Xylouris White: Mother

With Mother, Xylouris White have created what might best be described as a musical representation of Greece as it exists in our collective cultural imagination. It isn’t the sound of a modern land filled with megacities, crowded beaches and tourist-filled nightclubs, but of an ancient land built on myth and legend, and filled with truths so profound and universal that they could only be delivered in fable and parable. It is the sound of a world where the line between man, god and beast becomes blurred; a world where the dawn of civilisation existed alongside Dionysian bacchanalia; a world of sand and rock, sea and mountain, wind and fire.

A collaboration between New York-based Australian drummer Jim White of Dirty Three fame, and revered Greek singer and laouto (Cretan lute) player George Xylouris, Xylouris White blow apart our expectations of the power a simple duo can muster, and of what world music can be. In fact, since the release of their debut album Goats in 2014, Xylouris White have been pushing the boundaries of their musical relationship and free-wheeling approach, sometimes reaching into the realms of free jazz, ambient and experimental while still retaining their earthy and undeniably Greek core. Xylouris’ laouto roars like thunder or caresses like rain, sometimes falling away into a mere ghost-like presence and sometimes charging over the top of everything else, driving their sound forward. His voice is sometimes a whisper, sometimes a rumble, sometimes a wail, sometimes a howl. White does what he does best: he walks a line with his drumming and percussion, achieving a perfect balance between melody and rhythm, between accompanist and leader, between control and freedom. In Xylouris, he seems to have found the perfect collaborator, the border between his drums and Xylouris’ laouto often becoming indistinct.

Opening track ‘Achilles’ Heel’ is a brooding affair, Xylouris’ low moan evoking a cold wind on a lonely mountain top, his gently plucked laouto and White’s rickety percussion summoning a sound more akin to that of rain and skittering stones. ‘Motorcycle Kondilies’ moves with a purpose, White’s tick-tock drumbeat combining with Xylouris’ cyclic laouto riff to create the sort of song that might be played at a gathering in a lonely forest or on an empty beach. ‘Lullaby’ might have been beamed to us from the distant past, such is the rawness of its sound and the almost-improvised approach of Xylouris and White. ‘Daphne’ is as eerie as anything I’ve ever heard, a spidery laouto riff and stop-start percussion slowly evolving into something frenetic and overwhelming, the end result being the stuff of nightmares. And these barely scratch the surface…If you’ve got even the slightest affection for world music, you need to rush out right now and get yourself a copy of Mother.XY-Mother-1500jpeg-702x336

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A Burning Thing

It began with one bad morning too many: The dog whining at quarter to five, desperate to go outside; a complete inability to get back to sleep; a husband who slept through the alarm; the previous night’s dishes stacked around the sink and stacked in the sink, all shining with grease; an empty coffee jar, an empty sugar bowl, sour milk, mouldy bread, crumbs in the butter.

It was a morning where every minor annoyance is a mountain.

Audrey Frayzed made herself a cup of black coffee, using the dregs still sitting in the unwashed plunger. She stirred a teaspoon of honey through the thin pale-brown liquid and then sleepily shuffled into the lounge room, almost stepping in a fresh dogshit sitting in the middle of the rug. She cleaned it up while her coffee cooled. She opened the blinds, the cord snapping in two with an audible crack. She sipped at her cup of dreck, staring through the wonky Venetian blinds and out the dirty window, at the grey light of a winter dawn. She shivered, and turned the heater on. She half-expected it to break as well, but it didn’t.

She waited for Andy – her hibernating bear of a husband – to crawl out of bed. After a while, he called out for coffee.

“Good luck with that,” she muttered.

She sipped at her horrible coffee while Andy went through his morning routine. She boiled the kettle and made him a cup of unsweetened black tea. Truck – their staffy – woke up and ran down the hallway looking for Andy, sliding on the floorboards in his excitement.

Andy returned, with Truck at his heels.

“Thanks,” he said sarcastically as Audrey passed him his tea.

He took a sip, burning his tongue. For a moment, he looked at Audrey accusingly, as if burning himself was somehow her fault. He turned away and looked in the fridge. Audrey snorted. What did Andy think? That real food might be hiding somewhere behind the rot and filth?

Andy pulled a dusty box from the cupboard and poured a bowl of muesli that he wet-down with tap water. He took a seat at the table, opposite Audrey. He opened the laptop sitting in front of him.

Audrey sighed. Andy didn’t respond. Rolling her eyes, Audrey got to her feet and started doing the dishes. She sighed again, loudly this time, deliberately and dramatically, hoping that Andy would clue-in and thank her for cleaning the dishes she had used making dinner for them the night before. But no, he just stared at the laptop, his face blank, his eyes dull. The spoon went from the bowl to his lips mechanically, his body a machine almost entirely disconnected from his brain.

Sometimes there wasn’t even any muesli in the spoon.

Audrey dried her hands, leaving the damp tea-towel scrunched up on the kitchen bench. It was a habit that drove Andy crazy, but he was so absorbed in whatever he was reading that he didn’t notice.

Audrey started getting ready to leave for work. Andy kept reading the news.

While Audrey fluffed around gathering her things, Andy occasionally shouted out to her: Trivial non-sequitors chosen seemingly at random, echoing down the hallway, finding her in the laundry as she ironed her skirt, in the bathroom as she applied her make-up, in the bedroom as she packed her bag, in the backyard as she made sure that Truck had enough water.

“It’ll be clear and bright today, but still cold… Huh, another cabinet minister resigned last night… Looks like our train’s on time today… Wow, they’re remaking Masters of the Universe… More bloody celebrity gossip, ugh, I thought they were better than that… You should call what’s-her-name that we used to live with, there’s been an Earthquake in LA…”

When Audrey returned to the kitchen, Andy was still – still – sitting in front of the laptop. She resisted the urge to assume the role that he sometimes forced her into: A school marm cum nanny cum carer. Instead, all she said was:

“I’m leaving on time whether you’re ready or not. I can’t be late today.”

“Right oh, take it easy,” he said as if her stress was entirely her own. “I’ll get the next train, okay? The boss won’t mind.”

“Good.”

She turned away.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

He didn’t bother trying to interpret her answer, he just looked back to the laptop. She rolled her eyes again, packed the last of her things, hurried out to the backyard to give Truck a pat goodbye, and then returned to the kitchen to give Andy a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.

He finally looked at her.

“Love you.”

“Love you too,” she replied, unable to help herself.

“Don’t forget that it’s date night tonight,” he shouted after her as she walked out the door.

***

Audrey’s workday was exactly like most every other: Indescribably dull. She stopped at the supermarket on the way home, got stuck in traffic, and then knocked over the bins as she pulled into the driveway. After she had hurriedly unpacked the groceries, she took Truck down to the park for a quick walk, rushed home, had a shower, changed into some nice clothes, and then left for date night.

Despite running these errands and doing these chores, she turned up about 20-minutes early to the mid-priced restaurant that Andy had chosen.

She decided to have a drink at the bar across the street while she waited. She ordered a glass of white wine, found an empty table, and texted Andy. Five minutes went by: No reply. She tried not to let that bother her. But still, every ten or fifteen seconds she glanced at her phone, as if it might have decided at that exact moment to switch to silent, somehow complicit in Andy’s impoliteness, and all that she needed to do to make it ‘fess up was catch it in the act

Audrey finished her wine. Still no reply. She ordered another glass. Still no reply. She finished that glass. Still no reply. It was now five minutes past the hour that they were supposed to meet. Audrey kept waiting. Another five minutes went by. She ordered a third glass of wine. She finished it.

Twenty-five minutes had now passed without a word from Andy.

“Typical,” Audrey muttered.

And then her phone beeped, announcing a new message.

“Hey, lover. Sorry, held up at work, crisis time. Won’t make it, home late, sorry. Love you.”

Something inside Audrey snapped. Not wanting to cry or scream or let loose her rage in front of a bar full of strangers, she knocked off her drink in a single hit and stormed out into the night. She stood there on the street, shivering. She didn’t want to go home to a cold house with no company except Truck.

Audrey got in her car and just drove, not knowing what else to do.

***

A few hours later, after she had driven blindly through the suburbs and somehow avoided being pulled over for getting behind the wheel half-drunk, Audrey found herself parked on top of a hill overlooking the city, a hill far enough from town to let the stars shine bright. She lay on the bonnet of her car, a thin blanket over her and her jacket balled up under he head, looking at the sky and trying not to think about anything.

Most of all, she was trying not to think of Andy, of his many flaws, of his irritations and annoyances.

She saw a shooting star, but she didn’t bother making a wish. Time passed. She saw another shooting star. More time passed. She saw yet another shooting star, and then another and another and another, until there were too many to count and the sky was a streaky mess of light and colour.

Audrey bathed in it. She imagined that it was seeping into her skin. And then she went home. She had work in the morning, after all.

***

Andy was already asleep when she got home, with Truck tucked up in the crook of his arm. The room stank of farts, both dog and human. Andy was snoring. Truck started snoring as well, joining Andy in a kind-of groaning choir. They both farted simultaneously.

The globe in Audrey’s lamp blew when she turned it on.

She completed her night-time ritual in the dark, and then squeezed between them Andy and Truck. She tried to think happy thoughts. She didn’t want to go to sleep angry or upset.

***

Audrey woke up before her alarm went off, feeling sicker than she ever had before. Her head was aching, her nose was running, her stomach was churning, her throat was sore. She was a mess of contradictions, as well – her heart was racing but she felt like she could sleep forever, she was too hot and too cold, and her vision was simultaneously blurry and too sharp. It was the kind of sick that makes you think paralysis or death might not be so bad.

Andy lay next to her, still asleep, wrapped around her like some kind of human-octopus hybrid. She suddenly desperately needed to free herself – his touch was too hot, and the weight of his limbs threatened to collapse her. She wriggled free, almost falling out of bed. Staggering, weak and breathless, she still somehow made it to her feet. Truck snorted, woke up, stared at her and then went back to sleep. Suddenly dizzy, Audrey let herself drop back onto the mattress.

She looked at Andy. She smiled sadly as she gently shoved him, the previous night’s disappointment and frustration put aside.

“I’m sick,” she rasped. “Wake up, I need some help.”

He kept snoring. She shoved him again, her palms clammy.

“What? What’s going on? What is it?”

He was panicked and groggy, a combination that for some reason she found adorable.

“I’m sick. Can you get me some water?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. Just hang on…”

He closed his eyes. She knew he hadn’t mean to, but she yelled at him nonetheless.

“Andy!”

“Right, right, sorry.”

He crawled out of bed. Bare-arse naked, he clomped down the hallway. Truck woke up, watched him leave, and then lay his head back down. Audrey could hear Andy peeing with the door open, but she was too sick to care about such minor grievances.

He came back with a glass of water.

“You okay?”

He sat next to her and took her hand.

“Too hot! Too hot!” she complained, shaking him off.

“You’re telling me – you’re burning up. When did this start?”

Audrey drank the glass of water before answering.

“Just now. I was fine last night.”

Andy frowned, his concern carving deep lines across his face. Audrey knew that despite his many-many-many faults, he would do what he could to look after her. For a moment, she was sad about the previous night, about all the petty annoyances that had begun forming a wall between them. And then her sickness once again consumed all of her attention as she began coughing throatily.

She held the empty glass up.

“You got it. You want a cup of tea, or some breakfast?”

The thought of food made her stomach turn and knot.

“No way.”

“Okay. Well, back to bed for you.”

“But…”

“No buts, Audrey. There’s no way you’re going to work today.”

She looked at him and smiled a wicked grin.

“Okay, bossy boots.”

He met her smile and blew her a kiss; she winked and licked her lips. Despite her sickness, she was enjoying the loving familiarity they shared – the black cloud that had been building for months had finally begun to dissipate. Her only regret was being too unwell to really appreciate it.

They were both thinking the same thought, but they didn’t share it with each other: Why can’t things always be this easy?

***

If Audrey hadn’t been so sick, she would have found amusement in the switching of their roles: Andy bustled about getting ready for work, while she stayed in bed. He crashed and banged as he made a stack of sandwiches, wrapping a couple in foil and leaving them in the fridge for her. He whistled tunelessly as he did the dishes, wanting to make her day as easy as possible. He hauled Truck outside, waited for him to pee and then hauled him back inside, talking to him the whole time.

And then Andy crunched and slopped as he ate breakfast in front of the laptop. He kept up a running commentary on his movements, as if he could distract Audrey from the discomfort of her body. Inevitably, this commentary turned to the news:

“Another cold and clear day today. You know, we could do with some rain… Wow, there was a gang-fight in the CBD yesterday… Ugh, my train’s going to be late… Hey, did you know that there was a meteor shower last night?”

He yelled this last question, so that she could hear him from the bedroom. Even though his voice was slightly muted by the distance, it still made her head hurt even more than it already did.

“It says here that some fella named Macintyre Guffing discovered it a hundred years, and astronomers and that lot have been waiting for it to come back around ever since.”

Audrey nodded listlessly, words beyond her.

“These photos look great! You should see them…”

Audrey shook her head.

“You should have been there,” she whispered, all that she could manage.

She didn’t mean for her words to sound so bitter: She really did wish that he had been there.

After a while, Andy checked on her, bringing a fresh glass of water and a cup of tea. He had showered and shaved and put on fresh clothes. He looked as tidy as his head was messy.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m kicking goals.”

“Right then – the lawn needs mowing if you’re feeling that good.”

“I’ll get to it after I’ve restumped the house.”

She let her head fall back, their lovingly familiar repartee exhausting her.

“Will you be okay?”

Andy was a worrier and Audrey didn’t want to exacerbate that, so she just smiled and gave him a weak thumbs-up.

“I’ll be fine.”

Her voice was so raspy that it could have stripped wood. Andy bent down and kissed her on the lips, sickness be damned.

“I’ll try and get out on time.”

“Thanks.”

***

It was almost noon when Audrey finally decided to get out of bed. She didn’t feel any better and would have happily cocooned herself all day, wrapped in the slightly musty sheets, breathing in Andy’s smell, snuggling up to the musk of their love, but she was finally hungry.

And besides, Truck was clawing at the back door desperate to be let out.

She let him out, and then shuffled into the kitchen and drank a glass of water. She sat at the kitchen table and ate one of the sandwiches that Andy had prepared earlier. She rushed to the toilet and threw up.

She washed her face and brushed her teeth. She stared out the bathroom window at the stark brightness of a late-winter day. She drank another glass of water, and managed to keep this one down. She wrapped herself in a blanket and went and sat in the sun, with Truck curled in a ball at her feet.

A gentle breeze began to blow. After a little while, Audrey started to feel a bit better.

***

A few hours after Andy got home, Audrey’s sickness started to settle back in. This time, she was overcome with sneezing and coughing fits, accompanied by a fever.

She had been feeling steadily better, sitting out in the sun, thinking idle thoughts or nothing at all. Andy had texted throughout the day, checking in hourly to see how she was feeling, sending cute messages of love, dumb jokes and trivial facts designed to make her smile. Somewhat illogically, she wished that she was well enough to enjoy the closeness that her sickness had ushered in.

She waited at the door when she heard his car pull in, that’s how pleased she was to see him.

But after they had sat together a while and caught up, after Andy had whipped together a fantastic meal from leftover bits and bobs in the cupboard, after they had eaten themselves stupid and then settled on the couch, she started feeling ill again.

“I’m going to bed,” she said fifteen minutes later, barely able to keep her eyes open.

“Sorry, lover – you poor thing. I’ll sit with you a while…”

And that’s what he did, stroking her head until she fell asleep.

***

The next week passed in much the same way: Audrey woke up sick every morning, slowly improved as the day dragged on, and then worsened again at night-fall. It became routine.

She used up all her sick-pay and took the unpaid leave she was offered. Andy fussed and fretted, doing what he could, but the routine began taking its toll: He didn’t take any time off, and every-other-night either stayed at work late or had after-work drinks with his mates. His timing was awful: Most of the nights that he was out, Audrey found herself feeling a bit better, sometimes even almost like her old self.

By the time the seventh morning rolled around, Audrey went to see a doctor. She hated doing so, but she had had enough.

Her regular doctor was unavailable, so she saw someone who was effectively a stranger. He examined her thoroughly, if coldly and efficiently – she felt a little like a machine being serviced by a mechanic. The doctor checked her glands, looked down her throat, looked in her ears, took her temperature, took her blood pressure, took her pulse.

“Well, it seems like you’ve just got a cold.”

“But it’s been hanging around so long, and no matter how much rest I get it won’t go away. It has to be something else, doctor – a cold’s never hit me like this before.”

“Hmmm…”

He ended up drawing some blood and sending it off to be tested. He tried to reassure her that it was probably nothing, and did a terrible job. He told her that he would be in touch. He shook her hand limply. He smiled blandly as he bid her goodbye.

A week and a half passed before the doctor’s office got in touch with her. Audrey was still sick. She answered her mobile with a croak, lying flat in bed wrapped in dirty sheets, almost unable to move.

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Frayzed?”

“Hi.”

“This is Doctor Winkler’s office – your results have come in.”

Hack-cough-splutter-hack was Audrey’s reply.

“Oh, you’re still sick, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s… It’s okay, I’m kind-of getting better.”

The receptionist let out a resigned sigh, as if she had heard past patients say this a thousand times and more.

“Do you think you can make it in?”

Hack-cough-splutter-hack.

“You poor thing. I tell you what – we’re not supposed to do this, but I’ll have your results couried out to you. And I’ll have the doctor write an explanation. Actually, I might get him to type it out – you know what doctors are like…”

A weak laugh, and then hack-cough-splutter-hack.

“Thanks.”

“Get some rest, Mrs. Frayzed. I hope you start feeling better soon.”

***

It turned out that Audrey had become allergic to something. Her doctor didn’t know what this something was, as it wasn’t his field, but he had written a referral for her and included it with her results. She made an appointment with the allergy specialist, and asked if there was anything she could do in the meantime. He suggested that she start a journal, and use it to keep track of when she felt sick and when she felt okay, of what she ate, of what she did and where she went and what happened around her.

“A journal, eh?” Andy asked with a hint of suspicion.

“Yep,” Audrey whispered.

It was early in the morning. She was sick, as usual.

“Will you help?”

“Sure.”

And so they got stuck into it, with Andy leading the way: They wrote a list of everything permanent in the house – the gas heater, the dog, the rising damp, the draught, the hole in the kitchen wall that exposed them to who-knows-what, the mould that seemed intent on occupying the laundry – and then started keeping track of the everyday stuff that came and went. The pin-board in the kitchen was soon covered in lists of ingredients, guesses at the deodorant or aftershave worn by visitors or door-knockers, and graphs of the weather and the wind and the pollen count.

They both wondered if her allergies might be connected to the weather: She always felt better on the dry days, when the sun and wind seemed to wash the sickness away, whereas on the wet days, when she snuggled up in bed and gave in to its embrace, she would improve a bit but still feel pretty seedy.

There wasn’t a list of the places that Audrey went. Still sick every morning and every night, her days were spent resting in the backyard if it was dry or in bed if it was wet.

***

That’s how the time passed: A monotony of days that were almost always the same, only graphed and charted and plotted, reduced to nothing but their minutiae. Andy spent his time either at work or at the pub or poring over their journal. Audrey rested and did little else, too sick to worry about the distance once again growing between them.

Her appointment with the allergy specialist finally came. She endured a battery of tests: Scratch tests, sniff tests, exposure tests. She didn’t seem to have a problem with any of the everyday things that affected people. Mould, dog hair, cat hair, natural gas, sugar, fluoride, artificial colourings and flavourings, petrol, chemical additives, wheat and gluten, oils, fructose and sucrose, perfumes and cosmetics, preservatives, dairy – none of them triggered her allergies in the slightest.

The specialist didn’t know what else to do, and told her that he would get in touch after consulting with his colleagues.

When Andy was at home on a weeknight, after Audrey had gone to bed early as-always, he could be found poring over their journal and the charts on the pin-board, or chatting online to hypochondriacs and the allergy-inflicted around the world, looking for connections or an explanation. When he finally crawled into bed, he would often just lie there and watch Audrey while she slept, his face wracked with a combination of worry and guilt.

He spent his weekends taking care of her. He grew increasingly distant. He started spending more and more time at work.

***

One morning, Audrey woke to find Andy packing a suitcase. For a moment, fuzzy with sleep, she wondered if she was still dreaming.

“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice thick, her words slurred.

She started coughing. She sneezed. Andy hurried into the kitchen, returning with a glass of water. She drained it in a single hit. She sneezed again, a ropey length of snot working free. Andy hurried back into the kitchen, this time returning with a box of tissues.

“Are you okay?”

“Jesus, stop asking that!”

She didn’t mean to yell, but it had become unbearable.

“Of course I’m not okay, Andy. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“Alright, alright, alright – I’m sorry.”

She could tell that he was pissed at her, and was grateful that he was kind enough to hold it in

“No, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to snap, I’m just so over it.”

“I hear you… Cup of tea?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

She propped herself up while he busied himself in the kitchen.

“So, what’s going on?”

“Eh?”

“What’s with the bag?” she asked, raising her voice, straining her throat.

“Oh, right. Hang on…”

He returned to the bedroom with a cup of tea and a fresh glass of water. He sat next to her, propped on the edge of the mattress.

“I’m off to that conference today. Remember? We’ve been talking about it on-and-off for a couple of weeks.”

“Have we?”

Audrey had no memory of it. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t talked about – dulled by the monotony of sickness-recovery-sickness, she could barely remember what day it was.

“Oh, right,” she said, lying to assuage Andy’s sudden look of worry and guilt. “How long will you be away?”

“Three nights – I’ll be back around Monday lunchtime.”

“Ok. I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too.”

He looked away, not wanting her to see him cry.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine – I just feel bad about leaving you here.”

He still wouldn’t look at her.

“I’ll be okay. Please, try not to worry.”

“Thanks, lover – I’ll try.

He looked at his watch and then reluctantly stood up.

“Um, I’d better keep getting ready.”

Audrey shooed him away.

“Go on then.”

She sipped at her tea while he noisily packed the rest of his things. She was glad that this goodbye didn’t involve raised voices or a fight.

“I’ve stocked the fridge,” he yelled from the kitchen. “And there’s heaps of food here for Truck. And there’s washing in the dryer – it isn’t quite done.”

“Thanks, babe.”

“You got it.”

Audrey finished her tea. She laid her head back. She fell asleep for a while, without even realising it – the next thing she knew, Andy was standing over her, shaking her with one hand and holding his suitcase in the other.

“It’s time.”

Audrey yawned. She reached out. He bent down and hugged her tightly. He spilled fresh tears that stained her cheeks. He hugged her tighter still. The moment dragged on – she wondered if he would ever let go, and then he did.

“Love you.”

“Love you more…”

***

 

For Audrey, the rest of that day passed in much the same way as any other – she rested, sitting in the backyard with Truck curled up at her feet. She slowly started feeling a bit better. Andy called just after lunchtime; their conversation was brief but full of love, and he made plain how he happy he was to hear that she was picking up, asking question after question about how she felt, what she had been doing and what she had planned.

They finished their call as they finished every other:

“We’ll be back together soon.”

“Soon can’t come soon enough.”

A light rain began to fall in the late afternoon, and Audrey headed inside and made a nest on the couch. When she found herself finally getting hungry, she reheated a surprise meal that Andy had left in the fridge. She fed Truck, and then let him run around the backyard for a while.

She texted Andy, he texted her back, and they flirted for a while, enjoying the novelty of being apart.

When the sun went down, she settled back on the couch. She caught herself listening for Andy at the door. She told herself not to be silly. She watched TV for a couple of hours. Quickly growing bored with it, she muted the sound and put on some music instead. She began reading a book, something that she hadn’t done since before she got sick.
As she caught herself falling asleep on the couch, she realised that she was feeling better than she had in weeks. She crawled into bed. She missed Andy more than she ever had before; well enough to show him how much she really loved him, she felt a desire for him that was almost primal.

She woke up the next morning feeling almost like her old self.

It was another clear and bright day, more a false-summer than true-spring. Audrey seized it, filled with unexpected energy – she decided to clean up the house, which had become hovel-like during her months of illness. Before noon, she had opened all the windows, changed the bedding, vacuumed and mopped the floors, dusted everything that needed dusting and wiped everything that needed wiping.

After lunch, finding herself shocked by how much better she was feeling and how much energy she had, she took Truck for a walk.

Andy called as she and Truck were on their way home.

“Hey lover, how you going?”

Audrey rabbited on for ages, caught up in the excitement of actually being able to do something other than sit around and rest. She told Andy about her day, about all the cleaning she had done, about the meal she was planning on cooking that night.

The longer she talked, the more distracted and distant he sounded.

“Andy, are you okay?”

There was silence for a moment. When he replied, he sounded sad and flat.

“I just wish that I could be there.”

“Me too, babe, me too.”

Later that night, Audrey took Truck for yet another walk. After an hour or so of doing laps around the park, he was beat while she felt like she could just keep on going. When she got home, she settled on the couch and read her book, crawling into bed sometime around midnight.

She texted Andy to say ‘goodnight’ and fell asleep waiting for his reply.

***

 

The next morning, she instinctively reached for Andy as soon as she woke. She fumbled through the junk littering the bedside table, found her phone, and sent him a text full of love and good cheer.

She felt even better than she had the previous morning. She crossed her fingers.

“Better go to it,” she muttered to herself.

Without hesitation, she leapt out of bed. Truck gave her a friendly bark and then went back to sleep.

Audrey made breakfast, had a coffee, had a shower, changed into fresh clothes, made the bed around the still-sleeping Truck, tidied up the house, took out the rubbish and recycling, freshened Truck’s water and measured out his breakfast, and washed the dishes. She kept an eye on her phone the whole time, but Andy didn’t reply. She gave him a call just before nine o’clock, but he didn’t answer. She left a message telling him how much she loved him and how much she missed him, and then hung up.

A half-hour later, he still hadn’t replied.

***

Andy didn’t call back until late that night. Audrey had kept in touch with a few of his friends and family throughout the day, but no-one else heard anything from him either. By the time he contacted her, Audrey had gotten so worried that she forgot all about her anger and frustration and just unleashed her concern.

He laughed lovingly as she finally wound it up.

“You’re a sweetie.”

“I’ve missed you!”

Her excitement was palpable.

“Sorry about today,” he said.

“Don’t stress – I’ve been feeling like my old self, I might even be able to go back to work soon. But not too-soon, I think we need a couple of days of R&R first, if you know what I mean…”

Andy didn’t laugh. He didn’t encourage her innuendo. He didn’t respond at all.

“Babe, you okay?”

Silence.

“Andy?”

“I’m… I’m not coming back.”

“You what?”

“I’m not coming back, Audrey.”

“Good one, dickhead – play a joke on me now that I’m feeling better.”

“I’m serious.”

A moment of silence. Audrey was tempted to just hang up on him or throw the phone at the wall, as if killing the conversation might undo the words he had spoken. Instead, she waited to hear what he had to say next, tempting as it was to just scream at him

“I realised something, Audrey, just after you texted me last night.”

She waited, but his voice caught as if he was trying not to cry. She kept waiting and tried to hold onto her anger, even though it was killing her not to soothe him.

“I’ve had my suspicions for a while, and I’ve been keeping track,” he said after pulling himself together. “Getting out of town just confirmed them. These allergies of yours, I think that I’m part of the problem.”

“You what?”

“I think I’m the ‘thing’ that you’re allergic to.”

Audrey couldn’t speak. For a second, unable to help herself, she thought about what he had said and everything that the idea implied: All those nights when he was at work or at the pub, all those nights when she was well and he was out, all that time alone, the clean house and the freshly-made bed.

And then she banished the thought, or tried to, at least.

Andy coughed throatily and then laughed bitterly, an old habit enacted when he was trying to bring them light at the darkest of times.

“Just like people say: It’s not you, it’s me.”

(Winner of the open division of the 2018 Swancon Awards short story competition)

The Enduring Influence of Kafka on Speculative Fiction

It is a rare feat for a fiction writer to so heavily influence both literature and culture that their name becomes an adjective used to describe not only the works that they wrote, but also the worldview and perspective that they possessed and shared us with us. In fact, so rare is this feat that we can count on one hand those writers whose names have become common parlance: Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Dickens, Kafka and Orwell. Say the words Machiavellian, Dickensian or Kafkaesque and you’ll probably see a flicker of recognition, even if a person has never read The Prince, Great Expectations or The Trial. Through a combination of authorial ability, individualistic writing styles and historical circumstance, their fictional versions of reality provided brand new ways of seeing and understanding the world, life and existence itself.

What is truly remarkable is that everyone on this list apart from Kafka achieved great success in their own lifetimes, and saw their works vindicated and celebrated – Kafka was a man whose work received scant critical or commercial attention, whose fiction was too all often consigned to obscure journals, who struggled to finish his fictions and never finished some of his novels, who instructed the executors of his estate to burn the entirety of his unpublished works after his death. In the face of such setbacks and confidence blows, it’s a wonder that he managed to produce the works that he did; the fact that his name has become a kind-of shorthand for an entire way of seeing and interpreting the world is nothing short of miraculous.

If Kafka was writing today, he would more than likely be known as a writer of speculative fiction, magic realism, slipstream fiction or trans-realism. Nevertheless, his influence on science fiction is undeniable and enduring. However, it’s the varied devices that Kafka employed in his fiction that are the most influential, rather than his overall style. While quite a few writers have used his style as the basis for their own fiction, Kafka’s worldview and perspective are so incredibly individualistic that these writers cannot help but be compared to him. Novels like Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat, and short story collections like George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife and the appropriately titled anthology Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, tend to read as either homages, tributes or satires of Kafka’s style. On the other hand, the adoption by so many science fiction writers of the varied stylistic devices that Kafka employed and combined in his fiction have become so commonplace throughout the genre that they have almost become cliches, and so their connections to Kafka have tended to disappear from view.

Take the kinds of names that Kafka used, especially in his two most widely known novels: The Trial and The Castle. Their respective protagonists are Joseph K and K; in both a narrative and technical sense, names like these are almost completely devoid of personality and individuality, functioning more as identifying ‘tags’ or ‘markers.’ But on a thematic level, these kinds of names function in a very different way: they emphasise the theme of dehumanisation that featured so heavily in Kafka’s work, stripping the protagonists of a sense of identity. Joseph K and K are known this way because their actual names don’t really matter, just as they as people don’t matter. All that does matter are the roles that they fill and perform as part of the almost bureaucratic web that binds together their worlds. They exist, to put it more bluntly, as cogs in the machine rather than as the controllers of their own lives, with their ‘designations’ designed to deny their identities. If all of this is starting to sound a little familiar, that’s because names like these, and the reasoning behind them, underpin myriad dystopian science-fiction stories—it’s no great stretch of the imagination to conceive of THX-1138 as a futuristic version of K. As well, often when we encounter an oppressed or subservient class in science fiction, its denizens are referred to by these kind of technical signifiers rather than by actual names, and when the inevitable rebellion occurs one of the rebels’ first acts is often to reclaim their identities by renaming themselves.

Take Michael Bay’s The Island (2005) as a mainstream example. While the film’s initial promise is quickly smothered by Bay’s shock-and-awe approach to movie-making, its central premise is thorough and sturdy science fiction: people have themselves cloned so that ‘spare parts’ are on hand in case of accident; these clones grow up and live in a self-contained environment, believing that they are the last survivors of a terrible war; when the time comes, the clones are told that they are being sent to the last patch of inhabitable land on Earth, but are instead drugged and harvested for their organs, limbs, blood and so on. It should come as no surprise that the clones bear names like Lincoln Six Echo, Jordan Two Delta and Lima One Alpha—although they don’t know it, these characters exist only for their body parts, and to those who have power over them, they are little more than living machines fulfilling a function within a greater machine, exactly K.

However, it isn’t just names that are regularly missing in Kafka’s work. Quite often, his stories are also devoid of a concrete sense of time, place and historicity. Withholding this kind of information was simply narrative necessity—these things did nothing to advance the themes of his stories, and so didn’t need to be included. In fact, their absence often strengthened his stories, adding another facet to Kafka’s obsession with the threatening and impersonal nature of modern society and the unconscious fears of an individual living in an anonymous landscape. A consequence of this is that Kafka’s ‘voice’ often became cold and detached, as if his protagonists were spectators in their own stories rather than active participants. It is this combination of withheld information and detached narrative voices that has proven influential on a certain style of science fiction, though rarely is the withholding so extreme as that employed by Kafka, and can most prominently be seen in what some have dubbed ‘psy-fi’ (psychological science fiction), best exemplified by the work of J G Ballard. Psy-fi is typically more interested in examining the emotional and psychological ramifications of whichever science fiction idea lies at the core of each story, in contrast to science fiction’s usual focus on exploring the ‘ripple effects’ of the idea itself. Because this examination involves emotional and psychological spaces, once the science fiction device at a story’s core has been established, a concrete sense of time, place and historicity become somewhat insignificant. After all, emotions and psychological states are universal to a large degree, and often tend not to rely on specific geographies and times. In fact, if these kinds of stories are too reliant on these factors, their universality is reduced: These kinds of factors often do nothing to advance the stories and so their relative absence is a narrative necessity, and consequently the narrative ‘voice’ can be read as detached. Supporting this sense of detachment is the fact that authors of psy-fi also often further the exploration of their interests by drawing upon the vocabulary and concepts of psychology, which are necessarily technical and scientific, and thus somewhat dry and detached.

The third device of Kafka’s that has heavily influenced science fiction is his way of structuring the plot of his stories. Rather than using a typical Aristotelian plot—protagonist, antagonist, rising action, climax, denouement—Kafka tended to structure his plots around the elaboration, qualification and evolution of a new and fantastical fact that contradicts the ‘reality’ of his stories. The result is an almost obsessive focus on and examination of one single fantastical idea, rather than a broad observation of the ripple effects created by this idea. Books like William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters, William Sleator’s House of Stairs, Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club and Max Barry’s Machine Man are all, to varying degrees, more concerned with the fantastical idea at their core rather than in exploring the ramifications, consequences and ripple effects of the ideas, as are films such as Cube (1997), John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982), Source Code (2011), Primer (2004) and David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly (1986).

However, much like Kafka’s use of a detached voice, the influence of his abandonment of a traditionally Aristotelian plot is rarely as extreme as that which he employed in his own stories. There are some notable exceptions to this, of course, with Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work being perhaps the best example. At face value, it seems like just another ‘Last Man on Earth’ story, but within the first dozen or so pages we soon realise that Glavinic is barely interested in exploring the ‘event’ that caused everyone but the protagonist to disappear. Instead, his focus is on the emotional and psychological ramifications of the event solely as it pertains to the protagonist. There are no other characters and hence no antagonist, no traditional character growth experienced by the protagonist, no real narrative arc or conflict-driven action, and no climax, denouement or actual resolution. Another notable exception is J G Ballard, who employed an obsessive focus on and examination of one single fantastical idea time and time again throughout his career. His novel High Rise is perhaps the best example of this, detailing as it does the descent into savagery and barbarism experienced by the occupants of a futuristic high-rise apartment block. This is Ballard’s focus from the very beginning, and the remainder of the book explores the evolution of this descent in great and painful detail. And while Ballard does use a facsimile of a protagonist-antagonist relationship, this relationship ultimately has little relevance to the book as a whole and is instead presented as just another symptom of the occupants’ descent.

As we have seen, Kafka’s influence on science fiction can be found almost everywhere. From obvious homages, tributes and satires to the more subtle use of the literary devices that he employed, science fiction writers have shown this influence almost since the genre’s inception, even if they didn’t consciously know it. If only the sickly, depressed and ultimately unsuccessful Kafka could have lived to see how heavily his works have influenced those who came after him.

(Originally published in Aurealis #98, March 2017)

Interview with A Page to Turn

APTT: Give us an insight into your main character. What makes he/she so special

LW: The Rain Never Came is concerned with the lives of ordinary people at the end of the world, and so Bill, who tells the story, is a pretty ordinary person – he isn’t a solider or an action-hero, nor is he a scientist or saviour or any of the othjer stereotypical post-apocalyptic main characters. This, along with his typically laaiback ‘Australian’ point of view, adds a fresh voice and unique perspective on the end of the world, especially when viewed in conjuction with the more volatile and action-oriented Tobe.

APTT: Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from The Rain Never Came?

LW: As The Rain Never Came is a deliberatly Australian book, Australian actors would obviously have to play Bill and Tobe, the book’s main characters. Making it difficult is the fact that many of Bill and Tobe’s physical traits are loosely based on real people, making it hard for me to see them embodied any other way.

However, if I had to make a choice, and if they were slightly younger men, I would say that Ben Mendehlson and Guy Pearce would make a great Bill and Tobe, respectively. Mendehlson’s shaggy-dog dolefulness is the epitome of Bill’s laidback yet resigned personality; Pearce’s tightly-wound intensity and edgy vibe is a perfect fit for the sometimes unstable Tobe.

APTT: What genre is your most current release?

 LW: The Rain Never Came is a tricky book to pigeonhole – you could call it dystopian, you could call it post-apocalyptic, you could call it climate fiction. But more than anything, I suppose you could call it ‘Australian’ through-and-through.

APTT: What draws you to this genre?

LW: For many of us, post-apocalyptic fiction appeals what you could call our lizard-brain, a sometimes dark part of us that longs for a simpler life, free of our contemporary distractions and problems, and that relishes seeing our civilisation’s monuments and idols reduced to rubble. It’s no coincidence in a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, the landmarks we see destroyed consist of those that are recognised around the world: the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

And then there’s the fact that we right now the end of the world feels like it’s just around the corner. Right now, the heralds of the apocalypse are many: climate change, overpopulation, fundamentalism, isolationist tribalism, vast inequality, terrorism, delusional zealots controlling nuclear-armed countries. At times like these, I think that many of us fantasise about an enormous event that would allow society and civilisation to begin again, this time in a more fair and just way.

APTT: Who designed your book cover/s?

LW: I have a friend who is a lapsed graphic designer, and that I call my ‘brother in science fiction’ – we have similar tastes in the genre, and similar ideas about science fiction’s fundamental philosophies and the successes and failures of its tropes in any given story.

This friend was one of my sounding-boards during the writing of The Rain Never Came, back when it was part of my PhD. When it came time to submit said PhD, I asked him if he was interested in making a ‘mock’ cover. He accepted, supplying two different and equally fantastic images. Afew years later, when Odyssey Books picked up The Rain Never Came, I showed them these covers as a way of conveying the type of vibe I was after. Odyssey Books liked one of these images so much that they decided to base the real cover on it.

APTT: Do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process? What’s the purpose behind your cover images?

 LW: I believe that the cover is an undeniably important part of the buying process, but more so in terms of informing the reader as to the ‘type’ of book it is, rather than the quality. For example, the covers for space operas typically feature spaceships and alien planets; those for cyberpunk typically feature minimalist design elements; those for post-apocalyptic fiction typicallly feature washed-out vistas and bleak terrain. These kinds of covers allow us to quickly categorise the books, so that we can either further investiagte them or ignore them dependent on the sub-genre that they belong to. That’s the purpose of the cover for The Rain Never Came – it is set in a drought-stricken future Australia, a land that is almost a character unto itself, something that the cover makes clear.

APTT: What book/s are you reading at present?

LW: I have a bit of a magpie-mind when it comes to my reading – I’ve usually got three or four books on the go, which normally cover a number of different genres, styles and topics. Right now, I’m reading some unsettling science fiction (Michel Faber’s Under the Skin); a wide-ranging history and analysis of classical and popular music, written by the New Yorker’s music critic (Listen to This by Alex Ross); Charles Bukwoski’s Post Office, which I’m rereading for maybe the fifteenth time; and I’m just about to finish Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, which has rocketted to my favouyrite’s pile.

APTT: Which writers inspire you?

LW: I’m inspired by those writers who possess a singular ‘voice’ and focus on the emotional states of their characters, and on their characters’ psychological development. Within the same genres I work in, these kinds of writers normally use their science fiction ideas to further an exploration of those states and feelings that unite us all as people, rather than as an end unto themselves. These are writers like JG Ballard, Michel Faber, Frank Kafka, Katherine Dunn, Kurt Vonnegut, William Kotzwinkle, Debra Biancotti, Steven Amsterdam and Margaret Atwood – their work is truly memorable for the way it makes us feel, rather than the way the make us think, something only made people by these deep humanistic explorations.

APTT: When did you decide to become a writer?

LW: I’ve loved books and stories ever since I was a little kid, but I didn’t start writing until late high school. I kept at it through my early twenties, submitting short stories and poems to magaiznes and journals, but never taking it that seriously. One day, I stopped. Almost a decade later, I returned to university to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had interrupted. At this point, I had already had the idea for The Rain Never Came, but turning it into a book seemed like a dream. However, during my resumed degree, I took more and more writing classes, rediscovering my passion and enthusiasm. I practised and practised, writing a lot of rubbish on my way to glimmers of the good stuff. Then the opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would involve writing a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I leapt at it, realising that here was the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life and turn myself into a proper writer.

APTT: Do you write full-time or part-time? Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured? Do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day?

LW: I currently write part-time, and work part-time at my ‘real’ job. I enjoy this balance, as my real job is as a nurseryhand and is very physical – I spend the whole day on my feet walking-walking-walking, and do a lot of lifting and lugging. It’s a great way to shake off the stiffness and soreness that inevitably settles in after a day spent sitting in front of a computer or hunched over a notebook. What it means, though, is that my writing routine is flexible dependant on deadlines that are due and the mood I’m in – I always start early, but what I start is a different story, as is how I structure the day. If I’ve decided to focus on creative writing – rather than, say, one dedicated to admin or book publicity or research – I’ll set the whole day aside and aim to just produce a good amount of content, rather than set myself a specific target. It’s easier that way, and you can run free more rather than get locked down.

APTT: Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you? What’s your basic process?

LW: I use the big ideas at the heart of my stories to allow me to explore the ways in which people might react to their new situations and new worlds, which have been caused by these ideas. After all, an idea isn’t a story, it’s just an idea. And it’s only useful in a story as a nifty thought-experiment that allows a hitherto unseen exploration of our own lives and what us human. To do this, I rely on every writer’s trick: observing and eavesdropping, creating characters and situations based on people I know and see, and on the minutiae of life around me. Once I’ve got a loose grip on my characters and a plot, I then spend some time with them, letting reveal themselves through the process of writing – their formation should be a bottoms-up process, based on attempts at the way people really would behave in any given situation, rather than a top-down process in which a predetermined plot guides them with an unwavering hand.

APTT: What is the hardest thing about writing? What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book? What is the easiest thing about writing?

LW: I don’t really find writing hard or easy, at least not in the conventonal sense – it’s just something that I do now, and I have good writing days and bad writing days. The only thing that I do find particularly hard, is when I hit a plateau on the way to getting better. We’ve all been there; every writier only has to gio back and look at work from years past to see how much they’ve changed. But for me, that change comes in fits and starts surrounded by periods where I churn out words no better than those written months ago. This is a slog, to be sure, and was the hardest part of writing The Rain Never Came. But you just have to shake your head, try and laugh it off, and endure it with a smile.

APTT: If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

LW: The only book I’ve ever really wished I had written is JG Ballard’s High Rise. This was a formative read when I was a teenager, teaching me that science fiction and specultiave iction need not only concern bug-eyed monsters and UFOs, but could extend to an exploratiomn of universal emotions and states of being.

This is soemthing that has guided me as a writer – sicence fiction and speculative fiction should be all about the characters, and how they pshychologically and emoptionally react to the big idea at the stry’s core, rather than focussing on the idea itself. Ballard, true psychological science fiction writer that he is, does this so well in High Rise, making me sometimes wishj that it was my own.

APTT: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

LW: If you want to write, all you need to do is keep at it. No-one is born a great writer, bar the odd savant – like all creative arts, writing is something you need to practise and practise and practise. By writing as much as you can whenever you can, and keeping your chin up as you wade through the shit, you’ll eventually get there.

But remember, despite what some people say, there are no real rules when it comes to writing. Everyone has their own methods and means, their own rituals and routines; what works for some doesn’t work for others. Finding your own system is what’s important, and probably the only thing that I hazard all writers would agree upon, alongside the necessity of practise and perseverance.

(Originally published on A Page to Turn, 11/10/2017)

Interview with Arvenig.it

A: Tell us a little about yourself and your background!

LW: I’m a writer and a nursery-hand. Once upon a time, I was a musician and a cook. I’m a country boy living in the city, a working class intellectual, a cynical optimist, a Doctor of Literature who avoids academia, an outdoorsy bookworm, a highly-motivated daydreamer, a lover not a fighter, a hippy who eschews dreadlocks, tribal-chic, drum circles and earnestness.

A: When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?

LW: I’ve loved books and stories ever since I was a little kid, but I didn’t start writing until late high school: poems and short fiction, the usual teenage stuff. I kept writing during my early twenties, submitting the odd piece of work but never taking it seriously. And then one day I just stopped.

Nearly a decade later, I returned to university to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had gotten in the way of. As I kept on through my degree, I took some writing classes, and rediscovered my passion for writing. I practised and practised, writing my way through a lot of crap before I got to the beginnings of the good stuff. The opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would encompass writing a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I seized it, knowing that here was the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life, and to turn myself into a writer.

A: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

LW: I normally avoid outlining any kind of message that I would like readers to take away from my work – to me, the joy and beauty of literature is that the reader is the one that matters, not the writer. I might want people to read The Rain Never Came in a certain way, but I can’t force them to do so. Reading is an incredibly individual act, and the messages that we take away from what we read apply to no one but ourselves, dependent as they are on our own points of view and personal philosophies.

A: What are you working on at the moment?

LW: I don’t think writers can ever have too many projects on the go – the difficulty is in knowing which to focus on, something I’m not very good at yet. And so right now I have a completed draft of a serious book-length story cycle that looks at giant monsters of the Godzilla/King Kong kind, and I’ve also made a start on two other books: a post-apocalyptic western, and a piece of metafictional science fiction. One day, one day, they’ll all be done…

A: Any last thoughts for our readers?

LW: All I can say is that, as science fiction fans, we need to explore beyond the boundaries of the countries that produce the majority of it: Europe, the UK, the US and Japan. From Africa to South America, from the Indian Subcontinent to Eastern Europe, and from South-East Asia to the Antipodes, science fiction allows everyone to express their hopes for and fears of the future, regardless of their race or creed. All we need to do is look a little further and dig a little deeper.

(Originally published on Arvenig.it, 16/8/2017)

Interview with Cheryl Holloway

CH: Please tell us in one sentence, why we should read your book.

LW: Told in an unmistakably and undeniably Australian voice, The Rain Never Came will show you a different end of the world, one of thirst and drought and baked earth, of mateship and laconicism and black humor.

CH: Since this book is about a drought in Australia, was it hard creating believable situations and issues or did you take them from real life and elaborate?

LW: A great deal of The Rain Never Came is extrapolated from real life. Almost a decade ago, I moved back to my hometown at the tail end of a ten-year drought that devastated much of Australia’s south-east. My hometown is a tiny country town, deep in the bush—at that time, it was suffering from the effects of this drought. Life was strange: communities were fraying; some people who depended on water for their livelihood began abandoning the land and moving to the city; and water theft had become common.

It seemed as if the past had returned—a world of hard work, dust and thirst. And yet, we were surrounded by the trappings of 21st Century life. More than anything else, this world of old and new seemed like the beginning of some post-apocalyptic world you would find in science fiction. From there, based on my own experience, it was easy to imagine the parched land only a handful of years hence. And so The Rain Never Came was born.

CH: What made you decide to write this book?

LW: I returned to university in my late twenties, to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had interrupted. I’d already had the idea for The Rain Never Came, but turning it into a book seemed like a fantasy. However, during my degree and my honors year, I took quite a few writing classes, and rediscovered a passion and enthusiasm for writing that I thought had disappeared.

I practiced a lot, trying to find a voice and point-of-view all my own. I finished my studies and returned to real life, writing as much as I could, whenever I could. And then one day, the opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would involve writing both a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I seized it, realizing that it would be the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life.

CH: Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole concept?

LW: Like most writers of science fiction/speculative fiction, the big ideas at the heart of my stories are really just frameworks upon which I can hang explorations of the ways in which people might react to their new situations and new worlds. After all, an idea isn’t a story—it’s more like a spark—a spark that ignites a fire. As I want my fires to contain what-ifs and maybes (that nonetheless still connect to the world we live in), I’m always on the lookout for real-life stories that seem to point towards our future—changes in technology, politics, culture, the environment, medical science, communication devices, interpersonal relationships, infrastructure systems, and organizational, learning and teaching methods.

And then it’s just a matter of extrapolating a new idea from any particular real-life stories that grab me, and working out how this new idea might affect everyday people. To do this, I rely on every writer’s trick: observing and eavesdropping, creating characters and situations by recombining the people I know and see and the minutiae of life around me. Once I’ve got the first inklings of my characters and a plot, I then tend to just spend time with them and let them reveal themselves through the process of writing—their formation should be a bottom-up process, based on attempts at realistic actions and reactions, rather than a top-down process, whereby the stricture of a predetermined plot guides them with an unwavering hand.

CH: Did you have to do any special research to write this book?

LW: Most of the way of life portrayed in The Rain Never Came was based on observation, guesswork and my own prior knowledge—the only real research that was necessary was on the effects of dehydration. And even then, we’ve all been thirsty at some time.

CH: Who was your favorite character to write? And which character was hardest to write?

LW: I didn’t have a favorite character to write, or a least favorite. Likewise I didn’t find any one particular character harder to write than any other. What I did find was that there were some character moments I thoroughly enjoyed, and some that I didn’t enjoy much at all. Funnily enough, these two disparate moments both involved the same characters: Bill and Tobe.

Even though Bill and Tobe are almost entirely fictional creations, there is one part of their relationship that is steeped in reality: the shit-stirring, knockabout sense of mateship that they share. Here, I drew upon the same kind of Australian-style trash-talk that exists between some of my own friends and I, and thoroughly enjoyed the process – the roughness and dismissiveness that they show towards each other, which masks genuine concern and compassion, never failed to make me smile. And so, without giving things away, I found writing the flip-side of their relationship to be a difficult and sometimes enjoyment-free process, so invested was I in the light-hearted and affectionately derogatory vibe that exists between them.

CH: Is there a message in this book that you want readers to grasp?

LW: I don’t really like highlighting particular messages that I want readers to take from my work—I feel that the beauty and the joy of literature is that the act of reading is all about the reader, rather than the writer. I might want people to find specific messages in The Rain Never Came, but I can’t force them to do so. Reading is the most individual of individual acts; whatever messages we take away apply only to ourselves, as they’re solely dependent on our own points of view and personal philosophies.

CH: What is different and exciting that you bring to your readers through your writing style?

LW: First and foremost, I want people to be excited by an Australian voice that is steeped in Australian-isms—this is something that I’ve tried hard to achieve, as we have some fascinating terms and colloquialisms that are as interesting as those of anywhere else, and what might be called our stereotypically ‘Australian’ way of looking at the world can provide a refreshing perspective.

As well, I hope that readers will find my style both straightforward enough to avoid affectation, and literary enough to avoid being boring or seen as riding the coattails of the bare-bone sparseness common to so-called literary science fiction/speculative fiction. I’ve always been an admirer of both types: the straightforward science fiction voice that simply gets the job done, and the literary voice that flaunts a love of words, language and story. But above all, I’ve always preferred those writers who can walk the fine line between the two.

That’s not to say that I want my ‘voice’ to sound like any of theirs. What I do want, though, is for mine to affect people in the same way as theirs do, and to straddle the same kind of line as they do. And lastly, I hope that readers find it to be unique without being precious, earthy without being coarse, learned without being pretentious.

CH: What can non-Australians understand by reading this book?

LW: I hope that The Rain Never Came will open the eyes of non-Australian readers to the uniqueness of Australian science fiction/speculative fiction, and I hope that these readers see The Rain Never Came as a deliberate addition to this subgenre/offshoot/micro-genre/call-it-what-you-will. Of course, every nationality has a different way of telling stories, both in general and about themselves; no two national perspectives are the same, nor are any two senses of national identity or foundational myths. But being Australian, in my book I want Australian-ness to shine through.

As well, I hope that in The Rain Never Came readers will see how the inherent potential and unreal nature of science fiction/speculative fiction allows for a creative exploration of what it means to be ‘Australian,’ a device used by many other Australian authors operating in the same genre. I also hope that after reading it, readers will imagine the Australian bush in much the same way as they imagined the Australian desert after seeing Mad Max—as a place of desolate beauty and ancient stillness, that doesn’t need dressing up to resemble a world after the apocalypse.

CH: What type of feedback are you receiving from readers?

LW: Most of the feedback I’ve received so far has been positive, or at least encouraging. I’m more than ready for anything negative, though nothing creative is ever perfect, and nor should it be. Luckily, I’ve got pretty thick skin. The writer’s lot has given me this ‘you can’t let rejection letter after rejection letter stop you from persevering,’ you just have to have confidence, determination and an honest eye, and realize that you can always get better.

Remembering that taste is in the eye of the beholder also helps. Even better is doing the best job that you can, and resisting the urge to grow complacent or lazy with your work. We write because we love writing and literature, books and stories. There’s no point in phoning that love in.

CH: Who are some of your writing influences?

LW: I like those writers who have a singular ‘voice’ and focus on the emotional states of their characters, and on their characters’ psychological development. Within science fiction/speculative fiction, these kinds of writers normally use their science fiction ideas as a framework to support an exploration of these states and developments, rather than as an end unto themselves: people like J. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Debra Biancotti, Steven Amsterdam and Margaret Atwood. Their work, while full of ideas, is truly memorable for the way it makes us feel, rather than the way they make us think.

Outside the umbrella of science fiction, I like writers who do the same kind of thing, and possess a similarly singular voice and focus on the emotional and psychological states of their characters: Charles Bukowski, William Kotzwinkle, Katherine Dunn, Franz Kafka and Peter Carey.

CH: What has been the most exciting thing to happen on your publishing journey?

LW: The Rain Never Came hasn’t been out for that long, so I’m only really taking my first steps as a published author. But I don’t think that many writing accomplishments will ever feel as good as the first time I saw my book as an actual book, something I’m sure most published writers will agree with.

CH: What is your next writing project?

LW: I like to have a lot of projects on the go at once—the trick is knowing which one to focus on first, something I’m not that good at. And so right now, I have a decent second draft of a book-length story cycle, which looks at giant monsters with serious eyes, and have also made a start on two other books: a post-apocalyptic western, and an offbeat piece of metafictional science fiction. Did I really just use the word offbeat?

CH: For my audience, where is your book sold?

LW: You can find The Rain Never Came at all the usual places: Amazon, the Book Depository, Booktopia, iTunes, Barnes and Noble, and Odyssey Books’ website.

CH: Any closing remarks?

LW: I’ve banged this drum previously, but I’m going to beat it some more: as fans of science fiction/speculative fiction, we must ensure that we make an effort to explore beyond the boundaries of those countries that produce the majority of it: Europe, the UK, the US and Japan.

From South-East Asia to the Antipodes, from the Indian Subcontinent to Eastern Europe, and from Africa to South America, science fiction/speculative fiction allows all of us to express our hopes for the future and our fears of it, regardless of our nationality or background. All we need to do is look a little further and dig a little deeper. Cheryl, thanks for the opportunity to be on your blog.

(This interview originally appeared on Cheryl Holloway’s Blog, 11/9/2017)