10 Questions with Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts (Part 1)
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a three-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. Her latest anthology project is Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, co-edited with Geneve Flynn. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year, and an NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow.
Dan Rabarts is an award-winning author and editor, four-time recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award and three-time winner of the Australian Shadows Award, occasional sailor of sailing things, part-time metalhead and father of two wee miracles in a house on a hill under the southern sun.
Together with Lee Murray, he co-writes The Path of Ra crime-noir thriller series from Raw Dog Screaming Press (Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, Blood of the Sun) and co-edited the flash-fiction horror anthology Baby Teeth - Bite-sized Tales of Terror, and At The Edge, an anthology of Antipodean dark fiction.
His steampunk-grimdark-comic fantasy series Children of Bane starts with Brothers of the Knife and continues in Sons of the Curse and Sisters of Spindrift (Omnium Gatherum Media). Dan’s science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in numerous venues worldwide. He also regularly narrates and produces for podcasts and audiobooks. Find him at dan.rabarts.com.
1. Tell us a bit about yourselves! Where do you call home and what do you write?
LM: Hi Nikky. I’m a full-time writer and editor of mostly dark speculative fiction with a strong Kiwi focus. I live in the Bay of Plenty where I write from my home office overlooking a cow paddock.
DR: Kia ora! I write science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy in all the spaces between the day job, raising two kids, and walking the dog. While my whanau hails from sunny Coromandel, I live in Porirua, near the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, and most of my writing is done at the kitchen table, on the couch, or in any number of journal notebooks wherever I happen to be at the time.
LM: And together, Dan and I write the Path of Ra, a dark supernatural crime series set in a near future New Zealand, and our editing projects include award-winning titles Baby Teeth: Bite-Sized Tales of Terror and At the Edge. We do most of that work via the internet, via late-night Facebook messaging, although, very occasionally, we’re able to get together to chat in a bar or at a BBQ.
2. What drew you to that particular style/genre?
LM. Supernatural crime-noir? Quite apart from the fact that I was raised on a diet of dark fiction, beginning even before school with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Pinocchio, I wanted my fiction to explore topics that intrigued and concerned me, and that desire naturally led me to narratives embracing darker themes. As far as working with Dan is concerned, I knew of him from New Zealand dark fiction circles, and even before we worked on Baby Teeth, I had enjoyed some of his short stories, and I loved his brand of writing. In those days, he was a short story specialist (nowadays he has numerous novels under his belt), but everything I read was vivid, evocative, and imbued with local lore and landscape. Perhaps when I reached out to Dan, I’d hoped that some of his writing flair and energy would rub off on me! In any case, we decided not to reinvent the wheel, instead injecting what we considered our respective strengths into that first narrative, Hounds of the Underworld, Dan bringing his flair, and me the rigour, and both of us determined to write a truly Kiwi crime-noir with science underpinnings and a strong core of magical realism. A world first, I believe. Readers loved it, and that first book went on to win us New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but even if it hadn’t, by that time we were too invested in the characters and their story to stop there.
[The first two book in The Path of Ra series]
DR: I really love good dark comedy because it’s a release valve for the pressures of the narrative, or the world, take your pick. So I try to inject my fiction with a balance of dark and humorous. There’s so much more at stake when you tell dark stories. You can take your characters, and your readers, to terrible places they’d never go themselves when you write horror. The lubrication that gets you all out of it in one piece (if the characters get out in one piece) is the opportunity to laugh, however uncomfortably, along the way. I guess as a reader these were the sorts of stories I enjoyed the most and wanted to tell myself, where the line between the terrible and the absurd is crossed back and forth, so you’re never quite sure which way the screw will turn next.
3. What’s your best-known work?
LM: Other than our Path of Ra series, I’m probably best known for the Taine McKenna speculative military thrillers, an adventure trilogy blending science and myth and set in some of New Zealand’s most stunning regions, including the Urewera ranges, the Fiordland sounds, and the Central Plateau. But after a few years focussing on novels, I think 2021 might turn out to be the year of the short story for me, as I have ten short fiction commissions to complete by the end of the summer.
DR: I think most readers who know my work found my short fiction somewhere or other and, I like to think, have come looking for more. My short story Riptide, in the anthology Suspended in Dusk 2 (ed. Simon Dewar, Grey Matter Press, 2018) won the Australian Shadows Award for Best Short Story last year. My other short fiction has been published in numerous venues, and together with my writing and editing collaborations with Lee have variously won or been finalists for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards and Australian Shadows. Most recently, aside from wrapping up the Path of Ra series, I’ve been writing my grimdark/steampunk/comedy fantasy series Children of Bane from Omnium Gatherum Media.
4. What inspired you to write Blood of the Sun? What is the story about?
LM: Um…we had a contract to deliver?
DR: Yeah, this is the third book in the series, and putting aside the fact that it can be read as a stand-alone thriller, it was undoubtedly inspired by the events of the first two books, and all the characters who came along for that ride and wouldn’t let us leave the story there. The series is a supernatural crime-noir procedural thriller, with apocalypse suicide cultists, ruthless gangsters, faceless Lovecraftian monsters from beyond the mortal veil, gruelling scientific rigour, cutting sibling rivalries, all slashed through with slices of black humour and family drama. In Hounds of the Underworld we spooled out several threads of murder and mystery, most of which we tied up, but we left a few which ran through Teeth of the Wolf, and some were left hanging at the end of that book. The Path of Ra had taken on a complex weave which I don’t think Lee or I anticipated when we embarked on this journey, so not only did we want to bring the big narrative arc to an epic climax, we also wanted to wrap things up for our characters so they could relax at last. Because you know, Penny’s pretty uptight as it is, and Matiu really needs to chill out, so it didn’t seem fair to leave them all hanging, after all we put them through.
5. Tell us about your co-writing process. Who does what? How does it work?
LM. Nikky, as far as the co-writing goes, it’s very easy: I write the big sister character, which makes me the boss. [She sidles away from Dan]. That is to say, we have a general idea of where we want the story to go, I write my chapter and hand it over to Dan, and like all pesky little brothers, he promptly does whatever he pleases, taking the narrative off on tangents—usually someplace seedy and tenebrous—and the outline be damned. It is frustrating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding, so much so that what started out as a let’s-see-where-this-goes try-for-novella-length project turned into a three-book epic adventure, and a life-long friendship. It has its downside; writing a collaborative novel takes longer, for example. It’s true! Most people assume that if you’re writing half the wordcount, then by extrapolation it should take half the time, but that simply isn’t the case, because the planning and communication take much longer than when we you’re writing individually. When you write solo, you only have to please yourself (and your publisher, obviously). It takes time to convince Dan that we don’t need to add aliens to the narrative.
DR: Still think we could’ve made the aliens angle work, but hey, no spoilers.
LM: And there are other sundry issues that hamper collaborative projects, like two sets of family commitments to juggle, Saturday morning soccer coaching, and poor internet connection in the event one of us is writing from their holiday in the sounds or in a beachside caravan park. But writing collaboratively with Dan has been one of the highlights of my writing career. It motivates me to write better, to lift my game so the partnership, the shared writing, becomes something that is outside ourselves, and not a text that either of us would be able to write individually.
DR: It’s playing in the same sandpit. I get to build something cool, then sit back and watch while Lee builds something even cooler to go with it. Then I blow something up, or throw a monster at it, and Lee has to build something to replace it, which I then blow up again. Rinse and repeat. Somehow this works. I think. Creativity in the face of adversity and all that. But seriously, it’s so much fun to be the first person to see the next instalment in your favourite series, and that’s what writing The Path of Ra was like, hanging out to read the next section from Lee and then getting to dive back in myself, to keep the story moving.
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