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On the Brink: Celebrating new published voices in speculative fiction

By Michaella Francom on May 27, 2014

There is nothing I love more than sitting down and reading a good book. Always have. Always will. I love the intimacy of getting pulled into the make believe world of an author’s imagination. I’m not particular about genres or authors, but I certainly have a sweet spot for anything that touches on mystery and intrigue, the unexplained and the unexplored. Which is why I was thrilled to learn about On The Brink – an event aimed at introducing readers to new Ottawa authors of speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream etc. I had the chance to catch up with the four authors involved in the event and posed a couple of questions about writing within the genre.

Apt613: Science fiction and speculative fiction are often considered “less legitimate” by the general public when considering literary merit… What about the sub-genres you choose to explore make them “legitimate” in your eyes?

Geoff Gander: I’ve honestly never thought much about the literary merit of my chosen genres – I just write what I like! I know critics sometimes trash science fiction and horror as being things that appeal to the less refined crowds, but I believe there is a place for every genre. If pulp …was “illegitimate”, it would never sell, yet I see many magazines and small presses producing similar offerings today, and there is almost a sense of nostalgia for it.

Mary Pletsch: Fiction is about the human experience – what it means to be human. Speculative fiction frees the author to write about worlds beyond the everyday and ask “what if?” In fact, sometimes writing about elves and aliens allows us to set our own biases aside and think about big questions, all the while believing we’re just being entertained. I’ve got a story I’m certain would be received very differently if I’d set it in contemporary Afghanistan rather than in the far future on a colonial planet.

Apt613: It seems to me that readers are now a sort of outcast community in their own right – a lot of people will watch a movie or TV series rather than read a book upon which either of those things are based. Do you think there’s something to be said about the way in which sci-fi and similar genres can appeal to modern audiences who are perhaps more used to a cinematic approach to storytelling?

Matt Moore: A wise person once said film and television are the stories between people, literature is the stories within people. With few exceptions, visual formats tell stories very differently than written formats in terms of pacing, characters, exposition, and so on. And since cinematic storytelling is inherently visual, it has little resemblance to a well-crafted science fiction piece, which would rely on ideas of the mind.

What’s more, a great number of people don’t want books that will challenge them, which good science fiction should do. In fact, most people want a book they can breeze through on the beach with little thought. The same can be said of a lot of television and film.

Apt613: I definitely grew up admiring writers and being absolutely in awe of anybody who could call themselves a published author. When I was a kid I always assumed that being published = instant fame. Clearly, that’s not the case and so many talented folks write because it’s their passion but it’s not something that pays the bills… What motivates you?

Matt Moore: At the risk of using a cliché, it keeps the voices in my head quiet. I have stories and characters and places all waiting to get out, and I know even if I never have another new idea I will die before I can tell all the stories within me.

Jason Sharp: The urge to write – to put out cool ideas and entertain myself and others – has always been there, though it’s ebbed and flowed. I started writing – I use the term loosely – as a child, did a lot in high school, and then got back to it much later in the internet age. A few years back, I was participating in online diplomatic role-playing sims, and the stories/fluff I was writing in support of that was, in my wife’s view, of sufficient technical quality to be published. I just wasn’t writing anything that would appeal to more than a couple of dozen people. She encouraged me to start writing “seriously”, and promised to back me up in any way possible – whether with critiques of the stories themselves, or hunting down learning opportunities, or generating publicity.

Apt613: Because you’re writing within a genre there are probably certain conventions that people expect when they pick up one of your works. How conscious are you of these conventions when you start writing?

Geoff Gander: While I don’t feel any pressure to conform, I am aware of a lot of the horror conventions. However, horror is a fairly broad genre in itself, ranging from splatterpunk-style stories guaranteed to make you sick, to pieces so abstract that they don’t seem frightening at first, but give you chills when the pieces finally click into place after you’ve finished reading it and you think, “Holy crap – what if it *is* true?”

To stay current I’m paying more attention to science-related news than I used to because most people don’t really understand science so it’s easy to misinterpret – paranoia is a powerful character motivator. Plus, some of the theoretical research going on seems to relate to the themes that H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries touched on in their more scientific horror stories (e.g., the structure of the universe, etc.)

Jason Sharp: I think there’s some pressure from the markets; they know, or believe they know, what the largest cross-section of potential readers want out of a particular sub-genre. Take zombies. There’s a strong preference for apocalyptic “we-are-our-own-worst-enemy” themes, as we see in The Walking Dead or World War Z. And it’s kind of infuriating, because it’s patently obvious that more can be done with the concept. ..I want to push those boundaries, too – and I usually do. It just comes with the recognition that the story isn’t likely to sell unless the perfect market happens to present itself.

Mary Pletsch: I don’t like to write the same sort of story I’ve seen everywhere before. This is something I think about when I’m first coming up with story concepts – how can I give this my own fresh twist or unique perspective.

Apt613: And what are your inspirations when writing?

Matt Moore: Reading great fiction inspires me. Feedback from people on whom my pieces have had an effect is also a great inspiration. That’s ego talking, it’s true, but if one story can change one person’s life for the better, that’s a powerful thing.

Mary Pletsch: I think that most of my stories are, at their heart, about a feeling. “The Last and the Least” is about my visit to Pearl Harbour. Specifically, looking at the memorial and recognizing those people who’ve had their ashes added to the memorial decades after the original attack, and wondering what the rest of their lives were like….what they did while waiting to rejoin their shipmates. I went home and I started writing a story that I hoped would convey that feeling, and what it would be like to be that person who has that feeling.

Geoff Gander: When I started writing seriously, my main literary influences were H.P. Lovecraft, Douglas Adams, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Robert Anton Wilson…As for inspiration, I like to tell stories and entertain people, and give them something to think about after they’ve finished reading. I also have a lot to say about a lot of things, and I feel far freer expressing myself in prose rather than speechifying.

Apt613: Events like On-The-Brink allow writers and fans to come together…what do you get out of interacting with the public regarding your work?

Jason Sharp: Based on my limited experience so far, I’d say it’s primarily a morale-booster. People are willing to take the time to come out and see me read something I wrote. That’s a pretty fair compliment in today’s age, and I hope to reciprocate by entertaining them.

Matt Moore: It’s good to meet people who are fans of the same kind of stories I am. I learn about other writers I might like. I can answer questions and hear what they think about my stories, which is always interesting and insightful since they may see it in a completely different light than I did. And yes, there is a marketing element to it. But all in all, we are all part of a larger community. Writers are readers and fans, so it’s great chance to celebrate the stories we love.

Mary Pletsch: For me, not being very public about my writing until I made my first sale, it’s about learning to come out of my shell and engage with people. This is the age of social media and the image of the writer locked up in a garret is antiquated. I can’t be that person. That being said, this is “On the Brink” and being at these events as the guest instead of the fan is still very new to me.

Geoff Gander: I love meeting people who have read my stories, and hearing from them what really touched them the most, or made them think. This sort of gathering also helps me put a human face on my stories, and forces me to down-shift a bit. It’s good to get outside of your own head now and then!

On The Brink is taking place May 29 at the Westboro Clocktower Brew Pub starting at 7:00pm but folks are invited to come as early as 5:30pm to share a bite to eat and to chat with the writers. The event’s keynote reader will be Matt Moore and will feature the other three authors interviewed here: Mary Pletsch, Jason Sharp and Geoff Gander. The event is free but donations are welcome as a fundraiser for October’s Can-Con literary convention.