I met Maxine McArthur at World Con in 1999. In those heady days Random House was developing a genre line which published Tansy, Maxine and myself. (Random House discontinued the line, orphaning all three of us). Maxine’s first book Time Future won the second George Turner Prize. It was one of those rare experiences (for me at that point) where I met the author before I read their book. And as I read it, I could hear Maxine’s ‘voice’ clear as day. Up until that point I didn’t have a clear idea what the term ‘authorial voice’ meant.
Q: You won the second George Turner Prize with your first book, which was launched at World Con. This was your introduction to SF fandom and the publishing industry and it must have been like jumping into the deep end of the pool. Not long after this Random House discontinued their genre line. If you could go back and give that Maxine McArthur some advice, based on what you know now, what would you tell her?
Let’s see…well, first, definitely don’t give up that day job. Or should I qualify this—don’t give up the day job unless you are willing to put in a great deal of hard work to consolidate publication, which is only the first step towards a career. Successful writers don’t just write books, they spend a lot of time and energy networking, publicising themselves and their work, coordinating marketing initiatives, and often branching out into other fields such as games or scriptwriting. I didn’t realise this when I had my first book published and didn’t do the hard yards.
Second, make sure to at least consider a sequel when you write a novel—I tied myself into knots with book two (Time Past), because I didn’t do this. Third, never write about time travel again! (whoops, broke that one already) And fourth and most important, write what you want to write—don’t commit yourself to a project because it is the ‘in’ thing, or someone wants you to do it, or because you think it will look great on your CV.
Q: You left Australia right out of high school and went to study in Japan, where you met your husband and had two boys. After 16 years, in 1996 you returned to Australia and wrote Time Future, which is set on a space station and (among other things) it told how Commander Halley, the overworked engineer struggled to keep the peace between the different alien races. How much did those years in Japan influence your ability to write about living with a different culture?
I think it’s very difficult to pinpoint influences in our own writing. All I can say is that Time Future would have been a very different book if I hadn’t lived in Japan. I must add that I had a much easier time there than Halley does on the station!
When writing Less Than Human, of course, I consciously used memories and observations from my life in Japan, which I hope “gives an air of verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative”.
Q: The sequel to Time Future, Time Past was published in 2002 by Warner. Was it hard to take the second book in a series to a different publisher? Do you still have more stories about Commander Halley bubbling around in the back of your mind?
It was a little disappointing, as I’m one of those people who like continuity, but I was very happy with Warner as it turned out. They were wonderful with the book, especially the editing.
Oh yes, I have another novel set in the Time Future universe half finished, hopefully to be completed next year. Part of it is written from another character’s point of view, unlike the previous novels which are kind of a Halley immersion experience. I hope the different POV is as interesting for the reader as it was for me.
Q: In 2002 you were awarded an Asialink Literacy Residency. Please tell us a little about this residency. What process did you go through to win it, how long did it last and was it wonderful to escape from your family and be just a writer, rather than all the other things you must be as a University employee and mother?
For three months I was almost the only resident at a very comfortable and modern ‘Arts Village’ in Yamaguchi prefecture, which is a fairly rural part of Japan. The sojourn made me realise how little I really knew Japan, even after living there for 16 years. It was the kind of place where fairy tales and mythology seems perfectly natural—like the countryside in Miyazaki’s “Totoro”. Most of the scenery and the spirit of place in the YA fantasy you mention below came from the notes I took in Yamaguchi. A wonderful coincidence was that Gillian Rubenstein was staying in a nearby village, writing her stupendous fantasy series, and we had some great times together.
I actually found it rather lonely apart from Gillian. I don’t think I would do well as a hermit-type writer. There seems to be a limit as to how many hours per day (probably no more than three or four) I can effectively spend writing—after that, my brain shuts down. This perhaps comes from having to fit writing into every little crevice of time you can find, normally. (You will relate to this, Rowena!) Families and day jobs tend to occupy large chunks of time, but fortunately novels are flexible enough to fit into the leftover space.
Q: The book you were working on while in Japan was a YA fantasy, set in medieval Japan. This is one I read at a ROR and I’ve been looking out for it ever since. What stage are you at with this book and can you tell us a little about it?
Certainly. Here’s part of the ‘blurb’:
The spirits of the dead will possess all places and times. The line between the worlds will disappear. We will be doomed to live with the dead until they consume us.
In order to prevent the fox’s prophecy coming true, the young shaman, Hatsu, must stop a powerful angry ghost seeking revenge on the living. Her only help is the young warrior’s assistant, Sada, whose troop burned Hatsu’s village and whose strange new religion threatens her own. The only way Hatsu can return from the Long Bridge in the land of the dead is for Sada to abandon his honour; the only way Hatsu can finally help the angry ghost and save them all, is to accept Sada’s beliefs.
This book is proving to be a bit of a problem child, as a couple of publishers gave me some feedback which suggests it needs rewriting to make it more ‘accessible’. Which I’m working on, except that my current project is occupying most of my mind at present. That’s the trouble with working full time and trying to write as well—you have to prioritise ruthlessly.
Q: Another manuscript that we read at ROR was the first draft of the book that was published as Less than Human, which went on to win the Aurealis SF Award in 2004. This is a near future book that, among other things, plays with ASIMOV’s first law of robotics. Are you tempted to write any more near future books which explore the interface between technology and humanity?
Not in the next year or so! It is a difficult space to write in, also, as ‘near future’ so rapidly becomes ‘yesterday’, and technological change so quickly makes our speculations into stale news. I am interested in the biological sciences at the moment, and the implications of research in some of those fields on our near-future lives. But I haven’t found a novel in there yet.
Q: Before I was published, I thought that once I had a book accepted my next book would automatically be accepted and I’ve be on the road to a thriving writing career. I discovered, as we all do, that the publishing industry is a harsh mistress. After the winning the George Turner Prize and an Aurealis Award, you’ve spent some years between major contracts. How have you sustained your creativity and drive during these years?
I wouldn’t say that I did sustain my creativity and drive, actually. Having friends to talk to about what I was doing was the single most important thing that kept me writing. I just kept pootling along, and paying the mortgage, but the writing was awfully slow (and sometimes just awful).
I think now that I was missing enthusiasm. For the past year I have been working on a project that has pulled me along like a tin can tied to the back of a sled dog team, and I have realised that the ‘fire’ that drove me during the writing of Time Future had been missing for quite a while.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that I’m not a ‘professional’ writer, because unless it’s fun, I can’t get the words right. The process is much easier and guilt-free now I’ve accepted that.
Which leads to my advice below…
Q: Leading on from that, what advice would you give today’s aspiring writer?
Write what you love, what inspires you, what makes you want to keep going. If you’re like me, that is the only way you will keep going. If you’re not like me and you’ve got the stuff to be a dedicated, hardworking professional, you’ll enjoy the slog a lot more by writing what you love.
Q: At the most recent ROR I had the pleasure of reading your current manuscript, could you bring us up to date with where you are on this project?
Having received much encouraging and pertinent feedback at ROR, I have gone back and rewritten parts of the manuscript, and have just arrived at the exciting point where I need to write a completely new last third. This is my Christmas holiday homework.
I do love the way an unfinished manuscript is full of potential, you can see so much in it. Of course, when it’s done it never quite approaches those amazing rainbow colours it had in your mind, but the anticipation is fun while it lasts.
Q: When Marianne and I approached you back in 2001 to see if you’d like to join ROR, you agreed and have been part of the group ever since. You also belong to the Canberra SF Guild. Did you find belonging to ROR and the Canberra SF Guild have helped you in developing or directing your writing? And if so, in what ways?
As I mentioned above, being able to receive feedback from a group of such talented and like-minded writers at ROR is a great honour and always constructive. How do I count the ways? Aside from the crucial friendship and peer support, I think the most important aspect of critiquing novels is getting a new perspective. The ROR members consistently make me look at what I’ve written from new angles. For example, at the recent ROR, Richard Harland correctly pointed out that the chapters as written contained an uneasy mix of different levels of genre (serious history vs light-hearted adventure). Thinking about this, I decided to make the concept of ‘levels of reality’ a central theme in the rewritten work—that is, use the disjuncture to my advantage. (Thank you, Richard!)
Although I have been disgracefully inactive lately, the CSFG gave me so many wonderful friends and was a pivotal influence in my participation in specfic fandom and writing, mainly because we had such fun! I am in the middle of a short story to submit to the CSFG’s next anthology, which I would love to be part of. It is a dynamic and supportive group, and I’m sure we will continue to contribute to Aussie specfic in big ways.
Q: At ROR we always do our realistic goals and our dream goals. So what are your realistic goals and what are your dream goals?
Realistic goal—get my blogsite up and running, and my website revamped before the end of the holidays!
Dream goal—write multiple books in a new series…actually, that’s not quite right, as I will write the books anyway. How about: Sell multiple books in a new series. J
Thank you, Rowena, for asking such good questions!
To win a copy of ‘Baggage’ an anthology about what people bought to Australia with them, enter the give-away.
Give-away Question: “If you had to travel back in time, which year and where would you choose? And why?”
The competition will stay open until next Tuesday, when Maxine will choose the answer that most appeals to her.