Lee Murray is a horror and thriller writer from New Zealand. As a fan of her Taine McKenna series, I jumped at the chance to read her new short story collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, and chat with her about her writing.
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows) and a three-time Bram Stoker Award® nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thrillers (Severed Press), and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra, co-written with Dan Rabarts (Raw Dog Screaming Press), debut short story collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories (Things in the Well), as well as several books for children. She is proud to have edited fourteen speculative works, including award-winning titles Baby Teeth: Bite Sized Tales of Terror and At the Edge (with Dan Rabarts), Te Kōrero Ahi Kā (with Grace Bridges and Aaron Compton), and Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror (Adrenaline Press). She is the co-founder of Young New Zealand Writers and the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, and HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019. In February 2020, Lee was made an Honorary Literary Fellow in the New Zealand Society of Authors Waitangi Day Honours. Lee lives over the hill from Hobbiton in New Zealand’s sunny Bay of Plenty where she dreams up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Read more at www.leemurray.info She tweets @leemurraywriter and also posts on Facebook.
You live in New Zealand, and are geographically removed from publishing centers in New York and London. I imagine some days you might wake up, check social media, and be overwhelmed by the drama that’s developed while you were sleeping. Do you find it less distracting because you’re a bit removed from things, or does it present other challenges for you?
Hi Eliza! Thanks so much for having me.
Yes, being a writer from New Zealand does have its challenges. It’s extremely hard for any individual author to be visible coming from such a small market, and more so now with the new coronavirus. Even before the pandemic, less than a handful of literary agents served the entire country, and, with the exception of a few micro-presses, there are no publishers specialising in speculative and dark fiction here. Most of the larger publishers exist to bring in overseas fiction, rather than to commission New Zealand writers and writing, which means authors of science fiction, fantasy and horror like myself have to look further afield. That’s when the ocean gets in the way. When it comes to getting print books here, for example, the cost of shipping to New Zealand is huge, typically twice the cost of the book, often making it uneconomical to get our work into stores and libraries. And going the other way, when attending conferences and other literary events abroad, the travel and accommodation costs generally outweigh any speaker fees on offer. There are other pressures too: companies like Amazon and Google are looking to erode copyright protections for writers, for example, which is a battle currently playing out here in New Zealand. But the explosion of internet sales and marketing over the past decade have also opened up opportunities where innovative authors and small presses can carve out a niche for themselves in a noisy book market. The publisher of Grotesque: Monster Stories, Things in the Well, Australia, specialises entirely in short fiction collections and anthologies with speculative, horror, and bizarro themes, and a special interest in antipodean work. I’m especially excited to have written their first single-author collection by a woman.
In terms of Covid-19, it does feel like we Kiwis are living in an alternative reality compared to much of the rest of the world. I’m so proud of what our little country has managed to achieve by ‘going early and going hard’ to protect the vulnerable in our community. The nation’s mantra during this time has been ‘be kind’ and mostly that has held true. In fact, as I write this, on 12 July, New Zealanders’ selflessness and willingness to self-isolate has meant we have effectively eliminated the virus, at least within the borders. We have 22 active cases in isolation in hotels at the border, and have had no community transmission for 71 straight days. Our bars and restaurants are open, in school learning is back in full swing (actually it is the final day of the winter break for most schools), and sports stadiums and community events can be full to capacity. And in elimination no masks are necessary. We can shake hands. And hug our friends. To be honest, it’s surreal, after many weeks of isolation and social distancing, although our skin is still chapped from constant handwashing. So now when we watch the news and see what is happening in the rest of the world you might imagine we feel smug, but that isn’t the case at all. Kiwis are amongst the most travelled people on the globe—we’re a long way from anywhere so when we go, we go big—and that means we are have friends and colleagues the world over, including New York and London. We’d have to be pretty callous not to be worried for those people when we see the reports of new outbreaks and surges. When we see the hospitalisations and death tolls rise. I think it is fair to say that right now, New Zealanders, as a nation, are suffering from a strange kind of Covid-survivors’ guilt.
How do you think your location, being removed from the large population centers of North America and Europe, influences your writing?
All writers draw their inspiration from their lives, from the places they’ve lived and people they’ve met, so it made sense for me to draw on New Zealand and New Zealanders to shape my stories. And we’re especially blessed with the most amazing landscapes down here, with unique geographical features, our flora and fauna, and our local Number 8 fencing wire mentality (the NZ equivalent of duct tape, or CRC). Most of the stories in Grotesque: Monster Stories are set in New Zealand because I feel a certain responsibility to tell our stories, relevant to this time and place. Isn’t that our job as writers, to record and reflect and ask what if…? For readers though, perhaps the local aspects enrich our stories with something different, a fresh perspective not seen in stories from North America and Europe, and that diversity has its own appeal, as one reader of Into the Mist wrote:
“The [other] area of success for this book lies in its location. If I had a dollar for every story I have read where a team of soldiers are hunting, or being hunted, by something in the jungles of South America, Africa or Asia then I could’ve retired by now. Instead, Murray chooses New Zealand; an area she is obviously familiar with (being from New Zealand) and creates a story filled with culture, myth, and difficult to pronounce words.”— The Grim Reader.
Grotesque: Monster Stories includes a wide range of stories set in different time periods and locations. Do you have a sentimental favorite from this collection, and if so, why?
Funnily enough, I don’t have a favourite, although they all resonate for me in some way or another. The title story, Grotesque, was inspired by visits to the Da Vinci’s former residence and workshop during the seven years I lived in France, so re-reading it naturally makes me long to go back and enjoy a decent raclette with friends. Hawaiki allowed me to apply my Chinese heritage to envision how Kupe and his people might have been forced to leave the mythical island and migrate to New Zealand. As a child, I lived in Taupō, where Maui’s Hook was set, and my own father suffered dementia for many years, just as Awhina’s koro (grandfather) in the story. The premise for Cave Fever came to me while driving back from a writers’ conference with a friend, where we had a lively discussion about the magical abilities of animals, so now that story always makes me think of her and the road trip we shared together. And of course, Into the Clouded Sky meant another moment spent with Taine and his soldier friends, all characters who have become a welcome part of my family over the past few years. My (grown up) children often mention them when we’re on forest walks or passing through Rotorua.
Writers are often told “write what you know” but you have written from the perspective of men, women, New Zealanders, and Europeans in your stories. Are there any steps you take to feel comfortable in the protagonist’s perspective when you start a new story?
Before I write a story, I undertake a lot of research, often spending as much time researching a story as I do writing it, and that includes primary research, where I talk directly with people with knowledge and perspectives I might not have myself. I try to give my characters their own unique voices and make those as authentic as possible, even where I don’t necessarily agree with that perspective. And after the story has been written, I always send my work out to editors, technical consultants, and sensitivity readers, to endure that the story works on all those levels. But mostly, at their core, stories appeal to our humanity, and those things are universal to us all: survival, sacrifice, compassion. A desire to be loved and to belong.
In the Afterward, you talk about being willing to “gleefully kill” characters off. Many of your stories include death, but you rarely turn it into a moment. Sometimes it’s abrupt and the story just keeps moving on without the lost character. “Maui’s Hook” is one example of this. Did you make a conscious choice to deal with death pragmatically as a storyteller? Or do you think it was something that developed from writing the Taine McKenna stories?
In Maui’s Hook, an action adventure with themes of tradition and feminism, it’s true that the two women protagonists take a pragmatic approach to death. However, the entire story takes place in just over two hours and, if they’re to survive, the characters barely have time to draw breath, let alone waste time mourning. Processing is for later. The first priority is saving the living. With this story, I wanted to smash those traditional notions of women falling to pieces when it counts. Interestingly, in Hawaiki where the story takes place over a slightly longer time period, the warrior protagonist, Kupe, is paralysed for a long moment after the loss of his friend. But here the story set up allowed for a pause in the pacing. I guess this is what you might call a moment. So, I think processing death depends on the character and the situation. And as in real life, there is ‘no one size fits all’ when it comes to grief.
When I read your stories that reference Indigenous beliefs in New Zealand, particularly the McKenna stories, there’s a deep respect that comes through in the writing. Do McKenna’s spiritual beliefs mirror your own? Why is it important to you to have McKenna have these beliefs and ancient knowledge?
“There’s a deep respect that comes through in the writing.” Thank you for that kind comment. For many New Zealanders, not just those with Māori descent, those spiritual underpinnings are vital to our understanding of self, to our connectedness to the land and the country’s forebears, to its people. Those beliefs form an integral part of our lives, reflected in our legal system and our social policies. And while it’s true some of the Taine’s knowledge comes from an ancient source, like navigation using the stars, how to weave a net, or what herbs will ease an ache, for many New Zealanders, Māori myth and legends are not just stories but real magic that shapes our everyday lives. You only have to hear the morepork’s mournful call at twilight to know it.
In emergencies, some people freeze, others take charge. Which kind are you?
I’d love to think I’d be the sort to take charge, especially where my family are concerned, but I don’t really know. I’m not sure I want the opportunity to find out.
Into the Clouded Sky offers a bit of closure for readers of Into the Ashes. When did you get the idea to include a special supporting character in this story?
I’m not quite sure which of the two key supporting characters you’re referring to, but let me just say that they invited themselves! It was a lovely opportunity to bring back a favourite character, and to introduce a new one, but sadly, I doubt we’ll see either of them again, which readers will understand when they read the story.
I felt like Into the Clouded Sky also hinted at McKenna’s possible future, yet it doesn’t give any real answers about his relationship. Can you give us any teasers for what’s next for McKenna?
Thanks so much for asking. Nothing on the page yet, but I am toying with the kernel of an idea set in the Waipoua Kauri Forest in New Zealand’s far north. Something to do with Jules Asher no doubt. Matt Reid is desperate to head off now, but Taine is hanging back for the moment, sensibly checking out the terrain before diving in. But things going well, that one might be ready next year. In the meantime, there is a McKenna short story commissioned to a small press, and a Temera short story in the wind, so readers should keep an eye out for those, both of which I hope will be released before the end of the year.
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