The Stars of Speculative Fiction #4: Cat Sparks

Today’s special guest is none other than the queen of the Galapagos islands, the first woman to cover Australia on a space hopper and inventor of the toothbrush… for it is indeed Cat Sparks (

)!


Photo by Mark Greenmantle

Hello there Cat, where on earth do I start? Award winning artist and writer, with quality work all over the place, an entire star system named after your behind, a talented husband, demonic cats, and the wall of kitsch; it’s just too much to go through…

1. Art seemed to be your main driving force a few years ago but now there seems to be a lot more fiction bearing the name Cat Sparks. Was this a conscious decision or did it just happen that way? Which do you prefer or are they two different worlds for you?

I grew up in a household full of art. My father is a painter as was my uncle. Producing visual art of one form or another has always been completely normal to me — and completely ordinary. I fell in love with fiction writing at a much later point in life. Fiction still has a shiny coating to it. It’s hard work and I have to struggle with it. The better I get, the harder the struggle. The bar is perpetually being raised. All this could be said to be true of visual arts too, of course, but I can get away with lesser quality graphic design, whereas I never get away with ordinary attempts at fiction. If my writing isn’t the best than it can be, I won’t sell my story. There are too many other professional players out there and they’re ALL better than me.


I didn’t consciously decide to split the two. They split themselves. Its a time factor thing. I need every spare block of quality time I can scavenge for my writing. This means other interests such as illustration, photography, anthology production, etc., all fall by the wayside. If someone says ‘can you do me a quick illustration for X magazine cos my artist has piked out at the last minute’, I can manage that, no problem. But I can’t knock off a short story in the same way. All my stories take time. Lots and lots of quality time.


I’ll never completely stop producing visual art though. I like it.

I have to go back to that anthology production quickly now, as that’s something I (and others reading this are very interested in).

2. How did you get into editing, what made you start up your own publishing company (Agog! Press) and how would you assess the state of the anthology at this moment in time?

How did I get into editing?


Well… It was 2001 and I hadn’t long moved out of Sydney and down the south coast of New South Wales to live with Rob and concentrate on my writing. I remember Rob and I driving along the winding coast road discussing Australian spec fic when I had a sudden epiphany. The state of Australian short fiction markets was looking pretty shabby. As an author, I was finally good enough to sell my stories – but, disappointingly, there were so few quality local markets to sell to. I had all the skills I needed to start my own small press (I was working as publications manager for a government department at that time). I figured producing an anthology would take roughly the same sort of effort that writing a novel would — but nobody needed another writer. Why not have a crack at an anthology series, thought I. I was brimming with enthusiasm, excitement and naivety: the perfect necessary combination of elements for small press anthology production. Several wise and learned people told me not to bother, but I told them all to shut up cos I was going to do it no matter what they advised.


In 2002 my government department sent me to university to do a post graduate certificate in editing and publishing, which suited me perfectly as they were footing the bill. I launched Agog! Fantastic Fiction halfway through the year, passed my uni course & was quite amazed at how well received the anthology was in the sf world. Looking back on it now, I think it holds up well. I learned all the things I needed to know on the job, made a few mistakes, pissed a few people

off, but that’s showbiz.


Along the way I have shared my small press knowledge & experience with many other members of the Australian SF community. People come to me for advice and mostly I’m able to help. Agog! Press has produced seven anthologies in all, four edited by me, three by Rob. Sadly, the fun has gone out of it as always seems to be the way with small press. I achieved some of my goals and didn’t get anywhere near achieving others. Anthologies are extremely labour-intensive. Today I would rather devote that time to my own writing. I haven’t thrown in the anthology towel yet but the writing is on the wall. I’m selfish. I want more time for me. Yeah, nobody needs another writer, but that’s what I really want to do.


Anthologies themselves seem to be en vogue at the moment. America is crawling with them — good quality ones too. Classy-looking productions filled with top shelf names. I don’t want to produce them

any more — I want to be in them


One of the tricks to producing a decent anthology is to include some high quality stories that aren’t to your own personal taste. Diversity is important. No one is ever going to like every story you choose so you might as well go to town and include a couple of things that will freak people out. The other thing you have to be mindful of is not playing favourites. Choose the best stories, not stories from the best known authors or your favourite authors. Sometimes its a hard call to make, but you’ll regret it if you wimp out. Another thing to learn is where to edit and when to leave well enough alone. Its not an editor’s job to put their personal stamp on everything they touch. Some stories are so well crafted that all you really need to do is wipe their noses and their bottoms & send ’em out there. Other stories are rough and raw. Can you make them publishable without diluting their essence? That’s the challenge.


Producing anthologies has been an awesome experience — I learned so much about my own writing along the way. Mind you, hacking into someone else’s prose is way easier than working on your own.

Well I know I’m not the only one who thinks it would be a shame not to see the little Agog! Press spaceship again.

3. When I was there last year we talked quite a bit about writing and you got very animated about the whole Clarion South experience. Do you want to tell the readers a little about that and your experiences of it?

Right now, Clarion South seems like a long time ago, yet it was a seminal experience in my development as a professional writer. Four years after the fact, I now think the main benefit of Clarion was that it forced me to write outside my comfort zone. I experimented with a few new things. Over time, those were the things that stuck. Pre-Clarion I was focused on storytelling technique. Post-Clarion, theme became the big deal. Obviously a good story incorporates a blending of both. The rigours of the Clarion process (and by process I mean the social aspect of it as well as the classroom stuff) forced me to push my own boundaries. Nowadays, pushing boundaries of one sort or another are pretty much all I’m interested in, story-wise. A great story is more than the sum of its parts.


I’m a pack animal by nature so spending six weeks locked up with a bunch of psycho writers was a fantastic experience for me. The hardest bit was wading through all the stories you had to read each night – sometimes as much as 50,000 words – and then coming up with intelligent feedback for class the next day. I kept myself sane by power walking for 2 hours each morning. I wrote five stories all up. Four have been published. The fifth is a tough bugger that I’m still trying to hammer into shape four years later. Clarion South cured me of writing groups forever. Took me a year to shake the voices of my classmates out of my head. Once I did, my writing improved. I hear this spoken about a lot from ex-Clarionites. It seems to be a pretty standard experience.


Would I recommend Clarion to other writers? Hell yes.

It certainly does sound beneficial and I really am up for one of these in the near future!

4. You’re my first Australian interviewed in this series and as such are the lucky one who gets to answer this question. How do you see the spec fic scene in Australia compared with that of other countries, are the Aussies being taken notice of like some think they should?

Ah yes, that fabulous SHOULD word… Anyone who comes into this business bearing a sense of entitlement is an idiot, no matter what country they come from. There are many many people writing to a very high standard these days. Its tough out there, just as tough as in any other quality art form. The thing is, most of us are literate so we all think we have some sort of head start with writing — would any of us presume we could just walk on stage and perform professional ballet at the first — or even fiftieth attempt?


Whether we like it or not, the USA is the heart of the short spec fic literary market. That’s where most of the quality publications hail from, and that’s where the competition is most fierce. A few Aussies are cutting the mustard out there, making names for themselves and doing very well. But I suspect many Aussie writers aren’t pushing their boundaries by competing in the bigger ponds. Australia has some quality short story markets of its own: Cosmos, Orb, Borderlands, Aurealis to name a few. But you can’t make a name for yourself by limiting your publication scores to these mags. For a fuller rant on this subject, check out an article I wrote last year: catsparx


Our spec fic scene is reasonably vibrant & healthy. There’s a lot going on online, with review sites like As If, Last Short Story and Horrorscope connecting readers with readership. Ticonderoga is pumping out anthologies and collections, Twelfth Planet Press has a bunch of cool projects lined up. Clarion South has injected verve into the writing community. The Aurealis Awards get bigger and glitzier every year. Aussie spec fic is a small pond, but it has birthed some talented and exotic writers: Kaaron Warren, Anna Tambour, Stephanie Campisi, Ben Peek, Deborah Biancotti, Rjurik Davidson, Dirk Flinthart, Angela Slatter and Margo Lanagan just to name a handful. There are only 21 million of us all up. We’re not doing so badly when you do the maths.

Agreed, I’ve been quite impressed since I jumped on the bandwagon over there at how many seriously quality writers there are and how there are a lot of writers and editors looking out for each other.

5. Is there a Cat Sparks five year plan? You said you are moving more into writing but have you made any definite plans in that area (or regarding art and editing)?

I want to sell a couple of novels. Five years seems like a reasonable time frame in which to achieve this goal, yet it’s taken me so much longer than I ever expected to get this far so who knows? Maybe my five year plan might take ten years to accomplish! I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel at the moment. Two of my Aurealis Awards-nominated short stories would expand well into novel-length works, so I may select one of them to develop when this novel is complete, or I might write another one set in the same landscape as the novel I’m finishing now. I haven’t decided. I intend to keep on writing short stories as well, plus a couple of novellas that I’ve been commissioned to write.


As for art… I have no plans there other than completing the pieces I have already promised to do for various projects. I’m not really in much of a visual arts mood these days. I’d rather write than construct visual landscapes. I’ve lost the horn for pictures. I’d rather work with words.


Agog! Press will be publishing an anthology edited by Dirk Flinthart at the end of the year. Canterbury Tales 2100 is the working title and its Dirk’s baby. After that, who knows? I really couldn’t say at this point.

Looking forward to seeing them when they are out and about!

6. So full-time worker, running a publishing company, writing and editing – what do you do in the 30 mins a week that you’re not busy?

I only work 4 days a week as a graphic designer, so that gives me an extra day to fit a bit of other stuff in. I go to the gym four mornings a week and exercise on a treadmill at home the other days. An hour a day on fitness machinery gives me the energy boost I need. I write most evenings and during my non-graphic designing days. I have quite a busy social life too. What I never seem to have enough time for is reading. I’m managing to read a short story a day on my train ride to work, but the pile of books on my library table is growing bigger — I don’t seem to be making much headway there. Lately I’ve been listening to audio books on my ipod and short stories downloaded from Escape Pod. This enables me to squeeze in more “reading” during exercise and travel time.


I don’t watch any TV live to air but I’m a big fan of quality TV shows on DVD. Stuff like Life on Mars, Wire in the Blood, Battlestar Galactica, Sea of Souls, Afterlife, The Dresden Files, Millennium. I’m always a few years behind, watching shows this way, but I simply have no patience for adds.


I adore those old Lew Grade shows too such as The Saint and The Persuaders. I never get bored of Roger Moore. I think I have a bit of a crush on that guy.


I like to cook. I spend way too much time on the Internet too. Who doesn’t?

Lots of time on the internet? Naw, don’t know what you mean…

7. You mentioned you don’t get much time to read these days but when you do have you any particular favourites and were any of them responsible for getting you writing?

I always loved science fiction. My parents put my bassinet down in front of Dr Who back in 1965 and that was it – I was hooked. I read a lot of fantasy, sf and adventure stories when I was growing up. Stuff by Joan Aiken, John Christopher, John Wyndham, Andre Norton, Susan Cooper, Jack London and Arthur Ransome. But none of those books inspired me to want to write. Those books inspired me to expect and demand that my own life be packed with interesting adventures. And it has been! Writing came later when I started understanding it was an art form in which the artist was able to achieve total control. I love the alchemy of it all. Writers, literally, spin substance out of thin air. In fiction, anything is possible. In real life – and in many other art forms – this isn’t always so.


When I started writing, I was in utter awe of “published” authors. They stood as godlike creatures before me. I thought they were so terribly cool. I’m still laughing at myself over that one. It annoys me a little how some authors (generally I’m talking novelists here, not short story writers) have a tendency to adopt a tinge of haughty demeanour once their first book hits the shelves. As if something important about them has changed. I understand the achievement aspect of the process. Getting a novel published is such a long hard road and you sure as hell deserve some back slaps and champagne flutes when you get there. But validation? Personally I consider myself to be an utterly valid human being while my novel is still a disassembled mess all over my laptop. Would publication elevate me to a higher plane? God, I hope not.


Writers are a dime a dozen. We’re not that special. Except, of course, for my favourite authors. They are that special, and I become a gibbering idiot in their presence. Writing is a balanced mix of art and craftsmanship. Some writers produce such a perfect blend of these elements, they make the real world fade to background noise. Something to dream about. Something to aspire to.

Heh I usually say common as muck but dime a dozen works too.

8. Where are you on the subject of music and writing, do you like perfect silence, are you one for the soundtrack stuff or do you like your heavy meaty tracks blaring out as you create?

I write in silence. I can’t listen to music and write at the same time. Way too distracting.

*Imagines a silent room when writing and implodes.*

9. As you’ve mentioned before you’ve given a lot of advice to people in the industry, I for one being privileged to spend a whole evening at your place getting eagerly snapped up words of wisdom. Have you any ground rules for writers, editors and/or publishers when they come to you?

I’m happy to share my knowledge and experience with anyone, providing they understand that my time is valuable. Most people who’ve ever asked for assistance have been extremely courteous and organised about it. Most people I’ve had any kind of dealings with in spec fic are terrific. This is a community that looks out for its own. I like that.

Agreed! I can only second that, due to my experiences over the last couple of years.

And last but by no means least:

10. What the hell is this wall of kitsch?

Ah yes, that. I’m not sure why exactly, but I’m fascinated by the butt ugly end of consumerism. My ‘Wall of Shame’ (as Deb Biancotti once coined it) is literally a whole feature wall of the house cram packed with nasty little horrors. There’s an art to collecting kitsch. To qualify, something needs to be so damn hideous that it starts to shine with an inner beauty all of its own. I’m particularly fond of smoking accoutrements, porcelain beer mugs with swinging boobs and butts, religious accessories, stuff that lights up, emits music and/or rotates. I used to actively seek out this stuff. Nowadays people give me things, often in the hope that their own children won’t accidentally glimpse them and be scarred for life.

Cool nanas! So you know what to get Cat as a pressie now!

Thank you so much for this Cat and for taking the time, as I said I’ll be looking forward to those novels with interest!


Next week will be The Great Campisi (aka Stephanie Campisi)

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About Mark S. Deniz

English teacher, writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and blogger. Founder of publishing company, Morrigan Books and imprint, Gilgamesh Press and editor-in-chief for review site, Beyond Fiction. Also cycles, plays floorball, listens to lots and lots of music, reads a ton of books and tries to fit in some TV, film and writing too. View all posts by Mark S. Deniz

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