Fun with Friends – Helen Lowe Talks with Fellow Authors from Australia and New Zealand: Today’s Guest Is Karen Healey
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 Karen Healey:
Karen Healey is the award-winning author of young adult urban fantasies Guardian of the Dead and The Shattering, and the forthcoming cryonic Sleeping Beauty tale, When We Wake. She technically lives in New Zealand, but actually lives on the Internet. You can find her there at www.karenhealey.com
Helen: In the time I’ve known you, you’ve lived in Australia and New Zealand—as well as on the internet—but your new novel When We Wake is set in Australia, whereas Guardian of the Dead and The Shattering have New Zealand locales. Was there something about an Australian setting you felt particularly suited this story?
Karen: For the purposes of my story, I needed the setting of a future world superpower. Now, I think New Zealand certainly ought to be a world superpower, because it is the best country in the world, bar none. But alas, I don’t think it’s going to reach the status that it deserves in a mere hundred years.
Australia it was! The setting, of course, influenced the concerns of the story in its turn as I considered the likely landscape and resources of Australia in the future, and what kind of historical events would lead to an Australian superpower (like the collapse of the USA during a series of secessionist Fundamentalist Wars. Sorry, American readers!)
Helen: Guardian of the Dead and The Shattering are both largely contemporary Fantasies, whereas When We Wake is dystopian science fiction set in a not too distant future. But do you feel that the kind of stories you’re telling in them still have elements in common?
Karen: Obviously, they’re all YA – they all feature teen protagonists, and the stories deal with people in that liminal state between childhood and adulthood. I like and respect teenagers a lot, and on top of that, they’re in an interesting transitional stage that is ripe with narrative possibilities.
Then there’s my tendency to jump from a story archetype to inspire my own work, in whatever genre I’m writing – When We Wake is a Sleeping Beauty story, The Shattering is a Summer King story and Guardian of the Dead is about four or five stories rolled up together. That’s been interesting for writing the When We Wake sequel, because it doesn’t have a specific story base – although I did wake up one morning and say, “Oh, so if Tegan is Captain America, Abdi is the Black Widow – this is an espionage adventure slash political thriller!”
Other than that, I think it’s all about the characters. I like girls with courage and boys with secrets and adult figures who can be reassuring and frustrating and frightening, and bad guys who don’t see themselves as bad people. And for some reason, though I don’t think of myself as much of an action writer, everything I write tends to have a lot of action – people kicking people in the face or breaking into art galleries or jumping off roofs.
Helen: In writing When We Wake, how important did you feel it was to get the scientific basis of the story right in terms of the cryonics and environmental change, as opposed to the emotional reality of Tegan’s story—and were there trade-offs between the two?
Karen: I did quite a lot of research on the environmental change, much of which I used, and also a fair amount of cryonics research – much of which I discarded. I wanted the landscape to feel real, and that meant projecting a realistic future in terms of climate change (if anything, I was too kind in terms of negative effects on the country!) But the cryonics is the more fictional aspect of my science fiction. To be honest, I was far more concerned with something that would read as really awesome, rather than as scientifically likely. I know this will turn some people off the book, and I won’t blame them! That’s just the trade-off I made.
I’m a huge fan of character writing – it’s always what makes or breaks stories for me as a reader, so the emotional reality and the cultural aspects of the story were more important for me to get right. There were probably trade-offs in terms of how much research time everything got, but it wasn’t really a conscious decision. While recognising that you can’t write the perfect book for all readers, I’d hope that both aspects were fairly plausible to most readers.
Helen: Your first novel, Guardian of the Dead, draws strongly on myth and legend, working them into a contemporary setting—what are the rewards and pitfalls you see for Fantasy authors working with such material?
Karen: For me, it was the nature of the stories that I was working with in Guardian of the Dead that presented potential pitfalls. The Greek myths, the Shakespeare references, and the Faerie tradition I used are very much a part of my cultural heritage. But while I grew up reading and listening to stories from Maori mythology and they form a massive part of the storytelling landscape of my homeland, those legends are not something in which I can claim cultural ownership.
While researching and writing, I was very careful to check original sources (“original” is a bit nebulous when you’re using oral traditions, but at any rate, sources that hadn’t been tidied up too much for an English-reading audience!) and speak to knowledgeable people who did have a claim in that tradition. It was a lot of work, but getting it wrong through carelessness would have been monstrously irresponsible of me. I did get some aspects wrong for some readers, for which I’m very sorry.
The rewards were incredible. To be able to tell a story of my land, using the first stories of that land – that was very important to me. For a lot of readers, it was the first time they’d encountered these spectacular stories, and some of them tweeted and emailed to say they were looking for more – that was great!
Helen: When We Wake, is a novel that looks to the future: do you have a new project or particular direction in which you would like to develop your own writing?
Karen: I’m waiting on the next round of edits for my next book, a sequel to When We Wake, and I’ve got a YA space opera that’s nearly ready to shop around. After that, I’ll write more YA science fiction! And fantasy! And contemporary! And maybe some adult Regency romances, and an adult detective novel and- you know, I’ll basically write anything I enjoy reading. I’m a genre nerd.
Whatever I’m writing, I want to be always experimenting with my craft and with my technique. My first book was first person narration, my second first and third person mixed, and my third is first person, but directly narrated to a specific audience. I want to write an epistolary novel, I want to write a novel of nested timelines, I want to write a novel that frequently breaks into film script format. I even want to – one day, when I’ve earned it, when I know enough! – write a novel in omniscient voice.
I really admire Stephen Brust, who is always playing with narrative technique and audience in his Vladimir Taltos novels. It’s a little different, because it’s a series, and he can do things like have one story told entirely from the point of view of a previously unintroduced character and people will invest anyway because the main character is still there. But it’s always so interesting to read, as a writer, and think about why he made those choices, and what in these stories speaks to these particular formats.
Helen: Thank you for doing this interview for SF Signal, Karen. I really loved When We Wake and am looking forward to all those “genre-nerd” novels to come!
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 sin June she 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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