It was occasionally difficult to track. I decided that when Claire entered Sedge that it would be third person, to highlight a further disconnect (the waking dream), but also to make it really clear to the reader that a significant shift had happened. There was one scene where Claire and Clara occupy the same space and I had a lot of trouble deciding what POV that should be from!
Your trilogy from a few years ago, Undine, Breathe and Drift focussed on a teenaged girl and her discovery of magic. What drew you to working with this particular mythology, and bringing it into the modern world?
I grew up in Tasmania which is where Undine is set. I was fascinated by what it meant to grow up on an island – I am still curious about this, as I come to realise actually just how socially disadvantaged Tasmania is compared to Melbourne where I live now. Anyway, to me it seemed natural that magic would be linked to the ocean. I once commented on Twitter about experiencing ambivalence with regards to the ocean. Another writer scoffed (I’m paraphrasing), ‘The ocean makes me feel many things, but nothing so wishy-washy as ambivalent.’ But I am happy to embrace my wishy-washiness! I am fascinated by ambivalence, ambiguity, halfway states, where you linger between, not quite one thing or another. Undine is all about being halfway between – human and magical creature, love and like, the thing and the reflection of the thing and so the Undine myth (which is not literally in the novel) is a metaphor for this.
I love Margaret Mahy’s YA fiction, so I wanted to write something with “magic in the real world”. Writing Undine was a very organic process, I really didn’t understand much about the practical aspects of writing fantasy when I began. The Undine books are actually incredibly autobiographical in parts, many incidents in the books actually happened to me.
You’ve written both speculative fiction and what might be called mainstream YA as part of the Girlfriend series; do you see yourself having to choose between genres, or continuing to cross them, in the future?
I think all my books belong together, despite the genre crossing. They are really all about those halfway states, about what’s real and what’s pretend. In The Indigo Girls the girls go night surfing – this is very similar to the way Undine experiences power and her body. In Little Bird Ruby-Lee falls in maternal love with the baby she is babysitting, and then transfers these feelings onto the baby’s single father in a romantic way and then has to try and figure out what is real and what is part of her fantasy life. I don’t think I will ever tire of this theme
What are some works by Australians that you’ve been enjoying recently?
I loved Queen of the Night, Leanne Hall’s excellent sequel to This is Shyness, with its comic book aesthetic. The FitzOsborne’s at War, the third book in Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray trilogy, made me cry and smile and laugh – these are historical fiction, though Montmaray is a made up island. I really admire Cooper’s world building, the way she stitches her fictional world and history together so seamlessly. Also this year I loved Foal’s Bread, which I read as magical realism.
Also I am reading Emily Rodda’s Fairy Realm books aloud to my six year old! Emily Rodda and I will be on a panel together at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival – my daughters are very excited!
It’s been two years since the World Science Fiction Convention was held in Australia. How do you think the speculative fiction scene in Australia has changed since then?
Well, the biggest change in Australia in the last two years is the loss of Borders and Angus & Robertson, the “middle” market, and at the same time many publishers are dropping their sales staff, instead having booksellers go to the website to select stock for their stores. I think as a result we are going to increasingly see a bigger divide – a lot more trashy trash, and some really interesting, experimental “literary” spec fic that works hard to catch a bookseller’s eye. Perhaps as a result of this, I think publishers are more focussed on “The Pitch” than on “The Talent” (though I don’t think a talented author will ever be overlooked). Still, it’s easier for publishers to sell books that can be summed up in a sentence, not just to customers, but to their own marketing departments, to booksellers, to reviewers, to overseas markets. It was really hard for me to sum up Only Ever Always in a sentence, and the exercise seemed artificial, nothing to do with marking art. It was actually the rights manager, Angela Namoi who crystallised it by describing it as ” a meditation on grief”. Of course the question I started out asking was where do stories come from? And Angela made me realise I had answered that question: “from lack, from absence, from loss. From the spaces between where the lost things dwell.”
This interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 1st June to 8th June and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus. You can read interviews at:
Weird Tales sold
Strange Horizons Fundraising Drive
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Doctor Who Season 2, Outer Alliance Podcast
Alex: Trouble and her Friends, Melissa Scott; Only Ever Always, Penni Russon; Synners, Pat Cadigan; Blake’s 7.
Tansy: SF Squeecast #3, Panel2Panel (http://panel2panel.podbean.com/), Among Others by Jo Walton, Alcestis by Katherine Beukner, Stormlord’s Exile by Glenda Larke, KINDLED
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I’ve always been wary of reviewers who call authors ‘ambitious’. It seems like a potentially back-handed compliment; like, ambitious but didn’t succeed? Ambitious in the evil stab-you-in-the-back way?
I must call Only Ever Always ambitious. And I mean ambitious in try-anything, why-the-hell-not way. Because this is a novel that combines first, third, AND second-person narratives, and that’s pretty ambitious. And outrageous to even suggest. What’s awesome is that, although I found the first few shifts in perspectives a bit disconcerting, it most definitely works.
Russon gives us two different worlds, two sides of the same coin in many ways, where – to push the analogy perhaps too far – one side has been subjected to normal wear and tear, but the other side has been used much, much harder. In the first world is Claire, living a very recognisable life with recognisable griefs – no less grief for being recognisable, of course. In the second is Clara, living in a world where medicine is hard to find and four walls for one room is unusual, but still with its recognisable elements: powerful people pulling strings, and small people getting stuffed around. Somehow, Claire’s and Clara’s paths come within reach of each other… and things change.
The narrative structure is one of the most striking things about this book; it’s only 157 pages long, but those changes in POV are dramatic and confronting and, well, striking. And effective; to be in the position of a character and telling the story one moment, to having your story told at you, to then being only an observer – it works, at this length anyway, to make the characters and their stories all the more enticing and compelling. This would probably have been the case anyway, because setting Claire’s grief against Clara’s struggle to survive and the conjunctions between their worlds makes for a really engaging plot. And the character of the two girls – their similarities and differences – made them very engaging characters, too; Claire in particular was believable, with her attitudes towards her family and beloved objects.
Finally, let me say that this is a really interesting cross-over of fantasy and science fiction. The multiple-worlds thing can be either a fantasy or SF trope. The dystopic world that Clara inhabits makes this, I think, more of a science fiction than a fantasy, but really that’s splitting hairs. It could be read as either. And it’s brilliant either way.