2010 Snapshot Archive: Karen Healey

First published at tansyrr.com.

Karen Healey is a New Zealander living in Australia doing a PhD on American superhero comics. Her debut novel, Guardian of the Dead, a YA contemporary fantasy set in New Zealand, comes out in April.

1. Your book already has lots of people buzzing – the blurbs on your website include enthusiastic recommendations from Holly Black, Libba Bray, Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan! I was particularly interested to learn that your teen girl protagonist is neither slim nor conventionally attractive – still a rarity in current YA – and that your magic system is influenced by Maori mythology, which must come with a whole lot of cultural baggage attached to it. Were you ever worried that these factors might hold your book back from publication? That Guardian of the Dead might be too unusual to make it this far? How difficult (or indeed, easy) has your road to publication been?

No, not really, which in retrospect might have been naive, but it all worked out, so perhaps not? I do feel that the premise turned some people off – I got one rejection that thought the book was “too New Zealandy”, which made me laugh – but that’s fine. Editors have so many great manuscripts on submission, they’re answerable to their bosses, and they do have to be really picky about what they feel they can sell and what fits into their catalogues. I’m really happy with both Allen and Unwin and my American publishers, Little, Brown. My editors there like what they feel is the originality of the work, including Ellie’s weight and looks and what I’ve done with Maori mythology.

My biggest fear wasn’t that no one would want the book because it was too unusual, but that I would poorly present Ellie’s experience of being large, misrepresent Maori heritage, or cause harm to potential Maori readers through cultural appropriation (since I’m average-sized and Pakeha). I tried my best to avoid being a jerk through various methods, including a lot of research and cultural consultation, but I’m not really the best judge of whether I managed it, so we’ll see!

My path to publication was actually fairly easy, though it was of course horribly nervewracking! Holly Black saw the first chapters at a workshop and recommended I query her agent, Bary Goldblatt. I did, he signed me up as a client, and then sent the manuscript out, where it collected its fair share of rejections before getting some offers from some great houses. I had to make a few hard decisions, but I’m happy with the results of my choices.

2. I read that you’re doing a PhD on gender issues in comic books, which made me squee just a little bit, because it sounds like a thesis that really needs to be written. What do you want most from a comic, as a woman and a reader? Also, who are your favourite superheroes and why?

I actually am not! I am doing a PhD on superhero comics and fan culture, which tangentially touches upon gender issues and utilizes some feminist theory and a great deal of fan theory from women. I agree that a thesis on gender issues in comics totally does need to be written though! I think a couple of people are working on it.

What I want most from a comic as a reader is a great story and compelling characters, and as a woman, that includes not being insulted or jolted out of the narrative by awful depictions of women, either textually or in the art. There’s nothing to shock you out of an interesting story of blowing stuff up like a female superhero apparently delivering all her dialogue from her ass, and it is just so, so dispiriting and boring to see “she was raped!” as motivation for a female character, good or bad, doing anything. It’s so lazy.

My favourite superheroes are Misty Knight, Barbara Gordon, Connor Hawke, Emma Frost, and Jean Grey – all smart, competent, complex characters with long histories and some great storylines. But my favourite of all time is probably Jaime Reyes, AKA Blue Beetle III, AKA the best person in the entire DC Universe.

3. I’m sure it’s hard to see past that April publication date, but what’s next for you, writingwise? What are you working on right now? Do you see yourself writing works set in Australia now that you live here, or is your heart always going to be in New Zealand?

My second book, currently called SUMMERTON, has sold to Allen and Unwin and Little, Brown. It’s again set in New Zealand, this time in a small, far-too-perfect, West Coast town where three teenagers try to find the real reasons behind their older brothers’ apparent suicides. Besides revising SUMMERTON, I’m working on a few things right now – researching one book (set in Europe), writing another, planning a sequel to GUARDIAN – those two are both NZ-based.

I love Australia, too, though, especially Melbourne, which I think is my favourite city ever! I actually have ideas for a YA sci-fi not-too-distant future story set in Melbourne – I think the city’s environmental challenges and diversity are fertile ground for considering the possibilities of the next century.

4. Which Australian (ha, I should say Antipodean, shouldn’t I) writers or work would you like to see nominated for awards this year? What have you most enjoyed reading?

I’m going to be completely partisan and talk about my friends’ work, so, you know, fair warning of bias.

I think that Deborah Kalin’s SHADOW QUEEN is totally brilliant – a fascinating and often painful investigation of Stockholm syndrome romance in the middle of a court intrigue/adventure story in a quasi-European fantasy setting unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR is an amazing work which I can’t really talk about because anything I will say is laden with spoilers, but it’s a psychological thriller set in contemporary New York told from the first person narration of a compulsive liar. If you’re into complex characterisation and unreliable narrators, I recommend both very much.

5. Are you planning to go to Aussiecon 4 in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to?

I am! And I am looking forward to the cocktails. Isn’t everyone?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s