Interview by Ben Peek
K.J. Bishop’s novel The Etched City has won the William L. Crawford Award for Best First Novel and the Ditmar Award for Best Novel. In addition to that, it has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, Aurealis Award, and IHG Award for Best First Novel. She is also up for a Campbell Award at the moment. She needs a blog, obviously, but at her website there is some free fiction for y’all to get. Yes, I just said y’all.
1) You began publishing in 1997 in Aurealis, with the short story ‘The Art of Dying’. The years following that saw four or five short stories, which while not prolific, were enough to keep people aware of you in the Australian scene. But then The Etched City arrived and, suddenly, you were on the World Scene (notice my subtle capitalisation). That must have been one hell of a transition. I imagine drugs and cheap marriages in Vegas and plastic surgery gone wrong… Still, what was it really like?
Before World Scene, chop wood and carry water; after World Scene, chop wood, carry water, and try to ignore the sense that people are watching you chop and carry. Remind myself that they’re not actually watching me, because I’m just not that important!
Seriously, it was wonderful. I mean, to not only get the book published but to have those good reviews and so forth, it felt rather like a dream. The best part was that it allowed me to meet some of my favourite writers, people I might have had trouble meeting otherwise. I got a lovely review from Michael Moorcock; I think that pretty much satisfied my craving for recognition. I mean, that was magic. And I’ve met some wonderful people via email — people who’ve written to me about the book, then we’ve got talking and become friends.
I have to say, though, it still feels like a dream. In one way, everything has changed; obviously I’m very happy about the book’s success. And now I’m a writer instead of what I was doing before — scanner operater, envelope stuffer, piano player in a whorehouse, etc. But the day-to-day reality of my life hasn’t changed that much. I haven’t suddenly become wealthy, or tall…
Unfortunately, I already did my cheap wedding in Moonee Ponds. I’d have loved an Elvis chapel wedding. Maybe Stu and I could go to Vegas and get married again, just for the fun of it.
2) In recent interviews, you’ve talked publicly about writing a very different book to The Etched City, something that might only be related to the speculative fiction genre in a vague way–and then, maybe not at all. Was it a difficult to make that choice, given the overwhelming positive reaction (and financial joy brought) to The Etched City?
Nah, not difficult. Ideas come to me not in battalions but as single spies, so it’s more a case of working with what comes along. Yes, the conventional wisdom is that I should write another fantasy, for, you know, the sake of my career. But I don’t actually have ambitions concerning a career. I have ambitions concerning writing, which is different. I have a lot of curiosity about writing; I want to try different paths and see where they take me. I’m also a bit contrary. I really don’t like being told what to do, which includes tacit expectations.
That said, I’d love to write another fantasy. But I need to fall in love with a character, a place, something — the element of eros has to be there, and so far nothing has come along. I’ve got stuff that I work on, projects that live on blocks in the back yard of my mind, but no dream machine has come out of the tinkering yet.
As far as money goes, it isn’t as if anyone has waved a tantalising sum at me to write a book similar to The Etched City. But I’m sure I’d have my price; when love is absent, money may yet suffice. If anyone out there wants to make it worth my while to write a sequel or a clone, post an offer to email@example.com. Pounds or Euros, please.
3) There’s been a lot of talk in these interviews about the local scene not being critical enough of the work it publishes. Where’s your stance on that and the work produced?
That’s a hard one. Lately I haven’t been reading a lot of science fiction or fantasy, Australian or otherwise, so I’m not really qualified to have a stance on this. Is there a branch (or even a twig) of the publishing industry, anywhere in the world, that is sufficiently critical of the work it publishes?
4) You’re dead. It’s not so glamorous playing piano in a whorehouse, but it never suited you as much as the gunfighting. Sure, you played piano after you bought yourself a pistol and answered the dueling calls from other piano players in other whorehouses, but it was th thrill you wanted and for a moment everything was very very wild in the West… but there was always someone younger. Bullets in the back of the head, like Wild Bill Hickok, and your opium habit are what did you in. Anyhow, being dead, you go to Heaven (assuming you believe, and so on and so forth) and you see God. You say?
Taking my cue from Anna Tambour — if God turns out to be Shiva I go all fangirly, simper at his dwarf-trampling feet, and start playing with his fabulous hair. If it’s Buddha up there I say, ‘Ok, I give up, what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ If it’s Jehovah, I’m so surprised to have actually made it to heaven that all poise deserts me and I say, ‘Lord, I can see right up Your nose!’
5) Favourite swear word?
Shit, for nostalgic reasons. It was the first word I ever said, when I tripped over a doorstep and bumped my little noggin. I also like the variant shite — it has a Gaelic, poetic, Yeatsian tone.