2020 Snapshot: Doug Van Belle

Doug is an annoying pain in the backside when it comes to bios. Besides being rather assertive about the fact that he is not now and has never been Canadian (Rumour has it that he’s a Kiwi who was raised in the U.S.) it’s hard to get a straight answer out of him. Google says he’s a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, but the university will neither confirm nor deny that they have a Media Studies program, and the textbook he writes, A Novel Approach to Politics, is an introduction to politics textbook, not a media studies textbook. As far as fiction goes, you might start with his first novel, Barking Death Squirrels, or his award-winning novella, A Small Blue Planet for the Pleasantly Insane, or Breathe, if you can find a copy. Or, you could just steal a copy of The Kahutahuta from his garage. He probably won’t notice if one goes missing.

  1. Tell us about your recent publications/projects?

It’s been a busy couple of years, with whole host of big projects coming together pretty much all at exactly the same time. I didn’t plan it that way, but in the last finished a research monograph charting the space that science fiction occupies between science and society for Lexington Press; sent another research monograph to University of Michigan Press on mediated learning and disaster risk reduction policy; and finished up the sixth edition of my textbook with Sage. On the fiction side, I helped turn my young reader fantasy novel, The Kahutahuta, into a read-along for the Fund-A-Book reading and literacy charity, which made it available on YouTube and I finished two novels. One of those novels, The White Coyote Project, is a real departure for me. It’s a literary fiction novel about teenagers swept up into a 1980s black box project and I have to say that it was a huge challenge to step that far outside of my comfort zone on a novel. Well worth it, but tough to do. The other novel is more what you might expect from me A World Adrift is a hard science fiction novel, and it is probably the best science fiction story I’ve ever written.

Other than the surface of the Earth itself, the most habitable place in the solar system is 55km above the surface of Venus. Temperature, pressure and gravity are all Earth-like, volatiles are abundant and breathable air acts as a lifting gas. That makes it perfect for floating colonies, and 800-years after it was first settled, it has evolved into the perfect, plastic steampunk setting. Floating cities, kite sailing airships, and best of all, it’s all scientifically accurate, including the politics. I added a story based upon some of the research I’ve done on the politics of crises, and it just all came together. Really happy with it and it will be interesting to see what my agent can do with it and with White Coyote.

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

For me, there is kind of a weird duality to publishing. On the academic side, I’ve reached the point in my career where I can publish pretty much anything I write, it’s largely just a matter of where. So I have to make a conscious effort to do some of my own quality control and make sure that everything I put out there is something I want out there. On the fiction side, despite having several novels and heaps of stories under my belt, and now an agent working for me, there’s still a lot of scrapping and scrabbling to find the best places for things, or just to find places for things.

So on the fiction side, the best publishing experience so far is also probably my worst experience. The same publisher picked up my last hard science fiction novel, Breathe and my young reader fantasy, The Kahutahuta. Breathe was a nightmare. It started with an utterly incompetent editor and ended with the publisher closing shop and leaving everyone involved, including both the incompetent editor and the second editor who was brought in to fix the book, unpaid. So my entire advance, and a bit more, went to paying the editors, and the layout person, and the cover artist, and the book was never really distributed to retailers. On the other hand, The Kahutahuta, was a great experience. The publisher found the reading charity for me, and they’ve given away thousands of copies around the world and have been incredibly good about things like producing the read along and the rest. The only real problem is that it has been a little too successful. It’s very much a Kiwi story, and I didn’t expect it to do all that well up in the states, so I gave the charity a big break on royalty rates and offered to take my royalties in free copies of the book to give away in NZ. When the first ‘royalty’ payment arrived and it was basically a scene out of a comedy. A guy from the shipping company calls and asks if I have a forklift on site to unload the truck. I gave most of them away at the Auckland Armageddon, but I still have enough boxes of books out in the garage to make a really cool fort if I wanted.

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

Right now I’m working on turning the screenplay for a family fantasy adventure I wrote, The Rabid Pixies of Doom, into an all ages novel ,so on the recommendation of a friend I started reading the books that Lee Murray has written for young adults and young readers. In addition to a knack for creating a very comfortable narrative to settle into, Lee has produced a fantastic variety of fiction, from kid’s fantasies, to horror, to erotic thrillers. Not all of it is my cup of tea, but it’s all pretty good.

Other than that, however, I haven’t been reading anywhere near as much local work as I usually do, particularly when it comes to short fiction. I usually make a point of reading everything in Andromeda Spaceways and picking up the small press anthologies, but it really has been crunch time on a lot of projects over the last year and it probably won’t be until after I have the grades in for Term 2 that I’ll get a chance to just sit down and read like I normally do.

On the other hand, I’ve also never been quite so engaged with writers around the world like I have been over the last few years. The academic book on science fiction is based upon a set of interviews I conducted way back in 2015, and for various reasons, I’ve kept in touch with several of the writers. A lot of that has been around screenwriting and discussions of my experiences with Avalon Studios on the production side and it has been a lot of fun being able to talk shop with, and occasionally offer some helpful comments to people who have lost track of how many Hugos they have on their shelves.

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