Nike Sulway is an author and academic. She is the author of several novels, including Rupetta, which—in 2014—was the first work by an Australian writer to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. The award, founded in 1991 by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, is an annual award for a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Queensland, loves rabbits, chocolate and children. Not all for eating or cuddling.
1. Your novel Rupetta won the Tiptree Award and the Norma K Hemming Award this year – congratulations! It’s a grand novel about love and family and history and automatons – do you feel that it accomplished all that you hoped?
I’m very pleased and grateful to have received both of these awards. Among other things, they have helped the book to find more readers – or perhaps that should be the other way around (it has helped readers find the book!).
As a writer, I’m incredibly ambitious. Perhaps all writers are. Not in a worldly sense, but in terms of what I want to achieve in the works themselves. For me, every work exists in an ideal state … before I start writing. Writing is, in one sense, the process of dismantling the Ideal/dream version of the book, and instead creating its shadowy reflection. A kind of fall from the Platonic Ideal to the Shade. So, in that sense, nothing I’ve ever written is a perfect realisation of all the dreams I dreamed for that work. I can’t remember which writer said that that’s why you write the next thing: because you still have work to do, ambitions to realise.
I’m very proud of some of the things I achieved in Rupetta. I’m pleased with small things. I love little Perihan; I love the relationships between Henri and Miri, and between the Salt Lane Witches. I’m proud of the fact that love is central to this book about war and ambition; that the daily experiences of women are at the centre of the story. Its strong, strange, complex spine.
But, there’s always more work to do.
2. You’ve written books for children as well as for adults… which do you think is harder? And do you start with an audience in mind, or a story?
I think writing both for children, and for older readers, are incredibly complex and difficult tasks. I think in writing for children, you have to work hard not to be condescending or overly romantic about children, and childhood. Not to diminish your sense of who your readers are, or your characters. I have this little bit of something I wrote on my blog called ‘How to write a story for a child’ which begins: First, consider the child. That’s not as easy as it sounds! I think of writing as being about a particularly unusual and strangely intimate relationship between writer and reader. You have to be willing to encounter the other person as themselves, warts and all. I think building emotionally (and narratively) rewarding relationships is hard work! No matter who that relationship is with.
I start with … hmm … I start with an image, usually, and the image most often includes a character. With Rupetta, this was an image of a half-broken, half-repaired neglected piece of clockwork slowly decaying in a country barn. I’m trying to remember which comes first, but I think – for me – the two (readership and story) arrive together. Entwined.
3. Not all of your work has been speculative fiction. Do you anticipate writing more speculative fiction, or does the story idea dictate the genre?
When I sit down to write, I don’t really think of myself as working in a particular genre. Not exclusively, at least. I enjoy reading and writing speculative fiction; I enjoy reading and writing contemporary realist fiction, and picture books, and non-fiction. And the things I’m working on slide across all those boundaries, especially while I’m working on them.
I’m working on a trilogy at the moment, the first book of which is called The Orphan King. I’ve done a picture book version – no words – and a graphic novel version, and a textual version that draws a little on my reading of Henry James Turn of the Screw, in that whether you read it as speculative or realist depends on … well, depends on you. The text itself (the writer herself?) hasn’t yet decided. The final version will be a novel; if I think of it as belonging in a genre at all, I would like to think it is in the same little sub-genre/cross-genre field that Gary Wolfe uses to describe Karen Joy Fowler’s work. He said her stories are “trapdoor genre stories”; stories which they can be read as non-genre until that one moment when you realise this isn’t quite what it seems.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I absolutely adore Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone, which is a verse narrative set in a dystopian future. It is astonishingly beautiful, and moving, and strange.
Marie Williams’ memoir Green Vanilla Tea will never leave me. I was lucky enough to work with Marie on this book about her family, and particularly about what happened to her family when her young husband is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and dementia.
Finally, Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby is a work of grace, courage and humour by an Australian writer we should all be reading more often. If only she would write more!
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be writing in five years from now?
As a writer, I have a rather ambivalent relationship to the writing and publishing industry. I know a little bit about it, and I try to stay aware of what’s going on, but at the same time I don’t want to let the market unduly influence what I write. At least, not in a negative, limiting way. Plus, I think of ‘The Writing Industry’ as being a bit like the many-headed hydra, or at least of myself as being like one of the blind people who are asked to describe an elephant: what I think it is depends on which bits and pieces I get hold off on any particular day.
So, I’m not going to write a sparkly vampire erotic fan fiction in which lead characters are killed off at unexpected moments just because those are some aspects of some popular books right now.
I’m not going to lead the charge into hypertextual/hybrid forms of narrative, because I’m a writer, not a multi-platform artist. Though I would embrace working collaboratively with other artists/craftspeople across a range of mediums.
I can’t see myself pioneering a radical new form of storytelling cos, really, I like the old form. Words, in sentences, one after another, that somehow perform this magic trick of transforming into people, places, experiences and emotions.
I’m also, in the end, a bit of a romantic; I think stories and storytelling will endure, though perhaps the medium through which stories reach readers will change beyond recognition.
Five years from now, I’ll still be snuggled up in a comfy chair with a book of some kind, lost in some other world, with some people who never existed, and when I get up to make tea, I’ll stare out the window at the leaves all over my unraked lawn and wonder what on earth I’m going to write about next.