Ideomancer Featured Author Robert Hood answers ten quick questions from fellow writer Deborah Biancotti.
Deborah : Why on earth did you want to be a writer?
Robert : It’s almost a cliché, but really, I never felt like I had much of a choice. Sometime during primary school I started to love writing stories. I’d write stupidly inventive little compositions based on dumb puns and the like. Then when my reading kicked in — during high school — (and I was consuming everything from literary classics to pulp, in particular loving the SF magazines of the 1960s and 1970s), I began writing longer, more complex stuff. I didn’t know what I was doing and they were generally awful, but from that point on that’s what I’d say I wanted to do with my life: be a writer. It had nothing to do with a perception of realistic career paths, nothing to do with earning money. I simply loved writing.
Ever since then I haven’t been able to stop even when it becomes unbearably frustrating and stressful and my output diminishes to nothing through creeping lethargy. Eventually I get edgy and dissatisfied when I’m not writing and am driven back to it.
I used to rationalise my writing in terms of vast metaphysical concepts: fulfilling the urge of divine creativity that lies at the centre of my humanity, the will to ‘create times and spaces’ (to quote William Blake), to internally re-form the external world into something other than it is. To express myself. I’m not sure that’s the whole story now. But I am certain that storytelling is important personally and socially, and somewhere along the line the act of writing became an integral part of the way I defined myself. To stop writing would be to stop being me, at least in my own eyes. It’s been said before, but the answer to the question: “Who should become a writer?” is always, “Those who can’t help themselves!”
I also used to think — imagine — that one day I’d be able ‘to be a writer for a living’, but though I sometimes make decent amounts of extra income from it, it’s never enough to live off, and the prospects have never been positive enough to allow me to abandon caution altogether and to become a ‘full-time writer’. Perhaps that’s a failing. I do admire those who, against the odds, take the bit between the teeth and simply plunge themselves into poverty and insecurity in the cause of making themselves a career in writing. For myself, I’m beginning to think I never will be a full-time career writer. Maybe that’s a good thing. There’s less pressure to simply follow the market, less pressure to find paying jobs even if the pursuit of such jobs means doing something I’m not interested in.
Deborah : You began your writing career as an author of crime fiction. Have you left that all behind you now?
Robert : Crime fiction didn’t come first. My first serious writings were SF and fantasy. My first sales were SF and fantasy. Writing crime was a chance thing: I’d just finished writing a story (“Dead End”) that didn’t have a supernatural element (apart from a dream sequence), when I saw an advertisement for a competition (the first Australian Golden Dagger competition for short crime fiction), probably in a writer’s newsletter. The story had a body in it, though I’d never thought of it as a crime story, so I entered it for want of another market. By chance, it won, was published in a mass-market book, and has subsequently been re-printed many times.
As a result of the win, I was asked to submit to various crime anthologies, so I wrote more ‘crime’ stories. People liked them and I enjoyed writing them. They gave me scope to get as dark as I liked and some even had a suggestion of the supernatural about them.
I haven’t stopped writing such stories. Horror fiction and crime fiction, as separate genres, cross over very strongly in places. My stories often exist in that particular borderland. Like most short story markets, however, the market for short crime fiction is at the moment a lot smaller than it was in the heyday of my involvement in it.
Deborah : So have you always enjoyed speculative fiction?
Robert : Speculative fiction has pretty well always been my major love. The first books I remember reading from personal choice were the Simon Black In Space books, Patrick Moore’s Mars books and Capt. W.E. John’s juvenile SF. Then I read H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and the lifelong love affair really kicked in. I used to love watching the late-night creature feature stuff on telly, when I was allowed to stay up. One of the major epiphanies of my youth was when my mother presented me, out of the blue, copies of both Frankenstein and Dracula. I’m not sure she realised what she was starting.
Deborah : And I understand you don’t even like the label ‘speculative fiction’. Why is that?
Robert : Well, I’ve probably sprouted off about it at some point because it strikes me as artificial and forced as an ‘all-inclusive’ category. But I really don’t mind it. We seem to need the categories — or at least publishers and book marketeers do — and everyone knows what it means, so who cares? It is useful in blurring the boundaries, and my stories often cross over between horror, fantasy and science fiction, as is quite common these days.
Deborah : You’re now known particularly as a horror writer. Is that a label you enjoy?
Robert : I don’t mind at all. I play on it at times. Sometimes it’s more useful to use the term ‘horror-fantasy’ or ‘dark fantasy’, of course, because ‘horror’ carries a lot of baggage and can prejudice readers — making them avoid stories they would find enjoyable if they weren’t put off before they started. But ‘horror’ stories belong to a wide-ranging and venerable tradition. I enjoy them, so I’ll accept the label.
Ironically perhaps (‘ironic’ because of the attitudes toward horror stories as such that people have), I was originally attracted to writing horror stories because it seemed to me that the genre allowed for a broader approach, a more literarily variable approach to its subject matter. People think of ‘horror’ as being the most formulaic of the genres and the least respectable. But that’s not my view. To me, ‘horror’ veers from subtle to extreme, from simple to complex, from shallow to profound, from playful to deadly serious, depending on the author and the motivation. It’s a wonderful genre and continues to produce great works of literature (as well as formulaic throw-aways).
Not long ago, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves was published, and was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. I’m proud to be associated with a genre that can lay claim to that particular work — a more complex, learned, innovative, compelling, touching and profoundly chilling novel would be hard to find, anywhere. It left me breathless.
Deborah : I was at the launch of your short story collection, Immaterial, in 2002. Jack Dann was the MC that day, and he described you as one of the most important writers of horror in Australia today. Were you surprised by that?
Robert : Modesty forbids me answering that one truthfully! But, yes, I was surprised, and delighted. Jack has been extraordinarily supportive, and it’s great that someone of his significance thinks so highly of my work. It’s hard to remain positive at times; even the ‘most important writers’ have runs of rejection or don’t make it into particular markets that they feel it important to have cracked.
Despite your essential arrogance (a fundamental part of being a writer, I suspect), you sometimes begin to wonder if there’s any worth at all in what you do. That’s the writer’s lot. You get over it. Such judgements are relative anyway. But to be praised occasionally, and by prestigious commentators, is good, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.
Deborah : You’ve successfully crossed genres. You’ve also written for different audiences, selling stories for children, young adults and of course, adults. How important are these boundaries, really? Does it make a big difference to how you write?
Robert : There’s certainly a difference between writing for adults and writing for younger kids, especially in the horror field, where humour becomes very important. But young adult? Apart from some extreme language complexities perhaps, and conceptualisation that takes place at a formative level, it doesn’t seem to make much practical difference once the writing is under way.
You try to be immediate, you try to write in an exciting and emotionally clear manner — but that’s something you try to do for adults, too. Most of the time. Writing for adults probably leaves you freer to become abstract in your approach — but having said that, it’s all relative. YA books are often conceptually complex, full of abstract notions translated into immediate forms.
What are YA readers anyway? The category barely existed when I was a young adult. I mainly read adult books. So do young adult readers today, I suspect. What the category does allow for these days is the publication of shorter novels, something that appears to have been banished from adult consideration. SF novels of the 1960s and 1970s were often 100-120 pages long. It’s a terrific length for SF — and for horror. The category also allows for teenage protagonists — something that doesn’t happen much in avowed ‘adult’ writing. When you look at YA novels, they are often adult in all but publisher’s category. Are Garth Nix’s excellent books Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen any less suitable for adults because they are marketed as YA?
When I think about this question, I think about my own YA novel Backstreets. The fact that it is considered YA is a matter of chance — a YA publisher contracted me to write it. But the subject matter came from the deepest part of my psyche and out of profound emotional reflection; it would have taken the form it took (more or less) no matter for whom I wrote it.
Deborah : You’ve written and sold over a hundred short stories and a few dozen books. Not to mention all the plays and articles you’ve done. You’ve also earned a number of awards and nominations. Are you bored with it yet?
Robert : No, never. I guess there are writers who manage to write a startling, unique book that expresses everything they wanted to express and achieves all that is in them to achieve and I guess this means they don’t write anything else, nothing worthwhile anyway.
But the rest of us — fallible and obsessed human beings living in a state of continual temporal change and emotional chaos — never finish. Certainly my personal views morph and grow. I see new things; I understand less. Weird stuff happens. The world continually surprises me, thrills me, disappoints me, and I respond by writing another story. Each story is a different entity. Finding its ‘true’ form is exciting, even when the process is utterly frustrating.
Writing forces you to look outside your own comfortable perceptions, sometimes it shatters your view of things. Getting stuck into sorting out the mess, inventing new worlds, peopling them, or exploring some deep, barely tangible emotion: how could that ever be boring?
Deborah :What do you see as the future for genre fiction?
Robert : I’m sure it will be a fascinating and fecund one. Just when you think the genres are becoming stale and derivative, something weird and wonderful crops up, no matter how frustratingly conservative the publishers seem to become. Take House of Leaves, for example. Or the recent works of China Mieville. Or Mary Gentle’s Ash. For a while I thought I’d never again feel the sort of wonder I used to feel in response to an SF novel. Then I read Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, and Sean William and Shane Dix’s Echoes of Earth. From somewhere comes something as barely categorisable as Jack Dann’s Memory Cathedral. Or a new collection of horror stories from Terry Dowling.
And there are writers out there who are taking the genres to places they’ve never been before, with a literary brilliance and inventiveness that is stunning — writers like Ted Chiang and Kelly Link. No, genre fiction seems to me to go up and down in terms of popularity, but what the genres offer is too important to be lost and the talent keeps coming.
One of these days even the masses will tire of brick-sized, formulaic, under-developed bestsellers, and will start to look elsewhere — and the other, non-fantasy genres will get a much-needed boost.
(Not that I mean to insult the currently popular high-fantasy genre as such. But I am amazed that, along with some very excellent work, there is a slew of puzzling bestsellers in the genre that are badly written and unimaginative — and given how hard it is to sell anything to a publisher these days, you do wonder why they were even considered and how they managed to sell well once they were published. Ah, the foibles of the market!)
Deborah : And what about the future for Robert Hood, what does that hold?
Robert : Who knows? Our intentions are apt to get bent and twisted in unpredictable ways. But certainly I intend to keep writing. I intend to keep writing short stories, especially in the horror-fantasy genre, though I’ve been dabbling in more science fiction as such lately. I’m currently writing a fantasy novel — an ‘otherworld’ fantasy with a fair bit of horror in it — and am still hoping that an already-written, oft-rejected fantasy novel (brick-sized) that is still doing the rounds will eventually find a home.
I’ve also nearly finished a straight-out horror novel — Dead Matter — which has one of my favourite obsessions in it, zombies. And I am intending to co-edit (with Robin Pen) a collection of giant monster stories, which will be published (all things being equal) in 2005.
Meanwhile anyone who wants to read some new stories from me should look to upcoming issues of Aurealis, Redsine, Dark Animus and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and in the anthologies Ideomancer Unbound, Agog! Terrific Tales and Consensual 2. A kid’s horror novella, Hard Rock Rodney, is also due out from Pearson’s Education.
Robert Hood has produced a large number of SF/F, horror and indeterminate-genre stories for a large number of magazines and anthologies over a large number of years. His most recent longer works were a series of four supernatural thrillers, Shades and a collection of ghost stories, Immaterial (published by MirrorDanse Books).