Robert Hood’s stories have been appearing for several decades now, since he sold his first in 1975. His view of both life and fiction tends to push him toward what was once called weird tales – stories in the horror, science fiction, fantasy and dark crime genres: fantastical and imaginative fiction strongly tied to reality by their inherent metaphorical undercurrents. He enjoys movies and sometimes writes about them, and has won awards or been nominated for his critical commentary, his edited books and his own fiction. His main website can be found at roberthood.net, which links to other dedicated sites such as his award-winning Undead Backbrain.
Congratulations on your Ditmar Award for Best Novel for Fragments of A Broken Land: Valarl Undead. Can you tell us about the novel and your process of developing it?
Thanks, Helen. Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead has quite a long history. It was a project I began several decades ago – an epic fantasy that has gone through many iterations over the years. In it, I attempted to create a believably rich and varied “other” world, with a diverse cast of interesting characters (one of them being the city in which much of it takes place) and a metaphysical underpinning that relates both to the theme and to the nature of the world itself. I hoped that this would make the novel different from other books in the genre. In these aims, I think I succeeded… eventually. Or at least I hope I did. It took some time and a lot of work.
Believe it or not, the story was originally inspired by a role-playing campaign I created and orchestrated back in the day, though over the years the novel moved far away from the structural limitations and clichés generally typical of such novels. Fragments was worked and re-worked, and constantly re-written for about 15 years (after the completion of the first draft) until I was happy with it. Something that has been noted by a few reviewers is that the novel subverts many of the standard fantasy tropes – something I can’t fully expound upon here without offering up too many spoilers. Suffice it to say it isn’t a typical epic fantasy – it is often rather unexpected once the reader gets beneath the surface, demanding in a literary sense and more complex than the essentially linear plot structure might suggest. For a start there are two (and maybe three) worlds involved here, worlds that relate to each other on a metaphysical level, with some of the characters trying to operate on more than one of them at the same time. Much of the novel’s basic metaphysical exploration was inspired by the prophetic poetry of 18th Century British poet and artist, William Blake.
Like much of my writing, Fragments addresses the relationship between objective and subjective reality and how we deal with the personal stereotypes we use to define ourselves. It’s a complex book, imaginatively speaking, which is why I tried to keep the plotting fairly straightforward and the pace unrelenting, escalating in scale with each crisis point – beginning with a bar-room brawl and leading up to an apocalyptic conflict, seen through the eyes of five or so different characters (including the two major protagonists).
All this complexity made the book rather hard to sell and I admit there were times when I was ready to give up trying to get it published. The wonderful Jack Dann played a major role in keeping me positive. He believed strongly in the value of the novel even when prospects looked bleak, and spurred me on again and again. I genuinely believe it is a strong and important novel, and am sure it will stand as a major achievement in my career, however many people end up reading it. I would love it if at least a few readers would get obsessive about it, and chew my ear on “what it all means” for them. Anyone interested can find more information on the novel and its setting at http://fragmentsnovel.undeadbackbrain.com/.
Your writing career has had some impressive highlights, including your first professional sale, of ‘Caesar or Nothing,’ to ABC radio in 1975. How did it feel to have your story read on the radio? Do you have a recording?
“Caesar or Nothing” is a strange story, told in the first person, about a megalomaniac who finds a way to destroy the world, literally – which he threatens to do unless the world’s leaders grant him supreme power. Hearing it read on radio was a wonderful experience – I remember my whole fairly conservative family, including some older relatives, gathered around the radio, listening to this product of an imagination rather more warped than they were prepared for. No one said anything much afterwards. They smiled politely – and brought out the tea and scones. One memory that has stuck with me relates to how it came about in the first place. At the time I was an undergrad student at Macquarie University and had taken a then-unique course on creative writing, run by Miles Franklin award-winning author Thea Ashley. It was Thea who suggested I send the story to the ABC – she had just sold a story to them herself and thought it a good market. They took my story, much to Thea’s delight, though she expressed some good-humoured chagrin at the fact that they paid me more than they’d paid her! Do I have a recording of it? I did once, though I have no idea where it is now. Too much accumulated detritus in the cupboards….
What are you working on now?
I’m involved in several projects. One is a reference volume of all my ghost stories to date – and there have been many of them over the years (1986 to 2014). It will include several new stories as well – one of them a novella – and it is these I am currently working on. The as-yet-untitled book will be published by IFWG Publishing, in a limited edition single-volume hardback and a probable two-volume trade paperback. Plus e-book, of course. Publication date is March 2015. I’m also at the breaking-point of a horror novel titled “Dead Matter”, something I’ve been writing for maybe ten years. Novels seem to take me a long time to finish….
What Australian works have you loved recently?
It strikes me that 2013 was a very strong year for Australian speculative fiction, with 2014 set to follow suit – and I can’t say I’ve read anything like a representative sample. However, it does seem clear to me that collections in particular have been very strong of late, as reflected in the award nomination lists. Kirstyn McDermott’s Caution: Contains Small Parts, Jo Anderton’s The Bone Chime and Other Stories, Thoraiya Dyer’s Asymmetry, Kim Wilkins’ The Year of Ancient Ghosts and Cat Sparks’ The Bride Price are all outstanding collections. I expect to enjoy Kirstyn McDermott’s novel Perfections, but haven’t read it yet, and Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong, too – along with Andrew McKiernan’s just-released collection Last Year, When We Were Young. But I did manage to read Max Barry’s SF thriller Lexicon and loved it. And I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Baxter’s urban fantasy Bound and the first volume of Jo Anderton’s The Veiled Worlds trilogy, Debris. I had fun with Marty Young’s short horror novel 809 Jacob Street as well. So much excellent work. Who can keep up?
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
I don’t think the changes in publishing have had much of an influence on my output, though they have certainly affected both my expectations and my approach to getting work published. Some of it is positive, some of it negative. But the opportunities are expanding thanks to a more-than-viable independent publishing scene, even if the changes have brought with them increased difficulty in being heard over the noise. Marketing remains the biggest difficulty for authors – after the actual hard, but much more enjoyable, slog of producing good work.
One tendency that’s fairly new for me, but no doubt has arisen due to market changes, has been writing for franchises, all on contract. A few years ago, I produced a Doctor Who story for Big Finish, then last year a long and rather enjoyable piece of pulp horror mayhem in the IDW franchise Zombies vs Robots. Somewhere in the production line is another novella I wrote for an IDW anthology based on another well-known comic franchise. Writing these was, I admit, a lot of fun. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but sometimes writing to the restrictions of a pre-existing franchise – trying to push the limits and do something new and satisfying within the guidelines – can be stimulating.
As for what I’ll be doing, five years from now – I’d guess more of the same, though I may very well be returning to the dark crime thriller side of horror more often – not because I necessarily think there’s a strong market for it, but because I like it. In terms of both reading and writing, I’d like to indulge in more science fiction as well – and I do have an SF novel on the boil.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and collating the links at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: