Perfections: Interview with author Kirstyn McDermott

Today I am excited to be joined by award-winning horror author Kirstyn McDermott to discuss her fabulous novel, Perfections, which is about to be published by Twelfth Planet Press in paperback and digital. The launch will be held at Continuum X in Melbourne this weekend (details lower down).

I feel very close to this novel. Kirstyn was writing Perfections during the time she and I and one or two others met every week to write together in my local pub on a Tuesday afternoon. I remember many conversations about aspects of its writing… and when the time came, I was a feedback reader for her immaculate “first draft”. (Some people have all the talent.)

Perfections was first published in digital format in 2012, when it won some awards and garnered great acclaim. (See Kirstyn’s recent post here for some of the story.) Twelfth Planet Press is giving it a new lease on life, and I am more than ecstatic to be celebrating this latest milestone here today. Hope you can stick around for the entire post, because there’s a lot here! First, let’s tell you about the novel…

Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott

Perfections

Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott (Twelfth Planet Press)

Two sisters. One wish. Unimaginable consequences.

Not all fairytales are for children.

Antoinette and Jacqueline have little in common beyond a mutual antipathy for their paranoid, domineering mother, a bond which has united them since childhood. In the aftermath of a savage betrayal, Antoinette lands on her sister’s doorstep bearing a suitcase and a broken heart.

But Jacqueline, the ambitious would-be manager of a trendy Melbourne art gallery, has her own problems – chasing down a delinquent painter in the sweltering heat of a Brisbane summer. Abandoned, armed with a bottle of vodka and her own grief-spun desires, Antoinette weaves a dark and desperate magic that can never, ever be undone.

Their lives swiftly unravelling, the two sisters find themselves drawn into a tangle of lies, manipulations and the most terrible of family secrets.

The Aurealis and Australian Shadows award-winning novel by the author of Madigan Mine and Caution: Contains Small Parts.

Launch: 11am, Sunday 8 June 2014 at Continuum 10 (Melbourne’s Intercontinental Hotel).

Buy print version online from Twelfth Planet Press.

Perfections sings from the page. It is dark, compelling and monstrously beautiful.” Alison Goodman, New York Times bestselling author of Eon and Eona.

“Kirstyn McDermott’s prose is darkly magical, insidious and insistent. Once her words get under your skin, they are there to stay.” Angela Slatter, British Fantasy Award-winning author of Sourdough and Other Stories.

“Perfections is a sharp, creepy and deeply discomfiting novel full of awkward truths and raw emotions.” Tansy Rayner Roberts, author of the Creature Court Trilogy and Love and Romanpunk.

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And now here is Kirstyn to share some of her thoughts on the novel, its writing and her fascination with fairytales…

What kind of experience can readers expect from Perfections?

One that’s not too traumatic, hopefully! There’s a lot of darkness in Perfections and the novel most definitely has a Gothic sensibility in terms of high emotional stakes, fraught relationships and the inescapable weight of the past. Mostly it’s a story about sisters and mothers and daughters, about love and betrayal and the kind of terrible, terrible secrets that can really only be hidden deep within families. But there’s tremendous strength in those female relationships as well, however badly they are tested, and that’s really what I wanted to explore. And if readers leave Perfections with a broader sense of what the much-maligned horror genre can contain within itself, I’ll be very happy.

What do you love most about the finished work?

I love, love, love my two sister protagonists, Antoinette and Jacqueline, how they developed as characters through the writing of the novel, and how unflinchingly loyal they remain to each other at the end, even after all they’ve been through. Jacqueline especially turned out a lot differently than I imaged her at the outset – which was a wonderful surprise, and very much in keeping with one of the themes of the novel: that you can be as close as possible to someone and still not really know them very well at all.

What was the central idea behind the novel and how did you approach writing it?

I really can’t reveal very much about that actually, because it will give away too many spoilers. I will say, though, that the first seed came from finding myself unexpectedly at the messy end of a broken relationship, and spending far too many sleepless nights wondering, what if …? What if I had … what if I could … what if …what if … what if…? The sort of thinking that will drive you either quickly insane or straight into novel-writing territory. (If there is much of a difference.) Thankfully for all concerned, I didn’t have any magical powers at my fingertips to make any of my what ifs come true. Of course, once I was well into the writing process, the deeper layers began to filter through to the surface. Perhaps the core concern of Perfections is not so much, be careful what you wish for, as, how do you manage the fallout once you do make that wish.

My approach to writing the novel was pretty much the same as with all my work: sit down and write the next scene, then worry about what comes next. I researched as I went and worked through problems as they arose, even if that meant stopping work for a bit while I solved some plot or character issue. I write in an unapologetically linear fashion, from beginning to end, even when the story itself might not actually be linear. And I’m always amazed and delighted whenever some little throwaway thing I put in for colour or texture or what have you, ends up being incredibly important later on. It feels like a special kind magic sometimes, it really does.

What aspect of storytelling (or writing) are you most passionate about?

Character. Character, for me, is the be all and end all. Character in itself contains story and plot and all the narrative drive you could hope to want. To a great extent, it will determine what kind of story you’re telling and how it should be told. Setting, language, theme, style – all of those can be derived from character. As a writer, I cannot begin until I have my protagonist(s) fleshed out and feeling like real people to me, people I care and want to know more about. As a reader, I need to believe in the characters I’m reading about – not like them, necessarily, but believe in them. They need to plausible, not simply part of the functional mechanics that drive a story. There’s nothing that will throw me out of a story quicker than if characters feel two-dimensional, or begin to act in ways blatantly contrary to how they’ve been drawn for the simple expedience of plot.

That said, I’m probably as equally passionate about language and all the nerd-writer tricks of the trade. I love language, not just the meaning or connotations of words, but their sounds and rhythms on the page, how they fit together, or rub interestingly against another. I’m definitely a stylist as a reader too – I’ll read for beautiful, clever writing as much as for the characters and story. Maybe because, in a way, when skilfully wrought, language can be felt as a character very much in its own right.

You’ve said to me you see Perfections as a fairytale — can you elaborate on this idea?

Perfections was a difficult book to write in a lot of ways, not least of which was working out exactly what kind of book it wanted to be! It struck me one day that all of themes and concerns – family relationships; social codes of behaviour; magical rules and the dire consequences for breaking them, especially for girls and women; dark paths and darker destinies – were all staples of the fairytale traditions I held most dear, and so I started to strengthen these elements. The novel isn’t a re-telling of any extant tale – the story is my own original creation – but I do consider Perfections to be a modern urban fairytale of sorts. With high Gothic overtones, of course! What became really fun for me was scattering fairytale references throughout, sometimes obvious, sometimes more oblique. It was a sanity saving exercise at times, let me tell you.

What’s your fascination with fairytales?

Some of the stories that have stuck with me the longest, and resonated most strongly in my consciousness, are the fairytales I read, or had read to me, as a young girl. I can still picture some of the illustrations in my favourite volumes. This is only natural, I suppose, but somehow I’ve never abandoned my (admittedly love/hate) relationship with fairytales as I grew older. I shifted into reading and writing speculative fiction, which has significant crossover with the classic fairytale – especially in the horror and fantasy genres – and I find the recurring themes and motifs incredibly interesting. You only have to make the cursory study of contemporary culture to see the influence of fairytales everywhere, still prominent in our adult lives. It really shouldn’t be surprising to note that the stories we receive as children – often in repetition enough to drive our parents mad – should continue to loom so large in our cultural imagination, so much so that many of our finest writers today are re-telling fairy tales in their own words, shaped to their own concerns. It’s a tradition I’m more than happy to take part in – my current work at the moment is a collection of short stories based around female fairy tale narratives.

As with speculative fiction, fairytales give us a way of talking about the world, and ourselves, and each other, without actually talking about it. That’s what I value most about both traditions, as a writer and as a reader. By their very nature, non-realist fictions – such as fairy tales, fantasy, horror, etc – embraces imagination, metaphor, symbolism and allegory, whether such tools are being used consciously by writers or not. Opening up a narrative to non-realist elements has a very liberating effect. It’s almost as though we, as readers and writers, give ourselves permission to play with and mediate upon big ideas and concerns because what we’re reading isn’t “real”. It also allows us to imagine alternate realities, alternate ways of relating to each other, alternate points of view. Talking about How Things Are Right Now is an important and valid concern for the arts. But talking about How Things Might Be or even How Things Should Never Be is just as vital. And this is where non-realist fiction really comes into its own.

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Kirstyn McDermott

Kirstyn McDermott has been working in the darker alleyways of speculative fiction for much of her career, with many critically acclaimed and award-winning short stories under her authorial belt. Her two novels, Madigan Mine (Picador, 2010) and Perfections (Xoum, 2012) both won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel in their respective years, and a collection of short fiction, Caution: Contains Small Parts was published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2013. Both her novels are to be reissued by Twelfth Planet Press in 2014 – Perfections for the first time in print. When not wearing her writing hat, she produces and co-hosts a bimonthly literary discussion podcast, The Writer and the Critic, which generally keeps her out of trouble. After many years based in Melbourne, Kirstyn now lives in Ballarat with her husband and fellow scribbler, Jason Nahrung.

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As if this wasn’t exciting enough, Twelfth Planet Press is also reissuing in digital format Kirstyn’s first novel, Madigan Mine

Madigan Mine

Madigan Mine, by Kirstyn McDermott (Twelfth Planet Press)

Madigan Mine, by Kirstyn McDermott (Twelfth Planet Press)

Obsession never dies …

When Alex meets Madigan again everything changes. His childhood sweetheart is beautiful and impulsive, but there is something wrong with her. Something dangerous.

Then she commits suicide.

Now Alex can’t get Madigan out of his head. Is it all in his mind, or is she communicating with him?

To save himself and those he loves, Alex must uncover the sinister reason why Madigan took her own life – and why she won’t lie still in her grave.

Print edition available from author’s website:

http://kirstynmcdermott.com/madigan-mine/

eBook coming soon from Twelfth Planet Press

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Are you still with me? If you’re in Melbourne, why not check out the Continuum 10 Convention at the Intercontinental Hotel this coming weekend. Daypasses available. Come to the Perfections launch!

If you can’t make it to the convention, please leave some comments here for Kirstyn — I’m sure she’d love to hear from you. I would too. (I will also post more buy-links when they’re available.)

4 comments

  1. Oh, I would totally come to the release party if I was in town! Perfections sounds like a dark and beautiful book, and I’m excited for your re-release.

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