Interview: Lee Murray

I like to read. I think it’s a natural condition for those of us in the human race — we like stories. My reading pile (more or less a pile of shame: so many promising books I haven’t got to yet) grew by one. I had a nibble on the sample, grabbed it, and finished it in less than a week (meteoric for me — and only possible because of a last burn to a 3am finish).

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Lee Murray

That book was Into the Mist, a new release from Lee Murray. Not content with the substance of my review, I pestered Lee until she agreed to do an interview. I think she did this to shut me up, or maybe it was out of pity; she’s too polite to say. If you haven’t already, go grab that sample; it’s worth your time.

Let’s do some warm-up questions to get settled in. Having just read Into the Mist, I’m keen to crawl all over that, but patience is apparently a virtue. I think the obvious place to start is you. When did you decide to embark on a lifelong voyage of poverty and become an author?

I’ve always scribbled. A few friends told me I should write, but it wasn’t until 2007 when I enrolled in some graduate papers that I thought about making it official. 

Can you tell us a little about why you write what you do?

I’ve just recently been offered my first story commission. Yes, I’m still shaking from the excitement of it! And while a commission means someone likes my work enough to seek me out for a piece on a particular topic, up until now I’ve had the freedom to write whatever I want, whatever resonates for me. I believe this is important for any emerging writer: to write the stories they’re compelled to write. For example, Battle of the Birds, my first novel is a dark fantasy for children. I began this work while living in Wisconsin, where I was feeling homesick for the beach, marmite, pineapple lumps ‒ and those were only the things. My children were homesick too, always asking when their grandparents were going to visit. So, although I didn’t complete the novel until much later, I began it there, as a way of winging myself back to New Zealand. My next novel, A Dash of Reality, is a blundering and bouncy chick-lit combining running and reality TV. By then, we had returned to New Zealand, my children were in school, my extended family were well and living nearby, and my life was bumbling along happily from one summer BBQ to the next. It was a halcyon time and I think that phase of my life is reflected in the light-heartedness of the story. Misplaced is my third novel; it explores how a teen copes with the disappearance of his mother. Another story that resonated for me, this book was inspired ‒ that’s not the right word, prompted perhaps ‒ by the disappearance of my friend, Florence, over a decade ago. Florence has yet to be found. Her husband and her three children have not seen her since. They have no idea what became of her. Was she kidnapped? Is she dead? No one knows. I hoped through writing to resolve some of the feelings of helplessness that arise from such a desolate situation. How can anyone move on from something like that? Is there such a thing as closure in the face of endless uncertainty?

Well, that was a long-winded way of saying that, so far, my writing has been a selfish exercise, where I write only for myself and the stories which resonate for me. With this new commission though, I may have to rethink that notion, since the editors are asking for a specific theme. However, for work to be genuine, to really shine, I suspect it will still need that element, that elusive something that resonates personally for the writer. You have to have something to say.

Some of the authors I know find it a challenge to balance things. Whether it’s the balance of work and writing, or the balance of home life, or even dealing with a partner who’s just not very supportive … how do you deal with your own tightrope demons?

I’m extremely privileged; my husband supports my writing, both financially and emotionally. My kids offer me story ideas. I employ a cleaner. The only balances I have to deal with are the load of laundry in my washing machine and my-page-to-chocolate-biscuit output.

When you’re writing, do you have a method?  I know people who plot the whole thing out, even embarking on massive world building endeavours before inking a single character.  Others I’ve spoken with are completely seat-of-the-pants; they sit down with a bottle of tequila and write.  Care to share how you create?

I’m not a plotter. I’ve never drafted a plot. I tried it once and it didn’t work out. Instead, I tend to start with a big idea and then dive in. I create a character, develop a plot point or two, waste a few hours doing some research, then put some words on the page, more research, some Facebook, a few more words. Sometimes I write the ending, so I have a better idea of where I’m going. And then I fill in the bits in the middle. Does that mean I’m a pantser? I think so. It also explains why I’m so slow. For me a thousand words is a good day. I try not to let it bother me too much as better writers than me purportedly wrote less: Hemingway, for example. 

You’re in good company. Stephen King, if I remember rightly, does much the same thing … When you’re not writing, but reading, which authors are your favourites, and why?  For example, when I grow up I want to be like Richard K. Morgan.

I love anything written by Greig Beck. Jeremy Robinson, Jeremiah Knight or any work by any name that man chooses to write under. Hank Schwaeble is a new favourite. These are writers whose work I’ll look for, pre-ordering the minute a new book is listed and staying up to read it the moment it lands. But I’m open to discovering new favourites and I read widely so there always a chance of discovering someone new. Just this week I’ve read an unpublished speculative novella by award-winning New Zealand writer Kevin Berry, The Conveyance, a horror novel by Brian W. Matthews, and Weston Osche’s Grunt Life. All great reads.

…and thus my pile of shame grows. If you have a favourite all-time best book, which one is it?  Full disclosure, mine is The Cloth Merchant’s Apprentice.

Still love Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Still frighteningly relevant. And Horton Hatches the Egg (Dr Seuss) a close second.

Do you watch movies?  Because I’d have to say, Into the Mist looks like it would marry to the screen well.  I’m curious to know if you like the cinematic style.

I love movies!

You’re trapped on a mountain after a terrible plane accident.  When faced with the dilemma of eating the dead, which ones do you start on first?

I can honestly say you are the first person to have asked me this question. Interestingly, one of the reviewers of Into the Mist commented:

“I was craving a “redshirt” approach which wiped all the extras out early and left only the best characters in an intense high stakes human-v-beast death-match.”

This reader claimed I’d invested too much time on alternate points of view and the relationships of characters. But to me, why bother to kill off a character unless it means something? Unless the readers feel their loss in some way? To achieve that, a reader has to be invested in the character, even the less likeable sorts. So my answer to your question, who do we eat first? It depends on the story, but in my case, it’s unlikely to be a redshirt.

What’s the book you’ve wanted to write but didn’t — because of politics, time, or the idea just wasn’t right?

It’s like the pure science research situation: while absolutely necessary for progress, this work often struggles to achieve the funding and recognition it deserves. The same applies in the book industry: some books should be written, they need to be written, because they help to shape our literary landscape in important ways. They serve to record important marginalised histories, or provide a new perspective or approach that has not been seen before, but because these projects are not commercial ‒ they don’t get the attention they deserve. Innovated and open-minded publishers might see the merit, but if they cannot also see a strong economic return then their selection models don’t allow them to contract these works. I get it. I really do. We all know that publishers have to find their return in the ever-diminishing slice between production costs and what the distributor takes. But since many funding bodies use the publishing success of a writer as a means for determining where to allocate support, it becomes a Catch-22 situation, with those less commercial works being further pushed to the bottom of the pile.

You know, when Samuel Beckett’s plays were first performed, great storms of audiences are alleged to have left the theatre before the end of the performances, and yet Waiting for Godot, and Endgame are arguably some of the most influential plays of all time, still studied in schools and universities thought the world and still shaping public opinion. So perhaps it isn’t a question of the idea being right, or even the time, but our attitudes to certain works which need to change, and I include myself in this because there are stories I’d love to write yet don’t waste my energy on, because unless I am prepared to self-publish, they’re unlikely to see the light of day. I have a little collection of short stories, half a collection really, with the working title Long White Dragon, which is a set of stories inspired by my being a New Zealand-born Chinese, a banana, so not perceived as properly Kiwi, and not properly Chinese either. Almost nothing exists in New Zealand literature which covers this experience, yet it’s not commercial, so it sits.

It’s the apocalypse (you choose the type). Who’s on your team? Who dies first?

  • My husband, David, and my children, Celine and Robbie ‒ without them, I’d rather go down in the big event.
  • Taine McKenna, Matt Read, and Trevor Grierson ‒ some of NZDF’s finest.
  • Valerie Adams ‒ the four-time World Champion, two-time Olympic champion, winner of everything shot-putter. She hails from my neck of the woods, is beautiful, enduring, and as strong as all hell.
  • Helen Clark ‒ ONZ, our 37th Prime Minister and currently in the running for the top job at the UN, because if we come through we’re going to need some decent leadership.
  • Linda Addison ‒ four-time Bram Stoker Award winning poet, who finds beauty and inspiration in absolutely everything, essential for morale in our darkest moments.
  • Stephen Hawking ‒ one of the finest brains ever, plus he can teach us a thing or two about resilience and in an apocalypse that could be key.
  • Jake Bible ‒ zombie writer, knows all the tricks for getting us out through the back.
  • Bruce Willis and Nathan Fillion ‒ have done this kind of thing before, so I expect they’ll be handy.
  • Leonard McCoy, aka Bones, and please can he bring his medkit, dermal regenerators, and maybe Picard’s heart.
  • The Arcadian.
  • Lynne Hansen ‒ award-winning screenwriter-director, because this is a tricky narrative to capture on film.
  • The 9 Nanas. I don’t know these women, but I read about them online some time ago and found them inspiring. For more than 30 years this secret group of compassionate grandmas have been helping people less fortunate than themselves, and on the smell of an oily rag. Plus, they do it with baked goods! To my mind, this makes them the perfect group to round out my apocalypse team.

Who will die first? Probably me.

I’ve been a little inspired by how you promote your fellows.  Can you share why you do this, and who we should be looking out for as an upcoming to-watch next-best-seller?

Because as the song goes ‘only kindness matters’. Because New Zealand is a teeny market and fiction makes up only a small share of that market, and speculative fiction a fraction of that. Local publishers releasing speculative fiction can be counted on the fingers of a single hand. Already it’s a hard industry to make any headway in. Being a small country sequestered at the edge of the world exacerbates that. The only way our writers are going to be discovered is if we make a lot of noise. I plan to beat my drum loudly and long because I’m convinced we are creating some of the very best speculative fiction writers on the planet: Arthur C. Clarke finalist Phillip Mann, Gemmell Morningstar winner Helen Lowe, paranormal romance bestseller Nalini Singh, steampunk queen Pip Ballantine, David Hair, Brian Falkner, and Juliet Marillier are just a few off the top of my head. And the thing is, any one of these superstars will pull up a chair, have coffee and talk about how they can help get the word out. They’re just as keen to promote our writers abroad, because a groundswell can only help us all.

Who’s going to give us the next bestseller? Is that a prediction or a challenge? Let’s make it both. I expect a speculative fiction blockbuster from one or more of the following:

  • JC Hart – it’ll be YA and paranormal and full of beautiful evocative prose.
  • Sally McLennan – with a YA imaginarium to rival Lewis.
  • AC Buchanan – for cutting edge speculative fiction that transcends boundaries.
  • Dan Rabarts ‒ dark brooding fiction with flair.
  • Paul Mannering – his bestseller will be whimsical, innovative and hysterically funny.
  • Jean Gilbert ‒ a time travelling epic.
  • Tee G Ayer – Nalini for teens.
  • Jenni Sands ‒ a fresh new voice in YA.

And how about we add Richard Parry to that list? I predict an action-packed supernatural thriller with toys. Let’s check back in a year and see how they’ve all done. In the meantime, I’ll prepare another list…

/blushes. JC Hart is … known to me. Is there a terrible secret you’d like to unburden in front of the entire Internet?

The internet already knows it, but I once lost a pair of silk trousers on a service station forecourt. Yes, there were cameras.

IntoTheMistPSDBlurb

Into the Mist cover by Dean Samed.

After this, I’m off to search YouTube. Now, the book. I’ve read it, loved it, reviewed it, and still want to know more. The monster.  No spoilers, but I have to know: where did you get the idea?

Until I was injured a year ago, I was a marathoner ‒ I’ve run twenty five of them and a couple of ultramarathons ‒ which meant a lot of running on trails. While the terrain can be dangerous, running in the New Zealand bush doesn’t offer up a lot of beasties. No mountain lions. No snakes. No grumpy bears. Probably, the worst thing a runner is likely to come across down here is a wētā or two, or maybe a swarm of wasps. Out on the road, you could meet a stray pig dog, or a herd of cows on the way to milking, but on a bush trail there’ll be nothing. I was discussing this with some girlfriends on a long run once, and it occurred to me… what if there was something, and the idea um… evolved… from there.

The science.  It feels just researched enough to pass inspection — my personal favourite way of consuming things fantastic.  Did you fit the science to an idea, or an idea to the science?  Did you get any outside help to get this one nailed?

As it happens, in a former life I was a research scientist, a physiologist, so I called up some long dormant brain cells, revised a few papers and explained the appearance of my creature with what I hope was just enough detail to be plausible and not enough to make a reader’s eyes glaze over. Actually, that’s not quite true. Not making my reader’s eyes glaze over was due to the vigilance of my trusty crit group: there was a lot more dallying in the science before they took their red pens to it. If the balance works, it was all their doing.

The military.  The way you speak of the military’s equipment, how they work as a squad, it all feels authentic.  Did you spend some time in the military, or are you just really good at research?

I know absolutely nothing about the military, but I’m lucky to be able to fire questions at an NZDF weapons expert (seriously, he is THE expert) and it was his input which allowed me to make the military aspects of the narrative authentic. Any omissions are mine.

New Zealand & gingernuts.  I’ll admit, I suffer a fair bit of cultural cringe when reading books of local flavour.  Into the Mist didn’t trigger my Tourette’s at all; how do you make decisions about what kinds of Kiwiana to flavour the thing with? 

Into the Mist had to be set in New Zealand. No question. I’m aware that many mainstream publishers are loathe to contract stories that are set in New Zealand. I know of authors, myself included, who’ve been asked to rewrite their stories and set them instead in Somerset, or small town America. Anywhere but here. Add to that the prejudice to local fiction amongst publishers and, I’m afraid to say, amongst readers, that anything Kiwi can’t be good, that if it’s home-grown then it must forcibly be of less value. I don’t agree. I’m hugely proud of being a New Zealander, gumboots, gingernuts and all. It’s part of what makes our country unique, and gives our stories flavour. Kiwiana contributes to the atmosphere, the sense of place. I wasn’t going to dilute it for anyone.

New Zealand & multiculture.  Non-NZ readers might not get some of the intrinsic difficulties our countries had over the years with our mixed-race heritage.  While we’re very diverse and the stronger for it, it’s fair to say we’ve had hard times (with more to come).  I found the way you portrayed things like “fairness” with Treaty issues … sensitive.  You didn’t take sides, you just exposed those sides and let the characters act as they will.  While not a huge part of the book, it’s perhaps what impressed me most.  Can you describe your thought process around this at all?

I’d love to say I gave it some deep and considered thought, but the truth is I wrote it as I saw it: New Zealanders are an incredibly diverse group with wide-ranging viewpoints, some more vocal than others. In Into the Mist, I had a cast of thousands, so I was able to develop a range of perspectives and let my characters live out those ideas in the narrative. As a writer you don’t always have to agree with your characters, but it’s courteous to give them a voice.

Testify, sister. Now, New Zealand Maoridom.  I really enjoyed the … ah, trying to not spoil anything, so I will be deliberately vague here, BUT.  How did you weave in Maori myths and spirituality?  Was this a challenge to do, while still keeping the military action fresh?  Was this a part of the story from the beginning, or did you feel its importance as you began to write?

The first chapter is still the original first chapter from draft, so in fact Temera had revealed himself to me long before I’d conjured Taine. I knew from the outset that the old matakite would be integral to the story, although I wasn’t aware just how much his role would develop until I had written it. With regards to mythology, these are the stories told to explain and depict the underlying beliefs of a culture. But for New Zealanders, it is not simply mythology, it’s a living religion, and as such incorporating aspects of culture and religion needed to be done with sensitivity. Temera stepped in for me, using his own voice. It felt right.

The douche canoe.  Again, no spoilers, but there’s a character in there that I loved to hate (de Haas).  Is he modelled on life experience?  I’m sure I’ve worked for him before.

Yes, the geologist is a lot of folk rolled into one. Another good reason not to annoy a writer! However, de Haas is a product of our science infrastructure, not just locally but internationally, in which researchers perform like dancing elephants every funding round, seeking desperately to justify their work to mostly administrative purse-keepers. Especially those poor folk doing pure science. They must dance until their feet bleed. Or the people working in hard sciences with complicated formulas involving lots of squiggly Greek letters, things not readily explained to the layman, and without the cutesy little penguin mascots to pull at the public’s pursestr… heartstrings. Who gets funding and who does not can make or break careers. Sometimes, even when you get the funding, there’s not a lot to celebrate. It’s the kind of set-up that makes for petty rivalries and deep-set jealousies, the perfect soil to grow a character like de Haas.

The finish.  Did the book finish how you expected?  Did you get surprised, or learn anything, through writing it?

Yes, I’ll admit that it surprised me. I knew one man could not achieve it alone, that Temera and Taine would need to work together, but I didn’t know they were going to get some additional help. Many years back, when I was just a reader, before I had published my first book, I vaguely remember Matthew Reilly making a comment in a discussion about the death of the Karanadon in his novel Contest. Reilly claimed the solution had come to him in an ‘aha’ moment. It was like that with Into the Mist: somehow, subconsciously, the threads were all there, the solution set up from the outset.

You’ve got ideas for next books and a good back catalogue. Do you spend time thinking about the future-future? Say, more than five years from now? How do you see yourself there/then?

The near future is looking pretty exciting. My writing partner in darkness, Dan Rabarts, and I have just signed a two-book deal with Raw Dog Screaming Press for our collaborative supernatural crime noire series set in near future New Zealand. The first book rolls out in 2017 with the second to follow. I’m currently writing another Taine McKenna thriller, a sequel to Into the Mist. There’s a half-finished military thriller in a drawer waiting to be completed, and I’m also working on a MG adventure novel, the sequel to Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse, which has yet to find a home. I have a couple of anthology pitches, one I’m convinced will be the next big thing in dark fiction, but until those have found homes with publishers I can’t say any more. There are a few short stories in the pipeline. And a film documentary project. Oh, and I have a ticket in next weekend’s Lotto draw, too.

In the five-year plus future, I’d like to grow up to be Jonathan Maberry, where I own a gorgeous condo on the coast, live off the earnings of my incredible literary back catalogue with film options being sold left, right, and centre ‒ not that I’ll have any time for that ‒ as I’ll be far too busy travelling the world, smiling a lot, meeting readers and writers, being a kick-ass ambassador for genre literature, and generally inspiring everyone.

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