Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a two-time Bram Stoker Award®-winner. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. She is proud to have edited seventeen volumes of speculative fiction, including international Bram Stoker Award®-winning title Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women co-edited with Geneve Flynn. Her latest work, released May 2021, is non-fiction title, Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips co-authored with Angela Yuriko Smith. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.
NTK: How did you become involved with horror and how old were you?
LM: If horror is what scares us, then I guess I was involved as soon as I could breathe. Although only diagnosed in the past five years, I’ve lived with anxiety (and depression) for most of my life. As a tiny child, I believed that the crunch of the pulse in my ear against my pillow was a wolf prowling under my bed. Yes, I had a rich imagination even back then—and there aren’t even any wolves in New Zealand! Also, anxiety isn’t really acknowledged in Asian cultures, at least it wasn’t back then, so I spent a lot of time worrying about things that made me uneasy. In an anxious mind, scary things escalate. But I guess you’re asking about my involvement with horror writing, which has only really been over the last decade. Taken in by the notion ‘write what you know’, I started my writing career with a light-hearted chick-lit novel, and while I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot about writing, I realised that the plot complications faced by my ambitious but misguided heroine weren’t resonating for me; I wanted to explore deeper issues, topics like otherness, expectation, and oppression, and those themes naturally led me to the dark side. So, not long afterwards, that wolf-under-the-bed experience became “Peter and the Wolf”, a story which appeared in the award-winning anthology Baby Teeth: Bite-sized Tales of Terror. The story went on to inspire a panel discussion, an essay, and is currently being developed as an animated film. It was also where Dan and I started our collaboration.
NTK: What is your favorite horror movie?
LM: Okay, this is where I admit that I don’t watch ‘horror’ movies because I am a wimp. They give me nightmares. Keep me awake. I stayed up late and watched The Trilogy of Terror nearly half a century ago, and it still gives me nightmares. Then there was Friday 13th Part Something, which I saw at the movie theatre with friends at around thirteen, and for weeks afterwards I smashed the wall and screamed in my sleep, so my father put his foot down and said, “No more horror movies for you.” Of course, I still watch some horror because it’s a genre that exists on a spectrum, ranging from unease through to entrails and gore; some movies allow me that horror fix without setting off my rather pathetic threshold for nightmares. The same doesn’t apply to books; I can read extreme horror and it doesn’t seem to have quite the same effect. That doesn’t mean horror literature fails to elicit fear in me—quite the opposite—but my brain seems to compartmentalise those responses, allowing me to distance myself from the imagery as soon as I put the book aside. (I have some horror researcher colleagues, and now I’m thinking I must ask them if this is a known phenomenon…)
NTK: What is your favorite horror television show?
LM: See above. However, I can do the next best thing, and read responses by my learned colleagues to those shows, which gives me great insight into the interpretation, even though I might not have seen the work. For example, I loved reading The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Adaption edited by Kevin J. Wetmore, perhaps because the essays allowed me to enjoy the programme vicariously, with a measure of distance—book to film to book. Also, those essays were so accessible and scarily entertaining. Recommended.
NTK: What is your favorite horror novel?
LM: Aargh! Such a difficult question because I read so widely in the genre, and there is so much great horror to enjoy. I can see Dan shaking his head, too. How are we supposed to answer this question? We love dark works. You’re asking us to single out just one? How about one for each day of the week? One for different periods of your life? One to reflect a current mood? For summer? For Halloween? For a rainy Sunday afternoon? To encourage a love of dark literature in a new reader? [wails!] How about I tell you about some upcoming works that I have had the privilege to read prior to release, and that everyone should be looking out for over the next few months? For example, there’s Garrett Boatman’s Floaters, coming in September from Crystal Lake Publishing, a historical horror novella which pitches a horde of undead, risen from the Thames River, against the city’s gangs. Pulse-pounding stuff. There’s James Chambers’ science fiction, fantasy, and frankly bizarro short story collection, On the Hierophant Road, coming later this year from Raw Dog Screaming Press. If you like your fiction dark and weird, and superbly crafted definitely grab a copy of Chambers’ incredible collection. Poet Jamal Hodge has The Dark Between the Twilight coming, an exciting collection of speculative poetry exploring abuse and depression; dark themes, but Hodge makes space for hope and restoration. And finally, I’m currently enjoying David Rose’s gritty military horror, Lovecraft’s Iraq. That title, right? I’m about fifty pages in and it’s pretty damn good so far.
NTK: Awesome! Thank you for those recommendations. What inspires your writing?
LM: Everything. Oh, you need me to narrow it down a bit? In the last year or so, I’ve been focused on short fiction rather than longer works, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had a number of stories commissioned by some fabulous horror editors. In those cases, the editor-publisher typically suggests a theme to write to, and it’s always exciting to come up with something fresh that the other invited authors haven’t considered. I especially like writing at the intersections of culture and have been exploring aspects of my Asian-Kiwi heritage in my work—in poetry, prose, and also non-fiction.
NTK: Speaking as a person of color, how has your experience been in the horror community? What improvements could be made?
LM: In my view, the horror writing community is extremely inclusive, perhaps because horror is already a subversive genre, addressing the things that provoke fear—and, sadly, one of the things people fear most is the ‘other’. Anyone different or out of step. Horror writers get that; after all, we’re the people who write the books that everyone hides under the bed. We’re all weird here, so we’re going to recognise you as one of our own, embrace those differences, and celebrate them. We’re going to hold space for your stories, and not just during WiHM or Pride Month or Mental Health Awareness month. Of course, dialogue is just the first step, but the success of Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women has shown me that the community is not afraid to explore issues like Asian otherness and persecution, even at a time when anti-Asian sentiment is high.
NTK: What inspired Blood of the Sun?
LM: Well, it’s the third book in collaborative supernatural crime-noir series written by Dan and myself, so I guess we can say we were intrigued to see what might happen to our intrepid brother-sister sleuths, Penny and Matiu Yee. The only way to do that was to knuckle down and write it! The book ties together a lot of the story threads introduced in the previous two books, including story arcs for some much-loved characters, and culminates in an epic finale on Auckland’s Mount Maungawhau (also known as Mount Eden). We had great fun writing it once we got underway, but the book had a slow start because not long after we’d penned the first chapters, New Zealand suffered the Christchurch mosque shootings. We’d included a massacre early in the narrative, and it shook us to see something so horrific and so unexpected, at least in a New Zealand context, playing out in real life. It affected us so much that we had to put the book aside. We seriously considered starting over with a completely different narrative, but eventually we decided to push on, and I believe it was the right decision, since the book is arguably our best collaborative work to date.
NTK: What’s it like working as a collaborative team? What is your writing process like?
LM: Writing with Dan has been one of the most frustrating and fulfilling experiences of my life. He’s like my baby brother, vastly annoying yet I can’t help but love him to bits. I think the depth of our friendship is the basis of our success. (Also, because as the Lucy-van-Pelt big sister, I am very bossy and like to get my way!). The Path of Ra series is a dual protagonist narrative with Dan writing smouldering bad boy, Matiu Yee, who walks with one foot beyond the veil, while I write his uptight big sister Penny, who is a science consult to the police. We write chapter-about in a he-said, she-said approach, each of us drawing on our personal backgrounds to inform the characters and the plots, with the bickering yet affectionate tone readers see on the page perfectly summing up our collaborative relationship. (Actually, Dan writes that bad-ass character so well, I have to wonder what he got up to when he was younger…)
NTK: Do your characters have free will? Or do you decide their every move?
LM: It’s a negotiation. Sometimes, I’m in control, guiding them through the prescribed plot events, but occasionally they surprise me. Which is as you would expect, because fully authentic characters have all the foibles and whimsy of real people.
NTK: What is your best piece of advice for the prospective mentor?
LM: You’re not making a mini-me; instead, your job as a mentor is to give your mentee the tools they need to be the best version of a writer they can be, in terms of craft and also professionalism, and offered at the mentee’s own pace. (But mentors know all this. Mostly, I want to say thank you to all the hardworking selfless heroes who step up to give their time, expertise, and encouragement to support our emerging writers. You rock!)
NTK: Congratulations on your Bram Stoker Award wins!! How do you feel about the projects which won the awards? What made you choose to do these projects?
LM: Thank you! I’m still reeling from this kind acknowledgement from my horror colleagues. It hasn’t really sunk in. I’m so proud of both these projects. Grotesque: Monster Stories was the response to an invitation by Steve Dillon of Things in the Well, Australia, who encouraged me to put together a collection. His confidence in my work was the impetus, because I wasn’t convinced I was sufficiently established to have a ‘best of’ album. But I looked at my back catalogue, determined that monsters loomed large, selected a few stories to include, wrote some fresh ones, and we released my debut collection smack in the middle of the pandemic. I think that timing had a lot to do with its success. New Zealand’s response to the pandemic has been held up globally as an example of good practice, so perhaps there was an interest in escaping here through story. I’m certain that was the reason, in part, for the success of Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Attacks on Asians were on the rise, and I think readers were looking for stories that explored that otherness, either out of solidarity, or just as a means of informing themselves. And of course, Geneve Flynn and I were absolutely thrilled to be able to assemble such a fantastic lineup of contributors. Our authors simply wrote themselves out of their skins, overwhelming us with the beauty and horror of their work. The Bram Stoker Award has my name on it, but it is their work which resonated with readers. I’m extremely grateful.
NTK: As an editor, what are you looking for in a story? What kind of stories interests you most?
LM: Editors are all looking for the next big thing: something innovative, evocative, ground-breaking. Relevant. Something that lifts the hair on the back of our necks, while at the same time making us shiver at the beauty of it. (But editors are simple creatures too, and at 2 am when we’re reading the 876th submission for an anthology call, any well-crafted story which fits the submission guidelines and isn’t written in Comic Sans is going to make us happy.)
NTK: What does the future hold for you? What works do Horror Addicts have to look forward to?
LM: My most recent book, released just over a week ago, is Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips, which I have written with Angela Yuriko Smith, the publisher at Space and Time magazine and this year’s HWA Mentor of the Year. The book was intended to be a hand-out for a Horror University course we presented for the HWA (which is still available online), but being conscientious Asian girls, we got a bit carried away and our ‘little handout’ turned into a book of close to 50,000 words packed with tips and suggestions from our horror editor and publisher colleagues (including Horror Addicts editors). We hope the book will help writers get their work off the slush pile and into the hands of editors. We also hope it will save our hardworking mentors the trouble of repeating things like ‘use a serif font’ or ‘remove all the TABS!’ ad infinitum. And prompted by our work in Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, Angela Yuriko Smith and I are also working on Unquiet Spirits, a collection of essays exploring Asian monsters, with personal responses from horror writers of the Asian diaspora. Coming up in August, I’ll be taking up my Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship in Auckland, where I’ll be working on my poetry collection, Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, an exploration of the New Zealand Asian women’s diaspora through the lens of the shape-shifting fox spirit. I can’t wait!
Great interview. I’m from NZ as well, so this one was particularly relevant to me. Might need to check out more of Lee’s work. Thank you for sharing. 🙂