Ian McHugh is a graduate of Clarion West and the 2008 grand prize winner in the Writers of the Future contest. He is an intermittently active member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. In 2009, his stories appeared in markets including Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Andromeda Spaceways and Clockwork Phoenix 2. He also won his first Aurealis Award, for best fantasy short story. Most of his short-fiction publications are available to read at http://ianmchugh.wordpress.com.
1. You’ve written a short story set in a fantastical Australia, and you’re working on a novel and other shorts set in the same world. Do you think it’s difficult for Australian writers to write recognisably Australian fantasy? Do you think Australian fantasy is accepted, locally and overseas? And what convinced you that an Australian setting was the direction you wanted to take?
Is it difficult to write recognisable Australian fantasy? Nope. Doesn’t mean an Australian writer always has to, of course – I don’t.
But it’s not hard to make “Australianness” an ingredient. For example, the thing that particularly strikes me is the Australian landscape. It has this amazing, unforgiving presence, which you don’t have to go out to the red bit to find. A Canadian writer friend on seeing his first stand of gum trees just up the street from my house, with all their branches twisted and bark hanging off, said, “Man, those trees are ANGRY!” That kind of powerful, threatening sense of place really feeds a story, I find. I think a lot of Australian readers like to see Australian-influenced settings that are authentic and unselfconscious, and that show a real passion and respect for *this* place – think of Sean Williams’s Books of the Change series, Terry Dowling’s Rynosserros books. In my experience overseas audiences are really taken with a sense of place that’s different from what they’re used to.
My story “Bitter Dreams” that won at WOTF a couple of years ago was the first thing I wrote at Clarion West in 2006. I’d had a notion to ease my way into the workshop with a bit of all-balls-and-no-brains zombie-western schlock. But then Paul Park read us all these amazing stories in the first week, one of which was Tony Daniel’s “A Dry, Quiet War”, which blew my mind (go here:
http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/quietwar.htm). After that I thought, “If I’m going to write a Western, I’m going to have to reach a bit higher than I thought.” So the first thing I did was moved it to Australia. It changed everything about both the “western” and the “zombie” parts of the story. It totally changed what the characters needed to be. The land didn’t seem to support the larger than life archetypes that the American monumental landscape sustains, so the characters had to become smaller, worn down, closer to the brink of just quietly failing and fading away, in order to fit in. Working through all that for the first time, and then getting such an overwhelming response from a non-Australia audience in my classmates and teachers, absolutely rocked. I was pretty much hooked on it from then.
2. 2006 saw you attend Clarion West – and survive. What was that like, as an experience? What were the major benefits for you?
Clarion West wasn’t about survival for me. We had a really closeknit group, most of whom have stayed in contact since. *Leaving* was the survival challenge, I felt like an imposter in my own life when I landed back in Canberra.
CW was a once in a lifetime, life-changing experience. There’s things I could have done better or got more out of, and some things I frankly f***ed up, but so much that had a profoundly positive impact on me, too. It certainly improved my writing (although I’m still a crap judge of how good or bad what I’ve written is). One big benefit of CW for me has been establishing a group of friends and peers in North America – ie, in the market you want to crack as a writer. The downside of that, compared to attending Clarion South – and it’s a big downside – is that I’m now on the wrong side of a very, very big ocean from them, and I’ve managed to see just over half of my classmates again only once in nearly four years. Sucks. A lot.
3. To date you’ve sold a number of short stories to a range of outlets, including Asimov’s and </i>Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine</i>. What direction do you see your work taking in the future? More short stories, novels?
I doubt that I’ll ever stop writing short stories – the ideas keep wanting to get out. The trick is making the time and space to write and edit the damn things and then send them off to markets. Life kind of fell in a heap for me over the second half of last year – or I fell in a heap, one of the two – and my writing pretty much stalled while I crawled into my cave to sort myself out, but I have a couple of larger projects staggering along as well. I finished the first, massively bloated draft of a novel set in the same fantasy Australia as a couple of my short stories in April 2009, and nearly a year later have just recently started reading it. I’ve been kicking around a graphic novel version of “Bitter Dreams” since I went to WOTF, and in January finally got the first half of the story off to the artist in script format. And I’ve received a grant for this year from artsACT to turn the same story into a screenplay. Generally, my direction this year is to build writing stuff back into my day-to-day, so: write, read, try and pick up the connections with people I’ve let lapse over the past months, get back to the CSFG crit circle, submit some stories, dammit! I’m in my second year of eligibility for the John W Campbell award this year, so getting a few more stories out there in some decent
markets wouldn’t hurt.
4. Aussiecon4 is coming up this year; there’s been a lot of buzz about Australians getting nominated for Hugo awards. Which Australians do you think have put out work over the last year that ought to be nominated?
Mm, reading pretty much went the same way as writing for me last year, so I have to guiltily confess that I’ve read bugger all fiction while digging out from under my heap, let alone Australian fiction. I think the only new books I read in 2009 were Alain De Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and Voyages of the Pacific Ancestors: Vaka Moana. I certainly haven’t paid any attention at all to whatever Hugo news there might’ve been. Kaaron Warren’s a writer who’s work I’ve loved since I read an abridged version of “The Glass Woman” in the CSFG Gastronomicon. Although I suspect her novel Slights is probably something to look out for more with the Stokers than the Hugos.
5. Will you be attending Aussiecon4? If you are, what are you most looking forward to?
I’m certainly planning to, I’ve got my membership. There’ll be at least some friends and acquaintances from overseas there (not to mention around the country) that I want to see. Yeah, although probably the thing I’m really looking forward to most will be being in Melbourne for the start of the footy finals. I’ve never been to a game at the G, so that’d definitely be on the itinerary.