An interview with Joel Shepherd

Joel Shepherd was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1974. He studied film and television at Curtin University but realised that what he really wanted to do was write stories. His first manuscript was shortlist for the George Turner Prize in 1998. Joel spoke to Joshua S Hill in May 2012.

In your own words, give us a brief description of yourself (who you are, where you're from, what you do if you're not writing full time).

I'm Australian, born in Adelaide but grew up in Perth and still consider myself a bit more Western Australian than South Australian (that won't mean anything to you unless you know Australia). Aside from writing, I'm currently doing a PhD on International Relations, specifically on Indian foreign policy.

Cat person, dog, or other?

Neither, as I'm allergic to both. But if I wasn't, I'd be a dog person, because dogs are proactive. You can have a two way relationship with a dog. Cats just wonder what you've done for them lately.

What is your favourite reading genre and favourite books?

Science fiction. I never name favourite books because there's too many, but I often name CJ Cherryh as being probably the main influence on me wanting to be a writer, because she was the first I'd read who combined old fashioned action entertainment with head bursting intelligence and social insight. Which is what I most like about this genre at its best, it's probably the only one that can be mainstream entertaining and highbrow intelligent at the same time. When it tries. It's a shame more don't try.

Who are those writers that have inspired and pushed you?

Aside from Cherryh in fiction, I'd probably name some non-fiction. George Orwell hugely inspired me in how to think about the world, how to recognise personal bias, and how not to write and think like a naive hack.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A fighter pilot. And if you didn't want to be a fighter pilot too, there's something wrong with you.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

About as soon as I realised I couldn't be a fighter pilot. I think I realised that the sensations and general coolness involved in doing something amazing like flying a high performance aircraft could be captured in other ways, and what I really enjoyed was THINKING about being a fighter pilot, or an astronaut, or an adventurer of some other kind. And as a writer, you can do all of those things, and not remain limited to any just one.

What has it been like trying to publish your work from our lovely little prison colony?

Does prison colony refer to Australia, or to the world of SF/Fantasy publishing? Just kidding. The lovely little prison colony has been quite good to me. I've experienced some strong support for a local author, and done quite well financially from it considering the small size of our population. It's getting overseas and realising that most of the big publishers in the rest of the English speaking world are neither as interested in new ideas or original writing as they claim to be that's been the problem, and I don't think my nationality has factored into that.

Do you feel that the big publishers are just looking for more of the same? Sticking to a safe bet? Why do you think that is?

Because it's a business. The way to make businesses work is to sell stuff you're most certain is going to sell. I get that. The problem comes when publishers think the stuff that's most certain to sell means form rather than content. Which means they'll go after work that's structurally or superficially similar to stuff that's sold before, when what they're ignoring, the thing that really sells, is that point of contact between the reader and the work, where the reader reads it and goes 'oh wow!'. That's the thing that big sellers in the past have in common with big sellers in the future, and that's the thing about past big sellers that publishers should be trying to replicate.

But if they were, Harry Potter wouldn't have been rejected nine times, or however many it was, because obviously they didn't read Harry Potter and say 'wow this JK Rowling person really creates just the same connection with the reader as things that have sold awesome in the past', instead they've said 'this isn't structurally similar to stuff that's sold in the past, so we won't touch it'. Judging by the wrong criteria can be costly, to the publisher and the genre.

You seem to really enjoy writing the female heroine; strong, talented, often angry: what has your motivation been for focusing on characters like these?

Drama.   It's just a question of what works for particular authors. I find that a character like Sasha, in A Trial of Blood and Steel, gives me a lot of drama to work with, and as a dramatist, I'm obliged to make the most dramatic choice. I like the fact her gender puts her outside the mainstream, gives her a very different view of things to most other characters, and that in turn helps me to illustrate what this world is about, because I have a character who has been forced to be observant and critical of everyday things in a way that a man probably wouldn't have.

Plus in Sasha's case, being a warrior means she's had to be a bit of a head case, because given the obstacles in her way, any normal or even vaguely submissive person would have given up long ago. That's made her a bit of a fireball by necessity, which makes her fun to write, because although she's basically loveable (I think) she's not always reasonable. But if you go to some old medieval museum and contemplate those swords, and the act of trying to hit other people with them, there's nothing reasonable about it.

You have a wonderful ability to write swordplay and fight scenes; do you have any skill with a blade? If not, what makes you so good at writing these scenes?

No skill I'm aware of. I've always been interested in the technicalities of martial arts, and how something that seems relatively simple to a layman (hit the other guy with a sword before he hits you) inevitably becomes incredibly complex when you study it full time as a lifestyle. A lot of that comes from being a sports fan, I think, and seeing how a sport that seems again relatively simple for a layman (hit the tennis ball across the net and past the other guy) becomes incredibly complex when studied at the highest level. And it's in those technicalities that the greatest talents emerge; you can't understand why Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic are as good as they are without understanding those technicalities. So I can get some idea of what might make a great swordsman so much better than everything else by examining the technicalities of swordfighting.

Also, when it comes to writing fight scenes, I've always been critical of some writers who let grammar get in the way of action. Real action doesn't happen at the pace of grammar, which is an advantage films have long had over books; twenty things can happen in a movie action scene in just a few seconds. You write all of them out at length in book, it takes five pages and ten minutes to read what's supposed to be happening in a few seconds. So I like to keep it short, abrupt, a flash of action here, a brief impact of events there. Don't let the writing get in the way of the story.

Sasha's world is decidedly un-fantasyish, while still being entirely fantastical; did you make a conscious decision to stay away from some of the bigger fantasy tropes?

Well yes. And no. Mostly I just liked the world I'd created. I wasn't trying to be unlike or like anything else.   But I did decide that the world I'd created gave me a chance to portray the traditional fantasy world of European style feudal lords and kings for what it was -- a nasty, brutal system free from any of what we might consider today as human rights or dignity. In that, I'm right there with George RR Martin; there's not much good to be said about it, and all these pretty fairy tales of knights and princesses are just propaganda.

Sasha and her companions have wonderful relationships with their horses; are you a horse lover? Have you spent much time with horses?

Not much no. But as a writer, I have an imagination! It was just logical that she'd love horses; she's got a wildly independent personality. She loves horses like wildly independent teenagers today love cars.

Can you take a moment to explain the process of creating the languages for each people, and how the choice of language-style influenced your creation of those people?

Lenay language was largely accidental, it just evolved without much thought.

But serrin language certainly took some thought. Serrin psychology is quite vague and imprecise; they care less about how a concept is technically described than what the concept evokes, and you'll win more points in a serrin debating contest for evocative or poetic description than you will for technical accuracy.   So I wanted a language that not only had nice sounds in it, but also had a grammatical style that mixed and matched words and concepts in ways that for humans would be utterly confusing.   So a word means one thing until you drop the end off and attach it to another word, in which case it means something else -- it's a bit like the concept of film editing, you have scene A, and scene B, but when you edit A + B together, you get C as the product, which is neither A nor B. I've no idea how it would work in real life, I'm not a linguist, but I know one and a half languages (the other being French), am learning a third (Hindi) and in fiction it just needs to evoke an alien and poetic psychology that holds far greater complexity of meaning.

The serrin could arguably be called 'elves' if one were to be overly pedantic about such things; did they start out as an 'elf' analogue and grow into something more? Or did they start out as they appear?

Elf analogue? Maybe. To the extent that elves were always there to juxtapose against humans, and show off all of humanity's many imperfections by their own gloriousness. Serrin serve much the same purpose, but are themselves quite flawed also, with those flaws only getting exposed by humanity's ruthless productivity. I think I've done a much more comprehensive job of quantifying serrin flaws, and making them just another race and civilisation of people (as opposed to angels from heaven, unexplained and inexplainable) than a lot of fantasy does.

What other authors have you encountered through your own reading that similarly put effort in to their elves (or elfish analogue)?

I'm not much of a reviewer or analyst of other peoples work, I'll leave that to experts like you! But again, I always liked how CJ Cherryh would create a race of people in SF or Fantasy who seem rather perfect at first glance, then ask 'hang on, this apparent 'perfection' is going to cause a lot of problems further along, if you question how things actually work…'

What's your favourite pizza topping and why?

I'm not much of a pizza person. I might be more of a pizza person if pizza in most places were more like the Italian original, and less like the American 'death by cheese and carbohydrates' version.

Who is your favourite character in the 'A Trial of Blood and Steel' series and why?

Well Sasha, obviously. If your main character isn't your favourite, you're going to struggle to write the series because you'll be spending more time on less favourite characters.   Not everyone will like Sasha all of the time, and therein lies her charm. What she is, is incredibly hard to be. Not just a warrior at her level, but as a woman in a man's world. I think in most professions, when you look at individuals who have achieved something ridiculously difficult on an individual level - say number one tennis player, solo mountaineer, great musician, some achievement that has been all your own effort and not just the result of other people promoting and liking you -- those people are incredibly driven. And as such they tend to be self-centred and somewhat egotistical, not always in a bad way, I think it's possible to have a very high self-regard and not think everyone else is beneath you. It just means that they do their own thing first, and think about other people's opinions last.

So to be such a tough nut, Sasha has to be completely uncompromising on many things, but still remain loveable. I think she is. I've seen some reader opinions from folks who didn't like her so much because they found her pushy. Well yeah, this is a person who would think the physical and psychological workload of most pro athletes is soft, and is a largely fearless trained killer. Sure she's pushy. But she's also a big softy; with her horses, with her preferred siblings, and with her lover. And she's super expressive, she'll snarl one moment and laugh the next, and doesn't mince her opinions for anyone… which makes for very entertaining moments when most characters would have shown some etiquette and deferred what they're thinking, but Sasha comes right out and says it, and devil take the consequences. Given all of which, it's hard to imagine a more fun character to write.

Where do you like to write?

I'd love to write in a big, quiet study with all the latest technology and tasteful furnishings, with huge windows showing a wonderful view of mountains or something magnificently natural, with a host of servants outside my door to bring me excellent food and drink whenever I want. Unfortunately I don't have that, so anywhere moderately quiet and comfortable will do.

Do you listen to music? What sort?

All sorts. For writing, nothing that gets in the way of thinking. Nothing with intrusive lyrics, usually things I've heard many times before, or just movie soundtracks, because that's what soundtracks were created to do, to make backing sounds that complement rather than obscure the visuals. My favourite is alternative rock. Anything with instruments; I can't stand the lack of instrumentality in most modern pop music. But I'll listen to anything instrumental, jazz, classical (western or Indian), whatever.

Having travelled widely, where is your favourite place to travel and why?

France. It's a very unoriginal answer I know. But my favourite thing to do in France is to cycle and live off a credit card from one hotel to the next. Physically France is the most beautiful place I've seen, and everything is on cycling scale - you'll have mountains and valleys one moment, then plains, then forests, then rivers, and every five or ten Ks yet another beautiful little village with great food and postcard settings. Southern France especially. France's cities can be much more of a hassle, I sometimes say it's the most advanced third world nation I've ever been to… but you get into the countryside and everything becomes delightfully simple.

OK, you are obviously a big sports fan. What are your favourite sports?

Favourite spectator sport – Australian Rules Football. It has everything, it's fast, it's spectacular, teamwork is vital but there's still room for individuals to shine, it requires lots of brute strength but you can't be good at it without serious skill and intelligence and most of the best players are small-to-midsized, and it can get technically incredibly complex but sometimes the simplest things are the most effective. So it's filled with contradictions and complexities, just like real societies and real life.

Then I also like tennis, basketball and cricket. In fact, I'm not THAT huge a sports fan, because a lot of the world's biggest sports (soccer, golf) I find pretty dull. But the ones I like, I like a lot.

Are you a fan of the Tour de France?

Of course! The scenery's like a travel show, the speed on the descents can be like a thrill ride, the uphill climbs (where races are really decided) are like Olympic middle distance events where everyone's killing themselves suffering for the prize but there can be only one, and the tactics are more complex than chess, and far more fluid. Plus an Australian won last year, so what's not to like?