Wednesday 28 August 2019

Interview with Lee Murray By David Kempf

When did you first become interested in writing?

It’s hard to separate writing from reading, isn’t it? From the moment I was born, my parents read to me, instilling a passion for books and story that I’ve never been able to wean myself from. I remember loving words, and the sounds the words made, and I liked the shape of them. I think I was two when I learned the shape of the word Christmas, with its festive, bauble-shaped ‘i’ in the middle. I remember struggling to decipher ‘who’ from ‘how’ and the difference between ‘their’ and ‘there’. I felt lucky that Lee was short and perfectly formed, starting with an elegant straight-backed ‘L’ and then those lovely identical ee’s that were so hard to get right.

At bedtime, Dad would read to my brother and me—Horton the Elephant was a popular choice—or tell us stories he made up himself. One of Dad’s recurring protagonists was the brilliant and intrepid inventor, Professor Morgan—naturally, Dad’s name is Morgan—who created machines out of junk which he then put to work solving important world problems. Professor’s Morgan’s most famous invention was the Zzz-Burp, a steampunk-style zeppelin, named for the noise it made as it travelled. Dad made the best noises. There were other stories too, including a series of hilarious tales about a pair of frogs named Horace and Aristotle who lived in the creek at the end of our road. In the tradition of all comic duos, there was a dumb one (Horace), and a smart one (Aristotle). It wasn’t until much later, that I worked out where he’d stolen the names from. The thing about Dad’s stories, was that they were always in development, sometimes the whole family taking part. For example, when we took road trips, he would tell us that our cousin, Jocelyn, was following the car, taking rides on surprised cows, running through houses, and effectively inventing parkour in a frantic attempt to catch us up. Only, any time our poor cousin looked like she might reach us, some other dreadful calamity would intervene to prevent it. Looking back, it was classic plotting; Dad showing us how to throw up obstacle after obstacle to prevent the protagonist from reaching her goal. Eventually, if the story looked like it was going to end, my siblings and I would jump in with a suggestion. Oh no! She’s got stuck in some tar! Whoops, look out for that washing line. To this day, I’m not sure any of us ever revealed to Jocelyn that she was the heroine of some of the most amazing adventures ever told, stories that entertained us for hours as we drove to the beach for the weekend, or to the city to visit our grandmother.

Since those early days when my love of story was kindled, I’ve always scribbled, writing long newsy tales in letters to family, keeping notebooks, and penning blog posts and articles. Strangely though, becoming a ‘real’ writer felt as impossible as growing up to be a princess. On the encouragement of my parents, I opted instead for the stability of test tubes and autoclaves. Sometimes, I wish I’d side-stepped the science degrees, but then I remember that everything we do informs our writing, so heading off on that tangent hasn’t been a waste. I got married, worked other jobs, travelled, and finally wrote my first book in my mid-thirties, working on the manuscript during my children’s nap times. I didn’t decide to make writing my career until a decade later, when my husband encouraged me to take the plunge.

How did you get involved in fantasy/horror?

I started by borrowing all the science fiction and fantasy I could find the Taupō Public Library. As children, we visited the library every Friday evening, where the four of us were allowed to borrow up to twenty books each! This meant my weekends almost always involved being immersed in some fantasy world or other: Tolkien, Lewis, Barrie… So when it came to write, it seemed natural that I would also choose to write in this genre. However, one of my earliest novels, which I call my practice book, is a chick-lit title, a Kiwi romp based around my long-distance running experiences. That old ‘write what you know’ adage might have something to do with it. Anyway, the book’s internal conflicts focused on personal growth, selflessness and perseverance, but the external barriers the heroine faced were less meaty and included wardrobe malfunctions, cupcake deprivation, attempts to avoid paparazzi. Set in my hometown, was a lot of fun to write, and readers still tell me they enjoy it, but I realised then I wanted to examine more deeper themes, and that naturally led me to horror.

Tell us about your first publisher. 

My first publisher, Taramea Publishing, was a small Māori publisher based on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsular. The publisher, Werohia, herself a writer of New Zealand picture books in both English and te reo Māori, was a keen proponent of New Zealand-flavoured stories with strong spiritual and mythological underpinnings, which she hoped would resonate for local children, and also inform other readers about life here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I did some research, and, convinced my work was a good fit for her stable, I sent her a standard query, attaching a rather dark middle grade speculative novel called Battle of the Birds, in which a homesick Kiwi named Annie travels back home to New Zealand on an American eagle, only to discover she’s arrived in the wrong time, and right in the middle of a battle between the flighted and flightless birds. As it turned out, Werohia was sick at the time, so she made herself a hot drink, curled up in bed, and read the manuscript from cover to cover. The next thing I knew, she’d sent me a contract. I could barely read the legalese, so I contacted a much-loved local writer for children, Susan Brocker, who I’d never met, to ask her for advice. Happily, Suzy was able to point me to organisations and resources to help me decipher what the words meant. Once the contract was signed, we got on to the business of creating the book. The press was small, employing only part-time staff, but the focus was always on putting out a high-quality work, so I was able to work closely with the house’s formatters, artists, assessors, and editors. For me, it was a massive learning curve, but those early experiences have proved to be hugely helpful over the course of my career. The book was launched by Bay of Plenty writer-celebrity and kaumatua, Tommy ‘Kapai’ Wilson, and went on to earn me my first Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Youth Novel for science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing. New Zealand children’s book expert, Trevor Agnew, listed it in The Dominion Post’s best books for children. Several years later, Werohia and I parted ways, rights for Battle of the Birds returning to me when her focus changed. It turned out that instead of writing and publishing adventures, Werohia wanted to live them, winning herself a spot as a sailor on a now-famous 2012 expedition that saw two waka hourua (double-hulled canoes) travel from New Zealand to Rapanui in a round trip of 10,000 nautical miles (18,500km). The crews used strictly traditional navigational methods to guide them, relying on the stars, moon, sun, ocean currents, birds and marine life to make the epic journey. Nowadays, Werohia helps other people discover their own life adventures, offering isolated bush retreats and holiday accommodation to visitors to the Bay of Plenty. I’m always very grateful to her for launching my own writing adventure.

How would you classify the genre you write?

Another tough question! My own view is that the term ‘genre’ provides a convenient means for booksellers and librarians to classify works into broad categories which will enable readers to find the kind of books they enjoy on the shelves. It’s easy enough to classify the book when we’re talking about memoir, a cookbook, or children’s non-fiction. However, when it comes to fiction, classifications can be entirely arbitrary and sometimes a little foggy. Is Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a classic literary work with sociopolitical underpinnings, or would you classify it as a speculative fantasy? Is Andy Weir’s The Martian a suspenseful techno-thriller or a work of hard science fiction? The truth is, they are all of these things, depending on the reader’s perspective. For example, my books for adults have been categorised as military thriller, supernatural crime-noir, new pulp, kaiju fiction, speculative fiction, action adventure, magical realism, mystery, science fiction and fantasy, and horror. That’s a lot of categories. When people ask me what I write, I tend to say that I am a New Zealand writer of New Zealand stories, since almost all of my work is set here at home in our dramatic volcanic landscape, involves Kiwi characters, or explores some aspect of local mythology and culture. Calling my work New Zealand fiction first and foremost feels like an important part of my identity as a writer. Here at home, I’m best known for science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction—for adults and children—however you’re unlikely to discover entirely new worlds in my works. There are few elves, dwarves, or beleaguered kingdoms described in my stories. However, almost all of my work features magical realism or supernatural elements, set in a recognisable contemporary or historical setting. And most of my work includes horror elements, although I wouldn’t call it classic horror, since there are no haunted houses, malevolent children, cabins in the woods, or red balloons. That said, it is very dark in places, and tends to explore familiar horror themes of isolation, superstition, otherness. A recent feature article published in a local paper named me New Zealand’s Mistress of Menace! If only menace was a genre. Overall, I think the terms that best describe my work are dark Kiwi speculative fiction.

The question of genre is a sensitive one for many writers, though. Most of us agree that readers should have ready access to books they’ll find entertaining, informative, even provocative, but grouping writers and writing into ‘genres’ has other consequences. There’s a positive aspect, since it allows writers to find their ‘tribe’, offering opportunities for us to network with colleagues who share our creative perspectives. The romance writers’ group is one of the most welcoming thriving writing communities in New Zealand, for example, and the same can be said for our speculative and horror communities. Believe me, there is nothing more inspiring than a bunch of horror writers having a chat over coffee, and the convention post-award room parties are ultra-fun. However, these same genre classifications also open us up to exclusion by funders, festival organisers, booksellers, and even readers, since there’s a long-held (and entirely false) view that says only ‘literary’ fiction has merit. One critic, who is well-known in New Zealand science fiction and fantasy fandom, demonstrates this bias by proudly announcing that she won’t read New Zealand speculative fiction, and nor will she read horror. In her view, they can have no merit. Of course, that is her choice; she’s free to read, or not read, these types of books if she likes. Personally, I think excluding great chunks of our literary smorgasbord is like removing a food group from your diet. Without that balance, our individual and collective well-being is compromised.

Why do you think horror and fantasy books remain so popular?

It’s true people have always been fascinated by horror/fantasy and while affordability and accessibility have played a part, from the early pulp fiction comics, through to current film and book distributors like Netflix and Amazon, a key reason for that interest is that horror and fantasy works address important themes that are universal to us all, real issues that have an impact on our lives. And there’s a lovely paradox in play too because horror fantasies allow us to face our fears head on, while still maintaining a measure of distance. Also, wherever we have horror, it is juxtaposed with hope, since in examining those hard topics, horror encourages us consider possible solutions. Let’s face it, it stands to reason that when the zombie apocalypse inevitably comes, readers of Maberry’s Patient Zero are going to be one step ahead of the horde. 

What inspires your stories?

This is probably an odd answer, but our New Zealand landscape plays a big part. Writing the Taine McKenna adventure series, and also the Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series which I co-write with Dan Rabarts, the New Zealand landscape, with its geysers, crater lakes, mountain ranges, and dense mist-filled forests has been a wonderful source of story, and New Zealand storytellers have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. And if our local storytellers imbue our stories with our history and culture, throw in the call of the kōkako and the whims of our gods, and add in the Māori concept of the landscape representing our ancestors, then there is a point of difference, something unique that doesn’t appear in other literature. As a New Zealand writer, I feel there is a responsibility for us to tell our stories, to offer our perspectives in this moment, and our landscape is essential to that viewpoint.

What do you think the difference between American horror and British horror is?

As an outsider, the differences are hard to pinpoint—apart from the obvious spelling and idiom.
I think British horror retains an island mentality, that idea of isolation and separation that we see captured in New Zealand fiction, whereas American horror conveys a sense of vastness. It’s a place where villains and monsters are able to disappear into obscurity. Who knows what the Americans have hidden underneath Area 51? And British horror seems steeped in tradition and propriety, whereas writers in former colonies like New Zealand, and previously the USA, might have more pioneering freedom to dash off into unknown worlds.

What are your favorite horror books?

Oh this is too hard. Please don’t make me do this. I have so many favourites. Instead, to give you an idea of what I like, why don’t I tell you what I’ve been reading over the past couple of weeks? For example, I’m speeding through Fountain Dead by Theresa Braun, and if I’m bleary-eyed today, it’s all her fault. To be honest, I’m late to the party on this one—it was released last year—and I only wish I’d got to it sooner. A fresh take on the gothic haunted house thriller, Braun’s writing has a wonderful clarity, and wow, she knows how to write tension. Not quite finished it yet, but already I can recommend it. I’ve also been enjoying Alessandro Manzetti’s gorgeous graphic novel adaptation of Poppy Z. Brite’s short story, Calcutta: Lord of Nerves, a surprise gift print copy which arrived for me in the post last week. Calcutta Horror is illustrated by Stefano Cardoselli, whose stunning black and white images perfectly capture the gritty, lonely aspect of the story. A real treat. In fact, I’ve enjoyed a veritable banquet of Manzetti’s writing lately, dipping into his most recent poetry collection The Place of Broken Things which is co-written with the indomitable Linda D. Addison, who is a Lifetime Member of the Horror Writers Association, one of the most significant and eloquent poets of our time, and perhaps our most hard-working champion of diversity in writing. I’ve been savouring this wasabi-sharp collection in small bites, partly because this examination of the nature of trauma is not only deadly brutal, but also because the words are so powerful, the images so astounding that it requires some reflection. More Manzetti: I’ve also had the privilege of reading the English language version of his speculative Cold War novella The Keeper of Chernobyl, which is forthcoming from Omnium Gatherum. Already published to some acclaim in Italy, weird science lovers are going to devour this one. Gruesome and compelling!

For a quick read over coffee, I gobbled up Lit-RPG short story Thirty to Fifty Feral Hogs, a recent bestseller by Australian horror writer Matthew Barbeler, and a spin-off from his Rise of the Crimson Order world. I’m new to Lit-RPG which is a break-the-fourth-wall approach to game adventure. I enjoyed this short read; it’s great fun, and well-orchestrated in Barbeler’s hands. For those readers who prefer their fiction without the gaming intrusion, I recommend sampling some of Barbeler’s other horror works. Carnifex, a chompy, uniquely Australian tale, written in his penname Matthew Hellscream, is a favourite of mine.

One of the best perks of being a writer is that, occasionally, I’m offered sneak peeks at work written by my colleagues. Recently, I was lucky enough to read Christine Morgan’s fabulous deep-sea horror-thriller Trench Mouth. I’m still gasping. With Morgan, you know the water’s going to run red. Trench Mouth is 100,000 words of breathless, action-packed terror. I’ve also read Kathleen’s Kaufmann’s Diabhal, which is releasing soon from Turner Publishing, and EV Knight’s debut novel The Fourth Whore (Raw Dog Screaming Press). Both beautifully crafted narratives with feminist themes, everyone needs to read these empowering and important novels. And for fantasy lovers, I’ve been loving Omens, the final title in A.J. Ponder’s hilarious YA fantasy send up The Sylvalla Chronicles, told by revered wizard academic Freddie Fraderghast and following the exploits of the Princess Sylvalla, better known for the point of her blade than she is for needlepoint.

Omens is a standalone adventure, but if you’re quick you probably still have time to read the first two books in the series: Quest and Prophecy. Sons of the Curse, the second book in my colleague Dan Rabart’s Children of Bane comic fantasy epic is also due out soon too. Picking up from where Brothers of the Knife left off, it’s hard to categorise this book which incorporates many of the best elements of traditional fantasy—elves, dwarves, wyvern, betrayal, intrigue, family squabbles, and meals eaten on the hoof. Did I mention the steampunk airship and the tragic love story? Finally, I have a poem appearing in the HWA’s upcoming Poetry Showcase VI anthology, so I’ve seen a proof preview of the entire text and I all I can say is I’m extremely humbled to have my name appear alongside so many poets I admire and respect. Edited by Bram Stoker winning poet Stephanie Wytovich along with poets Cynthia Pelayo and Christa Carmen, this is a stunning collection and not to be missed.

What are some of your favorite horror movies?

This is where I admit that while most of my reading is speculative and horror, I don’t watch horror movies. Nope, nope, nope. Horror movies terrify me. I have tried it three times and each time they have given me night terrors. The first time, I stayed up late and watched Trilogy of Terror by myself in 1976 (at age 9), and later I saw the 1920s silent version of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in class while I was in middle school in 1978. And the last time I watched a horror movie was at the cinema in 1981, when I went with friends to watch Friday 13th Part, II. After watching Freddie slaughter those teenagers, I screamed in my sleep for weeks, so much so that my parents asked me not to see any more horror movies, please. Even now, all these years later, images and scenes from those three movies still repeat in my head and make me wake up in a sweat. Sometimes I yell. Maybe it has something to do with the immediacy of the media. I don’t know. In any case, in the interests of sleep, I do not watch horror movies or even horror movie trailers (except by accident).

(Also, this kills me because so many of my writer friends have wonderful work that has been adapted into film that I would love to see.)

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as an author?

In 2017, I was awarded New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for Services to Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and last year I became SpecFicNZ’s first life member. I consider these some of my greatest accomplishments as an author, since I am most proud of my community-building work. Stemming in part from my writing, I undertake a lot of ‘mostly-free’ work intended to develop new writers and readers. For example, together with my colleague and dear friend, Piper Mejia, I co-founded volunteer group Young New Zealand Writers and for the past decade we have been offering national writing competitions, full-day writing workshops, mentorship, and publishing opportunities for New Zealand school students. Receiving sometimes as many as a thousand entries to our competitions, we still provide individual feedback to every student who sends us their work. In recent years, we’ve run some of our workshops alongside the New Zealand national convention, including this year’s GeyserCon where I was the convention’s programme director. I undertake a lot of mentorship, usually juggling up to four or five mentees at a time.

Not only do I learn a lot myself through mentorship, but it’s especially rewarding to see writers I’ve worked with produce high quality work and develop their careers further. Several of my mentees have simply surpassed me, winning major literary awards, or obtaining those little orange Amazon bestselling flags. For community building, it helps that I’m involved in a number of writing organisations where it’s easy to jump on board and support ongoing initiatives or gain support for project ideas I might have. I’m a member of a number of international groups (ITW, HWA, AHWA) and am actively involved in several local writing organisations such as SpecFicNZ, the New Zealand Society of Authors, and Tauranga Writers—New Zealand’s longest-running writing group.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

If you can, grow a carapace.
Seriously though, welcome to all our new writers! Come over to the dark side. There’s a place for you here in horror.

What is your opinion of the new self-publishing trend?

Self-publishing has become a vital part of our industry, and with opportunities for traditional publishing retrenching, many of my colleagues are turning to the hybrid model of traditional and self-publishing to fund their careers. Diversification is just good business sense. Self-publishing can be quicker, more lucrative, and writers retain more autonomy over their work than they would with a traditional publishing house. However, the barriers to entry are low—anyone can upload their homework and call it a book—so self-publishers are not always well received within the industry, their work seen as inferior despite some top-class writing coming from that sector. Even for traditional writers, there is merit in self-publishing at least some work to gain an idea of what the publisher’s role is, and all the tasks required to produce and sell a quality product.

What are your current projects?

Thanks for asking! I’ve just completed Blood of the Sun, the final book in the supernatural crime-noir series I write with my colleague Dan Rabarts, so right now I’m taking advantage of the break in novel projects to work on some overdue short story commissions. I’m busy organising a New Zealand book launch for my middle grade adventure, Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse, releasing in October from IFWG Publishing, Australia. Together with UK editor Marie O’Regan, I’m wrapping up the last edits on Trickster’s Treats: Seven Deadly Sins a Halloween charity anthology for Things in the Well, Australia. I’m also about to guest edit Issue 10 of Breach Magazine, a dark fiction magazine showcasing Australian and New Zealand writing, and towards the end of the year I’ll be co-judging a national writing award on behalf of the New Zealand Society of Authors. In the works for 2020, is a short story collection, and also a couple of secret squirrel projects that I’m bursting to tell people about. Needless to say, I envisage a lot of cheese-on-toast dining in my future.

Please in your own words, write a paragraph about yourself & your work. 

Lee Murray is a New Zealand-born Chinese writer of dark speculative fiction for adults and children. Despite her penchant for darkness, there is nothing scary about her. She is five foot flat and wears teeny size 5 shoes. Born with clicky hip syndrome, doctors told her parents she would never walk, so being naturally contrary, she didn’t just walk, she went on to run 25 marathons, countless half marathons, and an ultramarathon, running the same way she writes—slowly. The oldest of four children, her siblings describe her as bossy.

She goes by Lee, Lilee, and Floss. She sometimes sings in the shower, and it is probably best it stays that way. She loves the New Zealand bush, family trips in the caravan, and a naughty Jack-tzu named Bella. Lee is lucky enough to have lived in New Zealand, England, France, and Wisconsin USA, all places which have allowed her to pursue her passion for cheese. Married for the past thirsty years to David, the best spouse a writer could dream of, they have two fantastic grown up kids (one Slytherin, one Hufflepuff, both Browncoats).

Lee speaks fluent French, but regrets never learning Cantonese, her mother’s language, and only having a smattering of words in Māori, which she considers one of the most beautiful and evocative languages in the world. She’s done quite well with this writing caper, even winning some literary awards, which is probably just as well since she isn’t fond of housework, cooking, or gardening. And when it comes to getting a duvet cover on the duvet, please, don’t go there. Lee says that while it’s wonderful that people enjoy her stories, and thank you for all your lovely positive reviews, if she’s remembered for anything, she hopes it’s for being kind.

A multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows) and a two-time Bram Stoker nominee, Lee Murray’s works include the Taine McKenna military thrillers (Severed), and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra, co-written with Dan Rabarts (RDSP). She is proud to have edited twelve dark fiction works, including the award-winning anthology Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror. Lee lives in New Zealand where she conjures stories for readers of all ages from her office overlooking a cow paddock.