2014 Snapshot Archive: Terry Dowling

First published at David McDonald’s blog.

Terry Dowling is one of Australia’s most respected and internationally acclaimed writers of science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, and author of the multi-award-winning Tom Rynosseros saga and the much admired Wormwood. He has been called “Australia’s finest writer of horror” by Locusmagazine, its “premier writer of dark fantasy” by All Hallows and its “most acclaimed writer of the dark fantastic” by Cemetery Dance magazine. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series featured more horror stories by Terry in its 21 year run than by any other writer.

The award-winning US genre newspaper Locus also calls him a “highly original” writer, “the most noted prose stylist in Australian speculative fiction” and regards his work as placing him “among the masters of the field.”

Dowling’s award-winning horror collections are Basic Black: Tales of Appropriate Fear(International Horror Guild Award winner for Best Collection 2007), regarded as “one of the best recent collections of contemporary horror” by the American Library Association, An Intimate Knowledge of the Night (Aphelion 1995) and the World Fantasy Award nominated Blackwater Days(Eidolon 2000). His most recent titles are Amberjack: Tales of Fear & Wonder (Subterranean 2010) and his debut novel, Clowns at Midnight (PS Publishing 2010), which London’s Guardian called “an exceptional work that bears comparison to John Fowles’s The Magus.

Dowling has written three computer adventures (Schizm: Mysterious Journey, Schizm II: Chameleon and Sentinel: Descendants in Time), and co-edited The Essential Ellison and The Jack Vance Treasury among many other titles. He lives in Sydney, Australia and his homepage can be found at www.terrydowling.com

Your “Rynosseros Cycle” stands as one of the significant works of Australian Speculative fiction. Looking back, how do feel about its legacy? Do you have any plans to return to that world?

I’m very proud of that cycle of stories and the part it played in helping Aussies become further recognised as global players – writers with their own valid take on the world. In many ways it’s where I refined my craft, and the whole saga is very precious to me. That said, one of the important things for any storyteller is knowing when to step back and let things be. I had no existing plan to abandon the cycle in 2004 (“The Library”, published in X6 in 2009, was written back in 1990), but because my dear friend and publisher Peter McNamara had a terminal illness, it became incredibly important to finish Tom’s journey in time for Peter to be able to have it all. I already had the final scene on Lake Eyre from 1993 and so knew where it was going.

Photo by Cat Sparks

When Peter asked for a Tom story for his last editing project, Forever Shores, in 2003, I wrote “Coyote Struck by Lightning.” That story provided the shape of the whole closing sequence and grew in the telling, leading to “Coming Down” and “Sewing Whole Cloth.” Peter took the lot – all 24,000 words of that ending – for Forever Shores. So for the best reasons in the world, that’s where the saga not so much ends as stops (to make that important distinction) on a crucial open note. So as not to compromise the vital open-endedness of those final events, any further adventures in Tom’s future Australia would have to be set before that final showdown or concern one of the other Coloured Captains. Who knows what might happen, but as I’m seeing it now the close of the cycle was given when those three stories appeared in Forever Shores as the ‘novella’ “Rynemonn” which then, of course, became the closing section of the fourth Tom book Rynemonn.

You continue to have short stories published all over the world, and are a regular part of international “Year’s Bests”. Over your career do you feel that the impact of Australian writers on the international scene has changed, for better or worse, and is it easier or harder for Aussies to break out into overseas markets?

There was a time when both science fiction and fantasy truly could be new, fresh and different, experimental, risk-taking and pretty much without conceptual borders, just by the nature of what was being done with story prior to, during, and immediately following World War 2. That watershed situation couldn’t last. The growth of the youth culture in the 60s, things like increased leisure-time, increased disposable income, ‘greatest return to shareholders’ thinking in a booming consumer culture tended to mean lowest common denominator standards in all areas of creative activity: pursuing safe ventures, using proven formula, encouraging franchise thinking.

To answer your important question, Aussie writers, then as now, are competing in a global market, and in what is usually a proven meritocracy, where quality, skill and originality tend to come to the fore as they have always done. That means we’re all in the same boat: all looking for the next great idea, the next flash of inspiration that will speak to the age about itself. That can come from anywhere. So we’re no longer out in the cold, lost and forlorn at the ends of empire. Fortunately, part of this global process has long included the roles of insightful editor and enlightened entrepreneur. They’re other forms of creativity in a sense, and while they too must bow to shareholder requirements to an extent, they nonetheless get to play a vital part in the discovery, championing and marketing of story and the promotion of worthy talents with this take on the global experience, no less than indie film-festival organisers presently do with film-making.

The truth is that there are more people writing now, many of them good enough writers but often derivative rather than very original storytellers. They often don’t know any better, aren’t sufficiently aware of what else there’s been. And as I say in writing classes, the best storyteller in the room may in fact be the worst writer, and vice versa. So find out where you’re placed without buying into flattery and marketing hype, and understand just how the international scene has changed and, for Aussies, mostly in our favour. Accept too that the global scene does seem to be more self-imitating and self-enshrining, less original and daring now, and, most alarming of all, less aware that this is even the case. But quality does tend to come out. As Ray Feist said at lunch one time, “No-one expected J.K. Rowling to come along.” Old idea, magic school for children, but with a powerful new engine. That made the marketing people nervous, because no-one saw it coming.

So there it is. The nifty idea and the right skills, inspiration and opportunity will ensure that it stays a level playing field. But you have to get on the radar of the right people. And that generally means writing powerful short fiction, because unless you’re channelling Philip K. Dick, most of us don’t live long enough to risk building a lasting career writing novels. As I often say in writing classes: short fiction for the reputation, novels to pay the mortgage. All going well, once you’re on the global radar, novels will then replace the short fiction in that equation.

As well as your writing, you are a noted academic and critic. How has that impacted your writing, and vice versa?

Being a critic or commentator about F&SF as in any field tends to keep you aware of enduring standards and historical context – in other words, what has gone before. But while that kind of perspective can be valuable, the role can take over. The great enemy of becoming a creative writer is what I call Creativity Gone Elsewhere, when you fill up your life with busy, rewarding and important tasks that stop you putting yourself on the line doing what you really want to do: in my case telling stories. For a while there, I tended to use my academic efforts to keep me from taking my chance. We’re all storytellers, though not necessarily good enough writers, so what if we fail? It was easier to write about the work of others. That kept me off the streets for some time, but the emerging creative zeal was always there.

And as a singer-songwriter, poet, television performer, critic, reviewer etc, I already had enough valid creative outlets that I felt busy and purposeful. What it meant in real terms was that my skills were pretty well in place by the time I sold my first story at age 35. I’ve reviewed for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Bulletin, and finally for The Australian newspaper for 19 years. In that time I read a great deal of wonderful material, but also an overwhelming amount of derivative, formula fare that marketing labelled breathtaking, edgy and new when it wasn’t. That taught me to urge new writers to read the classics prior to 1990, to know what’s already been done and at least have the courtesy to pay their dues and name names. Full marks to the writers who do this.

As for the scholarly side, I still do the occasional academic piece, though now only at someone’s invitation and usually concerning aspects of my own work. For instance, “Dancing with Scheherazade: Some Reflections in the Djinni’s Glass” recently appeared in Parabolas of Science Fiction and concerns my approach to producing the Tom Rynosseros stories. What made me smile was when some reviewers of Clowns at Midnight saw my novel as the result of me doing my doctorate, all the philosophical noodling of an academic unable to help himself, when in fact the novel was written years before the degree was even considered and does precisely what was needed for the story. Exploring the mysteries of the world as a scholar has its attractions, but good story will always do that anyway. As someone who firmly believes that much of the time wisdom must be protected by enigma, I’d rather write a new story any day.

What Australian works have you loved recently?

There are so many local voices I find really strong and interesting, but for the reasons I’ve given regarding global publishing realities, it’s often hard to find work that’s new, fresh and different.

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 haven’t changed the way I work much at all. Café longhand keyed in one day, continued on printed out text the next. I’m currently preparing much of my material for e-book release because that’s the shape of the market-place right now and a sensible approach to take. I prize the paper-book as an optimum form, however, the way a chair or a spoon are optimum forms despite what designers do to them. The paper-book form requires comparatively minimal technology to produce, is surprisingly durable, and is not dependent on other levels of technological infrastructure to maintain it once it exists. I suspect it will never go away because of that.

Also, small print-runs can still reach the right readers, editors and reviewers. My award-winningBlackwater Days exists in only 350 copies or so, but it was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Historically, ideologically, the right kind of tail will always wag the dog. I tend to read the Best of’s in any year and try some of the international award-winners to see what’s making it; otherwise I tend to re-visit titles I’ve loved over the years, see what masters like Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester etc continue to give. As for what I write, my horror and dark fantasy does well for me internationally and leads to working with editors I respect and admire. So more of that. But this is where it becomes fun. You never know what will surface next? The journey is everything!

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