Saurday Series Author Interview – Sean McMullen, Australian Fantasy Writer

I discovered Sean McMullen with the release of his Greatwinter Trilogy – Souls in the Great Machine. This post-apocalyptic novel opens my eyes to this genre, and I tore through it, quickly going to look for more. I was lucky enough that Sean had a back catalogue another couple of books.

From thereon, I was hooked on Sean’s writing; his style and his ideas. Sean followed Greatwinter with The Moonworlds Saga. He has also collected 6 Ditmar awards and 3 Aurealis awards along the way. Of late, Sean has been a bit quiet, but I know something new will not be too far away.

What genre would you like to write a book in (that you haven’t yet)?

Definitely young adult fantasy. I really enjoy reading it, and I’ve written two science fiction books for young adult readers, but for some reason the chance to do this sort of novel and myself have never been in the same place in the same time. I end up writing adult novels with teenage characters, not sure why.

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

I trawl ideas from all around myself, and even from within. Once I dreamed that I was standing on a street corner watching a protest march of cats streaming past, and they were shouting: “What do we want?/ Cat food!/ When do we want it? / Meow!” That one ended up in my novel Voidfarer. Today I saw a BBC news item about Scottish wildcats being almost extinct by interbreeding with feral cats – they’re not dying out, they’re just not as pure blooded as they used to be. There’s a story in that. Sometimes it’s just worth asking a really hard question, like “Is there an alternative to death and immortality?” The Mask of Terminus was based on the answer to that question.

When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?

I always start with some boring working title, then see where the story goes before making a final decision. Titles can be very hard, sometimes I literally go through a couple of dozen before I find one that is good enough.

Do you see the future of fantasy and science fiction as bright? If so, which authors are driving it?

I think science fiction is about to become seriously interesting. The role of social media in future societies has hardly been touched, hardwire telepathy is already available in a crude form, some robots are nicer people than most people, and resource depletion is about to cause greater changes to society than World War Two.

I’m not so sure about fantasy, but it might be due for a change of direction as well. Medieval settings used to be all the rage because they were highly romantic, with great costumes and loads of action. On the other hand, the Victorian period was highly romantic, with stunning clothes and machines that make the average dragon look a bit ordinary, so maybe steampunk is fantasy’s future.

What themes are being overused?

Medieval themes, which is a pity because I really like the medieval period.

Are movies of books ruining the book?

Quite the opposite. I think movies and television series make some authors think a lot more visually and pace their action better.

I recently did a ten minute screenplay for a story of mine, Hard Cases. The director, Terry Shepherd, workshopped it with me, then the actors (Eve Morley, Mike Bishop and Lliam Amor) worked out a few more changes in rehearsal. Nearly all the bugs were out of the script by the time we got out to Channel Ten, so the shoot was complete in one working day. Fortunately Terry had me play a cameo, Mr Guard, otherwise I would have had nothing to do on set. In terms of quality and impact, the Hard Cases script may even work better than the story, but we shall have to wait for post-production before pronouncing on that.

If more authors knew how to write screenplays, their books would probably look better on screen. Neil Gaimen and George R. R. Martin are good examples of screen savvy authors whose books made the transition very effectively.

Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?

Yes, but is that a bad thing? I few nights ago I caught some reference to Terry Pratchett’s new Victorian-era book Dodger, decided that it was worth a try, bought it through my kindle, and began reading it then and there. Back in the world of hardcopy, literally thousands of new novels a year are competing for shelf space in the bookshops, and if they don’t start selling within a few weeks it’s off the shelves and into oblivion. Ebooks give worthwhile novels a much better chance to succeed, because they can remain available indefinitely.

Do you prefer to read established authors or debut authors? How do you choose which ones to read?

Established authors are usually established because they appeal to a fairly large number of people. These days I ask people that I trust if they have read anything good by newcomers lately, rather than experimenting for myself. Reviewers are generally too nice or too nasty, and they often don’t understand whether they are holding a genuine breakthrough or pretentious waffle. The earliest reviews of The Lord of the Rings gave it a lukewarm reception … and the reviewers have been trying to live those reviews down ever since.

What is it about fantasy that appeals to you?

The combination of romance, setting and adventure. I need a break from everyday life every so often, and sometimes I don’t want to think about the future. Nostalia is by definition an improvement.

Can I get an autographed book? (lol)

Yes. How do you want to arrange it?

Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?

Yes, I do, but they seldom see a story until it is at a very advanced stage. Usually the sort of feedback I get is typos, questions about British and American spelling, and comments like “the term ‘village idiot’ was not in use back in 1812”. I do the fixes, then it goes out to the editor.

Do you set yourself a word limit for each book?

No. The characters wouldn’t like that.

Do you have a target each day?

No, I write what I can, when I can. Still, I seem to get a lot done, and it’s always on time. Writers are all different, so if you need targets to get things done, set them.

Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?

I may write something different, but I keep writing.

Do you have characters running around your head? Do they dictate events and their histories to you?

I just watch as my characters get on with it. I never try to talk to them, they may not like me.

After so many books, how do you keep them unique?

Not sure. I always have new stories to tell, and they’re seldom like the ones I’ve already written.

What is your biggest (self-imposed) time waster?

Exercise. Four runs a week, three weights sessions, and two evenings of karate. On the other hand, you’re dead a long time, so I think I’ll continue to waste time on sport and stay healthy. Besides, I get some great ideas while jogging late at night, and I try out action scenes with my karate students.

Do you remember the first time you saw your book in a shop?

That would have been Call to the Edge in 1992, at a signing, and I was so frantic with signing copies that I did not stop to think about how I felt. However, I do remember walking into the local newsagent in 1986 and picking up a copy of Omega Science Digest with my first pro story in it. I had definite problems keeping my feet on the ground while walking home.

Do you read other people’s writing?

I presume you mean unpublished writing. If it’s more than a sample of a few hundred words, generally not. That said, when Neil Gaimen sent me draft versions of American Gods and Coraline to comment on, they even got priority over the novel I was writing at the time. In other words, if I know and trust the author, I’ll help out when asked. Morgan Buchanan and Paul Collins are two other authors who send things to me for an opinion. Years ago I used to read unsolicited, unpublished novels by unpublished authors whenever asked. Most were eye-wateringly bad, and were a dozen or so hours out of my life with no benefit to anyone. Tell the author that his novel is the worst thing since the ebola virus, and you have an enemy for life. Write that it’s a work of unrecognised genius, and your credibility is down the toilet with anyone who reads it after seeing your recommendation.

My worst experience was about ten years ago, when an American guy emailed me about how much he liked Souls in the Great Machine. He also attached an unpublished novel, and asked if I could suggest why he was having trouble selling it. I read it, and it was pretty drek. I replied with some polite comments, and suggestions about how it could be improved. He replied, thanking me. Then he sent a more hostile email, picking my comments apart and proving – to his satisfaction at least – that his novel was already perfect. His next email was about how amateurish my own writing was. Finally he demanded that I forget about my own work and help him sell his novel to my publisher (this is all true, I kept printouts of the emails!). Not sure what else he wrote, because I deleted his emails unopened after that. There were a couple of dozen more before he worked out that I was annoyed about something. I have been seriously wary about helping unknowns ever since.

Would you read mine?

Dodger is my recreational reading just now, and I’m managing about five pages per night. Then there’s my scientific and IT reading, and I average a couple of articles nightly. After that is the material I have promised friends to read and comment upon. Getting back to your question, I could try, but it may be in the to-read queue for a while. I work full time in a quite demanding computing job, I write as much as a full time author, I do work in television, I teach karate, and I occasionally have a social life. All that leaves my spare time a bit wrung out.

Sean’s latest book is Changing Yesterday, a young adult time travel adventure set in Melbourne in 1901. It was published by Ford Street Publishing in July 2011.

His recent stories include:

  • Steamgothic (Interzone, July/August 2012), a novelette about steampunk fashion, Goth steam engines, and rebuilding an 1852 aircraft.
  • Electrica (Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April, 2012), a Regency romance featuring espionage, spark gap radios, sex, duels, Napoleonic-era codebreaking and mind control.
  • Ninety Thousand Horses (Analog, January 2012), in which the sound barrier is broken by a steam engine in 1901.


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