Interview by Stephanie Gunn.
Peter M. Ball’s first published SF story appeared in Dreaming Again back in 2007, and since then his short fiction has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Interfictions II, Eclipse Four, Shimmer, and Years Best SF 15. He’s the author of five novellas, the convenor of the biennial GenreCon writer’s conference, and spends far too much time tweeting about Conan and pro-wrestling. He lives in Brisbane, and can be found online at www.petermball.com and on twitter @petermball.
Flotsam got its start when I was doing my honours degree on the Gold Coast and spending two years examining the connection between poetics and place. The Gold Coast is a damned weird place to live, particularly if you’re not interested in the beach, and it feels very temporary. People are constantly moving to and from the city – no-one ever seemed to be fromthe Gold Coast, originally – and the tourist strip is constantly rebuilding itself.
And yet, when you live there long-term, you discover all these small communities that exist beneath that. There was a surprisingly engaged arts community on the Gold Coast, setting up performance venues and exhibitions in the industrial states and old buildings. Very chaotic, very close-knit, and easily overlooked if you walked past the venues without knowing what was there.
The similarities between those communities and the kind of secret, supernatural communities that tend to exist in most urban fantasy novels wasn’t lost on me, and it occurred to me that the Gold Coast would be the ideal place to live if you were a vampire or a demon or a long-forgotten god looking for a place to hide out. This was in 2003 or so, long before I’d ever thought about writing speculative fiction, but I put down a couple of hundred words about Norse gods hiding out on the Coast in an effort to avoid Ragnarök and promptly did nothing with it.
Eight years later, I dug those notes out and rebuilt the idea into a serialised version of Flotsam that appeared at the Edge of Propinquity. And, literally the day the editor Jennifer Brozek said “yes, we’ like the pitch,” things started to go wrong: my dad had a heart attack; my work situation changed dramatically; my health was slowly deteriorating for reasons I wouldn’t understand until 2015. And so, the year that I thought I’d spend with a certain amount of writing time suddenly became quite constrained. I struggled with the deadlines, again and again, which frustrated me to no end. None of the stories were as well-connected as I’d wanted them to be, when I started the pitch, and I was haunted by the idea that I could have done better.
So, when Jennifer started Apocalypse Ink and asked if I’d be interested in redoing the series as a novella trilogy, I leapt at the chance to revisit the story and fix all the things that had bugged me the first time around. The result is a very different story, with a much stronger film-noir influence, but it’s much closer to the story I’d hoped to write the first time around.
You have written several novellas, as well as many pieces of short fiction. Do you prefer shorter formats over longer length works? Do you feel like the novella is a type of work that has become more popular in speculative fiction over the last few years, and do you have any thoughts on why that could be?
I’m not sure the novella was ever unpopular in speculative fiction – the history of speculative fiction is filled with brilliant novelettes, novellas, and short novels that are part of the common language of the genre. All that’s changed is where we’re seeing those works published, and that’s largely representative of the way publishing itself is changing. Ebooks and print on demand technology changes the business model, which means its slightly more viable to publish a novella as a stand-alone product rather than packaging it in collection or magazine. Suddenly we’re more conscious of that cool novella I just read, rather than that cool longer story in that book of stories I really enjoyed.
But I do love the novella and the novelette as a form, and have done before I ever knew the words to describe them. They walk a balancing act between the brevity of a short story and the narrative complexity of a novel, and that always appeals to me as both a reader and a writer. The novella also allows for the opportunity to take chances with style and content – I still remember the excitement of reading Dirk Flinthart’s crime novella, Brotherly Love, for the first time when I was eighteen, and it was a near-perfect book in terms of delivering an off-beat set of concepts in a short, sharp package.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
My next major project isn’t fiction based – at the moment I’m in the midst of planning for the next GenreCon, which will take place in late 2017. There are very few things I enjoy as much as writing, but convening the first three GenreCons and creating a space for writers to talk about the business and craft of what they do, is one of the most satisfying gigs I’ve ever had.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I think I mentioned my fierce love of Anne Gracie’s regency novels in the last Snapshot, and that hasn’t changed. Except now, when I go to an SF con, I spend a lot more time gathered together with the other Gracie fans in the corner of the bar, getting far nerdier about the romance genre than I ever was about SF. The Summer Bride has just come out, and I am ridiculously excited about this book.
Sticking with the romance theme, I’m also a huge fan of the first book in Kylie Scott’s Dive-Bar series, Dirty. I have learned I cannot start a Scott book after ten o’clock at night, because I will just keep reading until it’s six AM and the sun is coming up.
On the speculative fiction front, my I’ve been rapidly won over by Sean William’s Jump, Gary Kemble’s Bad Blood, and Kate Forsyth’s The Rebirth of Rapunzel.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Oh, god, no-one. I am a terrible person to sit next to on long flights, and I wouldn’t wish that on any writer. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the writers I really admire were quite abominable human beings to be around for any length of time. Can you imagine being stuck on a long-distance flight with a drunk Raymond Chandler, or an incredibly pithy Oscar Wilde just cutting loose on those around him?
That said, I’d quite like to have a long chat with Joe Lonsdale about his work, after working my way through his short story collections earlier this year. He seems to drift effortlessly between genres, has an incredible sense of precision in terms of his narrative voice, and there’s always something pleasingly off-beat about his work. And there are any number of writer-friends I don’t get to see all that often, who I’d leap at the chance to catch up with…