Lee Murray's NZ Speculative Fiction Show - Emma Pullar
Welcome to Lee Murray’s New Zealand Speculative Fiction Show, an interview series featuring star acts from NZ’s science fiction, fantasy and horror community, including news, insights, and sneak-peeks of their latest performances.
Today my guest is the fabulous Emma Pullar, author of children’s picture books Curly from Shirley and Kitty Stuck and also the dystopian thriller Skeletal with its sequel Avian released on September 4. Welcome Emma!
Children’s picture books and adult dystopian body horror: that’s any interesting combination in anyone’s book. How did that come about? Is writing children’s titles intended to provide relief from the intensity of your horror work?
Rather than a relief from the intensity of horror, (and you know how intense it can get, Lee) for me, it’s that my inner child has never left. I collect picture books and I watch cartoons ‒ naturally, my kids love this – but I was also a horror/sci-fi fan from a young age too. My writing is an extension of the things I loved watching/reading in childhood. I was, and still am, a seeker of justice. As a child, I campaigned for soft toilet paper, girls being allowed to join the school football team and girls being able to choose to wear trousers to school. You can see where my love of dystopian stories comes from. I saw the world as a beautiful playground but also largely unfair for most who were forced to play in the dark corners. I guess I enjoy the dark and the light in equal amounts.
Going from Curley from Shirley to Skeletal was a big leap in genre, tone, even wordcount. What inspired you to write this book?
I actually wrote an animation screenplay and a children’s fantasy novel before Skeletal. As with most first novels, I couldn’t make it work and it ended up more like Harry Potter fanfic. I hope to revisit it one day and fix it up. I got the idea for Skeletal when a story broke about a supermarket chain selling cheap horse meat burgers as beef. I thought, if they can do that without a care for the consumer, what else are these big companies capable of? That’s when the Morbs came to me in their hover-chairs and then this dark, futuristic city unfolded inside my head and Skyla walked in.
Gale City is the last city in the world and under the strict control of the illusive Centrals.
When females reach adulthood, they’re given the chance to compete at Showcase for the honour of becoming surrogates for the Morbihan - a highly intelligent, obese race of people, unable to procreate naturally. All the other girls are excited to become hosts, all except Megan Skyla.
Convinced there’s more to life, Skyla teams up with an unlikely friend and they go in search of a cure for the Morbihan condition. Things don’t go to plan and their journey becomes a harrowing quest fraught with danger and deceit.
How can Skyla discover the truth when everything she’s been told is a lie? Can anyone in Gale City ever really be free?
Skyla is about to discover that freedom has a price and she’s going to have to fight to survive.
What characteristics, if any, do you share with Skyla?
Oh gosh, dare I say? Um … I’m stubborn and forthright. I was unhappy with my lot in life and I have been beaten about while trying to escape it. It’s like the universe was saying, ‘You can break free but I’m not going to make it easy for you,’ and it hasn’t been. Thankfully, I have not suffered anything as harrowing as Skyla has and thus I’m nowhere near as selfish and heartless as her. She has flaws, like all of us do. We don’t see a lot of unlikable female protagonists, but I’ve seen a lot of men portrayed this way. The one thing readers say about Sky is she feels real. Love her or hate her, she reflects how complex humans really are.
Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Any thoughts on this statement with respect to Skeletal air-soles, palm recognition locks and other technologies?
I think it’s a bit different these days. We have seen how quickly tech can advance and a lot of fictional tech has become fact in our lifetime. Countless sci-fi writers come up with fictional devices and, years later, scientists have found ways to make them a reality. I hope to wear a pair of air-soles in the future. How fun would that be! Although, I probably wouldn’t be any good on them. I can see me clumsying (not a word, but hey if Dr. Seuss can …) along, bumping into people!
What about a short excerpt?
With the clouds swept away, wind gone with them, the absence of both pushes the temperature up. The sun is an angry fireball in the azure sky, at its highest point before it makes its descent, which tells me it’s already midday. Visor firmly over my eyes, the rays are diluted, but still harsh enough to warrant tilting my head downwards to avoid the full glare. Like Andia, I’m worried the sand monster might burst up between my legs and drag me under.
Sweat pours down my temples and beneath the hood my hair is damp. If the weather keeps fluctuating from freezing winds to boiling sunshine, even while wearing the temperature regulating suit, which doesn’t work all that well, we’re sure to get sick. Sick and slow equals dead and buried. None of us can afford so much as a sniffle.
Hours drag by; the rock is further than I thought. It’s as if it’s moving away from us and we’re never going to reach it, but what makes the trek more of a chore is listening to Andia nervously chatter about what she might do with her life when we get back. I can’t bring myself to tell her I have no intension of going back. That is if we don’t starve to death out here. The others have fanned out to get away from her self-comforting. Like me, I suspect they can’t bear to give her a reality check. She hasn’t noticed she’s muttering to herself.
Andia is delusional – Central don’t reward law breakers, ever! They obviously don’t care what the gangs are doing out here and may even be enabling them. These suits are Morb engineered, I’m sure of it. Though, I can’t believe a gang would be able to steal them. The only logical explanation for Dra’Cave having the suits is that Central gave them to him. Why? Keep the underclass in a perpetual glory-induced coma so they don’t rise up and overthrow them?
I stop trudging every few minutes to rub my aching calf muscles and catch my breath, the thin air doesn’t seem to be bothering my lungs any more. I don’t know why, perhaps my body has already adapted to its surroundings, but the heat is an issue, even with the suit regulating the temperature I still feel like I’m boiling in a bag. I’m relieved when the rocky mound before us finally looks bigger while behind us the wall gets smaller and smaller. The desert stretches out for miles either side of the black island we’re heading for. I was always told the desert means death and maybe it will be the end of me, but right now, even though hot and uncomfortable, legs aching and there’s a beast under the sand that could come up and snatch us at any time, I appreciate the beauty of the world. A beauty I couldn’t see through my self-serving eyes.
I gaze at the purple hue rippling in the heat at the base of burnt-orange mountains. The landscape looks disjointed, like layers of a painting, the paint thicker at the bottom. A calmness washes over me and I feel my frown disappear, as if the invisible rock I’ve been carrying around on my head has been lifted.
A cloud passes over the sun and the cool shadowy relief is instant. Crow traipses confidently up front, followed by Cara and Andia, who’s no longer talking; she’s realised none of us have been listening to her. The two girls’ stamina matches that of the guard but Dove staggers along behind me. For someone used to being worked to the bone in the city prison, his endurance is low. It was often hot and stuffy in the prison, with the exception of the butchery, so why is the heat getting to Dove? Maybe it’s something to do with his pasty skin? Being albino, he is whiter than any Morb. I feel a little sorry for him. A white Skel. It’s too weird. Then again, maybe it’s his mental health; your body won’t function if your brain isn’t and none of us know what Dra’Cave subjected him to. He was naked when I found him. Someone oiling and force feeding you is unpleasant but I wonder if Dra’Cave sexually abused him too.
‘Dove.’ He turns his head to signal he’s heard me, his pink eyes barely visible behind the tinted visor. ‘You okay?’
He pulls down his mask. His lips are ruby red, his skin ruddy. ‘I feel like …’ he takes a breath, ‘… my organs are stewing in my own blood.’
His breathing is laboured, like a man on the brink of death.
‘Hang in there.’
What can you tell us about the sequel Avian? Any hints about what Skyla might be facing?
Skyla has to confront her inner demons which have doubled after she did an unspeakable thing following what happened to Bunce in Skeletal. She has to come to terms with the fact her path might not be as straight forward as she thought, and her friends are as mysterious as the desert surrounding Gale City.
Without giving too much away, one thing that struck me about the story was that different groups in Gale held certain beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. It was if they were in an information bubble, somewhat like we’re seeing on social media today where the views you hold are reinforced by information you receive. Did you intentionally set out to explore this theme in your work?
A good question. I’m glad you picked up on that, Lee. Brainwashing is something that both fascinates and frustrates me. The mainstream media are experts at it. Even when presented with the facts the human mind often struggles to change its thought patterns. My mind is pretty fluid. I admit when I’m wrong and frequently change my mind on issues but we are ALL susceptible to word choices used to suggest things, subliminal messages and lies handed down from elders who don’t realise what they’re passing on to their young is not fact. Some people’s thoughts seem to be set in stone and they think if you once believed something you will always believe that.
Like most writers you’ve faced some trial when dealing with independent publishers in the past, so what was it about Bloodhound Books that made you want to take the plunge?
Bloodhound published a short story of mine called London’s Crawling before they gave me a book deal for Skeletal & Avian. My mentor and friend, Lucy V Hay, advised me to take the deal with Bloodhound and I couldn’t be happier with how Betsy and Fred have looked after me as I took those awkward first steps as a new novelist. I met Betsy at the Dark Minds book launch (the anthology London’s Crawling was published in) and she was so funny and genuine. I liked her immediately.
You’re locked in the Rock Vault and left to rot. You have three great books with you to occupy the time. They are:
Yikes! Just three? Um … a notebook (hopefully a pen too) and 1984 by George Orwell and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling.
Quick writing test. Write a paragraph using the following words:
Lee, what are you doing to me? Haha. Okay, I’ll have a go.
The old man crawled over to the bird, his gnarled fingers stretched towards the back of the crow’s twitchy black head. If he could tame the winged beast, train it to do his bidding, he could turn it into his personal murder bird. The crow does not like to be touched, and even before the wrinkled fingers can make contact it strikes with its sharp beak. The old man screams in agony as the bird peaks out his eyes before stabbing its blood-stained beak into the man’s sagging neck. A murder of crows swooped down to devour the lifeless body. They peaked and pulled the tired meat from the old bones. Blood flowed across the ground, the corpse laid to waste.
What’s your favourite horror movie and why?
I have so many favourites. My favourite sci-fi/horror movie is Aliens. Scariest monster ever! Marines shooting up the place. Kick-ass protagonist. Brilliant dialogue. The music and cinematography are eerie. What’s not to like?
Two things you’re good at.
Two things you’re bad at.
Two things you’ve never tried, but they’re on your bucket list.
Walk on Mars. Ride in a helicopter or fly it. I’ve flown a light plane. Loved it!
A Kiwi, you’re currently living in the UK. Do you prefer Bovril to Marmite now? What about Pork Pies versus Mince Pies? Cod and chips or Terakihi and chips?
My in-laws bring me NZ Marmite when they visit. I cannot live without it! I don’t eat pork or mince pies. I enjoy fish and chips from NZ and the UK.
What writing projects are on the horizon for you?
I’m currently editing a YA ghost story – the first novel in the saga will be released next year. I’m also writing a serial killer thriller or psychological thriller (not sure how it will be advertised yet) along with couple of animation screenplays.
Will we be seeing you back in New Zealand for WorldCon in 2020? (Say yes!)
I would love to go to WorldCon in NZ! A lot can happen in a year, fingers crossed something crazy awesome happens that will allow me to attend.
Lee’s Mini Review of Skeletal.
Part The Handmaid’s Tale, part Wall-E and with hints of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Skeletal is a thrilling non-stop horror dystopia, pitting the citizens of Gale against the all-seeing oppression of Central Control. It’s a familiar trope, a tale of good versus evil played out amid politics of reproductive rights, social controls, and technological power. Populating this first-person narration are all the usual suspects you would expect to find in the grimy underbelly of a fantasy city: the slum lords, the outcasts, the disenfranchised, and the opportunists, and while Pullar’s characters are occasionally unlikeable, they are always recognisable. Pullar’s prose is blunt and sparse. Her worldbuilding is masterful. There is no time for meandering, because everything is done at breakneck speed. Pullar doesn’t pull any punches either: readers should know that there are some images in this book that they won’t be able to shake off. My only caveat is that this really isn’t a standalone book, and while the narrative ends on an emotionally charged cliff-hanger, it’s clear Ms Skyla’s story isn’t complete. Of course, readers of epic fantasy stories will be delighted since it means they can expect plenty more perverted twists in Avian.
BIO: Emma Pullar writes dark fiction and children's books. Her picture book, Curly from Shirley, was a national bestseller and was named best opening lines by NZ Post. Emma has two short stories published in anthologies: A horror called London's Crawling and a dystopian tale called Old Trees Don't Bend. Her horror story, WORMS, was a Twisted Vol2 WINNER and her short Sci-Fi story, Alterverse, was a Singularity50 WINNER. Her debut novel, Skeletal, was published by Bloodhound Books in 2017 the sequel, Avian, was published in 2018. Her latest picture book Kitty Stuck was published by A Spark in the Sand and illustrated by her twelve-year-old daughter, Beth Pullar. Emma also writes articles for L V Hay and Bang2write and appeared on a panel about novel writing at The London Screenwriters’ Festival. Follow Emma on Twitter @EmmaStoryteller or Instagram @emmapullar_storyteller or fb page Emma Pullar or visit her website www.emmapullar.com