Author Sylvia Kelso
It is with great anticipation that we await the release of Crimson Edge Press’ Maidens & Magic anthology in February. Each author we’ve interviewed for them has been a delectable treat. Today’s author is no exception.
Name: Sylvia Kelso
Latest Release: “Death and the Maiden”
Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She often writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings, and likes to tinker with moral swords-and-sorcery and elements of mythology. She has published 8 fantasy novels, including Amberlight and The Moving Water, which were finalists for best fantasy novel in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards. Her short stories have appeared in Australia and the US, including anthologies from DAW and 12th Planet Press, and the online e-zines Luna Station Quarterly and Eternal Haunted Summer. Her novella “Spring in Geneva,” a riff on Frankenstein, appeared in October 2013 with Aqueduct Press. Her most recent publications are the related-work essay “Dear James,” in the award-winning Australian anthology Letters to Tiptree, in August 2015, and another short story, “The Horses of Buhen,” which appeared in the 2016 Summer Solstice Issue of Eternal Haunted Summer.
- How long have you been writing?
Telling stories is something I’ve done as long as I can remember. Poetry I did start to write down at 8 or 10, and my first “novel” was begun – and thankfully, abandoned – at the end of my second year in high school. I didn’t get to a full novel till after University. And I didn’t think seriously about trying to get any of my fiction published, which for me is the equally important second component in the term, “writing,” until late in the 1990s.
- What kind(s) of writing do you do?
I seldom write poetry now, but when I moved to fiction, I started with historical novels. In 1980, coming back from overseas to an Australia at once familiar and startlingly new, I got the idea for a fantasy novel, set in an analogue Australian setting. Since then I’ve mostly written fantasy, two series and parts of a third published now, varying from high to contemporary: that’s a series called Blackston Gold, about a local goldmining town. I did write a couple of novels in the early 2000s that wd qualify as SF (science fiction) but since about 2011 I’ve gravitated towards shorter fiction. I now have one novella out, in 2013, called “Spring in Geneva” with Aqueduct Press, with a sequel in development.
There are some short stories, in e-zines and in Australian and US anthologies, like “Due Care and Attention,” in the Australian antho Cranky Ladies of History, and “A Moment in Laramidia,” which I think of as my mad time-travel dinosaur story, and one of my favourite pieces, in the US anthology Lightships and Sabers. And of course, there is “Death and the Maiden,” my second novella, in Crimson Edge’s forthcoming Magic and Maidens antho.
I’ve also written critically, including a PhD on Gothic and SF genre fiction, and some things on fantasy writers, including Samuel Delany, Lois McMaster Bujold and Patricia McKillip.
- What are your goals as a writer, both small and large?
To keep writing. To have a reasonably sized audience.
- What inspires you?
I’m one of those falling-seed writers. Anything can trigger a writing piece. Most orthodoxly, a cfs that strikes a bell with the Black Gang, aka my mind’s creative component. I run cfs’s that appeal to my conscious mind past the “guys in the basement,” as Stephen King called them. Sometimes the topic triggers a response. Sometimes not.
Otherwise, most often work will spring from what I call ground-zero reveries. With my contemporary fantasy duo I was standing in the shower – where so many of us must meditate! thinking about the incident where, it turns out, someone actually saw Roman soldiers marching through a cellar somewhere in York. Thoughts drifted to a ghost in a skyscraper – how much of the “ghost” would you see, and where? And suddenly, this figure in diggers’ (gold rush) clothes was climbing invisible steps out of the elevator floor in a local high-rise, and putting a panning dish (for gold) down on the narrator’s head.
- Have you ever fallen in love with a character? Tell us about this romance.
I always fall in love with my lead characters. But like a good genre romance writer, since I’m boringly straight, the focus of attraction is either a male protagonist or the male lead. With a female of either, it’s a different relationship.
While it lasts, such relationships are like a teenage crush: the character becomes the focus of my mental attention, and takes up a lot of thought-time. But it only lasts for the length of writing the novel, while the character is “alive”. Once the draft’s done, all the characters become like coral – there, but no longer growing.
Unlike the focus of a teenage crush, the character can change during his or her life, and since I don’t work from outlines, as they flesh out such characters can become alarmingly perverse. In my first fantasy novel, I suddenly realised that if left to himself the protagonist would zap himself on the battlefield before we reached Chapter III. Everything after that, the Black Gang still regard as a preventive detour rather than an actual story.
I had a similar shock when I understood that the narrator/protagonist of the second historical novel was going to get herself pregnant at the end of Part I. It wasn’t in my plans, it certainly wasn’t in hers, and this time, there was nothing I could do to stop her. Consequently, quite a lot of that novel was a form of damage control.
- Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two?
I’m not sure how either “logic” or “intuition” apply to writing, creatively, at least. I think a more useful binary there might be Fay Weldon’s division of Writer A and Writer B: writer A, she claimed, is the producer, the wild card, the idea-thrower, the one who gets the draft down on paper. Writer B is the editor, who checks the grammar, syntax, alliteration, etc, but also the continuity, feasibility, verisimilitude, etc. Right down to making sure your characters keep the same eye colour. (Not always found in published work.)
Every writer uses both forms in some combination. Some lean on Writer B early in the process, doing outlines and even scheduling scenes. I tend to call such writers organised, whereas writers like myself I term organic. That is, we tend to start off with an idea, a scene, a paragraph or sentence or character, and see where whatever-it-is goes.
In my combination, the two forms alternate. Writer A, however, always leads off: after a cfs or something else snags our attention, there’s an inchoate “hatching” period. Then most often, the Black Gang, aka my Writer A, will toss me an opening sentence or paragraph, often positively Delphic in its crypticness. My sole true steampunk story started with a train pulling out of La Paz in Bolivia, and I didn’t even know if trains went there, or, at that stage, where La Paz actually was.
Hence, very often, after the opening fragment arrives I have to rush off and research for anything up to 18 months to embed the fragments: because without actual data, the Black Gang won’t go any further. This might be called “logical” work, since it’s technically not Weldon’s Writer B, who works on the draft proper. However it is interesting that though the Black Gang will begin without much data, it will then only operate with data. Eg., the current project is stalled until I can recover research about the Amazon in the 19th Century, including ship types and the local Indian lingua franca.
After that, it’s a stop-start process: write until the well comes up empty. Wait for more. Fiddle with what I have already. Ie. at this point the White Gang, aka Writer B, begin to make sporadic appearances. Meanwhile, the view just ahead is full of “things to put in” but while the ending may be more or less determinate, everything in between is a valley full of fog, where anything can happen. And very often does.
When the draft is technically complete the White Gang may suggest afterthoughts and improvements, but mostly, such work has been done during the Black Gang’s Pause periods. I don’t have a specific revision phase like many writers. For my work, though, both Gangs are necessary. The combination gives slightly more favour to the Black Gang/Writer A, since without them, there wd. be no writing at all.
- What projects are you working on at the moment?
Firstly, the re-issue of three novels in my Amberlight series, and the publication of its fourth. That’s mostly publishing work: revising the ms, checking the proofs, working with the editor(s), producing cover blurbs, working with the graphics people on covers.
I also have two novels stuck in revision, and a series I want to get out on ebook. More publishing work, that will include, of course, the after-release part: blog-posting, finding reviewers, spreading the word on social media, arranging contests and giveaways… Creatively, I am in the opening stages of the sequel to the “Spring in Geneva” novella, tentatively titled “The Waters of the Amazon,” and, as above, stuck for want of data. There are a couple of cfs’s I am vaguely interested in, but the Black Gang have so far not deigned to incubate one.
- What process did you go through to get your work published?
What process do most writers go through? Look for markets, scratch, usually hopelessly, for agents. Send work off. Have it returned. Find another possible market and try again. Work out elevator pitches. Lean heavily on your friends for connections in the publisher/agent/editor business. Send work off. Have it returned. Lather, rinse, repeat. Until one day, if luck is with you, somebody writes back and says, “I’ll take this, thanks.”
Nowadays, of course, there’s the alternate route of the Kindle or other self-pubbing channel, where you write something, whack it up on Kindle, and then do your own promotion. IF you are lucky, it attracts audience enough to create a demand for more. If you’re one in a million, you turn out to be Hugh Woolley and have half the NY Big Five publishers courting you.
- What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Promoting my own work.
- What do you enjoy most about writing? Share your favorite work.
What I enjoy most about writing and my favourite work (for reading) are two different things. In writing, what I like best, as I think many people do, are those rare moments when you read something back, recent or long previous, and you actually do think, my God, did I write something as good as that?
In reading, my favourite work comes from people like Patricia McKillip, J. R. R. Tolkien, Samuel Delany, and/or Jennifer Crusie. People who can not merely command the English language but make it shoot off fireworks or/ and then delight your soul. And then, people like Crusie, who can not only write, but do it with wit.
- If you could have any fictional character(s), living or dead, on your survival team after an apocalypse, who would you choose and why?
How many, and with what resources?
- Which actors would you choose to play the main characters in your story?
None. I am “agin” having my work filmed, televised or otherwise taken into the visual. I’m a word-smith. I prefer readers to make their own pictures of what I write.
- What is your favorite escape from day to day living?
Attempting to play the fiddle.
- Who are some of your favorite authors? What impact have they had on your writing?
As above: J. R. R. Tolkien, Patricia McKillip, Samuel Delany, Jennifer Crusie, etc. And outside my current usual field, Mary Renault, who could make dialogue mean more, and leave out more sub-text, than almost any other novelist I ever read. Tolkien infected me with a bug for secondary worlds with their own languages as well as geography, Delany showed me the outer limits of both genre writing and language, McKillip and Crusie … Their impact has been largely subterranean, since I can’t do what they do. As an amateur fiddle-player, it’s like going to a concert where Joshua Bell plays a Stradivarius. In subject, technique and ability, you are worlds apart; but the experience is absorbed, and diffuses everything else you do.
- Do you know the secret to originality in writing? Would you share it?
It’s not a secret, but it’s not shareable, either. It’s something you hope happens as you recycle the stories and character options that everyone has been using since before the Epic of Gilgamesh. And what gets termed “original” is just as likely to be decided by your publisher or audience as your yourself.
- What are you currently reading?
For fiction, Suzy McKee Charnas, a fairly old YA called The Silver Glove. For facts, H. W. Bates, The Naturalist on the River Amazons. (sic)Meet Sylvia Kelso, #author. @crimsonedgepub @robertsonwrites #interview @theauthorSAM… Click To Tweet
- What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
Eh. Ask me, next time, about the future of humanity? That wd. be more pessimistic, but a lot easier.
Judging by current trends, as I read them, in the First World, reading is tending to specialise and simplify, as audiences lose the background needed for anything but really topical social references. Writing, on the other hand, is burgeoning, as everyone who can access the Net and feels the urge put up fanfic or use Kindle or Smashwords does so. Just check the rising number of “publications” on either outlet. Of course, the quality of that output, to take the traditional view, is both uneven and has a lot longer “tail” than would the output of a traditional press with heavy editorial gatekeeping, etc.
On the other hand, Smashwords and Kindle ensure that numbers of wildly original – as in, wholly different and sometimes brilliant, though not necessarily both at once – and exciting and unusual works are out there, free from the limits and vetoes of traditional publishing. That is, if you could only lay hands on them…
Thank you for the interview, Sylvia. We wish you much success on your publishing journey.