Chris Mason, lives in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia, often dubbed “the murder capital of Australia,” with her husband, a cat, and five goldfish. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including the Things in the Well series of anthologies, and the Australasian Horror Writers Association’s magazine Midnight Echo issues #12 and #14.
Chris’s “The Stairwell” from the anthology Below the Stairs — Tales from the Cellar won the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novella. Her story “The Black Sea” from Beneath the Waves — Tales from the Deep won an AHWA Australian Shadows Awards in 2018, and was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson and the Aurealis Awards.
Here she talks about the first story she remembers writing, the inspiration for her tale “Vivienne and Agnes”, published in Beside the Seaside: Tales From the Daytripper, and her chance meeting with Neil Gaiman in London.
Hi Chris, welcome to the well. The Creatures seem to be hiding at the moment, so sit down, make yourself comfortable and we will begin.
Describe your writing style in five words.
Snappy dialogue and black humour.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I have a long messy relationship with ‘was’ and ‘that’. I’m trying to kick the habit.
Who are your heroes of fiction?
Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Joe Lansdale, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe Hill… the list goes on.
What three books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
The Stand Stephen King.
Koko Peter Straub.
The Talisman Straub & King.
Can you see a theme there?
If you could go back in time to do so, what wisdom would you impart to your teenage self?
Be kind to yourself. Lighten up. It’ll get better.
If you could go for a coffee with any fictional character (including one of your own) who would you choose and why?
Roland Deschain (King’s The Dark Tower Series). That guy has travelled some.
Consider these lines from a poem by Fran Landesman: “If you ever find my house on fire, Leave the silver, save the photographs.” Your house is burning, what three things do you save?
Living in the Adelaide Hills, I have to revisit my list every summer. Each year it gets less and less as I realise most stuff just isn’t that important. The digital age has helped because I can carry most of my writing and photographs on a USB. Assuming my family is safe, the top three are the cat, my phone, and the hard drives.
So, Chris, tell me about the first story you remember writing.
My first story is still in the vault. It’s about a kid who gets hit on the head by a piece of space junk. Overnight, he turns from a meek and mild fusspot into a risk taker, doing all manner of ridiculous things and confusing his family no end. It’s full of humour and hope. In some ways I think I’ve been writing that same story for the last twenty years.
What inspired your story “Vivienne and Agnes” in Beside the Seaside: Tales From the Daytripper?
I’ve been to Brighton in the UK a few times now, and on each visit take the long walk along the esplanade down to Hove and back. I never tire of the view across the English Channel, the wide pebbly beach with the blue and white striped deck chairs, the old blackened pier, and the new, bright and noisy one, and the rows of coloured beach huts. When I began writing for Beside the Seaside: Tales from the Daytripper, all I had was a vision of two old biddies sitting on the beach in their deck chairs, drinking G&Ts, and having a chin wag whilst the apocalypse played out. I had no idea where the story would go, but the more I got to know Vivienne and Agnes through their conversations, the more I liked them. Here were two resilient women who’d weathered personal storms far greater than the zombie plague threatening them. The story is ultimately about friendship, but it’s also an exploration of how we face death. The Brighton setting was also a chance for me to take a walk down memory lane. Of all my characters, I think the two old girls have been the most fun to write. I’m not sure if I’m ready to let them go just yet. I still hear them chattering away in my head, so who knows, more Viv and Aggie stories might get written in the future.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
The first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, just get it down on the page. Finish what you start, comes a close second.
What do you think is your biggest obstacle when it comes to writing?
I pretend that doing housework is thinking time when it’s actually, for the most part, procrastination. There will always be one more cup to be rinsed or crumb to be vacuumed. At some point you just have to get your bum in a seat and write. The dust will still be there tomorrow, and the day after that.
And the best bit about writing?
You only need your imagination, some paper and a pen.
Do you have any amusing or terrifying submission/rejection stories? Or any interesting tales linked to your writing experiences?
In May of 2017 I was in London, wandering around Fitzrovia and killing time while my husband had a meeting, when a man dressed in black with a satchel slung over his shoulder, walked past me. I very nearly let the opportunity pass, but at the last second decided I was getting too old to chalk up another regret I’d hate myself for later. So I turned, hurried after the man, and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Gaiman?” What followed was a conversation with one of the kindest, and most generous human beings I’ve ever met. I must admit I got a little teary. While London bustled around us, this sweet man gave me his time. We talked about where I was from (you can’t hide an Australian accent), my daughter who’d put me onto his books (we’d read and loved them all!), the release of the American Gods TV series, his stealth signings in airports, and a bunch of other stuff. Neil asked if I had my phone so we could take a selfie (he thinks of these things because he’s a professional), and as his arms were longer than mine, even took the photo for me. And then we shook hands again, said goodbye, and he was on his way. When I returned home to Australia I thought a lot about that chance encounter. I’d never mentioned to Neil that I liked to write — it seemed wildly inappropriate to suggest we had anything in common on that score. Besides, pretty much everything I’d written was tucked away in the ‘this is crap’ file. I wasn’t really a writer at all. What I got from that day, however, was far more important than a writing tip. I’d forced myself out of my comfort zone, had taken a risk and it had paid off. I made a promise to myself I would never let another opportunity slip by.
A few weeks later I saw a callout from Steve Dillon for Below the Stairs: Tales from the Cellar. I submitted a story I’d written a decade earlier called ‘The Stairwell’. Steve published it and the story won an Aurealis award.
Now I don’t know if a bit of gold dust rubbed off when Neil and I briefly pressed palms, but what I do know is this; if I’d hesitated for a second longer on that street in Fitzrovia, lost my nerve, I would never have met Neil Gaiman, The Stairwell would still be sitting in a folder somewhere on my computer, and stories like The Black Sea, Vivienne and Agnes, and Out of Darkness, would not have been written. I’ll be forever grateful that Neil took the time to stop and talk to me that day.
That is an absolutely fantastic story, and I love the idea that Neil might have rubbed a little of his writing magic onto you.
Finally, do you have any upcoming books/work which you’d like to mention? Or previous works which you’d like to draw attention to?
I have two new stories out in December, ‘The Grey Witch’ in Midnight Echo Magazine #14(AHWA), and ‘Out of Darkness’ in Tales of the Lost, Volume 1 (Things In the Well). My short stories including the ‘The Stairwell’ (2017 Aurealis Award) and ‘The Black Sea’ (2018 Australian Shadows Award, Aurealis & Shirley Jackson Finalist) can be found in the Things in the Well anthologies. I’m currently working on several projects due for release in 2020, one of which is a short story collection.
Thank you, Chris. It was wonderful to see you here in the Well. But I can hear the Creatures returning now, it might be best if you slip away while you still can…