Snapshot 2012: Jay Kristoff

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoJAY Kristoff is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author. His first trilogy, The Lotus War, was purchased by Tor in the three-way auction by US publishing houses in 2011. He is as surprised about it as you are. The first instalment, Stormdancer, is set to be published in September in the US, UK and Australia.

He can be found shuffling about aimlessly and frightening the children at www.jaykristoff.com.


What attracted you to the Japanese-style setting for Stormdancer? And then that dollop of steampunk? An interesting mix!
Steampunk came first. I thought the steampunk genre was a cool place to explore the idea of a destructive techonology –- I loved cyberpunk as a kid, loved the mood of decline combined with the theme of the machine as an ‘enemy’. And that’s a well-trodden alleyway in the realm of futuristic sci-fi, but historic sci-fi tends to look at the past through rose-tinted goggles and see the advent of the machine age as a ticket to a land of wonders. So I liked the idea of destroying that perception, bringing back that nihilistic ‘punk’ element for which steampunk is named but so often overlooks.

Thing is, the traditional stomping grounds of steampunk (Victorian England and colonial America) have been done, and done very well. I don’t like the idea of repeating someone else. There were some incredible cultures on this planet at the time when Victoria and Albert were knocking boots, and I’ve been a fan of Japanese film and fiction since forever, and it seemed like combining the two might lead me somewhere interesting. Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…


In what ways has your penchant for role-playing games informed your writing?
I never really considered it until recently, but when I think about it, I’ve been building worlds since I was 12 years old. It starts with grid maps and random pluckings from the Monstrous Compendium (‘Heh, THIS will fuck ’em!’), but I think anyone who’s spent any time being the game master knows how cool it can be to create a living, breathing world, people it with memorable characters and watch players get lost in it. I think that is writing, in a very real sense — the same discipline you use to create an exciting game world is the same as the one you use to create the world in a novel.

A couple of the fundamental world-building ideas in Stormdancer came directly from the last Pathfinder game I ran. So apparently you can learn some important life skills sitting in dimly lit rooms with your buddies rolling polyhedral dice. Who knew.


On your blog you say you don’t believe in happy endings. Why is that?
Victory without sacrifice feels cheap to me. If I read a book or see a film in which all that was required to beat the Big Bad Guy was a little sleight of hand or some sharp-shooting, I feel cheated. I want to be afraid for the characters I love. When I’m in a book or film, I want to know not everyone I love is going to make it out alive, or intact, because to my mind, that makes me love them more. And I’m not talking about pathos for pathos’ sake. I’m talking about the death of Wash in Serenity, or Lin being rendered brain dead by the slake moth in Perdido Street Station — that kind of thing. Characters feel more real and tangible and alive to me when I know they could be gone at any moment, because that’s what real life is like. Triumph means more when it’s purchased with the things heroes hold dear.

I want my readers crying even as they’re cheering.


What Australian works have you loved recently?
I read The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers last year, and simply put, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. Capital A ‘amazing’. I also scammed a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak from my lovely Aus publishers at Pan-MacMillan (ah, freebies) a couple of weeks back, and I’m loving it so far.

What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years?
Truthfully, I’m not really part of the scene, so I can’t really speak to that one. I do think we live in very tumultuous times in publishing — the advent of e-books, the rise of Amazon and the impact that’s having on publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. Long-standing publishers are shedding entire floors in NY city. Audiences are changing, and what’s expected of you as an author is changing.

But ultimately, it’s still all about the words. Write the right words, and everything else will follow. That’s the beauty of it.

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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:

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On commentary writerly

typewriter keys

Blogs, blogs, blogs. Who can keep up with them? Nicole Murphy has some of the sting out of the Google Reader task by assembling a fine collection of recent blog posts about the craft and recent headlining happenings, both with a focus on spec fic.

Further afield, The Creative Penn and Jay Kristoff both target steampunk in all its dubious glory but undoubtable fun, with Penn featuring Phoenix Rising, which sits on my to-read shelf, and Jay offering an ongoing history and commentary of the movement.

Terribleminds offers irreverently good ways to make your characters interesting — pain is the primary method — and Patrick O’Duffy (who shares my love of Batman, bless) also puts characters through their paces. Make’em work, make’em hurt could be a motto.

It’s great fun going through these blogs — am I hurting my characters enough has been at the forefront of my mind — because anything that makes you reassess your work has got be to be beneficial. A fresh approach, a new understanding of process, a way to break out of the comfort zone: all helpful and, indeed, necessary for the writer looking to develop. But at the end of the day, all the reading (blogs AND raw material — you know, actual books ‘n’ stuff) in the world ain’t gonna amount to more than interesting conversation at the bar if you ain’t writing.

Aurealis Awards, Leviathan and Red Queen

Brisbane’s run as host of the Aurealis Awards appears over, with the end of Fantastic Queensland’s tenure as organisers of the awards, and the likely replacement coming from down south. In that time, the awards have gone from being a drab adjunct to an insular convention to an event in their own right, with sponsorship, attendance and attention from major publishers. It’s a hell of an achievement; FQ have earned their rest.

This year’s awards ceremony was another packed event at the Judith Wright Centre and didn’t disappoint, hosted by FQ committee members, and featuring readings from seminal books published outside the awards’ timeframe. Book seller Justin Ackroyd (of Slow Glass Books) was acknowledged, and in an emotional moment, late Brisbane writer Kris Hembury’s contribution to the community was memorialised with a new award for emerging talent, awarded to artist and writer Kathleen Jennings.

red queen by honey brown

The awards were also expanded to include picture books. A list of finalists and winners is here.

I was most interested in the horror finalists this year, because the breadth was large: paranormal romance, ghosts, witches, noir unicorns. And Red Queen, by HM (Honey) Brown, the one title I had not read, and the winner. It’s a good, solid debut thriller. Set in the Victorian bush, two brothers are living in isolation while a virus devastates the Earth. Into that scenario enters a woman — one with secrets that are not fully revealed until an action-packed ending. The bush, the characters, the situation are all well-drawn, and the prose is accomplished, but I found myself wondering: where’s the horror?

This is always an argument with the old horror beastie – it’s a mood, an emotion, where other genres within the speculative fiction umbrella are easier to qualify based on content. If the story is set in the future, chances are it’s science fiction. If it is otherworldly, with magic, well, it’s probably a fantasy. But horror lends itself to many stories.

Unfortunately, the judges’ reports aren’t online yet, so it’s hard to know just what it was about Red Queen that swayed them to choose this book over the other four, which to my mind are all identifiable as horror stories (menace, suspense, fear, a dark slant on what we accept as the real world). Red Queen has some suspense and a touch of the Gothic — it’s an effective thriller — but seems pale by comparison.

Andrew McGahan’s win in science fiction might offer a similar genre-bending experience, based on its synopsis, but I’ve yet to track it down to make my own opinion.

That’s the beauty of awards, I guess. They stretch our perceptions, challenge our biases, and introduce us to new stories and writers and ways of thinking about our craft and our stories.

leviathan by scott westerfeld

I had no such qualms with the best young adult novel, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, a rollicking steampunk novel set in an alternative Europe at the outbreak of World War I. It follows the adventures of two teens thrust into the conflict, one English, one Austrian. There are mechanical marvels such as tanks on legs and bio-tweaked creatures such as zeppelin-like whales. Some pushed my limit of disbelief, but mostly I was able to sail along and enjoy the action and the likeable hero and heroine, and the adults around them, as they are pushed together by the vagaries of war and politics.

I hope next year’s awards provide not only a similar level of professionalism and camaraderie, but also enhance my reading list as equally.