After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been able to find the time to bring back my popular series of interviews with authors and editors that I’ve featured here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer over the years; and I’m absolutely delighted to begin again by being able to speak with one of the most impressive horror authors I’ve encountered in the past couple of years, and a rising star in the Horror genre, Australian maestro Zachary Ashford. He is the author of a number of short stories and novelettes, including Autotomy Cocktail and The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory from Demain Publishing; the killer koala-themed novellas Sole Survivor and Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose from Unnerving; and most recently the post-apocalyptic horror novella When the Cicadas Stop Singing published by Horrific Tales Publishing. He was kind enough to find time in his schedule to agree to answer some questions from me about his background and life experiences, and how those have influenced his writing and his goals as an author; the inspirations behind his various stories; how he manages to write stories across different genres; and what his plans are for the future.
Hi there Zachary, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer!
No worries, man. Happy to be involved.
Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
I think it’s fairly similar to everyone’s story. I’ve always been a voracious reader. As any author will tell you, the two are intrinsically linked, and I know from a young age that I wanted to write stories. I would sit back and do that. My mum always used to say, ‘if you want to write, follow this path…’ In a roundabout way, I did that, studying journalism and communication with a huge chunk of creative writing in my uni degree. From there, it took me a long time to actually write, but once I did, it seemed to be well-received, and I haven’t looked back since.
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
Like so many horror/genre authors, Stephen King was huge. I grew up reading a lot of sci-fi, mythology, and fantasy as well, so I’ve always kind of liked that fantastic element to my horror. I often try to input that – and I suppose the old-school 80s B-movies play a big role too. I just love over-the-top, bonkers stories. Of course, the Australian setting is pretty important to most of my work so far. I just love that it’s a unique place with its own role in the horror genre, but I love putting that out there.
Turning to your published works, I first encountered you through your novella Sole Survivor, published by Unnerving as part of their Rewind or Die series. Without spoiling the plot, it’s a blood-soaked romp in which a group of arrogant, spoilt and hugely annoying reality show contestants are stranded on a remote island for a new gameshow – only to discover the native population of savage, bloodthirsty Dropbears ready to eviscerate them all. Now, the Dropbear is a mythical version of the beloved, cuddly Koala Bear – how on earth did you decide to write about it? And what made you pair it up with a bunch of reality contestants?
You know, it’s funny because many years ago, I was actually toying with the idea of the reality tv contestants of a survivor-like show being abandoned and secretly filmed while they thought they were stranded. At that stage, I was looking at it from a more comedic angle for a uni assignment, but when the Rewind or Die call came up, I was looking at how I could have a b-grade creature feature story and was pretty set on the drop bear. I’ve actually used them when modelling awareness campaigns for school students – because they’re not real, it’s a lot of fun use in the class, and students can’t copy your work when they do those assignment. Eventually, I put two and two together and came up with what I think is a fun – if a bit raw – slice of bonkers horror.
Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose then moves the setting to a major Australian city – Brisbane – as the Drop Bears are able to transfer their murderous capabilities from a remote island to a major urban centre, with a major increase in butchery in the process! Did you originally plan a sequel for Sole Survivor? And what made you choose Brisbane as the setting for the novella over other locations in Australia – or perhaps even international locations?
The idea had occurred to me. The original ending to Sole Survivor is very much a recontextualised version of Lord of the Flies, but I knew I could have more fun with the drop bears. They are just an immense thrill-ride, and I often crack myself up when I’m writing with them and trying to figure out how to make the kills bugger and better. I also knew that there were questions in the first one that weren’t answered. Who was Steinberg? Where did the drop bears come from? I wanted to backfill those answers and also ask what would happen if the drop bears made it off an isolated location and got into a civilised area. There’s also the tragic real-world impact that being on these shows has on the real people who aren’t prepared for the visibility. We’re looking at dozens of reality tv contestants committing suicide, hundred more having their lives ruined, and the television networks maintaining control over their lives – and not giving a shit about their wellbeing. In some countries laws have been passed to minimise it, but the real-world horror I touched on here is so much more terrifying than anything in the books.
Still, once I started asking that, and really considering the real impact being on these shows has on the lives of many contestants, I knew I had the next phase of December’s character-arc and by introducing The Ark (a group of militant animal-rights activists) I knew I had a great way to force her back into action, even though she only wants to escape.
As for choosing Brisbane, it was just an idea to use some of the awesome settings I know and love and creating havoc in them. Most of the places I’ve used are real, down to the streets of Albion, and I really hope that anyone familiar with Brisbane gets a thrill out of seeing places like the Valley, South Bank, the Riverstage, Toowong Cemetery being featured in the book.
I’ve toyed with international locations in my head – and I know I’ve probably got more drop bear stuff in me – if I can convince anyone to go along with it. I kind of like the idea of using ridiculous locations on one hand (in space, on an underwater marine base – SS3: Drop Bears Destroy the Galaxy or SS4: Drop Bears Jump the Shark) but then I also kinda want to mimic Herbert’s The Rats trilogy and move them into a dystopia. Who knows? Maybe I can do both?
All of your works are based in or around Australia as a setting, often engaging with the social and cultural issues that have stretched through the country’s history and into the present day, as with The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory. How has Australia inspired your writing, both as a setting and culture, and do you think it has any unique attributes it can offer the Horror genre?
I sort of alluded to this before, but I think it just comes down to the adage of writing what you know. (Kids, don’t let teachers tell you that means you don’t use your imagination…it just means you should use your own cultural values and knowledge about whatever insane ideas you have!!!) I was born in the UK and I have some knowledge of those places I lived in until I about ten, but by and large I’m raised in QLD and steeped in Australian culture, so to assume other perspectives else would come across as false. As for writing in response to social issues and our cultural/historic context, I think that’s just something that’s innate in my personality and something I care about. Sometimes, it’s a reaction, and other times it’s because I make connections as I’m writing and try to infuse that into the story.
As for what Australia offers the genre, I think there’s so much. Obviously, on that prima facie level, Australia is full of deadly critters, but there’s a lot more to it. We’re a country built on the back of an invasion and genocide and that needs to be shouted about on the sociopolitical level, but from a base cultural and literary context, the best Australian books are steeped in themes of isolation and the struggle to survive against a hostile world/environment. Both of those things lend themselves naturally to horror. And, of course, one thing that’s frequently mentioned when speaking about Ozploitation horror is how vicious it can be. That’s a fun thing, and it’s important to remember that running through the blood of Australia is the ongoing conflict that’s rich in many former British colonies, the battle of the working class (who here, often proclaim to be born of convicts) and the elitist capitalists who’ll rape and pillage the land, the environment and the common man for the sake of profit. If you’re on the working class side of that – you’ve got a right to be pissed off, and I think that manifests in Australia’s own brand of violent horror.
Following on from that, I know that there aren’t a huge number of Australian horror authors that have broken into the UK and US markets, and even fewer horror titles based in Australia – what have your experiences been in publishing in the Australian publishing world, and then trying (and succeeded!) in breaking into the international market? Are there any lessons you’ve learnt and can pass onto others in the genre?
Oh, man, thank you for saying that, but I don’t know if I can profess to be successful in breaking any markets. I’m lucky that in the age of the internet, publishing is a very global thing. Most of my published works have come from the States, Canada or the UK. I’ve actually found getting my name amongst Australia’s genre writers here to be something I still hope to do. I look at people like Alan Baxter or Lee Murray (NZ – but Oz and NZ are pretty close) and see immensely skilled authors who set an example and open doors for the rest of us. There’s a tonne of great writers here – Matthew R Davis should be selling millions of books if you ask me. Andy Cull, Aaron Dries, Kaaron Warren, DI Russell, Lee Franklin, Mark Towse, the list goes on and on and on.
As for advice, be your own champion, champion the genre to others, don’t self-reject, ask if you don’t know, and pay it forward.
The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory and Autotomy Cocktail from Demain Publishing are, I think, much more contemplative and atmospheric works than the Sole Survivor series – the former looks at complex, difficult issues like racism, colonialism and the on-going treatment of the indigenous population of Australia, and the latter is focused on Body Horror as a subgenre, with a Cronenberg-like core. How did you go about writing such different titles for Demain? What was the thought process behind them – and what were you hoping to put across for each?
The two stories in The Encampment & Blood Memory were among the first I wrote. I think at that stage, I was just trying to write the best stories I could. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where I was, but with Blood Memory, that was my first story, and I guess I was really quite happy to try to write that from an almost literary perspective. Compared to SS and Autotomy in particular, it’s the closest I’ve done to elevated work – although it still features a massive crocodile.
Autotomy, though, I was actually going for that silly tone that comes up in SS. It’s more lighthearted. There are riffs on Re-Animator scenes and the whole thing is just a deliberately ridiculous take on home-science.
Your latest work is the novella When the Cicadas Stop Singing, a post-apocalyptic tale that really burrows into the moral and ethical conundrums that would come in such a devastating event. It’s certainly different to your previous works, though it does build on some of the themes present in them. Can you take us through the thought processes that led you to writing it? And what your aims were for it?
With Cicadas, I really wanted to tell a cohesive, single-perspective story. The SS books jump around in perspective. I’d been toying with various incarnations of that book for a long time, but once I settled on how I’d do it – as well as taking some advice from more skilled operators (Alan Baxter and Graeme Reynolds, who published it) I was able to create a really focused story that looked at the characters surviving in the post-apocalyptic world while being really selfish with their own personal crises. It would have been really easy to make that a fantasy/sci-fi story with its focus on world-building, but what makes horror so effective is that it’s about resilience and reactions to terrifying situations. I wanted to drill into the loss people have there – and create a living, breathing world without focusing 80,000 words of prose on the trees and the mountains.
When it came to writing it, the ending was originally pretty different. I know what I wanted, and the actual outcome is similar, but there was much more involvement from another group of people and that was cut in favour of a more intimate approach to the final conflict. I think that’s for the best. The final chase scene is a lot of fun, and I think it’s pretty effective. I’m also really happy in that I managed to keep a lot of the literary elements I wanted in there. The circular resonance between the novella’s opening and closing sentences, the mirroring of the chase scene, and the visceral nature of it all.
Turning now to some more general questions, I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who go to a coffee shop and sit with a laptop typing away; or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
Nah, no coffee shop for me. I’m a funny bugger when it comes to concentration, and I really need to get locked in. If there’s too much going on around me, my brain is everywhere. Ideally, I get a plan/plot locked down that I can work to, and then I get in the zone for it. I do listen to things, and the music is tonally important. For the SS books, I basically listened to an angry Australian metal band back to back. They’re called Dead Kelly, and they’re a very tongue-in-cheek and very sweary group. They’re basically perfect for that book. With Cicadas, I used a lot of rainforest sounds, rain sounds and forest-fire sounds. It was a much calmer time.
With my most recent finished manuscript, I listened almost exclusively to a death metal band called Aborted, and the process is similar for another manuscript I’m working on now.
Following on from that, would you say that you’ve found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved between short fiction to novels and entire series?
Tough to say. I’m a big advocate for being an eternal learner, and I thnk I’ve become better at the art of writing fiction. I think, the biggest thing I’ve found is that simply writing prose I feel is ‘amazing’ isn’t the purpose of telling a story. It’s got to work. In the early days, I fell into that trap a lot. I’m happier to forego that kind of stuff now. Who knows maybe one day I’ll write a literary piece with no dialogue punctuation.
So far you’ve written almost exclusively horror titles – are there any other genres that you’d like to explore and write in, that you haven’t ventured into yet? Anything that takes your fancy – but perhaps isn’t commercially/financially viable, or you haven’t had the time to focus on as yet?
Yes and no. I’ve written a manuscript that I think would be ideal for school-use. A Bildungsroman with no horror elements. I could see myself easily moving into the action genre, but when it comes to fantasy and science-fiction, the research scares me – as does the attention to world building. One day, perhaps. I’d also love to focus more time on learning how to write screenplays or moving into comic books, but I love the freedom horror allows.
And finally – what’s next for you in the writing and publishing world? You recently had When the Cicadas Stop Singing published – is there a potential for you to return to that world anytime soon, or perhaps a third Sole Survivor book to round out a trilogy? Or perhaps there’s something else in the future, like a novel?
Who knows? It’s a funny world. I don’t know if people would want more Sole Survivor. I know I could definitely have fun with it and so could some of the people who love it, but that’s a lot of killer koala carnage. I’d love to do a third, but I don’t know if I’ll do it yet. I kind of want to find my voice and my range in a couple of other areas. I’m currently shopping a novella manuscript that I’m likening to Wolf Creek if it had Cronenberg and Carpenter influences. That’s probably a lot nastier than anything I’ve done so far. Some have mentioned, even during the writing process, that they’d love to see more stories told in the ruined Australia present in Cicadas, but I haven’t really generated any thoughts on that yet. I guess, Cora’s journey is still open. Who knows where she’ll end up.
Right now, though, I’m brimming with ideas – which couldn’t have come at a worse time as I’m about to head back for the start of another school year! (Maybe if a million people buy the SS books, I’ll be able to throw the towel in on that, hahahaha.) I am, though, about 75k into a Faustian tragedy that I’ve been working on for a while. I’m loving it, but it’s a lot of work. I’ve also started another novella featuring crocodiles. I just love those big lizards. Who know where I’ll settle, but I’d love to see the novella I’m currently shopping land at a publisher somewhere. I think it’ll be fun.