Nike Sulway lives and works in regional Queensland. She is the writer of the books Dying in the First Person, Rupetta, The Bone Flute, The True Green of Hope, and What The Sky Knows. In 2014, Rupetta became the first work by an Australian author to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. Nike can be found at her blog.
Your most recent novel is Dying in the First Person, which has been getting some rave reviews. There’s a lot going on in the book, but one aspect that you’ve written a little bit about on your blog is the idea of paracosms, or invented worlds. What drew you to the idea of including one in this novel? What do you think paracosms say about individuals or society?
I’m not sure I can put my finger on a single moment when I first encountered the idea of a paracosm, and wanted to write about it. Do other writers really have those singular moments when ideas flash into their thoughts as subjects? I’m not sure that’s every happened for me, instead it’s slow accretion, slow obsessions. Anyway, there are probably at least a few things. As a child, I had a really good friend, a ‘bosom buddy’ as Anne would have said, and we had a shared paracosm. It wasn’t quite like Nahum: it didn’t exist in some ‘other’, undiscovered place. It was the bushland that extended out from the back of her house. But in our relationship with it, that bushland was populated by storms of magical creatures. Fairies especially, but also a terrible, cruel Bunyip, and winged horses and trolls. When we left the house to go bushwalking, we entered that parallel world, as if through a magical portal. One of the interesting things about that process, to me now, is that when we entered the bushland, we also put on other versions of ourselves. We had different names and different bodies. And I remember, very distinctly, looking at my friend, Cavel, and seeing her as other self. Magical and strange. And wondering if she saw what I thought of as my true self, too.
When I came to writing this novel, I think there were several things that collided in my imagination. I’d been working at the LOTE centre (a now-defunct division of the Department of Education, dedicated to supporting the teaching of Languages Other Than English), so I’d spent some time immersed in a community of workers who all had a language other than English as their first language. And then I spent some time in the Netherlands, with my family. My Oma had dementia, and one of the effects of that, for her, was that she slipped in and out of the languages she spoke–particularly English and Dutch–weaving them together in a way that made sense to her, but was often difficult for those caring for her. There were times when her shifts made a kind of mnemonic sense: when she spoke about living in Australia, she would use English, and vice versa, but at other times there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for the shifts. And she was very old, and very frail. I was conscious — we all were — that she was dying. So these ideas, of languages and how they relate to our sense of self and community and family, of alternative realities and shared, created worlds, and the loss of love. The way families can be physically separated, but deeply emotionally connected to each other, all came together in these two brothers, and Nahum, and the stories they wrote for each other.
I’m not sure I can say anything conclusive about what paracosms say about individuals or society for others. That’s much too big a question for me to answer. But I do see patterns in the research I’ve done around childhood paracosms, in particular. Oddly, they’re often connected to children who are conceived of as geniuses — as peculiarly talented or sensitive. They seem, most often, to be expressions of a utopian ideal, but one in which darkness nevertheless lurks. They might be kingdoms where children rule, or where children are not policed by parents and teachers, but there are monsters lurking at the edges of those worlds. War and death and loss.
I suspect that paracosms, like most created worlds in speculative fiction, are most often mirrors that their creators hold up to the real world. Distorted reflections that reveal things about ourselves and our worlds, and poke at them. Sometimes, they’re forms through which we can ask those ‘what if’ questions: what if the moon were made of cheese, what if women were equal citizens, what if gender was understood differently, what if race was understood differently. In Nahum, Samuel and Morgan create a world in which, unconsciously, they wonder what would happen if the only citizens of the world were men, and each of them lived alone.
You spend a good portion of your life talking about writing, and teaching others about it. Does this help or hinder your own writing? And I’m very curious – has the number of students taking such courses increased or decreased lately?
A little of both, actually. Sometimes it’s inspiring and challenging; sometimes it’s enervating and overwhelming. At times, just at a very banal and practical level, the teaching (and other aspects of my day job) mean I don’t have time to write, or the imaginative energy left after long days of meetings and administration, email and committee work. But the classroom, or workshop, and the conversations I have with my postgraduate students, those are most often rich, strange and challenging. I think they make me a better writer. Having to help others become better writers, helping them find the tools they need to express what they want to express, challenges me to do the same thing. To constantly question what I think good writing is, and how it can be achieved, and what it can do. It keeps me from becoming lazy or complacent.
I work in a regional university, and I’ve only been there a couple of years, after a long ‘absence’ from the university sector. At USQ we have a relatively new Creative Writing program, so it’s been growing steadily since I took up the role two years ago. That said, late last year I went to the annual AAWP (Australasian Association of Writing Programs) conference, in Melbourne. It’s a conference that I’d attended annually in my early years as an academic, from the second year it ran. And I was overwhelmed by the number of people there. It was HUGE. So I think, totally anecdotally, that there’s been an enormous increase in the number of students enrolling in undergraduate writing programs, but even more radical growth in postgraduate enrolments, particularly research Masters and PhDs.
Your novels to date are quite different from one another, and your short stories likewise. Do you have ideas or characters you’re hoping to explore in future stories?
I wonder if that’s confusing for readers. I have so many passions as a reader, and I think that that diversity in my reading passions is reflected in the styles and genres of stories that I end up writing. And perhaps my teaching influences me, too. Particularly in the undergraduate program, I’m concerned with offering students the opportunity to write across a range of styles and genres, and that means I’m constantly thinking about, reading, and discussing a wild array of works. This week, it’s been Nature Writing, Science Fiction, Ecological Criticism, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Historical Fiction and the personal essay. You can probably expect works in ALL those genres from me at some point.
At the moment, I’m working on two novels (one of which might evolve into a kind of not-novel: we’ll see). One is the first of a trilogy of historical novels. It’s called The Orphan King, and is about Edward VI, the orphaned son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. The other two books in that series are about his two sisters, each of whom, like him, was the child of Henry VIII, both of whom became queens of England. The three orphaned monarchs are haunted by a trilogy of ghosts: their dead mothers: Jane Seymour, Katharine of Aragorn, and Anne Boleyn.
The other book, Tern, is a fairy tale. At least, what I think of as a fairy tale (to me, Rupetta was a fairy tale, too). It’s the story of a girl, Tern, whose several sisters are cast out of the family home after drought ruins their father and his new wife, pregnant with his first son, refuses to have them in her home. Tern sets out to find each of her sisters, but this is complicated by the fact that each of them has become something else. An animal, a piece of the landscape. So she’s walking around Australia—her and her dog—seeking women who aren’t women in an Australia that’s not quite, but is absolutely, the one you think you know.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I have been reading a lot of essays lately: I read and absolutely adored Rebecca Giggs’s essay ‘Whale Fall‘. As far as books. My socks were blown off by Quinn Eades’s ‘All The Beginnings’, Josephine Rowe’s ‘A Faithful, Loving Animal’ and by Libby Connors amazing feat of historical work ‘Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier’, which tells the story of the Indigenous warrior and lawman of the Dalla people, Dundalli. The book is more than just an account of one man’s life. It’s an account of his people, and of the culture that white ‘settlers’ tried so hard to wipe out.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
A dead one, so that I can use their seat and my own—really stretch out while they hover without a body in the aisle–and not arrive, at the other end of my international plan trip, feeling like Death.
More seriously? Recently, I listened to David Sedaris reading and discussing Miranda July’s short story ‘Roy Spivey’. This is a story that begins: “Twice I have sat next to a famous man on an airplane.” One of the men the narrator sits beside is “a Hollywood heartthrob who is married to a starlet”. It’s an astonishingly good, heartbreaking, funny, surprising story. July is never disappointing on any of those grounds. And really, I want to sit next to her so I’ll appear, with a name that is ‘almost an anagram’ of my real name, in a future story, poem, film, or artwork by Miranda July.
Miranda July would have had a better answer for this question.
Nike Sulway is an author and academic. She is the author of several novels, including Rupetta, which—in 2014—was the first work by an Australian writer to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. The award, founded in 1991 by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, is an annual award for a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Queensland, loves rabbits, chocolate and children. Not all for eating or cuddling.
1. Your novel Rupetta won the Tiptree Award and the Norma K Hemming Award this year – congratulations! It’s a grand novel about love and family and history and automatons – do you feel that it accomplished all that you hoped?
I’m very pleased and grateful to have received both of these awards. Among other things, they have helped the book to find more readers – or perhaps that should be the other way around (it has helped readers find the book!).
As a writer, I’m incredibly ambitious. Perhaps all writers are. Not in a worldly sense, but in terms of what I want to achieve in the works themselves. For me, every work exists in an ideal state … before I start writing. Writing is, in one sense, the process of dismantling the Ideal/dream version of the book, and instead creating its shadowy reflection. A kind of fall from the Platonic Ideal to the Shade. So, in that sense, nothing I’ve ever written is a perfect realisation of all the dreams I dreamed for that work. I can’t remember which writer said that that’s why you write the next thing: because you still have work to do, ambitions to realise.
I’m very proud of some of the things I achieved in Rupetta. I’m pleased with small things. I love little Perihan; I love the relationships between Henri and Miri, and between the Salt Lane Witches. I’m proud of the fact that love is central to this book about war and ambition; that the daily experiences of women are at the centre of the story. Its strong, strange, complex spine.
But, there’s always more work to do.
2. You’ve written books for children as well as for adults… which do you think is harder? And do you start with an audience in mind, or a story?
I think writing both for children, and for older readers, are incredibly complex and difficult tasks. I think in writing for children, you have to work hard not to be condescending or overly romantic about children, and childhood. Not to diminish your sense of who your readers are, or your characters. I have this little bit of something I wrote on my blog called ‘How to write a story for a child’ which begins: First, consider the child. That’s not as easy as it sounds! I think of writing as being about a particularly unusual and strangely intimate relationship between writer and reader. You have to be willing to encounter the other person as themselves, warts and all. I think building emotionally (and narratively) rewarding relationships is hard work! No matter who that relationship is with.
I start with … hmm … I start with an image, usually, and the image most often includes a character. With Rupetta, this was an image of a half-broken, half-repaired neglected piece of clockwork slowly decaying in a country barn. I’m trying to remember which comes first, but I think – for me – the two (readership and story) arrive together. Entwined.
3. Not all of your work has been speculative fiction. Do you anticipate writing more speculative fiction, or does the story idea dictate the genre?
When I sit down to write, I don’t really think of myself as working in a particular genre. Not exclusively, at least. I enjoy reading and writing speculative fiction; I enjoy reading and writing contemporary realist fiction, and picture books, and non-fiction. And the things I’m working on slide across all those boundaries, especially while I’m working on them.
I’m working on a trilogy at the moment, the first book of which is called The Orphan King. I’ve done a picture book version – no words – and a graphic novel version, and a textual version that draws a little on my reading of Henry James Turn of the Screw, in that whether you read it as speculative or realist depends on … well, depends on you. The text itself (the writer herself?) hasn’t yet decided. The final version will be a novel; if I think of it as belonging in a genre at all, I would like to think it is in the same little sub-genre/cross-genre field that Gary Wolfe uses to describe Karen Joy Fowler’s work. He said her stories are “trapdoor genre stories”; stories which they can be read as non-genre until that one moment when you realise this isn’t quite what it seems.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I absolutely adore Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone, which is a verse narrative set in a dystopian future. It is astonishingly beautiful, and moving, and strange.
Marie Williams’ memoir Green Vanilla Tea will never leave me. I was lucky enough to work with Marie on this book about her family, and particularly about what happened to her family when her young husband is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and dementia.
Finally, Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby is a work of grace, courage and humour by an Australian writer we should all be reading more often. If only she would write more!
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be writing in five years from now?
As a writer, I have a rather ambivalent relationship to the writing and publishing industry. I know a little bit about it, and I try to stay aware of what’s going on, but at the same time I don’t want to let the market unduly influence what I write. At least, not in a negative, limiting way. Plus, I think of ‘The Writing Industry’ as being a bit like the many-headed hydra, or at least of myself as being like one of the blind people who are asked to describe an elephant: what I think it is depends on which bits and pieces I get hold off on any particular day.
So, I’m not going to write a sparkly vampire erotic fan fiction in which lead characters are killed off at unexpected moments just because those are some aspects of some popular books right now.
I’m not going to lead the charge into hypertextual/hybrid forms of narrative, because I’m a writer, not a multi-platform artist. Though I would embrace working collaboratively with other artists/craftspeople across a range of mediums.
I can’t see myself pioneering a radical new form of storytelling cos, really, I like the old form. Words, in sentences, one after another, that somehow perform this magic trick of transforming into people, places, experiences and emotions.
I’m also, in the end, a bit of a romantic; I think stories and storytelling will endure, though perhaps the medium through which stories reach readers will change beyond recognition.
Five years from now, I’ll still be snuggled up in a comfy chair with a book of some kind, lost in some other world, with some people who never existed, and when I get up to make tea, I’ll stare out the window at the leaves all over my unraked lawn and wonder what on earth I’m going to write about next.
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: