Lee Murray's Speculative Fiction Show - Sally McLennan
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 Sally McLennan, a much-loved figure in the New Zealand speculative fiction community and author of the Sir Julius Vogel award-winning children’s title, Deputy Dan and the Mysterious Midnight Maruader. Welcome Sally!
Thanks Lee, it’s fantastic to visit your blog!
You’ve travelled the world, been a journal editor, and more recently you’ve turned your hand to farming. And when it comes to your writing, it’s no different: you’re equally at home as a children’s writer, as a short fiction writer for adults (typically dark fantasy), and also as a YA novelist. Which of those genres, if any, would you describe as your spiritual home?
I’m such a lover of fantasy. I really enjoy delving into all sorts of story ideas but most of what I read is fantasy and it’s what I think about writing most often. My forays into other genres have often been the result of friends asking for a story. My friendship with various horror writers has drawn me into writing in that genre more comfortably and helped me want to write more creepy and scary fiction.
You’ve suffered from chronic illness for many years, although it’s done nothing to dampen your enthusiasm for speculative fiction and for writing. Has your illness given you a certain resilience, do you think? Any special moments, or perhaps comments about your writing, that have encouraged you to continue?
Great questions! There have been so many times when I’ve been incredibly sick around deadlines. This means I’m used to having to do things in awful conditions, to pulling things out of the hat, and under pressure. So, when I’m well and those situations arise for sure it’s familiar and almost comfortable. You get the feeling of ‘well I did it then, I can do it now!’ But one of the things that will also teach you is some humbleness. Because as many times as I’ve made deadlines despite some awful conditions, the kindness and support of fellow professionals (I’m looking at you Lee and Julie Czerneda is another great example!), has helped me get there. So I’ve learned resilience but I’ve also learnt what a difference great friends and a good community can make when the chips are down.
Special moments that encouraged me are treasures that I mentally ‘hug’ during the rough spots. Making my mum proud. You and Paul Mannering loving my stories. Frank Pitt’s enthusiastic support. Stephen Kozeniewski enthusing about my story on twitter! Kind notes from Editors who love my work. But before any of this, Mum’s best friend (my adopted Aunt) would meet my eyes and repeat ‘You are a writer’ whenever we visited. She’d talk about me proudly before I achieved anything. That made a real difference! It was like she saw my success as if it were in front of her and she got me to share her excitement and believe.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Answer the letter from Penguin! Shyness and a lack of self-belief were major handicaps for me in earlier days!! These are still things that, like most writers, I struggle with. I’d also insist that I went to Natcons many, many years earlier.
Do you think someone can be an effective writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I know of fine Autistic writers but I’d say they have trouble manifesting their emotional experiences, not that they don’t have them. A person with anti-social personality disorder… I’m sure there are folks dealing with that putting out some fine books. What I’ve read suggests that even if someone can’t feel their own emotions they study other’s feelings trying to understand them. That could be an excellent basis for exploring humanity in the written word.
Both of us are slow writers, the two of us writing in a day what other writers put out in an hour. For me, I can’t seem to turn my editor brain off, but other slower writers blame distractions such as the internet, or young children demanding attention. Sometimes though, we simply have no choice but to churn out the words. What’s your strategy when deadlines loom?
I go nocturnal! Working at night when it’s quiet and the phone doesn’t ring is strategy number one for me. Keeping the kettle on and sipping tea is an ‘it’s time to work trigger.’ Music can also help me to focus more tightly. Cues that are repeated when working on deadlines (for me it’s night time, music, and tea) become excellent motivators in themselves. Your brain gets into the habit of working harder when they’re in place and it gets easier.
These last few years have been quieter for you writing-wise, but in recent months, you’ve been back at your desk. To what do you attribute to the sea-change?
Sea-change is right! I’ve escaped to the country. I’ve moved from a really urban lifestyle to being a hard core farmer. After a couple years of focusing on making this transition happen, I’m living in a tiny church on twelve acres with horses, goats, dogs, cats, sheep, chickens and a dove. Having finally put a roof over my head on my dream tiny farm it is time to get back to work writing!
And on that note, your twin goats ‒ Haldi and Raita ‒ have snuck inside your church-home and, naughty things, they’ve eaten the contents of your book case. Only a handful of books have survived, but ‒ thank goodness! ‒ the books that are still intact are your literary treasures. They are:
A signed copy of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and a first edition of Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner illustrated by Willy Pogany. I’d love to find the sister volume to that, Parsifal, one day. All my Margaret Mahy books and my copy of Bone People too. My Sandman and Lost girls slipcovers! It’s hard to choose a few.
Your latest short story, Memory, will appear in Julie Czerneda’s Tales from Plexis, coming in December 2018 from Daw, and based Czerneda’s fantasy world. Tell us about that.
Tales from Plexis is a tribute anthology for the Trade Pact Universe Julie has created. It’s now 21 years since the first book in that universe was released (A Thousand Words for Stranger, 1997) and it proved to be the basis for three trilogies and several short stories. Not only has Julie won multiple awards, including the Prix Aurora, but her work has been beloved my many, many readers! So it was an absolute thrill when Julie announced that fellow writers and fans (we are of course both those things!) could join her in her iconic setting and craft a story set around her giant space supermarket, Plexis. So many aliens and adventures have enticed readers to imagine those halls. It was bliss to set my imagination free there! So I wrote a story featuring hermit scientists, space pirates, and perfume vendors who can fly. Happily, Julie loved it.
Congratulations on making the cut. I gather there was a lot of competition to make that ToC. How hard is it create something fresh, and yet still appeal to fans, when you’re writing in a much-acclaimed story world?
Julie’s worlds are so rich, and the weight of material you have to work from is such high quality, it was great! I had so much to play with. But, yes, even in the process of enjoyable imagineering in this sort of work you must sweat the small stuff. If you don’t know the universe you are writing in, and get details wrong, it will show immediately and the fans will pick up on it. Julie provided great resources to help us check our accuracy but there were still many hours carefully scanning of pages that were already so well known. There was also anxiety about doing such a great universe justice but I decided to focus on making Julie smile, an easy thing to do, and just give it my all. I did the research, asked Julie a few bizarre questions, and having done the drudge work let my imagination run riot. It helped that there were some things in all those worlds I wanted more of a back story for – so I wrote those stories myself!
New Zealand’s speculative fiction writing community is clearly important to you. What makes us your tribe?
The sheer amount of fun we have when we get together. The very real affection between friends. The fact we are there for each other. Being on the same wavelength. Those things are so important to me and so great. It’s also good to have people who ‘get you.’ I’ve watched writer communities in other places and, while I’ve enjoyed those groups too, I think we have something special. It doesn’t work perfectly, we’re all human, but damn we all care and we put our best into it.
Anything else on the horizon that we should know about?
I’m working really hard on getting my first novel, Somewhere Else, published this year. I also want to make progress on the sequel, Sunrise. Watch this space!
And finally, what are your thoughts on the female Doctor?
About time! I love what they’ve done with her garb too. It works.
Thanks for stopping by, Sally!
Sally McLennan lives in a church in the Wairarapa. She may be found there in the company of cats and Clydesdales, or out in cafes, ruminating over tea and stringing words into stories.