An in-depth author interview with Lee - 2019
Hi Lee! What is something unique/quirky about you?
Fun Fact#1: You know that old story about having to smooch a lot of frogs before you find the prince? Well, before becoming a writer, I tried on a lot of hats: I was a research scientist, a massage therapist, a safety and health officer, as well as New Zealand’s Energy Advisor to the OECD. I’ve also done some time putting up kiwifruit irrigation lines, serving chateaubriand, and as a wallpaper hand. These days, you’ll find me in my natural writing habitat, in my home office overlooking a cow paddock.
Fun Fact#2: A serious cheese junkie, I’m lucky that our travels have allowed me to indulge my addiction. In fact, we have lived for several years in some of the most significant cheese locations of the world, beginning with my home country of New Zealand, then England (home of Red Leicester and Wensleydale), France (my favourite is still the Tome de Savoie) and America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin, famous for its cheese curd and Montforte Blue.
Fun Fact#3: One of my great grandmothers was Rebecca Brooker (née Jenner) 1819-1887. The daughter of famous British physician Edward Jenner (inventor of the smallpox vaccine), she was a missionary nurse and a signatory to New Zealand’s famous Treaty of Waitangi. Rebecca Avenue in New Zealand’s Christchurch is named after this famous ancestor.”
What do you consider is your biggest failure?
I’m excellent at failing so it’s hard to pick just one! One of my keenest regrets though, is failing to learn Cantonese—my mother’s first language. Later in life, I learned to speak French, and of the insights into a people and their culture which can be achieved through understanding the language. So while being bilingual is a good thing, it has led me to understand that by not speaking Cantonese, I am missing a part of myself.
What got you into writing?
I don’t really know. I’ve always been a scribbler, a prehistoric blogger before they were a thing. Encouraged firstly by my dad, and later by various teachers and mentors, it was always on my mind to write, but it wasn’t until my children were small, and I was at home during their naptimes, that I made a conscious effort to ‘become’ a writer’, completing some masters papers in creative writing, along with a couple of unfinished novels which had been sitting in boxes. Then, a decade ago, on the advice of a colleague, I started to call myself a writer, and even wrote ‘writer’ against my occupation on my passport, which made it more real somehow.
Tell us something really interesting that's happened to you!
There was the time my husband and I had just landed in New York for the New York marathon (where I did an epic run and I came in about 33,000th in a field of 39,000) and we were walking past the Ed Sullivan theatre, slightly jetlagged, just taking in the atmosphere, and we got randomly selected as audience members for the David Letterman show. We sat in the second row, and our kids, back home in New Zealand, got to see us on television that same night. (Yes, the rumours are true: it is really cold in those television studios.)
What are some of your pet peeves?
Have you ever noticed how pretentious the verb ‘to do’ is? Not the everyday version of the verb, but those condescending in-your-face formulas intended to remind you who’s boss, when that tiny little word conveys so much contempt. Airlines are often guilty of this. “We do ask that you take care when opening the overhead lockers as items may have moved in transit.” “We do require that you wait for the aircraft to reach the terminal before unclipping your seatbelt.” What’s wrong with saying please? That’s just one of my peeves.
Who is your hero and why?
My mum. She’s a tiny little thing, but as my dad always used to say ‘good thing come in little packages’ and he was never more right. When I tell stories of my childhood, Dad features a lot. Hardly surprising because he was a big personality. An athlete, a storyteller, and a real camp Dad, he was the sort who could fix a bicycle with a plastic BBQ plate. Mum’s approach is less flamboyant, but she’s always there, in the background, getting on with things with integrity, kindness, and courage.
What kind of world ruler would you be?
A kind one, I hope. I find you can make a lot of progress when you act from kindness.
What are you passionate about these days?
All the usual things: clean water, the environment, education for all, freedom from slavery, equal pay for women, eradicating childhood diseases, care of the elderly… it’s a long list…
What do you do to unwind and relax?
I used to be a distance runner, with twenty-five marathons and an ultra under my belt, but an injury put paid to that, and nowadays I like to catch up on my reading, watch movies with my son, play with my dog, soak in the spa pool, take weekend walks and trips to the beach, pop across town to see family, and chat with my daughter on skype. (Note that housework, cooking, and ironing do not feature on my favourite things to do when I’m not writing.) My husband and I recently bought a caravan, and it’s surprised us how much we’ve enjoyed picking up at the weekend and taking ourselves off to the beach or the hot pools for some R&R. New Zealand has a lot of great seaside campsites with great views, access to the beach or bush trails, and for not much more than the price of a couple of cups of coffee. A cheap and fun way to grab some down-time.
Photo by Ellen Datlow
Describe yourself in 5 words or less!
Short Kiwi with book fetish.
E-Book, Paperback or Hardback?
Books please. However they come. I love books in any format. I’d read them if they were printed on the back of a cornflakes packet. Recently, though, I’ve tried to cut down on print books. A couple of house moves have highlighted the way print books can impede the packing process. I’m always tempted to interrupt what I’m doing, put on the kettle, and waste an hour or two reading books I haven’t opened for a year or two, dipping in and rediscovering beloved characters. These days, to keep the distraction to a minimum, I tend to limit my print book purchases to titles written by my colleagues. Which doesn’t narrow it down at all really.
Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie?
I’d love to see the entire Taine McKenna series made into movies, but all writers say that about their books don’t they? The thing is, I’m not the only one saying they would love to see McKenna on the big screen. One New York Times bestselling author told me he thought they would be the perfect vehicle for actors like Jason Momoa or Dwayne Johnson. What a lovely compliment. Aussie thriller writer Greig Beck, bestselling author of the Arcadian and Primordia series, has made similar comments:
“Lee Murray is one of New Zealand’s most awarded and top selling authors, and INTO THE ASHES is Lee’s continuation of the Taine McKenna adventures. This magnificent story weaves ancient Maori mythology, brutal action, and cinematic scenes that cry out for movie treatment.” – Greig Beck, author of the Arcadian series.
Readers of the series agree:
“A story begging to be made into a film.”
“A monster movie in book form.”
“I can totally see this as a movie. Peter Jackson, never mind what you’re busy with, drop everything and make Into the Mist.”
“This would make an interesting movie.”
“Definitely one for fans of action movies rooted in local (New Zealand landscape and traditions.”
“Go and write the movie script!”
“Peter Jackson – read this one.”
While my Path of Ra series (with Dan Rabarts) has garnered some film interest (nothing concrete yet), I haven’t had any bites on the McKenna series, but I have my fingers crossed. If anyone reading this post has film industry contacts, please send them my way!
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’ve been on lots of literary pilgrimages. When my children were small, we lived in abroad in Wisconsin in the United States. Because my daughter (then aged 6) was a huge reader, we took a weekend trip to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in her birthplace in Pepin, and the model cabin in the Big Woods. I remember buying my daughter the cutest pink bonnet in Laura Ingalls Wilder style. Of course, Ann Packer’s 2002 bestseller The Dive from Clausen’s Pier was set in Madison about the time we were living there, although the pier itself is fictional. I have stood on the Pont Mirabeau in Paris and watched the Seine flow past, as Apollinaire did in his famous poem. I have visited England’s Lake District where Beatrix Potter was inspired by the rolling landscape, and Baker Street where Conan Doyle set his famous detective series. New Zealand pilgrimages include visits to the former homes of writer Janet Frame in Oamaru and of short story specialist Katherine Mansfield in Tinkori Road, Wellington.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Apparently, like Cho Chang, my patronus is a swan—I took a test. The Results: You may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean you’re antisocial. Constantly surrounded by a group of friends, you can always count on them to act as a support system in times of emotional distress. Keep your head up and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Do your best not to dwell on the past: the future is bright. [Fingers crossed]
What inspired you to write your most recent title Into the Ashes?
I needed to finish the series! Not only did I have a contract to fulfill, people, myself included, were hanging out to see what would happen between Taine and Jules, and whether Temera would regain his gift for seeing. However, the inspiration for this particular story came entirely from the New Zealand landscape. I was on a road trip with my son and husband and we were passing through the central plateau on a spectacularly clear day, and I remember thinking the region would make the perfect backdrop for the last book in the series. There were the mountains, the supervolcano, the lakes, the army training grounds, and all the wonderful local legends and mythology associated with the area. Adding to that, one of our greatest fears down here in New Zealand is fear of ‘the big one’: a massive volcanic-earthquake event. Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is sometimes referred to as ‘the shaky isles’. My mind was racing: already ideas were coming thick and fast. Then my son said, “Mum, you should call it Into the Ashes.” And that was it. The idea was born.
Do you have any “side stories” about the Into the Mist characters?
Yes, a Taine McKenna short story called Into the Darkness is available on all the usual platforms for readers to enjoy for free. Chronologically, Into the Darkness falls between Into the Mist and Into the Sounds when the army is trying to clean up the mess left in the Urewera forest. Taine and Jules are holidaying in France:
Laying low after a furore in the Urewera ranges, NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna accompanies girlfriend Jules Ashes to France, where something ancient and evil has left its kill on the cobbles of La Ferté-Bernard. The terrified villagers have seen it before. That time, elders closed the gates and whispered of the plague. Now, the danger threatens all of Europe. The local gendarmes are going to need help. Lucky for them, McKenna is available, expendable, and ultimately deniable…
How did you come up with the concept for the series?
The idea for first book, Into the Mist, came to me while I was out running in the New Zealand bush. Before sustaining an injury, I used to run marathons—completing 25 marathons and a couple of ultramarathons—which meant a lot of time running on trails. While the terrain can be dangerous, and the weather conditions can change rapidly, running in the New Zealand bush doesn’t offer up a lot of beasties. There are no mountain lions, no snakes and no grumpy bears. Probably, the worst thing a runner is likely to come across down here is a wētā or two, or maybe a swarm of wasps. Out on the road, you might meet a stray pig dog, or a herd of cows on the way to milking, but I’ve never encountered anything on a bush trail. I was discussing this with some girlfriends while out on a trail for a long run once, and it occurred to me ‘what if there was something?’ and ‘what might that be?’ and the idea evolved from there. I went home and opened a file which I optimistically called “Global Blockbuster” and that was how the series came about.
Where did you come up with the names in the story?
Oh dear. This is where I have to reveal all the identities I’ve stolen! With so many varied characters across the three books, it was inevitable I would start borrowing from my friends and family. You’re going to get me in so much trouble with this question. Here goes…Taine is named after a former New Zealand rugby captain, and Pringle (Into the Sounds and Into the Ashes) was a former New Zealand cricketer. Rocky Stone (Into the Sounds) and Chesterman (Into the Mist) are both named after my weapons advisor from the New Zealand Defence Force. Matt Read is my husband’s nephew, while the names Miller, Fogarty and Summers are stolen from members of my critique team. Reckwerdt and Loughlin are family friends. Harris is a real estate agent friend from Lower Hutt. Hine is the Māori term for girl, and Rawiri (Temera) is the Māori term for David, the name of my husband, father, son, and father-in-law. Into the Ashes’ villain Barnes is the name of my US publisher (she’s nothing like him!). The character (not the name) of de Haas came from someone I once worked with—although I could have named him anything since I’m certain everyone has worked with someone just like him at some time or another. Charles Rutledge, one of the prisoners in Into the Ashes is named after the famous American horror-thriller writer, who dropped me a social media note while I was writing the book, asking me to please ‘tuckerise’ him in my novel—so I did. It pays to be careful what you wish for around writers!
Tell us about your main characters - what makes them tick?
What makes Sergeant Taine McKenna tick? As a soldier in New Zealand’s Defence Force, Taine’s core mission is to protect New Zealand and its citizens, something he does without regard for his own safety. It’s a bone of contention for partner Jules, who fears she’ll lose him. But Jules’ has her own mission and it’s not too different from Taine’s. As a scientist working for the Conservation Department, she’s hell-bent on saving as many of New Zealand’s endangered species as she can. The country has a unique fauna, with birds and animals not seen anywhere else in the world, and once they’re gone that’s it. Jules will do anything to ensure the survival of a species, including putting herself at risk. Both Taine and Jules are headstrong and loyal—the very characteristics that keep them apart. The series isn’t a love-story, romance never the main focus of the stories, but it’s interesting to know that the two key characters have similar motivations.
How did you come up with the title?
The first novel in the Taine McKenna series, Into the Mist, is named for the rugged tribal lands of the famous Tūhoe people, who have traditionally lived in the Te Urewera forest. Also home to the mischievous patupaiarehe-fairies who play their flutes in the beech trees, the region is often steeped in treacherous mist which drifts into the valleys and up onto the mountaintops, hiding cragged rocks and swiftly flowing rivers. It’s because of this pervasive mist that the Tūhoe people are called The Children of the Mist. So when the story called for a group of soldiers to head into the Te Urewera forest on a babysitting mission for the Conservation Department, it seemed logical to name the book Into the Mist.
The second novel, Into the Sounds, takes McKenna and his friends into the plunging waterways of the Fiordland’s Sounds, while the third book, Into the Ashes, has the team on a rescue mission to the North Island’s volcanic plateau, with the supervolcano threatening to erupt at any minute!
Who designed your book covers?
The cover of Into the Mist was commissioned by Cohesion Press and designed by award-winning British cover designer Dean Samed, who is responsible for a lot of gorgeous covers by authors in the horror genre. When I moved the Taine McKenna series to Severed Press in 2017, we were fortunate to be able to retain the artwork for Into the Mist, and Severed Press contracted an in-house designer to produce the subsequent covers on a similar theme. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.
Did you learn anything during the writing of your most recent book, Into the Ashes?
As it happens, when I was writing Into the Ashes, the dramatic 2018 eruption was occurring on Kilauea. While I followed the daily reports on television, I learned that the island was being spattered with tiny opaque green gems called olivine, a mineral closely related to peridot, which occurs in Hawaii’s mantle. In fact, a large proportion of the world’s mantle is made up of the olivine mineral, but it takes rather exceptional circumstances to cause the little gemstones to rain from the sky ‒ they must be separated from the melt by the violent force of an eruption. Fascinated by this little snippet of information, I was prompted to research more about olivine, coming up with a major plot twist for Into the Ashes.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
I’d love to see a home-grown actor play the role of Taine McKenna, so Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is an option, since he went to school down here! Like Taine, Johnson is over two metres tall, and I’m pretty sure he has the requisite abs, too. Another possible contender is home-grown New Zealand actor Xavier Horan. Also an accomplished actor with multiple credits, Horan has the “steely eyes” and “skin liked polished rimu” of Taine. He’s a personal trainer too, so I imagine he’d have Taine’s natural grace and coiled strength. We mustn’t forget that along with his NZDF sense of duty, my protagonist is also a gifted matakite (seer), imbued with all the spirituality and mysticism the role engenders, and, in my view, Horan’s portrayal of Rangi in Toa Fraser’s acclaimed film The Dead Lands reflects these qualities.
What is your favorite part of this series and why?
The landscape. Writing the Taine McKenna adventure series made me realise that the New Zealand landscape, with its geysers, crater lakes, mountain ranges, and dense mist-filled forests is a wonderful source of story, and New Zealand storytellers have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. And if we imbue our stories with our history and culture, throw in the call of the kōkako and the whims of our gods, and add in the Māori concept of the landscape representing our ancestors, then there is a point of difference, something unique that doesn’t appear in other literature. As a New Zealand writer, I feel there is a responsibility for us to tell our stories, to offer our perspectives in this moment, and our landscape is essential to that viewpoint.
If you could spend time with a character from your book whom would it be? And what would you do during that day?
I’d like to spend the day in Ka’s outdoor classroom (from Into the Sounds). I think there are a lot of things that the tribesman could teach me about his people, and about life among the waterways of the Fiordland Sounds. Of course, that isn’t going to be possible, so perhaps I’ll spend an afternoon on the porch with Temera at his Maungapōhatu farmlet, drinking tea and reminiscing on stories told to him by his mātua-tutor. On the other hand, a number of frightening characters have stopped by Temera’s porch, so it might pay not to linger after the sun goes down.
Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
In order to create authenticity in our writing, characters must always be based on real people—at least in part. So while in the overall, my characters are conjured from my imagination, certain traits and motivations will have been borrowed from people I have met. Caveat: Be kind to writers, because one way or another they are writing you into their stories!
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reins of the story?
Mostly, I’m in charge. At least, I like to think I am! The thing is, if you give a character a certain personality and motivation, then the way that character behaves must conform to those characteristics. If you create an impulsive gung-ho FNG soldier, like Matt Read, then it follows that character must rush in without thinking of the consequences, taking unnecessary risks. Pair that character with Sergeant Taine McKenna, a soldier who understands consequences and who is compelled to look out for his section (and for all New Zealanders), then immediately you have the basis for a plot beat. Read’s going to dash in, and McKenna will to follow up and make sure he doesn’t get himself killed. Add another twenty characters with diverse motivations and character traits, and the possibilities are limitless. That’s when things start to get interesting.
Have you written any other books that are not published?
I have a little collection of short stories, half a collection really, with the working title Long White Dragon, which is a set of stories inspired by my being a New Zealand-born Chinese, a banana, so not perceived as properly Kiwi, and not properly Chinese either. Almost nothing exists in New Zealand literature which covers this experience, and while I believe it could be an important collection, it’s not particularly commercial, so for the moment it is sitting in a file waiting for the right moment. I have a half-finished thriller novella waiting for me to work out how to resolve it—in the meantime my poor hero is hanging from his fingernails in dire trouble—and there are a handful of not-quite-working short stories, too.
If your book had a candle, what scent would it be?
What book do you think everyone should read?
Preferably one of mine. 😊 I’m kidding. I’d love it if people would sample a book by one of our fabulously talented New Zealand speculative fiction writers. Check out the SpecFicNZ website for some suggestions. Read New Zealand works, classic texts, new releases, books written by women, by LGBTQ writers… read widely, read often, read any book that you like, just please, please, if you can, leave a review because it makes a huge difference to the author.
What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
So much research. So many tabs open at one time. As I write this blog post, for example, I can confirm there are seven tabs open on articles and research papers which I am currently using to inform my work. When writing a book, I’ll research the location, scientific concepts, recent technological advances, and also historical and mythological tales relating to the region. I might look up psychological papers to get an idea of how certain personality types might react in a given situation. Occasionally, I’ll conduct an interview with someone in the industry, or an eye witness to an event. I’ll use archived secondary information such as photographs, letters, and other accounts. I’ll run the work past sensitivity readers to ensure the cultural aspects are covered with sensitivity and accuracy. For authenticity of a book, and also suspension of disbelief, I really think it helps to have precise, up-to-date details to inform your writing. But my research doesn’t just relate to the content of my work. Sometimes, I’ll refer to books and articles to improve my writing techniques too: studying means of accelerating the narrative, or how to get into my backstory in a way that isn’t too clunky.
Do you see writing as a career?
Yes, I definitely see writing as my career. I have been a full-time writer and editor for the past twelve years. The advantage is that the commute to my office is very short, only a few steps, and if I choose to spend the day working in my pyjamas, I can.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
I prefer silence. My novels have a lot of characters and with all of them demanding to be heard it’s already pretty noisy.
Do you write one book at a time or do you have several going at a time?
I generally write one book at a time, although occasionally I might have a novel and a short story on the go simultaneously. I suppose the half-finished manuscripts I have tucked away are technically still on the go…
If you could have been the author of any book ever written, which book would you choose?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. The Girl With all the Gifts by MC Carey. Anything by Australian horror writer, Kaaron Warren.
Pen or type writer or computer?
Advice you give new authors?
Grow a tough carapace.
Win the Lotto
Write what you love.
Describe your writing style.
Slow! 1000 words is a good day, 500 is more usual. [Sigh] I wish I were faster, but since Hemingway was also a 500-word a day writer, I’m in good company.
What makes a good story?
Real characters, compelling stakes, lively writing, and a satisfying conclusion. A great sense of place helps, too.
What are you currently reading?
I spent the summer reading 119 manuscripts for two literary awards, which has left me exhausted, so my to-read list hasn’t had much attention lately. However, I’ve just finished The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. I’m late to the party, since the book was released in 2010, but as an anthologist myself I found it insightful. Otherwise, I have books by Juliet Marillier, Jeremy Robinson, Greig Beck, Jonathan Maberry, Charles Rutledge, Kathleen Kaufman and Lucas Pederson waiting on my nightstand to enjoy. And another 600 books on my kindle that I am going to get to very soon. Definitely soon.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Social media. It’s such a dreadful time-suck, but living down here at the bottom of the globe it’s an important means of staying in touch with readers and colleagues, so it’s a necessary evil. Plus, I do a lot of work with emerging writers, many of whom ping me with questions about their work, and since I know how important timely feedback can be, I do my best to respond. Of course, any time you’re busy feeding your social media or responding to queries is time away from your manuscript. It’s a fine balance.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
The fastest ever was three months for an 82,000-word manuscript. Mostly, they take me about a year.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
When school students ask me this question, I tell them to write something silly and banal like ‘Weetbix’ over and over until something more interesting occurs to them. They sometimes leave those ‘placeholders’ in their work when reading it out and it provides a wonderful insight into their process—the moment where their inspiration flagged and the subsequent ‘lightbulb’ thought which kicked it off again. In the same way that JK Rowling’s Riddikulus incantation works on boggarts, the lightheartedness of this approach works for students with writer’s block, because the ‘block’ doesn’t become a big deal, just a little hiccup they need to sidestep. Using a silly word like ‘Weetbix’ offers them a stepping stone to achieve that.