Kirstyn McDermott’s career has spanned from 1993 to the present day, and has included stories that have garnered multiple honourable mentions in Ellen Datlow’s Best Fantasy and Horror and Best Horror of the Year anthologies, reprints in several Year’s Best anthologies and multiple anthologies and wins of the Ditmar, Chronis and Aurealis Awards.
McDermott’s work tends towards the dark and the feminine. Several themes wind their way through her body of work, including that of the seductress, of romantic obsession, of blood and sex and death. Many pieces also deal with the nature of art and the artist; these pieces are arguably amongst the strongest of McDermott’s body of work and culminate (thus far) in her debut novel, Madigan Mine.
There is a fascination that comes with reading an author’s body of work in chronological order, watching as themes build upon each other and create ever stronger pieces. McDermott’s earlier work has power and possessed, at times, some startlingly beautiful and disturbing and haunting imagery, but when read in comparison to some her later work, there is a lack of resonance and soul.
It feels like McDermott really begins to develop this resonance and soul with the short story The Truth About Pug Roberts (published in Southern Blood). This was McDermott’s first Ditmar Award nomination, and deservedly so. The characters in this piece live and breathe and the Australian setting is vivid.
Painlessness (published in Greatest Uncommon Denominator) would be recognised by many as McDermott’s breakthrough story. Winning the Aurealis, Ditmar and Chronos Awards, as well as garnering honourable mentions in both Datlow’s and Rich Horton’s Year’s Best anthologies, it is perhaps also the first piece of McDermott’s that feels really grounded. Set firmly in Melbourne’s goth scene, everything and everyone in this story feels real (even more so, somehow, even when the most unlikely things are happening). This is the first story where the power of the dark feminine is captured by McDermott and is, quite frankly, an absolute must read for any fan of dark fiction.
She Said (published in Scenes from the Second Storey) is also set in Melbourne. One of the rarer pieces from McDermott that features a male protagonist, this is a deeper foray into the nature of art and the artist. As with many other of McDermott’s pieces, it is the female characters who truly have the power (even though it may not appear so). This is one of the most haunting pieces that McDermott has written.
Monsters Among Us (published in Macabre) is another piece set in Melbourne, specifically in the goth scene. Nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, this piece is very dark and again features characters who feel very real. One notable thing about this piece (as in many of McDermott’s stories) is the normalisation of same sex relationships in the world of the story.
McDermott’s debut novel Madigan Mine continues many of the same themes explored in her short stories: obsession, the nature of the relationship between artist and muse and the nature of art itself. Unlike many of McDermott’s shorter works, this novel features a male protagonist, but the titular Madigan herself is in many ways more of a protagonist of the story than he ever is. This novel also links back to the Melbourne seen in a short piece published earlier – Smile for Me – with the two pieces sharing several common characters.
Overall, McDermott has produced a very solid body of work, with each piece showing clear growth as a writer. It’s easy to class her as a horror writer, but her work is so much more than horror in her words and worlds: there is a gritty reality even in the most extraordinary events that will make you wonder what lies beneath the skin of your own world.
An Interview with Kirstyn:
1. Which authors are your biggest influences in terms of style and subject matter?
It’s difficult to talk about influences, because I’m sure that most of them are unconscious. Stephen King was certainly influential when I first started writing, mostly because I had been reading his work from any early age (possibly too early an age!) and he was a demi-god in the horror genre. Stylewise, I think I shook him off early on — it was embarrassingly easy to catch myself slipping into King-like prose — but in terms of subject matter, one of his most enduring influences is the way he writes about ordinary people, people who are neither classic hero-figures nor uber-cool fringe dwellers, and writes about them so that they seem more real than anyone you know. King does that exceptionally well and I think that’s because he never, ever makes his characters take a backseat to the story; they are the story.
Stylistically, Kathe Koja and Caitlin R Kiernan were significant influences for a while — they both remain two of my favourite and most admired authors — and any experimental, non-standard method of telling stories is going to make me prick up my ears and take notice. Truthfully, as a writer, just about anything you read is going to influence you in some way, even if it’s a counter-influence, but it’s not necessarily going to lead to imitation or any kind of similarity that could be seen by a casual observer. You read, you take note (sometimes consciously, sometimes not), you subsume and you carry on. Hopefully, along the way, you become a better writer.
2. There is a recurring theme of art and the relationship between artist and muse in your work. Is there any art that influences or inspires your work?
I am constantly influenced and inspired by the visual arts. Possibly because a painting or photograph or a sculpture, or what-have-you, can only ever provide a small glimpse of a greater narrative. The best art — and this holds true for all art, not just the visual disciplines — the best art forces you think outside of itself, outside of yourself. So when I get a glimpse of a narrative, if the artwork is compelling enough, I want to know the rest of the story, the story that came before and after, and also the other sides of the story, how it might be seen and conveyed by different storytellers.
I was in Adelaide recently and was delightfully surprised to stumble upon an extensive Patricia Piccinini exhibition at the state gallery. I love her art and could have spent half the day wandering around and making notes and having to restrain myself from touching the sculptures (they’re almost irresistibly tactile). It’s beautiful, fragile, confronting, visceral work that talks about science and humanity and responsibility, and you can’t leave an exhibition like that feeling the same way about the world. That’s the kind of art I love. The photography of Joel-Peter Witkin hits some of the same emotional buttons for me, although from a completely different direction. The kind of art that resonates most strongly with me tends to possess some element of the fantastic or the surreal or the mythic. A reaching beyond the confines of the world, so to speak. And, usually, unsurprisingly, a reaching towards the dark.
Strangely, though, I’ve rarely written something based directly on any particular artwork. It all just feeds itself into the mix. One thing I do like to do is use art in my work — fictionalised art, almost always — to strengthen tone or mood, or underscore a theme or intention. Metaphors within metaphors, that kind of thing. Plus I get to play with ideas and concepts for visual artworks that I will likely never have the time (or, in most cases, the talent) to execute in real life.
3. Do you tend to listen to music when you write? Is music an influence for you?
I used to listen to a lot of music when I wrote, but I’ve fallen away from that habit in recent years for reasons uncertain even to myself. I only realised it when I came to answer this question, actually! It’s been a while since I’ve selected a playlist for a particular story or whatever it is I’m working on. These days, I prefer to surround myself in silence, and it helps having a quiet room at the back the house now where I can write without much disturbance. I also love writing late at night, so late it becomes early again, because the world is quiet and still and most people are asleep. I think I find music — especially music with lyrics — too distracting at the moment. I need space inside my head, some room for my own thoughts to move about and stretch and get comfortable. As I said, it wasn’t a conscious decision; it’s just been a while since I’ve felt the need to sequester myself within a cocoon of external sound.
I’m not sure music has ever been a tremendous influence on my work, either. Occasionally a song or, more likely, a couple of lines of lyric will catch at me and inspire some idea that flits off to become a scene or a character or a theme that I want to explore, but that’s about it. I wrote a story called “She Said” for an anthology that was based on album (Scenes from the Second Storey by The God Machine) which is as close as I’ve probably come to direct inspiration. And even then, I was stitching that up with chunks of ideas that I’d been carrying around in my pockets for a while. The song I was given to write about happened to mesh perfectly with those; it lit a path to the end, so to speak.
4. There’s a definite sway towards the female characters being in positions of power in your work. Is this something you consciously set out to achieve?
Definitely. Not only in positions of power, but in all sorts of roles. Most of my recent work has female protagonists, and antagonists, and supporting characters, because that’s what interests me right now — the representation of the female and the feminine, and where such representations are coming from. And I have to admit it’s a challenge. I’m a woman and I think the consensus out there is that it should be easy for me to write female characters because of that brute fact of biology, but guess what? It’s bloody difficult. I am ONE woman. I know what it is like to be a woman LIKE ME. And that’s all I know from first hand experience. Of course, I have female friends and relatives, but that’s still a very small sample set and I’m not inside their heads on a regular basis, if ever. That’s a brute fact of being human — we’re not telepathic mind-readers and we don’t actually get to experience what it’s like being inside someone else’s skin.
Except in art, we can. Books and movies and role playing games, and all those means we have of telling each other stories, of telling each other what it is like to be inside our own skin; that’s what we have. That’s where we pick up a huge amount of our social and cultural empathy, which is why the question of diversity is so damn important. And when you think about how poorly women are represented in culture, how narrowly our range of (legitimised, feminised) experience is defined, how closely our psychological and physical expression is policed and from what early an age, it’s appalling and somewhat terrifying.
My novel, Madigan Mine, was largely told from the point of view of a young man and I’ve had more than a couple of men comment on that and express admiration (and possibly mild astonishment) at how well they felt I was able to write from that point of view. But really, I have been a voracious reader my entire life, which means I have been soaked in the male voice, the male point of the view, the intricacies of the male subconscious, the particularities of male physicality, and so on, all rendered with such a complete assumption of male authorial authority, that I took me a while to even recognise the absence of the female as female in her own right, rather than in her position relative to the male. The history of English language literature has been the privileging of male voices; I’m not sure anyone can argue that with a straight face anymore. And I personally find it easier to write from a male point of view because I have encountered so many diverse and nuanced cultural representations of men. Such exposure gives me a better “feel” for a male character, where he might fit in the vast (male) cultural spectrum, where he falls short.
When it comes to writing women, that’s sadly not the case. Look at the different types of female bodies/faces that are depicted on screen, for example, as opposed to the different types of male bodies/faces — especially when physical appearance isn’t coded as a “character issue”. Its painfully easy to see that women are simply not allowed to inhabit the same range of physical forms that men have at their disposal, and I would suggest that the same narrow allowance applies to non-physical expression and experience, and that’s something I like to address in my work. Not only do we need more women characters, but we need a greater variety of them, a more detailed cultural sample set, so to speak.
5. Do you have set writing routine, and if so, what is it?
No, I really don’t. Finishing the novel I’m working on, I do try to make sure I sit down every day and get words down on the screen. Sometimes it’s just for a couple of hours, sometimes it’s most of the day, or more realistically, night. But I don’t have any set patterns, other than I prefer to start writing in the afternoon/evening. My brain doesn’t like to think creatively in the mornings — I leave that time for mindless scutt work.
6. Which newly published (say, in the last few years) authors do you think we should be watching?
Lisa Hannett’s debut collection, Bluegrass Symphony — which I believe comes out in August — is astonishingly good. There’s a richness and depth to the world she has created with those stories that is truly enviable. It’s not our world, but it could be — if, you know, our world had minotaurs and mermaids and flying horses. Angela Slatter is also a formidable short story writer, as both of her collections from last year clearly demonstrated, and the two of them are collaborating on a collection to be published by Ticonderoga in 2012 (I think). I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to reading that.
Peter M Ball and Felicity Dowker are both doing some very cool things with their short fiction as well and, while it may be stretching the definition of “newly published”, I’ve recently fallen in love with the work of Kij Johnson and Nalo Hopskinson. Especially Kij Johnson – she breaks my brain and puts it back together in the most excruciatingly wonderful way.
7. Can you tell us anything about your forthcoming second novel?
Not a lot, other than the working title is Perfections and it’s about two sisters and their not-so-imaginary friend. I don’t think it will be as dark a book as Madigan Mine, which is something I’ve been struggling with — allowing the story to tell itself in the way it needs to be told, and recognising that it might not be the story I started out with. Actually, saying it won’t be “dark” is probably misleading. Happy endings aren’t really my forte, but let’s just say that it’s not turning out to be as brutal as I imagined when I first conceived it.
8. Are there any other forthcoming works you’d like to tell us about?
I have a small collection coming out next year as part of the Twelves Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press that I’m very excited about. Now that’s going to be one dark little book. And brutal. I love the short form when it comes to fiction, especially in the speculative genres, and I think novellas are just about the perfect length for me right now. They’re notoriously hard to place, though, so I’m really grateful to Twelve Planets for allowing me the elbow room to work on not just one, but two novellas, as well as a couple of non-so-short stories.
9. Are all of your Melbourne stories are intended to occur in the same Melbourne (since there is crossover between Madigan Mine and Smile for Me)?
There is definitely some crossover in my work from time to time. You might be pleased to know that Dante makes a return visit in the novel I’m currently working on, and is actually a more significant character this time around. And he has a better gallery! It’s an odd thing, but I’ve never really thought of writing about Melbourne (or anywhere else) as a “world” so to speak. I think this is because the vast majority of my work is set in the here and now, give or take the occasional “period piece” such as “We All Fall Down”, and I don’t tend to tweak the real world, setting-wise. I’ll insert impossible/improbable people and creatures and events, of course, but I don’t usually interfere with the world as it otherwise is. Our world, my world, my Melbourne. I think you could consider my stories to be an overlay on top of the real, actual world. I’d like to think that all my Melbourne characters do inhabit the same world, that they could all conceibvably meet and have drinks one day, time periods and relative age allowing. There might be some inconsistencies between stories, but it helps that very, very few of my characters seem to affect the physical world around them in any meaningful, objective sense. The world, and its inhabitants, tends to work terribles changes on them instead.