Good aftenoon, and welcome to Day 1 of Angry Robot Week here at Beauty in Ruins, featuring Lee Battersby. We kicked things off this morning with an encore review of The Corpse Rat King, one of my favourite reads of the year, and now it's time for the day's main event, my interview with the man behind the mayhem, Lee Battersby.
Read along, and when you're done, don't forget to check out the giveaway below and enter for a chance to win a paperback ARC copy of The Corpse Rat King.
BOB: Thanks for taking the time to stop by, Lee. With the release of The Corpse-Rat King just weeks away, I know you must be busy. Before we get started, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
LEE: In no particular order: I’ve been about the Australian SF scene for about a decade. I’ve sold slightly more than 70 stories, won some awards, appeared in a few “best ofs” here and there, taught SF online and at Clarion. I think Daleks are the coolest monsters ever, except for dinosaurs. Old-school cybermen are pretty fucking cool, too. My favourite artist is Rene Magritte. William Blake is brilliant, too. I’m a fan of Nottingham Forest. I love Lego. Dino-daleks would make me lose my shit. I’m married to the beautiful Lyn, who is also an SF writer and much more talented than me. On any given day my favourite pop band is one or more of Madness, David Bowie, They Might be Giants, Pink Floyd, Warren Zevon, the Small Faces or The Who. I’ve been a stand-up comedian, tennis coach, and jewellery salesperson in previous days. I think old Dr Who shits all over new Dr Who. I have two biological kids, three inherited ones, and far too many dogs (one).
I’m a Beatles man rather than a Stones man. I don’t much like dogs. I love abstract art. I competed at the state athletics competition in both the 200 metres and triple jump when I was 11. I hate cats. MST3K makes me laugh like a drain. I love giganotosaurus’, and would keep one solely to eat all the cats. Viv Richards is my all-time favourite cricketer, but Ian Botham comes pretty close. I have a very cool day job, which finally makes up for the almost 20 years of utterly shit day jobs I had previously. I think the Goon Show is the funniest thing ever recorded, bar none. I blog at the Battersblog. When I die I want them to play ‘Days’ by The Kinks at my funeral. Also, David Bowie’s ‘The Bewlay Brothers’. My favourite colour is burgundy. I drink more Pepsi Max than is healthy. My favourite poem is “Little Johnny’s Confession” by Brian Patten. I probably swear too much. I’m currently wearing black underpants. I have attached my CV to this application and look forward to an interview at your convenience.
BOB: I was with you until the end. Dinosaurs and Daleks, oh yeah, but I gotta go with Coke Zero over Pepsi Max (LOL). The journey to publication can be a long one, even with the rise of small presses and indie publishing. How has the experience of bringing a novel to print differed from that of your short stories?
LEE: Time frames, certainly, and the level of involvement in the process. Strangely, I feel more involved in the novel process than I do with short stories. With shorts I tend to take a fire-and-forget approach, because of the volume I produce: I send a story off, the editor buys it (hopefully), I provide a short bio and maybe a picture, and generally, that’s it. With the novel, because I’m working with a publisher outside the uber-houses, I’ve been able to build dialogues over months with the editor, the publicity manager, the webmaster… the long time frame is offset by the feeling that I’m very much part of the team, which is quite nice. I’ve got good relationships with many magazine editors with whom I’ve worked, but often it takes several submissions to build up that kind of dialogue. The downside is that I’ve had to alter my story-telling thought processes to deal with that change in time frame: I’m used to finishing a piece, sending it off, and then scrubbing my mind clean and starting again with a whole new set of narrative reference points. I’m just finishing up editing the second Marius dos Hellespont novel, ‘Marching Dead’. I’ve been living with these characters and their world now for the better part of two years now. I’m not used to that level of internal engagement.
BOB: In my review, I mentioned that The Corpse-Rat King brought to mind the talents of Gilliam, Bullington, and Gaiman. What were your inspirations going into the story, either literary or cinematic?
LEE: I don’t really think I had any overt inspirations going into the novel: I had a story I wanted to write, and a way of telling it that I wanted to explore, but that was about it. Once I was into it, what emerged was a desire to touch upon certain subjects I’ve found interesting, rather than a desire to emulate any particular person or artist. I watch a tonne of documentaries on a regular basis, so there was this vast storehouse of factoids I wanted to scroll through. So you could probably say my inspirations were the History Channel and UKTV……
Generally, I’m inspired by artists that cross boundaries of form or genre, people who work across a range of different art forms. People like David Bowie, Spike Milligan, David Hockney, Brian May, Alice Cooper, Tara Moss, James Thurber, Gahan Wilson… artists who have achieved a level of fame and success in one art form and have then been able to create further careers in a different sphere altogether. It’s a general aspiration on my part, but polymaths fascinate me, and eventually I’d like to achieve something in a similar vein.
BOB: You could do a lot worse than Bowie, May, and Cooper for inspiration. Assuming you were offered the opportunity to adapt The Corpse-Rat King as a film, who would you look at for your dream cast? How about a director?
LEE: Oh, I think Gilliam would be a nice choice as director. I love the way nothing in his movies looks quite real, and the way everything seems to exist in some dream-like ‘other’ state. As to casting, there was only one character for whom I had a strong real-life analog pictured—that was Captain Bomthe, who I very much pictured as Bill Nighy. Marius is quite short, in his late thirties, dark skinned; Gerd a big beefy, peasant-faced lad of 19 or so; Keth a tall, willowy dancer in her early thirties; Granny a grotty old crone. Who would you choose? Besides, if Gilliam is directing you know we’ll end up with a cast of oddities and freaks anyway, which is how I like it. Oh, and let’s have Ron Perlman as Master Spone, because, you know, Ron Perlman….
BOB: The last decade has seen a significant explosion in Australian fantasy authors, including the likes of Rowena Cory Daniells, Sara Douglas, Jennifer Fallon, Kate Forsyth, Sean McMullen, yourself, and others. To what do you attribute the popularity of authors from Down Under?
LEE: Australian fantasy authors have been around for a fair while: McMullen and Douglas, for example, seem to have been around forever, and Terry Dowling is another who seems to have been producing high quality stories since the year dot. I think we have a few genuinely world-class authors, but I honestly don’t spend any time trying to work out how we do it differently to writers from other countries. It’s hard enough trying to establish your own voice without trying to fit it into a perception of nationality.
BOB: Canadian fantasy has almost become a sub-genre of its own, offering a unique take on things. Do you see something similarly unique in the Australian perspective?
LEE: One of my closest friends in the writing world is a Western Australian author who has published several novels with the Canadian publisher Edge SF, so I’m not convinced we can claim exclusivity of voice here.
However, where a difference occurs I think it comes down to that elusive bitch, ‘voice’. I know my voice isn’t quintessentially Australian, just as I know the late writer Paul Haines’ voice was, despite the fact that neither of us was born in Australia and he came to the country a lot later in life than I did. But what that essential element is that he possessed and I lack, I don’t know. Word choice, sentence structure, the way characters speak, setting, a combination of the lot, perhaps. There’s something in that Australian voice that strikes our American and British colleagues as exotic, and that’s no bad thing because, as writers, it gives us an entrance point into the marketplace. In wider cultural terms there certainly seems to be a laconic cynicism in the national psyche, and a somewhat lassez faire acceptance of social convention, but like all such statements, these are gross generalisations. Maybe it’s just because we’re all so damn sexy…
BOB: If we can talk the mechanics of writing for a moment, do you have a habit, a trick, or an obsession in how and where you write?
LEE: I can’t edit on screen. Tried. Can’t do it. I have to print out the whole thing, no matter how long—and doesn’t my little old desktop printer just love those 250 page documents?—and edit by hand, page after page of red pen action until the job is done. Then type all the changes in, rinse and repeat. My kids have all the scrap paper they could ask for…… The writing act itself I’m flexible about. I have to be: my day job and family life are both pretty hectic, so I have to be flexible in the when and where of how I write, so I’ve always got a laptop or iPod or my phone with me so I can at least use the notes function to jot down a few things.
BOB: You and me both - red pen on paper is the only way I can edit. In terms of story, what comes easiest for you, and where do you struggle the most? Is it the title? The first paragraph? The last chapter? The cover blurb?
LEE: When it comes to novels I seem to glide through until about halfway. Then I hit a wall and have to piece the second half of the book together out of narrative order. I usually start with a pretty good idea of where I want to begin, where I want to end, and what I want to happen to the main characters in general: I leave the specifics to the writing process and hope to be surprised along the way. I think I get to a point where the surprises outweigh my grasp on the narrative and have to pause while I work out what it all means! But I always have a title in mind and a good strong beginning image before I start.
BOB: When you’re not writing, what authors do you look to for entertainment or inspiration?
LEE: I’m an utter bibliophile: I collect books far more quickly than I can read them. My fictional loves are far too numerous to name: Mieville, Palahniuk, Wells, Waldrop, Ogden Nash, Vonnegut, Lethem, Harlan Ellison, Vance, Wolfe, Zelazny, Dumas, Ellroy, Hammett, Capote, Pratchett, Dick, Spike Milligan, Voltaire, Aldiss, Bradbury, Moorcock, the beat poets, Shakespeare, Melville, Swift, Stoppard, Mosley… honestly, how long have you got? I love graphic novels, secret histories, biographies of obscure historical figures, collections of letters… there’s not much I won’t try at least once. As of the very moment I write this paragraph, my current reading list consists of: ‘Citadel of the Autarch’ by Gene Wolfe, ‘Green Lantern: Rebirth’ by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver, and ‘Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote’, assembled by Gerald Clarke.
BOB: I have to admit, Wolfe's Book of the New Sun has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for far too long. With The Marching Dead coming next year, can you give us a glimpse or a preview of what we can expect?
LEE: Things aren’t going to get much better for our hero, Marius dos Hellespont. There’s a whole lot of loss heading his way, and a lot of betrayal, both by and against him, and he’s going to face losing the things he truly values in order to take possession of the one thing he doesn’t want. And there are a bunch of rude jokes, and psycho killer skeleton nuns, and the oddest sex scene I’ve ever written. How does that grab you? :)
BOB: Psycho killer skeleton nuns AND the oddest sex scene yet? Okay, I was anxious before, but not I'm just damned impatient! Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there another novel in the works (aside from The Marching Dead), or perhaps a short story to tide the fans over?
Midnight Echo #8 and a poem in Bete Noire. Writing-wise, I’m halfway through a novel called ‘Father Muerte and the Divine’ which I hope to finish by year’s end, and which is based upon a character I’ve visited in four short stories over the years. Then I’m looking forward to working on an idea I have for a post-apocalyptic revenger’s tragedy, and I’ve half an idea for a very post-modern novel which will piggle about with the structure of the reader/writer relationship a bit—I need to tie it to a narrative still, but maybe it will amount to something. I’ve had a couple of short story ideas, too, for a couple of anthologies that have piqued my interest, and I’ll be getting to them before the end of the year. So it’s all go!
BOB: Well, I’ll let you get back to writing, but thanks again for stopping by.
LEE: My pleasure. Thanks for the chance to chat.