Kaaron Warren is an Australian author of horror, science fiction, and fantasy short stories and novels.
She is the author of the short story collections The Grinding House, which won the 2006 ACT Writing and Publishing Awards, and Dead Sea Fruit. Her short stories have won both the Ditmar and Aurealis Award.
Her debut novel, Slights, was published by Angry Robot (a HarperCollins imprint) in 2009, followed by Walking the Tree in 2010 and Mistification, in 2011.
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Mihai ADĂSCĂLIŢEI: Kaaron, thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
I guess that every author, at some point of her/his life, wished to become a writer, so may I ask instead why did you wish to become a writer? What made you decide to share your stories with other people?
Kaaron WARREN: I was a writer from the moment I could put words to paper. At school, even a set of spelling words (outlaw, grandfather, sleeve, print, stop, helicopter, prison) would inspire a story. I loved reading from an early age and everything I read gave me ideas for my own stories.
Sharing my stories came from the same instinct as writing them. I had a heated discussion with someone at a party the other day, about whether or not an audience is important for art. I believe the audience is part of the process, that it isn’t complete unless someone has read the story, or seen the artwork, or heard the piece of music. I think creation should be shared, and that the sharing makes it whole.
Of course, making that happen isn’t always easy!
M.A.: Is writing based on talent exclusively or is a skill that can be trained? Does the writing talent require training as well?
K.W.: I agree with Stephen King, who says that with training and hard work a poor writer can become a good writer and a good writer can become a great writer. He also says that a genius is a genius and no one can learn to be that!
I definitely think that training and practice help. But you have to be open to change, to criticism, and to the understanding that you can always improve. There are some who believe their work is perfect as it stands, and these are the writers who probably won’t be improved by training because they don’t want to change, don’t believe they need to.
M.A.: How much of an author writing is influenced by her/his experience as a reader? To what point are these influences beneficial for a writer?
K.W.: This would differ on an individual basis. For me, I am in part influenced by my reading in a numbers of ways. I might be inspired with ideas if reading a good fiction or non-fiction book. I might be inspired by beautiful, inventive prose to work harder, work better. William Golding is one who inspires me this way. He writes fiction that is outside the considered ways of writing. He doesn’t always have a clear narrative flow, he rarely has contrived tension, and yet I adore his work.
I might be inspired by bad writing, bad plotting, a dull story, to avoid these mistakes!
So I think that all reading is beneficial to the writer in one way or another. It certainly doesn’t hurt.
Interestingly though, if I am deep in writing a novel or short story, I find it hard to read fiction. I can only settle with non-fiction. I think it’s because the fiction distracts me, whereas the non-fiction can inform whatever it is I’m working on.
M.A.: Who are the authors and which books influenced your writing career?
K.W.: S.E. Hinton. The Outsiders.
Enid Blyton. The Famous Five books.
Agatha Christie. In particular And Then There Were None.
Ray Bradbury. Everything.
Harlan Ellison. Everything, but in particular A Boy and his Dog and The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.
Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca.
Kurt Vonnegut. Everything.
Celia Fremlin. Everything.
William Vollman. You Bright and Risen Angels.
Edgar Allan Poe. Everything.
William Golding. Everything.
Dylan Thomas. Under Milkwood.
Jessamyn West. Night Piece for Julia
Shirley Jackson. Everything.
Stephen King. Everything, especially The Shining and The Stand.
George Orwell. 1984
Georges Perec. Life, a User’s Manual.
M.A.: Your first short story was published in 1993, if I am not mistaken, while your first novel was released sixteen years later. Do you see yourself more as a short fiction writer? Are you more comfortable writing shorter fiction rather than longer stories?
K.W.: I love both. They are so different in their own ways. With short stories, I can express the thought more quickly. But with novels, I can explore so much history, and background, and character behavior.
I like to work on both at the same time. Partly because this saves me cramming all my ideas into a novel!
M.A.: How much does the experience as a short story writer can help improve the creation of a novel or a longer fiction? What about the other way around?
K.W.: Short stories train you to remove superfluous words, and I think that’s important in a novel as well.
The story telling is different, though. In a short story, only the elements that are important to taking the story forward make the cut, usually. In a novel, at least in the novels I love the most, there can be sidetracks and explorations. A perfect example of this is Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual.
M.A.: Although plenty of mediums exist for the short stories do you think that this particular form of fiction fails to attract the same attention as the novels? Do you believe that short stories still have a future?
K.W.: Short stories don’t get the same attention. A lot of readers dismiss the short story, I think because they want to engage for a longer period of time. They feel as if they are absorbed in a story that finishes too soon! Those are comments I’ve heard, anyway.
However, there are many people, such as myself, who adore the short story. So I do believe there is a future. There are so many mediums, as you say. So many markets, so many ways to present the short story.
I think the short fiction form is important for expressing ideas that may be absorbed in a longer piece. Also, in short fiction you can focus on one single point, whereas in a novel you shouldn’t ever do this.
M.A.: Although of the same language, the English market of speculative fiction seems occupied mostly by the British or American writers. Is it difficult for an Australian author to break into this market? Are there any particular challenges in reaching the wider audience of this market?
K.W.: Distance does make a difference, though far less now than in the past, of course. I can’t get to many American or British conventions, which is a shame. Can’t get to readings, all that. You do make connections and contacts at these events, and all this can help to bring your name up when editors and publishers are making decisions.
That said, with the way our world is connected now, I think that if you write good fiction, you will be noticed and you will be able to break into the market.
M.A.: I dislike when good literature is catalogued one way or the other, but when it comes to genres your writings are labeled mostly as horror. Are you perceived differently as a writer just because you tell horror stories? Do you believe that the horror genre is misunderstood?
K.W.: This is such a tricky one for me. I am definitely perceived as ‘different’ because I’m a horror writer, and it annoys me in some ways. There are writers who produce books that could easily be classified as horror, but they are classified as mainstream, and therefore people will read them. So I think I can miss readers because of my classification. Readers who, I honestly believe, would get a lot out of my fiction if they gave it a chance!
That said, I am happy to be labeled a horror writer, because I don’t want anyone picking up something of mine and being horrified when they don’t want to be. I don’t write gentle fiction, and I don’t write feelgood stories. So I don’t mind disclosing that my stories are not a pleasant read.
As for whether the genre is misunderstood, that’s a two-way thing. Firstly, it is misunderstood, because there is a lot of excellent horror fiction out there, that breaks well out of the usual slasher/violence/monsters sort of boundaries.
However, there is still a lot of stuff that remains within those boundaries. I don’t have a problem with that; there is a good readership for that kind of horror. It’s not the kind I like to read or write, but it is very popular.
M.A.: Speaking of genres, your second novel, Walking the Tree, sees a certain departure from the themes and approach of the previous ones, Slights and Mistification. Do you like to experiment with different genres? What other genres would you like to approach in the future?
K.W.: Having said above that I don’t mind being classified as a horror writer, I don’t ever really set out to write a particular genre of story. I like to switch, I like to mix. One of the reasons I write speculative fiction, rather than non-fiction or ‘reality’ fiction, is that I love to be able to play with truth, reality, past, present, future. I love that almost anything is possible if you write it well enough.
There are often elements of crime in my stories, and in fact I was published early on in three women’s crime anthologies, all with odd, spec fic type stories.
M.A.: Walking the Tree was inspired in part by your living experience in Fiji. How did the places you live in and visit influence your writings? What perspectives can such experiences offer for a writer?
K.W.: I am always inspired by my environment. It’s the sights, sounds, smells. The events. The words I hear, what makes the local news, what people talk about in a shopping queue. It’s the food, the weather, how the ground feels. All of this adds texture to all I write.
In Fiji, I wrote Walking the Tree, as well as a number of very Fiji-inspired stories.
“Cooling The Crows” was inspired by the mounds of old cars that seemed to grow organically in a couple of places along the main highway in Viti Levu.
“The Edge of a Thing” was inspired by, amongst other things, a Fijian wedding where an elderly woman collapsed.
“Green” was inspired by the so-called haunted trees of Fiji, whose branches reach out like fingers.
“Ghost Jail” was inspired by a set of flats in Suva, which had long since been condemned, but which were still inhabited.
“The Coral Gatherer” was inspired by a stay in a resort, where there was so much coral on the sand we couldn’t walk. Pieces looked blood stained, and bone-like.
“The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall” was inspired by Colo-i-Suva, a waterfall in Suva, which carries warnings of various kinds.
“That Girl” was inspired by some of the institutions in Suva, including the Mental Hospital and the Jail.
Then I moved back to Canberra, and was inspired by the Australian landscape and how it seemed to my fresh eyes.
“Road” was inspired by the road-side memorials to accident victims.
“Mountain” was inspired by the Clyde Mountain, which all Canberrans know well, because you need to travel over it to get to the coast.
“Creek” was inspired by all the creek names you see as you travel our country.
“Sky” was inspired by many things, including the signs to country towns with ever-decreasing populations.
Living away from your own country in particular gave me a far better understanding of my own identity as an Australian, because you are there amongst so many people from different cultures and backgrounds. It’s an amazing lesson in tolerance, understanding, acceptance and more. Even things like breakfast; we all have our own idea of what is ‘normal’ for breakfast, and this differs vastly! And no breakfast is better than any other.
M.A.: In a series of posts on your blog, “Refreshing the Wells”, the readers can see the various sources of inspiration for your stories. When do you feel that a certain idea can be turned into a story? Does it happen sometimes not to find any suitable ideas around your sources of inspiration?
K.W.: Someone asked me this in person a couple of days ago. “How do you know when an idea can become a story?”
It is an interesting question. You don’t know until you sit down and try to write it. I have hundreds and hundreds of ideas noted down, and only a few of those will become stories.
Usually, it will be when two or more ideas coalesce. Or when I read something which makes a story click. For example, I recently read a story in the New Yorker about a famous dry cleaner, and that clicked something into place for the story I was working on.
It often happens that those ideas won’t be used. But even writing them down is part of the process.
M.A.: Most of your stories are deeply layered with psychological elements. Is the psychological aspect more important than the supernatural one for a horror story? Are you inclined to favor one element or the other in your writings?
K.W.: I think both are important. I layer with psychology because I want my characters and my stories to be believable. I want readers to be drawn into the centre of it all, to really feel as if it is possible.
I love the supernatural elements, too, though. Because the idea that a ghost may be over my shoulder watching is terrifying!
M.A.: Because you play so well the psychological elements in your stories they have as main protagonists clearly defined characters. How important are the characters for you? Are there any autobiographical details finding their way in the characters you create?
K.W.: Characters are vital, the most important thing. When I was first writing, I often started with a character sheet. My first novel, written at 14, began that way. I’ll answer lots of questions about them, including schooling, physical scars, all those sorts of things. So that they are set in my mind.
These days it comes more naturally, because I think I run those character sheets in my head more easily! That said, at times, if I feel that something isn’t working, I’ll go back to my character sheets and answer all the questions.
There are no IMPORTANT autobiographical details in my characters, but small things do sneak in! My husband, when he reads a story, will say, “Oh, I remember when you saw that,” or “Yep, I know where that is.”
In my novel Slights, the primary school scenes are very much inspired by my own memories of childhood. I had my own school in mind as I described certain scenes.
I try to keep myself out of the actual characters, and that can be hard, especially when it comes to things like food and musical taste. I have to actively choose things to suit my character, not myself!
M.A.: Your short story “A-Positive” was turned into a well received short movie. How did you feel to see your fiction brought to life on the screen? Was your presence as screenwriter important for the movie to be on an accurate concordance with the short story that inspired it?
K.W.: Amazing to see it on screen! And shocking at the same time. I watched it for the first time and I thought, “Wow, that is sick. I really did write a nasty, sick, horrible story.” Of course I knew that, but seeing it on screen exaggerated the feeling.
I wrote the first draft of the screenplay, because I wanted to try to keep it true to the story. Michael Cove at Bearcage Productions wrote the final screenplay, and we’ve had some really interesting discussions about the differences in writing for screen and page.
One thing for me was that writing the story as a screenplay made me look at it from a different angle and that was fascinating. Also, the story is very internal and we didn’t want a lot, if any, of voice over. So it was tricky to depict things without the character narrating them.
M.A.: What other of your stories would you like to see turned into a movie? If it were possible who are the actors or actresses you would like to see play your characters?
K.W.: I’d love to see many of them! The Grinding House Novella would be a fantastic movie, I think. Slights would, too. For Slights, my dream actor would be Radha Mitchell.
M.A.: You were nominated and won several awards so far and you also have been a juror for Australian Shadow Award and Shirley Jackson Awards, next year a jury member of the Bram Stoker Award. In a solitary art such as writing are the awards the perfect encouragement for an author? How important are such awards for the improvement of a writer?
K.W.: Awards are a great encouragement, because they tell you that you are doing something right. Of course, not making the shortlist doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong! It just means that for those judges, your story didn’t make the shortlist.
I don’t know that awards improve the writer, but they definitely improve awareness of the writer. When you make shortlists, your name becomes better known.
M.A.: Is it difficult to judge the works of other authors? Is this another form of criticism?
K.W.: I try to take off my author’s hat and put on my reader’s hat when judging. Because otherwise I’d be looking at how I would have written it, rather than how they have written it.
I guess it is a form of criticism, isn’t it? You are saying, I like/don’t like this for these reasons.
M.A.: Looking over this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards list of nominees I’ve noticed some very interesting and pleasantly surprising presences. What do you believe to be the true measure of an author or his works: popularity, sale numbers or writing quality?
K.W.: Writing quality, number one by far. I hate crappy writing. I really hate it. It wastes my time and it annoys me that it is in print!
Popularity and sales numbers are what keeps you in print, so they are important for those reasons. But they can come for so many different reasons, outside your own control, I think. So they are not the ‘measure’ of an author, but more a measure of how the author is promoted, and how word of mouth travels, and all that stuff. I love it when a brilliant work is recognized.
M.A.: At what are you working at the moment and what future projects do you have?
K.W.: Always lots on the go! I’m working on a novel, and about five short stories for various places. As a hint, my obsessions at the moment are: Saturn (planet and god), lighthouses, sea forts, dolls, last things, bread, rocking chairs, birds, institutions, dementia, crime and punishment, the year 1827 and immortality.
My latest story in print is a Zombie versus Robots story in Women on War!
M.A.: Thank you very much for your time and answers.
Kaaron Warren can be found at http://kaaronwarren.wordpress.com/
She tweets @KaaronWarren