Award-winning author Antti Tuomainen launches his first series with The Rabbit Factor, an energetic black comedy, currently being adapted for the screen by Amazon/Mandeville Films with Steve Carell to star, and Antti executive producing.
What makes life perfect? Insurance mathematician Henri Koskinen knows the answer because he calculates everything down to the very last decimal. Until he is faced with the incalculable, after a series of unforeseeable events.
After suddenly losing his job, Henri inherits an adventure park from his brother – its peculiar employees and troubling financial problems included. The worst of the financial issues appear to originate from big loans taken from some dangerous men who are very keen to get their money back.
All improbable and complicated problems. But what Henri really can’t compute is love. In the adventure park, Henri crosses paths with Laura, a happy-go-lucky artist with a chequered past, whose erratic lifestyle bewilders him. As the criminals go to increasingly extreme lengths to collect their debts and as Henri’s relationship with Laura deepens, he finds himself faced with situations and emotions that simply cannot be pinned down on his spreadsheets.
I love literature in translation, and the array of stories from around the world. Translators do such a great job in bringing these books to readers of different languages. When I heard The Rabbit Factor was originally written in Finnish, it immediately egged me to pick it up. The fact that the story was subtly humorous without being in-your-face comedy, made it all the more intriguing.
The Rabbit Factor kicks off with the rabbit! A giant, mechanical bunny installation in a children’s adventure park that happens to be losing an ear. Tasked with repairing the damaged rabbit, the protagonist unwittingly uses the aforementioned broken off ear to kill an assassin. Who would want to attack the owner of a park, and why? And what’s with the unpredictable rabbit that always shows up somehow?
Mathematician Henri Koskinen has recently been fired from his job for refusing to participate in team building exercises and motivational seminars. Branded as a non-team player, the number crunching employee is shown the door. Henri soon learns about the death of his estranged brother, who not only left an entire adventure park to his sibling, but also the debts and threats that were duly inherited along with it. And now someone wants Henri to pay.
The dark comedy takes us through Henri’s adventures in his newly acquired business – his primary customers being children whom he doesn’t like, employees who refuse to listen to the new boss, gang lords out to retrieve their payments, and a newfound appreciation for Monet’s water lily paintings. Henri’s mathematical calculations and logical thinking, juxtaposed with the children’s rides and attractions of the park, are the funniest scenes of the novel.
The Rabbit Factor is charming and engaging; in equal parts down-to-earth and out-of-this-world. Henri is an interesting protagonist, playing both hero and anti-hero, who is bound by circumstances. Being a translated novel, kudos to English translator David Hackston, for retaining the elements of humor and mystery, and presenting a wonderfully comic thriller of sorts. The book has also been adapted for the screen, starring Steve Carrell.
Thoroughly enjoyable and definitely recommended!
My rating – 5/5
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Antti Tuomainen was an award-winning copywriter when he made his literary debut in 2007 as a suspense author in 2013. The Finnish press crowned Tuomainen the ‘King of Helsinki Noir’ when Dark as My Heart was published. With a piercing and evocative style, Tuomainen was one of the first to challenge the Scandinavian crime genre formula, and his poignant, dark and hilarious The Man Who Died became an international bestseller, shortlisting for the Petrona and Last Laugh Awards. A TV adaptation is in the works, and Jussi Vatanen (Man In Room 301) has just been announced as a leading role. Palm Beach Finland was an immense success, with Marcel Berlins (The Times) calling Tuomainen ‘the funniest writer in Europe’. His latest thriller, Little Siberia, was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger, the Amazon Publishing/Capital Crime Awards and the CrimeFest Last Laugh Award, and won the Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.
Frère d’âme has been on my list since a while, both for its historical fiction setting of WWI and also for the first person perspective of a soldier caught in the trenches and battling his own inner demons. When the English translation won the Man Booker of 2021, I picked up both versions and read them back-to-back. Narrated by Alfa Ndiaye, the memoir-like novel begins with the death of the Senegalese protagonist’s best friend, almost-brother, and fellow soldier – Mademba Diop. Alfa finds Mademba on the battlefield with his insides hanging out but still alive. Mademba implores his friend to end his misery by killing him, which Alfa refuses to do, even after Mademba asks three times. Alfa carries his dead comrade back to the trenches with his intestines wrapped around him, and vows to kill the “enemy soldier with blue eyes” who gutted his friend. This oath takes on a life on its own when Alfa repeatedly sneaks into the enemy camps, captures one soldier each time, guts them, waits for them to plead twice, before finally killing them and cutting off their hands. Initially, these souvenirs are welcomed with much fanfare in his own camp, his savagery applauded. But as the hands start piling up, his own comrades start fearing and avoiding him, labeling him a soldier-sorcerer. Concerned about the agitation within his team, and their diversion of focus causing enemies among themselves, the captain sends Alfa on extended leave away from enemy lines, to rest and recuperate.
The first half of the book follows Alfa’s re-telling of Mademba’s death and the origin of the hand collection, along with life in the trenches and the role of a soldier in the thick of war, colorism and racism within comrades on the same side, colonization and its effects on soldiers fighting for countries that aren’t even theirs. The second half takes us through Alfa’s treatment at the army hospital, the life of doctors and nurses on the battlefront, Alfa’s memories and life story as he takes us through his childhood and enlistment. The third part of the book reads like a delusional account of Alfa’s loss of grasp over reality, which also presents his final understanding on what his life’s mission is all about.
The three parts of the book are starkly different in tone and theme, although consistently narrated in first person, which portrays highly commendable storytelling and writing. The context of Frère d’âme is West Africa’s role in fighting for France, against the Germans in the first world war – the untold and underrepresented stories of people of color during colonialism. David Diop doesn’t spell things out plainly, and I love how his writing causes the reader to explore history and human behaviour by reading between the lines. He wants us to think for ourselves without telling us what to think. The title literally translates to “soul brother”, (exploring the relationship between Alfa and Mademba – “mon plus que frère,” Alfa tells us time and again) but Frère d’âme is also a clever take on ‘frère d’arme’ which means ‘brothers-in-arms’, which is exactly what the characters are.
The English translation of the book, At Night All Blood is Black, recently won the Man Booker of 2021. It was a unique experience reading both languages back-to-back and noticing the subtle differences in narratives. While the repetitive dialogues in the English version get grating after a while, in the French original Alfa’s chant-like phrases lend a haunting ambience to the horrors of war and its after effects. “Je sais, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pa dû. Par la vérité le Dieu,” he repeats again and again, and when it hits home you realize the physical, mental and emotional gruesomeness of his words, beyond the brutality of war itself. Right from the title, through the opening lines and throughout the narrative, the reader is prepared for what’s to come. And yet, when the ending hits, it strikes hard. A disturbing read, whichever language you choose to read it in, but much required for the themes it addresses on war trauma and the history of non-Europeans fighting European wars. David Diop tells us so much more than a story.
And just like that, half the year comes to an end.
The first six months of 2021 had an interesting array of books, although I haven’t been able to feature all of them individually. Some have been reviewed on the blog here. I also got the chance to meet several authors in book discussions, participated in international book tours, collaborated with publishers, and conducted interviews, which have also been featured elsewhere on the blog. Halfway through the literary year, here’s a list of my top ten books out of fifty-one read in the first half of the year, in no particular order. I haven’t included any of the Agatha Christie, Shirley Jackson and Italo Calvino books because these are re-reads on account of reading projects I’m doing; they’re obvious favorites. I’m anyways quite particular about the books I pick up, and most tend to be in the 4 and 5-star range. This is just a list of the ones that struck me the most, had a lingering effect, and are good enough to be picked if I had to read them again in the future.
-Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
-Relics, Wrecks and Ruins by Aiki Flinthart
-Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down by Ida Keeling
-Dopehri by Pankaj Kapur
-The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita
-Infinite Country by Patricia Engel
-Writing to Change the World by Mary Pipher
-The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave
-Ariadne, I Love You by J Ashley-Smith
-Ranaangan by Vishram Bedekar
The books I had read within each month can be found in the collages below.
2020 was a stellar year for Geneve, who was also assistant editor for Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins, a speculative fiction anthology that features authors such as Neil Gaiman, Ken Liu, Robert Silverberg, James (SA) Corey, Lee Murray, Mark Lawrence, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Angela Slatter. The anthology is the legacy of Australian fantasy author, Aiki Flinthart, and is in support of the Flinthart Writing Residency with the Queensland Writers Centre.
Geneve’s short stories have been published in various markets, including Flame Tree Publishing, Things in the Well, and PseudoPod. Her latest short story, “They Call Me Mother,” will appear in Classic Monsters Unleashed with some of the biggest names in horror, including Joe Lansdale, Jonathan Maberry, and Ramsey Campbell. Geneve loves tales that unsettle, all things writerly, and B-grade action movies. She can be contacted through her website at www.geneveflynn.com.au.
As part of an interview series by Tomes and Tales, Bram Stoker winner Geneve Flynn was kind enough to engage in conversation about all things reading, writing and editing.
1) Hi Geneve, congratulations on winning the Bram Stoker award for Black Cranes. How does it feel to be acknowledged as an award-winning editor in the horror genre?
Hi, Renata, thank you so much! It was such an unexpected thrill, and still doesn’t feel real. Lee and I were so proud just to have Black Cranes on the shortlist with such strong works; actually winning was the icing on top. If you’re looking for more wonderful horror, I highly recommend the other shortlisted anthologies. Here are the links:
2) You co-edited Black Cranes – this year’s winner for superior achievement in an anthology – with Lee Murray. How was the experience coordinating between Australia and New Zealand, and several other places where your writers were based?
Lee is an absolute delight to work with; we complemented each other, and both being conscientious Asians meant that we kept on top of things.
Putting together the anthology was actually fine, despite all of us being from different countries. Lee and I made a conscious decision to keep the spelling in line with whichever region the authors came from, rather than trying to homogenize everything. I think that helped to maintain the authorial voice for each story.
Everyone’s getting quite used to communicating online nowadays, particularly since the pandemic, so things went pretty smoothly. The biggest juggle was probably doing some of the promotion, since we had to coordinate different time zones for online events. Sometimes our poor authors had to be awake in the wee hours of the morning!
3) Addressing Southeast Asian women and women writing horror, Black Cranes had very specific themes. How did you zero in on your team of writers?
First was deciding what we wanted for the anthology. Lee and I focused on the region: Southeast Asia—as we both felt we had familiarity with some of the myths and stories from the area, as well as some of the cultural aspects. We also decided we wanted to focus on the experience of being a woman, so we narrowed things even further. Once we had that in place, we went looking for authors who fit our parameters.
I came up with a list of women horror writers who had published in English, including Gabriela Lee and Rin Chupeco. We also both knew writers who we thought would be a good fit. Lee suggested Rena Mason, Christina Sng, Nadia Bulkin, and Angela Yuriko Smith. I’d met Grace Chan at a writing conference. An Australian writer friend, Kat Clay, suggested that Elaine Cuyegkeng would be a great fit.
We started contacting folks to see if there was any interest, and we got replies that were overwhelmingly positive. Some of the writers we approached loved the premise of the anthology, but were unable to contribute due to conflicting schedules and deadlines. Happily, we were able to sign on our eight wonderful Black Cranes.
Of course, we were also over the moon when Alma Katsu agreed to write our foreword.
4) While you wrote A Pet is for Life and Little Worm along with co-editing Black Cranes, for Relics, Wrecks and Ruins you did just the editing. As a writer and editor, what sorts of genres do you work with? How do you balance your dual roles?
My writing sits very much in the horror space. There’s something about looking into the darkness with an unflinching and curious eye that appeals to me. I’ve tried writing other genres, but I keep being drawn back to horror.
As an editor, I work across the speculative fiction spectrum: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I also edit mystery and thriller, and I work with texts for adult, YA, and middle-grade readers.
I used to find writing quite difficult when I first began working as an editor. After spending hours pulling apart other people’s stories, it was hard to turn off the critical side of my brain. But as I’ve done more and more professional development, I find that everything I learn for editing, I use in my writing. One process informs the other. Also, you have to learn to allow yourself to write a bad first draft and trust in the revision process.
I do try to schedule editing time and writing time, but sometimes, when a story idea pops into my head, it can be challenging to focus on my client’s manuscript when the creative fireworks are going off in my brain!
5) You have two psychology degrees. How did the switch to writing come about? Does your educational expertise ever influence your writing?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was little. But as happens for a lot of writers, I decided to study something that seemed more practical, so I went into psychology. While I loved studying how the human mind works, I realized that I don’t have the personality to be a good therapist. I would have burnt out fairly early in my career.
For the next few years, I floated between jobs that I didn’t particularly like. Then when my kids were young, I began writing again. I joined a couple of writing groups and I took lots of courses, got mentorships, joined associations, and read all the craft and editing books I could get my hands on. I began submitting my short stories and was lucky enough to be able to place them.
My background in psychology absolutely influences my writing and my editing. Shawn Coyne, the editor who wrote The Story Grid says that every successful writer he knows has some sort of background in psychology—whether they’ve studied or worked in the field. I think to be a good writer and editor, you need to have a fascination and understanding for how humans tick. After all, we’re social creatures, and we read stories to understand other people.
6) You have edited and critiqued stories ranging from short lengths to novels. How do you approach a manuscript as a reader, writer and editor?
As a reader, I do try to turn off my editor’s brain and just enjoy the book. Sometimes, when an author has used a literary device cleverly (or poorly!), I’ll take notice. Most of the time, though, I just read because I like the story.
As a writer, I often start with an image from a dream. I tend to dream vividly, and my brain will often throw out strange things that make good fodder for stories. I like to write to submission callouts too. I find that the more restrictions you have on a story, the more creative you’re forced to be, and that can result in some really fun narratives. I used to write by the seat of my pants, but I find that I’m much more of a plotter nowadays. It’s much more efficient.
As an editor, I usually do a first read, then I’ll pull apart the manuscript scene by scene, recording what’s in the actual text, and seeing how it fits with dramatic structure and reader expectations. It’s like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle: I’m trying to help the author bring the image they have in their head onto the page. I’ll look at the big-picture elements first, and once those are in place, then I dive into the sentence-level editing. It’s much easier with short fiction, but the process is pretty much the same.
7) From fantasy to crime, historical fiction, YA and children’s books, your editing expertise is far and wide. What are your favorite genres to read and write?
Luckily, the genres I like to edit and read are the same. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, thriller, YA—these are my favourite places to inhabit. When it comes to writing, though, I play in the dark.
8) Black Cranes was chosen by a book club in India for their book-of-the-month last October. You and Lee interacted with the members in a virtual book discussion. How was the experience in meeting readers from different parts of the world to talk about your book?
Lee and I were so excited to know that our book was being read and enjoyed in India. It was delightful to hear how the stories resonated with readers, and that we had so many shared experiences of family expectations, duty, and “otherness.” Once you’ve written a story and published it, you have no control over how it’s received, so it’s always lovely to have a chance to chat with readers and get their take on it. What’s been really wonderful is that for every review for Black Cranes, different stories have been listed as favourites. There’s been something that rings true in each story for individual readers everywhere.
9) Relics, Wrecks and Ruins and Black Cranesreleased within a span of a few months. While your collaboration with Lee Murray won you a Bram Stoker award, your other co-editor Aiki Flinthart passed away earlier this year. How did these experiences impact you as a writer and editor working with several authors?
For both, it was a privilege to work with authors of such high caliber. Being trusted to edit someone’s story is a big deal, and having the chance to work with some of the biggest names in science fiction, fantasy, and horror was fantastic. Working with Lee and co-editing Black Cranes has opened so many doors. I’ve gotten to know lots of great folks in the horror community, and I can tell you, while their stories are scary, they’re the nicest bunch of people you could ever meet.
Working with Aiki on Relics was a real honour. She was prolific and such a positive force in the speculative fiction community. I’m so happy that I got to be a part of her project, and to see her singular focus and drive firsthand. She was a close friend as well as a fellow author and editor, and I think her passing reminded me to not waste a single opportunity. Aiki was a great proponent of taking that leap, even if you’re afraid.
10) Thank you, Geneve, for taking the time for this interview. A final question for readers – What books are you currently reading? And any new projects you’re working on?
Thanks for chatting with me, Renata. Currently, I’m reading The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher. It’s a twisted weird west book that has a terrific voice. I’m also reading The Shadow Book of Ji Yun, edited and translated by Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum. It’s a collection of Chinese weird tales and horror stories.
I’m writing several short stories for anthology call outs and I just signed a contract for a collection of horror poetry. I’m keen to stretch my creative muscles!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When people board an aircraft, mundane day-to-day affairs occupy their minds. But when their flight gets hijacked and subsequently crash lands in an isolated place, they have to call to the forefront all their survival skills, to trek in a hostile terrain, with dwindling supplies of food, physical and mental strength. Adding to their problems is the presence of a terrorist travelling incognito among the passengers. Will they ever find a way home?
After having read the latest thriller from Sudha Ramnath, Flight or Fright (A review of the book can be found here), and being privileged to virtually meet, host, and interact with her on the Author Talk series of Did You Read Today, it was a delight to feature her in this interview by Tomes and Tales.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
From being part of a women’s drama troupe specializing in male roles, to writing plays, from living on a remote island near Madagascar to skydiving from 18,000 feet, Sudha Ramnath has quite the penchant for crafting experiences. She has written, directed and staged four English language plays in Tanzania and Kenya, along with other Indian expats. She has worked in a bank, married a man whom she calls the ‘sane’ part of her life, taught math and physics, and is a mad but loving mom to her two children. While others like her drew up grocery lists and laundry schedules, Sudha made plans to live the moments and stick by them. She made the pilgrimage to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis, danced like there was no tomorrow at a flash mob in San Francisco, and stood on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and watched the million dollar sunset. She spent a month in the Himalayas, where she met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When he heard that a few chapters of her latest novel dealt with Tibetan issues, he went against protocol and signed the book for her.
An interview with Sudha Ramnath about “Flight or Fright”
1) You debuted on the literary scene with “Susp’Ended”, a short story collection. How did the transition to a novel come about?
I wanted to write a full-length novel for my first publication. However, just as I began writing, my husband got a job in Kenya and we decided to move. Right around the same time, my daughter got married. So life suddenly got very hectic. I had the choice of using some short stories I had written earlier (but not published), or postpone the idea of publishing. I was so bitten by the publishing bug that I chose the first option. That’s how Susp’ended became my first book as a debut writer.
2) “Flight or Fright” is a hijack story at its core, but multilayered in its themes and narrative. How did the story come to you?
I have traveled a lot in life. During flights, I have always been fascinated by the other passengers. I would wonder if the lady sitting next to me was a quiet homemaker or a business executive? The young man opposite – why was he so upset? The nervous-looking gentleman in the front seat – was he going for an interview? The young girl with all those newly married trappings – was she going back home to meet her parents or was she flying to be with her new husband? I guess when I got a chance to speak about my thoughts, I brought them all into the book.
3) How much of what happens in the novel is based on true events and research versus imagination and creativity? How do you strike a balance as a writer?
Most of the characters are based on people I have observed, but not their stories. For example, the nervous gentleman whom I had once seen on a flight became Mukesh Narula, the jittery entrepreneur going to meet a prospective investor. A sweet-looking lady who kept fussing to her husband about her plants and was worried if the maid would forget to water them became Gowramma, a young mom fond of plants. There must have been plenty of other passengers on other innumerable flights. But some I remember for the stories I wove around them. They became characters.
4) The novel does not have a protagonist. Your character development is so strong that each one of them is an instrumental part of the story. Was this a conscious decision?
When the story involves a plane full of people and what happens to them, it cannot be about one or two protagonists. I am basically a storyteller. I let the story guide me. A long time ago I had understood something about myself, that I am an average person – whatever strikes me as funny, most others find funny, too; what I think is interesting, others find interesting, too. So I went for whatever interested me.
5) You are famed for your crime stories and mysteries. Could you tell us about your writing process in creating them? How do you plot situations, keep track of minuscule details, reveal clues for the reader, and introduce twists throughout the story?
I have been a fan of thrillers right from when I was a kid. Initially, I only enjoyed the thrill they provided. But after reading for a long time I began noticing how the famous writers did it – how they laid a trail of deception for the readers to fall for, how they built the suspense, how they revealed the end, what kind of stories needed a reveal only on the last page, and how some writers kept the readers interested by weaving in small bites of suspense that got revealed in the next chapters. I have learned from great masters like Agatha Christe, Jeffrey Archer, and Jeffrey Deaver.
6) Dividing the book into two sections was a very innovative and interesting part of the narrative. The first half as chapter numbers, and the second as numbers of days, interspersed with conversations as transcripts. How did that come about?
After the passengers were stranded I felt it made more sense to count the story by the number of days than as chapters. I agonized with them, I suffered with them, I enjoyed their escapades, I marveled at their adventures. So, the days mattered to me more than the chapters.
7) The character of the school principal is seen to be observant and curious, a reader of her co-passengers’ personalities. It reminded me of you. As a writer, how much of your characterization is based on people you know or observe?
Oh, Looks like you caught me! But her character is something I aspire to. Her acumen, her perspicacity, her maturity; it’s someone I want to be more than I am. But thanks a lot, because I take it as a compliment. Mostly, my characters are based on people I observe rather than people I know.
8) While your thrillers and mysteries are in a league of their own, your humorous travelogues and anecdotes bring much reading delight as well. Any thoughts about writing books in humor and other genres?
I would love to write humor and also romance. But I am sure the romance I write will also have a twist at the end.
9) You have written screenplays and directed and acted in theatre. Have you considered publishing them in book format for readers to gain access?
It is interesting to write screenplays. One has to bring about the story only through dialogues and action sequences. But I found it challenging and fun. My first play ‘The Dream’ was adapted from a short story of mine published in a magazine called ‘New Woman’, almost twenty years ago. I had to introduce a few new characters into the play to bring the story out coherently. I enjoyed it tremendously. I have never thought of publishing them. Now that you have asked me about it, maybe I will think about it seriously.
10) Who are your literary influences? Any books or authors you would recommend reading?
I guess we all imbibe unconsciously from whatever we read. Strangely, I realized something only recently. There is this Facebook writers group called ‘Did You Write Today’ to which I belong. Every Friday a word is given and we write something for the prompts. Most of what I have been writing is somehow or the other influenced by what I was reading when I wrote them. I would love to write humor like PG Wodehouse, murder mysteries like Agatha Christe, courthouse dramas like Perry Mason, and thrillers like James Hadley Chase. I found this author called Ken Follet whose books are a class apart. His storytelling capabilities are amazing. I feel he has never got the popularity he deserves. I would recommend his books, ‘The Key to Rebecca’, an edge-of-the-seat spy story, and ‘The Man from St. Petersburg’, a political thriller.
11) You’re a natural storyteller, in both speaking and writing. Tell us about any upcoming books or projects to look forward to.
I am almost finishing a novel that I am enjoying writing. Most of the days I am Yagnika, the protagonist of the story. I think like her, react like her, and feel like her. Jokes apart, it’s a story about four friends who are exceptionally intelligent. One of them is suddenly murdered, another one has to run away with a mysterious red packet, the third is chasing her, and the fourth one is absconding. I am using a different technique of alternating the present and past as chapters to make the story interesting. Suddenly I have thought of an epilogue for the story that actually ties very well with something most people can relate to. I can’t say more about it without revealing too much, so please wait and read it for a stunning twist at the end. Also, this DYWT group I spoke about earlier? I have been writing very short stories with a twist for the weekly prompts. I just realized that I have more than sixty of them, and so plan to publish them as a book. These two are what keep me busy these days.
Close on the heels of finishing a Shirley Jackson book as part of a reading project, I wondered what to pick next. Any book would pale in comparison, so I was left deciding for a few days until I heard about a virtual author meet. Eager to interact with Sudha Ramnath – who is famed for her thrillers, mysteries and crime stories – I immediately plunged into Flight or Fright to prepare for the event, and it didn’t disappoint.
The synopsis is fairly simple – a flight bound from Mumbai to Delhi is hijacked, and the reader is taken along with the passengers to extricate themselves from the situation. But Flight or Fright is more than a hijack story. Written in a multilayered format, the first half of the book devotes a chapter to each character (and there are a great many of them). Sudha’s forte lies in the little details, so we aren’t just told about a photographer, a sports coach, corporate employees, foreign tourists, and a host of other people, but there’s a background story for every single one of them, with information that’s just enough to carry the story forward – why they do what they do, who they are and how their individual personalities work through the situation. The characterization is written so well, one doesn’t even need to keep flipping to the character list to identify each one – you know exactly whom you’re reading about and how they are connected to another character. The second half of the book doesn’t have chapter numbers but numbers of days, as the plane crash lands and the stranded survivors try to find a way to reach civilization. In between, we see correspondence exchanged among the terrorists in the form of transcripts. The narrative constantly keeps you at the edge of your seat, as you wonder what happens next and navigate through conversations, hidden and overt.
Flight or Fright is action-packed, but also has a very humane side in its presentation, as the myriad characters deal with hostile terrain, internal group dynamics, dwindling resources of food, physical and mental strength, terrorists incognito among the passengers, the quest to be found accompanied by the anxiety of being found by the wrong people – the flight crash lands outside borders and they don’t even know which country they’re in; equal chances of being welcomed by a hospitable village or thrown into a military prison. Every sentence, every word finds its place in the story, and not a single one is wasted. Sudha knows exactly what she wants to tell you, revealing enough for the reader to put the pieces together and solve the jigsaw, but holding back enough to challenge you every step of the way.
Through the crux of surviving or succumbing in a hijack, we also get side stories – each small one contributing to the larger canvas. A school principal removed through unfair means finds renewed purpose in banding people together, a housewife with a penchant for gardening enjoying the lush floral landscape, a photographer clicking memories, a politician trying to bribe his way out, people who want to play the hero and those who want to do nothing and expect others to do everything for them – the beauty of the writing is that the novel has no protagonist. Sudha gives equal strength to every character – they can either contribute to getting out unscathed, or bring harm to the whole group; a wait-and-watch rendering where everyone is a suspect.
While I have read Sudha’s short stories and screenplays, this was the first novel from the author, and she proves how wonderful a storyteller she is irrespective of story length or format. And it was a marvellous opportunity to hear her story of creating stories. Not a book to be missed!
“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’.
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.