In this week’s 5 Questions, we chat to author Joanne Hall about short stories vs novels, how gaming inspires her worldbuilding and why it’s still so important to be talking about women’s fiction!
What drew you to write speculative fiction? Do you think the genre still has a lot to offer new readers?
SFF has always been my favourite genre to read, right from when I was very little – if I had a choice between Jennifer Yellow-Hat and Meg and Mog, the witch with the cat and the very tall hat would win every time! My family – my mum and my uncle especially had a passion for SFF and through them I read Asimov, Clarke, Tolkien, Eddings and Anne McCaffrey. On my own through the library I discovered Diana Wynne Jones, David Gemmell and Rosemary Sutcliff. So I guess it’s in my genes. I feel like a stick of rock with SFF running right through the core. I had to write, I was always writing and SFF felt like a natural fit: writing about the things I loved.
Do I think the genre still has a lot to offer new readers? Oh gosh yes, especially if you reach out beyond the *ahem* “male pale and stale”. There’s a lot of brilliant SFF being created by marginalised writers that takes you beyond a white European setting and throws some new and exciting ideas in the mix. I think especially now, with the world turning into a dark and scary messed up place on both sides of the Atlantic, that people are looking for something to lift themselves out of that morass, and the very best SFF offers an alternative vision to the one that might currently feel very oppressive.
I mean (sorry if I’m rambling on a bit), my writing has been called Grimdark, but I don’t think it is, really. I like writing (and reading) something a bit more hopeful or that ends on a brighter note, and I think a lot of people are looking for the same thing right now. If I can make some recommendations for new readers in SF, I’d say check out Gareth L Powell’s new series. And in fantasy, Fox Spirit’s International Monsters series of anthologies, Jen William’s The Copper Promise and Kate Coe’s very optimistic Green Sky novellas.
You’ve had both a short story and a novel nominated for a British Fantasy Award. Is one form better suited than the other to explore certain themes?
To be honest, I’m quite stunned by this year’s Best Short Story nomination because I almost never write short stories and “Illumination” was written in a stinking rush because I promised Adam Dalton (the editor of “The Book of Dragons” where the story appears) that I would write a story for him and then promptly forgot about it until two weeks before the deadline. So I enjoyed writing it but I certainly never expected it to get this level of attention!
I think a really powerful short story can have just as much of an impact as a novel and explore themes that are just as important – I’m thinking here of something like “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” or similar, but I think it’s harder to pull off. I’m not a natural short story writer; I’m a bit of a rambler (you can probably tell by these answers)! I find if I want to explore a theme it’s hard to do it in less than 90 bajillion words. But I have nothing but the greatest admiration for people who can do it in a short story.
A fellow gamer! I’ve taken a surprising amount of inspiration from video games over the years. Have they influenced you creatively at all?
Oh yes, definitely in terms of world-building, landscape design and story a bit. Gaming has made me more aware of “plot-couponing” in other people’s writing (where you go to a place and collect a thing and you have to get seven bits of the thing from different places and put them together to make a Mystical Doodad…) and I kind of tut and grin and roll my eyes… But yeah, I love gaming, especially the kind of semi-open world gaming where more of the world is gradually unveiled as you go – Ocarina of Time is a big favourite – and I’ve always tried to do that in my ongoing series, so you’re aware of what’s going on in the world outside the story, but at the same time acting on it and influencing it (like the civil war in Skyrim). That’s something I’ve always tried to bear in mind, that the world is REAL and things are happening outside the immediate parameters of the story. And Civ – Civ is great for practice world building because it makes you think about the way things fit together. I’ve often built fantasy worlds in Civ while I’m thinking about writing, it helps to put me in the right headspace.
I have a book I’m due to hand in at the end of the month and I have Breath of the Wild waiting for me as a reward when I’m done – I haven’t dared start it yet because then I’ll never finish the book! A series of really good books that are blatantly influenced by gaming and really take that trope and mess with it is the Ecko series by Danie Ware, which is smart and funny and full of swearing and literally opens with a Bard and a Healer and a Barbarian having a drink in a tavern. You can tell she’s having a great time writing them.
You’ve always been an active supporter of female writers and creators. How far do you think we’ve come down the road of gender equality in genre and how far do we still have to go?
We’ve come a long way. We still have a long way to go.
It seems some days that for every step forward women in genre have taken, we get pushed a step back again, and that’s frustrating. It’s frustrating when lists of ten “must read” SFF novels only include one by a woman (usually Robin Hobb, abiding by the Highlander rule that there can only be ONE talked-about woman in SFF at any one time). It’s frustrating when people on Facebook talk about how they don’t read books by women (except Robin Hobb) because girls write books about kissing and emotions and shit and probably have cooties, because REAL MAN BOOKS don’t have emotions, just 200 pages of Repetitive Stabbing Injuries *eyerolls forever*.
However frustrating it is for me, a straight white woman, I can only imagine how much more frustrating it must be to a LGBT+ or a WOC seeing this nonsense and finding yourself even LESS represented. We’ve fought ourselves to a place where, for the most part, we can call out this kind of sexism from a position of strength. Now let’s do the same thing for and alongside our marginalised sisters, who may be less comfortable about speaking up (or may just be less gobby than me ? ). Let’s talk about books by women, praise them, big them up, encourage women to appear on panels and talk about their own achievements. It’s a start, but yes, we still have a way to go against entrenched attitudes.
Why should a reader check out your work? (The pitch question)!
*Looks back at previous question and realises she should put her money where her mouth is*
Because you like big, sprawling, multi-generational fantasy that spans half a world. Because you like messed-up sibling relationships, the liminal spaces between land and sea, grotty port cites and rival underworld factions. Because you fell in love with a street urchin with the power to crack open the world and release an unspeakable horror. Because you’d cross an ocean to save your dead brother’s son from slavery at the hands of a mad God. Because you’d run from the murderous ghost of your father and bring war to the gates of the city your sister rules. Because you’d turn to piracy to avenge the death of your parents. Because you can talk to volcanoes, marry a shape-shifter, sing a man to death, dance on a high wire above a burning city…
If this sounds like you like it, you like what I write!
Joanne Hall is the same age as Star Wars, which explains a lot…. She currently lives in Bristol with her partner. She enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, playing console games, watching movies, pottering about on her allotment and playing with the world’s laziest dog.
A full-time author since 2003, Joanne’s “New Kingdom” fantasy trilogy was published by Epress Online, and was a finalist in both the PLUTO and EPPIE awards. Her short stories have appeared in many publications, both print and online, including Afterburn SF, Quantum Muse, and The Harrow. Joanne has recently taken on the position of Acquisitions Editor for Kristell Ink. She has also edited novels, comics, and content for social media games.
Her latest novel, The Summer Goddess, which tells the story of a woman’s battle with a demon-worshipping cult to save her lost nephew, was published by Kristell Ink and shortlisted for the BFS Award for Best Novel. She is currently working on a new flintlock fantasy series. She sometimes talks about herself in the third person on the internet and is inclined to ramble on about courgettes and greyhounds unless forcibly prevented. She is always happy to hear from readers, either via the “Talk to Me” form, email or via Twitter.