AHWA Interview with: Joanne Anderton

Can you tell us a little about yourself and the major influences on your writing?

I’m an author of speculative fiction (mostly science fiction, fantasy and horror) as well as children’s books and creative non-fiction. I’ve just commenced a PhD in creative writing, which is amazing and exciting and sometimes a little mindboggling. I was living and working in Japan until relatively recently, and can’t wait until we can travel again because that chapter of my life feels a little unfinished (thanks covid) and I wanna go back. I miss travel.

My dad read Tolkien to me as a kid, and my love of speculative fiction has been going strong ever since. I’ve always told stories. At first, I just told them to myself, making up characters and worlds in my head. When I realised I could get a reaction out of people by writing them down (I was eight, and I grossed out the class with a particularly gory scene…) my fate was sealed. I obsessed over big fat fantasies when I was younger, am a huge manga and anime nerd, think mythology and quantum physics are cool, and love anything that can tell interesting facts in an engaging narrative. These, I reckon, are my major influences.

How would you describe your writing style?

My word of the day is ‘hybrid’. I love to ride the slipstream, often mingling different genres to see what happens when you take a known thing, an assumed thing, and do something unexpected with it. I think that’s the joy of all speculative fiction – sci fi, fantasy, horror, weird, magic realism, whatever flavour rocks your boat. We see the world in different ways, we make the world into something other, and in doing so we create a space where things that might be hard to talk about, truths that might be difficult to define, become clearer.

This goes double for horror, because the darkness in us, in the world, in the universe, isn’t something we shy away from when we write horror. It’s something we embrace.

So yeah got a little side tracked there didn’t I. What was the question? Writing style? I’d say it’s a hybrid of genres and ideas, cut up and put back together, to see what makes us tick.

Please tell us about your most recent work, and how do you think this differs from your early works?

My most recently-published story is in Midnight Echo #15. ‘Hideous Armature’ is a story about body image and taxidermy, it’s dark and weird and very personal. While I’ve always written dark, I think I’m finally finding the courage to tap a more personal well. I’m also working on a novella and some short stories in a similar vein. It’s been both rewarding and challenging to shine a light on my issues, insecurities, hopes and fears like that. With any luck, it will resonate with readers too.

Writing both long and short forms can be a challenging process. Are there tips you would provide new horror writers on how to move from an idea towards something more substantial they can flesh out into a story?

The most important advice I can give is to allow yourself to get bored. It takes a lot of creative brain to flesh out the initial spark of idea into an actual story, and for that, you need to let your mind ruminate. Look away from the computer, turn off your screens. Go for a walk, do the vacuuming, whatever. Just give you brain the space, the freedom, to poke at that idea until it grows. I think there’s a lot of pressure to always be producing. You know that annoying ‘shouldn’t you be writing’ meme? I call bullshit. Sometimes the best thing for your writing is to not do it at all – at least for a while.

Second tip is to keep a notebook of your ideas as they germinate and guide them as they grow. Scribble notes, diagrams, stick figures, whatever works for you. Just don’t assume you’ll remember them as they come to you because trust me, you will not.

And finally, don’t be afraid of a little structure. You might be an avowed pantser, and that’s great. We all work in our own mysterious ways. But as you develop your ideas into story, keep some concept of structure in mind. Even if it’s just a beginning, an ending, and a couple of signposts in between, you’re less likely to get lost on the way if you have a sense of where you’re going. It just might save you from throwing out half a book when you realise you took a wrong turn (I speak from relatively recent experience here…)

Horror writing covers an incredibly broad range of styles and topics. Is there anything you feel crosses a line that you won’t write about as an author?

I think everything should be open to authors to explore, we can cross as many lines as we want, but that this comes with two very important caveats.

1) Do as thou wilt, but do it with purpose, and be informed. If you’re going to write something that crosses a line, think about why you’re doing that. And then think again. Carefully. Why this line, and why are you crossing it, and who might you hurt if you do? Maybe this line belongs to you, maybe crossing it will bear your soul and yours only. But are you sure about that? How does it serve the story? What research should you do so you can approach the line fully informed? And if you can answer these questions, even then, tread lightly.

2) Be prepared for the consequences. Lines usually exist for a reason, and you might think you’re being dark and edgy by crossing them, or you might have approached them with care and consideration. But you still may cause or trigger hurt, disgust or anger. Be prepared for those reactions but don’t argue with them. Listen to them. Learn from them.

Power comes with responsibility, right? So do words.

Which of your works are you most proud of, and why?

I left this question for last, FYI, which I think is kinda telling. I’m not great at being proud in public. Feels like I’m inviting ruin.

But I’ll be brave, and say I’m pretty damn proud of a little story called Wreck Diving. It was published in Aurealis Magazine and went on to with the Aurealis Award for best science fiction short story. This is one of those ‘personal’ stories I was talking about, and took a lot of writing, rewriting and workshopping to get right. But I got it there, and I’m proud of that.

 Are there any pieces of your work you would like to hide, pull back, or rewrite?

Haha all of them at some point! No writing is ever perfect, and however much I understand that as a concept, I’m still learning to live with the reality of it. I don’t think I ever will. No matter how much I work on a piece, as soon as I see it in print I’m simultaneously thrilled and cringing over every little bit that isn’t ‘perfect’. Every typo that escaped proofing seems to suddenly jump off the page. Every word I agonised over isn’t the right one. There are stories I haven’t read since publication because I can’t deal with the stress of their imperfection… and then, one day, I reread them. Say, I might be putting a new short story collection together, and that means I need to see which stories will work, and that means forcing myself to read them. And I realise, you know, imperfections aren’t deal breakers, and these stories, maybe they have good things in them too.

Could you name three other horror authors that you think we should search out?

Um… only three? If you haven’t read any J. S. Breukelaar drop everything and go do that. No, wait, you may finish reading this first, then go and do that. Similarly Helen Marshall, who’s stories and novel are wonderfully weird, wonderfully dark, wonderfully smart. I’m currently obsessed with Carmen Maria Machado, whose work may not seem traditionally horror on the surface, but I find so deeply horrific as she plumbs trauma and bares chilling truths. This is the beginning of a larger conversation about what counts as Horror – the genre, with a capital H, that used to have a section in bookshops (remember that?).

I have also recently been rereading Paul Haines. His stories are always a rich experience, engrossing, demanding, disturbing. So this is just me reminding you to reread Paul Haines.

Of all your previous work, which of yours is your favourite, and what would you recommend a new reader of your work to pick up first?

Usually whatever I’m working on at the time is my favourite, until I hit the point where it’s not anymore, and I start looking for the next shiny thing. But I do have a soft spot for my short story collection, The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories. It was the little book that could, that one.

My work is quite varied across genre and levels of horrorness, so any recommendation I make depends on the reader I’m speaking to.

If you enjoy a spoonful of science fiction in your warm cup of fantasy, then I recommend my novels. If you like fantasy icing on your science fiction cake, then I also recommend my novels. (They’re called Veiled Worlds Trilogy by the way, and start with Debris.

If your tastes run darker, I’d suggest my short stories. Let’s call them a block of 85% horror chocolate? (You can find links to them on my website. They might also be in a new collection or two in the near future…)

If you’re after a book for your 4 to 9 year-year old to teach them about the Australian Outback, planes and the joy of optometry, then I’d recommend my children’s picture book, The Flying Optometrist. In the spirit of the metaphor I’m riding into the ground here, let’s call that one fairy bread.

 Prefer a nice, simple sandwich? Maybe ham and salad on wholemeal? Then I have some nonfiction too!

A genre and a style for everyone’s tastes ☺

Have you got any new projects in the works that we should keep our eyes open for?

Um, watch this space? There are a few exciting short story-related projects happening in the second half of this year and early next year that I’m dying to talk about but can’t quite yet.

How do people find out more about you and your work? (social media etc).

My website is a good place to start (joanneanderton.com). But I’m also around on Facebook, Instagram (@joanneanderton) and Twitter (@joanneanderton).

Swing by and say hi ☺

[This interview first appeared in the May issue of the AHWA’s newsletter. For more information on the AHWA, including how to join, go to www.australasianhorror.com]

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