Monday, May 12, 2008

The Stars of Speculative Fiction #11: Deborah Biancotti


So, Deborah, winning a few Aurealis and Ditmar awards, currently working on a collection for Twelfth Planet Press and also a novella for Gilgamesh Press, how do you do it?

Is this a question? I don’t have an answer! I think I do it by trying not to think about it too much.

Actually, I haven’t done it yet. Maybe I won’t be able to do it at all! I probably should’ve put more consideration into taking it all on in the first place.

1. How did you get into this writing malarkey then?

Luckily writing requires no particular qualification or organisational membership. You can get into writing simply by writing! I did.

Actually, I started by being a) mostly bored witless at school; b) into superheroes; c) having a relatively meagre attention span, and d) coincidentally or consequently being a bit of a daydreamer.

Writing comes relatively easily to a person of that disposition – though not quite as easily as doing nothing at all. Doing nothing at all is, in fact, my greatest skill. But the rewards for this activity (or lack of activity) are sparse, to say the least. You do get a lot of downtime, though.

I took up writing because I liked reading, & sometimes there was nothing in the house left to read. But then I went to uni determined to be a writer, see. Something to do with John Lennon & a TV ad in the seventies that claimed Pisceans were natural artists & writers. I can’t quite recall what the logic was.

Sooooo, anyhow, I studied Psychology & English Lit & avoided actually writing for several years. Then I finished uni & avoided writing for a couple years more. THEN I joined the NSW Writers’ Centre & did some workshops. One, most notably, with Terry Dowling, whom I consider my first real teacher.

Somewhere before & after those events were a series of writing groups which were variously successful (or not) until I found I wanted to be a solo traveller for a while, to find my feet. Or, to find my voice. Whichever. Nowdays I have a couple of trusted critique sources, some published stuff and a twelve-storey mansion made entirely of rejections which I’ve built inside my head. I like to go there sometimes & hang out & remember the good old days when I was in school & mostly just bored witless.

Doing nothing eh? There’s always room for that!

2. You mentioned Terry Dowling as your first real teacher – who were your inspirations when you began and are they the same as you have now?

Ouch. Inspirations. Funny, it's a tough question, because it's similar but slightly *more* than asking who I admire or who I respect or who I want to be. Inspiration implies someone who energises & attracts & makes me want to 'be all I can be', I guess.

I think once upon a time I was inspired by single instances, single items or achievements or things. A book would inspire me, but not necessarily an author because I didn't invest in writers when I was very young. I was impressed by that one achievement but had no real idea how it fitted into the fabric of a career or life. Most of my reading was random, governed equally by whatever local public library was nearby & the fact I had no money until after I finished university.

Nowdays what inspires me is not the single achievement -- or not JUST the single achievement - it's the tenacity. The career, the creator, the life they're living. Not just the book.

I'm inspired by Gene Wolfe, for example. What a trip his books are! I read Wolfe's entire Book of the New Sun *even though* I understood less than half of what I was reading at the beginning. Yet he held me totally captive. The surprise and suddenness and bittersweetness of his books are still impressive. And he's in his seventies now.

I'm inspired by Mary Gentle. Her fabulous, rich tale Ash: A Secret History was written as a result of a Masters degree Gentle undertook -- in War Studies. Brilliant! Imagine studying war at such an advanced level, largely in order to write a book! Also her first published book was purchased when she was 18. Which is not so much inspiring as nauseating.

And, you know, in 'real life' (for want of a better phrase), I'm inspired by heroes who don't think they're heroes and sufferers who refuse to be victims, and ordinary people with ordinary lives who aren't overwhelmed by that. I got a lot to learn from those people. They inspire me to be better.

Nice answer, makes a lot of sense!

3. So I hear you were part of Clarion South a few years back, any good?

Actually, I wasn't an attendee of Clarion South, if that's what you mean. I was, though, a reader for the submission process. Good? Some of them were very good. In particular, I think Tess Kum is a compelling writer, & I'd love to see more from her. Some were really not very good. Including an incomprehensible tale featuring giant crustaceans. I'm not sure what to make of that one. Was it someone who very much wanted to be a writer, but had quite the learning curve in front of her/him? Or was it someone entirely more deranged? And how much does each one of us have in common with The Deranged?

Food for thought. *cymbal crash*

4. Where does music feature in your writing, do you listen while you write and if you do to what? Are you inspired by music or do you prefer total silence?

I think I’m becoming increasingly tone deaf as I age. Music’s never really been a big deal for me. Which is weird, because I played guitar for nearly a decade. And, y’know, you can get by not knowing much about music -- and still playing music -- if you’re a DRUMMER, but you’d think anyone else would have more love for the medium.

Admittedly I quit the day I realised it had become more of a chore than a joy.

I’ve been through phases of musical enjoyment. I’m still a fan of that wonderful celtic warble of, say, Sinead, or the grrl attitood of Garbage or Christina Aguilera (on a good day). Mainly I’m more of a sucker for a beautiful voice that doesn’t have to oversell itself: Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan. I like some of the old fashioned soul & blues music quite a lot: music with a narrative to it. Hell, I’ve even enjoyed some country music. Especially when I was lonely in Switzerland a decade ago & the only English-speaking radio station I came across played country music. For some reason. Switzerland is a bizarrely fascinating place.

I guess I’m a jack of all trades & master of none when it comes to music. I like a lot of things a little bit, but no one thing a lot.

Music to work by: I used to play Baroque music through headphones whenever I needed to distract myself from the distractions outside my head. I read something about Baroque being perfect for concentration due to its 52 bpm speed (I may have that slightly wrong). Certainly seemed to help at the time.

Nowdays, of course, tone deaf (that, or my concentration’s improved), so it’s rare I really need anything to cancel out the distractions. I can even write in a room where someone else is watching TV. It’s really only very loud noise like jack-hammering that gets to me these days.

*looks amazed and bangs the Portishead on to cheer himself up*

You are not the first to be appalled by my detached relationship to music!

I’m hoping I won’t be the last either…

5. I’ve asked a few of the other Aussies about the state of the speculative fiction scene in Australia at present, and I’m very interested in your opinion of that, seeing as you not only write within the field but you do a lot of work to promote it overseas too.

Garth Nix is a bit of a mentor to me in that regard. He’s got a streak of generosity as wide as the sun, & when I asked him how I could pay him back for the kindly way he’d included me & assisted me during my first World Fantasy trip, you said, ‘You can’t. You pay it forward.’

I took him at his word, of course, & two years later I was working on the very project he initiated with Jonathan Strahan, promoting Aussie SF at World Fantasy in New York. And of course that workhorse Trevor Stafford was there, too, raising money & setting up some wonderful events for writers & publishers in & around New York City.

I have fallen out of the loop a tad over the past year, I confess. Too much writing to do, & Real Life becoming bigger & bigger. Or is that just a mid-life crisis? Anyhow. The o’s promotion thing was a chance to make up for all the local stuff I’d been missing out on, in a way.

The state of the local scene? It looks pretty good! Far as I can tell, there’s a lot of energy & achievement going on. Even some success! There’s a real engagement going happening with our local output & overseas attention. Sales, reviews, dialogues between local & o’s writers & editors & publishers. And there’s some fabulously innovative projects on at the moment – there’s real output being produced, being discussed, being put into people’s hands (or in front of their eyes, in terms of electronic publications). It’s a thrill to be part of it.

Agreed, I’m still in awe of the scene you’ve got over there and as I Swedish-based publisher, I still get a lot of submissions from Australians.

6. Come on Deborah, you must know, what the hell is speculative fiction anyway?

Yeah. I do. But I'm not telling. ;)


7. What do you get up when you’re not a writing then?

At the moment, renovating. Well, not necessarily renovating it MYSELF (if I can avoid it -- though it's amazing what it's not possible to outsource), but getting other people to renovate my old house. It's a pain in the neck, renovating, but not as painful as living in this ugly old place any longer without making some improvements, gah, drives me mad. I'm getting rid of a couple of old fireplaces right now (you want 'em?), using the space for storage instead. Replaced my staircase earlier this year. Removed a huge mango tree that was pushing over a back wall behind my tiny Sydney terrace (it's gut-wrenching watching trees be hacked up). Ceilings were replaced a while ago. It's a long, drawn-out & awkward project where the timeline keeps extending every time I realise how expensive it all is. One day I'll have a nice home, though. And then there will be cocktails at my place!

Apart from that, I have a full-time job as a project manager. I like project management. It's like making order out of chaos. I was doing a bit of work in multimedia & design for a few years, but haven't had the time for it recently.

I've variously had other hobbies over the years -- guitar-playing has gone by the wayside, as discussed. As have knitting and sewing (two other things I wasn't very good at). Photography. Now & then I think about getting back into drawing & painting. And in fact I'd really like to study interior decorating, y'know. I like the potential combination of art & practicality.

Mostly hobbies compete with writing time, though, & in recent years the writing has been winning. Even my correspondence has declined, with friends occasionally asking if I'm still alive.

I do still like cooking, though. We've been doing a lot of entertaining at my place in the last year or so. Had to slow it down because the renovations were getting in the way of people's ability to fit comfortably inside the house. This place is really small. I'm still managing to do some travelling, too, though the trips I have planned at the moment are largely domestic.

And of course I read quite a lot. Literary & crime/noir reading mostly at the moment. No real reason for it. I've always been a fan of poetry, & try to keep up with that, too.

I guess my other hobby is psychology. I studied it at uni & I still like to keep up with the research & ideas.

Oh work on houses always fills me with a sense of dread, although I may go for the fireplaces…

8. Have you got any five year plan (or similar) for the writing? Have you got specific goals or do you just take it all as it comes?

One of the disappointments with the writing ‘career’, I think, is the difficulty in making plans. With my day job I can make simple calculations, I can estimate durations, potential cash flow, experience, rewards, risks. I can say that with X years experience, I will be proficient at Y, or I will have Z qualifications, and I might even be ready to move on to ... I’ve run out of letters. Should’ve started earlier.

Writing, of course, isn’t so clear cut. I have no real idea if my X experience in writing has made me any better at writing Y. And I sure as heck don’t have more qualifications now than I did when I started! Personally I wouldn’t mind being able to say ‘and then after that I’ll use the proceeds from my next novel sale to fund some time off to develop an experimental novella series I’m contemplating’. And I’ve seen people make bold claims that are similar – sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Probably depends where you’re at.

Mostly, the career depends on finding the audience, right? I’m surprised every damn time someone tells me they’ve read something of mine. Still feels like a crapshoot to me. What works & what doesn’t – I got no way to tell.

That’s the writing *career*, though.

In terms of the writing *process*, yeah, I do have plans. I have an idea in my head where I want to be in my writing – in the hours I spend writing, in WHAT I’m writing – five years from now. And the more years I spend in this caper, the clearer that vision becomes.

It could, of course, all fall apart before then. I mean, I don’t want to give you the idea I’m an optimist or anything...

Deb Biancotti, the smiling pessimist!

9. Even with your lack of time and writing taking up a big portion of your time, I’m still wondering if you have thoughts about editing.

You mean, thoughts about being an editor? No, can’t say that I do. Why, is that a pre-requisite to writing? ;)

I don’t think the world needs more product, it needs BETTER product. I’m not sure what the skillset is that achieves that, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have it! That, or the patience. I'm just not sure how you go about helping someone achieve their own vision (which is what I perceive the role of Editor as being -- though I could be wrong). But the times I've worked with a good editor have been sheer invigoration!

Now & then I toy with the idea of doing a reprint website – like infinity plus, or like the way Anna Tambour reprints stories she likes on her site. Something that would bring writers exposure, but wouldn't be a massive timesink -- something I had the time to achieve, in other words. Something, ergo, that wouldn't require much in the way of editing. I still hope to get around to that one day.

But for now, I've become increasingly interested in pursuing my own vision, rather than the visions offered by being part of somebody else's antho. Writing what I want to write, rather than writing-to-order. It's a kinda selfish part of the journey, but I figure it's not forever. In plenty of ways, I feel like I'm only just finding my feet in my chosen 'profession'. Once I work out what the heck I'm doing, it'd be nice to find a way to pay it forward again.

I'm not saying that'd be editing, though!

Were you editing my question there? *winks*

10. Last but not least I’m curious to know what you think can be improved within the small press industry and specifically the Australian spec fic small press arena (ooh that was quite a mouthful).

Improvement, eh? First improvement: don’t call it small press. The publishing numbers for what we call 'small press' isn't always much behind the big or established press. If anything, it's 'indie press'. It's small organisations with limited staff & limited budget, sure, but it's presenting the alternative & entirely appealing voices of writers & editors with their own visions & decisions. It's similar to indie music, right -- apart from the absence of music. And no one calls indie music 'small'. What indie outlets do well is embrace a multitude of voices -- not just one voice, & not just the most popular voice or the voice that makes the most money.

After that, what I'd like to change is the time & effort available for indie press. To my mind the biggest threat to the arts is burnout. We're all working around the edges of our lives & the edges, for a lot of us, of our jobs. It'd be nice to see an unlimited amount of time & energy somehow suddenly granted to those involved in independent creations. Imagine what we'd see then! Imagine what we'd all be capable of.

Those are the two things I'd like to see change for what we call small press.

Great answer and great way to finish off this interview – I totally agree with your comments and will make sure I call indie press, indie press from now on… did that work?

Thank you so much for this and I sincerely wish you success in all your career and writing (and fireplace) goals for the future.


Cat Sparks said...

That giant crustacean story wasn't penned by a Mr R.M. Hood was it by any chance?

deborahb said...

Unlikely. A giant crustacean story by Rob would be readable.