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,
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for an unpublished sf/fantasy manuscript and was released by Transworld/Random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
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
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
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. I
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
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. It'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
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
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.
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