SEAN McMULLEN lives in Melbourne, Australia, but has been published mostly in the USA and Europe. He has had 20 books and 80 stories published, has won 15 awards, and was runner-up for Best Novelette in the 2011 Hugo Awards. His writing is often steampunk in theme and his breakthrough novel, Souls in the Great Machine, featured a future Australia ruled by a caste of psychopathic librarians using a human-powered computer and internet. His most recent publications are e-book collections from Reanimus Press: Ghosts of Engines Past (steampunk) and Colours of the Soul (SF and fantasy). Sean works with large scientific computers in his day job, has a PhD in medieval fantasy literature, and is a karate instructor at the Melbourne University club. Before he began writing he was a professional actor and singer, and he can be heard reading some of his own stories at his website www.seanmcmullen.net.au
1. Your story ‘Hard Cases’ has been made into a short film. What was the process like of seeing your words translated to the screen?
It was nostalgia at first, because when I was an undergraduate I had become an actor and singer. Being on set for Hard Cases brought all that back, but this time I had done the script. That said, I particularly enjoyed developing the script further with the director and actors, it was as if the story and characters had escaped from my hands and taken on lives of their own.
I originally had Mrs Medic as a burlesque, jolly sort of character, but Eve Morey decided to play her as a tentative, uneasy apprentice executioner, someone who found the idea of killing a fellow human a bit confronting. The actors decided to play Mr Judge and Mr Drake more or less as I had them in the script, but their personalities were still different to my original idea.
I was surprised when the director, Terry Shepherd, asked me to play Mr Guard, a cameo part. He wanted Mr Guard to seem like an old colleague of Mr Judge (Mike Bishop), and because I look about the same age as Mike, I got the role. You would think that I would play one of my own characters just as I had written him, but no, as the script evolved, Mr Guard had to adapt to fit in.
Hard Cases was basically about ordinary people having to give up luxuries and conveniences that harm the environment and chew up resources in the long term. However, people don’t like to be reminded that their SUVs, jetskis and huge, centrally heated houses are indulgences that cannot be part of a sustainable future, so while everyone who has seen it has said it was very well scripted and produced, we could not get exposure for it. I suppose Hard Cases was a messenger that got executed because it had an unwelcome message.
Still, it was a great experience, and I have gone on to more involvement with the television industry since then. Hard Cases was made by professionals, and with very high production values, so perhaps it will be rediscovered in a more sympathetic future.
2. You’ve been making audio versions of some of your short stories, including music, some of which you’ve played yourself. Is this a way of combining at least two of your loves?
It certainly is. I had not thought about doing audio recordings until I met Terry Shepherd, who directed Hard Cases. He taught me the basic techniques of professional recording and sound engineering, and loaned me equipment to experiment with. I bought my own H4n and began to put readings on my website by August 2013.
Many authors have told me that they tried doing recordings of their own fiction, but the results sounded a bit iffy so they gave up. That’s because doing good readings require a lot of acting skills and experience. I learned singing and acting from professionals like Lucy Altman and George Whaley, then spent years on stage professionally. Few authors have that sort of background.
I use music in my readings to set the mood and provide scene breaks. Sometimes that’s only a matter of picking up my concertina or guitar, and sometimes my friends like Ann Poore, Graeme Smith and Peter Parkhill let me use recordings of their music in my readings. Unlike live-on-stage recordings, I can do half a dozen takes of a piece and select the one with fewest mistakes.
There is one annoying aspect of getting good at audio work, though. While I have learned to appreciate really good readings by people like Sir Tony Robinson, Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams, a lot of my old favourite readings by some other quite famous people – that I would rather not name – have started to sound a bit mediocre.
3. In the snapshot of 2012, you mentioned you were working on scripts, but had an idea for a Regency steampunk novel, and you’ve had short stories out in the meantime, too. What are you up to at the moment?
I started that Regency steampunk novel, but it soon became an espionage adventure rather than steampunk, and that was not what I wanted to write. Since then I have actually written or outlined several novels, but they did not have quite the same edge as Souls in the Great Machine or Voyage of the Shadowmoon so I dropped them as well.
Because of the deluge of genre fiction that is now easily and cheaply available, it is no longer good enough to just write an okay novel. It has to be great, and it has to be at least as good as your best or you can lose readers very easily. I know more about late Victorian literature and technology than that of the Regency, so I have moved on to a series of stories set in the 1890s. They are developing into a novel all by themselves, so this is looking like my next novel.
I have also been advising two other very talented people with their first novels. It’s quite a challenge to keep my hands off their ways of writing things, and it seems to be a good way of loosening up my own style. Writers tend to develop methods for themselves, then stick to those methods too closely because they work. This cuts you off from methods that might work better, however.
Novels aside, Reanimus Press published two collections of my short fiction last year, Ghosts of Engines Past and Colours of the Soul. Ghosts was steampunk, while Colours was more traditional science fiction and fantasy. This was my first foray into the electronic/print-on-demand market, so I was a bit dubious about their prospects, but they have been selling unexpectedly well so I’m not complaining.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
This is a hard one to answer. Over the past few months I have read two stories and a novel that I have really loved, but all three have been unpublished works that were given to me for my opinion.
Generally speaking, the Australian scene has grown too big for anyone to follow, so I only read a few local authors that I know like Cat Sparks and Alan Baxter, but I keep a lookout for interesting newcomers. Adam Browne’s collection had a very clever story about a man addicted to giving things up, and Andrew Macrae’s novel Trucksong was a very ambitious attempt to convincingly narrate a story using a character from the future, yet keep it accessible for today’s readers. I was an examiner for Andrew’s creative writing degree, in which Trucksong was the creative work, and it was quite a pleasant experience to be able to slow down and read a work really carefully.
1994 was the last year in which I could have answered this question comprehensively. After that I gave up trying to buy and read everything in the genre that was published by Australian authors. The industry had grown up by then, and I had calculated that I would need a new bookcase every three years just to hold all the new books and magazines. Since then the internet has also blurred the literary national boundaries, so that being an Australian author no longer means what it used to. For example …
My 2013 story ‘Technarion’ won the Interzone readers’ poll and was selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology, yet most Australian fans don’t even know it exists. This is fair enough, because it was set in 1875 London, had no Australian references, and was published in a British magazine. I would not even classify it as Australian. The author (me) just happened to live in Australia. If someone had said it was the most enjoyable Australian work they had read recently, I would have been pleased but surprised.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years
It’s not possible to be any sort of writer and not be affected by those changes. The internet in general and electronic publishing in particular have made it easy for everyone to be published, and nearly everyone wants to give it a try. A few months ago I checked the stories and novels published by Australians in 2013, and I calculated that a reader with a full-time job who also took time out to eat and sleep could not get through the total output for a year, in a year. Back in the early ’90s, you could read the annual output of Australian genre fiction in a fortnight. It’s the same situation worldwide.
Desktop publishing and online marketing has demolished the old barriers to publishing. Three-hundred-and-ninety thousand vanity press ISBNs were issued in the USA alone a couple of years ago. Is this good? Not if you are a reader in search of a good read. How do you tell which are the 10 best of those 390,000 titles? In five years it will be even harder to find the good works because there will probably be three million vanity press titles coming out per year.
For new authors it is no longer just a matter of getting published, but of getting people to give your fiction a chance by reading it. That means getting onto Facebook, Twitter, Good Reads, online writing groups and all other social media to promote your work – but they are already jammed solid with other authors trying to do the same thing. Anon once wrote that the hardest part of getting to the top of the ladder was fighting through the crowd around the bottom. Someone new enters that crowd every few seconds.
I count myself lucky as an author because I made my reputation when it was much harder to get published, but easier to get noticed. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, if you got published, people noticed you because so few people got published. Because I already have a reputation, the readers and editors of 2014 recognise my name, but I still have to try a lot harder than before. Every story has to stand out, so I take a lot more time and care with my fiction.
On the other hand, that extra time and care probably got me a Hugo Award runner up in 2011, the Analog readers’ award last year, and the Interzone readers’ award this year, so there are positives amid the publishing industry upheavals. In five years I think I will still be having stories and novels published, but the methods and markets have probably not been invented yet.
THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian speculative fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: