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An Interview with Marlee Jane Ward

Marlee Jane Ward was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, Welcome to Orphancorp. I’ll start things off, as I tend to do, by shamelessly stealing from her author bio…

Marlee Jane Ward is a writer, reader and weirdo living in Melbourne, Australia. She grew up in a small town on the Central Coast of New South Wales and studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. In 2014 she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, Washington. She has short stories in Interfictions, Hear Me Roar and Mad Scentist Journal. Her debut novella, Welcome to Orphancorp, won Seizure’s Viva La Novella 2015 and was published in August. She likes dreaming of the future, cats, and making an utter spectacle of herself.

OrphancorpWelcome! First off, congratulations on the publication of the novella, and congratulations on winning the Viva La Novella Prize. Without giving too much away, can you give readers a little taste of what to expect with Welcome to Orphancorp?

Welcome to Orphancorp is a novella-length dystopian riff about the indomitable Mirii Mahoney’s last week in an industrial orphanage. If she can just keep outta trouble, she’s going to taste freedom for the first time, but she’s fighting against the system, against the other kids, and against herself. It’s a heartfelt, emotional, funny, and diverse story.

Novellas are a tricky length to write. Authors often shy away from it as there aren’t that many publishers willing to take them on, and some readers might avoid them as too long to read in a single sitting, but too short to sink their teeth into in the same way as a novel. What appeals to you about writing novella-length work? Did you always plan for this to be a novella, or did it simply grow beyond the confines of a short story?

It started as a short story at Clarion West, written during Kij Johnson’s week, pretty much entirely just to impress her because she’s so rad and amazing. During the workshop session, she mentioned that it could be extended to novella-length.

When I got back home I found Seizure’s Viva La Novella competition and wrote the extended version in six weeks (and edited it in two) to meet the deadline. It was the longest thing I’d ever written at that point, but because I had the base short story, it was actually kind of easy. If it didn’t win the competition, I had no idea what I was going to do with it, maybe self-publish? But it did, so I was lucky I didn’t have to think about it.

Novella-length appeals to me for a bunch of reasons. One is that I’ve always focused on short stories, which involves paring a story back to its bare bones. Going the other way is a huge stretch for me, but something I need to do. A novella allowed me to work up to getting longer. I also really like that a person can read a novella in one long, or a few short sittings. It’s an immersive way to read.

The Orphancorp world seems like one that’s ripe for additional stories. Do you plan to revisit the world?

I’m writing the sequel now. I’m not finding it as easy. Because WTO is a story about leaving Orphancorp, I’m able to now jump out into the wider world. But the confines of the corp made it easy to tell the story. Outside of it, anything can happen, so I’m struggling a little, just like Mirii would be with taking the next steps of her life and into adulthood. That is a really fraught time for a lot of people – well, it was for me, and it’s been a scramble to get my thoughts sorted, and try to work out all the things I want to say. Right now it’s half-done and already as long as the original. I have a third book planned too, but that’s still hazy in my brain. I think it will solidify more when the second book is finished.

The first story of yours I encountered was, The Walking Thing, published at Interfictions. As I read it, it struck me as a perfect anti-zombie zombie story, inverting and subverting the idea of the walking dead. Was that at all in your mind as you wrote the story? What inspired the story in general?

I love Zombie movies, as well as movies and books about plagues. I read Stephen King’s The Stand at a very early age and the first part of that book really stuck with me. I’d always wanted to write a plague story and I didn’t think much about inverting the whole epidemic/zombie genre until I’d already written the first draft, which is what happens a lot when I write – yay for my subconscious! I love walking – bushwalks and trails, that sort of thing, and when I’m on a long walk I get this weird sense that I’m doing something my body is designed to do, something very primal, so I wondered what it might be like to have that compulsion turn on you.

I also wanted to capture the feel of small towns, one of which I grew up in. Small-town Australia is a very interesting and rough and amazing and scary place that really challenged me as a child and teenager. I wasn’t sure if it would translate well to a US market, but maybe small towns have a kinship, no matter where they are.

Lastly, I really wanted to explore a lot of the issues I had with relationships at that age, both familial and others. I tried really hard to convey that need to learn to stop caring about the people who don’t care about you, and recognizing the relationships that actually matter, which is something that gets very muddied when you are coming of age. So I just mashed all that together and The Walking Thing happened.

You attended the Clarion Writers Workshop last year. Could you talk a bit about that experience? What would you say to someone who might be considering attending? What was the most unexpected thing about Clarion?

Clarion West was one of the best times of my life. It’s so hard to accurately describe just how wonderful that experience was, and what it did for my writing and my life. It was intense, and I was very afraid that I might crumble. I had this intense fear as it was getting closer that they might find out what a nutcase I was and not let me come! At the time I was in a difficult place, mentally. But it was such a balm, the people were so wonderful and I loved them and they loved me. It made believe in my ability as a writer and my value as a person. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

I would recommend that anyone who is thinking about attending should try, and if they get in, make the most of it. Work as hard as you can and don’t waste the precious time you have there, because you’ll never be as productive again. But also, stay up every night playing games, go to all the parties, eat everything, make out with as many people as you can. Maybe don’t drink as much as I did though – unless you are Australian and can handle it.

As for the most unexpected part? It was all a surprise to me. But I think I was most surprised at how quickly so many people from so many different backgrounds bonded and how much I just adored everyone.

Outside of a workshop where you’re intensively writing on a tight deadline, do you have a preferred working method? Do you outline? Wing it? Is there a particular place you like to get your writing done?

I am the worst writer – I plan nothing, have no idea how I get my ideas, and don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, but somehow I make it work. I think that my subconscious does a great deal of puzzling stuff out while I’m thinking of other things, so I’m often pleasantly surprised and I’m learning to trust that more as time goes on. I think people just need to accept that they write the way they write and not compare themselves to others, even though that’s really hard. I berate myself constantly for not being more efficient or having more forethought, but I get stuff done, so maybe I should go easier on myself.

I do like writing in café’s most of all. I adore café culture and I’m always spending far too much money on coffee and food, but it’s the best place for me to get things done. The best cafes must have good wifi and powerpoints by the tables, and it helps that at my favourites the staff all know me and have my order ready to go when I show up.

I like to ask this question of my fellow Canadians, but I see no reason why I shouldn’t ask you as well… As an Australian, do you think there are certain characteristics – setting, theme, tone – to Australian speculative fiction that set it apart from other speculative fiction? (Or Australian writing in general, it doesn’t have to be speculative fiction.)

I don’t know if I’d say that Aussie spec fic has a distinct tone or theme, but there’s often a really distinct sense of place to it, which I would love to be able to capture in more of my work. The land and environment is pervasive in Australian fiction because it’s a really essential part of living here. When you write about Australia, the landscape is as much a part of the story as any character. There’s a kinship with the land that a lot of Aussie writers capture, and an ominousness too. I’ve lived through floods and bushfires and dust storms and that’s just from someone with a pretty tame experience of this country.

I’m really keen to read more Oz spec stuff. I’m about to jump into Justin Wooley’s A Town Called Dust, which has a very cool concept. Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at The Office of Unmade Lists is an excellent novel about post-climate-change Melbourne. I love seeing places I know rendered in fiction. It just gives me an extra connection to it.

The Australian writing scene is very lit focused. So much so that when I began my creative writing degree we were told that genre fiction would not be accepted. It feels like there’s this great divide between the lit and the genre camps. I’ve always loved genre because I love action and because the real world is always all around us all the time, so I like to escape.

While I was growing up in the 90’s there was a lot of great Aussie YA spec fic coming out, from writers like Gillian Rubenstein, Isobelle Carmody, Victor Kelleher, Paul Jennings and John Marsden that I adored, and I’ve kept those books close to my heart. I scour second-hand bookstores for my old YA favourites and am getting a good collection of them again.

What else are you working on, or do you have coming up you’d like people to know about?

I’m still plugging away at the sequel to Welcome To Orphancorp and I hope to be done before the end of the year. In between I work on whatever short story comes to mind, which is like a quick and illicit encounter away from my main squeeze, you know? I’ve got a bunch of shorts second-rounded and accepted so I’m excited to find out if any of them might be available soon.

Thanks for stopping by!

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