Sue Bursztynski lives in Melbourne’s beachside suburbs with a lot of pot plants and absolutely no cat. She works in the western suburbs at a state secondary school whose students get to read manuscripts from Allen and Unwin and have review copies of books not yet available in the shops, due to the fact that Sue has a review blog, The Great Raven. Sue will write just about anything as long as it’s fun and not racist or sexist. She actually has written on just about anything over the years, with ten books published by Allen and Unwin, Omnibus, Random House Australia, Cengage, Pearson and Ford Street, plus stacks of articles and short stories published by NSW School Magazine, Pearson, Fablecroft, Ford Street, ASIM, Peggy Bright Books and Specusphere. Her 2010 novel Wolfborn was a Children’s Book Council Notable Book.
1. Your Supernatural YA fantasy Wolfborn came out in 2010 and has been well received across the board. Where did the idea for the book come from and how hard was it to find it a publishing home?
I got the idea from the Breton Lais of Marie De France, a twelfth century poet of whom we don’t know a lot. Some of the romances have Middle English versions, such as Sir Launfal. The one which leapt out at me yelling “Novel!” was the Lai LeBisclavret, a werewolf tale. That one has, I believe, an Irish version, and the story gets a very brief mention in Malory, whose Arthurian stories I read as part of my English Honours thesis. I was intrigued by Marie’s version, because the werewolf in the story was the good guy. His wife finds out that he’s a werewolf and, with her boyfriend’s help, makes sure that he’s stuck in wolf shape. Thing is, in the Middle Ages, the werewolf was a demonic being. You didn’t usually become one unless you did some seriously nasty stuff. And for a twelfth century story to show a werewolf in a positive light suggested to me that he must have been born one; my novel followed on from there. The Lai has the wife keeping him from humanity simply by stealing his clothes. That was very silly, but having committed to the story, I had to accept that idea, so I thought of how it might work.
Was the book hard to sell? Oh, yes! Still, it only got one printed rejection slip and that was when I briefly had an agent and she had submitted it for me. Every other time I got a personal letter and rewrite suggestions, which I followed. I think I submitted it to every YA publisher in the country. I came *that* close to selling it to Hodder. They were doing a series of spec fic books and the commissioning editor was Lucy Sussex, who believed in the book and argued for it. I think the reason they turned it down in the end was that Sophie Masson had written one with a similar theme, in which Marie De France herself was the heroine, and it was just about to come out. Allen & Unwin turned it down three times. They did invite me to rewrite and resubmit, but then said no. I submitted it to Leonie Tyle at UQP, who said she loved it, but that UQP wasn’t publishing this kind of fantasy. Fast forward to 2009. I do an interview with Edwina Harvey forMagpies about my non-fic children’s book Crime Time. There’s a question,”What are you working on now?” I say that I’m working on my manuscript, tentatively titled Bisclavret. A few days after the interview is turned in I get an email from Leonie Tyle, now working for Random House Australia and doing an imprint called Woolshed. The editor of Magpies is a friend of hers. She has heard I have a manuscript. She needs a complete MS because there’s a hole in her publishing schedule. May she read it? Two days later, it has been accepted! So it took a long time for it to make an overnight sale, to someone who bought it after having had to turn it down. By the time that interview was published in Magpies, the novel was sold.
2. Your publishing journey is an interesting one, as you’ve written in both fiction and non- fiction and across genres. Do you have a favourite area to write in?
The truth is, I love whatever I’m writing. I once attended a talk by Bjo Trimble, who was Guest of Honour at a media convention. She said some things that made me think, about how many different markets there were out there if you were willing to give them a go, even if they weren’t what you would normally write. At the time, my only interest was in writing spec fic. In the end, I decided that what I wanted more than anything was to write, whatever it was. One day I had a call from my friend Natalie Jane Prior, who had been doing well as a children’s writer. Allen & Unwin were doing a series of children’s non- fiction books and she’d told them about me. Was I interested? I said yes. I prepared a list of possible themes which I took to my interview and invited the editor to choose one for me to write a proposal on. She chose the subject of monsters. That was how I became a children’s writer. I never looked back. I love writing non-fiction because you learn new stuff. Monsters I knew a lot about, but my non-fiction after that involved scientists, criminals, spies, astronauts, archaeology, the history of the wheel… You want an article about forensics? Sure! (scuttles off to look it up, having very little knowledge of the subject). I wrote non-fiction for many years, the most recent in 2009, Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, for Ford Street. Unfortunately, however good your book – and I am very proud of Crime Time, which kids love when they get to read it – non-fiction is hard to sell these days. The shops don’t know what to do with children’s non-fic. They arrange it in such a way that no one is likely to find your book unless they know it’s there and ask for it. And kids don’t do that. One day I asked a staff member at Borders, who said,”True crime? In the children’s section?” They put it into the adult true crime section, where it was findable, but when you pick up a book among the adult ones and find it’s for kids, do you buy it? Probably not. Publishers just aren’t buying non-fic for kids now.
So in recent years, apart from the occasional article for the NSW School Magazine, I’ve gone back to fiction. I have sold four short pieces in the last year, one of them historical fiction. That one is going into Ford Street’s anthologyTrust Me Too. “Can’t I do spec fic?” I asked Paul Collins. But the anthology was multi-genre and he needed someone who could write historical fiction; I’d already proved I could. And in the end, I had a ball researching the 1960s visit of the Beatles in newspapers at the State Library – it was the non- fiction writer in me. I have been seriously thinking of trying my hand at a historical novel for children. The 1960s is an era with a lot happening in it.
3. What’s next for you? Can we expect more in the Wolfborn world or something else?
As a matter of fact, there’s a short Wolfborn universe piece in Andromeda Spaceways #54. It’s based on the story told by Lady Eglantine, the werewolf knight’s wife, in Chapter 3 of the book. I am working on a novel set in theWolfborn universe, but not a sequel, a prequel. It’s seen from the viewpoint of a girl who was born a werewolf but in a village, not a castle – not as easy to hide when you’re in a small community! She becomes an apprentice to a man who used to be the court wizard and has lost the young prince he was supposed to get to safety, due to fourteen years trapped asleep in a tree by his last apprentice (yes, he’s based on Merlin). Meanwhile, I’m checking out small press anthologies that are buying, to keep my hand in with short fiction.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Oh, Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, definitely, and I’m reading and loving her earlier novel Tender Morsels. She and Juliet Marillier are both wonderful with fairy tale themes. I’ve also read and loved Kate Forsyth’s Rapunzel novel, BitterGreens. I always love her books, but this one is very special. I’ve just discovered Nansi Kunze, with two very funny pieces of YA fiction – Dangerously Placed, which has a girl doing her work experience in a virtual office and somehow, with most staff scattered around the world, someone manages to murder the boss.Mishaps is based on the notion of bad karma that happens to the sinner’s sibling. And Michael Pryor’s latest steampunk, The Extraordinaires volume one and Doug Macleod’s Teenage Bodysnatcher book and Richard Harland’s steampunk and Ben Chandler’s Quillblade and… I could go on and on so I’ll stop there.
5. Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the major changes to the Aussie spec fic scene?
Two short years? Not a lot that I have noticed. Of course, I’ve been mostly involved with YA and with ASIM, which is about to produce its 10th anniversary issue and has recently added mobi and ePub to its PDF availability, so I might not have noticed any other changes. But quite a lot has happened since Aussiecon 3(1999), hasn’t it? A lot of small presses have started up, providing a bigger market for everyone. Some are now online, making themselves more available. Marianne De Pierres, whom I met at the Tor group of the A3 writer’s workshop, when we were both pretty new, has become a best selling spec fic novelist and has recently strolled into my area of YA and done some great stuff, drat her! There are some Kiwis who have also done well in recent years, but you asked about the Aussie scene. A lot of stuff is being published at the small press level and I, for one, find it exciting.