The Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland is drawing near! To get into the mood the independent publishing house Osuuskumma has launched a series of blog posts, where writers around the world talk about their work, the fandom, cons and everything spec-fi. Let’s see what’s happening in Finland, Australia and Scotland!
Who are you people and what’s your background as an author?
Janos: I’m Janos Honkonen, a spec-fi writer in my early 40’s, and I currently live in Turku, Finland. I have so far published one novel (Kaiken yllä etana, 2013), a bunch of short stories mostly in Finnish but some in English, and some comics. I’ve released one work of interactive fiction (read: a text adventure game) that won the 2012 Spring Thing competition, and I’m incredibly lucky to have landed a full time day job writing for video games.
Kaaron: I’m Kaaron Warren, a writer living in Canberra, Australia. I have four novels and six short story collections, horror and science-fiction mostly. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and published my first short story in 1993.
Will: This person is William Couper. I’m a writer from Scotland, living in Kirkintilloch. I’ve had a few short stories published in the last few years, mostly it’s been horror, but I do meander into sci-fi and fantasy when the fancy takes me. More recently I’ve waded into the murky waters of self-publishing.
Why do you write speculative fiction?
Will: It’s fairly simple: escapism.
As a kid in Scotland if you were a boy you were expected to join the other boys playing football (or soccer, depending on your bent), but I was never that interested in the game. But, no matter where it was, at home or on the playground, the boys were expected to congregate and kick around a ball. A lot of the time I didn’t, I would go off and do my own thing, which was exercising my imagination. A lot of it based on television and films.
Horror films hooked me early, too, so when I picked up my first novel, it was a horror novel. A lot of my teenage years were spent cooped up in my room and that’s when I started writing short stories and eventually books. Writing stories I wanted to read, and still want to read.
Long story short, I write because it’s an extension of the habit of living in my own head.
Janos: I pretty much grew on old school sci-fi, such as Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and my favourite, Stanislaw Lem. It was discovery and escapism, but the kind of escapism where you accidentally learned new stuff and got new perspectives to the world. (Although, oh boy – does Heinlein read differently at 15 and at 35.) From sci-fi I went to horror, and cheap thrills aside, for me it kind of did to human condition what sci-fi did to the universe. Horror switched the telescope to a microscope and gave new, terrifying ideas of what humans can be.
I’ve written stories ever since I was a kid, and sci-fi, horror and later magical realism just were a perfect fit. What I want to do is to offer the same kind of thing to the readers which I got as a young reader: being entertained and a little bit educated at the same time.
Will: I’ve never read Heinlein, but I’ve heard people say there’s a difference in reading experience depending on age. What is that difference?
Janos: FASCISM. Heh, okay, not quite the goose-stepping kind, but the ideological layer kiiinda shines through. Even in his YA-book Have Space Suit–Will Travel the protagonist (SPOILER ALERT) pretty much shrugs away the bad guys being eaten alive and the evil race being wiped off in a genocide, because “there’s a limit how much you need to understand criminals”.
Will: Ah, yes, that whole business. Ol’ Bobby Heinlein’s, um, enthusiastic politics. Stuff you don’t quite notice as a kid, but it’s like a siren once you’re older.
Janos: Like the novel Starship Troopers. Not really the sarcastic look at glorifying the military like the film is.
Kaaron: I’m probably a combination of both of you. I grew up in a household full of books, my dad being an avid reader. He loved SF and still does, so I read Heinlein, Asimov and the Nebula Winners, over and over. Once I discovered horror, through those terrifying old comics such as Weird Tales of the Macabre, I was hooked, just like Will. I discovered Stephen King via the movie version of The Shining, believe it or not. I can still remember standing in Woodwork class, hearing the radio commercial for the movie and thinking, “I’m seeing that, no matter what.”
What’s your latest publication?
Janos: When this comes out, it might be a short story called Eläimet huutaa, ihmiset ei huuda, in English “Animals scream, people don’t scream”. It was published in an anthology of body horror stories, and it’s an amalgamation of all the worst real world dentist stories I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances. The name of the story is a quote from a dentist with a real old school bedside manner.
Will: That guy sounds utterly charming.
Admittedly, It’s been a while, but the last thing published by someone else was last year with Mykes Reach in the Lovecraft anthology, Cthulhu Lies Dreaming, by Ghostwoods Books.
Kaaron: Oh, gosh, dentist stories….love that title, Janos! I wrote about a dentist in Dead Sea Fruit. She knew what sort of person her patients were by the smell of their breath. Creepy. I actually do have a collection of baby teeth that don’t belong to me or my children.
My latest story in print is Furtherest, in Cemetery Dance’s Dark Screams. Inspired by the true story of some missing children, and the dummies police made in an attempt to figure out who took them. It’s an Aussie Beach horror story.
What are you working on now?
Janos: Day in, day out, I’m of course hammering together the game in the day job. It’s a very much narrative game based on a comic, so it’s not just writing barks for enemy soldiers. I’m also trying to put together a treatment for an Augmented Reality game for another outfit, but I might have to drop that.
On the literature side of things I’m trying to get the second novel off the ground. I have one concept that got slightly overrun by a very similar award winning novel right when I was starting to write it, another good beginning where I ran into an impasse with background research, and a third one that’s too straightforward to keep my interest. So, heh – good at starting novels, but currently lacking the follow through. I’m working on a bunch of short stories, though, and I’m translating a long ass story of 18th century pirates of the Baltic Sea and modern wreck robbery in English. There’s also an English language film script on the back burner, waiting for another production to finish.
Will: I’m challenging myself at the moment. I’ve decided to do something non-fiction, but it’s still spec-fic adjacent which is…cool, right? I am putting together a book about my experiences and thoughts on Magic: The Gathering. I’ve never written non-fiction to the length I’m aiming at for this book, so we’ll see how that shakes out. It’s a totally different process of collecting your thoughts and codifying impressions. Remembering incidents from twenty years ago and trying to present them in an interesting way has been a big challenge.
Kaaron: What made you decide to focus on that part of your life, Will? Sounds like a really interesting concept! All those characters, in real life as well as in the game!
I’m working on a couple of things. Finishing a robot story for Twelfth Planet Press but being distracted by the research, as can happen so easily! I’m also working on a novel inspired in part by a jail break that almost occurred from Goulburn jail. My novel imagines what happens if they got out.
Then there’s the giant monster who lives under Old Parliament House here in Canberra, and the eternity cult story, and the one the car left abandoned by a cemetery, and…
Will: Funnily, it’s something I cover in the book itself, but to cut it down, in part it was getting back into the game last year and realising it’s been hovering around in the background of my life in the years since I was first introduced to it. Another part was because I did a short-lived column on a website about my thoughts on and experiences of the game. When the people running the site had to shutter it, I didn’t want all this work go with it.
Kaaron: I look forward to reading it. Nice that some of the work is done already!
What’s your process?
Janos: With short stories I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of those “the idea just came to me” moments. A great example is the story that I’m just about to publish in English as well, The Air Itself Caught Fire. I was taking part in an anthology, but my original idea was too derivative of an older Finnish sci-fi story, and frankly rubbish. As the deadline crept near, I decided to drop the anthology. When I was leaving for lunch from my then day job, suddenly the non-fiction book I was reading and a random thought collided, I walked to the lunch in fugue, and when I got back to the office the story was there. It took two sessions to write quite a complete first draft. Some others I’ve managed to kickstart with the “a wall of crazy composed of post-it notes” method.
With longer texts, like novels, this doesn’t really work too well. I tend to start writing with very vague ideas, and to see where the story is going. I suck at planning ahead, which is what I am learning how to do.
Will: Sitting at the keyboard.
Maybe some crying. Certainly frustration. A smattering of other vaguely clichéd writing process things.
I don’t have a fixed process. Ideas come to me from all over. I’ve had the moments of inspiration, an idea sparking or a whole story winding through my brain fully formed. The moments before I fall asleep have been good for giving birth to concepts. I’ve also simply brute forced a story or used free-writing and mind-maps.
Once I have an idea, I’ll scribble it down in a notebook. It might sit there for a while, or I’ll expand it into a plot and character sketches. From there the story will be created.
Or I’ll get an idea and white-knuckle it to the end.
My process is chaos, uncertainty and the terrible, terrible fear it won’t work this time.
Kaaron: Will, I’m with you on that terrible, terrible fear it won’t work this time! I’m never really sure, even when I sell the story. I’m always wondering what I missed, how I could have worded things better.
Like both of you, I tend to start with the idea, the moment of inspiration. In my research for the robot story, I came across a description of a ‘very slow robot’, and had this image of a robot digging for a thousand years to rescue someone. I really like it but can’t use it at the moment!
Then I’ll try to figure out what the story is about. Often this is scribbling notes and just letting my imagination wander around. It’s also researching, reading, talking to people. For the monster under Old Parliament House story, a friend mentioned the urban myth that there are great pools of diesel in the basement there, and that was the final clue I needed to finish the story.
I work out whose voice I’ll tell the story in, because that really decides where the story will go. Sometimes it takes writing a few pages of description of the place, or a nutting out of the original idea, but I usually get there in the end. Once I have the voice, I can bash out a first draft.
I usually do at least five drafts, I reckon.
Where does the magic happen? Where do you write and work?
Janos: When I was an overachieving freelance journalist, I spent over seven years writing at home, so currently whatever apartment I live in live in isn’t a place where creativity dwells in. I used to write mostly on the move, in bars and cafes and such. Unfortunately I got my neck broken for me and caught a slight case of paralysis, so I can’t be that mobile anymore. I had the huge luck of getting an awesome work room in a local game incubator, though, where I do most of my writing and game prototyping.
Will: Nothing spectacular. Due to space, I write in my living room, at a desk.
Kaaron: Gosh, Janos! A broken neck…one day you can tell us the story of how that happened. I most write at home, moving around the house, following the sun. I like to write in our National Library, which is quiet and smells of old books, and has the most amazing paper archives. I’ve found letters from artists I admire, talking about the settings that have inspired them, and much much more.
What is the zeitgeist with speculative fiction where you live in?
Janos: Right now the Finnish speculative fiction field is enjoying a golden era. The large publishers are struggling a bit, and they don’t necessarily publish a lot of “marginal” literature such as domestic sci-fi. The thing is, smaller independent publishers are popping up to pick up the slack, and there’s almost a glut of anthologies coming out every year. It’s amusing to see the non-genre critics and reporters lament “the death of short stories”, when on this side of the fence the yearly amount of published stories is around 200-300.
One noteworthy thing is that in the year 2000 a spe-fi novel won the most prestigious literature award up here, Finlandia. The novel was Not Before Sundown (Troll – a love story in U.S.) by Johanna Sinisalo.
Will: The wrongest question to ask me. I’m not one of the spec-fic cognoscenti. Anything I try to add to this will be open to accusations of almost stone age ignorance. So I won’t be foolish enough to try.
Kaaron: I’ll have to see if that novel is available in Australia! I’d love to read it. Genre is doing okay here. We still struggle to be seen at the literary festivals, though that is changing a lot with writers like Garth Nix and Kate Forsyth finding great success. We have a number of excellent small press publishers who focus solely on Spec-fic.
What is the spe-fi community like where you live?
Kaaron: There’s a goodly bunch of us here. You’ll meet a lot of them at Worldcon! I’m not sure how many are coming over, but a lot! We don’t have a lot of conventions each year (annually one in Melbourne, Perth and Canberra, with the National Convention usually held in one of those cities) and so we tend to attend them well. I’ve always found it to be a very supportive community, and I try to welcome new writers in just as I was welcomed.
Will: Again, since I’m not completely, plugged into the community, I’m not too sure. From my limited perspective, the UK as a whole has a solid bunch of people, especially on the sci-fi/fantasy side, guys like Charles Stross and China Miéville standing as giants. You’ve also got Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Alan Moore.
Closer to home, there’s Hal Duncan and Neil Williamson doing interesting stuff. There’s no doubt more and I apologise for my ignorance.
I’m not terribly sure what’s going in the horror-side of things. Which is probably terrible, given I profess to write mostly in that genre. Am I the worst? I think I might be the worst.
Janos: The sci-fi, fantasy etc. community in Finland has been very thriving and active for such a small country. We have a tradition of zines which have offered a great way to get published, Finncon has brought in guests of honour and offered the usual non-commercial con fare since the 80’s, etc. Traditionally Finncon has been quite literature oriented, but it has evolved with the times.
A thing to note is that the Finnish fandom is and has been quite egalitarian from the beginning. By this I mean it hasn’t been strictly a boys’ club where the women are seen as groupies or just girlfriends, and they don’t generally have to prove they are “real” fans. Oh, and I was told the representation of women publishing short stories in professional and semi-professional levels has been so strong, that in 2000’s it may be that more short form spe-fi is published by women than men.
Will: That’s a very interesting observation about the Finnish spec-fic scene. What do you think accounts for the higher numbers of women being published in Finland? What do you think the rest of the world could learn from it?
Janos: Someone who was in the trenches back then told me that there was a contingent of female fans right from the beginning, and female editors working in semipro zines. No doubt this paved the way to a fandom that’s more equal, and helped establish women as writers. Apparently there were some boys’ clubs, who – and I quote – “tried to reconquer their manly field, drunk and in jest”, but apparently nothing very serious. Seems like we dodged some bullets which are still drawing blood here and there, especially in video game and comic circles.
What’s your relationship with and thoughts about WorldCon?
Janos: I’m interested to see what’s it about, and perhaps to see some friends and contacts from abroad. I’m not much of a con person, frankly. I went to RopeCon a few times in the late 90’s and the turn of the millennium. No, despite the name it’s not a bondage thing, but the biggest non-commercial role-playing con in Europe. I and I’ve visited Finncon only once, which was last year when my short story was nominated for the yearly Atorox prize. I don’t have anything against cons as such, they’re just not generally my thing, especially the bigger commercial ones. I’ve been to Supanova for work, and although it was nice, it was a bit… clinical compared to the craziness of the local non-commercial cons I’ve gotten used to. I’ve also been to SDCC for work once, and man, I’d rather chew my leg off than do that again. Nevertheless, skipping Worldcon would be just stupid for both personal and professional reasons, and I’m pretty confident it will be a nice experience!
Will: I’ve heard of WorldCon, but I’ve never been. I’ve been to a few conventions before, with the idea of making contacts. The experiences have been good on a purely fun level, but an absolute failure in a business sense.
Well-run conventions are essential for the life of the communities they represent. They get people together, they build relationships. Fans getting to meet their favourite creators and like-minded folk keeps things vibrant. Creators get to talk together, compare notes or simply unwind. Conventions are a net positive for everyone.
Kaaron: Janos, there’s no way you could miss this one! I wish I was coming over for it. I went to Worldcon in Montreal, which I loved, and in Melbourne, which was fantastic because it was in my own country so nowhere near as expensive! I found both of them huge but small at the same time. There are thousands of people there, but you find your own small group, or various small groups, and hang out with them. I met a lot of people I’m still friends with in Montreal and the same in Melbourne. I’m always inspired at conventions, both with ideas for stories and motivation for keeping at it.
What is the greatest challenge for you as an author?
Will: It’s a terrible admission, but concentration is the biggest dragon I need to slay when I’m writing. When I’m fully committed, everything’s great, it’s like my mind is on rails and stuff just flows. Other times, I tap out a sentence or a paragraph and then something catches my attention and I go, ‘ooo, a shiny’ and half an hour later I haven’t written any more. It’s a constant struggle.
Janos: I’ve lately had to admit to myself that I’m not a very prolific writer when it comes to novels. With short stories I’m doing okay, I have 5-6 of them coming out in different local anthologies this year, including one translation, plus one comic. The thing is, if you want to make a career as an author, you should be able to crank out novels in some predictable fashion. Maybe things change, maybe not, but that’s what’s currently bugging me.
Also, as I mentioned, I’m not as mobile as I used to be, which makes it hard to do the kinds of outdoorsy spontaneous things I used as palate cleansers for my brain. It makes it a bit harder to concentrate on being creative. The words hide in places where I don’t have an access to anymore.
Will: Aye, the challenge of having the constant flow of work is another major thing. Because my workstyle is so, not quite random, but less than consistent, predictability is a severely limited commodity.
I also agree that having things outside of writing, no matter how small, can keep the engine turning over.
Kaaron: Definitely good to have something else going on outside of writing. I’ve heard it called ‘refreshing the wells’ and that works for me. One of my greatest challenges is finding clear amounts of time. With a family it can be tricky. Even though my kids are teenagers now, they’re all very present in the house. I decided some time ago that this can’t stop me, though. If you wait for the perfect moment and the perfect place you’ll never get anything done. So I try to get over that! I work two days a week in a second-hand shop, and that provides me with a lot of inspiration!
Janos: Oh, a store with creepy dolls. Tell me, is it one of those Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppes that you can find only when it wants to be found?
Writing with children in the house, phew – it’s sometimes hard for me to concentrate when there’s just one adult around. I guess it might build a certain kind of work ethic, though. Like you said, not waiting for the perfect moment, but barreling through.
Kaaron: Funny you should say that, Janos, because that’s how I describe it sometimes! It really does seem that way. We have the most remarkable finds there. I found the school geography book belonging to my best friend’s brother, who lives two states away and hadn’t seen the book in about 45 years! It just came into the shop!
You really do need to re-think writing time with children around. I wrote one story while making a pot of bolognese! Inspiration hit and I knew I had to get it onto paper. So I scribbled pages in between chopping the carrot and the celery, stirring in the tomatoes, all that!
What is the latest work of fiction that made a big impression on you, or your biggest influences overall?
Will: I don’t think I’ve got one, single major influence. Like my working method, it’s all chaotic. There’s not one work and there are numerous authors and I find it impossible to whittle anything down to a singular.
The first novel I read was a big guiding factor, even though it was schlocky as all hell. It inspired my love of writing and of the horror genre. Reading a lot of Shaun Hutson drew me in further, grisly and over-sexed as a lot his books are. Dean Koontz was one of my favourite authors for a long while, but, like Janos’s attitude to Heinlein, reading Koontz’s work with a more mature eye does it no favours.
I suppose an obvious influence is Lovecraft. You know, without the hideous racism. The idea of strange things inhabiting the universe that can destroy us without knowing appeals to me. And weird monsters. I like weird monsters.
Terry Pratchett is another big influence, mainly for his storytelling ability and style. I’ve read most of the Discworld books and, more recently, the Long Earth books he did with Stephen Baxter.
It’s all a bit of a mish-mash of different sources, adding lots of different flavours to what might be called ‘my work’.
Kaaron: Stephen King and Daphne du Maurier, definitely. Early influencers and I still re-read both at times. I love reading short stories, and those are what I often read. Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best anthologies are a must, as are Paula Guran’s and our Australian ones too.
Janos: Oh, I remember only one story from Daphne du Maurier, Blue Lenses. I read it as a kid, I may have been around 10 or 11, and it has haunted me to this day. I just may have a story coming out next year that just may play with a similar idea.
What has made the biggest impression on me in the last few years is Matthew De Abaitua’s The Red Men. It’s kind of corporate occult sci-fi, and the style is quite literary and refined. It’s a book that’s hard to pin down, but I was totally blown away. And I’ve got to say Kaaron that your novel Slights is something I’ve recommended to people maybe twice this year alone. It got under my skin in a good way.
As for the influences, I’m a big Philip K. Dick fan, and I enjoy both reading and writing stuff where the reality is somehow malleable. I guess that shows in my first novel, and the second one I’m trying to hammer together. I also want to do something like what Neal Stephenson does in his novels, which is to educate while entertaining. Almost all of his books have taught me something and made me dig up more information about the subject. I guess that’s what I aim to do with many of my short stories: to sneakily impart information about for example marine archaeology, the pirates of the 18th century Baltic Sea, the history of the atom bomb, and so forth. I guess a big part of this is also the fact that the old school hard sci-fi taught me so much about science that I want to do something similar.
Kaaron: The recently released movie My Cousin Rachel is another of hers. It opens in the book describing a gibbet. That setting inspired one of my own stories!
Shillin’ like a villain: what works of yours would you like to promote to people?
Kaaron: I have a novel out from IFWG Publishing which is the first book to win all three Australian genre awards. It also won a Canberra Critics Circle Award, which is cool! That’s called The Grief Hole. It’s the Book of the Month at the Big Book Club on ABC Canberra. You can listen to an interview about it here. There’s an illustrated version of it, by the amazing artist Keely van Order. A stunningly beautiful book.
Janos: In Worldcon, our publishing outfit Osuuskumma International will release an anthology of spe-fi stories from new and established Finnish writers, including me. The anthology is called Never Stop – Finnish Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and you can find more information here. You can buy it on paper here, and as an ebook for example in Amazon. My contribution is the story I mentioned earlier, The Air Itself Caught Fire. There’s also a collection of 100 word drabbles called The Self-Inflicted Relative out for Worldcon, and you can get it here.
The third and last volume of the comic anthologies I’ve been writing for, Torsobear, is out this summer. The genre of the anthologies is fluffy-noir, which means something like “Sin City meets Toy Story”. Great fun to write, and I got absolutely splendid illustrators for my scripts.
Will: Cthulhu Lies Dreaming is still available from Amazon and other outlets, you can find out about that here.
Speaking of Amazon, I’ve published a bunch of Kindle books and they’re here.
Recently I made my novel Dark Eve available as a print edition and that is here.