Archive for August, 2011

Sparks: Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan. Here’s a woman after my own heart. She can look in the dictionary and find a horror story.

“What sparked ‘The Goosle’

Goodness knows what I was looking up in The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary in the second half of 2005, when my eyes wandered from their task and found this:

gunsel n. US slang. E20 [Yiddish gendzel = G Gändslein gosling, little goose; in sense 2 infl. by GUN n.] 1 A naïve youth; a homosexual youth, esp. a passive one kept by a tramp. E20. 2 An informer; a criminal, a gunman. M20.

That first definition, ‘A naïve youth…’ etc., made me sit up: In what kind of time and place and culture would tramps be sufficiently powerful, motivated and invisible to keep boys as sex slaves—and so commonly that such boys would attract a term of their own? Clearly, from the definition, they could do so in early twentieth-century North America—but my mind went flying further back into the past, to a Europe depopulated and rendered lawless by the Black Plague.

I wrote in my notebook: ‘Hansel the Gunsel’ and I copied down the first definition. You can see that the word itself straight away set off the idea of using ‘Hansel and Gretel’ somehow. So once Hansel escaped the witch, how had he ended up falling in with this sneaky, criminally minded, self-interested wanderer—see how definition 2 snuck into the mix too? I decided that Hansel wasn’t in fact homosexual, but that he’d been naïve enough, and hungry enough for affection, to be beguiled by Grinnan. And then couldn’t extricate himself from their arrangement, just as he hadn’t been able to get out of the cage in the witch’s house. Gretel had had to free him—and the witch had eaten her as punishment.

So the sound of the word gunsel itself sent me off to ‘Hansel and Gretel’, where I found all the necessary background to build against; definition 1 gave me the central character and his problem; definitions 1 (with ‘tramp’) and 2 (with ‘informer’ and ‘criminal’) gave me Hansel’s antagonist; and the Yiddish and German origins of the word, ‘gosling, little goose’, gave me some pet-names that Grinnan might use on poor Hansel, helping define their relationship.

These last, ‘gosling’ and ‘little goose’, I ended up mashing together with gunsel to make the word ‘goosle’, and this malformed word marks the strongest point of my revulsion from Grinnan’s exploitation of Hansel. That endearment, whispered by Grinnan as he strokes Hanny’s back to relax him prior to another rape, makes my throat close off and the back of my neck prickle; it has the added strength of suggesting goose-flesh, which is pretty much what I want Grinnan’s personality and actions to provoke in readers. In the end, after all I’d put poor Hansel through, it was the only word that would stand as the story’s title.

‘The Goosle’ was first published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow, in 2008 (Del Rey). It was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2009); The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt (MirrorDanse, 2010); and Award Winning Australian Writing 2009, edited by Marleena Forward and Adlolfo Aranjuez (Melbourne Books, 2009). In the Ditmar Awards for 2008, ‘The Goosle’ won the Best Short Story Award.

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Sparks: Sean Williams

Sean Williams is one of the smartest people I’ve met. He’s as comfortable and as knowledgeable talking about cocktails and crap TV as he is about philosophy, science, and history. And he can write about anything, make you feel anything. Disgust, surprise, heartbreak. He can see into the future and remember a past he didn’t live.

He’s a puppet master.

He’s also my daughter’s favourite author.

“What sparked the story? The question has been vexing me for weeks. Which story, and which spark? I often say that my best ideas come from dreams (Metal Fatigue, The Stone Mage & the Sea, “A Map of the Mines of Barnath”), but they just as often come from real life (The Fixers), challenges from other writers (“The Jackie Onassis Swamp-Buggy Concerto”, “Passing the Bone”), or even simple mistakes (“Reluctant Misty and the House on Burden Street”). For all my thinking about these origin stories or stories, I was unable to settle on just one story, one spark. I loved them all equally. In the end I decided that it’s what happens after the spark that really matters, in this particular case as in all others.

(This, btw, was the spark for my novella “The Spark: A Romance in Four Acts” . . . but I digress.)

I can’t give exact dates as I could for some stories. What I can say is that sometime before 2002 a thought came to me: What if all this new age/psychic warrior mumbo jumbo worked in a way that no one entirely expected? What if instead of helping us through this life, it gave practitioners a powerful means of self-defense when they entered the next life–sort of like the Book of the Dead as written by Chuck Norris? The arrival of all these ghostly ninjas would really shake up the creatures that normally preyed on human souls–whatever they were.

The “whatever they were” part of that thought led me to wonder what indeed they might be, and the possibility I almost immediately hit on was: What if they’re not demons and devils? What if it’s actually God that’s preying on those that normally pray to Him? Specifically: what if God is a huge predator growing fat and bloated on the overpopulated souls departing the twentieth century?

This led to all sorts of pondering. “Eating” implies some kind of afterlife version of biology. Biology implies an ecosystem. An ecosystem implies evolution. Evolution isn’t always gradual; it can be punctuated by natural or unnatural cataclysms. So what kind of cataclysms could the afterlife experience?

By this point, the questions were rolling thick and fast. Why should only the afterlife experience such cataclysms? Why not our world as well? And why should there be only two worlds, life and afterlife? Why couldn’t there be many, like in the various multiverse hypotheses of physics? Could there even be parallel worlds? And while we’re talking physics, might there be something in the symmetry-breaking phase transitions our own universe might have experienced while cooling down from the big bang? Might there be aliens in there as well . . . ?

All my life I’ve been interested in religion, but I’d never known what to do with all the information in my head. Suddenly I had this crazy idea taking shape that would require all of them and more, funneling every faith I had ever read about into a giant blender in the hope of producing something that had a bit of all of them. Like the three blind men and the elephant, I now hoped to produce the elephant, the thing that existing religions only glimpse and report back on, incompletely.

This elephant was one of the sparks for my most ambitious novel, The Crooked Letter. (The other concerned real-life Mirror Twins and what happens when one of them dies.) It posits a three-staged life-cycle for the ordinary human being that from some angles looks like reincarnation but from others looks like heaven-and-earth. It explains magic; it explains destiny; it even explains the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. It was far too big for one short story, or even one novel.

The Crooked Letter became my Silmarillion, the odd-shaped missing piece that sits between the Books of the Change and the Books of the Cataclysm, and my Broken Land books for kids as well. I think it’s my least successful book, but that hasn’t stopped people liking it (and I’m very grateful for that). It has won some awards and is in the process of being turned into a TV series (fingers crossed). For me, ultimately, it was great fun, whipping up that spark into a crazy wild-fire of ideas.

And if I ever get sick of the writing game, I guess I can always use it to start my own religion . . . .”

Sean Williams, Marianne du Pierres and I will appear together on the SBS Program “Sex: An Unnatural History”. We’re in the Future episode.

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 Maurice Broaddus and I share a publisher in Angry Robot Books, and we’ve share a table of contents, too, in Voices from the Past from HH Books. His work is full of integrity and horror, and he has this way of drawing you so deep into the character it takes you a minute or two to blink out when the story ends.

“My novella Bleed With Me debuts in October from Delirium Books as a limited edition hardcover (which is sold out) as well as an ebook.  It takes place in the same universe as my urban fantasy series, the Knights of Breton Court.  In book two of the series, King’s Justice, there is a throwaway line:  “Hear what happened to The Pall?”

The Pall was a character only mentioned in book one, King Maker, and Bleed With Me takes place between the two books.

That said, the idea for Bleed With Me came from a couple of places.  For one, I was fascinated with the idea that two people can share a fundamental, instant connection.  That spark or chemistry or whatever—when you find yourself completed by another and you didn’t even realize that you weren’t whole—and I was thinking about what that might look like in its extreme.

Also, like with the Knights of Breton Court series, Bleed With Me found many of its characters originating with the work I was doing with Outreach Inc, a ministry that works with homeless teenagers.  That’s why their stories are the focus of the series and with this novella.

As for The Pall himself, I had been watching a marathon of my favorite animated satire, The Boondocks.  They had a character named “A Pimp Named Slickback” who demanded that he be called “A Pimp Named Slickback” not just Slickback.  Being true to one’s name is important, and I loved the image of a pimp considering himself a pall on the streets.

So yeah, watching people date, doing ministry work on the streets, and watching television…sadly, this pretty much sums up a lot of how I get my ideas.”

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Sparks: Deborah Biancotti

Sometimes when I’m reading one of Deborah Biancotti’s stories I feel actually, physically, chilled to the bone. That’s how good she is.

“And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living

The true spark for my upcoming Ishtar novella was when Mark Deniz asked me to contribute to an anthology that would feature a past, present & future setting. Some sparks are pragmatic, I guess. 😉

I wanted that ‘present’ slot. I’m not sure if Mark had to negotiate with the other authors for me to have it (Kaaron might know!), but man I was pleased when he said yes. I’d been wanting to change direction with my writing to do more realistic, contemporary settings & to explore my hometown some more. This was gonna be perfect.

To get a feel for a side of Sydney that is gritty & dread-filled & frankly nasty, I did that thing I do that always depresses me: I read the Sydney Morning Herald. I read it for weeks, tucking away strange little articles about horrible happenings – especially around murders, ‘cos my story was going to have murders. At first I kept it all as ‘research’ pages in the Scrivener file where I was writing the story. But I ended up with so many clippings they needed their own file. I had Sydney gang wars (http://tinyurl.com/3zvzllt), a murderous neurosurgeon (http://tinyurl.com/4yf27zu), and of course, the whole Tegan Lane nightmare (http://tinyurl.com/3avqek5). And then I added more. And more.

The damn thing grew into its own obsession and the file became filled with weird stuff from around the world, & links I’d tucked away years earlier for some dark inspiration, all collected into a loose form of dark anarchy. Like the guy who accidentally killed himself with his own boobytrap (http://tinyurl.com/3evmak9) or the woman who ingested enough pesticide her corpse laid out four paramedics (http://tinyurl.com/3g2lbxo). See? Weird, right.

Now it’s one of the biggest things on my hard drive & it’s split into sections for natural disasters, domestic disasters, medical disasters & a growing file on psychopaths. Oh, and the occasional good news story (http://tinyurl.com/3optxp3). None of the articles  specifically made it into the novella, but they’ve definitely sparked the mood.

With that ‘research’ under my belt, the rest turned out to be unusually easy. The writing of it was one of those marvellous, rare moments of knowing the story is all in your head, you just have to unfurl it. I wrote the thing from go to whoa in about a week, & only really changed direction once, when I realised the anti-terrorist subplot I’d been building was going to make the thing too long to still be a novella. That left me with an angry cop and her partner descending through the symbolic rings of hell to the supernatural evil hidden at the heart of the city. Which is a plot sparked by that marvellous freak Ishtar herself, who descended to hell and was hung on hooks before she managed to trade in her lover (in some versions of the myth) to take her place. Ha! Who could not be sparked by that?

I tell you, that was the best damn fun I’ve ever had writing.”

To answer Deb’s question, I think all three of us naturally fell into the period of time we wanted. I was keen to do the historical Ishtar, because I saw it as a challenge and something I’d be interested in researching. Cat loves the future and imagining it, so that was hers. Ishtar, edited by Amanda Pillar and K. V. Taylor, from Gilgamesh Press, is out in November.

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Colin Harvey

Very, very sad to hear of the death of author Colin Harvey. I met Colin at Worldcon in Montreal and found him to be a funny, clever, kind, interesting, wonderful man.


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Sparks: Cat Sparks

I love Cat Sparks’ stories because they have a powerful narrative flow, with a deep heart of inspiration. She writes about stuff that angers her, or breaks her heart, or brings back memories.  I love that passion. She knows how to write a page-turner, too.



” ‘All the Love in the World’ was first published in Twelve Planet’s Press’s anthology Sprawl. The story won a Ditmar award and was selected for reprint in Hartwell and Kramer’s Year’s Best SF 16. It’s a post-apocalypse story, but not the usual kind. What if society didn’t automatically default to cannibalistic savagery once the cities and infrastructure were gone? What if fractured segments branched out organically into new, more intimate forms? Utopia was never on my agenda. As a fantasist, I’m capable of imagining many things, but utopia on Earth isn’t one of them.


The landscape of my story is inspired by elements of the social and cultural climate of the New South Wales south coast region. I’m from Sydney originally and I recall how vividly Sydney’s CBD was still a major part of my life for years after I moved down here. I seemed to be up there every weekend, but over time, it has become less and less interesting and personally relevant. When I return there now I feel like a tourist. The natives seem rich and distant. The buildings too tall, the lights too bright.


I used to commute between Wollongong and Sydney to a pointless office job. First thing I did once I scored myself a job down here was throw out all my suits because I knew then and there that even if the new job sucked, I wasn’t going back to my old life. Six years on and I’m a graphic designer for a small publishing house (quite literally – we work out of my boss’s home) in a tiny seaside suburb nestled snugly below the looming escarpment.


Surfing culture is big down here. There are folks bobbing up and down in search of waves no matter how fierce the weather. We used to live in a unit full of young guys who surfed and smoked pot endlessly and it occurred to me one day that they’d probably keep on doing just that even if the rest of the world exploded. Surfin’ the apocalypse and why the hell wouldn’t you if there was no one else calling the shots?


‘All the Love in the World’ incorporates many small moments and observations, one element being Jon, a guy I used to hang out with when we were teenagers. We were part of a group based around a suburban Sydney garage band and in that environment he had all the power and I didn’t. I adored him but I was just another girl at a time when girls much prettier than me were plentiful.


Our tribe grew up a little, lived in share houses and eventually went our separate ways. Twenty years later, after a reunion with some other old friends from that time, I decided to try and find Jon via the internet, fully anticipating the arrogant, misogynistic lothario of my memory. To my utter astonishment, he was nothing of the sort. In his place stood a gentleman and a scholar, mature, witty and kind as, of course, one might expect a well-traveled adult to be. That’s when I realised I’d been carrying a ghost all these years. I’d trapped Jon in a snow globe of memory, a prisoner of my own young adult failings and limitations. The story grew from that moment of understanding. What if in an alternate world, he was still that guy and I that girl? A woman so selfish that Armageddon didn’t bother her so long as it delivered the man she thought she wanted.


If Jon recognised himself in my story, he’s kept it to himself. It’s a question I’m never going to ask. And no in case you’re asking, his name’s not Jon.”

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Review: Mistification

Devin Jeyathurai, who received the prize for owning the first copy in Singapore of Mistification, has posted a wonderful review at his website, Living in SIN.

Nothing better than to hear this said about your novel:

“And then there are those books that are so rich and full, like a cup of espresso. Those can overwhelm you if you consume them too quickly, so I keep them at home, and sip from them, small sips, either early in the morning when it’s quiet and still and nothing is moving, or late at night when I’m comfortably cocooned in bed.

Kaaron Warren’s latest, Mistification is the latter.”



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Sparks: Lucy Sussex

My second-published short story, Skin Holes, appeared in Penguin anthology called Strange Fruit. I was thrilled beyond belief to make into this ‘outre” book, edited by Paul Collins, not least because Lucy Sussex had a story in there and she was, and remains, one of my favourite writers. I’d read her collection My Lady Tongue and Other Stories twice or more, and was inspired by the bravery of her fiction, the outlandishness of it, the normality and the horror.

Here, Lucy talks about a number of sparks. Her short story collection Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies is just out from Ticonderoga Press, and Thief of Lives is out from Twelfth Planet Press. Both will be added to my library.

“Where do your crazy ideas come from?

It depends upon the genre. The best crime fiction tends to derive from real-life events. ‘The Fountain of Justice’ came from a conversation with someone I will only describe as working at the intersection of crime and justice. They just had to tell someone and it turned out to be me. I altered one major detail, and let faulty memory do the rest of the fictionalizing. That apart, it’s all true…

When editors ask me to do something, that’s a compliment, and I try to oblige. Susan Johnson asked me to write about sex. ‘The Subject of O’ was the result, but it came in after deadline and can’t have suited the anthology. No matter. ‘Thief of Lives’ was originally for Ellen Datlow, topic: vampires. I said I’d write about writers as vampires, feeding off others to fuel their fictions. It proved a bugger to write—‘Well, it would,’ said Ian Mond. ‘Because it would be reflexive, like biting yourself.’ I had to go over sentence after sentence, knowing I was aiming for something but not knowing quite what. Pre-plotting would have helped, but I wasn’t quite sure what the plot was. Having to rewrite and rewrite to get one story was hard work, but the result was actually worth it. Even if I look at the story and mutter: ‘Never again’.

Stories can come out of writing-related work. I was editing a Lonely Planet book on Madagascar, and got so fascinated by the detail that I asked the author if I could use it fictionally. He said yes, and that is how ‘Sagittaire’ (the new story in Matilda) came about. ‘Alchemy’ came from reviewing a popular science book on chemistry, with the sort of juxtaposition I love: the first chemist known was a Babylonian woman called Tapputi; and the Book of Enoch claims demons taught women forbidden arts. The link between them was perfumery, a black art to Enoch, but Tapputi’s profession. Then, as I was writing, another piece of information came to my attention: the US army had built a camp on part of Hammurabi’s Babylon.  Sometimes it seems positively daemonic, how the universe throws you details just when you need them.

Or else you can just go out drinking the night someone has something they really want to get off their mind.”

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Sparks: Rob Hood

Robert Hood is the perfect example of my theory about horror writers, plumbers and butchers. They deal with blood, guts, shit and all kinds of nasty things in their jobs, yet they are the nicest people you’ll find. I’ve never known a bad tempered plumber or butcher, and horror writers are usually very easy to get along with as well. Rob Hood is a delight to hang out with.

Rob Hood writes frightening, disturbing stories that give me nightmares. And he knows more about monsters, zombies and giant things than anyone else I know.

“What was the spark that inspired the story “Rotting Eggplant on the Bottom Shelf of a Fridge” (originally published in Eidolon #14, vol. 4, no. 2, April 1994 and reprinted in the collection Creeping in Reptile Flesh (Altair Australia 2008 and Morrigan Books 2011).

“Rotting Eggplant on the Bottom Shelf of a Fridge” is a story that turned out to be a lot weirder and more layered than I’d anticipated when I started it – and as a result I’ve always been extraordinarily fond of it. It actually took several “sparks” to get it going, but the initial inspiration was probably my misreading of a sign. While driving along the freeway west of Sydney I noticed an official RTA notice at the exit to Penrith that read (at first glance) “Museum on Fire”. Odd, I thought, and looked again. Of course, the sign actually read “Museum of Fire” – referring to a historical and educational museum celebrating the work of firefighters. But the odd idea that a burning museum might be permanently signposted and the sense of a moment where reality had been distorted by an act of perception created not so much the narrative of the story but the ambiance of it. The plot itself arose from the title of a song by the 70s space-rock band Hawkwind. The song is “The Aubergine That Ate Rangoon” from their album Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music. When I put the sense of dislocation I’d felt and the more literal idea of a city-eating eggplant together the germ of the story was born – a tale in which the Western Suburbs of Sydney becomes even more surreal than it normally is when an ordinary couple come to believe that an eggplant left to rot in the back of their fridge is beginning to affect the environment beyond their kitchen, right into the heart of Sydney, as the buildings there (symbolically its social structure and their own sense of security) begin to decay. The third element that played into the story was that of synchronicity. Odd coincidences have always fascinated me (as they did the writer Charles Fort, who spent much of his life collecting reports of weird shit worldwide and believed that Reality was much stranger than we can possibly imagine). Coincidences and the idea of synchronicity existing between apparently unrelated objects separated in time and space also lie at the heart of “sympathetic magic”, where a conduit is established between, say, a doll and a human being. What is done to one affects the other. Another interesting idea. At any rate all these things came together to form the “spark” of the story – one that treats symbolic connotations as literal narrative elements in a way that all fantastic fiction does to a degree, but here is taken to some sort of extreme. The story has a narrative through-line but one that only makes sense if the reader sees the meaning that lies on a level beyond plot and is willing to grant an intuitive “sense” to its essential absurdity. And that to me is what we do as artists and as human beings: strive to create temporary sense out of the world’s basic senselessness.

Note that the collection Creeping in Reptile Flesh has just appeared in its second revised edition from Morrigan Books and is available for download in an e-version from Smashwords. A printed format version is to follow.”

I love Robert’s description of the mis-read sign. I have my own collection of mis-heard (“Next year, when I’m sick), and mis-read things.

Do others collect these as well?

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Angela Slatter’s stories display a vision of the world which is a slight shift away from reality. I love that. Slatterworld is lyrical and full of imagery, but it’s also harsh in its reality, and cruel, and disturbing. She’s another powerful, original voice.

Her Sourdough and Other Stories collection is up for a World Fantasy Award. Here, she talks about the title story.

Sourdough sparks

My stories either start with a first line or an image in my head. “Sourdough” came to me with the first line ‘My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.’

Hot on the heels of these word was the image of this woman in a kind of mixed Medieval/Victorian setting, her attention caught by all the kids in the city with a certain shade of bright red hair – the shade that said they were her husband’s children. It was quite filmic, all these kids flashing in and out as they ran through the town square – almost like the flashes you see in koi ponds when the fish swim quickly, disappearing under lily pads and the like, then reappearing.

The story then wandered away from that first line and became the tale of Emmeline, the eldritch baker and daughter of the woman in the first line. Her thread was influenced by the idea in the old Grimm fairy tale “The Princess in Disguise” of putting jewellery into food. In that tale, it’s a ring or necklace. Emmeline puts in a ring and something far less pleasant than in the fairy tale happens. I was thinking about how everyday activities might have magic in them and that kneading dough might be something that can create something powerful and strange. Fortuitously, the images in the story gave the fabulous writer and artist, Stephen J. Clark, the inspiration for the cover art for the book, Sourdough and Other Tales.

The spark for the city came after reading Margo Lanagan’s “Wooden Bride”. In the end my city is about the squares, it’s all squares within squares, with the idea being that within this terribly ordered and well-organised city there is so much chaos.

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