Friday, April 11, 2008

The Stars of Speculative Fiction #8: Martin Livings


Well Martin, several award nominations over the years and I, for one, keep seeing your name appearing in books that I’ve bought over recent months, since gate-crashing the Aussie spec fic scene. The publication of your novel Carnies, seemed to be a turning point and big thumbs-up to Lothian for their shrewd choices at that time.

1. How has your writing changed after the monstrous success of Carnies, if it indeed has?

Well, obviously sleeping on enormous piles of cash has meant my posture at my solid gold computer has improved immeasurably...

No, actually, the main things that have changed with my writing haven’t been due to the modest success of Carnies, but rather its failings. I’ve taken on board a lot of the negative criticisms of the book, and also the intense editing it got during the pre-publication phase, and applied it to my current writing. I’m more aware of the mistakes I’ve been making in the past, so now I can avoid them and make entirely new mistakes in the future!

The other effect that having Carnies published was definitely a bit of self-confidence. I’d never submitted a manuscript before I heard about Lothian Books looking for local horror novels to publish, and never dreamed that they’d actually accept it, so to have them be so enthusiastic about my little book was a dream come true. It gives me the boost to keep writing novels, when it’s essentially a long, gruelling and largely unrewarding pursuit, in the knowledge that it’s possible to sell them at the end of it all!

2. I’ve recently read that you’ve had over 40 short stories published. Would you say that you prefer short stories over novels or is it merely a case of time and logistics? If money were no object what would you write?

That’s like asking which of my children I like the best. Not that I have any children, mind you, but I imagine that would be what it’s like!

I wrote short stories to begin with, as a lot of writers do, because (a) there were markets and (b) the time and effort commitment was comparatively low. And I still love writing short stories, which is why I do my Tuesday’s Ten Minute Tales every week on my LiveJournal. But at the same time, I love the challenge of novels, and the freedom to tell a more expansive tale. This year I’m trying an experiment, writing short stories for the first half of the year then working on novels for the second half, including another stint of NaNoWriMo in November if I feel like it. Boredom is my worst enemy, so we’ll see if this new routine helps avoid that.

Now, if money were no object – and, let’s face it, it isn’t, not to most writers! – then I think I’d write... stuff. The same as I do now. Whatever occurs, be it flash, short story, novella, novel, song, comic strip, haiku... anything at all, really. It’s not like we really have a choice about what we write, you know!

Good point, it’s always interesting to see what writers’ true loves are but most have similar answers…

3. What about other writers, are there any that got you writing yourself, and any that inspire you now?

That’s a pretty huge question. I don’t know exactly what I read when I was very young, but this picture I drew must have been from when I was maybe five or six:


When I was in school I read voraciously, and emptied out libraries ridiculously fast. I was particularly fond of the Holy Trinity of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke in those days, especially their short stories. So that’s pretty much where I started with my writings. I have an excerpt from a story I wrote at school when I was 12, which gives some clue as to my tastes of the time:

Colony 305

All through high school, I was knocking out truly awful SF stories, mostly based around the sudden twist idea. I remember two of them, one was a world where a terrible war was occurring, and it turned out to be a game of chess, and the other was an alien world beset by an enormous and destructive force of nature, and it turned out to be an ants’ nest that a kid had stepped on. Pretty big twists, huh?

I was reading Far Out magazine in my late teens, and followed that with Aurealis, but it really wasn’t until the nineties, and the advent of Eidolon, that I found both the inspiration and publication I’d been waiting for. It wasn’t lasers and rocket ships, but a darker, more humanistic kind of science fiction and fantasy, and, yes, even occasional horror. The primary authors that inspired me during this time continue to do so today – Greg Egan, Sean Williams and Terry Dowling. All three, in very different ways, showed me new ways of writing this kind of stuff. I doubt I would have ever tried to get published if it hadn’t been for these three guys and the whole team at Eidolon at the time.

As for who inspires me now, I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t read nearly enough anymore to really name names. I still find big names like Stephen King a source of inspiration, primarily from his work ethic and his dedication to story, and it’s also encouraging to see so many locals go on to bigger and better things, like Sean Williams, Kim Wilkins, Garth Nix, Greg Egan and Terry Dowling, just to name a few. They give us all hope!

Well in terms of the sudden twist element, aren’t big names doing those kinds of stories right now? Maybe they stole your ideas…

4. Well you’ve sort of half-answered this one but I’m curious to know more about your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian spec fic scene just now.

I honestly think that now is a wonderful time in the Australian SF scene. I think we’ve gotten past the Big Bang, when there were fifteen million different magazines, and found ourselves with an amazingly strong publishing field, at least in the small press arena. Twelfth Planet Press

are incredibly ambitious, with a line-up of books and publications planned for the next year or two that would eclipse many small press publisher’s entire histories. Likewise, Ticonderoga Publications continue to put out books of amazing quality, such as the most recent collection of Sean Williams stories, Magic Dirt, and Brimstone Press seem to be rolling back into existence after a hiatus with an impressive slate of upcoming books. And of course there’s Agog Press, who have also been a little quiet of late, but considering their phenomenal record of publications, that’s hardly a damning statement. I’ve been involved in projects with all of these small presses, and would – and will – be involved again in a heartbeat, given half a chance.

Mass market SF in Australia isn’t quite as healthy, in a creative sense, though we do now have Orbit Australia, which is pretty darn huge. We’ll have to wait and see what impact that has. The market still seems to be saturated with fantasy novels for the moment, though, especially standard quest-style fantasy, which is a pretty safe sell for publishers, as readers will buy them by the crate load. I’d really like to see more local SF and horror, some spaceships and robots and zombies to go along with the elves and wizards and dragons!

It may sound naive, but I really don’t see much in the way of weaknesses here at the moment. The quality of fiction coming out is only getting better, as it begins to compete with overseas markets, and as our own markets become more restricted - and thus much choosier - we’re being forced to actually write better stuff! The nerve!

Actually, the most telling sign that Australia is doing rather well in the world of SF is that we have not one, not two, but three Australians (actually, three Western Australians, which is even more impressive!) up for Hugo awards this year! Go Sandgropers!

5. I’ve been a keen follower of the ten minute Tuesday tale you mentioned earlier over recent months. How did that all start and how do you think it has developed you as a writer?

As I recall, it all started from a posting made by US author Jay Lake on his LiveJournal, which said something about writing flash fiction to keep the mind fit, with topics suggested by his readers. Well, if that idea was good enough for him, it was good enough for me to steal from him!

I’m really enjoying doing the TTMT’s each week. There’s something liberating about writing without any plan whatsoever, just the vaguest of ideas and three words randomly thrown at you by increasingly-cruel readers. There’s no time to develop plot or characters, you just have to make it up as you go along. It’s the writing equivalent of improv. Of course, I usually spend a minute or two going through it and editing it a little, so that’s a bit of a cheat, but overall it’s pure, unedited junk from the backbrain. And occasionally, a little nugget of something special emerges from it, something I’d never have found any other way.

The main effect it’s had is probably my writing speed. I’ve become a faster writer since starting this, at least in short stories, because I’m learning to trust my instincts, rather than poring over every word and comma, every subtle nuance. I’m learning to paint with broad strokes in early drafts, and I’m constantly surprising myself with the results. And I figure, if I can surprise myself, I can surprise the readers, hopefully!

Plus, y’know, it’s fun and exciting to do, if a little scary. Like tightrope walking without a net.

6. Time for my favourite question now and that involves the world of music in writing. Are you a soundtrack kind of person when writing or heavy moshing stuff, or nothing at all? Does music inspire you to write in anyway?

Music is an enormous inspiration to write for me. Some of my biggest creative influences are songwriters rather than authors, the way they can tell an entire story in a couple of minutes. It really depends on the kind of thing I’m writing, but the Beatles tend to be on high rotation, as do Radiohead and Pink Floyd. If I’m in the mood for some nastier horror-type music, Alice Cooper will often make an appearance. As you can see, modern music doesn’t feature terribly highly on my playlist!

And right now? I’m listening to the music from the Commodore 64 game “Crazy Comets”!

7. I know that there are a few budding writers reading this (and a few that have just got going) what tips or advice would you have for them?

It sounds obvious, but read. You gotta crawl before you can walk, and you gotta read before you can write. Read anything you can get your hands on, fiction, non-fiction, cereal boxes, newspapers, blogs, cartoons, anything. Absorb it all. For a writer, reading is like putting petrol in the car. Filling your head up with new ideas and inspirations and words, ready to rearrange and put back on the page, hopefully for someone else to pick up and do the same with.

Now write. And keep writing. Don’t expect it to be a masterpiece straight away. Some people say you have to write a million words before you start getting good. I think that’s a huge generalisation, but nonetheless, keep on writing, writing, writing. It’ll happen, it’s just practise. And again, write anything you can, not just fiction. Reviews are great, blogs are great, anything to be creative. Write songs. Make stupid comics. Anything to exercise that obscure part of the brain that makes magic. Just keep on doing it.

Oh, and the third element – live. You can’t just read and write, you have to get out there and do stuff. Otherwise, all your experiences come second-hand through other books, and what you write will end up just being pastiche. Or, worse, all you’ll ever write about is writing, so you’ll write books about writers writing books about writers writing books. No names mentioned...

So, read, write and live, all in as copious amounts as you can manage. It’s not rocket science. Hell, if I can manage it, pretty much anyone can!

8. Usually my final question but this ties in well with your live comment. What do you do when you’re not writing?

Oh, damn, I didn’t expect to get called on that. I work, mainly. Uh, and sleep. And eat. We’ve recently bought a house, so I’ve been doing a lot of handyman-type stuff around that. Expect to read some horror short stories from me in the future about fitting lights and door handles! And this weekend I get to stain and lacquer all the wooden fixtures in our kitchen, to bring them to the same colour as the blinds we’ve had fitted. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

I think my partner and I did more than our share of living in 2006, when we spent the year in London writing, working and travelling. I think that year has fuelled more writing than the rest of my life up to that date put together! We’re just taking a break from the whole “living life to the fullest” thing for the moment. We’ll be back, though... once we’ve paid off the house!

9. I’ve only asked this once before in the series so sorry that I make you number two. What the hell is speculative fiction?

Now there’s a good question. These days, with the New Weird and plenty of slipstream stuff, it’s getting harder and harder to tell what speculative fiction really is. I mean, by its very definition, all fiction is speculative, isn’t it? Whenever we make things up, we’re speculating about stuff, whether it’s life on other planet, the existence of vampires, or how a cop might catch a devious serial killer. Some might say that speculative fiction is an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and horror. But there are other works that might come under it as well, like the magic realist fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, so it’s all a little grey. Recently, as another example, Laney Cairo’s first novel, Bad Case of Loving You, sold very well amongst the SF crowd, and it’s an erotic detective novel with no trace of traditional speculation!

I’m becoming convinced that spec fic is whatever we say is spec fic. So, three definitions:

- Speculative fiction is whatever speculative fiction writers write
- Speculative fiction is whatever speculative fiction editors buy and publish
- Speculative fiction is whatever speculative fiction readers read

That pretty much covers it, I think!

Perfect! I couldn’t have said it better myself… *looks confused*

10. Last but not least Martin, I’m wondering what grandiose plans are in the melting point for Mr. Livings. I know you’ve decided to work on shorts for the first half of the year and involve yourself in NaNoWriMo in November but what plans have you beyond that: are you looking at any new goals (editing/publishing?) or are you firmly committed to writing?

I think writing will have to do for the time being, it’s about all I can fit on my plate! I had fun in 2006 co-editing (with Stephanie Coxon) the Horror Day Anthology, a collection of short stories which was online for one day only, but I’m in no hurry to do something like that again. Never say never, though! I have so many writing projects planned, though, that I’m not likely to be working on much else in the foreseeable. I have the novel I wrote in London in 2006, Skinsongs (the short story version of which has recently appeared in Twelfth Planet Press’ 2012 anthology) to viciously edit, plus a fantasy novel for younger readers I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year, The Changeling Child, which needs a lot of work before it’s good enough to send out. There’s at least two more books following that one to be written yet as well. Plus there’s the thriller I’ve been planning for many years, Mr Phoenix, and a long-promised sequel to Carnies, tentatively (and somewhat inflammatorily) titled Bitches... and a growing pile of half-written short stories I’ve promised or planned for a variety of markets, all with deadlines coming up fast... when is there time to do anything else but write, with a schedule like this???

Now, if only someone would actually pay me to do all this, life would be perfect! Ah, such a beautiful dream...

*nods* Indeed, I know the feeling. Well I, for one, will be looking forward to seeing more work from you and hope that some of it finds its way into our books in the future.

That’s definitely the plan, never fear!

Thanks for taking the time to do this and best of luck with the ongoing and future projects!

Thanks for having me, and ditto with yours!

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