Collection; 261 pages
horror, thriller, adventure, monster, short stories
Things in the Well http://www.thingsinthewell.com/
Three-time Bram Stoker Award® nominee Lee Murray delivers her debut collection, and it is monstrous. Inspired by the mythology of Europe, China, and her beloved Aotearoa-New Zealand, Murray twists and subverts ancient themes, stitching new creatures from blood and bone, hiding them in soft forest mists and dark subterranean prisons. In this volume, construction workers uncover a hidden tunnel, soldiers wander, lost after a skirmish, and a dead girl yearns for company. Featuring eleven uncanny tales of automatons, zombies, golems, and dragons, and including the Taine McKenna adventure Into the Clouded Sky, Grotesque: Monster Stories breathes new life into the monster genre.
RIU: Hi, Lee! Welcome to Rising Indies United. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Thank you for having me over, Shannon. I’m an award-winning writer and editor from New Zealand.
RIU: Your new release is Grotesque: Monster Stories. Can you tell us some of the things that influenced you to write these short stories?
When my publisher at Things in the Well, Australia, first approached me about putting together a collection, I didn’t think I was quite ready. After all, I’d only been writing for a decade. It was way too soon. But later, when the earworm had worked its way into my brain, I sat down and read through some of my favourite stories to see if there were any consistent themes or ideas. And I discovered a lot of monster stories in my backlist. So I chose a range of them, wrote some fresh ones, and brought them together to create Grotesque: Monster Stories. Inspired by places, legends, conversations, some of the tales in this collection are of the ‘humans-as-monsters’ kind, and others are the ‘monsters-as-metaphor’ kind. Some are the slower creeping kind, and others are breakneck and frenetic. Not every story will appeal to all readers, but I hope there is something for everyone in this collection, because horror fiction serves to embody our universal human fears.
RIU: You have quite an extensive library of work. Do you stick mainly with the horror genre, or do you branch out, exploring other genres?
When it comes to writing, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. I write what resonates. Stories that sing to me. Sometimes that might be fun children’s fiction, and other times it is a fast-paced action thriller novel, or slow burn suspense story. Occasionally, I dabble in other forms too, like poetry and screenwriting, and I sometimes work collaboratively with other writers. I do feel I tend towards darker themes, perhaps because exploring those issues which incite fear help me to put a lid on them, a way to subdue my anxiety demons. And although I occasionally step through the portal into other worlds, mostly my stories are firmly rooted in the spectacular Aotearoa-New Zealand landscape. One place I’d like to explore more, though, is the space between genres. My work with fellow author Dan Rabarts on the Kiwi-based Path of Ra series, is a mash of genre and approach, a supernatural crime-noir delivered in a he-said she-said narrative with a new pulp vibe. It’s exciting to write at the intersection of genres, and while it can be hit and miss with readers and with book stores (who don’t quite know what to expect, or where to put them on the bookshelves), I find in these dark and uncertain spaces we often discover something quite unique.
RIU: What about horror appeals to you?
I rather like my colleague Mathias Clasen’s answer to this in his book Why Horror Seduces (Oxford University Press, 2017). He writes: “…we have an adaptive need to face the darkness in a safe context. Horror seduces because it so effectively satisfies our appetite for looking into the abyss, for imaginatively facing the very worst that we can conceive.” (p163). And as my friend Dan Rabarts puts it: “What is the point of facing down demons if we can’t hang their corpses from our battlements, so that others know they can be tamed?”
RIU: I read that you write for both children and adults. Is one more difficult than the other for you?
They’re quite different forms, each with their own challenges. For example, military speculative fiction is challenging because I have no military grounding, so I have to do a lot of research to ensure my characters, and the plots I throw them into, are authentic and plausible (or at least allow the reader to suspend disbelief). Happily, with the McKenna series, I was lucky enough to have an excellent technical advisor, because there is nothing worse than reading a text and being jolted out of the story by a glaring error. This also applies when writing for children. Youth make discerning readers, and they won’t be talked down to, so getting the tone and voice right is essential in a children’s book. However, I think one of the trickiest (and most rewarding) aspects is when you are writing for children and you also layer the story with a subtext that works for adults, making the story suitable for shared reading. I like to imagine mums and dads sitting on beds, reading my books to their kids and (hopefully) being equally entertained.
RIU: When did you first begin writing?
I have a vague notion that I pulled together my first sentence at age three or four using flashcards that Dad had made from lengths of corrugated carboard with the words stenciled in red marker pen. The word Christmas featured in the sentence. That one was easy because it was the longest word in the set. I must ask Mum exactly what I wrote, I’m pretty sure she’ll know.
RIU: Where do you find inspiration?
Let me answer that question with this short extract from the final pages in Grotesque: Monster Stories:
“Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
It’s a common question asked of authors. At workshops and schools, when children ask me this question, I give them a naughty smile and say, “I steal them”. I explain to them how I steal character traits from people I know, splicing physical appearances and personalities together like Frankenstein to create new characters—some likeable and some not so nice. I steal people’s words, too; I’ll sit at cafés or on the bus, pretending to drink my coffee or look out the window, when in reality I’m eavesdropping on conversations, writing expressions and phrases into my notebook to extrapolate or exaggerate into a story of my own. I pinch mannerisms and points of view. Settings. Themes. If I need names for my characters, I’ll steal them from my friends list then, if it suits me to, I’ll gleefully kill them off. “I’ll steal your heart, your thunder, even the shirt off your back if it serves the story,” I tell my students. Writing is a subversive act and it’s important that children learn this as early as possible.”
RIU: What is the hardest part of writing? What is the best part?
The hardest part for me is prioritising my own writing. I’m a terrible soft touch. I can’t help getting involved in other writing-related side-angles, like organising literary conferences, mentoring emerging writers, planning speaker events and writing retreats, participating on awards juries, and guest editing magazines and anthologies, for example. I love to support my writing colleagues too; just this week I’ve had five authors ask me to write cover blurbs for their new releases. All of those non-writing writing activities afford me some wonderful sneak peeks at all the fabulous work my friends are producing, which is one of the best things about writing. I’m a kitten chasing after her own tail really: having a lot of fun running in circles, but never quite reaching my goals.
RIU: Who has been your biggest influence?
For writing? My dad. A wonderful oral bard, he filled me with a love of adventure with his zany made-up bedtime stories, so beloved that I went on to tell my own children. Dad already had dementia when a small Kiwi press published my first book for children; he came to the launch anyway. I know he was so proud. As well as instilling me with a passion for story, he also taught me how to swim, how to paint and wallpaper, change a tyre, sail, catalogue seashells, dress a wound, and tie a running knot, a figure eight (and my shoelaces). He taught me that it was important that “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and an elephant’s faithful 100%” (Horton the Elephant, Dr Seuss). He made me laugh a lot. He died a few months ago when New Zealand was in lockdown. I miss him every day.
RIU: What is your writing process?
I usually start with a general story idea, or perhaps something that’s been suggested by the commissioning editor to fit the theme of an anthology or magazine. I’ll work out the beginning, and then the end, and then I’ll try and figure out how to fill in the murky middle bit. Most of the teeth gnashing happens at that point. I’m very slow, writing just a few hundred words daily, so sometimes I’ll be stuck in that saggy middle for eons. If there’s a deadline, usually my best writing will be done on the last day before the work is due. Because I’m a full-time writer, most days I get up, sit at my desk, and write all day (punctuated with bouts of social media, connecting with friends, which I tell myself is essential marketing and branding work).
RIU: What advice would you give a new writer?
[She whispers from behind her hand]. Writing is fluid, elastic, adaptable. The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Writing is like a piece of clay; you just keep working it, rewriting until you get it into the form you want. Don’t take my word for it; at least half a dozen super famous folk have quoted this in one form or another:
“There is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.” — Robert Graves.
“Good writing is re-writing.” — Truman Capote.
“The best writing is re-writing.” — EB White.
“Good writing is essentially rewriting.” — Roald Dahl.
“The only kind of writing is re-writing.” — Ernest Hemingway.
RIU: If you could have dinner with any writer (dead or alive) who would that be and why?
Hmm. I’ve been asked this before, but today, I think I’d like to have dinner with Sir Julius Vogel, who was Premier of New Zealand during the 1870s, and after whom New Zealand’s science fiction fantasy and horror awards are named (I have twelve of these). In 1889, Vogel wrote a science fiction novel called Anno Domini 2000 or Woman’s Destiny. The book was set in the future, in the year 2000, where the author postulated that key positions of authority would be held by women. This was highly speculative since women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1893 (New Zealand was the first country to afford women that right). I’d love to have dinner with him and ask him the same questions that you’ve asked me. What was his inspiration for the novel? What was his process? Who influenced him? And I wonder what he’d think to learn that in 2000, the year his story was set, New Zealand's Head of State, Governor General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Attorney General, and the head of the country’s largest company, were all women as he’d predicted.
RIU: What can we expect from you in the future?
Thanks so much for asking. On the writing front, on 26 September 2020, Omnium Gatherum will release Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, edited with my Australian colleague Geneve Flynn, an anthology of fourteen wonderfully dark tales by some of my favourite horror writers, all of which reflect on the Southeast Asian experience of ‘otherness’.
Then on 6 November 2020, Raw Dog Screaming Press will release Blood of the Sun, the third and final book in the Path of Ra series which I co-write with my Wellington colleague Dan Rabarts. There is a short film treatment coming together, and I have a story called The Good Wife, coming out in Weird Tales #364, which is super exciting because it seems I might be the very first New Zealander to appear in that iconic magazine. And finally, my works in progress include a short poetry collection and some new Taine McKenna tales.
RIU: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Much continued success!
Thank you for having me stop by. It’s been a pleasure.