MA: My guest today, Narrelle M. Harris, is a multi-talented person. She’s a Melbourne-based writer with four novels, one play and several short stories under her belt to date. Her latest book is The Opposite of Life, a vampire novel set in Melbourne. She is about to launch a new iPhone app, Melbourne Literary, a guide to books, writing and literature in Melbourne, which was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008. Narrelle lives in the city center of Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, Tim Richards, and their apartment-bound cat Petra.
Welcome, Narrelle. Please tell us how your involvement with writing began.
NH: I think I’ve been writing pretty much ever since I knew how to make the letters. I even recall one of my brothers and I getting a tape recorder and telling a story about the life of a little germ, which we made up as we went along. I don’t remember much about that one, except that at one stage the germ was having a great time tumbling out of a carton of milk and swimming around in a bowl of cereal. He was a fairly harmless germ, as I recall. Anyway, I always loved assignments where I had to make up stories, and I wrote them to entertain myself in exercise books as well. Eventually I discovered science fiction TV shows and fandom, where stories you wrote could be published in fanzines and people would write in with feedback. That was fantastic, a great training ground on developing technique. Eventually I got too restless writing with other people’s characters, so introduced a lot of new ones of my own, and that morphed into writing my original fiction.
MA: It sounds then, like writing novels was not a difficult transition for you.
NH: Novels came about as a natural extension from the short stories I’d been working on – I was enjoying world building and I liked my characters and wanted to do more with them, so over time the plot ideas and themes I had grew more complex and needed more time to explore.
MA: Tell us what you’ve written so far.
NH: I’ve been a bit all over the shop, really. My first book was a crime thriller called Fly By Night. It had two novellas in it with the same characters, Frank and Milo, musicians and a gay couple. That was published by Homosapien Press in 2004. (The two novellas are now available separately on Kindle). Then I wrote the two fantasies, Witch Honour and Witch Faith. Like Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books, they are fantasy with a touch of an SF back-story. They were published in the US by Five Star. Then I was inspired to write a book about how being a vampire isn’t as sexy as its reputation would suggest, and wrote The Opposite of Life, about a girl who has suffered a lot and a short, chubby, geeky vampire called Gary. That was with Pulp Fiction Press, and there’s a sequel in the works.
My latest project, though, is a non-fiction iPhone app, Melbourne Literary, which is a guide to literary Melbourne. I’ve done other non-fiction – I had an essay on what’s called The CSI Effect in a true crime collection called Outside the Law #3, about whether watching too much forensic TV affects juries. I’ve also been working on some short stories lately, mainly in the comic-horror genre. One, about a girl whose brother gets turned into a zombie and she’s trying to fix him before Mum finds out, will be published later this year in Best New Zombie Tales Volume 2.
Comic horror seems to have become a bit of a thing since The Opposite of Life, which has a lot of humor in it, as well as an exploration of what makes life worth living even though it can hurt beyond bearing sometimes.
MA: With so many projects, how do you go about developing your characters?
NH: Characters in my earlier books were often inspired by people I knew, or at least amalgamations of people I knew. The Opposite of Life was different, in that Gary the Vampire came up as a response to being tired of seeing all the thin, glamorous vampires in all the films. I just wanted to write about an ordinary guy who was really uncool and didn’t get any cooler just because he was undead. Lissa, the female protagonist, arose out of the kind of story I was telling. I wanted her to be young, a bit funky but also a someone outside groups because her experiences of loss and grief had left her not quite fitting in anywhere completely. She’s a librarian mainly because I thought someone who had lived her life would find great comfort in the escapism of literature, and that she would love the idea taht she could maintain order in some part of her life, at least. She’s one of the few librarians who really loves cataloguing and shelving. She loves imposing order in a tiny corner of her chaotic world.
MA: Are your characters as superhuman as they sound?
NH: I try to make all my characters very textured and human, so they have different kinds of flaws. Frank, for example, gets impatient and can be bad tempered while Milo has a tendency to just sail through life and be a bit thoughtless. He’s not intentionally mean, but he just doesn’t think sometimes.
Gary’s flaws – well, he’s a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. He’s a nice enough guy, really, but he just doesn’t always know what’s appropriate in conversation. He didn’t have those social skills when he was alive, so he can’t blame being a vampire for that. But as the story develops he learns to be more thoughtful. He’s a very straightforward guy too – I don’t think he knows how to lie. It’s one of the things that Lissa likes about him – she might not always like what he has to say, but she knows he’s honest with her. Lissa is courageous and loyal, but also stubborn and a bit impetuous. It gets her into terrible trouble. She has to confront one of her worst flaws by the end of the book – she’s a bit self obsessed and everything she goes through forces her to come up out of the grief and anger she’s been lost in. Both of them, really, have to learn how to engage more with life.
MA: Any recurring nemeses?
NH: The Opposite of Life is written in the style of a crime novel, so the ‘bad guy’ is the person or persons who have been killing people around Melbourne. It’s obviously the work of a vampire, and the vampire community isn’t pleased by that – they try to live under the radar these days. But while there’s an actual bad guy doing bad things, I guess the real bad guy is thematic, the idea that you can avoid life’s pain by withdrawing from it, refusing to engage, and the kind of person that decision makes you become.
MA: I assume you’ve not had any real experiences with vampires (wink), but did your life inspire your writing in any way?
NH: My books are full of real life things, from characters being inspired by friends, to things I’ve read in the news becoming part of the plot. I put a lot of landscapes in. The Opposite of Life is full of places I love (and sometimes loathe) in Melbourne. The Witch books contain landscapes that I travelled through or lived in when I spent three years abroad. I lived in Egypt for two years, and in Poland for one (my husband and I were teaching English as a foreign language) and so much of what I saw and did there has been incorporated into the stories.
MA: Given your prolific writing career so far, I take it you aren’t finished yet, right?
NH: I’m working on some short stories at the moment, as I’ve been invited to submit some to a potential anthology project. I want to write three books about Gary and Lissa as well, so after the current sequel I have to start work on the third. I have ideas for a third Witch novel and some more Frank and Milo stories too. I also have an idea for a rather more complex crime type novel. I’m also planning to create a few more iPhone apps once Melbourne Literary is out there. I have note books full of ideas too, so I don’t think I’ll run out of things to do for a while.
MA: Very interesting and varied. Anything else you’d like to add?
NH: One of the things I’ve been doing, to entertain myself as much as anything, is using Gary and Lissa outside of their books. They are huge fun to write, and their (most definitely not sexual) friendship comes out so well in their conversations. Gary actually collects vampire films and books, and Lissa as a librarian has a lot of comments to make on fiction generally. This meant that when I see vampire stuff now (or sometimes just interesting things, like art exhibitions) I get a triple viewpoint. There’s what I think of it, but also what I think Gary and Lissa would think of it. I started writing up their observations and now I have a semi regular part of my blog called the GaryView, where the two of them discuss pop culture from their rather unique point of view. Gary mainly complains about how most vampire fiction is nothing like the reality of being a vampire. Surprisingly, a certain amount of their back story gets revealed this way, and sometimes these funny little reviews get unexpectedly poignant. They’re a popular part of my blog, but really, I do it because it’s fun and because it’s a really useful writing exercise.
Gary and Lissa also have Twitter accounts, for the same reason that it’s an interesting writing exercise. They occasionally have tweet-chats with other people. That’s fun because I don’t know what people are going to ask, so again it’s a good exercise to consider how Gary and Lissa might respond to issues that I might not have previously considered. It was through doing the tweets that I realized that Lissa never goes to the cemetery to visit the graves of her loved ones. That’s the place where she had to say goodbye to them, and it gives her no comfort. Instead, I realized that she would go and do the things that she used to do with them while they were alive. She might go to a particular cafe to spend a moment thinking about her Nanna, or to a library where her eldest sister used to find books for them to read.