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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene Interviewed

13th May, 2014

Author: Peter Tennant

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In Black Static #39 I reviewed a whole slew of books by Australian writers and editors, including The Year's Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2012 edited by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene.

By way of a follow up, here's an interview with the two editors:-

PT: Can you tell us a little bit about what is involved in selecting stories for an anthology like this? What selection procedure do you have? How big is the pool from which your final thirty four stories were drawn? Do you both have to agree each selection?

TH: I start by trying to see everything eligible for horror. The requirements are story length, and the writer needs to be an Australian or New Zealander resident (or ex-pat). I chase submissions directly from most of the writers - most artists live in a cacophony of multitasking, so the direct submission fielding is important. I try to get my hands on everything, and I contact emerging writers. I divide my slush pile into No/Maybe/High Maybe/Yes/Hellyeah using post-it notes. I revisit everything ranked "High Maybe" and above at least once when I've looked at everything, after taking a bit of time away, so I can re-read with fresh eyes. The pool size depends on the amount of work published - so far the first volume is still the one with the biggest archive box, because we had a WorldCon in Australia in 2010, and it pushed publishers to be in that dealers' room and have launches at Aussiecon4. Liz and I have total autonomy over our respective genres, so when you ask if we have to agree on selections, it's a bit more complex than that. We each have half the book to fill, so when we share shortlists we look at overlap stories - ones on both our lists - and we trade those for word count. Then we look at multiple stories from the same authors, and trade those between our genre split - at that point we are discussing the tone and effect of the anthology, for entertainment and representative talent showcase. After that there will be a number of stories vying for space in each of our genre word allocations, and we tend to make those decisions individually. We've never had an argument about a story selection, because we always have our own space. I trust Liz to know her fantasy, and our different aesthetics and personalities drive different choices which is part of what makes the book cool.

LG: Each year, Talie and I read between about 200 and 300 stories from our respective genres, with some crossover of the "dark fantasy" side. From our separate reading, we each come up with a shortlist, which is when we start comparing. To come up with the final lineup, we do a bit of magic in between, looking at authors and anthologies or markets in common to both lists, and then fine-tuning based on making sure there is a balance of different subgenres of fantasy and horror. We haven't disagreed on each other's selections so far, but we've both come up with a different story from the same author and had to have some discussions about which one we wanted to include.

PT: What factors come into play when you decide on the running order of stories within the book? Do you undertake any editing of the stories, other than correcting typos etc.?

TH: We shuffle the order of stories to mix the genres together, to create an engaging journey for the reader. You won't get smacked with a glut of light or dark stories - we do make artistic decisions about balancing really hard or traumatic stories (those are usually from my side of the pool) by surrounding them with works that juxtapose tastefully and give the reader some air. Usually the editing is minor line editing, bringing the works into Australian English when they have been published in the USA - obviously something with vernacular as a feature wouldn't be treated so uniformly. Very rarely do the authors ask to change something from the original publication version, usually something small. The only major editing of a story I had to do was on 'The Past Is A Bridge Best Left Burnt', the last published story by the late Paul Haines. To secure permission to reprint it required changes Paul and his wife Jules had promised people before he went into palliative care, edits which he'd never had a chance to make. That was a very intense process of editing with Jules, and she was amazing to be able to allow that when she had just lost her husband. It was an honour to get that story into a condition where the family are comfortable to have it still in print, and since then the version I edited has been republished by Aurealis. I hope it goes on to many reprints, because Paul was special and he deserves that legacy.

LG: We like to balance the stories both by length and atmosphere, so we usually won't have two long emotional stories in a row, for example. Since they're reprints, we don't do a lot of further editing, other than spelling and grammar.

PT: Why do you think that horror and fantasy make good bedfellows? Is there much overlap in the readership between the two genres? Don't you risk alienating some readers by including both genres within the same book?

TH: I think they make strange bedfellows, and that's why they work together - because both genres explore strangeness. I think there isn't terribly much overlap in readership between genres, but I think our kind of book is one where readers will step outside their comfort zone, because they are getting such a high quality sampling. I don't think we risk alienating readers, because anyone who is holding a Best Of anthology in their hands values fine writing first. If they want to skip over the lightest or darkest works, it's their book, they can skim wherever they like - that's an advantage of literature over film and television. Our stories aren't novellas, so I suspect people read the entire book. There is an overlap between the genres, dark fantasy is a binding agent for our anthology.

LG: I think for me they seem to be different ends of the same continuum. There are so many stories that sit close to the middle of the "dark fantasy" genre, which could just as easily sit in Fantasy as they do in Horror. There are tropes common to both genres.

PT: What distinctions do you recognise between the two genres? How do such things as urban fantasy and paranormal romance fit into the equation, if at all?

TH: There are massive distinctions between the genres, but because we have autonomy in our areas, it's up to Liz to decide what constitutes fantasy, and I grapple with what makes horror. Both urban fantasy and paranormal romance are not my problem! I use emotion to define horror literature, so I'm willing to look at supernatural works as well as realism, so long as they resonate strongly with the emotions of horror. I'm more likely to buy a science fiction story that is terrifying, than urban fantasy and paranormal romance - because those latter two genres tend to have gentle emotional focuses.

LG: Urban fantasy and paranormal are part of the crossover, but I see them a bit more on the fantasy side of things rather than horror, since they don't always have the emotive factor I think is needed for true horror. I see fantasy as looking at a lot of the same worlds and characters as horror, but without the intense disturbing element.

PT: Do you feel that the horror genre has a national identity? If so what are the distinguishing features of Australian horror? What concerns does it address that are not so prominent in the horror literature of other countries? Do geographical factors play a part?

TH: Sure. Australian horror has an identity and flavour, although the voices are diverse. Our landscape, wildness, and lonely remote locations lend themselves to horror, as do marginalized rural communities. There is a lot of uninhabited space. It's so easy to be lost, totally lost without a phone signal, and death from dehydration is only a few bad decisions away. We have an uneasy relationship with our violent colonial past and indigenous genocide. We are great travellers. Themes of misogyny and xenophobia are not hard to cast here. Humour and horror work so well entangled, and the dry, irreverent flavour of Australian vernacular goes beautifully with horror. All those things only work in the hands of masterful writers. Australian clichés don't make for good horror fiction.

PT: One thing that strikes me about Australian genre fiction as an outsider is the large number of women that seem to be making their mark. By my count, twenty of the thirty four stories in your Year's Best are written by women, which I believe is a much higher percentage than in similar volumes, and last time I did a check on the makeup of anthologies sent to me for review, in those from Australia the percentage of female contributors averaged out at 45%, compared to 41% for Canada, 29% for the US and 19% for the UK.  Is it your impression that Australian markets are more welcoming to women writers, and if so any thoughts as to why that might be? 

TH: It's so hard to compare without being steeped in the culture of those overseas markets. The female talent here is very easy to identify, there are some extraordinary writers you couldn't overlook in a shortlist for our book. Our percentage of female contributors does fluctuate, we don't have any gender quotas with our process, it is strictly on quality each year. I daresay Liz has a different gender mix experience of reading than I do. In horror I read more submissions from men, and I proactively seek those works. I want to see everything. As far as our markets being more welcoming, there is a very proactive dialogue in the community about gender politics and speculative fiction, and maybe having that ongoing and prominent discussion is healthy. It doesn't make all the markets inundated with female author contributions, for horror I read anthologies with no women at all. I think it's revealed more at the higher end of boutique small press and major publishers - our anthology reveals it - some of the strongest horror writers in Australia are women, and you simply cannot put together the best possible anthology without them.

LG: The last couple of years have seen a lot of amazing women being nominated for and winning awards, which brings the female voice into the mainstream. And there are a lot of women involved in editing and publishing in Australia, which certainly helps to balance the weighting of male to female perspectives.

PT: How well do you think the horror genre is faring commercially in Australia? Are things getting better or worse? Are eBooks making the same inroads there as they appear to be doing globally?

TH: I think the horror genre is faring better, but the figures are hard to get, and answering that question properly would require a funded study talking with retailers. There's some hope the Wolf Creek novelizations might open things up more this year, it really remains to be seen. Australians are big technology adopters, so ereaders do very well here, and we love having access to works at the same time as overseas releases. It's the same reason piracy is such a big problem for film and TV here. We expect our small territory to be a priority for releases. There is a big question mark hanging over digital content - and everyone from publishing looks at what happened in the music industry - and no one knows how the market will evolve.

PT: In the UK we're aware of writers like Angela Slatter, Terry Dowling, Kaaron Warren, Margo Lanagan etc.  What Australian writers do you think will come to prominence internationally in the coming years? Is there anyone in particular you feel we should look out for?

TH: This is a great question, but really hard to answer. Buying trends of major publishers are hard to anticipate, it is very difficult to predict who will break through internationally. The reality is many Australian horror writers are (and will always be) under the radar for overseas readers - this is a reason to buy our anthology! Who to watch for? If you're into dramatic supernatural horror keep an eye on Kirstyn McDermott, Jason Nahrung, and Martin Livings. If literary horror is your cup of tea, I recommend Deborah Biancotti, Andrew J. McKiernan and Bob Franklin. If weird horror rocks your world, Jason Fischer and Will Elliot are tremendous fun. That is by no means an exhaustive list of Australian talent. As for who will get a big break - that would require powers of prognostication that I do not possess!

LG: Some writers who are continually amazing me are: Joanne Anderton, Lisa L Hannett, Jason Fischer, Kim Wilkins, Kirstyn McDermott and Thoraiya Dyer. Australia is producing some excellent writers!

PT: What can we expect to see from each of you in the near future? What work do you have in the pipeline?

TH: I have an anthology of original fiction for Ticonderoga at the concept stage, to be co-edited with Jodi Cleghorn, a very passionate indie press dynamo. The idea was jump-started by a story I co-authored with Martin Livings, 'The Last Gig of Jimmy Rucker', which won an award, got great reviews, people really loved it. Russell Farr from Ticonderoga is very good at zeroing in on specialized knowledge, so getting me to edit more stories set in the music industry and the spooky space of theatre is his instinct. That is something I can do with authenticity. So that will be a collection of supernatural stories about last gigs and swansongs. Other than that I'm currently singing and playing double bass on a heathen folk doom metal band's album. Weird music industry jobs keep things interesting!

LG: I'm currently working on my genre anthology for 2014, steampunk romance anthology Kisses by Clockwork, as well as this year's edition of The Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror.



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