An interview with Kerry Greenwood:
2001 photo of Kerry Greenwood, by Geoff
Photo by Geoff (2001)
Getting Feral With Kerry!
Kerry Greenwood is writer of historical, young adult, crime, science fiction and fantasy novels and a smattering of short fiction. She is probably best known as the author of the “Phryne Fisher” detective stories set in Melbourne in the 1920s. She has also written a number of science fiction novels aimed at young adults: “The Broken Wheel” (winner of the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction), “Cave Rats”, “Whaleroad” and “Feral”. We thank her for taking the time to be interviewed by email for our newsletter. Our questions are in bold type.
— the Editors.
Please describe your background.
I’m an eldest daughter, and an elder sister, which makes me bossy, over-achieving and far too sure that I am right. These are all useful traits for a writer. I was lucky enough to go to a very multicultural school which gave me a smattering of languages, made me an honorary Greek (and honorary wog) and rubbed off any prejudices I might have had about people who were different being inferior. All of them were taller than me and most of them were stronger than me, and some of them were smarter than me, so I forgot about categories and just got on with working out who I liked, who liked me, and who was going to hit me.
I got used to being an outsider – a perfectly comfortable outsider – but all writers have a small corner which observes, watches, makes notes, isn’t involved, and we cannot abandon ourselves to the moment except in very unusual situations (even when I almost drowned, there was a small oberver saying, “Hmmm, so this is drowning!”, while the rest of me strove and panicked and flailed).
Cover of Murder In MontparnasseWhat influenced you to become a writer?
I’m a storyteller.
Why do you write?
I have to. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I’ve gotta write.
Who is your favourite fictional character/invention? Why?
I like all of them!
How do you develop such characters?
They walk into my head and say, “Here I am!”
Your historical/detective novels (eg. Phryne’s world or your revisitations of ancient mythology) clearly involve research and painstaking care. How much of the authoring process involves such tasks?
I don’t know. I spend three months researching and three weeks writing, but the three months also includes thinking about the book. It’s finihsed in my subconscious before I ever write it down.
Cover of FeralDoes writing science fiction also involve a similar need for research? Does it have any particularly unique requirements?
Always. But it can change. I thought that “Feral” was going to be about shapeshifting, so I read Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” and lots of mythology and some forensic psychiatry. Then I found out that I had solved the whole shapechanging problem in two chapters and the book was actually about freedom and slavery… so it was back to the books and Seneca had the perfect words for it.
The science part of SF needs work. Magic is easier, but the writer can thus become sloppy so the magic needs constraints.
How would you define the term ‘science fiction’?
Ooh, there’s a nice question. Perhaps I’d define it as unreal or not yet real… but that’s not very good. Guess and wish?
Your science fiction stories seem to have mythological overtones. Do you feel SF a modern form of mythology? Fantasy dressed in different clothes, perhaps?
We are mythopoeic creatures and no one’s more myth-making than me. I think that SF and fairy tales and religions and folk tales all overlap to make a new story. And I love the idea of being able to read the old myths in a new dress – it also makes it easier to spot patterns if you do that, and all writers are pattern makers.
How much of science fiction is about exploring “the alien within”? Do Australians have any particular affinity with this concept?
I really don’t know if Australians have a talent for it, but SF does allow the writer to dislocate characters in time and space and look at them without constraints.
Cover of WhaleroadLooking at your science fiction characters – eg. Sasha in “Feral” or Alain & Tyrell in “Whaleroad” – would it be fair to suggest that they might have metaphoric overtones for gay and lesbian readers?
Certainly. What I want to say is there is someone for everyone, whatever their sexuality, gender or specific problem (telepathy, blindness, fear, empathy, shapechanging).
Have you ever written specifically gay/lesbian/queer characters? Are there any restraints to your doing so?
Yes, often in my detective fiction. In my latest book, Phryne’s sister is revealed to be a lesbian. And in a forthcoming SF book called “Stormbringer”, the main character falls in love with an androgyne – who, moreover, is the acolyte of a bad tempered prophetess.
What response have you received regarding your queer characters?
One review where a reviewer accused me of having too many gay characters – in every book, she said – which isn’t true. No other negative feedback, which surprised me a little.
Do you believe that a “queer sensibility” may be helpful (or necessary) in writing queer characters? Or in writing science fiction?
I myself am straight but not narrow, and I believe that every writer with that small outsider inside is queer and cannot escape a queer sensibility. Also, it’s useful when you want to be outside reality, to look at the world through a distorting mirror, from underneath or to the side.
Cover of Cave RatsWhat are the difficulties in writing science fiction?
The same as any other fiction: to be convincing. To make the reader suspend their disbelief and trust you.
What general difficulties or constraints do you see for Australian authors – or for female authors?
The Aus market is very small and there aren’t many publishers in it. This means you conform to the house style or you dont get published. I don’t think it’s harder for female authors now – it’s just all round bloody hard to get into print. We don’t have many magazines, though there are more SF mags than detective ones.
It might once have been suggested that Australia suffered the “tyranny of distance” for writers or other purveyors of culture. Does this still apply? Have mass communication and the Internet made any difference?
I think the web has made a difference, but you still have a long, long journey if, for instance, you want to meet a Perth author, and the outliers still feel neglected and sidelined by NSW and Vic. And Melbourne feels like most of the publishers and all of the grants are in Sydney.
Do you believe we have a specific “Australian” culture or do we rely too heavily on overseas influences (eg. in science fiction)?
I think we are as Australian as we can be. Sci Fi is a meta narrative, anyway – we all add our bits to it.
Cover of CassandraAustralians appear to be large consumers of fantasy literature – why do you think this is so? Is this a healthy sign for a nation?
Was it healthy for the British to read Trollope during the Blitz? I think so. If you can’t influence events and the real world is too ugly and sad, the ones who will go out on the street to protest will go anyway. And they’ll read a lot of fantasy as well. We have to go somewhere for a happy ending.
How important is fandom in science fiction or other forms of literature? How important has fandom been in influencing your work?
Not important. I write like I write and the fans like it (Goddess bless them). But fandom is important. It’s the biggest information exchange around and an excellent way to get recommendations from people who think like you do and like the same sort of books.
Is it accurate and fair to say that science fiction is still a male-dominated genre while fantasy is female-dominated (both authors and readers)? If so, why do you think this is the case?
Yep. And not only is ‘hard science’ in the hands of men, it is percieved as morally superior and more difficult than ‘soft fantasy’ in the hands of women. Bah. A similar thing with detective stories – the mean steeets are male and somehow realistic, and the cosy is female and unrealistic. While both are fiction, and as unrealistic as each other, and writing a cosy novel is just as stringent and difficult as writing a mean streets novel. Cover of Medea
Who is your biggest group of readers: men or women? Why?
Women. Probably because I usually have a female hero.
What do you see as the future directions for science fiction or fantasy?
The only thing we know about the future is that it will be a surprise. I’m agog.
What do you see as the future for Australian fiction in general?
It will be fine if Allen and Unwin remains intact. We just need to keep the faith and keep writing. And I’m going to do that because I can’t not.
Anything else you would like to say?
Someone needs to find out (and then tell me) why Joe Haldeman said that he couldn’t have a gay character in “Star Trek” because the whole story would need to be about him (the gay character). Why? It’s been annoying me since he said it at Convergence last year. But everyone in the audience just nodded. What did I miss?
Further information on Kerry Greenwood can be found athttp://www.crimefactory.net/kerrygreenwood.htm
Kerry discusses writing at http://www.allen-unwin.com.au/authors/greenwood.asp
For an interview with Kerry concerning her most famous character, Phryne Fisher, seehttp://www.crimefactory.net/funnelweb/greenwood/kerrygreenwood%20interview.htm
A complete Bibliography of her work can be found at http://www.crimefactory.net/funnelweb/greenwood/kerrygreenwood%20biblio.htm Cover of Away With The Fairies
Her Phryne Fisher novels include:
Cocaine Blues 1989
Flying Too High 1990
Murder on the Ballarat Train 1991
Death at Victoria Dock 1992
The Green Mill Murder 1993
Blood and Circuses 1994
Ruddy Gore 1995
Urn Burial 1996
Raisins and Almonds 1997
Death Before Wicket 1999
Away With The Fairies 2001
Murder in Montparnasse 2002