Tell us about your latest creation:
Unwrapped Sky sits somewhere between fantasy and science fiction, in a little subgenre sometimes called the New Weird. It’s set in the fantastic city of Caeli-Amur, which is something like an industrial version of Ancient Rome. Steam trams chug along the streets. A ruined forum lies close to a huge arena. Three dictatorial Houses rule the city. It’s filled with strange wonders. Ancient Minotaurs arrive for the traditional Festival of the Sun and New-Men bring wondrous technology from their homeland. Hideously disfigured Wastelanders stream into the city and strikes break out in the factory district.
The novel tells the stories of three people. The philosopher-assassin Kata has debts that need settling and will do anything to ensure they’re met. The ambitious bureaucrat Boris Autec rises through the ranks, turning his back on everything he once believed, and soon his private life turns to ashes. The idealistic seditionist Maximilian resolves to overturn the oppression dominating the city, and hatches a mad plot to unlock the secrets of the Great Library of Caeli Enas, drowned in the fabled city at the bottom of the sea.
Unwrapped Sky is a novel of adventure and suspense, but also – I hope – a book that has something to say about oppression and liberation, progress and destruction, gender and class, love and betrayal.
Where are you from / where do you call home?:
Originally, I’m from Melbourne. At the moment, I’m splitting my time between Australia and Finland. As a child I spend a fair bit of time in Europe. I lived a few years in Paris. So I feel equally at home in Australia and in Europe, though I guess, in the end, Melbourne is my place. That’s where my friends and most of my family are. They become increasingly important as you get older, I find.
When you were a kid, what did you want to become? An author?:
For some time I used to say I wanted to be a scientist, and I did show some proficiency for it as a child. As a teenager I switched to writer, and though it’s been a long trek, that’s how I make my living now – for the moment at least.
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:
There’s a story recently republished in the Time Traveller’s Almanac, called ‘Domine’, which I’m particularly proud of. It’s a ‘slow’ science fiction story, a character-driven story about a man whose father is on the first serious trip into space. Because of the laws of relativity (what’s called time dilation), the father returns to Earth younger than his son (thirty or so years pass for the son, but only one for the father). So for the son, the father is in some ways younger and older than he. I’m proud of that little Carver-esque story. Having said that, the world of Caeli-Amur is my most sustained creation. So the stories and the novel set there will probably be the way most think of me.
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:
At the moment, I’m writing standing. The laptop sits on a chair, which is itself set on a table. I’ve had some back and neck problems, so I must stand up nowadays. I quite like it, though my feet get sore sometimes. Gone is all the bohemian mess I was used to! But I do occasionally walk off to find reference books and cookies. Or just cookies.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:
This year I’ve resolved to read more, though my tastes are varied. I’ve always thought it important to read outside one’s genre. You need to know what else is happening. Opening yourself up to many influences is one way of developing original work. On my list at the moment are: ancient history, quantum physics, Hilary Mantel, Jean-Paul Sartre and Scott Lynch. The only thing you’re unlikely to find is poetry, not because I don’t like it, but because I don’t know where to start.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:
No doubt there were sundry fantasy novels, but I think the ones which really get you are ones you read at about nine or ten years old. For me, I think, there were novels of Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff: books about Vikings and ancient Romans. The love of other worlds was with me already. I wanted to go back in time and see those places. I still do.
If you were a literary character, who would you be?:
Maybe Tristan Smith, from Peter Carey’s strange and wonderful novel The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. For those unaware, Tristan Smith is a young, four-foot man with a stutter, who spends much of the second half of the novel dressed in a mouse suit. I’d like to spend more of my time in a mouse suit. I’m ordering one over the internet now. Thanks for the idea.
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:
Books about hypnotism and the unconscious. In particular, hypnotist, spiritualist and magic shows of the nineteenth century fascinate me: that unusual combination of emerging science, performance and demonstration really fires the imagination. I’m going to include some of it in my third novel, a steampunk book set in Melbourne during the 1880s or 1890s.
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?:
Authentic Indian gets me every time. The deep, rich flavours, the meat which melts in your mouth, the heat. In terms of drinks, white spirits are nice. I once went to a bar in Russia where the vodka was free but you had to pay for the soft drinks. It wasn’t very good vodka, mind you.
Who is your hero? Why?:
Most heroes are unseen and unheard: nurses, teachers, carers. But I admire Jean-Paul Sartre, who is an example of a writer who is engaged with the world. I’d like to write books that might do more than simply entertain. If you’re going to spend a year or so writing a book, it should be about something. Sartre’s ability to move between literary forms – theatre, essays, novels – is enviable, and he stood for something. That’s all too rare.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:
The digital revolution means that books – and films and television – are easily reproduced (with the click of a mouse. So it’s going to be hard to sell them in the future, especially as this current generation grows up. The result will be that the current structure of the industry won’t be able to support writers. Quality will go down: just look at paper journalism nowadays. In the short term, I can’t see a way around this, but we live in hope.