Snapshot 2014: Janeen Webb

Janeen WebbJANEEN WEBB is a multiple-award-winning author, editor and critic who has written or edited 10 books and more than 100 essays and stories. Her short story collection, Death At The Blue Elephant, was released by Ticonderoga in June 2014. Janeen is a recipient of the World Fantasy Award, the Peter MacNamara SF Achievement Award, the Aurealis Award and the Ditmar Award. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Newcastle, and divides her time between Melbourne and a small farm overlooking the sea near Wilson’s Promontory, Australia. Find out more at her website: janeenwebb.com.au


 
1. When we spoke two years ago, you had a couple of longer works on the drawing board; Sinbad, an Arthurian work, and an alternative history. How’s progress, or are you on to something different?

Writing is a slow process for me. Since we last spoke I have been concentrating on short fiction. I’ve put a lot of time into my story collection, Death at the Blue Elephant, a mix of original and reprinted stories just released by Ticonderoga. I’ve also written stories for anthologies, most recently ‘Future Perfect’, for Use Only As Directed (ed. Simon Petrie & Edwina Harvey).
I am still digging away at the alternate history, which turns out to be a much bigger project than I had anticipated. The third of the Sinbad books is still on the back burner, though I have not by any means given up on it – there’s a certain amount of guilt about that one. The mooted Arthurian novel remains very much just an idea at this stage.

 
2. What is it about the likes of Sinbad and Arthur that keeps us coming back for more – what is their relevance for, or perhaps resonance with, this current age?

Italo Calvino once remarked that stories live longer than people (and stars live longer than stories). As I see it, the old, archetypal tales are always with us – they inform our culture, and their narrative patterns influence the way we think, the way we write. Sometimes the old stories are camouflaged, but scratch the surface and they are right there. There is a universality about them that functions as a kind of narrative shorthand for storytellers everywhere, allowing us to meld them together into new shapes, new forms.

My own most recent foray into the Arthurian mythos is ‘The Sculptor’s Wife’, the long story that closes Death at the Blue Elephant (and is probably my favourite story in the collection). This piece combines Ovid’s classical tale of Pygmalion with Malory’s Arthurian story of the enchantress Nimue, to produce a truly monstrous modern celebrity: for me, at least, the traditional sources somehow make the story feel right. I guess that’s how the resonance works.

 

elephant by janeen webb3. In the forward to your debut collection, Death at the Blue Elephant, you remark that your broad travels have informed numerous of your stories. In what way does location influence your stories? What are the things writers on the wallaby should look for?

Writers need to be able to represent perspectives other than their own, and for me it has been travel that has taught me how to look at the world in very different ways. I’ve lived in various countries, and a lot of my stories are set in exotic locations. But the stories are not just about place – they bounce off the histories and mythologies as well as the physical characteristics of their settings: as, for example, ‘Red City’ is located in India’s Fatephur Sikri, but it plays with the legendary predictions of the astrologer who lived there – so the setting is integral to the plot. I couldn’t write it any other way.

There’s an old adage that travel broadens the mind, but it only works if you are prepared to be open minded about it. Too many tourists take their own atmosphere with them, seeing different scenery from an air conditioned bubble that keeps out all the really important things about being in a strange place – the people, the animals, the vegetation; the smells, the sounds, the tastes, the touch – the things that I think make writing come alive. I prefer an immersion approach, to live in another place for a decent length of time, to absorb the sensory input, to engage with a different culture. In other words, to take myself way out of my comfort zone, just for the hell of it.

The downside for writers on the wallaby is that you can never go home again, not really – once you’ve lived outside the cultural box you can never quite fit comfortably back inside it.

 

4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

I’ve been reading mostly history lately. In genre fiction, the books I have enjoyed most recently are Robert Hood’s Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, and Kim Wilkins’ The Year of Ancient Ghosts.

 
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?

The move to e-books has changed things for me in that I am still writing short stories for anthologies, but because those anthologies are now published in print and e-formats simultaneously the turnaround is faster. The publishing industry is in flux, and it is hard to keep up with all the changes: I honestly can’t begin to guess how things will play out, or what to expect in five years. All I can do as an author is to keep writing the things I am passionate about, produce the best work I can, and seek to place it as best I can when the time comes.
 

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:

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Continuum X, at which Kirstyn wins an award and I wear a top hat

Home again from Continuum X, the national science fiction convention held in Melbourne at the weekend. Knackered, but happily so, after much catching up with friends old and new. It was a most excellent convention.
Briefly, because the catching up with work is kind of catching up with me, a few of the highlights:

  • Waving my walking stick around at the launch of a new collection by Rosaleen Love and Kirstyn’s Perfections, new in paperback — an exercise in creative thinking in the latter instance, as a print error caused the book — for this launch only — to be retitled Imperfections, and the author providing a personalised tale on a page unintentionally left blank
  • Mulling over the challenge presented by guests of honour Jim C Hines and Ambelin Kwaymullina in their speeches addressing equality and appropriation
  • Chinwagging with Jack Dann and co-host Gillian Polack at the launch of his back catalogue, and specifically Jubilee, and nabbing Janeen Webb’s collection, Death at the Blue Elephant, and seeing Jo Anderton’s trilogy made complete with the launch of Guardian.
  • Chewing over topics such at witches, the Gothic and the evolution of various critters, on three panels of learned friends
  • presenting a Ditmar for Best New Talent to an absent Zena Shapter from a quality field
  • seeing an absent Garth Nix (though he was on the phone!) recognised for a career of achievement with the Peter McNamara award
  • seeing Kirstyn land a Ditmar for her story, The Home for Broken Dolls — she was also highly commended in the Norma K Hemming for her collection Caution: Contains Small Parts. (Full awards list below)

    Photos from Continuum by Cat Sparks

    Other things to emerge from the event:

  • the Chronos awards, for Victorian speculative fiction, need a good, hard think about the continuing inclusion of ‘no award’, and also how to increase publicity and engagement to prevent a slide into irrelevance (a list of eligibles has already been started for next year)
  • a bar that charges $9 for cider and $15 for wine is a big aid for avoiding hangovers (but good on them for extending their hours to midnight on Sunday)
  • you can buy awesome burgers and sweet potato chips at Perkup Expresso Bar — even on Christmas Day.

    2014 DITMAR AWARDS

    Best Novel

    Winner: Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, Robert Hood (Wildside)
    Finalists:
    Ink Black Magic, Tansy Rayner Roberts (FableCroft)
    The Beckoning, Paul Collins (Damnation Books)
    Trucksong, Andrew Macrae (Twelfth Planet)
    The Only Game in the Galaxy: The Maximus Black Files 3, Paul Collins (Ford Street)

    Best Novella or Novelette
    Winner: The Home for Broken Dolls, Kirstyn McDermott (Caution: Contains Small Parts)
    Finalists:
    Prickle Moon, Juliet Marillier (Prickle Moon)
    The Year of Ancient Ghosts, Kim Wilkins (The Year of Ancient Ghosts)
    By Bone-Light, Juliet Marillier (Prickle Moon)
    What Amanda Wants, Kirstyn McDermott (Caution: Contains Small Parts)

    Best Short Story
    Winner: Scarp, Cat Sparks (The Bride Price)
    Finalists:
    Mah Song, Joanne Anderton (The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories)
    Air, Water and the Grove, Kaaron Warren (The Lowest Heaven)
    Seven Days in Paris, Thoraiya Dyer (Asymmetry)
    Not the Worst of Sins, Alan Baxter (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #133)
    Cold White Daughter, Tansy Rayner Roberts (One Small Step)

    Best Collected Work
    Winner: The Bride Price, Cat Sparks (Ticonderoga)
    Finalists:
    The Back of the Back of Beyond, Edwina Harvey (Peggy Bright Books)
    Asymmetry, Thoraiya Dyer (Twelfth Planet)
    Caution: Contains Small Parts, Kirstyn McDermott (Twelfth Planet)
    The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories, Joanne Anderton (FableCroft)

    Best Artwork
    Winner: Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette Australia)
    Finalists:
    Cover art, Eleanor Clarke, for The Back of the Back of Beyond (Peggy Bright Books)
    Illustrations, Kathleen Jennings, for Eclipse Online (Nightshade)
    Cover art, Shauna O’Meara, for Next (CSFG)
    Cover art, Cat Sparks, for The Bride Price (Ticonderoga)
    Cover art, Pia Ravenari, for Prickle Moon (Ticonderoga)

    Best Fan Writer
    Winner: Sean Wright, for body of work, including reviews in Adventures of a Bookonaut
    Finalists:
    Tsana Dolichva, for body of work, including reviews and interviews in Tsana’s Reads and Reviews
    Grant Watson, for body of work, including reviews in The Angriest
    Foz Meadows, for body of work, including reviews in Shattersnipe: Malcontent & Rainbows
    Alexandra Pierce, for body of work, including reviews in Randomly Yours, Alex
    Tansy Rayner Roberts, for body of work, including essays and reviews at http://www.tansyrr.com

    Best Fan Artist
    Winner: Kathleen Jennings, for body of work, including Illustration Friday
    Finalists:
    Nalini Haynes, for body of work, including Defender of the Faith, The Suck Fairy, Doctor Who Vampire, and The Last Cyberman in Dark Matter
    Dick Jenssen, for body of work, including cover art for Interstellar Ramjet Scoop and SF Commentary

    Best Fan Publication in Any Medium
    Winner: Galactic Chat Podcast, Sean Wright, Alex Pierce, Helen Stubbs, David McDonald, & Mark Webb
    Finalists:
    Dark Matter Zine, Nalini Haynes
    SF Commentary, Bruce Gillespie
    The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott & Ian Mond
    The Coode Street Podcast, Gary K. Wolfe & Jonathan Strahan
    Galactic Suburbia, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, & Tansy Rayner Roberts

    Best New Talent
    Winner: Zena Shapter
    Finalists:
    Michelle Goldsmith
    Faith Mudge
    Jo Spurrier
    Stacey Larner

    William Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review
    Winner (tie): The Reviewing New Who series, David McDonald, Tansy Rayner Roberts, & Tehani Wessely
    Winner: Galactic Suburbia Episode 87: Saga Spoilerific Book Club, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, & Tansy Rayner Roberts
    Finalists:
    Reviews in Randomly Yours, Alex, Alexandra Pierce
    Things Invisible: Human and Ab-Human in Two of Hodgson’s Carnacki stories, Leigh Blackmore, in Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies #1 (Ulthar)
    A Puppet’s Parody of Joy: Dolls, Puppets and Mannikins as Diabolical Other, Leigh Blackmore, in Ramsey Campbell: Critical Essays on the Master of Modern Horror (Scarecrow)
    That was then, this is now: how my perceptions have changed, George Ivanoff, in Doctor Who and Race (Intellect)

    Peter McNamara Award
    Garth Nix

    Norma K Hemming Award
    Winner: Rupetta, N. A. Sulway (Tartarus UK)
    Highly commended: A Very Unusual Pursuit – City of Orphans, Catherine Jinks (Allen & Unwin)
    Highly commended: Caution: Contains Small Parts, Kirstyn McDermott (Twelfth Planet)
    Finalists:
    Dark Serpent, Kylie Chan (HarperVoyager)
    Fairytales for Wilde Girls, Allyse Near (Random House)
    Trucksong, Andrew Macrae (Twelfth Planet)

  • Newcastle Writers Festival truly ex-cell-ent

    newcastle jail courtyard

    Newcastle Gaol courtyard, scene of the crime

    Every writers’ festival should have a jail.

    Especially for a panel on horror.

    The inaugural Newcastle Writers Festival  was a hoot, and pretty darn smooth, too, despite being held over a number of venues and being run by staff who hadn’t really done much like this before.

    They had 60 writers and a whole lot of sell-out panels, with a grand get-together at the art gallery and an opening night speech par excellence from Miriam Margolyes  in a gorgeous theatre, panels in council chambers and the wonderfully scenic Noah’s hotel and a pub and — awesomeness of awesomeness — an old jail!

    Kirstyn and I had a grand ol’ chat with Jenny Blackford about writing and horror and Kirstyn’s necklace and the barbarous destruction of some very old fig trees in a city park, all in the surrounds of a barred courtyard with an old loo in the far corner. Newcastle is Kirstyn’s old stomping ground, and it was interesting to see the evolution of the city through her remembrances.

    Also flying the flag for spec fic was Margo Lanagan — we caught her YA panel. Jack Dann and Janeen Webb and Russell Blackford were also guests, but family commitments meant we got only to see Jack read an amazing homage to Gene Wolfe in a packed pub outing dedicated to Sin. Amidst gay-hating religion and people smuggling and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ — the poem, not Iron Maiden — Jack and wonderfully, pointedly funny Anita Heiss brought the prose on home.

    Miriam Margolyes’ opening night talk — highly recommended

    Anyway, we loved the atmosphere at the festival — they drove those of us at Noah’s in an adapted tram to the Friday night soiree! — and Newcastle itself is a pretty amazing place, so much going on in not a lot of square mileage given the coal and the coast and river and history and attempts to breathe life into the inner city. Some wonderful artwork on display, for instance, at the Emporium, and some serious cafe action. There’s even a writers’ walk, which we didn’t get to do, but the fact they have one is pretty cool. I felt there was a real hunger there for some spec fic action, too. If even felt like a spec fic convention in one way: the hotel’s bar shut far too early!

    The festival was such a blast the organisers have already announced dates for next year — April 4–6 — and we’re putting it on the calendar now. Even if the festival isn’t using the jail as a venue next year, there are tours. Ex-cell-ent!

    Snapshot 2012: Janeen Webb

    australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoJANEEN Webb is a multiple award-winning author, editor and critic who has written or edited 10 books and more than a hundred essays and stories. She is a recipient of the World Fantasy Award, the Aurealis Award, the Peter MacNamara SF Lifetime Achievement Award, and is a three-time winner of the Ditmar Award. She is internationally recognised for her critical work in speculative fiction and has contributed to most of the standard reference texts in the field. She holds a PhD in Literature from the University of Newcastle, and lives on a small farm overlooking the sea near Wilson’s Promontory.

    You’re cancer battle meant you weren’t able to co-edit 2008’s Dreaming Again (the follow-up to 1998’s milestone Dreaming Down Under) as planned, but you’ve since, wonderfully, announced that you’re back. How have you been making up for that lost time in your writing? Back to your Sinbad series, perhaps?
    In all honesty, I should say that I still have, and probably always will have health issues – remission isn’t cure – and I just have to accept that. And although it sounds trite to say that writing is a great form of therapy, like so many axiomatic statements, it happens to be true: writing is a kind of zen space where the world can be as one would wish it to be, and I can try to make up for lost time. And I’m happy to say that yes, there is a third Sinbad YA novel in progress, working title Flying to Babylon. I am also writing an Arthurian fantasy, Perfect Knight, and an alternate Australian history novel.


    Back in ’98 you co-wrote an academic study, Aliens & Savages, on racism/bias in Australian SF: have you been able to keep track to provide an idea of how the current situation compares?
    I think this is one of those times when fiction is ahead of politics. We currently see a xenophobic political focus playing the politics of fear in a way that would not have been out of place in the 19th century. It seems our leaders have not yet learned kindness to strangers. Recently published fiction is more generous and understanding in its explorations of issues concerning both indigenous and immigrant peoples: it was good to see Kim Scott win the Miles Franklin Award with his historical novel of culture clash, That Deadman Dance.


    You’re known for your academic work in the realm of speculative fiction as well as your fiction. How do you find the two streams rest side by side — do they feed each other or are they slightly uncomfy bedfellows?
    It took me a long time to learn that the research techniques for both academic work and fiction are the same thing, seen from different angles: that I can use the same skill base but apply the results in a different fashion. The best fiction has a solid research base underneath it, and a background in the academic world does no harm at all in honing those technical skills.

    I recently used material from Aliens & Savages as the basis for my story ‘Manifest Destiny’ (in Gillian Polack’s Baggage anthology, reprinted in Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene’s 2010 Years Best Australian Fantasy & Horror from Ticonderoga), and am revisiting more of that work for my alternate history novel, so in that sense the two areas do complement each other very well.

    The downside of being a critic is my constant awareness of the scope the field, of the best that is produced, of the sheer volume of work that’s out there: sometimes it’s hard to stifle that internal critical voice in order to write at all!

    What Australian works have you loved lately?
    My favourite new work is Kim Westwood‘s The Courier’s New Bicycle, which recently won the Aurealis Award for science fiction novel. Kim has thought deeply about the issues of gender and has some very original ideas embedded in a compelling story: she is a genuinely fascinating new voice in the field.


    What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
    I think it’s really too soon to tell: a lot of things are still in the pipeline.

    One thing I will note is the rapid expansion of Creative Writing PhDs in the field. With so many of our best writers venturing into this sphere, SF has reached critical mass in this area. This unexpected incursion into academia will have an enormous impact in future years: I like the idea that SF is finally colonising the mainstream.

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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: