Snapshot 2014: John Harwood

john harwood pic by peter whyteJOHN HARWOOD was born in Hobart and educated in Tasmania and at Cambridge University. He went on to become Head of the School of English and Drama at Flinders University in Adelaide before leaving to write full time. His novel The Ghost Writer, first published by Jonathan Cape in 2004, won the International Horror Guild’s First Novel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Horror and Dark Fantasy. The Séance, a dark mystery set in Victorian England, won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel of 2008. The Asylum (Random House) was published earlier this year.
 

1. What elements of the Gothic have attracted you to write in that mode – and to set your stories, predominantly, in England in the Victorian era?

I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was nine or ten, and as much as anything it was the atmosphere I loved: the fogs, the gaslight, the hansom cabs, the labyrinthine streets of London, the way the stories flirt with the supernatural: until the rational explanation at the end, ‘The Speckled Band’ is classic Gothic horror. At around the same time I discovered the ghost stories of MR James and again I loved the sinister old houses and churches and libraries, the gradual, indirect approach by way of hints and glimpses, leaving as much as possible to the reader’s imagination.

So when I began writing fiction full-time it was only natural that my childhood reading would come back to haunt me. I’d written and discarded a couple of novels with contemporary settings before I stumbled on the idea for The Ghost Writer, and as soon as I started writing ghost stories in that late Victorian idiom I knew – paradoxical as it sounds – that I’d found a voice of my own.

The Victorian era attracts me because it’s very different from our own, but not so remote that the language becomes a barrier. And because it’s a darker, more elemental setting, without any of the technological insulation we take for granted. Once inside that crumbling Gothic mansion, you’re utterly alone with whatever may be lurking there …

 
2. Your writing has been acknowledged in both literary and genre awards. What is your feeling about the tension or rivalry between these two camps?

It strikes me as an artificial and fairly recent distinction – some of the greatest 19th century novels would now be classified as genre fiction – largely driven by the demands of marketing, and perhaps by a degree of prejudice. I’ve met readers who pride themselves on only reading literary fiction, and tried to explain to them how much they’re missing out on, but sometimes the prejudice is too deeply embedded. Whereas all that ultimately matters is the quality of the writing, in the fullest sense of that phrase.

The best books across all the genres – SF, crime, YA, fantasy, literary – have far more in common with each other than they do with formula-driven, boilerplate fiction. And the best work, regardless of how it’s labelled, often defies classification, like Russell Hoban’s masterpiece, Riddley Walker. Or a book like China Miéville’s The City and the City, which tends to be shelved as SF because that’s mostly what he writes. But when you’ve finished it you still don’t know – at least I didn’t – whether you’ve actually crossed the boundaries of realism or not.

 
3. The Ghost Writer had supernatural tales embedded within the text; The Séance took a Radcliffe approach to offering rational explanations for the mysterious events; and you play with lost or stolen identity in an asylum on the delightful Bodmin Moor in The Asylum. Where, and when, to next?

the asylum by john harwoodI’m not sure yet. The Séance grew out of the original version of The Ghost Writer, which included a novella about a sinister mansion festooned with lightning rods, and then The Asylum grew out of material which didn’t make it into the finished Séance. Could be something quite different this time. For me, beginning a novel is like being a dog trying to follow a scent through a pitch-dark forest, falling down holes and bumping into tree-trunks until he picks it up again: you don’t really know what you’re pursuing until you get through that forest.

 
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

Most of my reading in recent months has been about the looming reality of catastrophic climate change, and so the Australian work that comes first to mind is Morrie Schwartz’s invaluable review, The Monthly, with its superb coverage of all sides of politics as well as environmental issues. Which is not to minimise the work that Fairfax journalists are doing under extraordinarily difficult conditions. But with a government dominated by Tea Party lookalikes and climate change deniers, and most of the commercial media acting as their cheer squad, The Monthly is a source of light in a very dark landscape.

 
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 from now?

Changes like the emergence of e-books and the ever-increasing power of Amazon haven’t really affected me as much as the exponential growth of the internet itself. When I began work on The Ghost Writer the internet was still relatively slow and clunky, whereas now it’s ubiquitous. The internet is a very mixed blessing, so far as writing is concerned; it speeds up research enormously, but it’s also a terrible distraction, and disruptive of precisely those long stretches of meditative concentration that writing fiction requires.

Like many people, I’ve just kept adding new technologies to existing ones, so that I now have a Kindle as well as a paper library. I assume that the proportion of e-books sold relative to paper will continue to increase, like the proportion of books that will be available only in e-form. Environmentally speaking, I suppose it would be better if we all bought nothing but e-books from here on, but I’d very sorry to see that happen. When the survivors – if there are any – of the Great Anthopocene Extinction are picking over the ruins in a few hundred years’ time, a few printed books in deep cellars or caves may be all that remain of our vast output of words.

 

2014 aussie spec fiction snapshot

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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:

Hysteria: at the movies and in Emilie Autumn’s Fight Like a Girl

hysteria movie posterTHERE is a moment in the newly released movie Hysteria, which traces the invention of the vibrator in the late 1800s, where the humour to be extracted from doctors masturbating women to release their ‘hysteria’ runs into the horror wall: the feisty heroine, played brilliantly by Maggie Gyllenhaal opposite the rom com’s leading man Hugh Dancy, faces institutionalisation and forced hysterectomy. The engine of her dire straits is her father.

While the movie has its laughs, its social commentary, both of class and sex, is telling. The medical condition of ‘hysteria’ was only dismissed in the 1950s, the movie’s afterword tells us. It takes a lot of Rupert Everett’s hijinks as electrical experimenter and comic moments with mating ducks to relieve that uneasiness.

emilie autumn album fight like a girlSURGICAL maltreatment of women as a way of dealing with perceived hysteria, or lunacy, is very much to the fore in Emilie Autumn‘s new album, Fight Like a Girl, which landed this week. It offers a narrative, musical arc set in an asylum for women — some of the music is from a planned Broadway show — but this is not the home for wayward girls so endearingly and sexily brought to the stage in her previous live show. Rather, this is the surgery where those ‘wayward’ girls are locked away to keep their brash sense of self and identity from unbalancing the patriarchy. Women as objects to be used, as threats to be neutralised, is the theme.

The ranging styles of the songs, from the upbeat defiance of the titular single to the violin ballad of ‘What Will I Remember?’, the vaudeville of ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ to the funereal ‘Goodnight, Sweet Ladies’, is clearly rooted in the dramatic production. And what a dark show it promises to be, with drug therapy and incarceration, and threats of sterilisation, rape, mutilation and murder among the offerings.

Tellingly, the album opens with the strongest, most strident songs, giving the impression of a revolution being quashed as the songs then travel into the asylum. A number of shorter tunes, some instrumental, suggest bridges between scenes, before the album draws to a close with the military beat of ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’, a hint of recovery and the promise of round two.

Along the way, there are treats in the minimalist electro of quite terrifying ‘Take the Pill’, harpsichord-driven ‘If I Burn’ and the seven-minute menace of ‘Scavenger’.

She’s quite the multi-talented artist, Ms Autumn, and this album, a different beast with some familiar stripes to her breakout Opheliac, suggests, even after just a couple of listens, further rewards in store.


Emilie Autumn at the Espy: so Victoriana!

emilie autumn

The Gershwin Room at St Kilda’s Espy (aka the Esplanade hotel) was the perfect setting for last night’s ‘Asylum’ gig by Emilie Autumn, a sideshow to her tour with the Harvest Festival. The American performer loves her Victoriana, melding lace and feathers with lashing of goth and steampunk, and the Espy’s peeling paint, pressed metal ceilings and ageing blemished mirrors suited the show to a tee. Or perhaps to a ‘tea’ might be more appropriate …

Emilie is a powerhouse, at home on the keyboard and the violin, with a decent range in her vocals and oodles of expression, and a deftness when it comes to interacting with her adoring audience, most done up to the nines.

She also has her support crew — Captain Maggot, voluptuous Veronica and dotty Contessa — to keep things lively on stage, including tea parties, lesbian pantomime and a girl-on-girl kissing sideshow called the Rat Game. Contessa and Maggot are adept at fire twirling, and Veronica plays a mean keyboard, too. Maggot is a particularly cool character, piratical in nature and small of stature, but possessed of wicked expressions and a top sense of balance, appearing as she does at one stage on stilts.

But there’s no doubt this is EA’s show, and she’s a fascinating ring mistress for this vaudevillean presentation set inside an asylum for wayward girls. Last night’s gig felt much tighter than when I last saw her in late 2009 doing much the same. Last night’s set also featured the title song of her forthcoming album, ‘Fight Like A Girl’, which suggests a similar musical direction to the winning Opheliac.

There were a few minor sound glitches, particularly early on, but songs including ‘Liar’, ‘Opheliac’, ‘I Want My Innocence Back’ and ‘Dead is the New Alive’, performed to thumping backing tracks, evoked effusive responses from the phone-wielding crowd. The only place the show seemed to slip away was towards the end, with a series of might-have-been final tunes proving false.

The encore was a cheeky singalong to a recording of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, with EA promising a speedy return to Oz. Keep your dance card open for that one!

Shudder, er, Shutter Island

Shutter Island is director Martin Scorsese’s new baby, and I finally caught it, late in the season, after being enticed by its Gothic whodunit trailer.

The island is an asylum for the violent criminally insane, back in 1954, with the impact of World War II and the Cold War adding undercurrents to what begins as an investigation into an escape and quickly develops into a far deeper, and more complex, mystery.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the investigating Federal Marshall who brings a whole baggage train of issues to the case as he faces off against the head psychologist played by Ben Kingsley.

The acting is uniformly superb, and I’m pleased to be able to vanquish thoughts of the execrable Titanic (just drown, won’t you?) while watching him work.

And Scorsese works up some delightful atmosphere with his bedlam visions.

But the movie falls sadly short of the mark that it could’ve and should’ve reached, and a damn sight sooner than its almost 140-minute running time.


There were a few warning signs that things were going pear-shaped from the get-go: unnecessary info dumps and a strange meeting between two cops, an overwrought score that thankfully settled down as the story progressed, and then the unnecessary expositions mounting up as the increasingly obvious (and slightly dubious) conceit was unveiled. I kept hoping for a further twist in the tail to unravel the conceit, but it wasn’t to be. There was, however, a very enjoyable and rather pointed, I mean poignant, closing scene.

And poor Max Von Sydow was wasted — he’s right up there with Christopher Lee on the list of actors who deserve chunkier roles, in my book — and an entire subplot told in flashback seemed all but irrelevant to the story in hand.

Good, but not great.

Among the trailers was the new ‘reimagining’ of a Nightmare on Elm Street: it looks tasty.