2007 Snapshot Archive: Simon Petrie

Interviewed by Alisa Krasnostein

First published at ASiF!

Simon Petrie, a citizen of both the ‘hobbit’ and bunyip’ sides of the ditch, is a relatively new member of the CSFG and of the ASIM co-op. This year, he’s been a repeat offender in the pages of ASIM and the AntipodeanSF webzine, and his short fiction has appeared also in Yog’s Notebook, the FlashSpec 2 antho and elsewhere. In real life, he’s a Canberra-based computational chemistry researcher, about which enough said. He tends a blog athttp://punktortoise.livejournal.com, with the same care and diligence with which he once tended his short-lived collection of indoor cacti …

Q1. Since the last Snapshot, Simon Petrie is a name that has emerged onto the scene. It seems I can’t turn around but fall over a story you’ve written and you’re getting space both in local and overseas markets. How long have you been writing and what kinds of stories do you aim to tell?

Um … how long have I been writing? That should be one of the *easy* questions, shouldn’t it? There are, however, a few different answers to that. 26 years ago [OK: that’ll date me, but it would look worse in binary], I dropped out of Uni (in New Zealand) to become the next great children’s writer, which didn’t happen. I did get a couple of short stories sold (and wrote four, or maybe five, totally unpublishable novels), but after a year I re-inserted myself back into university and have essentially been there ever since. The writing bug has niggled a few times since then, but fairly half-heartedly until about last October, after my partner told me about a training course she’d attended, facilitated by one Gillian Polack who was a member of a Canberra science fiction writers’ group … so at that point the idea took hold, and I’ve been seeing where it leads me.

Back in 1981/82, I’d become steadily more disillusioned with the hard slog of trying to get things accepted. I’d written thirty or forty short stories, a fair proportion of which were obviously crap, but some of which I still think are basically OK, and I’d collected maybe something like a hundred rejection slips. Last year when I started up again, I was bracing myself for the same kind of lack-of-success rate, and it didn’t happen. Several of the dozen or so stories I wrote last year got accepted, and miraculously that’s more or less continued. There are three possible explanations I can come up with: (a) editorial standards in early 21st-century Australia are well below those that applied in late 20th-century NZ; (b) the intervening 26 years of non-fiction-writing life experience may have actually improved my writing ability; or © during a sleepwalking episode I negotiated and signed a pact with the devil, guaranteeing editorial approval for my stories in exchange for my eternal soul. One of those options is clearly nonsensical, so I’m stuck with (b) or ©. Time will tell, perhaps …

The stories I’d like to tell are, I think, a mixed bag. I’m passionate about science fiction, particularly deep-space SF, and there are things I’d like to do along the lines of exploring how humans would cope in some of the truly strange space environments that scientists have been uncovering over the past couple of decades. But I also like exploring humour, and I’ve found it more straightforward to write humorous spec-fic stories that have, so far, had quite a bit of success in finding homes. Some of those are ideas I’ve had rattling around for the past couple of decades, so it’s nice to have them out of my system. I think, though, I need to work more on my serious side, or I’ll get typecast as a humorous spec-fic author. (Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that …)

Q2. You’ve also become involved with ASIM. What are you looking to learn or get out of the experience and what have you learned so far?

Finding out about ASIM was a revelation. Before last year, I’d had some vague sense that, yes, there were spec-fic writers who lived in Australia, probably even some in Canberra. If I’d thought about it (which, in present company, I’m almost ashamed to admit I hadn’t), I might have envisaged that there were one or two Australian spec-fic magazines in existence, in the same way that back in 1982 in NZ there’d been one-and-a-half children’s magazines to write for (I never did get into the other half, but the one that did take two of my stories folded so soon after publishing the second that yes, I may well bear responsibility). But I don’t think I’d have imagined that there was an Australian magazine that favoured *humorous* spec-fic, which seemed like an amazingly good fit for my writing proclivities … I should point out, too, that although I’m an ASIM co-op member and I’ve had four stories accepted by ASIM, three of those were accepted before I looked into joining the co-op, so it’s nepotism by association rather than nepotism pure and simple.

I joined up hoping to find out as much as I could, through immersion, about this Aussie spec-fic scene that I’d stumbled into. (Same reason I joined the CSFG, same reason I’ve started reviewing books, etc…) I think it’s been a fairly steep learning curve. I’ve read a few books’ worth of ASIM slush, the composition of which I now feel considerably more qualified to comment on. (It’s not the ‘90% crap, 6% passable, 4% genuinely good stuff’ distribution that I’d imagined: it’s disheartening how blurred the lines are, and it’s humbling when I find something which is much better than I could achieve on the same topic. A lot of what I read as slush seems quite decent to me, and mainly in need of reshaping or pruning. This probably means, I suspect, that I haven’t read *enough* slush yet: hopefully, as I go on, the divisions between ‘good’ and ‘inadequate’, and ‘original’ and ‘derivative’ will become clearer.)

I’ve also put my hand up for editing an issue, which is something I love about ASIM and something that I see as a strength: the idea that anyone in the collective can, within reason, take the reins for an issue and give a little nudge to the magazine’s direction. (ASIM, wisely, requires that I have a co-editor, in this case Edwina Harvey, an editor of impeccable taste in her own right – you’ll know what I’m referring to here, Eds, if you’re reading this – to ensure I don’t press the self-destruct button too many times. ‘My’ issue, #37, is due out in a bit over a year. I haven’t selected any of the stories for it yet, but I have written the editorial. I suspect that’s the wrong way around, but hell, it’s a good editorial …

Q3. What projects do you currently have in the pipeline? What can we expect to see from Simon Petrie in the coming year?

I’m working on reshaping a few moderately serious SF stories which (I’d like to think) have the potential to be better than what I’ve published so far. Along with that, I think I also need to start targeting the bigger international markets – Asimov’s, Analog etc – which probably means, with snail-mail submission to the US, that any stories I send in that direction will move only slowly. [I love electronic submission! Why would anybody still use anything else? Dinosaurs, they’re just dinosaurs …] So I don’t know if any of that can be expected to be seen in the coming year. However, I’ll still send things into ASIM and AntiSF as appropriate, and the other Australian markets … and I’ll probably have another shot at New Ceres, once I have a decent story idea. [My current NC story idea is limited to a throwaway Cat Stevens reference: a line of dialogue, ‘The premiere cuvee is the cheapest’, and I suspect it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to get something worthy of the NC canon out of *that*.] Stuff that’s been accepted but hasn’t appeared yet … ‘DragonBlog’, in ASIM 33, is the funniest thing I’ve written (and it’s been additionally rewarding to learn how sick most of the ASIM slushreaders are of stories about dragons. So much so, in fact, that I wrote another dragon-focussed piece, ‘Dragonsick’, to give them further grief. Hopefully that one too will find a place before too long.) There are a couple of flash fiction pieces that’ll be coming out in AntipodeanSF around the start of 2008, one of which, ‘Fomalhaut 451’, I think is my best serious SF so far, and I’m chuffed that no-one seemed to have come up with the title before me. [I’d thought my wordplay in the titles of ‘Hare Redux’, ‘Three-Horned Dilemma’, and ‘Zenith Express’, was inventive and original, but I’ve since found, via Google, that all of those have previous incarnations as word clusters. ‘Zenith Express’ even seems to be a *brand name* or something …]

Judging by what everyone else in the snapshot has said, I probably should say I’m working on a novel; but I’m not. I’ve been focussing on short fiction, and it’ll probably stay that way until I have the inspiration of a novel-sized idea. (I have the ideal setting for a novel, mind, a really weird kind of world with thoroughly exotic lifeforms – just nothing to happen in that world yet.)

Q4 Do you read much of the Aus spec fic scene? What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

Since I’ve been contaminating it so effectively, it’s only fair that I’m a voracious devourer of Australian short specfic (though not as omnivorous on that score as some I could name …) So far, this has meant reading through as many ASIM back copies as I can access, Borderlands, TiconderogaOnline, AntiSF, New Ceres, the CSFG anthologies; and, of course, there’s always more. It’s too difficult to remember the exact best of the hundreds of shorts I’ve read in that time, so I’ll restrict myself to my personal favourites of the past few weeks: ‘Fendraaken’, by Kevin Maclean, a fellow Kiwi, and ‘Thyme Machine’, by Darren Goossens, a fellow ANU-employed chemist [I think he works in the next building over from mine.] They’re both in ASIM 30, and if you haven’t acquired a copy yet, you really should …

I don’t think I’ve yet read any recent Aussie long fiction – I’m not ready to write the stuff yet, myself – but I’ll get there in the not too distant future. In terms of novels I have read, I started Alistair Reynold’s The Prefect yesterday, and the first thirty pages feel very promising – I haven’t read Reynold before, but it feels comfortably comparable to Larry Niven and Jack McDevitt, two authors I’m (mostly) in awe of. It has that clean-lined space extrapolation thing which I’m a total sucker for. I know, I know, there are Australian SF novels I should be checking out as well – Dark Space and Saturn Returns for starters – but gimme time, OK? This time last year I wasn’t even remotely thinking about writing SF, and now I’m being interviewed about my influences and all that. (*pinches self*) Another ten years or so, maybe I’ll feel sufficiently well-read to comment authoritatively on this stuff. For now I’m still very much a – what’s the term? – ‘squeeing fanboy’ or some such, amazed that his beginner’s luck has held so long. [And who comes up with this terminology, anyway? Is ‘squeeing’ in the Macquairie Dictionary yet, and if not why not?]

Actually, that blood-contract thing might make some kinda sense, at that, beginner’s luck I mean. It might at least account for the strange cuts I’ve been getting in my index finger …

Q5 – And finally, if you had the chance to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most, who would it be?

Ah, yes, this question. I’d worked out exactly what I was going to say for my favourite swear word, and now you’ve gone and changed the question from what it was in 2005 …Fictional character, hmmm? (*Racks brain, or what passes for it. Thumbs through little black book. Furtively checks bookshelf for inspiration. Whistles nonchalantly, hoping wife isn’t looking*). If we’re talking all media, then it’d be Emma Peel, from the Avengers TV series. (but only from one of the ’66 or ’67 colour episodes, ‘cos I don’t go for that monochrome-girlfriend scene. Champagne optional. Own sports car a must.) If it’s books, then I’d go for Margaret from John Barnes’ wonderful A Million Open Doors, or maybe Asimov’s Susan Calvin, or Jasper Fforde’s Mary Mary, or Sergeant Taura from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, or … uh, where’d I put that little black book, again?

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