Interview with Dirk Flinthart

Dirk Flinthart is the Tasmania-based author of the brilliant novel Path of Night, which this year was nominated for the Best Horror Novel Aurealis Award. A prolific short story writer and editor of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Dirk’s a talented writer, a smart bloke and a wonderful human being. He’s funny, too.

So I interviewed him. Or at least, I tried to–but Dirk was always two or three questions ahead of me in his answers. Here’s what he said:

JF: So tell me, how did you get started in this whole writing caper? What made you want to do it and what made you stick with it?

DF: I keep going back to Moliere on this one, I’m afraid. You know the old quote:

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”

I learned to read somewhere between two and three years old. I started writing and telling stories not long after. I got into old-school role-playing games when they first came out, desperately uncool in the very early eighties in Australia, and found that I loved the improvised storytelling that grew out of a good game. I won local competitions as a kid — “Book Week” stuff, things like that. By the time I got to university and discovered that science was really interesting to learn about, but really boring to do, writing was the only alternative that made any sense. I literally cannot imagine myself trying to live without some kind of storytelling, some kind of
creative writing.

So… Moliere, yep. I figured since I was stuck with the writing bug, I might as well try to make it my way of life. Trouble is I’m not a very successful prostitute, yet. Worse still, my elder son (goes by Jake Flinthart) has inherited all the worst storyteller traits, so he’ll probably wind up being an underpaid eccentric as well.

JF: Was there a particular moment when did you decided it was time to start submitting, time to get published?

DF: I tried a few times early in college. Real juvenilia. I had a kind knockback from Ursula le Guin, a refusal from F&SF (yeah, it’s not like I was trying the Literature mags…) But during university I wound up doing a lot of writing for the university newspaper (Semper) and a bit of work alongside John Birmingham, and it kinda rolled on from there. Once you’ve had work accepted, published and paid for — I don’t know how it is for others, but to me that was the signal.

This was back in the late eighties, if it helps at all. Not long ago, Birmo reprinted some exceptionally scurrilous wine reviews I did with a bunch of mates. I convinced the uni newspaper to pay for the goon, AND pay per page for the reviews, so we had these huge, drunken parties in which we’d sample the most godawful wines Australia could muster up, and then try to write coherent reviews of the things. The one that really sticks in my mind was the day we wound up tasting a sterile urine sample just because too many people had referred to the cheap-shit bubblies we were reviewing as “tasting like piss”. I’m here to tell you that cheap bubbly wine does NOT taste like piss, by the way. A good, clean glass of slightly chilled urine from a healthy person is far preferable to a glass of really shoddy eighties-vintage bubbly.

That’s a bit off the track there, isn’t it? Never mind.

JF: What was your first story sale? Did you have a particular breakthrough in your working habits or methods that led to publication?

DF: You know… I can’t actually remember. What counts as a first sale, anyway? I recall writing what was meant to be a script for the “Flash Domingo” space ranger character in the old Southern Squadron comics. Flash Domingo was a platypus/alien space range. Except I knew nothing about scripting for comics, so I wrote a short story instead; a story in which Flash got into a bar fight with a big guy called “Knuckles” (IIRC) and wound up taking off with Knuckle’s girlfriend. The Southern Squadron folks must have liked it, because they ran the story as a story instead of adding art. I was kind of disappointed, but not so much as I didn’t cash the cheque, you know?

After all the stuff with the university newspaper, there was the crime-fiction novella with Duffy & Snellgrove: “Brotherly Love”. That would have been about 1994, I suppose. I still now and again run across people who recall that one.

Breakthrough, though… that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? There wasn’t one. Not really. I just wrote more, and revised more, and submitted more. I should still be submitting more, to be honest. The problem is that I’m kind of overcommitted. But I’m working on that, too. Really, that’s what “Path of Night” is all about for me: a commitment to write more, and place more work into the market.

The truth is that writing more, revising more, and submitting more really is the magic formula. That, and knowing your genres. You need to really live inside the genres that you choose to write, and you have to respect those genres — including fandom as part of that. So if you want to write, say, steampunk — read it all, and then write a lot of it.

JF: Do you think of yourself as most at home in any particular genre or subgenre?

Well… I know I have trouble writing horror that horrifies me. Paul Haines did that very well. Haines had a real grip on the horror of the mundane world. We talked about it a few times. Even he had a few no-go areas, it transpires, and they were much the same as mine. But he had that knack for taking everyday situations or characters and making them horribly wrong. So when I do write horror, I tend to think of it more as dark fantasy.

Birmingham accuses me of being a fantasy writer. Sometimes he’s probably correct, too. But I read science fiction through the years of growing up and into this gig, and it’s still my first love. Nevertheless, the old genres are spinning, warping, mixing and changing. I don’t think the genre boundaries are clear enough for strong labels any more. (Gary Wolfe has a rather interesting book out there called “Evaporating Genres”. It’s worth reading.) I do love the imaginative element, though. Can I just say that I like to write “speculative fiction”?

I mean — I’ve just written (for my Masters degree) nearly fourteen thousand words of complicated, Byronesque poetry to tell a story which is a mix of steampunk and fantasy. The poem started as an opera libretto for Outcast Opera in Brisbane. They’re still working on getting it to stage, but I’ve just got to include this link:  because these people are seriously damned talented, and I am amazed at where they’ve taken my words. And when the novel comes out, it will mix horror with steampunk and fantasy and alternate history and…

… and I write speculative fiction.

JF: Your work can be pretty dark, but it has a humorous tone to it. Do you think of yourself as a humorous writer? Are you particularly interested in writing comedy?

DF: I’ve done a fair bit of comedy in an amateur sense — work with university revues, a couple of years on community radio, things like that. And the book with Birmo — “How To Be A Man” was written with a very light tone. So was the backpacker’s guide I did, I guess. But I’m afraid I don’t have the raw talent to be really funny. I’ve met seriously funny people, and they can go places and do things as a matter of instinct and response that I can only do with considerable planning and effort. And then there’s the problem that my sense of humour is… somewhat idiosyncratic, shall we say?

On the other hand, I really can’t take most people, societies and organisations as seriously as they want to be taken. I mean, really — who the hell can face an Abbott government without laughing? What else can you do in the face of relentless, corrupt, imbecilic bullshit? If I didn’t laugh at it, I would have to take up a gun… and since I have a family and kids, I’m not planning direct violent overthrow of the government just yet.

So of course, some of this comes out in what I do. What’s humour, anyway? It’s a reframing. Humour happens when you put a new perspective on something, highlighting its ridiculous qualities. For example, I dropped a post on Facebook the other day about the situation in Uganda where the government is prosecuting men for being gay, and planning to imprison them. Now that’s not funny. Not at all. And yet… the sheer stupidity and futility of this action, the petty, childish fear that it illustrates — those are potentially funny. And of course, the first thing that occurred to me that imprisoning men for the crime of active homosexuality is — well, kind of
counterproductive, really. You’re telling a bunch of men that it’s wrong to have sex with each other, and then locking them all up together in a big building without any women and making them have showers together.

You see what I mean? The sheer brainlessness of it all is funny. It has to be, doesn’t it? Because really, if we can’t laugh at these bastards then sooner or later things are going to get very dark indeed.

So… I’m not sure I could ever set out to ‘write comedy’ as such, though it would be fun to try under certain circumstances. (I’d love to work with an animator, and put together an ongoing satirical work lampooning the Australian government. That would be a lot of fun.
Say… set Australia as a Federation space-ship with Tony Abbott as the captain… yeah, I could have a truckload of fun with that.) But it’s likely there will always be a current of humour in much of the work I do. It’s part of our national culture, and for me, it’s simple self-defense.

JF: Are there any particular themes or structures that you find yourself returning to in your work? Subconsciously or deliberately?

DF: Structures — that’s pretty instinctive. I don’t meticulously plan my work. For short stories, it usually starts with an emotionally loaded concept. For example, one story I was really pleased with was ‘One Night Stand’, which came out in the agog! series Cat Sparks put together. On the surface, it’s darkly funny: Elvis is now a vampire, making a very scratchy “living” as an Elvis impersonator, and as people get less and less interested as time goes by, the work gets harder to find. (The proprietor of the club in which the story takes plays says something like – “Yeah, you’re pretty good, but you’re not him. I saw him once. He had charisma.”) But just below that surface it’s a story about fear of death, because Elvis (in the story) chose to become undead, for fear of losing everything — his looks, his youth, his fame. And of course, most of it is gone anyway, but he’s still putting it out there, getting up in front of increasingly disinterested crowds because as he says “The King will never die.”

The usual stuff, really. We’re all concerned about living and dying, love and fear and the uncertainty of the future. I think most of the really good stories I know reflect that kind of thing. Often what happens in the writing process is that I’ll kick off with that single image or idea, and write the story — but the story doesn’t feel right, and I have to stop and think for a while. And then, all of a sudden, I realise: oh, yes! I get it now: this story doesn’t work because while I thought it was going to say this thing, it’s actually about this other thing entirely. And then there’s some rewriting, and then it usually works well enough.

That very same process happened with my novel, Path of Night. It’s more-or-less a thriller in structure, with plenty of crime and horror tropes to move it along. Anyway, I got up to the crisis point – the bit where the main character has to rise to the occasion, and it felt flat. I didn’t really know why. And then it dawned on me: even though he was knocking off the Big Scary Bad Guy, it was still just another fight. I needed my guy Devlin to put something out there, to sacrifice something. And of course, through the whole book Devlin has been desperately trying to hang onto his humanity (having been infected by something that resembles vampirism) so the obvious, logical, proper thing to do was to force Devlin to draw on that darkness that he’d been trying to deny. I literally, in that scene, realised what the book was about for me: a man trying to stay a man, trying not to
become something terrible.

I like those moments of realisation. It just annoys me that they often come after I’ve already done four-fifths of a story!

JF: Tell us about Path of Night. What’s the book about? What was the genesis of the idea?

DF: You know, I really have no idea! I honestly can’t recall what sparked the concept, but the more I fleshed it out, the more fun I was having and the better the idea looked.

A lot of it lay in the simple fact that while there’s plenty of SF and fantasy set in Australia, we still somehow seem to shy away from embracing the Australian on the street, the everyday life here. Devlin is a smart guy. As a medical student with some serious travel behind him he’s better educated and probably smarter than most Australians. But he was raised on a farm in northern New South Wales, and he’s a Sydney medical student living in a share-house dump, struggling to get by.

I knew I wanted to contrast the weirdness and horror of the Night-Beasts with sunny, everyday Australia, and I knew I wanted to invoke the Australian sense of humour. Path of Night is structured more like a thriller than anything else, I think. There are any number of thrillers set in the USA, in Europe and the Middle East and Asia… but not so very many in Australia. So while I cannot recall what set me down that particular path, as I wrote it became more and more clear to me that I wanted to bring a taste of Australia — and not the bloody “outback” yet again — to the work. I wanted to write a book in which ordinary Australians might be able to identify themselves or people like them. And if that meant writing a book that Americans and Brits might have to translate in places — well, Ellen Datlow has assured me in the past that Australia has an ‘exotic’ quality that
makes it a desirable setting, and that the oddball nature of our language makes us interesting as writers. Who am I to argue with Ellen Datlow?

JF: Can you tell us a bit about the book’s path to publication and is reception? The Aurealis Award nomination must have been gratifying!

DF: I was fully prepared to self-publish Path of Night. There are plenty of very good books coming down that road now, and I realised that it was better to have a product in the marketplace than it was to have an MS rattling around the publishers for two years while they made up their minds.

I’m not advocating that road to everyone, understand. I’ve been writing now for over twenty years. I know what my prose is like. I know the marketplace. I was well aware that I could write a book that would be publishable in terms of structure, style and technique. I could not have done that ten years ago, however, and self-publishing anything at all before your work is genuinely readable is… not a great idea.

In any case, I didn’t know everything I wanted to know about the whole self-publishing process, so I ran the MS past the boss editor at Fablecroft, and she was rather enthusiastic. I was quite happy to have a publisher, rather than doing it all myself, so it was pretty much a done thing from that point.

I should state very clearly that the MS which went to Fablecroft was already in a finished, polished state. Tehani (the editor/publisher brains behind Fablecroft) and the line-readers made some relatively minor changes, but by and large it went through unscathed.

Should I have gone to the big publishing firms? I don’t think so. Inote that the big publishers are more and more risk-averse. The old system, where a publishing house might be willing to support the development of a new writer through a few early hiccups — that’s largely dead. It’s sink or swim now, and the last time I dealt with the big firms it took them a year and a half longer to finish rejecting my novel MS (for kids in the 9-12 age bracket) than it did for me to write it. I thought that was a pretty counterproductive way of going about things, so as I said: I figured I’d test the waters of the marketplace myself, and see what I could do.

The small-press approach made sense, in any case. I knew that getting Path of Night through a conventional publisher would be a tough sell. The distinctly Australian language and humour, I felt, would pose a problem because the mainstream publishers have always got one eye on the big market in the USA — and they don’t really credit American readers with enough patience to read something that isn’t thoroughly Americanised. I really, really didn’t want to Americanise the book, so I simply didn’t bother chasing a bigger publisher. I figure I’ll just keep going with the Night-beast books for a while, and try to generate a bit of traction. I enjoyed writing Path of Night, so why not?

The reaction so far has been excellent. Naturally it’s hard to get word out. That’s one place the big publishers still hold the aces. They have the resources to publicize and distribute on a level that the small presses can only dream of. But yes: the Aurealis short-listing was gratifying. And surprising, I admit. I know the book has strong horror elements, but it feels to me like quite a cross-genre piece, and I didn’t expect it to do that well. Still,
overall the reader responses have been fantastic. In fact, the buggers are nagging me about the sequel, so I’m working as fast as I can. AS FAST AS I CAN, dammit! There’s a short story around the two main characters out on Kindle right now. The novel will take longer — but I can let you know that the working title is “Midnight In Chinatown”, and it will be set in Sydney, to culminate at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. Vampires and gigantic, pan-sexual parades… what’s not to like, right?

JF : … and that, I think, is a great place to end the interview. Thanks for stopping by, Dirk!

Dirk Flinthart, ladies and gentlemen. Go buy a copy of Path of Night his book here:

“Sanction”, a short story featuring the two principle characters from the book, is available direct from Amazon right here:

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