2014 Snapshot Archive: Dirk Strasser

First published at David McDonald’s blog.

Dirk Strasser has won multiple Australian Publisher Association Awards and a Ditmar for Best Professional Achievement. His short stories have been translated into a number of languages, and his acclaimed fantasy trilogy, The Books of AscensionZenith, Equinoxand Eclipse – has been published in English (Pan Macmillan / Momentum) and German (Heyne). His short story, “The Doppelgänger Effect”, appeared in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology, Dreaming Down Under (HarperCollins), edited by Jack Dann. His most recent short story publications have been “The Mandelbrot Bet” in the Tor anthology Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi and “At Dawn’s Speed” in Dimension6 #2, edited by Keith Stevenson. He founded the Aurealis Awards and has co-edited and co-published Aurealis magazine for twenty-five years.

www.dirkstrasser.com Dirk’s blog The Books of Ascension trailer

Around the time of the last Snapshot, you were involved in the transition of Aurealismagazine to an electronic only format, as well as sharing the editorial reins. Two years on, how do you feel this transition went, and what have been some of the benefits and challenges?

In many ways the switch from print-only to digital-only for Aurealis was like stepping through a portal into another world, a new world that had enough familiar elements for the differences to stand out starkly.  We soon discovered, for example, that we needed a social media coordinator to maintain and build our profile in this new reality.  If we were going to have an impact, we had to get our heads around Twitter and its social media cousins.

We also discovered that publishing ten issues a year placed us under huge time pressure compared to our former bi-annual print schedule.  We’ve met every deadline, but they are pretty relentless.  To cope with that, we came up with a system where each of the three editors – myself, Stephen Higgins and Michael Pryor – took rolling responsibility for two consecutive issues at a time.  It meant, we all got a break from the unrelenting deadlines and kept fresh, while taking collective responsibility for all story selections.

Major pluses of the digital world have been the speed of publication and instant feedback.  In the print days, by the time a story was published, our memory of it was already in the dim distant past, whereas now we are often still very excited about a story on publication, with its discovery is still fresh in our minds.

You also mentioned that you were working on an epic fantasy series, and the research that has gone into that. How did you approach this research, and what methods did you use?

I’ve done a number of rewrites on The Hidden Prophet, the first book in The Seven Prophets series I mentioned last time.  I recently signed up with a US agent for the first time, and he is now happy with it, so I’m hopeful that it will hit the mark.  It’s set in a very specific historical context: 570 CE, the year when the Prophet Mohammed was born.  It was a time when the Persian Sassanid Empire was at its peak and in an almost constant state of war with the Byzantine Empire.  I chose that date and location for a number of plot reasons, but then realised I knew very little about the period.

I had to almost start from scratch with my knowledge of Persian and Arabic world of the time.  The research involved as much online stuff as I could uncover, but ultimately I found full length print books on the subject more valuable.  I now have an entire filing drawer of notes relevant to the history, from large scale events to detail like clothing, food and weapons.  I then sought out a world expert on the Sassanid Empire (Google is amazing for this sort of stuff) and he kindly agreed to read the manuscript and comment on any historical inaccuracies.

Since the series is basically an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy, I also needed to find out as much as I could about the supernatural elements and magical creatures of Arab and Persian mythology.  That investigation involved a whole new stream of research.  And after that research, of course, came the tough decisions of what to take on board, what to take out and what to bend and adapt to the needs of the story.  There’s no neat cosmology to the Arabian Nights, so I had to add some structure to it – not a simple task!

I was excited to see that you have a short story collection scheduled for release towards the end of the year. How has your long association with Aurealis magazine, which has published some of great Australian short stories, influenced your approach to that form?

I’m really looking forward to Satalyte Publishing releasing my first ever collection, Stories of the Sand, in November 2014.  I was always a keen short story reader, and one of the key planks in my introduction to science fiction was a series of hardback anthologies (called something likeOther Worlds) which I borrowed from the local library when I was young.  I can still clearly remember the impact of reading classic stories like “The Cold Equations” and “It’s a Good Life” for the first time.

I think my love of short stories led to both the founding of Aurealis magazine and my own short story writing.  Being an editor making decisions about what story to publish forces you to try to analyse why a story is working or not working, so I would say co-editing Aurealis has helped my writing in that regard.  It also made clear to me how not to approach other editors when it came to my own submissions.

What Australian works have you loved recently?

I know this one is probably a little out of left field, but I loved Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief.  I’ve argued in my blog and elsewhere that it’s fantasy.  What other conclusion can you possibly come to about a book whose narrator is Death and which contains the line “I’m haunted by humans”?  It’s quirky, sad, uplifting, and profound.  It doesn’t follow any of the “How to Write a Bestseller” commandments, but it works hauntingly well.

Of the Aurealis short stories we’ve published over the last year or so, the one that really stands out for me is “Monday-Child” by C.S. McMullen from Aurealis #57, an intriguingly deceptive story that constantly defies your expectations and packs a real punch in the end.  Our readers agreed with me as well because it was voted the “Best Story of 2013″ in our poll.

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’ve been lucky to be in a position see the full impact of the revolution that’s occurred – and is still occurring – in the publishing industry.  I saw the Macmillan print-only publication of my first two Books of Ascension (Zenith and Equinox) in the 1990s, and now the digital-only publication by the same publisher of the full trilogy, this time including Eclipse – The Lost Book of Ascension.  It’s brought the changes in the publishing environments into sharp focus for me.

When Zenith was first published, it had at best six months to make an impact. At the time it was all about numbers in stores, store display, specialist reviews, and articles in newspapers and magazines.  Much of that was outside the realm of my influence.  This time around it’s all about Goodreads, giveaways, reader reviews, blogs and Amazon rankings – most of which I caninfluence to some degree.

What makes a compelling story, however, hasn’t fundamentally changed since Zenith andEquinox were first published, and I can’t see this changing in the next five years.  I don’t think a writer should to try predict future trends; it’s far better to try to inspire those trends.  And you can only do that by writing what you love.

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