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Sifting through the culture pile

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks and part of me feels like I still can’t. It’s not that I don’t have any material; I have stacks of material. It’s that I don’t know what to do with it. I think it might also be part cowardice as well. And fear, which goes with that cowardice: I feel like if I commit these thoughts to publication, they’ll become more real, and that scares me because I’m not entirely sure that this is what I actually think.

But I feel like it’s time I addressed what I am calling the “culture pile”—that is, the big mess of culture stuff in my life that continues to affect me on a day-to-day basis—stuff that, most of the time, I resist examining too closely because I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t know how I feel about it. The thing is, I need to: at the last meeting of my writing group, we workshopped part of my novel and the main bit of feedback I received is that they wanted more of what my protagonist was thinking and feeling about the things that were happening to him/around him. It made me realise that I hadn’t put much of that in because it would mean confronting what I felt/thought about similar things that happened to me. What did I think about those things? How did I feel about them? How did I deal with the experience of being made to feel like I don’t belong—that I’m always on the fringe? And as I thought about these things, I realised my answer is, “I just don’t know.” And maybe, “I don’t want to know.”

To find the answer means digging into the culture pile and I am so not keen to do that. I’m not keen because it’s going to be uncomfortable and difficult and even mildly stressful. There’s a reason why I normally leave it alone. Nevertheless, I think I need to—for the sake of my novel. Perhaps even for the sake of myself.

So strap in. This is going to be another long one, because I am incapable of writing short posts—particularly posts about this sort of thing. And spoiler warning: it’s not going to end well.

Where are you from?

Like most people of colour, this question has dogged me my whole life and it’s annoying because the real answer is complicated. Usually the person who’s asking is usually looking for something in particular, so they ignore the parts of my answer that aren’t relevant to them. They want to know my ethnic/racial heritage, not my cultural heritage, whereas to me, my ethnic/racial heritage is the least interesting part.

In recent years, however, I’ve come to take an almost perverse delight in confounding strangers with what I’ve come to tentatively embrace as my triple cultural heritage. It’s almost a form of revenge: I want them to feel the uncomfortableness I feel, so I no longer make it easy for them. Also, I don’t see why I should. On paper, my name sounds Western: my first name is Scandinavian in origin and my last name is German. If you met me in person, the first thing you’d notice is that I look Asian—black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. But my external appearance isn’t enough of one kind of Asianness to make it obvious what sort of Asian I am: I’m curvier and heavier, and, dare I say, slightly taller than most Asian women, and my nose is different. (Tangent: I remember seeing a weight loss ad while travelling on a bus in Hong Kong and realising I looked like the “before” ad. Not long after, I tried to buy jeans at Uniqlo HK—only to discover that none of them were big enough to fit me. It made me glad that I hadn’t grown up there; perhaps I would have developed an eating disorder.)

This is why I get the “Where are you from?” question most often from other Asians trying to work it out. (Someone—someone who wasn’t Asian, by the way—also once thought I was an indigenous Canadian—perhaps because of my nose and because this person heard that I was born in Canada, which confused them.) Furthermore, I can’t speak any of the Asian languages, and when I do speak, I speak in a mongrel of an accent that’s part Australian and part North American. People ask me to repeat myself all the time because I sound weird to them and I sometimes use terms that are slightly unfamiliar. (I make a point of refusing to pronounce “tomato” the Australian way, for example, [unless it’s with my kids as I didn’t want to confuse them] and for the longest time, I said “washroom” instead of “toilet” or “loo”, and “sidewalk” instead of “footpath”.)

So what am I? Where am I from? I’m going to try and answer that question now. In my own way.

I am Chinese …

Me at the ancestral house in the ancestral village of my father’s family in 2002.

Firstly, ethnically and racially, I’m Chinese through and through. My ancestors came from southern China where it’s hot and humid for most of the year. I think this is why I struggle so much when it’s cold and yet don’t mind the scorching Australian summers as much. My father can trace his family line back to the sixth century AD. My mother knows less about her forebears, but they seem to have come from the same general area. Both my parents were born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents. The only ethnically dubious thing is this very vague reference to one of my father’s ancestors marrying a “princess” from “across the sea”—a woman we know nothing about, and the only reason why we know about her at all is because it’s written in the genealogy on the wall of the temple of my father’s family ancestral village. (I haven’t been there since 2002, but it should be noted that it’s less a village now and more a sprawling metropolis of several million people.)

…. but I am not very Chinese

The thing is, apart from my looks, I am not very Chinese at all. I don’t speak my ancestors’ language—Cantonese. Neither do I speak Mandarin. I know bits and pieces of Cantonese—how to say “Happy Chinese New Year” and a few random words and phrases. But I can’t speak it. I can’t read it (aside from a character or two). Language is a window into culture (as I’ve been learning while progressing through Japanese on Duo Lingo), and me not being in possession of the language is A Very Significant Thing. Well, at least to Asians.

Why did I never learn? My parents didn’t really speak it around me consistently. My mother said that it was easier to just talk to us in English instead of Chinese. My parents sent me to Chinese school when I was young, but when we moved to Australia, there were no Chinese schools—that we knew of, anyway; this was the mid-80s. There was a half-hearted attempt by my father to have me and my brother tutored one time when we visited Hong Kong during the summer and were staying with my grandmother. But my parents didn’t persist with it. So I didn’t persist with it.

Furthermore, the way I was treated by my Chinese relatives and by other Chinese people for not having the language pretty much killed my desire to learn. When we would make those trips to Hong Kong, I was constantly asked, “Why can’t you speak Chinese?”—as if it was my fault and as if genetics should determine linguistics (which is sometimes the attitude of some people I meet, even though it’s illogical). I got so sick of it that, in my childhood pettiness, I resolved never to learn. (Victoria Ying’s comic “Growing up, I felt rejected by the language I was “supposed” to know, so I rejected it back” encapsulates similar feelings.) I realise in hindsight it was the perfectionist part of me getting angry and choosing to rebel. I was a child when these things happened, so I reacted as a child, not as an adult.

Now as an adult, I have found myself learning Chinese very indirectly through Japanese, because Japan borrowed the Chinese writing system (the kanji), so even though the words don’t sound the same, the meaning usually is (sort of). This means that I can recognise certain characters now—numbers, certain nouns and so on. I did start the Duo Lingo Mandarin course once, but found it difficult and stopped. Cantonese is probably more useful to my life, but there is no Duo Lingo Cantonese course (too difficult, perhaps?), and even if there was, I wonder if my emotional baggage around all this would prevent me from giving it a go. I don’t know. The nice thing about Duo Lingo is that, even though it’s not proper and serious language learning, you can do it in private and not have people laugh at you for stuffing up. Which is another thing I am overly sensitive about. (I identify with some of the people interviewed in this NPR Rough Translation episode “How to speak bad English” who feel awkward about speaking English because they don’t speak it “well”. But for me, it’s speaking all languages other than English.)

I am also not very Chinese culturally. Well, I am and I’m not. It should be noted that I have never lived in and I did not grown up in an Asian culture; my upbringing has taken place solely in Western nations. And yet there are things that resonate with me about being Asian. When Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings came out, I found the media coverage about it absolutely fascinating. For example, this tweet by main actor Simu Liu (who is Chinese Canadian, by the way):

It made me laugh, and I sort of identified with it, even though I didn’t have Tiger parents who pushed me and who made me feel not good enough. On the contrary, my parents never put that kind of academic pressure on me. But then I suppose they didn’t have to: my grades were always good and I was a model student. I always conformed to the Asian academic ideal—often without even trying. I showed respect and obedience to my elders (parents, relatives, teachers, anyone older than me), even if I didn’t feel it. I took on my parents’ work ethic, which they led by example; I didn’t need it drummed into me. If I wasn’t good at something, I always tried. If I didn’t know how to do something, I would find out. If I didn’t know something, I would figure out where to learn. I don’t know if that way of operating independently was because of them or because of my education or because I’ve always been quite self-motivated. I suppose it’s all those things.

Growing up, my family ate Chinese food and celebrated Chinese holidays (mostly Chinese New Year; less so the August Moon Festival). We’d go to yum cha and dinner in Chinese restaurants where we ate real Chinese food (not your Australianised fried rice/honey chicken/beef in black bean sauce variety), where my father would always know the boss, where we’d get seated at the best tables, and where he’d order for everyone without consulting anyone, but always including our favourite dishes. My father would take us to Hong Kong regularly to visit his mother and other relatives. (My mum never came with us; she was usually working.) We would stay at my grandmother’s place, and my dad and grandma would buy us toys to play with—the kind you couldn’t get in Australia (usually Hello Kitty stuff for me, but some other toys too; hey, I was raised on the concept of kawaii, which seeped into Chinese culture from Japan, and I don’t have a problem with adults liking stuffed toys). We spent a lot of time watching Hong Kong TV (anime-type shows that I couldn’t understand; there were no subtitles), eating out in places where I couldn’t read the menu, and visiting relatives who would often be critical—not just of my lack of language, but also other things in the way relatives do—making comments about my appearance (most of which, fortunately, I didn’t understand. But I do remember once an elderly relative telling me I shouldn’t tie my hair up in a ponytail because I was young and unmarried as only older and married women wore their hair up; girls of my age should wear it down).

The things I struggled with were more to do with traditions and values I didn’t understand or didn’t share. Filial loyalty and the importance of family (which I think only hit home when I watched The Legend of White Snake on Netflix and reached the scene where Xu Xian’s family refuse to let him marry Bai Suzhen because they know nothing about her and her family.) The importance of making lots of money and being wealthy—and therefore pursuing a good career. (Wanting to be a writer and studying Creative Arts did not go down so well with my extended family, though my immediate family were mostly supportive.) Who to marry, and whether he was well off enough to support me. (I married a white guy and it was A Big Deal, though I didn’t know that until later.) Who gives gifts/red packets to whom. (I’m still confused about that and it’s become more of an issue now that I’ve got nieces and nephews.) The endless number of obscure Chinese superstitions that I find ridiculous and refused to let rule my life—for example, it’s bad luck to give someone a clock as a gift (because the word sounds like death???), but watches are fine; the numbers four and nine are a problem; you eat black hairy fungus at Chinese New Year because the name for it sounds like the word for prosperity and riches; the fights I got into when I got married because we had set the wedding date too close to Chinese New Year, which was unlucky and inauspicious, plus I got in trouble for wanting to print my wedding invitations in blue and white. (This is why the wedding banquet scene in The Farewell doesn’t seem right to me; the characters would never have decorated the room in blue and white.) Also, being Christian (though my parents never opposed that outright and more or less respected my beliefs—perhaps because they were nominal about that sort of thing themselves).

There are Asian things (like Simu Liu’s tweet) that I recognise and identify with, and yet there are many things I don’t. I present as Chinese, but I’m not really Chinese. And to compound things, sometimes Chinese people don’t think of me as Chinese either—because I don’t speak the language, because I never lived in Asia and because I’m married to a white guy. (Tangent: I can understand where the writer of this Salon.com article “K-dramas cured my prejudice against Asian men” is coming from because, like her, I didn’t grow up in a culture that viewed Asian men as being desirable. My [very short] romantic history has only ever been with white men. But then I also wasn’t around very many Asian men.)

If I’m not Chinese to Chinese people and I’m Chinese to everyone else, what am I? (Cue College Humor video: “Are you Asian enough?”):

All this further complicated by my feelings about the so-called “Motherland”: China. China feels like a behemoth to me: it contains such a long, rich and complex history of different peoples and cultures that it has tried to subjugate and unify through things like its writing system, Confucianism, Buddhism, education, government policy, and persecution of anyone who is different. (An over-simplification, perhaps? Still, surely it’s fair to say that China is way less multicultural than other parts of the world.) I saw some of the footage of protests in Hong Kong against Chinese interference in government elections, and the response of the authorities, and I could understand where the protestors were coming from. I read about the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese government, and then Chinese people I know tell me it’s not true and that I’m being brainwashed by Western media. I’m all too aware that being Christian in China is problematic. (Recently, Apple took down a Bible app and a Quran app in the Chinese app store at the request of their government.) So how can I call myself Chinese when there is so much I am uncomfortable about with regards to China?

I am Australian …

Me at the beach sometime in 1997. Look at my Australian tan!

The second part of my triple cultural heritage is that I am Australian. I wasn’t born here, but I hold Australian citizenship and I have the right to vote in Australia’s elections. I have spent the majority of my life living in Australia: I’ve been here from the age of six. My education has been thoroughly Australian—primary school (all except Kindergarten), high school, university, and even theological study. I was taught Australian history, Australian government and Australian spelling. We learned the national anthem by singing it over and over again in at assemblies. I danced the Nutbush, along with all my other school mates. I learned to dodge swooping magpies in the spring, and my friends served fairy bread, meat pies and sausage rolls at their birthday parties. We observed Australia Day by watching the fireworks, and I had to adjust to celebrating my birthday in winter and Christmas in summer.

In many ways, I am what they call a “banana”—yellow/Asian on the outside; white on the inside. My education was very Western: I grew up reading European fairy tales, as well as Shakespeare, Austen and the other giants of English literature. All the history I learned was very Western/English/European-centric. It did not to occur to me, as I was learning art history in Year 12, that the curriculum was only focused on one part of the world. I imbibed Western values such as freedom, the rights of individuals (over the collective), the equality of all human beings, the importance of self-expression and self-actualisation, and multiculturalism.

It’s not that Australia is free of racism. It most definitely is not; it’s in deep denial about the fact that its history has always been multicultural. But when you live in a place like Sydney whose inhabitants include people from all over the world (which hasn’t always been the case, I know; a lot changed between when my family arrived here in the mid-80s to now), you learn to co-exist peacefully. You benefit from the rich array of cultures you brush up against. I had friends in high school and university who were Australian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indian, Afghan, American, and so on. When difference is all around you, you get used to living with it.

… but I am not very Australian

That said, I’m not very Australian. I grew up here, but I didn’t have the typical Australian upbringing that many of my Aussie friends had. I don’t recognise some of the things in Bluey that resonate with them. There are overlaps, of course—things I talked about in the previous section. But there were also differences: my friends didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. They didn’t have the large sprawling extended family that I had, with too many uncles, aunts and cousins to name or count. They didn’t get their toys and stationery from Hong Kong—Hello Kitty toys, double-sided coloured pencils and pencil cases with pop-up compartments—the kind that didn’t emerge until Smiggle started making them about twenty years later.

Furthermore, when I first arrived in Australia, Asians were a very small minority. I stood out like a sore thumb. For the longest time, there was only one other Asian kid in my entire primary school, and the other kids would make jokes about how we should pair out and go out because we were both Asian. That changed in late primary school—particularly around the time of the handover of Hong Kong in 1987 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when many of Hong Kong’s residents decided to emigrate to Australia. By the time I reached Year 5, the number of Asian girls in my class had quadrupled, with the four of us having alphabetically consecutive (English) names: Jennifer, Karen, Loretta and Michelle.

Even so, by that stage, I was still very different from them. Too different, perhaps. Not only did I not speak Chinese, I had lived here for 4-5 years longer than they had. I was effectively more “Australian” than they were, but I wasn’t as Australian as the Australians around me.

And to some Australians, I was not Australian at all. As I said, Australia is largely multicultural, but it has a long history of racism that it has never come to terms with. Remember, the White Australia Policy of 1901 was largely enacted in response to Asians coming to this country during the gold rush. Asians fought for Australia in World War II and were treated abominably by the government and not allowed to stay. There are Asian families who can trace their lineage back generations and who have known nothing but Australia their entire lives. Yet they will still encounter people who say to them, “Go back to your own country!” (You can read some of their stories in Growing Up Asian in Australia, which I have started, but not yet finished.)

It’s hard to feel like you’re Australian when other people don’t treat you like you are. I remember a couple of women knocking our front door about something (they might have been Jehovah’s Witnesses) and asking me if I spoke English. I remember a boy whizzing past on his skateboard who, when he caught sight of me, started to kowtow mockingly. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a bunch of Australians and feeling mystified when they all picked up the dishes and passed them to each other to serve themselves food, instead of reaching out and grab the way my relatives did. I remember how the way the waiters at the local Chinese restaurant we frequented acted one way when my father was around and another way when it was me and my Australian friends. All these things reminded me how different I am.

I am Canadian …

Me at Casa Loma (i.e. Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters) in Toronto in 2005.

Prong three: I am Canadian. I was born in Canada (in summer). I hold Canadian citizenship. I attended primary school and two years of kindergarten in a Canadian school that taught me French as well as English. I remember tobogganning and making snow angels in the winter; the slush and the flowers blooming in the spring; the hot glorious summers when the sun wouldn’t set until 9pm; the maple leaves falling into large piles you couldn’t resist kicking about and going trick-or-treating in the fall. I remember going to childcare and pulling the ribbon out of a cassette tape, and not being able to sleep during nap time. I remember going to the wrong classroom on the first day of school because Kindergarten 2 had a play kitchen, which looked WAY more fun, and when they’d realised they’d lost me, someone came to bring me back. I remember refusing to wear ski pants in the winter because I hated them and would only permit leg warmers. I remember eating lunches in a cafeteria, though I think we still had to bring our own. I remember going to after school care, being served celery with peanut butter (I ate the peanut butter and left the celery), and getting freaked out by an animated short about a giant cake that came to life and ran around the countryside, eating people.

I remember being surrounded by kids of other races—including Chinese kids—and race never being an issue among us. That said, I also remember growing up reading the children’s version of Obasan by Joy Kogawa and not quite understanding about the internment of the Japanese during World War II, as well as another book about a girl from one of the indigenous peoples of Canada learning to perform one of the dances of her tribe. I also remember going to Chinese class with some of those kids after school. (I remember nothing about actual Chinese class.) I remember going to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a white family and their kid eating more of the food than I did. (I would only eat white rice.)

My Canadianness is harder to define. It comes out in my mongrel accent, though a couple of years ago, a Canadian couple at church told me they couldn’t hear it, which made me sad. (Recently when I went for a medical appointment, the specialist asked me about it, so obviously he could hear it and that made me happy again. Though I’ve noticed in recent years that I have actually become better at sounding Australian, depending on who I’m talking to.)  It comes out in bits of terminology that I haven’t been able to jettison—“washroom”, “sidewalk”, “to-MATE-to”. I see it in my confusion over the gender segregation of certain spaces—like the Moore College dining room, where girls would only sit with girls and guys would only sit with guys (though if Ben and I sat down at a table together, it would fill up with married couples, which was just as weird). Being good friends with someone of the opposite sex is not done so much in Australia, or at least it wasn’t when I was growing up. (Or maybe it was because I went to an all-girls high school.) Those friendships between girls and boys you see on the silver screen in American cinema aren’t so much a thing here, I think. I also see my Canadianness in my refusal imitate the Australians in cutting down the Tall Poppies (arguably one of the worst parts of Australian culture): Canadians, like most North Americans, I think, are a lot more encouraging and supportive of others. In Australia, if you talk about talk about your achievements, people think you’re boasting.

… but I am not very Canadian

It’s been over 30 years since I lived in Canada and enjoyed white Christmases. It’s been at least 16 years since I was last there and no doubt, a lot’s changed. For one thing, a number of people we used to know there have died. Obviously the country in which I was born is no longer the same, and my memories of it are of a particular time and place. While I still sound a bit Canadian, my mongrel accent also marks me as Australian, so I can hardly blame other Canadians for thinking I don’t quite belong. There is nothing about my appearance that marks me as a Canadian, and yet I am one. And the only way I can prove it to you is with my birth certificate and my passport.

Culture stress

Me and a lovely Totoro cosplayer at SMASH! in 2015

The year I was a student at theological college, I remember taking a subject on cross-cultural communication with Mike Raiter, who had been a missionary in Pakistan. He talked about this thing he called culture stress—the discomfort and strain you feel when you have to adjust to a new way of living in a new culture. He told us a story about coming back on home assignment and having a minor meltdown when a cashier innocently asked him if he wanted to pay by EFTPOS—a technology he was not familiar with, having lived in a place where it was unavailable for the past three years.

You’re probably familiar with this feeling by now, because you, like the rest of the world, have actually experienced it in recent years: Simon Gilham, Head of Mission at Moore College, pointed out most helpfully on the CCL podcast that during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, we were all experiencing culture stress:

[B]efore I went to be a missionary in Africa—so we were eight years in Namibia—before we went, we spent six months doing cross-cultural mission training. And during that training, we learnt a heap of things. But one of the big things we learnt was about adjusting to a new culture and the idea of culture shock. And you get culture shock because you’re in a world in a place that is so different to what you’re used to. And that difference is exhausting and it’s off-putting, and I used to know where everything was and now I don’t know where things are, and I used to know how to shop, and now I’m not sure how … and—and there are different languages and different greetings and different ways of communicating … and every single one of us is now living that experience.

So we’ve all entered a new culture, but with no training! And I think one of the things I’d like to say to everybody is if you’re feeling exhausted by this, yep: that’s about normal. You’ve got to expect that this is exhausting. There’s a whole lot of grief tied up in it. So I’m grieving the things that I used to know how to do, but now I don’t know how to do. I mean, even just think of going to the shops: I used to be able to go there anytime and I’d be able to pick up exactly the brand of thing that I wanted and pay my money and get back in the car, and it was—it was a simple thing. And now it’s not. And I used to be able to go out whenever I wanted—to meet up with people whenever I—and I can’t. So there’s a whole lot of grief. People have planned weddings—have planned big parties—there’s anniversaries—graduations. Cancelled. And all of those things bring grief and that grief with my new incompetence is exhausting.

When I first heard about that idea of culture stress, it really resonated me and made me realise that with my triple-barrelled cultural heritage, I feel like that All. The. Time. After so many years, it’s now more low-level, and most of the time when these things aren’t in competition with each other, it’s not a problem and I don’t think about it. But every now and then, it does take a mental and emotional toll. I constantly feel like I’m on the outside, even when I’m on the outside—that I don’t belong, even though everyone’s being very welcoming and no one is doing anything hurtful or racist or exclusionary.

I realised the difference the first time I went to SMASH!, the Sydney manga and anime show. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of anime; there are movies and shows I like, but there are also masses of movies and shows I’ve never seen, and if you talk to me about Naruto or One Piece or Attack on Titan, I would be lost as I actually don’t know anything about them, aside from their titles. Even so, at SMASH!, I felt curiously at home—arguably the most at home in a public place I’ve ever felt in my whole life. It was partly because the demographics of con-goers was very multicultural and strongly skewed towards the Asians. It was partly because I was surrounded by the trappings of Asian culture I was familiar with, even if many of them were mostly Japanese—anime pop culture, maid cafés, karaoke, kawaii culture, craft tables for making origami and other little things. But also, it was also being able to be there in a very Asian space without anyone expecting me to speak in any language other than English.

Another example: when Crazy Rich Asians came out, I remember feeling excited and keen to see it, despite not having read the book at the time. Then I asked my father and stepmother when we were out at yum cha if they had heard of it and would go to see it, and being slightly discouraged by their lukewarm response. Then I realised why it mattered more to me than it did to them: they live in China and Hong Kong and see representations of themselves in mainstream media all the time, whereas I live in Australia where the only Asian on TV when I was growing up was Lee Lin Chin, a newsreader for SBS. When Neighbours introduced an Asian cast member in the early 2000s, I was shocked at how much I had never thought about it before, and when So You Think You Can Dance? Australia aired for the first time in 2008, I was bowled over because it was the first time I had ever seen the multiculturalism of Australia on full display on Australian TV. (It’s interesting that Simu Liu says something similar about Asian representation in media, growing up in Canada.) The night I went to see Crazy Rich Asians at the cinema with two Asian Australian friends in the middle of the city was amazing and reminded me of being at SMASH! The cinema was packed—again, a multicultural audience, but strongly skewed towards Asians—and even though we didn’t know anyone else in the theatre, I still felt like we shared an understanding, laughing at and identifying with the same (or similar) things in the movie. 

In contrast, I went to see The Farewell with one of those friends in a small indie theatre in Newtown in a theatre full of white people, and he and I laughed at things that everyone else didn’t laugh at (and they wondered, perhaps, why we were laughing), and I nudged my friend to point out the incongruity of the colours during the wedding banquet scene while the rest of the audience didn’t batt and eyelid.

It’s a shock, you see, for me to be somewhere and actually feel comfortable. I’ve spent the majority of my life feeling mildly uncomfortable—feeling that I don’t quite fit in, that I don’t quite belong, that I don’t quite match with the culture around me. There are certain friends in whose company this is not the case. But as for the rest of the time …

I am Christian

Me and baby on mission at Sawtell in 2012.

Of course in all the above, I’ve neglected one key thing in the cultural pile—the thing that is the true locus of my identity, which lies not in my race, but in my religion. I am a Christian, and Christianity brings with it its own pieces of culture that overlap with all the others. It’s not completely Western or Eastern, and it’s not completely Chinese or Australian or Canadian. But there are aspects of it that dovetail with aspects of those. It’s just that we tend not to realise what those are until we hear from missionaries.

For example, a missionary family in Africa that we partner with at my church talked recently about how looking to and respecting elders and teachers is a big part of African culture. This means that questioning them is a sign of disrespect, and the students at the Bible college where these missionaries were serving would never ever do it. However, our missionary friends were trying to teach these students how to read the Bible for themselves, encouraging them to ask questions of the text and then work out the answers together. They didn’t want to tell the students what the Bible was saying; they wanted the students, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discover that for themselves using the tools of good Bible reading skills that they were teaching them. Furthermore, they wanted to normalise a culture in which it’s okay to say you don’t know something. The Bible is a large and complex book, and not even the most expert of experts knows everything about it. But in African culture, it’s unheard of for those in authority to say they don’t know something because it’s a sign of weakness.

I could go on. I could go on about Christianity’s egalitarian attitude towards humanity—that we’re equal in sin and equal in redemption (Rom 3:23-24); how racism is completely inappropriate because all nations were created by God under God (Gal 3:28; Acts 17:24-27); how gathering with other Christians is important (Heb 10:24); how singing is an essential part of worship (Col 3:16); how Bible reading and prayer are the non-negotiable activities of all Christians (2 Tim 3:16; 1 Thess 5:17; James 5:13-16)—and so on, but I fear I have tested your patience with the length of this post for long enough. Let’s finish up.

Where are you really from?

Me in Sydney in 2020.

I am pulling out all these examples and thoughts, and presenting them to you for your sampling pleasure. But to return to the questions from the beginning of my post, how do I feel about all this?

And I still don’t know.

Well, I know some things. I’m angry about the times when I was intentionally excluded. I’m tired of trying to make myself be understood. I’m constantly stressed, trying to navigate spaces and cultures where I still don’t feel 100 per cent comfortable. I’m exhausted with the effort of doing all that, and I’m resigned to the fact that things will, for the most part, continue to be this way.

That said, I’m overjoyed when I discover places and spaces where I feel like I fit. I love that I can talk about these things with certain people who are actually interested and who don’t mind my tentative explorations of culture and language and identity. I’m starting to embrace some of the benefits of being a child of three different nations/nationalities/cultures. I’m still learning to sit comfortably in my difference.

Is that a satisfactory answer? Does that help me with my novel? Hmm, good question.

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Hiveminded Episode 018

Show notes

Queenie Chan’s website

Ryan K Lindsay’s website

Part 1 of our conversation (episode 017)

Transcript

NB: This transcript has not been checked for accuracy. I apologise for any errors.

[Music]

Karen Beilharz: Welcome to Hiveminded Podcast, an occasional and seasonal podcast about the creative arts and the people who create them. My name is Karen Beilharz and I’m coming to you from Sydney, Australia.

During this mini season of the podcast, we are focusing on comic creators. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down all the conventions and zine fairs where I would normally see my friends in the Australian comic scene, I thought instead it would be fun to catch up with them and interview them about comics, and ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to ask them about their projects and their creative processes.

This episode contains the second part of my conversation with comic creators Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay.

If you’re not familiar with them, Queenie Chan is a manga artist and comic creator, known for her Picnic at Hanging Rock-inspired horror trilogy, The Dreaming; her collaborations with Dean Koontz and Kylie Chan; the fairytale-inspired fantasy adventure Fabled Kingdom; and a series of children’s non-fiction works about famous queens throughout history.

Ryan K Lindsay is an award-winning writer known for such works as Headspace, which is set inside the mind of a serial killer; Negative Space, in which his main character goes to pen a suicide note and gets writer’s block; Beautiful Canvas, a crime miniseries about a hit woman trying to reconcile her profession with her role as a mother-to-be; and Everfrost, a science fiction miniseries about a woman on the brink of death who comes face-to-face with the son who died in her arms as a child.

Whereas in Part 1 in the previous episode, Queenie, Ryan and I talked about our comic creator origin stories, the genres and tropes that we are drawn to, and how we actually go about writing comics, in part 2 of our conversation, we discuss where we start with a project, how we think about stories, how we keep going when the going gets tough, the things we’re good at and the things we’d like to improve, and the projects that are currently obsessing us.

We hope that you enjoy it.

KB: So just thinking when you get an idea or a character—I guess you’ve talked a little bit about this—but how do you go about fleshing it out and working on it? ’Cause I know that, Ryan, you talk about breaking stories: how do you go about doing that? Seems very violent! [Laughter]

Ryan K Lindsay: It’s certainly a laborious—I find I just—so once I really sink my teeth into a character or a story and want to develop it and commit to it, I commit a notebook to it, and then I just go through and write down question after question after question, and then answer them and draw arrows back, and I cross stuff out. And I just feel like I end up writing a dozen versions of different possibilities. And then just start cutting off possibilities that aren’t getting me excited about the story or that don’t fit or make sense anymore the more I explore and unpack it.

So, yeah, it usually stems with me having a character and me being, “What are they like?” or “Who’s around them who matters to them?”—all this sort of stuff. And then, “What problem are they facing?”, “Why is it a problem?”, “Why can’t they overcome it?” And I find the actual act of writing the question down so that I can then write what the answer will be is much better than just sitting there and trying to do it in my head. I find that that—I don’t know; it just doesn’t yield a result. For some reason, my brain just seems to work well with pen and paper.

And so, I do that for the character and the character, and then I start going, “All right, well, who are some of the other main characters?” Maybe, some locations. Maybe some MacGuffin-y-type things. And then I just start writing plot out. The moment the plot stops flowing, I’ll ask a question: “Well, what could they do now?” and I’ll write down three options of branching narratives, and go, “All right: well, this is the one I’m going to go down.” And sometimes it’s the wrong one and I’ll dedicate ten pages to that, and then go, “All right. Well, that’s dead” and have to sort of like scrub it out. But I might steal bits out of it. But, yeah, just becomes lots of writing and writing and writing and writing.

And then I’ll try to do, like, a diagram. And so I’ll try to map it out over, like, a five-act structure. And I’ll do that over two pages and I’ll draw out the arc and start to arrow in where different moments should occur. And that’s sort of,  I guess, my way of checking that what I’ve done is working or makes sense. I don’t like starting with those plot diagrams, but I find they’re just ingrained in us: we know them from childhood. We understand how stories work, and we understand why they’re satisfying, and we understand when they’re being broken up into different things and for reasons. But to actually consciously do it, I find that it’s good to use it almost as, like, a quick measuring lens of what I’ve got. ’Cause often it will show me one act that’s just a bit lacking, and I’ll go, “Oh yeah, that is thin there” or “Oh yeah, it doesn’t quite set up the broken climax of the character so they can get to the proper climax.” And so there’s different elements like that that go into that.

But I don’t know if it just comes from a history of constantly in my head doubting myself and questioning everything that I’m doing, and so that’s my process—of just asking again and asking again, and just getting stuck in a loop. But this time, externalising it into the notebook—whether that is what works. But even then, I’ll find, once the plot works, I’ll—much like I do at the start of the notebook, where I’ll write the character and I’ll just write down all their information, I’ll do a new page for the character and then write it down again, because it’s almost updated. There are certain things from the character that’s half a notebook ago, and some of those pieces I’ve retconned out of the story and don’t fit. So I write the new character down and it helps me f—like we said before, like, polish it—things away and bring things to the fore.

So, yeah, it is just this manic John Doe in Seven-style diary entries of just [Laughter] insanity and—and then hopefully, it—what I get to is a point where I can say, “All right: I have, like, a four-page synopsis in my notebook. I can type that up into about two pages and it’s clear and concise. And everything else that matters is either still in my head or if I’ve forgotten it, it’s probably not important to the character or there’s something.” If there’s a great thing that’s going to happen, it should be so good that I won’t forget it.

Yeah, I think, years ago, I remember Stephen King saying that if you have a good idea and you need to write it down, well, maybe it wasn’t that good, because it should have stuck with you. Which I disagree with a little bit, ’cause my memory is terrible for just everything. But I think after a while, if I’ve been living with this story for six months in a notebook, I should know the parts that are going to pop. And I have done this, where I’ve gone back into notebooks and gone, “Oh yeah! I did say this thing was going to happen, but I didn’t put it in the script, and I didn’t something better.” That thing wasn’t important as long as I got the story arc. It’s like if you were rewriting Hansel and Gretel and you just wrote the plot down, when it comes time to “Do they leave breadcrumbs or do they tear leaves off or snap branches?”, that’s just polishing the chassis. You could do that however you want, and hopefully you’ll come up with the best version of it, whenever you write it. But as long as you know the structure, I think that’s what gets me to plotting versus pantsing. I very much have to plot it out. But when I sit it down, I still want to be excited. I still want to have moments of discovery. And I want to be allowed to break away from that form, so I don’t want to have a plot that’s so laboriously written out that it really is just everything, and then I’m transcribing it. I think that would take away—

Although, in saying that, when I sit down to write the comic script, sometimes I just want to discover how it will translate to the page. So I want enough of the story existing in my head or in a notebook or in the synopsis, and then I can sit down and go, “All right: how do I best use comics to make it pop on this one page?” if that makes sense.

KB: Interesting. Yeah. So do you gravitate towards the five-act structure? Do you mix it up and use different ones for different projects?

RKL: That’s usually the one that I find, even if I haven’t been thinking about it, my stories have lent themselves to that anyway. But I find that structure just really clear and it really delineates—I mean, it’s just—it really is the same arc as the three-act structure, but I really just break it down a little smoother in my head. And it also helps with comics if you’re selling, like, you know, a miniseries, you can usually do the first two acts in the first issue, and then each other issue is Acts 3, 4 and 5. So it kind of does generally, roughly speaking, balance itself out.

KB: Yeah. And so, where would you put yourself on the pantser versus plotter continuum—or gardener? [Laughter]

RKL: I definitely think I plot more than anything else. I’m happy to have happy accidents along the way. But I won’t pitch a story to a publisher unless I really know what’s going to happen. So a lot of my discovery is in the plotting and in the synopsis and stuff like that.

And I think I then have the benefit of when I’m writing it, I mean, you hear about writers who say, “Well, I already know the story now and I’ve already written the synopsis; what’s the fun of writing it again?” But I get it to write it in this way where I’m setting it up for an artist, and so I’m thinking about every tool that comics had in its war chest to bring it to life. The analogy, I think, that would be best is like saying a director doesn’t feel like, “Oh well, I guess I’m just filming the script; the story already exists.” They’re bringing it to life! And I feel like the comic script gets to do that and the artist, then, really really does that. But before I get there, I definitely need to know that I have confidence that I can tell the story to a satisfying conclusion. So I plot plot plot plot as much as I can.

And then, you see what happens. I know with Headspace, again, there were eight short issues in that. And I had this beat at the end of Issue #6, and we’re really starting to lean into those final two acts. And I had this beat at the end of Issue #6 and I scripted it, and I sent the script off to Eric, and as I did, he’d sent me an email at the same time, and he was, like, “Ooh, you know what should happen at the end of Issue #6 is this totally different thing!” [Laughter] And I was, like, “Ohhh, no, he’s right!” [Laughter] “It’s such a good idea!” So I was, like, “Well, ignore the email you just got from me. This script is going to have to be fixed.” And I rewrote the second half of it. And ultimately the story structure became still the exact same thing, but we just tweaked it in this one beat to do something different. And that was really fun and exciting.

And I think collaborating with artists is cool because they come with that knowledge of story as well. So they’re going to have their input as to what goes on. So that part’s pretty exciting too. So I never feel bored, even after I’ve plotted it out fairly intricately.

KB: Mmm, yeah, I love that—that they make you better [Laughter]—whoever you’re collaborating with, which is fantastic.

RKL: Every single time!

KB: Yeah. Queenie, how ’bout you? Where does it start with—if you’ve got a story idea, what do you do with it? How do you break it down and flesh it out and run with it?

QC: Wow. I think I’m going to be different to everyone, because I actually don’t brainstorm on paper. Everyone else I know does. I’m just, like, brain—sit there and brainstorm in my head. Everyone’s like, “How do you remember this stuff?” And I have no trouble remembering it, so I don’t know what my secret it. [Laughter] I’m not sure if I have one! [Laughter]

I think for me, is that—oh look, I’ve written a lot of stories—some long, some short—and if you’re talking about how do I plot, it’s just very simple: like, these days, if it’s a short story and the same if it’s a long story, is that I just go, beginning, middle, end, you know? A very, very general idea of where the story’s heading. And sometimes these stories are very, very simple—on a simple emotional arc.

While we’re on the subject earlier, I’ll talk about the game that I’m making. It’s like you’re trying to rescue your grandfather from hell. Like, it actually happens partially in the afterlife. And so, this guy who raised you, who you always thought to be a great human being, turned out to be imprisoned in hell. This is Chinese hell, so it’s not a Christian hell. And you don’t know why, because he never really talks about his past. But you’re able to be free—to free him from his imprisonment, which is partly mental and emotional: you have to find out what it is—his one greatest regret in his mortal life was. It’s like it’s simple beginning, middle and end. One of his regrets turned out to be something to do with a very good friend of his. So that is it. And it’s all the other details that happen—all the people you meet; all the random stuff that happens; all the weird, crazy stuff that happens; all the murder mysteries that you run into, or whatever—it’s like they’re just things that you hang along this particular emotional journey, and this clothing line, basically, of the plot. And so, that’s where I make plots these days. I start off with something very simple and then just randomly hang stuff on the clothesline just like they were pieces of clothing.

And I think this works a lot better than some of the other stuff that I’ve tried. It’s like I find that when I plot too much on paper, it’s that I often don’t end up using a lot of the stuff. And it’s just like, “What is the point?” Like, why am I writing out all this stuff and then a lot of it just doesn’t get used? All that energy and time I could have spent drawing it out or doing something else, it’s like why write so much? ’Cause I find that things change all the time in stories. You know? Characters that you thought you were going to do something and they turn out not to be doing something, and so on and so forth. So I just don’t take that plotting out method so much these days, ’cause I find that, end of the day, the emotional arc is what really matters.

And of course, things have to make sense. It still has to be good, and people still got to still enjoy your story, and they still got to, you know, make sense in that way—particularly with the mystery story. But because of that, I just go by feeling more so than by plotting.

And I find that it works for me as well. And this is for both long and short stories, but for long stories particularly, I deliberately don’t write anything down, because I think when it comes to long stories—stories that can go on for quite a while—is that it all comes down to the characters and whether you even, as a writer, want to spend time with them. I think about how much time we’re spending with these people in your head. You know, do you even like these people? Like, are they all that interesting? And that’s the thing: I find that with really long stories where the characters actually are going to be around for a while, it’s really, really important that I leave them alone in my head without writing anything down until they come across to me as almost like actual people. And your impression of them is so strong that you don’t need to look at notes or—and I try and do a character design for them, so I have an idea of how I might picture them in my head if I see them sitting in front of me during a scene or talking to someone—it’s like what they would say, what they would do, any weird mannerisms they might have. And it’s like I feel that by the time that, years later, and sometimes it happens years later, you get a grasp of who these people actually are—like, impressions of them. I think being an artist really important, here, as well, because I have to draw them. And whatever their mannerisms are, that has to come across in the artwork as well. So once you get a strong enough impression of them, they kind of feel like friends to you. And I think that is really helpful, because then they become fully three-dimensional in your mind, and they have likes and dislikes, and they want to do certain things. And it may not be what you want them to do, but because they much grown a third mind in your head, it’s like you then just sit them there, ’cause you have such a strong impression of who they are and how they might interact with certain kinds of people—just dump them in a room and see what they do.

And very often, they do entertaining stuff, because they’re often entertaining people. They may or may not be annoying, but if you at least like them enough to actually want to sit down and watch them do their thing. So that’s probably how I do my longer stories, the ones that sit in my head for years, because if a character’s boring, you know, no matter how awesome the plot that you’ve created for them is, it’s like you eventually swap them out for someone else who’s more interesting. So I find that having a really strong impression of your characters that lives entirely in your mind is incredibly important, because then your impression of them becomes so strong that they can actually go from story to story, and they’ll still be an interesting person, no matter what the setting is.

KB: Yeah. Interesting.

QC: So this comes right back to my character thing, where I think characterisations is probably the most important thing, ’cause that’s how you—well, you create characters that people love and want to hang out with.

This is especially a problem when you’ve done a lot of stories, and they may or may not—’cause I’ve written so many stories and I’ve worked on other people’s stories, and it’s like, “Can I remember accurately each of my characters’ impressions when they’re from a long story, short story?”, blah blah blah, so on. ’Cause it is very easy: you know who the forgettable ones are, after a while. And so you try and avoid these kinds of qualities.

So sometimes some characters are written, because I need a short six-page story and here you go, here’s a character. She’s a, you know, stand-in for all twelve-year-olds, or whatever [Laughter] like that. And that happens from time to time. But then that gives you a good grasp of what is it about this character that isn’t interesting versus this character who is interesting to you?

KB: Does the character, once you’ve drawn it, does the character become more real or does it not matter, whether or not you’ve drawn it yet?

QC: It absolutely helps. Sometimes I create characters based on character designs, ’cause they look so interesting. And it’s always a challenge in manga—I mean, there is this stereotype that all manga characters look the same. But the truth is, all superhero characters look the same as well. [Laughter] It’s not like Western-style of art is definitely a lot more interesting than manga-style. It’s just that this is how a human being looks like, right?

But sometimes you do come across character designs that are just cool-looking, for whatever reason. And when they’re expressive enough, sometimes you just develop a character for them. Like for example, I remember this one character who I was developing. And she looked pretty normal—until, because of a relationship she had with someone else, I gave her a really, really big and loudmouthed personality. And she’s just one of those people who just won’t shut up—just go on and on and on. And I just—eventually that caused me to give her a really, really massive mouth. Like, larger than usual mouth. [Laughter] And you can do that with, if you exaggerate character—depending on their style, obviously if you’re doing realistic-looking characters, it won’t look—it will look very strange. But with manga, you can kind of stretch these qualities, and suddenly you have a unique character design, whereas previously, the character looked kind of boring, because she wasn’t meant to be a main character, just someone who appears at certain times in the story. And now I had someone who suddenly had potential, because she had such an unusual-looking face that is different to all the other characters I’ve designed. You know, so sometimes things like that can happen—is that characters can grow from designs alone, and grow personality traits. So I definitely do try and do character designs.

And interestingly enough, my character designs don’t change much. As a designer, that’s how it’s always been. You know, there’s a lot of people, when they do character designs, they do a wide range of stuff—they do three, four, five, six—and then they choose someone—a character that they like from that, or just—they show it to other people. I’ve actually only ever designed one to two characters. This includes people that I’ve worked with as an illustrator: here’s a brief (?) description, create something, and so [I] was like, “Here’s my one character design for your character.” And they’re, like, “Yeah, that looks great! Yeah, go with it.” [Laughter]

KB: Wow!

QC: You know? So I’ve never had an issue where people didn’t think my design suited the character unless I really was wildly off the mark—like, completely wild—as in, “This person’s meant to be a handsome 23-year-old man and he looks like a middle-aged, bearded angry guy” [Laughter] and it’s like, “Okay, so he’s meant to be a handsome 23-year-old man, as opposed to a middle-aged, angry, bearded guy. Fine.” Or maybe this guy’s supposed to be a—one of the characters for my Dean Koontz book, in the original book, he said he was a wrinkly sheriff with sagging jowls, and I drew someone—an ugly dude that basically looked like a bulldog. You know? He was fat, balding and, literally, drooping jowls, and it’s like, it turns out he’s meant to be a handsome, 50-something-year-old guy—like Kurt Russell or something [Laughter]. It’s like, “That’s wildly off the book’s description, man! The book said he’s like a 50-year-old guy with sagging jowls.” It’s like “What did you expect me to think?” But, no it turned out to—you know, “Not that kind of sagging; the good kind of sagging!” [Laughter] You know. [Laughter]

RKL: Yeah.

KB: “The good kind of sagging!”

QC: So it’s like it’s always—you know, that’s the funny thing about working with prose writers is that from their descriptions, you assume someone is … a character actor, [Laughter] if you want to be nice about it. [Laughter] And then you ask them—it’s like, “No! He’s meant to be … handsome!” [Laughter] “He’s actually really handsome. Just old!” [Laughter] It’s like books and prose novels are obviously full of really good-looking people who are very sexually attractive. You’ll never know from reading their descriptions, but from talking to their authors, everybody is very hot. [Laughter]

KB: Of course!

QC: Yeah, that’s the joke. But I definitely think character designs can go a long a way.

KB: Yeah. So it’s interesting: so what you’re doing for other creators is a little bit different from what you do for your own characters, because it sounds like, from what you were saying, you have a particular idea of your character even before you draw them—

QC: Yeah.

KB: —and the modification’s afterwards are, in a way, that’s pantsing/discovery thing, where you discover something about them in the course of using them and writing them, like your character who, all of a sudden, had this big mouth and stuff. So—

QC: Yeah. That doesn’t happen often, though. I would argue it’s an interactive process. ’Cause sometimes you get ideas from other people’s amazing character designs as well. And so, you do [your] own riff on them, and then entire worlds are born. And that’s got nothing to do with anything that I came up with: I just saw this cool character design by some person and you come up with a completely different story based on that purely. I’m like I’ve had that happen. A lot of these stories don’t hold up, because, at the end of the day, a character design isn’t compelling enough for them to be born an entire universe. There has to be else there that is interesting. But I would argue that, generally, an interactive process is that it goes from back to front—though there are characters that are pretty much born whole cloth with their character designs intact already.

And I guess it does come down to the importance of the character of the plot as well, because with character designs, you do want the main cast have the most interesting and attractive and easy-to-recognise designs, and the secondary cast to be whatever. And there is a way to design characters that look like they would be NPCs [non-player character] and characters that look like they would be the main character in a story, because they have that distinguish—that X factor. It’s just like real life: it’s like some people, you pass them in the street and it’s, like, you don’t notice them, ’cause they’re so average-looking, and other people, it’s like, they may not be conventionally attractive, but they have that X factor. [Laughter] You can’t stop looking at them. And character designs are the same. Like, it’s a very, very hard thing to get right, in my opinion.

But when you do get it right, you can actually attract a lot of readers, because of the power of aesthetics, I suppose. It’s like when you’ve got a really good-looking guy and people think that [he’s] conventionally good-looking by cartoon standards and really easy to remember, and it’s like people do remember you.

And the thing about character designs is not just about the way a person looks; it’s about how they meld with that entire cast and that entire universe. So everything comes into it—the architecture, the clothing, the way that things look, the clutter that you have in a room—that sort of thing all comes through the universe. And there are some career artists who are really, really good at doing that. I think I’m just completely average at doing that. I don’t think I’m great at background design at all. If you look at other artists who do that kind of stuff—how much of their personality they can bring to a character from what their room looks like—that is all part of characterisation as well. But I’ve never been good at that. And I don’t think I have the patience or attention to detail to be good at that, unfortunately.

KB: Can you talk a bit more about—you were saying earlier, when you think about story, you’re hanging all these things up on a washing line, in a way. Like, how do you know what to hang—what would stay and what you might reject? Because Ryan was talking about how he asks questions about his characters and what they might do, and then rejects certain possibilities. And then, also thinks about how the story fits on a five-act structure, just to make sure he’s hitting certain beats and establishing certain things. How do you do it, Queenie?

QC: I go from just more internal rhythm, I guess. After writing for a while, you get used to a certain kind of rhythm. But more importantly, well, I think the real challenge is not finding things to hang on your clothes line. You’re going to have a million things that you want to hang on your clothesline. And some of them are more interesting than others, so obviously you just take the most interesting stuff.

Obviously that’s still a lot of stuff. But the real hard part is juggling all these bits and making sure that that particular piece of clothing gets to the end of the story arc intact, and doesn’t implode halfway. Story threads, when you start them, as in new questions about these characters—new questions about the universe—new questions about the murder mystery that you’re going into—all these story threads, they’re very easy to open up. It’s very easy to throw a big question mark in the middle of a story, or at the beginning of a story, make your readers go, “Oh!”, you know, “This is not what I thought it would be.” It’s very easy to do that. What is hard is sustaining it and giving it a good resolution.

So I think that is the major challenge: it’s easy enough to find stuff to hang on your clothesline, but how do you resolve it? And how do you tie it up with all these loose strands in your story? How do you resolve it up to the point that the reader is satisfied? ’Cause sometimes you do need to leave story threads open just so you can have a sequel [Laughter]. Or just so you can write it in your notes, “Yes, I did think about that. So it’s not like I didn’t.” But the challenge comes from being able to put everything together in a neat little package.

And there are some story threads that you can’t resolve. And you do it—when you hang a bunch of stuff on your clothesline—your best, most interesting story threads—that’s the stuff that’s going to make a reader go, “Ah! Oh my God! I’ve got to find out what happens next. I want to know more about this mystery.” It’s easy enough to come up with stuff like that. But if you can’t resolve it, no matter how entertaining that story plot started, you gotta nix it. And that’s sad, but maybe it might belong in a different story—like, whatever amazing plot twist that you’ve just thrown in there. ’Cause there is a plot twist graph as well through your story, if you’re going to do the plot twist thing. At some point in time, that plot twist is going to come and it’s going to have the right kind of payoff. Because if you have a plot twist and everyone can see it coming from a mile away, then that’s not much of a payoff. Or if it doesn’t make sense, it’s not a payoff either. Or if it’s not emotionally satisfying, it’s not a payoff. And so these are the hardest things to do. And if you cannot carry a storyline—a random story thread—to its best ending, then you just might as well drop the whole thing. And that happens a lot.

And sometimes unexpected emotional moments come from plot threads that intersect with others. And suddenly this thing that you didn’t expect appears—like, this emotional entanglement suddenly happens, and you weren’t expecting it, but it happens and you’re like, “Wow!” you know? “I thought this plot thread was a total mess and that it wouldn’t work out, but then it intersects with another plot thread” or some other element from your story, and then it’s like, “Ta da!” A new twist on the ending, or a—not a completely different ending, but a different angle to do the ending from. So suddenly it subverts your own expectations, despite you being the writer—

KB: Yeah.

QC: —of a particular story. So I guess that’s how I figure out what I want.

And it’s a complicated process. And it takes months and months to get a good, satisfying story. And it comes from your own personal experiences as well—what you’re going through at that time. Maybe you go out, you meet someone, you see something, you watch a movie, you get some new ideas, and it’s like, “Oh, I can put that in my story. Oh, that’s one way you could tackle an emotional moment like this.” And so on and so forth.

KB: So it does seem to happen more in your head—the pruning—as you—

QC: Yeah.

KB: —explore certain possibilities and then reject them and go with others.

QC: Yeah. Like I said before, I find it’s more of an emotional process for me, and there’s an internal feeling about something. And if I’m not emotionally satisfied, there is no way a reader’s going to be emotionally satisfied. If you don’t believe in the power of your own story, there’s just no point.

And that’s—maybe that’s why I don’t write things down, because I feel that it loses its power when I’m reading over my notes—is that doesn’t feel the same way [Laughter]. So if something is goddamn amazing and mind-blowing, plot twisty awesomeness, you’ll remember it. You don’t need to write it down, ’cause it is so “Oh!”—mindblowing to even you.

And if you can’t impress yourself a lot, then don’t bother trying to impress your readers, ’cause they’re not going to be impressed.

KB: That’s interesting. So I feel like I’m a bit more on the plotting side in that I need to know the end, but I don’t always know how I’m going to get there. And sometimes the writing part is a bit more like just colouring in the bits that I’ve already established. But I feel like—well, this novel that I’m working on at the moment, a prose novel, I know that there’s going to be about roughly 16 chapters, I know exactly what’s happening in each chapter and even the breakdown of some of the scenes, but I don’t always know exactly how some of the scenes are going, if that makes sense—or how they’ll unfurl. And that unknown part, I guess, keeps me interested, instead of—like, I know some people who go, “Oh, I know the end. What’s the point?” I don’t quite know how it’s going to unfurl; I just know that it’s going to unfurl this way [Laughter] in a way. I know the end result and what’s going to happen. But that’s interesting.

When you’re in the middle of a project and you’re in the saggy middle, how do you motivate yourself to keep going? Ryan?

RKL: I’ve often found writing a first issue is pretty fun and pretty easy, ’cause you’re asking all these questions and you’re introducing all this awesome stuff. I often find, though, the second issue, I’m usually really satisfied with, and that I start to capitalise on what’s set up. I actually quite enjoy—it almost worries me sometimes that I feel like I do some of the best or better stuff in the second issue, and I’m like, “Oh, I wish we could have put that in the first and made it more of a hook.” So perhaps I need to restructure things going forward, I don’t know.

But the middle of the story: I don’t know. I find—and maybe it’s because I have a lot of the plotting worked out, so if I think about when I’m plotting the story and I’m not getting that churn towards the end and it’s not coming together, I think putting down a really terrible version of what’s going to happen is my path forward, and just going, “All right, then they’re going to do this and this and this and that gets them to a really unsatisfying end. Awesome!” And I close the notebook and I walk away, and I do something else for like a solid fortnight. And then I come back to the story and those notes, and really start to analyse, “All right: what’s boring? What’s not working? What are we missing at the end?” And then sort of reverse engineer it a little bit, and sort of fix it back up to go, “All right: well, we needed to sow some seeds here or this whole detour in the third act is rubbish. It needs to do something else with the character. It needs to get us to another place for the plot.”

So I think it’s just doing something terrible. You can’t edit a blank page. You can’t improve upon it. It’s just going to continue to be what it is.

KB: Yeah, it makes me think of that quote by John Swartzwelder: he was the head writer on The Simpsons, and he was interviewed about how does he write his scripts? And he said, “I have this trick whereby, well, I find writing really hard, but rewriting’s relativity easy”, so on the first day, he tries to get out the worst draft possible of his script for whatever episode—

RKL: Yeah.

KB: —he’s working on. When he comes in the following day, at least it’s been done, and it’s like these crappy little elves have come and done all this really crappy work [Laughter] and all I’ve got to do now is fix it.

RKL: Nice! [Laughter] And—and that—that becomes the thing, and I hate rewriting, but I know it’s where the best stuff comes. The writing part—the writing is flowing and it’s fun, even when it’s maybe not the best, at least stuff’s, like, coming out. It feels like painting with a roller, and then the rewriting is like, “All right, I gotta get nitty gritty, or I gotta get the goggles on with the extra zoom-in goggles, and I gotta get the single horsehair brush and fix little things.” And it’s where all the big mistakes can happen. You can’t make mistakes with a roller; you just slam it on there.

But I also find most of the stuff I’ve done has been four-issue minis, and I always find the first script, I will do ten to a dozen full drafts on that first issue. And then as I go through each issue, usually the fourth issue is one draft, maybe—I mean, one draft, for me, is usually a vomit draft to fix and then what I pretend is my first draft. So it’s probably three drafts. But the first issue is a lot, and I find I’m taking this story that I’ve concocted and actually applying it and going, “All right. Well, you said you can do it. What does it look like? What does it sound like?” And I’m trying to find the best format, and because I’ve done all the working out there, each subsequent issue becomes easier to do, because I’m building on all the voice, all the tone, all the science, all of the setups, all the seeds. And so it all sort of comes together really well, and I usually find my final issues do not take as long. So I think it all comes back to how much of that plotting that I do in just getting terrible.

It’s really interesting to go back through old notebooks and think to myself, “Oh my goodness! This story: there was an iteration where it went this path. How terrible would that have been if that’s where I left it!” And I think it sort of comes back to what Queenie was saying in a lot of regards: is it satisfying? Does it pay off? ’Cause I think anyone can write a story that begins and then resolves. But is it any good? And just because the pieces fit, doesn’t mean they match. I always think about really cheap jigsaw puzzles are all cut with the exact same grain. And so, someone had figured that out and they would put together a train puzzle, but then they would find the cat puzzle and they’d put the cat’s face in the middle, and it would just fit. Of course it would fit. But it didn’t quite match! And I feel like that’s really quick, terrible story writing. And I know that because I do that in my first draft when I plot stuff out! It’s quick and it’s terrible, and the cat head goes right on the train, and then I have to fix that and get nitty gritty with it as to whether it’s figuring out how to get the right tubes that actually do put a cat head on a train, or whether it’s removing that cat and figuring something else out.

But, yeah, I find, much like when I break a story and I’m asking questions and just writing answers, it’s just getting something down. It’s just keeping momentum going. And giving yourself the chance to be terrible. I think if you can be terrible before it gets to the public eye, that’s the best time and place to do it.

One of the other things I have tried is talking to people about the story. I don’t like it as much. In telling it, you start to make excuses for the terrible parts that you haven’t worked out and I start to feel really bad at what I believe is my job, which is writer. But it does help. I’ll do it with my wife, where I’ll be like, “And then this happen and then this happens.” And invariably all she says is, “Why?” And I’m like, “Uh, uh, uh, because all trains have cat heads, stupid!” [Laughter] But we sort of realised [Laughter] “Oh. You know, what if this happened?” And then you have a bit of a dialogue. So, again, it’s just another question and answer process. So I think that’s usually my best process for that—that terrible middle where you have to actually do the grunt work to lead to that sweet finale.

KB: But do you ever lose motivation or drive on a project and you feel like giving it up? Is there anything that stops you from giving it up?

RKL: Oh no, there’s heaps of stories where I’ve tried to, like, plot them out, and sometimes they just will not wind together. And I just shelve them forever or for a long time. But usually I get that done before I would ever pitch it. And I think that’s why I only pitch stuff where I have plotted it and resolved it and know that it will work. My biggest fear would be to get a publisher on board something and then I sit down and go, “Oh. Uh. I don’t think I know. Oh. Do I know how to do this?” And I’m not sure if the story’s genuinely going to work, or if I can do it in the right amount of time.

I think any writer, given enough time, can make brilliant stuff. But when a publisher’s footing the bill and they want the wheels to turn, you go, “Oh, oh. I need to do this on a deadline.” And knowing the writing is my—not just second job, but very secondary job, compared to a full-time teaching load, I can’t get guarantee that I can turn things around from nothing to awesome in the way that I would want. So I try to do all of that before it would get anywhere. So there’s heaps of stuff that I have completely shelved and just gone, “Hmm, it’s not coming together.”

But I try to keep—like, I’ve got probably about four ideas on the go at the moment that I’m breaking. And I’m just sort of rotating between those notebooks, so I keep coming back to them. And sometimes it is coming back to something that might be two years old and going, “All right: let’s have a look at it with fresh eyes—fresh perspective—fresh experience”—and seeing what can come out of it.

But I think sometimes, and maybe this is a problem: once I’ve plotted something out and I’m like, “This is great. I’m going to pitch it.” And it doesn’t land anywhere, and it’s too big for me to conceivable do it completely independently. I’ll set that story aside and I’ll never even want to go back to it. And that way, if I get an in at a new publisher and they say, “Do you have anything to pitch?”, I invariably won’t go back to those really old pitches that I completely worked out. I think the fire’s gone. I think I told the story in the synopsis and I would have a chance to apply it, but now it’s just very cold embers. I might strip-mine those stories for a MacGuffin or a character that could be in a new setting—a new problem—but, yeah, they sort of disappear. But I’m more than happy to let—if a story is not clicking—I’m happy to let it die. ’Cause I’d rather that than put myself into a position where I just have to finish it off, ’cause I got myself stuck into a commitment that is beyond my control, I guess.

KB: Yeah. How ’bout you, Queenie? What helps you to keep going with a project and make it happen?

QC: I think when it comes to motivation, it’s always an issue when you’re a writer/artist. ’Cause with art in comics is that, unlike writing prose fiction, you could just rework it if you don’t like it: just add an extra paragraph, delete a few sentences. You cannot do that. You cannot do that with comics. It’s like once you’ve drawn the art, the amount of time and investment—the hours that you put into finishing this particular panel—it’s like, “Oh God”: if you had to re-do it, it’s like—

And age comes in with it as well. It is incredibly taxing when you get to a certain age. I cannot draw really long comic stories anymore, because my health is—my health is fine; don’t worry [Laughter]. Nothing’s happening, like, to me. But the days where I could sit down and grind out a page—eight-hour, ten-hour marathon sessions of drawing, those days are gone. And they were never that great to begin with anyway.

So if I’m going to start a story these days, as in draw it, and this is the same for—working for other people’s a bit different; that’s just work for hire. You know, I’m not emotionally involved in that sense; I’m just bringing someone else’s work to life. So I have a completely different feeling and motivation when it comes to stuff like that, ’cause that’s just work. But when it comes to my own stuff, unless I feel really, really, really strongly about an idea, I don’t even attempt it, because there is no time. I have no time to work that way.

So whatever it is that I’ve decided to create, if it’s not a job, then it’s because I feel really, really, really strongly about it. And that, at least, helps you when it comes to motivation, is that this has been around, often, for years, and I’m going to make it happen, because this mob has taken permanent space in my head. It’s rented a room there. It’s constantly making a lot of noise 24/[7]—I mean, it’s paying rent. But [Laughter], you know, it’s constantly there and in the background. And it’s compelling that I can’t evacuate it from my head. I have had long—entire universes in my head just leave after a while, because I grow older; they’re not as interesting anymore. I mean, that happens. You change as a person; what you find interesting is different, so you don’t feel the same way about these characters that you once loved to death.

But there are universes that stay. And when that happens, it’s like, “Okay, then I’ll do it.” And that kind of passion for something that’s been around for a long time, because you’ve changed and it hasn’t, because it doesn’t need to; some things are timeless, and you know you’ve got a really, really good story there. And it’s something that you absolutely care about, because apparently you can’t let it go. And for that reason, to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of doing something that I feel really unenthused about is that whenever I get any new story ideas, and I’ve got—I say I don’t write the stories down, and that’s true. But this is more or less the same process: you could just keep it in your head—park it in your head for a while, leave it for about two months—and I’ve had story ideas that I thought I was—really awesome, and then two months later, I come back and I think, “What the heck was I thinking? This is so stupid.” So spur-of-the-moment ideas are never great to work with, if you’re going to develop it into a full-blown idea—a full-blown story.

I always suggest people to just sit on a story and then wait for a while and see whether you still feel the same way about it [in] two months’ time—three month’s time—a year’s time—two years’ time—five years’ time. Depending on what else you’re doing in your life, it could actually go on for quite a while. And the thing is, if you care enough about something, that’s still going to be there in five years’ time. But once the fire’s gone from that, then just leave it. You know [Laughter]—unless you’ve already written—I’ve written story pitches that are still sitting around somewhere in my house—that I just completely don’t think about, ’cause I’ve completely forgotten about most of them. And that’s it: if it’s not compelling, then you won’t even remember it.

And I think it’s so important to have that passion for a story and let it sit for a while and see whether you still feel that strongly about it after a certain amount of time. Because sometimes people create things based on circumstances in their lives, and that was so compelling to you at that time, but when those circumstances pass, it’s like, “Why do you still care?” Often you don’t care anymore. And that’s why the fire just goes. And so, I try and avoid these situations like that by sitting on stories that I really want to do.

Once you’ve started it, it’s just a matter of putting it out. Like, seeing something through to the end. Motivation is always hard, but motivation to exercise is also really hard [Laughter]. So as far as I can tell, like, with exercise, it’s something I have to do, so I don’t die prematurely. And it’s the same when I actually get to sit down and work on a project: it’s like, “Okay, I’ve started. I will see it to the end. It’s not always going to be fun. It’s going to be pretty much like a job.” So even though when I’m doing my own work, and as opposed to working as an illustrator for other people, that’s a job plain and simple—when I’m doing even my own work, something I really care about, and I’m hitting that wall that you always hit when you’re doing exercise [Laughter] and you’re just like, “I want to go home,” it’s like you just plough through it. I mean, that is the only advice I can give. I wish I could tell you: it’s like, how do you do the magic motivation injection and suddenly find the motivation to get through this really difficult, un-fun part of the story that you need? It’s like I just treat it like a job.

I find that it’s not always going to be fun, and you have to come to terms with that and make peace with that. And sometimes it’s going to be really sucky. And your motivation is to finish this thing and boot it out the door [Laughter] so you can work on the next thing. And a lot of the time, I find myself thinking that way, when I’m trying to get through a really boring passage or something.

KB: Yeah.

QC: Yeah, just do it and never ever leave it and then work on a more interesting part. [Laughter] I find that if you do that, it’s like you are never going to go back to that boring part—particularly if it’s really important. That is the worst thing you can do. So I work on something fun, I—“Oh no, here comes a boring part”—work on the boring part [Laughter] and then get back to the fun part. I find that if you do the thing where you work on the easy parts first—the fun parts first—then you’re going to end up with a massive workload at the end that you don’t want to do. And that is a massive obstacle to finishing everything—anything at all.

So, a lot of people find it hard, because when it comes to creative work, people think that it should be fun all the time—constantly. And it’s like, “No, it’s work.” Work, no matter how much you love it, it’s going to be 50 per cent fun, 50 per cent awful. And that’s just life, unfortunately. It’s just something you accept.

KB: Yeah. It’s good that you have those intrinsic motivators that, as you said, this idea has been taking up space in your head for so long [Laughter] it has to come out. It just has to. But also—

QC: Might as well, right?

KB: Yeah. I like how—

QC: It’s not going anywhere! Oh, it’s clear. [Laughter]

KB: Yeah.

QC: It’s not leaving my head. So.

KB: I like what Ryan said as well—like, in a way, you’re beholden to other people and that’s a big motivator. That, I think, has been a big motivator in the past for me is, “Oh: other people are relying [on] me to get this thing done. I can’t quit!” [Laughter] Yeah.

QC: Yeah. I guess that’s where it comes in when I’m working for other people as an illustrator. ’Cause then it’s just pure work. It’s like so-and-so is going to pay me $X amount of money to get this done by a certain date. So get it done by a certain date so you can get paid.

KB: Yep. Yep. [Laughter]

QC: So that’s it. You know? So sometimes it’s really fun to work on other people’s stuff. A lot of time it is.

KB: Yeah.

QC: But if you treat it like a job, then it doesn’t really matter, ultimately. You are doing this for someone, and you have to do it by a certain deadline, and that—that’s about it. That’s all there is to say. [Laughter]

KB: Yep. Yep. Okay. So we’re down to the last couple of questions. What is something that, as a comic creator, that you’re good at and also something that you wish you could improve. I should also say I stole these questions from Antony Johnston’s podcast, Writing and Breathing

RKL: Oh, yeah, yeah!

KB: —because I really like them.

RKL: Nice! [Laughter] So I guess it’s like what do I bring to comics—what do I bring to my writing that people, I guess, are coming for—that they’re coming for because it’s done well, or that they can’t get somewhere else. I hope it’s maybe a marriage between trying to write about genuine emotions or actual character motivations. I try to delve into that a lot with the characters that I write in the stories that I write. Whether I do it well or not, I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever say that I do.

One thing I certainly try to do well that I think maybe I do do well is use the comic form as part of the storytelling. So really consider, within my script and within my relationship with my artists, how we’re going to use everything that we have at our disposal to maximise moments of tension, to maximise the frenetic nature of a moment, to maximise the story points—whether it’s as simple as a page turn or a panel size, or whether it’s elements of image-free static moments within storytelling, or whether it’s using the—I love using the gutters, especially, within my stories to control time, because then you are controlling the pacing of something. Or at least telling the reader how they should think about controlling it, ’cause they’ll skim it as fast or as slow as they want to, with their eyes. It’s not like film, where you are in charge of the timing. That’s definitely something that I think about a lot. And so I think, hopefully, it does come through well in my books and within my stories.

Something that I’d like to improve upon: I think one of the challenges that I’m sort of setting myself at the moment is—I don’t know, it’s to sort of simplify my stories a little bit and keep them as emotionally resonant. So without having to sprawl too much. I find I put a lot into my stories and thinking specifically of more recent ones like Everfrost and Beautiful Canvas, they have a lot of moving parts and a lot of strangeness and a lot of working elements within them. And I want to see if I can dial that back to something that’s a little more simplistic in its view, I guess? Even if it is within a fantasy world or even if it is within some sort of dystopian sci-fi noir story—to really strip back that character arc and then dive deeper into it, I think would be something that I would like to look at—to make sure that everything is clear for the audience, I think.

’Cause in general, when I’m writing, I’m a big fan of not explaining everything. I think the audience either doesn’t need to know certain things, so I’m not worried about explaining what the power source is of a vehicle. But I also don’t mind them having to dig for elements that still drive the plot. I want the readers to be active. I want to them confused at times, because they’ll figure it out later. I want them to reread my stuff. That’s by design. But I’d be interested to then flip that and go, “All right, well, let’s lay something so there’s not as many pieces hidden within each issue and it’s all just there, and you still get that sort of kick to it.” So whether that’s a straight-up more singular character-driven story, or whether it’s a really stripped back old-school pulp crime story engine that just sort of rockets forward, that’s something I would like to improve is just having it all there and then making sure that I’ve structured it and shown it in a way that is completely clear, but still offers moments to completely wow the audience as things occur.

And I love to throw a lot into a story. I love a melting pot of strange science, and strange locations and characters, and really strange moments. And it would be cool to try something. And one of my stories that I’m mapping out at the moment is very much that me trying to, whenever my story twists and turns, mine the past of the story to keep it a really streamlined spear, rather than the sort of meandering six-headed sentient arrow that I seem to shoot into the world when I come off of these things [Laughter].

KB: Fantastic! What about you, Queenie? What’s something that you think you’re good at and what’s something that you wish you could improve?

QC: I don’t know about the writing part, because there’s certainly different kinds of audiences, and people seem to at least like my work. So I don’t want to talk too much about how you emotionally connect with readers, ’cause there’s so many different kinds of people out there.

But in terms of as an artist, I guess it’s—that’s easier to quantify. I think I’m good at doing character designs—bringing a certain personality to a particular look—to a particular personality—and making sure that these match and making sure that you can distinguish the primary cast from the secondary cast. And creating an environment—or at least drawing in a way that makes it looks like that this person actually belongs in this environment. Because artists can create characters and backgrounds that are very detached from each other. It’s like they don’t even look like they’re in the same universe. I mean, that would be bad. But that’s a problem that I’ve never really had. So I think, at least, when it comes to the worldbuilding aspect, I think I’m okay in that, at the very least.

I’m not great; there’s people who, I think, does it much better. But do I think that it’s an important skill for me to want to have? I don’t think so. I think I’m adequate [Laughter] and I’m good with just being adequate [Laughter]. Yeah, I think I’m fine with that. I think other things are a bit more important when it comes to building the story—like the emotional resonance and particular character arcs or a particular moment; I think that’s more important. So I think I’m going at that. But I … don’t really look to improve on that, like, interestingly enough. I think I’m fine where I’m at.

I guess I’m also good at trying new things. Like, doing the experimentations that I have. I’ve got a good idea of what I want to do. So I’m not sure whether I’ll find an audience. Who knows? It seems that, at least for Fabled Kingdom, nobody seems to care about the format it came in; people are just interested in the story and that’s it. So I think that’s good news.

But ultimately, in terms of things I can improve, I think I could have more patience [Laughter]. Yeah, sometimes I think I try and churn things out too quickly. And not at the beginning—like, never with my ideas—but I think when I’m getting to a point where it’s really boring, sometimes just want to cut corners. And the drive to do that is very hard to suppress. That’s where you get sloppy as an artist and you end up churning out work that isn’t so great—or, at least to your eyes, it’s not great; but who knows who’s looking at it? Some people just think it’s—they can’t tell the difference, really. But to the trained eye, you definitely can. And I wish I was less—like, I had a bit more patience to pay attention to the small ideas—like, some artists are really, really good at that. I am not. I just lose patience if I spend too much time on a single piece of artwork. And with comics, it’s so grindy, then what can you do?

So other things I’d like to improve: probably I like to work more with other people. I think you can learn a lot from working with others. And I think as someone who writes and draws, you don’t need a collaborator, and I think attitude’s not really a good one. I feel I could collaborate more with other people and learn new things that way, or maybe encounter new ideas and things, and so that’s what I’d like to do a bit more. I wouldn’t say I’m bad at it; I’m not difficult to collaborate with, or anything, or at least nobody’s complained [Laughter] in the kind of collaborations that I’ve worked with. But I think opening myself to more of those experiences is good for everyone involved.

KB: Yeah, agreed. It’s—you learn so much from the people that you work with, and if it’s working really well, you also spur each other on to better work, which is really, really cool.

QC: Yeah.

KB: Yeah.

QC: And I am collaborating with people on a number of things. But we shall see!

KB: Yeah, yeah. So let’s talk a bit about what you’re working on now, if you can talk about it, ’cause I’m always interested. Queenie, you mentioned you’re doing your PhD and you’re doing the game engine story. Do you want to talk a bit more about that and how it’s going?

QC: Oh! Sure. The game is pretty much a game, so I won’t really talk that much about it. I’ve mentioned it a little bit earlier, at least, from a story writing perspective, and I think I’ll stick with that for now.

In terms of the comic that I’m working on that is in a game engine, it’s going to be a story about class differences. And I think when it comes to comics and video games, a lot of people start off making video games and then they use comics aesthetics in it. And that’s fine. But these are games that borrow from comics. Which I think is very interesting, but I don’t see things going the other direction very much—comics that borrow from games. And I think in my PhD, I have to make that distinction is that there is a difference between video games that have Biff! Boom! as sound effects when people punch out each other, or portray their game play in a series of comics panels. And these are interesting games who do that—who borrow a lot from the language of comics. But these identify as games first and comics second.

What would the approach be if you start off with comics first and then move into games? How would that approach be different? I would say the approach, in terms of differences is actually kind of negligible, because at the end of the day, if you’re using a games medium—a games engine to create something—people are going to consider it more of a game, just by the nature of the tools being used.

But part of doing what I do is push back against that way of thinking. Intent matters. The person who’s creating and what they think they’re doing matters. So if I’m saying that this is a digital comic, even if it uses a game engine, then it’s a digital comic, because I say so. But how can I keep the idea of comics within a game?

One element that I really like to work with is the idea of comics is that you can see every single panel on a page at any point in time, no matter which panel you’re supposed to be working on. ’Cause the time in comics is entirely a creation of the reader: you present an entire page to the reader and the reader can see everything—past, current and future in this page. Where they are at in point in time is up to where their eye is, and that is controlled entirely by the reader. So I do want to add that element to this digital comic, I guess, because I think that is unlike video games or movies—film, in other words—or prose, which is not visual. I think comics is unique and that is a unique element of comics—about being able to see everything—like, there’s time—whole timeline in one go; it’s just a matter of where your eye is at a particular moment. And so I think presenting the comic story in that format is quite important for me for this project.

So I’ve an idea of what I want it to look like, but it’s not going to be easy. But like I said, interactivity, it can go any way you want. And so it’s going to be interesting to see how it goes. But we shall see! But talking back to the more technical aspects of what makes a comic a comic and why’s it different to an illustration or a series of illustrations.

KB: Yeah, definitely.

QC: So bringing that into the comic that I’m doing is going to be a bit of a challenge. Yeah, anyway, might as well talk about what’s the theme of it is: it’s going to be capitalism/parallel lives. And so, you are going to be controlling a character that you choose, who’s either going to be rich or poor. You’re going to have two lives that are going to be running parallel to each other—one rich, one poor. And the idea is you can choose the character, but there’s only one control; it doesn’t matter. Both characters behave exactly the same. It’s just that what differs is their environment and how the environment reacts to them.

And so, that is the basis for the PhD in that you are talking about how—’cause I guess Neoliberalism, it isn’t economic structure that we live in now. And a lot of the rhetoric that comes with it is the the idea that, if you work hard, that you’ll succeed. That’s almost like a slogan—a Karl Marx slogan of the times that we love in is like if you’re not succeeding and winning at life, then it’s because you’re a lazy person. And if you work harder, you’ll be like Bill Gates [Laughter]. That is the general idea behind some of these slogans for Neoliberalism. And it’s very easy to debunk.

And my game, out right of the bat, just debunks that. Because at the end of the day, you can have the two exact same people—one who grew up in a rich family, one who grew up in a poor family—and the environment reacts very differently to them, even if you do the exact same thing. And as you go through your life, what you have accumulates. So if you start with a lot, then you’re going to get more; you start off with nothing, you may not be able to get that much, no matter how hard you work. It’s not a matter of working hard at some point in time.

So, I mean, there’s a lot of academic stuff in that as well. It has to do with a lot of academic arguments about video gaming as well, but I won’t go into that. But that is the general gist of the story. It is meant to be a digital comic, even as it borrows many elements from video games.

KB: Fascinating! I’m looking to that coming out.

QC: Yeah, it’s going to be pretty weird!

KB: It will be interesting!

RKL: It sounds awesome!

KB: Yeah!

QC: Yay! Social activism now! [Laughter]

KB: How ’bout you, Ryan? What are you working on now?

RKL: At the moment, it’s a balance of all these little things. So I have no singular focus, which kind of sucks. ’Cause that’s like the best spot to be in when you’re just in the grind on one thing. But we’ve got Everfrost that I’ve created with Sami Kivela coming out through Black Mask. We’re prepping the trade, so we’re just getting everything sort for that. So there’s lots of little tweaks on that and we also have Black Beacon that I’m creating with Sebastián Píriz at Heavy Metal that has the last two issues to be finalised, and then we’ll start prepping the trade for that. So I always sort of factor that in because it does take time, when I get in the office, to tweak all the things here or there, or check things out.

But then what I’m looking at, moving forward, is the next volume of SHE is finished with the script and so now I’m chatting with the artist about it and looking at all the logistics and timeline of it, now that it’s finally all in its final draft and form, which is really good. I’m watching art come in for a short graphic novel I’m doing with Louie Joyce, who you both know really well, and is both lovely and insanely talented. So I’m in a really lovely spot of just watching art drip in on that and it’s looking amazing. We’ve been looking to do this book together for years and years, so it’s nice to see a lot of traction happening now.

And then beyond that, looking forward, I’m sort of working on breaking a bunch of different stories. One is kind of like a sci-fi/strange futurescape story of a young woman who finds herself with a very large problem thrust upon her, and she’s trying to figure out a solution to it. And so, that’s coming along fairly well. It’s breaking fairly well. I just need to find the right home for it, I guess.

And I’m also, then, putting together another story that’s a fantasy novel—almost DnD-inspired story that is very much about how we look at characters and how much we take our read of a character based on what they look like or what they can do, as well as what they actually do, and whether it’s our perception of what they do that makes them the sort of character we think they are—sort of looking at archetypes of good and bad—things like that. I’ve not really done a lot that’s full-on fantasy, and it’s fun to use that landscape and the way that we code characters so strongly in that.

So I’m trying to figure that one out. And so those two are fairly well plotted out, mostly. Certainly the engine of the story’s definitely in place. But then there’s a third one—a crime story that I’m tinkering with that I’m trying to figure out exactly how it goes together. I’ve probably been sitting on this one a year now and keep cycling back to it. And this is where a lot of my stories start: it might have a really great high concept, but that’s not a character and it’s not a character arc and it’s nothing else. So I’m trying to get it in a way where it’s really satisfying. So far, I’ve written, I think, three versions of the plot that work, but they’re very much cats heads on trains [Laughter]. And so I’m trying to fix that and make it pop. But I really, really love a lot of the characters in it, and I love the concept. And I feel like I’m waiting for that extra element to click into it to mash up.

But, yeah, they’re all the things I’m working on, and so I’m in this really annoying pocket of time where I’m not currently really heavily scripting anything. And I hate that. That’s the dead zone for me: you’re waiting on either publishers to pick something up, and that’s out of your control, or you’re just waiting on things to finalised, so I’m likely waiting on an artist, or, again, a publisher to stitch things together or blah blah blah. And again, it’s out of my control.

Whereas, when I’m sitting down to write scripts, that’s my job. That’s what I do. And so, I know all the other stuff I do, writing is about 10 per cent of the job, and the rest is the emails and the meetings [Laughter] and the story breaking. But I love the writing part, and it feels like you’re doing work. And I never give that credit to all the story breaking that I do before I write. That feels like something that should be quicker and easier for me, so I hate how laborious it is. But I’m very much in the thick of these three different stories mostly, and there’s a fourth one that I’m sort of very nascently toying with, putting all of those things together.

So I feel like, as well, I’m spread really thin. I actually sat down yesterday while we were watching a movie as a family and just started to map out on an A4 sheet of paper what are all the different projects that are currently happening. And it was 11 or 12. And I thought [Laughter], “Oh, God. No wonder I feel so scatterbrained!”

But once I got it on paper, I was like, “All right: well, Everfrost is done: I’ve written it and we’re just prepping the trade. All right. That’s in a neat corner.” And then I’m like, “All right. I’m trying to break this crime story. All right: that I need to give a bit more time and a bit more focus and more energy to.” So I need to work out where to put my efforts. But I’m really just waiting on whichever story gets picked up so I can push everything else aside and say, “All right: you are the thing that now gets me for”—I usually set aside a solid season—a solid three months to write something, ’cause I’ve done all the hard work. So I’ll see how it all comes together.

But I actually am in a situation right now where I’m doing a very big change with my day job of teaching.

KB: Oh wow!

RKL: So I probably shouldn’t feel like I’m stuck with deadlines. I need to reflect that I actually think this happening for a reason. I need to focus a little bit on the day job, and if I knew an artist was writing on script too, I’d be freaking out and that would be no good.

So I feel like the right story will pop through at the right time to allow me to do it in the right way. So trying—very much the word—trying there, but trying that zen approach of, “All right: just handle what you can at the moment and see how it’s coming together.

KB: Yeah. Wow. That is a lot of things, Ryan! [Laughter] That’s amazing.

RKL: It’s a little manic. It’s probably not the smart—if I had more of a through line of knowing what would get picked up, I could focus on a story, pitch it, get it picked up and write it, and it would be a linear path to my brain. But, man, it is the shotgun approach, unfortunately.

What are you working on, though, at the moment?

KB: Oh, I’m still working on a prose novel. It is a YA fantasy thing. I shifted gears a bit: I started this three-POV [point of view] novel last year and it wasn’t working, and I realised I really should learn to walk before I run—start with one POV.

RKL: Yep.

KB: So I’ve taken one of those characters, and the story’s about him and it’s just set about three years earlier. And it’s his origin story. So it’s set in a fantasy world, which resembles Edo-era Japan, and essentially—[Laughter] the pitch I always have is “It’s about samurai magicians at magic school, basically.” And so, he is from the very, very lowest class of society and is discovered to be a seer: he can “see” magic and can manipulate magic, and is taken to the Academy to be trained. But in the midst of that, all these other things [are] going on, because the way he was discovered was that he tried to rob another seer who was quite high up in the government, and landed in prison. There’s a thing going on there, which hasn’t been revealed yet.

So I’m about a quarter of the way through, but it’s very slow-going, and with lockdown, it’s just been hard, because home learning [Laughter] has been dominating—home learning and my job!

RKL: Yeah.

KB: But it’s slowly getting there and, I figure, at least I’ve been writing when I can, and when I have writing group once a month, that’s the big kick up the pants to actually do something. And so the John Swartzwelder method of the crappy little elf has been working well—

RKL: Nice!

KB: —I feel like I’m making very incremental progress on two fronts: the crappy elf front [Laughter], where I write it badly and then the revising front where I try to—

RKL: Yeah!

KB: —write it better! [Laughter] Yeah.

Okay, to finish off, where can people find you online?

RKL: Mine is just “ryanklindsay” with anything else that you need on it: throw a dot com on it, put an “@” sign at the front for Twitter, whatever you need: @ryanklindsay is where I’m most active on Twitter. I have my own site. I have a Patreon where I write flash fiction and I deconstruct stuff and I share scripts and do a bunch of that sort of stuff. And I have a newsletter, which would be ryanklindsay.substack.com, where each week, I send out a brain dump of just either what I’m working on or how I’m working or what’s going on. It’s like people who like to watch train wrecks, that’s the place to go: you can just watch me [Laughter] slowly fold myself into an origami unicorn for your sickening pleasure. [Laughter]

KB: [Laughter] How ’bout you, Queenie?

QC: My website’s at queeniechan.com. I’ve had it for years and you can buy some of my books there for free shipping. So if you’re from the US/Australia, you can get it for free shipping and that’s on my website.

I’m not on social media very often—I don’t get much time to go on social media and chat with people. But for whatever reason, “queeniechan” has been taken on social media, so I’m “queeniechanhere”, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. I want to go on social media a bit more often [Laughter], but it’s just, “Ah, my God! All the stuff that I do.”

If you want to see what I’m doing any given month, I do try and update my website every month or every second month, so I can let people know what I’m doing and what I’m working on, and all that. But thanks to COVID, things have been kind of crappy for a while. So nothing much has happened. All the cons have been cancelled.

I’m still doing a fair amount of work and so the lockdown has been okay for me, and I’m working on my PhD as well and doing all this other stuff. So it’s been okay. But I guess I’ve been a bit slow on the social media because of the lockdown. It just motivates me to not update stuff or look at what other people are doing [Laughter]. It’s just, hmm, kind of depressing.

But anyway, that’s where you find me, and by all means, there’s a form that you can contact me with on my website. So that’s probably the ideal way to contact me, because I always pay attention to email. Sometimes people contact me through social media and sometimes I miss it, ’cause I’m not on it often. So I always recommend email’s the best way to contact me.

KB: Great. Thanks, guys, so much for your time and for this chat! It’s been a lot of fun.

[Music]

KB:  Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast!  For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com. Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all this possible.

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Review: Nightbooks

Netflix, 2021. 1hr 43 min

The creep factor is present from the very beginning of this movie: it is, of course, a dark and stormy night, and 10? 12?-year-old Alex is upset and raging, tearing down posters of shlocky horror films from the 1980s and screaming about how he wants to burn it all. His parents are having an argument about him and some trauma that he’s recently endured. Clearly, they’re worried about him. He runs out of their apartment and into the lift, intending to set his books alight in the building’s boiler room. But instead, with a slice of pumpkin pie and an unattended television screening The Lost Boys, he is ensnared by a beautiful witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter, who looks like she’s having way too much fun) and forced to prove his usefulness to her by reading her a new scary story every night.

Alex is not the only child that Natacha has ensnared: her creepy granny kitsch apartment also houses Yasmin, a girl about Alex’s age who cooks and cleans for Natacha, and a hairless spiteful cat named Lenore, who acts like a spy for the witch and who likes to turn invisible. At first, both Yasmin and Lenore are hostile to Alex. But shared adversity forges powerful bonds, and soon Alex and Yasmin are plotting together to find ways to escape.

I haven’t watched or read that much middle grade horror (Stranger Things and Monster House is about the extent of it), and horror really isn’t my genre. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed this one—perhaps because it was consciously steeped in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel references abound) and 80s horror tropes. It was fun seeing Alex read his stories (which were dramatised in a heavily stylised way that I thought befit the tale-within-a-tale thing they were going for) and having to endure the world’s worst writing critique group in the form of an impatient, nitpicky and exacting Natacha. (“Writers. Always so insecure.” *Cue snarky giggles from me.*) The way his writers block was depicted made me laugh while, at the same time, I kept yelling at the screen for him to go take a walk or read some of the many tomes that comprised the library he was forced to work in. (Indeed, give it’s Week #15 of lockdown, I rather envied the fact that he had TIME and SPACE to write—time and space UNINTERRUPTED, at that!) It was also very emotionally satisfying seeing him and Yasmin slowly begin to connect, and I enjoyed the spark of cleverness Alex displayed in trying to trick the witch into revealing some key piece of information. The jump scares were a little cheesy, bordering on predictable. But this is a kids movie, and perhaps some leniency is in order.

Indeed, I wondered how much my viewing the film as an adult was colouring my perceptions of the film. There were points at which I felt that the kids were being a bit slow or a bit stupid—that they should have acted and done certain things to help themselves, or done certain things sooner. I wondered how a kid would have found it and whether they would have empathised with the main characters’ paralysis and indecision. In particular, I wonder how they would have responded to the big reveal, when Alex finally answers Natacha’s question about why he was so keen to burn his writing (which he has scribbled in journals he calls his “Nightbooks”). For me, I felt like this could have been seeded better and earlier so that the emotional weight of Alex’s trauma could have hit harder.

Indeed, in spite of some pretty decent pacing, some of the plot twists and character arcs felt a bit predictable (even though I liked some of them), and if you think too hard about the story and its world building, you’ll come across some curious holes. (That said, and given that the movie is based on a book of the same name by JA White [which I have not read], I wondered if the movie would have worked better as a miniseries, with more time and space to allow the stories—and back stories—to breathe a little more.)

Final thing: the production design on this movie is gorgeously nightmarish—from the William Morris wallpaper to the antique porcelain dolls to the cobwebbed spiral staircased library, and even a gingerbread house that looks both mouthwatering, yet sweetly and sickly gross. Natacha’s wardrobe is also fabulously retro and over-the-top, with iridescent fabrics, sequins for days and eye-wateringly high platforms galore. The score was comprised of some rather over-used high strings. But I really like the CHVRCHES cover of “Cry Little Sister” (which comes from The Lost Boys): not only are they one of my most favourite bands, I felt that fit really well with CHVRCHES’ aesthetic.

If you and/or your kids like creepy stories, this one’s for you—and just in time for Halloween.

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Hiveminded Episode 017

Show notes

Queenie Chan’s website

Ryan K Lindsay’s website

Transcript

[Music]

Karen Beilharz: So it’s been three years since our last podcast episode, which was our writing retreat miniseries back in July of 2018. Since then, Bec, Guan and I have been involved with other projects—projects that, unfortunately, haven’t involved this podcast. Since then, other podcasts have sprung up that also have the name “Hiveminded Podcast”. And if you’re listening to this, and it’s not the podcast you were expecting, maybe stop now and look elsewhere.

Then last year in 2020, I was all set to attend my very first WorldCon: the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, which was supposed to have been held in Auckland, New Zealand. And then COVID-19 shut everything down. Things were just starting to open up again in Sydney when the convention was being held via livestream. I was still working at the time, so I couldn’t attend any of the panels live. But I did get up at some ungodly hour just to attend a small group Zoom session with Kieron Gillen, the comic writer. I tried to catch up on as many panels as possible over the weekend, playing them a double, sometimes even 2.5 speed, and I enjoyed the panels I was able to hear.

But while I was listening, I couldn’t help wishing that I could hear comics people talking about the sorts of things that WorldCon panellists were talking about—things to do with creativity and process and influences, and all things to do with making art. There were a couple of comic creators among the guests, but the majority of them were prose writers. I came away from WorldCon with the idea of making something happen myself.

Of course, I was in no position to organise a whole convention, and certainly COVID wouldn’t allow for that. So I thought perhaps doing a podcast would work. I thought perhaps I could revive the Hiveminded Podcast. Furthermore, as COVID had pretty much cancelled all the usual comic and pop culture events where I would normally see my comics friends, I thought this would be a good excuse to catch up with people. And it would give me a chance to ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to know (mwahaha!)

And then my website broke, and we moved house, and whatever grand plans I had were shelved.

One year later in 2021 in the midst of the second Sydney lockdown, I found myself thinking about the idea and trying to figure out how to make it happen. And thankfully, I found a way to make it happen.

In this episode and the next episode of the Hivemind Podcast, I talked to comic creators Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay. If you’re not familiar with them, Queenie Chan is a manga artist and comic creator, known for her Picnic at Hanging Rock-inspired horror trilogy, The Dreaming; her collaborations with Dean Koontz and Kylie Chan; the fairytale-inspired fantasy adventure Fabled Kingdom; and a series of children’s non-fiction works about famous queens throughout history.

Ryan K Lindsay is an award-winning writer known for such works as Headspace, which is set inside the mind of a serial killer; Negative Space, in which his main character goes to pen a suicide note and gets writer’s block; Beautiful Canvas, a crime miniseries about a hit woman trying to reconcile her profession with her role as a mother-to-be; and Everfrost, a science fiction miniseries about a woman on the brink of death who comes face-to-face with the son who died in her arms as a child.

Queenie, Ryan and I talk about our comic creator origin stories, the genres and tropes that we are drawn to, and how we actually go about writing comics.

Enjoy!

KB: Hello, and welcome to the Hiveminded Podcast, which today is with me—that’s Karen—and Ryan K Lindsay and Queenie Chan. And we’re doing a miniseries about making comics together. And these next few episodes are going to be about writing comics.

But before we get into the business of writing comics, I thought it would be fun to talk about your comics creator origin story. So Queenie, do you want to go first and tell us: how did you get into making comics in the first place?

Queenie Chan: So my name’s Queenie. I’m a manga-style comic book artist, which means that I draw in a very Japanese style, because that’s what I grew up with. So I grew up reading Japanese manga in Hong Kong. And then I came here when I was a kid. And so just continued my habit, thanks to Chinatown importing a lot of these kind of comics.

And I had this fantasy of becoming a manga comic book artist in Japan. And unfortunately, that was years ago, and it still isn’t really possible these days to do that without moving to Tokyo. But I guess when the internet came into existence, and I just started going online and talking to people and finding a lot of people online that had dreams similar to mine, I thought, “Oh, you know”—that kind of inspired me to sit down and actually give it a try in becoming a manga artist, really, from Australia.

Amazingly enough, it kind of worked out okay, for me—not the way I envisioned, but considering how scary Japanese manga—the industry—can be when it comes to working within it, I’m kind of glad things turned out this way. But—so I guess I started thanks to the internet and just growing up reading manga and just wanting to be a part of the manga-producing world, I guess.

KB:  But you were quite—like, you weren’t in high school, were you, when you started? Is that right?

QC: No, I was in university, actually. I wasn’t encouraged to draw as a child. So it wasn’t until I was in university that I started drawing and writing my own stories, because I didn’t enjoy my degree. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I had gone into Information Systems—so programming—and it was not as I had hoped, you know. So I thought, “Oh, you know, maybe I’ll just do something else.” And, you know, my escape from university life was actually my manga-drawing hobby that I had.

KB: That’s fantastic.

QC: And that’s how it started.

KB: Wow. How about you, Ryan? What’s your comic creator origin story?

Ryan K Lindsay: That’s funny, I was just trying to think of when I decided I wanted to, you know, write comics. I knew I was never going to draw them! That’s certainly never been even something I thought of.

But I was actually trying to think of, like, I know, roughly when I started to write comics, but I don’t actually remember why I thought that was something I should be doing. All I know is from a very young age, I knew I would grow up to write. And I called it early and said I would be an author and a teacher, and have now successfully managed both of those career paths, if you can call the writing, you know, career. But it pays some bills.

But it was—it was after I’d gone to Uni, and I’d graduated and I was teaching at the first school that I was placed at. And a few years in there, my brother sent me The Walking Dead Volume 1, because we are real old-school zombie fans. Um, and he was like, “Oh, apparently this thing’s really good.” And it was probably about three volumes deep at this stage—it was like fairly—fairly nascent days. And I remember reading that and it rekindling this love of comics. And because I was teaching and I had all of this disposable income, I had started to buy comics again, like I did all the way up to late high school. And I think it was that reading lots of comics again, and going on eBay and finding stuff that definitely, like, sparked that passion again.

And I’d been tinkering with writing different things at that time. And I can’t remember why, but I get the feeling it might have been—I was—I was filling in a lot of my Daredevil collection on eBay. And so I decided to write some Daredevil stories in comic script form, which, as everyone knows, is—is not the way to break into comics or to make comics. But as people also know, fanfic is a hell of a way to get yourself to sit down and write stuff.

And that sort of kickstarted me, you know, learning about script format and all that sort of stuff, and finding what I could online, which, you know, 15-odd years ago, wasn’t as much as there certainly is now. And so from there, it took years of writing, um—and I always say, like, I—before I published my first comic one shot, I wrote about 60 issues in script form that just sort of went nowhere, or were just practice or were horrible, or might be diamonds in the rough waiting in my trunk, but I’d never really go back to them. And I’d written a few novels as well. And I count all of that as practice—really invaluable practice.

And then finally in 2013, I put out my first one-shot—22 page comic—and sort of took that around to conventions. So yeah, that was definitely the origin story.

KB: So that was Fatherhood, wasn’t it—the 22-page?

RKL: Yes, that first one that I did was—was Fatherhood, a nice standalone. By the time I got to that point, I realised you don’t write Daredevil, you don’t pitch 60-issue Vertigo-style things—like, it’s just not going to happen. Although if you figure out how young Garth Ennis was when he wrote Preacher, very young, and it’s insane that he was so good and got that opportunity. But he’s Garth Ennis, so I guess he earns it.

But yeah, it took me ages to realise I needed to do something self-contained and manageable to—you know—to engage a creative team and to be able to afford printing, and to make it not like a $50 book that people won’t know who I am and won’t take a chance on, but $5: I could probably get that out of somebody at a show, and did manage to on more than one occasion.

KB: Yeah. Wow. That’s fascinating. So it was really rediscovering the love of comics, then deciding, “I’d like to do that” to having a go and putting stuff out there. And yeah, and then from—

RKL: Pretty much yeah—

KB: Yeah.

RKL: —just having that passion. And I’ve always loved writing, and I’ve always sort of like—even pretty much—for always, if it’s not a short story, it’ll be something else. I’ve always sort of tinkered with stuff. But I think that weaving it all together and then clocking it in with the passion that I have for comics, just sort of, I guess, was the right recipe.

KB: Yeah, there you go. Like for me, I grew up reading the strips in the Saturday paper—like, was it Prince Valiant and Thin Ice and Snake and that sort of thing. And it wasn’t until—I think it was university/late high school that, you know, all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh my goodness: you can get longer novel-length forms of comics.” And I had these friends who would just keep lending me stuff, but their tastes skewed more towards—I guess, more independent Image-type, a little bit of Vertigo, like Sandman, that sort of thing.

But I never thought I could do it myself, because I just write; I don’t draw at all. And then I was reading an interview with Kieron Gillen, because I think it was about the time I discovered Phonogram. You guys read Phonogram? Wow, okay. It’s one of my favourite comics. It’s about basically—

RKL: So good!

KB: Yeah, music is magic. And I was reading interview with him, where he talked about how he got started, which was just to talk artists into doing these five-page things with him for free. And I thought, “Oh, I could do that!” I started writing five-page scripts and—and things and then taking it from there. But yeah, that’s pretty funny because I never thought, “Oh,” like “this is a way you can make comics”. And I didn’t know anybody who was making comics at the time. It was only later, after I’d put out the first anthology, Kinds of Blue that I actually met other comic creators and you guys and stuff like that. Like, I think the first time I met Queenie was at a signing you did it Kinokuniya. I can’t remember what year it was.

QC: Oh!

KB: It was very a long time ago.

QC: I guess I don’t really remember either. That must have been it. I do do stuff with Kinokuniya. But that was a while ago. Obviously, with COVID, nothing’s happening.

KB: Yeah.

QC: And—that’s right: they used to do Free Comic Book Day. And that was really great.

KB: Yeah.

QC: But of course, COVID has kind of ruined that a bit. But yeah, yeah. I mean, the comics industry has changed so much. What can I say: I started working in it in about 2005. Or probably before that: that wasn’t—that, like, okay. So long ago, it’s hard to think—I’ve actually have a think about how long it’s been since I started drawing comics. I’d say about 20 years.

But, um, you see, my first officially published work was with TokyoPop. So that was in 2005. But before that, I was with an outfit called Wire Pop. And I was getting paid for my comics. So perhaps, if we’re going to talk about getting paid to publish your work, I mean, TokyoPop definitely wasn’t my first publishing experience. It was with Wire Pop. But back then, people were actually still willing to subscribe to a comics website to read comics. Nowadays, I don’t think that there is so much willing to—or, at least, if it’s happening, it’s not really happening in, I guess, Western spaces.

I think Webtoons, for example, has a pretty good system where people do pay to read comics. But I’m not putting myself up on Webtoons. The ecosystem there, it’s very different to what it used to be back in 2002 or 2003. Yeah. Okay.

So I guess my first published work was actually a horror story called Block Six. That was what ran on Wire Pop. Yeah, so yeah, there’s that. So just thinking about how much, like, the comics industry has changed over the years thanks to the internet, and how different things are, and how different people are when it comes to doing stuff. Like that’s—that’s—I guess that’s quite interesting and worth talking about.

KB: So you’ve always been drawn to horror in some way.

QC: Not really, I guess. I wanted to challenge myself. I like all kinds of genres and whatever appeals to me—mystery, horror—I like romance as well, if it’s well written; there’s a lot of terrible romance out there, let’s just say. A lot of good ones. Action—anything that entertains me is good enough. I think.

I don’t do much action comics, because I guess—it’s a lot of effort as an as an artist, I guess—like, who writes and draws—it’s just, like—it’s a constant balancing act of how—what can I write and whether I can draw it. So sometimes I choose my stories based on that.

But then again, I also—like, as a writer/artist, I’m also really interested in pushing comics into new directions—like, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a comic—the kind of tools you use—you can use to do something that qualifies as comic. I mean, you were an editor for one of my experimentations, Fabled Kingdom, that was mixing prose with comics. And I thought that was interesting.

So right now, I’m doing something in a completely direction—a different direction—for my PhD, which I’m doing at Macquarie Uni. I’m mixing comics with gaming. So I’m creating a comic with a game engine. So it is a digital comic, in my opinion. But I guess, again, it’s about going in a completely different direction to the direction I went in with Fabled Kingdom, and seeing what kind of interactivity you can bring to a digital comic using gaming mechanics and gaming tools, since I’m a huge gamer as well, apart from a comic book reader.

KB: Yeah.

QC: So that’s kind of some of the stuff that I’m doing right now—which is, you know, it’s—it’s really different to what everyone else is doing. So it’s a little bit strange, talking about it on a comic show. But I think that people are always interested in experimentation and new ideas. And so, yeah.

KB: Yeah, definitely.

QC: So that’s what—I mean, I guess I’ve always gone to the beat of my own drum or whatever!

KB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because your work has, yeah, encompassed a whole bunch of different themes. Just—I’m just thinking about the ones that I have read, because I haven’t read all of it. But yeah, certainly like The Dreaming was the Australian gothic—the—Picnic at Hanging Rock sort of thing. And then with Fabled Kingdom, it was fairytales and fantasy, and about governments and queens, and so on, so forth. And then with the—the queens series that you’ve been doing, that’s diving—

QC: Oh yeah, nonfiction as well.

KB: Yeah, nonfiction and history, and all the research that you did for that as well. It’s really, really interesting.

QC: Guess what my theme for my PhD is.

KB: Yeah, what?

QC: It’s capitalism! It’s going—my PhD is on Neoliberalism, and working conditions of comic book creators and  video game workers. So that—so the creative class in a neoliberal world. Again, something completely different, and I’m actually really enjoying it, because it’s a topic that I know a fair bit about, even without being in academia. So again, it’s a completely different direction. But it’s going to be a mix between a video game and a comic, and interactive to boot. So that’s—it’s going to be fun.

KB: Wow! It sounds really cool. Ryan, what kind of genres or stories do you gravitate towards in your own work?

RKL: Bleak ones, it would appear, from most of what I’ve written. I’d actually read a thing recently on crimereads.com that talks about why sci-fi and crime—especially noir—mash up so well together. And it just perfectly encapsulated why I write a lot of sort of that genre, to be honest. It talks about with—with noir, normally, you know, everyone’s a little bit criminal, and the system is definitely against the lead character, but ultimately, the lead character is also emotionally against themselves, which is another fascinating trope. And sci-fi, it’s—it’s quite often, you know, dystopias, and things like that. And so it’s someone against this larger, broader system that’s against them. And when I look through my work and had spoken with—I have a really good mate who’s a—who’s a really analytical reader. And he had pointed it out to me a while ago that a lot of my stories is someone against, like, a system that is—that is corrupt. And so you see in Negative Space, there’s this mega corporation. And you see in Headspace, it’s this sort of shadow government organisation. And so it sort of seems to come through in my work a lot that it’s this—this—I don’t want to say, like, it’s too pessimistic, I guess. I certainly do try to find elements and slivers of hope and beauty in my stories. But usually they are the minority in the world, or in the story or in the character. But it’s that sort of mash up.

And I think it comes—it comes back to, like, a childhood of watching things like—like Blade Runner, and even watching movies like the Alien franchise, where it is, like, there—there is just a thick layer of corruption. And I mean, if you want to talk about capitalism, I mean, it generally seems to be the grounding tenet of it that if you follow the trail that is generally money, that it’s not the best interests of people at heart; it’s the best interest of replicating more money. And so that, I think, makes for really interesting—the story fodder.

And I often wonder, like, “Can I can tell different stories moving forward?” You know, there is an interest to want to experiment and explore different things. But I do wonder how often I will come back to genre tropes within, like, sci-fi, especially, because I do love that element that you don’t necessarily have to make everything believable, and you don’t have to make everything real, and you don’t have to explain everything. You have to make everything make sense within the story engine of the world that you’ve constructed. But if you want to leave something off the table, I think that’s fair game.

And I’ve just this fortnight been reading Frankenstein for the first time. Which is—which has been a really interesting gap to fill. And I’m fascinated by how little science there is in the first science fiction novel. It does not really go into any detail as to how any of the science occurs—how the, you know, the body is really created or how it is really animated. And the story is not any less for that fact.

And I think there are great science fiction authors that build intricate—they build whole languages from whole cloth, and I think that that’s fascinating. But it’s never what I want to do. I want to tell a story about a character, and then some peripheral characters, and I want to build a world, but I only want to show enough of it that shines back on the character arc. So, yeah, it is something I—I think about often, because I want to make sure if it’s a weakness, either I improve upon it or I have enough excuses to get away with it. They’re my two options.

KB: Yeah, yeah.

QC: I think bleakness in pop culture is very—very suitable for the times. When Ryan mentioned the interest in dyst—dystopias, I was like, yeah, you know—I was thinking exactly Blade Runner.

RKL: Yeah.

QC: Basically we’re—like, if you consider outliers right now in COVID lockdown and with the hot mess that we are in right now, it is a lot like—later on, all with, you know, lots of government and corporate corruption, but minus the fancy lights.

RKL: Yes.

QC: It’s a boring dystopia. You know, all the fun stuff about Blade Runner, nothing’s—we’ve got nothing and none of that: no flying cars—

RKL: No.

QC: —no cool neon lights, no radioactive food. You know, no—no weird—well, we have the bullish police brutality, but not any of the fun stuff, like speaking a mishmash of different languages—none of that old, you know, folding little unicorns in front of, you know—

RKL: Yeah.

QC: —people you’re about to arrest or beating them up. We don’t have any of that. We just have the same old boring life, but with all the negative stuff from Blade Runner and none of the positive.

And so I think that, um—other kinds of entertainment, like zombie—like Walking Dead, you mentioned earlier, is another example of this kind of, I guess, alienation people feel from the way our society is now and how much we want to press the reset button and start all over again as well—you know, that—that is kind of fantasy as well, apart from the dystopian one.

So I think um, you know, you’ve—you’ve hit a very good vein of societal alienation there, Ryan, and I think you could continue to plumb that for quite a while, given the way things are going.

RKL: I—

QC: You should write one about the pandemic next time.

RKL: Yeah, I feel like there’s, you know, there’s enough there that people can sort of—it resonates with them. And if—and if you do it right, it can—it—I never want people to feel worse after reading my stuff. I don’t mind if they think more and that they sort of maybe don’t feel great about everything that happens in the story or what’s the lead character about the end. But there’s just, yeah, so much that you can mine in there.

I have noticed a little bit of a trend that my stories are getting a little more hopeful over—over time. The first few miniseries that I published, certainly—I love a good ambiguous ending, and they would do that, but also lean towards, like, well, you fixed one problem, but it’s small in comparison to the very systemic problem you found. But congratulations on winning, you know, the battle; the war will crush you. Whereas now it sort of seems to be, like, well, maybe there’s a chance you can get away from the war. And very rarely do I think I will resolve or solve the war in my stories. But yeah, I have noticed a bit of a trend that—I don’t know if I feel bad for my lead characters. But for some of them, I’m like, “Oh, let’s see what we can do for him at the end of the story” or see how it’s going to work out.

But I think there’s an element of if you do it well and you do it right, and you do it honestly, people—people like a story that’s, I guess, well constructed. And having written Negative Space that is heavily steeped in suicide and—and deep depression, it’s something you want to make sure that you write really carefully and really tactfully and really true within the story that you’ve constructed. And that was the one I’ve certainly put in a lot of effort for. And it’s been, probably—it was one of the highest sellers I’ve had and it’s been the one that won all the awards. So I guess, hopefully, that means I did  tiptoe across that line just right.

KB: Interesting. Yeah, I think for me, um, the—I guess is that the genres that I more gravitate towards is, well, fantasy, on the one hand, YA at the moment and a bit of romance. Like, I do love a really good love story. I’ve been watching Crash Landing on You on Netflix, which is this [South] Korean drama. And it’s about this South Korean woman who gets caught in a storm when she’s paragliding and ends up in North Korea, and runs into a North Korean soldier. And yeah, I like the way that romance genres tend to do with character—like, I feel like it’s a bit more rich and more about their interior lives, not just about, “Oh, great: how do we get these two people together and have that happily ever after?” But that journey to there is really interesting for me.

So I thought what we could do now is talk about one particular project and where the idea came from.

RKL: Headspace is the one where, especially if I’m teaching, like—like, a class about how to get story ideas, it’s often the one that I come back to—in that it’s about a sheriff of a small sort of seaside town who comes to realise that this town is inside the mind of a killer, and the killer’s mind has discovered that this incursion exists and so is going to try to wipe this town out. So the sheriff has to try to survive.

And so if that’s the story, and then that’s the setup, the kernel of that came from me teaching the First Fleet to students at the primary school where I teach, and talking about, you know, why the First Fleet occurred, which was that the overpopulation of prisons in in Britain was causing an overflow on an issue, and that they were even getting prisoners and putting them onto ships that were in the rivers that had been, like, founded there. And they would call—they were called “hulks”, these ships, and they would turn them into mini, like, overflow prisons.

And I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be a cool modern idea if they would take, like, a prison and shrink it and then inject it into somebody—à la sort of like Innerspace, which is that sort of stupid, goofy, classic 80s movie with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan? And so I thought to myself, “That’d be cool if we got, like, a prison and then shrunk it down and just, like, in a pill, almost, injected it? And what if, then, you injected it into a prisoner who’s in a prison? How many prisons could you fit in a prisoner?” And I started [to] spin, like, this idea around and trying to work it out.

And initially, that’s—that’s just a concept. And so I had to sort of dig around. I actually heard a great quote this morning on a podcast, and I—it was like a roundtable thing, so I don’t know the author’s name. But she talked about, you don’t write about problems and the people within them; you write about people and their problems. So I sort of—I had the problem and was creating a solution, and then I needed to flip and go, “All right: who’s my character?”

And eventually, in doing that, I’m—like, semi spoilers: the sheriff in this small town that’s in the killer’s mind, that’s not a prison. Like, it’s—I eventually got rid of that idea. And the only thing I kept from that initial First Fleet/sci-fi rip off was, “What if there was, like, people within people?” But I made it more, I guess, organic, and that they just sort of existed within there and didn’t know they were there. And it then very much became the focus on the sheriff, Shane Garretty, figuring out the brain—that he’s in a brain, that the brain is the brain of a killer, and that he has an opportunity, perhaps, to do something good. You know, if you’re in the mind of a killer, perhaps you could tweak them or kill them.

But then also, in roaming around the memories in this brain, he sees his son who was murdered years before. So you can see he has a very decent personal hook to the story and a reason not to just find the off switch, but to try to figure out—I mean, it seems fairly obvious why your murdered child might be in the mind of a murderer, but you would probably want to track it down—one would assume.

So, yeah, we weave all that together. And it very much then becomes a story of a person and his problems, and we branch out from there.

And so by the time I wrote the story, and it’s now been published, it’s really not that prison within a prisoner thing at all. But through asking questions, and spinning and spinning and spinning, that’s how we got there—which is a fun and for me, sometimes, can take years as a process, which isn’t great for productivity. I know some people can sort of spin ideas out one a month or more. It takes me a while to really percolate on it to get it right. But that one came out, I think, really, really well. I do—I created that book with Eric Zawadzki and Sebastian Piriz, and I absolutely love it. Yeah.

KB: Yeah, some ideas na—need time to kind of gestate or percolate or something, don’t they? Like they—they just need a bit of time to form, in some ways, and they lose the dross. And then the—

RKL: Yeah.

KB: —the diamond shines through, in some ways. It’s interesting.

RKL: Basically, yeah: you’re scrubbing bits off, and then you’ve got to find that extra element supporting that, and that’s usually what I’m missing. I’m like, “Oh, I need something else.” And it was—for that story, it was when he saw his child roaming about in the mind and was like, “Oh, this”—like, that’s heartbreaking for me. Like, that would be a terrible, terrible situation to be in—like, one of the worst. And so once I got that little piece of it, I was like, “Oh, okay: well, everything is going to spill out from that.” But um, yeah, I find it takes me a while to

I had a similar thing with Beautiful Canvas, which is about a hit woman contracted to kill a small child. And I was like, “Okay, well, that’s terrible.” And it sort of sat there: for about three years, I kept pushing it aside, and I would do other stories. And eventually I realised, “Oh, her girlfriend’s pregnant. So she’s going to kill a kid, but she’s going to have a kid.” Now there’s internal conflict. So yeah, sometimes it’s just the right mash-up, just waiting to bump into stuff in my brain, I think—

KB: Yeah.

RKL: —probably more by accident than by any skill, sadly

KB: How about you, Queenie?

QC: Um, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of stories, and all of them have different origins. One of the—I mean, to follow on what from what Ryan said, what—a lot of the time it comes from random research. You know, I like learning about new things. So a lot the time, I’m like, yay, I want to know about this. And then ideas just come from this kind of thing.

Other times it was because I was working for a publisher and they wanted a particular kind of story—like, that’s how The Dreaming came to be, is, like, give me a haunted school story. And I was like, “Yeah, here’s a haunted school story.” Yeah, so that is a good catalyst.

Other times in—it’s stuff, like, you know, I want to do research on something. And then I’m like, “Okay, if we’re going to do research, might as well, you know, give it a go and see, you know, what I come up with.”

And I have noticed—like, I’m going to talk about something that might be interesting to people is that sometimes you come up with entire universes, and they don’t get in—turn into an actual script and, you know, an actual story. That’s happened to me on multiple occasions. And these are stories set in a similar kind of universe.

Like, for example, I’ve had three stories based on Chinese mythology—one that I actually—was published, but it wasn’t written by me; it was written by Kylie Chan and I illustrated it. And here’s the thing: she used characters that pre-existed in Chinese fantasy—I mean, in Chinese mythology—and Taoist religion, so to speak. And I did designs for them. And I said to her, “Look, you know, these characters are—they’re not characters; they’re, you know, gods—myth—mythological beings.” And I’m like, “I’m design—I’m doing a character design for you here. But if I was going to do my own version of the story—my own version of these characters—can I reuse these designs?” And she was like, “Yeah,” you know, she’s all for it. So it’s kind of created a universe where Kylie’s version of Chinese mythology is nothing like mine. But the way that certain characters look is actually exactly the same, if I was going to do that story—my own story.

And it is very strange, because I’ve written two—actually, I’ve actually got two stories published. Small Shen was one of them—the one with Kylie. And that came out in 2010 with Harp—yeah, 2011, with Harper Collins, I think—no, 2012 with Harper Collins—and that book did pretty well. So that was part of her White Tiger series—part of that prose fiction, you know, series that sold really well. So that’s a prequel to that. And I also did a story about a scent merchant with Yen Press back in 2008. So that was published in a magazine that was only available in America. And that was called Yen—Yen Plus, I think. I think it’s defunct now. But there’s also another story that I wrote for a competition. It didn’t win. But these characters all seem to share—are from separate stories with completely—like, they don’t connect at all in any way, to be honest. But they share—they come from the same kind of mythological universe.

And so now what I’m doing is that because of the comics game thing that I’m working on, and I’m also working on different game as a way to train myself to program and learn to how to use Unity in programming tools. There’s like, “Oh, I might as well do a farming live sim game and—that’s set in this Chinese mythology universe.” And now all these characters are back! And they’re all actually in the same universe as this game.

And I’m, like—I think it’s really interesting that writers sometimes have these ideas, and then nothing happens. Or maybe something happens, and it’s very small portion of them becomes a story that gets published or, you know, you do some illustration work for someone else. And so these characters do kind of exist in a particular kind of space. And then, years later, these characters all become part of something else. And I think there’s something to be said about these kind of creative universes and how things can spring up years ago, and nothing happens, but years later, they reappear in a different form.

And it’s never the universe as well; it’s always the characters. There are some characters who you really feel connected to when you’re, like, “I’m sorry, I can’t put you in a story” or maybe, “You appeared in the story for two pages, and that’s sad, because you’re so cool” and all that. But then they reappear in other forms in your other stories. And that’s—or that’s how I’ve experienced my kind of created universes. And it’s like—

It’s completely unexpected, because you always expect that you will—you will always be a comic book artist who does comics and that’s it. But I didn’t expect to be creating a game. That was entirely for my PhD so I can learn how to program. That’s it, but here it is: the game has actually made pretty good progress in terms of programming. So I’m just, like, “What?” You know. And maybe this is my life: it’s just unexpected, how these things happen. But what I—my point is, is that when it comes to being a creator of any kind, you can’t expect your work to just stay in one medium or just to stay in one story even. They just kind of blur or blend together after a while, and that character that you couldn’t put in a story kind of reincarnate sometimes in a different form.

KB: That’s really lovely that they’ve come back again—that you’re using them and reusing the designs and things, but also that they have their roots in Taoist mythology, and yeah, they have a history, in a way. That’s really really cool.

QC: Yeah, it’s—it’s strange. Sometimes other characters are born from interactions between these characters. It’s like—it’s all about filling out the edges of a universe when you’re trying to build a coherent world, and you have your main core actors, and then you have all these situations, and new characters are born from these situations.

KB: It also seems like you and Ryan, in a way, approach the whole concept of—of story from the opposite—opposite directions, in that you’re a bit more concerned with the world, and the characters, in a way, just come into it, whereas with Ryan, the world may be there, but what’s more important first is the character, because that is the viewpoint through which the reader will experience the rest of the world. I don’t know if—maybe I’ve misrepresented that but—

RKL: It’s also very important that I do it this way because I’m really lazy. And so—and I think that’s shown between, like, Queenie doing all of this insane work right now, and I am definitely not. But I do: I like to cut corners within things or, yeah, I’m—I’m—I get very stripped back in that, whereas—and I’ve had people ask questions like, “Oh, there’s this thing: tell me all about everything around it.” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” Like, it didn’t come into the story, so I didn’t—didn’t figure it out.

Every now and then, I’ll get on a jag and something will be really known and not end up in the story. But otherwise I’m—I’m just, I think, exceptionally lazy, whereas Queenie, I think, holds a lot more in her head and brings it all together, which is definitely, I think—like, I think that’s a really cool. I’m very jealous of ability.

QC: Oh, thanks. I don’t think it’s an issue at all. Like, everyone’s different. But that’s the whole point of being a creative is that—

RKL: Yep.

QC: —everyone’s got different approaches. And I would say my approach might be from the fact that I actually grew up more with gaming, than with video games—than with comics. And I would say that—like, it sounds strange, but um, sometimes—interactive worlds require you to fill out these kinds of questions, because you have to make maps. And that’s actually the first thing you got to do is that—if you’re talking about Super Mario, the very first game that I really got into—like Super Mario Brothers, it’s like “What is it with this crazy world with mushrooms everywhere and—”

RKL: Yes!

QC: —giant turtles attacking you and this plumber guy jumping around?” It’s like, “What kind of volume did this shear wackiness spring from?” And so, I think for a lot of game creators is that—they do start off with an environment first and obstacles and—before they come up with the characters. And because—I—I started playing video games before I ever started reading manga. So perhaps that had some influence on me, because I was thinking—that the reason why I became a programmer and took an IT degree was because I wanted to be a games programmer. That was my original goal. But, of course, Australia, back then, they didn’t have such—anything such as game companies. That was just—you know, that’s a very recent thing in comparison. So I didn’t—wasn’t able to make my dream—my game-making dream come true. But you go in a different direction. And you know, that’s fine.

But I think it might be because of that—because I did so much gaming—like, there’s a lot of world building in manga and comics as well, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just that when you write a linear narrative, is that you go from point A to point B, which is what most films, movies, comics books are like. It’s like you have a narrative and your character goes on a character arc. If you start off like that way—that way of thinking about your creative projects, then obviously, Ryan’s approach is actually a very good one. Because then you start off with a compelling human story. But I think if you start off with thinking you’re making a game, that’s actually not your first thing; you actually start off with your environment. It’s like, “Is it going to be a platformer, like Mario?”, or perhaps it’s going to be a story-driven RPG and you go around fighting monsters and building up your levels, and then you take on the boss, and that story naturally grows from that.

But if you are actually—well, that’s how it feels like when you’re playing a game. But if you were making that game, well, where would you start? You always start with a map.

RKL: Yeah.

QC: You know, this is my hometown, and you know, buy houses here and then my awful neighbours, and then there’s a town hall and this elder lives here. You know, that sort of thing. So perhaps my approach comes from having a having a background and a childhood—done with playing—playing a lot of this kind of stuff—is that there are all these things that may feature in your story. Well actually, in a comic, it may feature in your story for five seconds or five pages. But in a game, you will probably go back to it over and over again. You’ll go back to your hometown and revisit these people and all that. So these—in a game situation, they have to be recyclable, meaning that they have to come back within the context of the game’s narrative.

And so you have to build it differently. So maybe that’s where it comes from. I actually haven’t really thought about that. I assume that everyone just does things differently and I never really gave it thought. So that was a—that’s an interesting thought—

KB: Yeah, that’s fascinating!

QC: —comparing different ways of storytelling.

RKL: Well, I definitely wasn’t a gamer as a kid. And so that would track. What I was was I would play with, like, He-Man and GI Joe, and we couldn’t afford, like, vehicles and, like, Castle Grayskull. So I would just have these lone things going on journeys. This all makes sense: our entire storytelling thing is rooted in our own origins! This is—this is an exceptional breakthrough.

KB: Wow!

RKL: I’m assuming Karen, you’re charging, like, $180 an hour, because this is some serious therapy. I’m loving it!

KB:  I just like asking people questions.

RKL: It all makes sense!

KB:  Yeah, because for me, it’s different, again, because, often, for me, it starts with a particular idea or concept, like, so my science fiction comic, Eternal Life, it was me getting irritated with reading various bits of science fiction, and the people who were religious were always portrayed as being, basically, lunatics. They’re all crazy, and—

RKL: Yeah.

KB:  —it really annoyed me, because, being a Christian, I just thought, “Well, okay, say the world keeps going for another 2,000 years. Christians are still going to be doing the same thing that they’re doing now, which is basically reading and studying the Bible, going to church, talking to other people about Jesus, and stuff”, and that’s where it began, because I thought, “I just want to write about Christians who are ‘normal’ and not crazy in the future.” And so I had this family of missionaries who were going off to a planet, but the planet get—got blown up by a suicide bomber, and so they were a bit stuck on a—

QC: The planet got blown up?

KB:  Yes! The whole planet.

QC: Wow!

KB:  Yes. So they get stuck on a space station and that’s where they meet this girl named Bri who’s com—basically on the run from her past and stuff.

But a lot of my stories don’t start with characters the way I feel like Ryan’s do. It’s more with this—this weird idea, me getting irritated about something. I wrote this novella a year or two ago and it actually started from an exercise that Ryan got us to do at the Australian Comic Arts Festival a couple of years ago where—I think it’s the one where you get us to write down a whole bunch of different ideas in the span of five minutes or ten minutes or something, and you take three of them and try to develop them further, and then you take one of them and try and develop them further. And it was around the time that Pokémon Go came out, and I was fascinated—

RKL: Yeah.

KB:  —because I’m not a gamer, but I found the whole Pokémon Go phenomenon just fascinating, just because it got people out of the house and going out into the world and meeting people. And I read this story about this—this autistic boy who’s totally into the game and was connecting with other people about the game, just, like, going around his neighbourhood and—and people saying to him, “Oh, you can get”—whatever Pokémon it was—“in this area, if you go here” and his mother was writing about it online and saying how wonderful it was that her son was actually connecting with others.

And from there, though, me being me, I thought, “Oh, what if it was—if you had a game that was, like, for people dating and the game tried to match people up and sent them on different dates? And so I wrote this novella about that, where, in this society, like, everybody is working so hard, they have no time to settle down and meet people and have families, and the government is very concerned about the falling date—birth rate. So then they run this dating program over the summer every summer, and it’s compulsory. And—so the novella was just about this girl going through this—this game—this program and going on different dates, and some of them are completely disastrous and some of them are, “Eh”, okay, and—and so on and so forth. So it’s really fun.

[Music]

KB:  Well that concludes Part 1 of my conversation with Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay about writing and creating comics. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Many thanks to Queenie and Ryan for coming on the show. If you’d like to find out more about them and their work, head to queeniechan.com for Queenie and ryanklindsay.com for Ryan.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast!  For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com. Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all this possible.

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The problem with BookFace

(Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash.)

The more I use social media, the more I’ve realised there’s social media and there’s social media.

Social media has gotten to the point where it is almost ubiquitous and inescapable. I use the main ones—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (not TikTok)—as well as lesser known/more niche ones, like Ravelry (for all things knitting-related), Letterboxd (for all things movie-related), Clubhouse (mostly so I can listen to comic creators chatting about stuff) and Pinterest. There are ones that are less social and more interest-driven (like Ravelry, but also YouTube and arguably Duo Lingo, Apple Music and Spotify), and there are ones that are more like a private messaging service (like WhatsApp and Slack).

My favourite of the bunch is still Twitter, even after 13 years of being on the platform. I love that through it, I can keep a finger on the pulse of both the comics industry and the publishing industry. I can connect with comic people, writers, editors, publishing houses, Christians and friends. I can tweet and retweet whatever I like, and sometimes the things I tweet/retweet are appreciated by others—even by people I don’t even know.

I should qualify my love of Twitter, though: I love Twitter on Tweetbot, as the way the current algorithm works makes the actual Twitter website the dumpster fire everyone complains about. Viewing Twitter on Tweetbot removes much of the angst: there are no ads/sponsored posts, no Favourites from other people, no algorithm trying to control what you see, and no recommendations of people Twitter thinks you ought to follow. (Which is just ridiculous; why keep adding to your follows? No one could possibly keep up.) On Tweetbot, your feed in reverse chronological order and not much else. (That said, Tweetbot isn’t perfect: unfortunately polls don’t work and threads sometimes break, but if you really care about those, you can always view the tweets in a browser.) I read Twitter every day multiple times a day, and unlike most Twitter users, I read my entire feed (pretty much). But I do read it in actual chronological order—from bottom to top—so it’s not doomscrolling, it’s intentional. And when I reach the top and am up-to-date, I stop, because that’s a natural end point. I don’t need to read anymore.

BookFace

I really wish there was something like Tweetbot for my least favourite social media network: Facebook. (I like calling it “BookFace” because I am petty.) Like I said, there’s social media and there’s social media, and Facebook is the worst of the lot. It’s large and unwieldy. It’s stuffed full of ads. It’s driven by infuriating algorithms that keep showing me stuff I don’t care about, despite my efforts to train it otherwise (and now that they’ve abolished the feed for Friends Lists, I can’t even do that). And it doesn’t always connect me with the things I care about.

Nevertheless, I can’t really excise Facebook from my life. Facebook connects me with a whole bunch of people who aren’t on my other social networks—family, friends, but also people in Facebook Groups. (The two I enjoy the most are the Sydney Comics Guild and the Australian Speculative Fiction Group.) People use Facebook to message me about various things. Also, I have to use Facebook for work as part of my job involves social media marketing.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Facebook. Lately, I’ve been trying to work out what it is I dislike about it, and it’s not what people normally dislike about Facebook. I’m not addicted to it and it’s not a time suck for me; because I don’t enjoy it, my engagement with the platform is cursory, and whenever I find myself doom scrolling on Facebook, I tend to wake up and switch over to Twitter on Tweetbot. I know people post all sorts of trash on there, but I tend not to see it, or if I do, I ignore it; that’s their problem and I don’t need to engage with them. Facebook as a company is pretty awful: check out this eye-opening investigative podcast series by The Wall Street Journal for a behind-the-scenes look at how Facebook plays favourites, fails to restrict and moderate disturbing content, facilitates human trafficking, contributes to the body image issues of teen girls (through Instagram, which Facebook owns), and stokes outrage in the name of engagement. Its track record does make me feel uncomfortable about using it and contributing to its ad dollar revenue. But (unfortunately?) it’s not enough to make me break with it.

No, I think my main problem with the platform is the ways in which I’m forced to relate to people while on it.

Buried

Consider, firstly, their algorithm, which works using a formula the company calls Meaningful Social Interactions (MSI):

Ryan Knutson: What exactly is MSI?

Keach Hagey: It is a number that measures how much a post is interacted with by people who you are close to. The interactions can be things like comments, likes, re-shares, emojis. And then there’s another mathematical part of it that’s measuring how close the people who are doing that are to you. So it both measures the interactions and the closeness of the people who are doing the interacting and that has an impact on the number.

Ryan Knutson: Facebook used the concept of MSI to create a scoring system. The more likes, comments and shares and the more those happened among people who were close to each other, the higher the MSI score.

Keach Hagey: And in the very beginning, the goal was just simply to get as much MSI as possible.

Ryan Knutson: If MSI is high, that means you’re not just a zombie passively scrolling and watching videos. You’re interacting, you’re engaged.

Keach Hagey: You are more likely to post something, to share a little tidbit about your life if you are more likely to get a comment or a like about it.

Ryan Knutson: There’s nothing more humiliating than sharing something on Facebook or Instagram and getting no response from anybody.

Keach Hagey: Exactly.

Ryan Knutson: The documents Keach reviewed actually break this MSI formula down. It provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the algorithm.

Keach Hagey: It’s actually a pretty simple formula. When they rolled it out, a like was worth one point. A reaction or reshare was worth five points. A significant comment was worth 30 points. And then they would add or subtract based on how close the people who were commenting or interacting were. So whether it was a group or a friend or a stranger.

Ryan Knutson: For example, an RSVP to an event was only significant if it was a yes, that would be worth 30 points. But if you RSVP’d maybe or no, it was only worth five points. Facebook would show these significant interactions to more people with the goal of spurring even more engagement.

(Source: episode 4 of The Facebook Files. Also see this Hootsuite post for more about how the algorithm works.)

“There’s nothing more humiliating than sharing something on Facebook or Instagram and getting no response from anybody”. This happens to me a lot: despite having 804 Facebook friends and 101 followers, I will post something and BookFace will respond with silence. No likes, no comments, no nothing. And then, because the post has failed to elicit a reaction—from the Friends closest to me and perhaps from those a little more distant from me—because it’s scored so low on their social metrics, BookFace buries it. And then no one sees it. (Unless they specifically visit my profile, but let’s not split hairs.)

The whole thing is daft because it relies on people’s engagement with me. I totally understand why those 804 BookFace Friends wouldn’t want to engage. Maybe the thing I posted wasn’t relevant or interesting or funny to them. (My sense of humour is a bit odd, and often most people don’t realise I’m making a joke online—perhaps because I’m usually so serious.) Maybe it was about something obscure—for example, sharing my excitement over the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop series on Netflix , which the majority of my BookFace Friends wouldn’t share. Maybe my BookFace friends were tired or in a hurry or scrolling quickly. The point is, they shouldn’t need to engage with me in order to make piece of content more view-worthy. I shouldn’t need their engagement, their likes, their comments, their whatever in order to be seen on the BookFace platform. I believe that God created humans to be relational beings, which means we’re hard-wired to connect with each other, and the positive side of that is that we can help one another, love one another and care for one another. But the negative side of that is that we can demand things of one another, manipulate one another, and care too much about what other people think of us. I don’t want to be like that on BookFace.

Two years ago, I wrote (on BookFace, of course), “Facebook often feels like a popularity contest I never asked to participate in”, and since then, not much has changed. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to be popular on BookFace. I don’t need thousands of likes and comments; I’d never keep up. I just don’t like being ignored. That’s the problem: BookFace makes me feel ignored. It makes me feel like that person at a party who says something and everyone else turns their back on them and pretends nothing happened. It makes me feel invisible—like I don’t exist. Or if I exist, I am barely tolerated.

Now, it’s really important to note that my BookFace friends are not deliberately doing this. They aren’t the kind of people who would shun me at the party for saying something stupid. In real life, they wouldn’t ignore me when I talked to them. And even if they don’t share my (admittedly odd) enthusiasms, they would still understand them and even tell me about things related to them that I might have missed. (Bless you, my good friends, who went out of their way to make sure I knew that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series is coming to Netflix!) It’s the BookFace algorithm that’s doing this.

And sure, I know I have psychological issues. (I mean, who doesn’t?) I know that I react more strongly to feeling ignored and abandoned because of stuff that’s happened to me in the past. Even so, let us acknowledge that the feeling of being ignored is not a nice one full stop, regardless of who you are.

In July of this year, fed up with the way the BookFace algorithm was handling my posts—particularly my public posts (which you’d think would reach a larger audience than my Friends-only ones), I finally caved and created a BookFace Page for myself. I don’t intend it to be a platform-building sort of thing; instead, I wanted somewhere where I could post stuff publicly and have people follow me as posting Public posts to my profile wasn’t working.

At the moment, only 79 people Like the Page and 84 people follow it, which is obviously not a large number, compared to the number of BookFace Friends I have. Even so, I am liking using it far more than my BookFace profile, because the BookFace Business portal lets you see exactly how many people have seen what:

BookFace Business Page stats

The number of reactions and comments I get on those posts rarely exceeds single digits. But I don’t care because I can see at least I’m not being ignored.

Comparison, the thief of joy

Secondly, BookFace adds insult to injury by seeming to boost my BookFace Friends’ content. I don’t just mean in terms of engagement: from a cursory glance at my News Feed, it seems like my BookFace Friends’ posts attract a higher amount of likes and comments than mine, but I also know that News Feed manipulates what I see because it’s run by BookFace’s algorithm, and that there may be posts of theirs that remain buried like mine. If BookFace operated like Twitter on Tweetbot, I could get more of an idea of whether that’s actually the case.

That said, there have been a couple of instances where BookFace has buried my post and has not seemed to bury my BookFace Friends’ posts. In April of this year (and thankfully way before lockdown!), I went to see Hamilton at the Lyric Theatre with two friends. I took a lovely photo of us in front of one of the posters:

Seeing Hamilton with friends in April 2021.

Then I posted it to both Instagram and BookFace. On Instagram, it garnered 15 likes. On Facebook, it garnered 9 reactions and zero comments and therefore (I presume) was buried. My friends also reposted it (with my permission!) to their Facebook profiles, where one got 25 reactions and the other, 62. (She paired it with her review of Hamilton, which probably helped.)

62 reactions! It’s essentially the same piece of content, but look at that difference. I’m lucky if my reactions ever tally beyond 20. Clearly, BookFace didn’t bury her post.

The thing is, I am not in competition with my friend. It’s nice she got 62 reactions! People obviously liked her review. (It was very good!) But it’s hard not to feel like we’re competing against each other when BookFace’s algorithm buries my post and boosts hers.

Relevant content

Thirdly, BookFace doesn’t actually serve me the content I’m actually interested in. In mid-August of this year, I was trying to think through the issue of Christians and medicine (and the related areas of God’s sovereignty and human civic responsibility vs individual freedom) because of a work email I received. I wanted to reply with something useful—something that outlined how Christians should view medicine and medical procedures, written for a popular audience. I asked my BookFace friends for recommendations and also popped the stuff I found useful that I had found through Googling in the comments to that post (which, by the way, only garnered three reactions).

The following day, I discovered that my brother-in-law—who BookFace knows is my brother-in-law (I am listed under his family members in the “About” section of his profile)—had posted the perfect article for my situation on his wall on the day I asked the question. But not only had BookFace failed to show him my post on the subject, BookFace had also failed to show his post to me.

Furthermore, the article in question was “The Suspicion of Science” by Lewis Jones on The Gospel Coalition (Australian edition) website. I’m actually BookFace friends with Lewis. The article went up on TGCA on 16 August (the day I posted my question) and he didn’t post about it until 17 August. Even so, BookFace didn’t show me his post either.

Which leads me to ask, is the BookFace algorithm broken? Isn’t it supposed to serve me the stuff I’m interested in? If it doesn’t, what is the point of it?

Hellooooo? I’m talking to you!

Fourthly and finally, BookFace does not notify the people I care about about my direct interactions with them. Here’s an example from yesterday: while on Twitter, I stumbled across this tweet by journalist Talia Shadwell

I posted it to Ben’s wall because I knew he’d find it amusing. (You know: Ben, my husband? Arguably the most important person in my life after Jesus Christ?) BookFace knows we’re married. BookFace failed to notify him.

(How do I know this? Because I noticed that Ben didn’t like the post and though that was weird, and so I straight up asked him today and he had no idea what I was talking about.)

The problem with algorithms

Looking over what I’ve just written, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been included in one of Facebook’s mood experiments (like the one they did for one week in January 2012). I know that makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. Still, given the age we live in, it’s not that far-fetched.

Anyway, you can see why all of this has made me quite interested in algorithms. They affect so much of our lives now, I think it’s useful to understand how they work and how we’re being manipulated by them.

At this point, let me reproduce part of a post I put up on BookFace back in June (4 reactions/9 comments), which BookFace buried, because it’s relevant:

I was listening to this NPR Planet Money episode on recommendation engines/algorithms and it was fascinating. They interview Doug Terry, the guy who invented the domain name system for URLs and also, coincidentally, the system that would eventually become the “Like” button on Facebook.

But it started with email: basically Doug was frustrated that his inbox was cluttered with all sorts of things that weren’t necessarily important or relevant to his day-to-day job. So he created a system where you could rate emails that would then prioritise certain emails (e.g. ones from your boss) over others (e.g. spam or forwarded jokes [remember those?]). And then he got his colleagues to try it out. And then he realised that he didn’t have to rate all the emails himself, because his colleagues were rating the exact same emails; he could use their likes and dislikes to filter his inbox in a process that he called “collaborative filtering”. It cut the time they were spending on emails in half, which was a big win for all of them!

Fast forward about 16 years: Netflix was using technology similar to what Doug had invented in its own recommendation system. But it wasn’t improving. So they held a contest called the “Netflix Prize”—one million dollars to the team that could improve their recommendation engine by 10 per cent. And a man called Bob Bell and his team won it by building on Doug’s collaborative filtering technique. They did this by looking not just at explicit data points (e.g. what rating you had given something), but implicit ones (e.g. whether you had rated something at all). From there, they could work out, say, whether you had an interest in science fiction films or police sitcoms. And then they added other layers to the algorithm designed to try and reach other people’s interests.

Which was all very well until, in the wider field, research starting noticing how recommendation engines were affecting our decision-making and preferences. A researcher named Jing Jing Zhang started looking into this and found something interesting: she and her team took the top 100 songs from this Billboard chart and then manipulated the recommendations, which was based on a five-star system. They then told students that the ratings were tailored to their preferences. The students had to listen to the whole song and then were asked if they wanted to buy it. If so, they were then asked how much they’d pay for it. And they found that increasing the star rating on a song increased a student’s willingness to pay for it by between 7 and 17 per cent. Here is the most significant part of the entire episode:

Mary Childs (Planet Money host): The students offered significantly more money for higher-rated songs, even when those ratings were totally manipulated. Jing Jing tested this and retested this. And the results were clear. When a machine tells us that we’re going to like something, we trust the machine more than ourselves.

Kevin Roose (Planet Money host): And, like, look, recommendations aren’t all bad. Sometimes they’re great. They save us time. They help us avoid decision fatigue. Sometimes I just don’t want to, like, manually curate my own playlists of vibey electronic music. But here’s what I worry about. These recommendation systems are getting so good that if we aren’t vigilant, we’re just going to end up drifting toward whatever the machine tells us we like.

Mary Childs: This isn’t just a problem of human psychology. It’s also a computer science problem. Jing Jing says it becomes a feedback loop. Those little drifts add up.

Jing Jing Zhang: Over time, this will make the system less effective, less accurate and provide less diverse recommendations. Eventually, I know this longitudinal impact on the system will make the system provide similar items to everybody, like, regardless of personal test.

“If we aren’t vigilant, we’re just going to end up drifting toward whatever the machine tells us we like”: does anyone find this prediction as chilling as I do? Algorithms are affecting our tastes and preferences as much as we are teaching them about them.

Furthermore, algorithms are starting to edit the world around us for us. This Reply All podcast episode about what makes the TikTok algorithm so good had this insightful tidbit:

A lot of our social media today is only positive sentiment oriented. There’s no dislike button on Facebook. There’s no dislike button, necessarily, on Twitter. And when you only capture positive sentiment, the danger is you have a blind spot to things that mildly annoy or disturb people. In real life, humans are very attuned to this. You know, if you’re with your friends or your family or your significant other, and you do something that bothers them, they might not actively come out and say, “Oh, you’re annoying me,” or something like that. But you pick up on their body language and you realize, you know, and you adjust based on that. That’s a really important feedback loop in just the social world generally.

What happens when we live in a world where we never come across anything that affects us negatively—anything that annoys or irritates us—anything we disagree with? What sort of people will we become? Furthermore, what will we do when we’re faced with that sort of content—or even people who believe in that sort of content? How will we treat them? How will they treat us?

There is social media and there is social media. Some of it is changing us. It’s hard to see because we’re currently swimming in this water. But we need to be aware of what it’s doing to us.

(Postscript: I’m currently dealing with my frustration with BookFace by not posting anything to my Profile wall. However, I haven’t completely given up reading BookFace or posting to my Page. That might not be the most mature response, but I’m interested to see what the platform does with that—and also how it affects my Page stats.)

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Rejection and the art of getting over things

Lately I’ve been finding it hard to blog. I plan posts in my head, but don’t ever get to putting them down. I have good intentions. I even clear time to do it. But when it comes to actually putting fingers to keyboard, I often feel like I run out of steam. Or I have nothing worthwhile to say.

So this blog lies here doing nothing when I want so much for it to say something.

I was contemplating this today while doing something I’ve meant to do for a while—which is transcribe the most helpful part of this episode from The Happiness Lab podcast about rejection: “Treating the pain of a broken heart” (Season 3, episode 2). It’s in the section where the host, Laurie Santos, interviews psychologist, speaker and author Guy Winch about practical things people can do to mitigate the pain of rejection:

Laurie Santos: … Guy [Winch] argues that we need to learn how to treat rejection pain right away—the same way we’d grab a first aid kit to put a bandaid on a cut.

Guy Winch: If you leave it up to our mind to make a decision about what’s the best way to heal an emotional wound, it will inadvertently send you down the wrong path. It will do the wrong thing, because it’s just trying to protect you from having that wound again. It’s not trying to heal it in an adaptive way.

LS: When I think of rejection first aid, I’ll be honest: I think of booze, frankly, and ice cream. It’s, like, what I think of—so is this kind of common?

GW: You didn’t invent booze and ice cream. In other words, that is the go to. But, yeah, we tend to numb the pain. That’s our basic response: let’s numb it with sugar; let’s numb it with alcohol. All very well. Doesn’t actually solve anything. You’ll wake up feeling both hungover or nauseous, and still in emotional pain the next day, so it’s not necessarily the most useful.

What would be useful is to counter some of the impacts by, first of all, exhibiting self-compassion—you know, like, we literally go and find ways to beat ourselves up when our self-esteem is at its lowest point. And so, instead of reviving our self-esteem and our confidence, we’re actually doing the opposite. It’s one of the most unfortunate tendencies we have, post-rejection.

LS: So that’s the first step of rejection first aid: stop making all those rejection wounds worse. Don’t kick yourself when you’re already down with all that negative self-talk. But a second step is to fight the urge to lick your wounds in solitude. Healing from rejection requires a dose of social connection.

GW: We’re tribal animals, and part of the rejection is about our need to belong—our need to feel affiliated with certain groups. It can be a church group. It can be our amateur softball league. It can be our clique of friends—our college roommates. But that group membership gives us, literally, this layer of protection—this shield—because we feel part of a group. We feel more protected. In a moment of rejection, you won’t. But then go and reach out to your group and reconnect and have a few chats with people in the group to remind yourself of your fact that you belong—that people appreciate you. And it’s an amazing tonic.

LS: But what if you can’t get that social support in person? What if you’re like [actor] Tim Colceri, stuck in a foreign country, away from your friends and family when you get fired or jilted? For situations like these, Guy recommends a practice he calls “social snacking”: just as we grab a snack when we hungry, but can’t eat a full meal, so too can we ease our social hunger with small reminders that we’re connected to others. Studies show that merely surrounding yourself with pictures and mementos of people you love can make the hurt of rejection subside a bit.

But the most important rejection first aid treatment, according to Guy, is a practice that actively helps you remember your own value. You need to recall that you’re still a good person, but not in the way that self-help books suggest. You don’t need to launch into a bunch of cheesy, positive affirmations.

GW: Like, “I’m beautiful and I’m going to find great love” kind of things, and they often don’t work, because in a moment of rejection, you actually don’t feel beautiful or very optimistic about finding great love. That will actually make you feel worse.

LS: Guy’s work has found that a better value boosting technique is to get really specific.

GW: Let’s say it’s the romantic domain. Your head is going to take you to all your shortcomings and deficiencies. What you need to do is balance them out. So make a list of every quality that you know you have. It’s got to be stuff you know you have, not stuff you would like to have. But things you know you have; it’s got to be real—that make you a good dating prospect: you’re emotionally available, you’re good with in-laws, you bake stupendous muffins, you give a back rub—whatever it is. Make the list long and exhaustive and varied. And then choose one of those things that’s actually meaningful, and write a couple of paragraphs about why that’s a meaningful thing in relationships, how you’ve exhibited it in the past, and how that’s been appreciated or how it might be appreciated in the future. Do one of those a day when you’re feeling rejected romantically.

If it’s about you got rejected from a job, do one about what makes you a good employee: you’re loyal, you’re reliable, you’re responsible, you’re timely, whatever it is. But do the things—you know, write out what you’re bringing to the table—what makes you valuable—to directly counter that tendency to do the opposite in your head.

LS: Guy has found that leaving our emotional wounds untreated without any rejection first aid can have long-term negative impacts on our psychological health.

GW: We do think differently. We become very, very risk-adverse. We withdraw. Our instinct isn’t to then go out and reconnect with the people who we can reconnect with; it’s to withdraw because we then become risk-adverse; we just don’t want to suffer anymore rejection.

I love the idea of having an emotional first aid kit—a go to list of tools to employ when you’re in pain that will actually do something about that pain. I love that part of that kit involves connection and community, which is a very Christian idea (see Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” [ESV]). But I also love that part of that kit involves self-care and pushing back against the negative self-talk with positivity. It sounds quite counter-intuitive, and I dare say that one of the ramifications of Tall Poppy Syndrome is that we Australians feel less incline to talk about our strengths because it sounds like bragging. But I can see how it would be helpful to remind ourselves—particularly when there is no one who will do it for us—of the things that we are actually good at and the positive effect that being good at that thing has had. Surely it will help us become more resilient.

I wrote in my now defunct newsletter once that I felt like I didn’t have much resiliency. Several years and a number of rejections on, I think that’s still the case. I feel like I’ve become more and more risk-adverse—not putting myself out there as much (and blogging is part of this. So is social media, I think; maybe I will blog about that sometime when I feel like I have the constitution to do so), withdrawing, being reluctant to suffer any more rejection.

A good friend asked me not long ago whether I had been through something that had delivered a significant blow to my confidence. I was about to answer “No”, but then remembered that I had: I had applied for a creative development program and had been unsuccessful. But the being unsuccessful part hadn’t been the part that stung: it was the letter of feedback I received. It was prefaced with “the judging panel have some feedback for you which we hope will be helpful”, but the feedback was written in what I found to be a most unhelpful manner. Reading back over it, I think it’s because it was one judge’s comments copied and pasted out of their report; it wasn’t actually feedback written to me as the direct recipient. This meant that the feedback came across as cold and brutal—the very opposite of helpful.

At the time, I posted on social media,

Another rejection with some rather savage feedback on my work. I look forward to the day when this hurts less, instead of leaving me feeling like I’m bleeding all over the floor.

And my community rallied around me, providing encouragement and messages of support.

I wallowed for a while. I reminded myself that the work this judge had critiqued had been shortlisted for a national award, and when it didn’t win, one of the judges for that award had said some nice things about it in private. I added it as another line in my rejection spreadsheet. And I tried to rally.

But I was still very affected by it.

I still am, I think.

I don’t quite know how to get out of this trench I’ve found myself in. I’m reluctant to leave it as I don’t fancy getting shot at again. But I know that if I want to write and put my work out there, I have to.

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Review: Unrest

Netflix, 2017. 1 hr 37 min.

This wasn’t the thing I thought I’d be blogging about today, but nevertheless, the thing I started writing isn’t quite working, so let’s go with another review.

Unrest is a 2017 documentary about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) by Harvard PhD candidate Jennifer Brea, who also gave a TED talk about her condition in 2016 from her wheelchair (16:32 min).

She made the documentary for several reasons: it records her story and her struggle with the disease—the medical appointments; the good days when she is able to walk—when she appears “normal”; the bad days when she can’t do anything except lie there; the days when she has to drag herself along the floor, crying in pain, in order to get herself into bed; the things that she grieves, because the disease has robbed her of so much; the impact of her condition on her relationships (particular her relationship with her husband, Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton); and her own journey in trying to understand the disease.

But it’s also partly a chronicle of the stories and the range of experience of other CFS-sufferers and their carers around the world, whom Brea connects with via video chat. There’s Jessica in England who has been severely unwell for eight years; Leeray, a middle age mother, whose husband did not believe there was anything wrong with her and who left her because of it; Casie, Leeray’s daughter, who was diagnosed with the same condition; Ketty and Per in Denmark, parents of CFS patient Karina, who was taken from them because Denmark does not acknowledge CFS as a medical disease; and Ron Davis, Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics, Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Centre at Stanford University, and father of CFS-sufferer Whitney, who has not talked in over a year and who lives in almost complete darkness in his room. Their stories amplify and highlight Brea’s, giving voice to the many who suffer from this disease, who have all but disappeared from view in everyday society.

In addition, through their stories, the documentary touches on different issues affecting CFS sufferers, such as not being believed; the social stigma of people thinking you’re just making up your symptoms; the blindness of the medical community, most of whom have little idea of what the disease is, let alone how to treat it; historical misconceptions of CFS/ME, and how it is often dismissed because the majority of those affected are women; different treatments that patients try in order to try to alleviate their symptoms (with varying results); and the struggle of those in the field of medical research to attract support and funding for their work. As Ron Davis explains,

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the lowest funded of any major disease by a lot. Many of the people that are at the NIH [National Institute of Health] and have in the past not believed it’s real. So why would you fund something that’s not real?

This sort of gaslighting highlights the need for Brea’s documentary—as an engine of activism, raising awareness among the general public (see also the Millions Missing global campaign). CFS/ME is bad enough on its own, but compounded with the judgement and prejudice of an ableist society, it can be devastating for those affected. You can see Brea herself struggling with the hopes and expectations that society has placed on her: in one heartbreaking scene, she confesses,

It was like I had died, but was forced to watch as the world moved on … If I completely disappear and I’m in this bed, then it’s like I don’t even exist or that I never existed. And then what was the point of it all—of being born in the first place? You know and honestly there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job by just holding it together and not killing myself. And it’s not—I really don’t want to die—like, I really don’t want to die—but at a certain point, it’s hard to call this living, and I think the grief of all those things I might not do or see or have … yeah, so it’s sad.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the world was less focused on markers of life success and achievement and more understanding and compassionate about the circumstances of those who don’t fit a certain mould, Brea and others like her would be having a slightly easier time of things. It is tragic—and also, I think, a damning judgement on a society that has failed to listen to them—that so many CFS patients end their suffering by taking their own lives. There is so much more that we ought to be doing to relieve their burdens.

If you, like me, know someone or multiple someones with CFS/ME-type symptoms (and there are so many more now in the wake of COVID, which leads me to hope that the disease will receiving proper funding and attention soon), please watch this documentary. If you don’t know anyone with this disease and understand nothing about it, then you should definitely watch it. It’s upsetting and distressing at places, and it contains no easy answers, which many will find frustrating. But it is very much worth it if only to help you understand the suffering of many and the miracle of their resilience in the face of such crushing odds.

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The Rurouni Kenshin live action films: An appreciation

Almost three weeks have gone by since I last wrote a blog post. I keep composing them in my head, but actually committing them to digital ink is another story. One of the things I have been struggling with about this lockdown is the inelasticity of time: my days at the moment have to operate to a strict schedule, otherwise everything falls off the rails—home learning, paid work and that pesky of all duties, housework. This means that things like blogging get relegated to the bottom of my priority list.

But I wanted to write something about the Rurouni Kenshin films because I watched them all recently after the two most recent films premiered on Netflix. (Unfortunately all five are not available on that platform at the moment—at least in Australia; I think they are in the Philippines.) I watched the first one (Origins) a couple of years ago and quite liked it, then went away and watched the anime as that was on Netflix (though it is no longer). With the release of The Beginning and The Final, I thought it was high time I watched all five films together. Plus it gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.

(NB: Perhaps because of the release of the last two films, the first two were going cheap on Apple TV, so I bought them. But I had to rent The Legend Ends as that was $19 to buy. I am hoping that one day, Apple might sell all five as a bundle.)

My interest had mostly to do with the novel, of course, though Rurouni Kenshin is set mostly at the beginning of the Meiji period, not the Edo. Still, I thought it would be interesting to watch it as a counterpoint to Samurai Champloo, plus I kept reading that the live action films were one of the best—if not the best—anime adaptations of all time. (It will be interesting to see how the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop TV show does.) Aside from samurai films (both eastern and western), there isn’t that much on Netflix that is set during the Edo period, even though Japan produces a prestige period drama every year (I’ve read that it’s due to copyright issues?!), and much of Netflix’s original Japanese content is contemporary or sci-fi/spec fic. And while dramas are no substitute for history, the thing that interests is me is how people lived and moved in those spaces—in that architecture—with those furnishings and those everyday household objects. As I said in my post about my novel, there are things I just haven’t been able to discover in my research. But there are also things that research wouldn’t unearth—for example, how people thought about inside and outside spaces (and therefore when to remove their shoes), and how the removing shoes thing works in, say, a restaurant. (I have no idea how it works with their ox-drawn carts; did you know the inside of those don’t have seats, but are covered in tatami mat flooring? I realise those carts were for the rich, but did their servants carry their shoes for them??) These are things that people wouldn’t write about because they’d just do them without thinking. Which then makes it very hard for me to figure out just through Googling.

But back to Rurouni Kenshin. I should say up front: I have not read the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I have not seen the prequel anime series Trust and Betrayal, nor the widely panned Reflection or New Kyoto Arc. I won’t be commenting much about how they are as adaptations as I feel quite unqualified to do so. Also, when I rewatched them, I did so in the order that they were made, not in the order of their chronology. (It would be interesting to do that sometime. Maybe one day when I have another 12 or 13 hours to spare!)

Furthermore, this isn’t going to be a thorough review. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination, for that. I mostly want to share my love for the films as I think most people have never heard of them, and while most of the people I know probably won’t like them (they’re samurai films, after all, so they’re pretty violent), some of my friends might. They do have the most amazing action/sword fighting sequences I have ever seen on film, so from my perspective, it’s worth the extended runtime. (Each film goes for about 2 hours and 15-20 minutes, and if you’re not an action fan, you’ll probably think them too bloated.) That said, there will be probably be a few spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned.

Right. One more thing before we get started: it helps to know something of Japanese history, because some of the characters are real people, or are based on real people. If you know nothing about Japan, I do recommend this episode on “Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism” on John Green’s Crash Course: World History YouTube channel (11:52 min). (This animated history of Japan on Suibhne’s channel is also helpful, but it goes for 25 minutes.)

I will attempt to give you the short version: during the Edo period, the Shogun (or war lord) ruled Japan while the emperor was more of a figurehead and didn’t have any real power. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, maintaining a policy of national seclusion. No foreigners were allowed into the country, except those from the Dutch East India Company, and even they were only permitted to go certain places.

Then Matthew C Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships from America and fired his cannons over Edo Bay to showcase America’s technological might and to force Japan to open up to trading with the west. From what I’ve read, the Americans were interested in whaling as whale oil powered their ships at the time, but I think Japan’s location was also important to them for strategic reasons.

At the time, the shogun was ill and those in power could not come to a consensus on how to deal with the foreign threat. Furthermore, the treaties that Japan entered into with America were seen as bad and humiliating. The country fractured, with some urging for modernisation and others wanting to return to the old ways. The Boshin War was fought between those who supported the shogun and those who wanted to restore power to the emperor.

The Beginning (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Beginning kicks off in 1864, 11 years after Perry’s arrival, just before the Boshin War. Himura Kenshin (played by the ridiculously photogenic Takeru Satoh) is already serving as an assassin (Hitokiri Battōsai—literally “manslayer”) in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, taking down those who support the shogun. He is nothing short of gifted with a sword: there is a fight scene right at the beginning of this movie where he’s basically holding his blade with his teeth and he still manages to take down an entire room full of samurai.

But even so, he is uneasy with killing: in the next scene, while up against some of the members of the city watch, he strikes down a young guard who is not so easily killed and who keeps crying out that he can’t die because he has someone he loves. He gives Kenshin the first slash in the facial scar that distinguishes him in later instalments.

Kenshin still does his duty and murders the guard, but the act does not sit easy with him, and that shows when he goes to meet up with his handler, Kogoro Katsura, who relates to his mistress the story of how Kenshin was recruited in the first place.

Kenshin goes to drink alone at a local tavern. A young woman named Yukishiro Tomoe enters and sits at the table next to his, intending to drink alone too. But because some other patrons start bothering her, Kenshin intervenes, then leaves.

In the street, he is attacked and quickly puts the other guy down. But his actions are witnessed by Tomoe, who came out to thank him. She faints, and faced with the prospect of being reported as a murderer, Kenshin takes her back to the inn where he is staying with a bunch of other loyalists from Chushu. As Tomoe has nowhere else to go, she earns her keep by helping out at the inn, and she takes care of Kenshin, who is often out doing his work at night, watching over him during the day as he sleeps. Kenshin clashes with the Shogunate’s police force, the Shinsengumi, resulting in a brief encounter with Saito Hajime, a character who becomes more relevant in later films. The conflict reaches a fever pitch, making the city unsafe for the loyalists. Yet in spite of the turmoil of the era and the turbulence of what is happening around them, an odd and unexpected sort of kinship begins to form between Tomoe and Kenshin.

Of the five, I think this was my favourite movie. It’s a shot like an indie arthouse film, not a big budget action movie, and while the action scenes are outstanding—particularly the opening one I mentioned before—everything is muted and subdued, as if trying to keep the rising tension in check. Even though the action scenes are dynamic and amazing, I suspect many might find the plot a little boring: in a sense, not a lot happens. But it’s all about the characters and the subtleties in the way they interact. Takeru Satoh does a lot of acting with his eyes, which are often hidden by his hair in some of the scenes anime-style. (It amuses me how little eye contact the characters make when speaking to one another sometimes.) It’s not always clear what he’s thinking or feeling, but I rather liked that: as the lead figure of the franchise, there was a lot about him that made me think of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne—characters who are less about personality or charisma, but more about what’s happening around them and how they respond to it.

The way the final act of the story plays out is devastating—like Shakespearean tragedy—and I loved how the various plot threads are brought together in such a way that it brings things full circle. The movie ends in 1868 with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi towards end of the Boshin War. I rather liked this as it set things up to the next movie, which is …

Origins (2012)

Apple TV (2 hours 15 minutes)

Origins begins with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, where Kenshin puts down his killing sword. Here he encounters Hajime once more, but refuses to engage with him. He turns heel and walks off the battlefield. But unfortunately for him, someone else takes up his sword—a man named Udō Jin-e.

Fast forward 10 years: it’s 1878 and Kenshin has just arrived in Tokyo. He’s now a “rurouni” (i.e. a wandering samurai) and while swords are banned, the sword he now carries is not, because it’s a reverse blade sword—i.e. the sharp edge is on the top, not the bottom. Even though his work as an assassin has given his position as Battōsai notoriety, he is able to enjoy anonymity as virtually no one actually knew what he looks like. That said, the x-shaped scar on his cheek gives him away to those in the know.

Saito Hajime now works for the police, investigating a series of murders of undercover officers by someone styling himself as the Battōsai. While some believe the Kenshin is back, Hajime is not so sure and suspects that someone is impersonating Kenshin.

Kenshin has a run-in with a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru who has inherited her late father’s Kendo school. The school’s reputation is in ruins because of the Battōsai’s crimes and, desperate to clear her father’s name, Kaoru attacks Kenshin, believing him to be the Battōsai because he carries a sword. When he shows her that it is a reverse blade, she lets him go, but later she has a run-in with Jin-e and is rescued by Kenshin.

Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and wealthy businessman named Takeda Kanryū is plotting to take over the city and enrich his own coffers by making a woman named Takani Megumi invent a kind of opium far more addictive than the regular sort. Megumi is aghast when the others involved in the drug’s creation are killed before her eyes, and tries to escape.

The plot of Origins, as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this much, is far more complicated than The Beginning and involves so many more characters, it starts to get a little confusing. (I haven’t even mentioned Sanosuke, who becomes Kenshin’s right-hand man, and Yahiko, the orphan and Kaoru takes in.) If you’re familiar with the anime, you can see how the film is setting up the principal characters and their relationship to one another. Kenshin is ostensibly retired and has vowed never to kill again, but because of what happens to Kaoru and Megumi, he gets drawn into the conflict and is almost thrust into his old role again. But unlike Jin-e, he’s not a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys killing for the sake of it; he’s always doing things for the sake of the greater good—in a way, seeking to atone for the lives he’s already taken. He’s attracted to Kaoru’s way of thinking—that the sword, rather than being an agent of death, is, instead, a tool that brings life—and the rest of the movie bears this out.

If you can handle the large cast and the intricate plot, this one is worth a watch—if only the for the fight scenes alone, which are astonishing. Consider this one at Kaoru’s dojo where Kenshin engages his foes mostly with his hands, not even bothering to draw his sword until halfway through:

I love how the fight isn’t just confined to one plane: you see Kenshin rolling and sliding along the floor, doing backflips off the walls, spinning and attacking, taking down an entire gang of thugs. He’s entirely in control of the situation, and he doesn’t need a weapon to establish his superiority over them. It’s all the more impressive when you know that Takeru Satoh is doing it all himself (and in waraji—straw sandals—no less!): he did not have a stunt double, and trained relentlessly to get the fight scenes right.

Emi Takei’s Kaoru is also an improvement on the anime character, who is often played for laughs because of her vanity and strong will. Even though I wondered why Kaoru wasn’t better in combat, given her martial arts training, I admired the way she sticks to her principles and encourages Kenshin towards virtue.

The other thing that really struck me about this film was the visual contrast between the old and the new—the Edo and the Meija eras: while most of the locals dress in kimono and hakama, the police and even Kanryū and his cronies are clothed in Western garb. Kenshin and many of the police carried swords, but some also had guns (which the Portuguese introduced to Japan in 1543), and Kanryū himself is armed with a Gatling gun.

I also liked the ending and seeing how Kenshin struggles with how to resolve his old life as the Battōsai with his new life as a rurouni, who has vowed never to kill, in the face of those who would do harm.

Indeed, the filmmakers could have left it there and I would have been satisfied. But instead, the story continues with …

Kyoto Inferno (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

Kyoto Inferno opens with Kenshin’s world at peace: Kenshin is still living with Kaoru, whose Kendo school is now thriving. Hajime is still working for the police, Megumi is working as a doctor, and Sanosuke is just being Sanosuke. But all is not well: the police are tracking the activities of a man named Shishio Makoto, who, like Kenshin, worked as an assassin during the Boshin War and was even Kenshin’s successor. (He’s mentioned briefly in The Beginning.) Because Makoto’s methods were so brutal, the new regime sought to have him quietly killed as they could not defend his actions. Unfortunately for them, he survived and now seeks to bring down the Meiji government in an act of revenge.

Once again, Kenshin is drawn into the conflict. Although he initially refuses, when a top official and friend is assassinated, Kenshin feels as though he has no choice but to go to Kyoto where Shishio is amassing followers and holding court.

On the way, he meets a young lady named Makimachi Misao, who attempts to steal his weapon, and has a run-in with some of Shishio’s followers—notably, Seta Soujiro, who breaks his reverse blade sword. Kenshin’s actions impress Misao, who takes him to stay with her people—former ninjas who worked for the shogunate—when he reaches Kyoto. However, one of their number—a former lieutenant of the shogunate named Shinomori Aoshi—is after Kenshin, having made it his personal mission to kill him and become known as the strongest man in Japan.

If the size of the cast of Origins confounded you, you’ll find Kyoto Inferno worse as the number of significant characters pretty much triples. It can be hard to keep the relevant people and factions straight, particularly as most of the cast don’t get the same airtime as in the anime series, which had the time and leisure to explore some of their back stories. Even so, I think the script made the stakes and the emotional highs and lows clear, and while some of the characterisations and action scenes border on mawkish in the way of superhero comic book adaptations, they don’t obscure Kenshin’s loyalties and inner conflicts.

Be warned, however: after two hours and 18 minutes, this movie ends on a cliffhanger. Which means you then need to watch …

The Legend Ends (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Legend Ends picks up almost immediately where Kyoto Inferno ends—well, it does after a flashback prologue during which we are introduced to a young Kenshin who has been saved by a man named Hiko Seijūrō. (The anime goes into more detail about that scene, which makes me wonder what newcomers think of it.) Seijūrō, impressed with Kenshin’s tenacity, decides to take him on as his student and teach him his “High Heaven” style of fighting—the style that makes Kenshin so good at killing.

Back in the present day, Kenshin wakes up in Seijūrō’s hut, worried about what happened to Kaoru and obsessed with the idea of taking down Shishio. He begs Seijūrō to teach him the ultimate technique of his fighting style. His former teacher agrees and they begin training.

Meanwhile, Shishio in his battleship drops anchor just off the coast of Tokyo and demands that officials from the government meet with him to discuss the situation, otherwise he will expose their crimes during the Boshin War and completely undermine their authority.

Provided you’ve managed to follow the events of Kyoto Inferno, in my opinion, The Legend Ends is a mostly fitting conclusion to that plot arc. I like Kenshin’s return to his roots: Hiko Seijūrō is one of my favourite characters of the series—mostly because of this scene:

I also liked the realisation Kenshin comes to about himself and how it changes him: it makes his second encounter with Seta Soujiro all the more dynamic and almost joyful. Furthermore, the action he takes to stop Shishio in putting himself in the hands of the fickle Meiji government are very much in keeping with his role as a hero, and while the government does not come off very well, I like that Kenshin very much sticks to his principles in spite of them.

That said, the Shinomori Aoshi arc isn’t quite given enough room to breathe, and I think that audiences might find his plot thread a little exasperating. The final climactic fight scene could be seen as laughable and I’m not sure that the outcome is earned, but I do really like that Kenshin is not alone—that because of his principles and the decisions he’s made as a result of those principles, he’s earned himself allies who are willing to fight alongside him for this new age. The very last scene of the film doesn’t quite land as the plot thread concerning the government isn’t resolved to my satisfaction. But fortunately we now have …

The Final (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 19 minutes)

Just as Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were released and meant to be viewed back-to-back, so too are The Beginning and The Final, I think. They bookend the series, bringing the story almost full circle. As with Kyoto Inferno, The Final begins with Kenshin’s world mostly at peace: it’s 1879, he is still living with Kaoru and enjoying life with his friends. But a new enemy is making himself known—someone from Kenshin’s past: Yukishiro Enishi, brother of Yukishiro Tomoe, who Kenshin loved. In the intervening years since his sister’s death, Enishi has been living in China and working his way up the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to become their leader. Now he’s hell-bent on revenge: he wants to see Kenshin suffer and he will do it by striking Kenshin’s friends and the city where he’s made his home.

Of the five, this film has the thinnest plot: revenge takes a lot of energy to sustain, I think, and not all of us can be John Wick. But one of the wonderful things about it is seeing old characters return—Hajime Saito, of course; sword-mad Cho Sawagejo, who Kenshin fights in Kyoto Inferno; Shinomori Aoshi; Makimachi Misao, who we get to see being awesome with a blade; and even Seta Soujiro, whose previous encounter with Kenshin left him a changed man. The other wonderful thing that rises out of the frenetic violence is the twin themes of atonement and redemption—the putting right of old wrongs and the breaking of the cycle of revenge. Even though Tomoe only appears on screen in flashback, with footage lifted directly from The Beginning, her character permeates the story, bringing healing and closure to both Kenshin and Enishi.

Oh dear, somehow I’ve managed to write another long one! I’m not sure I’ve done the Rurouni Kenshin series justice, but if you do decide to watch them, let me know what you think.

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Review: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop

1h 27 min; Netflix.

It’s the beginning of summer. Yuki (or “Smile”) is a teenage social media influencer with buck teeth that she is getting corrected with braces—only she doesn’t like her braces and seeks to hide them behind face masks (in this anime world that COVID hasn’t touched). Yui, otherwise known as “Cherry” because of his last name (“Sakura”), is a shy and retiring teenage haiku writer who is filling in for his mother at the elder care community centre of the local shopping mall and who seems to have some sort of sensory processing disorder as he shuts out most of the world by wearing over ear headphones that don’t actually play music. By chance, they literally bump into each other at the aforementioned mall and accidentally swap phones.

Tangled up in all of this is one of the seniors who attends elder care, Mr Fujiyama, who constantly carries around a record sleeve emblazoned with the word Yamazakura across the front. He’s looking for the disc that used to be in that sleeve, and the mystery behind it serves to bring Smile and Cherry closer together. Meanwhile, the Daruma festival approaches.

There were a lot of things I liked about this: it’s a gentle and simple story, but I liked the nuances given to each of the characters that made them feel less two-dimensional. I liked how Cherry’s haikus popped up as graffiti all over the place (thanks to his friend Beaver, who was using them to practise writing in Japanese), and how the scenes and the story gave his poetry an added weight and meaning. “Haikus help me express things in words better”, he says a third of the way through the film, which means they open up additional insight into what his character is thinking and feeling. Smile could have just come across as a ditzy, too self-conscious and shallow bimbo, but there was also a shyness, a sadness and an anxiety to her that made her relatable. Even though Smile and Cherry are quite different, they shared a lot of similarities, and I liked how often they were portrayed in parallel, their bodies mimicking each other. The other thing that struck me was their relationship with their phones (perhaps because I’m old!): their devices were a near-constant part of their lives and, perhaps, their identities, and much of the movie was mediated through those small screens.

The other thing I liked was the layers of culture and history that the script wove on top of such a simple story—not just in Mr Fujiyama’s past, but also in the history of the shopping mall, Cherry’s haikus, the meanings bound up in the words he looks up in his saijiki (a dictionary or almanac of seasonal terms used in haiku), and even the Daruma festival and its related paraphernalia. (Daruma dolls abounded throughout this film: from what I can gather, they symbolise good luck, but they also encourage people to strive for their goals: they’re sold with blank eyes, and the idea is that you fill in one eye when you’ve landed on your objective, and you fill in the other eye when you’ve achieved it.)

The animation was quite different to what I’ve been used to seeing in other anime like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Your Name and even Studio Ghibli fare: the lines seemed sketchier and less defined; the colours were flatter, brighter and oversaturated; and the movement in some of the action scenes was more dynamic and crazier. I rather liked it and thought it suited the summer/candyland aesthetic the filmmakers were going for.

The ending was sweet and felt earned, though there were still some questions left up in the air that made it feel less resolved. But overall, I enjoyed this one as a light bit of fun and recommend it as a nice escape from lockdown.

3 stars.

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So I’m working on a novel …

I’ve been meaning to write a post about my novel for a little while—if only to have something to refer people to when they ask me about it and I don’t have time to respond.

But I also find it a little uncomfortable writing about it. I’m uncomfortable for several reasons: firstly, it’s still in progress and who knows whether it will ever see the light of publication? Secondly, there are cultural issues involved that make the whole thing a little sensitive, and while I don’t quite agree that I have no right to tell this story the way I am, I am conscious of the issues and how complicated the whole thing is. Thirdly, I’m not sure I have more to say other than, “I’m writing a novel and it’s about this”.

 But anyway. Here’s a post about my novel. Enjoy.

Genesis

To talk about this novel, I have to talk about another one first—one that I started and then stopped, because it wasn’t quite working.

It was during the period Ben and I were going through a trial separation (which is a story I am not going to ever blog about, but I’m throwing it out there because it happened, we are all the stronger for it happening, and just as it’s helpful to know that other people also struggle with depression and anxiety, it’s also helpful for married people to know that other people’s marriages are sometimes difficult and complicated, but that’s not the end of the world for the relationship).

So as I said, it was during the period when we were going through a trial separation. I was quite depressed, and one of the ways I coped with my depression was to lose myself in daydreaming. I had this idea for a fantasy story about a girl chosen by a magician to become his special helper because they shared a magical connection, and I thought it might work as a novel.

I started writing bits and pieces of it while I was working on my novella (which is very close to seeing the light of publication if only I had the time and energy to do the necessary revisions and get it out there). The setting started off as being very European medieval fantasy. But then I read someone on Twitter bemoaning the fact that most fantasy was European and medieval, and couldn’t writers conceive of something else? And something in me shifted.

Mugen and Jin from “Samurai Champloo”.

Around the same time, I had been revisiting one of my favourite anime series, Samurai Champloo, which was made by the same director as Cowboy Bebop. It had just come to Netflix and even though I own the series on DVD, it’s so much more convenient to stream things instead of fiddling with players and discs. (NB: It’s no longer up on Netflix, but you can watch 25 episodes on this YouTube playlist plus episode 26 with an English dub.)

The series is about a teenage girl named Fuu who enlists two rogue swordsmen—Mugen from the Ryukyu islands and Jin, who is a rōnin (i.e. a master-less samurai) to protect her and help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The three have little love for one another, but as they travel along the length of Japan and have all sorts of crazy adventures along the way, they develop a bond—something deeper than friendship, something forged of promises and loyalty. A lot of people find the ending anti-climactic, but I think it’s because their expectations are wrong: it’s one of those series that is more about the journey than the destination. The more I’ve watched it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the story and why it ends the way it does.

Edo Japan

Anyway, one of things I really love about it is that it’s set during the Edo/Tokugawa period—that section of Japanese history 1603 and 1867 when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. (Though on reflection, Samurai Champloo probably set more towards the end of that period as it has an entire episode about American baseball.) I find the Edo period fascinating: it was a time of peace as the country had been more or less united under the shogunate; it was a time of prosperity as peace and social stability led to both an economic and a population boom; it was a time of great social change when the ruling classes—the samurai and the nobility—were on the decline while the merchants were becoming more prosperous; and it was a time of artistic flourishing when a number of traditional Japanese arts and crafts really came into their own. (It should also be noted that it was a time of isolation as well, because Japan shut its borders to everyone except the Dutch East India Company. Samurai Champloo episode 6 has an interesting story about a character who worked for them.)

In my depression that year, another thing I found myself doing was travelling to Japan in my imagination. I have only been there once—in January of 1993 when I was 15 and it was bitterly cold. I remember visiting Tokyo Disneyland when it was snowing; seeing people wearing face masks in the subway because they either had colds or wanted to avoid getting colds; seeing beautifully dressed girls in kimonos in one of Tokyo’s gardens (though I don’t remember why they were all dressed up); going up Mount Fuji and marvelling at how I could see one side of the country to the other; staying at an inn known for its hot spring but not understanding why that was significant; waking up the day we were supposed to go to Kobe and learning about the earthquake, and thinking about the guy on the bullet train the day before who had been going there and wondering if he was okay (I don’t actually remember how I knew he was going to Kobe; maybe he disembarked there before we did?); and catching the bullet train back to Tokyo. I would very much like to go to Japan again, and I had started saving up for a trip when COVID hit. (And then we bought a house, which decimated the fund, so I’ve had to start again.)

Somehow those two things—my novel and my love of Edo Japan—coalesced and I decided to make the setting of my fantasy novel Edo-inspired.

Of course, the moment I decided to do that, I ran into a whole bunch of world-building problems. It wasn’t that I wanted to be slavishly faithful to the Edo era; it was more that as I researched the period, I started to see how different aspects of Japanese culture influence and determine other things. For example, geography and climate: Japan is an island nation that sits on the ring of fire, which means that it is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (I confess I did know until a couple of years ago that Mount Fuji is a volcano.) Its weather ranges from extreme snow in the winter to soul-crushing heat and humidity in the summer. This is why traditional Japanese houses are built in a particular way—to facilitate air flow and temperature regulation when it’s hot, with the ability to close everything off when it’s cold (though the Japanese are more into space heating with hearths in the floor, instead of heating the entire house). Houses are usually made of wood, which makes them a little bit more flexible in the event of an earthquake, but wood also means that fire is a major hazard, and often it is expected that structures will be rebuilt after a suitable period of time has elapsed.

The more I researched (as much as one can via the internet, and I certainly feel very lucky to have the whole of the world wide web at my fingertips for this, though it makes me feel a lot like armchair traveller Ann Radcliffe), the more I would come across little details that were essential to my story, but that were of no interest to historians. Sometimes I was able to unearth answers after trawling the internet in different ways. (For example, did Japanese sailors use hammocks on board? The answer is no, but you’ll have to read pages 678-679 of the book I linked to to find it.) Sometimes I couldn’t find the answer—even if it was for something that I thought was rather simple. (For example, how often did Japanese people do laundry in the Edo era? Given that cleaning a kimono involves taking it apart, washing it and sewing it back together again, I take it they wouldn’t have been doing that very often. But their undergarments? Absolutely no idea. But I’d guess surely they would change those almost every day, given the Japanese penchant for bathing, which is linked to Shinto and ideas about pollution.)

I know, I know: it’s fiction. It’s fantasy. I could have just made stuff up. But I kind of liked that the research was leading me in all sorts of place to all sorts of things I had never considered before—which is why I stuck with it as an exercise in world-building. Japan is different in just about every regard to the western culture I had grown up. And yet there were parts of it that felt familiar to me because Japan borrowed so much from Chinese culture—Buddhism and Confucianism, of course, but also their writing system, their style of dress, and even aspects of their cuisine and handicrafts. At one point, I read something about Japanese history and was struck by a line saying something about how Japanese society back then was obsessed with Chinese culture. It shocked me because I have never had much interest in Chinese culture, despite that being my heritage. But seeing China through the lens of Japan changed all that. My appreciation for Chinese culture and history, and even my own Asianness, started to grow. (It also helped that around the same time, I discovered xanxia dramas.) Even so, my relationship with my Chineseness is an ongoing journey that I’m not sure I can write about at the moment. (Or ever …)

The thing is, I know that me writing about Japanese culture (even if it’s heavily disguised as fantasy) will be seen as problematic. I’m not Japanese; I’m Chinese. Japanese history and culture is not mine. Furthermore, the relationship between China and Japan is difficult and fraught with traumatic history. (I don’t know how true it is, but I heard that my own grandfather, who died before I was born, became an alcoholic sometime after the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.) The whole situation is complicated and messy.

However, one thing I admire greatly about the Japanese is their ability to borrow things from other cultures—not just Chinese, but Portuguese and even American—and make them their own. I hope they will not mind me doing likewise.

Boring Fantasy Novel

Back to the novel—not the current one, but the other one—the one I called “Boring Fantasy Novel” as a joke when I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that year. (This is log line I would tell people: “Magician samurai at magic school who need to learn to work together in order to defend their kingdom from an invading empire”. That makes it sound less boring.)

Going through a trial separation meant that I had more child-free time on my hands, because Ben would take the girls to his place every Friday and drop them back on Saturday. I had always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, but every year had seemed like a bad time to do it. With more time and a project I actually wanted to work on, participating that year was a no-brainer. And as you can see from the above certificate, I did actually finish.

The following year—2019—I worked on Boring Fantasy Novel—the story about the girl who was chose to become a seer’s helper or familiar. But it branched: initially I had approached it as a single narrator story told from the point of view of the girl, who I named Sia after the musician Sia Furler. (It’s not a particularly Japanese name—it comes from Old Norse—but it is kind of fitting for Reasons that would probably take another blog post.) She lives in the kingdom of Archaia (also not a particularly Japanese name. Reasons. Also, I just liked the name [it’s a comics publisher]) where magic is a part of the natural world. But only the seers—the magic-users—can see it and manipulate it to their ends.

As my cast multiplied, I decided to adopt two other point-of-view characters: a boy named Taika (who is a seer, but not the one who chooses Sia) and a girl named Piper (who is also a seer, but also not the one who chooses Sia). Both Taika and Piper are friends with Caspian, the seer who does choose Sia. You’d think Caspian as a POV character would be the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to make him one. I was drawn to Taika and Piper instead—again, for Reasons.

Anyway, I kept going with Boring Fantasy Novel, telling the story from three points of view—Sia, Taika and Piper. I’d never written a multi-POV novel before, and I dealt with it by switching between the three of them in a set pattern—Sia, Taika, Piper; Sia Taika Piper, etc.

Then I realised I had completely underestimated how much story would fill one novel. That’s what happens when you have three POVs and plot arcs for each of them! I had a rough outline and enough story to fill a trilogy. But what I was calling Book #1 waaaaaaay too long: I hit 80,000 words and realised I wasn’t done. I thought it would work if I split what I was calling Book #1 into two books, thus making the trilogy a quadrilogy. The thing with doing that is that the first half didn’t quite work as a self-contained book. Furthermore, when I started workshopping sections of it with my writing group the following year, I realised from their feedback that it really wasn’t working—that each POV didn’t stand on its own—and that I had to do something quite drastic.

Of course, my solution was to run. I was 67,000 words through what became Book #2 when I did it, and it was because I was writing a Taika chapter and realised I needed more of his backstory.

The Taika Novel

It was around this time the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia—about the second quarter of 2020. In between supervising home learning and trying to do my job, I wasn’t writing much of anything. I was trying to keep it up, but it was fragmented and rough, and I found I was using the time to work things out. I wrote about Taika and Piper’s backstories, trying to trace the trajectory of who they were up to the beginning of Boring Fantasy Novel. I thought it would just be a useful exercise in character development. But as I looked over what I’d written, I realised that Taika’s story could work as a standalone novel on its own. (Piper’s could work, but it’s not quite there yet.) Boring Fantasy Novel/Quadrilogy wasn’t working, and that was partly because I was trying to juggle three POVs. I decided I should learn to walk before I tried to run and attempt just one POV instead.

So earlier this year, I started on the Taika Novel. It starts a few years earlier than Boring Fantasy Novel and it is about Taika, a fifteen-year-old boy who was born into the lowest social class in the kingdom of Archaia (which is analogous to the Burakumin in Edo Japan; that’s something else that might get me in trouble). Taika is discovered to be a seer and made to enrol in the Seer Academy. He must learn to master his powers and make his situation work for him, despite the hostility and obstacles he faces (the Seer Academy is full of aristocrats, you see). The alternative is execution, because the Crown can’t have untrained magic users running around; the law says that everyone who is discovered to be a seer must serve the King and the Kingdom.

I describe the Taika Novel as being a “small” story that’s not aiming to do much. As I’ve been writing it, though, I’ve been drawing correlations between Taika’s story and mine—connections that were largely unconscious until I realised how they were influencing the material. Chief among them is that feeling of entering an existing situation where everyone else has been there a while and is familiar with the way things work, while you feel out of place and don’t know anything. Taika doesn’t know how to read or write, but everyone else at Seer Academy does because they all come from the upper class and had private tutors. It’s a lot like when I was six and I moved from to Canada to Australia. I struggled a lot at school. In Canada, I had completed Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 at a bilingual school where lessons were taught in English and French. But I didn’t know how to read, and when we arrived in Australia, my age meant that I was placed in Year 1 halfway through. (We arrived in July.) I went from being at the level of my peers to being far below. I have a very clear memory of standing up in front of the class, being asked to write “jump” on the board and not being able to get past the letter “j” while all the other kids yelled the answer. For the rest of that year, I had to sit at a desk right beside the teacher, who set me special work to help me catch up. And for the longest time, I thought of myself as not being particularly smart—until I started excel academically and discovered what I was really capable of.

As I wrote in this post, I’ve outlined the whole novel and written bits of it. I’m currently writing the rest of it rather badly and I’m almost halfway. I’d really like to finish the whole thing this year, but that will depend a lot on the pandemic, us coming out of lockdown and the girls returning to school.

What of the Boring Fantasy Novel Quadrilogy? Well, I do actually have a plan for that, but it’s looking more like two more stand-alones plus a trilogy, according to my current rough outlines. None of what I wrote will be wasted. In fact, many of the characters in that are in the Taika Novel; I’m just writing about them when they were younger.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Learn to walk before I run. Let’s finish the Taika novel first.