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Saturday, September 17, 2016

An Interview With Alex Isle

Every two years some members of the Australian SF community run something called the SF Snapshot, asking authors about their writing. Each one is different, with only two questions in common across the interviews. 

I've had two of these, but this year nobody invited me, or my guest, Alex Isle, formerly Sue Isle, so after Alex mentioned it on Livejournal, I suggested we do our own unofficial Snapshot. Mine will appear in Apocalypse Wih Rats and I'll give you a link when it appears.

Really, I should have interviewed this wonderful author a long time ago. We've known each other since the start of our careers. We both used to write Star Trek and other media fan fiction in the good old days before the Internet made it possible to write celebrity fan fiction, fiction about real people(Shudder!) 

Alex Isle's short stories are very, very Australian, though his only novel(see below) is set in a vaguely European Renaissance world, and he had a delicious story about Mary Bennet of Pride And Prejudice, a TARDIS and a certain famous fictional villain in shared universe anthology New Ceres Nights...

 You are best known to your fans and friends as Sue Isle and even  have your very own Wikipedia entry under that name. Would you share your reasons for the change of name?

In 2014 I changed my name from Susan to Alex to reflect a gender change identity and adopted the pronouns he/his.  Publications before 2014 are under the name Sue Isle.  And thanks for the heads up about Wikipedia.  I had forgotten the page was there and have now altered it as much as I’m able.  It’s an ongoing process because I’m not that computer savvy.

As a writer, what is your favourite genre? Despite being known mostly as the author of dark fantasy, you do seem to vary, from mediaeval fantasy to science fiction. So, what do you enjoy writing most?

It changes from time to time, but I lack the knowledge of hard science necessary to be really good in that field and my historical knowledge is only amateur, so I feel most comfortable in urban fantasy and horror of the present day or near future speculations.

You've written quite a lot of short fiction over the years. Do you feel most comfortable in this type of writing? 

Well, it’s easiest to finish and maintain a taut pace!  Also the opportunities for selling short fiction are much greater, since the anthology is a popular form in the sf and fantasy genres.  But I would love to break properly into novel writing.

Do you have a favourite story of those you've written? What is it and why?

Again, this answer keeps changing.  I like to think I’ve become better over the years and sometimes wince when I look at some of my early efforts.  I have a rather dark sense of humour, so the story I wrote for Orb, "The Woman of Endor" [2001], is still a favourite because it features the Jesus-as-a-zombie trope, which always seemed a logical interpretation to me.  And no, I’m not a believer.  I know my idea of the historical period is probably dodgy, but the story still won me an award so I’m happy.

"A Sky Full of Ravens" in She’s Fantastical, a1995 anthology edited by Lucy Sussex and Judith Buckrich, is another favourite because it sparked the interest of Hodder Headline, who published my first actual book, the aforementioned Scale of Dragon, Tooth of Wolf.  This is the first appearance of my teenaged witch alter ego, Amber, and her troubles with authority and the story ended up as a reworked chapter in the book.

My current favourite, "The Kind Neighbours of Hell",  is one of my few recent stories.  I have been rather blocked in writing fiction over the past few years and this one,published in the 2014 Peggy Bright Books anthology edited by Simon Petrie and Edwina Harvey, again appealed to my weird sense of humour.  It’s also the only one under my changed name so it feels right to me when I look at it.  Use Only as Directed is the name of the anthology, which had the theme of human invention, learning from others’ mistakes and what happens when Murphy’s Law goes pear-shaped.

I had fun with alternate worlds and calling up demons in this, a world where demons are very much a thing and where my main characters (a couple of teenaged boys) become everyone’s warning about why you never, ever, do this at home.

You've written for children, Wolf Children, a couple of articles in the wonderful School Magazine(now celebrating its 100th birthday)and your YA novel Scale Of Dragon, Tooth Of Wolf - would you consider writing for children or teens again if you got the opportunity? (In fact, are you considering finishing the sequel to Scale Of Dragon, which ended on a cliffhanger?)

I love writing for teens, it’s one of my favourite areas of literature.  I think a lot of the books and stories have fresher and more interesting ideas and interpretations of those ideas than quite a few adult books.  They aren’t bogged down with their own length and they have so much hope and anticipation for the future.

School Magazine is the most amazing publication and bunch of people I have ever met as an author!  I wish I could write more for younger children just so I could send stuff to them.  They recently asked to reprint an article I wrote about how wolves became dogs – 18 years after the original was published.  And they sent me an invitation to their 100th.  I would so like to read some of the early publications.

I’m sorry about the cliffhanger in Tooth; it wasn’t supposed to be like that, though having the heroine ride into the sunset isn’t that horrific an ending.  I did write another, but it was not accepted due to poor sales for the novel, and this sequel died with one of my previous computers.  What I would write now would, in any case, be very different and I may yet get to that, perhaps as a self-published e-book.

There is something very Australian about a lot of your writing and your landscapes. Could you tell us a bit about that? 

Well, I guess that’s natural since I was born here and lived most of my life here.  So even though I write fantasy and sf, the grounding of those stories really is what I know; the city of Perth, a bit about Melbourne, which is the eastern city I know best, and various towns and country areas I have visited, particularly when I was young.  Nearly all the fantasy I read as a kid originated in England, which never bothered me at the time, but later on I wanted to write about my place.

Can you describe your writing process? For example, what happens after you get an idea? If you like, describe the process of writing a single story among your many. 

My recent writing process has not been a smooth one.  I feel a bit guilty to claim writer’s block, which feels like an excuse, but the truth is I have not felt the sense of opportunity and openness which I remember in the past.  I have only completed a few stories in the last two years, which have been absorbed with my gender transition, something I felt I had to do in order to be able to write properly again.

That isn’t really what you asked, I know.  When I start with a story, it’s often with a person, an image of a person, sometimes a name, and a sense of where they are and what they are thinking about.  The problem, the focus of the story, comes after that.  So I guess I will use my latest story, the only one unpublished, as an example, since the earlier the story, the less I tend to remember about how it came to be.

It’s called "All We Have Is Us", written earlier in 2016, unpublished.  I wanted to write a zombie story, the one ‘monster’ I’ve never featured from the classics of vampire, werewolf, shambler, and to set it in a post apocalypse Perth.

Sian, a teenaged scavenger, discovers a secret dungeon in what was once a wealthy mansion, containing a woman who has been there before the outbreak.  

I started with that idea; a destroyed civilisation and a person so secluded that they don’t know civilisation has been destroyed, in a sense, a time traveller from the days before.   The story is from Sian’s POV, so again I started with the person, put her in her place, in the middle of something she’s doing.  To her, this is the normal world.  The survivors all have the morals of their age; your survival counts first, then your group, and the people beyond, not at all.  The prisoner has the soft morality of the First World, so the question is which ethics are going to win.  Is it possible that the prisoner has something to teach the survivors of a zombie plague?

I have these ideas in my mind while I write, and while I’m introducing characters and dialogue and the characters are trying to decide what to do.  It’s also about men and women, because I wanted to have female characters leading without making a really blunt point about it.  It’s not a thing to have a female leader; she’s just the leader, the strongest person in all the things that matter in this new world.  Male physical strength doesn’t mean a whole lot when you’re facing creatures who can kill you with a bite and who are vastly stronger than any living person because they hold nothing back when they use their strength.  Being a survivor is a headspace.  So if the characters find the person who imprisoned the woman years ago, will they punish him by the old morality or the new?

I hope that makes a little bit of sense.

Finishing with the two official Snapshot questions, which I hope the Snapshot folk won't mind:

What Australian work have you read recently and loved?

I have to admit to being an epic fail here.  I checked my book blog back until early this year and haven’t read any book by an Australian author in that time.  I think the last one was Gillian Polack’s  Langue[dot] doc 1305, the book whose title I can’t type out without checking it.  That would have been shortly after it was published in 2014.  I remember enjoying that a lot and feeling it was the first accurate time travelling novel I’d ever read.

Origin is not the first thing I look for, I admit; I follow genres or ideas I’m interested in and the nationality comes second.  But I will accept a reading list if folk want to provide one! 

What author, living or dead(let's assume they're snatched from their own time and not actually zombies!)would you like next to you on a long plane flight?

I would never have opted for a zombie; they can’t talk and would steal your food.  There’s probably quite a few I would like to choose from, but writers I have enjoyed for a very long time come top of the list, such as Rudyard Kipling or Rosemary Sutcliff.  Hopefully they also didn’t mind chatting to fans.

Thanks for visiting The Great Raven, Alex!

For anyone who'd like to read Alex's short story collection, Nightsiders, or New Ceres Nights, they are both available at the Twelfth Planet web site, here.


Pamela said...

Thank you SO much for this interview! I love finding new SFF authors, especially ones who aren't featured in the blogs I frequent. Most book blogs focus on the BIG AMERICAN writers, which is ... okay, but I always want something different. Great interview, and I'll be checking out your work, Alex!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Pamela! We have a lot of small presses here for SFF. Most of the big press books we see on our SFF shelves in Aussie book shops are Americsn or English or, if Australian, were published in the U.S. Not all, but most. So a lot of us, even the big name local writers, are quite happy to be published by small press, such as the ones which have published Alex's work. You should be able to find them online. I'll pass on your comment. :-)