Born and raised in New Zealand but now, like Phar Lap, claimed by Australia, Simon Petrie has had numerous stories published, in venues such as Redstone SF, Murky Depths, Sybil’s Garage, and elsewhere. Many of his stories are collected in Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables (Peggy Bright Books, 2010). He is a member of the Andromeda Spaceways publishing collective and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and has twice won NZ’s Sir Julius Vogel Award: in 2010 for Best New Talent, and in 2013 for Best Novella / Novelette (Flight 404, Peggy Bright Books, 2012).
You’ve recently had an anthology you edited with Edwina Harvey come out. The title and theme are Use Only As Directed. Is there a story behind the inspiration for the theme?
Insofar as there’s a story, it starts back in the closing months of 2006, when I’d just rekindled my interest in writing fiction after a quarter-century hiatus and had, in the process, discovered the burgeoning local publishing scene. Keen to be a part of this, I wrote not one but two stories specifically crafted for the particular 17th-century spacefaring worldbuilding of the new New Cereswebzine and submitted them in eager anticipation, to have them summarily rejected in due course. They weren’t very good stories—but their signal failing was that they weren’t stories that I could send anywhere else, either. It was a formative experience for me: tight themes can be a real straitjacket.
Slushreading for ASIM reinforced this message, too. I don’t think anyone who slushreads can long remain ignorant of trends in anthology themes. After you’re read three Machine Of Death 2rejects in a row, you start to spot a pattern …
The above considerations have naturally coloured my experiences as an editor of anthologies. And it’s worth mentioning that Use Only As Directed is the third such, and follows the precedent set by the other two. My first anthology, also co-edited with Edwina Harvey, was Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear (Peggy Bright Books, 2012), and we pretty much agreed we didn’t want to place too many obstacles in the way of the authors’ imaginations. Last year, with Robert Porteous, I co-edited Next (Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild)—again, it was a case of trying to leave the theme sufficiently broad to permit as many interpretations of genre as possible. So this time around, because this was the second anthology Edwina and I had done together, we felt a clear necessity to keep faith with Light Touch Paper by adopting a similarly loose theme for Use Only As Directed, and I’m really pleased with the variety of stories that our wonderful authors have given us as a result.
You’ve written a lot of short stories over the years and many of them were collected in Rare Unsigned Copy. Are there any stories that stick out to you as having been particularly memorable to write?
Often, the ones which are most memorable are those which have a difficult birth.
The standout of these is possibly ‘Running Lizard’, my were-raptor story from Rare Unsigned Copy, for which I wrote the initial grisly murder-investigation scene across a couple of lunch hours at work sometime in 2008. I then did nothing with it for over a year—I’d just been word-doodling at the time, sketching out a scene for which I had no further plans—until one evening I was trawling through my fiction folder, saw a filename I didn’t immediately recognise, and started reading. I couldn’t even remember having written it at first, but got caught up in wanting to tell the rest of the story … which meant, of course, that I needed to work out what was the rest of the story. There’s a moment in it—I’ve always been sceptical of those authors who say that their characters sometimes surprise them, because obviously that’s just bullshit, I mean the author’s the one sitting at the keyboard dictating the characters’ actions … but I swear, that scene where Charlotte goes back to her car ‘to get some rope’, I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but she did …
The other story that I particularly despaired of ever getting finished was ‘Flight 404’, which again came about in a somewhat unorthodox way. I was in the living-room with my daughter one day when she suddenly announced, without preamble, “They’re dead. They’re all dead.” I hadn’t been paying attention, but, as I think you’ll admit, it didn’t sound good … so I looked up, to see that she was indicating the vase of flowers on top of the TV cabinet. But the apocalyptic nature of her statement niggled at me, I had the germ of a story idea; and ultimately, after a lot of blind alleys, a terrific amount of self-doubt, and more rewriting than I care to remember, it was done.
I’ll mention a third memorable story, which stands out for a different reason. Writing’s usually a solitary game, but sometimes we can let others play in our sandpits. Within the past year, I’ve co-written a story (which I can’t name, because it’s currently under blind review) with Edwina, and I’m sufficiently pleased with the process and the result that I’m hoping we can repeat it when the opportunity presents itself. There’s still lots to learn about the collaborative process, but the great thing about trying your hand as a writer is that there are always new directions to explore if you know where to look for them.
What are your future writing plans? Do you intend to keep writing mainly short fiction, or do you think you might try your hand at some longer works, like another novella or maybe even a novel?
It’s still common advice, I think, for would-be writers to start out with short fiction and progress to longer material as they get their eye in. It works very well for some people, whose bent is towards the short form, but others are natural-born novelists and really struggle until they’re let loose on something with a bit of room to sprawl.
I’ll definitely continue with short fiction, because (a) I like the scope it gives for the exploration of a wide variety of SF ideas and settings and (b) I honestly don’t yet seem to be ready to ‘graduate’ to novel-length material—which is not to say that I haven’t made attempts at the latter. But I think the tendency for me is still to gravitate towards a reasonably compact frame for my stories, even though it is stretching out gradually over time. It’s no longer quite the exception for me to write something of novelette length, or longer—I’ve written three of those in the past nine months or so, and as I say the will is there to write novels. Just to get the ambition off my chest, as it were, I want to finish a novel that completes the story of Charmain Mertz’s homecoming after Flight 404—there are some really crunchy ideas I want to throw into that, about sexuality and religion and tolerance and family and belonging and interstellar politics, all wrapped up in a ten-generation-old mystery and a murder rampage; I also want to complete a humorous first-contact novel in which a ship crammed with gifted specialists travels via FTL to the Galactic core to intercept the source of a SETI signal that, as yet, no-one has satisfactorily been able to decipher; and, in what I think of as ‘novel writing by stealth’, I’ve been writing a sequence of short stories set on Saturn’s smog moon, Titan, which introduce the characters who will feature in my Titan novel Wide Brown Land, when I get around to writing more than the first three proper chapters of it. And there’s a novella, Panumbra, that I must get around to finishing sooner or later–it’s set in the dense-interstellar-cloud milieu of a couple of my earlier stories, but hopefully avoids ending up being quite as bleak as they were.
Having said all that … the next thing I have coming out is the follow-up, as it were, to Rare Unsigned Copy. My second short-fiction collection is to be called Difficult Second Album, it’s once again edited by Edwina Harvey and published by Peggy Bright Books, and assuming all goes to plan, it’ll be out at the start of October. It’s subtitled more stories about Xenobiology, Space Elevators, and Zombies in Love, and if that doesn’t tell you more than you wanted to know about it, it has a new Gordon Mamon murder mystery novella, a new and very nasty Titan story, as well as stories about comet mining, fridge whispering, interplanetary freight delivery, choosing the raygun that’s right for you, and the mating habits of spacefaring squid. There’s plenty of hard science fiction in there, some whimsy, some action, and a couple of puns. Three, tops. Honest. (Carefully uncrosses fingers behind back.)
I’m going to be shamelessly partisan, and say at the outset that the list has to include those stories I edited or co-edited myself, for Next, The Back Of The Back Of Beyond, and Use Only As Directed. Outside of those volumes, much of my reading time over the past year or so seems to have been swallowed up by the 2013 Fantasy Short Story reading for the Aurealis Awards, and so that’s very much coloured what has stuck in my mind. I read a lot of good, and often very good, stories for the AAs. I suppose some that particularly stood out for me were Jay Kristoff’s ‘The Last Stormdancer’, Kim Wilkins’ ‘The Year of Ancient Ghosts’, and Thoraiya Dyer’s ‘After Hours’. I also very much enjoyed Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings… and I’m sure I’ve forgotten other books or stories I should have mentioned at this point, but the nature of these questions is that I never seem to function well in attempting to answer them.
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?
It’s perhaps not exactly what you had in mind … but the shift towards e-books has meant that, as someone who dabbles in layout and typesetting, I’ve had to learn how to format e-books as well as books for print.
I think e-publishing, and self-publishing, have changed things quite dramatically over the past five years, and I would imagine that change will continue, though I’ve no idea exactly how it will proceed. I do definitely like the idea that there seems to be more of a niche for novellas (novellae?), in this new read-it-onscreen world, because I think that can be liberating both for writers and for readers—the more scope there is for variety, the better. Bring it on!
I don’t know that any of this has much affected the way I work as a writer, though—I don’t think I’m the sort to follow trends in fiction, which probably reflects itself in my (lack of) sales … I write the stories it occurs to me to write, in the way it seems to make the most sense at the time, and if people enjoy reading them, that’s great.
What will I be writing five years from now? Hopefully, the final chapter of my third novel … or the start of a new short story. Who can tell?
Now, where did I leave the keys to that time machine?