Armies are a staple of fantasy, conjuring images of both rampant, chaotic destruction, and close-knit, orderly families. Tell me a bit about this mercenary company’s name, “Refuge,” and how this story came to you.
Refuge comes from Australia’s treatment of refugees. For a long time, Australia has been awful to people seeking asylum, especially if they arrive here by boat. For the last twenty or so years, the country has opened and closed island detention centres whose main purpose is to torture its inhabitants. The goal of that torture is to assure people domestically that the government is “strong,” to force the refugees back to the country of their origin, and to frighten other refugees from making the journey to the country.
What the Australian Government does is illegal, of course. Everyone has the right to seek asylum. The right has been recognised for over a thousand years in one form and another, and around seventy years in a modern form. A lot of people, though, aren’t aware of that, or don’t care for the fact. It’s not really surprising. Governments of all kinds all over the world spend their time making demons out of the poor and needy, especially if they’re different to themselves. It’s all terribly frustrating. And in that frustration, I made Refuge, who are a military organisation whose code is that everyone has the right to asylum (or, as it is said in the story, refuge).
The story itself juggled around in my head for a while. I read a story about a Japanese general, I think, who held off bandits who came to raid a town by sitting outside it and pretending that he had an army. I have no idea where I read the story—I’ve tried a number of times while I was writing to find it, so if anyone comes across it, do let me know. But anyhow, that was the start of it. The rest didn’t come to me until I was reading about author hoaxes, and began to think about how fragile truth is, and how it is that we can believe something that’s not real and basically have that form a reality.
That was Zhuge Liang’s empty fort strategy.
Laena Kae’s perspective as a biographer seems to debunk the entire concept of a chosen-one narrative, while telling the same. Which stories have sparked a similar response in you, either to correct misconceptions or to add to a conversation?
I don’t know, really. I mean, Laena Kae is basically an unreliable narrator’s foil, a knowing narrator whose goal is to show you how nothing is simple, and how people are complex. I find that quite interesting. I see a lot of people hold various people up as if they’re ideal, or perfect, only to be betrayed by them when they discover that they’re, y’know, not. And the thing about Heast is that he isn’t perfect. He’ll never be perfect. He makes mistakes. He’s violent. He takes risks. He knows that one day he will die, and he expects you to know that you will, as well. Yet, at the same time, he is our hero. He believes wholly in the ideals that everyone is equal, that everyone deserves refuge, that another person cannot own another. He would die for you, no matter if you could pay him or not. He only has to believe you.
Like I said before, I was reading about author hoaxes while I was writing the story. I’m fascinated by hoaxes, by what they reveal about us, and by the response people have to them after the hoax has been revealed. Take Forrest Carter, for example. In real life, he was Asa Earl Carter, a member of the KKK and writer of George Wallace’s Segregation Forever speech, just to name a few things. He started a second life as Forrest Carter, Cherokee author of books like The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales and The Education of Little Tree. The latter he said was an autobiography and filled it with Cherokee ideals and words, but it was all a lie. Just as it was a lie that he gave money to Native American organisations. He was just a racist and a drunk who died in a fight with his son. But people still believe in The Education of Little Tree. They write about how it makes them feel good. How it teaches them things. It’s insane, really. Every one of Carter’s books that is sold is a book that a real Native American author didn’t sell, another person believing in an aspect of Cherokee culture that isn’t true, that a Cherokee person will have to debunk later.
And yet . . .
What’s the strangest fact you’ve come across while doing research? Did that detail ever make it into a story?
Do you know that Toni Morrison wrote an introduction to Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King? She called it amazing and other wonderful things. Her introduction is still on the NYRB Classics edition. Of course, scholars of Laye now believe Laye didn’t write the book, but that Francis Soulié, a Belgian author convicted of being a Nazi collaborator did.
It’s not the strangest fact, I guess, but it keeps a thread going here.
Are you still in contact with the psychedelic koala (bit.ly/3cNDeVK)? Was there a lasting impact from that encounter, or just a bruise?
Yeah, man, we chat all the time. It’s how I’m getting through this pandemic and self-isolation. You can never underestimate the need for a good psychedelic koala.
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to next from you?
I’m working on a new novel at the moment and I’ve a plan for some new short fiction, but—you know, I don’t know. I write this at the start of April, when the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to take off everywhere. I’m not sure what publishing is going to look like. I’m not sure who is going to be buying things, or if they’re going to be paying well, or badly. I’m not sure if there’s going to be a place for me, or authors like me, the ones no one seems to be able to easily decide is one thing or another. Or Australian authors, for that matter. For so long we’ve had to go overseas just to get by, and if those markets all crash out . . .
Hopefully when people read this, everything will be much clearer and I’ll look like a bit of a wanker who was worried over nothing.
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