Thursday, September 29, 2016

Flies in the Soup: Thoraiya Dyer

Interview: Thoraiya Dyer

By Chris Large

Australian author Thoraiya Dyer spoke with me about her award-winning short story Wine, Women and Stars, her recent three book deal with Tor, the purpose of writing awards, and her no-holes-barred determination to put words to page. This interview first appeared in Aurealis #84.

Welcome back to Aurealis Thoraiya, and a huge congratulations on winning your third Aurealis Award at the 2015 ceremony. You now have two awards for fantasy and a third for science fiction. In your own words you were ‘a bit weepy’ when you accepted the 2015 gong. What does it mean to you to win awards for your writing?

I guess it depends on how confident you’re feeling in your skills at the time. I’ve been writing short fiction for a while now but also, in the background, I’ve been writing novels. The reason I was so weepy about that particular award was because last year my husband lost his job and the bank took our house, so we were forced to move.

It was all very traumatic and I was asking myself, “What am I doing?” I was thinking, “I should be working as a veterinarian. I should be making money and contributing to the household budget.” I was at the point where I was about to chuck it all in and that’s why I was so emotional about winning that award. I’d been asking myself every day, “Is it time to stop this now? Is it ever going to make any money for me?”

What I said in my acceptance speech was a repetition of something Gillian Polack had said to me on a previous occasion: “We give these out so you don’t quit.” And that’s exactly what those short fiction awards have done for me. They’ve kept me going. I haven’t quit. And now I’ve finally sold a novel!

That’s right! Good things have come your way. But when you sit down to write a story like Wine, Women and Stars, you’re not thinking about winning an award or a novel deal. What is your process for writing short fiction?

It usually starts in science magazines and online articles. I think for that particular story I’d been reading about solid metal fuel in cars and I thought “Wow! Wouldn’t it be cool if you could put that into a human?” I didn’t write that one to spec. It’s different when you see submission guidelines for Defying Doomsday or something and you think, “What’s a really good disability story I could write to do with the apocalypse?” or whatever the guidelines are. I didn’t think about where I was going to send Wine, Women and Stars until after it was done.

It’s interesting that you’ve talked about Wine, Women and Stars in terms of the science of altering somebody’s physiology in order to accommodate space travel, because that’s not what I took away from the story at all. I recall a woman at the top of her game who comes to an understanding that her lifelong ambition of travelling to the stars will not come to fruition and who, over the course of the story, embarks upon a far more personal journey.

Yeah, well, if you can take a good idea that’s been in your head for a while that’s a plot idea and mash that in with a character or motivation that’s been percolating, that can make a great story.

In this case I wanted to convey the idea that you can be the best that you can be at something, but external factors like your age, or the situation, or just the luck of the draw are going to have a strong influence on how your life turns out.

Obviously you’ve had a lot of success with your writing. Do you feel that women writing in the science fiction and fantasy field in Australia face barriers to having their voices heard? 

I was very lucky to have entered the field at a time when the gender imbalance was being addressed. I think if I’d started writing twenty years ago it might have been a different story.

My first piece of short fiction was published in 2008 and within eighteen months of that I’d had an invitation to have a collection published with an excellent Australian small press. But the reason that Twelfth Planet Press was releasing those collections in the first place was to correct a historical imbalance. It was lucky for me but there were other women who had collections come out in that series who’d been writing for thirty years, so their experience would be very different to mine.

Have there been barriers for me? Particularly with fantasy, I don’t think there have been any at all. I do wonder sometimes about the gap between succeeding with my short fantasy fiction and succeeding with my short science fiction but there’s so little science fiction being published in Australia right now, the sample size is difficult to gauge.

You’ve recently been offered a fantastic three-book deal with Tor for a series called Titans Forest. I can only imagine the jealousy of your writing peers. I don’t even write novels and I’m jealous as hell.

Well, not writing novels is a bit of a hindrance to getting a book deal.

So I have no reason whatsoever to feel jealous but I am anyway. What will this deal mean for you and for your writing career?

What it means is that I can keep writing for a start. Like I said, I was that close to throwing it all in. This means I can pay off some pretty serious bills. No one’s going to come repossess my car. That is a very important outcome for me. Apart from all that it’s my dream come true. I’ve been going to Galaxy Bookshop in Sydney since I was a teenager and making a little space on the shelf and saying, “That’s where my books will be one day.”

That turned out to be the wrong spot since I got married and changed my name, BUT I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I stopped for a while when people said to me, “You’re gonna need a ‘real’ job to fall back on.” So I got my veterinary degree. But good things come to those who wait. I have written many, many novels. This is not my first by a long shot.

I first heard the deal was going to happen a while back when I was visiting my aunt in the Blue Mountains. My agent had been updating me on progress with the negotiations by email. So I woke up and checked my email one morning and YES!

Of course I needed someone there with me who knew who Tor was, because I’m just like, “I GOT A DEAL WITH TOR!” But my aunt, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t read science fiction or fantasy so I rang my husband and told him and he was excited for me.

And how instrumental was your agent at Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency in securing the deal?

My agent there is Evan Gregory. He’s been doing this for a while now so he’s a little more blasé than me I think.  Two of the books he put on submission for me were not bought, so I’m grateful to him for sticking with me.

Can you give us some idea of what we can expect from this trilogy?

Okay, so there’s just this really big forest. Think your average rainforest with trees averaging around forty metres and increase that to hundreds of metres tall. There are people living in the canopy of this forest in a mighty city with a pantheon of gods. They don’t really know what’s below. Nobody goes down there.
I wanted to have an ‘East meets West’ feel to it. I also had the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in mind when I was world-building the city. The gods can be reincarnated into human bodies so your body could be inhabited by a god and you’d be in charge of the birds, or the wind, or whatever you’re the god of, and your job is also to maintain this invisible barrier which prevents the demons rising up from below.

So the character I will introduce readers to in the first book is Unar. Her sister has fallen down there so Unar’s quest to find out what’s going on below is basically my first book. And the Titans themselves… I’m going to be a little secretive about them until about book three.

I know for a fact you love to work as much real-world science as possible into your science fiction world-building. Do you take a similar approach to your fantasy worlds? Or will you embrace the freedom fantasy writing presents and create wildly imagined environments and societies?

I’m a bit picky that way. I get really annoyed if I’m reading a fantasy novel and the ecosystem doesn’t make sense. I really struggled with this book to make it more fun and less pedantic. So ordinarily if I saw...I don’t know… quolls and cats in the same book, I’d say, “That’s ridiculous. They fill the same ecological niche.”  So with my rainforest story I’ve just tried to chuck that control freakiness out the window and put all the fun things in together and not worry too much about whether they would all occur in nature in the same world.

Right now you’re talking about your book in the singular. How much of the series have you written to date?

I have written one book. I have something like ten months each to write the second and third instalments which is great because that’s about how long it takes me. I don’t have a release date yet so I’m not sure what the plan is there.

I don’t know a lot of details. I’m still in the happy, floaty world of, “Oh, it’s going to come out sometime… It’ll have a cover…” But in reality I don’t know anything yet.

 You’re joking about the cover right now but a cover is almost as important as the writing. When a book’s sitting on a shelf, often all anyone has to go on is the cover.

Ah, yes, but have you ever seen a bad cover on a Tor book?

…Actually no.

I’ve seen bad covers but I don’t think I’ve seen any bad covers on Tor books. I feel I can trust them with that.

Very good point. Now you said earlier that you write your short stories and novel-length manuscripts concurrently. Will that continue now that there’s actual money on the table?

I’ve never had a real deadline before so I’m a bit scared about that. I probably won’t write any more short fiction until I have books two and three at least drafted. My normal pattern is to write the first draft of a novel, then put it away and write short stories for a month. Then I’ll take the novel out and do another draft and put it away again. I usually do about three drafts before sending it to my agent.

I don’t have any short stories left in the draws but some of the stories I’ve sold just in the last few months are not due out for another year or two so you might not notice much of a difference. But for now time management is definitely an issue. When I was working as a vet, I was working 7am to 7pm shifts sometimes and doing emergency after-hours work. It took me five years to write one novel when I was working like that. I’d take a week off when I could and go hide in the Blue Mountains with my aunt and I’d go for it, so it can be done. But it’s just so lovely of my husband to support me and allow me to write a novel in ten months rather than five years.

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