Interview by Tehani Wessely.
Lee Battersby is the multiple-award winning author of the novels The Corpse-Rat King and Marching Dead (Angry Robot, 2012, 2013) as well as the children’s novel Magrit (Walker Books, 2015) and over 70 short stories, many of which are collected in Through Soft Air (Prime Books 2006). He has appeared in markets as diverse as Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror Volume 20; Year’s Best Australian F&SF; Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror vol. 3; and Dr Who: Destination Prague.
His work has been praised for its consistent attention to voice and narrative muscle, and has resulted in a number of awards including the Aurealis, Australian Shadows and Australian SF ‘Ditmar’ gongs. He was the 6th Australian, and 1st Western Australian, winner in the international ‘Writers of the Future’ competition in 2001.
Lee lives in Rockingham, Western Australia, with his wife, writer Lyn Battersby and an increasingly weird mob of kids. He is sadly obsessed with Lego, Nottingham Forest football club, dinosaurs and Daleks.
You can read more about him at his blog The Battersblog, and he will often wave back if you throw pebbles at his window.
I absolutely adored your new novel for younger readers, Magrit, and wondered if you could tell us about the genesis of the story?
The story came from reading a book by Catharine Arnold called Necropolis: London and its Dead. It’s a history of the funerary practices of the City. In one section, Arnold detailed the great survey of suburban cemeteries that occurred before the great garden cemeteries such as Highgate were created. She described how London had grown so quickly that many of the little chapels had become completely surrounded by tenements, and how the mountains of refuse had become so thick that the surveyors had to, quite literally, dig tunnels through them just to get access to these completely sealed off cemeteries. I found that image so resonant I spent a couple of years playing with it, trying to fit it into a narrative. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to write an adult horror story around it, and placed a child into the milieu, that I found the narrative hooks lined up and I was able to create the story that became, ultimately, Magrit. In terms of the writing itself, my son was suffering from a sickness called ‘Rumination Syndrome’ which caused him to vomit upwards of 50 times a day, and meant he was pretty much unable to leave the house for almost 2 1/2 years. Every day I’d have a bit more of the story to read for him, which at least gave him something to look forward to while he was coping with his illness.
The editing beats were very different. My first draft was still quite adult in its pacing: what I revealed and when, and how I set up scenes for the reader. Thankfully, I had a very good editor at Walker Books – Sue Whiting – who worked hard to show me how to structure my reveals for a younger audience, and the right pace for drip-feeding information into the text. Tonally, I didn’t have to change too much: the structure of the language is only a little simpler than I normally use, even if I use less complex wordage, and I was able to leave my natural sentence structure largely intact. Overall, it was a fantastic education in adjusting my approach, almost like using muscles that are used to one form of exercise to perform another: power lifting instead of high reps, to mangle an analogy.
Can you tell us what are you working on at the moment that we might see in the next year or so?
I’ve started work on another kids novel, aimed at slightly older readers, which I’m calling Ghost Tracks until I can come up with a better title. It’s about a boy who is tricked into derailing a ghost train, and then has to travel to the ghost dimension to make amends. I’m also hoping to start work on an idea I’ve had floating around for a while – a collection of linked stories, set throughout the history of Western Australia, recording a secondary, supernatural history alongside important events from the State’s past. When (or even if) you’ll see them, I don’t know: my day job has eaten my life in the last couple of years, so I don’t write anywhere near as much as I used to, and I’m not under contact with anyone, so everything I produce right now is on spec.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I’ve been reading a tonne of non-fiction recently, and quite a lot of crime fiction. The non-fiction Blood Stain, by Peter Lalor, which details the life of the NSW murderer Katherine Knight, is a brutal read. And I’ve enjoyed a few of Michael Robotham’s crime novels along the way, especially the Joseph O’Loughlin series. But I did manage a detour back into F&SF to sit down with Stephen Dedman’s novel North of the Dragonlands, which I very much enjoyed.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?