Interview by Belle McQuattie.
Dirk Strasser has won multiple Australian Publisher Association Awards and a Ditmar for Best Professional Achievement. His short story, “The Doppelgänger Effect”, appeared in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology, Dreaming Down Under. His fiction, including his fantasy trilogy The Books of Ascension: Zenith, Equinox and Eclipse, has been translated into a number of languages. A collection of his short stories, Stories of the Sand, was recently published. His most recent short story publication has been “The Mandelbrot Bet” in the Tor anthology Carbide Tipped Pens. He founded the Aurealis Awards and has co-published and co-edited Aurealis magazine for over 25 years.
Aurealis is the longest running spec fic magazine in Australia. What do you attribute its success and longevity to?
Aurealis has been publishing continuously for 26 years, and we’ll reach our 100th issue milestone next year, so one thing you can say is that Aurealis hasn’t been a flash in the pan! A lot has changed in the time we’ve been publishing. We didn’t have email when we started, the first editions were laid out in old-fashioned physical paste-up, and the first covers were done using only three block colours without colour mixing. Looking back, it’s hard to see how we got through the early days.
I think the main reason we’ve lasted so long with such sustained success through all this change is our adaptability. I’m not a great believer in and head-wall banging when what you’re doing is no longer working. When we find that something that was once successful for us doesn’t work anymore, we change our strategy. We’ve gone through phases of full national newsagency distribution, bookstore distribution, high-volume overseas print distribution, and now we’re digital only. Just this year we changed again in our push to go global. We decided that we would open up to overseas authors while at the same time maintaining the number of Australian stories we published each year. The result will be that even more people around the world will be aware of what’s being published in Australian SF.
We’ve changed the process of story selection over the years. We’ve changed the editorial structure a number of times. We’ve encouraged a constant influx of new people and new ideas. We’ve also adapted in our story choices over the years and have deliberately avoided being stuck on a certain type of SF story. Anyone who’s read Aurealis knows almost any sort of speculative fiction can pop up. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.
Over the course of your career, you’ve been on both sides of the editing table. Do you approach editing your work differently to editing others?
It’s harder to edit your own work. I think you unintentionally skim more when reading your own fiction. You read what you think you’ve written sometimes, not what’s actually on the page. You read in a particular tone inside your head that sometimes doesn’t match the way other people would read the words. The best way to avoid this is to leave your draft lying dormant for as long as possible before you edit it. That way you can approach it closer to the way a new reader would approach it.
In the last Snapshot, you said that writers should inspire trends. What trends would you like to inspire over the next few years, either through Aurealis or your own work?
There always seems to be a new wave of writers coming along that are inspired by the very existence of a magazine with the profile of Aurealis within Australia. I would like to think that whatever new trend in SF comes along, it will find a home in Aurealis among the pantheon of previous trends.
In terms of my own writing, I would like to see a trend where SF finally takes its rightful place in the literary mainstream. There are still too many occasions where quality books that are clearly SF are disenfranchised from speculative fiction, science fiction or fantasy labels. We should all be fighting the “if it’s good, it can’t be SF” attitude on all fronts.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I know it was published a while ago, and many people would argue it’s not SF, but the Australian book I’ve had by far the greatest emotional response to in recent times is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I would argue that not only is it fantasy, the fantasy element is what gives it its power and depth. What other conclusion can you possibly come to about a book whose narrator is Death? The writing has a haunting simplicity. How can it be anything but fantasy when one of the narrator’s most striking lines is: “I’m haunted by humans”?
Out of recent Aurealis stories, I loved Bentley Reese’s “The Corpse Eater” in Aurealis #92, an unusual mixture of the lyrical and the brutal and Matthew R Ward’s “Surfing Time” due in September’s Aurealis #94, an unusual time travel story with a real twist.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
I would love to have a long chat with China Miéville. The weirdness of his ideas are off the scale, and I would try to get a sense of what his thought processes are, particularly the slake-moths in Perdido Street Station, the mosquito women in The Scar and the concept of unseeing in The City & the City. I’d probably end up trying to get him to change direction from his most recent works that seem to have strayed from “weird and accessible” to “weird and difficult”.