In collaboration with editors John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, A Dribble of Ink is proud to introduce a series of interviews with the authors of The End Has Come, the final volume in the The Apocalypse Triptych. Following on The End is Nigh, and The End Is Here, The End Has Come contains 23 stories about life after the apocalypse.
Interview with Leife Shallcross about “Wandering Star”
(Interview by Sandra Odell)
In “Wandering Star” you have created a modern day post-apocalyptic tale with absolutely no fantastic elements, and the work is all the more stunning for its apparent normalcy. What inspired this story?
This story sprang from a couple of different places. Not to get too political, but Australia’s record on its treatment of refugees has gone from bad to worse over the last few years, and some of the commentary you hear excusing our current framework comes from a place of woeful ignorance about the adversity these human beings are trying to escape. This story sprang from me trying to understand how profoundly life can change due to events beyond a person’s control (war, famine, climate change, political instability… asteroid impact). My starting point was to question how I would react in such a dire situation. But I was mostly interested in how it would be to live through that unbearable quiet before the storm, when you know change is coming but you’re still essentially living the life you’re going to have to let go of.
Following on from that, often after these kinds of cataclysmic events have passed, there aren’t necessarily formal records of what it was like to live through them, and historians are left with putting together something of a puzzle from everyday items that have been left behind. I drew inspiration for Jessie’s quilt from a nineteenth century quilt in the Australian National Gallery collection called the Rajah Quilt. It was made in 1841 by women convicts being transported from England to Tasmania (which was a hellhole back then.) The quilt was sent back to England after completion, and then vanished for 147 years before it was rediscovered and acquired by the gallery. I love the idea of the stories of all those anonymous women being stitched into that enormous quilt – stories we have an inkling of, but will really only ever be able to guess at.
It has been said that the best stories take the readers by the throats and shake them vigorously until their worlds will never be the same again. Here the parents must not only contend with the impending death of their own world, but the realities of their children’s futures. Will their children be better off with their parents? Would it be more humane to send them away? How would the children survive in the world to come? You also leave the story intentionally vague at the end, a delightful torture indeed. What do you think happened to Jessie and her family?
I honestly don’t know what happened to Jessie. Sorry about that! I really terrified myself writing this story. I’ve got two kids about the same age as Jessie and Nate, and I just couldn’t bear to conjecture what their futures would be. If I’ve succeeded in imbuing this story with the sense of overwhelming anxiety for the future I felt when I was writing it, that’s probably why. I drew a lot of inspiration for this family’s predicament from the evacuation of children out of London during the Second World War. I can only imagine the anxiety of their parents, not knowing who their children would end up with and if they would really be any safer out of a city being blitzed to rubble (or if the parents, themselves, would survive the blitz to be reunited with them). It’s true that some of these children were sent to Australia, used as a kind of indentured labour and never saw their own families again. I’d like to think that since the advent of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, underage refugees would be treated differently in the scenario I have imagined, but reflecting on the actions of the politicians in charge of child refugees in my own country doesn’t fill me with hope.
The story also addresses the struggles of caring for elderly parents, the realities of extended family that may not be able to take care of themselves in an emergency situation. How do you feel you would respond to the challenge if you were ever caught in a situation where you had barely enough time to plan for the care of extended family?
There are plenty of families around the world that have experienced this kind of loss, through the advent of war or natural disasters, but those of us living in stable, first-world economies are generally going to be less vulnerable to such a sudden, fundamental shift in existence. It really made me wonder (doomsday preppers aside) how the average person would cope. To a large extent this story was me processing how I and my partner might react to a situation like this (Mum: it’s OK, I write fiction.) I realized that I would want all my family around me, that if something happened to my partner or I, it’s their grandparents and my sister who are my kids’ safety net. Also, Australia is probably a lot like the US geographically, in that it is big. When you can jump on a plane, living a couple of thousand miles from your family isn’t a disaster, but in the scenario contemplated in Wandering Star, there are going to be plenty of families who face a real prospect of never seeing each other again.
It’s the details that bring this story to life: the description of the materials in the quilt; Jessie’s girl guides uniform on the bed; how the main character rolls her eyes when her mother calls; the worn leather couch. What is it about such detailed descriptions that helps cement a reader into the story?
When cataclysmic events happen (even if it’s just a personal catastrophe, rather than a global one), it’s often the tiny details that trigger the strongest sense of loss and grief because these are the things that have been so intimately close to us, even whilst they represent something so much bigger than themselves. When I was writing this story I was trying to convey the central character’s sense of loss of a whole entire way of life. So, in picking the details that my character focuses on, I wanted to capture the minutiae from this family’s life that readers will recognize from their own lives. Many of the fabrics in the quilt could have been cut from my children’s clothes. Everyone’s mother does something that make them roll their eyes. And I tried to pick other touchstones that evoke a whole history for this family that has happened before the short period this story covers – like the couch. I hope readers can imagine the couch new, and imagine the constant use and small, domestic disasters that have turned it into the beloved and familiar piece of furniture my character has to leave behind.
Of late, the global fiction market has focused on encouraging a diverse range of writers from all nationalities and backgrounds. Still, many Australian writers feel that it is difficult to get their works published in non-Australian markets. What are some ways the publishing industry could improve in its efforts to promote the works of Australian writers in particular?
This is an interesting question, because I’m not sure that I necessarily agree that this is always the case. Australians seem to be well represented in the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror, given our relatively small population base. For emerging writers, it is probably more true in relation to novels, as opposed to the short fiction markets. I wonder if marketing a work as ‘Australian’ (or, indeed, as actively representing any particular diversity group) might sometimes be doing that work a disservice, in that the ‘Australianness’ of the work might then shout louder than other story elements potential readers would find more compelling or relevant. There was an interesting article that came out last year that examined the tendency for books about Africa, or by African writers, to feature an image on the cover of an acacia tree against an orange sunset over the veldt. Frequently, this says nothing about the story (I’ve even seen an edition of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible with that image on the cover, and that story is set in a freaking jungle.) Which means that unless a potential reader is specifically interested in Africa, the cover art doesn’t offer much by way of enticement. So I guess my question is whether a work actually needs to be marketed as being Australian, if that’s only going to conjure up images of kangaroos and gum trees, when that might not have much, if anything, to do with the story. In science fiction and fantasy, more than any other genre, our readers are really looking to be presented with fascinating new worlds to explore, and if they perceive they’re being offered something they think they’re familiar with and not that interested in, it’s not going to do much to promote the work.
What’s next for Leife Shallcross? What can hopeful readers expect from you in the future?
This is quite an unusual piece for me in that I don’t often write pure science fiction. A lot of my work draws on fairy tales and folklore, so has a very different flavour to it. I have a couple more short stories coming out in 2015: one in an Australian anthology called The Never Never Land about two elderly people escaping the dreary world of their aged-care facility using magical knitting, and another story in a European Anthology, Strange Little Girls, which draws on one of my favourite figures in folklore, Jennie Greenteeth – a water hag that eats children. I’m also looking for a home for my first novel, which is a take on the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. I’ve got another couple of novels in development and loads more short stories.
About Leife Shallcross
Leife Shallcross lives in Canberra, Australia. There is a possum living in a tree by her front gate and sometimes kangaroos visit her front garden in the night. Her work has appeared in Aurealis and several Australian anthologies of speculative fiction. She is the current president of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. When her family, writing, and day job are not consuming her time and energy, she plays the fiddle (badly). She is currently working on her first novel. Leife can be found online at leifeshallcross.com and on Twitter @leioss.
About the anthology
Famine. Death. War. Pestilence. These are the harbingers of the biblical apocalypse, of the End of the World. In science fiction, the end is triggered by less figurative means: nuclear holocaust, biological warfare/pandemic, ecological disaster, or cosmological cataclysm.
But before any catastrophe, there are people who see it coming. During, there are heroes who fight against it. And after, there are the survivors who persevere and try to rebuild.
Edited by acclaimed anthologist John Joseph Adams and bestselling author Hugh Howey, The Apocalypse Triptych is a series of three anthologies of apocalyptic fiction. The End Is Nigh focuses on life before the apocalypse. The End is Now turns its attention to life during the apocalypse. And The End Has Come focuses on life after the apocalypse.