JANEEN WEBB is a multiple-award-winning author, editor and critic who has written or edited 10 books and more than 100 essays and stories. Her short story collection, Death At The Blue Elephant, was released by Ticonderoga in June 2014. Janeen is a recipient of the World Fantasy Award, the Peter MacNamara SF Achievement Award, the Aurealis Award and the Ditmar Award. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Newcastle, and divides her time between Melbourne and a small farm overlooking the sea near Wilson’s Promontory, Australia. Find out more at her website: janeenwebb.com.au
1. When we spoke two years ago, you had a couple of longer works on the drawing board; Sinbad, an Arthurian work, and an alternative history. How’s progress, or are you on to something different?
Writing is a slow process for me. Since we last spoke I have been concentrating on short fiction. I’ve put a lot of time into my story collection, Death at the Blue Elephant, a mix of original and reprinted stories just released by Ticonderoga. I’ve also written stories for anthologies, most recently ‘Future Perfect’, for Use Only As Directed (ed. Simon Petrie & Edwina Harvey).
I am still digging away at the alternate history, which turns out to be a much bigger project than I had anticipated. The third of the Sinbad books is still on the back burner, though I have not by any means given up on it – there’s a certain amount of guilt about that one. The mooted Arthurian novel remains very much just an idea at this stage.
2. What is it about the likes of Sinbad and Arthur that keeps us coming back for more – what is their relevance for, or perhaps resonance with, this current age?
Italo Calvino once remarked that stories live longer than people (and stars live longer than stories). As I see it, the old, archetypal tales are always with us – they inform our culture, and their narrative patterns influence the way we think, the way we write. Sometimes the old stories are camouflaged, but scratch the surface and they are right there. There is a universality about them that functions as a kind of narrative shorthand for storytellers everywhere, allowing us to meld them together into new shapes, new forms.
My own most recent foray into the Arthurian mythos is ‘The Sculptor’s Wife’, the long story that closes Death at the Blue Elephant (and is probably my favourite story in the collection). This piece combines Ovid’s classical tale of Pygmalion with Malory’s Arthurian story of the enchantress Nimue, to produce a truly monstrous modern celebrity: for me, at least, the traditional sources somehow make the story feel right. I guess that’s how the resonance works.
3. In the forward to your debut collection, Death at the Blue Elephant, you remark that your broad travels have informed numerous of your stories. In what way does location influence your stories? What are the things writers on the wallaby should look for?
Writers need to be able to represent perspectives other than their own, and for me it has been travel that has taught me how to look at the world in very different ways. I’ve lived in various countries, and a lot of my stories are set in exotic locations. But the stories are not just about place – they bounce off the histories and mythologies as well as the physical characteristics of their settings: as, for example, ‘Red City’ is located in India’s Fatephur Sikri, but it plays with the legendary predictions of the astrologer who lived there – so the setting is integral to the plot. I couldn’t write it any other way.
There’s an old adage that travel broadens the mind, but it only works if you are prepared to be open minded about it. Too many tourists take their own atmosphere with them, seeing different scenery from an air conditioned bubble that keeps out all the really important things about being in a strange place – the people, the animals, the vegetation; the smells, the sounds, the tastes, the touch – the things that I think make writing come alive. I prefer an immersion approach, to live in another place for a decent length of time, to absorb the sensory input, to engage with a different culture. In other words, to take myself way out of my comfort zone, just for the hell of it.
The downside for writers on the wallaby is that you can never go home again, not really – once you’ve lived outside the cultural box you can never quite fit comfortably back inside it.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ve been reading mostly history lately. In genre fiction, the books I have enjoyed most recently are Robert Hood’s Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, and Kim Wilkins’ The Year of Ancient Ghosts.
5. 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?
The move to e-books has changed things for me in that I am still writing short stories for anthologies, but because those anthologies are now published in print and e-formats simultaneously the turnaround is faster. The publishing industry is in flux, and it is hard to keep up with all the changes: I honestly can’t begin to guess how things will play out, or what to expect in five years. All I can do as an author is to keep writing the things I am passionate about, produce the best work I can, and seek to place it as best I can when the time comes.