Today my guest is Aussie writer, Cat Sparks! Cat is a regular at Australian conventions and that’s where I first met her. I recently read and enjoyed her novel Lotus Blue, so I thought I’d invite her onto the blog for a chat. Before we start with the questions, though, a quick introduction:
Cat Sparks is a multi-award-winning Australian author, editor and artist whose former employment has included: media monitor, political and archaeological photographer, graphic designer, Fiction Editor of Cosmos Magazine and Manager of Agog! Press.
A 2012 Australia Council grant sent her to Florida to participate in Margaret Atwood’s The Time Machine Doorway workshop. She’s currently finishing a PhD in sci fi and cli fi.
Her short story collection The Bride Price was published in 2013. Her debut novel, Lotus Blue, was published by Skyhorse in March 2017.
So, Cat, how did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in or did you fall into it?
I was always attracted to fantastic storytelling in its various forms, but I wasn’t one of those kids who wanted to be a writer from year dot. I wanted to be a vulcanologist and then later a filmmaker after I saw Star Wars and it blew my head clean off. However, three years at art school convinced me that filmmaking and me were an abysmal match. At some point in my 20s I started messing around with short form fiction — and I do mean messing about because I don’t think I was actually producing much until I did a couple of courses and started a writing group. I completed my first novel in 1999. Called The Chase Continuum, it was really and truly awful. The fantasy trilogy I messed around with next eventually morphed into the undercoat for Lotus Blue.
What were your favourite books/films growing up? What kick-started your creativity?
My parents kick-started my creativity by being creative people themselves as well as avid readers. Dad was an artist and mum was into knitting and sewing – she made us clothes as well as little outfits for our dolls. My sister and I had art supplies, a dressing-up box, toys designed for boys as well as girls, and lots and lots of books. I grew up on Moomintroll, Narnia, Pippi Longstocking, Joan Aiken, Tintin, Asterix, Dr Who, Lost in Space and Tarzan. Fantastika attracted me far more than domestica and I saw no reason to switch camps when I ‘grew up’.
Your debut novel, Lotus Blue, was released just last year and was nominated for several awards. Can you tell readers a little bit about it?
Lotus Blue is set in what’s left of Australia a few hundred years along, a brutal landscape ravaged by war, climate change and extremely irresponsible decision making by governments and corporations long gone. It’s a fast-paced action adventure story about an ancient war machine waking up in the deep desert and a girl who discovers that confronting a dark secret from her past is the only chance the world has for a future.
The worldbuilding in Lotus Blue is incredibly rich. How did you go about creating this world and capturing such detail?
One of the greatest joys of writing speculative fiction is that you get to make up all the things. To play at being some kind of god as many other authors have admitted. Extrapolating my own particular outlandish creations seemed a perfectly natural response to a lifetime spent absorbing and engaging with popular science and speculative fiction. For me, telling a novel-length story necessitated mentally inhabiting that future world and moving around in it as though I actually lived there. My process was all about balancing solid structure with rhythm and fleshed out imagination, sensing when to step back and let the creativity I was channelling take control.
You recently completed a PhD in ‘Climate Change Fiction’. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience? Did the PhD influence Lotus Blue in any way or did writing Lotus Blue spark the interest in the PhD?
My exegesis is called ‘The 21st Century Catastrophe – Hyper-capitalism and Severe Climate Change in Science Fiction’ and it damn nearly killed me! Lotus Blue was funded by a 2011 Australia Council grant, money that covered a year of full-time writing. I’d already been working on the novel for several years so the grant seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to pull all the threads together. The plan was to finish the novel before starting the PhD, however that’s not how things panned out. Draft after draft was rejected by my agent (with good reason – my endings completely sucked), so I kept on having to rewrite over and over while at the same time working on my candidacy proposal and simultaneously dealing with difficult and unforseen personal circumstances. Ideas and influences from the PhD in progress inevitably bled across into Lotus Blue rewrites – and I doubt that document’s influence is going to stop there. Educating myself so thoroughly on the history of the genre has only served to strengthen my interest in and attachment to it.
Are there any plans to turn Lotus Blue into a series?
No ‘plans’ as such, but… I have plenty of other ideas set in the Lotus Blue future as well as quite a few already published short stories. I suspect I shall return to it and ride the timeline further into the future. My favourite character is Grieve and I reckon he’s likely good for a few more epic misadventures.
You’ve won many awards for your short stories (Cat’s collection is pictured above – The Bride Price), how did you find the process of writing a novel compared to your short stories?
So completely and utterly different that it caused me no end of grief. I had to unlearn so many processes and habits, forge new strategies, figure out how to carry a whole world in my head. With short fiction you’re always cheating in some respects, creating an impression of a greater, vaster environment behind the action. In a novel, all that scenery and infrastructure needs to be fleshed out and rendered into three dimensions, or at least an approximation thereof. With 100,000 plus words, a reader has time to pause and interrogate the chiaroscuro and mis-en-scene. Immersing a stranger in a realm of your own fabrication and taking them on a journey for several hours is quite an impressive trick when you think about it.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion that we don’t know about?
Today me is mighty disappointed that five-year-old Cat didn’t push a little harder in the direction of vulcanology – or some other form of science. Alas, I suspect I don’t have an orderly enough mind for real world science. Fiction responds to, reflects and refracts consensual reality. Science fiction illuminates what we fear about the ways in which our societies are developing. The fiction realm is where I feel I truly belong.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then?
How bone gratingly hard it would be to advance within the field, to gain any kind of traction and win readers. Like so many authors, I started out with the naïve and unwavering belief that if I could hone my craft and become proficient, a publishing career and readers would inevitably manifest as part of the equation. The digital revolution has brought with it many benefits but also challenges such as a bloated and oversaturated marketplace, a landscape in which every creator is expected to be a relentless self-marketer. Some of us just want to write stories and not be concerned with selling ourselves, you know?
What can we expect from you next?
I am at the planning stage of a sci fi thriller set in the present day and incorporating flashbacks to the 80s. I started some research for this book in London earlier this year. No title as yet but like so much of what I write, this novel is intended as an action adventure story that addresses contemporary concerns such as climate change and social justice issues. I’ve also got a handful of unrelated novella length ideas I’ve been sitting on for a while, and a few short stories – and probably a few essays related to my PhD studies. Possibly…. If all goes well I’ll be writing pretty solidly for the next couple of years. That’s the plan anyway. Fingers crossed.
Sounds like you have a lot on the go! Thanks for your time, Cat!
And if you’d like to get straight to reading Cat’s book, Lotus Blue, you can do so here: