Hi everyone. One of today’s WIHM interviews is with Michelle Goldsmith. Michelle is one of the coolest people I know and I’ve had the benefit of critiquing a few of her stories. I have little doubt she’ll be making waves throughout the speculative fiction scene in coming years. A nominee for this year’s Aurealis award, here fiction has appeared in places like the Review of Australian Fiction, Andromeda Spaceway’s Inflight Magazine, and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror. Special thanks to Michelle for visiting my blog for a chat!
Q. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
MG: I’m a Melbourne-based author of mostly speculative fiction, who currently works as an editor and technical writer/technology journalist.I have a BSc majoring in Zoology/Evolutionary Biology and have just completed a Masters in Publishing and Communications. My thesis looked at technology-driven changes in the author-reader relationship and how author persona and other factors may influence readers’ buying or reading behaviour. Prior to my current job, I worked as a bookseller for 5-6 years.
I sold my first short story when I was around 21, after I started writing to give myself some kind of purpose while I took time off from my first degree due to health issues. I needed some kind of focus so I didn’t feel so much like my lifewas on hold. I’d always planned to write, but up to that point I just consider myself ‘not ready’. Then I saw a call for subs that matched an idea in one of my notebooks of story ideas and thought, ‘Why not give it a try and see if they give me any feedback in my rejection?’ When the story was accepted it made me realise that I actually had no excuse to keep putting off writing. Also, once I had a taste for it I couldn’t really stop.
After that I did a mentorship with Kaaron Warren, who is not just a brilliant horror writer, but also a great mentor. Then I got more involved in the Australian spec fic community and was invited to join my current writing group and things have gone from there.
I’d still consider myself to be pretty early in my career and I hope I’m just getting started. I’ve been writing to submit for about 5 years now but my chronic health issues made quite a few of those years very interrupted and not conducive to much writing if I was also going to manage my studies and work enough to get by. Now that I’ve finished my Masters I’m trying to sort out some health stuff so things are more stable and gradually work through my backlog of stories that need revisions, new story ideas that need to be written and, eventually, a couple of novels that while fully-outlined, don’t yet have a complete first draft.
Q. What draws you to horror generally, and was there a defining moment where you something made you think “Fuck it, I’m writing a horror story!”?
MG: I love the strange and unsettling. My preferences lean more towards the type of horror fiction that might be described as more ‘literary’ than the super-gory or splatterpunk kind of horror. I generally find things that are a little subtler and leave more to the imagination scarier and more memorable. Sometimes I do just enjoy a good adrenaline rush as well though.
Horror fiction can help you explore the horrifying and unjust parts of real life in a meaningful way. I think what we find horrifying can tell us a lot about ourselves. Additionally, a horror story written without empathy tends to fall flat, at least for me.
On a personal level, some of my attraction to horror and other dark fiction probably has to do with events in my childhood (mostly the long illness and eventual death of my father) and possibly my own health problems. There is a lot of intrinsic horror in realising that you have absolutely no power, no control, over some things in your life. Additionally, often when you grasp at ways to find control or force the world to make sense, it sends you down a very dark path.
Reading and writing horror allows you to investigate the things that disturb you. As the writer, no matter how dark things might get in a story, you have a measure of control over the things that horrify you. On the other hand, reading horror gives you an opportunity to surrender control into the hands of the author and experience terror in a safe way.
I don’t usually set out to write a horror story specifically, but horror elements to creep into most of the stories I write.
Q. What is your favourite horror story and what about it specifically rustled your jimmies?
MG: I can never seem to pick a favourite! There are lots of stories I love for lots of different reasons and often the stories and reasons are too different to really compare. Three that come to mind are:
- The Cherry Crow Children of Haverny Wood by Deborah Kalin,
- A Home for Broken Dolls by Kirstyn McDermott,
- Sky by Kaaron Warren.
I generally enjoy horror stories with interesting settings, a strong sinister undercurrent, an escalating sense of dread, and evocative and beautiful writing that contrasts with the horrors the author is describing. I like experimentation and will take a flawed, ambitious story or book over a perfectly executed story that just follows tropes and doesn’t challenge me in any way.
I also prefer a writing style that trusts the reader and doesn’t condescend to them, and leaves some space for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
Q. What have you written? And what is your personal favourite of your own work?
MG: So far I mostly write short fiction. Some of my more recent publications include a reprint of Of Gold and Dust (a story set in Ballarat during the gold rush) in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror (originally published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #60) and The Jellyfish Collector in Review of Australian Fiction, which was published with a story by Kaaron Warren.
I still think my best work is yet to come, but if I had to pick one, The Jellyfish Collector is closest to my heart for personal reasons.
A reprint of my first published story, The Hound of Henry Hortinger, is available online. It was originally published in an anthology of spec fic based on the writing and themes of the books of Charles Dickens.
As for awards, I was nominated for the ‘Best New Talent’ Ditmar twice, but didn’t win. One day, awards. One day I will make you love me!
Other than that, some articles based on my Masters thesis research should be published later this year, which might be interesting for anyone interested in how author persona affects readers’ buying and reading choices, what they really don’t like authors to do online, and the influence of factors such as gender.
Q. Do you have a favourite form or media for story telling? E.g Short story, Novel, Audio drama or podcast, audiobook
MG: I love short stories. I enjoy both reading and writing them, and how they allow for experimentation. I feel like trying lots of different things and experimenting with different styles and themes helps me improve as a writer (which is important seeing as I am pretty early in my writing career) where if I was solely working on one big novel project I might not get to do that.
I think some ideas are short story ideas and some require a greater length though, so I am also interested in writing novels. I tried writing one around the time I started writing short stories, but because I was still learning so much of the craft, by the time I got 10,000 words in I always decided I wanted to go in a different direction and what I had written just didn’t fit. Now I think I’m finally close to the stage where I’m sure enough about what I want to do with a novel that I could get out an initial draft that I could then work with.
Q. What are you working on at the minute?
MG: So many things! I have a large backlog of short stories that need some last revisions before I submit them anywhere. I just couldn’t give them enough time and attention when struggling with health problems and medication adjustments while trying to work and finish my Masters. I also have plenty of other story outlines that need to be drafted.
I also have a dark science fiction novel that is slowly coming together.
Q. Who is your favourite woman writer?
MG: I can’t pick a favourite, there are too many, and trying to would be even more complicated because I know a lot of the horror writers I read personally.
Here are a handful of my favourite Australian female short fiction writers.
- Jo Anderton manages to pull off wonderfully strange ideas.
- Kaaron Warren’s fiction is so brutal it hurts.
- Kirstyn McDermott writes beautiful prose and tackles some truly disturbing subjects with such a deft touch that it never feels exploitative or like she is going for cheap shocks.
- Margo Lanagan is Margo Lanagan.
- Claire McKenna is criminally underrated, in my opinion.
- Ellen Van Neerven is great and probably not well enough known in genre circles even though she has written some speculative stories.
- Deborah Kalin is a newly discovered favourite of mine since reading her collection, Cherry Crow Children.
Q. Are there any projects involving other women that you’re looking forward to or would like to get on board with?
MG: I have nothing on my schedule, although I am open to collaboration. I love editing and swap crits with a large number of people, many of whom are women. One day I would love to edit an anthology and it would surely have some women in it.
Q. What book/s are you reading at present and what is in your TBR pile?
MG: My to-read pile is more of a to-read room. I’m actually in between books right this moment, and will need to choose another tonight. I just finished The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, which could actually be classed as horror. Before that I read Animal Money by Michael Cisco.
Some books I plan to read soon are Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott, the Xenogenesis series by Octavia Butler, Arms Race by Nic Low, The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly, Resurrection Science by M. A. Connor and probably whichever books will be discussed in the next The Writer and the Critic podcast.
Q. What challenges have you encountered that are unique to being a woman in the horror genre, or can you describe some of the challenges have you faced that are complicated by your gender?
It’s a bit hard to quantify a lot of gender-related challenges, because I can never be certain if having a typically female name on one of my stories has ever influenced the way a slush reader read it, or what affect implicit bias may have had on how my work has been received.
Sometimes I do feel that as a woman I might have to justify my presence in the horror genre a little more. This is mostly due to some unpleasant experiences I had when I first started writing. Possibly it is also because it’s hard not to internalise things, at least to some extent, when every so often you are bound to come across online rants about how women can’t/shouldn’t write horror.There were some things early on that could potentially have affected my confidence negatively and that probably would have prevented me from going to conventions for a while if I hadn’t had strong support from other writers.For instance, I was around 20 or 21 (and probably less confident) when I first started going to conventions, and I had a few memorable experiences. During a panel at one convention, another woman in the audience asked a question about whether there were many women in the horror comic industry.
Later, when I was leaving the convention, a guy around my own age came up tome and asked if I was the one who asked that question. I said I wasn’t, but then he asked me why I was there. I was kind of taken aback and just said that I wrote horror stories and a friend (who also happened to be a female horror writer) had encouraged me to come. In response to this he kind of looked me up and down and said ‘Unpaid, I’m guessing.’ Then as I walked to the train station he followed me until I got on my train regaling me with his opinions about how no women wrote ‘actual horror’ and how women ‘just aren’t interested in horror for biological reasons’. I don’t think he realised he was making me uncomfortable, but I found it a bit intimidating at the time.
Other than that, before I joined my current crit groups, I used to use online workshops a bit. A couple of times got weird critiques that were a bit nastily personal and focused too much on my gender. One memorable one accused me of contributing to the ‘feminisation of science fiction’.
However, these probably helped me come to the realisation that not all critique sare helpful, and some should just be ignored. These days, I mostly workshop fiction with writers I know personally and whose opinions I trust, so I haven’t had any gender critiques for a while.
I think I’ve probably had it far easier than some people though. Overall, so many writers in the Australian and online spec fiction communities have been extremely supportive of me and my work from the get go. I find it’s much easier to deal with any negativity when I have people whose work I really admire and whose opinions I trust telling me that I’m a good writer and never questioning whether I belong in whatever genres I choose to write in or whether I’m just giving spec fic some kind of literary ‘cooties’.
Q. Why is Women in Horror month important/important to you?
I think it’s useful for giving female horror authors some extra visibility, seeing as there are still some people who seem to think they don’t exist. During my thesis research I also found some suggestion that initiatives like WiHM and the different review counts (both within and outside of spec fic) have had an impact on some readers and may be helping counter implicit bias.
For instance, a fair few respondents to my survey said that such initiatives had made them look at their reading habits and that when they did, they realised they had been reading almost entirely male-authored books and neglecting work by anyone else without even realising it (many attributed this to differences in the visibility of different authors or the way books are marketed).
In many cases, these readers were now actively looking for more works in their favourite subgenres by women (and POC or minority authors, in some cases) and trying to diversify their reading.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I’d tell them not to stick to their comfort zone, to experiment and try new things to keep growing as a writer, and not to be disheartened if sometimes things don’t work out.
Also, to get lots of crits and learn to distinguish those that better realise their vision for their story from those that want them to write a completely different story.
I’d probably also tell them that there is a lot of bad writing advice online and to view a lot of it sceptically unless it comes from someone whose opinion they trust. Everyone has a different process and there are few absolutes.
Michelle Goldsmith Links: