Interview with Lee Murray – Part 2

In the previous blog post, we spoke with New Zealand writer Lee Murray about her dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, and her journey with Black Cranes. (Click here for the first interview in this series.) Here we cover her second award-winning book, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

  1. Grotesque: Monster Stories was your first collection, and it won a Bram Stoker for best collection. After all the books you’re famed for, why the move to short stories? What challenges did you face in comparison to publishing novels and novellas?

Not exactly a ‘move’ to short stories; I’d been writing short fiction for anthologies and magazines, and less frequently for competitions, in order to improve my writing, and gain some early credits. Short fiction is a demanding form, with every word vital for creating ambiance, character, and plot. There is the tricky balance of adhering to the theme of the submission call, while also delivering something fresh and engaging. And there is the discipline of sticking to a deadline, word count, and other constraints imposed by the market. So, while creating my novels, I was simultaneously writing short stories to dip my toe into the mechanics of the publishing industry. I didn’t occur to me to gather those works into a collection. Grotesque: Monster Stories might not have happened at all if Steve Dillon at Things in the Well hadn’t approached me for a volume not long after the release of Into the Ashes, the third book in the Taine McKenna series, when I was at a bit of a loose end regarding my own writing. Between jobs, if you like. So we selected some likely stories in my back list, identified a unifying theme and scope (monsters, horror, breadth of style and form), and highlighted some potential gaps which I set about filling with fresh material, including a Taine McKenna novella. I approached it as if I were the editor of an anthology, only in this case I was the sole contributor.

2. Your own stories in Black Cranes, as well as the ones in Grotesque, cover a lot of cultural horror – from New Zealand to China and even other places. Is this a deliberate attempt to educate through literature? What kind of research goes into building a story around traditions, rituals, and cultural events?

No. While I hope that ultimately my writing educates and informs, I think it can be dangerous to make education the focus of our writing. We have to remember that readers are discerning; they know when we’re trying to clobber them over the head with our ideals, and it’s the kind of thing that makes them put a book down. Far better to write a narrative that engages and entertains and inject your theme into the book in more subtle ways, such as through symbolism, metaphor, and character responses. Recently, I’ve been writing more at the intersection of culture and myth, exploring my Asian heritage and Māori culture of my country. “I’ve always felt a yearning for Māori stories,” I wrote in a Medium interview by my Cranes sister, Christina Sng. “There are a lot of shared values and beliefs between the Māori culture of my homeland and the Chinese culture of my heritage: a certain synergy. Both cultures are founded on the deeds of supernatural ancestors, live by a mandate to protect the natural world, are imbued with a sense of community over individual, and tell simple compelling tales which teach respect and honor.” I do a lot of secondary thorough research—online, library resources—but occasionally I’ll use interviews and other primary sources to inform my work. I also send my work out for review and sensitivity assessment before I submit it, because we can’t see our own biases. When it comes to traditional culture and beliefs, authenticity and intent are key factors, as well as ensuring the dynamic aspects of character, since none of us are homogenous; we’re all the sum of myriad influences and identities.

3. You have co-written the Path of Ra series with Dan Rabarts. Could you tell us about the experience in co-writing a book? How does each author’s writing and storytelling style sync with the other to form the final product?

Here’s what I had to say on this topic when interviewed by Claire Fitzpatrick for The Horror Tree back in 2018: “The more I learn about collaborative writing projects, the more I realise that there are a million ways to go about it. It’s always different, depending on the medium, the subject matter, and the writers in question. With Dan and me, we have a kind of Lucy and Linus van Pelt thing going on: where I am the bossy big sister, and Dan is the highly independent little brother, who likes to charge off and do his own thing. Of course, that makes me even crabbier! So, we’ll have a basic plan, and we’ll start out writing chapter about, and by Chapter Four, Dan will have Matiu racing down a dark alley, dodging explosions. Then I’ll have to come up with an explanation for the ‘diversion’, since I’m responsible for the science, writing the uptight stickler-for-rules science consult. Aargh! It’s actually a lot of fun, our real-life process mimicking the relationship you see on the page between our protagonists, Matiu and Penny. I haven’t heard of any other teams writing in quite the same way, but it seems to work for us.”

For our Path of Ra work, we chose a ‘he-said, she-said’ approach to retain very distinct voices for the dual protagonists, so we kept our editing light for that reason. When I wrote Mika (a Kiwi-NZ version of the Wizard of Oz for youth), a collaboration with Piper Mejia, author of The Better Sister and Other Stories, and Dispossessed, we also wrote the book from a basic plan using a turn-about chapter-by-chapter approach, but when the novella draft was completed, I went back and ‘smoothed’ the narrative, sanding off any identifying edges so the story appears to have been written by a single author. There are so many ways to approach collaboration, a no one way is best, but possibly the most important factor is your choice of collaborator because it really is like raising a child with someone; you have to want what’s best for the work.

Path of Ra series, co-written by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts

4. As an editor, you work with writers across science fiction, fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, thrillers; a mix of poets and prose writers. How do you balance your roles as writer and editor?

I love a fruit salad of genres and forms, and the privilege that comes with working with other writers (and having a small part in shaping their work), so editing projects are a passion on mine. Plus, I’ve forged some incredible friendships as an anthologist; the Black Cranes sisterhood is a good example. I do have to hold myself back from becoming too much of a chipmunk, though. I’m tempted to drop the nut I’m carrying, for another enticing nut I’ve encountered on the way. I’ll get enthusiastic and jump in, taking on new projects at the expense of my own writing. It doesn’t help that I’m a slow writer, with Hemingwayesque wordcounts of just 500 words a day. I don’t typically do the ‘word vomit’ drafts that other writers speak of. I blame my inner editor, a perfectionist, who always has her lips to my ear, saying things like, “Make it lean. You don’t need that. Delete that clutter. What is that: a cliché? No, no, no.” She slows me down a lot; very annoying. So, while I set out to be a writer, and that is still my intent, I find editing easier. If I’m procrastinating, I’ll often edit instead. So, yes, getting that balance is essential and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet.

5. Thank you, Lee, for taking the time for this interview. A final question for readers – What and who are your own favorite books and writers for reading? Any authors who inspire your writing, or books you would recommend picking up?

Oh dear. I always find this question very hard to answer, Renata, because there are so many great books, and I don’t want to offend any of my wonderful colleagues. However, I’d be grateful if people who haven’t yet discovered them would pick up a copy of my Bram Stoker Award®-winning works Grotesque: Monster Stories and Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Supporting my work means I can continue to write, so I’m grateful for any reader support. And if you do pick up a copy of Black Cranes and enjoy it, please look for other work by our wonderful contributors, including Geneve Flynn, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rena Mason, Gabriela Lee, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng.  Please also show some love to Alma Katsu, who wrote our foreword and who has appeared on the Bram Stoker Award® finals twice in two successive years with The Deep and The Hunger. Katsu’s latest work, Red Widow, is a spy thriller, so sure to be an intriguing fast-paced read. Tori Eldridge, who lent the book so much support, has her wonderful Lily Wong series, Asian American thriller fiction with a kick-ass protagonist, and E Lily Yu, who also endorsed the collection, has her newly released fairy tale-inspired On Fragile Waves—wonderful works to discover. For more horror fiction, there is no better place to start than the Bram Stoker Award® finals list which is crammed with incredible stories from novel through to short fiction.

Happy reading! Thank you so much for having me.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~For Lee’s interview with Christina Sng: Sng, Christina (2021). How Heritage Affects the Stories We Live and the Stories We Tell: An interview with Lee Murray. 23 Feb 2021 https://magazine.interstellarflightpress.com/how-heritage-affects-the-stories-we-live-and-the-stories-we-tell-bdd381f7a620

~Interview with Claire Fitzpatrick: Fitzpatrick, Claire (2018). The Horror Tree Presents…An Interview with Lee Murray. 20 October 2018 https://horrortree.com/the-horror-tree-presentsan-interview-with-lee-murray/

~Bram Stoker awards list for horror fiction: http://www.thebramstokerawards.com/uncategorized/winners-nominees/

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