Bettina lives in a very small town with her mother somewhere in the outback. It’s an area of farmers and hard scrabble and everyone being in everyone else’s business; they’re a long way from everyone else. Her father and brothers have been missing for some time, but Bettina’s life seems to be going its own quiet, easy way, until something comes along that starts a disruption. And then she chooses to follow where that disruption leads, becomes (re)acquainted with two of her peers, and goes on the sort of literal and figurative journey that means you can never properly go home again.
Like most Australians, I am a city/suburbs person. Like slightly fewer Australians I have spent some time “in the bush” although never for especially extended periods (days and weeks, never years). For all that much of the (white) Australian apparently has this romantic notion of, or attachment to, “the outback”, that’s not the reality for most people – who’ve never spent long periods outside of a large town, never worked on a farm (I’ve visited but not worked), don’t really know what it’s like away from streetlights.
All of that is, I think, an interesting backdrop for coming to this novel. I definitely think Australian audiences will come at it differently from, in particular, an American one. For Australians, the fact that Jennings did in fact grow up in a rural area will be an important part of trusting her insight and the way she sets her story up; it certainly was for me. Not that someone like me couldn’t write a story about an outback town and have it work – but I trust Jennings and her observations because I assume she is writing at least partly from experience.
Jennings calls this an “Australian gothic.” I did not study the gothic genre at uni, when most of my friends did; it has never especially appealed to me as a genre. I think, in my head, it comes too close to the aspects of horror that I dislike; I don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable. So I can’t speak to the accuracy of the gothic label – although there were definitely bits where I felt uneasy, and was put in mind of the stories we used to tell each other as kids, about things like the Min Min lights and other such things.
There are many things to love about this book. Firstly, the structure. The narrative proper is interrupted every second chapter by the insertion of a story-within-a-story. These might be told by someone who’s present, or be second or third-hand. Their connection to present events isn’t always obvious, but always becomes so. And they’re generally linked to some piece of folklore, or apparently superstitious warning, that might be straightforward to ignore during daylight but becomes less so at twilight. This was an intriguing way to flesh out the story, and also contributed to a sense of … disconnect; of things not working exactly as they should, because the narrative isn’t straightforward. It left me feeling unbalanced, like I wasn’t sure things were happened as I expected.
Secondly, the art. Jennings is probably most well known in Australia, and indeed overseas, for her art – which isn’t entirely fair since she’s written and had published any number of short stories; but her book covers, in particular, have had a fair bit of notice, and justifiably so. It’s her own artwork on the cover, which is awesome; there are also fantastic pieces at the start of every chapter, and on the folded covers. They make me particularly happy to own this in hard copy.
And thirdly, of course, the writing and the story itself. Publishers Weekly describes it as “spellbinding, lyrical prose”, Kelly Link says that her prose “dazzles”, Holly Black that it is “exquisitely rendered.” All of that. Jennings evokes a particular feeling of Australia – the space, the dust, the sun, the trees, the oppressive expanse – that made me glad I was reading this in my nice suburban house (even if it is during lockdown), and not while out camping, because I think that being in the bush while reading it might have been just too much. It would have made it too… real. So the setting works brilliantly; and the people do, too. My nan moved to a small town after marriage when she was 20 years old; into her 70s some of her peers still treated her as new to the place. Small towns can have delineations that strangers don’t see – I’ve heard the stories of Catholic and Protestant areas in teeny little Victorians towns – and that’s brought to the fore here, too. And then there’s the folklore, and the uncomfortable sense that maybe more is going on beneath the surface than is immediately obvious…
I really hope Flyaway gets a lot of notice, and from a wide-ranging audience. A lot of Australians will enjoy it for the way it plays with notions of “The Australian outback” – and frankly it’s just gorgeous.
Kathleen Jennings is an illustrator and writer based in Brisbane, Australia. Her (mostly illustration) blog is at http://tanaudel.wordpress.com. Her art has won a number of Ditmars and been nominated for two World Fantasy Awards. When she doesn’t have paper to hand she has been known to draw on people.
1. You always seem to have a number of art projects underway – can you tell me what you’re working on at the moment, and what process you’re using to construct it?
I’m working on several book covers, but am moving between them at the moment, so I’m not sure which I’ll be working on when this is published!
- For one, I’m constructing a scene out of several existing elements – a digital collage of sorts, but with my own work. I anticipate some frustration with this, as I will have left it to the last minute (since it’s new) and because I have to *make* things fit, instead of creating them to.
- Another is part of a series of covers for Laurie Marks through Small Beer Press. The intention is for the covers to interlock, but the books weren’t all ready when I started. So we had to design an interlocking element and add the specific elements as we went.
- And I’m sketching ideas for Fablecroft’s Cranky Ladies while waiting for the contents to be finalised so I can lock it down! That’s an interesting one as it needs to work both as a cover and a separate piece of art, for crowd funding reward. I’m also doing a cover for its twin publication Phantazein.
- I’m also evolving a possible project with Tiny Owl Workshop. She creates marvels, and is inventing as she goes, which is wonderfully freeing, because we are both working out what can be done. The process so far is a series of fits and starts: idea, inspiration, procrastination, angst, frantic activity, lull, run into each other at parties, apologise, scheme to exclusion of all others… Once we lock it down, it will run much more swiftly and smoothly. It seems to involve Hounds.
These will be a combination of digital, cut-paper silhouettes, scratchboard and pen-and-ink. My usual process involves about 90% angst, sketches and delay. If I have a lot of sketches to do (a wide variety of ideas to work up, or internal illustrations & collateral material), I’ll use an accordion-fold sketchbook of watercolour paper to make a little book of ideas, colour, reference – that way there’s something physical and pretty at the end! Then I send thumbnail sketches for approval. If the final piece is very constructed and detailed I’ll send developed pencils for approval, but often it’s a more organic piece, particularly when people want a sketchy style. Then I might just get approval on direction and the final before tidying up.
I’m never sure if I enjoy more getting art direction, or just being turned loose. Both are great privileges. It really helps to work for someone with a strong sense of purpose and aesthetic judgement, but who will let me use mine – it’s nice to know that they will have an opinion if I need one, or at least parameters I can work within.
2. A number of your artworks are available on your RedBubble page, including the cover of Midnight and Moonshine. How has a site like RedBubble affected the way you think about art, and where it might be used or seen?
I’m still learning to see art as a decoration/product. I grew up seeing art-as-part-of-story, and I’m on continuous horrifying journey of discovery of the organisation and logistics involved in the fine/decorative arts, and in making art products, which doesn’t exist in illustration by itself. Also striking a balance between pictures full of movement and more static images, which works best in which context, etc.
I plan to take some time to sit down and explore the possibilities of RedBubble and similar sites in a more deliberate and systematic way, instead of just putting something up when requested!
But it’s so delightful when people show up to something wearing a shirt with my drawing on it – gratifying, but also that sense of a shared discovery: “this came out of my pen, and you liked it too!!”. I hope to make things beautiful, and that suggests to me it may have worked.
Part of it is learning to manage time and think about money, too, and how they feed into each other.
3. In the next five years, do you hope to be doing more art or more writing or balancing the two? Are there projects that you’re desperate to get onto the page?
I hope to be storytelling, in words and pictures. It is a balance act practically, because one has more paying deadlines, and the other takes longer! But even though I don’t often combine them in my own work, illustration and writing are inextricable for me.
I am desperate to get more stories on the page. Short stories, long pieces. I have a number of works in progress, short and long (including the infamous Large Amorphous Manuscript and a novella I’m turning around trying to work out how to expand it into a novel). I am learning how to create the space I need for editing when I lack mental, temporal and physical room (everything in my house gets taken over by ink and paper). Angela Slatter flenses things for me with great patience and enthusiasm – a vigorous Slatterian pruning does wonders for a writer’s growth.
But writing is happening, if slowly. I have two or three stories coming out this year so far: “Skull and Hyssop”, an airship adventure (maybe this year, details to come at some point); “The Last Tale of Detective Charlemagne”, a noirish tale of inspiration and publishing in Insert Title Here, and “A Small Wild Magic”, a comic in Monstrous Affections: an anthology of beastly tales. So you know, I am a writer too!
I want to develop my own illustration projects as well – I’m getting too used to only being guided by other people’s deadlines, and need to fool myself into believing in some of my own. I keep coming up with all these ideas during workshops and lectures – scraps of paper full of sketched notes for stories about invisible paths, or crane mothers…
And I still keep an illustration wishlist, which has a habit of coming true very indirectly. Endpapers are still on it! I’ve tried twice, but the first time they turned into cover art for Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen (Subterranean Press) and the second time they became internal illustrations for Angela Slatter’s Bitterwood Bible (Tartarus, forthcoming). Endpapers and a wine label and being asked to be artist-in-residence on an expedition or unusual worksite. Among other things.
Thinking about time and finances, as mentioned above, are high on my list of Things To Be Done. Where is time made? How do we create and contribute to a sustainable industry, do we do it for love, how do we show and transfer love? What is professionalism? What about patronage? Can you be self-supporting? How many different ways are there to do this, and which don’t we talk about enough? What are the interstices between starve-your-art, starve-for-art and become-wildly-successful? What about resilience when circumstances change – what gives? What matters? Where are the interesting conversations? Is this all just procrastinating? Peter Ball is covering a lot of this territory – the business of creative work – on his blog, and Clare Bowditche’s Big Hearted Business takes another inspirational angle.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Everybody’s! This feels like a trick question… Alas, most of what I read now is the manuscript form of something I’m illustrating. I need to get out more.
I will mention Shaun Tan, always, because he creates worlds that you can fall into – hugely textured and detailed and just inexplicable enough to be all-encompassing. I’ve been seeing his art for his latest, Rules for Summer, in Spectrum for ages, so I’m delighted to have it all in one book at last. I don’t know if he gets enough credit for his writing, as well as his art. Tales from Outer Suburbia is one of my very favourite books of short Australian fiction – unsettling, enchanting, hopeful. It’s like a little box of wonder. And the art and words are so interwoven…
Angela Slatter’s Bitterwood Bible should be coming out from Tartarus very soon (full disclosure: I illustrated it). Dark and vivid and beautifully tragic, and I still get choked up by a few of the titles. “Now All Pirates Are Gone”. Good grief. Oh, and Black-Winged Angels is coming from Ticonderoga Publications.
And everything Tiny Owl Workshop is doing, and everyone with whom it is done. Utterly charming and delightful.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? How do you think you will be writing/creating in five years from now?
Yes, but not in the way I would have predicted. Ebooks were meant to be the death of illustration, and hard copy books, and of course this failed to be true in the usual ways. But then people also started being freed up to make beautiful books-as-objects again, and now there’s this niche where gorgeous, heavily illustrated books are taking off – I mean, look at Subterranean and Folio and Tiny Owl (not saying Folio or even Subterranean are that recent, but it seems there’s a new resurgence and visibility, and I keep seeing my favourite illustrators showing up in their catalogues). It’s given small press a new niche as well, to do really jewel-quality limited-edition pieces, often for an established market. And of course the internet and social media have opened up the visibility of those books, without traditional marketing channels, and created ways to finance them.
The biggest impact for me has actually been the shift from ‘traditional’ publishing finance back to an older form of raising funds: pre-orders and subscription printing. That is, crowdfunding. It’s both good and… weird. On the one hand, it lets everyone get paid reasonable amounts, commensurate with market rates and audience, so it removes that curious guilt/bargaining/barter barrier to quoting on projects you really, really want to work on, lets people make high-quality books and a real community around a book, and can remove a lot of the game-of-chance quality. And it can be tremendously exciting and fun. On the other, it completely skews timeframes and deadlines. Definitely positive on balance, but a learning curve.
So, how will I be writing/creating in five years from now? Not how I expect to be. But I hope to team up with publishers and authors who’ll experiment with new technology to create beautiful physical objects, and beautiful communities online or in real life. As technology and services are more affordable, open-source, widely available, etc, small presses will be able to take a keen look at the aesthetics of what they’re making, and afford to compete on that level, as well as the content. Beautiful stories.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: