DK Mok is the author of The Other Tree, Hunt for Valamon, and the Aurealis Award shortlisted story ‘Morning Star’ (One Small Step).
DK grew up in libraries, immersed in lost cities and fantastic worlds, populated by quirky bandits and giant squid. She graduated from UNSW with a degree in Psychology, pursuing her interest in both social justice and scientist humour.
She’s fond of cephalopods, androids and rugged horizons, and she wishes someone would build a labyrinthine library garden so she could hang out there. DK lives in Sydney, Australia, and her favourite fossil deposit is the Burgess Shale.
1. Your most recent work is an urban fantasy novel, The Other Tree, which some reviewers have compared in feel to Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code. What was the inspiration behind this book, and how was the process of writing it like?
It’s been an exciting year, and the release of my debut novel has been an amazing experience. I’ve always loved fantasy and adventure, and I grew up reading authors like Roald Dahl, Graeme Base, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett. I’m drawn to books that transport me to fantastic realms and take me on exciting adventures, and these are the kinds of stories I most enjoy writing.
The Other Tree draws from a number of influences, and Indiana Jones is certainly one of them. Like many people, I watched the first three movies at a time when I thought giant rolling boulders were the coolest thing ever, riddles were deliciously tricky, and bullwhips were an awesome distance weapon that never ran out of ammo. I loved the blend of fantasy, action and mythology; the flawed but empathetic protagonists; and the tongue-in-cheek humour. Actually, I still love most of those things.
Films like The NeverEnding Story, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal also left a lasting impression on me, with their blend of lush fantasy and subtle menace. I was fascinated by the duality in many of these movies – the tension between the mundane world and the fantastical one, and the sense that the protagonist could never be quite whole, quite fully formed, without striding through the fire in both.
One of the most memorable things for me about the Indiana Jones movies was the fact that the protagonist was ostensibly a professor of archaeology. In many of the stories I’d grown up reading, librarians, professors and alchemists were generally sedentary sorts with delicate constitutions. They mentored the hero, but rarely did much swashbuckling themselves. And yet, many of my real-life heroes – many of the people I saw exploring strange lands and encountering wondrous creatures – were often researchers who divided their time between the desk and the field.
To me, passionate scientists, researchers and academics are a natural fit for fantastic adventures. When I hear Sir David Attenborough talk about his extraordinary and sometimes reckless experiences as a pioneering naturalist and documentary maker, his exuberance when describing everything from gorillas to sea cucumbers is absolutely enthralling.
Likewise, when I listen to oceanographer Sylvia Earle – aka The Sturgeon General – describing her dives from the undersea laboratory Aquarius, or forensic entomologist Amoret Whitaker enthusing about the role of maggots in solving murders, it’s hard not to be drawn in. Seeing their passion, commitment and curiosity, it’s clear why otherwise ordinary people brave gun-runners, death threats or malaria to study shy, pink iguanas or bellicose volcanos.
The eventual impetus for my writing The Other Tree came from my sister, who’s also an author and an avid reader. She mentioned one day that she’d like to read a story about people searching for the lost garden of Eden, and I immediately thought: the protagonist has to be a botanist. The idea kicked around inside my head for quite some time, transforming slowly from a fantastic adventure romp into a story with deeper themes of family, mortality, priorities, and the choices we make.
The protagonist in The Other Tree, Chris Arlin, owes a debt to all the passionate researchers I’ve admired, and she’s infused with the same spirit of discovery. She’s a cryptobotanist whose passion for rare and improbable plants makes her the subject of ridicule at her alma mater, Varria University. However, when Chris learns that her father is suffering from an incurable illness, desperation and determination impel her on a search for Eden and the Biblical Tree of Life.
When it comes to the writing process, I used to be a pantser, but I’m now a dedicated plotter. I had the arc of the story planned before I began writing, because it’s the only way I can keep track of multiple plot threads and characters who insist on running around absolutely everywhere. I wrote for several hours each evening after work, all day on weekends, and I scribbled in my notepad whenever I had a spare moment. It took about six months to reach a decent early draft, and another several months of editing, revising, and addressing feedback from beta readers to arrive at a polished manuscript.
The final book brings together many of the themes and elements I love, and I hope The Other Tree connects with other readers who enjoy fantasy and mythology, botany and archaeology, and geek culture with touches of humour.
2. Your story, Morning Star, appeared in the Fablecroft anthology, One Small Step: An Anthology of Discoveries. This story garnered you an Aurealis Award nomination (for Best YA Short Fiction) and was noted by many readers as being one of their favourites in the anthology. The call for submissions for the anthology gave a very broad idea of what was being looked for – involving literal or figurative “small steps”, discoveries or beginnings. How did you go from such a general idea to a story like Morning Star?
You might want to settle down with a cup of tea for this answer, because it’s another long one. In the absence of a word limit, or someone playing increasingly loud exit-music over the top of me, I’m going to give the extended-edition response.
‘Morning Star’ is the culmination of my lifelong fascination with androids, consciousness, and the definition of humanity. I grew up watching Astro Boy, a children’s anime about a robot boy and his often poignant adventures. He had red rockets for feet, and pathos beyond his years. A winning combination.
In high school, I was introduced to Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its android crewmember, Lieutenant Commander Data: an artless, cat-loving, mystery solving, socially awkward Chief Operations Officer. Episodes such as ‘The Measure of a Man’, dealing with questions of sentience and liberty, had a profound impact on my growing awareness of human rights and discrimination.
By now, I’d started reading Isaac Asimov’s books, including The Caves of Steel, which featured the cunning and eloquent R. Daneel Olivaw. I had my heart wrenched by stories like ‘The Bicentennial Man’. I idolised Susan Calvin, a female robopsychologist character at a time when women were far less visible in programming and engineering careers than they are today.
And then, I watched Blade Runner.
Sir Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of science fiction noir poetry left an indelible impression on me. The plight of the replicants, the tangled conflict between troubled bounty hunter Rick Deckard and charismatic android Roy Batty, and that unforgettable ‘time to die’ speech, crystallised so many of the nebulous concepts I’d been wrestling with.
I love android stories because they raise questions about identity and humanity, sentience and freedom. They explore ideas about what it means to live, what it means to be human, and all the messy, contentious and important territory that covers. Android stories also often act as an allegory for the marginalised, the oppressed, and the dispossessed, illuminating issues of equality and civil rights.
Fast-forward over a decade to 2012. Around the time I saw FableCroft’s call for submissions, Prometheus was released at the cinemas. This was Scott’s long-awaited return to science fiction, and I relished the spaceships, the cool tech-toys, the gritty holograms, and, of course, the complex and compelling android, David 8.
Another – more sombre – event happened around this time. Neil Armstrong – the astronaut whose words inspired the anthology’s title – passed away. He was greatly admired not only for his iconic role in the Apollo 11 moon landing, but for his quiet, solid work as an aerospace engineer and researcher. I’d grown up with a passion for stories about space exploration and distant worlds, and the passing of such a legendary man was deeply felt.
So, ‘Morning Star’ was a story that had waited patiently to be written, and One Small Step was part of a confluence of events that finally rallied me to write it. I’d encountered many stories revolving around the last human in the universe, and I wanted to write a story about what it would be like to be the last android in the universe. I loved inventing all the futuristic tech, and weaving in the elements of mystery, biology and ethics. However, at its heart, ‘Morning Star’ is a story about self-awareness, mortality, human nature, and the fragile, tender, complicated connections between people.
The Aurealis Award nomination was incredibly unexpected, and it was surreal to see my name on the list alongside authors such as Joanne Anderton, Juliet Marillier and Kim Wilkins. ‘Morning Star’ is a special story for me, and I’m glad to see it touching a chord with others.
3. Are you currently at work on any fiction, or have any projects on the horizon?
My next novel is a standalone epic fantasy titled Hunt for Valamon. It’s coming out in February 2015 via Spence City (an imprint of Spencer Hill Press), and I’m currently busy working on edits and exciting pre-release activities. I’m also in the early stages of writing an epic fantasy trilogy, which is another story I’ve been wanting to tell for some time. It’s exciting to be working on so many projects that I’m passionate about, and I can’t wait to share more news with everyone as things progress.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ve just finished reading A Crucible of Souls, a richly imaginative epic fantasy by Mitchell Hogan, and winner of this year’s Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. I also recently enjoyed Ink Black Magic, a fun fantasy romp by Tansy Rayner Roberts; and The Cobbler Mage, a bittersweet fable written by Angela Rega and illustrated by Rebekah Pearson.
I adore Shaun Tan’s work – I still consider The Arrival to be an absolute masterpiece – and his latest picture book, Rules of Summer, is another gorgeous, imaginative and poignant story. I also still delight in every new Graeme Base book, and Little Elephants is another sweet and whimsical story with beautiful illustrations.
My to-be-read pile continues to grow happily.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
My objective is to continue writing entertaining, thoughtful, fantastical and meaningful stories. To paraphrase author John Connolly, you should write the story that’s calling to you the loudest. Whether navigating calm seas or tempests, I consider this excellent advice.
Over the last few years, technology has made it easier than ever for people to create, distribute and consume content. We’ve already seen seismic shifts in the music and media industries, and the publishing industry is now undergoing a similar transformation. It’s a turbulent, exciting and uncertain time to be a writer, artist or maker.
We’ve seen the rise of digital-only imprints, crowd-funded projects, and self-published authors. Platforms and communities like Smashwords, Wattpad, Leanpub, comiXology, Etsy and deviantART have made it easier for creators to find an audience. It’s encouraging to see such diversification, especially for communities outside of the mainstream. In the face of these changes, the role of curators remains as valuable as ever, whether it’s passionate bookshop staff, bloggers, librarians, newspaper reviewers, Goodreads ratings, publishers, forums or friends.
As both a creator and a consumer, I hope the unfolding of these changes will be a collaborative and constructive process, rather than a purely competitive one. I believe traditional publishing, indie publishing and self-publishing are complementary options, just as ebooks and print books satisfy different needs, and online stores and bricks-and-mortar bookshops offer very different experiences. I think we’d all be diminished if any of these things vanished.
I haven’t changed the way I work, but I’m much more aware of the diversity in publishing now, and it’s fascinating to gain insight into other people’s experiences.
Five years from now, I hope to be adding to my collection of handmade zines and indie graphic novels; reading ebooks on the go; curling up with a paperback and a cup of tea; discovering new authors on brilliant blogs; raiding my local bookstores and losing myself in new releases and second-hand treasures; supporting other authors – both traditional and self-published; flicking through my digital magazines; and browsing libraries across the city, armed with a deck of library cards and a set of indestructible totes.
I expect to still be writing the stories that are calling to me, and I hope there’ll still be readers happy to welcome them.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: Tsana Dolichva, Nick Evans, Stephanie Gunn, Kathryn Linge, Elanor Matton-Johnson, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Jason Nahrung, Ben Payne, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Helen Stubbs, Katharine Stubbs, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright.