2020 Snapshot: Lee Murray

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows) and a three-time Bram Stoker Award® nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thrillers (Severed Press), and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra, co-written with Dan Rabarts (Raw Dog Screaming Press), as well as several books for children. She is proud to have edited thirteen speculative works, including award-winning titles Baby Teeth: Bite Sized Tales of Terror and At the Edge (with Dan Rabarts), Te Kōrero Ahi Kā (with Grace Bridges and Aaron Compton) and Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror (Adrenaline Press). She is the co-founder of Young New Zealand Writers, an organisation providing development and publishing opportunities for New Zealand school students, co-founder of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, and HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019. In February 2020, Lee was made an Honorary Literary Fellow in the New Zealand Society of Authors Waitangi Day Honours. Lee lives over the hill from Hobbiton in New Zealand’s sunny Bay of Plenty where she dreams up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Read more at www.leemurray.info. She tweets @leemurraywriter

1. Tell us about your recent publications/projects?

Thank you for asking! I’m delighted to announce I have four publications coming out this year: my debut collection of short stories Grotesque: Monster Tales (Things in the Well, 24 July 2020), the third book in my collaborative speculative crime-noir series, Blood of the Sun, co-authored with Dan Rabarts (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 6 Nov 2020), an anthology of 64 stories and poems from New Zealand Secondary school students, Scary Tales (YNZW/Rogue House Publishing, 19 June 2020), and Black Cranes (Omnium Gatherum, Fall 2020), an anthology of Asian women in horror writing in English, which I am curating/co-editing with my Australian colleague, Geneve Flynn. I also have a few short stories in the works, some poems, and a couple of secret squirrel projects that may or may not launch me to mega-stardom…

Gorgeous cover art by Daniele Serra (Blood of the Sun), Greg Chapman (Black Cranes and Grotesque: Monster Stories), and William Dresden (Scary Tales).

What has been the best publishing experience of your career so far?

Not exactly a publishing experience. When I was five, my younger brother went to hospital to have his tonsils and adenoids removed. For someone destined to write horror, the idea of a sibling having bits sliced out of his throat should have been an exciting piece of news, but the opposite was true. An upbeat comic soul with an odd-ball take on world events, it was boring at home without him, even if he was only four. To entertain myself, I decided to write a letter to the queen (as one does when one is bored). So in my best primary school printing, I wrote about my brother’s absence, and my grandmother’s current trip to England with her sister (had the queen seen them yet?). Then I politely wished her well and signed the bottom of the page. I believe I added a curlicue. (it was for the queen, after all). My mother popped the letter in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and sent it off to Buckingham Palace. I didn’t think anything more about it until a month later, when my brother was back to his annoying self, and a letter arrived. It wasn’t from the queen—I’ll admit that bit was disappointing—but it was from the palace, written on special embossed watermarked palace paper from one of her ladies-in-waiting. (I’d read Cinderella, so I knew what one of those was.) It was a seminal moment in my life. Not a publishing moment, but the realisation that putting a pen to paper (or in my case, an HB pencil), could provoke a response from someone whose life was entirely removed from mine, on the other side of the world.

The letter to the queen story should end there, but there was a second unexpected episode. Many years later, I was home visiting my parents for the summer with my daughter, aged seven. Because she was missing school—we were living in Wisconsin at the time and school was still in session—not wanting her to get behind, we had set her the task of writing a story, which we would send in to a children’s writing competition that we’d seen advertised at the Tauranga Public Library. My daughter went looking for some inspiration and found my framed letter from the queen lady-in-waiting stuffed in a vinyl footstool under a stack of my old school reports. After discussing her proposed story arc at some length with her granddad (he will later claim to being one of her earliest influences), she wrote a story about a girl named Felicia (very like herself), whose grandfather (also one of my earliest influences) told her he had once been famous for ironing the queen’s clothes. Highly suspicious, Felicia resolves to write to the queen to find out. The resultant two-part epistolary tale included serious stakes: royal ironers who ruined the queen’s clothes risked having their heads chopped off. My daughter typed the story herself on an obsolete piece of office equipment still in use in my parents’ home office, I filled out the cover page on her behalf (it required an adult’s signature), and the story was promptly entered. We didn’t think any more about it until a couple of months later—when we were back in the full freeze of a Wisconsin winter—and we received word from my mother that the story “A Note to the Queen” had placed in the junior section of the writing competition. My daughter would receive $100, a certificate celebrating her achievement, and publication in a journal of students’ work. She was also invited to a book launch at the library where she could meet the other contributors, but since the prize money didn’t quite cover the cost of air tickets, she had to decline. A decade later, the story appeared in my daughter’s debut story collection, Seven to Seventeen, published by a local writers’ collective.

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that my 1970 letter to the queen has had literary ramifications that span generations. I also point out here that “A Note to the Queen” earned her more money than my first short story publication almost a decade later.

Which recent Australian/NZ work would you recommend to international fans interested in expanding their Antipodean spec fic knowledge?

Despite the pandemic disruptions, there is still plenty of New Zealand speculative fiction on offer this year, albeit kicked down the road by a few months. For example, my Path of Ra co-author Dan Rabarts, will release Sisters of Spindrift, the third instalment in his quirky steampunk adventures of a cook on the run series, Children of Bane (Omnium Gatherum). Another former collaborator, Piper Mejia, will release The Better Sister, a debut collection of nine disturbing dark fiction stories highlighting the relationship between sisters. Eileen Mueller will release Sea Dragon, the sixth book in her bestselling, Riders of Fire YA fantasy series, and still on the Dragon theme, Christchurch writer Robinne Weiss released Dragon Homecoming, the fourth (and final) title in her MG Dragon Slayer series while we were all on lockdown. And world-renowned fantasy author David Hair has two titles from two series releasing from Jo Fletcher books: Mother of Daemons (The Sunserge Quartet) and Map’s Edge (The Tethered Citadel), although his Aotearoa speculative series remains my favourite.

However, I’d like to give a special shout-out to New Zealand YA fantasy novelist 16-year-old Denika Mead, former finalist in the Young New Zealand Writers’ Youth Laureate Award and this year’s winner of the national Scary Tales competition. With the mentorship and guidance of New Zealand high fantasy author AJ Ponder (author of the Sylvalla Chronicles: Quest, Prophecy, and Omens), Mead has written and released her first book, The Death Hunters, in 2019. Set in New Zealand and the fictional world, Ghost Orchid, the novel is a mix of action, suspense, and drama, and tells the story of 14-year-old Ivy who must battle a murderous dragon, a mystery voice, and a lurking magician, to discover where she belongs. A prequel to the series Into the Flames was released in April this year, with the second book available shortly, Mead is definitely a young talent to watch.

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