The Horror in Life:  An interview with Paul Haines


Gillian Polack

So much interesting Australian fiction is published by small presses and doesn’t reach beyond our shores. I can’t review some of the most interesting small press books because our industry is small and almost incestuous. We all know each other. Our publishers know each other. Our publishers become our friends, our friends become our publishers and we all meet up at conventions and literary events and drink and mourn the state of the industry. Which is great for Australian science fiction and fantasy and horror writers and publishers—we live in a very convivial little world—but it means that I can’t review a lot of books I’d like to introduce.

If I can’t review, however, I can interview. This is the first of a series of interviews with some of the most interesting and challenging writers in Australian speculative fiction right now.

Paul doesn’t know this, but I used the lure of an interview with him to get this column. I suggested that his work is full of grit and anger and bad language and that his blog explores the paths he has taken since his cancer was diagnosed and that he would make an interesting interviewee. He’s come a long way since I wrote that, both with his writing and in battling his cancer.  It’s all in the interview.

Gillian Polack: When you were twelve and wanted to be a pop star you had all the interview questions sorted (Never admit these things—they will come back and bite you). What was the favourite drink then and what's your drink of choice now? How have your dreams developed since your childhood? Does this enter your writing at all?

Paul Haines: It would have been chocolate milk. Now? I’d like to say red wine, preferably a Tempranillo, or failing that chocolate milk, except having cancer has put both of those to bed. The alcohol is no good for my liver (where I have two tumours), and the sugar and dairy in the chocolate milk is no good for cancer (actually the cancer loves them both, and hence no good for me). So that leaves me with, um, green tea, dandelion coffee and water. I miss a good Aussie lager, a Kiwi draught or anything German or Belgian on a hot day when I’m around imbibing with friends. The Haines character inhabiting my Slice of Life short stories is an oenophile. Or, at least, he thinks he is. He’s a very unreliable narrator and shouldn’t be trusted.

GP: I’m a sad soul because I love it that you wrote dark stories heavily overlaid with intent to shock before you knew you were ill and now I’m hearing critical commentary about your work suggesting that the intent to shock might be partly due to you having faced such inner darkness. I want to ask what difference cancer has made to your writing (if you feel like answering it, I'm curious, but I suspect you get asked it a lot). What I'm actually asking is, why is shock value so important to your fiction? Is it something that is simply a part of how you write, or is it by evil design? Is there any story in particular where you’ve worked through and structured and to plan a particular reader reaction?

PH: The intent to shock and inner darkness? I know that people do say I like to shock in my work, but I’m not trying to shock readers. I’m usually trying to make them laugh, or go ‘eww’, or think that guy is weird, real weird, but I never consciously think that I’m trying to shock. I used to do that a lot in my early twenties in conversation, and if people laughed at whatever ‘shock’ thing I was babbling out, then we’d generally get on fine.  It scared a lot of people off me in my uni days, as I wasn’t scared to say what I thought or what I knew would be totally inappropriate for a situation, and I was generally wanting to see how people would react.  Earned me more ‘arrogant’ tags than I wished though. I don’t do that anymore, though I suppose it’s still alive in my fiction then. What shocks some people simply makes others laugh.  I’m not easily shocked or offended.

The only time I really wanted to hit the reader hard was in the opening page of the novelette “The Last Days of Kali Yuga”—I wanted the reader to hate the protagonist of the story immediately.  And most people do.  And many people don’t get past that first page.

As for the difference that cancer has made to my writing? Most of the work published in the last two years was originally half-finished. I had written several stories to their halfway points and was struggling to get into them. Having a newborn baby didn’t help, and then getting cancer on top of that, well, it surely put things on hold for a while. I lost all creativity going through chemotherapy. It felt like the top of my mind had been sliced off. I could analyse, I could express my thoughts and fears and unravel my mind (as written in my blog) but I could not create fiction. I felt the ideas bubbling under the surface, almost ready to break and gasp for air, but then I’d be into another chemo cycle and it would be held under and drowned again. Major surgery wasn’t much fun either, and that stopped me just as hard, though it allowed the mind to bubble free again. When I felt well enough, and there had been enough distance between my brain and chemotherapy drugs, I went back and tackled two of the major pieces I hadn’t been able to finish. One of these was “Wives”, my 38,000-word novella that’s been collecting awards, nominations, shortlistings, reviews and lots of discussion. I’d like to think there is a seamless voice in that story, and I doubt even I can tell where I resumed writing that piece. The other one is a novelette entitled “The Past Is A Bridge Best Left Burnt” about a man haunting himself though his mid-life crisis. It’s my most autobiographic story to date and there are several seeds in that story that I recognised on re-reading that were signs for my impending bowel cancer diagnosis. These stories have nothing to do with cancer however, and are not influenced by that either. I finished them because, luckily, I had publishers imposing deadlines on me for them.

I have three new stories due sometime this year that are directly related to cancer. One involves chemotherapy and meditation (two forms of treatment I have undertaken), another is about the act of trying anything to stay alive even if it kills you (this one made my parents and siblings cry, I have forbidden my wife to read it until I get through my own cancer ordeal) and the other is about diet (something else I have undertaken to keep me alive, and the single biggest cause of self-abuse in the Western world today).

GP: How closely do you own your work, emotionally? When it's published is it something a reader shares, or is it yours, regardless of how others react?

PH: It depends on the story. If I’m writing black comedy, particularly crude black comedy, I don’t really care what people think. If they don’t find it funny, so what. There’s not much emotional investment for me there, or if there is, it’s a bullet-proof situation. Comedy is comedy. People hate it. People love it. People are indifferent. And you can never tell.

With something like “Wives” though, I was very scared to put that out. I love that piece of work, it took me a long time to write it, and I hated writing parts of it. And when I’d finished I thought it was brilliant, and twenty-four hours later thought what the hell is this I’ve written? I can’t show this to people. What will they think of me?

Often, though, there is a very real part of me in every story I write, so I can’t escape the emotional investment in that. It’s always mine, but at the same time it’s everybody else’s as well. Like love, eh?

GP: Given a perfect world with unlimited writing time and exceptional physical and financial resources, what work would you produce? In this same mythical existence, are there experiences you would like to have, simply for the sake of your writing?

PH: I would like to produce wonderful, rich, dark fantastical novels, one every year or so, with the occasional short story collection thrown in for good measure. (The short story is my favourite form of the written word). This would involve me travelling to lots and lots and lots and lots of parts of the world, mostly quite foreign to my own. Travelling gave me the courage to take up writing and was fantastic for soaking my mind in different ways of seeing or thinking about things.

GP: Can you tell me about writers who have influenced you?  Not just names—something about what their work has meant to you.

PH: Stephen King was probably my first favourite author. I loved how he took the horror tropes (vampires, ghosts etc) and planted them firmly in a modern, realistic setting. I loved his use of voice and how the characters acted like real people. Well, to me anyway, I was in my early teens in the 80s when he was The King.  I don’t like his later work so much.

I love Peter Straub, the writer’s writer of horror fiction.  Detailed, articulate, incredibly intelligent. I wish I could write like him.

Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks for their literary fiction. For hard, sick, no-punches-pulled writing that did shock me and have me head reeling in admiration, thinking things like, “someone actually published this!” I read Iain Banks “The Wasp Factory” and “The Crow Road” while travelling through Indian and Middle Eastern deserts on hashish suffering diarrhoea and thought, this guy thinks like me! And then Irvine Welsh took me by the balls while travelling around Eastern Europe (though not when I’d been in Scotland a few months previous).

And I love Jeffrey Ford for putting the fantastical back into fantasy fiction. His short stories verge wonderfully between literary and speculative fiction, and that’s exactly where I want to be writing.

GP: Where do you get your ideas? No, I'm not really asking you that. I was just throwing that in to get a reaction. Actually, I’m more interested in where you get your writing style from. Does music influence the way you write, or reading, or chance conversations with strangers? Are you aware of rhythms and patterns when you write, or do you edit to uncover them after you finish a draft? Or are they a total mystery?

PH: My writing style. Hmmm. Do I have one? I guess I do. I started off imitating, as we all do. As a teen I imitated Douglas Adams and Stephen King, but stopped creative writing when I left high school (I did a Commerce degree at university, with an Honours in Information Science) and didn’t try writing again until I was twenty-eight.

I have tried lots of writing styles. The Epic Fantasy Voice. The Literary Ghost/Sci-Fi Voice. Each genre in writing often requires a different voice too, so I was trying to learn and master each. I was once accused of not knowing what sort of writer I wanted to be, because I wrote across genres so much—I thought you could be any writer you wanted to be! I still do.

I noticed that my letter writing to friends was always very fluent and often funny (well, I thought so) and I tried to get that fluency into my fiction. And struggled to do so. First person POV is great for me as it really lets that conversational style flow for me, and I’ve been quite successful in recent years in finally managing to merge the real Paul Haines voice with the fictional Paul Haines voice. It’s a crazy style, with very twisted, often paranoid narrators, but it works a treat for me. And for those who know me, they start to wonder just how much of the story happens to be real.

GP: What's the most puzzling comment a reviewer has ever given you?

The review for my first collection Doorways for the Dispossessed up on Strange Horizons. Written by a person who didn’t read much speculative fiction, so it really didn’t help my cause so much. The review praised me and damned me with alternating sentences. I know we shouldn’t put much investment into reviews, but I can’t help it, and from where else do I think I can learn what I’m doing, if not from how others perceive it? (This was also the review that said I didn’t know what sort of writer I wanted to be because I was writing sci-fi, horror, fantasy, slip-stream, travel, thriller all in the same collection and that you were not supposed to do that—or words to that impression).

GP: I’m curious to know Australian writers who are not nearly as visible as they ought to be outside Australia. What writers would you like to see better known? Why are each of them good? What qualities should we be looking for when we read their work?

PH: Adam Browne, Brendan Duffy and Geoff Maloney.

All three are brilliant short story writers. Browne is so clever with words it makes me sick with envy; Duffy is the funniest SF writer with too many amazing crackpot ideas on every page—it makes me sick with envy, and Maloney writes the intelligent side of travel fiction that I wish I could do (I’m writing the visceral stuff instead).

All three of them have novels in states of progress. Browne’s is finished and delivers on all the promises of the wordplay of his short fiction, but balances it beautifully between texture and pacing. Duffy is nearing the end of his first novel, a wonderful exploration of science, magic and religion in the sixteenth century, and Maloney is heading up the Hindu Kush with his British Raj fantasies that revel in Kipling amongst other things. The man has a PhD in that particular area.

All three of them are so much better with words it makes me sick with envy.

And the Australian writer who should be more visible outside Australia is of course Paul Haines, but don’t tell him that as he makes me sick with envy.

GP: The biographies attached to your stories remind us that you're actually from New Zealand. I want to ask all the standard questions and make all the standard jokes, but sheep jokes and the number six are really only of interest to Australians, so I shan’t. Has this tendency of Australians to mock New Zealanders had an impact on your life and your writing, or do you live comfortably in both worlds? While I’m thinking of NZ culture, do you have a copy of the Edmonds Cookbook?* If not, why not?

PH: My reviled Interferer stories where I dissemble fantasy tropes and clichés comes directly from the whole sheep shagging thing. I was totally unaware these jokes existed about us Kiwis until I turned up on these shores at the tender age of 25. I had a lot to learn. And a lot of sheep to shag if I wanted to uphold that reputation. I still hear the occasional sheep joke I didn’t know, but mostly I remain serious about the topic of sheep shagging. I mean, we all did that as kids, right? Right? It’s just lanolin off a sheep’s back to me.

And, yes, we do have an Edmonds Cookbook. My wife (an Aussie) reckons it’s fair dinkum too.

GP: What are your favourite stories (of the ones you've written, this time)? Why? Where can we find them?

PH: In sequential order:

Doorways for the Dispossessed—my first travel/horror/fantasy story, and the first story I wrote that I thought “yeah, this is really good”. It was partially based on my experiences in India, and I was toying with being a travel writer, but really wanting to use that experience in fiction instead.

“Shot In Loralai”—completely autobiographical, travelling through Pakistan, all of it true, though names have been changed to protect those who need protecting.  Nothing is weirder than real life.  I wrote this shortly after “Doorways . . .” and realised I was onto something. My first international sale.

“The Last Days of Kali Yuga”—my first award-winning story, again based on my experiences, this time in Nepal. It hurt to write, but was also very easy to write, finishing it in two sittings, but needing a three-month break between those sittings. Nothing about the story changed in that whole time, it was all finished in my head, had always been finished in my head, but it’s such a nasty story that I need to take the time out to breathe between the violence. It won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror and the Ditmar Award for Best Novella that year. And that got me my first short story collection. When I finished it I thought it would win awards too. Arrogant bastard that I was.

“The Devil in Mr Pussy”—another award-winner, and the first story I managed to really get the Paul Haines voice that I like into the prose. It’s about creativity and the lack of it, and I was going through a case of writers’ block (really, just a lack of ideas, a dead keyboard, a fear of thinking, you know, usual stuff) and even worse, my wife and I were going through the anguish of IVF, so I delved deep into my real life, much to the embarrassment of my wife, and out swathes of it onto the page for anyone and everyone to see. Creativity, sexuality, masculinity, emasculation, ghosts, anti-depressants, talking cats, and being anally raped by God. How could it not win an award?

“Her Collection of Intimacy”—this made the shortlists for so many Australian awards, though it never came up trumps. Speculative fiction without any speculation. A literary horror story. Peter Straub! Well, not quite, but it’s where I like my horror—completely cemented in reality. Very sexual, very masculine, though the woman is always on top.

“A Tale of the Interferers: Necromancing the Bones”—the first Interferers tale to be published. A swaggering, revoltingly ugly romp through the dissection of fantasy, featuring a disgraced knight and repulsive wizard who are making their way through a Dungeons and Dragons Bestiary with the intent of having sex with everything they meet. I was told by several colleagues to cease with this rot, to publish it under a pseudonym etc and it was shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novella. A Kiwi award. We understand.

“Slice of Life – A Spot of Liver”—the third of a short story suite featuring everyone’s favourite corporate cannibal and serial killer: Paul Haines. In this one, his mother pays him a visit. Horrible, black, gleeful and shocking, this was a joy to write. Surprisingly, I had just become a vegan. Unsurprisingly, I was in between drug treatments for cancer. My mother, my real mother, detests this story.

“Wives” – my most famous piece to date and my favourite. Shortlisted all over the place, and picking up one of the major Aussie awards so far. Four years to write in three distinct sittings, with a complete loss of confidence in the work after each sitting.  Misogyny, racism, xenophobia, you name it, this is my Great Australian Novel, except I’m not an Australian and it’s a novella not a novel, though at 38,000 words it’s only just shy of being a short novel. Based on China, set in a near-future Australia. Very very brutal, tender hearts and minds be warned. Mad Max meets Once Were Warriors. My heritage complete. When I finished it I knew it would win awards. Arrogant bastard that I am.

As for finding my fiction, I have two award-winning collections out, and one forthcoming this year: Slice of Life (The Mayne Press, 2009), Doorways for the Dispossessed (Prime Books, 2009), and The Last Days of Kali Yuga (Brimstone Press, 2010).

Editor's Note: More info is available at Paul Haines’s website; there are links to a couple of stories that are available to read free online, including “Doorway for the Dispossessed”.

An excerpt from the Paul Haines novella, Wives:

The Aussie was packed. Sweat beaded on the inside of the windows, cigarette smoke choked the air, bodies jostled and pressed against each in the battle for the bar, and the drum and guitar band shook the walls with a cover of the old Noll and Barnes classic “Dancing In The Streets”. There were even girls on the dance floor.

Jimbo stood at the front of the queue of blokes outside. Keats and Mason, this evening’s bouncers, were armed with baseball bats and wore light-weight body armour.

“Hey, Keats,” said Jimbo. “How many girls here, ya reckon?”

Keats screwed up his face and tapped the end of the bat into the broken pavement. “I dunno. Thirty?”

Jimbo nodded. “Pretty good odds tonight, eh? About one in ten.”

“I reckon.” Keats scratched at the raw scar splitting the stubble on his head. “Ya cuz’s in tonight, mate.”

“I know. S’posed to be meeting up with her. Ya gunna let me in?”

“We’re full, mate. Gotta wait for some cunt to get thrown out. Shouldn’t take long but. Some outta-towners in tonight. Lotsa cash for the ladies. They’ll piss off the local boys for sure.”

“How long’s the wait?”

“Maybe an hour. Maybe more.” Keats looked up from the cracked pavement and gave Jimbo a slight nod.

“How much?” Jimbo asked.

Keats grinned, his mouth full of gapped stubby teeth. “A tenner or a blowie.” He struck the baseball bat against the cement. “Up to you.”

A fucken tenner? When did the price go up so much? Jimbo fingered the thin roll of notes in his pocket. “Sure. When do you want it?”

“Still recovering from the last one. Heh, good ole Gaz, love his work. Meet you in the bogs about nine. You can do me then.”

“No worries, mate.” Jimbo strode into the crowd festering inside the pub. At least Keats never took long to come.

* Technically speaking, it's the Edmonds Cookery Book. It’s the NZ version of The Settlement Cookbook, in a way, and has been in print for over a century. Recently, a New Zealander friend gave me one for my very own.


Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.



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