Fun with Friends—Helen Lowe Talks with Fellow Authors from Australia and New Zealand: Today’s Guest Is Stephen Minchin
About the Series:
“Fun with Friends” is an SF Signal interview series in which I feature fellow SFF authors from Australia and New Zealand. The format is one interview per month, with no more than five questions per interview, focusing on “who the author is” and “what she/he does” in writing terms.
Introducing Stephen Minchin:
Stephen Minchin is the publisher at Steam Press, a small press specializing in speculative fiction that has been operating since 2011. Stephen’s background is in the sciences, but after working for a horticultural consultancy company for seven years he realized that he would far rather retrain and get into publishing. He now works for a number of independent publishers in Wellington, New Zealand, where he focuses on digital production and drinking vast quantities of coffee. Steam Press released three books in 2012: The Prince of Soul and The Lighthouse by Fredrik Brouneus (which has now sold into Germany and the Czech Republic); Mansfield with Monsters by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens (which was one of the New Zealand Listener’s top 100 books of 2012); and Tropic of Skorpeo by Michael Morrissey (which is so bonkers that no one seems to know quite what to make of it.)
Helen: Stephen, given all the debate over the future of publishing these days, did it feel like a big step to retrain and enter the industry at all, let alone starting your own company? What inspired and drove both decisions?
Stephen: In a lot of ways it was quite easy, actually – though that was probably because I refused to consider that this was anything but a brilliant idea! A couple of years ago I had a sensible job that was reasonably secure, but it just didn’t excite me. Thankfully my wife agreed that I should chuck it in, retrain in publishing, and see where that took me.
I wasn’t planning to start my own company when I started the publishing diploma, but as the course progressed and more and more publishers talked to us about their work, I realised that none of them was particularly interested in New Zealand science fiction and fantasy. I’m sure that those experienced publishers knew what they were doing and would doubtless be publishing speculative fiction if they thought they could profit from it, but I thought that a small company might be able to make it work. There’s only one way to find out, so I dived in, and the response from authors, booksellers, reviewers, and readers has been brilliant. My motivation has really been simply to publish what I want to read, and hope others want to read the same things.
Helen: It sounds as though there may be a place in the NZ market for homegrown speculative fiction after all. What do you feel it is about being a small press that makes a difference?
Stephen: Hmmm… New Zealand is a small enough market that even a tiny publisher like Steam Press can get its books stocked in booksellers across the country – it doesn’t cost that much to print enough books to be stocked nationwide, and my sales rep can talk to the decision makers at the major chains. So a small press here can get their books out there and have them noticed, which makes the whole enterprise almost viable – though of course sales volumes are small relative to the rest of the world as well.
A lot of New Zealand books are pretty literary, and a survey came out earlier this year which suggested that a lot of readers aren’t that interested in local fiction because they see it as heavy going and a bit too “worthy”. I’m aiming to provide an alternative. I also think that international readers will be interested in New Zealand sci fi and fantasy because we’ve got a different culture, a different sense of humour, and a different world view. I mean, here we are, stuck on the bottom of the world with a few million people, twenty times that number of sheep, and Hobbit memorabilia being our major export earner after milk. It ain’t normal. But then again, normal can be pretty boring.
Helen: To date, Steam Press has published three novels: The Prince of Soul and The Lighthouse by Fredrik Brouneus, Mansfield with Monsters by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens, and Tropic of Skorpeo by Michael Morrissey. Can you tell SF Signal readers a little bit about both the books and their authors? In particular, I suspect we’re all dying to know why you describe Tropic of Skorpeo as “bonkers.”
Stephen: The Prince of Soul and The Lighthouse is a young adult sci fi novel set in southern New Zealand. It stars a high school student who discovers that he needs to save the world from, well, something. Mother Nature seems to be trying to send him a message, his grandfather has returned as a zombie to convince him to get a move on, and there’s a Buddhist monk in the kitchen trying to take him away on a quest. A terrible conspiracy awaits, and life (and death) will never be the same again. The Prince of Soul was written by , a Swedish dude who has lived in Dunedin for a few years – Fredrik has written a couple of books in Swedish, and this is his first novel in English. This book is hilarious, and you can really see how much fun Fredrik was having as he wrote it.
Mansfield with Monsters is a mashup that I thought the New Zealand literary fraternity would hate, but the contrary buggers ended up liking it. Katherine Mansfield is one of New Zealand’s most famous authors – she’s the author most high school students loathe, having been forced to study her writing and dissect it in search of themes, imagery, and metaphors. The lovely Matt and Debbie Cowens are high school teachers who figured Ms Mansfield was ripe for mashing up, so combined 17 of her stories with 17 different monsters. Mansfield’s writing is already quite dark, and the Cowens are such excellent writers that the joins don’t show, so this is a mashup with literary aspirations. We did our best to keep a straight face when we promoted the book by claiming that these are the original versions of Mansfield’s short stories – the ones she wrote, but that her publisher refused to print. At least one journalist fell for it. Good times.
Tropic of Skorpeo is a psychedelic space opera, and it really is bonkers. The heart of this novel is a love story that sees Prince Rhameo and Princess Juraletta meet, fall in love, and marry. Like life, though, it’s a little more complicated than that, and Rhameo finds himself kidnapped by Amazons and sauced up for their evening meal, his mother tries to marry him off to the hideous Gloggwetafug, evil Lord Maledor and the mysterious Dark Magician are at it hammer and tongs in their quest to prove their nefarious worth, invading armies of Punkoids, Slutoids, and Sleazoids wreak their various havocs, space sirens sirenate, and the amorous Octopus tries to have its eight-limbed way with pretty much anyone who wanders past. My favorite review of this book described it as “completely insane: you would have to be mad to enjoy it, or to have conceived it in the first place. Which I guess is the point…” Tropic of Skorpeo’s author, Michael Morrissey, is one of New Zealand’s literary legends, and after years of writing far more serious novels I think that he let it all hang out for this book.
Helen: As a publisher, what “excited” you about these three novels—will you look for the same or different qualities in future projects, and do you anticipate a distinctive Steam Press style?
Stephen: My main aim with Steam Press is to publish books that I love but that might not otherwise have been published – books that are quirky, or those that have a strong New Zealand focus. The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse was hilarious and just too much fun not to publish, while Mansfield with Monsters was the first mashup I’ve seen where you couldn’t see the joins. Plus it was hilarious. Tropic of Skorpeo was the weirdest thing I’ve ever read, and it was… Hilarious.
I was about to say that there wasn’t a distinctive Steam Press style, but humour seems to be playing a large role all of a sudden.
When reading submissions I’ve been trying to select as wide a range of genres as possible. My projects for 2013 are an urban fantasy with indigenous Māori gods and monsters, and an understated science fiction cross between The Road and The Wizard of Oz. The one thing that ties all these books together is that I think they’re great, and while no book will appeal to everyone I’m aiming to publish books that, had I stumbled across them in a shop, I would immediately buy for my friends. I’m determined to publish books I love even if the economics looks dodgy, and I’ll be buggered if I ever publish a book I don’t much like because I reckon there’s a market for it.
Helen: I’m not entirely convinced a SF cross between The Road and The Wizard of Oz could be understated, Stephen, so I shall “watch this space” with interest! Yet although Steam Press is a New Zealand speculative fiction publisher, you have already sold the rights to The Prince of Soul and The Lighthouse internationally. What do you feel you and Steam Press have to both offer and contribute to the wider speculative fiction world?
Stephen: I think we have a unique culture in New Zealand – we’re a great melting pot, with a strong indigenous culture and a fantastically varied influx of new nationalities as well. New Zealand’s so young, so small, and so unpopulated that you can easily get away from people, do what you want, but never be too far from a decent coffee shop. Quirkiness can thrive, and there’s a lot of support for people who try to make a go of something interesting.
I want to tap into that and try to present New Zealand authors to the world, with their unique mix of European and Māori and Asian cultures, their excitement and their fresh take on things, their can-do attitude and their willingness to give it a whirl and see what happens.
Scandinavian authors own crime fiction. I want New Zealand authors to own speculative fiction. And from what I’ve seen in the last eighteen months, I think that’s an achievable goal.
Helen: Stephen, as a New Zealand-based author myself, I certainly looked forward to New Zealand authors owning speculative fiction, both nationally and internationally. And thank you so much for sharing both your Steam Press vision and the exciting new titles you’ve published to date with the SF Signal community.
About the Interviewer:
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and a 2012 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in her The Wall of Night series, was published in April, and she has recently won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground. and occasionally here on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we
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