MELBOURNE-based writer Patrick O’Duffy has been writing since he was a little kid; he’s been writing stuff that’s good enough for others to read for, well, less time than that. He has been a freelance RPG writing for companies such as White Wolf and Green Ronin, where he got to work on the revival of Lynn Abbey’s Thieves’ World setting.
Since moving to Melbourne from Brisbane several years ago, he’s given up game writing and focused more on shorter-form fiction, which he publishes independently as e-books. They include the dark fantasy novella Hotel Flamingo and the horror anthology Godheads, plus his new crime novella The Obituarist. Upcoming work includes another anthology (this time of flash fiction), a sequel to The Obituarist, a YA fantasy novella and a serious literary novel that he’ll be trying to get published through the usual channels.
All this and more can be found at his website, www.patrickoduffy.com, where he also blogs about writing and reading and similar things. Sometimes there are pictures.
Your previous e-books have been genre-blurring horror-tinged tales. What influenced you to head into crime territory with The Obituarist?
I think every story has a core that can be expressed in a number of ways, and that the best way to find the right expression is to start with the core and work outwards to the story, rather than work from the story and try to find its core. So while I’ve done a lot of horror and fantasy writing – and I’m going to do more – I’m always read to follow an idea down a different path.
The Obituarist is a story about the way technology changes the way we live and in doing so changes some of the ways we think about death. You can write a story like that as speculative fiction, certainly, and I think there are some great paths it could take – in fact, some of my earliest thinking on the ‘social media undertaker’ concept was along spec-fic lines. But to write a story about how technology affects us right now, rather than how it might affect us in the future, I had to keep things grounded in the real and the modern day. And if I’m going to do that, well, a crime story lets me have some fun with the concept and include some chase scenes and gruesome deaths. That’s a win in my book.
What’s the most challenging or annoying element to publishing an e-book, and the greatest joy?
The challenging part is the part that comes after publishing – trying to get people to hear about it and to consider reading it. There’s so much out there at the moment and more every day, especially independently published ebooks. Some are very good and a lot more are very bad, but good and bad get just as much attention and seem pretty much the same to buyers. To stand out you need to spend as much or more time promoting your work than writing something new; you have to use word-of-mouth, push books at reviewers, monitor social media for opportunities.
I find that challenging. It turns me from a writer into a publisher, a publicist, a marketer. None of which are roles I particularly want to fill, but the alternative is having my books vanish without trace as soon as they’re released. Which I don’t really want, oddly enough. So I do my best to be honest about what I’m doing, to stop short of spamming people with constant ads for my stuff and to genuinely share the passion I have for writing with others.
As for joy, well, I think a lot of indie authors get great joy from maintaining control over their work, and not having to concede to the demands of publishers or editors. For me, though, it’s the immediacy and the freedom to experiment with extent, form or structure. I like the way that I can take a finished, edited manuscript and have it up on sale 10 minutes later. And, yes, then have to tweak the file to get it right and upload it again, but the principle is sound. I like writing novellas and short fiction and having an avenue to publish them even though they’re difficult to make financially viable in print. There’s room to try things in e-publishing, because even if you won’t make money you also won’t lose very much, and sometimes it’s acceptable to spend a few hundred dollars to do something you believe in.
How has your experience writing role-playing games informed your fiction writing?
Primarily it’s taught me about the importance of positioning the things that matter in a story – whether those are plot elements or core themes – at the centre of the story and making sure that the rest of the material revolves around those points. RPG settings tend to be filled with tiny little bits, like plot hooks and non-player characters and Sudden Looming Dangers. It can be a lot of fun to think up things like that, but it’s easy to make them too self-contained – to come up with, say, some kind of political intrigue that is all about three NPCs, or a terrifying dragon that stays in a cave scheming and never comes out. Things like that are interesting in concept but dead boring in play because they don’t contain a space for the players’ characters to become pivotal parts of the story. World building for its own sake can be fun, but a big part of successful RPG setting design is making sure that everything in that world can matter to the players, even if it doesn’t right away.
To extend that concept over to fiction writing, I always try to identify the important things in a story – the main characters, obviously, but also themes and motifs and the like – and make sure that every event and turn and additional character in the story connects directly to those things. The Obituarist, for instance, is a story about death and identity as well as a crime story. That’s the core – two themes and a set of genre markers. So everything starts from that basis, every scene needs to be relevant to at least part of that core, and everything has to have a hook or angle that directly draws in the main character, social media undertaker Kendall Barber.
That’s not exactly an insight that’s unique to RPGs. But writing those – and running and playing them – is what really drove it home to me.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Most of the Australian work I like tends to be either literary fiction or crime fiction. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because the Australian voice lends itself well to both introspection on our place in the world and violence without proper thought of consequences. Or maybe it’s because I don’t spend enough time looking at Australian speculative fiction. That’s probably more likely.
In any event, the Australian books I’ve really loved of late include Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing, Nicki Greenberg’s Hamlet, Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore and Truth and Benjamin Law’s The Family Law.
What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
This is another point where I have to confess ignorance.
Actually, no, wait, there is something I’ve noticed – the degree to which Australian spec-fic is moving online. There are obvious changes like Aurealis becoming an e-book periodical, but I’m also seeing a lot more independent and small e-books coming, such as Alan Baxter’s Darkest Shade of Grey, which The Penny Red Papers published as both a free website and a cheap e-book.
The difficult part sometimes is knowing that these are Australian works, because the internet puts them right alongside American and British works and presents them as equals. Well, in theory. In practice, e-book readers still gravitate to writers they know, and Australian writers have to work hard to gain some visibility from international readers who might then recommend their books to their peers. It’s still not automatic, but it’s easier than it used to be.
And that’s something, right?
* * *
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: