I’m very honoured to have Lee Battersby, one of Australia’s foremost speculative fiction authors agree to this interview where he talks aboput his forthcoming debut novelThe Corpse-Rat King
I was very fortunate to read an ARC of The Corpse-Rat King and you’ll find a link to my review of the book at the end of this interview. But now I’ll let the man speak for himself:
Tell us about your upcoming release The Corpse-Rat King from Angry Robot books. How did the story idea emerge?
‘The Corpse-Rat King’ tells the story of Marius dos Helles, a professional looter of battlefields and Olympic-quality coward, who is mistakenly acclaimed King of the Dead. The King is God’s representative on Earth, and they have not been admitted to the afterlife so they need one to talk to God and remind him that they’re down here, waiting. Once they realise that Marius is no King, they send him to find one. And as they say in the TV papers, hi-jinks ensue. It’s irreverent, highly cynical, and everyone says ‘fuck’ a lot more than they’re supposed to.
The idea originated from a dinner party conversation with Dave Luckett, a friend and fellow writer I’ve admired for many years. We were bemoaning some of the more obvious fantasy tropes, particularly those of the “everybody’s noble and shampoo seems to have been invented 500 years early” soft-focus variety. I started out to see if I could write something with some grit under the fingernails, and once I got started, my natural inclination to undermine everything and be ludicrous came bubbling out.
CRK is very character driven, one man’s quest to find the meaning of his life through his death. Does that mean Marius came into being in your mind easily and just how much did he drive your tale?
Marius is a fun character to write. He’s always looking for an angle; always willing to run away rather than do the right thing… he’s very much an extension of my belief about humanity in general. The entire story is about him: his reluctance to think beyond his own self-preservation, his unwillingness to assume responsibility, his journey from being utterly egocentric to becoming… well, not exactly philanthropic, but perhaps egocentric plus a couple of friends 🙂
He’s centre-stage the whole time, because that’s how he sees himself. Everybody is the hero of their own story, and Marius takes that to the logical extreme. It takes a seismic shift to get him to see outside of his own welfare, and that’s half the fun of being a writer: taking a perfectly good, invented, human being, and fucking them up for 400 pages…
‘Marching Dead’ puts him at the centre of something bigger: too big for him to be able to remove himself from the welfare of the society around him. He has to evolve a conscience, and a sense of social responsibility, although it’s fair to say the growing pains are enormous.
Truth is, I don’t like noble characters much. Either they act nobly, in which case, where’s the character growth? Or they betray their own nobility, in which case you just think of them as shits because they’ve betrayed you. Much better to start with a character who’s honest to his own shitty nature and see if you can’t indulge him. That’s fun 🙂
You’ve had more than 70 short stories published in magazines across the globe and now you have your first novel. Was this your first attempt at writing a novel? Are there any other novels – finished or unfinished – gathering dust in a desk somewhere?
I’m currently finishing the first draft of a contracted sequel, ‘Marching Dead’, which I‘ll be handing in to Angry Robot sometime in the upcoming month. I did complete a novel before ‘Corpse-Rat King’ which a previous agent failed to place, and I’m a better enough novelist now that I’ll likely go back and rework that one over the next year or so and see if I can’t improve it sufficiently—the central idea is a good one, and it’s likely it’s just a shortfall in the author’s skill that’s let it down so far. At least, I hope so 🙂
I also wrote 52 000 words of a Father Muerte novel, ‘Father Muerte and the Divine’ whilst I was waiting for ‘The Corpse-Rat King’ to go through the Angry Robot Open Door Month process, and I’ll be going back to complete that. It’s my usual mish-mash of WTF moments and disparate weirdness: time-travelling Benito Mussolinis, intelligent dinosaur ghosts, Viking seer techniques….. when it’s written down like that I almost wish I was joking….
And I’ve got a few fun ideas waiting for me to get to them. I have an idea for a post-apocalyptic revenger’s tragedy I’m just foaming at the mouth to get to, and I’d love to write a Dying Earth fantasy, so if all goes well I’ve probably got enough projects to see me through the next three or four years.
CRK is the first in a series and at last check you’re 75,000 words into the sequel Marching Dead. Have you had much time to celebrate your success or have you been spending the evenings pounding the keyboard?
There’s no real success yet: I don’t consider selling the novel to a publisher a ‘success’ as such, because that’s what I was aiming to do in the first place. As pleased as I am to sell to someone like Angry Robot, it’s really just a case of job done, and completing the first step towards establishing a long-standing career as a novelist. The success will come if this novel sells well to the public, if it’s well-received, if it opens up new opportunities, if I can translate it into ongoing relationships with my agent and publisher… all things I would like, but over which I have zero control. Success is something I like to look back on, and right now I’m neck-deep in the process, so hopefully I’ll be able to look back on this period in a couple of years and pinpoint it as a successful beginning.
Your wife Lyn Battersby is also an esteemed writer – does that also make her your biggest critic? How much input did she have on CRK?
Lyn’s an astonishingly good writer: far more emotionally subtle and humane a writer than I am. She’s very quick to see if I‘ve become lazy or repetitive in my use of themes or approach, and she’s got a very good radar for those things I do that work, or which I need to spend some time improving. She didn’t have a massive amount of input into CRK, largely because she’s trying to fit her own writing in around working and studying at Uni, so pushing my stuff in front of her would have taken her away from her own stories, and I’m selfish in that I enjoy reading her stories so would rather she write one than read one of mine.
You work for Rockingham City Council – in the arts? You’ve administered some projects around writing, like story competitions. Can you tell us about that?
I’m the Coordinator of Cultural Development and the Arts, which means I bear responsibility for the promotion of arts practice within the City. There are over 100 000 people in the region, and engagement with the arts is an important factor in establishing and maintaining an active lifestyle. In regards to our literary programme, we’ve established an annual short fiction competition that utilises an image from the City’s Art Collection as its thematic base each year, and have incorporated a poetry competition as part of our annual Castaways Sculpture Awards. We participate in National Novel Writing Month through managing the Rockingham/Mandurah nano-region, and run a series of workshops in the months leading up to November where local writers can work with established pros: in the past we’ve worked with Kate Eltham, CEO of the Queensland Writers Centre, as well as authors such as Bevan McGuiness, Sherri-Ann Jacobs, Simon Haynes and Juliet Marillier, and we’ll be running workshops with Stephen Dedman and Amelia Beamer as part of this year’s program. We also ran a writing marathon last year called ‘The Night of Writing Dangerously’ as part of our ‘Nano’ program, and will be doing so again this year.
What we try to do is bring authors from the region together and help them build their capacity to work within the literary industry, and then provide opportunities to do so within a national framework. Last year we received short story entries from around the country, and the poetry competition even attracted entries from the US and Canada, so local authors have a chance to benchmark themselves against a wide range of other practicing authors, which can only be good for their development and the development of the literary arts in the region.
All of which is a very formal way of saying that we try to advance the literary arts by putting local authors in touch with established industry pros, give them outlets to practice their art, and try to help them think in new ways about their art and the industry in which they work.
How do you see speculative fiction now with the emergence of the e-book and small press, particularly in Australia?
The small press has always been a major part of the Australian publishing scene: in terms of sheer population we just can’t support many major publishers, so those we do have play the game of highest numbers and can be conservative as a result. The small and micro-press scenes are really vibrant, and fascinating, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of it over the last decade or so. If I ever get my shit together and work towards a doctorate I’ll probably base my studies around the small-press culture and how it propagates.
As an author, though, I can’t quite get a handle on the e-publishing scene, particularly the self-publishing model. It seems particularly labour-intensive, in an industry where outlets already exist to take administrative tasks away from me and let me just get on with writing, and I’m not convinced that the economic payoff is there unless you have an already established reputation. I can see the benefit of releasing reprint material into the electronic market, but given the proliferation of electronic publishing clauses in traditional contracts these days I’m very cautious about the benefits of electronically self-publishing original material rather than bookending it onto a ‘dead-wood’ publishing deal.
That said, I have friends in the industry who are utterly convinced that the book is dead and we’ll be completing the full publishing cycle electronically within the next few years. Kate Eltham, for example, is highly articulate—not to mention far cannier than me—on the subject, and I’ll more than likely just steal all her ideas in a couple of years and look back on this interview with rolling eyes…
Who’s your favourite author (deceased)? Who’s your favourite author (still living) – and why?
God, end with an easy one, why don’t you? 🙂
Too many to name. Far too many. I’m a total bibliophile. Right now I’m re-reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, so right now it’s Wolfe, but on any other day it’ll be Palahniuk, Lethem, Waldrop, Pratchett, Aldiss, Mieville… how long have you got?
My tastes tend to run towards people who straddle a line between genres: slipstream, or interstitial fiction, but that’s not absolute. Rather, I’m voracious. I’ll try anything once.