Interview with Lee Murray – Part 1

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows, Bram Stoker Awards). Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. She is proud to have edited seventeen volumes of speculative fiction, including international Bram Stoker Award®-winning title Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women co-edited with Geneve Flynn. Her latest work, released May 2021, is non-fiction title, Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips co-authored with Angela Yuriko Smith. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.

In the first of a two-part series, in honor of her double win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, we talk to Lee about the award-winning anthology Black Cranes.

  1. Hi Lee, first up, congratulations on your dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year. You’ve been a five-time nominee overall and now won two awards in the same year. How does it feel to be acknowledged as one of the best in the horror writing genre around the world?

Thank you, Renata. To be honest, it feels like I’ve brought home a gold in two events in the same discipline at the Olympics. In literary circles, the Bram Stoker Awards® are the ultimate accolade for a dark fiction writer, so to win two is simply overwhelming. I can hardly believe it. Such a kind acknowledgement from my horror colleagues. Although, rather than being the ‘best’, the awards are given for ‘superior achievement’, recognition that the books selected have resonated for readers at the moment. When the pandemic was escalating, we were half-way through writing Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, a collection of tales by horror writers of Southeast Asian descent on the themes of otherness and expectation. We considered postponing the release date, but with anti-Asian sentiment on the rise, it seemed even more important to push on. In retrospect, it was a good call. People needed to read these stories in this moment. With Grotesque: Monster Stories, the pandemic might also have been a factor, although there has always been an interest in New Zealand dark fiction in overseas markets. The fact that Grotesque is a book of monster stories, might be significant, since monsters allow us to explore our fears from a safe distance. But do awards make a difference? In my case, I’m always convinced there was some kind of mistake, that people are going to find out I’m not who they think I am, and it makes me want to work harder, to write better fiction.

2. You co-edited Black Cranes – this year’s Bram Stoker winner for best anthology – with Geneve Flynn. With one editor in New Zealand, another in Australia, the publisher in the US, and the contributing writers scattered in different countries, how challenging was it to bring the book to fruition?

Being stuck at the bottom of the globe in New Zealand, I’d already had some experience as an anthologist, bringing together writers from all over the world using simple techniques like email and messaging. Then, when the pandemic erupted, it forced everyone to embrace platforms like zoom, teams, and discord, for our work and social connection, so in a way that’s been the silver lining of the pandemic; the barriers have come down when it comes to bringing together communities of creatives using technology. We’re a little less hung up on professionalism in favour of connection. By now, we’ve met everyone’s cat, seen myriad children run by half naked in the background, and have an intimate knowledge of the speaker’s weekend wardrobe. We’ve become familiar with online book launches, zoom readings and panel discussions, vlogs and pods, virtual conventions, as well as more innovative ways of promoting literary works. Zoom events with our Black Cranes contributors, for example, have served to celebrate the anthology and cement our connection. That said, it was an in- person meeting with my eventual co-editor, Geneve Flynn, and a recognition of our shared experience that prompted the book Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. We were attending a conference in Brisbane and, being conscientious Asian girls, we both turned up too early for a panel. We’d chatted online before, and were connected through various venues on social media, but we had never had a face-to-face conversation. Without even having to say it aloud, there was an instant understanding between us of why we were the only ones waiting in a lobby twenty minutes before the convention opened. We got to talking, asking ourselves where were the other horror writers of Southeast Asian descent? Other people with our experience of the Asian diaspora. People who also had grandmothers who played mah jong late into the night. Other writers like us who everyone assumed would be a bad driver. Where was the anthology comprising those writers? After the conference, we continued the dialogue, including who we might want to see in our project, looking for connections. We played with some names. We realised we’d need a venue. The only publisher that I approached with the concept was Kate Jonez at Omnium Gatherum Media USA, who jumped at the idea, even though anthologies aren’t part of Omnium’s brief. However, their focus has always been on diverse and unusual texts on dark themes, so the fit was good from that perspective. Perhaps too, Kate was influenced by the whisperings of a pandemic coming out of China and early responses to that. In any case, we’re very grateful to her for her enthusiasm and professionalism. In terms of challenges, she had the biggest task, getting books to people all over the world in the midst of a pandemic.

3. Black Cranes addresses a niche market – Southeast Asian women, and women writing horror. Did you envision the book soaring to the heights it has reached? What was your aim in creating this anthology?

It’s interesting that you should describe it as ‘addressing a niche market’. It is certainly true that growing up as a third-generation Chinese New Zealander, I never saw a book that reflected my experience, no characters who looked like me. But despite attempts to keep us out, Asian people have lived and worked here for two centuries now, with more than 15% of New Zealand’s population identifying as Asian currently. And that’s just New Zealand. The Asian diaspora affects millions of people and extends across the globe, with Asian women making up at least half of those people, so surely there should already be bookcases full of works addressing our Asian experience? Just last week, the week Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women won a Bram Stoker Award, a pair of New Zealand editors released the first anthology of Asian fiction in New Zealand, comprising works from around 70 new voices, the majority of whom are women. While I’m not included in the mix, and the work is not horror, I find it shocking that we have had to wait so long for texts of this nature. As for Black Cranes being horror, it seemed natural to me that Black Cranes would tend towards darkness, because, as Geneve Flynn said in her acceptance speech, horror is a genre that doesn’t flinch from uncomfortable themes. Horror writers don’t look away. Again, the timing with the current pandemic, and the spike in anti-Asian sentiment, may have had a lot to do with the response, which has been simply overwhelming. So, to answer your question, we wanted to give voice to our shared experience, to create a community, and open a discussion about our feelings of otherness, of being the perpetual outsider, and it seemed other people have embraced that vision. I guess Black Cranes is the literary prescription for what ails us all right now.

Lee Murray at the 2019 Bram Stoker Award banquet – Photo by Ellen Datlow

4. Black Cranes was picked up by a book club in India last year for their October 2020 book-of-the-month. You and Geneve even met the members at the book discussion, albeit virtually. How does it feel to interact personally with readers from different parts of the globe?

A writer needs readers, so any interaction with readers who have engaged with your text is wonderful. Just knowing that you have fired up the imagination of others, and perhaps incited a broader dialogue feels like a secret superpower. It explains why even those big-name authors who aren’t always accessible to the public, will offer to join book club meetings to discuss their work with readers. And readers who go the extra mile to reach out, like the book club in India, or the little girl who sent me a drawing of my first literary award, are invaluable. People who seek you out to have their book signed. Even those seemingly small interactions can make up for the sucky parts of writing, things like low pay and high barriers. Interactions from across the globe offer extra insight. How do people in other cultures and groups perceive our work? How hard was it to obtain a copy? Do similar texts exist in those countries? Is there a gap that readers are looking for that has yet to be exploited? Questions we were asked, and which surprised us, when we were invited to the Indian group included: Where is the Indian-Asian version of Black Cranes? and There are no cranes in the book; why did you call it Black Cranes?

5. Speaking of virtual discussions, you released two books at the height of the pandemic last year. And both won Bram Stoker awards. With an absence of book launches, bookstore visits, book signings, literature festivals, libraries shutting down, how did the pandemic impact you as a writer? And what does the Bram Stoker mean for you in light of the current situation versus pre-pandemic times?

My dad died in the early months of the pandemic, and the grief and added isolation affected my writing, so all I managed were a few haiku which I shared with a friend. You can read more about that in a guest post called Writing from my Bubble on poet Stephanie Wytovich’s blog, Writing from the Madhouse. I only wish Dad could have been here to see me receive these awards, because he was my first mentor, his own storytelling key to my understanding of story structure and my love of literature. From a writing standpoint, although my workplace didn’t change, I was busier than ever. Looking back, I wonder if that was an attempt to keep myself busy and avoid spiralling into depression, rather than a direct impact of the pandemic. For horror writers, whose work is typically published by small independent presses operating out of a passion for the genre, the pandemic has been especially precarious, since many smaller presses have folded and others have pushed release dates back, meaning incomes have dropped considerably, even among those of us who are doing reasonably well. Here in New Zealand, “despite the wider arts sector accounting for up to 7% of the total workforce, it receives a disproportionately small proportion of overall government spending,” writes arts lecturer Mark Harvey in a New Zealand Herald article in May. “Last year, arts, culture and heritage were given just 0.33% of the total 2020 Budget and COVID-19 Recovery package (NZ$374 million out of $112.1 billion). This was an increase on previous years, but still miniscule compared with other sectors.” The literary arts account for an even smaller slice of that pie, and horror not at all. Most of us did not qualify for emergency aid. Add to that, we have no literary agents and no publishers of horror or even of science fiction and fantasy (other than some micro-presses) here in New Zealand, proving that the barriers for writers were already high even without COVID. Given this context, for me, a horror writer from New Zealand, to receive two Bram Stoker Awards® feels like a turning point. I hope it means a new interest in New Zealand’s horror fiction community. There is still the stigma associated with horror, literature’s ugly stepsister, to overcome. One colleague on the committee of a prestigious national writers’ festival noted that now I have two Bram Stoker Awards® I might have ‘enough respectability now’ with the festival selectors to be invited to a panel. I’m delighted, of course, because any invitation to the table is a step in the right direction, but I’m also saddened because that is an especially high bar to set for genre fiction writers.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~Lee’s guest post for Writing from the Madhouse: Murray, Lee (2020). Writing from my Bubble, in Writing from the Madhouse by Stephanie Wytovich.18 May 2020. http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/2020/05/writing-from-my-bubble-guest-post-from.html

~Mark Harvey’s article on arts and artists: Harvey, Mark (2021). New Zealand Herald: The Conversation. NZ Budget 2021: we need the arts to live, but artists need to earn a living. 13 May 2021. https://theconversation.com/nz-budget-2021-we-need-the-arts-to-live-but-artists-need-to-earn-a-living-160761

We continue our conversation with Lee Murray in the next blog post. Click here to join the discussion on her second Bram Stoker winner, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

Candy Capers by Raven & Drake

A charity anthology in aid of The Brain Tumour Charity

It’s Pub Day!

Candy Capers officially releases today. A charity anthology by Raven & Drake, UK, the initiative was conceived by the publisher whose 27-year old cousin has been diagnosed with grade IV brain cancer (Glioblastomas).

In an endearing foreword by Natalie Paul herself, the food science graduate tells us about her passion for baking and cakes, and the irony of having to steer clear of sugar in her current condition. Determined to not be beaten, she sought to develop sugar-free alternatives to explore the sweetness in life. As a sweet treat offering, writers, poets and illustrators from around the world come together to support people battling life-threatening conditions in a COVID world. In a 450-page tome, contributors take readers on sweet-filled journeys, all in aid of The Brain Tumour Charity.

“Who can take a sunrise,

Sprinkle it with dew,

Cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two?”

– Sammy Davis Jr.​​

Get ready to delve into candy-filled worlds full of lollipop trees and chocolate rivers. Marshmallow marshlands and jellybean paved roads. Bubblegum trees and gingerbread houses. Prepare to battle peppermint witches, cotton candy monsters, and sugar-fuelled squirrels.​ A collection of enticing titles, stories, poems and illustrations.

These sugary sweet candy adventures feature my poetry and artwork. It has been an honor to have my work selected for this cause, along with some wonderful artists and authors. The stories are family friendly and can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Candy Capers is available as paperback and e-book, and can be ordered on Amazon from anywhere in the world. All proceeds of book sales will be directed to the Brain Tumor Charity.

http://mybook.to/CandyCapers

Stitched Lips – An Anthology of Silenced Voices

Title – Stitched Lips

Editor – Ken MacGregor

Authors – Multiple

Genre – Horror

The book caught my attention with its catchy cover – a simple design that reveals a lot. I also liked how each of the contributing writers is mentioned on the front cover, unlike most anthologies that only feature the editor’s name. I hadn’t heard of any of these writers, except for Lee Murray whose works I’ve read and loved, and was looking forward to reading the book just for Lee.

Stitched Lips turned out to be a pleasant surprise; a phenomenal compilation in every way. As the tagline states, each of the stories are set around the theme of ‘silenced voices’, and I loved how every single writer interpreted the concept and integrated it with their stories.

The anthology starts with Wordeaters, R.L. Meza’s horrifying introductory piece about monsters who devour words. You’re safe as long as you’re silent; speak one word and meet a dreadful end. We then move on to Chorus of Whispers, a haunting tale by Sarah Hans (and one of my personal favorites from the collection), about female babies made to undergo procedures that remove their vocal chords. A band of women rebel by murdering men to “steal their voices”. Linda Nagle’s way with words is to be marvelled at, as she chooses a novel setting for Jack, inside the mind of a brain-dead patient, as past and present, reality and dreamland interweave. Avocation touches social and political issues through insurance corporations denying customers medical claims, as Lucy A. Snyder delves into the intricacies and sensitivities of employees seeking promotions and fat pay checks at the cost of patients dying due to a lack of means to fund treatment. Lee Murray addresses the immigrant diaspora in Nil By Mouth, as an elderly lady seeking help for her ailing granddaughter, meets with an accident herself and is unable to communicate in the language of her host country.

The Toll takes us into the animal kingdom, through ZZ Claybourne’s tale of a female animal threatened by a male hunter. Joanna Koch navigates child abuse and pedophilia through Aristotle’s Lantern, as a movie runs for the reader through the eyes of a victim. Green of Bad Visions was another one of my favorites, as Gabino Iglesias combines immigration and botany in a thrilling tale of a scientist’s discovery being hushed up. Hailey Piper takes us to college with Why We Keep Exploding, to a land where girls explode if they speak. Artown Correctional Center is a stellar journey through Patty Templeton’s imagination of a monster that consumes inmates at a facility. Tableau Vivant ends the collection by traipsing into the world of art with Michael Paul Gonzalez, as a sidelined artist goes on a murderous spree of all the people who wronged him.

Stitched Lips is a powerful ode to voices that go unheard and people who remain unseen. Each of the stories has a strong metaphorical angle delicately balanced with pure horror and gore. When you read between the lines, the topics covered here are not uncommon. How often has someone been shushed while speaking, told to be grateful about having a job and stay silent to retain it, ordered to follow the hierarchy without asking questions, had credit stolen for work done, threatened to be extradited or fired for standing up and speaking out, the helplessness of not knowing the language of the people around you, speaking but not being heard, heard but not understood, being stalked or harassed, facing casual racism and sexism dismissed as a joke, considered irrelevant, suggestions and ideas discarded, treated like a living statue? Whether an actress abused by male co-stars, or a comatose man desperate for attention, an immigrant unable to ask for help, to a student whose research professors claim as their own, voices are silenced and people can be dismissed in myriad ways. Stitched Lips offers an ear to all those marginalized voices.

The stories were peppered with beautiful lines:

~If she didn’t move. If she didn’t speak. If she could make it look like she wasn’t breathing. This might just save her life.

~Being in a dark hole was better than being in the wide open with a monster.

~He liked making lists. He liked checking lists. He liked to think he created good by recording goods.

~It was much better to feed the Thing than be fed to it.

~Asking questions cost time and never paid extra.

~Someone always noticed, but if people thought you don’t matter, what you notice didn’t matter either.

~An echo is better than silence.

~The prison librarian was busier than deathbed regret.

~Whispers aren’t enough. Something inside me wants to roar.

~Unspoken words can’t escape. I watch her swallow them, and they stew in her guts like trapped gas in a mine.

~She clutches her gut, as if the unspoken words now burn her belly.

~Rumors in the hall were so bad they couldn’t be entirely made up unless whoever started them had a Stephen King-level imagination.

~Journeying inward, where feeling is the opposite of being.

~A thing made to be left alone, a thing to be watched only in silence.

~You want to see me prick myself on the needle of my moral compass. See what colors I bleed.

~There’s no hope, says the team. There’s every hope, says the mother.

~Hurrying nowhere gradually, their take their time in a rush, making small-talk to help pass the sixty-second, hundred-mile trip.

~The reading had stopped. The books had stopped. No words, no voices, no existence.

~He reminds himself to remember that it doesn’t matter if he forgets.

~We recommend you cease and desist robbing women of their voices, or we will take yours.

A dark collection that sheds light on important issues, Stitched Lips is not to be missed. When it comes to anthologies, it can be an arduous task to source writers of equal credibility, so that each story stands out and carries the volume to new heights. I would recommend this book not just for reading but also for great writing. There’s brilliance in every single one of the stories, when you consider how diverse they are while still adhering to a theme. Kudos to the editor Ken MacGregor for this wonderful initiative. Definitely a must-read for horror fans, Stitched Lips deserves to be read by all readers for the topics it addresses and the stand it takes for the oppressed, powerless and disenfranchised.

Some artwork I created based on the book.

Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins – A Literary Legacy

When Australian writer Aiki Flinthart was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wanted to work on a final book as a literary legacy. Her shout out to writers who were willing to participate in a project was answered from around the globe. So, we have Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, Lee Murray, Ken Liu, Ian Irvine, and several other authors from the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror, experimental fiction, and speculative fiction coming together to support a fellow writer. And what a stunning display of literature has been brought forth for the reader!

Aiki’s theme was relics, wrecks, and ruins – very narrow in itself, heightening the reader’s curiosity into what the contributors could possibly have come up with. And they surprise you with one story after another! A magical carpet woven with stories that come alive, an underwater village of corpses, a submarine under attack by the real world and saved by a mythical one, a life composed of 16-minute loops, a dog stealing enchanted artifacts, musicians conducting exorcisms through rock music. A world of witches and fairies, alien interactions and underwater adventures, past and future, the highest points in space and the depths of the oceans – Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins lives up to its task of creating a legacy.

Aiki Flinthart passed away earlier this month. Her final creation is an astonishing work of art, considering the extraordinary circumstances of how it came into being. A must-read for all readers, irrespective of the genres mentioned above. It’s just so well written! When it comes to anthologies, sourcing multiple writers with equal credibility is a task in itself. Add to that their numerous genres, the narrow scope of the theme, and the fact that they’re scattered around the world and still working as a team. Flinthart could not have been prouder of the legacy she left behind.

Black Cranes – Book Review

Title – Black Cranes

Author(s) – Multiple

Editors – Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Genre – Multi-genre anthology

“Several times, I’ve woken before sunrise, convinced that something has changed in the middle of the night. As though some god has reached down, and, with a colossal finger, nudged the earth, and now everything is sitting two degrees off-kilter. I scan above for the subtle movement of the clouds, to assure myself that the sky is not a two-dimensional poster glued onto a false backdrop.”

These words could not have rung truer than in the present scenario, with everything seeming to go wrong this year. Tales of Unquiet Women is a befitting subtitle for this collection of short stories, written by women from Southeast Asian backgrounds. I came across this book on a horror literature forum, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the writings cover a plethora of genres – including science fiction, fantasy, humor, mythology, folklore and legend, subtly merging with horror rather than an out-an-out spook fest. The team of contributors come from Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and even Asian immigrants to the US and New Zealand, as an embrace as well as rejection of traditional concepts related to femininity and what it means to be a woman – in times gone by, present day, and in years to come. The collection features fourteen stories – including contributions by the editors themselves and a wonderful foreword from Alma Katsu – all different from each other, but similar in their women characters striving to make a place for themselves in their worlds. From spirit foxes taking human form, and ghost babies created from unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, to military women fighting for their place in a male-dominated post-apocalyptic world, and individuals cloned to fabricate the perfect person. There is humor in a spirit expressing discomfort in a human body due to the constrictive lotus feet, and a woman believing her husband is an alien due to an emotional distance after years of marriage; satire in the obsession over fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, and the “perfect” attributes of grace, obedience and not speaking ones mind; the frustration of being perfect, but not perfect enough; horrors of betrayal, the warmth of a monster protecting a child, and peculiar tales featuring shelter animals, and monsters and motherhood. The genres and themes cover such a wide range, there is something here for everyone.

The writing is sheer brilliance – quite commendable in an anthology where authors of equal credibility need to be sourced. I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes from the book, without revealing the specific writer or story. Note how wonderful they are in their own way.

~In the abandon of your fury, you had cut yourself on its spiteful blade.

~You stormed from room to room, spewing your hurt and your hate, so it dribbled down the wallpaper and seeped through the cracks in the floorboards.

~Alongside a dragon, a butterfly flutters.

~You stitched a life from scraps left in the laundry.

~Some things you knew already. Some things you knew before you were born; they were revealed to you in the rhythm of your mother’s heartbeat and in the echoes of her sighs.

~Memory is an ocean wave: once it has attained enough momentum, it can’t be stopped. It must rise, swell, peak, crash, and be endured.

~A double-punch to the gut – the first blow rendering me immobile for the second, the second intensifying the first. The ripping of a half-dried scab to expose a festering wound.

~Family matter. I’ve heard that excuse many times. Abuse wrapped up in a pretty little bow so no one admits it happens.

~Her eyes were patchwork – flecks of blue and black pooled into warring factions that expressed the conflict inside the girl.

~You live in a monster’s empire. You’re only upset because you’re not the biggest monster anymore.

~She speaks in a language I don’t recognize, but somehow an understanding sinks into my skin. She speaks of buried dreams, and choked-back words, and old fury knotted into a lump as cold and dense as a black dwarf star.

~Women can be scientists, warriors, princesses, soldiers, caretakers, spirits. We can be many things. The only thing we can’t be is defeated.

A powerful anthology that serves as a reflection of Asian societies – the role of societal expectations, familial obligations, the oppressiveness, submissiveness, and the need for self identity. The element of horror so smoothly weaves itself into the warp and weft of the lyrical and haunting prose, you don’t realize what you’re getting at until you get there. I wish I could review each story individually. I can’t pick a favorite from the lot because they are all so good. The title lends its own significance to the stories within – cranes being associated with grace and fragility, versus the darkness within that finds its way out when suppressed for too long. And that gorgeous cover – a pop of color in the black and grey; a metaphor for beating the darkness and bursting forth with our true selves. This is dark, reflective fiction at its best.

My rating – 5/5