As much as I’m a died-in-blood-on-the-wool-of-the-lamb-that-lay-down-with-the-lion atheist, I’ve always had a bit of a leaning towards the fictional cult of Bokononism that Kurt Vonnegut espoused in my favourite of his novels, Cat’s Cradle. It’s a harmless creed of self-gratification, based around the tenet that you should believe the lies that make you happiest, and discard those fabricated, societal lies– say, for example, family, government, or honour– that cause you misery or harm.
My birth family imploded badly during the 1980s — and my own growth has shown me what a flawed, deeply unhappy accidental grouping it was — so the novel struck a cord when I first read it. Of particular attraction, and something I’ve held to ever since, was the notion of the karass– a group of people linked by common affect or circumstance, for good or ill, even if they do not know it. The girl to whom I lost my virginity: part of my karass. The doctor who killed my first wife: likewise. The teacher who first noted my talent for writing and helped turn me away from the military and towards a life in the arts: you get the idea.
It is not the link forged by societal expectation that counts. It is the link forged by the effect upon my journey that is the strongest.
So what does all this post-pop-psychology-posturing have to do with anything?
One of the main tasks associated with my current KSP writing residency is to provide a mentoring session to an aspiring artist. I don’t mentor as often as I used to. As I get older and my career gets more complicated, I find myself less and less sure about what I have to offer others, outside of straight writing advice. I’m less of an example, and more of an example of mistakes to avoid……
However, it does strike me as a timely opportunity to acknowledge five people who have provided important turning points in my career. Whether they know it or not, and whether they want it or not, they are– inextricably– members of my writing karass.
Five for Friday: Members of my Writing Karass.
I was a student when the first issue of Aurealis hit the newsstands. Literally. The newsstand directly behind the bus stop in Perth where I caught the bus back to Rockingham at the end of the day, as it happens. I’d been picking up copies of Asimov’s and F&SF on a monthly basis: I gave the new boy a try. The moment I read it, I had an ambition: to get into this weird, wonderful, Australian science fiction magazine.
It was 27 issues old by the time I returned to writing, 11 years later. But I achieved the ambition within my first year of trying. Father Muerte and the Theft appeared in Aurealis issue 29, edited by Keith. But that’s not why he is a member of my writing karass. It’s what he said when he bought it: When are you going to send me a sequel?
I’d never considered writing a sequel to a story before. I don’t like sequels. If you can’t tell the story in one go, you’re not telling the right story, amirite? But, you know, here was an editor who was practically demanding I sell him another story, to appear in a magazine that had been a cornerstone of my ambitions since I’d started writing seriously. As no-brainers go, this was right up there with Captain Nobby Nobrain of the Nobrainiteers.
So I sold him another one. Plus two more to the editors who came after. Stories from the cycle were reprinted in both Australian and International Year’s Bests. And for a long time, Father Muerte was the character who was most associated with the best of my short story work. Not a bad way to achieve an ambition.
There’s no polite way to say this. Winning Writers of the Future in 2001 was a huge fillip to my embryonic writing career. Attending the week-long Writers of the Future workshop in 2002 was an unmitigated nightmare. I was still a mess from the death of my wife the previous December. I was alone, surrounded by strangers, the holistic care provided by the organisation was rudimentary (they forgot to organise travel to the airport for my flight home, for example, simply assuming that I had left on the same internal flight as many of the other– American– attendees. Luckily, I was noticed by a Russian illustrator who was leaving at the same time, and bundled into his minicab).
My roommate was a gung-ho, card-waving NRA acolyte from the National Guard with a weird desire to spend all his time at strip clubs– friendly enough, but utterly alien. The other authors ranged from distant to downright dismissive. By midweek I was homesick, physically and mentally exhausted, lonely, and utterly isolated. Then we were given the task of writing a story to a particular set of parameters within 24 hours. One was chosen for critique– a murder mystery, set just South of the border. An American police detective, crisscrossing the border to investigate. A portrayal of Mexicans as lazy, untrustworthy, drug-industry beaners. It was, at best, bigoted. At worst, outright racist. I called it out. And I got slammed. Utterly. They mullered me. Every you-don’t-know, you-don’t-understand, you-don’t-get-what-they’re-like, you’re-not-from-around-here smack in the face in the book. From pretty much everyone. Including the African-American author who had spent half the week loudly decrying The Incredibles for its racist portrayal of Frozone. They turned on me, and they beat me with verbal sticks until my resistance bled.And then they went to lunch.
Every day, we wandered up Hollywood Boulevard to the shopping mall behind Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, and ate at one of the cafes inside. But not today. Instead, I watched them zig, and I zagged. I didn’t want to be near them. I didn’t want to be near anybody. What I wanted to be near was a phone. I was calling the hotel. I needed to be picked up, and my flights changed. I’d had enough. I wanted home.
Pat Rothfuss saw me. Pat’s gone on to be a successful fantasy author, but right then he was as neophyte as me: he’d placed in the same quarter as I had. And he was, as I assume he is now, a happy-go-lucky guy who was just happy to be there. Pat saw me wandering away, in tears. And he grabbed me, literally, by the elbow and started to walk.
“I know a good Mexican place down this way.” So he took me to it, and we bought lunch, and he sat and listened as I poured it all out. And he commiserated, and provided some perspective, and listened some more. And in the end, I stayed, and saw the week out, and worked in a visit to the La Brea tar pits that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and got smacked in the nose by Billy Bob Thornton that wouldn’t have happened otherwise (story for another time), and I made something of my remaining time.
And then I had a career.
It was a small kindness from Pat, from nowhere and nothing except that he was just that kind of guy. But it’s gone a long way in the intervening 16 years.
Geoffrey Maloney was one of the first authors I came across when I started to immerse myself in the Australian SF scene. He edited Nor of Human…, a very fine anthology of short stories for the fledgling Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, which I picked up at my first convention, before joining the CSFG and appearing in several of their subsequent anthologies. His work was appearing regularly in the Australian magazines, and his excellent collection Tales from the Crypto-System contained some of the best work going around at the time– The Elephant Sways as it Walks is still, to my mind, one of the best Australian SF short stories ever written. When Prime Books, the publisher of Tales…, was looking for new Australian talent to publish, Geoff pushed them towards me, and Through Soft Air became my first book. Geoff provided the introduction to the collection, and we’ve shared a relationship of mutual respect ever since.
We’re less in contact than we once were, these days, but as turning points go, this was the one that propelled my career onto an entirely new level. Geoff will always be a central pillar of my writing karass for it.
I first met Dave long before I joined him in the SF field. I was working for the Commonwealth Employment Service in penance for some crime I am yet to commit, and was transferred to the branch where he worked. Dave was the intellectual master of the tearoom, a quiet yet authoritative figure who seemed to know everything, and to whom everyone, including managers, tugged their forelock in deference.
20+ years later, he is still one of the most intellectually omnivorous and entertaining people I’ve ever met. Back then, I found him as intimidating as a visiting professor. Later, and to my infinite betterment, I learned that he was a deeply caring, emotional, teddy bear of a man. He’s also a cook of extraordinary talents, and it was at a dinner party hosted by him and his equally-intimidating-and-lovely partner Sally, that we engaged in the spirited and increasingly vocal debate that led to the writing of The Corpse-Rat King.
“No good fantasy novel ever started with the aftermath of a battle!” Dave cried. And unable to think of a suitable counter-example, I set out to write it. That’s why The Corpse-Rat King starts where it does, and that’s why I have a career as a novelist. Knowing Dave and Sally has enriched my life in many ways, but that is as important as they come.
If you hated Magrit, it’s Sue’s fault. If you loved it, well, it’s more than likely her fault as well. Sue was the editor at Walker Books who picked up Magrit after it had gone through an initial, light, round of editing. She carved it apart. Sections were moved. Characters were raised in importance– the ghost girl voice has such a large role to play in the novel because of Sue’s insistence of her importance to the plot. She pushed me harder than any editor I’ve had before, and drew work out of me that I wasn’t sure I had. As a result, the book is the best thing I’ve done and likely to be the only thing I’m remembered for, and I’m entirely unsure I can reach that sort of level again. She introduced me to a new audience, and provided the impetus for me to stretch out beyond the small SF circles in which I’d been moving. Whatever the next stage of my career turns out to be, working with Sue was the turning point.