Creating worlds is hard. Or, should I say, creating believable worlds is hard. Thankfully, earlier this week, I was able to sit down with an expert.
I e-met science-fiction/fantasy author Lee Battersby when he emailed me through my website and asked me to judge the City of Rockingham’s Christmas Poetry Competition. I judged that competition twice and, through a lot of bad luck, I have yet to meet Lee in person.
I’ve read two of Lee’s books (Magrit and The Corpse-Rat King) and have been dying to ask him how he builds such fantastical, but believable worlds.
When I was writing the first draft of my novel, I had a lot of doubt about the world I was creating – a world which looks eerily like our own, but with some science-fiction elements.
My novel is character driven, and I feel the believability of the science fiction elements rely on them, rather than on the setting. It is through my characters the science fiction elements are discovered, and it is, therefore, through the characters that these elements will be believed.
One thing I’ve found interesting about Lee’s responses is his last answer on having adventures because, “if you have a boring life, your writing will show it.”
I’ve experienced a lot of trauma in my life, and it is these experiences that I’ve focused on in my novel (I’ve written more about this here). Lee talks about verisimilitude, and how the different places he has lived have given him a wider variety of experiences to draw on in his writing.
With that being said, Lee also says it’s rarely a conscious decision for him to draw on a particular setting. I consciously set out to write about trauma but, like Lee, I did not consciously choose the setting when writing the first draft.
Looking back, I’ve found I focused on places that would help reflect the inner turmoil of the narrator.
Something else I’ve been drawn to in Lee’s responses is how he reflects on his own experiences by saying a lot of his writing focuses on the outsider; “people with only a personal sense of self to lose”.
I keep coming back to this line because it reflects the narrator in my own novel so well. By drawing a connection between this kind of narrative and his own experiences, Lee’s provoked me to do the same.
I’m very conscious of the fact that the trauma which shapes the narrator is inspired my own experiences. Could my representation of her as an outsider also be reflective of me in some way?
You recently left your job at the City of Rockingham and moved to Karratha. Has the change in location changed your writing in any way?
In the most significant way, really: it’s given me some actual time to write. The Rockingham job was a ridiculous time-sink, requiring regular weekends and evenings, and more than a few 60 or 70 hour weeks. Whenever we had a big event on, I could find myself pulling 14 or 15 day weeks. Plus the stress was overwhelming: apart from the day to day stress of managing big events, there was more than enough workplace harassment and outright bullying to go round. Eighteen months away from leaving, I couldn’t get into the workplace without having a cry in the car park first, and all I wanted to do when I got home was curl up in bed and pretend I was somewhere else.
Thankfully, we found a way out of that life. I work a couple of days a week doing relief teaching, now, and despite constant pressure from the school to work extra days, I get at least a day or two a week to get some writing in. I’ve finished a novel manuscript that was previously stalled for going on 2 years—the Job That Soured had killed any momentum I might have hoped to get from the publication of my last novel, ‘Magrit’, so I’m having to start all over again and try to recreate my career arc. I’m working on a collection of linked stories that have been in the works for a long, long while. And, assuming I can work my way back into the marketplace, I might just be able to pull something from the ruins of what came before.
How do you juggle family life and your writing? What does your writing schedule look like?
Ha! So often, I don’t. The last three years have been particularly difficult. My day job was high-stress, high-commitment, and the ongoing harassment and bullying pretty much brought my self-balance crashing down around my ears. My career ran aground—I wasn’t writing, was barely making it through each work day in one piece, and any momentum and routine I’d managed to build up went pffft. Thankfully, I’m in a much better environment now. My wife and I have, essentially, engineered a job swap. She was desperate to get into the workforce after 25 years of being the home-based partner. Once she graduated with her teaching degree she took a job here in Karratha. I work part-time, and am the home-based partner for the rest of the time. I spend most of my time ferrying our teenagers around to their various interests, running two slow-cookers simultaneously, and finding excuses to delay cleaning the toilets. Writing-wise, I try to maintain a Graham Greene-ish schedule of 500 words a day, and I’m editing a 70,000 word YA novel at the moment: I can usually manage about 5 pages a day before the lines begin to blur into each other, so I’ve printed the whole thing out, stapled it into 5 page sections, and I pick away at it, one section at a time.
An average non-work weekday gives me between 8am and 2pm to myself, to do all the things. If I’m rolling, I can hit 500 words in half an hour. If not, it can take me, say, two hours. The editing takes an hour or so, if I’m on form. I try to assign an hour to general work—correspondence, interview questions, and so on. Another hour to 90 minutes for housework. I try to get to the pool two or three times a week to get some sort of exercise in. And the rest of the time I try to spend with family once they’re home. That’s the ideal, anyway. Ask me how often I’ve achieved it……
How important do you think it is for a writer to develop a community around themselves? What did your community look like in Perth and how has it changed?
I think it’s important for a writer to be aware of their wider community, and know what’s happening within their industry. While I was in Perth it was easier, but even as isolated as I am, I use Facebook and the internet to keep in touch with the various State industry organisations such as writingWA and Poetry WA. I’ve made a number of friendships over the years—not many, but some—within the field, and it’s necessary to understand what’s happening around you.
I think technology has really changed what community means over the last 20 years—it’s possible to create and maintain a circle of peers without ever meeting them in the flesh, which I think suits many of us quite well. I’m quite solitary by nature, so I’m much better suited to appearing at events than having super besties forever. I used to attend the local annual SF convention in Perth, but stopped when it became apparent that I really didn’t fit in. And I did try to maintain a social life with other local SF writers, but that dried up over time—there aren’t that many who particularly like me, which is a situation I’ve become used to over the years.
I absolutely love, on the other hand, Writer’s Festivals and symposia. Anything where it’s about the work. It’s all a matter of what type of interaction suits you best, and how you regulate that. I’m less a fan of product (TV shows, films, etc) that require slavish devotion to be considered a ‘real fan’ than I am a geek of the writing process itself—my ideal interaction is to be learning from other authors, particularly those who work in a field I admire and am not much good at, myself—I love listening to poets for that reason, for example. Ultimately, it’s a solo endeavour, and every other writer is going about their business, so you have to learn to develop your own instincts, and your own networks outside of the ability to meet face to face.
Your bio says you moved from Nottingham to Kambalda. I lived in Kambalda West when I was younger! How have the different places you’ve lived shaped your writing, if at all?
I’ve moved around a lot: I’ve never lived in one house for more than 5 or 6 years. Never really put down roots, never planted a fruit tree and been around long enough to actually take fruit from it. It’s bred a certain sense of dislocation, I guess. I never feel at home anywhere, or with any group of people. I always feel like an outsider, a temporary addition, soon to move on and be forgotten. What that has given me, I suppose, is an outsider’s perspective. I’m never so immersed in any space that I become blinded to it. And if I stop to look back at my work so far– which all the Gods please prevent me from doing– there are an awful lot of stories about outsiders, people with only a personal sense of self to lose, being drawn into at least an attempt at belonging somewhere against their will, or having their self-created paradises breached by barbarian outsiders.
One bright side is that I have experienced a wide range of landscapes and environments. From desert, to beach, to rainswept greylands, and at the moment, isolated sun-baked mining grounds. It all drips out into the work. But it’s not really a conscious thing: I’ve never set out to exploit my beachside years by writing a deliberately ‘beachy’ story, for example, but I recently completed a story that required a character to spend time at a rock-strewn cove, and memories of Point Peron in Rockingham enabled me to picture the sounds, the smells, the feel of wet rock under my feet… all those elements necessary for (I hope) verisimilitude.
You contributed to a Doctor Who short story collection in 2007. What do you think of the BBC casting a female in the lead role? Do you think it’s a token gesture for inclusion or does it have potential to add depth to the narrative?
I think it’s an absolutely brilliant opportunity to change the narrative, and ask some gender-loaded questions that the series has never really approached before. I can’t wait to watch the new episodes. I’m largely in favour of gender-swapping roles: my one caveat being that the swap be an opportunity to examine the narrative from a genuinely female point of view, and challenge what is, in many cases, a lazy set of male-centric assumptions. The recent Ghostbusters reboot was a fantastic example of that approach—not to mention that the sad fanboy backlash that resulted was a perfect example of why such re-examinations matter. Where it doesn’t work, and worse, where it can actually undermine the really positive gains to be made, is where there’s no further intent than just to write ‘Guy character as a girl’. Then it’s pointless, and empty. But our entertainment media—literature, film and TV particularly—operates from such a male-centric set of assumptions and attitudes that we need to ask the questions that 51% of our population deserve to have answered. And if a direct inversion of the accepted tropes can help do that, then all to the better.
You write fantasy, science fiction, and horror (stating the obvious, I know). How do these genres differ from each other, and in what ways do they support and complement each other?
At their most base levels, they’re all facets of the same genre—that of the fantastic. Where they differ is in the way the author approaches the narrative, and the levels to which the common tools are brought into play. To take a very common trope— princess is sacrificed to dragon, knight attempts to rescue princess, hi-jinks ensue (and if ever there was a trope that deserved gender-swapping…)—it can easily be represented in any number of ways, depending on how the author arranges the narrative components.
The key is that the world is altered in a way that initially defies logic. The way in which that alteration impacts the characters involved, and the ways they seek to define and affect their own changes, is governed by those narrative tools the author chooses. What all forms of storytelling ultimately have in common is the requirement to maintain believability for as long as the story is being told. Lose the reader, cause them to doubt what you’re telling them, drop them out of the story, and it doesn’t matter what genre you’re working in: you’ve failed.
Where I think we go wrong, as authors, is that we tend to focus on genre as part of the act of creation, instead of telling the story we want to tell, and working out what type of genre it fits into afterwards (or if we’re really lucky, letting a publisher work that out post-sale). Authors like China Meiville, Jonathan Lethem, and Angela Carter transcend genre boundaries with disdainful ease, and remain compellingly readable and utterly iconic—you can tell a Meiville story without having his name spoken first. That’s the ideal, for me.
Would you consider yourself a speculative fiction writer?
I try not to, or at least, to not consider myself just a speculative fiction writer. I have a deep, and life-long, love of speculative fiction, but as a writer I’m very wary of being stuck within one genre or point of view. I’ve only ever wanted to write whatever I want, when I want, without being tied down to one perception, or one readership. So I’ve sold a children’s book, and poetry, and crime short stories, and so on along the way. With the children’s novel, in particular, it was very interesting to interact with an entire readership—and industry—that was unaware of my previous work. They talked about me like I was somebody new and untried, when I’d been around the better part of fifteen years. At heart, though, I pretty much always think at the fantastical end of the spectrum—even my stand-up comedy, back in the day, involved flights of fantasy rather than gritty satirical unpickings of the real world. So whatever I’m writing, it tends to have that fantastic element.
Do you have any advice for authors on how to build worlds?
Everything we do as authors hinges on verisimilitude—investing our stories with enough believability that the readers believes everything we say, even if it’s only for as long as it takes to tell the story. So it’s important to understand that the worlds we build are composed of interacting components, much as our own is. It’s not enough just to (for example) introduce guns into Roman Britain—such a development will have significant impacts economically, culturally, scientifically, militarily…. If your created world is simply “Roman Britain exactly as it was but with guns” I won’t believe you. Any world you build, and narrative you create, is only as good as the characters it impacts. Creating a setting for its own sake isn’t enough. People care about people.
Other than that, experience is everything. Say yes to dumb ideas. Take risks. Step outside your comfort zone as often as possible. Have lots of sex, with lots of different people. Travel. Try a bunch of jobs, and leave them all when they get boring. Take courses. Try as many drinks as possible, once. Smoke pot, once. See how long you can go without saying no. Never visit a town without visiting its museum, its art gallery, and its library. Drive every machine you can. Get into a fight, once. Get into situations where you absolutely, definitely, have to use your wits to get out. If you have a boring life, your writing will show it. Have adventures, as often as you can. Did I mention the sex?
Lee Battersby is the author of three novels, as well as over eighty short stories in the US, Europe, and Australia. He is the winner of the Aurealis, Australian Shadows, and Australian SF ‘Ditmar’ awards for speculative fiction, and was the first Western Australian winner in the international Writers of the Future competition. His most recent novel, ‘Magrit’, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize and was awarded a White Raven Award by the International Children’s Library.
He is sadly addicted to Lego, Nottingham Forest Football Club, and graphic novels. He currently lives in Karratha, with his wife, author Lyn Battersby, and two giant teenagers.
He can be found online at the Batthaim (https://leebattersby.com/) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/lee.battersby.94 and https://www.facebook.com/batthaim/)