The Monsters that dwell in the deep, dark well are delighted to be joined by multiple award-winning New Zealand author, Lee Murray. Lee’s short story collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, will be released by Things in the Well in July 2020. She takes time out of her busy schedule to talk to Tabatha Wood about what it means to be a “real” writer, her most amusing acceptance story, and what she says to those who say writing is “easy”.
Welcome, Lee, it’s wonderful to have you join us in the Well. Before I start the interview, I want to begin by asking you some quick-fire questions. Here we go…
Describe your writing style in five words.
Dark fiction with Kiwi contexts.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
In speech, I tend to say ‘at the end of the day’ which could suggest a preference for apocalyptic fiction.
What three themes/tropes make your writing instantly recognisable as yours, and yours only?
New Zealand context: mythology, geography, flora and fauna, and rampant Kiwi colloquialisms.
Who are your heroes of fiction?
Superstar authors whose overriding quality is kindness: Jonathan Maberry, Linda Addison, Kaaron Warren, Rena Mason, Greig Beck…
What three books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
Hmm. Maybe a Bear Grylls’ survival guide, a meaty tome or series to pass the time (I haven’t read Game of Thrones yet), and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I re-read every year.
If you could go back in time to do so, what wisdom would you impart to your teenage self?
Let it go. (I’m still haven’t mastered this).
Name three traits you find deplorable in others… And three you most admire.
Deplorable: Intolerance, prejudice, bullying
Admirable: Kindness, kindness, kindness
If you could go for a coffee with any fictional character (including one of your own) who would you choose and why?
Creon (the antagonist from Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone). Perhaps this has something to do with my Chinese heritage, being the oldest of my siblings, the first woman in my family to earn a degree, and the smothering sense of duty and privilege which comes with each of those roles.
Your house is burning, what three things do you save?
You mean after the husband, the children, and the dog? I always save my work into the Cloud, so there’s no need to rush back for that. However, if you have the muscle for it, please save my Chinese camphor wood glory box, which was a 21st gift from my brothers, chosen by my mother, and is filled with my children’s home-made cards and precious splodgy artwork from through the ages. And if there is time, run back in for the porcelain Buddha which sits on my dresser. It was a gift from my father, who carried it back to New Zealand on his lap when flying home from Hong Kong in the 1990s. Chinese custom says you cannot buy your own Buddha; it should be received as a gift, and this one has special meaning for me.
And finally, how do you want to be remembered?
Gently. And for being kind.
Thank you, Lee, those are some brilliant answers. So, I ask this question of everyone who finds themselves in the Well, but when did you first start introducing yourself as a writer?
I don’t think I truly called myself a writer until I was forty-five, and even then it was with some trepidation; there’s a tension to it because non-writers don’t perceive writing as being a ‘real job’, do they? They think it’s a glorified hobby. I once accompanied my son to see a new specialist and the doctor asked me what my profession was. “I’m a writer,” I said. He wrote ‘housewife’ in his notes. (But the thing about being a writer is that we work with words and that makes us very good at reading things upside down.)
A running friend once said to me, “It’s nice that you can call yourself a writer.” I asked her what she meant. Turns out she thought saying you were a writer was a euphemism for being a stay-at-home mum. It was what you said when you didn’t want to admit you did nothing.
“But I am a writer,” I said.
“Oh yes, I know,” she said. “But not really.”
Nowadays, I’m proud to call myself a writer. And I don’t run with her anymore.
I can’t blame you! What a rude thing to say. Can you tell me about the first story you remember writing?
When I was eleven, I wrote a dark mystery set in the Clapham Clock Museum in Whangarei, an assignment set by my then-teacher Mrs MacArthur.
Do you think it was indicative of the kind of stories you write now?
I recall it was long-winded and the resolution was slightly contrived, but the tale was dark, it called on a real-world setting, and there was a ghostly aspect to it, so perhaps it was a precursor to the stories I like to write now.
When you tell people what you do, what kind of responses do you usually get?
At parties and events, people are generally positive when I tell them that I’m a writer, maybe because it seems more interesting than learning your companion is an accountant. If you say you write science fiction and fantasy, they will generally ask if you’ve met George RR Martin.
“No? Do you know any famous writers?” they’ll ask.
Someone will tell me they’re thinking of writing a book too: it’s all in their head, but they just haven’t had time to write it down. Invariably, someone will ask if I could give a talk at their daughter’s school. Or, their uncle has written a book on birds. Have I read it?
People often ask if I base my characters on people I know. They must not get those memes popping up on their social media warning them to take care around writers in case we write them into our novels — which of course we do, only not so they would recognise themselves.
Ah yes, and if a writer suddenly starts taking notes while you are conversing with them, you should beware! Probably your most well-known stories are based around the character Taine McKenna. What inspired your most recent Taine McKenna adventure, Into the Clouded Sky which appears in your debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories?
Into the Clouded Sky was inspired by real-life events. Mount Tarawera and Lake Rotomahana are just a fifty-minute drive from where I live. As well as being stunningly beautiful, the area has historical and cultural significance as Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886, decimating nearby villages, killing several hundred New Zealanders, and obliterating the famous Pink and White Terraces. But in the days before that tragic event, a ghost canoe, rowed by dog warriors, was sighted by both European and Māori witnesses, their appearance a portent of what was to come. It was these events which inspired the story as I explain in this paragraph from the book’s afterword: “The backstory of the newest Taine McKenna novelette Into the Clouded Sky is largely creative non-fiction, the information drawn from actual reports by the characters themselves— specifically Dunedin businessman, George Sise, and his wife, Louise—who witnessed, firstly an unexplained seiche, and then a ghost canoe manned by dog-headed warriors, during their guided boat tour to the celebrated Pink and White Terraces in 1886. You have to admit, eye-witness reports of ghost canoes make for great story fodder. Add to that the volcanic geothermal nature of the Rotorua region, its blue-deep lakes and bush-clad mountains, not to mention the missing eighth wonder of the world, and you have all the ingredients for a Taine McKenna action adventure story. Sometimes, it’s that easy: with stories scattered across the New Zealand landscape like shells on the beach, I need only pick one up and wash it off to reveal its shape and colour.”
Is there a story behind the story?
While at its core Into the Clouded Sky has all the usual hallmarks of a Taine McKenna adventure — with its New Zealand context, monster battles, and strong mythological and scientific underpinnings — the theme of the story is about coping with loss and our desperate need as humans to grasp hold of those we have lost. Can those who truly love us reach out from the dead to protect us?
That sounds beautiful and fascinating. I can’t wait to read that. You must have written hundreds of stories over the years since that one you wrote at age eleven. What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Always follow the submission guidelines!
(Laughs) Yes. That’s pretty important. And what do you think is your biggest obstacle when it comes to writing?
Biggest obstacle… you mean, apart from the fact that I’m a slow writer and can barely manage 1000 words daily, and that’s on a good day? I think the biggest obstacle is the overriding prejudice against genre fiction among the wider literary community, certain publishers, booksellers, and literary funders. It’s a fact universally acknowledged that readers adore speculative fiction and, while they would be willing to buy it if it were available in their local bookstore or library, they often don’t have access to it. These barriers are real and sometimes debilitating; it’s hard enough to make a career as a writer, but for speculative writers, the landscape is even more difficult because the support just isn’t there. In the past, I’ve wasted a lot of time getting upset about this. Okay, to be honest, I still waste a lot of time getting upset about this. But now, more often than not, my answer is to roll up my sleeves to make things happen for other writers, so they don’t suffer those same barriers.
What sort of things do you do?
Things like: co-founding Young New Zealand Writers, a group which provides development and publishing opportunities for New Zealand school students, sponsoring anthology projects, commissioning work, taking on mentees, putting myself forward to judge awards and stipends, and programming national conventions. The new Wright-Murray Residency for (NZ) Speculative Fiction Writers is another example. However, undertaking these activities has led me to discover the best and most uplifting bit about writing, and that is the encouragement and friendship of my colleagues in the speculative fiction community. And of course, our readers.
That’s really impressive, Lee, and commendable. I think sometimes people can forget how important finding a supportive community is as a writer, especially as it can be quite a lonesome profession. As a horror writer you’re quite used to scaring others with your stories, but what kinds of things scare you?
Lately, the real world is scarier than anything I can conjure in my head. Climate change. Pandemics. Hunger. Prejudice and persecution. But one of the things that scares me most resides closer to home. Over the last fifteen years, I watched my father, an incredibly intelligent, compassionate community-minded man, slip further and further into dementia. In general, he accepted this fate with stoic humour. But there were moments when he walked the no-man’s-land between lucidity and oblivion, where it was clear the battle raging in his mind was utterly terrifying. At times, he did not remember the name of his wife of fifty-plus years, and nor could he identify his children. Although we walked every step of the journey with him, there were occasions when he must have felt completely alone. To watch a loved one suffer this agony is excruciating and horrifying. I hope to spare my husband and children this pain. Sadly, I fear the odds are against me.
I’m so sorry for your loss, Lee. And I agree with you that the world can indeed be rather scary at the moment. I know I’ve used my own writing recently as a way to escape from things that I can’t control. Horror and speculative fiction writers are often expected to push boundaries with their writing. Are there any topics which you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about?
None so far. Although, come to think of it, a relative sent me a letter some years ago, telling me in no uncertain terms was I to write anything about that side of the family (specifically a dark long-closeted secret). The relative’s tone was scolding and acerbic. I would NOT write about it under any circumstances; there was an unspoken rule, they said, amongst family members (one that I had clearly not been party to). I took it as a sign the relative in question thought my star might be rising. My parents shook their heads and reminded me that it was as much my story as theirs. Who had made them the keeper of stories, anyway? I bit my tongue at the time, but not forever. When I’m ready, I’ll write the story my way.
I think that’s an excellent way of looking at it, and relevant to all writers. Always tell the story your way. If you could, what piece of advice would you give to any new and upcoming writer right now? Is there any advice you wish you’d been given?
There is so much advice out there. Usually, when I’m asked this question, I say something flippant about growing a carapace; my attempt at reminding new writers that they will need to be resilient to make it. But really, I’m not sure it is ethical to give out advice, because the world has moved on since I started writing—technology, reading habits, leisure time—my experience will bear little relation to the journey of a new writer embarking on their career today. However, there are some general truths:
- Read a lot.
- Share your work with a good critique group or mentor.
- Write the story you want to read.
- Support other writers—they’re your colleagues not your competition.
- Read the contract.
- Be kind (including to yourself).
- Listen to Uncle Stephen (King) when he says ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’.
Ah, yes. Kill your adverbs. I still need to get better at that. So what do you say to those people who think writing is “easy”?
I think cheap has somehow become synonymous with easy. Attitudes towards the trade paperback industry, particularly with respect to genre titles, and, latterly, pricing structures established by the big online distributors, has devalued our work. Readers’ expectations have been recalibrated, so much so that we baulk at paying more than the price of a cup of coffee for an ebook, or the price of coffee and cake for a print book. And because of this, many independent and self-published authors are pushing out a new book every other month in order to generate income, contributing to the notion that books are easy to write, that good writing can be churned out without effort. This simply isn’t true. (To be fair, I don’t actually say this out loud. I probably just swear under my breath).
It really is a common complaint I hear from many writers and publishers, and it will be very interesting to see what the future holds for new writers and small presses. You’ve mentioned all the wonderful things you do for the writing community, but who do you think is your biggest supporter?
My parents, my husband, my children. Dad got me started. He was a big storyteller himself and was instrumental in inspiring my love of story. He made stories and tales part of the fabric of our lives, telling tall tales in the dark while we huddled beside the creek waiting for the eels to swim into the trap, or on long road trips. I first learned the story of Tom Sawyer while I painted the garage door—very cunning, Dad. By the time I had my first book published, Dad had dementia, so Mum took over as my supporter-cheerleader. Even now, she reads all my work and gives me feedback (yes, grimaces count as feedback!), comes to my launches, and recommends my books to her friends at the book club. It’s taken her a long time to get over the swearing in the military adventures, since she didn’t raise us to use profanity, but we’ve had a few conversations about character voice and I think she gets it now. I should probably dedicate a book to her one of these days.
My children have been wonderful supporters of my work, too, offering ideas and suggestions, and sometimes character voices. “The references to Maxwell Smart and the Cone of Silence are because of me,” my son tells me. It’s true he’s played a big role in encouraging my love of fandoms: Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Thunderbirds… My children have influenced my work in other ways too. Battle of the Birds, my first children’s novel ,was intended to capture my daughter’s feelings of homesickness while we were living in Wisconsin, and to offer us both a much longed-for escape back to New Zealand. Of course, in fiction, things don’t always work out as you plan, and my young protagonist is whisked back home a thousand years too early and right in the middle of a battle between New Zealand’s flighted and flightless birds.
My biggest supporter-enabler has been my husband, who told me I should stop talking about writing and just do it. Since 2007, when I became a full-time writer, he has sponsored all my community-building projects, bought a squizillion books and writing courses, welcomed legions of writing folk into our home, chauffeured me to conventions and conferences, all the while accepting that my earnings were never going to cover the grocery bill. He doesn’t even read fiction! He couldn’t tell you where Mordor is, and he hasn’t the slightest clue who Mr Tumnus is, but he knows Taine McKenna, and he is always in my corner.
It’s so wonderful that you have that support around you, and it’s something we can all do for other writers too, at every stage of their writing careers. You mentioned you’ve been writing full-time since 2007, do you have any amusing or terrifying submission or rejection stories from over the years?
Like most writers, I have lots of rejection stories. My quickest short story rejection was less than an hour. My fastest acceptances have been less than an hour, too. One of my novels had a penchant for getting lost: no less than three publishers had to ask me to send it again, all eventually passing.
My colleague Dan Rabarts and I planned to pitch our novel Hounds of the Underworld to US publisher Raw Dog Screaming Press at the first StokerCon conference in Las Vegas in 2016. Since Dan wasn’t attending the conference, it meant I would have to do the pitch myself. We’d researched the company ahead of time, reading some of the books on their list and following up on press releases and other news. We really liked what we saw, and while there were no overseas writers on their stable, we were convinced that the book, and the company, would be a good fit. The StokerCon pitch session took place immediately after lunch, so I ducked into the food court at the Flamingo resort to grab myself a something quick to eat beforehand. I ended up sharing a spinach-feta pizza-calzone with a teen filmmaker who I’d met in the lunch queue. Like me, he was wearing a StokerCon conference badge, so naturally we’d got talking. He was also intending to pitch a project that afternoon and he was feeling pretty nervous, so over lunch I listened to his presentation and gave him some encouragement. The problem was, we got so busy chatting, that we nearly missed the pitch session. We dashed upstairs and just in time, too; I was called into the pitch salon just minutes later. However, I was still a bit flustered, realising I hadn’t stopped by the bathroom on the way to the session. So instead of launching into the ten-minute pitch that Dan and I had carefully prepared, I blurted, “Have I got spinach in my teeth?” I’m not sure whether that awful faux pas helped Jennifer Barnes of Raw Dog Screaming Press to recall our story Hounds of the Underworld, but a week or so later, after reading our manuscript, she offered us a two-book deal, making us the company’s first non-US signings.
(Laughs) That’s hilarious! I’m so glad that it ended well, but I bet you stay well away from eating spinach pre-pitches now! So, to finish up, can you tell me what your goals are for the rest of 2020 and beyond?
My goal for 2020 is to come through the pandemic with my friends and family safe and well. For the next decade, I dream of writing that elusive genre-bending global blockbuster, putting out a poetry collection, and maybe seeing some of my work performed on screen (and preferably with Dwayne Johnson in the title role!). However, to do that I’d have to free up some time for writing, which means not being so distracted by all the community-building projects, like developing emerging writers or promoting New Zealand creatives, that turn up in my inbox. It’s a real challenge. Overall, my goal is to write stories that readers enjoy. And to make my children proud.
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows) and a three-time Bram Stoker Award® nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thrillers, and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra, co-written with Dan Rabarts, as well as several books for children. She is proud to have edited thirteen speculative works, including award-winning titles Baby Teeth: Bite Sized Tales of Terror and At the Edge (with Dan Rabarts), Te Kōrero Ahi Kā (with Grace Bridges and Aaron Compton) and Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror. She is the co-founder of Young New Zealand Writers, an organisation providing development and publishing opportunities for New Zealand school students, co-founder of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, and HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019. In February 2020, Lee was made an Honorary Literary Fellow in the New Zealand Society of Authors Waitangi Day Honours.
Lee lives over the hill from Hobbiton in New Zealand’s sunny Bay of Plenty where she dreams up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock.