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TERRY DOWLING
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TERRY DOWLING HOMESITE
INTERVIEWS

Terry
Dowling

— on his life and work —

I was born at Lystra Private Hospital, in Petersham, Sydney, on 21 March 1947, and spent the first three years of my life living in a terrace house in Marrickville before my folks re-located to a War Service home in Hunter's Hill. That became a pretty magical landscape for me for all sorts of reasons growing up in the 50s: lots of bushland and playing fields nearby, a local dump, a large cemetery, a madhouse, an old picture theatre for weekend matinees, lots of eccentric people to meet, plenty of detail to draw on for stories. In a sense, this makes me pretty much a regional writer; I've always had an acute sense of landscape, whether it be local, the Australian desert-scapes, or places like Arizona and New Mexico, the Costa Brava and so on.

As a guy who saw Sputnik orbiting overhead in 1957 and the Beatles performing live in '64, the sf I grew up on pretty well came from comics and kids' annuals in the 50s and from radio shows like Rocky Starr and Captain Miracle. There were the Captain W.E. Johns' 'Kings of Space' novels, which I really enjoyed and started collecting, though by then I was in high school and blessed by two events: all these cheap Digit sf paperbacks suddenly being available in Woolworths, and meeting a guy at school who swapped me a cache of American sf magazines for my Digit copy of Van Vogt's The Weapon Makers. I began buying magazines like Amazing, Fantastic and Galaxy myself in 1962, and that very year came upon both Ballard's Vermilion Sands stories and Jack Vance's The Dragon Masters. It had quite an impact, and with Bradbury's Martian stories and the Charles Higham's Horwitz horror anthologies really helped form my profile of interests - provided you add to it the work of Cordwainer Smith and Philip K. Dick, the artwork of the Surrealists (notably Dali, Delvaux, Ernst, de Chirico), and a fascination with archaeology and ancient civilizations (Ancient Egypt in particular) I'd had since primary school.

Anyway, like so many would be writers, I began writing fiction in high school, doing mock-ups of sf magazines, reading Leonard Cottrell's books on Ancient Egypt, Crete etc, blending all these elements. It was a pretty constant thing, a sustained level of input. After high-school I took up training as a school teacher (mainly because I'd enjoyed school so much) and kept books full of artwork and poems, story fragments again, mostly derivative of Bradbury, Vance, Ballard and Smith.

After Teachers' College, I taught for one year in 1967 before being conscripted for national service during the Vietnam War. During these years I wrote poetry and songs mainly, with some fragments of stories, and managed to perform in rock bands in my time off. Following my stint in the army, my resettlement benefits included one year full-time at a tertiary institution. I'd already matriculated to Sydney University, and so began a degree there in Archaeology, English and Ancient History. This was a magical time for me.

I won a scholarship to complete my BA with Honours in English Literature and Archaeology, then scored a Research Award that let me complete my MA (Honours) in English Literature, specializing in the work of J.G. Ballard and the Surrealists, and so science fiction. That meant nine years at uni all told, again playing in rock and acoustic rock bands, writing songs, some stories, not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life, tending to believe any creative success would involve my songwriting. I won my heat of Cadbury Showcase in 1974, based on viewers' phone-in votes, and one way and another this led me to appearances on some ABC television science programs for children in the later 70s, writing and performing songs on guitar, presenting on camera dressed up as pirates, spacemen, robots etc. This in turn brought me to the attention of the producers of Mr Squiggle & Friends, who liked my songs, and I began an eight-year stint as a regular guest, writing and performing songs with the puppets and Miss Jane. At this time, too, the ABC put money into producing seven of my songs for a musical I'd written about a stranded time-traveller.

It was during my undergrad years at uni that I met Van Ikin, and began submitting articles, poems and stories to first Enigma then Science Fiction when Van got that project up and running. The earliest stories were "Illusion of Motion" (which, for some reason, Van preferred to my own title "Illusion of Free Flow"), and "Oriental on the Murder Express" (both in Enigma, the magazine of SUSFA, the Sydney Uni sf society), and "Shade of Encounter" in the second issue of Science Fiction.

Still not sure what I wanted to do to earn a living, I took a teaching position at a Sydney business college, which again gave me a lot of freedom to explore my other interests: songwriting, fiction, performing in bands such as Gestalt, though I soon found most of the writing I was doing was critical articles. In short, it was 'creativity gone elsewhere'. In 1981, I put myself on the line (or rather my friend, Carey Handfield, did) and sold my first story to Philip Gore at Omega Science Digest,which in many ways still represents a high-point (possibly the high-point) of genre publishing in Australia. Omega had a 30,000 print-run, with a pass-on readership, by independent survey, of an incredible 150,000. That's quite a demographic.

I had a bit of a dream run with Omega, being very well paid and, like other Omega writers, having full-page colour illustrations done for my work. Because the US parent publication, Science Digest, closed down, Omega folded one issue before doing a 12-page feature on Tom Rynosseros's future Australia, centring on paintings by my good friend and colleague, Nick Stathopoulos. Nick still has some finished paintings and some roughs for the artwork that would've appeared with the article. Van and I used one of the pieces (in a quite washed-out version, I might add) as the cover to Mortal Fire.

Other career highlights. Meeting Jack Vance in 1980 after writing articles on his work for Science Fiction, becoming a very close family friend. Meeting Harlan Ellison in 1983, really hitting it off, travelling together, visiting Harlan in LA, editing The Essential Ellison. For the past six or so years, I've been going to California, hanging out with Harlan and Susan, spending Christmas and New Year with the Vances in Oakland. Another focusing highlight in 1980 was having Joe and Gay Haldeman take me out to see the Voyager fly-by of Saturn at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, stopping on the way to pick up Theodore Sturgeon, sitting with Poul Anderson and all those other writers I'd read and admired all my life, watching their stories go the wall as new images of Saturn's moons came up on the screen. Closer to home, other highlights have been producing Mortal Fire with Van, doing my review column for The Australian, working on various projects with Nick.

I became a writer, a 'fantasist' in the true sense of the word, out of a belated realization that it had always been my natural area, that the energy I'd been putting into songwriting, critical writing, keeping a band together was.really the same creativity. We all have it, but many of us never put ourselves on the line with it, prefer to play it safe. Roleplaying and computer games, watching movies etc are really ways of placing the creative urge. I still have all my toy soldiers from my boyhood, and one day I had them all out, creating a scenario, and realized that when the game was over, so was the story, that if I put the narrative energy into fiction, the story would remain. I suspect most people put their best creative energy into the venues, franchises etc supplied by others. That's all well and good but you may never discover what you yourself can do. With the Omega sales and Mr Squiggle, I learned that I could get a return for my efforts, truly have something that was mine.

I had a charmed life there for a while, like I say. The first story sent to Omega was picked up, as was my second and third (for Men's Journal Quarterly, along with an interview). In a sense, I came to writing late, but had acquired a confidence, a vital sense of cadence and euphony because of a natural affinity to music and the power of rhythm. Many of my stories are intended to be read aloud. So while I'm aware of all the doubts and misgivings I had, the effort that went into fragments and some pretty mediocre pieces; others just see the sudden arrival and these rather assured pieces of writing. It only appears like that because I had plenty of preparation time in music and my studies of literature and language. I had distilled a set of attitudes, if you like.

Favourite writers and influences?
As I say, Jack Vance (imaginewhat a delight it was to have a planet named after me in Throy!), J.G.Ballard (particularly the Vermilion Sands collection and the earlier work), Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith, Harlan Ellison, John Crowley, William Shakespeare. Add to these the best of Theodore Sturgeon, Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany. Add John Fowles for The Magus, Fritz Leiber for Our Lady of Darkness, Robert Lipscomb for The Salamander Tree, Ian McDonald for Desolation Road, Patrick White for The Vivisector, Herman Melville for Moby Dick.

Awards and honours?
Please see the bibliography from The Man Who Lost Red, MirrorDanse Books.

I'm presently dividing my time between my study and library in Hunters Hill and an apartment in Drummoyne. Apparently only about 8% of writers earn their living from their writing, so I teach a Communications course full-time at a large Sydney business college, and supplement my income from my writing and my regular column in The Australian, over which my editor gives me full control. I work very hard on both. I make sure I work on my fiction every day, either in a coffee shop, writing longhand, or keying into my word-processor. No exceptions, no excuses. It is what I am and a source of great joy! With my review column, publishers send me their latest releases and I select the books I wish to review. I figure I'm only as good as my next effort and count myself expendable, so I work very hard at it. In fact, I probably agonize more over an 800-word column than I do over my stories.

Am I still holding workshops?
I've done two now, one at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in 1992 and one at the Centre for Creative Writing at the University of Canberra in May 95. I've enjoyed both immensely. I've also been Guest of Honour at three Australian conventions (two in Perth, one in Sydney) and was a speaker at the Word Festival in Canberra in March 1993. In each case I was approached by the organizers of the events. I repeatedly gain the impression that people are talented but too rarely get to develop their talents. We all need something more in our lives, some added sense of wonder and possibility. I am convinced that sf/fantasy and horror can give a voice to this need.

How has my work been critically received by local and overseas' critics?
Very well indeed.


How much have I had published overseas?
The Science Fiction Book Club published a US edition of Rynosseros in 1993. I placed "Shatterwrack at Breaklight" with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (USA), "Mirage Diver" with The Best of the Rest 1990 (USA), and "The Quiet Redemption of Andy the House" with Strange Plasma (USA). Ellen Datlow reprinted "The Daemon Street Ghost-Trap" in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 1994 (USA). Please see attached bibliography.

As for the difficulties of conforming to one particular genre, I believe that genre distinctions are determined by publishers, editors, marketing people and people who need 'handles' on things so they can be comfortable. Storytelling is storytelling. All storytelling, by its nature, is fantasy. If my stories fit established genres, then that's useful, but ultimately I write what I'm moved to write. For me, SF/Fantasy and Horror are vector terms, they are useful only as approximate indicators, as butterfly nets if you will. They have very little to do with the essence of butterflies, but sometimes manage to snare one. The trouble with classifications is reification. You end up getting what you look for. I am a fantasist who uses all of history, imagination, science, fear, wonder etc to produce entertainments which, by their nature, comment on this present age, cannot help but do so because that's what all storytelling does.

How do I feel about the Australian SF/Fantasy/Horror scene?
I believe it is vigorous and generally healthy. Its strengths are the prevailing sense we have now that anything is possible, that we can compete very well with the overseas product, can produce anything as good as what is appearing elsewhere. Its weaknesses are that on the one hand we have a 'lowest common denominator' situation, an often slavish and formula imitation of what is being churned out elsewhere, and on the other an excessive literariness for its own sake, with very little strength of plot or sense of storytelling. So while it's healthy in terms of the volume of activity going on, there is both the usual lack of work with originality and freshness, and a lack of distinctive voices.

But at least it's easier to get published now. With magazines like Eidolon, Aurealis and Bloodsongs, the number of fanzines taking fiction, the whole exciting realization by small press publishers that the big imprints are less and less likely to come up with something new and special, the fact that with desktop publishing etc the stigma has gone out of vanity publishing, I believe it has become easier. But as I say, the issue these days is being a writer with a distinctive enough voice and vision. To make an important distinction, there's science fiction (whatever that ultimately is) and there's sci-fi (which is a lot easier to pin down). There's the equivalent in fantasy and horror as well, the material which extends the body of work and that which just copies what's already out there. Most writers settle for formula and - ironically, given what these fields can accomplish - mediocrity, even while doing well at it financially. Good luck to them.

My own involvement?
I generally make it a point to support local publications when invited to. Aurealis has published two stories so far, Eidolon six or more. I have a very close association with Eidolon magazine, mainly because it grew out of the excitement of Swancon 15 in 1990 and its editors are my friends.

Do I have a particular kind of audience?
That's hard for me to say. I believe in never talking down to my readers, that they have a unique connection with the work and should bring their own interpretations and imagination to it. That means they probably need to work a little harder than most writers require them to. Much of this stems from my regarding myself as a mainstream writer and not a genre writer per se. From the feedback I have received, I'd say I attract a more sophisticated reader.

As for involving the reader, I think there is a unique and incredibly intimate connection between the storyteller and the receiver. It is one of the most profound connections humans are capable of, because the storyteller is given the receiver's imaginative participation. Only the reader can bring it alive. It is intimacy and mutuality; it is a vital transaction which belongs to both parties equally. My story becomes yours. Yours becomes mine. It cannot be otherwise. There is no other way for it to be but a transaction. Fiction is one of the most volitional of artforms and experiences. If you don't win the reader, he or she will not stay with you. Once you have won the reader, the transaction begins, them using your story to have their own unique experience of it; you using their experience to bring it alive beyond your own conception of it. Accepting the inevitability of this transaction is essential.

The importance of experience to the writer?
Crucially important, especially if you grant the absolute richness of an individual's imaginative life and how it permeates, subsumes, commandeers that person's day to day reality. 'Experience' comes to include everything: yearnings, daydreams, dreams, fantasizings, fears, all of it. Jung said it, the individual is the only reality, so experience and individual perception are everything. The truly difficult task is to discover how individuals you meet have built reality for themselves out of all these levels of experience. It's a wonder we connect as well as we do.

Perhaps we need meaningful transactions to help us build a subjectively meaningful reality for ourselves.

My interest in artefacts, symbols? Once you allow this private, personal, secret reality-building process which continues throughout our lives, it's more a case of allowing that things, objects, details acquire personal significance, privately important roles, and stand to be interpreted in terms of the individual. One of the great gifts of our genres, are their intrinsic capacity to re-sensitize us to the commonplace. It's what the Surrealists sought to do, to put us in touch with a higher, richer, fuller reality by estranging us from the mundane, then giving it back to us again. My recurring theme of trying to make us see the world with New Eyes is a vitally important one for maintaining quality of life and simply letting us keep proportion and perspective about things which we're densensitized to by the routines of daily living. 'Objectifying' context, re-focusing our attention on things, is something we forget to do. When was the last time you noticed the shape of the light-switch in your bedroom? What you've hung on your western wall, etc?

My interest in producing series of stories?
Apart from the simple logistics of having a full-time teaching career to deal with, the main attraction is because it allows me to make a creative investment over time. I regard the short story as probably the perfect storytelling form, and rather than sully the sense of wonder, the magic of a locale, I can sketch it, hint at it, tease with it better in shorter pieces. In novels, you have to give more. With series, I get to enjoy and maintain the wonder of a place, discover it as I go along. I'm doing it for me as much as the reader, you see. I'm going on the journey too. Also, you get to do stories you would never have imagined doing in a more condensed sitting. Over time, the stories work their own beguilement, can re-inspire you, deliver up surprises and angles you'd never have expected.

The way a book looks, the way it's formatted and presented?
I think presentation is one of the great secrets of the total reading experience. One of the reasons I've stayed with Aphelion is because Peter and Mariann McNamara have let me have more cover and design control than I'd get anywhere else. I can design the 'experience' of the book, have more control over the whole journey undertaken by the reader. I always remember how Bloomsbury were able to poach the writers they wanted from other imprints simply by promising cover-control to those authors. It tells you how important many writers consider the overall design of the book.

The role of dreams?
I have always kept dream books because the unconscious is such a powerful, unquantifiable, ultimately 'self-serving' part of the Self that it should be used and nurtured and encouraged. Not overlooked, trivialized or dismissed, but actually brought into a functional, daily alliance. I pin up lists of story titles and just leave them there for the unconscious/subconscious to work on. I genuinely dreamt the title of my latest book, An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, and could list dreams right back to my childhood. But the point is that a person's dream-life is incredibly user-friendly. It's imagination free-forming, surfing the ocean of possibility. If you grant what Jung said about 'Big Dreams' giving messages from the Self to the Self which should be heeded, then their place is any life becomes crucial.

I write to entertain, to charm and empower, to bring myself and others to a state of exaltation of the spirit. I wish to experience (and so share) the delight of sensing, knowing something more, however fleeting and transitory. I wish to celebrate kinship and honour and civilization, to help myself and others see the world and the universe with new eyes. The role of this particular writer is to put us in touch with the ineffable and the sublime, with absolute possibility, to use wonder and adventure and fear to achieve catharsis and transformation.

My process of writing? Sometimes I have a title, like I say, or an opening paragraph I just leave until it begins to sing and lure me in. Sometimes there'll be a closing image, a resolution you work backwards from, a culmination needing the events which brought it about. Other times there'll be a conversation, a moment of conflict or crisis which, once created, recorded, begs explanation. Most recently, a painting by Shaun Tan led me to write a story to illustrate what it gave me. If you get stuck, you just let your characters meet and talk, see what they say, take your unconscious 'storyteller' by surprise. Sometimes you leave it alone for a day, a week, a month, a year, and come back to it. I had the opening for "Nobody's Fool", the first story in Wormwood, years before I used it. When the time came along, it just filled out under my hands. Let your imagination and unconscious have its turn. Give it jobs and it will become your great ally. It is you and it wants to make. And making, not destorying, not diminishing, is what it's all about!

Present projects? More of the same. I have my next Tom Rynosseros book just about done, again a series of connected stories, some of them already published in Eidolon, others held over for a first appearance in this particular book. I'm working on a Wormwood novel, which is going well. I have more horror stories planned and partly done, bringing me a lot of pleasure.

I won't give titles or say much about them because I want the ideas to remain fresh. As both Frank Herbert and Ray Bradbury have said, you used the same energy to talk about them as to write them.




Eidolon Publications 1995-2005


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