Interview by Ben Peek
1) As a member of the Australian speculative fiction scene, you’ve been around since the 90s, with your zine Burnt Toast. In that time, you’ve published short fiction in respectable anthologies like Southern Blood, written RPG material for universes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and done a whole heap more. What keeps you around, David, and why in such diverse fields?
I’m not sure I really am a member of the scene in any meaningful way — so maybe I’ve managed to stick around by virtue of not becoming pissed off with anyone.
Well, not too pissed off, anyway.
I have done a variety of different things, but they all really descend from two distinct modes of writing, seemingly contradictory. One is my love of structure and definition, and my eternal bent for research (it seems I can never write about something which I actually know, but maybe I just don’t know enough to start with). The most obvious manifestation of that is the History of Horror, which blossomed from humble beginning in Burnt Toast #13 into a rather large amount of work. It also feeds all sorts of other stuff, from a gallery of local comics (271 titles and counting), and a career as a computer programmer.
The other strand is an attempt to capture all sorts of slippery emotions and sensations with mere words, trying to bypass all visual and even rational tools to strike a deeper vein. That may sound wanky, and possibly it is, but it’s also pretty accurate. After various discussions and readings on the subject, it seems one of the most profound influences on my writing is simply my own inability to form internal visual representations. Words and feelings is all I’ve got.
Likewise, while I strive for clarity in my non-fiction, the same could not always be said of my stories. It’s not that I am trying to keep facts back from the audience, it’s just that I usually don’t know what those facts are, nor much care about them if they don’t add to the effect I want. I do know that can alienate readers, and the rhythms I imbue a story with aren’t always obvious from the other side of the page. But you work with what you have, and I am tottering slowly towards a larger piece of fiction, which on past evidence may provide enough context to carry the whole thing off.
So add an attention to detail to the power of emotional storytelling and you get, well, a lot of odd little stories published here and there (and more that haven’t been published anywhere), and a sprawling website on a vast array of horror-related topics.
That’s about it, thus far — plus the gaming of course
2) RPG writing (and gaming in general) doesn’t get a whole lot of respect as a medium for writing, but it’s as valid as any form, really. What are some of the concerns you have when you sit down to write?
Diplomacy becomes you, my lad.
I’m actually moving out of RPG writing fairly rapidly, but I never quite get round to saying so (for them wot cares). There’s a fabulous project I’m trying to get up and running, which requires about three highly unlikely things to coalesce, and I figure I would look rather stupid if it did happen and I had already announced my retirement. Still, I have no concrete plans at this stage, and have let some previous opportunities slip away unmourned, such as the pursuit of work on White Wolf’s rebooted World of Darkness.
I can well imagine RPG writing not getting respect, but I’ve been really happy with the projects I’ve worked on. It has stretched me in lots of different ways. For example, I wrote a 12,000 word story for a Demon book which I was really pleased with. It had character and action and plot (two of which haven’t been exactly omnipresent in my work), and also happened to illustrate various concepts in the game. Likewise, I’ve written a 2,200 word story for a book not yet released, that I would consider as good as many of my non-gaming works.
Of course, it’s a lot more than story telling, and perhaps the real reason I have done so much work on RPGs is that the discipline most successfully combines the two approaches I have to writing. Game rules aren’t really my strong point, but I do tend to attack them in a structured and mostly successful fashion, I think (my computer programming has come in helpful there, every now and again). Likewise there’s what amounts to essay writing and information gathering, from a discussion of politics in a campaign world, to the mapping of Sunnydale.
(The most research I have ever done in my life was for a RPG book co-written with Kyla around 1999, which will likely never be published, alas.)
To answer your question though, my concerns in RPGs have always been trying to capture a certain sense of coolness and possibility. I don’t really think about people sitting down and playing any of my games (it’s not like I managed to organise many myself). I don’t think about Angel or Buffy or whoever careening around my plotlines (not even naked). I just try to convey the mood of my assigned world with lots of nice little details for people to grab onto if they wish, and, as always, build a feeling of horror and awe with casual atrocity and misunderstood intentions. RPG writing allows me to set all that up, without having to wrap the results under a neat little bow — that’s left as an exercise for the reader.
3) Your honest opinion of the quality of the local scene, it’s positives and negatives.
Honestly? Buggered if I know. I don’t read many short stories, and that remains the bulk of local writing. Likewise, I read almost no SF or conventional fantasy, so there are many Australian novelists I haven’t caught up with either. I don’t think this is a very good situation for me to be in, but at the same time I don’t regret my focus.
Having said that, what I can see of the local scene is really good. Cat, Bill and Rob have put together some great anthologies, and there are all these nice things dancing on the edge of my perception, like Orb and Borderlands and Dark Animus. Quite a lot is going on, and people are moving on up to collections and novel contracts and even film options. Yet we haven’t reached a size where we can support a proper infrastructure of editors and critics and groupies, and so a lot of what does happen is just the furious spinning of wheels to no great effect. Maybe we will hit that critical mass, but I can’t see it happening soon. It seems far more likely that it won’t ever, and out best hope is the shrinking of the world into a global community, with a wide-spread tolerance for local styles and concerns.
I have spent some time thinking about local sensibilities when it comes to “genre” fiction, most of it in relation to films and comics (as can be seen from the appropriate sections of the website). I could argue there is a uniquely Australian mood which descends from novels such as On the Beachand Wake in Fright, on through Peter Weir and Nick Cave (and not forgetting Mad Max or Peter Carey), and into the writing of Kirsten Bishop and Brendan Duffy as well. I’m not saying we should become a slave to that quality, nor that it can be captured and bottled (particularly with such ill definition as I’ve provided here — it’s to do with a sense of alienation and loss). I do think it’s nice to know that there is not only a lot of talented Australians, but that you can point to something bigger than any of them.
4) You’re dead. Your oddly comical death in a 7/11 freezer explosion can be bought in one of those underground snuff videos. Still, you go to Heaven and God is there, waiting. What do you say?
“I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
5) Favourite swear word?
“Bouncing baby bandicoots” has long been under-rated as an expression of visceral disgust at the horrors of the world — but no longer, if I have anything to do with it.