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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Lee Murray's Speculative Fiction Show - AJ and Eli Ponder

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’s guests are A.J and Eli Ponder, who join us hot on the heels of their first collaborative release, Attack of the Giant Bugs.

A.J & Eli: Thank you, Lee. It’s a privilege to be here.

Attack of the Giant Bugs is an interactive story where readers decide what happens next. I’ve noticed that choose your own adventure titles have undergone a bit of a resurgence in recent years. What, in your view, is the appeal of this genre?

A.J: Interactive fiction is a lot of fun to write: with crazy, funny endings; brutal, gory deaths and lots of adventure and puzzles thrown in. I guess, when something is fun to write, it’s often fun to read, too.

Eli: I think the bigger selection of genres helps. It’s not just the horror ones I remember seeing in the school library. Also, e-readers have made the genre more accessible ‒ clicking links is easier to navigate than searching for pages.

I assume it’s about big bugs who go on the attack, but can you be more specific? What’s the general premise of the story? Where did the idea come from?

Eli: The book is all about giant bugs, mad science and spy shenanigans. We use any excuse to shrink people, or enlarge insects to create mayhem, and to that end we recruited Frankie, from The Frankie Files and had The Bug Man try to steal her shrink-ray.

A.J: The original impetus was when we first heard about Bug Lab ‒ an interactive museum exhibition that was a collaboration between Weta Workshop and Te Papa. We thought bugs would make an amazing interactive book, but for us it was important to use well-known insects that kids could relate to, as well as more charismatic creatures like peacock spiders.

Meet inventor Frankie in The Frankie Files, By AJ Ponder

In your blurb for the book, you mention that one of the authors – A.J – has a BSc Hons and is married to an Entomologist who specialises in spiders. So has this been a bit of a family project – or are you keeping Dad right out of it?

Eli: Unless we had a specific question that Google couldn’t help with, we kept Dad out of it. He was busy working on Bug Lab and promoting Bug Lab.

AJ: Besides, we’ve heard most of his bug anecdotes so many times, I think we could both talk about white-tailed spiders in our sleep…

In a mother-daughter team writing for young people, who’s the boss? What’s your collaborative writing process like? Could you imagine collaborating with anyone else?

A.J: It’s generally not about who’s boss, but what ideas are working best – and who is typing!

Mostly we’re sitting in the office corner with A.J writing and Eli spit-balling ideas and looking things up, like finding videos on centipedes so we can accurately describe how they move before striking – and, of course, there’s the ultimate distraction of watching peacock spiders dancing.

Eli: Yes, I’d collaborate again. I used to write collab fanfiction with my friends when I was younger. Not anymore, now my fandom is mostly limited to cosplay.

AJ: Yup, I love collaborating, too – it means you get to do three times the work for half the pay – but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve worked a lot with Peter Friend on School Journal stories, plays and even a novel. And Eileen Mueller and I co-won the NZSA Northwrite 2013 Collaborative Writing Competition with Ahi Kā, a short story and sonnet entwined. The piece is currently available, right in the front of the SpecFic anthology Te Kōrero Ahi Kā.

You were a teacher in a former life, AJ. What sort of teacher were you? Like Mr Adams (soft as cheese) or Mrs Xavier (so strict she could have been in the army)?

A.J: I’m definitely Mr Adams – unless it’s third or fourth form relieving – in which case I put on a Miss Xavier and hope like heck they don’t notice it’s an act.

How do your writing styles differ, complement each other?

Eli: AJ is a bit more formal, and I don’t believe in formatting, but we both love storytelling. Working together is a lot of fun because we egg each other on to be more and more ridiculous.

What about a little test:

A.J ‒ please write a short poem/drabble for us using the words: mucus, daffodil, gargantuan

It’s Gargantuan season again,

They’ll invade the daffodils

And then,

When you think you’re quite safe,

They’ll bite off your face

And leave not a trace -

I know it’s not great

To be left out as bait-

But at least there’s no mucus all over the place.

Eli – please write short poem/drabble using the words: reflection, automaton, chuckle.

You could swear you heard something down this hall, long abandoned and covered in dust. There it is, a mechanical chuckle. As you step closer, your footsteps echo in empty space. Out of the corner of your eye, you catch something moving, heart beat quickening as the lights flicker, and the slightly raspy, scraping chuckle echoes around you once again. You turn, and are face to face with a half broken automaton, something that had once been considered a reflection of humanity, now filled with a dark energy. You scream as rust covered arms grab you. “Mine now” it whispers.

Together ‒ here are your words: pandemonium, hothead, dithering

Hail me hearties, tuck into the golden cake

Stop dithering

Ye cinnamon seadogs

Stop blithering

And down ye a tot of fizz

It’s pandemonium above decks

And below

As frosty pirates sail icing-sugar seas

And ye hot-headed sea monsters attack.

Who is responsible for the cool cover art? How much input did you have?

Imojen Hancock, a young up and coming artist who’s been rotoscoping for Weta, did our cover. We don’t know where she found the time. She also produced Lilly’s cover art and some of the crazy animals inside – but that was before she got so crazy busy. Both times we gave her a rough idea of the book, and the main creatures in it, and told her to go nuts. We know enough artists to trust that they understand their craft better than we do!

AJ - if you could mix three animals together, which ones would you choose to make the ultimate animal?

A.J: Definitely I’d go for a cat, chameleon and bat hybrid, because you’d get a cuddly colour-changing dragon out of it. In fact, thinking about it, I’m sure Miss Lionheart (from Miss Lionheart and the Laboratory of Death) will be working on creating one soon. It’ll go well with Quetzee – her squirrel, snake hybrid.

Eli - if you could be a Disney character, who would you be and why?

Rapunzel, no wait. Mabel Pines. No wait, Star Butterfly. Because she’s an energetic interdimensional princess. You never know what she’s gonna do next.

AJ – tell us something about Eli that readers will find interesting? And take care how you answer because my next question to Eli is exactly the same: what’s something interesting we should know about AJ.

AJ: Eli loves animals and sewing, but animals and cosplay don’t always mix. Also, they like to work in the wee hours of the morning – somewhere between first sleep and second sleep as the Victorians called biphasic sleeping.

Eli: Don’t let A.J. near an ice rink, she’ll break an arm. And her favourite hobby (aside from writing) is procrastination.

What’s next for your collaborative writing team?

Eli: Something involving fairy tales.

A.J. Also more science. Steampunk science…but we don’t want to give too much away.

Thanks for stopping by AJ and Eli, and congratulations on your fabulous new release.

A.J. And Eli: Thank you for having us, it’s been a blast.

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