t think it’s confined to Horror – I think recent internet brawls have shown that Science Fiction, Fantasy, and all the hybrids in between have a lot of (soon-to-be) Dead White Men in charge who don’t like to allow girls into the treehouse. Unfortunately for them, there are so many amazing women in Horror, past and present: Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, S. P. Miskowski, Lisa L. Hannett, Kirstyn McDermott, Alison Littlewood, Sarah Pinborough, Kaaron Warren, Barbara Hambly … and an equal number of amazing women writers in Science Fiction and Fantasy, et al.

Why are the women in the genre such strong storytellers? Well, we tend to be the ones rocking cradles and telling stories to kids, and our lives are often filled with everyday horror (domestic violence, abuse, we’re more often the victims of crime, general discrimination – and, let’s face it, our bodies turn against us once a month for about 60 years), so I think those things all feed in to the kind of work we produce.

M.A.: Although of the same language, the English market of speculative fiction seems occupied mostly by the British or American writers. Is it difficult for an Australian author to break into this market? Are there any particular challenges in reaching the wider audience of this market?

A.S.: I think if you’ve got an awesome story then an editor will pick it up, whether you’re an Australian and it’s in a US or UK market. One of the problems Australian authors have faced in the past is insularity – not bothering to send work overseas on the assumption that no one will want to read it. In some cases, this also means we’re just not bothering to compete outside of a very narrow Australian-focused field – that means your work doesn’t really develop, isn’t often challenged to stretch. I always tell new authors to make a point of sending work overseas as it’s a great proving ground, it gets your name out there, and maybe, just maybe you’ll make a great sale to a professional market with a lot of exposure. Size of market is also another factor: Australia has a population of about 22.5 million people, the US has almost 314 million, and the UK 63 million – the number of possible readers and potential markets grows – or shrinks – with the location you’re submitting in.

In the age of the internet, with more and more markets using online submissions systems, it’s less of a challenge to have to go to the post office and buy international reply coupons and send stamped, self-addressed envelopes, or, worse still, having to bother American friends to send you stamps!

M.A.: I do not believe in genre labels but your fiction is categorized in general as speculative fiction or horror. Why do you think that speculative fiction is seen as less serious than other genres? Do you believe that some readers are driven off your fiction because of these labels despite its literary qualities?

A.S.: I think there’s a long-standing bias on the part of literary writers and publishers against anything they think is less than “worthwhile”, that doesn’t deal with “serious” human issues. The thing is, speculative fiction/horror deals with very visceral human concerns: fear of the dark, the urge to live, how we react against forces that threaten us, how we interact with other people and how our relationships lift us up or cast us down. Games of Thrones is all about power and relationships – very visceral, very serious, very human, whether it’s fantasy or not.

And, of course, there is always the envy factor that more popular fiction authors actually manage to make livings from their work – as if they are somehow less deserving because they’ve not written a turgid, navel-gazing account of belly-button lint collector and his addiction to cocaine. Or some such.

M.A.: Even from your debut your fiction was nominated for genre awards and won Aurealis Awards in 2010 and British Fantasy Award in 2012. Are such awards the perfect encouragement for a writer? Or are sales figures or popularity to be preferred?

A.S.: Awards are just a bonus. You don’t know who the judges are and what their tastes are, you don’t know who the competition is, you cannot control anything about the process except the quality of your own story – and you know what? Maybe it’s not going to be the best story in the competition. I’m constantly amazed by people who whinge because they haven’t won a particular award, or they think they’ve been “robbed”.

Awards are a nice thing to be able to add to your marketing strategy, but winning them doesn’t mean you’re a better writer, just as losing one doesn’t mean you’re a worse writer! They can be a lovely surprise and a lovely encouragement, but if you’re writing with the goal of winning an award then you’re doing it wrong.

Sales figures that enable you to make a living out of what you do are preferable, to me anyway, any day!

M.A.: Besides your collections of stories “Sourdough and Other Stories”, “Black-Winged Angels” and “The Girl with No Hands” you published a volume, “Midnight and Moonshine”, written together with Lisa Hannett with another collaboration, “Baggage”, due to be released by Twelfth Planet Press. How did this collaboration start? Which are the particularities and difficulties of working together with a fellow writer?

A.S.: Back in 2009 we wrote a story together called “The February Dragon”, which won an Aurealis for Best Fantasy Short Story – and we had a ball writing together! I never thought I would collaborate with anyone (too much of a control freak), but we just found that our styles matched so well, and when we write together we manage a seamless third voice. It’s all a matter of trust and we each know the other isn’t going to make a mess of our shared vision. We do a bit of skeleton planning together, then one of us goes off and starts the story, writes until the words run out, and then sends it to the other to run with it.

The only real challenge is making sure we’ve got time in our schedules to fulfill our commitments!

M.A.: Would you like to repeat this experience in the future with a different writer? Who would you like that author to be, if possible?

A.S.: Not really no. I don’t think it’s something that you can just recreate with just anyone. And this works so well – why mess with it?

M.A.: “Midnight and Moonshine” is a mosaic novel, but you are no stranger to such writings since your collections of stories share common characters or settings. Are such novels and collections more challenging to write?

A.S.: I love the mosaic form because it’s an extension of the short story form, taking it further without making it into a traditional novel. I love writing the interconnected tales in Sourdough, as it’s a real challenge to choose which characters and threads you follow up in new stories. I like the jigsaw puzzle nature of it all.

M.A.: So far you wrote extensively short fiction, with yet other collections on the horizon, “The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings” and “Lemarchand’s Dictionary of Tenuous Connections and Other Tales”, but if I am not mistaken you also finished writing recently your first novel. Do you feel more comfortable writing short fiction? Does a novel require another approach entirely and a different set of writing skills?

A.S.: The novel, “Vigil”, was a huge challenge and very confronting for me as an established short story writer. The form is different and what works in a short story doesn’t necessarily work in a novel, so it’s been a steep learning curve for me. The novel is now in a first draft form; I’m letting it sit until after I come back from World Fantasy – hopefully I’ll have gained some perspective on it, and my beta readers will have some helpful comments!

M.A.: I believe that some of your future plans included a duopoly, “Well of Souls” and “Gate of the Dead”, an alternative Crusaders saga and “Finbar’s Mother”, a Norse-Irish fantasy. Are these projects still on your working table or some of them were abandoned or postponed?

A.S.: The duopoly is still on the schedule, but I quickly realised that what I wanted to write was very, very ambitious for a first time novelist, and that I had a lot to learn about writing craft. So they are waiting for me to come back to them – I have been writing a lot of story notes and have worked out how I want to attack that particular part of storytelling, but I need to clear the decks of current projects first. I’m not sure about “Finbar’s Mother” – I need to think about it a lot more.

M.A.: What other future plans do you have? What are you preparing for the readers in the near and distant future?

A.S.: I have a novella about Jack the Ripper and an alternative London – and a couple of novels that use the same characters. I also have to write the book that follows “Vigil”, which is “Corpse Light”. And another collection, “The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales”, and another novella “The Witch’s Scale” for Spectral Press!

M.A.: Thank you very much for your time and answers. It has been an honor and a delight.

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This interview was conducted via e-mail in October 2013

Mihai Adascalitei

Despre Mihai ADĂSCĂLIŢEI

Mihai ADĂSCĂLIŢEI a scris 15 articole în Revista de suspans.

Escapist in other worlds, seeking portals to fantasy and horror realms, but not exclusively. Drifter in the beauty of visual art, in its various appearances. He's the author of the Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews blog.

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