Interview: Sir Julius Vogel Award winners Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts

Here we interview AHWA members and multiple Sir Julius Vogel Award winners Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts, who are really doing their utmost to inject some horror into the land of the long white cloud. AHWA Vice-President Greg Chapman managed to track the pair down and talk to them about their recent accolades.

GC: Congrats on your Sir Julius Vogel Awards, Lee and Dan – how does it feel? Has it sunk in yet?

DR: Thanks Greg, it’s always a buzz to be a part of the SJVs and even better when you get to take one home.

LM: Or three! It’s pretty surreal. As if I’ve fallen into an alternative reality.

 GC: Lee, this award was your first horror novel; quite an achievement by anyone’s standards.

LM: Actually, Greg, rumours of my brilliance have been greatly exaggerated as Into the Mist is my fourth novel, although the others were in different genres. But you know the saying: ten years to overnight success. This is the first time I’ve won Best Novel though, and with a horror title. If you take a look at this year’s finals ballot, horror and dark fiction make up a significant portion of work listed. I’m excited about that because it suggests a shift in attitudes, with horror moving from ugly stepsister to well, still ugly, but something more legitimate. Anyway, I’m very proud of the story, and thrilled that it resonated for readers here.

DR: I think Into the Mist has had the impact it has because it’s not just a compelling, well-written story, it’s also very local, and it taps into many of the deeper fears that we as New Zealanders in particular carry for the darker, wilder places in our country. Places where there are still no roads and things are much as they were before the first waka landed, and we’re never more than a couple hours drive from them. The story premise of Mist can’t be brushed off as simply supernatural imagining, it’s utterly conceivable. We had giant birds in the moa and the Haast eagle, so why not a giant sphenodon? That’s what Lee does so well, she takes these irrational terrors that hide just out of sight and gives them enough rationale that we have to accept they just might be real.

GC: You also both won for your editing collaboration- was this your first collab? I’m guessing it won’t be your last.

DR: Well, where to start? We sort of fell into collaborating, fairly unexpectedly, not having worked together before 2013, but all the ingredients in the recipe seemed to be there, and so here we are. Lee and I first collaborated on a little project called Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror in 2013, which turned into more of a mouthful than we were expecting. A little collection of flash horror fiction based on the creepy things little kids say, it went on to win the SJV and Australian Shadows Awards in their respective anthology categories in 2014, all the while raising money for a charity dedicated to children’s literacy. Oh the irony. Then came At the Edge in 2016, and more recently our kiwi-noir crime horror novel Hounds of the Underworld has been picked up by US publisher Raw Dog Screaming Press, due for release in July. Hounds is the first book in the Path of Ra series, with Book 2 due out in 2018.

LM: We’ve had so much fun collaborating on Hounds. It was supposed to be a novella, just an experiment really after our editing projects, but we got a little carried away and it turned into a quirky he-said she-said novel, with each of us writing one half of a mismatched brother-sister team who don’t always see the world the same way. It’s much like that with our writing: Dan has a knack for flair, so his prose always goes that step further, taking the darker murkier explosive path, whereas I prefer to keep the story threads tight and within the realm of plausibility. Our collaboration resembles the superposition of particle states, where we – writers and characters ‒ vacillate between conflict and co-operation.

DR: Basically, Lee’s the sensible big sister to my chaotic little brother, always trying to keep it real while I’m sneaking monsters into the shadows and throwing about inexplicable explosions that the heroes have to run away from in slow motion. Much like real life, really.

GC: Dan you also had two nominations on the ballot for your novellas, one of which, Tipuna Tapu, won the Australian Shadows Award earlier in the year. What is it about novellas that appeals to you?

DR: My novellas are probably short stories that have got out of hand; I have a tendency to chase ideas deep into the shadowy underworld.

LM: That’s true. Dan isn’t afraid to explore into provocative themes, and those require complex plots and character development, which inevitably leads to a slightly longer wordcount.

DR: Also, Tipuna Tapu was written for an anthology of novella-length adventure stories, And Then… (Clan Destine Press, 2016), so the brief was to write to that length. Yes, someone encouraged, nay, insisted, that I write all those words all in the same place. And as long as they kept coming, I let them. It was also a good opportunity for me to dive into a subject I’d been wanting to tackle, all about losing and regaining touch with our roots, but with enough scope to do so with respect for the subject matter, rather than it being merely trimmings. Tipuna Tapu was a difficult story to tell but the freedom with the wordcount meant it got to say everything it needed to say.

GC: And finally, Lee, your contribution to horror was also recognised. What does the horror genre mean to you?

LM: Oh, this question. I envisage horror as a spectrum: on the one hand there’s a certain unease or discomfort, a ‘through the looking glass, darkly’, and on the other you have what Stephen Jones (editor) eloquently describes as ‘eyeballs on a plate’.  Of course, effective horror has to invoke fear. Kiwi writer William Cook says, “It is in the apprehension and the emotional interplay of fear where the best horror lurks.” These days, a flick through the news channels is a pretty scary exercise. But while the Best Novel and Collected Works awards were for contributions to the genre, this last Sir Julius Vogel Award was for service to the community, which is more about behind-the-scenes efforts to mentor new writers into the genre, build networks, and promote new work. [Whispers] Don’t tell anyone, Greg, but giving me this award is a bit like giving a blue ribbon to the restaurant diner instead of the chef. I love New Zealand dark fiction and horror, especially when it’s nicely rare and oozing blood, so it’s hardly a surprise that I’d want to recommend it. This award should really have gone to all our horror writers for putting out such amazing work.

GC: Anything else you’d like to add?

LM: If any AHWA members are looking to embark on a collaborative project, Dan and I are currently working on a custody agreement for shared trophies. PM us for details.

DR: You can find copies of all these books in the lobby, just beside the peanuts and the pickled salamander eyeballs. Three cheers for the ferryman (Come on, he works hard even on public holidays). 

Links:

Into the Mist by Lee Murray (Cohesion Press)

At the Edge Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray eds. (Paper Road Press)

Baby Teeth – Bite Sized tales of Terror Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray eds. (Paper Road Press)

Hounds of the Underworld by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray (Raw Dog Screaming Press)

Cover art credits:
Into the Mist: Dean Samed
At the Edge: Emma Weakley (Won the 2017 SJV for Best Professional Art)
Hounds of the Underworld: Daniele Serra

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