Snapshot 2014: Stephen M Irwin

stephen m irwinSTEPHEN M IRWIN is a screenwriter and novelist. His career began with broadcast television documentaries, and broadened to include award-winning short drama films and short stories. Stephen’s debut novel, supernatural thriller The Dead Path, was published in Australia by Hachette and subsequently around the world, being named Top Horror Novel 2011 in the American Library Association’s RUSA Reading List. Stephen’s second novel, The Broken Ones, was released by Hachette and DoubleDay to exceptional reviews, including being named among the 100 Best Fiction of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. Stephen was writer and creator of a six-part crime drama Secrets & Lies (2014) produced by Hoodlum Active, which has screened around the world and is being remade for American audiences by Kapital Entertainment for ABC (USA). He is currently developing several feature film and television projects for Australian and international audiences, and is writing his third novel. Find out more at www.stephenmirwin.com

 

1. Since the last Snapshot two years ago, you’ve added to your oeuvre of supernatural horror with a story, ’24/7′, in last year’s A Killer Among Demons anthology. What is it about folklore and legends such as the Green Man, ghost and demons that draws you to write about them?

Writers write for different reasons. For some, it’s catharsis; for others it’s simply a job; for yet others it’s a compulsion to express. For me, writing for pleasure presents a chance to go exploring, to go play. And my favourite sandpit is not necessarily this world, or this world as I’ve experienced it in the day-to-day, but a world like ours where fantastical things are possible. The fact that I enjoy my stories to be both well grounded in reality yet to have otherworldly shadows lends me to write about ghosts, spirits, unseen or barely seen forces … so, those stories begin in the ordinary and take that weird side-step into the extraordinary.

One of the things I like about these stories is that they come with a suggestion that the protagonist doubts his or her own perception of reality – wonders, even, if they are mad or heading that way. In this era of social media and instant news, when everything is laid bare, it’s nice to think that some people (even if they are just fictional characters) are forced to keep secrets for fear of condemnation … and try to soldier on in silence … although this usually sows the seeds of peril. Great fun.

 
2. Secrets & Lies is, possibly, your biggest screen project to date, enjoying a US rendition. How have you enjoyed the translation of your Australian story to the United States? In fact most of your written stories have been set here – have you ever felt any pressure to perhaps set them overseas or keep the ocker quotient low to enhance foreign market appeal?

secrets and lies tv showI didn’t have a lot of time to writing the six hours of television that was Secrets & Lies – the preproduction was so charged with urgency that I didn’t really get time to enjoy the process. Now the series is done, and it’s screened here and in the UK, Canada, Scandinavia … I’ve had the chance to look back more fondly on the experience of writing the show. I don’t have any real input in the US version, but on a recent trip to Los Angeles I did get to meet some of the cast, and that was enormously fun – they’ve attracted some great talent, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

Right now, I’m working on an Australian telemovie for a national TV broadcaster, and a supernatural crime show for an American network. The former is set firmly in Australia, the latter firmly in the USA. I’m a big believer in universality of story, but specificity of setting. We humans are territorial creatures – we like to know well our little nests and hunting grounds, our comfort zones. So, I think it’s important to write with respect for that – because people act differently when they are in their own territory, or taken from it, or threatened with removal from it, or discover it is not as safe and comfy as they thought it was. To that extent, character and place are inseparable.

But I haven’t felt any pressure ever to heighten or lower the local tone of stories, either in books or in television – I think if it feels real, it works. The only changes that I’ve needed to be make are in terms of accessibility, so that readers or viewers aren’t jolted from the story because they don’t simply understand what a word means.

 
3. There’s mention on your blog of adapting The Broken Ones for the screen, and a possible novel on the way. How are those projects coming? What’s next for you?

the broken ones by stephen m irwinI was fortunate enough to see The Broken Ones receive the Chauvel Award (Screen Queensland), and I was asked by the producers who optioned the work to also write the screenplay adaptation. That was a strange experience – interrogating my own work, ripping it to component parts, and putting it back together in a different media (a screenplay). But it seems to have worked out well, and the producers are now shopping The Broken Ones around to potential directors. I hope it gets made; it would be fun to meet Oscar Mariani in the flesh!

My third novel is progressing at, sadly, a much slower pace than I wish – my television commitments seem to always be grabbing at my heels like cattle dogs. I am hoping (perhaps foolishly!) to finish the draft by the end of the year.

 
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

I adore Sonya Hartnett’s writing, and enjoyed her Children of the King (yes, it’s for younger readers, but that is no impediment to either great writing or enjoyable reading). I was captivated by Kári Gíslason’s The Promise of Iceland – and knowing the lovely Kári personally made the journey through the book so much richer. And being a contributor to A Killer Among Demons gave me the perfect excuse to read the other authors’ works – and there were some crackers. I’m a fan of Angela Slatter’s and Alan Baxter’s work, and enjoyed enormously reading their stories and the others, too.

 
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?

I think my forays into feature and television writing have come at a good time for me. Since The Broken Ones was published, I’ve got a strong sense that publishers are being increasingly discerning about where (and in what kind of writers) they invest their money. Since I have no other appreciable skills beyond writing, I am grateful that I can derive an income from film and television as well as book writing to help pay the mortgage. But the moving picture media are every bit as volatile as publishing; more and more viewers are consuming content at home and on demand, rather than going to a cinema or waiting for a show to screen on a free-to-air broadcaster.

And I’m as guilty as anyone of this: I consume books, television shows, and movies on my iPad Mini, and I’m the first to grow irritated if I can’t get what I want RIGHT NOW! That’s unhealthy, and light-years from the person I used to be, who could order a book from suburban bookseller and patiently wait weeks for the phonecall announcing that it had arrived.

I think in five years’ time, things will have shifted subtly (but scarily) to a place where there is even more choice of things to consume, but with an ever-widening gap between the ‘big’ studio and publishing house projects, and the indie publications and productions. I hope that I’ll be able to do the splits enough to make a satisfying income from commercial works while still indulging in the free flights of fancy that smaller publishers allow and encourage. As long as I’m writing, I’ll be happy.

 
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:

Snapshot 2012: Stephen M Irwin

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logo
STEPHEN M Irwin’s debut novel, supernatural thriller The Dead Path, was published in the UK, the USA, Germany and China. It was named Top Horror Novel in the American Library Association’s RUSA Reading List (2011) and won the Book of the Month Club’s First Fiction Award (2010).

Stephen’s second novel, thriller The Broken Ones, was launched in Australia in 2011 to excellent reviews, including being named the Sydney Morning Herald Fiction Pick of the Week. It will be released in the USA by DoubleDay in August 2012, and has also been selected by the Book of the Month Club for its catalogues which service 8 million members.

Stephen’s short stories have won competitions nationally and internationally, with several published in notable anthologies. Stephen is also an award-winning filmmaker, and has written and directed television documentaries and short films. He is currently working with several Australian producers developing feature and television material, including a screen adaptation of The Dead Path.

Stephen lives in Brisbane’s inner-west with his wife and two young children. Find him online at stephenmirwin.com.

Two novels down, and twice you’ve brought some shudders to Brisbane town. What is it about the city that lends itself to a site for nightmare occurrences?
I hope that I’m able to write with a degree of veracity about lots of places, and certainly a bit of my first novel was set in London, and a recent screenplay I worked on had some scenes set in New York and Canada. However, Brisbane is home and I know certain of its suburbs well, some of its hiding places, how it feels through different seasons, where it feels authentic and where it feels like it’s wearing too much makeup. My first two books had to be set somewhere, and while I don’t live or die by the axiom ‘write what you know’, it made sense to set the books in a place that I know. I figured that I was asking the readers to suspend any disbelief they may have in magic and ghosts, so if the setting felt solid, I could buy a bit more latitude to explore the fantastical.
Even if it wasn’t home, though, Brisbane is a great setting because there is more to it than meets the eye. It is a pleasant and friendly place, but it was born essentially as a penal settlement, so it has some unpleasant bones. It is sunny and warm, and its winters are divine, but as we’ve seen in the recent past, it can turn nasty quickly with streets flooding and disaster unfolding in a matter of hours. As a setting, this contrast is appealing, and has worked well for other authors, too (Jeff Lindsay used Miami as a setting for the dark deeds of his killer, Dexter). Just because a house has fresh paint doesn’t mean it’s not haunted; just because a city is sun-drenched and ‘livable’ doesn’t mean horrible things can’t happen there. Let’s face it, the least expected and most horrific crimes are those performed in broad daylight.

What is it you’ve enjoyed most about the transition from writing screenplays to novels?
I think what’s enjoyable is the feeling that the transition continues. I’m still writing screenplays and television material while working on more long-form fiction. Each mode of writing enriches the other. Since writing a couple of novels, I feel I’m now able to bring to my screenplay writing a better understanding of character, because I’ve drilled so much more deeply into characters’ minds and motivations for the books. And for me, screenwriting helped make the novels more enjoyable because I’ve learned something about conventional story structure from screenwriting. Screenwriting has helped broaden my understanding about pacing scenes and building suspense; I learned through experience that a scene that lasts more than a few minutes on screen risks becoming deathly boring, and every scene has to help advance the story. These rules have a place in the kinds of books I write. Very importantly, screenwriting forced me to learn visual shorthand: how to paint a clear picture or mood very economically. In a screenplay of just 100 pages, you can’t devote a whole page describing a room or a person –- you get a sentence for that. The lessons about economical writing have been helpful, because if you know the essence of what you want to say, then it is more enjoyable to dress it up. Putting in is always more fun than taking out.

Another thing that surprises some people is that a significant amount of my screenwork has been comedic. Right now I am working on a comedy feature I’ve been commissioned to write for an Australian producer. I hope that a few sparks of levity have found their way into the novels.

There was a noirish feel to The Broken Ones — is crime writing something you’d like to explore further, or do you find the supernatural an irresistible attraction?
I am a sucker for good crime, in literature, film, and television, and I’ve been a fan of noir since seeing The Third Man in my first year at art college. I’m a dedicated fan of the gurus like Chandler, maestros like Cruz Smith, and seasoned experts like the late, great Robert B Parker. It’s delightful to think that some of my love for crime writing has rubbed off into The Broken Ones, which is ostensibly a detective story. I’m certainly continuing to work on more crime material –- my next novel, while not a police procedural, has strong crime elements, and I’m developing with a talented production company a new crime miniseries. It’s great fun. Chandler knew how to entertain, and he knew that everything had a dark side. ‘It is not a fragrant world.’

As for the supernatural, I can resist it -… but only for so long. My nightmares, when I have them, are inevitably about angry spirits. I think some writers write to exorcise, and it helps when I do.

What Australian works have you loved recently?
I really enjoyed The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoff McGeachin. It is set soon after the Second World War in country Victoria. My father was a serviceman in WWII, and no doubt his sensibilities were formed by his time as a young man, and remained with him for me to see and learn from. Geoff captured the spirit of the time beautifully, and had me almost nostalgic for an era I only knew about second hand. Apart from that, it was a great crime story with a smart, wounded protagonist. Right up my alley.

Claire Corbett’s futuristic novel When We Have Wings was highly inventive and very lovely.

And as a writer of stories with ghosts, I am a huge fan of Karina Machado’s non-fiction books about hauntings: Spirit Sisters and Where Spirits Dwell. The Australian spec fic scene is rich and varied right now, with some huge talents who are getting some well deserved recognition.

What have been some of the biggest changes in the Australian speculative fiction scene in the past two years?
I think the Australian market as a whole is responding to the same changes that the whole publishing world is facing with regard to digital books. While this new form is a phoenix to some and a spectre to others, I am delighted to see that it seems to have sparked a re-emerging interest from writers and readers in the novella. This is a form I’ve loved since adolescence when I first read seminal works like Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea. Given that a novella can be created in a third the time or less that it takes to craft a novel, the rich excitement of furious creation can often be sensed on the page. A story has a life of its own, and to be effectively told it needs to fill into its own body without constraint or artificial inflation –- some stories are simply too long for to be a ‘short’, and too contained to warrant novel length. I think since the 1980s, the bang-for-buck book purchasing mindset has made it increasingly difficult for publishers to justify the printing and marketing of the novella form, but the e-book format is making it much easier for publishers to price the form back into popularity, and also for self-publishers to get their works to market. I am delighted that a number of authors I know are working in this form right now. It is good news that this important middle sibling is coming back in force.

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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: