AUTHOR INSIGHT: MEET LEE BATTERSBY

Lee Battersby is the author of over 70 stories in Australia, the US and Europe, with appearances in markets as “Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror”, “Year’s Best Australian SF & F”, and “Writers of the Future”. He is sadly obsessed with Lego, Nottingham Forest football club, dinosaurs and Daleks.  His novel, The Corpse-Rat King, was released in 2012.

All set to join the ADF, you changed your mind to study creative writing. Why?  
Cowardice, or self-awareness, I can’t quite remember. I’d been accepted into ADFA, the Australian Defence Force Academy, with the army. Then, two days before I was due to get on the plane I had a massive attack of stage-fright, I guess. I’d led a fairly undisciplined life up to that point – my parents had separated when I was 13 and I’d become pretty independent from both of them – I’d never really been away from home, and suddenly I was overcome with the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to do it: fly across the other side of the country, away from my Mum and my girlfriend, to a place full of angry, shouting strangers who were going to teach me to kill people when my usual end of a fight was as the pummellee not the pummeller? What the hell was I thinking?

So I had a Kermit the Frog arm-wavery “AAAAAHHHHHH” moment and threw it all away to live at home for the next four years while I studied an Arts degree. I don’t think my Mum ever quite got that out of her system: I’d pretty much sold her on the idea of Lee the Soldier, and I think it was a disappointment to her until the day she died.

Tell me a bit about your writing journey. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?
I’ve been at it a fair while. My first sale was a poem back in 1989! I wrote furiously while I was at Uni between 89 and 91, and got nowhere because, basically, I wasn’t any good, and slowly I drifted off into other art forms for a while, until I realised that what I loved about all those other art forms was the writing, and came back to it in its pure form. I made my breakthrough in 2001 and just kept pushing from there.

I’ve had three real highlights so far in my career:

  • Winning 3rd place in the international Writers of the Future competition back in 2001, the first Western Australian to do so. Part of the prize involved a trip to LA to spend a week learning under World Fantasy Award-winning author Tim Powers, and I learned more from that one week than I had in three years at University.
  • Being asked to teach at the Queensland-based Clarion South Writers boot camp in 2007. Tutors for this course were almost exclusively highly-respected novelists and multiple-award winners with long publication histories. I was an uppity short story writer with one collection on the shelves and a reputation as a bit of a hard-arse on aspiring writers. One of these things was definitely not like the others … but it was a great week, and some of my students have really kicked on, which gives me an enormous buzz.
  • And, as corny as it sounds, selling that first novel to Angry Robot: I’d been feeling that my career had plateaued, and was really looking for a change in direction. Selling a novel has given me that change, and added fresh impetus. I’m hoping to push ahead and forge a respectable career in the longer form now.

As to low moments, there have been a few, but they’re hardly worth mentioning. Stick around any game long enough and you’re going to have some hard times along the way, and people with whom you don’t get along. You do learn who you do and do not wish to work with. I certainly have a list: there are outlets to which I don’t submit, and events I don’t attend, because of the way I’ve been treated, but there are so many outlets to submit to, and so many events to attend, that it’s a drop in a bucket. Besides, I love the writing world. It’s where I keep all my stuff.

The Corpse-Rat King is your debut novel. Can you describe it in five words? OK, maybe you can use a few more.
Five words: What the hell was that? 🙂
A slightly fuller description might be that ‘The Corpse-Rat King’ is an irreverent, cynical post-death fantasy romp based on the noble human attributes of cowardice, panic and dereliction of duty, in which an untrustworthy guttersnipe learns the meaning of honesty, friendship and responsibility. And runs away from all of them.

What did you like best about writing this book?
It was fun. I wanted to write an anti-fantasy fantasy novel, where the standard plot arc we see so often in those bog-standard, soft focus faux-medieval-Europe phat phantasies was undermined and sniggered at. That’s a fun place to start, and I have a dark and cynical take on human nature anyway, so there were points in the writing where I was cackling out loud. Hopefully that sense of dark enjoyment translates to the reader, or I’m going to come across as a rather hateful bugger in places 🙂

You’ve had a few reviews already – what’s the verdict been? What sort of readers will The Corpse of the Rat King appeal to?
Reviews have been pretty positive so far. It’s hard to tell for sure, but most people who are willing to commit an opinion to paper (or, at least, to screen) have enjoyed it. I’d like to think the book will appeal to readers who aren’t traditionally fantasy readers. There’s a fantasy setting, but the tone is a little more absurd than traditional fantasy, and perhaps a little more self-aware. I’m an enormous fan of writers like George MacDonald Fraser and Tom Sharpe, and I’d be happy if readers saw it in that tradition of absurdist fantasy writing.

Why should you never write when you’re hungry?
Food smells better than panic: if it’s a choice between working out how the hell I get another 2000 words down or a bacon sandwich, I’m going with the pig.

What’s your writing process like? Do you need total quiet or can you work in chaos? How do you cope when people interrupt the flow?
Let’s see: I live with a wife, three children, a dog, a budgie, an endless flow of teenage friends who come round every weekend to share my son’s big screen TV, alcohol and X-Box… I’m not sure I remember what the phrase “total quiet” even means!

I try to be flexible in my work habits. I’m not quite The Goodies – anything, anything, any time – but if I required a unique set of circumstances in order to write then I doubt I’d ever get anything down. Even if I’m not at the keyboard I try to be immersed in the world about which I’m writing: I always have my phone with me, or my iPod, so I’ve always got a means of taking notes at the very least, or jotting down a stray paragraph or exchange of dialogue as it occurs. Luckily, I’m married to a writer, so she understands the occasional need to call writing time: we often act as human shields for each other, intercepting phone calls, kids, and knocks on the door so the other one can write in peace. And parks, playgrounds, and commercial play spaces are a godsend: we can sit at a table and hit the keyboards while the kids run themselves into the ground. We are the Royal Family of time management …

What’s your favourite word?
Right now it’s ‘balistraria’, which will give anyone willing to look it up an idea about at least one scene in the ‘Corpse-Rat King’ sequel. I’ve a fondness for archaic and forgotten words: my bookshelf at home is littered with titles like “The Pirate Dictionary” and “A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Taboos”.

When (not if) you travel back in time to meet your teenage self, what words of wisdom/advice or pithy platitudes will you give yourself?  “Ignore them all.”
My teen years were pretty awful: my parents divorced; I was stick thin (despite current evidence), had big 80s glasses, and was a favourite target for bullies during a period when bullying was not only tolerated in schools but seemed to be encouraged as a way of creating more breeding stock for the VFL (yeah, it was that long ago); and I had the living crap kicked out of me on a regular basis. The highlight was being held against a chain-link fence so every other member of my basketball team could take turns to spitting on me while the coach took a toilet break.

My teen years coincided with the end of my high-school career: I sat my first TEE exam on my 18th birthday. Within a couple of months I was at University, and wandering goggle-eyed through three-story libraries, campus theatres, and all those amazing horizon-exploding ways of life that still make me yearn to go back and study twenty-five years later. I turned my back on the people who had haunted those awful six years between 12 and 18, and haven’t looked back. If I’d known what Uni, and the arts, and the wider intellectual world would give me when I was 12, it would have made the journey a lot easier. But they gave me a strong lesson in self-sufficiency, and in the Kurt Vonnegut idea of choosing your village.

If you met a Dalek in your bathroom, what would you say to it?
Ah, see, that would never happen, because it’s a well-known Doctor Who fact that I’ve just made up that Daleks are terrified of bathrooms and so never go to the toilet. Which is why their voices sound like that.

If someone gave you Megablocks instead of Lego, what would you think?
That they tried, at least. My wife and kids have been educated: they ask me what sets I want before they go and buy them.

If you could pick five sci-fi characters to have dinner with you, who would you choose and why?
OK, I’m not going to choose a character from my own books, because that would be just a little needy, and it would be weird to look across the table at someone you know you made up, so:
Slipper Jim diGriz from Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books for the superfine bootleg port and cigars he’d have boosted to bring with him.
Gandalf the Grey, because dinner occasions with him usually end up in a mad quest with dragons and all sorts of weird goings on.
Zaphod Beeblebrox for excitement, adventure, and really wild things!
Tank Girl, for the utter lager-madness, and
Kryten from Red Dwarf, because someone will have to clean up the carnage afterwards, and it’s not going to be me!