The Horror Tree Presents…An Interview with Lee Battersby
Selene – Please tell us a bit about yourself. Namely, why do you have two blogs, same content, two different places?
Lee – Heh. The two blogs thing is because I’m a touch lazy and a touch sentimental: I’ve had the Battersblog running on the Blogger platform for nearly 14 years now. It’s got a readership, and it’s archived by the Australian National Archives, so I’m rather fond of it. In the last year, I also set up a permanent website at leebattersby.com through WordPress, which has a blog as part of its central functionality, and is much more flexible than the Blogger platform, so I can include multiple pages and whatnot. But I’m still sentimentally attached to my old blog, and can’t bear to just shut it down and shift everything over to the new platform permanently. So, yeah: two blogs, with matching content– one of which is my shiny, tells-you-everything website, and one still hanging around like an old dog, lying blind and useless on my front porch, farting and gumming away at a bone.
As to myself, I’ve been around for about 16 years. I have 3 novels, a collection, and just over 80 stories on my ledger. I’ve won a couple of Australian Shadows Awards, an Aurealis, and a few others. I’m too fat, have pretty much run out of hair, and am addicted to Pokémon Go, dinosaurs, Nottingham Forest, Lego, boxing, graphic novels and metheglin. Apparently, I’m also an adult. I’m married to a brilliant writer in her own right, Lyn, and have three bonus kids and 2 of my own that I have to take responsibility for and can’t blame their behaviour on pixies.
Selene – I noticed a lot of humour on your blog, and there is a relationship between humour and horror. What makes you laugh?
Lee – I have a fairly absurd sense of humour: I grew up inside an English tradition of comedy, so I have a lot of comedic heroes and influences like Spike Milligan, Kenneth Horne, Peter Cook and the like: the whole Oxbridge Mafia, and the British comics who came through the war are huge influences. But I’ve always been a bit dark, psychologically—my family situation growing up wasn’t ideal, and I’ve developed a fairly bleak and cynical side that probably expresses itself best in my horror work. I can be pretty misanthropic, and I think that comes out, too: a friend once said that even if I was capable of writing a story about fluffy, happy bunnies, they’d all end up in a soup.
Selene – Reading your bio would lead any of us noobs to think that you’re a sci-fi writer, although this is a horror blog. How do you approach writing horror vs. sci-fi? I mean, we all know the difference between, say, rocket ships and serial killers, but is there a thematic or structural approach that is fundamentally different?
Lee – That’s funny, because a science fiction writer is just about the last thing I think of myself as being. In something like 80-plus stories, I think I could point to less than half a dozen and say they were real science fiction. I just don’t have the scientific grounding, or curiosity, to write good science fiction. At best, I think I skirt the outsides of what the New Wave of the 60’s referred to as ‘science fantasy’—something a bit sciency, maybe, if you squinted at it in a dim light, but which is really a fantasy story that conforms to fantastic rules rather than scientific rigour. If I’m honest, I’ve published more poems than pure SF stories.
The same goes for horror. I think there are fairly entrenched rules for horror writing, and I think I come off as more of a fantasist who takes his fantasy into dark places. The two forms are much more closely aligned, but I think I write very differently than, say, James Herbert or Karon Warren. I think more along the lines of Paul Haines, who considered himself a fantasy author, but one who write fantasies you didn’t want to get caught up in.
Most styles of narrative writing require discipline and structural rules—most effective storytelling follows a character in action across a setting. It all has to contain a sense of verisimilitude, character identification, and willing suspension of disbelief. Where, say, horror and SF depart from each other is in the narrative components required to achieve that: good SF demands scientific and physical rigour, and realism that is more upfront than in more fantastic stories (I’m generalising like a mad thing, of course: for every argument, there is an equal and opposite ‘Yeah, but…’). More socially-based genres, such as horror and fantasy, require a set list of general physical rules but throw the weight of verisimilitude on cultural interaction and emotional believability.
That is the grossest, and most generalised approach to outlining the differences you could ask for, but it is, perhaps, a starting point. What I tend to refer to when teaching writing is the concept of ‘The World Plus One’—the easiest way to create a fantasy narrative is to take a recognisable world and alter one component so that it no longer fits: you could enter a particular genre based on what component you choose to alter, and how.
I could ramble about the various whys and wherefores all day, but that would be a column in its own right……
Selene – How did you start writing, and why genre fiction instead of something else?
Lee – My first publications, way back when I was attending University in the late 80s and early 90s, were poems. I never set out to be a speculative fiction writer. All I’ve ever wanted to do was be a writer, period. But I’ve been a lifelong reader of speculative fiction, so my thought processes fall naturally into that sphere. And once I’d made my first sale within the genre, they kept coming. In effect, I trapped myself into a way of working that became a simple circle of call-and-response. I’m now in a position where I’m trying to broaden myself again—to work across several genres and forms as I’d always intended—but my reputation remains largely within the Australian speculative fiction field.
I have an enormous amount of love for speculative fiction, and for the SF community, but as an artist I don’t want to limit my growth by sticking to one label.
Selene – You mentioned a former teacher who hated genre fiction. What do you think are the differences between genre and other types of writing?
Lee – Suspension of disbelief. A good story has to contain the necessary elements, no matter what form it comes in. The only difference is that ‘genre’ fiction has a secondary set of criteria to match—not just speculative fiction, but romance, westerns, crime: anything that can be pigeonholed by its narrative conventions is ‘genre’. Frankly, the snobbery towards speculative fiction boggles me. I’ve written across a number of forms and genres, and it’s all bloody difficult to get right. That’s what makes it fun. If it was easy, anybody could do it.
That particular tutor—Elizabeth Jolley—was a contemptuous sort of teacher, who held anything not in her own wheelhouse in disdain. She should never have been in charge of a group of aspiring authors: she had no understanding of the requirements of writing, in a wider sense, and absolutely no ability to interact with people who wanted to work in anything outside her very strict, realist definition of literature. God knows what she’d have done with an aspiring Keats or Borges. But her name brought credibility to what was one of only 2 or 3 tertiary writing programs in the country at the time, I guess. It probably took me ten years to unlearn what she taught, and to create work that actually found a market.
Selene – On your blog, you write about your experiences at a writers’ retreat. How does this enrich one’s experiences as a writer? Most of us who can’t afford it can only look at the photos!
Lee – I wish I could afford a retreat, too! I was fortunate to be chosen as the Establish Writer-in-Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre this year, and I can’t overstate how wonderful it was to be able to spend 2 weeks focussing solely on my writing, with nobody else’s timetable even entering my mind. Real Life ™ has eaten my writing career alive over the last 2 years: being able to put absolutely everything else aside, even the things and people I love, and focus only on the act of writing, was immensely liberating.
Selene – I guess “where do you get your ideas” is a common question, but what does influence your stories? What do you like to write about?
Lee – A lot of it is simply following your passions and reading widely. I think any artist owes it to themselves to absorb as many experiences as they can. Then it’s a matter of your ability to intertextualise—to draw comparisons and contracts between all those bits of data you have filed away, all those experiences you’ve accumulated. Stories don’t really happen in the learning of facts, or the observation of events—it’s the space in between them, the places where otherwise unrelated nuggets of understanding overlap, that creates ideas. And the more of them you have, the more you’re exposed to the world and creating this ongoing web of connections and inferences, the more ideas you’ll have.
After that, whatever the voices in your head tell you is your problem……
For myself, amongst many other subjects, I have a special love of what I think of as ‘hidden histories’: histories of things outside the mainstream, or which you might not think of as having a story. For example, one of my favourite authors, Catharine Arnold, has written histories of Bethlem Hospital, of London’s funerary practices, its criminal classes, and so on. I also have a deep love of true crime, particularly from before the 20th century. As a horror writer, they’re not bad as staring points J
Selene – You mention world-building on your site, and that you’ve developed some theories over the years. What is the best approach to world-building? I know it’s extremely important in sci-fi and fantasy, but how is it the same or different for horror?
Lee – I think it’s exactly the same. What makes for good speculative fiction is the disturbance in the status quo. But for that to be effective, you first have to establish that status quo. I see a lot of horror stories where writers simply throw everything at the reader in the hopes that some of it will have an effect, and those stories always end up reading a bit like a child jumping in puddles: lots of splashing, very little impact. Verisimilitude is everything: if your reader believes in the world you’re portraying, then they’ll believe in the abuses you visit upon that world when they arrive.
I run entire workshops on this subject, but the very short, Reader’s Digest version is: make sure everything works. If you depart from what we accept as our reality– where the speed of light is constant in a vacuum, and gravity is nine metres per second per second, and up is up and down is down and all that jazz—then that departure has to be justifiable, and it has to work within the physical constraints of the Universe you’re creating.
So, your Universe must have rules, even if you’re writing a story set in the hidden 10th level of Hell, because without them, there is nothing for reality, (or if you’re writing a story about unreality breaking into normalcy, the other way around), to react against. Fiction is based on restraint and conflict—if anything can happen, then nothing that happens has consequence. And without consequence, there is no conflict.
Selene – I notice you’re a Doctor Who fan. I’m not (sorry!) and haven’t watched the show since I was very young, back in the late 70s/early 80s when it was the guy with the fro and the scarf. I noticed the trailer for the female Doctor on your site, and was wondering what you think of the gender-flipping that’s been happening with characters. Female Ghostbusters. Female Ocean’s (Eight) Eleven and Lord of the Flies. A male Heather Duke. Is there something to be gained by a gender swap, or is it just a calculated move toward “inclusion?”
Lee – I’m not at all averse to gender-swapping. I think it can do wonderful things to a narrative, and bring light to issues that may not be apparent in the original text. The Ghostbusters reboot is a fantastic example of that: the original is a story about a bunch of guys who are frustrated in their attempts to catch ghosts because ‘normal’ society thinks they’re a bit kooky. Then it gets gender-swapped, and there’s a whole new level of conversation that happens about how women with innovative ideas are marginalised. It immediately layers the narrative.
Where it enables those new commentaries to be opened up, I think gender-swapping—and colour-swapping, which can also bring new things to a text but doesn’t seem to capture the same media attention– is an excellent idea. Like any narrative tool, if it’s used effectively, then it should be explored. Where it will be ineffective is if it’s just used as a way to drop a female actor into an unchanged text. If so, nothing changes. You just add a layer of exploitation.
Selene – I read about your “writing karass” on your blog, the idea that certain people influence you. How did you come up with this idea, and what does it mean? Does this ever affect how you develop your character ideas?
Lee – The karass is a concept dreamed up by Kurt Vonnegut for his novel “Cat’s Cradle”— a group of people who are linked spiritually, without necessarily knowing it or understanding the link. It’s a measure of effect, rather than overt cultural placement. You could be a part of my karass because you performed what, for you, was a small act, but one that had a lasting effect upon me.
I like the idea, because it’s a way for a person to catalogue and include the people who have affected the course of their life, without ever having more than a single act or moment. It also allows you to give equal weight to good or bad actions based not on their intent or duration, but on their effect: Elizabeth Jolley is a member of my writing-based karass because of her negative actions over a period of time, just as Algis Budrys is because of a brief positive action that was small for him, but momentous for me.
Selene – Is there a type of character or a story idea you haven’t written yet but would like to? Why or why not?
Lee – Oh, hundreds. As I said earlier, I set out to be a writer, not just a writer of a specific genre. I really want to have the kind of career where I wander from idea to idea as the whim takes me. So, I’ve not written a crime novel yet, or a post-apocalyptic western, or a comic book series. I’ve not written a TV series, or a stage play. I’ve not written an historical, or a memoir, or a picture book.
I have more plans than I have lifetime J
Selene – What are you working on now? What’s coming in the near future for you?
Lee – Writing’s been a bit up and down for me for the last 18 months. I’ve gone through some difficult times at my day job that have affected my writing life. I’m chipping away at a new children’s novel, entitled “Ghost Tracks”, about a boy who is tricked into derailing the ghost of a train and then has to travel to the ghost world to make amends. And my wife and I are about to undergo a big life change that should mean I can devote more time to writing: essentially, we’re going to undergo a job swap that will see her become the main breadwinner and I’ll stay at home. She’s about to finish qualifying as a teacher, and we’ll be going country for the next couple of years, which will enable me to keep house, write, and devote some time to setting up an arts consultancy business, which I’ve been toying with doing for a little while. If that happens, I’ll be looking to spend 2 years absolutely cranking out work to get my career back where I want it to be.
Selene – You mentioned you started writing in 1989. How has writing and publishing changed in the last 28 (gulp!) years, and what’s the same about it?
Lee – My first publication—a poem—was in 1989, during my first year of University. It was written on a manual typewriter. I made a copy on the library photocopier, for the princely sum of 4 cents. I sent it in an A4 envelope. When I sent overseas, I had to include International Return Coupons so that my rejection (and they were all rejections) could be sent back to me. I kept track of my submissions using a card system in 2 boxes—one for stories, and one for markets—which I filled out in pen, after having received submission guidelines by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the market in question. Those guidelines I punched and kept in a file.
As of right now, I haven’t sent a story in hardcopy to a publisher in over half a decade. All my records are kept in a single Excel spreadsheet. I haven’t received a physical cheque in I don’t know how long—even my overseas payments happen by direct deposit. Everything is quicker, easier, and simpler. The internet is the best invention in the history of writing. And it’s all portable. I have a hard drive the size of my palm that contains my entire career amongst the other 1 terabyte of information inside of it. I love living in the world of tomorrow.
Perhaps what’s changed most for me—and keep in mind that I don’t buy e-books, I don’t own an e-reader, and I still get depressed when websites close and take my story with them—is the widespread acceptance of how temporary the nature of the reading experience is, now. Reading is a form of disposable entertainment, whereas the purchase and storage of books is something permanent, and something that can be revisited. It’s illusory, of course—second-hand book stores exist for a reason—but I feel like the last vestige of the generation for whom physical books meant something. That’s my hang-up, though: my inability to adapt to the prevailing culture.
On the flip side, as an artist, not a lot about the creation of work has changed: no matter the tools you use, the basic building blocks of creation are as they have always been—the tenets of storytelling still require you to connect with your audience, to gain their belief and participation, and to deliver a satisfying narrative. Everything else—the means by which you do so, the cultural markers and milestones you incorporate, the way you deliver the product– is just adaptation, which should be part of the basic artist toolkit anyway.
Selene – If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
Lee – I’d be suicidal in the Public Service. When my writing career really kicked off, I was working for the Tax Office, having been shunted there after a disastrous spell in the Child Support Agency, which is the most toxic environment in which I’ve ever worked. I was deeply miserable, and essentially giving in to depression. My arts work, largely based around my writing, was the key to escaping that atmosphere: I was able to get a job in arts administration, and escape. If not for that, I’d probably still be there, and I would be absolutely radioactive as a person.
Selene – What advice would you give an aspiring writer, or one who’s just starting now?
Lee – Diversify. Don’t think of yourself as a writer in a lineal sense. Don’t constrain yourself to one genre, or one form of expression. I started out as a poet, am best known for horror and dark fantasy, and find myself working in children’s books at the moment…. with side-quests in stand-up comedy, cartooning, legislative writing, reviews, theatre, and more. Everything I’ve done along the way has given me a new set of skills to draw upon. The bigger your arsenal, the more you’ll have to use when the time comes. Don’t fall into the trap of limiting your experiences, your skill set, and your opportunities, by allowing the publishing industry to dictate what kind of an artist you are.
Selene – Is there anything else you’d like to talk about here?
Lee – I’ve always felt that art should never be comfort food. Even horror has its comfort zones, its warm snuggly blankets, and its banalities. But art should be a guerrilla enterprise—it’s our job, as artists, to question the status quo; to undermine it if necessary. Art should always throw the beliefs and acceptances of the audience into question. It should always discomfit. Write all the happy books about how great grandmothers are that you want. You may even sell them and make some money. But you won’t be remembered. Art is subversion, and we need be strong enough to continue to subvert wherever and whenever we can.
Can I borrow a stepladder? This soapbox is high……
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