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The Short and the Long of It:
Maxine McArthur and Geoffrey Maloney in discussion

Maxine McArthur and Geoffrey Maloney were two of the founding members of the Canberra Science Fiction Guild (CSFG), a collective of speculative fiction writers formed in 1999 in Australia's national capital, Canberra. In 2001, the CSFG produced its first anthology, Nor of Human... , edited by Geoffrey Maloney and which included McArthur's short story "Playing Possum", set in the same universe as her acclaimed space opera novels, Time Future and Time Past. Since then the CSFG has gone on to publish a series of anthologies and establish itself as a major player in Australian small press speculative fiction.

Maxine McArthur was born in Brisbane, Australia, but has lived in a number of places over the years including Darwin, Time Future by Maxine McArthurNew Guinea, and Japan. She has lived in Canberra since 1996, when she returned with her family from 16 years in Japan and began to write seriously. Her first novel, Time Future, won the 1999 George Turner Award for an unpublished sf/fantasy manuscript and was released by Transworld/Random House in Australia and Warner Aspect in the US. She has published two more science fiction novels, Time Past (Random House, Aspect 2002) and Less Than Human (Aspect, 2004). The latter book won the Aurealis Award for best science fiction novel in 2004.

Geoffrey Maloney grew up in Sydney, Australia, spent nine years in Canberra and now lives in Brisbane with his wife and three young daughters. Since the early 1990s, his short stories have regularly appeared in Australia's leading speculative fiction magazines, as well as the occasional publication in the US and the UK. He has had over sixty short stories published and his work has been nominated for six Aurealis Awards and regularly appears on the Year's Best honourable mention lists in the United States. A mainly retrospective collection of his stories, Tales from the Crypto-System, was released by Prime Books in the US in December 2003. His story "The World According to Kipling" won the Aurealis Award for best fantasy short story in 2001.

As assistant editor, Geoffrey has just completed work on a new anthology -- The Devil in Brisbane -- with the internationally acclaimed Serbian writer, Zoran Zivkovic.

Geoffrey Maloney: Your latest novel Less Than Human was released in October 2004. It's been widely and excellently reviewed and won an Aurealis Award in Australia for Best SF novel and now it's short-listed for a Ditmar Award. Were you worried at any stage that Less Than Human by Maxine McArthurafter Time Past and Time Future people mightn't be ready for Less than Human, which is quite a departure? There's no Commander Halley for a start, nor any of those frustrating but intriguing aliens. I think one very favourable review even said that it's probably not really a science fiction novel, although that puzzled me I have to admit.

Maxine McArthur: Yes, the third book is totally different to the others. My publishers obviously felt readers would be okay with a change from me because they stated firmly they didn't want another book in the universe of Time Future and Time Past. So I gave them what I was working on at the time, which was Less Than Human, although in its first incarnation this book was actually a straight crime novel. When I changed it to SF, though, all kinds of plot and character possibilities opened up, which proved to myself that I'm a skiffy writer. One of the main characters of Less Than Human is a female workaholic engineer, though, so you could say that's a common thread with the first two novels! The criticism of "not really being science fiction" is understandable in a way, in that the book deals with new technology before that technology changes society. I wanted to look at society poised on the cusp of change, at that point just before the balance tips and we go over the edge. Japan is a great place to set any work on technological change because there is so much juxtaposition of the old and the new that it is easier to see what's happening. Another way to look at technological change, of course, is to write it from the point of view of someone who is so steeped in it that it has become normal, although to the reader it is weird.

I guess too there's the question of what is SF and whether that definition has been stretched more lately. Or is it just that the world is becoming more like an SF novel or movie and mainstream literature is reflecting this with SF-like themes? Apart from the Crichton-like airport thrillers that use some of the tropes of SF to good effect (John Birmingham's alternate history springs to mind), there seem to be more literary novelists who are willing to experiment with devices such as time travel and future settings that until now have been regarded as part of the SF ghetto. David Mitchell, for example.

GM: I think Less than Human is a good example of trying to come to grips with the science fiction world that we are already living in -- perhaps why that one reviewer didn't really see it as a science fiction story is because the science fiction worlds created in literature have always seemed so far away before. So, yes, I'd agree that some parts of the world are becoming more like SF novels and Japan with its love of new technology is probably a great example.

So has Commander Halley permanently retired?

MM: I would like to write another book about Commander Halley, though. Her voice is very easy for me to write. Do you find that certain characters just flow, but other, perhaps worthier characters, are difficult?

GM: In terms of character, I find the first person ones easiest to write. They are all part of me, I guess, at least to a distorted extent, and the part that emerges is largely dictated by the story I want to tell. But I always go for third person when I want to get out of my own head and find a different voice -- and third person I find much harder to write because of this; although the results have been well-worth it. I've received lots of favourable comments back from readers about Youngburton from "The World According to Kipling" and Jerzhi Kapuscinski from "The Taxi Driver" and "Keeping the Meter Running". And neither of these two are anything like me.

MM: Certainly "The World According Kipling" and "Keeping the Meter Running" are two of my favourites among your stories. I grew up reading Kim and The Jungle Books and Stalky & Co, so when I read "Kipling" I was a bit sceptical at first whether you'd hit the right note and then delighted when I found out that you had. Voice is a difficult issue, but I think it means the difference between a book that is re-read and one that disappears swiftly from the reader's mind once it is finished. Do you set out to write with a different voice in each story, or does it evolve that way? When you started out, did you put much effort into inventing your own style?

GM: It took me a long while to find a style of writing voice that I was happy with. I think when I first started writing I started off with what was a crude American SF voice -- the lack of expertise was all my own, but the American voice just seemed to be the default setting. But, of course, I didn't start to sell any stories until I found a voice and style that seemed to be all my own. I'm a great admirer of the clean prose of a number of literary writers: Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are all writers that have probably had an influence along the way. cover scanI was quietly pleased to see that one reviewer of my collection Crypto-System didn't think it was speculative fiction, but more like Peter Carey's short stories -- although personally I regard Carey's short stories as speculative fiction. And if I could truly write that well I'd be delighted.

Also, your point about literary novelists being willing to experiment with SF themes -- I see that Ishiguro's new novel is about cloning, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

MM: Have you sold stories to mainstream/literary magazines, or have you always aimed squarely at the SF market? Would you submit to, say, the new Reid's Magazine (Australia) that pays well and is looking for non-literary stories in any genre?

GM: I think despite any allusions from SF reviewers to Carey's work, my writing is clearly labelled as "science fiction" by the mainstream community, although there isn't much science in it really. I think the other thing about the more mainstream magazines is the word length. Mostly they seek stories under 3,500 words and the vast majority of my short stories come in around 5,000-7,000 words. Word limits are a constant battle for short-story writers, something which doesn't seem to apply to novelists -- although it does seem that bigger is better these days. You don't yourself write "doorstoppers" though. Have you ever felt any pressure to make your novels longer? Is there a sense, do you think, that people want longer novels these days? I admit to having a certain nostalgia for those lovely slim punchy novels that J G Ballard and P K Dick used to write.

MM: I agree. Because I work and have kids and try to write as well, I don't have great blocks of time in which to read, and I'm more likely to finish a slimmer novel. There are a few shorter novels from small press, though, that I've seen recently. Veniss Underground wasn't too long, and some Australian writers such as Marianne de Pierres and Sean McMullen don't write bricks. The longest work I've read lately was when I was on holiday in Japan and took no other English books with me -- that was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It lasted a couple of weeks nicely, but I ended up with a squint and a sore chest because the font was very small and the book itself was so heavy!

I haven't experienced any pressure to write longer novels. I've been encouraged to stay within the contracted length for all my books, which are about 100,000 words each, Time Past being a bit longer. Time Past by Maxine McArthurIt's a comfortable length for me. Any longer, and I know I'm padding. Any shorter and I miss things that should be included. But I still open the books at any page and find sentences that could have been trimmed, paragraphs that should have been cut. My ambition is to write an 80,000 word novel with the same content as the longer ones, just wasting fewer words. The novel that won the Aurealis Award of 2003 for best science fiction novel, Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum's Fallen Gods (Telos, 2003) is a good example of dense prose -- it is barely over 40,000 words, but they are all brilliant words.

I do think that many of the doorstopper novels being produced these days could be more rigorously edited, but there are obviously many readers who like these books as they are.

GM: I read Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Stephenson's Cryptonomicon back to back towards the end of last year. They both clock in at around 900 pages. They were both very good books, but I still felt that they were too long. In both of them I found that pretty much everything had been resolved, but there was another 200 pages to get to the end. But that might be because I do really like short stories and enjoy how some writers can say so much in only 5000 words.

MM: Recently at Conflux I heard plans for more Australian short story anthologies in 2005-2006. What do you think about this explosion of short story markets here? Does it reflect a 'next generation' of keen young editors and writers?

GM: There is a bit of an explosion in the short story market in Australia at the moment. More magazines and anthologies than we've ever had before ....

MM: Yes, at present, it looks as if we'll have three or four small press anthologies competing for stories with the magazines such as Andromeda Spaceways, Borderlands, Orb, Aurealis, Fables and Reflections etc. Including the CSFG's next anthology.

GM: Some of it I think goes back to that that first anthology by CSFG, Nor of Human ... , that both you and I worked on in Canberra. It brought a bunch of stories together from writers who were all working at different levels. A lot of beginners but others, such as yourself, who had already been published. To be honest I was surprised at how much attention was paid to that anthology and certainly there were others like Robbie Matthews and Les Petersen who did a lot of the background work -- both of whom have gone on to be influential with Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine -- Robbie as chief editor and Les with his art work. Les is now an internationally selling cover artist. I think in the best punk tradition, it showed that you could get out there and just do it. And I'd like to think that that had some influence on the scene in general.

MM: Yes, all you need is some moxy. Oh, and a reliable team, some capital, backup plans, a good printer, and much blood, sweat and tears. It's not that easy, but it can be done.

GM: And more generally, as you said, we are seeing a next generation moving through who have paid attention to what's been done in the past. There are a lot of good new writers emerging and the only reason that we know about them at all is that the short story market in Australia has been so buoyant. However, a lot of people involved in what's happening right now have been around for a while, so I guess some sort of critical mass has been achieved. I think technology has quite a bit to do with it. People are making connections a lot easier through a range of speculative fiction discussion lists in Australia and they're able to follow the trends in the US and the UK as well through a whole host of websites such as infinity plus and Nightshade Books. We've also seen the quality of print-on-demand publishing improve dramatically in recent years, which has meant that it's lot easier to print small numbers of books.

MM: Certainly the mailing list of CSFG has been a major factor in keeping the group together and in making it possible for us to discuss things like anthologies and conventions without everybody coming to meetings all the time. We all have day jobs, some of us have kids, and it wouldn't be possible to keep track of what the group is doing without the list. Not to mention the fun we have discussing other issues. We still have the meetings and the crit group meets once a month, and I think it is important to get to these if I can because it is nice to put faces to the email messages. I wouldn't like to belong to a mailing list-only group.

GM: But I still feel it's awfully precarious. One of the new anthologies -- Superluminal -- fell over recently and won't be going to print. All the stories had been signed up. The cover was done, but the editor/publisher got to stage in the process where he felt he couldn't keep it going by himself. As I mentioned during the Ben Peek interviews, it takes a lot of dedicated people to keep it all going and they usually need to crash through a lot of barriers to make it happen. I think it's the same in the UK and the US when it comes to small press. It's blood, sweat and tears a lot of the time, as you said.

But I think it's a pity that none of the bigger Australian publishing houses have invested writers in the short story market, even by way of offering some seed money for some of the very excellent local productions we've seen in recent years. The bigger pity is that they don't even seem to study the quite dynamic short story market in search of new writers who might potentially make it big. I think that "rule" about getting some short stories published first in order to break into the novel market doesn't really apply in Australia. I've been told that it helps in the US, but I'm not sure about the UK. And I would advise somebody starting out in Australia who really wants to write novels to avoid the short story market altogether and just concentrate on writing the best novel they can. And if they can't sell that one, write another. You'd agree with most of this, wouldn't you? You've played a very prominent role in seeing CSFG Publishing move from "writers' group publishing" to becoming a more professional small press that has put out a number of anthologies that just seem to improve as they go along. At the same time, you're first and foremost a novelist. You haven't written a lot of short stories and you didn't need short story credibility to get people to pay attention to your novels.

MM: I agree entirely. Somebody asked Stephanie Smith, sf/fantasy editor at Harper Collins, this question in a panel and, as far as I can remember, she said that if someone had published a number of short stories in the genre, she might be slightly more inclined to look at a slush-pile submission. But because writing a novel is such a different process to writing a short story, she is really only interested in the novel manuscript. I think that's reasonable; just because you can write short stories, doesn't mean you can finish a novel. Marathon running is a different sport to sprinting, and the publishers know this. What I do think writing short stories can do for a novelist -- and I don't mean to imply that short stories have value merely as a training ground for novelists, I think short stories are a distinct art form in themselves -- but they can give you training in the craft of putting sentences together, of describing the world and your characters, of thinking in terms of plot and scene. All the nuts and bolts, in other words, of fiction writing. I do find short stories difficult to conceive and finish, and when I look at all the potential markets we have now, I feel frustrated that I can't sit down and come up with stories for some of them. But that is a separate issue to selling my novels. Probably most of my novel readers won't read my few short stories anyway. The other aspect, of course, is that novels take several years to write. At least, mine do. So if I can get a couple of shorts published in the interval, I feel, rather pathetically, that people won't "forget me".

GM: Well, I think that if your novel readers knew that they could easily access a short story of yours they would. Particularly those who want to get just another small glimpse of Halley in action as in "Playing Possum" which Keith has graciously agreed to make available at infinity plus. A much better place for it to live I think than the now obscure Nor of Human... anthology we worked on four years ago! Ah, the forgetting thing drives me crazy. And I agree it is pathetic in a way, but it seems to be the stuff that writers are made of. You need to be able to get out of bed in the morning, do the day job, look after the kids, and still have a little hope that someone somewhere is actually reading what you've written, and that they like it or it's made them think about something that they hadn't thought about before. Having a reputation, as limited as it is, for writing short fiction I find it surprising myself that the first thing I ever wrote seriously was a rather weird space opera novel, before I started on short stories. I wrote two more novels during the 90s and you can see it in my bibliography -- I just disappeared for a couple of years in terms of publication. Not being published and not having my work out there being read was very difficult to deal with. So I threw myself back into short stories again. They are basically very addictive. The novel drafts languish in all those bottom drawers.

MM: I agree totally about the need for someone to be reading what we write. I'd also like to read those novels of yours some day, especially the "weird space opera". I looove weird space opera (obviously).

GM: If I can get over my short story addiction and start editing them again, I'll bang on your door for a critical opinion.

But I'd like to finish off with one last question. The Aurealis Awards, Australia's premier Awards for speculative fiction, were held in Brisbane this year. Both of us were nominated in different categories. For me the highlight was when you took out the Best SF novel award for Less than Human. In your typical fashion, you accepted that award with much grace and humility, and seemed genuinely surprised that you had won. I thought it was richly deserved. Was it important for you to win that award?

MM: You're very generous -- "incoherent" would have been my description of my acceptance! I was honestly surprised to win. Yes, I know people always say that, but I was expecting a certain author to win yet hoping another might, because I'd read all the books and I knew what I would have chosen. But it was a wonderful feeling, partly because it meant I'd connected with some readers; it was also tremendously important to me because being a George Turner Award winner has been seen (and with some justification) by some people as a bit of a cop-out. That is, I didn't do the hard yards and write short stories for decades and submit the manuscript hundreds of times before I hit publication. I wrote Time Future (it took a couple of years), then popped it in the mail and a couple of months later Louise Thurtell at Random House rang me and said "you're it". So it has been important to me to keep producing work regularly, even if "regularly" means every two/three years. Less Than Human proved I can write something other than those two space operas, and for it to win the Aurealis Award felt like a vindication of myself as a professional writer. Even if it is hard to get a publisher in Australia!

GM: Maxine, as always, it's been a pleasure.

MM: Likewise, Geoff. I just wish you still lived in Canberra so we could chat in person!

© Maxine McArthur and Geoffrey Maloney 2005.

Time Future by Maxine McArthur Time Past by Maxine McArthur
Less Than Human by Maxine McArthurTales from the Crypto-System by  Geoffrey Maloney
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