09 December 2015

Wicked Women Anniversary Interview: Juliet E. McKenna

Kicking off the Wicked Women Anniversary Blogfest, we’re very pleased to welcome Juliet E. McKenna – one of the legends of British fantasy and author of the Wicked Women story ‘Win Some, Lose Some.’ 

Tell us a little about yourself and what you like to write:

I’m a middle-aged British woman whose hobbies range from knitting and embroidery to wargaming and the martial art of aikido. I’ve been reading history, fantasy and myth for as long as I can remember, which is well over four decades now. I read all sorts of other things as well but speculative fiction is what I like to write, primarily epic fantasy. But not necessarily dealing with the affairs of kings and wizards. I like to look at the ways these stories can involve more ordinary people. People more like me. As well as mages and dragons.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started?

I always enjoyed writing fiction at school and wrote a few horribly derivative stories in my teens and twenties in a vague, unfocused way. What really got me started on the road to publication was working part time in our local bookshop and learning how the book trade actually works, at the same time as getting back some mercilessly caustic assessments when I submitted my first attempt at a novel, aka The Definitive Fantasy Blockbuster Masterwork, to various agents and editors. I’m so grateful they took the time to tell me why they were rejecting it. Once I understood what I was doing wrong, I could work out what I needed to do right and go looking for advice on how to do it. That was in 1995/1996  and I sold The Thief’s Gamble at the end of 1997.

Which authors have influenced you and why?

I always find this an impossible question to answer, in that I’m regularly surprised when I realise something I may have read decades ago has turned up to help shape what I’m working on at the moment. Not to mention films, TV, plays and any other ways I’ve engaged with narrative over the years. In terms of epic fantasy? I’d say Elizabeth Moon, David Gemmell, Katherine Kerr, Melanie Rawn, Robin Hobb … and as soon as I hit send on this piece, I just know I’ll think of more.

Both history and fiction are replete with women who aim to misbehave – do you have a favourite wicked woman and why?

Oh, so many to choose from! And who says they’re wicked, anyway? Just the men they run rings round… Glancing at the bookcase for inspiration, I’d say it’s a toss up between Bess of Hardwick and Grainne O’Malley. They were near-contemporaries with each other and with Elizabeth I. Both took control of their family’s lands and businesses in England and in Ireland respectively, becoming wealthy and successful. By all accounts, they were firmly in charge of their various husbands and sons too. So naturally they were both accused of all sorts of disgraceful behaviour. Some of which they may actually have got up to.

Wizard’s Tower Press have published your collection of Victorian monster hunter stories – Challoner, Murray & Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law, what can readers expect from the collection and are there any plans for more such stories.
Those stories grew out of my teenage love of classic Victorian popular fiction written by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, blended with my later enjoyment of the TV shows, Buffy and Supernatural. Because if those Victorian monsters were real, surely there’d be the equivalent of the Winchesters or the Sunnydale Scooby Gang hunting them? Writing these adventures with the benefit of hindsight enabled me to look at those original stories and the unthinking social attitudes of the day with an informed, contemporary eye – not least by referencing the ways the patriarchy was actually being challenged at the time when they were written. I’d certainly like to return to those characters when the right idea coincides with me having the time to write it up.
You’ve contributed to many anthologies, and are due to be published in the upcoming Fight Like a Girl and Eve of War (among others) – what’s the appeal of short fiction for you and do you have any short fiction recommendations?

Like every other writer I know, I have far more ideas for stories than I can possibly use for novels, and in any case, not every idea is a novel-length inspiration. Short fiction gives me a way to explore the one-shot notions, to challenge myself with something new creatively, whether that’s in terms of structure, style or genre. I invariably learn something new and useful about the art and craft of writing as I do so, which sees me return to novel writing both enlightened and refreshed.
Recommendations? As well as Fox Spirit’s output, short story lovers should go and browse the fabulous range of anthologies published by Newcon Press as well as those edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray; After Hours, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity and Clockwork Universe; Steampunk vs Aliens.

You’re also one of the leading voices in the VATMOSS campaign – can you explain what it’s about and how people can help?

In brief, EU governments decided to make Amazon, Google, Apple (and others) pay their fair share of taxes by insisting that digital downloads were taxed at the rate charged where the customer lives, rather than in whatever tax haven their corporate HQ was now based. Since these governments had no clue how much small-scale, direct creator-to-customer ecommerce goes on now, or really, any idea how the Internet works, they said these new rules would apply to everyone, no exceptions. Unfortunately, no one bothered to check the practicalities, like for example, confirming that PayPal actually tells the sellers using its Buy Now Button where their customers are. Since they don’t, it’s now either outright impossible or ludicrously expensive for small scale etraders to comply with the new rules.

After a year’s dedicated campaigning, the EU VAT Action Team have convinced the authorities in Westminster, Whitehall and in Brussels, that this legislation needs rewriting, most crucially to include a turnover threshold exempting the smallest businesses. That’s now in hand but it’ll take at least two years, maybe longer, to enact. So meantime, the most useful thing everyone can do is write to their MP, their MEP and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (or local equivalent Finance Ministry) demanding interim emergency relief by means of as a temporary threshold, until the fine detail has been sorted out.

Room 101 time: what one genre cliché would you get rid of?

Grimdark. By which I mean stories that are only about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to other nasty folk, where nothing ever goes right and everyone ends up miserable. Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but not by much. I’m not calling for twee consolation fantasy full of rainbows and kittens, but a good story needs light and shade, not just unrelieved gloom. There’s enough nihilism in the world around us. Let’s see some visions of better possibilities.

What are you up to next?

Honestly, it’s hard to say. The VATMOSS campaigning has eaten my time and energy through 2015 in a way I never imagined. This is the first year since 1997 that I haven’t written a full length work of fiction. So that’s another reason for me to love anthologies. Short fiction has been a vital escape for me this past year, getting back to being a writer if only for a short while.

I’ve now got a quite a collection of short stories in a new fantasy setting, the River Kingdom, as well as a novella set in the same world, so I’d like to get those out as ebooks. Once we’ve got the Aldabreshin Compass ebooks out, obviously; that’s been 2015’s other major project. I have a couple of ideas I’d like to pitch to agents and editors; a novel or novels set in the River Kingdom as well as some other things. Hopefully 2016 will see me able to focus on life as a writer again rather than political lobbying.

Diary plans for 2016 are currently fluid – apart from November 11th-13th when I’ll be Guest of Honour at Novacon in Nottingham, and December 5th-10th when I’ll be tutoring a week long, residential SF&F creative writing course up in Scotland at Moniack Mhor, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt, with Ken MacLeod as Guest Reader. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to all of that. Unless something intervenes, I hope to make the trip to Bristolcon on October 29th, so that’s the end of next year fairly well sorted. I wonder what’ll crop up between now and then for the other nine months!

Thank you for joining us Juliet!

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble which began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, to Defiant Peaks concluding The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. Exploring new opportunities in digital publishing, she’s re-issuing her backlist as well as bringing out original fiction. She also writes diverse shorter fiction, reviews for web and print magazines and promotes SF&Fantasy by blogging, attending conventions, teaching creative writing and commenting on book trade issues online. Most recently she’s been campaigning for the reform of EU taxation on digital sales causing serious problems for small press and independent publishing. Learn more about all of this at http://www.julietemckenna.com

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