Tag Archives: Andrew J McKiernan

Writers, Retreats, and Insane Asylums

It’s been just over a week since I returned from a Writer’s Retreat held at Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum at Beechworth. Yep, you read right – a writer’s retreat held at an old insane asylum. It was as awesome as it sounds. Five days sequestered with other writers in a hauntingly (and quite possibly haunted) beautiful asylum is the stuff of inspiration. And personing. I did a whole lot of personing.

What made this doubly excellent was the other writers in attendance, all but one of whom were very close friends, so it was a catch-up of epic proportions. This also meant that we were all comfortable throwing around ideas and points of view, and engaging in general shenanigans. But we were there to write, to have that uninterrupted time some of us seldom get when at home. And it was glorious.

Writing is often a solitary endeavour where you live in your created worlds among created people. But put a bunch of writers together, and it’s a whirlwind of book discussions, plot summaries, story ideas, and why synopsis writing is the tenth circle of Hell. There’s joy in this cacophony; the rise and fall of voices, the quirks and strange paths conversations take that would make no sense to non-writerly folk but which feeds the soul and the muse of those who bleed ink. They will tell you why your story necessitates the killing of a character (beloved or otherwise) then offer a plethora of options on how to do so that would land them on any federal watchlist.

Just being among fellow scribes is enough to invigorate, enough to drown out that writer-imposteritis but we were also fortunate enough to have the wonderful pocket-rocket Kylie Chan providing workshops all through Saturday, which were fantastic, but always there was time to write. There’s not a lot better than sitting in a nicely heated room listening to the clack of keys in the silence as worlds and people are created – individual galaxies within a shared universe. It’s kinda cool.

But when we weren’t writing, there were historical tours of the asylum, and one very late night there was also a paranormal investigation. As much as I would have liked to go on the paranormal investigation, when it’s -4˚ outside… well, I’m staying where the heat is. Those that took up the challenge had a great time despite the sub-zero temps.

We ate, slept and created together… wait, let me rephrase. Look, we bunked down in the same room, wore pretty much all the clothes we’d brought with us when it was time to venture outside – hell, I even wore my slippers out to dinner because damn it was cold. We took the piss out of each other, we laughed, and we revelled in our own and each other’s weirdness.

And the location was everything. The asylum has a melancholic beauty about it.  The history is both shocking and sad, with desolate and worn-down buildings that hold memories that are like scars. For my mind, pain and suffering has a tendency to linger, to echo long after people are gone, and I don’t doubt there is fear and horror etched into some of the walls, the cells of the asylum.

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Too soon the time was over, and I had to take a tiny plane home, but those five days were like manna from heaven. I came away with so much more than just a honed story premise and structural architecture (and glow-in-the-dark skeletal gloves), but a renewed vigour for writing. I can’t wait to go again next year. And I can’t thank all the people involved enough, but let me try.

To Geoff and Dawn for organising and running the reatreat – you two work immensely hard not only on Asylum Ghost Tours but Cohesion Press as well. You two rock. (Special shout out to Mandy and Leah for all they did over the five days as well.)

Now I’m going to list the writers at the retreat – they are an amazing bunch and you really should be reading their work. They’re incredible and diverse storytellers, and there should be something in here for everyone.

Kylie Chan

Devin Madson

Marty Young

Andrew McKiernan

David Schembri

Fiona Shearer.

And for all those writers out there, find a retreat, a place that evokes inspiration and puts you around others who not only share your passion to create, but will encourage and badger you to do so.

Pay the Creative

There are two things I have no qualms about spending money on: books and art. As a pen-monkey, I believe books are art in and of themselves – from the cover to the artistry of words within. I smile every time I walk past one of my over-flowing bookcases, or the pile of books on my bedside table.  All of which complement the art on my walls. And the nine pieces I’ve yet to frame and hang… oh, they call out to me to find their place.

a-mindful-installation

Yes, I’m running out of wall space, but that’s okay, we’re in the process of finding another place to call home, and while a new house has to hit the right marks with bedroom numbers, office space, backyard, for me it’s wall-space and bookshelf positioning I see. But I digress.

Of late, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts regarding consumers not willing to pay for books for all manner of ridiculous reasons. Here’s one such post that goes into detail about one author rallying against some readers who feel they shouldn’t have to pay for a writer’s work, that the art of storytelling and providing a reader with a product should be given away for free. (I rolled my eyes so hard they fell out of my head, and I had to retrieve them from my cats.)

Pisces

But it’s not just authors who are expected to work for ‘exposure’. Artists, too, are often targeted to provide their work for free (or exposure). You can’t pay bills with exposure; you can’t eat a reader’s ‘good will’, and ‘word of mouth’ doesn’t pay your kids’ school fees.  The fact there are those out there who expect you to work for free, to help them achieve a product that will make them money but not you… damn, that’s hard to get my head around.

Like the books I read, I buy my art. Never would I consider asking an artist to forgo the hours of work and their inspiration just because I like something and want it to adorn my wall. I don’t ask my tattooist to ink my skin for free either. But there are others out there – parasites I call them – who believe artists should just give their work away. The Brave Little Illustrator captures it perfectly here. There have been times when I’ve found a piece of artwork I just have to have, and to own it meant putting my pennies away until I could afford it. That’s just what you do.

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I don’t set out to find art, it finds me. I’ll see a post on social media, someone will share an artist’s work they’ve come across. I’ve found artists at conventions, expos, bookstores… so many different places, and these pieces, I know, belong with me. So I have no compunction for paying for the art, because this allows the artist to live to create more.

And that’s what it’s all about. Here in Australia, our current government has cut arts funding and scholarships, and they’re looking at allowing parallel importation that will grossly undermine the earning ability of writers in this country, and dropping copyright to fifteen years from publication before it becomes public domain. There’s this growing belief that the cultural contribution artists and writers provide isn’t worth the time or paper it’s created on. Art and books create escapism, they take you to places that ignite your imagination, give you respite from the ugliness that intrudes upon our lives, and if that isn’t worth something, what is?

Raniermos

So if there’s a book you want to read, or artwork you want for your home, or perhaps some external or internal art for a book you’ve written… pay the artist!

A big shout-out to those artists whose work adorns (or soon will) my walls: Monty Borror, Jeannie Lynn Paske (Obsolete World), Damon Hellandbrand (owe you an email, dude), Greg Chapman, and Mel Schwarz. Check out their work, and that of Dean Samed and Caroline O’Neal. As for saving for art, it’s a Chris Mars piece I’m looking at next adding to my collection.

Oh, and a big-up to Andrew J McKiernan, who gave me the illustration he did for my story, ‘Nightmare’s Cradle’, which sits proudly above my desk.

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* All pieces shown within this post I have bought from the artists (apart from Andrew’s piece, which was paid for by Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine).

Awards and Such Things

I meant to write this post before I left for my holiday but having two kids who’d rather video game than pack meant all my days blurred. But now it’s time to have a little chat about awards and such things most writers say they care little about but secretly (and sometimes not-so secretly) want. Sure, we write because we love it, because we’re driven to create words and worlds, because we’d go crazy if we didn’t, but recognition, be it via a sale, a kick-arse review, an award or recommended read is something every writer craves – that external validation that tells us we’re better than that little voice inside telling us we’re shit.

The first six months of the year are filled with awards (too many to list here), and the Australian Shadows Awards are the latest to hit my shores. Run through the Australian Horror Writers Association, it’s the premier awards for Australian and New Zealand horror that always presents really cool trophies – a different one each year, so you never know what you’re going to get.

AHWA

I had a pony in this race under the ‘edited works’ banner as co-editor (with Geoff Brown) for SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror. It was a strong field, up against Simon Dewar’s Suspended in Dusk anthology, and SQ Mag (issue 14) edited by Sophie Yorkston, and with just a week to wait from finalist announcements to the reveal of the winner, it was Sophie Yorkston and SQ Mag who took out the win.

Was I bummed? Sure – who doesn’t want to win an award for the work they’ve put in? Did I edit the anthology with the hopes of winning an award? No. I edited the antho because I got to work with some amazing authors with equally amazing stories. Of that I’m proud. An award win would have been a nice shiny cherry atop a kick-arse cake.

SNAFU cover art

There were four other categories: short fiction, long fiction, novel, and collected works – all with diverse and strong entries, and I was crossing my fingers and toes that two of my buddies (and fellow Sydney SHADOWS boozers) would take out a win.

Huzzahs happened when Andrew J McKeirnan won for his amazing collection Last Year When We Were Young. This is a fantastic collection of shorts that I reviewed here. If you haven’t read it, get off your bum and seek it out – you won’t be disappointed. Andrew’s been a Shadows Award finalist… well, heaps, so it was about time he took out the win. I’m sure he felt the same.

True to form, Alan Baxter took out the win for the short story category with Shadows of the Lonely Dead. He had two nominated works in this category, so that just shows you how much of a damn fine writer he is. Head over to his website and check out his work then buy it. Go on. What are you waiting for?

The novel category was taken out by Aaron Sterns and Greg McLean for Wolf Creek Origins (yes, of the Wolf Creek cinematic fame). Nightmare-inducing fun this! Fun? Okay, so maybe my idea of fun is a little different from yours…

Shane Jiraiya Cummings won the recently renamed Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction with Dreams of Destruction. While I haven’t read this story, I’ve read Shane’s work and I’m not at all surprised he took out this category.

So I didn’t win an award this year – that’s okay. I’ve been a finalist for the Australian Shadows Award, had SNAFU listed as a recommended read on the Bram Stokers’ ballot list, and the reviews for SNAFU have been incredible. I call that a win. I’d be lying if I said it was the ‘win’ I was looking for; you see, I’ve won a Shadows Award for my short fiction, and that’s an addictive high. I want to win another. Hell, I want a win a slew of awards. When I get hit with that writer-imposteritis, the trophy that sits atop my desk tells me I can do this writing thing; that I’m good enough to win an award, no matter what that inner voice says.

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The big winner here, though, is Aussie horror fiction, which is going from strength to strength, with recognition and appreciation for the power of Australian storytelling making those around the world sit up and take notice. And well they should.

 

Writers and the ‘Real’ World

Writers, by and large, are a solitary folk. We live in our heads as much (if not more) as we do the ‘real’ world. Even when venturing into the gathering places of other humans, a part of our mind is ticking over with story plots, envisioning (and having conversations with) characters, trekking through worlds of our own creation. We function as other non-writerly folk do, but part of us is always lost in our words and our worlds.

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The advent of social media has brought us solitary creatures together, given us a sense of community and understanding. Still, we continued to sit before our screens and ‘interact’ with other like-minded beings, and the sometime sense of isolation drew back a little. However, the thought of interacting face-to-face can often be an altogether different beast. A terrifying thing wrought with insecurity and panic. Our created worlds are safe havens, places we know and love that offer security and acceptance.

So it was with much trepidation (and a little fear, truth be told) that a couple of years ago a small bunch of Sydney horror writers who’d interacted online finally decided a meet was something we should try. You know, in person, face-to-face with conversation and all that jazz. And beer, let’s not forget the beer.

Jo and Cat Me, Tracy and Jase

And so the Sydney SHADOWS was born. That first get-together was a little daunting I have to say, but it soon grew into a core group of about ten who now can’t wait to meet up and talk shop and shenanigans. You see, no one understands a writer like another writer – they get that excitement of a new story/idea, the joy of publication and the suckiness of rejections. They know you live in alternate universes that are as real as the one our bodies inhabit. Among us there’s a wealth of experience and information we readily share with one another, but more than that we’re letting our hair down (well, those of us with hair), swearing up a storm, and acting silly as only writers can. Sure, we get strange looks from those at other tables, but we’re writers – even out in the world we bring our own worlds with us… while creating fantastical places in a hubbub of shouted ideas. (Cake drones! Ahem…)

Rob and Alan Me and Tracy  Jo and Rob Alan and Rob

Three or four years ago if this opportunity had come up, I’m not sure I’d have taken the leap, but now I can’t imagine not meeting up with this lot. We drink, we talk shit, bond over hats, and boy do we laugh. It’s a letting off of steam, of the build-up of all that we carry around in our heads, which can sometimes be very dark stuff.

There are times when my husband will ask: “When are you getting together with your people?” That’s his not-so-subtle way of telling me he can’t help me with the writing stuff that’s driving me crazy, and/or I need to get out of the house (and stop wearing my pyjamas all day).

Alan and Tracy Tracy and Me

Being (physically) around other authors brings a normalcy to what most of us experience when we tell other humans we’re writers (especially a horror writer) – a frown of distaste, a look of incredulity, a gasp followed by ‘but why?’. And meeting up with like-minded specimens is damn inspiring, no doubt about it.

So yes, writers are, by and large, a solitary folk, but when we get together it’s a celebration of what we do and who we are – warts and all. And for writers, there’s not a lot better than that.

Me, Alan, Jason  cat

(If you’re looking for fantastic writers and great reads, check out some of the work from Sydney SHADOWS members: Joanne Anderton, Catriona Sparks, Alan Baxter, Robert Hood, Andrew J McKeirnan, Marty Young, and Jason Crowe – you can’t go wrong!)

(All pics courtesy of the wonderful Cat Sparks, who can take a photo like no other!)

Review: ‘last year, when we were young’ by Andrew J McKiernan

Why yes, it is review time again. Today’s review is brought to you by me, with reading material supplied by Andrew J McKiernan. And I thank him for it. Now before I go on to explain how wonderful these stories are, it’s disclaimer time:

I’ve known Andrew for a good few years, and is part of the awesome Sydney SHADOWS – a mad crowd of Sydney writers who get together for lunch and drinks and shenanigans and drinks (Fat Yak! Ahem. As you were…)

Right then, with the disclaimer out of the way, it’s spoiler alert time…

READ ON AT YOUR OWN SPOILERY RISK. MANAGEMENT IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR SPOILERS IF YOU READ PAST THIS POINT. SERIOUSLY, IF YOU READ PAST THIS POINT THEN BITCH ABOUT A SPOILER, I’LL WHACK YOU WITH THE BOOK.

I love short stories. I love writing them and I love reading them. Collections and anthologies are always a kind of crap shoot – you don’t know quite what you’re going to get, you just hope there’s at least a couple of gems inside. There’s an undeniable skill in being able to tell a complete story within a limited amount of words, and not everyone can do it. Andrew McKiernan is one of those writers who damn well can.

‘last year, when we were young’ is the first short story collection I’ve read this year, and it’s also McKiernan’s first short story collection. Put out through the Australian small press, Satalyte Publishing, this is a collection of extraordinary moments set mostly against the ordinary, where the everyday lives of everyday people, are thrust into the twisted and bizarre.

LastYearSample

The collection contains sixteen short stories, five of which I’d previously read (and proudly published one as co-editor of Midnight Echo, Issue 8 – ‘They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know’ – it’s a cracker of a tale, full of tortuous moments and killer mysticism). There are also two original stories in the collection, and they’re two of my favourites, but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start by talking about the writing.

There’s a beauty in the way McKiernan uses words, how he weaves patterns with those words to tell a story, and it’s apparent from the first tale. The Memory of Water is a story of loss, fear, regret and longing, and McKiernan grabs you as much with his wordsmithing as he does with the story itself: ‘The ocean as some intelligent mother from whom we had all crawled – finned and gilled, gasping for air – and for whom we still owed reverence.’   

It would take forever for me to go into each and every story within the collection, so I’m going to go with those that most struck a chord with me. Though it’s difficult to pick a favourite, when I sit back and think on the stories, it’s always ‘Last Year, When We Were Young’, to which my mind keeps returning. It’s one of the original stories, and also the last in the collection; it’s also what the cover art is based on (which is another of McKiernan’s artistic pieces).

This story messes with your mind, in a totally good way. It makes you think, and there’s not much better than a story that makes you sit back and reflect. I so want to divulge the wonder of this story, but this is one best enjoyed without any spoilers. It really is a beautifully sorrowful tale of love, friendship, hope and hopelessness.

Keeping with the religious piety, A Prayer For Lazarus will have you rethinking humanity, religion and what some will do for those they love – not all of which is good, mind. But hey, madness is its own religion, no? Told from a child’s perspective, and in a child’s voice, there’s innocence in the horror, and that juxtaposition is one of the things that sets this story apart.

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The Desert Song is another that resonated with me, and as with a number of McKiernan’s stories, there’s a base of organised religion pitted against the ‘pagan’ and ‘insurgent’ belief systems. Set after an indeterminate apocalypse, a town struggles against an uprising of the creepy that sends most to madness. Definitely one of my top five of the collection.

While I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, The Wanderer in the Darkness, sits firmly within the genre, and dragged me in from the beginning and ignited that wariness, that fear of what lays beyond the stars. And according to McKiernan, it’s some scary, scary shit. There are some very spooky Cthulhu overtones in the monsters he’s created, and that can only be a good thing, right? Right?

The last story I’m going to mention here is White Lines, White Crosses. We’ve all seen those memorials at the side of the road, marking the final spot a final breath was taken – dead or dying flowers and white crosses. McKiernan delves into the story, the legend behind the white crosses that dog a small Australian town. It’s a tough, no-pulled punches tale about the believed invincibility of youth and the truth of reality… two very different realities. It hits hard.

Not all of the stories grabbed me, mind. Calliope: A Steam Romance, left me feeling a little flat, which is odd, as I love steampunk, but… *shrugs*, it just wasn’t for me. But that’s just one story out of sixteen, and if that isn’t the mark of a great collection, I don’t know what is.

On a Goodreads scale, I give ‘last year, when we were young’, five stars.

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Story Art, and the Art of the Story

Yes, yes, even I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get back to my blog, but work has taken precedence (what with me wanting to eat and pay bills), but as the saying goes: too much work makes AJ something-something bitchy bitch, so I’ve taken a small break from editing, and will now fill this post with art.

I mentioned in an earlier post that apart from my family and my cats, I have two loves: books and art. I can’t get enough of either. And sometimes, the two cross over in an awesomely good and awesomely personal way.

So I’d like to talk to you about that art – story art – and in particular, the art of Andrew J McKiernan.

My first introduction to Andrew was via his short stories, which are bloody brilliant (check out his collection here), but it was my short story Nightmare’s Cradle published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM) #46, which was my introduction to Andrew the Illustrator, who also produced the cover of ASIM#46.

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I’ve written previously about writing being a visual process, and this was never more true than with Nightmare’s Cradle. The story is set at my father’s farm – 300 acres of rolling hills with nary a neighbour in sight. It’s isolated, hard country with no internet or cell-service, and runs on solar power. It’s writer heaven. Visually, it was the perfect setting for the story, and clear as all get-out in my mind – I could see Hannah moving through the rooms of the cabin, could see Eli roaming the hills and skirting the dams of the property.

So when the publisher told me my story would be illustrated, I was both excited and a little wary, truth be told. Would Andrew’s artistic vision hold true to my vision? I shouldn’t have worried. Andrew perfectly captured the heart of the story, and I have been in love with the illustration ever since. Andrew has a shit-tonne of talent, and I’d even go as far as to say he’s hogging the talent pool a wee bit.

http://www.andrewmckiernan.com/mediagallery/mediaobjects/disp/7/7_nightmare_s_cradle.jpg
Nightmare’s Cradle by Andrew J McKiernan
Excerpt from Nightmare’s Cradle:

The windowpane is cold beneath my forehead, my breath warm against the glass. Thunderheads stalk the sky as lightning sears. Winds howl and rain pours from the heavens. God’s fury is unyielding and absolute.
A bird snared in a fence wire hangs, leg twisted, feathers mangled. I wonder how long it struggled before finally accepting its fate.
How long will I?
The bird sways in the wind, one wing raised in accusation. The rain unleashes its next barrage, dropping a thick, grey curtain around the cabin. My childhood home, sequestered amid rugged hills and hostile terrain has become the prison my father intended. Escape isn’t an option. It never has been.

Andrew saw what I did, and brought it to life in forlornly beautiful fashion, and I will always be thankful and grateful for that.

If that wasn’t enough, when I first met Andrew in person (at another horror writer’s birthday weekend), he had a copy of the illustration with him. For me. FOR ME. And which now sits proudly on the wall above my desk.

Andrew is one of those special individuals who can both write and draw, and if he wasn’t such a hell of a nice guy, I’d kinda hate him a little. But as we meet for drinks on a regular basis with a bunch of other horror writers (big shout out to the Sydney SHADOWS), that would be a little awkward.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned Andrew’s short story collection – he also illustrated the book, so if you’re looking for great stories and some kick-arse art, you really can’t go past it.

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As for me, when I’m sitting at my desk writing a story and hit a road-block, I can look up, see my Nightmare’s Cradle illustration, and know that my words and my worlds really are alive in more than just my imagination.

Supanova: You Be Crazy!

Yesterday, I broke my “convention cherry” (it’s a thing, it really is) at Supanova Sydney. Now before your mind starts taking you places it really shouldn’t, Supanova, for the uninitiated, is a pop-culture spectacular that covers all things geekdom: comics, books, anime, cartoons, gaming, cosplay… the awesome list goes on.

SNova 3

It was my first trip to a convention of this kind, but it certainly won’t be the last. There was much excitement in my household when I told the kids we were heading to Supanova (or Nerdvana, as my daughter happily called it), so much so they were dressed and ready without my usual cry of: “shoes, dammit, shoes!”

After gathering one of my son’s friends, we made the half-hour trek to the Sydney Showgrounds at Homebush. Much excitement ensued as we played ‘follow the cosplayer’ to the arena, but that was just a taste of what was to come. The outfits and costumes donned by some of those in attendance were brilliant, inspired, and the attention to detail in some was amazing.

SNova 1

Everywhere we looked there was something to nab your attention (there’s a bad ADHD joke in here somewhere). There were stalls upon stalls upon stalls of publishers hawking their books; stalls upon stalls upon stalls of comic and graphic novels; clothing of all kinds (including a ghillie-suit that had me do a double-take), collectables, two amazing sword and dagger stalls I tried not to salivate over; and did I mention books?

Two of my writerly mates and Sydney SHADOWS compatriots, Alan Baxter and Andrew McKiernan were there hawking their new releases. I picked up (and demanded) signed copies of Alan’s ‘BOUND’ (Harper Voyager), and Andrew’s ‘last year, when we were young’ (Satalyte Publishing). I also grabbed ‘Assassin’s Aprentice’ by the lovely Robin Hobb, who happily signed my copy then chatted graciously with me.

Books!

My kids (and my spare) were in their element, running from comic stall to comic stall looking for that something special that elicits a smile that lights them up from the inside – it was beautiful to see. And their pure delight at the costumes is something I know will stay with them forever.

I’ve read too much about the elitist and misogynistic crap that sometimes goes on at cons such as this, but I saw none of that, my kids saw none of that. They were happily caught up in the wonder of a community of people who had a love of all things fantastique. And a shout out to all those who happily posed with and for the kids – not once were they turned down; not once were they made to feel as though they were intruding. My daughter, who can sometimes be painfully shy, was hovering near Batman, when she was spotted by the Penguin (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write), who smiled and beckoned her over, making her feel at ease as they posed. It’s acts such as this that make things right with her world, makes things right with mine.

Cloe and friends

So with my convention cherry well and truly broken, and with tired feet, a tonne of fantastic photos and armloads of books for us all, we bid Supanova Sydney adieu, for we will be back next year, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have two cosplayers with me.