Thu 07

Max: the long version

Writing I did an interview with Australian Speculative Fiction recently; they’re putting together a book on Australian sci-fi writers and apparently I qualified. They e-mailed me a list of questions and, as per my usual policy, I decided, “Must respond to that soon,” then let it sit in my inbox for about a month. (I blame my mail program. Thunderbird lets you press “1” to mark a mail message in red as “Important” to make sure you don’t lose those e-mails you really need to follow up. But this gives me a totally false sense of accomplishment and closure, as if I have dealt with them and can move on. I now have a solid red inbox.)

Fortunately they kept hassling me about it, so I eventually got around to pounding out my answers. I mailed them off, they thanked me, then a week later sent me a copy of their article for the book. Of my response, they’d used four sentences.

Four sentences!

I can’t let all those other sentences go neglected. So here’s the full text, for anyone who’s interested.

1. Why do you write (insert genre)?

That’s like asking why you pick your nose: you just do. I mean, not YOU, necessarily. I’m sure you’re very hygienic. But writing is a compulsive thing: I do it because I do it. First I get an idea and it bounces around my head for a while. If it sticks around… well, I can’t just leave it there. That would be cruel. If I’m intrigued enough to want to know what happens next in this story myself, I sit down at a keyboard and find out.

I’ve never chosen a particular genre and thought, “Okay, let’s come up with a story in that.” In fact, I don’t think about genre at all. That’s the kind of thing I don’t worry about until I’m trying to sell it. When I was searching for a literary agent for Jennifer Government, one wrote back, “Sorry, we don’t represent science-fiction.” And I thought, “Science-fiction? Is that what this is?”

2. What are your motivations in writing (insert genre)?

Not very sophisticated, unfortunately. I just enjoy it. Sometimes people say I must be very disciplined to write full-time, as if I have to force myself to work on a story. But that’s not it at all; I write because it’s great fun.

I have had times when I haven’t enjoyed my writing, and I’ve forced myself to knuckle down and wade through it. This made me feel very noble and hard-working, but the fiction I ended up with was the most unmitigated crap. It turns out that, for me at least, when writing is fun and easy I’m producing good writing, and when it’s a struggle I’m wasting my time.

3. What is unique about your work?

I notice all these questions inflame the ego. I’m not sure that’s a good idea, when you’re dealing with writers. We don’t need much encouragement in that regard.

Actually, I think it’s hugely helpful to be able to convince yourself that what you’re working on is the greatest piece of literature to ever grace a page—because a novel takes a really long time to write, and if you lose faith in it, well, you might as well go watch The O.C.

“Unique” is a big word; you can argue that very little in literature is unique. But I hope my books are distinguishable by their amusing take on life, particularly all things corporate, and their focus on telling a good story with a minimum of messing around. Oh, and their complete lack of physical description. But I’m working on that.

4. Do you write in other genres or mainstream?

All of my novels are corporate satire, but the first is mixed with romantic comedy and the second with science-fiction. Of course, what kind of a genre is corporate satire? I may have gone needlessly specific there. But if that’s not my genre, I’m not sure what is, so I’ll stick with it.

I can see myself writing about things other than corporations, but I don’t think I’ll ever lose my love of humor and satire.

5. When did you first begin to write?

Apparently I dictated a book about frogs when I was two. Does that count? It was non-fiction, and somewhat terse in style, but it was published, in the sense that my Mum stapled all the pages together. Some time after that I veered off the path of journalism into fiction. I remember writing horror short stories in high school that featured my classmates — they were very popular, except among people who were in them — but I don’t remember ever actually starting writing. I’ve just always done it.

6. Do you do much research for your novels?

I do as little as possible. I will research before I’ve started work on a novel — because this is basically just reading about subjects I’m interested in. But once I’ve come up with the book’s basic premise, I don’t run out and bone up on all the relevant topics. Doing research at this point feels to restrictive: I end up trying to fit the story into the confines of reality, when I should be bending reality to fit my story. So once I’ve started writing, I avoid doing any research, even if it means leaving big, obvious gaps in the book that need to be filled in later.

7. If you could write and be published in another genre what would that be?

I’m not especially established as a science-fiction writer, but I’m interested in doing more of it. I want to write a sci-fi movie, because there is a shameful dearth of good ones.

8. What did it feel like when you had your first book published?

The first time I saw my book on the shelf of a bookstore, it looked as if someone had sneaked a copy in there. The other books all looked legitimate, but mine felt like an impostor.

It was a truly magical time, because I also thought that my run up the New York Times bestseller list was surely only a matter of time. Then reality had to go and spoil it.

9. What are your goals for writing in future? Eg break into the US market.

More than anything else, I want to tell good stories. Hmm, wait, that sounds as if so far I’ve been telling bad stories. I mean that my main motivation is to create stories I’m proud of. I hate working on a novel that doesn’t feel right, and I would hate the idea of having a novel published I didn’t love.

Sales-wise, I don’t want any novel to sell fewer copies than the one before it—but this is not something I can do much about, other than write good stories. So I’ll stick to that.

10. In your opinion, are there any uniquely Australian elements in your writing either in your characters or setting?

Only one of my books is set in Australia, even partially, and it’s a very Americanized Australia. So I don’t write what you would typically consider to be Australian literature: no Aussie slang, Outback settings, or lovable rascals. But I do think my sense of humour is very Australian. I’ve heard from a few readers that they recognized that style in my books, even before they knew I was an Aussie. Also, I think my appreciation for satire is an Australian characteristic.

11. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes, but none of it is startlingly original. Aspiring writers should write: that’s by far the most important thing. A person with no contacts and no knowledge of the publishing industry but who writes a little every day and loves what he’s doing is eventually going to get published: I really think it’s that simple. Some people will hit it big with their first novel, but most of us need time to learn what we’re doing. I have two published novels and a third coming out soon: these are, together, the second, fifth, and seventh novels I’ve written. This is success in publishing: getting three out of seven books onto the shelf.

12. Why do you think there are so many Australians writing in this genre now?

I ended up going outside Australia to find a publisher, so I’ve never really connected with the local scene. As a result, I don’t know much about it. Hmm. Maybe I should read this book.