Tag Archives: wicked women

Wicked Women Anniversary Interview: Stephanie Burgis

Today we’re joined by the author of Wicked Women story ‘Red Ribbons’ – Stephanie Burgis, take it away!

Tell us a little about yourself and what you like to write:

Stephanie burgis picI’m a total history geek and a former musician. I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, and I spent a couple of years living in Vienna, Austria, but nowadays I live in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffee shops, with my husband, Patrick Samphire (whom I met at the Clarion West science fiction & fantasy writing workshop!), our two kids, and our sweet old border collie mix. I write wildly romantic historical fantasy novels for adults, fun, funny adventure fantasy novels for kids (my first MG trilogy was set in Regency England, with balls, highwaymen and magic), and short stories that leap all over the fantasy and science fiction field.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started?

I decided when I was seven years old that I wanted to be a professional writer, because writing was the only thing that was more fun than reading – and that’s been my career goal ever since!

Which authors have influenced you and why?

So many! Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Georgette Heyer, Robin McKinley, Emma Bull, Judith Tarr, Patricia McKillip, Terry Pratchett, Terri Windling…and that’s only the authors I’d really imprinted on by the end of my teens! I love humour, I love romance, I love banter, I love beautiful writing, I love feeling a true sense of wonder as I read, and I love stories that are full of genuine emotion.

Both history and fiction are replete with women who aim to misbehave – do you have a favourite wicked woman and why?

Just at the moment, Agent Carter – I looooove seeing her on TV!

Your first adult historical fantasy novel – Masks and Shadows – will be coming out next year, what can you tell us about it?

It’s a wildly romantic novel set at the palace of Eszterháza, in Hungary, in the late 18th century, full of dark alchemy, forbidden love, blackmail, and dangerous opera.

How useful do you find making collages and music playlists when writing your books, and do you have a playlist or collage for Masks and Shadows?

stephanie masks-and-shadows-coverI make collages and music playlists for every book! I used to make them on paper, but nowadays I tend to make them as Pinterest boards (and you can see my Pinterest board for Masks & Shadows: https://www.pinterest.com/stephanieburgis/masks-and-shadows/

In Masks and Shadows, a lot of the story revolves around the opera house where Haydn worked as the court composer, so of course I listened to a lot of Haydn’s operas as I wrote, along with the fabulous soundtrack to the movie Farinelli (because the romantic hero in Masks & Shadows is a superstar castrato singer).

Are there any differences in your approach to writing middle grade fiction versus adult fiction, and are there particular things you can or can’t do in each?

My MG novels are shorter, faster-paced and more streamlined than my adult novels. My adult novels are more romantic; my MG novels are funnier. I love writing them both!

What’s the appeal of short fiction for you and do you have any short fiction recommendations?

Going to the Clarion West science fiction & fantasy writing workshop in 2001 taught me to love good short stories. Some of my favorite short story writers are Sarah Monette (her collection The Bone Key is my favorite short story collection ever! ), Zen Cho, and Aliette de Bodard, and I also really adore Kij Johnson’s story ‘At the Mouth of the River of Bees.’

Room 101 time: what one genre cliché would you get rid of?

Over-usage of sexual violence on the page (or screen) as an easy way to establish villainy – and especially sexual violence against women that’s used, narratively, to motivate male characters into action.

What are you up to next?

I have a new MG fantasy series starting in 2017 with The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. It’ll be published by Bloomsbury in both the US and UK.

Thanks for joining us Stephanie!

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffeeshops. Her trilogy of Regency fantasy novels was published in the UK as The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson and in the US as the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy. Her first historical fantasy novel for adults, Masks and Shadows, will be published by Pyr Books in 2016, and her next MG fantasy series will be published by Bloomsbury Books, beginning with The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart in 2017.  Find out more on her website – http://www.stephanieburgis.com/

Wicked Women: Jan’s Fab Five

Today we’re joined by Wicked Women co-editor Jan Edwards who’s here to tell us about her five (ish) favourite fictional wicked women…

Jan in Hat 001Finding five wicked women that I truly admired was trickier than I first thought. First problem is to define wicked. The OED quotes 1/ vile or morally wrong or 2/ Playfully mischievous. It is a broad canvas but it does cut out most of the obvious choices when it comes to famous women of note. Sappho (c 570 BC) one of the first published female writers. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) mathematician widely considered to have written the first computer programme. Lillian Bland (1878–1971) Journalist and aviator who in 1910 built her own plane. Murasaki Shikibu said to have written the first novel The Tale of Genji somewhere around 990. Boudicca, (1st Century AD) famed leader of the Britons. Anne Frank, Sojourney Truth, Cleopatra, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Stopes, Apra Behn – the list goes on. Most could hardly be termed wicked by either definition. Because of that I chose favourite fictional characters from the many that inhabit my bookshelves and DVD racks.

1/Willow-Rosenberg-Buffy-Vampire-SlayerWillow Rosenthal: Willow is perhaps the most obvious wicked woman in regard to fantasy fiction. She is funny, quirky, geeky and eager to investigate, though she also has a very healthy regard for her own safety; something frequently missing with fictional fighters of evil. When Willow turned to the dark side she ticked both boxes in the wicked definitions. She sashays around Sunnydale safe in the knowledge that there was not a lot out there that could beat her in a showdown. She is truly mad, bad and very dangerous to know, yet her ‘evil’ side comes from wanting to be a part of Buffy’s supernatural team. Vamp Willow is another matter. ‘Bored now!’ is one of those wicked women catch phrases loaded with connotations that comes right up there with ‘come up and see me’. The Buffyverse is awash with strong female characters: Buffy, Faith, Drusilla, Anya, Cordelia and Dawn to name but a few, and they went on to spawn a million more wicked women in countless fantasy books and TV series’ but I shall let Willow represent them all. For my money Willow Rosenthal in her various guises will always be in the top ten wicked women.

series5riversong2/ River Song: River is a very different proposition and one of my top Who girls of all time. A character who provokes strong emotions but then she is a very strong woman. River sails along the very edges of legality, frequently dipping onto the wicked side with great relish and style. She is both wicked in the sense of big bad and also wicked in her gamine personality. To attempt to analyse all of her quirks and contradictions would be an essay all of its own. She has many guises. Steampunk hero; Noir gumshoe; Femme fatale spy; criminal mistress-mind. River Song is a true wicked woman.

3/ The Bene Gesserit: Okay I am cheating by including an entire political/religious order but within the confines of Herbert’s Dune world the Bene Gesserit ruled. Defined as ‘an exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders.’ The sisters were (to lapse into Labyrinth-speak) the babes with the power. They use anything at their disposal to attain their goals; sex, blackmail, fear, magic, drugs; whatever it takes to bend people to their will. The whole of the Dune saga revolves around them. From House Atreides to House Harkonnen; the Fremen to the Space Guild, these woman play the long game as they shift pawns in every major house in that world. They are about as wicked as it comes.

4/ Emma Woodhouse: Jane Austen’s eponymous heroine was controversial character in her day. Her existence is limited to the village by her monstrously selfish father, yet still does her own thing; no mean feat for any woman negotiating the male dominated society of Georgian England. She is young, rich, intelligent and as mind bogglingly arrogant as her parent. Yet she IS trapped within that small pool, so she contents herself with playing with her neighbours as a child plays with dolls, sending ripples through every layer of society. As with Willow and River her rise to infamy is unintentional. She arranges the lives of people she views as her inferiors because, as she sees it, she is superior and thus has the right. Like Willow and more especially, River, she is just a girl who wants to have fun, and like them she truly believes she is doing it for her victims’ good; whether they want it or not.

5/ Rebecca de Winter: Feisty is an overused word these days but Rebecca de Winter was that if nothing else. She is portrayed through various other characters as a renowned beauty, perfect hostess and compulsive liar. She torments her husband Maxim with non-stop affairs, and when she discovers she is dying of cancer, goads him into killing her. The second Mrs de Winter calls her mentally unstable and sadistic and that could be a fair assessment. We learn about Rebecca through the memories of others, yet she is there throughout, lurking on every page. Daphne Du Maurier’s skill in bringing to life a gloriously wicked woman whom the reader never meets is superb. For me at least Rebecca de Winter as one of the greatest wicked women (in the ‘mad and bad’ sense) ever to stalk the shelves of fiction.

6/ Captain Nancy Blackett: Yes I am going to cheat again and add a sixth name, because this list really would not be complete without her. Ruth Blackett, aka Captain Nancy, appeared in nine of the twelve Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. Like Emma Woodhouse, Nancy is a controversial figure of her time. Unlike most female characters of middle class roots she is a headstrong tomboy and lacks the usual (for the time) dominant male influences beyond the mischievous ‘Uncle (Captain Flint) Jim’. Captain Nancy defers to no one and drags the more traditional Walker into her make-believe world of pirates and explorers, supremely confident in her right to lead. Out of all my wicked women of fiction, Captain Nancy is my first and favourite. As a child I wanted to be her – as a writer I strive to create a character with such appeal.

So there they are. My (6) wicked women. Given the space I could list a top 100!

Thank you for joining us Jan!

Jan Edwards was born in Sussex and now lives in the Staffs Moorlands with 3 cats and husband Peter Coleborn.  Jan is a writer of fiction, freelance editor, Master Practitioner in both Usui and Celtic Reiki and Meditational Healer and founder member of the Renegade Writers group.  You can find her at her website https://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com or on twitter at: @jancoledwards.

Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties can be found in paperback or ebook editions from Amazon.

Wicked Women Anniversary Interview: Chloë Yates

Gooood morning funky peeps.  Today we’re kicking off the new year with the author of Wicked Women story ‘How to be the Perfect Housewife’ – Chloë Yates, take it away!

Tell us a little about yourself and what you like to write

chloeThis is one of my first interviews so I should apologise in advance because I’m made almost entirely from nonsense. I’m an English immigrant who’s been living in the middle of Switzerland for nearly a decade (no, my husband’s not a banker). It’s an incredible place to live, I’m very lucky, but I miss dear old Blighty. No kids, lots of books, and one elderly dog, Miss Maudie, who thinks she’s the Supreme Being. She’s probably right.

What do I like to write? At the moment WORDS WOULD BE GOOD! Damn it. I digress. My husband once called my work ‘charming anarchic oddness’, I told him to sod off. I’ve been told it’s ‘sinister’ (hat tip to KT Davies) but I tend to think I’m writing things that are quite jolly, a bit grim maybe but usually jolly (perhaps it was too much Enid Blyton as a kid). Take Kitty Darling in ‘How To Be The Perfect Housewife’, she’s pretty upbeat… isn’t she?

Frankly, I’ll have a bash at anything. Defining one’s work by genre is only useful for marketing and libraries. The work itself shouldn’t be constrained to fit into preconceived definitions, that’s the antithesis of speculative fiction, surely? Possibility is everything. There’s comfort in tradition and tropes, I can’t and won’t deny that, but I say mix it, mash it, spin it, wear it your own way. Ain’t no party like an interstitial party, son.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started?

I’ve been impotently scribbling stuff for years but only really started to send my work out about three years ago. I sent a very short story, called ‘Don’t Do It Salvador!’ to the fabulous Kate Laity’s inaugural Postcard Fiction Contest in 2012 and won.  That gave me the confidence to enter Fox Spirit’s International Talk Like A Pirate Day competition the same year and, along with two other writers, I won that as well. ‘Leave the Pistol Behind’ was then published in Fox Spirit’s Piracy Fox Pocket. Those two women – Kate and Adele (the Prof and the Cap) – are my spark plugs. I can’t begin to explain how supportive they’ve been of both my work and of me. I will never be able to thank them enough. They’re phenomenal women and I’m bloody lucky to know them. Without them, I’d likely still be fiddling with myself in the dark. So to speak…

Which authors have influenced you and why?

All of them! I’ve always been a reader – my mum still proudly tells people how I read Jane Eyre when I was only five and a half. There were always books in our house and I wasn’t censored, so I pretty much read anything. I was obsessed with Enid Blyton books as a kid and the shelf I kept them on got so loaded it fell down. Imagine nearly being crushed to death by Blyton! That affects a person. As a teenager, I devoured Stephen King and Dean Koontz, wrote a million Terry Pratchett pastiches, read Hammett and Chandler, the Pern books (because Mum’s a fan), Cherryh, Atwood, Ellison, Clarke, the list goes on and on. I even remember reading a Philip José Farmer story about zombies having sex with prostitutes and their willies breaking off or some such business… these are the things that scar a kid, no?

As an adult, Caitlin Kiernan and Poppy Z Brite have influenced me. Not in terms of style, perhaps, but definitely in terms of telling the story you need or want to tell in the way you want to tell it. That’s an important lesson for any writer.
Art influences me a great deal too; my dad’s an artist, so I grew up surrounded by the smell of Swarfega and ink, but it was Mr Y who really ignited my love for it. I’m rather partial to Surrealism, especially that by women. When I discovered Leonora Carrington’s work, I was blown away. Then I found her written work and it changed me. It loosened my girdle, if you will, made me more inclined to go with the pictures in my head and not tame them into something more ‘acceptable’. Read her novel The Hearing Trumpet or the short story ‘White Rabbits’ in the Vandermeers’ Weird anthology. In fact, do both.

Both history and fiction are replete with women who aim to misbehave – do you have a favourite wicked woman and why?

The Wicked Witch of the West. I was obsessed with the 1939 The Wizard of Oz as a kid, and was genuinely upset every time that little cow chucked water on her beautiful wickedness. I don’t blame her for being pissed off – they were her shoes! We’ve only got Glinda, the desperate ‘Wizard’ and those whiny bloody Munchkins’ word that she’s up to no good. She wants to take control over a country currently controlled by an information withholding, passive aggressive bubble-driver and a snivelling impostor. More power to her. Also, I’ve always thought she looks like my Mum. In a good way…

You recently narrated a story for the Cast of Wonders podcast – how did you find the experience and is this something you would like to do more of?

I’ve done two or three now, and it’s fun to do something different. It can be a little taxing, hearing myself drone on for ages, but other people seem to like it so that’s a Brucie. Finding the right time to do it can be a challenge because the kids in the apartment upstairs were born with lead feet. I can go through about a million takes because of their sudden hippopotomatic incursions. I want to get it as right as I feel I can, so it can be more time-consuming than I originally thought, but that’s something I need to get better at. I’d happily do more.

What’s the appeal of short fiction for you?  And do you have any plans for longer works?

For me, certainly at the moment, short stories are the exploration level of writing. I’m trying things out, looking at different styles, working out my kinks, finding my way, and so on. I love flash fiction, things less than 2000 words. It’s like being a prose ninja. You run in with an idea, smack your audience upside the head with it, and then run off, leaving them to wonder, with any luck, what the hell happened, if there’ll be more, and how lucky they are to be alive (maybe not that). There are plans for longer works – I’m writing a collection for Fox Spirit at the moment, and after that I’ve got to crack on with the novel I’ve discussed with Adele. A woman gets mixed up in some nasty business and, after trying to go on the run, ends up in another world. It isn’t steampunk, it isn’t high fantasy, I’m not sure what it is, but it should be fun. I’ve also got an idea involving Primordial Gods in an unlikely setting, as well as some thoughts about an Elizabethan adventuress. So I’d best crack on!

Much of your fiction and poetry combines the comedic and macabre, and this seems to be a popular genre combination across multiple storytelling mediums, from the big screen to the printed word – why do you think these elements mesh so well?

The whole comedic/macabre mash up is appealing because laughing in the face of evil gives us a sense of control or at least the semblance of it. Evil can only truly win when you can’t turn around and laugh in its face. It’s defiance, the good old two-finger salute, that keeps us going in the face of so much darkness. There’s an old cliché that’s goes along the lines of ‘wherever there’s darkness, you should shine a light’ – or is that a Katrina and the Waves song? Anyway, for me that light is laughter.

Room 101 time: what one genre cliché would you get rid of?

Dong covers. You know the ones? High fantasy books with a big arsed penis-replacement sword on them. Puh-lease.

What are you up to next?

It seems a long way off, but next year I should be attending Edge-Lit and redcloaking at Fantasycon again. Maybe even another con, we’ll see. It’s invigorating to be around likeminded souls. I’m at home alone most of the time, so I think it’s essential to my sanity to consort with cohorts at least once a year. Also, redcloaking at Fantasycon means that I can attend without hanging around like a bad smell. I’m not always entirely sure what to do with myself, so it’s a good way to go but not lurk. You know what I mean?

Workwise, I have more stories coming out in the remaining Fox Pockets series plus, at some point, another in an anthology called Eve of War, which sort of follows on from their BFS award nominated Tales of Eve. Next year should see my instalment in the Feral Tales series from FS come out. Adele keeps on at me to branch out and write for other people and to get myself an agent. I’m still learning though, still pretty inchoate as a writer, so I’m not rushing but I do need to let fly, to take myself seriously. I’m working on it.

Thank you for joining us Chloë!

Chloë Yates is a writer of odd stories. English born, she currently lives in the middle of Switzerland with her bearded paramour, Mr Y, and their disapproving dog, Miss Maudie, surrounded by books, effigies of owls and the great god Ganesh. Chloë got her first taste of success in May 2012 with her very short prose piece ‘Don’t Do it, Salvador’, which won the inaugural Postcard Fiction Contest, published at: http://kalaity.com/2012/05/23/writer-wednesday-post-card-fiction-prizes.

Her story ‘Leave the Pistol Behind’ was one of the winners of Fox Spirit Books’ International Talk Like a Pirate Day in 2012, and her noirish chops have slathered into the Noir series, edited by Kate Laity – Weird Noir (2012) Noir Carnival (2013) and Drag Noir (2014). More of her work features in several anthologies, including all but the second volume of Fox Spirit’s Fox Pocket series.

Occasional ranting occurs in her blog at http://www.chloe-yates.blogspot.com and she wanders through twitter under the sobriquet @shloobee. She’s currently working on a big idea or two and writing more short stories.

Wicked Women Anniversary Interview: Adrian Tchaikovsky

And today, my lovelies, we’re rolling into the holidays with the author of Wicked Women story ‘This Blessed Union’ – Adrian Tchaikovsky, take it away!

Tell us a little about yourself and what you like to write

Adrian_Tchaikovsky_001I’m that guy who writes about spiders taking over, while rooting for the spiders. There’s more to it as well – my interests include biological sciences, historical combat and gaming of all kinds, but they’re going to put the spider thing on my tombstone. Or you can substitute various things for spiders – insects, aliens, robots, the next wave of human evolution, but I am consistently the champion of the other.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started?

I first started writing (terribly) around age 18 after reading the Dragonlance books and realising that here someone had taken a RPG campaign and turned it into a set of novels. If they could do it, I could do it. And of course I couldn’t, but I kept on going and improved with practice.

Which authors have influenced you and why?

Probably the most important writers of my early life were Diane Wynne Jones, Michael Moorcock and Peter S Beagle. Going forward, there are those like Mary Gentle, China Mieville and Gene Wolfe, who I’d love to be able to approach more in my own writing (I actually wrote this to Wolfe once. He replied “You should be trying to write the best like Adrian Tchaikovsky that you can.”)

Both history and fiction are replete with women who aim to misbehave – do you have a favourite wicked woman and why?

I’m going to go way back in time to Inanna, goddess of the Sumerian pantheon. Inanna wasn’t the god in charge, but she seemed to have been by far the deity the people were fondest of. She was a rule-breaker, a trickster, constantly getting into trouble, feuding with her family, having tons of sex and generally living her own life and to hell with the consequences – a genuine kickass fantasy heroine right back from the dawn of recorded storytelling, doing all the things that later on became the province of male deities and heroes.

Your standalone ‘Regency-ish military fantasy romance’ Guns of Dawn has a dynamic and passionate heroine in Emily Marshwic – what influences were behind her creation as a character and what drew you to an echo-Regency setting?

adrian gunscoverGuns of the Dawn (out now in paperback!) has a huge debt to Austen. It’s not really Pride and Extreme Prejudice but my Emily would probably have got on well with Lisa Bennett before her call up papers came, and equally well with Sharpe after her time in the service. The not-quite-Regency setting seemed the perfect point in not-quite-history to set it – not just because that’s the period where peoples’ everyday lives become so much more fleshed out, with a boom in people reading (mostly female-written) novels of manners, but also because of the sort of warfare involved. Like the sergeant at Gravenfields says, a gun can make a killer out of anyone.

You’ve said that your SF novel – Children of Time – is your most ambitious work to date, what kind of challenges did you find in writing it and are there any plans to revisit that universe in any form?

I’d love to revisit the Portiids at some point. Children of Time was a profoundly personal piece for me, born of nothing more than a knowledge of the Portia labiata and an interest in exploring what she might evolve into given a free rein. Despite a certain amount of magicianly hand-waving behind the scenes I was determined to make the science as real as I could (which may or may not be very real), and so I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of scientists to try and make it all plausible.

Next year sees the release of a collection of Lovecraftian stories from Alchemy Press – what can you tell us about The Private Life of Elder Things – how did it come about, who’s involved and what can readers expect?

I have always been fascinated by Lovecraft’s creatures. Whether by intent or not they’re often more relatable than his human characters. He was very good at walking that fine line to give something that is alien, and yet just comprehensible enough to remain interesting. The idea of Private Life is to take a few Lovecraftian staples and explore how their worlds touch human experience in new ways.

What’s the appeal of short fiction for you and do you have any short fiction recommendations?

I tend to go back and forth in my reading tastes – I’ll read a couple of long works, then I’ll go back to anthologies. Short fiction is always fresh, gets to the point quickly and then wraps up. It’s a very economical writing form, and it can deliver enormous emotional or intellectual payout. Some of the best short fiction I’ve read comes from Ted Chiang, Chris Beckett, Gene Wolfe (again) and Ursula le Guin.

Room 101 time: what one genre cliché would you get rid of?

The sort of plot where the hero is chosen by destiny beforehand. Only He can save mankind. Not you, not any of you rabble, but him. Feh.

What are you up to next?

adrian the-tiger-and-the-wolfMy new book from Tor UK is The Tiger and the Wolf, which is set in a bronze-age tribal society where everyone is a shapeshifter. Also, later next year, I’ve got Spiderlight coming from Tor in the US, which is best described as deconstructionist heroic fantasy. A band of D&D-style adventurers are on a quest to defeat a dark lord, guided by a prophesy. The problem is that the prophesy requires them to recruit a Mirkwood-style giant spider into the party. Hilarity ensures…

Thank you for joining us Adrian!

Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of the acclaimed Shadows of the Apt fantasy series, from the first volume, Empire In Black and Gold in 2008 to the final book, Seal of the Worm, in 2014, with a new series and a standalone science fiction novel scheduled for 2015. He has been nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award and a British Fantasy Society Award. In civilian life he is a lawyer, gamer and amateur entomologist.  Guns of the Dawn, his new fantasy novel, is out now.

You can find him on at his website here, on Facebook, Goodreads, or as @aptshadow on Twitter.

Wicked Women Anniversary Interview: A.R. Aston

Today we welcome the author of Wicked Women story ‘No Place of Honour’ – A.R Aston, take it away!

Tell us a little about yourself and what you like to write

I am 24 years old English and History graduate from the long vanquished kingdom of Mercia (or the East Midlands of England if we must insist on being modern). I have been writing in the speculative fiction and fantasy genres for years, though I have yet to earn a crust with the work I have sold; more like delicious crumbs.

When not writing you can find me voraciously reading anything and everything I can get my hands on, like some tea and bacon sandwich-fuelled Johnny Five.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started?

I have been writing casually for as long as I have been able to.   I began getting serious with my work when I started writing fiction on writing forums, where I finally got an audience for my work, and even more vitally, harsh critiquing. Those years online, having my work dissected and flayed bare by people who had no interest in sparing my feelings or coddling me was invaluable to me, and I think helped me when in 2011 I first got published professionally for a small press. Luckily enough for me, my first piece was accepted within a few months of submission. This I later learned was spectacularly speedy in publishing terms, and I was unwittingly fortuitous. The real work of writing is as much learning from the many, many rejections and learning patience as it is from actually having works go to print. Writing is not an industry one goes in for an easy life.

Over the years I have had numerous fantasy, sci-fi and horror short stories published with various indie publishing, and have co-edited three anthologies with old veterans of my writing forum days.

Which authors have influenced you and why?

Oh too many to count. In the world of science fiction, I find the world-building of Alastair Reynolds poetic and sublime in the traditional sense of the word. His depiction of the Lighthuggers of Revelation space made me think of relativistic space travel in an entirely different manner. Stephen Baxter’s joyous excitement over his created worlds is infectious, and the way he and Pratchett logically and explosively extrapolate the uses and effects of the universe in the Long Earth sequence is a particular inspiration to me.

More recently, Ann Leckie’s work with gender and consciousness in the Ancillary trilogy has given me numerous ideas to explore in one of the novels I am currently writing

JRR Tolkien is in many ways the foundation stone upon which modern fantasy is built, so it would feel churlish of me not to also cite him as a massive influence.

I also love Joe Abercrombie, the self-proclaimed lord of grimdark. His dialogue is witty and sharp as a rapier, and he has created some of the most likeable assholes I have read in a long while.

Both history and fiction is replete with women who aim to misbehave – do you have a favourite wicked woman and why?

I love the story of Julie d’Aubigny, the legendary bisexual, cross-dressing female duellist and opera singer who roamed 17th century France fighting in illegal duels, singing opera for kings and having numerous torrid love affairs with men and women alike. She is a figure who defies any category imposed upon her by the society of the time. Hers is a wild story made all the more impressive for being predominantly non-fictional.

As for fictional wicked women; I am rather partial to Thorn Bathu, the snarling, scarred heroine of Joe Abercrombie’s Half the World.

You recently had your story ‘For a Fistful of Diamonds’ published in Superhero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight – how did you approach your take on the genre for it and what makes a good superhero story for you?

The idea of the superhero is incredibly broad and diffuse as a genre, incorporating everything from detective noir to interstellar space opera, political thriller to comedic heist. Thus, I felt it important to not stray too far from the core aspect of the genre, exploring the extraordinary powers of my protagonist, and their effect upon his psyche and his place in society.

I wanted my character to be a pyrokine, but explored in an inventive way no one else has done before. Hopefully I have succeeded, and laid the foundations for a far larger and more expansive world.

What can you tell us about the Outliers Project?

The Outliers Project is a collaborative effort between me and four other authors to produce a ten book series of linked novella anthologies. It is a global tale of a world in which a minority of entities have been endowed with powers of ancient pedigree. We wanted to create a superhero mythology which felt plausible and allowed us to delve into the details of how a world like ours would cope with the revelation of gifted individuals, and how empowered people would fit into our world. You may have already read the first forays into the Outliers universe if you have read the final four short stories of Emby PressThe Good Fight: Superhero Monster Hunter, which hints at the tone of the coming event.

What excites me most about this project, and what I feel differentiates it from other superhero settings, is its focus. It is a series without a reset button, where the world is changed and stays changed, and no one is safe. There is a destination; a full story in ten parts, building relentlessly to a startling and thrilling conclusion. I really hope readers will enjoy our stories once we release them out into the wild world.

What’s the appeal of short fiction for you and do you have any short fiction recommendations?

As a reader, good short fiction is a delight that allows me to dip into rich settings as and when I please, without the immersion and time a good novel demands. Short stories are the tapas bar to the novel’s four course meal with all the trimmings.

Short fiction is a challenge for an author, as it demands you create and populate a world readers can relate to and adore over the course of but a few dozen pages. It forces you to be a prose impressionist in a way; painting just enough to hint at a deeper premise and a world for your readers to complete. I like the discipline of the format, as it forces you to think about every sentence you use and to be ruthless in self-editing; if it doesn’t serve the central premise, it is extraneous.

Horror definitely suits short fiction, as good horror needs but a few words to plant terrible seeds that allow a reader to populate with nightmares more terrible than the author alone could conjure. I was once involved with an anthology that collated together one hundred 100 word pieces of micro-horror that demonstrated how few words were required to incept some properly creepy images into the mind of a reader.

My favourite piece of short fiction of all time is probably Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’. It is such a beautiful and nightmarish vision of a post-nuclear world, which is all the most impressive for lacking any characters that are not poignantly posthumous.

Room 101 time: what one genre cliché would you get rid of?

I would do away with a cliché which often occurs when a writer wants to show a clash between an industrial human culture and a less advanced one, where the human/white male protagonist begins as an enemy of the noble savage race, but eventually becomes one of them, and learns their mystical ways, eventually leading them in a battle against his own kind.

Done. To. Death.

Basically, these stories always end up devolving into some variation of Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas. I find the plot boring and predictable, and I think it is often a waste of a fascinating premise or setting. My ur-example of this would be Cameron’s Avatar. The setting he created was full of interesting technologies, fascinating creatures and stunning imagery, but it was all in service of a plot which seemed to have no ambition.

So yeah, that can be banished to room 101.

… That and zombie apocalypses. A zombie story without at least a necromancer in there somewhere is just lame.

What are you up to next?

Outliers is currently looming on my horizons like the swaying surface fins of a submerged leviathan; I shall soon enough be up to my ears writing and plotting ten novella anthologies, culminating in a staggering multi-author finale which I hope will blow our readers’ proverbial socks off! Fun times ahead. Look out for the first

Whilst writing these novellas, I am in talks with publishers into having my debut fantasy novel, The Hobgoblin’s Herald, published in the next twelve months. In addition, I am writing its sequel and have the scaffolding up on several other novels under construction. Saying I like to keep myself busy would at this stage feel like an understatement…

Thank you for joining us A.R. Aston!

A. R. Aston is a speculative fiction writer from the former industrial town of Swadlincote, located deep in the Heart of England (in the left ventricle if you must know…). An avid student of history and english literature, he has always had a passion for the written word. When not writing, he can be found reading voraciously, creating a functional time machine, and composing spurious facts about himself.

Wicked Women Anniversary Interview: Tom Johnstone

Today we welcome the author of Wicked Women story ‘Kravolitz’ – Tom Johnstone, take it away!

Tell us a little about yourself and what you like to write

Tom pic 2I like to write short fiction. I’ve never written anything over the 8-10k word range, partly through choice, partly due to time constraints, as I have a family and a full-time job. Also the ideas I have seem to lend themselves to the short form, though they sometimes end up being longer than I intended. Basically, I write what I like to read, something writers are often advised to do; and generally what I like to read is short horror, though I do enjoy novels / novellas too, as well as fiction of other genres (crime, SF) and none. Having said that, I’ve also written comedy sketches and the script for part of a mosaic graphic novel.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started?

I can’t claim to be one of these prodigies who started writing at the age of two, and made their first professional fiction sale a year later. I’m exaggerating somewhat of course, but in this as in many things I am a late developer. I didn’t really get going on my writing career (if you can call it that) until my mid-to-late thirties, about ten years ago. I responded to Telos’s open call for Doctor Who spin-off novella submissions, and one of the editors responded favourably to the sample chapter I sent them, though I wasn’t experienced enough to follow this up adequately, and there was too much going on my life to do the project justice. I sent a few short stories off to various publications after that with little success, as well as comedy scripts to satirical cabaret shows like Brighton’s The Treason Show and London’s Newsrevue. The sketches could be quite lucrative on those occasions when they used my material, and I even got a paid credit on a BBC Scotland radio show called Watson’s Wind Up, though I don’t think they actually used my one-liner and they’ve since cancelled the show…

After a while, I gave up on the sketches. I began to find the hit-and-miss nature of writing sketches that rarely got used a little trying, and what I really wanted to do was write horror stories, mainly of the weird and supernatural sort. I still put both humour and politics into these, and I began to hone my craft, securing publication in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Tales, Supernatural Tales, Strange Tales (Vol. 5, Tartarus Press), The Black Book of Horror (9-11, Mortbury Press) and your own Wicked Women.

Which authors have influenced you and why?

There are the obvious ones like M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft, and their bastard literary offspring Ramsey Campbell. Once he’d outgrown his earlier reliance on Lovecraft (as the kind of wunderkind I mentioned before with such envy!), Campbell’s also an example of the importance of a distinctive voice in the successful author of fiction of any kind, something I feel I’m struggling to find.

Joel Lane, John Llewellyn Probert, Simon Bestwick and Anna Taborska have all written fiction that has suggested to me different ways in which horror could be hard-hitting and political without being didactic, (against the assumption that its dark view of human nature is inevitably conservative) something that has had a strong influence on my approach to writing. Though I’d encountered Joel’s work before, I was reintroduced to his spare and enigmatic short tales through the Black Book of Horror series, which was where I also encountered John’s wonderfully sardonic and vicious contes cruelles, as well as Anna’s powerful, harrowing ‘Little Pig’. I enjoyed the unpretentious vitality of the Black Books, which also introduced me to horror writers, then new to me, who are now familiar names in the horror world: Thana Niveau, Reggie Oliver, Gary Fry and others, who have all influenced my writing in different ways.

Going back to more famous, classic and best-selling writers, I’ve also studied the work of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, two more excellent examples of writers in the horror field each with a strong and unique voice. I’ve observed with interest the success of British horror novelists like Adam Nevill, who has brought the themes of classic weird fiction authors like Machen and Blackwood (also two major influences on and forerunners of Lovecraft) into the modern mainstream idiom, as well as Alison Littlewood and Sarah Pinborough, with their ingenuity in synthesising crime fiction with supernatural horror.

Then there are authors whose work is not categorised as ‘horror’ as such, but have a ‘mainstream’ or ‘literary’ appeal as well as a strong weird or supernatural flavour: Sarah Waters, Susan Hill, Peter Ackroyd in novels like Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Another good example of horror fiction crossing over into the mainstream is Jeremy Dyson’s The Haunted Book, a creepy faux ‘true-life’ ghost story book whose clever production design gimmickry reinforces its conceit and reasserts the value of the physical book.

Both history and fiction are replete with women who aim to misbehave – do you have a favourite wicked woman and why?

Often women misbehave simply by doing the things that are defined as heroism or leadership in men. The science fiction writer who shows this most strikingly is Joanna Russ. The Female Man asks: why do men always get to do the fun stuff in SF? We Who Are About To… challenges the imperialism of the ‘conquest of space’ narrative, via its homicidal, one-woman awkward squad of a narrator. It says a lot about Russ’s insubordinate stance that one of her novels is called On Strike Against God.

Since Russ is sadly no longer with us, I’d also like to plug a few contemporary female horror writers, either because their work explores aspects of female transgression, or because their work is itself transgressive, or both. Or maybe because they’re just awesome! Priya Sharma’s protagonists are often flawed or damaged women, who sometimes pay a terrible price for their mistakes. This is certainly true of ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ and ‘The Rising Tide’, but in neither case do you get the impression that the author is inviting you to cast judgment on the women for their actions even if some of the other characters in the story might be doing so. Anna Taborska at her best writes gutsy, no-holds-barred tales of human cruelty, but with a fierce sense of compassion grounding them. Read her collection For Those Who Dream Monsters (Mortbury Press)! V.H. Leslie’s acclaimed stories, recently collected in Skein and Bone (Undertow Books), are dark fairy tales of women who fall foul of patriarchy in various unpleasant ways, yet told in beautiful prose and with an arch sense of humour.

To answer this question properly, maybe my favourite fictional wicked woman, the ultimate female miscreant, must be Yamasaki Asami from Ryu Murakami’s novel Audition, the basis for the notorious Takashi Miike J-horror movie. The book’s by a man of course, which may be part of the reason why she’s such an effective creation, a male fantasy of desirability and sexual availability, who turns out to be the distillation of our worst nightmares.

On second thoughts, perhaps an even better wicked woman is Stevie in Kaaron Warren’s brilliant horror novel Slights. As an Australian study of suburban scandal and misbehaviour, it makes the much-feted mainstream hit The Slap seem very coy and safe, and though Warren’s book and her heroine are both hilariously and raucously bitchy, it has a terrifying idea of the after-life at its heart. As an ostracised woman, Stevie’s a twenty first century literary descendant of Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s kind of the flipside of Audition too, because we see the world through the wicked woman’s eyes rather than seeing her through male eyes, and Stevie is brazen in her refusal of social norms, rather than wearing a mask of fragile docility as Asami does!

You co-edited Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease with Joel Lane – tell us how that came about and what readers can expect from the stories within.

Tom horror uncutI met him at a Convention and got into conversation with him about his stories ‘A Cry for Help’ and ‘For Their Own Ends’, two stories that use horror and weird fiction to explore the implications of the threat of privatisation in the NHS. We discussed the possibility of an anthology of horror stories centred around the cuts and austerity measures the government was bringing in, as I kind of follow up to the anti-racist / anti-fascist one he co-edited with Allyson Bird: Never Again.

We started work on it, but it was a little stop-go, as he had long-term health problems, and these sadly contributed to his untimely death. However, we’d already found a publisher, Gray Friar Press (who’d published Never Again), and its owner Gary Fry was very enthusiastic about the project. He said he still wanted to go ahead with it, almost as a kind of tribute to Joel. I also wanted to see it through for the same reasons. Writers had already sent in stories, and I chased up some of the people Joel had approached, many of whom thought the book had been put on hold because of his death. I also decided to reprint Joel’s ‘A Cry for Help’, again as a tribute, but also as a clear statement of intent, to open the volume.

Readers will find stories showing the spectral implications of the ‘Bedroom Tax’, food banks where you have to queue to join the queues, a privatised hospital that expects extreme ‘donations’ from patients who can’t pay, a government loyalty card that rewards snoopers, a tale of upper class, Bullingdon-type thugs that makes The Riot Club look tame. Other stories take a more psychological approach, such as stories by John Howard, Priya Sharma and Stephen Hampton, which suggest that the credit crunch and the slump in the property market can literally drive people mad. As I suggest in my non-fiction addendum to the book, quoting Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, economic unease is an abiding theme in horror and supernatural fiction: the fear of losing everything is a powerful undercurrent in the genre even when it’s hidden. Acclaimed authors showcased include Anna Taborska, Alison Littlewood, Stephen Bacon, Thana Niveau and Gary McMahon.

Has editing the anthology changed how you approach your own fiction?

I found myself writing quite a bit of ‘austerity horror’ myself! Before he died, Joel and I agreed we weren’t going to publish our own stories, to avoid accusations of favouring our own work over other, possibly more deserving talents. In his own case, I think he was being a little over-modest, and when he died I worried about over-ruling him by re-printing ‘A Cry for Help’ posthumously, but a writer who knew him better suggested I should go ahead and publish it!

As for my own efforts, I still took the view that it was better not to use my position as now sole editor to make a portion of the anthology into my own vanity press, which sounds a little pompous, but I knew some might see it that way. So I decided I should test my own attempts at writing stories in this vein in the open market as it were. Well, they can’t have been that bad, because most of them have found publishers! ‘Masque’, tackling NHS privatisation, appeared in Shroud Magazine (#15), in the States, where they already know the full implications of private healthcare; ‘Under Occupation’ and ‘Mum and Dad and the Girl from the Flats Over the Road and the Man in the Black Suit’, both which feature the ‘Bedroom Tax’, the former in the anthology Darkest Minds (Dark Minds Press), the latter awaiting publication in Supernatural Tales

Is there any particular genre you’re drawn to and if so what’s the appeal of it?

I tend to be drawn to horror, because of its flexibility. At its best, it’s barely a genre at all, more a state of mind. It encompasses everything from the elusive chills of the ghost story to extreme zombie spatterpunk, science fiction body horror, etc. It can be both intensely physical and metaphysical, often simultaneously. Having said that, the side of it that appeals to me more as a reader and writer is the more supernaturally-orientated one. I also enjoy science fiction and crime, both of which share common ground with horror, but I’ve very little experience of writing them, or aptitude, I think, because of the discouraging technical aspects I think necessary to achieve credible results in both, e.g., research into, say, quantum mechanics for SF, or forensic police procedure for crime. For this reason, I tend to stick to my comfort zone of supernatural horror, though I have been working on a longish short story in the spy thriller genre!

Room 101 time: what one genre cliché would you get rid of?

The space opera cliché of inter-galactic free trade: to me, it’s infinitely depressing and rather anthropocentric to think that neo-liberal capitalism will conquer the universe as well as Planet Earth!

What are you up to next?

Well, my hit rate for getting stuff published seems to be improving, with quite a few stories in the can and a substantial backlog of stories awaiting publication in various anthologies and other publications. My stories are starting to attract a bit of positive attention, with the Best Horror of Year editor Ellen Datlow including two out of the three I had published last year on her list of Recommended Reads (A.K.A., Honourable Mentions), one of which was my Wicked Women contribution ‘Kravolitz’, so thanks for facilitating that by publishing it! She’s also plugged a couple of my more recent published stories (‘Under Occupation’ from Darkest Minds and ‘What I Found in the Shed’ from Supernatural Tales, #31) on the SFEditorsPicks list, so I’m pretty chuffed about that. I feel like now’s the time to build on this, and bring out a single author collection. I know it would mean more work, because I don’t just want to throw something together that would rely on reprints; I’m thinking more on the lines of a sequence of conjoined short stories, kind of a literary concept album, at least for a major section of the volume. But it’s early days. I haven’t really planned it, or approached any publishers yet… (Hint! Hint!)

In the meantime, I’ve got two stories awaiting publication in Supernatural Tales, and others elsewhere, including ‘Holywood’, my sequel to M.R. James’s ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, which is to appear next year in the Third Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows (Sarob Press). I’m presently working on a very interesting project with Alchemy Press, somewhere between a tribute anthology and a posthumous collection, involving the unpublished and incomplete stories of the late Joel Lane. A group of writers are going to take his handwritten story notes and unfinished tales, and each one has to take his or her assigned piece and complete it basically. It will be interesting to see what will happen, as some of them are extremely detailed, while others are bafflingly cryptic. As I was in the middle of collaborating with him on Horror Uncut when he died, and was like many extremely shocked when I heard of his death, it seemed like a lovely idea and I’m proud to be part of it.

I also had my second taste of Fantasy Con this year, the first being 2012 in my home town of Brighton. This time I did a reading there for the first time, to an audience of four, but two of them were Carole Johnstone and Priya Sharma, so quality if not quantity… Luckily I have done public readings before, so it wasn’t too daunting! Horror Uncut was also nominated in the anthology category, which was very exciting, as well as Laura Mauro, another emerging wicked woman of horror, in two categories for the story she wrote for it, ‘Ptichka’. Unfortunately H.U. didn’t win, and neither did Laura, but plaudits for those that did, and good to see that one of them was Fox Spirit in the small publisher category!

That also covers the random fun stuff aspect of the question, as my experience of Fantasy Con this year was both random and fun. I met a hell of a lot of really lovely people there too!

Thank you for joining us Tom!

Tom Johnstone’s fiction has appeared in various publications, including the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Black Books of Horror (Mortbury Press), Brighton – The Graphic Novel (Queenspark Books), Supernatural Tales, #27 & #31, Wicked Women (Fox Spirit Books), Shroud Magazine, #15 and Strange Tales V (Tartarus Press). As well as these writing credits, he co-edited the British Fantasy Award-nominated austerity-themed anthology Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease with the late Joel Lane, published September 2014, by Gray Friar Press. Find out more about Tom’s fiction at: tomjohnstone.wordpress.com.

Wicked Women (Saving Ourselves)

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00024]It started with a song.  Later we’d flesh out the concept to examine the wider range of definitions that make up Wicked Women* but first, there was a song.  Specifically, ‘Wicked Girls’ by Seanan McGuire.  Now I’ve never actually heard it sung, but the lyrics have always struck me.  They tell of the girls who returned home at the end of the stories, those brave adventurers who had to settle back into a life less colourful, and be good and conform to their expected roles. Except… maybe not.

‘Dorothy, Alice and Wendy and Jane,
 Susan and Lucy, we’re calling your names,
 All the Lost Girls who came out of the rain
 And chose to go back on the shelf.
 Tinker Bell says, and I find I agree
 You have to break rules if you want to break free.
 So do as you like — we’re determined to be
 Wicked girls saving ourselves.’

It’s the stories after the stories that have always interested me – how exposure to those wild lands of magic and danger could change the plucky hero, and how those changes alter their experiences with the world they’re returned to.  And I’m far from alone in this.

Much has been written on Susan Pevensie: the good queen who ruled wisely and well, then had to return to be a child in England;  Susan who had to live on once the rest of her family were brutally snatched back to Narnia.  A punishment for not towing the party line, or so it was once said.  But Susan was never forgotten and the stories of how this wicked girl saved herself are many – Neil Gaiman has written on ‘The Problem of Susan’ in Fragile Things, and many others have taken up the baton of Susan’s fate, showing how a queen bereft of her queendom can make a new one.  Susan lived and went on to inspire, she had new adventures, surviving wars and a society that she wasn’t quite the right fit for. Taking everything she’d learnt in Narnia and building something magnificent.

But that’s Susan.  There are other wicked girls saving themselves.  Girls who became women who refused to be bound by constricting social conventions, women who rebelled, women who forged the life they wanted in defiance of the life that others wanted to force on them.   Women who aim to misbehave.  And that’s the core of Wicked Women.   Some of our stories have women who are unapologetically evil, some have those who are simply perceived as such due to the society they’re living in, but all our women are most definitely saving themselves.

‘For we will be wicked and we will be fair
And they’ll call us such names, and we really won’t care,
So go, tell your Wendys, your Susans, your Janes,
There’s a place they can go if they’re tired of chains,
And our roads may be golden, or broken, or lost,
But we’ll walk on them willingly, knowing the cost —
We won’t take our place on the shelves.
It’s better to fly and it’s better to die
Say the wicked girls saving ourselves.’

*on which, more will be said on the Fox Spirit blog in January…

‘Wicked Girls’ lyrics © Seanan McGuire