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!

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Snapshot 2012: Russell Blackford

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoAFTER many years in Melbourne, Sydney-born Russell Blackford has returned to Newcastle with wife Jenny, where he grew up. He has a law degree from the University of Melbourne and a Ph.D in philosophy from Monash University and an Eng. Lit. Ph.D from Newcastle Uni. He’s now a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.

He’s a philosopher, a literary critic and sometimes a creative writer specialising in fantasy and science fiction. His books include a trilogy of novels for the Terminator franchise, collectively known as Terminator 2: The New John Connor Chronicles. He also wrote a thriller, Kong Reborn, which is modern-day sequel to the original 1933 King Kong movie, and the much-reprinted fantasy story, set at the time of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, ‘The Sword of God’.

He has also been active in the Australian science fiction community for well over 30 years, including ‘a fair bit of work’ in convention programming.

His most recent books are 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), edited with Udo Schuklenk, and, just off the presses, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), which deals with many of the hot-button issues that arise when religion and politics meet. He’s currently working on two new books: 50 Great Myths About Atheism (Wiley-Blackwell, co-authored with Udo), and Humanity Enhanced (MIT Press).

Russell’s also editor-in-chief of an online peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and a columnist with the magazine Free Inquiry.

Russell is online at www.russellblackford.com, runs personal blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club and blogs in a more philosophical way at Talking Philosophy.


Has science fiction driven your academic interest in ethics and humanity, or has your interest in those areas steered you towards science fiction — is science fiction the ideal ‘text’ for talking about gods, identities and being ‘more human than human’?

Really, I can’t make that kind of distinction. My interests in all these things are entangled and they date back to primary school. Also, I think there’s something more fundamental going on, which is my sense of the mutability of human cultures, something I’ve felt in my bones for as long as I can recall. I’ve always had a just-slightly-alienated, semi-anthropological attitude to my own society and its mores, folkways and default outlook. Perhaps my socialisation didn’t ‘take; in the way it was supposed to (actually, I suspect that this is true of many people who are involved in science fiction). In my essay, ‘Unbelievable!’, in 50 Voices of Disbelief, I talk a bit about this in relation to religion: at a very early age, I rejected the religious beliefs around me, largely on the basis that I saw Christianity as just the mythology of our time and place, something that would not seem plausible in, say, a couple of thousand years … any more than classical mythology seems plausible to us. As I describe in ‘Unbelievable!’, I did return to Christianity for a period in my teens, but once again it didn’t take. And just as well.

My love of ancient cultures, and their mythologies, and my love of speculation about the future are of a piece with this, and so is my scepticism about a lot of moralising and traditional moral rules. I have certain core values that drive me -– political freedom, compassion for suffering, the life of reason -– but I also have this very strong resistance to what seem to me culture-bound and largely arbitrary restrictions on what humanity might become (hence the ‘more than human’ part of your question), and on how, in the here and now, individuals might flourish.


Do you ever find it difficult balancing the academic mantle with the fan who just wants to say ‘Hulk, smash — hell yes’?

Nah, that’s fine. I love adventure movies and comics, and always have. I’m very fond of many of the great characters that have become, by now, a kind of twenty-first-century syncretic mythology, albeit not one that any sane person believes literally. In particular, I loved the new Avengers movie –- until it got too long and (I thought) too lacking in tension and felt danger. I found much to love simply because of the movie’s interpretations of the characters. Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, Loki, Iron Man, etc, were portrayed in ways that kept bringing that choked-up feeling to me, with moments that were just so recognisable and ‘right’.

None of that cuts across my work as a philosopher, but what probably would cut across it would be trying to write these characters, and create those character beats, myself. I’ve had some minor success with media tie-in work, and I thought I did a pretty good job with The Terminator in particular. I could probably write the main Avengers or X-Men characters -– I understand and love them as much as almost anyone. The problem is that creative writing demands (for me) a certain obsessive mind-set. If I were writing stories involving the Hulk, say, or, say, Doctor Doom, I’d be wandering around constantly imagining what it might be like to be inside the heads of those characters, thinking about how they would perceive, explain to themselves, and react to what’s going on. Hopefully this wouldn’t show through in my overt behaviour! But it would crowd out the level of obsession that I also need in order to do philosophy well.

Enjoying what other people do with those characters is fine –- it’s all fun. In fact, it’s very pleasing to see the characters done properly.


Damn it, Russell, when are you going to write cyberpunk again?
That’s a hard one -– again, to do this well I’d need to be totally obsessed with it. That’s the big problem with me and creative writing, and why I don’t do as much as I’d ideally like.

The cyberpunk style, or sub-genre, or whatever we call it, is a good fit for someone like me. I can feel the allure, as well as the obvious downsides, of the classic 1980s cyberpunk futures. It all fits in with my slightly alienated perspective on my own society and its various pretensions. Right now, though, I’m not sure when I’m likely to return to writing fiction. It will only be when I’m ready to give it that sort of obsessive involvement … and at the moment I’m obsessively involved with writing non-fiction books, which (for me) is a very different mind-set. I expect it will happen, though. I have a lot of stuff to get out of my system right now, but who knows what the future will bring?

If I’ve learned one thing in my life, it’s that I’ve got to get whatever ideas are in my head out of there and onto the paper or the screen. There’s never any worry about the ideas drying up as long as I keep doing that.

But what wants to get down onto the screen at the moment isn’t cyberpunk-style fiction. Alas.


What Australian works have you loved recently?
I tend to be behind with my reading of Australian science fiction and fantasy. Suffice to say that we have some exciting talents currently in the mix -– to name just one, a writer who has been exceptionally impressive of late has been Tansy Rayner Roberts.


What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
I doubt that it’s possible to draw conclusions about changes over a period of only two years. You need a longer timeline to see whether a trend is permanent or what impact a breakthrough might ultimately have. At the moment, one thing that strikes me is the very high quality work in fantasy and horror from a number of relatively new female writers -– Tansy Rayner Roberts again, Alison Goodman … the list would actually get rather long –- but this situation has been developing for some time now. Let’s say two decades.

You see some other things when you step back. For example, one obvious change over the past few years, though perhaps not all that remarked upon within Australia, is the successful return to the sf genre of Damien Broderick, who has placed multiple stories in year’s best anthologies of late. Good things keep happening.

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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: Jenny Blackford

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoJENNY Blackford gave up her day job in 2001, and has been writing ever since, in between spoiling the cat, cooking and gardening. With husband Russell, she lived 30 years in Melbourne before returning to her hometown of Newcastle in 2009. In the same year, she was a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She has had 20 stories published: eight for adults and 12 for children, and four poems, plus the historical novella The Priestess and the Slave.

Her latest publication is ‘The Dragon in the Tent’, a magical circus story, in The School Magazine, which has also recently accepted a cat poem, ‘Soft silk sack’.

Her latest publication specifically for grown-ups was ‘The Sacrifice’, in Aurealis 47. Jenny’s website is www.jennyblackford.com and she blogs at Living in the Past.


You’ve had some poetry published recently, after a long hiatus, and one ventures the new stuff is quite different to your first piece in Dolly all those years ago: what do you think has inspired you to not only return to poetry, but poetry of a decidedly darker (?) nature?
As to what has inspired me to return to poetry -– the real question is why I ever stopped writing it. Apparently, I just gave up quietly in my final dispiriting years of high school. The poetry writing asserted itself naturally a few years ago and took a while to nose its way out into the world.

And as to the alleged new darkness: not all my recent poems are dark. My poem forthcoming from The School Magazine is a fairly sweet little thing about a cat (though some might think ‘soft silk sack of bones’ has a slightly sinister edge). And my most recent poetry publication (in Star*Line 35.1 is another sweetish cat poem (though it does start with the potentially sinister ‘Gravity is stern as death’, and does ascribe uncanny powers to cats.) Hmmm…

I wish I could find my copy of ‘Ti-trees Rising’, the poem that was printed in Dolly back in the ’70s, but it seems to have disappeared from my filing system. It’s about ti-tree scrub, but I do distinctly remember the words ‘reptilian silver’ and ‘the cold moon in the dark’, so there’s at least a smidge of a sinister edge there as well.

Getting deeper: it’s true that the definitely dark ‘Mirror’ was my first poem for decades, but it’s based on memories from my teens. I was totally convinced that I saw someone else’s eyes looking back at me in the mirror, and I was terrified. Back then, I’m sure family and friends would have been horrified if I’d put all that fear and darkness into a poem. Now that I’m grown up, I’m allowed to.


What is your approach to reinvigorating the age-old story of Medea? Is that what made you pick it?
Modern people don’t tend to take Medea seriously as a Bronze Age priestess of Hekate, as a powerful sorceress, or as a goddess, grand-daughter of Helios, the Sun, but the ancient Greeks certainly did. She’s an amazing character, and the Bronze Age –- the era of the Mycenaean Greeks -– is my absolute favourite. Just imagine a glowing, golden-haired goddess-princess sitting on a throne carved out of rock crystal with golden monkeys inlaid on the back.

I’d loved the story ever since I studied the 5th century BC Euripides play Medea (in Ancient Greek) as part of my degree in Classics. After all the modern retellings that concentrate on how ‘heroic’ Jason was, and what a monster Medea was to kill her brother and her children, I was astonished to see Euripides rip into him so cuttingly, and so appallingly accurately. Jason could never have brought the Golden Fleece back to Greece without Medea’s help -– but a few years later, he wanted to trade her in for a younger, better-connected princess (not foreign witch), and expected Medea to be happy about him providing a better future for their children! Euripides converted me to Medea’s side, and I want to convert everyone else.


When you wrote The Priestess and the Slave, was your inner fantasist crying out to add fantasy elements or was 5BC fantastical enough?
When Eric Reynolds (the editor/publisher of Hadley Rille Books) asked me to write him a strictly historically accurate novella set in ancient Greece, my first two questions were whether I could use Bronze Age Greece (no – it had to be Classical Greece, 5th century BC), and whether I could add fantasy elements (no — it had to be purely historical).

I shrugged and got on with it. Once I started to write, it didn’t matter. Living inside the head of a slave girl in the plague years of Athens, or a Pythia in Delphi, was a strange and intense experience in its own right. And the characters believed totally in their gods, who are almost characters in their own right.


What Australian works have you loved recently?
So much -– but a few that come to mind are Tansy Rayner RobertsCreature Court trilogy, Alison Goodman‘s Eon/Eona duology, Kim Wilkins‘ novella (‘Crown of Rowan: A Tale of Thrysland’) in Jack Dann and Jonathan Strahan’s Legends anthology.

What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
Aussiecon 4 seems hardly any time ago! Wasn’t it only yesterday? One very sad change, though, is the deaths of Sara Douglass and Paul Haines, both from cancer. Valete.

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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:

Wendy Rule, Midsummer fairies and the Christmas club

wendy rule

Wendy Rule

It’s Midsummer tomorrow here in Melbourne and we’re in the swing of the season with drinks tonight and what should be a fab outing to the Botanic Gardens for A Midsummer Night’s Dream tomorrow. We kicked off last night with Wendy Rule’s Fairy Ball at the gorgeous Thornbury Theatre (except for the loos, which smelled like a bat cave by the end of the night, and the absence of napkins to accompany the scrummy finger food).

Rule is a Melbourne singer-songwriter with an international reputation in pagan circles. She and her guitars were backed with cello, vibraphone, percussion, violin and clarinet last night, playing two sets that included songs from her forthcoming album, Guided by Venus, as well as favourites such as Wolf Sky, Artemis and Hecate.

The first set, heavy on slow songs, struggled to make an impact over the chatter and the delightful squeals of children dancing and playing with balloons, but the second, ramping up the tempo and volume, got us where we needed to be, and filled the dance floor.

The most powerful gig I’ve seen Rule play was in a delicious venue in Brisbane, a converted church, where, to judge by the vibe and appreciative quiet in the room, the audience was mostly pagan, there not just for the music but for the message as well. There was a similar atmosphere last year when Rule and cellist Rachel Samuel played a gig in our backyard. That was a different ‘our’, and a different backyard, but the magic of that night endures.

A highlight of last night’s gig was Zero, a song Rule dedicated to the energy of creativity. Midsummer was a good time, she said, for looking ahead to projects about to begin, and back to those accomplished. A time to take stock, and draw up energy for the year ahead.

Sitting at the gig, watching the parade of fairy wings and glitter faces, I was reminded of a recent discussion on Radio National about atheism. The discussion itself was illuminating, offering a wide variety of experiences explaining why callers did not believe, or had abandoned their belief, in a deity. (The Life Matters episode was anchored off a new collection of essays about atheism, 50 Voices of Disbelief co-edited by Aussie Russell Blackford.)

The program’s website has a comment board, where one delightful respondent opined that those who didn’t belong to the Jesus club had no right to celebrate Christmas. So, presumably, all these little fairy kids in front of me, prancing and laughing in their colourful costumes, were denied a present under the tree because of their parents’ non-Christian beliefs. As if Santa Claus has anything to do with the Christian faith. Given the festival has been appropriated from pagan origins anyway, how downright cheeky and short-sighted. And, of course, how bloody typical of the fascism that turned me off organised religion in the first place.

Humans are social animals who like to feel they belong. I get that. What I don’t get is that we make this feeling through a policy of exclusion. You can belong to God’s love club, but only if you meet certain requirements. Otherwise, you burn, and good riddance to you. Is this “with us or against us” approach really the best social construct we can find?

Don’t get me wrong. I fully appreciate the commonsense laws, fundamentally Christian, that grease the wheels of modern Western society. The do unto others, the shalt not kills and covets… a lot of these make perfect sense. But to tell me who I should love? To dictate my path to understanding my spirituality and my relationship with the world and the people around me? To tell a whole lot of other people that they’re damned because they belong to a different club, and treat them as such? I don’t think so.

Christmas is a time to get in touch and share the love. We should be doing it all year round, but we’re busy, aren’t we? But to take time out as a community, to draw a breath, once a year, and remind ourselves of who and what’s important, of our blessings and our achievements and our goals, well, that seems a good idea to me. Regardless of which club you belong to.

Merry Christmas. Or whatever you call it, and however you celebrate it. Enjoy, and share the love. Blessed be.