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:

Snapshot 2012: Peter Docker

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoWEST Australian Peter Docker studied writing at Curtin University of Technology and acting at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. His fiction credits include Fremantle Press novels Someone Else’s Country (2005) and Aurealis Award nominee for best science fiction novel The Waterboys (2011) (review) and short story collection The Kid on the Karaoke Stage (2011), one-act play A Million Miles from Ulcer Gulch and radio play Marrying My Family (1995). He has outback revenge thriller Sweet One, YA illustrated comedy Toecutters and autobiographical TLC (The Love of Country) in the works.

Does setting a story such as The Waterboys in the future and the alternate past allow you to discuss topics more freely than a contemporary story?
The trouble with white Australia is that we’re not black enough. With Waterboys I went searching for answers, which led me simultaneously to the past and the future (no doubt influenced by my rudimentary understanding of the only true Australian expression of spirituality -– The Dreaming –- which is a place/time/situation existing simultaneously in the past, present, and future). This certainly gave me the freedom to explore themes like the inevitable failure of democracy, and the ultimate outcomes of ‘constant growth’-based capitalism on the land, and the peoples whose entire material and spiritual existence is tied to that land. I am constantly searching for grand metaphors to discuss the soul of our nation.

The Waterboys, as well as being a study in race relations, depicts a future where water is a scarce resource. Are these themes likely to recur in your work?
In some ways it’s a great irony to me that, on the eve of publication of Waterboys, eastern Australia was experiencing the worst flooding in a hundred years. The secret of timing is comedy. My forthcoming work Sweet One is set against the background of the mining industry and the undeclared on-going secret war that the states are waging against the traditional owners.

In what ways has your background in acting helped or influenced your writing?
The vast majority of my acting work (once I got away from Neighbours and Blue Heelers) has been on Aboriginal projects -– in many ways they are like research tours. I certainly use acting techniques in my writing. For example, a great acting dictum is ‘give the problem to the character’. When a plot point or character illumination issue arises, I allow the problem to be solved by the character and not the writer. This means that I often don’t know which way the character will jump until I get that pen in my fist and give the character power over my hand. I also use filmic techniques to avoid the very tricky issue of me putting thoughts into the heads of my indigenous characters. I report dialogue but the inner workings are left to the reader. This also allows the reader to realise that I am no expert in Aboriginal people or cultures, although I do know something about what happens when we come together.

What Australian works have you loved recently?
5. The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage is a meticulously researched game changer for everything Europeans have ever thought about pre-Cook Australia. Carpentaria by Alexis Wright is an Australian War & Peace, or Great Expectations. And That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott: the layering in Kim’s work is mind blowing. He takes us into a profound emotional place in such a subtle way that we are deep inside the emotional and spiritual system without quite realising how we got there.

What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years?
We are a new country with an emerging culture and the spec fic we produce reflects this. It is no coincidence that as we mature the literature from here is finding a bigger international audience. The rawness of Aussie lit compared to nations with much longer histories and traditions than ours seems to be part of the appeal. I particularly like the way that brilliant writers like John Birmingham do not confine themselves to just writing about Australia (unlike yours truly) but are capable of taking on massive issues like the end of America.

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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: