Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: C.S. McMullen

You’ve been a professional writer since you were ten years old, selling your first story, “Teddy Cat,” to Interzone. Clearly you’ve always had a passion for writing, but how has this developed over the years into adulthood? Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to be published at such a young age?

It’s been an interesting journey for me, from writing at a very young age to writing as an adult. In terms of what it was like to be published when I was so young, it was overall an incredibly positive experience. I got to attend conventions as a Guest of Honor, talk on panels at WorldCon, give talks to other kids about writing, that kind of thing. The main downside was probably what a lot of high-achieving children or teenagers feel as they get older: that you’ve already hit your peak, even though you’ve only just hit puberty. You feel like you’ve got to prove that you’re more than a gimmick.

I actually took a break from writing from when I was thirteen until I was twenty-three; my dad jokes that I must be the only writer that retired at thirteen years old. I still thought of myself as a writer, but while I started a lot of stories, I never actually finished any. My focus became school and then university, but even when I only had six hours of class a week, I still somehow never found time to write. And then, last year, when I started working full-time and suddenly had no time at all, I found that I was writing and finishing things again. Working full-time forced me to think about what it was that I wanted to spend my free time doing, which turned out to be writing and being creative.

For me, the main difference between writing now and writing when I was younger is that I’m actually more unsure about my work now, and more worried about sending it out, than I was then. I was fearless in the way that children sometimes are; I wrote stories, I sent them away, and they were published. It was great. Whereas now, I have some pretty standard “new writer” insecurities; fear of rejection, convincing myself I’m a hack, that kind of thing. I try to remember that fearlessness when I can, and remind myself that getting things published isn’t impossible, it can just feel that way.

Your father, Sean McMullen, is a well-known fantasy/genre author. How has this influenced you as a writer and what does your father think of your work?

The impact of what your parents do for a living is a funny thing. I think that while most people want to strike out on their own in some way, you’re always incredibly influenced by what your parents do. In my case, my dad is a writer, and my mum is a librarian, so it was always fairly likely that I would be involved with the written word in some way.

But my one small rebellion is that while Dad writes mostly science fiction, I write mostly fantasy and horror, at least at the moment. I love science fiction too much not to write some more eventually, though. So, that’s not much of a rebellion at all, now I think about it.

Dad is always one of my first readers, and I respect his opinion of my work immensely. He does give me some feedback and comments, but we generally don’t do a full workshop of my stories together, as I think there are some pressures you shouldn’t put the parent-child relationship under! We do definitely talk through preliminary ideas with each other though, and he’s much more into scientific theory than I am, so it can be great to have a different perspective on an idea.

“The Nest” focuses on a house comprised of a massive ant farm. Why ants? What inspired this concept?

The genesis of “The Nest” came from a brief phase I went through, where I decided that I wanted to create a small ant farm using an old television set. I did months and months of research, and became more than slightly obsessed. But the more research I did, the more I realized that any ant farm I built would be pitifully small, and that the ants would probably die after a few weeks. I didn’t really want to take them from their nice home in the ground, put them into a TV set, and then watch them slowly die. As fun as that whole process sounded, it’s not really my idea of a good time.

The next logical step was clearly taking over my garage, and filling half of it with the nest, with the TV as a centerpiece in the middle. I think I even measured out the dimensions, before deciding that maybe it was going a bit too far.

But throughout the process of researching, I started imagining this house where the walls themselves were part of the nest, and the kind of person that would live there, and everything kind of fell into place really easily from there. After I wrote the story, my obsession with building a nest went away, so I guess it was a good way to put that obsession to rest!

The narrative delivers a strong moral message regarding man’s need to control that which is “lesser” than him, and to feel superior. You even choose a species of ant, Solenopsis invicta, which means “the unvanquished” in Latin, and depict their captivity at the hands of Mr. Marsden followed by their eventual release. How would you characterize the relationship between Mr. Marsden and his ants, as well as the protagonist and the ants?

As a quick side note, I was so lucky with “the unvanquished.” It was one of those fantastic bits of research where it makes the author look a lot cleverer than they are, when really it was just luck. I had actually written most of the story, when I decided that I wanted to specify what species of ant he owned, and that they had to be ants that could eat meat. Solenopsis invicta was one of the first species I found, and when I read the meaning of their name, I thought, “Oh, how utterly perfect.”

On one level, the relationship between Mr. Marsden and his ants is a fairly simple story of the captor and his captives. But while the ants can live without him, his existence is defined by being the ant-keeper. Ants are endlessly fascinating to him, and he has built his whole life around the Nest, and making improvements to it. It may be somewhat of a cliché, but in many ways, he was always more trapped in the Nest than they were. Without them, he’s just a sad old man in a dilapidated house.

In terms of the main protagonist, her relationship with the ants is very different. She begins the story with a fairly normal moral stance; she empathizes with the ants, and doesn’t like how Mr. Marsden plays with them, but would never side with them over a human. I tried to initially give her a realistic reaction to a strange situation, similar to the one I would personally have if confronted with a house made into an ants’ nest. (Although, worryingly, I’m the one who wanted to build an ants’ nest in real life, so if I’m anyone in the story, I’m Mr. Marsden.) But by the end of the story, she has chosen the ants over her fellow human, and has also possibly been driven mad by her contact with them. So, it’s a complex relationship between her and the ants, to say the least!

You currently work at Matchbox Pictures, an Australian film and television production company. Can you tell us about what you do there, and what it’s like to balance your work at Matchbox with your writing career?

I’m currently working as Office Coordinator at Matchbox, and have been there a little bit over a year. I manage the office in general, as well as coordinating travel, meetings, getting coffee, helping with applications, and dealing with issues as they arise. It’s a very busy role, but as every day has a new challenge of some kind, I’m never bored, and it’s a very creative environment with a great team. While working at Matchbox, I’ve also had some fantastic opportunities, such as helping out on set, reading scripts, taking notes for a TV writer’s room, and doing research for one of our shows. And as I said earlier, I’ve found that working full-time has helped me focus my creative goals, and inspired me to write more.

What current projects are you working on, and can you tell us a bit about them?

At the moment, I’m working on a short film script, as well as a few short story ideas, although I keep changing my mind about which one to write next.

I also have my obligatory novel that I’m working on, which is YA science fiction. It’s about a city in the middle of the desert that is hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Water is used as both the main form of currency, and also forms the basis of their religion, and the book begins just as the water has started to run out. I’m actually re-reading Dune at the moment, both for inspiration and to make sure that I’m not inadvertently copying anything too blatantly.

I think it’s a really exciting time to be a writer, with the rise of ebooks and new publishing models emerging. I think there are more opportunities than ever for writers to put their stuff out there in new and interesting ways, and I hope to be a part of that as much as possible.

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Britt Gettys

Britt Gettys currently attends Pratt Institute where she is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing. She is the editor of Pratt Success, a student-run blog, sponsored by Pratt’s Center for Career and Professional Development, which reviews the work of current Pratt students and alumni. Additionally, she illustrates graphic novels and her work has been featured in two Pratt sponsored exhibitions. An editorial intern at Lightspeed and Nightmare Magazine, Britt hails from Seattle, Washington where she spends her time writing, cosplaying, and painting.