The Stars of Speculative Fiction #6: Chris McMahon

Today we welcome along Chris McMahon, world-famous badger baiter and the man responsible for stopping wombats taking over Queensland in 1828. He is the youngest of 11 children (this one is actually true!) and lives with his wife and three children in a small cave in Queensland (owned by Trent Jamieson no less).

When not foraging for mushrooms, Chris bobs a few words on paper and this week I got out my old gas lantern and my canary and went to meet him…

1. Chris, you have some short stories out and a novel too. Which is your preferred area of writing (if you have one) and why?

 

That’s a tough one, only because I think I have changed over the years. At the outset, I really wanted to pursue novels because the worlds I created seemed to build and build and I really needed a novel-sized canvass to take all the characters and ideas I would get. I have also always loved the heroic journey, and novels really suit that form.

 

In the beginning I grappled with short stories because they were well recongised as a good way of getting your name out there, but a few things happened along the way.

 

I never realised writing shorts and getting involved in critiquing groups, like the local Vision group, which was in its infancy at the time, could possibly be so rewarding. I made a lot of friends doing this, thinking writing, chatting and bitching over coffee. I also really started to get a ‘feel’ for shorts, and began to get an instinct for the sort of ideas that fit into this length – well almost. I am still struggling to get the length down. Eyes of Erebus, which was short-listed for the Aurealis Award last year, was a real monster-sized monster story at 19k. I consider getting this published a miracle — thanks Rob Hood!

 

Its also fun to explore ideas in the short format. I think that’s why most of my shorts are SF, whereas most of my novels are either fantasy or science fantasy (with one exception so far — the Tau Ceti Diversion).

 

At one point I got pretty frustrated trying to get shorts out there (ie into a mag) and declared “that’s it, I’m done with shorts, I’m going to concentrate on novels” — a statement that Lea Greenway never stops reminding me of, because about two months after I said this I wrote Murtagh’s Fury, which was one of the winning stories in the inaugural One Book, Many Brisbane’s competition. The $6,000 prize money fixed my roof & bought a new pool filter – so I’m glad I didn’t give up.

 

That’s a pretty long-winded answer. To boil it down, I would say novels remain my first love, but I will always return to the short format, particularly if the right idea comes my way. I would really love to finally comes to grips with flash fiction, which has always seemed to me like some mysterious Zen riddle. I look cross-eyed at something and 1000 words appears.

 

Long winded is the order of the day here at SoSF, I’m happy with that… 😉

 

2. As you know I’m rather interested in your six book series, which began with The Calvanni, published by Sid Harta. Can you tell the readers a little bit about how that started and how it’s going?

 

That world has been growing in my mind for quite some time. The initial ideas came when I was in my first year at University. I can remember the very first draft of the first chapter scrawled in green ink at the back of a Chemistry lecture — why green ink I have no idea. This embryonic chapter was dumped a long time ago along with another later ~60k failed draft, at which time I realised, yes I do need a plot!

 

Initially Yos was given birth as a role playing world, which I called BlackRaven (that was 1983). The BlackRaven name was used by TSR a few years later, so I dumped that (I had it first I swear – the only witness was my Dungeon Master friend Neumann Askhar, who incidentally is a Tolkien freak and speaks elvish  🙂  If you’re out there, Hi Neumann!). I had a lot of fun with the map, imagining all the sorts of stories and adventures that world might have.

 

I worked hard to create a world that was completely unique and distinct from other fantasy worlds. All metal is magical on Yos — forming a glowmetal that acts to transform energy. For this reason this is a fantasy world without swords! All the weaponry is crafted from ceramics, mostly composites, that combine flexibility with the ability to hold an edge. The evolutionary pattern of Yos is also distinct, and is driven by the regular eclipse of the planet’s two suns, which plunges the planet into bitter cold.

 

The whole thing kicked off with the novella, Flight of the Phoenix, which was published in the EPPIE-nominated Fantasy Readers Wanted – Apply Within, Quest anthology.

 

I had spent so much time with this world, that the whole story ended up extending over a whopping arc of at least six books (and that’s not including the follow-on prequel trilogy I’m thinking of …). These were envisaged as the Jakirian Cycle: The Calvanni, Scytheman, Sorcerer, Emperor, Exile, Jakir.

 

The first novel, The Calvanni, was launched in April 2006 at the National SF convention in Brisbane. This was published through Sid Harta, a Melbourne small press, with an initial run of 200 books. The book was well received with readers and these were quickly sold. We extended the print run to 1000 copies. To date around 500 copies have sold, around half through bookstores — a fantastic achievement for a small press publication.

 

The deal with Sid Harta was for 1st Australian publication rights for The Calvanni only. My plan was always to raise my profile, and the profile of the books through the small press publication, then hopefully snag a deal for at least three, or ideally for all six of the books with a more mainstream publisher with better access to distribution. Given the book’s success in small press, I can only imagine how many I could sell with some publicity, marketing and big press distribution behind it.

 

I am actively looking at markets in the US for the series a the moment, but have no firm offers yet.

 

When I published the Calvanni, I took the commitment to readers seriously. People really enjoyed the book, and I found it had a wide appeal — people who would not normally read SF/Fantasy found it an easy read — despite the new concepts (and there are plenty). People keep asking me when the next book is coming out – and I’m working on it!

 

The next book, Scytheman, is written, and I am re-drafting the manuscript at the moment. The second part of the equation is publication — believe me I am working on that as well! Like I said, I took the commitment to readers seriously and I don’t want to let them down. One way or another I intend to get Scytheman out there.

 

I can’t work on Scytheman without the whole world coming alive inside me again, so I am busily filling out the plots for the other books in the Jakirian as well, getting familiar with my devious sub-plots. It’s certainly a lot of fun.

 

Sounds it, I have always been envious of these fantasy epic writers as I just don’t seem to be able to get going with fantasy.

 

3. Have you any idols in the world of literature, any writers that inspire you to write?

 

There are writers I really love, and many others that I really enjoy. I loved David Gemmell, and I own every book he ever wrote except White Knight, Black Swan, which he did under the name of Ross Harding (if anyone can sell me a copy – I’ll buy it:)). I read the SpecFic classics as an early reader, Tolkien, HG Wells, Asimov, Clarke et al, then later Jordan, Brin etc. But picking out authors is, for me, a bit like the desert island condumdrum –‘If you had to go to a desert island, which single album would you take?’ I can never answer this question, just like a can’t pick a favourite colour. I have a wide range of tastes, and what I’m after at any given moment can change a lot.

 

I would have to say that no single writer really inspired me to write. I come from a very non-arty family. My Dad & grandad were both police, and as black and white as they come. My Dad would book another cop speeding and unlike most of the Irish Catholic brethren did not drink – just imagine how popular he was. I do remember music being my best subject in early high school, but the sheer notion of me being able to pursue something like this never even came into my head. The same with writing – it was something other people did.

 

Toward the end of high school my passion for expression sort of went into overload, first through poetry. Then into early Uni, I was getting floods of ideas. The writing just exploded out me, and I grabbed hold of it like a lifeline.

 

4. Last time I asked Stephanie Campisi her opinions of the spec fic scene in general in Australia and I’m curious to hear your views on it too.

 

I think the local spec fic scene is really vital.

 

Certainly the Brisbane scene has been quite active for some time, and has really gone from strength to strength with the national SF convention in Brisbane in April 2006, and the Aurealis Awards hosted here in Bris for the last couple of years. The AAs hasn’t quite reached the red carpet stage yet, but Ron Serdiuk and I were joking we should hire a limo and have everyone walk through it to emerge onto a red carpet for photo opportunities. Maybe we’ll get some real limo arrivals soon!

 

The opportunities for people to get together with other writers and improve their craft are certainly better than ever, with programs like Clarion South coming onto the landscape in recent years, and the Queensland Writers Centre running some fantastic programs.

 

On the flipside, although the opportunities to get material published in short format in Australia seem a little better with new magazines and anthologies making an appearance, it is harder to get a novel manuscript read by a publisher here. When I first started subbing novel manuscripts more than a decade ago, there were at least three publishers in Australia who accepted unsolicited adult manuscript submissions – now I don’t think any of them do (with the exception of Allen& Unwin who accept email subs of the first chapter on Friday – at least they did the last time I checked). At least Orbit represents a new opportunity, but like the others you have to do some fancy networking to get the door open wide enough to fit a manuscript through it.

 

As to the pros and cons of what is being published lately . . . definitely better discussed over a drink at a convention.

 

Sounds like you’re definitely getting a buzz from the local scene in any case.

 

5. Another of my standard questions here regarding tips for budding new writers. Is there anything they should be aware of before they dip their toes in and anything they should most definitely avoid?

 

There is a fantastic article by Australian Author Ian Irvine called “The Truth About Publishing” it’s definitely worth a read. You can get a copy from Ian’s site, http://www.ian-irvine.com/ Read it. Read it!

 

I guess the main thing is to check you are getting into writing for the right reasons. Not to make more money than JK Rowling, or be more famous than Stephen King, but because you are driven to, because you have to write; there is some niggling need down deep in the soul that drives you to express on the page.

 

It takes a long time to perfect your craft, and if you come to it late in life with heap of competing commitments – you need to be patient. Wish for the million dollar advance but HAVE A BACK-UP PLAN.

 

There used to be this image of a lonely writer in the garret, but I have found this to be anything but true, particularly now days. Invariably writers succeed because they have reached out; become part of a writing group to improve their craft; got involved in lectures, seminars and masterclasses; made friends with other writers and drunk too much at corner bars during conventions; learned to promote themselves and network.

 

Its true that to be a writer you need to write — and that means long hours at you computer ‘bums on seats’ as one writer eloquently put it — but you need the other social aspect as well.

 

Successful writers seem to travel in packs. They might be small, but these groups have tremendous power to improve you work through critiquing, and connect you into opportunities.

 

One of the biggest mistakes I made starting out was going it alone too long. I probably spent more than ten years in the isolation tank before I joined a writing group — then everything happened from there. There is a special joy you get from sharing your craft — after all we are pretty weird to start out with, and generally feel isolated in the social groups we start out in (well I did in any case).

 

At least you were in a social group… heh!

 

My early friends included two sociopaths. Took me a couple of decades to sort that one out – had to burn all my ‘Look here comes a victim’ T-shirts as well:) Strangely, they no longer return my calls.

 

6. In terms of the short fiction you write, when sending it away do you look for a particular theme of an anthology, or do you prefer certain editors or do you even care?

 

When I first started sending out stories I didn’t look at too much more than the word length and pay rate. I would focus on the story, craft it up and see what I ended up with, then fit it to a market. I did read as many of the magazines as I could, but couldn’t afford to buy too many.

 

I found as I went along that I had much more success when I wrote a story particularly for a magazine or anthology, following ideas generated on their chosen theme. That was one of the keys to getting Murtagh’s Fury into the One Book Many Brisbanes anthology. Makes sense of course, but I can be so focused on developing my own ideas I refuse to think about things like this.

 

In the end it comes  down to time though. In an ideal world you would fit every single story to a market, read all the stories published by the same editor, and get people to critique it who have been published in that magazine. But its difficult to commit to much time to one story — and to be honest I am a little wary of bending a story too much just for the sake of publication.

 

Inevitably I end up with a few stories that have bounced from the first market, whether I have written it specifically for that one or not. In this case what are you going to do? Throw it away? No you send it out to a ‘maybe’ market and cross your fingers.

 

I remember once I spend months on a story for the Canberra group’s Encounters antho. I beavered away on my masterpiece Memories of Mars and finally contacted them only to find out my 12,000 word wonder was three times longer than anything they would consider. It’s still unpublished, but maybe a nice editor somewhere will publish it soon. Dream, dream, dream …

 

7. I notice a lot of your answers have focused on Australian markets and themes (Brisbane, Canberra, Clarion). Have you made any concerted efforts to make it out into the international scene and is that something that is difficult for Australians to do?

 

I’ve certainly tried to get stories into the major magazines, and tried to get novels placed with US & UK publishers. I have a pretty impressive rejection tally from these.

 

Despite what I said earlier, I think the local Australian publishers are much more approachable than US ones. A few US markets do take unsolicited manuscripts, like Baen and DAW, but generally if you don’t have an agent, the US market is pretty much closed.

 

I guess being local, you have a much greater chance of making a contact at a convention with a local Australian editor who will agree to read you work, despite the unsolicited policy. Most I have found to have been very approachable (and hard working).

 

I don’t know much about the UK market. I had a UK agent in 2003 & 2004 who were quite keen on my Science Fantasy novel Warriors of the Blessed Realms. But the local publishers were wary of the cross-genre nature of the manuscript and when the agent could not place the manuscript quickly they lost interest. After many months of unreturned emails and unsatisfactory communication I broke the contract with them. I have had no further UK experiences since then.

 

I think I started with the vague idea that I would get published in Australia first because it would be ‘easier’ and then expand to overseas markets. But I think its equally tough to be published anywhere. It more a case of finding the right editor at the right time – regardless of where they are.

 

Agreed. I have to concur that the Australian market is much more approachable, even for those outside.

 

8. Time for my favourite question now, that of music. Do you listen when you write or do you prefer the blissful silence? Does any music inspire you to write?

 

That’s an odd one,  because when I started out I always wrote to music. I can remember hammering out some great work to Deep Purple:)

 

Now days though, I really need silence. I think I am concentrating a lot harder now, particularly with new work, to work on all the elements.

 

I still listen to music when I am editing and don’t need so much brainpower. I have a 25 CD deck that plays random (yes – old technology!) and I usually just hit the random button. I am pretty fickle with music, and usually find it hard to pick one single album – unless its new.

 

Right now I have a couple of Pink albums in there, Pete Murray, Garbage, Pink Floyd, Neil Diamond, Queen , Deep Purple, an 80s compilation, some Diesel, Eric Clapton, a Chicago Blues compilation, Deadstar, Spenser Davis Group, Sam & Dave, John Butler Trio and INXS.

 

I wouldn’t say music inspires me to write, but if you do manage to get the right track in, it can really intensify the feeling that is being evoked at that time.

 

Pink and Pink Floyd, now there’s a combination for you!

 

9. So what’s on the writing agenda for Chris then, what should be looking at seeing from you in the next year or two?

 

Last year I wrote a new stand-alone fantasy novel, Tower of the Mountain King, which is set in a neo-celtic early iron age setting. That was a lot of fun. At the moment its sitting on the shelf cooling its heels.

 

At the moment I am keen to re-draft Scytheman and get it ready for publication. At the same time I have ideas for writing a script that combines the Calvanni and Scytheman, mainly because these two were originally written as one book and Scytheman ends on a very strong conclusion.

 

In mid-May I’m going to take a week off work and run through TMK pretty intensively then send it off to some unsuspecting writing friends for review. I’m thinking this should be ready to hit the market early next year, although if I see a good opportunity I will send off the early chapters, which I have spend a lot of time refining.

 

I think that’s enough to keep me busy for this year! If I snag a contract for the Jakirian series I will rocket straight into Sorcerer after Scytheman. Writing a new book in that series would be a real blast —

especially knowing what going to happen. . . hee hee hee. Man I love that world!

 

On the shorts front, I don’t have any upcoming publications, but I do have a few stories that I would like to get out there – I just need to get organised and find the markets. Memories of Mars (12k) is one, another is a heroic action piece called Duros (9k), I have an SF short called Time Pump (6k) and an Urban Fantasy piece called Old Ridge Road (6k).  These will be first cabs off the rank. I would also like to write some new shorts as well, probably SF.

 

If TMK and the Jakirian don’t find the mark soon, I might try a completely new SF novel. I like the idea of doing something near future, with limited technology (ie NOT space opera), probably set no further away than our solar system. I get pretty annoyed with futures where technology works all the time and works without human intervention. I am an Engineer, after all:) Things never work! Things like automation create more technicians to fix the automatic devices. Most published SF has me grinding my teeth.

 

Heh, maybe it’s a case of taking utopia to an extreme!

 

10. Finally, what are you up to when not writing award-winning literature?

 

I love movies, and usually hit the video stores at least once a week and catch a movie once or twice a month. Before kids my wife and I used to see two or more movies a week. I could spend an enjoyable weekend in my ‘cave’ watching flicks.

 

I also have three young children, Aedan, Declan and Brigit (9,7 & 5 yrs), so that keeps me fairly busy as well.

 

I also enjoy exercising. I have done Tae Kwon Do for quite a few years, and the whole family now trains together. I recently started Haidong Gumdo – which is a Korean sword art. I love the Haidong, but as you might imagine, struggle to get to training sessions.

 

At the moment I work full time as a Process Engineer for Cement Australia. The subsidiary group I work for produces a blended fuel for the kilns out of waste material, which displaces coal and reduces greenhouse emissions. I am working on the development of a new process for removing water from the blended fuel, which will save further emissions as the water then does not need to be transported to the kilns along with the good stuff — ie what burns.

 

I also run two other businesses with my wife: Speechnet, a speech pathology practice, and Pop & Top, a new business that does speech-based playgroups for children. Pop & Top has published three childrens book’s (www.popandtop.com.au) that work on specific speech sounds which I co-authored with my wife, who has a PhD in Speech Pathology.

 

I’m exhausted just thinking about all this. Working full time, I try to keep the impact of the businesses down to a minimum.

 

I also enjoy music and since Declan has been learning the piano, have been doing his lessons as well, just for fun. In a perfect world I would be able to also like to return to my classical guitar, which I have had to let slip a bit and singing.

 

I also enjoy walking, connecting with nature, and dreaming.

 

I know what you mean about getting tired writing all that, that is one hell of a schedule!

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer the questions and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours.

 

Thanks, Mark. I really enjoyed it.  Best of luck with the new antho & hope to catch up in Aus some time.

Next week sees me paying homage to High Priest of the Black Arts (and hamster worrier) Nathan Burrage!

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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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