10 Questions with Helena McAuley
Helena McAuley is a contemporary fantasy and dystopian soft-sci-fi author who runs almost exclusively on coffee and whisky. When not writing she can be found—and now it’s your turn to hide! She is not affiliated with any ducks, but is vaguely on most social media under the handle @thathmc.
She is in desperate need of sturdier slippers.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?
I am a writer in residence on the cusp of the land of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people of the Kulin nation. In other words, I reside there and I write there. I write spec fic of many flavours—fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia—but these days I gravitate towards contemporary fantasy. I just like the flavour of Real World+. Some people describe my work as Young Adult, some describe it as Adult, but I prefer the dearly departed New Adult age bracket. My basic motivation is ‘This Entertains Me’.
2. What drew you to that particular genre?
I never really grew up. I was raised on a steady diet of bad 80s and 90s cartoons (Transformers, I’m looking at you!) and their beats, tropes, and archetypes have lived rent free in my head for the last forty years. On the outside I may look like a grown, rational, mature woman, but on the inside I’m still somewhere between seven and seventeen, full of rainbows and magical gems and dark-as-the-gates-of-hell eyeliner.
3. What’s your best-known work?
Being bebe writer, my only long-form work out in the world is ‘This is the Dawning’, a NA superhero story about the human incarnations of the Zodiac battling to control the fate of humanity and the world. Currently, this exists as a serial throughout Deadset Press’ Zodiac anthologies, but my two or three eager readers can expect this as a stand-alone novella in late 2023 (with a bonus chapter! Cause why not?).
Regarding current work, I’ll be honest and tell you that I’ve hit a slump recently. But when I can get my headspace together, I’m working on short stories as well as a long-form story about Generic Demon Hunters Hunting Generic Demons, but with angst, alchemy, and a bitter MC who is the embodiment of destruction. Not sure where this will lead but refer to question 1 (‘This Entertains Me’).
4. What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve been writing for as long as I could string two words together. Among other less polite descriptions, my teachers described me as having a strong imagination. In my impoverished hometown there was nothing to do. I found my mum’s old typewriter in the back cupboard when I was about six and, well, if I couldn’t go and have adventures with my friends, I’d instead have adventures with my imaginary friends!
Funnily enough, it was through writing that I met and bonded with the two women who would become my Non-Blood Sisters. Then we went on adventures, both on and off paper. About six years ago, I decided to make an actual go of writing, and while I won’t say I never looked back, it’s been a hell of a ride.
5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, pantser or somewhere in between? How do you research?
My writing style is analogous to Signposter, Planster, and Trashfire.
It starts with a strong scene in my head — maybe from the climax, maybe from the inciting event. Then I work towards achieving it by building a world and characters around that scene. I know points I want to hit along the way, but I don’t know how we’ll get there, or what’s going to ambush us along the way.
As for researching, I’ll read a lot to get a basic of knowledge and then Google As I Go. Why spend weeks or months researching when I don’t know what I’m going to need? I have tried fully researching and plotting from the onset, but that lasts roughly a half a day before my fingers itch and I need to write!
6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?
My Generic Demon story has me deep-diving into alchemical history and theory. I will add my own take to it, so what will come out the other end will not represent true alchemy, but I’m finding the research fascinating! I have also been known to apply ‘direct research’, such as hitting myself or mildly burning myself so I can accurately describe the sensation, much to my husband’s alarm. You know us writers; we’ll spend hours researching just to get two sentences right. I swear that a half a bottle of whisky I drank was for ‘research’!
In my search history you’ll find foetal development and premature birth, how long it takes someone to drown, and the nutritional density of various insects. Once I emailed an academic for her paper on historical butchery techniques and religious associations (shout out to @DollyJorgensen! You’re awesome!).
7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?
A bit of my worldview always sneaks its way into in my work, which is daunting for me because I don’t want readers to think I’m proselytising. But my most personal story is—and will forever remain—unpublished. I wrote it while I was coming to terms with a friend’s illness and, I’ll be honest, it’s not well written. But it helped me to process my feelings and let the anger and poison from my veins. Not all writing is destined for publication; it can be as much a therapeutic device for the author as it is a means of entertaining the audience. And that’s okay! As authors, we are our first audience, and sometimes an audience of one is all that’s needed.
8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?
The worst kept secret in the known universe is that I am a massive fan of Lian Hearn. Her work has wormed its way into my subconscious, so much so that I once wrote a fantastic scene, walked away, and then went “Hang on, that’s familiar…”. I’d totally ripped her off! But the scene just fits. If that book ever makes its way to the presses, I’ll email Hearn and seek permission to use it. Let’s call it a ‘homage’.
Other than that, my biggest influences are often non-literary. I don’t read fiction while writing, I don’t want to absorb the ‘flavour’ of other authors. But I will read non-fiction. My education is in archaeology and anthropology, and I consider myself an amateur theologian. I’m fascinated by belief structures and concepts of society—be they religious, economic, political, or otherwise—and many of my stories will stem from one tiny nugget of belief that I’ve turned over and over in my mind until it’s a polished seed that wants to be planted and flourish. My current obsession is the concept of ‘citizenship’: what it means, what it entails, what are its responsibilities, and the impacts of statelessness. What if we were to disassociated citizenship and statehood? There are currently an estimated 10 million stateless persons in the world, and at least 40 are being held in detention right here in Australia—some for a decade! Why? What does this mean? Is statehood and citizenship a right, something that should be earned, or a bit of both? One day I’ll write something that—while not claiming any right to the lived experience of stateless persons—explores the concepts of citizenship and statehood, probably in a dystopian fashion because This Entertains Me. I just haven’t settled on the right framework yet. (Wow! That answer makes me sound far more clever-er than I really am! )
9. What books are on your bedside table right now?
Hang on, let me check…
Okay, I’m back. I have Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers (my cosy re-read); Behind the Veil by E.J. Dawson; Machiavelli’s The Prince; and I swear I’m actually reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days and not just leaving a bookmark in it, hoping it’ll enter my head via osmosis. I’m also very, very, very slowly working my way through Created in the Image of God by Rabbi Esther Ben-Toviya and Meditations on the Tarot, but the content is quite heavy, so I can only read a few pages of either before I go cross-eyed and need a stiff whisky and a good lie down. As for the rest of my languishing TBR, well, we all know how that goes.
10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?
Works by Helena McAuley cannot be found in good bookstores! But you can find her in the Zodiac Series and Stories of Hope by Australian Speculative Fiction (Deadset Press), and in a couple of issues of the excellent Etherea Magazine. Her upcoming works are a novella-isation of her 'This is the Dawning' serial and her short story 'Ducking Hell' in Where The Weird Things Are Vol. 2, both due to be published in late 2023. Some are available in print, but all are available as digital reading, either through the publishers’ websites or the myriad of digital booksellers.