Interview by Alexandra Pierce.
Lisa L. Hannett has had over 60 short stories appear in venues including Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Weird Tales, Apex, the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror, and Imaginarium: Best Canadian Speculative Writing. She has won four Aurealis Awards, including Best Collection for her first book, Bluegrass Symphony, which was also nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Her first novel, Lament for the Afterlife, was published in 2015. You can find her online at http://lisahannett.com and on Twitter @LisaLHannett.
You recently won the Ditmar Award for Best Novel for Lament for the Afterlife – congratulations! What’s the response been like to this novel, and what was it like to write?
Thanks! I was (and continue to be) so chuffed that Lament won a Ditmar for Best Novel; it was a wonderful and surreal experience hosting the awards ceremony at Natcon this year, having no idea who the winners would be, and then announcing my own name in that category! More importantly, though, it felt really special to receive this nod from my peers, especially since Lament is my first novel.
Writing this book was a fascinating challenge, to be honest. At one of the launches, I mentioned that Lament was a complicated response to my perhaps naïve question: “Why war?” and that’s still how I think of it. I am perpetually interested in war stories — particularly wars that seem futile, or that drag on endlessly, or that seem hopeless — and I’m also constantly attracted to narratives exploring ideas of masculinity and/or what it means to “be a man”, which is no doubt also one of the reasons I’m so hooked on researching and writing about the Viking Age. I’m always wondering what happens to the regular folks when they’re confronted with huge social upheavals, and I’m also interested in the power of language to effect change (for better or worse). So, bearing all this in mind, working on Lament meant I was immersed in a bunch of topics that I find so absorbing, which made writing it — well, I won’t say fun because it was sometimes really hard, especially when dealing with such harrowing material. (The footage I watched of WWI soldiers suffering from shellshock while researching this story will be burned into my memory forever.) But it was engrossing, and putting this story together certainly made me grow as a writer. The book’s unconventional structure meant that I could write Peytr’s life narrative out of sequence, which I’d never attempted before, and that also opened up a lot of possibilities in terms of characterisation, plot, and world building. It also meant I avoided the mid-novel slump, since I wrote the middle of the novel after writing everything but the final chapter. It’s a bleak story, so people who are after a cheerful escape won’t necessarily find it’s up their alley, but I couldn’t in good conscience write this story in any other way.
One of the best responses I got was from my editor at ChiZine, who said she was bawling her eyes out at the end, which was the perfect reaction in my opinion. Another brilliant surprise I got was listening to the Writer & The Critic’s “Fab 50” episode and hearing Kirstyn McDermott (whose writing I admire immensely) pick it as her #1! That was pretty exciting. Of course, it was so great seeing Lament get positive reviews on Kirkus, i09, Publishers Weekly, SF Signal and to see it longlisted for the Sunburst Award in Canada. But probably the very best responses have been from soldiers who’ve read the book, given it five stars, then said I’d nailed the guys’ sweary voices, the overall tone, the confusion and dread and boredom of being on the frontlines, and so on. Man, that was as much an honour as it was a relief.
You and Angela Slatter have collaborated on a number of collections in Australia, such as The Female Factory, and these works are quite different for you both. How do you go about writing those stories?
In many ways, Angela and I have such different interests in reading and writing — she’s an enormous crime buff, for instance, and can write a cracking mystery tale, whereas I love reading and watching crime stories but don’t know if I’d ever write one; she’s got such a strong commercial voice, whereas I love veering off into experimental narrative structures; she’s often drawn to writing strong female characters, which I also love doing, but I find myself often depicting vulnerable men — but we have so very many interests in common (mythology, history, fairy tales, etc etc etc) there’s always a place where our styles and ideas can overlap.
When it came to writing The Female Factory, Alisa had given us the challenge of creating Science Fiction pieces (which neither of us do overly much) so it was fantastic having two minds on the job! We brainstormed as much for that collection, I’d say, as we did when writing Midnight and Moonshine, even though that book was about three times longer. No matter what we’re working on together — whether it’s stories about raven-women and Norse gods or about kids cobbling a mother together out of stolen body parts — we always discuss the main ideas, character arcs and plot points together before starting a project. Then, usually, one of us writes the opening, or a key scene, or something crucial to kick things off. Once there are words on the page, we pass the document back and forth between us — adding bits, deleting bits, editing each other’s paragraphs, building on them — until we’ve got the whole thing drafted. This process sometimes takes up to ten drafts, which is many more than we do when working on stories individually. Mostly this is because we’re perfectionists, but also because we’re communicating so clearly and extensively throughout the drafting process; we add loads of comment bubbles explaining the changes we’ve made, and why, so that we’re both on the same page and aiming for the same narrative goals. Also, by the time we’ve gone through this many drafts, the “voice” of the piece no longer seems to be either just Angela’s or just mine. Instead, it’s a third voice that you won’t find in our individual projects — and I think that’s an important feature of our collaborations. Most of all, our partnership works because we’re so open to discussion, we’re not precious about being edited, and because we trust each other implicitly.
You often seem to have a lot of projects on the go at the same time. What’s the most exciting one you’re working on at the moment?
I’ll narrow it down to two because I’m equally excited about them! I’m a whisker away from finishing the edits on my next collection, The Homesteaders, which is a sort of follow-up book to Bluegrass Symphony. Backwoods witches, immortal soothsayers, bear-shaped child-stealers, raven-shaped miners, and lots of ghosts appear in these short stories, and they’re all tinged with a down-home country twang. I’m also doing rewrites on my next novel, Ketill’s Daughter, which is the first in a two-book series called The Invisible Woman. Set in Viking Age Norway, this first book tells the early story of Unn the Deep-Minded — wife of one king, mother to a second, and eventually a famous Viking herself — as she struggles to find her own fame and fate in this warrior world, all while her shape-shifting time-travelling fylgja (a kind of spirit guide) keeps butting in to mess things up for her… The second book in the series (called Deep-Minded) will follow Unn out of Norway into medieval Ireland, Scotland, and finally Iceland.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
Alison Goodman’s Lady Helen / The Dark Days Club is such a rollicking read! I enjoyed it so much, I’m dying to read the next book in the series. James Bradley’s Clade was an astounding work of speculative fiction, and though I read it last year, I still think about it frequently. Another Book One I devoured last year was Kim Wilkins’ Daughters of the Storm; I’m hanging out for Sisters of the Fire! And of course, Angela Slatter’s Vigil: it’s a really fun urban fantasy set in Brisbane, and I gulped it down almost whole.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Well, they’d have to be outgoing enough to kick off the conversation because, usually, I’m one of those people on planes who’s like, I don’t care how close together our seats are: please don’t talk to me I just want to read my book and watch a crappy movie and hopefully fall asleep. BUT, assuming I was in a chatty mood … and excluding any writers who are currently my friends (because how to choose only one?!) … I’m going to go with the first name that pops into my mind, and that’s David Malouf. I’ve recently re-read Ransom, which is an incredible reimagining of the story of King Priam, Hector, and Achilles, and good lord it’s a brilliant book — as brilliant as An Imaginary Life, really — and I’d love to have a long talk with him about it, antiquity, poetry, myths, short stories, the libretti he’s written, the great breadth of his knowledge about language, life, the universe, and everything — and I’d also like to ask him where he’s stashed the painting that’s ageing on his behalf (because, seriously, how is it possible that he’s 82? He looks at least twenty years younger. Witchcraft, I say! Or a supernatural portrait.)