Leanne Frahm

Interview with Leanne Frahm by Lucy Sussex, published in Borderline, MirrorDanse Books

The mandatory autobiographical question: where were you born, where did you grow up, stuff like that?

I was more-or-less a celebration of the end of WWII. My mother came from a middle-class Brisbane family, and married an American GI there. At six weeks, I travelled with Mum on a war brides' ship to America, and we lived in Indiana for six years. However, my father wasn't cut out for family life and eventually Mum brought me and my American-born brother back to Australia, where we finally settled in the wilds of North Queensland. I never saw my father again after I was eight. So I grew up in a community that was alien to me after the civilised societies of the U.S. and Brisbane--the kids went barefoot to school!--but in surroundings that I've come to love dearly. I've been a North Queenslander ever since.

Where are you now and what are the vibes?

I live at Slade Point, near Mackay, with my husband. It's a place that's part suburb, part beach, part tea-tree forest, part scrub and swamp, part industrial estate--a stimulating mixture! We've been in this house for twenty-four years now. Our yard backs on to the bush, and we have snakes and goannas visiting, wallabies and echidnas close by, all sorts of birds and insects around us, and house geckos and frogs. I've been walking the dogs twice a day over the same tracks for years but there's always something new or different to notice and marvel at. I love it, and I suppose it's not surprising that much of these surroundings seems to creep into my stories.

When did you begin to write?

I wrote a lot when I was little--didn't we all? In Grade 6 1 re-wrote a series of Aesop's fables in modern-day parlance, and my teacher said then that I'd be a writer one day. . . If I was particularly taken with a Science Fiction movie I'd come home and write and illustrate the story. I won prizes for poetry and drawing and fiction in the High School magazines. But although I always thought I'd like to be a writer, I had no idea of the mechanics involved in actually becoming a writer, and I let other things occupy my life for a long time. I didn't start writing seriously until my middle thirties.

I'm told that you got involved with Australian SF via an ad in the Nation Review. True or false?

Some things come back to haunt you, don't they? An ad in the Nation Review sounds so sordid. . . But, yes, I responded to an ad that was quite unsalacious. It offered information on the current state of Science Fiction in Australia. The year was 1978. I loved reading Science Fiction, but, being isolated from the literary world in North Queensland, I believed it all came from the U.S. or England--[ had no idea that there was a current state of Science Fiction in Australia. I was amazed and delighted to find--thanks to John Bangsund--that there was a network of Australian fans and writers and conventions and amateur publishing that I could be part of. My life entered a new phase after that.

In 1979, assorted writerly types converged on a seedy Sydney harbourside hotel for a sf workshop with Terry Carr and George Turner. So what happened?

You want it all in detail? No, probably not. . . Well, this was a two-week writers' workshop. George Turner is an award-winning Australian writer, and he took the first week. Terry Carr was a well-known American editor and writer, and he oversaw the second. The idea was that the participants would write as many short stories as they could, to be subjected to criticism by the others and by the professionals, the aim being to improve their writing and story-telling skills.

The setting along the harbour was lovely, but the hotel was apparently under a condemnation order. A heat-wave enveloped Sydney, we all developed dysentery, and we were miles and miles from a McDonald's. I wrote a lot of pretty woeful stories, and had my bum kicked soundly and publicly by George. It should have been a terrible time, but it was really two of the best weeks of my life.

I was surprised at the intense pleasure I felt, given this opportunity to write as much and for as long as I wanted, even if the results were less than mediocre; despite the personal hurt I felt at some of the criticism, I found I had an strong desire to improve. And there could have been no better tutors to help me with that than George and Terry.

What were the benefits you got from Terry and George?

George forced me to look at my writing critically, and decide if I really wanted to make the effort to turn it into stuff that was publishable. He made me believe I could do that. Eventually I produced one story at the workshop that was indeed later published in an American anthology. I remember George's reaction to it--"Now this is a story," he said. That made the whole workshop worthwhile.

Terry was a wonderful teacher of practical things, of ideas and marketing. He made writing sound like fun! His kindness was legendary; he saw a potential in me and offered to act as my agent, submitting my stories to American editors until enough had been sold to establish me in the eyes of professional agents. This from a professional who was involved in a dozen projects at once! So it was Terry who organised my first sales in American collections. I've always hoped I managed to convey to him how much that meant to me and how much it changed my life.

How much have you published, locally and overseas?

Less than I would have liked to. Just over a year after the workshop I developed symptoms that led me to suspect a brain tumour--although the first doctor I visited offered Valium for my "nerves"! Soon after I had successful surgery, but the growth had been in the front left temporal lobe, which affects speech and writing abilities. Some of the damage meant it took a long time to regain fluidity, and even today I "lose" words or mix them up, whether writing or talking. I need to proof-read intensely! Then I gave up writing completely for several years when I had to go back to work full-time following a crisis in our small business. We overcame it successfully, but it's taken a while to get back to writing. Possibly the period of abstinence has helped; I think I'm writing better now. This collection will see a round two dozen of my stories in print, both here and in the U.S., with reprints as far away as Italy!

Are you happy with the way your work is being received?

I'm a bit cautious about this, because I don't really know quite how it is being received. Most of my stories are accepted on submission to an editor, but not all. Several of them have been nominated for awards, and I've won the Ditmar award twice. I've had favourable comments about some stories, and also negative ones about others. Many of my published stories have been reprinted in later collections, which indicates they're worthwhile. The magazine and newspaper interviews I've done recently have had the theme that it's unusual for a woman to be writing in the SF and horror genres, but I've never felt discriminated against because my subject matter and style might be different from those of a male writer.

What I am pleased about is that the depth of some of my stories is being recognised. Entropy published in the "She's Fantasical" collection recently, lit a spark of recognition in a lot of women who read it, especially those who don't usually read these genres, and I was proud of that. But living in North Queensland means I'm a bit out of the way of the literary circles of the southern capitals, where I'm sure these things are discussed more. I work on the theory than if a story is published, and the editor's office isn't fire-bombed, then the story must be okay. . ..

I noticed that you seem a very littoral writer, with the sea a theme in a number of your stories. Is this an environmental influence, or an obsession?

Both. As I said earlier, I take a great deal of pleasure in my natural surroundings and the lives of all the small creatures in it. I know my environment very well--its flora and fauna, its feel, its look. And of all the varied landscapes about me, I love the sea and the shore most. George used to say it was best to write what you know about, and it seems to come as a matter of course for me to use the foreshore as a setting when it feels right.

On another level, what I write has elements of speculation, horror, sometimes mysticism. What I see in the sea--its depthlessness, its mystery, its power, the exhilaration of crashing waves-- matches these. Freud and Jung would put it better. . .

The Lamadium Affair is the sort of story that would have been eligible for the Tiptree award, had it existed when the story was published. Where did this story come from?

Oddly enough, from just two lines that popped into my head one day. I couldn't shake them, and wanted very much to use them in a story, one which would by definition involve sexuality. I created an alien race, alien in sexuality as much as in other things. Once I had done that, I realised that I had produced a setting where I could explore some themes of human behaviour that interest me--our gender rigidity and our still-tribal insularity.

When do we expect the Leanne Frahm novel?

Probably as soon as people stop expecting it. . . Seriously, as much as I like the idea of writing a novel, at present I much prefer the speed and sharpness of short stories. I've yet to conjecture a plot that would carry the full length of a novel. When I do, it will undoubtedly be set in North Queensland, mention the sea, and will carry elements of the unusual, the mystic and the didactic. . .

And if University of Queensland press can publish Peter Carey why not Leanne Frahm?

It's never occurred to me to ask them to. It's a character flaw, I know, but I'm too tentative a person to actively seek out publication. I'm getting better, though. My conviction that my work is improving with every year, combined with Bill's work on this collection has certainly increased my confidence. Who knows--The Novel might not be so far away after all!

Many thanks to Leanne Frahm and Lucy Sussex for permission to use this material, published as a preface to Leanne's book Borderline from Mirrordanse. HTML prepared by Eric Lindsay