Lucy Sussex, New Zealand born and Melbourne resident, has been writing since the mid-1980s, producing one novel for adults, several children's novels and a number of short stories. Her best known works are "My Lady Tongue" from 1988 (later the title story for her major short story collection) and the novel The Scarlet Rider. Most of her shorter work has been in the genre of sf/fantasy but she is aso well-known in Australian literary circles as the researcher who uncovered the long-lost identity of one of the world's first female writers of detective fiction, Mary Fortune.
Lucy is currently working on her doctorate in English literature, which she aims to present this year, and produces short reviews for "The Sunday Age" on a weekly basis. I should admit a bit of a bias here: I've known Lucy for almost 20 years, and her partner is one of my regular drinking buddies. Oddly enough, it was only after I'd been going out with the woman who was to become my wife that I found out she had known Lucy in university, but had lost touch over the years. Sometimes the world can seem very small indeed.
Matilda: You've written fiction in the genres of fantasy, sf, children and young adult; is there any particular form you feel more comfortable in?
Lucy Sussex: Not especially. It depends on the idea, and what form in which it is most likely to work. And I'm not sure that being 'comfortable' in a genre actually produces the best writing. If you're slightly at odds with a genre, writing against it, that can produce an edge. Makes you different, at least.
I just had a story of mine termed highly modernist realism. I'm tickled - never happened before.
M: So the story idea leads to the form? You don't feel constrained to work in any one genre over any of the others?
LS: Or you can be in a situation where you have to work in a form, eg a theme anthology, and you have to work out an idea that will go with it. Eg, an anthology on the theme of song, and I knew as it was US, I would have to be different, ie Australian. What Australian song is well-known in the US? Waltzing Matilda. So I got out the lyrics and decided they didn't make sense. The result was 'Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies'.
If I felt constrained the fun would go out of writing.
M: So the major force behind your writing is the fun of it? Or is there something else?
LS: Ha! Well I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it - that way madness lies. But who knows what lies behind the creative impulse.
M: But sometimes you must feel that you can look back on piece you've written and be able to identify where it came from? I'm thinking particularly of THE SCARLET RIDER. Can you tell us how that book came about?
LS: I had been researching the life of Mary Fortune, pioneer female detective writer (Irish-Canadian-Australian, wrote the longest early detective serial, from 1867-1907). She was on the goldfields and married a policeman, so a lot of the research went into the book. By the way she didn't commit infanticide, but certainly bigamy, was wanted by the police at one time, and seemed to know a suspicious amount about illegal stills. During the course of the research, my life changed dramatically: I ended and started relationships, found a new writing direction, and became grimly determined about getting published. With the result that within several years, I had three books out, THE PEACE GARDEN, THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE (which I edited), and MY LADY TONGUE, all in different areas from different publishers. All involved considerable hurdles, which might have defeated a less bloody-minded writer (which is what I'd become). PEACE had an editor leave, then the press got taken over; THE FORTUNES got one rejection, but an acceptance via an editor at the first firm alerting the second about it; MY LADY TONGUE got a rejection and an acceptance within the course of a single day.
It was hard not to think something of Fortune's determination (and conditions were much, much harder for writers in colonial Australia) had been an object lesson or had somehow transferred across the ether. I was dreaming about her, although I never learnt anything useful from the dreams. At some point I became aware I was getting a bit peculiar, and made an effort to retreat from such a close identification with her. Which was necessary, as Fortune's life was appalling.
Later I found out that this phenomenon is quite common with biographers. Nadia Wheatley calls it 'the madness'. I quizzed quite a few people on the subject, from Michael Holroyd (name drop, clunk) to Brenda Niall. What I found was most had a sense of a kind of 'haunting'. Russell McDougall (Xavier Herbert) said that if he wrote something critical about his subject he had a sense of someone looking over his shoulder and going: 'Tut, tut.'
From there it was a quantum jump to voodoo, probably via William Gibson's COUNT ZERO. It was purely coincidental that A. S. Byatt's POSSESSION had a similar subject, although she eschewed the fantasy - I went for it!
[To be continued.]