By day, Tessa Kum is a monkey with a keyboard. By night, she is also a monkey with a keyboard. She is a graduate of the Clarion South Writers Workshop, editorial assistant for Weird Tales, and assistant editor for the Best American Fantasy series. She has recently been published in Last Drink Bird Head and Halo: Evolutions, with forthcoming fiction in Baggage, and her mosaic short story collection 7wishes is currently free to read online. She lives in Melbourne, and would like an elephant to ride to work, please.
1. You recently collaborated on a Halo novella with a certain Mr Jeff VanderMeer. How did the project come about, and how did the collaborative process work for the two of you? Is this your first excursion into media tie-in fiction?
Originally Jeff was invited to submit to the anthology based on his previous work in the Predator franchise. The Halo universe is extensively developed, and given the tight deadline cramping his ability to research, he didn’t like his chances. Before pulling out he threw me a “hey, interested?” email, knowing I was familiar with Halo. Given there was only a month to go from concept to final draft, not to mention the difference in time zones and the fact I’d never taken part in a collaboration before, I’m not sure he expected me to say yes, but I did, and, er, it all went downhill from there.
Being as I knew the Halo universe better than Jeff, most of the initial brainstorming was mine. I looked for concepts that would not require giving over too much of our already limited time to researching the political history and finer technological points of the world, while it still being a Halo story. For me, the quintessential Halo moment is in the first game, when the Flood are first introduced. They scared the bujeezes out of me. The games have moved on since then, but that’s a defining moment I wanted to bring the fans back to.
Once the pitch was accepted, we got down to writing, and…let me just say, don’t ever accept a one month deadline. In a sense, our differing time zones was a great help; I’d finish work on a draft, send it to Jeff, go to bed just as he’d be starting the day, working on it, send it to me just as I was starting the day, etc etc. It meant the story was always being worked on, although it also meant neither of us got a break. Something that was further exacerbated by the fact that the “short story” (it was never meant to be a novella) turned out to be 35,000 words, which made it difficult to turn around a draft in two days. To put it lightly. Fortunately, we worked well together. Writing in a franchise that wasn’t ours and the insane pressure kept us from getting overly precious about our particular darlings, as writers are want to do, but we really did just work well together. Our writing styles, strengths and weaknesses complimented each other. Getting the draft back was always a bit like opening a present to discover what new piece of awesome he’d come up with.
Halo: Evolutions has been out overseas since November and has been very well received, and should be released in Australia at the end of the month. It was a great opportunity and learning experience, but I shall never, never, never, never agree to such a short deadline again. Never. Ever.
2. Where else will your fiction be appearing in the coming months? What other speculative fiction projects are you involved with?
Baggage edited by Gillian Polack will be released in the next couple of months, and features my story ‘Acception’ (yet another “short” story). The anthology concerns itself with the influence of cultural baggage upon Australia, and working on a story with that in mind turned out to be the hardest writing I’ve ever done. It’s such a broad subject by which no one goes unaffected, and is at the same time intensely personal. The political and personal cannot necessarily be separated, and I crossed psychological badlands I didn’t know I had to write about it. It will be an interesting collection, to say the least.
I’m also an editorial assistant for Hugo award-winning Weird Tales magazine, which is quite possibly the best job ever. The stories I read are all unexpected in the paths they take, and some incredible pieces of craft have landed in my inbox. We’re always interested in (as the name says) the weird, the unusual and challenging, the stories that don’t fit neatly into any genre pigeonhole, and I urge all and any writers who have such a story to consider submitting it to Weird Tales, regardless of who or where they are.
3. You’ve been dealing with RSI over the last year – how has this affected your writing life (and you know, your life)? What advice would you give on this to those of us (heh not many, I’m sure) who spend our lives sitting at the computer?
Writing is such an internal process that the physical act of writing is easily forgotten. It will never stop being important for a writer to feed their mind and expand their knowledge base, but all that will be wasted if the writer cannot write.
My day job of the past four years has consisted almost solely of data entry. I hammered away at the keyboard for eight hours a day, five days a week, and then went home and hammered away at the keyboard in my own time. Inevitably, that workload overloaded my hands, and it got to the point I could not finish a shift at work because my hands hurt so. I could not write to any great effect at home because my hands hurt so. I couldn’t sleep, I had trouble gripping things. My doctor ordered me not to type for a fortnight.
Nearly everything I do and choose to do revolves around the physical act of writing. Having that taken from me left a void in my life and possibly my future that terrified me then, and still terrifies me.
The rest did help, and I returned to work with such restrictions in place I may as well have stayed shut up at home brooding. I couldn’t do my job, and the task found as a temporary means of keeping me busy was so trivial I was embarrassed and ashamed of entering the office every day. I felt guilty whenever I worked on my own writing, hyper-conscious of my hands, and my writing suffered as a result. I felt trapped in so many ways, because my hands were so damaged.
Come Monday I start in a new office, in a position that involves no data entry. My hands remain weak, aching things, but I hope. I hope.
Those of you who are writers; you are excellent at imagining. Imagine you cannot write. Imagine that may never change.
It’s such a little thing, to write, to hold a pen, to press the keys, and yet it is the most vital thing, it is the act that turns intention into word, it is what makes the writer.
Most people will not have the same work load as I did. Regardless, take care of your hands. Exercise them, keep them strong. Do not take them for granted. You need them.
4. Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year?
I adore Deborah Kalin’s Shadow Queen. In the first chapter everyone dies, and things get progressively worse from there. It is brutal, positively Machiavellian in its political machinations, presents a disturbing examination of Stockholm Syndrome, and is relentless in pushing the plot out of one impossible situation by putting it in another.
I’m quite enamored of Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels. Yet another frank and brutal narrative in which absolutely ghastly things happen, yet are delivered through such delicate prose there is no looking away. To do so would be to break the moment.
5. Are you planning to go to Aussiecon 4 in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to?
We all have friends spread across the globe; I’m looking forward to seeing some of them again!