2010 Snapshot Archive: Ben Payne

First published at Alexandra Pierce’s LiveJournal.

Ben Payne was born in a cinema near you. He has been the queen of several books, such as Potato Monkey, Andromeda Spaceways, Aurealis, Shiny, 2012, Dog versus Sandwich, Moonlight Tuba (sic) and virtually every other thing you can think of that you enjoyed, well he did that too, just don’t ask him for details. In his spare tire he writes fictional stories, one of which received an honourable mention in Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror, and several other which received dishonourable discharges from anonymous sources. He has a small dog named Mitchell which solves puzzles of no great import.

1. For the last few years you’ve been involved in the Last Short Story project, attempting to read all the speculative fiction short stories published in professional, and semi-professional, outlets across the English-speaking world. Aside from the sheer insanity of it, what have you learnt from the process? Was it ultimately worthwhile for you, as an investment of time?

It’s something I’d recommend to anyone wanting to get a sense of the field, of what’s out there. I’ve always been attracted to broad views, and to puzzling how everything fits together, so I guess I found it satisfying to get a context for how the SF/F/H field interacts and interweaves with itself. There are just so many different venues, all with different vibes. I’ve watched writers trying to piece together clues from guidelines, or rejection slips. But there’s really no substitute for reading the books/ezines/magazines.

On top of that, I got to read a lot of really awesome stories I’d never have happened across on my own.

Eventually, though, it gets to the point where you need to stop the excessive input, and take stock of where you stand amid it. At least that’s how I feel right now. Just as with any project, I suppose, at some point you need to force yourself to stop researching and start acting.

I also think it’s easy, if you do it too long, to become jaded and overly critical. Which isn’t really a mindset conducive to creating.

2. You’ve published some whacky, offbeat stories in your various webzines, especially Dog vs Sandwich. What attracts you to a story? What makes you buy one?

Dog vs Sandwich was the first solo editing project I’d done since my first magazine, Potato Monkey. And part of the experiment of that project, for me, was to learn to unthink the whole story selecting process. I tried to let go of a lot of the baggage that I had about what makes a good story, and reduce it to its simplest terms: a story is a good story if something about it
makes me enjoy reading it. Part of the experience for me was learning not to sand off the rough edges of work. I think it’s the mark of an insecure early-career editor to feel the need to see that you’ve “made your mark” on a story. But I think there’s just as much skill involved in learning when to leave a story’s “imperfections” alone. I’ve tried to carry that philosophy across to my new zine, Moonlight Tuber. I hope the stories I select and publish present my taste, but not my ego.

I’m attracted to what might be dubbed weird fiction because it seems the most free and uninhibited genre, if it could be dubbed a genre. Less dictated by the regulations of plotting, consistency and linearity. Weird fiction is able to capture the fragmented, the contradictory, the confusing, the absurd. It also feels relatively untapped. I realise of course that there is a rich history of experimental and anti-realist literatures. But it feels to me like there are a lot of authors out there who are just beginning
to explore the things they can do, the places they can take a story, and the ways they can break out of the expectations of more traditional notions of “story”. I think it’s a potential we’ve barely skimmed the surface of.

If that all sounds a bit pretentious, then there’s also this: I like weird fiction because it’s fun. A lot of the time, it makes me smile.

3. You’ve recently left the Last Short Story project in order to devote more time to your own creative pursuits. What are you working on at the moment? Will there be more webzines from you in the future, or is it mostly about the writing?

I have a couple of ideas that I’m stirring on the cracked, leaning hot-plate of my creative palette, just waiting to gestate their way into the embryo of my canvas and into the public’s steaming mouths. You’re correct; that mixed metaphor masks an inner uncertainty.

Truth be told, I’ve spent a lot of the last year asking myself why I write, in the same way that I’ve asked why I edit. Like a lot of writers, I think as a younger man, which I almost certainly was, I wrote largely because I had some idea of being a writer. I was never sure exactly what that meant, other than perhaps being allowed to wear a particularly large and fancy hat. I was going to say Important Things, of course, but if I look at my younger self honestly, clear-sightedly, he was, though devilishly handsome, mostly in it for the ego. Like many artists, I grew up painfully insecure and desired fame as a form or internal validation.

I’ve grown used to the fact that there is an infinitesimally small chance that I may never be “that writer” I imagined, the one surrounded by fame and lilos and cute librarian-type women and a mansion made of jellies and a dog that barks my favourite novel at me as I go to sleep. I’ve grown used to the fact that maybe, and none of us ever like to believe this, maybe I’m not…
extraordinary?

So where does that leave artistic dreams? Why write? Why spew more words out into the cacophony of noise (what a useful phrase), into the endless parade of ego and self-congratulation that is artistic recognition? What do you think you have that can possibly make any difference to anyone? What effect do you even want to have on other peoples’ lives?

(I’m not asking you, dear Alex, I’m being me, in my past self-head, in a form of playacting I stole from an unsuspecting vagabond.)

Some days I think I am learning what it means to move my ego out of the way of my own writing. Or maybe that’s just what I *want* you to think!

Maybe I won’t ever write anything of much importance. And I am surprisingly okay about that.

4. With the enormous amount of reading you did last year as part of the Last Short Story project, you must have come across some good Australian work. With Aussiecon4 coming up this September, which Australians do you think should be on the Hugos shortlist of 2010?

I’m torn on the Hugo issue. On the one hand, raising awareness of good writers is a valuable and worthwhile aim. On the other hand, am I the only one who finds the notion of an Australian Worldcon full of Hugo noms for Aussie writers faintly embarrassing? Like all those old Ditmar lists where you can tell by glancing at the shortlists whether the Natcon was held in
Perth or Melbourne.

I think the real goal for any local writer should be to appear on the Hugo shortlist when Worldcon is held in the US.

But you know, not to rain on the whole parade, people should definitely nominate the works by Australian writers which they think are world class. I won’t repeat the names everyone else is listing, because I’m getting tired of hearing their names already and I’d hate to contribute to anyone else’s ennui. So I will mention a couple of names I haven’t heard mentioned: A.M. Muffaz, Penni Russon, Miranda Siemienowicz, Grace Dugan. I’m not saying you should vote for them, just go read their shite, and tell me how right I was when they’re famous and I’m old and infirm and need a chat, y’all!

5. Will you be attending Aussiecon4?

No.

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