Tansy Rayner Roberts, award-winning author of Power and Majesty, talks to Nalini Haynes of Dark Matter.
Nalini: Thank you for talking to Dark Matter. What inspired you to take up writing as a career?
Tansy: I took up writing itself quite a long time before I was really thinking of it as a career. I was writing madly through my teens and I started novels pretty early because that’s all that I read. I kept writing and writing and sold my first book before I finished uni. It seemed like this really possible thing. Then after getting two books published in two years I didn’t get another one published for a long time but I already had the bug by then. I just kept going for it.
Nalini: How does your family feel about your writing? That non-traditional lifestyle?
Tansy: My partner has been incredibly supportive: he financially supported me through university and has continued to do so. Once the kids came along… writing, it turns out, fits quite well as a part-time job around the occupation of motherhood. I know there are many people for whom it wouldn’t work, but it does really well for me. I’m quite good at making the most of the small pockets of time available to me. And my girls are really supportive. I think it’s good that they do see me working; even though I’m not out of the house as much as their daddy is, they have grown up respecting the fact that I do that work. And my partner says he sees me as an investment.
Nalini: That’s fantastic.
Tansy: It is. And it’s nice every now and then that I can pay that back, whether it’s financially or with something else. It’s been really exciting the last couple of years – I’ve had a few successes. It feels less like I have to justify all that time I’ve put into it.
Nalini: In 1998, you won the inaugural George Turner prize for Splashdance Silver. What was that like?
Tansy: It was kind of out of this world. I wasn’t 20 yet, when I found out that I’d won the prize. I was on my third year at Uni. It was amazing. I’d made a few half-hearted submissions or queries to publishers with various projects but this was the first big submission I ever made. I almost didn’t even send in the manuscript because I got nervous at the last minute. It was huge; I felt like I’d achieved this massive thing. The trouble then came with trying to build a career on top of it. I do think I was a bit young at the time to be able to do that effectively, but it was still pretty amazing. Going to Sydney and meeting my editor and feeling like I was part of this professional world…
Nalini: Wow. When you say that you were a bit young to make the most of building on it, how do you think been older would have helped?
Tansy: There’s a lot of luck in our business. You’ve got to have the skill and you’ve got to have a lot of different disciplines going on, but you also have to have these moments of luck when everything comes together. If you can’t capture it at that time and make the most of it, then the opportunity is lost. In this case, I was, it turned out, able to back up that first book with the second book, but the third one wasn’t what the publishers were hoping for. They were less keen on the third one. I wasn’t flexible enough: I didn’t have the ability to turn on a dime and write a different book, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing but it meant that I wasn’t really able to transform that early publishing success into an immediate career.
I think now as someone who has been writing a lot longer, and has a lot more knowledge about the industry, I have a lot more friends and contacts… I am in a better position now to back up any lucky moments with the hard work required and the discipline and all that sort of thing. I do think writers who start later than I did, often seem to launch themselves more effectively and make smarter business decisions. I don’t regret how things turned out for me because having that early publishing success was an encouragement to keep going. It was also incredibly useful because I got 10 years of teaching creative writing night classes based on the back of those early publishing credits.
So even though I wasn’t managing to get out a novel a year through my 20s, which I sort of felt I should be doing after that start, there were a lot of really good things that came out of it. I do think writers who get their first real start in their 30s or later perhaps have more unpublished manuscripts under their belt, and are better able to build a solid career. But it’s different for everybody.
Nalini: It definitely is. You’re a member of wRiters on the Rise: why do you belong to a writers group?
Tansy: This particular group has been going for a long time now – eleven years! I was very lucky, roundabout the time my second book was published. I was still young, I didn’t really know many other writers and I was sort of picked up and mentored by Marianne de Pierres and Rowena Cory Daniells. They had this wonderful idea: once you get published there is very little opportunity for professional development because almost all the writing classes and writing resources are about getting published. There is an assumption that once you get published you almost have nothing else to learn, but those of us who reached that particular rung on the ladder are well aware that the job becomes harder, the expectations are higher. Just because you’ve written a publishable book once doesn’t mean that you can knock one out of the park every single time. So they had this idea of forming a small community of writers who would help each other improve their craft. Because we’re spread around Australia, we get together once every 18 months to 2 years and we exchange unpublished manuscripts and we critique each other. It’s been an invaluable thing for me: having the advice of more experienced writers and getting a chance to develop my skills. You don’t always get the time, even if you’re on contract, especially if you’re on contract with a publisher… you don’t always get the time and leisure to write the best possible book in between deadlines, getting the opportunity to stop and think about what you are writing… Also to get a chance to see what everybody else is doing, and help improve their work. You learn a lot from critiquing that you don’t get from just writing on your own.
Writing is such a lonely business, really, to do it effectively you’ve got to spend long hours at the computer by yourself. So having this little community to tap into every couple of years – we stay in contact at other times but there’s no substitute for hanging out in a rented house a few days and drinking wine and sharing meals and just talking nothing but the industry for four days straight; it’s pretty blissful I’ve got to say.
Nalini: It sounds fantastic. Wikipedia says – and feel free to correct Wikipedia – it says that The Lost Shimmaron was sold to the ABC on your behalf by wRiters on the Rise: how did that work?
Tansy: That was one of the things that came out of one of our weekends away. We had this idea of doing a children’s series where each of us would write one book and it would all fit together. It was sold as a group effort to ABC books. We went through one of the agents, or a couple of the agents of the group of writers. ABC Books were keen on the series. A couple of us were also lucky enough to get regional arts grants for the books; I think there was something about the project that really appealed to the arts bodies, the fact that we had people from different states collaborating. It was going to be wonderful and ABC books promised us the moon as far as publicity and everything… Unfortunately the series didn’t continue after about three books. The other writers whose books weren’t out at that time, they got the initial contract payment but nothing else. It was a real shame but I think it was something that, with a little bit more push, could have done a lot better. We had to basically do all our own promotion and publicity and everything. As it turns out, it’s quite hard to promote a series with each of the writers in different places. Mine was the first one out and we were able to do a couple of big launches that we organised ourselves. But the series didn’t find enough of an audience… It was a shame because I think that the project had – we wrote some great books and the series had a really nice idea to it. It was just one of the things that didn’t work out. These things happen, sadly.
Nalini: Are those books still in print?
Tansy: No. The first three are around: I have a boxful of mine. But no, they went out of print a couple of years ago. We’ve talked about the idea of maybe putting them out there ourselves. You can’t really get another publisher to pick up the series when the first half has been published by someone else. It’s something we talked about, but I think a couple of the writers were interested in taking their particular volume away and making it more an independent thing. So we’ll see.
Nalini: Let us know if there are any developments on the front.
Tansy: Absolutely. I think it’s one of those things that, when all this happened a few years back, the idea of self-publishing, as print or e-books, didn’t really occur to us as viable. But of course self-publishing has become a different thing recently. It might be something worth considering now, but it would still be an awful lot of work and coordination. We’d have to decide if it would be worth it to resurrect the series.
Nalini: Have you thought about using something like Kickstarter?
Tansy: It’s not something we’ve talked about as a group, but that’s the sort of thing that could be done now. I was talking to someone a while back about the possibility of publishing it as an iPad app. There are all sorts of interesting things you can do with children’s books that, again, weren’t really available four years ago when all this happened. So there are definite possibilities.
Nalini: I look forward to seeing developments. You are one of the founding members of the Andromeda Spaceways In-flight Magazine: why was that started?
Tansy: That was after my first couple of books came out. I had this quiet period where I was terribly busy but I wasn’t actually being published. My second book came out in the same month that Melbourne hosted the WorldCon in 99, and that was a very inspiring time. In the two years that followed, a huge number of small presses and new publishing projects popped up all over the place. A lot of us who met at AussieCon or chatted on e-mail groups afterwards started coming up with all these different ideas. One that sparked a lot of interest was to run a magazine which showed the more fun side of the genre, so comedy, science fiction and fantasy and more of the fun, easily readable stuff. There were a lot of magazines that were publishing the more serious literary side in the short story field but not so much of the humorous stuff. I was known as a humorous writer, because my first two books were comic fantasy, so I was keen to be involved. I ended up being part of this really wonderful community. In the first few years we had a great time. We learnt how to build a magazine from the ground up. We were using a lot of electronic communication, which for me was wonderful because I’m stuck on my own a bit in southern Tasmania. I didn’t know any other local writers who were working in science fiction and fantasy. ASIM was my first real online community. It was great fun, and I learnt a lot of stuff. It is still going to this day, though most of us who were part of it originally have drifted away. It keeps chugging along. I’m not sure if it still specialises quite so much in the humorous fiction that it used to but that material was always very, very difficult to get hold of – a lot of people said they wanted a magazine of funny science fiction and fantasy but then the writers sent us their dark horror stories! It was quite difficult at times but it was a good time in my life, and I made many special friends through it. Many of them have gone on to great things!
Nalini: And you edited a couple of issues.
Tansy: Yes. Well, part of the idea of ASIM was it was run as a co-op. It was run bi-monthly which was a pretty big deal at the time, to have a small press magazine that came out that often from Australia. So to share the workload, the idea was to have a rotating editorship, and everybody would learn how to edit as well as doing the other jobs in the magazine. So you could edit an issue of the magazine, but only every two or three years. I really enjoyed it – I love editing. It’s one of the things I’ve had to really move away from the last few years as other commitments have come up, but I enjoy it as a process. The choosing of stories and putting them together and working with writers to improve their fiction. That’s something I really love, but I have to try not to get too distracted by these kinds of projects.
Nalini: And yet you also co-edited AustrAlien Absurdities…
Tansy: Yes. That was another project from a similar vintage. I met Chuck McKenzie at the ‘99 WorldCon. We’d been seeking each other out because he had his first book out not long after mine. His was comic science fiction and mine was comic fantasy. Because what we were doing was so rare, we grabbed onto each other as kindred spirits. As with ASIM, we wanted to do a book which was about the funny side of science fiction and fantasy. It was launched, along with Cat Sparks’ first Agog! anthology, two years later at the same convention where the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine was launched. That was my first experience editing; it was a really interesting project to do at that time.
Nalini: So you’ve been an editor and an author. What insights have you gained from being on both sides of the divide?
Tansy: I think perspective is important. I don’t edit much these days but I have good friends who edit and publish, and we talk a lot. I like having that multiple perspective of what’s going on. I think you can get very blasé about things like rejection letters and other stuff authors get quite upset about. I know from all sides how these things work and I don’t take it personally. I very rarely get hot under the collar about editorial feedback because this is a useful thing to make the work better. I have occasionally walked away from projects because of inappropriate levels of or styles of editing but I also think that my experience means that I can also recognise bad editing when I see it – editors who might, for instance, want me to write their book as opposed to writing my book. I like to think it makes me a more rounded person and gives me a better insight into all the other jobs that people are doing to make this happen. Certainly, having worked in small press, I never take anything that my publisher does for granted, let alone the book designer, or cover artist, or sales reps…
The self-publishing bandwagon is so big and shiny at the moment that there are an awful lot of people talking down the job of the publisher or dismissing it as something that is hardly worth paying for. I’m very aware as a writer that it is an essential part of the process. What publishers do for me as a writer is so important and it’s really not stuff I’m that keen on doing myself. Trying actively to do more than one person’s job in the process would become an incredibly draining workload. Finding time to write is hard enough with two small kids at my ankles!
Nalini: So what are these other jobs that you are happy to let other people have?
Tansy: Editing is the big one. I think having had good editors and bad editors and mediocre editors and wonderful editors, I know a wonderful editor when I find one. A wonderful editor is someone who can work with me to make my book as good as it can possibly be and can add something to the process without taking away from what I’ve done. I’m incredibly lucky with my trilogy because of Nicola O’Shea, who is an utterly wonderful freelance editor – she often does work for HarperCollins. She edited the first book and I was really lucky that she was available for the other two as well. Having the same editor on this project for book after book in the trilogy made a really big difference and made me feel a lot more comfortable in what I was writing and the end product. She’s been tough with me when she needed to be tough. But also she is the reason I was talked into having two structural edits on the second book, which was a devastating blow at the time. I trusted her and I went with it. She was also the one that said that the third book was well enough put together that I didn’t need a structural edit at all. That was something to be quite suspicious about from many editors, but I trusted Nicola. I was really, really glad to have her as part of that process. So, yeah, editing is a big one.
Then there’s copy editing and proofing, which is something an author can never do for themselves, because we are too close to the words. There is only so much that changing a manuscript into many different fonts can actually do. Then you have to give it over to somebody else to spot the small stuff – whether it’s the little details of repetition or logical inconsistencies, right down to typos and transposed words.
Then there’s book layout and design, which I know absolutely nothing about. It’s not something I could even start to think about doing for myself, but I really appreciate it when I get a good layout because it makes such a difference. Then you’ve got cover design. (Twelfth Planet Press, who publish several titles by me, always make gorgeous books, and so I trust them with my work, despite them being a tiny independent press) You’ve got all these little things that happen before the book is printed. Then you’ve got publicity, promotion, you’ve got the books being put into catalogues to appeal to bookstores and distributors, the book reps who talk directly to the people who sell books. Then there’s e-book production, which is a far bigger job than many people gives credit for, if you want an actual quality product and not a document full of layout errors.
If I were self-publishing I would not be able to do half of what my publishers do for me in the time I have available. I would be writing fewer books. I can see the temptation for self-publishing, and I think that some projects absolutely cry out for it. But I’m in no hurry to put myself into that particular basket, because I don’t have the time to diversify in the fields. It’s all I can do to keep up with my current workload, along with my family obligations.
Nalini: Speaking of your current workload, you’re involved in a number of different websites and blogs, podcasts and magazines?
Tansy: I love to blog. I started on LiveJournal the same week I brought my first baby home from hospital. I had just left my academic life at university and became a stay at home mum. So I lost my daily social interactions with adults. Instead of a water cooler or tearoom to chat in at the office, I have the online SF community through my own blog and through other projects.
I love to read and review books. Reviewing helps me make more time to read, and reading is so important for a writer, to stay in touch with what’s happening. I don’t review as much as I’d like to, but I try to keep doing it, whether it’s for my own blog or for ASIF, which is my friend Alisa’s Australian book review website. I also review short stories for a project called Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth. Again that’s partly sociable and partly to keep track of what writing is happening out there. I feel a certain degree of responsibility to not drop the reviewing part of what I do because I know that there are fewer female reviewers out there than male. As someone who tends to gravitate more towards women’s books I want to keep reviewing and to keep talking about the stuff that I like because sometimes those books would otherwise not get mentioned that much. So there is a little bit of a social responsibility there but mostly it’s fun.
Two years ago I started podcasting with two very good friends Alisa and Alex; our podcast is called Galactic Suburbia. We talk about the publishing industry and books that we’ve read and the science fiction stuff generally with a lot of feminism thrown into the mix. That’s been wonderful and the big thing for us is that we talk on Skype every fortnight. It makes a difference as opposed to just chatting over e-mail and then meeting at the conventions once a year. Actually getting to have this regular conversation has been wonderful. There is another community that pops up around that. These are the people who listen to us regularly and talk about what we’ve been talking about on Twitter and go and buy the books we tell them to. I always feel delighted and proud and guilty because I get the tweets after every episode of what books people have bought because of me. That has been a great addition to this online portfolio. It’s that balance of creating something that we’re proud of and we think adds something to the community. Also that social aspect: it’s fun. I always say that the best PR you can do for your books or for anything, the best social media, are always the ones that you enjoy. As soon as you stop enjoying it, that’s probably a social media thing that you shouldn’t be doing. As soon as it stops being fun, it also stops being sincere and people can tell that. It becomes a lousy advert for you and your books. It’s kind of nice that it’s a more effective publicity tool when you’re enjoying yourself.
Under-representation of women
Nalini: Speaking of the Galactic Suburbia podcast and some of the other forums you’ve been involved in, I’ve noticed recently that there’s been a lot of chatter about the underrepresentation of women authors in science fiction and lists of significant science fiction. What would you like to say on the matter?
Tansy: These are conversations people have been having for a long time. It’s not new to be pointing out that there is still gender imbalance, but we can’t stop talking about it just because it’s not new. People do get complacent and it’s so easy to assume that because you might be surrounded by mostly sensible people who aren’t overtly sexist – who do think that women are completely equal – when you surround yourself with smart people like that it can be a shock to realise that in a lot of areas there still is no equality. Just because people aren’t overtly making sexist comments – and let’s face it, online, they do a lot of time – there is still the unconscious sexism. People make a list of all the books that they liked and they’re not thinking about gender – of course they’re not thinking about gender – and yet women aren’t there. This happens over and over. Readers might take note of it and try to do something about it and then there is another backlash, or they just forget.
This is something that people have been talking about a lot lately outside of my own circles. In Britain, I’ve had the impression they’ve suddenly woken up and looked around and realised that they’ve lost so many of their female science fiction writers. They’ve either fallen into obscurity much faster than they should have, or they’ve gone off and started writing something else, or they’ve stopped writing altogether. A big part of that comes down to the science fiction that is written by women being treated differently. When you start unpeeling the layers, it’s quite horrendous. Especially if, like me, you enjoy reading a variety of science fiction and you enjoy a lot of female authors, it becomes quite shocking. Something the Galactic Suburbia podcast is really proud of is how many male listeners we have and indeed female listeners, who have contacted us and have said, ‘I actually started thinking about this because of something you said.’ They’ve started looking at their reading and looking at how many male authors they read and how many female authors, and whether they’re being entirely fair if they discount something that was written by a woman. We’ve had many people saying that they’re going out of their way now to read more works written by women because it wasn’t happening without that effort. Sometimes your reading habits slip into a narrow subsection of what you think you like and you stop questioning them.
A diverse reading list is going to give you a more interesting view of the field, rather than reading the same books by the same category of people, whether that’s gender or race or country. I’m getting to the point now where I’m eagerly seeking out stuff that isn’t written in America just because there are so many books set in America. I’m realising how many countries I know so little about. A writer friend of mine, Karen Healy, who is from New Zealand – I’m in Tasmania, she is in New Zealand. These two places are really physically close to each other but I’ve never been to New Zealand. I didn’t realise until I read her books that I’d never read a book that was set in New Zealand. I was appalled at myself because I knew so little about this country that was so physically close.
There are many other countries I know so little about, and I’m trying to question my immediate reading habits and trying to read more diversely. We talk about that on the podcast. I think it’s part of what people find interesting, is that we don’t claim to know everything. We’re very much on a journey of trying to improve our own habits, even our own unconscious sexism that everybody’s got to a greater or lesser degree. We try and pick out when we make mistakes and talk about how we were really wrongheaded about this thing and we’re trying to do better about it. People enjoy the fact that we regularly confess our failings on the podcast and then try and address them.
Nalini: I think we’re all on a journey. It’s better to admit ignorance and open yourself up an opportunity to learn and grow than to try and pretend that you’ve got it altogether.
Tansy: Absolutely. I always find the people who will do that are, to me, the most interesting people. And the people I most want to hang out with. Somebody who will not admit to having made a mistake is really hard to have a conversation with. I’d like to get to a point where pointing out that you’ve inadvertently said something sexist or racist is the equivalent to pointing out that you’ve got spinach between your teeth: it’s a polite courtesy to let somebody know so they can rectify it as opposed to something which is a massively hurtful accusation. It can feel really bad when somebody tells you that you’ve done something that is hurtful to other people or said something that is inappropriate. It can feel like you’re under attack and it’s very easy to get defensive and angry about it and try and justify what you’ve done instead of just upping and going: ‘Oh, yeah, I stuffed up. Sorry. I’ll try and do better.’ A lot of the huge flame wars on the Internet would not get to that horrible degree if more people were willing to say ‘Sorry, I didn’t see that. I stuffed up. I can do better.’
Nalini: A case in point is the sexist EB games ad that came out a week or two ago.
Tansy: I haven’t heard about that.
Nalini: In the ad, the guy goes into EB games to buy a game and he has an argument with his wife beforehand. The wife says, ‘Oh you’re not going to go and buy another game’ and he replies ‘you go off and do the shopping and I’ll just go in here and buy a game.’
Nalini: It gets worse. He goes in there and he goes to hand over $100 for one game so it looks like they’re saying the guy’s stupid enough to pay $100 for a game when you can get it cheaper elsewhere. And the guy behind the counter says ‘You don’t have to spend hundred dollars: you can trade three old games for this one new game.’ I’ve seen games in EB that are second-hand being sold for $80 plus dollars, so again the guy’s being ripped off. Anyway, he trades three games and then he takes his wife out to dinner saying, ‘I had an extra hundred dollars lying around.’
Tansy: Oh dear.
Nalini: Then, after the wining and dining, he’s playing his computer game and she’s doing the dusting. He is like: ‘do you want me to help?’ She says, ‘No thank you, you’ve done enough.’
Tansy: Oh jeeez. There’s just so much to unpack with something like that, isn’t there? I don’t think of myself as a gamer: I do play a lot of games but I don’t think of myself as being part of that kind of community. I find the discussions of sexism and women’s role in gaming really interesting at an intellectual level, because I don’t get as emotional about that as I do about, say, the publishing industry. It is something that we do often talk about on the podcast, this assumption that all gamers are male. And there is this whole assumption about wives and the roles and… uhh, yeah.
The Next Generation
It drives me crazy because I have two daughters who love a lot of stuff that isn’t Barbie. They are interested in games and they are interested in comics and they’re interested in science fiction. We’re trying to navigate all this stuff that tells them that it’s not their place and it’s not for them and if they do want to be involved in something like that then they’re going to have to basically take on these very female clichéd attributes. It makes me angrier for my daughters than it makes me for myself.
Nalini: I think we want our children to have more freedom and better lives than we’ve had. I think we also tend to appreciate the fact that we are a bit tougher and a bit smarter because we’ve got years behind us. But we always want the best for our kids.
Tansy: Absolutely. You’re there telling your daughters that they can do everything and the world is actually telling them something else and it’s quite hurtful. One of the feminist blogs I read was talking about going into her daughter’s classroom of six-year-olds and teaching them about sexism without necessarily using the word ‘sexism’. They were talking about gender roles and particularly teaching them to analyse toy catalogues and figure out what toy catalogues are telling them about boys and girls. I thought how wonderful that is. If there is any generation that needs more in the way of media analysis, it’s my daughter’s generation of six-year-olds. We need to be teaching them how to look at advertising, how to look at gaming. It’s something I do try to do, to give my girls that commentary of: look, this is what that person is trying to sell you, it’s not just a product they’re trying to sell you, they’re trying to sell you an idea, and it’s not a good idea for you.
Nalini: Yes. I went to a conference at Monash University, Tights and tiaras.
Tansy: I was so jealous when I found out about that conference! I would have loved to go.
Nalini: I’ll be advertising things like that on Dark Matter’s Facebook page in the future. I’m trying to tap into all the right markets to let people know what’s going on. Tights and tiaras: one of the presentations was on the Powerpuff Girls. When my daughter was the right age and the Powerpuff Girls were on TV, I suspect she probably watched it but I wasn’t supportive, I don’t remember sitting down and watching it. So this presentation by Evie Kendall was an academic analysis of the Powerpuff Girls. It was amazing: here was this program aimed at kindergarten and the younger age group. This representation of girls, their relationship with guys, Ms Sara Bellum who was the female role model but you never see her face, and she’s got a really curvy figure with enormously high heels… It sent very mixed messages. That kind of analysis little girls was very interesting.
Tansy: Absolutely. My daughters have seen the Powerpuff Girls movie. I think you start looking closely at a lot of this stuff, it becomes very problematic. Even stuff that you might think might be more empowering than others; having a show that is about girl superheroes is a rare enough thing. If you have a child that likes superheroes, that’s what they’re going to want to watch. That’s why all these shows or games have a responsibility and it’s why we have a responsibility to point out where things aren’t necessarily okay. That doesn’t mean that you need to take those things away from a child; you need to point it out to them and make sure that they have a variety of influences.
Nalini: Yes, and try to help them and watch with their eyes open so they know what it’s about, what they’re absorbing.
Tansy: Absolutely. And it’s just as important for boys as it is for girls. What I think can be more destructive is that you have so many TV shows that are all boy characters or maybe with one token girl character. Boys are not encouraged in any way to be interested in stuff that is for girls or includes girls. So of course they are going to end up with this horrible mindset of girls not counting or girls not being interesting. Feminist mothers of boys in some ways have greater opportunities to make a difference, to make sure that their boys do see the value of girls and girl stories.
Something I’ve also noticed is where you often have TV shows that are quite good in terms of gender balance or gender roles, but the merchandise for those TV shows is taking five steps backwards. Things like Bob the Builder, which is mostly male characters, but you have Wendy. She is a really good female interesting character – then you look at the merchandise and she’s almost disappeared. That is a pattern I see repeated. Like Harry Potter: although the main protagonist is a male, there are a lot of great female characters and role models for women. But then look at the Harry Potter Lego: almost all the characters are male. Characters who have almost no role in the movie are prioritised over female characters. If you have a mixed family of boys and girls and they both like Harry Potter, the toys are going to be much more directed at the boys. It’s really interesting to start looking at that stuff and how toys are more gendered than the TV shows even though the TV shows or movies aren’t necessarily doing a great job, they’re often doing a better job. I get hot under the collar about that one.
Nalini: What I’ve been noticing is that, where fantasy is written by women, you tend to have a group of protagonists and it’s relational rather than about individuals going it alone. I think Harry Potter is a really good example because you have this group. Okay, Harry Potter may or may not have been the chosen one; some people still say it was Neville Longbottom. But the fact is that they wouldn’t have succeeded alone, they needed the group to succeed in the journey on the way, they learnt lessons, they grew up.
Tansy: Yeah, very much so. There are so many women in Harry’s life, and female characters that he respects. Sometimes he has greater respect for them than the text itself, but there’s no question that he values the contribution of the female characters, the main role models and friends. I think it is great for both genders to get interesting stuff out of it. It’s only a shame that some of the supporting material is less than open to both genders.
Tansy’s novels and novelettes
Nalini: While I’d love to continue on this topic I think I should ask you for a rundown of your published works to date.
Tansy: Wow, okay. I will try to do that by going backwards because I’m going to remember them better that way. At the moment I have a fantasy trilogy with HarperCollins Voyager called the Creature Court. The first two books, Power and Majesty and The Shattered City are out at the moment. The third one, Reign of Beasts, is going to be released early in February.
Nalini: So you’ve finished writing it, it’s just going through the publishing process.
Tansy: Yes, it’s all done. Also this year I’ve had a small collection published with Twelfth Planet Press called Love and Romanpunk [http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/store-items/love-and-romanpunk]. This is part of a series of mini short story collections by female authors. Mine is four linked short stories with heroes and Roman history and lots of things all jumbled up. I’m very proud of it, it’s a very cute book and it’s also purple.
Nalini: It’s purple: is that a selling point?
Tansy: It is as far as I’m concerned. It’s a very pretty cover. I was delighted. It’s my first purple book: these things matter. Also from Twelfth Planet Press a couple of years ago, I had a novelette published, Siren Beat, which won the Washington Small Press award. That was published as a double with a piece by Robert Shearman, who is a world fantasy award winning writer as well as a Doctor Who writer. Going back a bit further we have the Shimmaron book series for children. That’s for 8 to 12 year old readers. Further back we have the AustrAlien Absurdities, which I co-edited, a long-lost and out-of-print book of short stories, then we get back to the original books that were published in the late 90s, which are Splashdance Silver and Liquid Gold and again, not in print, but they are drifting around on eBay and various places.
At some point I do have plans to do that self-publishing thing of putting up your backlist and having at least an e-copy available for people. I have that third book, which I made available on LiveJournal for the 12 or so people who were clamouring for it, but I haven’t done anything since. I do want to put this out as e-books. But we were a bit stuck when I realised I didn’t have an electronic copy of Splashdance Silver. I might have to either type the entire book or figure out how to scan it, so we got a bit stopped on the project. At some point we will look at getting those out there for people who are interested. I think that as far as funny fantasy with a young female protagonist goes, it’s the sort of book that probably would have done a lot better if it came out five or six years later at the height of the YA boom. It’s this luck thing, timing can make a huge difference. Part of the reason I’ve hesitated about putting a lot of energy into making those books available is because what I’m writing now is so different. It’s this whole thing about putting your juvenilia out there. You might feel a bit embarrassed about how the sentences are formed because it was written 13 years ago… but also because it’s sort of light and fluffy. I already have this problem when people come along to my book launches now and say, ‘my daughter loves your earlier books so I bought this one for her.’ And I am like, ‘how old is your daughter? Ahh, I’m not saying you can’t give my Creature Court trilogy to your 12-year-old, but please read it first before you do.’ Because some people are not going to be happy about those books being in the hands of 12-year-olds.
Nalini: Yes. [Laughing] I could see that, I have read the ones that have been published.
Tansy: Yes, I know. They’re a little bit more grown-up. So I do often have to do The Talk, especially if they buy them for people other than themselves. Look, I don’t have a problem if you’re going to give them to children, but do read it first. At least some of it. I’m not pro-censorship or anything, but at the same time when it comes to your children you want to make sure that they’re reading something that is at least vaguely age-appropriate. I worry that people having read my earlier books are too relaxed about how age-appropriate my books are going to be, just because the earlier ones were a lot more G rated basically.
Nalini: Rowena Cory Daniells started with her pseudonym because her earlier books were children’s and she wanted to differentiate so that there wouldn’t be this confusion. Is there any possibility that you’ll have a pseudonym?
Tansy: I have that in mind. I didn’t do that for the Shimmaron books for various reasons, but also because when that one came out it was less of an issue. But I do have plans for children’s books, so I have in mind when I publish children’s stuff or YA books even, from now on I will probably do it under another name to differentiate. There are many reasons to do it. Sometimes it’s about genre and library categorisation because you’re writing stuff that is very different.
I get to the point now where I can look at writing more than one book a year and I can diversify a bit more. I’m excited to be able to do that. I do think I will have to bring different names into the equation because I like my adult books to be quite adult without having to worry about that issue of what could happen if people put them in school libraries. Really, don’t put them in school libraries.
But I want to write books that people can put in school libraries; I have lots of friends who are librarians: this will work well. So I have this name in mind when I have books that are ready to sell. That is something I’m looking at focusing on this coming year: trying to get some YA or children’s projects out there. I’d like to have some more books my daughters can read before they’re fifteen. I’m not looking forward to the year when they’re at high school and their mates at school get hold of the Creature Court trilogy. Some of the mums from school are reading the books, and parents of my friends. I’m like: ‘ooh, really? I’ll just sort of brazen that out then.’
Nalini: Have you had any funny looks or comments?
Tansy: No, no. I can’t complain about how supportive the parents of my friends are and how much they like the books just because it means they’re reading my smutty bits. I’m all, ‘okay, thank you for buying the books. That’s great.’ [shifty eyes] People have been very kind to not come up to me and try to discuss the sex scenes in great detail face-to-face, which is good. I don’t know if I could quite take that. I’m doing okay but I am steeling myself for when my daughters are old enough that their teenage friends will be reading that scene and ‘Look, that’s Raeli’s mum!’ Maybe I should have thought of that a bit sooner.
Sex in writing
Nalini: So it won’t just be the shock that parents have sex, it’s the shock that is: my mother wrote that!
Tansy: Yes. I might be having slightly varied sex talks with my daughters. Along the lines of: ‘Well, then there’s writing about it, which is a whole different category of sex.’
Nalini: I was reading on the Internet where Patrick Rothfuss and Amber Benson got together for a book signing author appearance. They each had to read out a scene from their books. After a bit of chatter, somebody threw out the challenge that they would co-read a love scene, so they each took a part. They found it extremely challenging to do that. They even said that they’ve found it challenging to read a sex scene at all, let alone that. Have you ever thought of that?
Tansy: I have definitely thought about it. It’s something that’s fine when I’m writing it because there’s nobody watching. That thing of people reading what you’ve written is a whole different issue. It’s important not to think about that when you’re writing. I have got to the point where I’ve developed as a writer over the last 15 years or so. Certainly writing about sex and intimate stuff is not something that I was very comfortable with as an early writer. I’ve managed to overcome most of my squeamishness since then. I had some full on erotica published (not under my own name), and my parents have read it. That’s one thing, but when they’re actually reading it in front of you, it’s a whole different thing. It’s like: ‘No. Can you please just go to another room or another house and just pretend you didn’t read it.’ As a writer, I just have to get over myself if I want to write as honestly as possible. I don’t have to be one of those writers who leaves the bedroom door open when they write sex scenes, but I like being that kind of writer. I think that sex scenes are actually a really good way of expressing character. Sometimes two characters having sex is one of the most important plot turning points of the story, and if you don’t show it then you could be missing out on some pretty important revealing stuff. So I like the fact that I’ve got to the point where I’m comfortable writing that sort of thing and I just have to deal with the embarrassment afterwards.
My partner is not always comfortable with the fact that I’m writing stuff that is so out there. It does come from the imagination, it doesn’t say anything about our private life, but people don’t necessarily know that! So I’m really appreciative of the fact that he is supportive and doesn’t get involved in trying to make me change certain things – despite his discomfort.
This is probably one of those things that he didn’t see coming when I originally confessed to him that, in fact, I was a writer and this was something that was going to be part of our lives. It was a terrible thing: we started dating when I was at uni and I had stopped writing for six months or more. Then when we’d been together for a while I started again, so he didn’t know at first that this was what he was getting saddled with.
Nalini: I don’t think it’s as bad as you suddenly confessing you’re a smoker or a crack addict or something.
Tansy: You’d think not, but really, you can quit those things. [laughter]
Nalini: I like that. [Laughter] I found in the Creature Court, sex was part of the plot. In some books sex gets in the way of any action, but in your books it is part of the plot and also part of the character development. It shows a lot about who the people are and their relationships to each other. How did you develop that?
Tansy: It’s something that came quite organically out of that story. The idea of sex and magic being connected is an old one. It’s something a lot of fantasy fiction has sometimes avoided… and while there are many writers (mostly female ones!) whose who do address sexuality and/or sensuality wonderfully, there is an awful lot of fantasy that doesn’t include it at all. Which is not a bad thing, because I don’t think every book has to do that. I don’t even think every book I write has to do that.
But, certainly with the Creature Court, it was important and relevant to my characters because I was trying to get across the idea of magic being something that corrupts you. They were very debauched characters! Sexuality as plot really interests me though I’m not that keen in putting it in there if it is not relevant to the plot.
I’m currently writing a book in which I’m pretty sure one of the main characters is never going to have sex. She is somebody who has chosen abstinence – and I thought at first that was something she was going to move past, but I don’t think she is. And I’m okay with that because it’s a different kind of story. It can be incredibly revealing of character to show what they’re like at their most intimate and private, with one other person. Not that my characters (in the Creature Court at least!) only share with one person but that doesn’t matter!
I think that, as a writer, that’s really interesting. I’m fascinated with reading about how other writers tackle writing sex scenes, because we all have hang-ups about writing it. Stacia Kane wrote this wonderful series of blog posts about writing sex scenes. I really enjoyed it until she got to the point where she said (something along the lines of) sex scenes should never be funny, and I’m like, ‘Oh, do me a favour!’ … I never like when people say the word ‘should’.
Of course sex can be funny – it depends on the characters, and how they react. It’s going to be a very pretendy romance kind of sex if everybody is terribly serious all the time. The idea that the sex should be perfect is – odd to me. Sex that isn’t perfect is a lot more interesting, fictionally speaking. The sex between people who really love each other, going at it for the first time – does it have to be fireworks in the sky and sunset for ever and everything produces instant orgasms. To me, I’m much more interested in the half-hearted attempts or the interrupted attempts. When two characters who are absolutely meant to be together have really awkward sex, or someone bursts out laughing halfway through, that can be a far better character reveal than them falling back romantically on to a feather bed and no one sneezing…
I like to go for the story options that give you a more interesting character to work with. With the Creature Court books, it was really, really important. I’m finding it really interesting now I’m working on other things, to address it each time: is sex going to be integral to these characters, is it less important, is it something that won’t even factor in at all, which, at this point, might be a bit of a shock to my readers. And sex is so useful when all else fails and you can’t work out what happens next in the chapter … [laughter]
Nalini: That’s really interesting. I’ll really look forward to seeing how these evolve.
Tansy: Now I’m going to have people reading very carefully.
Nalini: I think people are reading your work carefully anyway. Siren Beat features leather trousers, tentacles, a sexy sea pony and a kraken invasion of Hobart. Can you explain how you managed to fit all of that in one novel?
Tansy: Even better, Siren Beach was a novelette. It’s only about 15,000 words. It was one of those pieces of writing that just kind of – I won’t say almost wrote itself, because that does take me out of the equation. It was one of those pieces that just worked when I put it together. I have struggled because my big project that I’m writing this year is a novel based on the same character. I found it quite difficult to write that because the original story was almost thematically perfect in the way that elements came together really nicely and it all fitted – I wanted the novel to be at least that good if not better!
It came from trying to write an Australian urban fantasy for a paranormal anthology which didn’t end up being published because of the global financial crisis. I thought: ‘okay, if it’s for an anthology, I need to make mine as different as possible to try to get a slot. So I’m not going to write about vampires and werewolves because everyone will do that. I decided to set it in Tasmania because nobody else would.
So I started thinking about what magical creatures could do that job of the vampires and werewolves in urban fantasy in Tasmania. The main thing about Hobart is the dock region, the water there. That Tasmania is surrounded by ocean is a major part of our identity, so I started thinking about water magic. I came up with this idea that, okay, this is a world in which there are no vampires, there are no werewolves, but just about every water-related magical creature does exist. So you’ve got somebody whose job it is to stand at docks and protect the city from regular invasion by whatever watery creatures from whichever mythology are passing. Mermaids and sirens and kraken and sexy sea ponies and all that sort of thing. I had such a ball writing Siren Beat.
It’s been really good to me I think. As far as one piece of writing, it’s probably the first that got any degree of acclaim: so many people liking it and talking about it, it got award nominations and then it won an international award from Washington which was just really quite shocking at the time for a short story set in Tasmania. But it just worked and I was so pleased with the response to it. And then I applied for a couple of grants to write the novel; I thought this is probably quite a grant-appealing kind of project because it’s fantasy but it’s set in Australia. You can talk about Australian themes. You can talk about writing something set in Tasmania.
Because of the urban fantasy I was able to put in all that guff about noir fiction and how noir fiction has a relationship with urban fantasy. I wrote these grant applications and I got money from Australia Council and Arts Tasmania to write the novel. And then I had to write the novel, which I’m very proud of, but it was very, very hard work this year. A lot harder than writing short stories. So I’m proud of that and trying urban fantasy as something a bit different. Not too different as I’m always writing stories that are set in cities, but writing something after the Creature Court, something that is set in our world, it was really enjoyable to do that. I really like my heroine and I like the set up. I like what I was trying to do with it. It’s going to be workshopped with my wRiters on the Rise group this summer. Then it’s going to the publisher, so we’ll see. It isn’t under contract or anything so we’ll see if they like it; I hope they do.
Nalini: Is Siren Beat still available?
Tansy: Yes, from the Twelfth Planet Press website. It’s not available as an e-book at the moment because they’re currently doing their e-books from scratch. The Love and Romanpunk is available as an e-book as well as a paperback. They’re quite small books, which is a benefit because postage is very cheap. Twelfth Planet has quite a bit of my stuff: they have been very supportive over the last few years. Siren Beat is a good little read; it is paired with a very excellent if slightly depressing Robert Shearman short story which is also worth reading.
Nalini: What do you have planned for the future?
Tansy: Many things. I completed NaNoWriMo at the end of last year, which I used to get a chunk of a new novel written. It’s a whole different thing again. It’s a kind of tropical island fantasy novel with Shakespeare and necromancy. I’m really enjoying writing something so different. I have quite a few YA or children’s projects that I’ve been working on: they’re various degrees of being finished. I’d really like to get to a point next year where I’m sending some of that out. The third Creature Court book is out early in 2012. I don’t have anything else under contract right now, so next year is going to be about trying to sell books more than anything. I’m trying to write more: I’m trying to do that thing that I didn’t manage to do in the late 90s, which is take these recent successes and turn them into a fairly solid steady career. I still have my youngest daughter at home with me most of the week: she has a couple of years before she starts school, so I still have two or three of what I think of as consolidating years. Once I’ve got both my girls at school I feel like I should be able to write a lot more than I am right now. Develop this career a bit more substantially, but in the meantime I’m doing what I can.
A word to fans
Nalini: It sounds really good. Do you have any words for fans?
Tansy: I really appreciate hearing from the fans. I love it when people visit my blog or comment on podcasts: it’s really nice to get a chance to get that feedback and some of it blows me away. I did a public reading for the local poetry group a couple of months ago, and some people came. There was a girl who came who had been reading me since her teens, with Splashdance Silver. It’s still got its fans, more than a decade later. It seems like a very odd thing; I try to be as gracious as possible about coming into contact with fans, even though I’m pretty sure that they don’t exist.
I ran a competition or two, and received a couple of drawings from people of costumes for the characters from Creature Court, which was really exciting. I think all authors secretly, or not so secretly, want fan art. That’s what it comes down to.
Nalini: Have any of them been outfits that Velody might have designed?
Tansy: Yes. That’s the general idea. The making of clothes and the costumes in that series is just so important thematically. Rowena Cory Daniells said right from the beginning, she and Maxine McArthur kept telling me that I’d have to start a Creature Court collection. It would be lovely but I’m not an artist. Somebody else has to draw the clothes. This was my way of trying to make that happen a little bit.
Nalini: Are all the artworks going to be up on the website?
Tansy: Yes. I only had a few entries in the end, but put them all up on my blog. It helped to pass the time while we were all biting our teeth waiting for the third book to come out.
Nalini: In February.
Nalini: I look forward to reading Reign of Beasts and listening to future casts of Galactic Suburbia. Thank you very much for talking to Dark Matter.
Tansy: Thank you.