Here’s Lee Murray talking to us about speculative fiction, her take on author marketing, her upcoming projects, and much more…
How does a typical book get written in your world – what do you start with? You’re not the first to ask and my answer is: clumsily, in fits and starts, and painfully slowly—a thousand words is a good day for me. To make matters worse, my writing process is unruly and undisciplined. I’ll start out with good intentions to plot and plan, only to throw my hands up half way through and end up pantsy-ing my way to the finish. Or, if I’m feeling diligent, I’ll channel Gemmell award winning writer Helen Lowe, who recommends handwritten free-writing as a warm up exercise—only I usually give up after a few paragraphs. I’m just too impatient. I blame the internet, which is continually interrupting me with facebook messages or distracting me with interesting research threads, none of which have anything to do with the writing in hand. My desk is a highly organised jumble of open books, rough drafts and notes, along with several half-finished cups of coffee (invariably cold), a couple of pens—one of which doesn’t work—and an array of colourful Post-its. Oh, and the ‘e’ graphic is missing from my keyboard. Reading these paragraphs through it seems a miracle I finish anything. I can’t say that my stories appear fully-formed in my head either, as is the case for some lucky writers. Why do mine have to be dragged kicking and screaming from my subconscious? I have no idea. Luckily, I have some wonderful writing friends who are kind enough to help me tighten my work, especially when it comes to plot, which isn’t my forté. Just ask the poor character who’s been dangling from a precipice for close to a year, while I work out what to do with him! In terms of the story itself, I begin with an idea or a character, and I let it take me wherever it will. I write what resonates for me, what takes my fancy, trying not to worry too much about its saleability, but concentrating on creating compelling, authentic, character-driven stories. And whatever the target readership, my writing invariably has a Kiwi flavour.
How would you compare the protagonist of some of your books with Lee herself? Oooh good question! I suspect all of my characters carry traits of mine, but of all of them, Mel from A Dash of Reality probably resembles me most. Characteristics that ditzy Mel shares with me include an irrational fear of heights, the occasional binge into retail therapy, and a love of raspberry chocolate muffins. She’s goofy and gullible, and tends to misread people’s intentions, traits that get her into a bit of trouble, but she’s also determined and compassionate, qualities I strive for in my own life. Mel and I share a lot of experiences. For example, Mel’s silky-harem-pant-wardrobe-malfunction is plucked from my own experience. What’s worse, in real life the incident occurred on a service station forecourt, while I was juggling a bunch of flowers, a box of chocolates and a cup of coffee. When I finally got my pants retied—yes, tied and retied, with one of those doubly double granny knots—I turned around to see four men, each sitting in their vehicles, still laughing their heads off at my thonged bottom! And there was no dashing Jack to step in and save Lee’s dignity. Instead, my husband, who was waiting for me in the car, was darling enough to point out that the service station forecourt was bound to have a surveillance camera, and thus, my bottom was likely to be plastered all over Youtube within the hour—I haven’t found any evidence of it yet, but if anyone does, please let me know! In any case, rather than empathising, my husband found the whole incident hilarious. So, to answer your question, I can safely say that that scene at least was equally mortifying for both Lee and Mel, something I hope is reflected in the writing. Mel’s acupuncture session is also stolen from my life, although my physiotherapist, Hamish, might not be quite the sadist I made him out to be in the novel. But mostly, I drew on my experiences as a marathon runner, conferring those thoughts and feelings to Mel: the horror of finding yourself competing in a big event, the pain and pride of ticking off interim goals, the comradery found in running circles, and, ultimately, realising that you do indeed have the inner strength to complete something that only weeks before seemed unimaginable.
What classic piece of work do you wish you had written? Can I choose more than one? Pride and Prejudice. To Kill a Mockingbird. Wuthering Heights… It’s a long list. But perhaps Germinal by Emile Zola, 1885, which I didn’t read until my late twenties because I didn’t speak French fluently until then. Zola opened my eyes. I realised then that different languages offer new techniques for creating atmosphere and drama. For example, there’s a scene in Germinal, an everyday scene when the miners are working, where Zola’s choice of words and the way he arranges them recreates the terminable miserable cadence of the picks. If you read the passage aloud, you can actually hear the miners working. Incredibly clever. And of course, there is the terrible grimness of the conditions, the bitter hardship, that Zola’s characters endure, and yet in the midst of all that are the moments of aching tenderness. The death of the horse, who never saw the surface again, made me cry. I’d love to be able to write like that. My choice for modern-day classic I’d like to have written is Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I’ve always had a deep love of dark fantasy, and Stiefvater’s novel is both beautiful and horrible. Exquisitely written, it carries a strong message about the isolation and peculiarity of island life, a theme which resonated for me as a Kiwi.
Tell us about a moment in your writing career pushed you to the edge and almoooost made you consider giving it all up – and you held on… Does this morning count? Just kidding! Never, actually. Since I started writing—only five years ago—there has simply never been a moment when I wanted to give up. Losing myself in my characters’ minds, in their worlds, in their stories is a privilege I’m grateful for every day. But I’ll admit, there are times when the state of New Zealand’s publishing industry can be demoralising, with fewer and fewer of our home-grown writers being published here. There are lots of reasons for this and laying blame isn’t helpful, but New Zealand is a source of important, powerful stories, told in unique and vibrant voices. These stories deserve to be heard, and not just in this country. Until self-publishing is truly recognised as an acceptable route to publication (and by that I mean the retail outlets and libraries are willing to stock local books) then I believe we’re in danger of having a gap in our literary culture, a generation of stories lost while the publishing industry collapses and coalesces into something new. Happily, out of the ashes the occasional phoenix is emerging: innovative small presses employing new collaborative models for commercial success. All it takes is a little Kiwi ingenuity and some No 8 wire, as we say down here. These companies are picking up some gems, and while commercial success is slow to come, there’s an excitement accompanying their presence, which is promising. I’m hoping that if I keep on writing, if I hang on, I’ll get to be part of the brave new world being created.
How important are promotion and marketing for an author? Marketing and promotion are vital for an author—it’s about getting our work out there in front of readers—and for many of us, the bit we hate the most. Extremely time-consuming, these functions steal writers away from their writing. I don’t mind stopping at the supermarket to chat with readers about my books, sitting on panels, blogging, going to schools, running workshops, even attending launches, but asking people to buy my books is really really hard. However, it’s a fact that as publishers downsize their publicity departments, and self-publishing becomes more prevalent, more and more or these activities fall to writers. Services like this one are a huge help. Still, I’m looking forward to the day someone invents a way of selling by osmosis, or when books become popular as a side dish, like fries, at the drive-in.
Tell us a bit about hyper fiction and speculative fiction… That’s going to take a while because obviously speculative fiction is a big genre, comprising the supernatural, fantasy, science fiction, horror, paranormal, dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic among others, and although I’ve dabbled in chick-lit with A Dash of Reality and YA contemporary with Misplaced, spec fic seems to be seem to where I’m making my home, at least for the moment. It helps that the speculative fiction community here in New Zealand is close-knit and supportive, and some of its publishers, like Paper Road Press and Random Static, have been kind enough to publish me. I have a collection of short stories not yet published which touch on the Asian experience in New Zealand—I’m a third generation Chinese New Zealander on one side and a bit mongrel on the other, with a relative who jumped off a whaler, and another the daughter of Edward Jenner, founder of the smallpox vaccine. Suffice to say, like most Kiwis, I have an eclectic cultural background and it makes for some interesting fodder for hyper fiction—creative non-fiction based on real events. But perhaps you’ve asked the question because of Beyond This Story, a collection of hyper fiction by New Zealand intermediate school students (10-13 years), which I co-edited with my colleague Piper Mejia. Part of an initiative to encourage and mentor emerging writers, it’s a great collection, one of four I have co-edited, this one the students’ interpretations of events and characters from New Zealand history. Working with students makes me both proud and scared, as there are some terrifyingly talented young writers making their way through the ranks.
Is there any genre that you would never ever want to write in? Nope, sorry, I can’t think of any (although I do try and keep my horror fiction separate from the middle grade stuff!).
What awesome books and projects are you working on at the moment? Already this year I have released a science fiction and fantasy novella in Conclave: A Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I have three novels on the go, but my main work in progress is a science fiction thriller. It’s the tale of an expedition gone wrong in New Zealand’s Te Urewera ranges, a massive native forest park cleaved by rocky cliff tops and icy rivers. Well, it’s our Kiwi version of a national park, with no flowering borders or ice cream kiosks. And since the setting has cultural and political significance, it provides some prospects for intrigue and betrayal, as well as a foray into legend. I’ve just finished up a first collaborative novel, a project I’ve been working on with my Baby Teeth: Bite-Sized Tales of Terror co-editor Dan Rabarts. A he-said, she-said horror-crime-comedy fusion set in a future New Zealand, the new project has had to be squeezed in between work and family commitments, but it’s been hugely fun to write. Dan was familiar with collaborations, coming as he does from a drama and screenwriting background, but collaborative writing was new to me, so we decided to start small with a novella, one with a potential long story arc, and if we were both enjoying the project, then we’d consider taking it further. Only that first novella took on a life of its own, quickly becoming a novel, and already we’re planning more. I’m a big fan of Dan’s writing. He has a dark and twisted way of looking at things, and he’s strong on myth and atmosphere, all of which is evident in his prose. So, it wasn’t surprising that his character took on the bad-boy persona, while mine became the slightly uptight responsible one! That said, the counterbalance between the two has provided some great opportunities for humour. And just for a bit of variety, I’m also working on some picture books, one of which was an original steampunk-style story my dad used to tell me at bedtime. A great storyteller, Dad’s got Alzheimer’s now so I’m sorry I didn’t get his bedtime tales down on paper earlier. Never say never, I’m working on rectifying that now.