Kimberley Gaal is a 29-year-old speculative fiction writer who lives in Canberra, ACT. She was accepted into the 2012 JUMP National Mentoring Program for Young and Emerging Artists and was mentored by award-winning horror and speculative fiction writer Kaaron Warren. Her first novel, Dark Soul, is the product of that mentorship. Kimberley is on the committee of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild and has participated in panels on the place of mentorship in your writing at the speculative fiction conferences Conflux and Natcon, as well as appearing on less formal panels discussing the general awesomeness of zombies.
A few years ago, you went through the JUMP National Mentoring Program for Emerging Artists, and were mentored by the amazing Kaaron Warren! Looking back, what did you get from the mentor program? Did it have an impact on your writing, and its direction?
Absolutely – it had a huge impact. Kaaron is perfect parts art and business when it comes to writing. She is committed to her work and won’t compromise when it comes to quality or style, but also recognises the realities of the industry and is completely professional about it all. Working with her helped me cultivate that balance in my own practice.
I write very different content to Kaaron, in a very different style; it was never a case of trying to emulate her results, but rather to learn from her methods and experience. The JUMP Program encourages participants to choose mentors that can help you grow in areas that you know you are lacking in. Since I’m still in the early days of my writing career, I have a lot of those areas (I’m one big ball of lack, really) but Kaaron has an excellent way of drawing out my strengths while forcing me to face my weaknesses instead of hiding from them like a big scaredy runaway. She taught me to commit to my projects, to finish them even when I’m not ‘feeling the vibe’, and to look at the results from two very different angles: objectively, in terms of how good a product it is on its own, and subjectively, in terms of how well does it tell the story I want to tell, the way I want to tell it.
I learned a lot during the JUMP program, but I think that lesson – about the importance of recognising both the artistic side of writing and the ‘get down and get on with it’ side – was the most important. I don’t view writing as something I only do when the muse hits me anymore. I don’t quite buy into the ‘view it like you view your job’ idea, because to me a job is something you do for a guaranteed result, and it’s very hard to guarantee the result of your writing. I certainly treat it with more dedication and perseverance than I used to, though. Stories are like wombats trying to cross a highway (work with me here). On one side of the highway they’re just ideas. On the other side of the highway they’re finished works. You want to get them from one side to the other, and the only way to do that is by building those little underground tunnel things and hoping they go through them.
Each time I sit at my keyboard and put in some writing time, I’m building another tunnel. Sometimes I can work for hours and nothing happens – no wombats like my tunnel, and the things coming through that I think are wombats are just fat dogs in wombat suits. Sometimes I sit down and find six wombats waiting to get through at once. Sometimes I think, ‘Kim, it’s time to come up with a better metaphor for this writing thing’ but then the wombats get jack of waiting for me, and if there’s one thing you don’t want, it’s a jacked-off wombat. In the end, the more time you put in, the more tunnels you can make and the better your chances of the right wombats being on the right side of the highway at the right time. Kaaron taught me that. But she did it without wombats, because she’s a lot classier than me.
Your manuscript has been accepted by the Cooke Literary Agency – congratulations! How has it been working with an agent?
I love my agent, Rachel Letofsky. I went into my working relationship with her in a very serious fashion – agents are business people, and I had to be very business-y in my dealings with them. That ended when Rachel sent me a photo of a duck statue she has on her mantelpiece and I made up a story about how its unfortunate wing-to-body-size crushed its hopes of a musical career and forced it into a seedy life as a Duck of the Night. She’s brilliant, and the rest of the team at Cooke seem pretty great as well.
She’s also been surprisingly helpful in terms of manuscript development. I say surprising because I didn’t think agents did all that much work with their authors in that regard. Working with Rachel has been a lot like working with an editor. My novel, Dark Soul, is miles better as a result, and much more marketable too. I’m excited, and nervous, and very busy picturing best and worse case scenarios, because I like to think if I can imagine every possible outcome I can somehow be prepared for stuff. In 29 years of living that has never worked, but I’m nothing if not consistent.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m making steady progress on the second novel in my series, Old Soul. My protagonist, Mae, spent the first book building a family for herself and working out who she was when she wasn’t a rage-blind monster. Now that she’s got that sorted, I thought I’d break her family apart and shatter her beliefs. Just for fun. She gets to travel though, so she can’t complain too much.
I’ve also been making headway in short story writing, and my first substantial publication will happen in a few months. Shorts have never been a strength of mine, but working with Kaaron and getting more involved with the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild’s short story crit circle has given me a much better understanding of how they work. I discovered a secret: when you’re just getting into short stories, don’t start by reading all the massively award winning stuff. Those stories were selected by other writers who recognise the skills and techniques involved, and who have read so many stories they are often drawn to unusual, cutting-edge stuff that can be difficult to appreciate when all you want is a good, fun read. Instead, find a genre you like and look for collections in that genre. My favourites so far have been the “Zombies vs Robots” stuff (zombies are my favourite, closely followed by robots) and some of the Twelfth Planet Press collections. They are quality works that are still accessible enough to read and enjoy before bed.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
After she kicked butt at the Aurealis Awards I got Allyse Near’s novel “Fairytales for Wilde Girls” and pretty much loved it. I hope she keeps doing great things. I’m also a fan of Craig Cormick and he seems to spit books out like Yoshi shoots eggs, so there’s always something new to read. The CSFG is full of writers that have kicked a lot of goals lately. And Kaaron, naturally.
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?
I think I’m too new to the game to really have an established ‘way that I work.’ I do follow all the industry talk with interest, but things are changing so rapidly that my personal, very inexperienced opinion is that it would be stupid to spend too much time trying to catch the waves that are forming, because by the time you’re on one it’s broken and the next is already half-formed. If you find yourself on a good wave, ride it and enjoy, but don’t go out of your way to follow someone else’s example just because it worked for them, because that’s no guarantee it will work for you. There are successes and failures in every area of publishing: for every person screaming ‘traditional publishing is dead, long live self-publishing’ there’s another person bemoaning how self-publishing has gotten so out-of-hand that it’s impossible to find good work amidst the sea of dross. I think both are probably true, and neither are probably true, and maybe nothing is true at all and we’re all figments of George R.R. Martin’s imagination and he’s just looking for ways to kill us all off. I swear I saw a white walker the other day. He was riding a Vespa.
I do think you need to be smart – or at least, as smart as you can. If you want a writing career, by all means take your shot. Work hard, learn constantly, be nice to those around you whether they’re ahead of you in the game or not. Be professional, be brave, do your research and try your best. But be willing to accept that it might not happen regardless, and that’s ok. If you want to be a successful author because that’s the only way you think you can feel special, or worthwhile, then you’re setting yourself up for major pain, because no matter how good you are there will always be factors you just can’t control, and they could be the deciding ones. My writing career, such as it is and such as it might be, only really started when I accepted that, and I’ve never enjoyed writing as much as I’m enjoying it now. I hope I make it. I really do. But I’ll be ok if I don’t.
In five years I think I’ll be reading the same stuff I read now, but maybe in different formats. I already write all across the board, so I don’t think that will change except that hopefully I’ll be better. Getting better is the one goal I think every writer should have, all the time, no matter how good they already are. If you don’t want to get better at anything you’re doing, or do it in new ways, stop doing it. You don’t love it anymore and you only get one shot at life, so you shouldn’t waste it.