2014 Snapshot Archive: Dirk Flinthart

First published at Helen Merrick’s blog.

Dirk Flinthart is an Australian writer of  speculative fiction, living in north-eastern Tasmania. When he isn’t staring blankly at a computer monitor, Flinthart spends his time raising three kids, handling a fifty-acre rural property, teaching martial arts, cooking, drinking, and playing with swords and bows. Notable to date mostly for short stories, he is also the editor of the Canterbury 2100anthology, (originally published by AGOG! press, re-released in ebook form in 2013 by FableCroft), and has the distinction of sharing a Ditmar award with Margo Lanagan, which he is quite proud of.

His first novel, Path of Night was recently released by Fablecroft, and is planned as the first in a series of stories centering around Michael Devlin. You can find him in his online lair at http://dflinthart.wordpress.com/

1. The recently released Path of Night is your first novel and also marks a bit of a shift for you in genre terms. You seem to have had a lot of fun with this novel – how did you find working in the longer form?

Okay… about writing a novel.  It took me a while to find a rhythm for the longer form. I’ve tackled it a couple times before, each time getting a bit closer to where I wanted to be. The key to this novel, though, was that word ‘fun’.

See, like most writers I fell into the game because I like writing. As in: I would rather sit down and thump out an interesting story than, say, attend a footy match or go mountain biking. Storytelling is fun!

At least, it was when I started. The problem is that the more you write, the more you start thinking about publishing. And the more you focus on publication, the more you try to polish your writing to a publishable level. As writers, we get together in groups and we pull apart each others’ prose. We agonise over Oxford commas. We write, and rewrite, and edit, and rewrite again, and then like as not, we bin the outcome and start over. And if we don’t get published, we tell ourselves it’s because we haven’t sharpened our technique enough yet…

Somewhere amongst all those stories, those awards and shortlists and nominations, I kind of lost sight of the fun, you know? Oh, certainly the challenge was still there. I mean — I really love some of the pieces I’ve written. “This Is Not My Story”, which got me a shared Ditmar with Margo Lanagan — I think that piece came out beautifully, and it says something that I still find valuable and touching. But writing it was hard work, and there was tremendous thought involved in it.

I tried writing a novel that way. And who knows? There may come a time when I actually write a novel with the same intensity as some of those short stories. But for “Path of Night”, I gave myself permission to kick back and have fun… and it paid off. I enjoyed the hell out of the story and the characters, and I’m enjoying hacking around with the sequel. I’d also argue that it’s really not much of a shift in genre. I mean sure — it shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards under horror, yes. Which I am not known for. And the major arc of one of the two central characters hinges on a pretty damned horrifying decision, true. But much of the book is action, adventure, humour and crime. Those are all very much part of my genre baggage.

The sequel to “Path of Night” is well underway, as it happens. The title is “Midnight in Chinatown”. I’m still working largely with Sydney as a backdrop, but this time there will be some wicked kung-fu vampire Night-beasts, and I plan to incorporate the famous Mardi Gras parade into some particularly nifty action sequences. And yes, once again the intent is to enjoy the process of writing as well as creating something which is fun to read.

The feedback on “Path of Night” has been excellent. One thing I’m really pleased with: both overseas readers and Australians have remarked on the Australian nature of the book — setting, characters, dialogue, etc. It hasn’t put off the foreign folks, and I haven’t seen the ‘cultural cringe’ from the good people of Australia, so — hey. Maybe we can start presenting ourselves to the world again, instead of taking the easy way out and setting everything we write in America, or England, or whatever.

 2. Despite your very hectic life, you continue to produce a steady stream of short stories appearing in numerous collections. Do you enjoy working within the constraints of a theme or set sub-genre?

Now, as for that steady stream of short stories… it’s a bit less steady, of late. That’s mostly due to the Masters degree commitment, but the next Night Beast novel is playing a role there too, as is my ongoing commitment to my children, and to martial arts training and teaching. On top of that, I got used to the freedom of movement inherent to the novel length. It’s nice to be able to launch a few sub-plots, set things moving at a pace which permits them to unfold in different directions. It wasn’t easy coming back to the short-story length, trying to bring all that complexity and devilment down under five or six thousand words.

I like short stories, though. The challenge in doing them well is addictive, and reading a really good short story is just the best thing ever.

Themes and set sub-genres are – well, they’re another kind of challenge. Left to myself I generate story ideas fairly slowly. They bubble to the surface every few weeks, and I take notes of the ones I like. But when confronted by a themed anthology… well, for the “Bloodstones” (Ticonderoga Publications, 2012) anthology, I bumped into Amanda Pillar at a convention and asked her if there was anything interesting in the works because I’d enjoyed working in the earlier “Damnation And Dames” collection. She laid out the guidelines on “Bloodstones” for me, and added that I’d come along a little late. But that was okay, because within five minutes of talking to her about the theme (ancient mythical creatures and monsters in a modern setting… but less of the vampires and werewolves, more of the off-beat beasties) I had the outline of “The Bull In Winter” in my head. And when Simon Petrie nudged me for “Use Only As Directed” (Peggy Bright Books), I’d worked out “The Eighth Day” in about half an hour. And again, recently: for “Kaleidoscope” (Twelfth Planet) the major concepts of ‘Vanilla’ were laid out within hours of hearing about the theme of the anthology.

I like themes and constraints. I think my brain works better when it believes it’s trapped…

3. Path of Night is first in a series – when can we expect to see the follow up books, and what else do you have in the works?

Path of Night/Midnight in Chinatown isn’t the only longer piece in the works. I’m supposed to be assembling a collection of short stuff, and I’m being encouraged to write more on the Red Priest, one of my favourite characters from stories past. I’d actually like to do a full collection of Red Priest stories, but it will take some thinking about. He’s a monster hunter of sorts, you see, and although I personally know his backstory and his longer arc, there’s a real risk that a collection of stories featuring him could easily feel like a kind of fourteenth-century “Supernatural”. The world has moved on. Once upon a time, Robert Howard could write a series of stories in which Conan the Barbarian essentially beat up any and all problems by virtue of bigger muscles and better swordplay. Predictable stuff: good, hearty pulp fiction. But fantasy readers are a smidgen more sophisticated these days — or at least, I imagine they are.

I’ve been careful with the Red Priest stories so far. They’re all about developing the character and hinting at the backstory as much as they are about conquering fiendish creatures. In “The Red Priest’s Homecoming” he gets to rediscover something of his family in Venice, and form a new connection there — while battling something horrible. And in “The Red Priest’s Vigil”, he risks his life and freedom to save an old (dead!) friend from demonic doom while simultaneously thwarting the machinations of a sinister sub-cabal of the Spanish Inquisition. “The Garden of the Djinn” sees him exorcising a creature which is apparently not at all evil, and we learn a little about why he’s driven to do these things, and about his own, possibly monstrous (all right, Mister Nietszche. Sit down in the back, there!) nature.

So they’re not “monster of the week” stories, you see. And despite the derring-do, action and adventure, Tommaso Dellaforte — the Red Priest — is a complicated sort of character. I can probably put one or two lightweight stories into a collection for the sheer fun of it, but by and large I have to fit them into the greater arc of his life, and to imbue them with enough significance to make them feel like milestones in a tumultous career… Working on that!

Meanwhile, there’s the Masters degree. There’s a ridiculously long piece of steampunk story-telling in ottava rima poetic form coming out of that already, and there will be a novel. Oh yes. In fact, some thirty thousand words of that novel have already been written. So as you can see, I don’t really have much of an opportunity to slow down…

4. What Australian works have you loved recently?

What Australian works have I loved recently? Oh, that’s not as easy as it should be. Because of the MA I’ve been reading interminable books on genre and literary theory, and I’m about ready to hunt down and brutally murder as many post-modernists as I can lay my hands on. Meanwhile, my reading-for-enjoyment has been drastically curtailed. I carry a slew of books in the car, and I read them while I wait, in between picking up and delivering my accursed children to their various lessons, practices, auditions, competitions, games and parties. As a result, these books get stood on, crumpled, jammed under seats, smeared with food, and otherwise maltreated — so I tend to pick up cheap-ass books from remainder sales and stuff. I would NEVER subject a decent piece of interesting Australian fiction to the “car-book” treatment.

But I have to say that the Australian short fiction scene is going on from strength to strength, and some of the works coming from Angela Slatter have been delicious. Likewise, just about everything out of Twelfth Planet and Ticonderoga have been as good as anything on the planet at the moment, and I can’t mention them without pointing to Fablecroft as well. I was a bit worried that when Cat Sparks pulled the plug on agog! it might have been a sign of things to come — but it was only a sign that Cat was going to spend more time writing very good fiction.

5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?

Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way I work? Definitely. Definitively. I won’t bother submitting a short story to a place that doesn’t accept email submissions, for example. There was a time when I would assemble a paper MS and do all the right things with envelopes and stamps and… you know what? It’s the 21st century. More and more people are reading electronically, and almost everyone writes that way. I can’t see why anybody would insist on hardcopy short story submissions. (Novel length MS are different, mind you. I do a bit of manuscript-doctor work now and again, and I would hate to try to do it from the screen. I need to be able to flick back and forth from page to page, jump from chapter to chapter in a way that hasn’t yet been duplicated electronically.)

There’s more to it than that, though. The changing attitudes within the industry towards electronically published works definitely affected the way I chose to write “Path of Night”. Follow the reasoning: I saw “Fifty Shades of Grey” come out. It happened online first. The quality of the writing is, frankly, execrable. And yet it hit a note with the readers… and that was enough. The publishers picked it up, and away it went. Same sort of thing with “Wool”, except the writing’s better, of course.

Things like that made me look again at what publishers (big ones) do, and how they do it, and why. Couple that with my study of literary theory of genre — which insisted on hauling me into studying fandom, and the marketplace, and the publishing industry as well — and I realised what should have been obvious to me years ago.

Big publishers in genre fiction don’t give a flying fart in a fuckstorm if your writing is any good.  These are people who will publish Dan Brown without apologising. These are people who will spend tens of millions, world-wide, to market a final “Harry Potter” novel which had no chance at all of failing (what? All the readers of the previous novels were suddenly going to ignore the climax of the series?) but won’t spend money on developing new writers.

You see the problem? I mentioned it at the start. As writers, when we learn our craft we imagine it’s all about writing more eloquently, more beautifully, more powerfully. And within certain limits, there’s some truth to that. But eloquent, powerful, beautiful writing is not a prime requirement of popular fiction (which includes the speculative stuff that I like to read and write!) and can, in fact, present a problem for publishers. (Consider Margaret Atwood’s position in the world of literature…)  The truth is that the bigger publishers want to make a profit. They want a story that will engage and entertain the readers. They want it to be accessible to a sizable book-buying demographic. And they want it quickly. Now. Right now.

When I set out to write “Path of Night”, I promised myself the MS would be complete to a solid first draft in six months. And I promised myself I would enjoy writing it, and I promised myself that it would be something that I might enjoy reading if I’d picked it up from someone else. That’s it. Those were the only conditions I set, and I hit all three of them. I aim to do exactly the same with the rest of the series, though I’m having to work around family demands and study, and come the end, I’ll take a look around and see where things stand.

That, of course, gives you some idea of what I plan to be doing in five years. There are five, maybe six books to the Path of Night series, and I’d like to roll ‘em out yearly, or even slightly faster. (Hey! Listen — if you folks want me to do ‘em faster, go kick a publisher who can afford to pay me to sit on my arse and write like hell. If I could buy myself the time to write I could do two of these a year — but small press doesn’t have the money to give me that freedom.)

Aside from the Night Beast books, there’s the novel associated with the MA, and the poem, and the opera (which are all bound up together.) So that’s another thing. And — depending on what the government does to our university system and the fees associated with studying — I’d like to do a PhD in creative writing. In particular, I’m interested by potential new forms and approaches to narrative as moderated by the new technologies, and the new market-structures created by those technologies. I have some really interesting ideas for a work of half a million words or so…

…which I am not getting done while I sit here, answering these questions!

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