2012 Snapshot Archive: Sue Isle

First published at Helen Merrick’s blog.

Sue Isle describes herself thus: ” I was born in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1963 and currently live in Perth.  Most of my family live in other places, but I’m sure these two facts are unconnected.  I’m the author of various short fiction as well as the YA fantasy novel Scale of Dragon, Tooth of Wolf, the mostly-nonfiction children’s book Wolf Childrenand most recently the Nightsiders short fiction collection.  My fiction has received a number of awards (Ditmar, Aurealis and Tin Duck) and I made it to the long-short list for the James Tiptree because of the transgender character elements.  Some of the stories include ‘A Sky Full of Ravens’, the short story that kicked off Tooth, ‘A Woman of Endor’ (Aurealis Awards 2001) and ‘Sun People’ (a Nightsider story) which won a Tin Duck in 2008.  I’m also most proud of my five Honourable Mentions in World’s Best Horror and Fantasy. Other interests include going to sf conventions, roleplay and boardgames, pet rats, gardening and working out how best to turn Perth into a post-apocalypse setting, with or without zombies. I’m into bicycles; have a mountain bike and an electric bike.  I believe that the Internet is the future for authors and fiction but hope that there will always be a place for ‘real books’.  I can’t imagine any better occupation than being a novelist and hope for the day when I can abandon my day job for this fate.”

1.Your recent short story collection, Nightsiders was the first in the Twelve Planet series and has been doing very well in the awards stakes – you must be very happy with the reception of these stories?

Yes, I am.  It’s the first time I’ve managed to continue a series in the form of short fiction.  I’ve done it before where I can; two or three stories which link together but nothing like this.  I’m really happy that the ideas worked.

2. The world and characters of Nightsiders would seem to lend themselves to a longer treatment – are there are plans for a novel in the future?
I would love to write a “proper novel.”  I haven’t quite got to that point yet.  Tooth was very short (the publisher wanted around 45,000 words, as I recall) and Wolf Children, though called a book, is really novella length, as it includes drawings and is formatted for a young audience.  I’ve written some background pieces about some of the characters such as Daniel, who’s a professor at UWA and Tom, who was stuck in a boring office job before Perth was evacuated by the Federal Government.  Yes, that’s definitely drawing on my own experience there.

At the moment I’m working on a story about the people Ash meets in Melbourne, who decide to come to Perth to escape the conditions in their part of the world!  This is the brother and sister Mike and Nella, and Nella’s children.  Ash isn’t quite sure how to handle this arrival and he’s worried what they’ll think when they know his background, which he never told them.  Mike and Nella also have secrets of their own, which the group of elders in charge of the Perth survivors won’t be at all happy to learn.  I’m hoping I can expand this into a novel. I want to write/learn more about Emiri (Nella’s daughter) and some new characters have popped up along the way.

3. The themes of your recent stories appear to be quite different from some of your earlier work, such as Scale Of Dragon, Tooth Of Wolf – how would you say your work has evolved over this time?

I would say I have more choice in what I write now.  That may seem strange; no one tells me what story to write, surely?  But with my earlier longer work they did.  Some of the short stories were also written for specific themed anthologies. I wrote a fantasy story, A Sky Full of Ravens, because it was intended for an anthology of fantasy-themed stories.  I didn’t usually write stuff set in fantasy countries with magic and dragons and witches.  But it worked fairly well and the anthology, She’s Fantastical  (edited by Lucy Sussex and Judith Buckrich) also did well.  It came to the attention of Hodder Headline publishers and they had decided to commission a series of YA fantasy novels.  They sounded out a number of writers including me.  I was both delighted and alarmed at the time, because I wasn’t at all sure I knew how to write a book.  I wrote this one in a very controlled style, with an outline to avoid surprises, because I had three months to do it and my usual writing style of “find out as I go along” wasn’t going to work.

Wolf Children came up about two years after Tooth.  Omnibus Books were launching a series of what they called Extraordinary Stories; featuring astronauts, “bone hunters” (dinosaur fossils) , Cleopatra and so on and then they decided they wanted a book about feral children raised by wolves.  That’s where I came in, out of sheer luck.  Someone on their staff knew me, at least well enough to know I was interested in wolves and collected books and info about them.  I think the gist was, “I know this wolf nut who might be able to write what you want.”  True enough, I did already know some of the stories.  I didn’t have too much of an idea about writing for children but some of my fellow writers in the series were kind enough to educate me in this respect. Researching that one was interesting. Reverend Singh, in 1920s India, discovered two girls in a wolf den and took them to the orphanage he ran.  I found that the only copy of Reverend Singh’s diary in Australia was in the State Library of WA. I couldn’t borrow it but I went there and photocopied parts of it and took notes.

Some of my findings I couldn’t use, because they didn’t have a place in a book for children.  I discovered, for instance, that many of these children were (by the description of their symptoms) possibly autistic and that autistic children, nothing to do with their upbringing, share some of the traits of “wolf children.”  I’m certainly no expert but I have read some of the medical findings and I’m a donor to the Autism Association of WA.  Whether the children were indeed raised by wolves or whether they were abandoned by parents because they weren’t normal, no one will ever know for sure. Writing these two works was definitely good for me as I was forced to focus more than I perhaps had in the past and so I was able to remember those lessons with some future stories.  I knew I wanted to write novels but getting these published proved problematic, so I turned to getting a series going in short fiction.

I wrote a number of stories in sf and fantasy and horror to see how well they worked.  I’ve always read a lot of vampire stories, a lot of historical horror from Bram Stoker on, so I wrote a few vampire stories.  I tried humour, though that was more difficult to get correct.  I’ve written three or four stories about a character who’s a modern bodysnatcher, actually descended from Burke of Burke and Hare fame.  She provides medical practitioners (or anyone else) with just the right body for their purposes.  I wrote some hard sf, though am hampered by the fact of not being very good at maths or science.  I have to go carefully with that kind of story and usually run it by a techie friend to make sure there hasn’t been some awful stuff up.

One of my favourite themes in science fiction is the what-if, and I’m also fond of apocalyptic sf, particularly the classics such as Alas Babylon and Earth Abides from the ’50s.  I became a member of the Greens and started paying attention more to environmental happenings.  I remember murmurings in the 90′s which got a lot noisier through the 2000s and I started thinking about a new what-if, not “what would my characters do if the bomb dropped?” but “what will happen to my city if the temperatures really go up like they say?”  Worst-case scenario, an increase of 6 °C, doesn’t sound like much but have you ever thought of the difference between 35°C and 40°C?  What happens if it’s 45°C?  What about the plants that need frosty conditions?  So I guess this series is my first lot of stories about maybe-real conditions, as close to mainstream as I’m going to get. I’m trying to do my own thing more now rather than writing what someone wants for one certain book.

4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Most recently I’ve read Marianne de Pierres’ Burning Bright and Angel Arias.  A nice combo of teenage angst and real life-destroying peril for her characters.  You wonder if any of them have a chance of making it to twenty! Also I’m reading Kerry Greenwood’s Phyrne Fisher stories.  I read one before the TV series came along but it was well along in the series and didn’t make much sense to me, since I didn’t know then how many there were!  Now I’m taking a more organised approach and reading from the beginning.  Wonderful stories.

5. Two years on from Aussiecon 4,  what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?
I’m not sure I’m the person to ask about that as I’m not really in the loop.  I tend to be a bit oblivious about what doesn’t actually concern me.  I know Alisa Krasnostein’s Twelfth Planet Press has been really growing for a couple of years – I’d have to be dead not to realise that since she’s published most of my Nightsider stories.  All except the one inTales of the Unanticipated in the USA. There seems to be a lot more happening online. Aurealis Magazine has gone online but I don’t know if they’re still publishing paper copies or not.

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