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

* * *

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:

Advertisements

Notions Unlimited opens, and other writerly news

Yay for Chuck McKenzie who, after four years running a Dymocks shop, has gone it alone with Notions Unlimited spec fic book store at Melbourne’s bayside Chelsea. Ensconced between a coffee shop and a liquour outlet and with a sushi store right outside the door, he must be occupying some prime real estate. Add in an amazingly wide range of genre reading — a dedicated small press section, graphic novels, and all the F, SF and H you can point a stick at, whether big guns or more oscure or up-and-coming writers — and a seriously luxurious looking set of sofas, and he might be needed a bouncer to kick the customers out at closing time. It’s a tough time for bricks and mortar enterprises, but a niche store with a knowledgeable and welcoming owner is in with a chance. There’s nothing quite like that human element when it comes to, ‘if you bought this, you might also like…’

  • In what at times feels like a stampede to be published — by someone, anyone, even ourselves — it’s worth taking a breath and deciding just how much we value our written words and the time and effort (yes, it takes effort!) taken to tell that particular story. Check out these posts at Writer Beware, giving pause for thought about writing contests and dodgy publisher deals.
  • Ellen Datlow, much awarded and respected editor of all things grim and ghoulish, has a new Best Horror on the way — Aussie Margo Lanagan flies the flag in the TOC. Ellen’s listed her honourable mentions, and Antipodeans Alan Baxter, John Harwood, Terry Dowling and Kaaron Warren are included. Nice.
  • Ian Irvine is giving away an iPad3 as part of a Facebook promotion.
  • In my absence

    singing the dogstar blues

    I’ve been away from the keyboard for the past 10 days — more on that later, once I’ve caught up — and in my splendid offline absence, folks have been busy doing stuff:

  • Trent Jamieson’s upcoming debut novel, Death Most Definite, scored a lovely review
  • Cat Sparks has launched a drive to fund writer Peter Watts’ presence at Aussiecon
  • Melbourne’s Rjurik Davidson has announced a tidy little collection, The Library of Forgotten Books.
  • While on the road, I managed to catch up with:

  • Singing the Dogstar Blues, by Alison Goodman: a thoroughly enjoyable YA read in which a misfit muso befriends a misfit alien at a school for time travellers, and family secrets are revealed. The book was so much fun, with such superbly sketched glimpses of future earth and alien culture.
  • Target 5, by Colin Forbes: this was one of my favourite novels when I was 13, the copy rather bent, and I enjoyed revisiting, but found the story about extracting a Russian defector over Arctic ice a little over-the-top, the writing not as shiny as I remembered, but the pace still as strapping.
  • The Ghost Writer, by John Harwood: what a superb Gothic tale this turned out to be, with short stories in the text providing mirrors for the current day action as a young fellow from Australia strikes up a written friendship with a girl in England that proves a catalyst for some stunning familial revelations.
  • Aurealis Awards 2008

    It was a big night for Perth’s Adrian Bedford at the Aurealis Awards in Brisbane last night.

    Bedford, writing as KA Bedford, has had all four of his novels published by Edge in Canada make the finalist lists of the awards, and last night he scored his second win: for best science fiction novel, Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait. The novel is also a finalist for the Philip K Dick award.

    The awards, recognising excellence in Australian speculative fiction, were presented in a sold-out Judith Wright Centre, with Queensland Governor Penelope Wensley in the audience.

    Other winners were:

    Children’s fiction

    Illustrated work/picture book: Richard Harland and illustrator Laura Peterson, The Wolf Kingdom series
    Novel: Emily Rodda, The Wizard of Rondo

    Illustrated book/graphic novel: Shaun Tan, Tales from Outer Suburbia

    Young Adult
    Short story: Trent Jamieson, “Cracks”, Shiny #2
    Novel: Melina Marchetta, Finnikin of the Rock

    Collection: Sean Williams and Russell B Farr (ed), Magic Dirt: The Best of Sean Williams

    Anthology: Jonathan Strahan (ed), The Starry Rift

    Horror
    Short story:
    Kirstyn McDermott, “Painlessness”, Greatest Uncommon Denominator #2
    Novel: John Harwood, The Seance

    Fantasy
    Short story: Cat Sparks, “Sammarynda Deep”, Paper Cities
    Novel: Alison Goodman, The Two Pearls of Wisdom

    Science fiction
    Short story: Simon Brown, “The Empire”, Dreaming Again
    Novel: KA Bedford, Time
    Machines Repaired While-U-Wait

    Peter McNamara Convenors Award: this special award was presented to Jack Dann for his incredible lifetime of achievement in the genre.

    This was the first year that prizes were awarded for best collection, anthology and illustrated book/graphic novel.

    Fantastic Queensland chairman Damon Cavalchini announced that 2010 would be the last year that FQ would host the awards as their contract with awards founders Chimaera Publications will expire, and a new team to organise the awards for 2011 and onwards is needed.