2007 Snapshot Archive: Sean McMullen

Interviewed by Kathryn Linge

First published at ASiF!

Sean McMullen is a writer and his most recent book is the YA thriller ‘Before the Storm’, published by Ford Street Publishing. His website is: http://www.seanmcmullen.net.au/

1. Your new book, ‘Before the Storm’, has been described in review as ‘an unlikely marriage between The Terminator and the Bronte sisters’. Do you think this is an apt description and, if so, how did you come up with the book’s concept? (If not, how would you describe it?)

Believe it or not, I was not thinking Terminator when I wrote Before the Storm. I was in the air, in a United Airlines plane when the S11 attacks took place, so I am a bit sensitive on the subject of terrorism at the best of times. When I got back to Australia, I began to wonder if an attack that killed two or three thousand people could happen in Australia, then I recalled that a crowd of that size had been in the Exhibition Buildings in May 1901 for the opening of Australia’s first parliament. A bombing at such an event could well have changed the entire course of the Twentieth Century if it got the British Empire fighting another major power. World War 1 was triggered by a single assassination, after all. Then I got the idea for a couple of elite cadets from a hyper-militaristic British Empire of the future coming back through time to prevent the bombing. These are BC and Fox, but they are closer to Jason Bourne than a Terminator. Muriel is way too sexy to be one of the Bronte sisters, while Emily has about as much drive as Margaret Thatcher, and not really a Bronte either. While the review quote is a brilliant one-liner, it is not entirely accurate. Like all time travel stories, the book is also about a clash of cultures, in this case 1901 Australia and the 2001 alternate-history British Empire. One reader compared it to Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind, and that is probably a good summary of the overall style: serious issues with funny writing.

2. You’ve had a number of books and series come out through US Publisher Tor. How did this relationship come about and what differences have you found working with an international publisher compared to an Australian one?

I sent the ms for The Centurion’s Empire to the local Tor rep in Australia after it had been rejected by sundry Australian publishers. They bought it. It won an award, made a profit, etc. Since then they have bought another seven books. My auditable sales are well into six figures, and the reviews vary between good and excellent, so Tor seems happy to keep buying what I write. Over recent years my re-sales into foreign languages have been really super, but then my agent is particularly sharp when it comes to European re-sales. I suppose the difference between being published in the States and Australia is that I am not all that well known in Australia. Occasionally Australian readers are surprised that I don’t have an American accent, and I have to explain that I was born here and live here. I try to get to America once a year, and there it’s all signings, talks, panels, even TV interviews … then I get back to Australia and I get “So you’re Sean McMullen. I heard you wrote a book.” On the other hand, Ford Street Publishing has been working very hard on raising my local profile since Before the Storm came out about a month back, so maybe Australians will get to know me better.

3. I understand you are just finishing a Phd!!? Was your thesis related to your writing, or is it on a different subject entirely? What does the future hold for you?

I actually finished the writing part last friday at 5.15am. I still have a couple of months of cleaning everything up and checking consistency, but I will still submit early, which is apparently uncommon. It was meant to be a creative writing PhD but my dissertation’s statistical model for popular arcadianism in medieval literature has come to dominate the whole exercise. One discovery is that the stats show certain popular medieval fantasy works having a lot in common with similar Twentieth Century popular movies, which has a few people in the movie industry interested. The creative work took about five months to write, the dissertation and general research took nearly five and a half years. Still, I suppose the exercise is more about the process of how an author writes and creates, rather than the actual work, so this is probably fair enough. The future – re the PhD, I presume you mean? I don’t know, I’ve not thought about it. I’ve written five other books and been working full time as an IT training manager while doing the PhD, so I do have other things going on. I mean to go for my 4th dan in karate once the PhD is out of the way. I’ve been third dan for nine years, which is all a bit embarrasing. I should take up fencing again, too.

4. What’s the best thing you’ve read this year (Aussie or otherwise)?

Most of what I’ve been reading has been written before 1400 for the past five or so years, but I did enjoy Neil Gaimen’s Fragile Things a couple of months ago. His writing has immense charm and style, yet is also sufficiently off-centre to be really engaging.

5. Finally, and certainly most inappropriately, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who will it be and why?

Interesting question, and I assume you mean one of my own fictional characters. Okay, I’m incorrigably heterosexual, so that excludes the male characters. Moving on to the women … I write them to be interesting and memorable, rather than my sort of girlfriend. If I saw Zarvora coming down the street, I’d cross to the other side, and if I saw Lemorel I’d turn and run. What would I do if Wensomer accosted me at a party? Probably climb out through the bathroom window and dash for my motorbike. That said, in general I really like women with strong personalities. My girlfriend is a manager, so quad erat demonstrandum. In my novels I write my characters to be realistic and interesting, yet also a little larger than life. Were I a teenager again, I think I would really like to date Muriel Baker from Before the Storm. She is creative, intelligent, beautiful, ambitious, alluring and a lot of fun to be with. On the other hand, I doubt that she would bother with the teenage me for very long.

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