The Stars of Speculative Fiction #5: Stephanie Campisi

Well today’s interview (as I knew most of you would be off munching eggs or swanning about at Swancon over the weekend to bother looking at this then) we have the waif-like Stephanie Campisi (

).

After escaping from Melbourne’s home for the mentally unstable (after refusing to accept that Australia isn’t Russia and vice versa – all some dodgy world government conspiracy plot) she has agreed to come and talk to me about her Russian writing, as people have heard she can do a bit of that from time to time.

1. Being as you’re only 22 you’ve already made a bit of a name for yourself in the spec fic scene, with editors, publishers and reviewers singing your praises. How has all this come about and how much have you been affected by it all?


It’s all a bit strange hearing something like that, as I feel as though I’m quite happily slipping by, largely unnoticed, doing my own thing, carefully reading newspaper headlines for ambiguities, spending a lot of time and money eating out, and every now and then doing a bit of writing or querying a submission that has apparently gone astray.


I was at uni over the past four years, so every time I did sit down to work on something, it was always with this horrible feeling of guilt over not using valuable study time productively (oddly enough, I was most often struck with an overwhelming urge to write [or to clean my house]smack-bang in the middle of exam time).


So I have a lot of on-going projects from that time, things that were crawling along at a pace similar to that of a mobility-impaired snail, things that really needed my full attention to be able to work and to come together in some sort of vaguely cohesive whole. Bit by bit, now, that’s happening.


I don’t really have any sort of Stalin-esque 5 year plan in mind as such when it comes to writing, although I certainly have a general idea of where I’m heading and what I’ll end up doing.


My short fiction is a wonderful arena for me in that I can frolic about in it and make a giant mess and try out all sorts of different things on various levels.


I have been making a concerted effort to read widely, and I can certainly see how this is affecting the sorts of things I’m currently producing (which you’ll probably read in a few years, long after I’ve moved on to something entirely different).


I’m definitely moving away from the spec-fic side of things, although there will probably continue to be elements of it in my work–although to what extent I’m not exactly sure at the moment.


It is a bit odd right now, as every time I send out a submission I’m struck with this feverish little question of whether what I’ve written is actually speculative in the least.


So, yes, the ‘making a name for myself’ and ‘singing of praises’ don’t really come into it so much, as I feel as though I’m totally transitory at the moment–dancing somewhat precariously on the head of a literary pin, if you will.


I’ll probably just keep on doing my thing, whatever that might be, and happily sit back and see what happens.


*nods*


I think you just answered about four of my questions in one there, so you’re effective in that arena… heh!


2. As you mentioned, you frolic about with your short fiction. Have you written anything bigger (novella, novel) and is there any desire to move into this kind of literature or you comfortable as a short fiction writer?


Absolutely, but there is the small matter of my currently unsurpassed laziness and rather poor attention span!

I’m currently working on several longer pieces, actually, which are all gradually edging towards completion (or being thrown in the bin).


I’m working on a steampunkish thing of sorts called Downtown, which is set in my Venice-esque city of Skendgrot, the city that in all its demented, foul glory will make an appearance in my short story The Title of This Story in Senses Five Press’s forthcoming Paper Cities anthology.


I’m hoping to complete the first draft within the next few months, so that one’s coming along rather well. I’m certainly having a lot of fun with it, and am thoroughly enjoying being crass, unrefined, and ridiculously verbose, as well as spending much time writing about doughnuts and Muses.

In addition to Downtown (which will in time hopefully be accompanied by its evil twin sister, Kramtkrov), I have a novella of surreal vignettes on the go, and two YA novels currently sitting on the backburner but that I’m very much looking forward to.I also have a super-duper-secret group project that’s in the planning stages at the moment, but I can’t tell you any more about that, in part because of super-duper-secrecy issues, and in part because I don’t really have much to say about it yet.


I think I’m certainly becoming more comfortable with the longer forms, as I’m growing a little bit as a writer, and am beginning to find my voice (although I admit to continuing to blatantly steal from many, many authors who shall remain nameless!), and to find the sorts of things that really capture me, both as a reader and a writer. I do think, though, that I’ll have this terribly eclectic body of work at some point that will make anyone trying to encapsulate or put together a collection of my work shake their head in bewilderment or approach me with a look of parental concern.


Doughnuts eh? Well it has been said there is not enough written about doughnuts… hasn’t it?


3. Well for someone who’s lazy there seems to be a lot going on there! You’re studying Russian at university and I’m wondering about how that affects your writing and ideas (especially with names like Kramtkrov).


I’m actually done with the Russian–I graduated on Saturday, and didn’t even get to wear a funny hat for my troubles. I’ve just completed an Honours degree with a double major in Linguistics, and yes, Russian, although I would say that it is by far the former that’s had a greater influence on my writing, as it’s allowed me to read reasonably widely (but unfortunately not especially deeply) on a number of topics across the linguistics/anthropology spectrum.


I think the Russian has perhaps influenced me in terms of wordiness and perhaps my tendency to find absurd humour and beauty in particularly bleak situations or circumstances–thankfully I don’t often attend funerals.


I am having a bit of fun with the onomastics side of things, but other than flatly refusing to insert random apostrophes into my characters’ names, I don’t really have any rules or conventions that I follow. There are little bits of Russian here and there (‘Kram-‘ in Kramtkrov coming from the Russian term for ‘cathedral’, ‘-grot’ in Skendgrot being a bastardisation of ‘gorod’, ‘city/town’, and the river Voda coming from the word for ‘water’.


My creativity is clearly impressively stupendous, isn’t it?


If I ever have children, they’ll inevitably be given ridiculous names that will invite teasing and a visit to the office of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in order to have their names legally changed).


(Reading over this last response, you might be right about the Russian, in that I have perhaps taken a bit of inspiration from Leonid Tsypkin, who had a particular hatred for full-stops and a wonderful relationship with the em-dash.)


As long as you don’t have a boy and a girl and call the boy Alexi *looks over at his Carnivale DVD and shudders*


4. So now you’ve finished university, your plans are for a real job I take it or are you going to be foolish enough to write full-time?


I’m a step ahead of you there, actually–I’m working full-time as an editor for an academic press at the moment, and am thoroughly enjoying it. I’m getting rather creative at fitting in my writing around it, and tend to write for a bit in a cafe before work, and on my lunchbreaks, which I spend in Fawkner Park, hunched over my laptop beneath a huge tree.


In time I’d love to be able towrite full-time, obviously (although I might need to cancel my internet if I do so!), but even balancing the writing with part-time work would be great, as I’d at least be forced to leave the house every now and then. That’s something that’s years off, though, and I’m fine with that.


Just as long as I end up raking in the millions at some point.


It’s that talk about internet again… why do people spend so much time on them? *looks all confused*


Well your last answer leads me smoothly into my next question and let’s see how ahead of me you are now Campisi.


5. So, editor eh? Any aspirations to do that in regards to literature, as well as in the academic world?


Oh yes, I’d love to, absolutely, but it’s certainly one of those ‘we’ll see’ options sitting faintly somewhere on the horizon. I was the kid who harassed an editor at Allen and Unwin about possible career paths and recommended courses, so it’s always been something that’s been a goal for me, although I think that pretty much any aspiring writer would say something similar.


Obviously, though, I’m rather new to this whole employment thing, so we’ll see how well I hang in there over the next few years. My generally misanthropic outlook could well lead me to some sort of glorious existence as a hermit.


I guess, ultimately, eventually, sometime before I’m dead, the goal is to move away from full-time work and ladder-climbing and so on, and towards an impoverished writerly existence, so all of that is stuff that needs to be taken into account and balanced.


Unless I start subsisting on No-Doz rather than my current morning double espresso, anyway.


Double espresso… mmm… you do want to be thinking about the excursion to Sweden in May as we have a Gaggia and everyfink!


6. Where do you get your inspiration for writing and who are your favourite authors?


Excursionto Sweden? I think I’m scamming the Swedes enough by pretending to be a member of the Melbourne Uni Scandinavian Club even though I have absolutely right to be there since a) I’ve never had anything to do with Scandinavia and b) I’m no longer a Melbourne Uni student.


Well, in terms of inspiration, it can be anything along the spectrum of ‘ooh, brilliant epiphany!’ or staring at my computer monitor for a few hours until I’m forced to write something so that I don’t feel guilty for wasting so much time and being such a bum.


I do love quirky stories and sentences, and am absolutely without remorse when it comes to shamelessly stealing stories and characters and settings from my friends and family and so on. Pretty much everything that happened in ‘The Ringing Sound of Death on the Water Tank‘, for example, is almost entirely true, but happened over a longer period of time than in the story.I think people are getting used to my ubiquitous ‘hahaha! That’s so going in a story!’, which can be either very flattering for them, or a very effective behaviour-modifying threat.


I have been making a concerted effort to read widely, which has affected my subject matter, definitely, as well as my approach to prose and structure and so on.


I did a brief run through a bunch of Japanese authors last year, and read a bunch of Kawabata, Oe, Mishima, and Soseki, all of whom have very different styles.


I’m working on some contemporary Italian stuff at the moment, and have been reading a bit of Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Francesca Duranti, the last having become one of my new favourite authors.


I’ve also been stuck on page 233 of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past for several months now, but have very good intentions when it comes to finishing that book (or at least the first volume).


I picked up a few books by Salley Vickers recently, too, and quite enjoyed those, and have been trying to get back into the Russian with some Nabokov and Leonid Tsypkin.


I don’t really have any firm favourites as such, the sort that I’d cherish above all others and save from a burning house etc etc, but different authors work for me in different ways and give me different ideas as to things to try out or to attempt to incorporate into my own work.


7. What’s your opinion of the Australian Speculative scene these days, is it moving forward are there writers, editors and publishing houses we should be looking out for?


Now you’ve backed me into a corner! To be honest, I haven’t the faintest idea, as I’ve spent so much time reading widely that I somewhat neglected the reading narrowly bit. Oops. I just did a quick scan of my bookshelf to try to redeem myself, but about the only Aussie content that I have (and have actually read) is Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe, some stuff by Ivan Southall, Ben Peek’s 26 Lies/One Truth, Dreaming Down Under, and that hideous thing with the platypus spaceship on the front.


I’ve been reading a bit online here and there, and with my LJ stalkery ways, have some idea as to who’s who (although, you know, it’s all relative), but nothing much really stands out for me. To be honest, from my very limited knowledge of the ‘scene’, it seems as though there’s a lot of pretty dull, staid stuff out there that’s competent but nothing special–I’d be hard-pressed to find a story I actually liked out of those two anthologies, for example. I’m certainly looking forward to someone bashing about at the boundaries a bit, even if they’re not entirely successful in achieving whatever it is they’re setting out to do. I’m not looking for fictional anarchy or some such, though; I’m just curious to see what people can come up with when they’re not hemmed in by what can be rather tedious notions of how to write a ‘proper’ story and so on I’ll be happily proven wrong, though. Feel free to sit me down and put me through a guided reading course.


This is the Campisi I know… *grins*


I don’t think it should be a given that writers writing in the speculative fiction scene should naturally be following it too. I’d be dismayed to hear this answer from a publisher however.


8. So what are your free time activities when you’re not writing?


Just to pick up on the last thread of conversation and to be all ornery and grumpy–I do think I am following it, but not necessarily in the particularly narrow way that seems to be the norm.


I’m certainly reading across a vast spectrum of speculative fiction that spans the most garish, tacky rot to very subtle and strange and beautiful writing that only hints at something slightly unusual.


Reading both in a massively diachronic and synchronic manner sort of necessitates that something is going to get lost or pushed into the background, and at this point there is so much wonderful, brilliant stuff out there that I haven’t read that it would be a shame to shove that aside in order to have read every issue of Andromeda Spaceways, for instance (no slight on that magazine intended–just an example, m’dears), just for the sake of doing so.


So, yes. Free time? What is this free time?


Never fear, I do keep myself busy, although currently much of my spare time is trying to keep the bizarre mess that is my life in order. I’m one of those people who apparently invites chaos–if something strange and weird and terrible is going to happen, it will happen to me. It’s all hilarious (retrospectively, at least) story fodder, though.


When I’m not trying to pick up the pieces of myself, reading is obviously a big thing for me, as are running and walking, as I’m on a bit of a pseudo-fitness kick at the moment and am thoroughly enjoying this business of having abdominal muscles.


I do spend rather a lot of time at various bars and cafes and restaurants and cinemas and theatres and laughing at apostrophe abuse and misuse and when people use the adjectival form of ‘every day’ when they should be using the adverbial one, because, frankly, as anyone who has read this far as probably discovered, I’m a rather boring old person inhabiting the body of someone relatively young.


9. Due to the fact that you are still so young (in appearance) and are quite new to the writing scene, I wonder if you have any advice or words of wisdom for those aspiring writers reading this?


At this stage, not really. I suppose it’s always good to do your own thing and have fun doing it. Writing can be fairly solitary, and if you’re not enjoying it, or you’re doing it for the wrong reasons or for the wrong people, you can end up in a fairly dreary, crappy place. Humour isn’t the devil. Everything is subjective. A lot is two words. Make the most of tax deductions. Eat as many white nectarines as possible before they go out of season. Ignore any old codger who tells you that you don’t have anything to write about because you don’t have any life experience. You mightn’t have their life experience, but it’s not as though you exist in a vacuum. Write what you do know, but even better, what you don’t know.


Should you eat the nectarines whilst writing though?


Oh yes. One should eat nectarines at any available opportunity.


10. The last question I’d like to ask is regarding my own passion when it comes to writing, that of music. Does music inspire you, do you listen while you write or do you look for a dark, dank Russian cupboard to hide yourself in, scribbling away on the walls with your quill?


I can be very hit and miss with music when it comes to writing. It depends on whether I’m trying to block out a particular noise or whether I’m trying to let it in. I tend to listen to a lot of industrial and electronic and synth pop and prog rock when writing, but mix it up a bit with some swing and jazz and 80s pop. Don’t laugh, but I occasionally find metal good, too, as is anything with indiscernible lyrics, as it’s harder to get distracted that way, although I do my best. It does get a bit muffled in my dank Russian cupboard, but it just adds to the mood, I feel.


(Since I know you want specifics, my Downtown soundtrack of late has been Kraftwerk, Front 242, Frontline Assembly, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, and the Sex Pistols.)


Mostly I tend to write in cafes, though, or in parks, or anywhere without the wonderful waylaying force that is the internet, really, and since I am proudly ipod-free, the issue doesn’t come up too frequently.


This of course also facilitates shameless eavesdropping, which is, like my nectarine addiction, definitely a guilty pleasure of mine.


Very good music choices there, I have to say!


Well thank you very much for taking the time to do this and I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best for your future projects (especially those that I am involved with)!

On Friday we meet behemoth of speculative fiction (in his local Brisbane local at any rate) Chris McMahon (not related to Stephen King, in case you wondered).

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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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