Ripley Patton – Finding the Kiwis
Interview by Grant Stone
Ripley Patton is an award-winning American writer who currently calls New Zealand’s South Island home. She’s an award-nominated writer of speculative fiction. In this interview, Grant speaks to her about the origin, and future, of SpecFicNZ, that launched in Wellington on August 28th at Au Contraire, New Zealand’s 31st National Convention.
Q: So what’s SpecFicNZ?
SpecFicNZ is the new (and only) association for writers, editors and publishers of speculative fiction in and from New Zealand. That’s the official answer. On a less official level, SpecFicNZ was something I wanted, and no one else was making it happen, so I figured, “Why not?”. The answers to that question are obvious now, but sometimes NOT having foresight is a good thing. Besides, if I knew back then all the work it would take, I’d still do it. I’d still scrape together a wonderful crew of eleven other writers and slog through the organizational mud for 18 months with them to create a writers association.
Q: How did SpecFicNz come about?
When I moved to New Zealand from the States in 2006, the first thing I did was look for a local or national science fiction/fantasy writer’s association. I had been a member of the Willamette Writer’s Association back in Oregon, and I had found it invaluable for networking, support, and building my career. However, what I found in New Zealand was- nothing. Well, not absolutely nothing. There was the New Zealand Society of Authors, but a quick peruse around their website revealed they were mostly concerned with non-fiction, poetry and literary fiction. I’ll admit, I was somewhat surprised by this. At the time, I sort of thought of New Zealand as a Mecca of fantasy (Yes, thank you Peter Jackson). It was only later, after two years of living and writing from New Zealand that I realized how wrong I had been. Not only is New Zealand not a fantasy Mecca, it actually exports most of its fantasy talent. Kiwis who want to succeed at writing speculative fiction move away from New Zealand or, at the very least, get an agent and publisher overseas. New Zealand doesn’t publish its own spec fic.
Q: What can we expect from the organisation?
About half-way through the process of creating SpecFicNZ, I knew that great things were going to come out of it because they already were. First, through the Core group of twelve (who were located all over the two islands) connections were being formed. Writers who had felt isolated for years were being empowered to network. One in our group, Marie Hodgkinson, is the editor of the only paying magazine currently publishing spec fic in New Zealand. Marie started Sempahore Magazine in 2007 when she was nineteen and still runs it with a volunteer staff while attending university full-time. SpecFicNZ didn’t do that; Marie did. But now we are able to collectively support and promote her amazing work. Others in our group work for, or have started, small press publishing companies such as Random Static and Triskaideka Books, specializing in New Zealand speculative fiction.
Only a few months into development, SpecFicNZ began publishing a free e-newsletter just for New Zealand spec fic events, calls to submission, resources and publication news. Subscription requests kept coming in, and the newsletter even made it across the desk of several major publishing companies who now subscribe.
In September 2009 we also sponsored the first annual New Zealand Spec Fic Blogging Week, featuring 52 posts by 24 authors (some from Australia and the US). This year we’re doing it again the week of September 13-19th and more details can be found on our website here.
So, all that is just what we’ve done BEFORE our official launch. As for the future, we have numerous dreams. I’d love to see us have a cooperative publication similar to Australia’s Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I have a passion to see a mentorship program in place between experienced writers and emerging writers, and emerging writers and student writers. I’d like to see face-to-face branches of SpecFicNZ meeting in various cities throughout New Zealand. I’d love to see SpecFicNZ sponsoring writing events like retreats at Jennifer Fallon’s new Reynox House, local workshops, and Cons specific to writing. And the big dream is to have Spec Fic become more than a genre blip on the NZ Publishing Industry’s radar. If I saw New Zealand speculative fiction talent being published in New Zealand, rather than being exported overseas, I would consider SpecFicNZ a job well done.
Q: Are there any unique characteristics to New Zealand speculative fiction?
First, I think all fiction is informed by the history, culture, geography and location of its writer. That means that anything written by a New Zealander is going to be uniquely Kiwi. But, yes, there are some special characteristics of spec fic from New Zealand. Having only lived here for four years, I don’t pretend to be an expert on what those are. However, having come from outside of New Zealand there are characteristics I’ve noticed that differ from my writing experiences in the US.
The first I’ve already mentioned and that is the lack of publishing opportunities within New Zealand for spec fic. This does have an impact on what Kiwis write, how they write it, and how they market it once it is written. At a recent writer’s event here in Christchurch an award-winning, New Zealand author of speculative fiction spent a large part of the evening defending herself as a genre writer. Later, when asked for the best piece of advice she could give an aspiring NZ speculative fiction writer, she answered, “Don’t publish in New Zealand.” So, there is this sense of not being able to “belong” to your country and do what you love. In order to succeed, you have to take your talent elsewhere. The Internet has helped vastly in making publication possible without actually moving elsewhere, but the climate of disinheritance is still there.
Then there is the quality of separation that comes from living in a nation consisting of two islands. Not only is New Zealand separated from the rest of the world by vast bodies of water, it is also separated from itself. This sense of isolation is a common theme in New Zealand speculative fiction. It isn’t hard to imagine living on another world far from mainstream civilization, or in a different time with different seasons, or in a world where one must make a dangerous, arduous “crossing” just to get somewhere else. Nor is it hard to imagine living in a world with breath-taking fantasy scenery around every corner. We New Zealanders don’t have to imagine this: it’s our reality. But then speculative fiction has always been informed by the writer’s sense of “otherness”. In New Zealand, I think we are just that much more other.
Finally, I think New Zealand writers tend to underestimate themselves and their work. For a long time, Kiwi writers were told not to set their stories in New Zealand, or write about New Zealand because the world didn’t even know where it was. New Zealand is small and distant, and Kiwis seem doubtful that what they do, especially in the entertainment industries, can actually make a global impact. I think creativity is young and undervalued in a country that for so long has prided itself on survival and self-sufficiency. Yes, there is Peter Jackson and his career to point to, but I think it is time to stop riding on his creative fumes and put New Zealand on the map for its current speculative fiction successes.
Update: Ripley and her family live in Christchurch, which has suffered a 7.1 magnitude quake and serious aftershocks. Please consider donating to one of the earthquake appeals. A list can be found here: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/promotions/news/article.cfm?c_id=500848&objectid=10671104
Ripley’s website can be found at http://www.ripleypatton.com/ .