AJ Fitzwater was kind enough to drop by today to talk about their delightful debut collection, The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper. To kick things off, I will make introductions by shamelessly stealing from AJ’s author bio.
AJ Fitzwater, a professional dragon wearing a dapper meat suit, is a practitioner of the speculative from New Zealand. They attended Clarion UCSD in 2014, and have won two Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Their work has appeared in such venues of repute as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer Magazine, Glittership, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and a host of anthologies. Their first short fiction collection “The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper” will be out from Queen of Swords Press April 2020. A radio trained voice, AJ also does voice acting and podcast narration.
Welcome, AJ! Congratulations on the publication of The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of being introduced to Cinrak, would you care to say a bit about what people can expect from the collection?
Thank you so much! Someone described Cinrak as “a warm hug”, and I didn’t know that is what I was going for until I got there. It’s all about a capybara pirate and her found family of rapscallions going on adventures on the high seas of Ratdom. There’s Loquolchi the marmot opera diva, Orvillia the Rat Queen, Mereg the Sharp as Cinrak’s rat mentor, Colombia the drag queen mer, Agnes the mysterious kraken, Xolotli the glass whale, and Benj the chinchilla cabin boy. I was aiming for fun, a smattering of ridiculous language, and a sideways twist into pirate unions and battling the biggest monster of all – ones personal anxieties, and learning to be a leader.
I’m sure you have or will get this question a lot, but I must know, where did the inspiration for Cinrak originate? Is she inspired by a real capybara? A real pirate? Inquiring minds must know!
The original story Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars began as an in house joke at a New Zealand natcon a few years back, when a participant brought their rats along as a Guest of Honour, and there was a rat based short story competition. Wild Ride won second prize, then went on to be published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
The character of Cinrak came about from two venues. When I was at Clarion, Jeff VanderMeer let us doodle in an ARC of Acceptance, so on a whim I wrote about wild capybara appearing in strange places in the text. Next, Tumblr was a great place for random educational reading, and posts about capybara came across my dashboard frequently, especially how social and chill they were with other animals. I wrote in my notebook “capybara = great negotiators/leaders”. The square angles of a capybara spoke to me of a dapper butch, I gave her a bow tie and a little saltiness, and let her go ham.
I love the voice of these stories, and the fact that they’re full of adventure and romance. They are charming, and above all joyful, which is something you talk about in your introduction to the collection. I was hoping perhaps you could expand on that concept a bit more – the idea of responding to dark times with joy, and the importance of telling happy and fun stories as well as grimdark ones, especially when it comes to queer characters.
I never expected my first book to be light and fluffy (pun intended)! I usually write very srs bznss stories about feminism and queerness, and my vision when I started writing a decade ago was a debut collection of serious speculative interrogation that shifted the conversation a tiny notch on the dial. Hopefully that will still happen!
But I’m happy to be surprised at the enthusiasm expressed towards the Cinrak stories. I think it was a way for my mind to organically find softness and kindness during troubled times. It’s been extremely difficult to find equilibrium and voice, to help and be helped, since the rise of fascism and authoritarianism, and the extremely troubled times my trans and gender diverse siblings are going through. I’ve written some difficult and angry stories since 2016, but they didn’t exactly bring the catharsis I was searching for.
In 2018, I did a New Zealand Festival event with Charlie Jane Anders where she spoke on writing joy into the dark times, turning queer tragedy into queer hope, and writing ourselves into the future. I remember getting to the end of the interview and feeling uplifted by her positivity, that there could be a way out from here. I began immersing myself in readings and discussions about spiritual sustenance, activism in the long haul, and the doing the work of hope. While all this didn’t trigger an immediate response in my writing, it simmered until I wrote another Cinrak story later in the year (for Queen of Swords Press Scourge of the Seas Of Time (And Space).
When it came time to create Ratdom, I went for the simple – I wanted a world almost devoid of homo-and transmisia. What would their history and political structures look like for that to happen? As for romance, it’s a very awkward thing for me to write, so I leaned into it and made Cinrak romantically awkward, allowing her the space to be loved for it.
Overall, you’re a very prolific short story writer, and you have a knack for capturing a unique voice for each of your tales. How do you go about finding the right voice for each piece? Is there anything special you do to put yourself in a particular mindset, or is it more a matter of each story talking to you in the voice that suits it best?
I have a magpie brain. I’m always chasing a shiny idea. I like experimenting with as many different themes as possible.
Usually my characters arise from that. Cinrak is an anomaly, as she was character first and I built the world to suit her. Sometimes the blender of my brain will throw back a very particular way of speaking for a character or narrative, and I let that lead. Character creation and consistency is one of the hardest things for me, and in early drafts I often find them talking in my voice, their emotional growth is flat, or I’ve recycled a thought pattern, narrative, or character style from a previous story. It’s always a challenge to keep my stories and characters fresh.
Switching gears, you currently reside in New Zealand, which is a place I’m ashamed to admit I know very little about beyond the media stereotypes of natural beauty and adorable animals. What’s something that you think would surprise outsiders about New Zealand? What are some places you like to bring guests, or recommend to people visiting for the first time?
Aotearoa New Zealand is a very driveable country. You’re never more than a couple hours from any coast. Most main centers are an easy few hours drive, bus, or train between, so you’ve got plenty of time to explore. The landscape changes dramatically very quickly. In Te Waipounamu South Island, for example, you can go from the rain forests of Westland, over the Southern Alps, and into the desert plateau of Central Otago within a day.
I prefer Wellington to Auckland. Wellington is quite maneuverable and centralized, with a lot of funky shopping, eats, and arts within the CBD. I’m glad it’s the home of this year’s Worldcon, I can’t wait to show all the great bookshops to my friends.
My home city of Christchurch has been going through dramatic changes since the earthquakes. Currently there’s a big lean towards arts and very centralized eating places, especially Euro style eating halls. We’re waiting for our new convention center and stadium to be built to bring big events back to the area.
I get the sense New Zealand has a thriving speculative fiction community. What, in your mind, are some fantastical or speculative elements about New Zealand, if any? Overall, do you think there’s particular flavor to New Zealand writing that sets it apart from writing from other places, something that would cause you characterize something as “New Zealand Literature”?
Aotearoa New Zealand is an isolated country, even from ourselves. It’s a series of islands that can’t be linked by bridges (as yet), with enormous biodiversity. We are a colonized land, still requiring a large reckoning of our racist history. M?ori and Pasifika cultures, land sovereignty, and political rights are essential parts of our country. And diverse peoples from the world over making their homes here have always been a part of us.
The isolation, environment, history, diversity, mythology I feel are intricate parts of our storytelling. The Quiet Earth is a good example of the isolationist story; a scientist deals with traversing the country and being trapped within its shores when the majority of the population mysteriously disappears. While NZ adult literature tends towards the realist, NZ YA is home to mythology and the fantastic, dealing often in environmental and resisting authoritarianism themes.
New Zealand literature also tends to have a very dry, dark sense of humour, also something that has come out of the isolation and can-do attitude. I have definitely found the sarcasm and humour in my prose doesn’t always sit right with overseas readers, but I don’t want to change it. I want readers to sit with the uncomfortable.
Switching gears again, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?
This is a hard one. All my day jobs have been quite ordinary, with the occasional weird thing happening (usually customer related; I have a poop-in-a-shop story).
Ah yes. The time I was a meerkat. Helped me figure out I’m terrible with kids. A telecommunications company was doing a roadshow in schools and us high school age volunteers were put in animal costumes to match their TV advertising. Except we looked like Winnie The Pooh characters on meth. It was a very hot day, I was sweating buckets inside my full faced, head to toe meerkat costume, and every young child I approached to offer lollies or hugs I made cry or run away. Cinrak I was not.
Now that The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?
I have another book coming out! “No Man’s Land” is my WW2 shapeshifter land girls novella from Paper Road Press in June 2020. I also have a story I am exceedingly proud of, How To Build A Unicorn, in Fireside Fiction’s April 2020 issue.
I’m working on two different novella ideas, both science fiction. One is about a genderqueer person looking for their lost mothers on a desertified planet – at the moment its a bit of a mash up between Mad Max Fury Road and the brain ship genre. And the other is about an orbital pilot who has an accident, finds themself in not quite the right life, and with the aid of a veterans counselor goes in search of their missing pieces – a bit Murderbot, a bit brain ship, possibly a prequel to the previous novella.
All of those sound amazing! Thanks for stopping by!
You’re welcome, and thank you for the opportunity. I hope people enjoy Cinrak and her buddies.