Meg Mundell, author of Black Glass, to Dark Matter
This was my first ever phone interview and, as such, it wasn’t recorded. This interview is available in text format only.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview for Dark Matter.
Thanks for having me!
What inspired you to take up writing as a career?
I think I didn’t have a choice, I had the writing bug from a very early age. I’ve written since I was little but I’ve tried to do other things as well because writing isn’t a good way to make a living. Other jobs have helped to keep my writing habit alive. I’ve done research, communication work, policy analysis for govt and teaching for unis. The teaching was fun. I’ve always tried to do jobs that will at least let me do some writing.
Which authors have influenced you most?
It’s hard to pick who my influences are, but authors I have enjoyed include Ian McEwan, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, Cormac MacCarthy (especially The Road), and Roald Dahl. When I was a kid I used to read quite a bit of SF; I’ve read Brave New World, 1984, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and Chrysalids, Asimov, HG Wells… Also a book called One by David Karp made a great impression on me; it’s SF in vein of Brave New World and 1984.
What would you like to share about your previous writing?
I’ve done quite a few short stories in different genres, for collections like New Australian Stories and Best Australian Stories – one was historical fiction, some has been realist stuff, and some was kind of magic realism, I suppose you might call it. I’ve done lots of journalism too. I’m really interested in social issues, the arts and unusual things going on in the world. I was also at the Big Issue for almost 5 years as staff writer and deputy editor, which was a wonderful opportunity to build my skills and meet vendors. I learned more about social issues by talking to the vendors, they would tell us things about their lives. It was a chance to see the world from their perspectives. I am sure that has influenced my writing and the things I like to look at.
What would you like to share about Black Glass (without giving away any huge spoilers)
I see it as a story that is largely about hope, courage and connection; the importance of connection in a world that can sometimes be dangerous and cruel. But I also wanted to make it a pacey read. It’s a bit of an adventure story I guess. What is really cool is that I’ve started to get feedback, from quite young people through to grandmothers, and it’s nice to have that range of ages reading the book, both male and female. I was a bit worried that because it had young main characters people would assume it was aimed at that readership.
When I’m writing I’m not really thinking about the specific audience, except for “Will people understand it, will it make sense?” I didn’t want to write for a specific market, I wanted to make it open and inviting, and accessible I guess. When I was young there wasn’t so much targeting of audiences in the marketing of books. I didn’t consciously sent out to write speculative fiction, but I’m hoping that people who haven’t read speculative fiction before might realise they are missing out, and that in fact they really enjoy it.
What inspired you to write a dystopian novel?
I was doing my Masters in Creative Writing which is how this book started; I was very interested in social division. As a theme for my masters I chose surveillance in literature and culture. This is how the dystopian element came about; I think surveillance has enormous potential to shape our world in some fairly worrying ways. The threat of that power being misused, you know?
I recently read an article deploring the current state of dystopian fiction, claiming that the only dystopian fiction is either aimed at the teen/young adult market or it is catastrophe based rather than based on a dystopian society. What are your thoughts?
I must say that I probably I haven’t read as much speculative fiction and SF lately as I’d like to. There is an artificial divide between speculative fiction and SF, and “literature” as such. I don’t know – I’d call The Road speculative dystopian fiction. There is a lot aimed at a younger audience but perhaps that’s because younger people are more savvy about technology and perhaps more open to more strange and fantastical stories.
Steven Amsterdam’s book Things we didn’t see coming won Age book of the year in 2009 – that was adult dystopian fiction, but I think it’s now on the secondary school reading lists, part of the syllabus. Meg Rosoff’s How We Live Now is dystopian fiction aimed at a young adult market. But just because something is marketed as young adult doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it if you’re older. You can read across all genres all areas, and I hope people won’t miss out on good books because of target marketing.
You never name the city in Black Glass although it is recognisable through street names and so forth. Was it your intention to create a city that could be ‘any city’?
Yes it was, that’s exactly right. People have picked up on those cues and read it as being set in Melbourne but it could be any city in the developed world, in the future or in a parallel reality. If I’d just changed the names and geography around it could have been Birmingham or Toronto or somewhere in France and so on. It was nice to have the names to work from as that helped me to anchor the book.
I had the impression you were using Melbourne as a launching pad for the basis of your city?
Yes originally I was going to set it nowhere but my supervisor advised against that; Black Glass started off as part of my masters degree. She said you’re good with place, and your book should have a strong sense of place. I am kind of glad I didn’t set it nowhere; now I’m doing a PhD, looking at sense of place in literature.
You broke the narrative up into scene segments with a cast of characters; why?
There were a few reasons. I wanted to mimic the way surveillance devices operate; they capture incomplete pieces or scenes, fragments of conversation. I wanted to suggest that there are many perspectives or vantage points for looking at a situation, and that one sort of “master view” doesn’t give the whole picture.
The second reason was that I wanted to make it fun for the reader, so they were piecing together the puzzle for themselves, playing detective. The third reason is I really like films, I love films, so I wanted to write the book as if it was a series of scenes in a film, to make it read like a film.
At first I thought it read like a government file after the fact.
That is suggested. We never know for sure, but it is suggested. I kind of like that interpretation of it.
Black Glass seems to be set in the future; how far in the future did you envisage the setting?
Actually I thought of it as a parallel reality, perhaps it’s just an alternative now. Other than that, it could be 20 to 30 years from now. I planted a few signs to suggest it was set in the near-future, but I didn’t want to be too specific. I wanted to take the world that we have now and warp it.
At one point I half expected a plot twist to reveal Black Glass was set in the present, although the ID issue isn’t as obvious at the moment. Was this deliberate?
That’s really cool, I’m so glad you read it like that. The ID stuff, that’s already happening to some extent. In a way it’s a cautionary tale, because I am concerned that is where we are heading right now, with the masses of personal data that is being collected, centralised and shared. That could really increase the gap between the haves and have nots.
You use current issues in Black Glass, such as when Milk is at the train station, the train is late and the woman refers to ‘this privatised lot’ and their unreliability; why?
I’m having a go at – um! I guess that’s part of the scenario I’m painting of a neo-liberalist society where public assets like public transport have been sold off. I think that there are certain things that should not be privatised, like prisons for example, because where you have private companies running what is meant to be a public or social service, profit will always come first.
You have written for the Big Issue and in Black Glass you have written from the perspective of homeless youth and refugees. How much experience or contact have you personally had with these issues to create these characters?
Well I guess I haven’t had as much contact with refugees, but I’ve been watching very carefully and with some horror the way that the Australian government has handled refugees. I myself come from New Zealand and I’ve always been struck by the incredible difference in the way I was treated, and how New Zealanders and white immigrants were viewed, compared to the way darker skinned migrants and in particular refugees are treated. It’s like, hey you can come in if you’re from New Zealand or white, that’s fine, but there is a contrasting treatment, a xenophobia towards these other foreigners who have a much greater need to be here than me. With the homeless people, that was the vendors of The Big Issue; the editorial team used to share a building with them, every time a new edition would come out, we’d have a big meeting, and the vendors would ask questions, and give feedback, and tell us what they did and didn’t like about the last edition. We also got to know them personally, through informal conversations, and sometimes I’d interview someone for an article. It made me realise how diverse they were, how if the shit hit the fan, that could easily be any of us in that situation. I also worked in a policy job at an NGO, The Council to Homeless Persons. It was meant to be policy job advising government, but I took it as an advocacy role arguing for better treatment, better services, more funding to help young people in risky situations. I don’t think I made much difference at all, which was depressing.
I suppose the burnout rate in a job like that would be high?
The burnout rate for case workers dealing with people face to face is huge – there are not enough beds, not enough resources, not enough affordable housing. So the burnout rate for the case workers is massive. For me it was just more frustration that I hadn’t been able to change much in the giant mechanism of government.
In the 1980s, Australia visited the issue of the Australia Card, an ID card for all citizens. People reacted against this as a form of Big Brother watching over us. While an ID card could be easily used to assist government monitoring of people, the lack of an ID card makes life difficult for Australian citizens and legitimate residents who are not eligible for driver’s licences.
What are your concerns about ID cards and how do you balance the issues on both sides of the argument?
It’s a very good question. It’s not a simple matter. The thing that concerns me about the ID card debate is how much data is shared, who has access to that personal data and whether it’s centralised, whether the cards are multifunctional. Whether you get your personal health info linked to your movements, your health history, your income… I think its just very, very, very important that the system has incredibly tight safeguards to ensure that nobody is disadvantaged by the fact that they are becoming part of the system. We just have to be very careful about the level of privacy involved. And your own control over your own data. There need to be serious controls.
Just last week ASIO got expanded powers again. This time it’s new powers to share personal information with agencies outside the intelligence community much more freely and directly, without having to report on it. ASIO staff will also, under these new laws, be able to question people on behalf of other agencies like the tax office or Centrelink. The Greens tried to amend the bill but it passed. I think it’s a real worry because it’s expanding government powers to snoop and making them less accountable; they don’t have to report on who they have shared data with.
During my research for interviews of SF and fantasy authors, I’ve noticed a huge difference in their use of the internet and social media. You have a website and you are available to fans on Facebook. Why have you chosen to take this path?
Well I think it’s expected these days by publishers and agents. It’s expected that you’ll have an online presence. I was lucky, because I don’t have a lot of disposable income but I did a skill swap with a friend who built the website and blog, and I did writing for her in return, media releases and website copy. I don’t Twitter, I’m already addicted to Facebook and I don’t want to make it any worse! The launch for Black Glass was yesterday, although the book was released in late February, so Facebook made contacting people about the launch quite efficient.
What are the pros and cons of having a website and Facebook page as a public person?
The pros are that people can get in touch with you easily. Also you look like you’re doing stuff because you can mention what you’re up to, post links to your past articles and so on. It’s like an instant bio so that’s quite efficient. I have had more opportunities because people can contact me easily; opportunities to speak, to write…
The cons – well, I’m a fairly private person so it feels a bit weird getting proper photos done and feeling like you’re trying to sell yourself. I don’t want to be a self-promoting wanker. It does feel weird putting yourself out there. But I think you have to be able to these days, to communicate with people from afar, and to connect with other writers. I just don’t want to feel like a wannabe C-grade celebrity promoting myself. That’s the side that feels a bit weird.
Jeremy, a reader, wants to know – Do you think you will visit the moon or another planet as a holiday in your lifetime?
OMG I so wanted to go to the moon when I was a kid. I SOOO wanted to do that! I think most kids have astronaut fantasies. But I think we have enough troubles here on earth at the moment. If we do go to the moon or another planet for a holiday, I think that will only be for the really rich people at first. If we don’t kill ourselves and wreck the whole planet first, I think it’ll be a few generations before people do that. I’d love to float though in zero g or bounce around like on the moon though.
Did you know NASA is selling off old space shuttles?
Are you serious? OMG OMG, imagine if you could have that and it would be your house. That would be incredible. But they’d probably be really small. They’d have to be really careful who they sold it to, so they didn’t sell to some crazy person who would try to put it up in the sky and fail! They could make it into condos for the homeless. I’d live in it, but I’d make some windows, because I get claustrophobic.
Thank you very much for your time for this interview. Good luck with your future endeavours. I am looking forward to reading more of your books.
Thanks very much, it’s been really great chatting with you.
The photographer is Amanda Soogun – thanks! (: