Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Interview with Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter is the talented, prolific and acclaimed author of Sourdough and Other Stories, The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Midnight and Moonshine (with Lisa L. Hannett), The Bitterwood Bible and Other RecountingsBlack-Winged Angels, and The Female Factory (with Lisa L. Hannett) (Forthcoming 2014). In this exclusive Shock Room interview, she talks about her most recently published collection, The Bitterwood Bible, her writing process, and some of her influences.

Where did you grow up, and how has the place where you lived as a child influenced your writing?

I grew up in several places. My Dad was a cop and so we moved around with his job. My sister and I were born in Cairns (in Tropical North Queensland); moved to Ipswich (a mining town in the south of the state) when we were three and one respectively; then out to Longreach (in the Australian outback) at nine and seven; back to Cairns at eleven and nine; and then back to Ipswich at fourteen and twelve. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Brisbane (capital city of Queensland), apart from a four year stint in Sydney.

What this gives me, I guess, is a really strong sense of home not being about a place necessarily, but about the people you’re with. One of my favourite Clive James quotes, which I shall paraphrase very poorly, is that like all those who’ve left home, I know it immediately when I find it again, no matter where that may happen to be. I think I’ve carried that idea around inside me for a very long time, and I think it’s an idea that comes through in my fiction, especially where I deal with characters who’ve been sundered from their homes and families. 

Where/ what was your first professional publication?

think my first acceptance was from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet for “The Juniper Tree” in 2006, but I also got an acceptance from Shimmer soon after for “The Little Match Girl”, and that story was published first.

Which fairy tales and short stories made a particularly strong impression on you, growing up, and stayed with you over the years?

As far as fairy tales are concerned, probably: “The Little Match Girl” for its cruelty and lack of justice; “Donkeyskin” for its ideas about having to hide who you were; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” for ideas about devotion and self-sacrifice; “Bluebeard” for its ideas about injustice (again) and fortuitous timing; and “Fitcher’s Bird” for its clever female heroine.

As for short stories: “The Tower” by Marghanita Laski for its slow build of tension; “Gabriel Ernest” by Saki for its cleverness and subtle foreboding; “The Chosen Vessel” by Barbara Baynton for being recognisably set in a place I lived; and “The Wendigo’s Child” for scaring the poop out of me and keeping me awake many nights, listening in the dark.

What is your process when you work with a partner, and how is it different from your process when you work alone?

When I work alone, I’m probably as close as I ever get to lazy! With a collaborator, someone is relying on me and so I take that trust very seriously. I know I need to respect someone else’s schedule as much as I do my own. Honestly, even when it’s just me I’m pretty good and am a respecter of the deadline because an editor needs me to provide something by a certain time and I try my best to be professional.

When I’m collaborating (with Lisa L. Hannett), our first drafts are brain vomit. Whoever has the spark of an idea starts the story, vomits on the page until they’re empty, then sends that unfiltered brown stuff off. Then the receiver reads the brown stuff, gives it a bit of an edit, then adds new unfiltered brown stuff and sends it off. Then we go back and forth until there’s a full story, then we go to town on a couple of proper, ruthless edits.

When I’m on my own, there’s only my conscience and the other voices in my head to push me along. I think I find the first draft the hardest because you’re creating something out of air ... when you’re editing, you’ve already got some word-clay there to play with. When there’s just you, the screen/page, and your imagination (with the inner critic laughing at you), it can be challenging ... and suddenly even cleaning the toilet seems appealing.

How are the stories in Sourdough and Bitterwood Bible connected? What themes, characters, or ideas tie the collections together?

The Sourdough collection came first, and my intention was to write a sequel to that book ... but I’d written the story “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” not long after Sourdough was published, and I’d taken the name of my main character from a headstone in the churchyard of Lodellan (one of the main locations in Sourdough), and I wanted to continue her story. So, I couldn’t make it a sequel, but rather went for a prequel, and Hepsibah Ballantyne weaves her way through The Bitterwood Bible. I’ve got the sequel written now, am and editing it. The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales starts in Lodellan, then moves away from the city, which I did on purpose. Sourdough, as the middle book, has Lodellan as its main centre, all the tales somehow circle around it; Bitterwood starts in a different city, and then slowly but surely moves towards Lodellan (where the last tale occurs); The Tallow-Wife, as the final book in the cycle, has its opening story in Lodellan then shifts the reader away again.

The stories take place in the same world, which is inflected by my reading of English, French, Italian and German fairy and folk tales. I’m working on a graphic novel of Sourdough with Kathleen Jennings, and so we’re figuring out how to mix together all our favourite elements of costumes from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Regency and Georgian periods to get the sort of outfits that have been in my mind onto paper.

As well as being connected by locations, there are the characters, which may appear as a protagonist in one tale, then reappear in a later story either as a secondary or tertiary character, or as someone than the new protagonist tells a tale about ... so the idea is that you end up getting a much more rounded view that if you’ve only got a single view point character to tell you about themselves and the world around them.

As for themes, I think the ideas of home and family and loss of those things are very strong in both collections, as well as ideas about memory and how it shifts and changes across time. I also like to explore issues about female agency or the lack thereof, the position of women, the fear of women, and ideas about witchcraft and legend and female familial relationships. I think those ideas are deeply embedded in the Sourdough Cycle of stories.

Do you feel your characters often represent your world view, or is it a leap for you to create each character's POV?

I always think that each character carries a little sliver of me inside them. I don’t think I could write convincingly if I couldn’t put myself right in the head of the character. So, though I may not agree with their actions, in order for me to understand them and write them, I have to be utterly empathetic to them, see their point of view without judging them, even if they do terrible things. It doesn’t mean I’ll do terrible things, just that I make a conscious effort to understand my characters as well as I can. 

Do you continue to do much research, or rely upon your background and memory of reading history and fairy tales, when you are constructing a fictional world?

When I’m writing in the Sourdough world I have to refer back to previous stories to make sure I keep things consistent. When I’m looking for new ideas to expand, I do more research (research is always fun - at least one of the books on my nightstand is a research book about something), then work out how I can weave it into what’s currently in existence. The important thing for me about the Sourdough world is that it feels very much like our own world - or like an idea of a timeless past version of our own world, so that it’s recognisable to most readers - and that the places where it departs from that recognisability are the places where it becomes something unique and startles the reader.

Will there be more Angela Slatter books set in the Sourdough / Bitterwood Bible universe?

Yes! There’s The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales, which I’ll send to Tartarus Press as soon as I finish polishing it. And I’ve just submitted a novella called The Witch’s Scale to Simon Marshall-Jones at Spectral Press, which takes one of the characters from Sourdough and tells a story of another part of her life. She’s one of my favourite characters and it was wonderful to revisit her and fill in some gaps! There are several other characters from bothSourdough and Bitterwood that I want to write more about, and so I think I’ll manage a few more novellas and short stories in the world. 

Whose work are you reading these days?

I’m re-reading Barbara Hambly’s James Asher series, which I just love. Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book Great. Nathan Ballingrud’s absolutely breathtakingly masterful North American Lake MonstersPrincesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. Link and Grant’s Monstrous AffectionsNecropolis: London and Her Dead by Catherine Arnold. Oh, and Gary McMahon’s simply brilliant The Bones of You.

Whose writing excites and/or inspires you?

Why, S.P. Miskowski, of course! And Mercedes Murdock Yardley. Lisa Hannett, Kelly Link, Eugie Foster, Aliette De Bodard, Margo Lanagan, Cat Sparks, John Connolly, Laird Barron, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Alan Moore, Shirley Jackson, Karen Joy Fowler, MR James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Charlotte Bronte ... I could go on forever.

What are you working on at the moment?


This year I’ve released Bitterwood and Black-Winged Angels (from Ticonderoga Publications), and Lisa Hannett and I have written the eleventh instalment in the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, called The Female Factory (which should be out on 15 Nov this year). I’m editing my novel, Vigil, finishing a short story called “Mr Underhill”, plotting for the sequels to Vigil, I’ve got two commissioned stories to write before mid-December, I’ve got another novella on the boil, and another novel called Scandalous Lady Detective. And I’m editing The Tallow-Wife, writing three new short stories for a collection for Noose & Gibbet, and working on a graphic novel and a picture book with Kathleen Jennings. And I get on a plane for World Fantasy next week. There may be some small, stress-related shrieks issuing from our apartment at the moment.

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