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/

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.

Grotesque: Monster Stories by Lee Murray

“Generosity could be as contagious as the plague, as long as enough people were willing to be carriers”, is a quote that opens the book and sets the tone for the kind of writing one is in for. A collection of eleven tales narrated as flash fiction, short stories and novelettes, Grotesque spans the horror landscape from mythological creatures to contemporary social media addictions, as the reader travels across France, China and New Zealand, meeting everyone from Maori warriors to zombies, spirits and sea gods and gods of earthquakes and volcanoes, Leonardo Da Vinci and Tangaroa, tin soldiers and kaiju. A taut collection I came across in a horror literature forum, the book is in equal parts thrilling, dark and educative, an action and horror fest, with layers of historical references and cultural influences.

The titular story opens the collection with an archaeological find transporting us to the 16th century to reveal its secret. As we move back and forth from the 1500s to present day, fantasy elements of horror merging with historical roots made Grotesque one of my favorite stories, and a fabulous one to start the collection as it sets the pace for what lies ahead. History is followed by mythology that serves to remind and educate about the stories of lore, as Hawaiki takes us through Chinese mythology, Taiwanese history, and the Maori immigration story; as does Maui’s Hook, another monster story with its foundations in Maori mythology. I love mythological retellings in literature as they teach you so much about different cultures around the world; legends and folklore containing treasures of life stories through the ages. The kaiju story was another one of my favorites.

The New Breed is a post-apocalyptic zombie story, while Cave Fever merges science fiction with horror through a two centuries old storm that forces mankind to seek refuge underground into a claustrophobic cave existence. Selfie and Dead End Town are out-and-out horror fests. I loved Lee’s take on the millennial social media obsession with her twisted spin on selfies in the former, while addressing domestic violence in the latter. Edward’s Journal was another stunner of pure horror – an epistolary story of colonialism featuring a British soldier from India helping white settlers in New Zealand, while Heart Music takes us through the restless spirit of a fourteen-year-old dead child. Into the Clouded Sky is a novelette of adventures in New Zealand – a ride through action, thrills, and monsters all the way, and Lifeblood pits marginalized groups against each other to detract from their actual problems.

Every story offers a unique reading experience, and encourages you to read between the lines into the theme being expressed in each one. Grotesque is a splendid collection to note the range of the writer’s prowess in relaying stories across genres and themes, having relatable elements as well as something new to learn wherever in the world you might be reading the book. Lee’s dark and disturbing tales cover commonplace topics like clicking selfies, address issues like dementia and child abuse, turn the spotlight on immigrants and grave robbers – causing the reader to ponder upon who the real monsters are. Grotesque is a collection filled with monsters, but through an array of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mythology and more, Lee reminds us that we have already encountered many monsters, with many more still to be met.

In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories force us to challenge our fears. ~Lee Murray

This book will delight horror fans, and is a magnificent collection for those new to the genre to explore. I would also recommend it to readers of mythology – there’s much information to be gleaned about world cultures. The Maori glossary is a wonderful touch to familiarize readers with terms and phrases in the stories, although Lee does a splendid job in explaining them through the context of the story itself. Lee’s creations are out of this world and each one surprises in its own way. There’s an aftertaste that you could read an entire novel surrounding each plot.

Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor with several novels and series to her credit. Grotesque is her first short story collection, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards this year in the category of collections.

My rating of the book: 5/5

This literary review has also appeared in the March 2021 edition of Horror Addicts under their theme of ‘Monster Madness’.

Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons – An Interview with Keith Rosson

With Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, award-winning author Keith Rosson delves into notions of family, grief, identity, indebtedness, loss, and hope, with the surefooted merging of literary fiction and magical realism he’s explored in previous novels. In “Dunsmuir,” a newly sober husband buys a hearse to help his wife spread her sister’s ashes, while “The Lesser Horsemen” illustrates what happens when God instructs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to go on a team-building cruise as a way of boosting their frayed morale. In “Brad Benske and the Hand of Light,” an estranged husband seeks his wife’s whereabouts through a fortuneteller after she absconds with a cult, and in “High Tide,” a grieving man ruminates on his brother’s life as a monster terrorizes their coastal town. With grace, imagination, and a brazen gallows humor, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons merges the fantastic and the everyday, and includes a number of Rosson’s unpublished stories, as well as award-winning favorites.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As a guest writer for Meerkat Press’ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature this remarkable literary endeavor of a fantastic writer on its worldwide blog tour.

AN EXCERPT FROM ‘THE LESSER HORSEMEN’

“We stepped outside as knives of sunlight winked off every glassed thing on the street. The stink of exhaust enveloped us. Sewage warming in the gutters brought out the scents of the human soufflé: piss, heated blacktop, burnt plastic.

Famine hiked his jeans up—we had our trappings, each of us, our strange cosmic shortcomings that kept us tethered here, not nearly human but certainly more than ideas, and Famine’s was, obviously, his constant hunger. Not so obvious was that he could never find a fucking belt that fit him. He took off down the avenue muttering something about an all-you-can-eat bouillabaisse shop on Mississippi, the cuffs of his pants scraping the ground, arms wrinkled and red at the elbows, striding along with one hand bunching the acid-washed fabric at his waist.

War folded his cruise handout and sighed, squinting at the empty street. “We leave in three hours? Man, He’s not dicking around.”

“He’s not known for that, is He?”

“True. Guess I better go grab my gear,” he said, and then paused. He seemed poised for some comradely dig, but we were long past it. Centuries, at least. “See you on the boat,” he managed.

The Good Lord certainly had a point. I could admit that. We’d long since become fractious, four different arrows arcing toward four different targets at four different times. No harmony, no shared intention. There had been a time when that was not the case, but now? Only Death was constant.

The Good Lord was staring at me through the window, his hands cinched over his little stovepot of a belly. He raised a hand and shooed me along, the look in his eyes absolutely flat, dead as deep space.

I went home to pack.”

INTERVIEW WITH KEITH ROSSON

I interviewed author Keith Rosson as part of the release and promotional tour of his latest book. Here’s a peek into our conversation:

1) After reading The Mercy of the Tide last year, I was looking forward to your latest book. How do you strike a balance between literary fiction and experimental fiction?

I wish I knew the answer to that. As it stands now, my work is considered “genre-blurring,” i.e. “we don’t know where to file this guy’s stuff, so while we recognize he’s a decent writer, this stuff is a bit harder to sell.” I think that balance just comes from writing for so long. I greatly admire genre writers, as well as those who write literary fiction, and balancing that tightrope between the two really just comes from diligence and writing a lot.

2) Your writing spans across magical realism, fantasy, contemporary horror, and mystery. Is there a specific reader audience you target?

Oh man, if there was, I’d probably sell more books. But I’m that weird amalgam of a writer – one who’d like to be considered a “serious literary author” but also simply cannot stop writing about reincarnated medieval executioners or monsters or guys getting beaten up by, like, sentient, malevolent forests. I have no idea who my audience is, but I know some people like my books, and I’m profoundly grateful for them.

3) When your genres and themes are so vast, what are the challenges in writing a short story collection in comparison to a novel?

I’m not a prolific short story writer. For every story that I finish, there’s probably a half dozen of them where I’ve lost the thread or the idea peters out and they languish half-finished. So honestly, the challenges here were just picking the best stories and arranging them in a way that made the most sense. I have no idea if other writers experience this problem, but with a novel I can get a general idea of the thing as a whole. It starts here, ends here, and in the middle, all of this shit happens. I get that process. With a story collection, it’s like holding a bunch of different puzzle pieces and trying to fit them into something manageable and just hoping it works. It feels way more fractured, way less linear, and you’re not sure if the pieces fit or not until the thing comes out in a book.

4) Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons – What’s the story behind the title, and the book cover as well?

I grew up on punk rock and I love it. I consider punk songs to essentially be folk songs. Protest songs or homage songs, electrified. Three chords, simple structure, a clear intent. So a folk song is like this simple homage to something, right? And a trauma surgeon is someone who fixes our injuries, staunches our blood, sets our bones straight, closes our wounds so that we don’t die. A folk song for a trauma surgeon is a simple, shouted thank you to those that fix our ailments, that stitch our wounds for us. As far as the cover goes, there’s a wolf and there’s a rabbit. Their relationship seems pretty clear. There’s a lot of that kind of relationship in the book, whether its internalized or not.

5) Your narratives merge the everyday with fantastical elements. What drives you as a writer? How much of your observations and experiences make it into your stories, and where does imagination take over?

That’s an awesome question, and I wish I knew how to answer it. It’s all organic. Knowing when to insert some feeling or observation or humanity into a scene that’s otherwise fantastical or fabulist is just one of those things that I’ve gotten more comfortable with due to endless practice. But the goal – one of the goals – is to make people care about these folks. You want readers to care about these people, become invested in them. And as far as what drives me, I actually love the publishing, submitting, and editing process. The whole thing is a blast. Even the endless (and I do mean endless) rejection has had much of its sting taken out after all these years. I love books, I love libraries, I love reading. None of it has lost its allure over the years.

6) Stories like “The Lesser Horsemen” and “Homecoming” are thought-provoking and seeped in reality through fantasy. Any thoughts on writing satire, considering the very relevant topics you cover?

Honestly, I don’t really know what satire is as a genre, or how to write it. Gotta plead ignorance on this question, as I don’t know enough about the genre to offer much of a take on it.

7) Which story in the collection would you say you had the best time writing?

You know, I wrote “The Lesser Horsemen” in a notebook over a period of maybe three days, and when I sat down to type it out, it was almost a word-for-word transcription of what you’re reading in the book, with very few changes. It was maybe the purest version of “automatic writing” I’ve ever experienced as an author. Compare that with “Their Souls Climb the Room” – I worked on multiple versions of that story for six or seven years, and writing the version that you see in the collection was like pulling teeth. Speaking of pulling teeth, I also think “Baby Jill,” the story about the tooth fairy who’s beginning to question her own existence, as well as humanity’s frailty of spirit, is one of the coolest, creepiest things I’ve written. One of my favorite stories.

8) Any upcoming books for readers to look forward to?

We haven’t even officially announced it yet, but my novel All the Wound-Down World will be released by Meerkat Press in 2023. It’s set in present day and features the same setting/world and some of the same characters as The Mercy of the Tide, forty years after the events in that book took place. It’s, uh, pretty wild.

9) Any literary influences, favorite books or authors you would recommend?

Here are a bunch of books that I’veread over the past few years that have stuck with me. They’re all great:

Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud (stories)

Dodgers by Bill Beverly

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs (stories)

Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai (stories)

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons (stories)

And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks (stories)

Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick (stories)

Growing Things by Paul Tremblay (stories)

We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

FOLK SONGS FOR TRAUMA SURGEONS by Keith Rosson

RELEASE DATE: FEB 23, 2021

GENRE: Collection / Speculative Fiction / Magical Realism / Literary

BOOK PAGE: https://meerkatpress.com/books/folksongs/

BUY LINKS: Meerkat Press |Amazon Barnes & Noble

AUTHOR LINKS: Website Twitter

GIVEAWAY LINK: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/7f291bd826/?

Christmas Reading – Dead of Winter

As part of the December reading stack, I have picked up a range of Christmas-themed books across genres. The month began with an interesting horror collection.

Title – Dead of Winter

Author – Kealan Patrick Burke

Genre – Horror, Short stories

Horror writer Kealan Patrick Burke decided to stray from the usual barrage of Christmas greeting cards and round robins, with his own twist on the festive season. Every year he writes one Christmas story, that friends and family fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to belong to his address book are treated to. Stories with snowmen, presents, Santa, family get togethers and Christmas trees abound, with a dark spin to an otherwise jolly time of the year. In Dead of Winter, Burke makes these otherwise privy tales accessible to readers, by compiling some of his year-end “letters” to offer us his take on the season of glitter and sparkle.

A parent denied visitation rights trying to spend a few hours of Christmas Day with his kids; a widower experiencing the grief and isolation of his first Christmas alone after his wife’s death; a son’s Christmas with his father whose Alzheimer’s doesn’t let him remember it’s Christmas; a child haunted by the snowmen in his yard; guilt, punishment, hatred, fear at a time associated with jollity. Why does Santa give some kids bigger and better presents? Is it still Christmas if you don’t have snow to make a snowman? Are broken families any lesser for not partaking of large get togethers? If the birth of Christ is associated with the death of a loved one, what does “festive season” really mean? At a time of the year when everyone is expected to be in full cheer, Burke raises some pertinent questions on the true meaning of Christmas.

~Though the world continued to celebrate the seasons and the days marked for joy, he saw little joy on their faces.

~He represented expense, often exacerbating the pressure on people ill prepared to handle it.

~He reminded parents of their obligations and children of their entitlements.

~He did not ride a sleigh laden with enough presents for every child in the world.

~We are a tableau of pain and misery and fear.

~It could be a pony, a car, a million dollars, and it wouldn’t matter. She only wants her mother.

~I expected wariness, doubt and awkwardness. I didn’t expect fear, distrust and coldness.

~He felt as if a hook had snagged in his soul and someone, something somewhere was slowly reeling him in.

~His breath emerged as ragged ghosts the wind tore away from him.

~Christmas lights twinkled feebly like lost memories struggling to resurface.

The idea of creating and sending stories instead of Christmas cards is truly ingenious, and readers should consider ourselves lucky to gain access to them. Having read Blanky just a few months ago, Kealan Patrick Burke’s writing can be bleak and impactful even without seemingly obvious horror. He’s quickly turning into one of my favorite contemporary writers – across all genres. A splendid read for its cold themes that make it all the more haunting in the winter season.

My rating – 4/5

The Road to Woop Woop Blog Tour

Eugen Bacon’s work is cheeky with a fierce intelligence, in prose that’s resplendent, delicious, dark and evocative. NPR called her novel Claiming T-Mo ‘a confounding mysterious tour de force’. The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories imbues the same lushness in a writerly language that is Bacon’s own. This peculiar hybrid of the untraditional, the extraordinary within, without and along the borders of normalcy will hypnotise and absorb the reader with tales that refuse to be labelled. The stories in this collection are dirges that cross genres in astounding ways. Over 20 provocative tales, with seven original to this collection, by an award-winning African Australian author.

Author bio

As a guest writer for Meerkat Press‘ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature the award-winning writer and her brilliant book on its worldwide blog tour. Here’s my interview with author Eugen Bacon as part of the release and promotional tour of her latest book.

1) With a range of themes and genres, the book does not fit into a specific category of writing style. Was this a deliberate decision of being genre defying or genre defining?

My writing is experimental, a curiosity. My cross genre stories are a natural birth of my multiplicities as an artist, a scholar, a short story writer, a novelist, a poet. I have always been enchanted with theorist and critic Roland Barthes who found pleasure in the text, for whom text is a multi-dimensional space where things are made or unmade. I am drawn to deconstruction, margins of philosophy, meaning of text. My defying the boundaries of genre is a natural occurrence, a child of wonder and play.

2) The writing features a lot of Australian slang (including the title itself). What was your target reader audience while writing this book?

Streuth, Aussie drawl is not vernacular! Crikey. I write for a global audience, and the writing is accessible in textual context, placement, narrative and flow—as any good writer will see to. Not all stories have an Aussie drawl, just the ones featuring distinct characters, like Bluey in “Dying” (golly gum), the toad in “Beatitudes” (I’m just a bloody toad) and Calder in “He Refused To Name It” (who could have said, “I haven’t seen M in yonks,” but didn’t).

Woop Woop was once a real place for harvesting jarrah timber northwest of Wilga in New South Wales, Australia. It faded from history and today refers to a place remote or without facilities in ordinary speak (“I live out Woop Woop—my internet is down again.”) The slang I use is both a natural aspect of my self and other—I am true blue, as one would say, even as a blend of cultures (African Australian)—and a deliberate playfulness, where writing is an extension of art and play.

3) African stories in Australian fiction – Was this cultural blend something you set out for, or the stories just happened to perfectly sync together?

I am African and Australian—the one is not exclusive from the other. I am a sum of parts. I am many, betwixt, a fusion of cultures. My stories and their characters chart what happens. Perhaps they steal from my everyday in a perfect sync of that self and other. There is no tension when I write, but rather a release.

4) The writing style can be an acquired taste of sorts. Any tips/suggestions for upcoming or newbie writers on honing their skills beyond set narratives?

Find your voice. I talk about voice as integral to a writer’s identity in my book Writing Speculative Fiction (2019) by Macmillan. Voice is your unique way of telling. In a review of my collection by award-winning author Keith Rosson, he wrote: “The Road to Woop Woop pushes boundaries, blurs genres and folklores, and reminds us once again of her dazzling, unique voice. No one writes like her.” When you tell it in your own way of looking at things, this is your voice.

5) Any literary influences or personal favorite authors/books you would recommend that readers pick up?

Fiction by Toni Morrison,celebrated for her beauty in language in personal text that shouts its meaning. Anything by Anthony Doerr (his text is like: “fields enwombed with hedges”)—clove pink carnations, ivory white lilies and crimson rich roses sprout in each sentence. Peter Temple is an Australian crime fiction writer—I wrote a tribute to his writing in the Literary Hub, it will tell you how this author is a favorite: “The New Seduction of an Old Literary Crime Classic”. The novel Truth is his most memorable work.

I am currently reading Nalo Hopkinson’s Skin Folk (2001), was besotted with NamwaliSerpell’sThe Old Drift (2019) and adore Sheree Renée Thomas’s Nine Bar Blues (2019). Andrew Hook is a British author of the literary strange who has really captivated me. I nearly fell when he agreed to collaborate with me in a short story. 

6) The stories are often lyrical. Any upcoming poetry collections?

Yes, thanks for asking! I find a certain attraction in text that makes colour in my mind, that patterns a rainbow in the ideas I find voice to. In 2020 I wrote two prose poetry collections, Her Bitch Dress and It’sFolking Political through Ginninderra Press. They are a response to politics, to the pandemic and much more. What’s more, Speculate, my collaborative collection (with Dominique Hecq) of illustrated prose poetry is out in January 2021 by Meerkat Press. Trust me—this illustrated collection is a provocation. You’ll want to read it.

Speculate – a collection of illustrated prose poetry

7) What’s the story behind the cover?

Meerkat Press would be thrilled to give you an answer. I just said, I want something African and Aussie, and it’s kinda dark. The publisher sent me draft art with a croc and galahs, eyes and skulls, and I said, too right.

(Did you know she also did the inner illustrations? My word.) 

THE ROAD TO WOOP WOOP by Eugen Bacon

RELEASE DATE: DEC 1, 2020

GENRE: Collection / Speculative Fiction / Dark Fantasy

BOOK PAGE: https://www.meerkatpress.com/books/the-road/

BUY LINKS: Meerkat Press |Amazon Barnes & Noble

AUTHOR LINKS: Website Twitter

GIVEAWAY LINK: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/7f291bd824/?

A dazzling piece of literature.

An excerpt from the titular story:

THE ROAD TO WOOP WOOP

Tumbling down the stretch, a confident glide, the 4WD is a beaut, over nineteen years old.

The argument is brand-new. Maps are convolutions, complicated like relationships. You scrunch the sheet, push it in the glovebox. You feel River’s displeasure, but you hate navigating, and right now you don’t care.

The wiper swishes to and fro, braves unseasonal rain. You and River maintain your silence.

Rain. More rain.

“When’s the next stop?” River tries. Sidewise glance, cautious smile. He is muscled, dark. Dreadlocks fall down high cheekbones to square shoulders. Eyes like black gold give him the rugged look of a mechanic.

“Does it matter?” you say.

“Should it?”

You don’t respond. Turn your head, stare at a thin scratch on your window. The crack runs level with rolling landscape racing away with rain. Up in the sky, a billow of cloud like a white ghoul, dark-eyed and yawning into a scream.

A shoot of spray through River’s window brushes your cheek.

A glide of eye. “Hell’s the matter?” you say.

“You ask me-e. Something bothering you?”

“The window.”

He gives you a look.

Classic,you think. But you know that if you listen long enough, every argument is an empty road that attracts unfinished business. It’s an iceberg full of whimsy about fumaroles and geysers. It’s a corpse that spends eternity reliving apparitions of itself in the throes of death. Your fights are puffed-up trivia, championed to crusades. You fill up teabags with animus that pours into kettles of disarray, scalding as missiles. They leave you ashy and scattered—that’s what’s left of your lovemaking, or the paranoia of it, you wonder about that.

More silence, the cloud of your argument hangs above it. He shrugs. Rolls up his window. Still air swells in the car.

“Air con working?” you say.

He flexes long corduroyed legs that end in moccasins. Flicks on the air button—and the radio. The bars of a soulful number, a remix by some new artist, give way to an even darker track titled ‘Nameless.’ It’s about a high priest who wears skinny black jeans and thrums heavy metal to bring space demons into a church that’s dressed as a concert. And the torments join in evensong, chanting psalms and canticles until daybreak when the demons wisp back into thin air, fading with them thirteen souls of the faithful, an annual pact with the priest.

Rain pelts the roof and windows like a drum.

He hums. Your face is distant. You might well be strangers, tossed into a tight drive from Broome to Kununurra.

The lilt of his voice merges with the somber melody.

You turn your face upward. A drift of darkness, even with full day, is approaching from the skies. Now it’s half-light. You flip the sun visor down. Not for compulsion or vanity, nothing like an urge to peer at yourself in the mirror. Perhaps it’s to busy your hands, to distract yourself, keep from bedevilment—the kind that pulls out a quarrel. You steal a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Deep, deep eyes. They gleam like a cat’s. The soft curtain of your fringe is softening, despite thickset brows like a man’s. You feel disconnected with yourself, with the trip, with River. You flip the sun visor up.

Now the world is all grim. River turns on the headlights, but visibility is still bad. A bolt of lightning. You both see the arms of a reaching tree that has appeared on the road, right there in your path. You squeal, throw your arms out. River swerves. A slam of brakes. A screech of tires. Boom!

The world stops in a swallowing blackness. Inside the hollow, your ears are ringing. The car, fully intact, is shooting out of the dark cloud in slow motion, picking up speed. It’s soaring along the road washed in a new aurora of lavender, turquoise and silver, then it’s all clear. A gentle sun breaks through fluffs of cloud no more engulfed in blackness. You level yourself with a hand on the dashboard, uncertain what exactly happened.

You look at River. His hands . . . wrist up . . . he has no hands. Nothing bloody as you’d expect from a man with severed wrists. Just empty space where the arms end.

But River’s unperturbed, his arms positioned as if he’s driving, even while nothing is touching the steering that’s moving itself, turning and leveling.

“Brought my shades?” he asks.

“Your hands,” you say.

“What about them?”

“Can’t you see?”

His glance is full of impatience.

You sink back to your seat, unable to understand it, unclear to tell him, as the driverless car races along in silence down the lone road.

Insomnia: Army Stories

A book review

Title – Insomnia

Author – Rachna Bisht Rawat

Genre – Short stories

Theme – Armed forces

The latest release from Rachna Bisht Rawat’s armed forces series of books offers a fictional take on true incidents, in the form of short stories surrounding varied army experiences. The author is an army spouse, child and sibling (with her husband, father and brother having served at different points in time). Her stories draw from the narratives shared by people close to her, providing the reader with touching tales, humorous anecdotes, and frightening forays of life in the armed forces.

A general haunted by the voices of dead men he had killed decades ago, two soldiers from warring nations forging a unique bond while manning their posts, the relationship of a child of a serving officer with his teacher, an army wife out alone on a run in the cantonment areas, and several other stories that take us from the thick of battle to random musings of our men in camo. Rawat’s writing offers a unique take on her chosen themes – from the heart-wrenching tale of soldiers attempting to rescue a stray dog in the freezing Siachen – the highest battlefield in the world, to the haunting narrative of an officer trying to keep his wife’s schizophrenia hidden due to social stigmas, and the hilarious colonel on holiday and his efforts to ensure the family “regiment” has the most disciplined and best time ever. A mixed bag from the world of olive green inhabited not only by heroes, but the humans, animals and things around them as well. Rawat touches issues of subtle sexism faced by women officers, the reminiscences of retired officers, the friendly bullying of new recruits that can take serious undertones, the bond between soldiers and stray animals, the lives of army doctors and nurses who are at the forefront in casualties of border skirmishes and war but away from media attention; the fear, terror, solitude faced by army wives living on their own in secluded areas; and the lives of army children moving through schools, teachers, friends as their parents’ postings change.

The fact that the author compiled these stories over a decade during her own travels from her father’s – and then husband’s – many postings, lends a sense of authenticity and resonance to her narratives, most of which are set in desolate areas. The book is filled with beautiful lines that touch you in different ways, depending on the emotions surrounding each story.

~A translucent moon hung between the trees, climbing slowly into the sky like a scared kid reluctantly stepping into a dark room, not sure of where the light switch was.

~Both sides knew that on Siachen, the weather was your real enemy and not another country.

~The wind raged outside their hut in the darkness, screaming at them for trespassing in space meant only for nature at its most furious.

~He looked at his double-barrel rifle. It had been with him longer than his kids. Or even his wife. He looked at it with tenderness.

~Scars were not important, songs were.

“Stories are born in the heart – from seeds quietly sown by people who once walked in and out of it – and can only be written when they start to choke you with their weight”, reads one of my favorite lines from the book, which strongly reiterates Rawat’s own prowess as a writer and the stories within her that gush forth in a multitude of themes and emotions. She can make you shed a tear, laugh out uproariously, fear macabre episodes, and flood your heart with warmth for the people who keep our country safe. While the author writes predominantly about the Indian armed forces, the book is readable for anyone around the globe as her themes are universal.

My rating – 4/5

Black Cranes – October Book Club Read

Another successful edition of my book club’s monthly group read, meet and discussion. We not only read a dark tales anthology in keeping with the Halloween month, but also virtually met and interacted with the editors and horror writers Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn who had joined us from New Zealand and Australia respectively. A compact group covering three different time zones, discussing all things horror – dark fiction, comedic horror, post-apocalyptic stories, science fiction, psychological horror, myths, legends and folklore from Asian societies. It was an insightful session – learning how they collaborated as editors with eleven writers around the world in varying time zones, a publishing house in the US, the story behind the title and cover, the significance of the order of chapters, their use of horror as a genre to build resonance with readers – horror not being limited to gore and ghosts, but all things that terrify us. The attendees were a mixed bunch, comprising sections of horror literature fans, those who read a little horror here and there, and those who usually shunned it, until they decided to dip into this strange, dark pool while picking up the book for the meet. The guest authors graciously answered our questions, and provided several inputs even without our prompting. An enlightening start to the weekend, hearing each other’s viewpoints and dissecting them through the authors’ own shared experiences. We’re now looking forward to ‘Skeleton Hour’ – a book event with the entire team of writers and editors from Black Cranes.

Read this book, if you haven’t already. My detailed review about the book can be found here.

Revenge – Book Review

Title – Revenge

Author – Yoko Ogawa

Original language – Japanese

English translation – Stephen Snyder

Genre – Experimental fiction, horror

Yoko Ogawa is one of my favorite contemporary writers, and I love how her writing covers a range of genres, all brilliant works in their own way. “Revenge” is a peculiar book, written in the form of short stories, where each story connects to another – in no particular order – culminating into a larger tale somewhere down the line. More recently, Jane Borges’ “Bombay Balchao” was another book written in the experimental fiction format – a collection of seemingly unrelated short stories woven together to form a novel. Both Ogawa and Borges are a pure delight to readers with their literary prowess in taking writing – and reading – to a different level.

Coming back to Revenge, it can be termed as a series of dark tales, with sinister elements binding them to one another. The protagonist of one story can be a minor character in another, at times not even named – leaving the reader to decipher who we are reading about, what role they play in each story, are they even connected or does the reader feel so because we assume the stories are strung together. The eerie world created by Ogawa moves across generations, time spans, places – past, present, future, the real world and the supernatural, fact and fantasy all drawn in as well as apart from each other.

An aspiring writer, a murderous landlady, an obsessed bag maker, a singer, a surgeon, a Bengal tiger, a mother, strawberry cake – crossing paths and converging their fates in this dark web of vengefulness. Ogawa can be emotional and unsettling, impassive and heartbreaking, creepy and gentle. Her macabre take on relationships and emotions make this book effectively terrifying. Revenge is not horror in the traditional sense. A passenger train, a bakery, home gardening – the fact that her settings are so bland ups the ante of the terrors that lurk within. Ogawa’s writing can transform a normal scene next door to something downright horrifying – nothing seems out of the ordinary, and you can’t tell when and how the horror crept up on you. The best part is connecting the stories, navigating clues as you wander in this strange world.

Of course, Ogawa’s frequent English translation collaborator Stephen Snyder deserves as much of credit as the writer herself, for marvelously bringing life to her stories. Horror fans might not find this “scary” enough, and Ogawa’s fans might find this a little disturbingly different from her other works. Revenge is a collection/novel that would be appreciated by literary fans – those who revel in the written word and the beauty she creates with literature.

My rating – 5/5