Australian author K.J. Bishop published her first novel The Etched City with Prime Books in early 2003. Tor Books recently published the novel in the UK and Australia. A U.S. paperback edition from Spectra is due in December this year.
She has been nominated for the International Horror Guild and the Australian Aurealis Awards. She won the 2004 Australian Ditmar Award for Best Novel and Best New Talent. She also won the 2004 William L. Crawford Fantasy Award for best first novel.
The story concerns the healer Raule and her sometime companion, the roguish killer Gwynn, on the run from their pasts and their subsequent journey to the decadent city of Ashamoil. There they find new lives and very interesting employment, but also discover that their pasts are still waiting for them. Reminiscent of Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence, it is a remarkable debut novel, fusing violence, the surreal cityscape, and dark fantasy into an enticing and exciting blend.
David Lynton: The Etched City has a decadent, almost post-apocalyptic feel to it, as if "something" has happened in the past. The same feel pervaded Moorcock's Hawkmoon and End of Time books. Why do you think this is so predominant and appealing in this type of fantasy?
K.J. Bishop: I think it's the old Wasteland motif. It lets the reader know that things are not right with this world. Good governance is out the window. The scenery reflects the characters' inner state of exile, wandering in the wilderness, spiritual purgatory or just plain hell, or whatever. It also makes it more difficult for the characters to be good. It's easy to be a saint in paradise, as the cliché goes, but how do you behave when you live in hostile surroundings? That helps to get rid of the 'goodies and baddies' divide. It also gives the characters a good deal of freedom. When you let the social constraints be loose, your characters can be fairly uninhibited in what they do and say. There's a sense of permission in the air—and that is appealing, I think.
I hadn't really intended the feeling to be post-apocalyptic in the physical sense. As I saw it, all that had happened was time—a process of attrition, rather than a specific disaster. I wanted a sense of fragmentation and things falling apart, and everything being old. It goes back to Eliot, and back again to Ecclesiastes.
I think we've always lived with the sense that 'something' happened in the past. It goes back to the myth of the exile from Eden, or the end of the Golden Age. We have this inexplicable feeling that things were once much better. It's probably a buried memory of being in the womb, or something. So these unpleasant, broken-down landscapes externalize that feeling of there having been a disaster long ago, whereas really all that happened—that we know for sure—is that we got born.
DL: Gwynn, the roguish highwaymen figure, seems very casual in his approach to killing. Raule, on the other hand, seems to be trying to understand life through her work in medicine. Was this juxtaposition between life and death an important message in the story?
KJB: Not consciously. Though, that said, Gwynn is named after a god of the underworld, and can be seen as Death with a capital D, on an iconic plane of the story. And Life is always struggling against Death. Of course, you could also say that Death struggles against Life, but Life is the side with will and desire and understanding. Life makes an effort, whereas Death just happens. So Gwynn's casual attitude and Raule's conscientious one could be interpreted in terms of that struggle. I hadn't thought of it like that before, but it makes sense!
DL: Did any aspects of the Australian landscape or cities influence your world building?
KJB: Definitely. A couple of long drives across the Australian interior gave me the idea of the Copper Country. It then ended up as a mixture of various deserts—Australia, Morocco, and the Wild West of spaghetti Westerns. When the characters look at the map and just see one desert after another, that's from looking at a map of Australia. I used a couple of names, too. Oodnadatta became the railhead town Oudnata, and there's a Ghan Railway. As some people have mentioned, although strange things happen in Ashamoil, the city itself isn't a particularly strange place physically. It's basically suburbia writ large. I took things I'd seen here in Melbourne and made them a bit more exotic. For instance, I live in an old suburb where trees are pushing up the pavements and things are a bit crumbly in general, and bats fly over from the park. That turned into the suburb where Gwynn lives, where the jungle is taking over. Obviously there are things that aren't Australian, too, like the ghats.
DL: The character of the Rev, the down-and-out priest who engages in some wonderful philosophical battles with Gwynn, is interesting. He is quite obsessed with Gwynn's redemption, isn't he? Where did the inspiration for his character come from, and what role does religion play in your world building?
KJB: The Rev came in part from our school chaplain when I was at high school, who was a perfectly sane, very nice man, but something about his physical appearance, which was kind of thickset and bulldog-like—he had been a wrestler before he was a priest—spawned the Rev. He's obsessed with redeeming Gwynn because I needed a motivation for him to keep arguing with Gwynn, and the idea of earning merit by gathering souls for God is a time-honored one, and seemed to fit quite well.
Religion doesn't play a huge part in my world building. I don't know whether there's a god behind my world or not; I haven't written a creation myth for it or anything like that. In this book, religion was more like something I used for flavoring. Though I've studied various religions, I went to a Christian school for thirteen years, so the myths of Middle-Eastern monotheism are the ones I'm steeped in. I may not believe them, but they have artistic power for me nevertheless. Before I started writing the book I'd been reading Sufi poetry, and I was very taken with the idea of a romantic approach to the divine, a relationship of lover and beloved. The Rev has the heart of a Sufi, I think, while his church is much more like the middle-of-the-road Anglican church I grew up with.
I also had a bee in my bonnet about Paradise Lost. I first read it when I was sixteen and, like many readers, thought the character of Satan was brilliantly done, but that Milton stumbled when he came to writing God and most of the rest on the side of Heaven. As artistic creations, Milton's God and Messiah can't compete with his Satan. They're just boring. So I wanted Gwynn to have an adversary who could match him in winning the interest of readers through being entertaining, and I hope the Rev does that. In this book I was more interested in what characters believed than in what was actually the truth concerning a god or gods. If I was going to write a book with gods in it they'd be humanized, or at least have humanized strata of being, like Hindu gods.
DL: Whilst working at a hospital, Raule has a bizarre encounter that leaves her with a crocodile baby in a jar. How did this find its way into the story?
KJB: The crocodile baby happened because I needed something magical in the story at that point, something that should have been physically impossible, since I was introducing the idea that the world wasn't quite what it seemed, or at least wasn't what it had been before. I've always been keen on pictures of the Egyptian gods, one of whom was Sobek, who had the head of a crocodile. I think it's quite ironic that for all our squeamishness—and worse—concerning humans who don't fit our idea of the human norm, we're very quick to depict our gods as physical monstrosities, with animal heads and extra arms and what have you—and they look marvelous that way.
DL: Which films have influenced you as a writer? If The Etched City was to be made into a film, do you visualize any particular director or actors bringing your work to life on the screen?
KJB: Films that influenced this particular book were Westerns and gangster movies. From those two genres, it's hard to pick specific films, but certainly the Fistful of Dollars trilogy, and a little-known Yul Brynner film called Invitation to a Gunfighter, where Brynner plays a suave, piano-playing gunslinger with a French name that he has to write on a blackboard for the townsfolk. Then for the gangster side probably Le Samourai, Pulp Fiction, and The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight. Particularly the latter two. I think—I hope—there's an element of the ridiculous in my bad guys. They're not necessarily competent, or sane. Speaking more generally, I think my idea of cities will always be influenced by The City of Lost Children, and my approach to writing about violence influenced by A Clockwork Orange.
It's a lot of fun to imagine the book as a film. My first thought is that I'd like to see it as an anime. I don't know who I'd want to direct it, but I'd want Yoshitaka Amano as designer. If it was a live-action film, I'd love Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro to direct it. Actors Gina Torres as Raule, and Adrien Brody or maybe Michael Wincott as Gwynn (though I'd love to reach back in time and get a young James Woods or Christopher Walken). Beth would be hard to cast—maybe Cate Blanchett.
Or it could be a Bollywood musical—I'd like that!
DL: China Mieville wrote an article in Locus magazine (December 2003, "The New Weird"), about the resurgence of decadent literary fantasy and how popular it is at the moment. How does it feel to be part of (I think) an extremely important vein of writing and how do you see this particular branch of the genre evolving?
KJB: It feels funny—when I started writing Etched City back in 1999, I had no idea that decadent literary fantasy was going to be popular! I initially was told I'd have trouble selling the book because it wasn't 'fantasy' enough. I think Mieville's success has opened doors for other writers to get their work accepted by the major publishers.
Just for me personally, I don't know how much more work I'm going to do in this vein. The next book is quite different. But how do I see it evolving in general? Well, in a sense it already has evolved, and did so quite a while ago. Think of Richard Calder, for instance, particularly his Dead trilogy. Or James Havoc, who seems to have vanished from the face of the earth, or Michael Cisco, who is published in the independent press but not the mainstream yet, or Steve Aylett. How the genre branch evolves may depend on what the readership will accept. I mean, this has happened before. Philip K. Dick was weird. Burroughs was weird. Jeff Noon is weird. Moorcock has been weird forever and a day. To me, fantasy literature is a sort of barometer of public dreams and desires. The desire for heroes seems to be quite perennial, so there will probably always be a place for heroic fantasy.
Other kinds of fantasy have always been written; the picaresque has been around for ages, as have folk tales about ordinary people to whom strange things happen, and to me the "New Weird" is coming out of those traditions. The elements of decadence and horror are there in the Arabian Nights and the Brothers Grimm. I think that what appear to be evolutions in the writing are really changes in public taste and what gets published.
DL: What is your opinion of epic fantasy? Were you a Lord of the Rings fan?
KJB: I was a Lord of the Rings fan, and I have plenty of regard for Tolkien still. The only post-Tolkien epics that I've read and really liked are more like anti-epics, Moorcock's Elric books and Hugh Cook's Chronicles of an Age of Darkness. However, I think the quality of the latter series is uneven; the best ones are marvelous—gritty, witty, and written with wonderful style and intelligence. But it has been a while since I've read any epic fantasy, so any opinion I could give would probably be hopelessly out of date.
DL: How did you become interested in writing?
KJB: I was about 24. I was working at a boring job, and I began writing to entertain myself. I had wanted to be an artist, but had come to a point where I didn't think I was very good, and when I started writing I felt happier with words than I had come to feel with pictures.
DL: It must have been a thrill to design your own jacket illustration for the U.S. edition of The Etched City. How did this come about?
KJB: I actually can't remember, but I think Prime may have asked me if I'd like to design it myself, since they knew I did a bit of art. It certainly was a cool thing to be allowed to do.
DL: You've also designed covers for Zoran Zivkovic (The Fourth Circle), Geoffrey Maloney (Tales from the Crypto-System) and Richard Lupoff (Sword of the Demon). How did this come about? Does your art influence or inspire your writing, and vice versa?
KJB: In all three cases, the author or publisher asked me to do the cover. Geoff Maloney had seen a picture on my website that he really liked, and asked if it could be used on his book. The other two I did from scratch. I don't actually find much overlap between my art and writing. They seem to come from quite different places. I sometimes draw little sketches of my characters—that's about it.
DL: How difficult was it to get your work published? Did you go through an agent? How did it all begin for you?
KJB: I was very lucky. I finished the book (for the first time) in 2001. I tried a couple of major publishers, they didn't bite, so I belatedly started looking for an agent, and while I was doing that, Geoff Maloney recommended Prime Books. At that point, I had no idea about independent publishers in the US, but I took a look at their website and was impressed, both by the look of their books and by how much success some of their authors were having, notably Jeff VanderMeer with City of Saints and Madmen. They had a look at The Etched City and said they'd take it. Then I spent most of 2002 rewriting it, with Trent Jamieson as my editor. After it was published, in early 2003, a couple of other writers showed the book to an agent, who took it on and sold it to Tor UK and Bantam Spectra. I think the rewritten version was a significant improvement on the original. I also think there was a change in climate in fantasy publishing between 2001 and 2003. I suspect that China Mieville's success has opened some commercial doors for a variety of fantasy fiction that sits somewhat outside the conventions of the genre as they had become defined (at least in publishers' minds) in the '90s.
DL: Can you give any details as to what your next book is about? Will it be in the same style as Etched City?
KJB: If the one that's on the front burner now ends up being the one that's finished and—hopefully—published first, then no, it won't be. Or, rather, it won't be in the same genre. It's really what you'd call a mainstream novel. But it seems to me that it has some things in common with Etched City. It's urban, the characters are rather odd individuals who aren't at all important in their world, it looks at the consequences of violence and of taking the wrong path in life, to some extent it's about fictions and the part they can play in shaping who people are and how they live, and how some people seem to inhabit quite different realities from each other, and it's about people who feel a sense of exile—any or all of which might sound familiar to readers of Etched City. Decadence is in there too, though it's the kind of decadence that goes on in suburbia, so it's less glamorous, if only because it's more familiar.
DL: Do you have a title for the book? Any idea on the release date?
KJB: I've got about 15 possible titles for the next book. No idea about the date, though I'll be grateful to the muse if we can both stop agonizing and get on with it a bit faster.