Snapshot 2012: Jay Kristoff

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoJAY Kristoff is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author. His first trilogy, The Lotus War, was purchased by Tor in the three-way auction by US publishing houses in 2011. He is as surprised about it as you are. The first instalment, Stormdancer, is set to be published in September in the US, UK and Australia.

He can be found shuffling about aimlessly and frightening the children at

What attracted you to the Japanese-style setting for Stormdancer? And then that dollop of steampunk? An interesting mix!
Steampunk came first. I thought the steampunk genre was a cool place to explore the idea of a destructive techonology –- I loved cyberpunk as a kid, loved the mood of decline combined with the theme of the machine as an ‘enemy’. And that’s a well-trodden alleyway in the realm of futuristic sci-fi, but historic sci-fi tends to look at the past through rose-tinted goggles and see the advent of the machine age as a ticket to a land of wonders. So I liked the idea of destroying that perception, bringing back that nihilistic ‘punk’ element for which steampunk is named but so often overlooks.

Thing is, the traditional stomping grounds of steampunk (Victorian England and colonial America) have been done, and done very well. I don’t like the idea of repeating someone else. There were some incredible cultures on this planet at the time when Victoria and Albert were knocking boots, and I’ve been a fan of Japanese film and fiction since forever, and it seemed like combining the two might lead me somewhere interesting. Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…

In what ways has your penchant for role-playing games informed your writing?
I never really considered it until recently, but when I think about it, I’ve been building worlds since I was 12 years old. It starts with grid maps and random pluckings from the Monstrous Compendium (‘Heh, THIS will fuck ’em!’), but I think anyone who’s spent any time being the game master knows how cool it can be to create a living, breathing world, people it with memorable characters and watch players get lost in it. I think that is writing, in a very real sense — the same discipline you use to create an exciting game world is the same as the one you use to create the world in a novel.

A couple of the fundamental world-building ideas in Stormdancer came directly from the last Pathfinder game I ran. So apparently you can learn some important life skills sitting in dimly lit rooms with your buddies rolling polyhedral dice. Who knew.

On your blog you say you don’t believe in happy endings. Why is that?
Victory without sacrifice feels cheap to me. If I read a book or see a film in which all that was required to beat the Big Bad Guy was a little sleight of hand or some sharp-shooting, I feel cheated. I want to be afraid for the characters I love. When I’m in a book or film, I want to know not everyone I love is going to make it out alive, or intact, because to my mind, that makes me love them more. And I’m not talking about pathos for pathos’ sake. I’m talking about the death of Wash in Serenity, or Lin being rendered brain dead by the slake moth in Perdido Street Station — that kind of thing. Characters feel more real and tangible and alive to me when I know they could be gone at any moment, because that’s what real life is like. Triumph means more when it’s purchased with the things heroes hold dear.

I want my readers crying even as they’re cheering.

What Australian works have you loved recently?
I read The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers last year, and simply put, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. Capital A ‘amazing’. I also scammed a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak from my lovely Aus publishers at Pan-MacMillan (ah, freebies) a couple of weeks back, and I’m loving it so far.

What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years?
Truthfully, I’m not really part of the scene, so I can’t really speak to that one. I do think we live in very tumultuous times in publishing — the advent of e-books, the rise of Amazon and the impact that’s having on publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. Long-standing publishers are shedding entire floors in NY city. Audiences are changing, and what’s expected of you as an author is changing.

But ultimately, it’s still all about the words. Write the right words, and everything else will follow. That’s the beauty of it.

* * *

THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 1-8 June and archiving them at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. You can read interviews at:

McKee on Story, and the nature vs nurture argument about writing courses

Robert McKee Story seminarI attended Robert McKee’s seminar on thriller writing recently. It was a revealing event: an entire cinema packed with writers chasing insight into how to write a thriller. It was a microcosm of just how booming the writing industry is, fuelled in part by the opening of the self-publishing market due to affordable and relatively easy ebook and POD technologies. I don’t really think of the other bodies in the room as competitors, just contemporaries: I’m a big believer in the phenomenon in the writing industry perhaps best epitomised by the Amazon button that says if you liked this book, you might also like …

But there I was, me and my contemporaries, for a very long day, receiving a summary of the various styles of thriller, the identifying qualities of same, and then the nitty gritty: component parts, structure, conflict and, perhaps most usefully, the idea of switching positive-negative valencies within each scene, sequence and act.

McKee is famed for his book Story and the seminar industry he’s spun out of it, and I got a lot out of the day (Ellen Gregory provides a handy summary in a series of blog posts). The physical seminar was easier to digest than the written work, I found; McKee’s focus is on screenwriting, but the basics apply equally as well to literature. I was mentally checking off, and occasionally wincing, as McKee unfolded his theories (Se7en was his case study). Anything that makes you look at your process, at the components of your craft, that helps you hone your skills, is valuable: up to a point. You still have to write the damn story. And you still have to have a story worth writing. Ah, now there’s the rub.

Cameron Rogers gives the McKee school of writing class a serve, while finding useful insight in the simple three-act scenario of Lennon and Garant: put a likeable person up a tree; throw rocks at them; get them down from the tree. I like that.

(I’ve only recently discovered Cam’s blog: it’s a time-killer, both erudite and fun with far too many interesting YouTube clips. And, god, Music of Razors is still on the Shelf of Woe, waiting for that heady day when I get to that to-read pile.)

Which suggests, courses for horses. But can ‘writing’ be taught?

As Dmetri Kakmi wrote in a recent defence of writing as vocation, there’s a school of thought that says everyone has a novel in them — which is probably true in terms of content. But perhaps not everyone, even with a McKee seminar and a couple of handy books (I favour Stephen King’s On Writing as an inspirational text) on the desk, is capable of delivering that story in an effective and engaging way.

While I’ve learnt a lot from writing courses — I wish I’d done my Year of the Novel with Kim Wilkins a decade earlier, when I first seriously turned my hand to getting a novel written and having it published (and being paid for it, damn it!) — I like to think, in line with Dmetri’s ‘rant’, that there is a talent as well as a skill. I think the skill can be honed; I think the talent comes from prolific reading, exercising of imagination and curiosity about the human condition. If talent is a pool of creative lava, then a writing course — the right writing course — might help channel that lava into a fruitful channel. No burnt fingers, no gelatinous puddle. There are plenty of good ideas out there, but good ideas well crafted, well, that’s another story.

I’ve read a bunch of yarns that have plenty of spirit, but are let down by deficient craft. I’ve read even more than have a modicum of craft, but little spirit. It’s where craft and spirit combine that we get that story that sticks: the one we have to tell all our friends about.

Dmetri says if you have to ask if you’ve got what it takes, you don’t; I think we prove it to ourselves every time we choose the keyboard over the sunshine, or at least, we test ourselves along those lines. Writers are, by nature, by and large, insecure creatures: as with any artist, their passion is placed in the public arena and invites both the brickbats and bouquets. Do I have what it takes — to get to the end? To sell this story? To make a reader give a damn?

At the end of the day, we’re writing to our own standard. Some folks will be happy to just sell a story to any market, paying or otherwise. The byline is enough. Others want cash up front as recompense for all the days of sunshine they’ve missed out on. Some churn out plastic, others are artists; sometimes, both might make a living out of it. Some have quantitative goals: units sold, cash earned. Others, a qualitative goal: to write as well as their hero, or to write an award-winning work.

We set our own benchmarks and I’m in no position to rank them, but I do set a base level of competence for someone calling themselves a writer: respect for the words, respect for the language. You don’t have to be an uber stylist but at least know where to put the full points. At least know what the words mean. And readers should be discerning on this. A 99c price tag, not even a free download, should excuse abuse of language. Incompetence and willful ignorance should never be excused.

King talks about his ideal reader, and I think that’s part of the benchmark. Who do we want to impress with this story? Who will we hold our breath for, while we wait for the shake or the nod?

I’m glad I did the McKee seminar; I enjoyed the lens his observations brought to my appreciation of my work. But I still have to apply the lessons learnt. And I still have to answer the question: do I have what it takes? No amount of courses is going to solve that riddle; that one is answered only in the doing.