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 Kaipara writer, Jane Percival. Welcome Jane!
If I’m describing you to friends, I’d say you are a specialist short story writer, whose work typically addresses dark and speculative themes? Is that a fair assessment? What other ways do you describe yourself? (You might want to talk about poetry, gardening, activism, whatever resonates for you).
I think this is a fair assessment of the types of stories I create. Although I do sometimes dabble in more general themes when I’m writing flash or very short fiction. My other passions are growing things (gardening) and taking photos of creatures and plants both on land and at the water’s edge; I love mucking around in rock pools with my camera.
What is the appeal of short fiction for you? What’s your favourite short story you’ve written and why? Any tips for writing short fiction?
I like the compact nature of short fiction. The writer has to stick to the story and not give in to the temptation of running away with it. There are clear parameters around word count. I think I like the ‘rules’ around short fiction.
My favourite is ‘The Pouākai’, a piece published in 2015 in Headland Volume 4. In it, I felt I’d successfully captured something of what the character was physically feeling; washed up on a desolate shore, with no memories and no way of escape. I also have a soft spot for The Mysterious Mr Montague. Most likely because it’s set in Wellington.
Is there a novel in your future?
I hope so. I’d really like to think I could produce a novel. I have a novella, The Park, that I haven’t done anything with, and I’ve been wondering if it could be re-written and extended. The Park is set in Fiordland National Park in a distant future; at a time when access to the natural world is restricted to the very small number of people who can afford a ticket. My main character wins a lottery and gets to go there… it’s about what happens after that.
Describe your writing process. Any rituals? Do you have to clean the house first?
Ugh… I don’t have any rituals but I’m a terrible procrastinator. ANY household chore, no matter how small, will elbow in ahead of writing. And I like to be by myself when I write, which is not always manageable as Ben (my husband) works from home, some days. And I like to write late at night, but I get too tired after a day of other more mundane work. If I had a whole room to myself, where I could shut the door, that would help, but my work station is in the corner of the living room and I’m easily distracted. I often wonder if this means I’m not a serious writer. I struggle with these thoughts.
I started a blog at https://heni-irihapeti.com/ - the idea being that I’d keep up my writing by blogging on a regular basis – well, that was the plan. But I’ve not really made the leap from writing about the less personal stuff, to blogging on a really personal level, which in turn makes it less interesting for me to write. I guess I’m somewhat trapped there.
The other thing to mention is that I’m a ‘pantser’, I rarely have a story actually in my head waiting to be written. Instead, my stories unfold as I write, which is why writing to a theme suits me very nicely. I never map my stories out, not even in a vague way. I truly have no idea what the stories are ahead of time.
The story I really wish I’d written is…
Oh, there are so many! I’d love to have written any of the epic fantasy series. Lord of the Rings, obviously, Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair, Steven R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I also love Kim Stanley-Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and Michel Faber’s Under the Skin.
You’ve also done some travel writing, last year chronicling your trip to Japan, for example. Would you care to share a poem/excerpt?
Here is a little from one of my ‘Japan’ posts. It begins with a haiku and was written in April last year, when Asahikawa was just coming out of a long, cold winter. I was staying in an apartment close to Tokiwa Koen, a beautiful park with established trees, gardens and waterways. All of which were had been blanketed in snow for several months.
Snow fades to reveal shadow tree in bright water. Twilight silhouette.
It’s been a long winter for the people of Asahikawa, reaching back to the first snowfalls in October. And it certainly seemed chilly to me when I arrived, coming from the humid heat of a South Head autumn. The gratifying thing I’ve observed, however, is that as soon as the snow starts to melt, and the bare earth is exposed, new growth begins.
It’s already more than a week into Cherry Blossom Festival down south in Tokyo, but this far north most of the trees are barely in bud; you can in a certain light, however, discern a golden-green tinge along the branches of some. The Pussy Willows are in flower already. The sight of their fuzzy protuberances reminds me of Spring in Dunedin, and more specifically, of my much-loved garden at St Leonards, where the fattening buds were also one of the first signs that winter was finally over.
Along the walkways in Tokiwa Koen, the edges of stone walls are emerging from beneath the snow, and I was surprised see Moss Phlox growing there, as green as if it hadn’t been entombed for months. It’s the very phlox I rely on at home to brighten up the edges of my front borders… how versatile it is (!) and I wonder if it’ll flower before I head back to New Zealand.
How important is landscape/setting to your stories, and why?
The landscape is integral to my stories, and when I’m writing, the environment comes alive in my head. The weather, the land and its many moods, water in its many forms. I try to put myself into the scenes alongside the characters so that I can feel what they feel, see what they see, smell what they smell, taste what they taste, and hear what they hear. Because of this, I’ll probably only ever write about places I’m familiar with, places I’ve actually visited. I can’t imagine writing about somewhere I’ve never been. I think what I’m saying is that even though I mostly write speculative fiction, my landscapes are grounded in the landscapes of Aotearoa. And these landscapes feed into my imagination.
Tell us something about you which readers will find surprising.
Perhaps they’d be curious to know that I’m a gamer. I’ve played MMORPGs for about twenty years… the games have developed a bit in that time. I’ve been playing LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online) since it started in beta. That’s about 11 years, I think.
Thanks for stopping by Jane!
Jane Percival lives with her husband, Ben, at rural South Head, adjacent to the Kaipara Harbour.
The notion of the unpredictability of the natural world is a thread that runs through many of her short stories, and in keeping with many New Zealand writers, her narratives often touch on a person’s feelings of loneliness and isolation, and explore the ways that people interact with their surroundings, which in turn, can shape their thoughts and actions.
Jane’s first introduction to speculative fiction was an Edgar Allan Poe anthology discovered on her parents’ book shelf when she was young, and as a teenager and young adult, she devoured with relish, any fantasy, horror, or science fiction story she could lay her hands on.
Jane has an occasional blog, which can be found at https://heni-irihapeti.com/