Interview by Tehani Wessely.
Cat Sparks is a multi-award-winning author, editor and artist whose former employment has included: media monitor, political and archaeological photographer, graphic designer, Fiction Editor of Cosmos Magazine and Manager of Agog! Press, an Australian independent press that produced ten anthologies of new speculative fiction from 2002-2008.
She’s in the final throes of a PhD in climate change fiction through Curtin University, specifically examining its relationship to science fiction and the responsibility both genres might have towards the future.
Your debut novel, Lotus Blue, is coming out from Talos Press early this year. Could you tell us a little about the book?
Lotus Blue is a biopunk action adventure tale set in a far future climate-and-war ravaged landscape. The protagonist is a young girl who discovers, amongst many other things, that she isn’t quite human. I’ve always loved this particular trope. So many of us feel alienated, especially when we’re young, convinced that we are somehow different from everyone else. My protagonist, Star, must learn to first cope with and then weaponise her differences in order to protect the ones she loves. The Acquiring Editor described my novel as ‘Mad Max meets Terminator meets Ghost in the Shell’ and I really can’t argue with that.
I know you have been working on a creative PhD for the past couple of years but I believe it’s almost complete – coming out the other side, what have been the most challenging aspects and the most rewarding?
My PhD has been fraught with complications at every step of the way. I was only a few months into it when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later she was dead and I became responsible for my elderly father who was unable to care for himself due to violent assault a few years previous. He lived in Sydney and I lived in Wollongong, so I commuted back and forth, attempting to keep him in his own home near his friends in the suburb he had lived in for 45 years. Eventually he had to go into care and moved down to Unanderra on the south coast close to me.
The plan was always to finish the novel before commencing the PhD – and I did. However, the end third of the book did not work to my agent’s satisfaction, so I rewrote it. And rewrote it. And rewrote it… I honestly have no idea how many times I reworked that book. I’m pretty sure I put 300,000 words in the bin over the years. The final few rewrites occurred halfway through my PhD – I took a few months out to work on the novel. Curtin Uni has been very supportive of my circumstances, both family and professional. I would not have made it this far without terrific support from my supervisor, Dr Helen Merrick.
So I’m running behind – apparently everyone does. My work is due at the end of December. My father passed away two months ago and now I’m in the middle of unexpectedly moving. I’m sitting alone in an all but empty house in a battered old armchair that’s getting tossed in the skip in a couple of days. Just me, three discombobulated cats and the collected works of JG Ballard, which is completely fitting reading material, of course.
The most rewarding aspect has been the way my studies have altered my relationship with reading, writing and research. I did not expect to fall in love with this topic as much as I clearly have.
You are making a return to anthology editing with the Ticonderoga publication Ecopunk – what made you decide to undertake the project and what can we expect of it?
My co-editor Liz Gryzb and I both attended Isobel Carmody’s Red Queen launch in Melbourne last year. I was taking photos, Liz was belly dancing. I tell people we were drunk when we came up with the Ecopunk plan, but that’s a big fat fib. We just considered it to be a book that ought to exist, alongside Hieroglyph and Loosed Upon the World. We decided we would be the ones to make it happen. Positive stories about the near future; the process of grappling with the challenges to come are difficult to come by, probably because they’re difficult to write. Miserable futures are a dime a dozen. Don’t know about you, but I’m bored of them. I have come to believe that speculative fiction authors have a part to play in addressing the ongoing climate crisis. Ecopunk is part of my response to that belief.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I really love what I have read so far of the anthology In Your Face, which sounds like a dodgy comment coming from me, considering that the anthology was built around my own story, ‘No Fat Chicks’ – and the fact that you’re the publisher. There’s some mighty powerful work in that anthology.
Earlier this year I took some time out to read stories from a selection of major SF magazines and found a disappointing sameness to many of them. All superbly crafted and executed, but, how do they put it these days – same same but different? I’m quite happy reading novels where I’m familiar with the pattern of execution and I pretty much know what’s going to happen next. But that is never what I want from a short story – especially not a speculative fiction piece. I like my short stuff edgier than that.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Easy. Kim Stanley Robinson. Because he is ‘the man’ when it comes to everything I’ve spent the past four years studying. All climate fiction roads lead back to him. If I were starting my PhD today, I would focus entirely on his work. I’ve been privileged to meet him three times in the past, but that was back when, to me, he was just another big-name author who had written a couple of books I really enjoyed. Now I see him through completely different eyes. An activist fighting to build a better future for Planet Earth. Someone working hard to keep the faith, who believes we are capable of being better than we are. I perceive of an interconnectedness between all his novels, that they are all leading towards the same near future point. He is a prime example of the best science fiction has to offer and I salute him for all his precious work.
Whilst moving house, I came across my membership badge from Melbourne Worldcon 2010. Robinson’s email address is scrawled upon the back in his hand. A group of us were chatting at the HarperCollins party and I’d told him I’d photographed his Red Mars book tour in Sydney in the 90s and that I had photos somewhere. I have since found those photos but I’m not going to email them. They’re boring. He most certainly has many photos of himself sitting behind desks signing books already. I’m not going to bother him. These days I’ve got way too much respect.