2016 Snapshot: Mark Webb

Interview by David McDonald.

Mark is a part time writer and full time Servant of the Public. His mid life crisis took the form of writing speculative fiction at a very slow pace. While sceptical of the results, his wife maintains that it was probably a reasonable course of action considering (1) the relative low cost of the exercise and (b) the cliched alternatives.

Mark lives in the inner west of Sydney Australia with his long suffering wife and two children. 

A collection of some of his previously published short fiction, called A Flash in the Pan?, can be found at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/253852.
You’ve been a tireless promoter of Aussie Spec Fic, including your prolific reviewing. Is there a methodology behind the way you approach reviews, whether it is what you choose to look at, or how you structure a review?
Hi David – great to be here. Glad you asked about my reviewing – it’s time the behind-the-scenes-elegance of my approach was revealed to the world. I meticulously create a spreadsheet that contains every single Australian speculative fiction author then cross tabulate every piece of fiction they have written, correlated with how many times they have been reviewed in other venues in order to… actually, I can’t even sustain the effort to finish that gag, so it is highly unlikely that your readers will believe I put that much time into constructing my review list. A lot of my reviewing is guided by my engagement with the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge (http://australianwomenwriters.com). As a result, I’m always on the lookout for new work by Australian women, and fortunately for me there is so much great stuff out there at the moment.
I tend not to review things I really didn’t like – life is too short to spend it writing cranky reviews. Generally, I’m looking for books that are somewhere on the OK -> Great scale, and even in those cases where a book is just OK, I usually only write a review if I’ve got something constructive to say (well, if I think its constructive – the author might not agree!). I’m not a professional critic – I owe no service to telling people hard truths for their own good. Rather, if I feel inspired to write a review, its usually because I liked something and I want other people to know about it.
I also made the call a while back that I won’t accept review copies of books, so that anyone reading my reviews knows that I shelled out my own money for the book. That’s a very personal choice, there are a lot of people who get review copies and provide a completely unbiased review. But sometimes I feel differently about a book that I’ve received for free – lower expectations perhaps. I thought there was space for reviews where you know that the person reviewing invested in acquiring the story, and is either delighted or resentful over the result of that investment.
You’ve had a number of flash fiction pieces published – a form that is deceptively hard to get right. What is it that attracts you to that length, and what are some of the skills it requires?
Flash fiction to me is a really interesting format. I think a lot of people treat it like telling a joke – a few paragraphs leading up to a punchline. And I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself in the past. But I think the best flash fiction requires the author to build in the elements of a story, make a reader care about a character or a situation, and do it in an incredibly short space. It can explore an idea, or an element of an idea, without the distraction of subplots and ensemble casts. And it is easy to consume, a reader doesn’t need to invest huge amounts of time.
You spend a lot of time stripping things out of flash fiction. Reworking sentences to find the most efficient and elegant way to get a point across. If you’ve ever spent a lazy Sunday afternoon constructing the perfect tweet that gets across the exactly correct sentiment in 140 characters, then you might like the process of refining a flash fiction story. You also need to be great at coming into a story late and leaving it early, just focusing on the crucial element that you want to highlight. If you can give the reader a sense that the vignette they just read is part of a broader universe, then the story can feel much more substantive that the small number of words would usually allow.
What else have you been working on, and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
Well, there hasn’t been a lot of short fiction from me recently – I’ve been working on two manuscripts, an urban science fantasy novel, and a secondary world fantasy novella. I have a draft of both, and I’m currently spending most of my time going between the two editing like a man possessed. My goal is to have both ready to shop around over the next couple of months. Oh, who am I kidding? It will probably be the end of the year.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I recently read Vigil by Angela Slatter, an urban fantasy based on a short story she published some years back. I read a review and remembered the short story. I even remember thinking that I would love to read more set in that universe. And lo and behold, many years later Slatter delivered. How could I not love the result?
I’ve also been on a Tansy Rayner Roberts kick lately. Roberts has to be one of the most innovative writers around at the moment. I love the way she is trying new media and forms of publishing, a really owning the “hybrid author” space. I really enjoyed her serial publication Musketeer Space last year, and have been enjoying her venture into audio story delivery in her Sheep Might Fly podcast.
I love a multi-author novel, and Zeroes by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld was a seamless read, with a very 21st century take on the superhero concept. I don’t normally love YA work, but this one really grabbed my attention.
And I can’t go past a question like this without mentioning Jason Nahrung, one of my favourite Australian SF authors. He recently released a short story set in his “Outback Vampire” universe (https://jasonnahrung.com/2016/07/07/forged-in-blood-now-in-ebook-formats/), which I hope is the beginning of more material set there. The two books that created that universe, Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke, are an excellent read for anyone who likes the idea of creatures of the night operating in a sun-soaked continent.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Well, to be honest I’d probably pick a dead one because I like to relax on planes without making awkward small talk, and I assume the dead ones would be a lot less chatty. But assuming it was one of those new fangled zombie-voodoo planes I’ve heard so much about, and the hereunto peacefully deceased author had reanimated with a unquenchable desire to talk after the loneliness of oblivion, I would probably pick someone like Fritz Leiber. I loved the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories growing up, and still have my copies of the series carefully bound in contact that has been applied in that painstaking way that only 12 year olds who deeply love books and wish to stop their younger siblings from spilling orange juice all over them can master. For me, Leiber is the representative of that era of speculative fiction that looms largest in my mind. I’d love to hear about writing in the mid-20th century, of what the industry was like, and get a better sense of the history of the field.
If it was a living author it would be Ursula Le Guin because, you know. Ursula Le Guin.
On a side note, I deny strongly any imputation that I chose those two authors because Le Guin and Leiber happened to be side by side on my bookshelf.

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