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 guest is my long-time partner in darkness, colleague, and collaborator, Dan Rabarts ‒ the first time I’ve ever featured him on my blog and it feels rather like discovering an overdue library book that’s been lost behind the couch for a year or two: we’re really pleased to see him, but it’s awkward!
Awkward but nice. Thanks for having me over.
So let’s cut to the chase. How would you best describe yourself, Dan: as a dark fiction writer or a New Zealand writer? How important is your Māori heritage to your work?
I tend to think of myself fundamentally and no doubt a touch pretentiously as a dark fiction author, but certainly both my being a kiwi and my Māori heritage have had a huge influence on what I write. I’ve embraced my background progressively more since I first started writing traditional fantasy and sci-fi, and somehow that in turn has led my writing down darker paths. It’s a symptom of living on the edge of the earth, I think. In particular, it took me a while, and perhaps a little bit of enforced adulthood, to understand the importance of my voice as a Māori author, especially when I realised I was more likely to be published overseas than in New Zealand.
List 5 books your Hounds of the Underworld character, Matiu Yee, would recommend. What about a movie he’d be likely to watch?
Well, Matiu’s never been a big fan of reading-always had more interesting and less legal things to do-but when he was a guest of her royal majesty’s finest communal accommodation the prison’s digital library helped fill in a few hours while he ignored the little voice at his shoulder. Among his favourites were Stephen King’s childhood coming of age classic, IT, and Jack Kincaid’s Hoad’s Grim, a little book about the things that live in your cupboards and drawers and want to drag you through their doors into the dark places beyond. He would also indulge in the dark, weird fantasy of kiwi author Hugh Cook, such as the all-time classic The Walrus and the Warwolf. For a laugh, he’d enjoy anything by Terry Pratchett, and if he could find any of those Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, that could always kill a few hours. For reasons unknown, his favourite movie is the bleak, existential Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man, with Johnny Depp and Forrest Whitaker, a story about a man walking the line between the living and the dead, and we are never quite sure which world he’s really in...
Who would you like to see play Matiu in the screen version? (And no, you can’t nominate yourself!)
Does it say something about representation, or maybe my TV watching habits (or lack of both) that I actually had to go away and google that to find someone suitable? Especially after I wanted to say Taika Waititi but then thought that nah, we don’t want everyone giggling through the whole movie. “Aw look, it’s blood, bro. Heaps of it. That’s so naff.” But I found this guy, Rob Kipa-Williams, and thought yep, he’ll do. Never seen him act but if he falls through we can always just call Taika, right?
You got your first publishing credits ‒ a long list, in fact ‒ as a specialist short fiction writer. Do you recommend short fiction as a training ground for emerging writers? Are the skills you learned there transferrable?
I guess there’s a story within a story here. I wrote a lot of long form fiction before the world of podcasts led me to the treasure trove that is the short story market, which in turn inspired me to give it a crack because what the hell, yannow? When I sold the first story I ever submitted to a paying market and got actual money for it and an award nomination into the bargain, I was hooked. But I learned fast that I had to change up my style if I wanted to make it. You still want to deliver characters and ideas with scope and depth, you still want immersive settings and compelling plots, but those word count limits just keep screaming up at you. So you have to slam on the brakes, tighten, cut, trim, bleed, thrash your words to within an inch of their lives to achieve the clean efficiency of language the short form demands. Leave your indulgence at the door. And I think it goes without saying that the skills you learn writing and editing your short fiction to be tight and clean translate easily into the long form. There’s even evidence, given the number of novels I wrote before I started writing shorts (let’s just call it ... four) and the number I’ve sold since I honed my craft on the short story anvil: two so far, and counting. Of course, that just may be the company I keep...
What about your background in film and drama? A help or a hindrance?
We’re products of everything that has shaped us. Like tipping all these choices and experiences and passions into a blender with some yoghurt and blueberries and making a breakfast smoothie that also happens to the guttural outpouring of our creative energies and a glimpse into the stuff that makes our souls shine, or otherwise. But years of working in a visual medium may have brought a certain visual bias to my wordsmithing, I’ll admit.
Some of your prose reads as poetry, evocative and achingly raw, so it came as no surprise to me to learn that you are also a poet. Care to share a verse or two? [something dark and speculative perhaps?]
Ok, sure thing. Here’s a little snippet from the middle of a poem called Epilogue, which is in a wee experimental collection called Urban Driftwood, which is incidentally coming up on its 10 year anniversary and which can be found for free here.
Realisation of betrayal betrothed
To broken trust,
Heat that must be found,
Heating the blade
Plunging deep through
Cords discordant yet choral
And arterial love
Singing sweetly as it flows
From complex rivers of the soul,
In the bright pyramid of light,
The razor calm
Of what never returns.
Over recent years, you’ve gained quite a name for yourself abroad, with panel appearances, international publishing credits, a US publisher, and now two Australasian Shadows Awards for writing and editing. How does it feel to be better known outside New Zealand, than at home?
Honestly, I reconciled myself to that quite a few years ago. Much as I love Aotearoa, it’s a difficult place to make a name for oneself as a writer full stop, much less as a genre writer. We have a shortage of publishers and professional support for genre fiction here, and the cultural myopia towards beer and rugby and sex (now don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against beer or sex) means that even if most New Zealanders knew you were a horror writer, they still probably wouldn’t want to buy your book, much less publish it. To survive, and especially to thrive, most kiwi genre writers have found it necessary to look beyond our borders, present company included. Did I happen to mention that I’ll be hosting a panel called just that, Beyond the Borders, with none other than yourself, Alan Baxter and the master of horror himself, Ramsey Campbell at Stokercon? I hadn’t? Well, there you go. Psst. You’re on a panel with me at Stokercon. Don’t be late.
Let’s talk about community-building, because it’s been something you and I have been passionate about since you founded the Baby Teeth charity project several years ago, and you haven’t stopped there. What community building activities have you undertaken since, and why should we even care?
I’m a fairly extroverted type, which apparently is unusual in writers (yes, I’m looking at you, Jeff Strand), which means I tend to be the one in a group saying, ooh, let’s do this thing over here, it’ll be fun. So I find myself on writing group committees, and helping run conventions, and representing the kiwi community on fan fund trips, and running panels on community building and so it goes on. Because somebody has to do it. Like I’ve just said, we’re a small community and we’re isolated from each other a lot of the time and if we can’t show one another the most basic support and encouragement, then how are we ever going to believe that we can overcome all the hurdles this crazy writing game has to throw at us? Community was what got me out of the starting blocks, and I think everyone deserves at least the opportunity to be part of a supportive collective where knowledge and encouragement can be shared. Which is why I genuinely try to give back the sort of help that others showed me, because kiwis are creating some amazing work, work that is born of and which speaks to this dark and fascinating part of the world we live in, and I want to read more of it!
Your son Isaac (aged 11) is showing some interest in following in your footsteps. What’s the best piece of advice you can give a young writer?
Unfortunately, I really have nothing original to contribute to this. Many years ago, I asked that of one of my university professors, a certain Phillip Mann, and what he told me then is still what I would tell a young writer now: Write a lot, and read a lot. Read widely. Write for the sake of writing, like no one is watching. Inspiration comes from everywhere, at the most unexpected times. You are sponge, and when you write, you’re wringing out everything inside you in a mushy, lettery soup. The more you soak up, the more complex the flavour, or something.
What top secret project are you working on right now?
Well, if it’s that top secret, I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you, and all your readers. You know how it is. But since we like to play this game, I believe I have a potential third book in a certain crime noir horror series to plan, and I might be working on trimming a dark comic fantasy novel down to a manageable length, since it was way over the 100k mark before I started. Think Moorcock and Pratchett walk into a bar and there’s a bull and a lizardman wanting to serve them drinks, eat their chips, dish out punchlines and maybe gore them to a bloody pulp. Apparently people like that sort of thing.
Thanks for stopping by Dan!
Here's his website: http://dan.rabarts.com/